Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The way of Coppola, the way of Kubrick

with 4 comments

Since yesterday’s posting on The Shining and Apocalypse Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola, who arguably had the two greatest careers in the past half century of American film. There have been other great directors, of course, but what sets Kubrick and Coppola apart is a matter of scale: each had a golden age—for Coppola, less than a decade, while for Kubrick, it lasted more than thirty years—when they were given massive budgets, studio resources, and creative control to make intensely, almost obsessively personal movies. The results are among the pillars of world cinema: aside from the two movies mentioned above, it gave us the Godfather films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and more.

And yet these two men are also very different, both in craft and temperament. I’ve been listening to Coppola’s commentary tracks for the better part of a week now, and it’s hard to imagine a warmer, more inviting, almost grandfatherly presence—but even the most superficial look at his career reveals a streak of all but suicidal darkness. As David Thomson puts it:

[Coppola] tries to be everything for everyone; yet that furious effort may mask some inner emptiness. For he is very gregarious and very withdrawn, the life and soul of some parties, and a depressive. He is Sonny and Michael Corleone, for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too—and he is at his best when secretly telling a part of his own story, or working out his fearful fantasies.

Kubrick, in some respects, is the opposite: a superficially cold and clinical director, deeply pessimistic about the human condition, who nonetheless was able to work happily and with almost complete creative freedom for the better part of his career. His films are often dark, but there’s also an abiding sense of a director tickled by the chance to play with such wonderful toys—whether the spaceships of 2001 or the fantastically detailed dream set of New York in Eyes Wide Shut. Coppola, by contrast, never seems entirely content unless the film stock is watered with his own blood.

These differences are also reflected in their approaches to filmmaking. Coppola and Kubrick have made some of the most visually ravishing movies of all time, but the similarities end there. Kubrick was controlling and precise—one assumes that every moment has been worked out in advance in script and storyboard—while Coppola seemed willing to follow the inner life of the movie wherever it led, whether through actors, the input of valued collaborators like Walter Murch, or the insane workings of chance or fate. This allowed him to make astonishing discoveries on set or in the editing room, but it also led to ridiculous situations like the ending of Apocalypse Now, where he paid Marlon Brando three million dollars to spend three weeks in the Philippines, but didn’t know what would happen when he got there. (And as the last scenes of the movie imply, he never did entirely figure it out.)

So what do these men have to tell us? Kubrick’s career is arguably greater: while you can debate the merits of the individual movies, there’s no doubt that he continued to make major films over the course of four decades. Coppola, alas, had eight miraculous years where he changed film forever, and everything since has been one long, frustrating, sometimes enchanting footnote (even if, like me, you love his Dracula and One From the Heart). It’s possible that Coppola, who spent such a long time in bankruptcy after his delirious dreams had passed, wishes he’d been more like Kubrick the clinician. And yet Coppola is the one who seems to have the most lessons for the rest of us. He’s the model of all true artists and directors: technically astounding, deeply humane, driven to find something personal in the most unlikely subjects, visionary, loyal, sometimes crazy, and finally, it seems, content. We’re all Coppola’s children. Kubrick, for all his genius, is nothing but Kubrick.

4 Responses

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  1. violence bothers me…

    On another matter..

    We could eat together (I don’t know about anything else though)…

    Vietnamese (love it)
    Indian food (love it)
    pizza
    http://www.incendio.ca/large-parties/
    http://urbandiner.ca/incendio/
    (they don’t show it but on the right hand wall there is art work that looks exactly like the piggies place you mention….”exactly”…
    and a very large wood burning stove

    Arthur

    April 5, 2011 at 8:41 pm

  2. Looks pretty good! I’ll need to keep that in mind if I’m ever in your neck of the woods…

    nevalalee

    April 5, 2011 at 11:50 pm

  3. I would agree that Kubrick filmography trumps Coppola’s, however; I feel that the humanistic qualities in both Godfathers, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now are hard to ignore and more enduring. The 70’s were arguably his golden era starting with Patton screenplay and the foresight to produce THX1138.

    Ron Domingue

    January 18, 2012 at 4:52 pm

  4. I go back and forth between the two of them. Kubrick has made the movies that I admire more, but as an artistic figure, Coppola is ultimately more interesting, more humane, and more likeable—and a much better example for young artists. I’m glad we have them both.

    nevalalee

    January 19, 2012 at 8:12 am


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