The Godfather trilogy allowed Coppola the freedom he needed to make the kinds of films he wanted, but The Conversation consolidated his position at the forefront of 1970s auteur cinema. The conversation succeeds because Coppola resists giving into his more operatic tendencies. With the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now he uses operatic motifs to great effect; in many other films, his grand designs lead him to lose the plot of the film itself .
Paranoid America of The 1970s
Caul (Gene Hackman) is a specialist in bugging who realizes to his dismay, that the technology which he uses to carry out surveillance is being used against him. The Conversation, followed by Alan J. Pakula's 'Parallax View', provides one of the most claustrophobic analysis of paranoia to be released in the very paranoid America of the 1970s. The strength of Coppola's film lies not only in the way in which he manipulates the cinematic image, but also in the way he manipulates the soundtrack.
While sound is most often framed in invisibility in the cinema, Coppola not only successfully foregrounds the key role played by sound in the construction of cinema, but also deconstructs its deceitful nature, in a way similar to the way in which Antonioni deconstructs the photographic image in Blow-Up (1966).
It Was Vietnam
The three year production of Apocalypse Now has acquired epic status in Hollywood film history. Most, famously declared at a preview screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 (where it was awarded the Palme d'Or) that his film was not about Vietnam, but that it was Vietnam. Apocalypse Now offers the most fully realized vision of Coppola's cinematic preoccupations, highlighting both his strength and weakness.
His aforementioned comment on the nature of his film points to the extreme autobiographical nature of Apocalypse Now, while the film's most infamous scene - helicopter attack set to music by Wagner - again foregrounds Coppola's dual obsession with the operatic in one hand and technology on the other. With the death of Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the films denouement, Coppola decisively - although perhaps unknowingly - brings an end to one phase of his career and opens a new different career, which was overrun like Kurtz compound.
From Auteur To 'Director-For-Hire'
One From The Heart, Coppola's musical, was regarded at the time of its release as an unmitigated failure. Indeed the film's financial failure led to the bankruptcy of Coppola's fledgling independent , American Zoetrope. The plasticity of this film's images continued in Coppola's 'director-for-hire' years, and is visible in the two quickies he shot to make some money: Rumble Fish - shot in the style of European avant-garde - and The Outsiders. As a 'director-for-hire', Coppola did not have that much control over the production of some of his films. That said, his desire to assert authorship, and to play the role of auteur was fierce.
A case in point is The Cotton Club. Called in as a script-doctor, Coppola eventually became the film's director. He was hampered by the investors desire for the film to have Richard Gere's role at the centre of the film (even though all the performers in the actual Cotton Club were African-American). Coppola's improvisation techniques, and the lack of a solid script, led to a beautiful-looking film that meandered for over two hours. Increasingly, his narrative style was described as postmodern. Yet, in his later films, despite his desire to be seen as an auteur, the weakest link in his control over his films was his inability to deliver powerful narratives.
A Return To A Familiar Theme
Gardens of Stone marked Coppola's return of two of the topics that have reoccurred throughout his work: the role of the family and Vietnam. While again, well not received upon its release, it is one of Coppola's most controlled, coherent films since the 1970s. Unlike Apocalypse Now, Gardens of Stone was applauded by the U.S. military, for its portrayal of soldiers of a cemetery, whose job it was to bury the dead returning from Vietnam. In many ways, Gardens of Stone can be seen as a successor to The Godfather saga, where the bonds of family tie together a group of people even if they dislike the actions of the family.
Tucker: The Man And His Dreams (1988) follows the autobiographical strain that comes to dominate Coppola's work to a greater and greater degree. The films tells the story of Preston Tucker, who took on 'big three' car producers in an attempt to produce the car of his dreams. The parallels between this vision of Tucker and Coppola's unsuccessful efforts at setting up American Zoetrope as an independent film production company are obvious. Again, Coppola foregrounds form as a means of asserting an authorial voice, and in so produces a film that seems both sincere (in his belief in Tucker) and self-deprecating (to the extent that the film is a highly self-conscious autobiography).
A Brief Return To Prominence
Coppola returned to being prominent with his adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), in many ways the highlight of his post-Apocalypse Now career. In Coppola's hands, story of Dracula and the image of the vampire becomes an allegory for the origins of the great technology of the undead: the cinema. Combining hand-cranked footage, black and white images, and magical sets, the film is as much about the pleasures and powers of the cinema itself as it is about the trials and tribulations of a lovestruck vampire.
Yet, despite this success, Jack was a work-for-hire embarrassment. Then his adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker is , if not a return to the heights of The Godfather, then at the very least a tight narrative that takes fairly straightforward source material and turns it into a compelling film. Coppola, then seemed to swing back and forth between journeyman director and auteur. Youth Without Youth (2007) was a very mediocre movie with a confusing plot and a over-mixture of genres. But, Tetro (2009) was his return to form, which is a complex speculation on family dynamics. Its incoherent narrative was compensated by the emotional core and powerful, arresting visuals.
Coppola's career unites two forms of New Hollywood: the film-maker as artist and the blockbuster film as spectacle. After four decades, it remains to be seen if Francis Ford Coppola can once again amalgamate them.