Back in January I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by my friend and fellow filmmaker Grannell Knox for his Short Ends podcast. It was really exciting to get to talk at length about my philosophy on life and art, and how my personal life history plays into all of it. Be sure to check out the series page for more interviews with fantastic artists!
In 1988 Francis Ford Coppola's career was on the rocks. The once shining star of Hollywood who garnered five Academy Awards and two Palme d’Or’s in ten years had failed to capture audience attention since 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Throughout the eighties he averaged two films per year yet failed to recoup multi-million dollar budgets on half of them, forcing him to file bankruptcy in 1983. Determined to prevent past failures from affecting future successes, Coppola embarked upon a childhood passion project – Tucker: The Man and His Dream – a story that in 1988 distinctly paralleled the trajectory of his own career. Ostensibly a biopic about Preston Tucker, inventor of the revolutionary yet ill-fated Tucker 48 automobile, Coppola used the film to explore conflicts he was experiencing in his own life. As Tucker strives to offer the American people a car filled with cutting-edge safety and design features, he butts heads with a System that wishes to retain its monopoly on auto manufacturing. His clash with Detroit’s Big Three (General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford), Michigan Senator Homer Ferguson, his own Board of Directors, and the media and society at large serves as an allegory for Coppola’s own resolve to tell original stories in opposition to the profit-seeking studio executives financing his films. The movie is thus as much an autobiography of Francis Ford Coppola as it is a biopic of Preston Tucker.
The movie is a nice example of the importance of standing up for what is right, but like Coppola’s previous string of directorial efforts, it fails to make any real impact on the viewer. It seems that Coppola was too close to the material: he didn’t just set out to make a movie; he set out to make a statement. Arguably the films that live on in posterity are those that share a message, and the message of Tucker couldn’t be more simply laid out. But the director’s lofty mythologizing of the American Dream relegates the film to little more than a tacky portrait of that idea. Beautiful cinematography, a decent script, and quick pacing all add to the film’s mood quite well, but a glaring lack of character development robs audiences from relating to Tucker or any of the other characters. Simply put, Preston Tucker is a shining light that never goes out – a gravitational sun that pulls in all those around him. And yet even in his darkest hour Tucker never truly relies on his allies, but uses them to get what he wants. He is passive-aggressive and at times manipulative, but Coppola ignores these aspects of his personality and instead focuses on how enlightened his life philosophy is.
Dare I Care?
In New York City, and America at large, there seems to be an unspoken rule that in order to create one must first destroy. Not that a give-and-take doesn't exist in nature -- but it's always baffled me that even endless acres of farmland must first be absolved of their hills and valleys before contractors will even think about breaking ground on their newest suburban project. Whenever I return to Maryland to visit my family I feel a great sadness driving by the once-empty fields that now inevitably house another set of condominiums on top of another set of strip malls. And for me I think the sadness hits hard for two reasons. First there's the loss of the natural world, the all-too-quick eradication of the landscape that I took for granted as a child. And then there's the utter lack of artistic vision screaming from the rooftops of the edifices erected there.
To be clear: I'm not against progress, or new buildings, or even new buildings built on previously-open spaces. What I'm against is the erasure of the past like it never meant anything, all in favor of a future that's unabashedly ugly and disrespectful to the space it inhabits. Frankly, it's insulting to me as an artist and as a citizen. And it's not just in Maryland or New York. As I've traveled to major cities across the United States (Miami, Austin, Chicago) I've noticed a certain directionless "style" popping up, masquerading as inventive design alongside truly iconic works, like crabgrass in a garden pretending to be tulips.
When watching a movie one tends to be so affected by the actor’s performance and the dramatic stakes that numerous other aspects of production go unnoticed. Beyond a simple value judgment, an audience rarely considers costuming, locations, lighting, composition of the frame, or editing. Yet each of these elements influences our emotional response to the film, regardless of our awareness of them. This essay spotlights one such element – the use of color – and explores its role in defining the mood of a film, first by reviewing the history of color theory in painting, and second, by analyzing cinematographer Robert Elswit’s manipulation of primary colors in the film Punch-Drunk Love.
In the early nineteenth century, the German philosopher and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe noticed that contemporary painters had theories about nearly all aspects of art except color. He set himself the goal of developing his own color theory that would offer a systematic understanding of the relationships between colors. At this time, scientific knowledge of light derived from Isaac Newton’s experiments with a prism one hundred years earlier. Newton had placed his prism in the path of sunlight and observed that it diffracted into a series of colors, which scientists later termed the visible spectrum. When these colors were reflected through a second prism, they returned to their original form – white light. Newton concluded that each color represented a different wavelength of light and that sunlight was the combination of the visible spectrum.
Annie Chesswick, The Queen Of Palm Court
I’m not the first critic to argue that internal contradictions lead to interesting characters. Like their living breathing counterparts, great characters make choices that cannot be so easily categorized as “good” or “bad”. This tends to lead to some confusion surrounding the term “protagonist”. The prefix pro- implies being “in favor of” something, but there’s nothing to suggest that that something has to be some intangible concept of goodness. A story’s protagonist is not bound by any objective goal; they are merely the vessel through which an audience traverses the story world. Since we in the audience spend the most time with this character we often find ourselves most relating to his/her hopes, fears, motivations, and actions… to his/her perspective. This is an important distinction to make: just because we rationalize a protagonist’s motives doesn’t mean that protagonist is right in what they do.
This is particularly what makes Stray Bullets, David Lapham’s existential crime comic, so fascinating. In Lapham’s conception, stray bullets tear through more than just flesh – they leave holes in a person’s psyche. For all the violence drawn on the page there’s significantly more weight given to the long-term ramifications of untreated psychological trauma. A recurring motif of the series is the victimization of innocents (those hit by stray bullets) who grow up and become perpetrators themselves (“shooting” anyone and everyone around them). It’s a seemingly never-ending cycle that Lapham sets up in the series’ very first issue and identifies in issue two as “Victimology.” In fact if there’s one common thread throughout all of Stray Bullets’ story arcs this is it.