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Twixt a Rock and a Hard Place: Francis Ford Coppola, Movie DJ…

A large part of me has tremendous respect for Francis Ford Coppola, even if his stock was considerably diminished by the twin misfires of The Godfather, Part III and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the nineties. However, it takes a significant amount of courage to pretty much turn your back on major movie studios and produce a string of relatively independent and relatively experimental films, especially when you could legitimately be described as one of the main architects of modern cinema. Part of me wonders what would happen if George Lucas and Steven Spielberg attempted something similar to the string of low-budget arthouse releases Coppola has directed in recent years. His latest film, Twixt, comes with a gimmick that would put 3D to shame. The director is taking it on tour, and will apparently “remix” it for each and every audience. There’s no guarantee that two different audiences will see the same film.

Mixmeister Coppola...

I’m kinda of two minds about this, but there’s no denying that Coppola has gauged the direction cinema is heading. After all, the movie Clue famously featured three possible endings showing randomly in different theatres – so different people saw different versions of the same film. Similarly, we live in the era of “directors’ cuts.” George Lucas’ continual revision of Star Wars gives credence to the idea that a film is “a living document”, but he’s not the only one. Technology has allowed Richard Donner to salvage most of his vision for Superman II and even allowed Ridley Scott to redefine Blade Runner. Kingdom of Heaven was dismissed in cinemas and lauded on home video because of the director’s changes. Watchmen was released in no less than three versions. Hell, some of these cuts aren’t even director’s cuts.

So we live in the era when it’s going more and more difficult to define a film as “done” or “complete”, with released movies subject to revision for modern audiences. You could even argue that digital remastering could create a slightly different film, to the point where our generation might be said to have never seen the proper version of Metropolis (a case in point, with a new director’s cut recently discovered). It’s no longer the case that you can really treat a given film as a concrete and firm object, a definite article that will stand the test of time, never eroding or decaying.

Not a Con-ventional film at all...

So Coppola’s approach seems to reflect this, just taking the idea and expanding it to an almost infinite degree. Instead of a mismatch between the version you see in the theatre, the version you catch on late night television and the version you take home on DVD, it’s a mismatch between the version you saw and the version that your friend saw. It’s an interesting premise, and one which perhaps movies cinema more in line with, for example, theatre. The basic premise of Twixt will most likely remain consistent, but the finer aspects of the film – what Coppola chooses to emphasise, or ignore – will change from screening to screening. It’s certainly “organic.”

Part of me likes the idea as something that demonstrates cinema isn’t confined to turning a projector on and watching the results. Taking a movie on tour in this manner, with Coppola mastering the mix at each screening, is a radical and bold approach, and one that demonstrates the director doesn’t take his medium for granted. More than that, it seems like an interesting attempt to engage with audiences, but seems a lot more earnest and less cynical than gimmicks like 3D.

I'm waiting for more information to come to light...

On the other hand, I like the consistency of film. I like the idea that I can mention a movie on this blog (maybe even cite the “director’s cut” or whatever) and you’ll know instantly what I’m talking about. I love the idea that watching a movie is a shared experience, regardless of where you are in the world and regardless of if you’ve ever met. The opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a shared cultural moment. Even trimming a few seconds off that (or adding a few to it) in a particular place or sequence would diminish the impact in an intangible manner. Suddenly shared cultural moment becomes “that one time the film was aired in Buffalo and Kubrick got it just right.”

Of course, all this presumes that film is entirely objective – both in the manner it exists and the way that we perceive it. Of course there are huge cultural differences between different parts of the world, and different people see different things in different films. Even if the literal object we are watching on screen synchs up, there’s no way to be sure that myself and the better half see the exact same thing. Baywatch is the most popular show in Kazakstan. CSI: Miami is insanely popular in Latin America. Different audiences respond to different things, and I don’t think it’s too much to suggest they see different things in different productions. While we can agree on a narrow selection of truly iconic moments, there’s undoubtedly a huge gulf in perception and interpretation of the vast majority films across even the two most like-minded people. Those of us watching The Birth of a Nationtoday will see very different things from those who watched on its initial release, even though the movie might be exactly the same.

Being Frank...

So, if there’s such a difference between how audiences see films, why does the objective consistency of the film itself matter? If everybody takes a slightly different version of the film home with them, why shouldn’t they experience a slightly different version of the film in the cinema? Being honest, I’m not sure I have a reply to that – beyond suggesting that it does make it more difficult to talk about and discuss films if they are these organic, shifting masses.

And, if you ask me, that is where a film lives. In the public consciousness, as we discuss and debate it, trading viewpoints and observations, throwing our ideas out there, exchanging them like hostages to fortune. The best part of a film is digesting it and formulating your thoughts on the matter, only to measure it up against those of other people. For me, that’s how cinema lives and breathes. And I don’t think you can have that discussion if you don’t have a common version of the text to start from. You might retort by suggesting the people who have seen two different versions of a given play can still discuss it, but I’d respond that there’s a stronger culture of reading plays than there is of reading film scripts.

So, I don’t know. I celebrate Coppola’s drive and ingenuity. I honestly respect a veteran filmmaker who clearly has that sort of vigour and enthusiasm for his job. And, truth be told, this idea fascinates me – partially on a nitty-gritty technical level (how much difference will there actually be?) as well as on a conceptual level. That said, I do feel a little bit uneasy, if only because I like the old romantic ideal of films “standing the test of time” like magnificent artifacts.

6 Responses

  1. I think we are all fans of the “standing the test of time” stance. I like the new independent attitude of Coppola, but you also want to see his legacy remain relatively untarnished.

    • Yep, that’s it. At the risk of being morbid, I wonder if any of these more modern films will be screened in the inevitable “Francis Ford Coppola Movie Marathons” that we’ll inevitably see in a few decades, or if the “big” part of his life’s work will be gauged to have taken place in the seventies.

  2. That’s absurd… but I kinda like it. The real question for me is what version will appear on home video/its expanded theatrical run (as Coppola is certain to come nowhere near Bowling Green, OH).

    • Yep, I live in Ireland, so I’ll never get to see it as he intended. Maybe there’ll be a “random movie generator” on the disc.

  3. I don’t like it. It seems like a separate artistic activity than “film”. In a way, it’s more like performance art. I think film that constantly changes depending on the day of the week can’t properly exist with the pantheon of other films. Film criticism is a comparative activity and this seems to be the antithesis. Honestly, it seems like a gimmick to hide a relatively unremarkable film (at least based on the trailer).

    • I think you hit the nail on the head. How can we discuss the film, if we’ve both seen literally a different cut of it? And you’re right, the trailer doesn’t look to be anything too special.

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