Francis Ford Coppola isn't the director he used to be. Following his swan-dive from grace with the execrable Jack, tepid-to-terrible reactions to each film that followed dimmed expectations of a return to form. For better or worse, it seems as though the legendary maverick who restaged Vietnam, and determined the course of American crime drama, is lost. 'For worse', you're likely thinking to yourself. Well, you might be more sheepish in the future, when the supposedly diminished Coppola reinvents cinema.
"There is no more film, there is no more television - there is cinema. And it can be everywhere, and anywhere, and it can do anything."
It took a fairground cavalcade of phenakistoscopes, zoopraxiscopes, and electrotachyscopes before the cinématographes of Bouly and the Lumiere brothers formed the basis of cinema as we know it. Over time there have been many attempts to expand the cinema experience, using the latest technological advances. Some of these have stuck around - kudos to surround sound, 3D and IMAX - and some fly straight into the dustbin of history - doff of the hat to Smell-O-Vision and Sensurround. Purists may balk and call gimmickry at the altering of the core cinema experience, but they might be just as likely to resemble the luddites who stood opposed to the talkies, as canny contrarians.
Francis Ford Coppola is no luddite. For his 2011 film Twixt, Coppola devised a new form of screening cinema that took advantage of the newest digital technology. Rather than simply distribute a prepared edit, Coppola would tour the film and assemble Twixt live. Basing his decisions on audience reaction, Coppola would use an iPad and the Isodora digital editing software, developed by experimental performance group Troika Ranch, to create a unique experience with every screening.
The proposition was wonderful, the only problem was that Twixt was terrible. A pretentious, silly and distinctly toothless attempt at horror that would be hard to edit, live or otherwise, into anything interesting. With its hammy theatrics and woeful CGI, it's arguably more violative than Jack - if such a thing is possible. Coppola had attached his revolutionary new cinema to trash, so both were destined for the same sorry fate. Before initial previews at festivals and conventions, a 30-city tour of the film in all its live-edited glory was planned, but Twixt simply limped onto DVD after a critical mauling.
Never one to stay down (marvel at his fortitude in the Apocalypse Now documentary Heart of Darkness) Coppola was back in the lab in 2015, with an experiment called Distant Vision. This new feature was a proof-of-concept production at Oklahoma City Community College, that also functioned as a workshop, and course credit, for a crew of over 70 students. Expanding outward on the live editing concept of Twixt, Coppola would simultaneously film and screen Distant Vision as a live performance. A semi-autobiographical drama about three generations in an Italian-American family, the film is also Coppola's most personal in decades, if not his entire career.
This live experiment was inspired by Coppola's belief that cinema had stagnated. He looked around and saw that Hollywood was endlessly producing the same "canned art" experience, while proclaiming superficial, redux technology like 3D as the future of cinema. The digital revolution had broken down the walls between theatre, television and cinema, Coppola argued, and this should seriously impact how film is shot and screened. He would form his new cinema by combining the immediacy and spontaneity of theatre, the control of newly developed live broadcast technology in televised sports, and the precise photography and lighting of cinema. Streamed live to Paris, New York and Los Angeles, actors performed on 45 moveable sets while 22 cameras shot the proceedings with all the careful craft of cinema. There was enormous effort taken to create as much as possible in the moment, with even improvised music and on set narration.
It's hard not to be impressed with the effort, but perhaps easy to doubt whether Coppola achieved what he set out to. He saw great innovation in his new method, but there was a sacrifice; flexibility. With the live performance of Distant Vision, came the requirement for exact precision. Actors had to perform with meticulous blocking, as camera operators danced to painstakingly rehearsed choreography, and assistants furiously scrabbled ahead and behind, whipping cables away from scuppering the whole exercise. All of this rigorous exactitude to get to spontaneity seems ironic, if not completely counter-productive. Is there some grand artistic truth that cinematically filmed theatre will achieve that a reliable mix of verisimilitude, natural acting and long takes will not? And how is this supposed to be democratised, when you need budget and space enough to combine ESPN and the Gershwin Theatre?
Coppola is often at great pains to point out that his new method is not simply filmed theatre. Live-streamed simulcast performances, such as those from The Royal National Theatre and The Globe, have existed from years, but Coppola maintains that it is the addition of cinematic craftsmanship that distinguishes Distant Vision. Yet Coppola's fellow producer was Jenny Gersten, who was the former artistic director of Massachusetts' Williamstown Theatre Festival, and was chosen by Coppola largely because he wanted a stage manager by his side, rather than a traditional assistant director. It doesn't seem unfair to respond that perhaps his live cinema is merely filmed theatre that has been extremely well shot. One might even wonder if a film produced traditionally, but screened dishonestly as if it were Coppola's live cinema, would be clearly distinguishable from the real thing. More pragmatically, is the frisson of live performance really worth all this effort?
Coppola is not demanding all cinema conforms to this new method, of course, but rather trying to provide an example that might hold the potential to free cinema from some of its self-made confines. Coppola hoped that injecting a live element could return some of the authorship of timing and pace back to the actors, expand the power of the director to connect with an audience, and give that audience a feeling of ownership over a one-off event. It would, at the very least, be a particular experience of the kind that's certainly lacking in the mass-marketed, megaplex world of cinema today. Coppola is not wrong that the continuing trend of business-orientation and standardised industrialisation of film could do with some bucking. Future adaptations of his ideas don't need to be so extreme, but there's some inherent value to breaking down the boundaries between theatre, television and cinema. Even if Distant Vision turns out to be a failure like Twixt, and likewise his particular live cinema technique, the intent and experimentation is worth something. Coppola is currently developing more Distant Vision workshops, so time will tell.
While simultaneously chasing new methods in his later years, Coppola has been moving towards a more personal cinema. As well as the similarities between his family and those at the centre of Distant Vision and the earlier Tetro, Twixt contained a scene reminiscent of the drowning accident that took his son Gian-Carlo in 1986. Surrounding this more intimate storytelling, however, is heavily mannered experimentation of form, smothering what might have been deeply affecting stories. It seems a shame that such candour as a director should be overshadowed by what might turn out to be as much a forgotten gimmick as Smell-O-Vision. Coppola may create some novel way of producing, distributing and projecting cinema, but it seems increasingly unlikely he will ever make a film as astounding as the classics he is renowned for. That would be a loss to cinema, despite whatever benefits come from his experiments.
As recounted in Erica Heller's memoir Yossarian Slept Here, her father Joseph Heller was supposedly once asked why he had never written a book as good as Catch-22, "Who has?" Heller parried. Coppola hasn't directed another film as good as Apocalypse Now, and maybe never will, but once is enough. Perhaps more importantly, he hasn't let old age dampen his inventive and rebellious spirit and, unlike many of his New Wave contemporaries, he's still willing to risk it all to create something truly unique. Coppola expressed exactly that during a news conference at Oklahoma City College, after the Distant Vision workshop. "Reach higher than you can do," Coppola implored the students present, "and then, that moment when you may fail, is where you achieve the sublime."