Francis Ford Coppola is an emblematic face for the American auteur. To illustrate this point, the main characters in The Conversation and Apocalypse Now serve as perfect models for Coppola’s placement within the first and second phases of the New Hollywood Cinema (NHC) and for highlighting his auteur qualities in creating relatable characters who undergo significant psychological trauma, and fully submerge the audience in their psyche. The viewer becomes aware not only of being a spectator in a theater, but also of viewing these narratives through the eyes of Harry Caul and Captain Willard, underscoring the subjectivity of experience.
Therefore, in both The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola’s distinct auteurism is highlighted through the protagonist’s descent into madness, thus positioning the viewer as a self – conscious spectator. I will first be assessing Coppola’s placement within New Hollywood Cinema, specifically identifying Coppola’s status as an auteur. The first era of New Hollywood Cinema (1967 to the late 1970s) can be seen as the rise of the auteur and of the avant – garde “art” film, as film scholar Noel Carroll highlights (Carroll, 52).
Other scholars, such as Grant and Schatz, suggest that an auteur is a director whose vision is so prominent in the film, that he/she can be seen as the film’s true author (Grant & Schatz, 2 & 9). Coppola wholly embodies Grant’s definition of an “auteur,” as seen through the visual style and themes employed in his films. For example, Coppola utilizes the storytelling motif of characters fighting against a larger force: in Apocalypse Now, Willard fights against the madness of the Vietnam War (both internally and externally) and in The Conversation, Caul fights against surveillance and the modern lack of privacy.
Coppola also uses the character strategy of morally ambiguous protagonists in his films. Caul struggles with turning in the tapes he recorded versus stopping the murder from happening and Captain Willard kills Colonel Kurtz but is ambiguously nearly taking on Kurtz’s dark character by means of madness. NHC films characteristically present easily understood narratives in styles that coincide with the narrative’s themes (Schatz, 9). In this light, Coppola resists closed endings, invokes impressionistic films, with characters that act on aimless/elusive motivations, creating bold, unorthodox performances that are thematically challenging.
Lastly, Coppola uses unconventional visual styles – especially seen in his opening scenes (eg. neither Apocalypse Now nor The Conversation begins with an establishing shot). This results in a work of art that goes beyond filmmaking and expresses his personal vision (Grant, 2). Assessing Coppola as an auteur provides a new dialogue for strategically studying film. One important aspect of New Hollywood Cinema relevant to Coppola is issues of adaptation and intertexuality, as discussed by film scholars Dennis Turner and Marsha Kinder.
Coppola can be remembered as an auteur in specific for his concepts of self – conscious films that pay homage to the past’s new wave cinema. As Turner discusses, Coppola was fascinated by the idea of a misanthropic man that lives alone and is constantly preoccupied with surveillance, drawing ideas from films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (Turner, 9). This 1996 film centering around a photographer who accidentally photographed a murder, also features the subjectivity of perception and can be traced as the origins of Coppola’s mime reference in the opening shot (Turner, 4).
Coppola also borrows sequences from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in the sequence where blood is flowing from the toilet (Braudy, 25). Moreover, Coppola adapts the story in Apocalypse Now from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, and morphs the story’s structure and material to reflect his own experience (Kinder, 13). Kinder agrees that this is a prime example of Coppola’s auteurism as he has the ability to adapt someone else’s story and still let his vision shine through to such a large extent.
After placing Coppola in the context of NHC, we can now use the lens of thematic and stylistic choices in The Conversation and Apocalypse Now to validate Coppola’s auteurism. Both of these films embody open endings with main characters that have undergone a large mental shift; this viewer enthrallment in the protagonist’s plight highlights how the viewer is not just a spectator, but rather, is self – aware that they are watching a constructed psychological narrative through the specific lens of the protagonist. This further affects the viewer by underscoring the subjectivity of experience.
The Conversation clearly exhibits Coppola’s auteurism in its narrative and stylistic style through depicting Harry Caul’s descent into madness. In the opening shot, there is a three- minute long wide shot that slowly zooms in to reveal the people in the square, with an initial zoom into a random mime. This introduces the concept of the play with perception, as the audience is drawn to believe that the mime is who we should focus on, merely because the camera is zooming into there (Van Gunden, 39). This is further developed through the motif of translucent material.
For instance, in one scene where Caul is questioned by friends about his past projects, he is hidden by a translucent room divider in his warehouse, as he tells them a different version of the story. This is revisited when Caul watches the murder occur, but his vision is obstructed by a translucent balcony divider. Coppola later reveals to the audience that Caul’s story is not exactly what he says and Caul has wrongly interpreted the murder. As film scholar Van Gunden suggests, this stylistic choice thus reminds the viewer that experience is subjective (Van Gunden, 50).
Analyzing the final scene in The Conversation reveals Coppola’s auteurism in critically assessing how the viewer comes to understand their positioning in the audience in viewing the film. As film scholar Noel Carroll notes, the viewer is left at the end of The Conversation wondering if the murder even occurred, and where Caul’s apartment is bugged (Carroll, 64). The visual style supports this notion, specifically in the NHC technique of mobile camera work. The audience sees Caul walking into and out of fixed film frames as he destroys his apartment.
Then, there is a pattern of zoom shots into the destruction Caul has caused in the final scene. This edited frenzy and jerking of the camera disorients the viewer and reminds them that they are viewing a film and situated in Caul’s perspective. Coppola’s camera work techniques thus emphasize the character’s subjectivity and thereby probes the viewer to reflect on if the entire murder was just a projection of Caul’s paranoia (Carroll, 64). Next, the audience is further reminded that we are using Caul’s eyes, when Caul gives up and has a fragmented flashback of the image of the couple in the square.
His flashback is followed by the diegetic sound of Caul playing the saxophone. Through the reminiscent melody, the audience is reminded of the emotional, dark, mood score that almost fills in the conversations that Caul so vacantly has with others and is affected as the sound is used to convey Caul’s deteriorating psychology. Caul is largely expressive while playing, filling in the silence, and thus finally actually expressing himself translucently towards the audience (Van Gunden, 24).
Visually, as Caul plays the saxophone, the camera, situated at the top of the room, tilts from the right to the left side of the apartment – showing all the destruction and chaos Caul has caused, and mulling over Caul playing the sax in a dark corner. The camera rolls over Caul and turns back again to give perspective of the entire destroyed space. As film scholar Van Gunden suggests, this final moment in the film causes the viewer to become conscious of the fact that this is the only moment we are not in Caul’s eyes (Van Gunden, 52).
We are left as outsiders, to question whether or not the murder occurred and are left with the final thought that experience is subjective as the credits roll up. Similarly, Apocalypse Now is another strongly characteristic film of New Hollywood Cinema. Apocalypse Now can be seen as a transition film from the first to the second phase of New Hollywood Cinema. As characteristic of the first era, Coppola’s auteurism is brought to light in the setting up the final scene that epitomizes Willard’s descent into madness. The audience is introduced to Willard in a state of madness – he embodies a troubled psyche but we understand his rational goals.
Coppola begins to create a film experience that will give the audience a sense of the moral issues and senselessness in the Vietnam War. This establishes right from the first scene, a relationship between the viewer and the restlessness of Willard’s world. Film scholar Jones Kent agrees, citing Coppola: “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy” (Kent, 7). In this light, Apocalypse Now can be seen to portray the second era of NHC, as the film confirmed the studio’s commitment to making Blockbuster films with bigger budgets and marketing tie-ins (Kinder, 12).
The production ultimately costed three to four more than its intended budget, as Coppola had earned the right to run with his own vision. As film scholar Marsha Kinder contends, this film changed the regard for Coppola from damaged goods to an industrial status (Kinder, 15). Coppola’s auteurism is underscored through the narrative and stylistic techniques that convey Captain Willard’s descent into madness in the final scene of Apocalypse Now. This scene, in turn, positions the viewer as self – aware of their presence in a theater, experiencing the story through Willard’s eyes.
The self – conscious nature of audience members reminds them of the subjectivity of reality. In the final scenes, Kinder observes that Coppola invokes a metaphorical and suggestive play between lightness and darkness (Kinder, 15). This visual strategy of keeping Willard relatively in plain light supports the thematic idea that Willard is our hero. Kurtz is introduced in a dark shadow, with dark costuming and is seen to dwell in a world of darkness. This visual strategy is again invoked, when Willard is suddenly portrayed in the darkness, as he speaks an internal monologue: “Everybody wanted me to do it- him most of all.
I felt he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up, not like some wasted renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead and that’s where he took his orders from anyway” (Sheen, Apocalypse Now). Willard has been so disillusioned by the atrocities he has seen in the Vietnam War and so obsessed with his mission of assassinating Colonel Kurtz, that he is stunned and conflicted when he understands that Kurtz needs Willard to kill him and free him of the monster he has become.
Following his monologue, Willard is seen face to face with Kurtz, with camouflage makeup, in a setting of darkness. Coppola stages Kurtz’s death with a montage of medium shots of Willard axing Kurtz to death, juxtaposed with the Vietnamese natives (Kurtz’s followers) axing a sacrificial ox to death. Willard has just killed Kurtz behind the cloak of darkness and stands tall afterwards. As we reflect, Coppola places the non-diegetic song, “This is the End,” in the background to remind the viewer that we are in a cinema and not positioned within the war.
Film scholar Kent Jones agrees that when the song stops and Kurtz speaks, “Horror: the horror,” this probes the audience to reflect if the horror is Kurtz’s murder or Willard’s murdering of Kurtz (Jones, 32). Next, we see a juxtaposed shot of the claustrophobic sequence of Willard killing Kurtz, followed by a large, aerial and crane shots of all of Kurtz’s “followers,” who are looking to Willard now.
This affects the viewer by bringing into question: in murdering Kurtz and fleeing with the throne of power, has Willard become Kurtz? Willard changes from a blank, emotionally contained observer and surrogate for these odd occurrences to a dynamic and surprising character. This question affects the viewer as we are sucked into self-doubt of what we have just seen (Braudy, 22). For the final image, there is a tracking shot of Willard in his boat mysteriously floating away through a smoky abyss.
As Kinder concludes, throughout the film, Willard is emotionally contained and his internal monologue at the end fulfills Coppola’s theme of moral ambiguity, as Willard’s role as an observer is underscored. The Doors’ song in collaboration with Willard’s words reminds the viewer that reality is subjective and we are positioned as viewing these events through Willard’s eyes and rationale. Film critic Leo Braudy agrees that while we think it was the moral action to to kill Kurtz, is this truly only because we have seen the film through Willard’s perspective? Braudy, 22).
Thus, Coppola can be seen as an emblematic New Hollywood director for his auteurism in creating films with his powerful vision as his sole motivator. In assessing The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s auteurism is underscored through the protagonist’s descent into madness. Coppola uses narrative and stylistic methods to position the viewer as a self – conscious spectator in watching the main character’s deterioration of mind, and thus highlight the subjectivity of experience.