“American New Wave” New Wave: The Outsiders

the-outsiders-5564ad8a2bd79Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 release, One From the Heart, was given a good long three year gestating period for Coppola to recover from the bowels of hell he’d thrown himself right up against while making his edge-of-sanity opus Apocalypse Now. That 1979 release itself had gone gaspingly over budget and seemingly came close to mangling, killing, or rendering insane every one who worked on it at one point or another, and Coppola himself lost four years of his life producing his stunningly indulgent rambling mess of a war film less interested in exploring war than in burrowing into our soul with some of the finest tone poem imagery the American New Wave ever saw. The film is regarded as a masterpiece, but having their pride and joy screw with their hearts and wallets so did not make our corporate masters happy.

And if 1979 was an environment where New Wave indulgence was beginning to give mild heart attacks to Hollywood big and small, 1982 was absolutely no more receptive. In the ensuing years, Michael Cimino released Heaven’s Gate, the would-be New Wave film to top off maybe the greatest decade in American cinema. It failed spectacularly due to vision suffocating reason (lovingly so at that), and things were no longer safe for American auteurs to play in the big leagues unobserved.  It was in this environment when One from the Heart was released, and interest in embarrassingly messy, deeply personal, artistically rigorous fever-dream art musicals were none-too-high (to give an impression, it is a Tom Waits musical, and that says all anyone would ever need to know). It was financially disastrous, and instantly, Coppola was not likely to get funding for any of his famously enigmatic blockbuster art films any more. No sir. That was two strikes, and in Hollywood, two is generous. What could be left for him but to do whatever he could to get by?

Of course, doing what you can to get by in this case meant an opportunistic adaptation-for-hire of a ’60s YA book (Hollywood having moved along on the ’50s nostalgia of the 1970s by trying to go ’60s in the ’80s).  The film version of SE Hinton’s book The Outsiders, then all the rage in middle schools throughout the US, was a safe, semi-desperate choice mostly functioning as a ’60s melodrama at its most sentimental. But Coppola is Coppola, and an old dog in a cheap new muzzle can still pull off a few old tricks.

Even when working with a questionable screenplay as a corporate product, Coppola wasn’t about to lose interest or make the whole thing out to be soul-less hack-work. He’s an auteur to the core. The script, which follows Greasers Ponyboy (c. Thomas Howell) and Johnny (Ralph Maccio) – along with side-players Dallas (Matt Dillon), Sodapop (Rob Lowe), and Darryl (Patrick Swayze) – as they cope with murder in self-defense by going on the run, is not dissimilar to the book. But Coppola doesn’t treat the story as another other director might have.

Coppola’s work here is formally fascinating, if not revolutionary. The big conceit of the film is to film it as the material it depicts would want to be filmed – it’s an early ’60s melodrama filmed with the naïve dramatic gushing quality of an early ’60s melodrama, with often stilted, broad characters and frequently verbose line-readings. For this reason, it also gets pretty far along an exploration of the mythic, iconic mindset of mid-century American rebels, and America’s fascination with these figures, as well as the Old Western individualism they faun over for its supposed rebellious anti-social qualities.

Largely, this is Coppola doing tepid teenage melodrama by abstracting the film into a pastiche of tepid teenage melodrama, intentionally sanding off any nuance of human feeling for arch-stylisms. For this reason, the material comes off in an archly fussy way, never really alive and impulsive and more like it’s been highly considered at every moment. Fittingly, it throws the would-be impulsiveness of American teenagers by the wayside by positing that their actions are actually highly calculated, and that these images we have of American lore are just that … highly calculated images.

Yet Coppola’s attitude toward the film doesn’t seem mocking irony or gross sincerity; it’s more a formal exercise, an attempt for a famously deranged director to retain some semblance of artistic craft within a corporate product ready to make some dough in spite of his involvement. If this hurts the film as drama, it at least restores a large portion of its visual splendor. The film’s maddening apotheosis, its middle sequence where Ponyboy and Johnny escape to an abandoned church and live the magical-realist life that would have populated the dreams of any wide-eyed teenager in the suburbanite ’60s, is filmed to match. Poetic silhouettes, impressionist editing, crimson skies, an expressionist fire, some obvious set design meant to seem, I think, slightly fake, and a generally soft palette meant to look like it was all filmed in the early ’60s all combine to give the film a sub-Romantic vibe that sees the director’s New Wave past still alive and well.

The earlier and latter sequences don’t fare as well, for they concentrate far more on more conventional character drama that the film just isn’t particularly good at. It’s a nice idea in theory to approximate an early ’60s teenager drama – it works as a study on the recently embalmed – but once the idea wears off, it still maintains the feel of something that has been embalmed. Self-consciously copying tepid filmmaking doesn’t excuse tepid filmmaking, and Coppola doesn’t always earn his intentionally stilted acting and narrative on the strength of his intermittently sublimely aching visual poetry). If that sort of visual poetry was what Coppola was aiming for, he made the mistake of focusing on the first small-town bound 15 minutes of Badlands and only getting to the more important nature-focused part for about thirty minutes of this film.

Another way of looking at it: the runaways-in-nature part of the film is the only portion where things move from “look at me recreating the style of the early ’60s” to “look at me getting inside the head of these children, taking them seriously, while also undercutting what they believe about the world by rendering it the fakery it is”. The earlier and latter portions of the film play too hard on purely re-creating the visual-aural aesthetic of the early 1960s without commenting on it whatsoever (and at that they uses some lazy directorial short-hand like simply showing us ads of the time with no subversive intent).

That’s mostly the film in a nutshell though; the narrative is episodic and poorly focused in a way that often inches toward doing so for fascinating, impressionistic reasons, rather than messy, confused reasons related to just what it wants to do with its early ’60s aesthetic. But it doesn’t quite make it; there’s not enough formal rigor on display, or perhaps it was sanded down too much by a Coppola who knew he had to play ball for the studio after the black holes of his last two projects. Thus he mostly just sticks to his one trick of recreating the early pre-psychedelic 1960s and then walks out the door, presumably to get a hamburger or something such as that to pass the time away until his career got back on track (it did not). The film is an interestingly committed artistic experiment, but the commitment drowns the film, never giving it any room to comment, explore, or even breathe under the heavy latex coating of ’60s sentimental artifice; what could have been radical and challenging ends up somewhat flat and deterministic. It doesn’t explore the ’60s, or teenage sentimentalism, because it is so busy expounding every damn bit of energy it has being the ’60s, and teenage sentimentalism, on the surface, until there’s nothing left but that surface. It’s all too much of a waxworks: lifeless, precise, clinical, and detached in its pure artifice.

In 1983, the American New Wave was just about dead-and-buried, having suffocated on its own increasingly megalomaniacal grandiosity and messy, egotistic arch-formalism (and I use all of these words in the most endeared, positive context possible). There honestly wasn’t much left but for Hollywood to regroup and save face through making just about the most tepid, divested goddamn films they could possibly muster, rather instantly having lost trust in anything radically artistic. Sci-fi and fantasy became big, comedies grew in import, and action and horror were all the rage, leaving those directors more vested in the success of tried-and-true dramas high-and-dry and scrambling for projects that could keep their creative interests mildly satiated in safer ways. They had been reined in and mostly rendered mute. Just about the only American cinematic maestro to call the European New Wave father and mother to emerge mostly unscathed was Martin Scorsese (and even he gave up in 1986, perhaps the most wholly galvanized “80s” year ever, with the release of the Oscarbait The Color of Money, before rebounding quickly enough).

Francis Ford Coppola, one of the heaviest, and most indulgent, hitters of the New Wave, fell perhaps the hardest. His 1983 film, his first “pop” piece, isn’t really a pop piece, for it’s too caught up in its own formalism and too actively distancing to ever seem fluffy or inviting. As it is, I admire the film for committing so totally to something, but you know what they say about blind commitment taken too far.

Score: 6/10

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