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By (October 1, 2017) No Comment

Live Cinema and Its Techniques
By Francis Ford Coppola
Liveright, 2017

Francis Ford Coppola’s new book, Live Cinema and Its Techniques, is just over 200 pages long, with a main text of roughly 130 pages, but reads – in a strangely pleasant way – like a confused amalgam of several different books. In the first hundred pages we get glimpses of what Coppola’s memoir might look like: anecdotes from behind the scenes of Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart and details about where the money went, how certain effects were achieved, his feelings about the final product. Hopefully these are excerpted from a larger book in the same vein. But then there’s some disorienting technical stuff, too. He talks about lenses, cameras, lighting and audio. Invokes the names of digital equipment he used in the early 1980s (now obsolete). It’s weird. And then there’s the manifesto component about his eponymous subject, live cinema: the filming and streaming of a feature-length film to live audiences in theaters.

That’s the main text. Then, for about thirty pages at the end, we get Coppola’s daily diary from an effort to shoot a live film with some OCCC students and faculty.

Both sections are brow-pinchingly bizarre, but delightfully so, and maybe, for cinephiles, the book is worth its $26 price tag. The conspicuous padding of its 208-page runtime, however, is distracting, and kind of upsetting, and it compels the reader to wonder why Coppola wrote this book at all – a perfectly enjoyable book, well-written and insightful, but a messy book nonetheless. A memoir, a how-to, a manifesto and a diary – none of them carried out to a totally gratifying completion but all of them strong in their own way.

The book is blown up to its deceptive 208-page heft with 26 (!) pages of “credits”, listing everybody involved in that film-school trial-run, followed by a 15-page index, a five-page glossary of terms, a full double-spaced page for acknowledgements, and just over a full page of About the Author notes.

Evidence in the memoir-like parts of the book suggest that Coppola’s agenda here isn’t so much to confess, or to teach or entertain, so much as to sell us on an idea. Coppola needs backing for an ambitious TV project, a live film, that follows three generations of a family like his own. Divided into two parts, the film will be called Dark Electric Vision. The two segments are called Distant Vision and Elective Affinities. He makes no effort to assure us that the film is better than those titles, like a concierge assuring you that the Pauper’s Suite is actually super cozy, but I guess we’re supposed to take his word for it.

Which is easy to do. Coppola’s charming here, compelling the reader both with the warmth of his remembering (chaotic as some of his productions were, intense as the man himself is known to be, there’s something gentle and longing and tender about how he remembers things), the energy of that voice, and the strength of the prose. His sentences are clipped and communicative when he’s addressing the technical aspects of filmmaking, circuitous and longwinded and relaxed when he’s reminiscing.

In its length, flexibility, tone and ostensibly motive, Live Cinema and Its Techniques feels like it lives in the place where conversation goes during the second bottle of wine.

Coppola tells us here that the storied production of Apocalypse Now, where the inconvenience of uncooperative helicopters and pyrotechnical stunts was rivaled only by the nuisance of Marlon Brando (who demanded $1 million per day, the liberty to ad-lib every line, and that he be filmed in shadows to conceal that he was 80 pounds overweight), ran over $10 million beyond its budget without anybody pulling the plug:

I have always loved when art works are what they are about. To me that is the holy grail of art, but perhaps I’ve only touched on it briefly. The making of Apocalypse Now reflected many of the same elements that made up the Vietnam War: youth, abundance of equipment (firepower), rock and roll, drugs, an out-of-control budget, and naked fear. It was what it was about.

Before Apocalypse Now was released, Coppola tells us here, he got quickly to work on a romantic musical called One from the Heart, hoping that when Apocalypse Now bombed – as he was certain it would – he would be most of the way through a love story, simple and well-told, that might turn enough of a profit to redeem him:

Apocalypse Now never did reach the financial ruin I was trying to avoid; but One from the Heart did. People never stopped going to the Cinedome Theater to see the Vietnam film, which eventually paid for itself….But One from the Heart turned out to be like that ping-pong shot your opponent smashes down on the table, which the critics did, resulting in two episodes of Chapter 11 – reorganizing of a debtor’s business affairs – turning my financial life upside down. My wife and I were taken into a bank boardroom in New York with a large circular table, and were made to spend all day signing hundreds of documents, turning the entirety of our assets over to the bank, necessitating my spending the next ten years making one assigned movie each year.

Talking about Zoetrope Studios, which he launched in the early 1980s with state of the art equipment: “I could only afford two of the Xerox Star computers, and they were later repossessed.”

One of the most interesting currents through the book are the anecdotes about how reckless Coppola has always been with money. Consider how he was spending money after The Godfather’s success.

In those days I lived in San Francisco with my young family. I had a beautiful penthouse office on top of the historic Sentinel Building in North Beach, and had collected ownership of a number of buildings in the area, including the wonderful Little Fox Theater. I owned a weekly magazine, City Magazine, which was draining what funds I had left, and I had recently bought a radio station, KMPX. It was a dream of sorts to do creative work that spanned all these mediums: stories could be published in the magazine, performed live at the theater, and subsequently broadcast on radio. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, but it was an exciting time for me.

It would be doubly fascinating if the whole book went like this, with Coppola assessing his career as a completed venture, contemplating his influence, legacy, his relationships and what he’s learned. But these anecdotes are sparse. Live Cinema and Its Techniques is focused, unquestionable, on live cinema – but mostly the techniques of it. There’s a manifesto vibe to the book that would suggest its author wants to elaborate on why live cinema is worthwhile. Instead he mostly just talks about the thrill of its challenges, and how to overcome them. Coppola’s argument for making his opus as a live film, rather than a traditional one, boils down, finally, to the fact that he wants to.

And while one arm embraces the average reader with, say, an anecdote about how he accidentally ate a pot cookie before presenting the Best Director award at the 1979 Oscars, his other arm pushes that reader away with such jargon-y passages as this:

With 40 cameras, 14 video streams from the EVS XT3 replay servers, and two additional streams from nonlinear editing systems, we had numerous individual preview streams (imagine 66 thumbnail images populating the video monitor wall) to keep track of.

There’s something dizzying about this textual back-and-forth between the abstruse and the accessible. It seems to make sense when we reach the end, however, and Coppola gives us, in the last chapter, a synopsis of the TV project (a work of live cinema) he wants to make. He says that his “dream would be to produce this work at a facility like CBS Television City”. And so we have it: what he’s doing here is endearing us with familiarity (amiable doses of insider anecdotes from the production of movies we know and love) and then wowing us with his thorough knowledge of the technical aspects of filmmaking (Look at how well I understand my craft, you can trust me with your money). Then, to close the deal, he teases us with scant details of this yet-to-be-financed magnum opus that he’s been contemplating since Apocalypse Now. Coppola is trying to rally a public appetite for this potentially forthcoming project, Dark Electric Visions. It’s like crowd-funding.

But that’s fine, if a little suspect, because Coppola’s voice here is great. He’s a charismatic, forthright, self-deprecating and ambitious old master who maybe hasn’t done anything terribly remarkable in a while but there’s something to be said for being so hungry, this late in his career, as opposed to just keeping busy with small projects. Some consideration, too, for the fact that he helped shape a generation of filmmakers. As Fran Lebowitz says in defense of writers who, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, are dismissed as having achieved only one masterpiece: is one not enough? Surely Coppola’s made at least four, with the first two Godfather films, Apocalypse Now, and the less-lauded but equally-accomplished The Conversation. Taking a step back from the text, however, the most discouraging thing to be said about it – apart from the fact that it’s almost insultingly overpriced – is that there’s something melancholy about its existence. I got the impression, at first, that Coppola needs money for this project, that nobody will finance his decades-long passion project because of recent box office failures.

It was a little sad some years back when Paul Schrader, screenwriter for Taxi Driver and the director, most recently, of the insanely violent but strangely fun Dog Eat Dog, teamed with novelist Bret Easton Ellis to crowdfund the production of a film, an erotic thriller, called The Canyons. In pursuit of a $100,000 goal, Bret Easton Ellis sold, for $5,000, his services as beta reader and critic for your novel (six people bought this service). Paul Schrader sold off, for $1 more, his own services, in the same capacity, for screenplays. Folks who donated smaller amounts could get autographed posters, DVDs, paperback books – even (executive) producer credits. One of the packages granted one week of hour-long workout sessions alongside Ellis and his personal trainer. Ellis revealed, in a recent podcast, that although the crowdfunding campaign was a success, passing its goal by nearly $60k, it took him and Schrader over a year to honor all of those promised packages and services. He gave the impression of both Schrader and himself being exhausted and humbled by the whole affair, and also suggested that, with studios becoming increasingly tight-pocketed at the idea of a risky movie, such a slog will become de rigeur for even the old masters.

I figured Coppola might be in the process of something like this, but it doesn’t take much time on Google to find that the writer/director isn’t scrounging for money. A 2007 Vanity Fair profile, occasioned by the release of Coppola’s film Youth Without Youth, put his net worth at $3.6 billion, fed by his affordable Coppola-brand wines and cigars. So while Live Cinema and Its Techniques inflicts, in its final pages, the slightly bitter aftertaste of an elaborate and deceptive sales pitch, the writer/director isn’t in the same situation that his colleague Schrader was in with The Canyons. His projects don’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars, they need millions, and while he financed Youth Without Youth, personally, at a cost of – as the VF profile puts it – something “south of $20 million. Concerns about money don’t seem to be looming over him. So what’s he trying to get out of this book? A distribution platform for Dark Electric Vision? Is he just trying to generate public interest?

One of the book’s strange charms is trying to figure out what Coppola’s up to. He discusses Woody Harrelson’s live movie, Lost in London, at some length, and with admiration. Harrelson’s movie came out nine months ago. So was the book hastily assembled? If so, why the rush? Maybe age, he’s 79, but Coppola doesn’t talk about death, doesn’t seem to see this as his “late period” work – as Philip Roth told Mark Lawson on the subject: “I like to think of it as recent work” – and he voices his ambition for these projects with the energy of a chain-smoking film student.

Reading the book is enjoyable, there’s some legitimately interesting stuff to be learned about filmmaking even if you aren’t so versed in the equipment as to understand some of the pro-level passages, and Coppola’s enthusiasm and his storytelling, his occasional introspection, are delightful. With its abbreviated diary section at the end, Live Cinema and Its Techniques almost reads like a bizarre novel whose pleasure’s to be found in picking apart the narrator’s motives.

Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.