Monday, December 19, 2011

In Praise of Francis Ford Coppola

The ways in which this country is fucked up are too manifold to go in to in this humble little blog. But I would like to take up, for a moment, the issue of this country’s relationship to art and artists.

“Uh oh,” you’re thinking. “Another plaintive whine from an artist who feels he’s unappreciated. THIS is gonna be fun to read!” Fear not. Though a life in the arts is difficult, it is also a choice. No one put a gun to my head to make me a playwright. When I decided to do this, I more or less (well, actually less – but that’s another story) knew what I was in for. I don’t want to talk not about myself here. I want to talk about Francis Ford Coppola.

My level of accomplishment is open to debate. Francis Ford Coppola’s is not. The Godfather is, to my mind, the greatest American film. It is one of those select few works of art that has permeated our entire culture. Our understanding of ourselves as Americans, of our history, is profoundly influenced by that film. The Godfather also performs that rarest of feats – great art that is also greatly popular. For several years, in fact, The Godfather was not just our greatest film. It was also our most popular. This is a staggering accomplishment.

If Coppola did nothing else in his entire career, he would worthy of the highest possible praise. Instead, he was just getting started.  In the six years following The Godfather, Coppola wrote and directed The Godfather Part II (thought by many to be even better than the original), The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. All 4 of those films were on the American Film Institute top 100 films. And he did it in a single decade, the 1970s.

 (A fun parlor game – name an artist in any art, at any time, who had a greater decade than Coppola in the 1970s. Dickens in the 1850s? Picasso in the 1920s? Shakespeare in 1600-1610?)

 Recently I heard Coppola interviewed. In this interview he was asked the same embarrassing questions he always is - about how he lost his money, how his studio went bankrupt, how many less-than-great films he’s made. People seem to put this air of unfulfilled promise on him, like he’s some sort of enfant terrible who never quite panned out.

If Coppola is a failure, God help the rest of us.

Why do people continue to harp on every unseemly detail of Coppola’s career? He is a giant. The world is full of people who lost their money, or who have made bad films. Only one person has made Apocalypse Now. Which of these facts is more salient, more relevant, more interesting?

Francis Ford Coppola is one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced. He could make shitty movies for the rest of his life and it would not change that fact. He could foolishly squander his money a thousand times and it would not affect change that fact. A culture that believed in art, that was grateful for all the beauty that great art can bring into our lives, would understand that.

Some cultures revere artists. There was a national day of mourning when Victor Hugo died. Tolstoy was considered the second most powerful person in Russia after the Czar.

There should be statues of Coppola in public squares. There never will be.

It is our loss.

- John Yearley

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