The Film School Generation Essay

By 1965, the studio heads were all over 60 years old—Adolph Zukor, on the board at Paramount, was over 90. Hollywood’s golden age had faded and a new audience was on the rise in America—the young baby boomers cruising around in cars looking for a place to hang out (Martin 200). They found their home at the drive in theaters where B-movies reigned supreme and the king of the B-movies was a man named Roger Corman. Corman had his finger on the pulse of this new market that wasn’t being served by the old studio heads. B-movies weren’t your big award-winning prestige pictures, they were cheap—often sci-fi and horror movies— filled with sex, violence, and exploitation.

Corman got his start in the mailroom at 20th Century Fox where he eventually rose to story reader. But after frustration from lack of credit, he left to start writing, producing, and directing films on his own during the 50s. By the late 60s, Corman had hit a stride making such successes as The Wild Angels and The Trip.

Corman’s model was to shoot films extremely quick, extremely cheap, load them up with sex and violence, and by the time word-of-mouth got around, the next film was hitting the theaters. It was known as “disposable cinema.” One of the ways Corman kept the cost of his films down was by hiring film students and other inexperienced young people. He didn’t have to pay them much and they received valuable hands-on experience (New Wave Film).

Perhaps Corman’s most important pupil was Francis Ford Coppola who started working for Corman while he was a graduate student in UCLA’s film program. His first job with Corman was taking a Russian sci-fi flick and turning it into a new monster movie by dubbing over all of the dialogue with new lines and re-editing it (New Wave Film).

Coppola’s first directing gig was for Corman—a thriller called Dementia 13, which he shot in nine days with a budget of only $40,000 (New Wave Film). Corman’s company served as an incubator for young talent where they could take risks and develop their creativity. Peter Bogdanovich and Ron Howard each made their first film for Corman and Martin Scorsese made his second film for Corman, but it wasn’t just for budding filmmakers whom Corman served as mentor, but actors as well (Martin 198). Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and many others got some of their first big roles in Corman films.

In 1969, Hopper, Fonda, and later, Nicholson teamed up to make a film titled Easy Rider. Remember how the studio heads were old and becoming irrelevant? Well, Columbia was run by Abe Schneider—his son, Bert Schneider had been working for his father when he decided to make a production company of his own. Bert saw the potential of the youth market and teamed up with Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner to create BBS Productions (Martin 200). So, they hired Hopper to direct and Fonda to produce the film. Schneider knew that the stale assembly-line mode of production that old Hollywood had been creating films with since the beginning of cinema was outdated. They saw what was happening with The French New Wave and recognized the potential of a production model that gave authorship of a film to a single artist’s vision.

It was only a couple of years earlier, in 1967, that the influence of The French New Wave made its way to America. Arthur Penn, David Newman, and Robert Benton wrote Bonnie and Clyde—about two bank robbers in love—as an homage to The French New Wave (Martin 199). They even sent the script to Francois Truffaut in hopes that he would direct it. Truffaut gave them “detailed notes on ways to improve it” before passing it along to Jean-Luc Godard. Both Godard and Truffaut decided to make other films that year, but Truffaut got the ball rolling when he sent the script to Warren Beatty (Martin 199). After the film was finally completed, Warner Brothers thought they had a flop and “released the film on the art-house circuit” (Martin 199). Young audiences took to the film it became a massive success even earning a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards that year.

This new market also meant that a new generation was finally being represented on screen—a generation against the war in Vietnam, a generation that felt marginalized by their country. Dennis Hopper said, “Nobody had ever seen themselves portrayed in a movie. At every love-in across the country people were smoking grass and dropping LSD, while audiences were still watching Doris Day and Rock Hudson!” (Biskind 53).

The Hays Code that restricted what could be shown in a film was on its way out in favor of a new system that would rate the content of a film instead of censoring it. Filmmakers were now able to depict subject matter in their films that they weren’t able to since before 1930, when the Hays Code was introduced. The B movies had led to a new awakening. The revolution was ready to go mainstream, all it needed was for old Hollywood to die.

The final nail in the old Hollywood coffin started in the mid 60s. The studios were unable to sustain themselves after a series of big budget films flopped at the box office. The studios started getting bought up by large corporations that could sustain the loss of a flop without collapsing. The first big acquisition was Paramount Pictures by Gulf + Western in 1966 (Monaco 30). The only issue was that these companies knew nothing about making movies. So, with risk being less of a factor and the old Hollywood moguls going extinct, they turned to the new film school generation of filmmakers.

Down and out and in need of work after a failure, Francis Ford Coppola accepted an offer to direct a movie titled The Godfather for Paramount Pictures in 1972. The film was originally supposed to be a small gangster flick, but through a lot of creative fighting, Coppola managed to turn it into a masterpiece and a huge box office success. The triumph of The Godfather and the successes of other young filmmakers gave Coppola the freedom to spread his creative wings as well as help Coppola’s friend, George Lucas, spread his. After Lucas’ nostalgic hit American Graffiti he decided that his next film would be a space opera based on old westerns and samurai movies called Star Wars in 1977. Star Wars, as well as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws two years earlier, would mark a new direction for American cinema. These would be hyped up high-concept spectacles that would become wide-release events for the movie-going public. They were known as “blockbusters.” More importantly, they would give the studios access to new untapped revenue streams.

By the beginning of the 80s, a series of big-budget auteur failures would bring a close to New Hollywood. Hollywood realized that they could make significantly higher returns by investing in franchise films and big-budget spectacles. What we’re left with is a catalogue of unique stories when art-house and mainstream were one and the same.

Credits:

Grease (1978 dir. Randal Kleiser)

The Wild Angels (1966 dir. Roger Corman)

The Trip (1967 dir. Roger Corman)

Battle Beyond the Sun by Francis Ford Coppola (1962) (Re-edited from Nebo Zovyot 1959 dir. Valery Fokin)

Dementia 13 (1963 dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960 dir. Roger Corman)

Easy Rider (1969 dir. Dennis Hopper)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967 dir. Arthur Penn)

Send Me No Flowers (1964 dir. Norman Jewison)

The Godfather (1972 dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

American Graffiti (1973 dir. George Lucas)

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977 dir. George Lucas)

Jaws (1975 dir. Steven Spielberg)

One from the Heart (1981 dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Heaven’s Gate (1980 dir. Michael Cimino)

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980 dir. Irvin Kershner)

Midnight Cowboy (1969 dir. John Schlesinger)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975 dir. Milos Forman)

Point Blank (1967 dir. John Boorman)

The Deer Hunter (1978 dir. Michael Cimino)

Harold and Maude (1971 dir. Hal Ashby)

Five Easy Pieces (1970 dir. Bob Rafelson)

 

 

Introduction

Francis Ford Coppola became the first of the film school generation directors to gain celebrity, with the phenomenal financial and critical success of The Godfather (1971). Other directors would follow, including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Stephen Spielberg, but by dint of being the first as well as most adroit in media self-promotion, Coppola became something of the symbolic “Godfather” of the film school generation. His patronage of other directors, his multiple attempts at forming his own studio, and his activities in publishing and film preservation furthered this reading. Four films in the 1970s cemented his critical reputation. They were The Godfather (1971), Godfather II (1974), The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). By 1975, he had five Academy Awards, and Apocalypse Now would go on to share the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Coppola was thirty-two years old at The Godfather premiere, and his early artistic success became a vindication of the film school model of career advancement. He received an MFA from UCLA in the early 1960s and used that as a springboard toward exploitation filmmaking with Roger Corman (see, e.g., Dementia 13 [1963]). As he learned his craft, he became a house writer for Seven Arts, which resulted in the Patton (1970) assignment. Very prolific in this period, he squeezed in smaller films: You’re a Big Boy Now (1967), Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and The Rain People (1969), which the section Pre-Godfather Film Career highlights. Following the phenomenal success of the two Godfather films, public fascination with Coppola’s celebrity settled around the question of what he would do next. Never the shy introvert, Coppola flamboyantly announced that he would do a Vietnam film to commemorate America’s 200th anniversary, which would be released in 1976. The proposed film would also serve as closure to the cultural trauma of the Vietnam War. The two sections concerned with Apocalypse Now in this article will give some sense of the public furor over, as well as the canonization of, the film since its release. Due to financial over-commitments associated with Coppola’s purchase of the Hollywood General studio and the subsequent box office disaster of One from the Heart (1982) Coppola’s films of the 1980s are best characterized as of the “hired gun” variety. In the 1990s, Godfather III gave Coppola a large payday but did little to advance his critical regard. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) has been his biggest financial/critical success in the post–Apocalypse Now years. It also excited much academic commentary for its engagement with Bram Stoker and the vampire myth. As Coppola paid off his financial obligations, an earlier investment in a Northern California winery yielded spectacular financial success, which has allowed him to subsidize more experimental undertakings, represented in the Coda: Recent Films section.

Book-Length Film Career Overviews

The books in this category are all written under the aegis of auteurism, a well-established critical method where the aggregate of an auteur’s creative work is considered, usually film-by-film chronologically. This methodology follows the supposition advanced in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema that insight into the individual film masterwork increases by a synergistic approach to the entire corpus of the auteur. Most of the books were written mid-career, so Menne 2015 has the virtue of being the most comprehensive and up-to-date, as well as being the only university press book of the group. Johnson 1977 is limited by being pre–Apocalypse Now but has value for representing an early, developing assessment of Coppola’s career. Auteurism is thought to have gotten its earliest expression with the 1950s French Cahiers Du Cinema critics. This tradition is represented with Chaillet and Vincent 1985 and with Delorme 2010. These books also benefit by publishers willing to invest in higher-quality photo production, which does much to increase the pleasure of the read. Coppola’s celebrity probably rewarded the investment. Ronald Bergan and James Clarke’s books emerge from England: Bergan 1998 is written by a working journalist/critic, and Clarke 2003 is by a prolific writer/filmmaker/director. Both works present summaries of critical assessment of Coppola’s individual films that are valuable in establishing the initial reception of the films. Chown, writing out of an academic background, is interested in challenging some of the under-girding notions of auteur criticism, and his study Chown 1988 is the least enamored with the idea of Coppola as a creative “genius.” He thinks Coppola is worthy of study more for understanding the Hollywood apparatus of commerce/art than for a romantic idea of an exemplary artist needing explication. All seven of these books contribute to the perception that the director Coppola is an important tool of product differentiation in the Hollywood system, or as Frank Capra put it “The Name above the Title.”

  • Bergan, Ronald. Francis Ford Coppola Close Up: The Making of His Movies. London: Orion Media, 1998.

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    A 100-page review of Coppola’s films through Jack done for the British Close Up series of director studies. Bergan is a critic/filmmaker who has worked for the Guardian. Odd but useful feature is that it has all the Variety reviews of Coppola’s films through The Rainmaker.

  • Chaillet, Jean-Paul, and Elizabeth Vincent. Francis Ford Coppola. Translated by Denise Raab Jacobs. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

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    Early trade book on Coppola’s films with abundant illustrations. Text benefits from an interview the authors did with Coppola during the making of The Cotton Club. Although the film summations are usually quite standard, the book has unusual items, for instance unpublished production stills from Tonight for Sure, and interesting anecdotes about Coppola’s interaction with writers such as Gore Vidal and Armyan Bernstein.

  • Chown, Jeffrey. Hollywood Auteur: Francis Coppola. New York: Praeger, 1988.

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    An extended consideration of how Coppola negotiated with the written sources for his films through Tucker. The title is ironic in that Chown feels auteurism ignores the collaborative aspect of modern film production to romanticize the director. However, Coppola’s career is revelatory for how Hollywood balances commerce and art.

  • Clarke, James. Coppola. London: Virgin Books, 2003.

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    Rather formulaic and superficial analysis of Coppola’s filmography through The Rainmaker. The critical judgments are adulatory, but the attention to budgets, collaborators, box office grosses and journalistic coverage of the respective films is very useful in locating the films in the larger nexus of Hollywood culture. Its value is that the coverage is comprehensive, including short film work such as Life With Zoe (1989) and Captain Eo, producing efforts, screenplays for other directors, and unrealized projects such as Megalopolis.

  • Delorme, Stephanie. Masters of Cinema: Francis Ford Coppola (Cahiers Du Cinema). Paris: Phaidon, 2010.

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    A monograph from the editor of Cahiers Du Cinema that treats Coppola’s career with unapologetic auteurism. Connects themes from Coppola’s early 1960s Corman work with his later master works. Many rarely seen stills from French archives. Coverage runs through Tetro.

  • Johnson, Robert K. Francis Ford Coppola. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

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    Only goes through Godfather II but of interest as arguably the first book-length critical study of Coppola’s films. Has a very in-depth discussion of Coppola’s relation to Hofstra University. Part of a series of director studies edited by Warren French.

  • Menne, Jeff. Francis Ford Coppola. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

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    Menne examines Coppola’s career from the perspective of postmodernism and Hollywood as a production system. Suggests Coppola’s ability to negotiate a career is emblematic for how creative artists operate in a postindustrial economy. Filmography and extensive biography.

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