MY FRIEND FRANCIS, THE COMMENTATOR by Noah Buschel
I was going through relationship troubles. The kind where you can’t concentrate on nothin’ else. The kind of heartache confusion where reading the newspaper becomes an impossibility. Going to the movies would be absurd. Maybe you’d make it through one trailer. No, this was the kind of love testing that turns the universe inside out and sets your eyeballs on fire. The rawness of the world, the suffering of the world, is everywhere. Poodles on the street are hellish white demons of distress. Forget about helping anyone or contributing anything for a good while. What you really need is a place to sleep. A safe place.
It’s funny though, you’re thinking, as more poodles pass by—it’s funny though because we’re in love with each other. Why is it so hard? But maybe sometimes that doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. Maybe sometimes all the bullshit in the world wins out. You just have to find a safe place to sleep. That’s all.
You’re in your apartment. The one you share with her. She’s out of town and the ceiling is starting to frown. So you go into your extensive DVD collection. The one garnered by those foggy midnight Virgin Megastore expeditions. Half of the selections, you don’t understand. Were those her picks or yours? No matter. The buys you do understand, you just couldn’t watch right now. The Big Lebowski would be too dry. Mean Streets would be too mean. The Natural might soothe your nerves—but all that romance… no. As far as A Woman Under The Influence, you would be in Bellevue by the morning.
What you really need—yeah, there it is—what you really need is a filmmaker commentary situation. Straight art, straight cinema—it’s gonna hit you between the eyes too hard. You need a buffer, someone talking, someone intelligent to talk you through the night and the images. And damn if Francis Ford Coppola is not the man to do it. He is. Yeah. In fact I believe Francis Ford Coppola could single-handedly bring anyone through heartache with his combination of DVD commentaries, wine, and pasta sauces. But let’s focus on the DVD commentaries.
I’m not saying the relatively new format (and art) of commentary tracks is owned single-handedly by Coppola. Altman does a great job on many of his DVDs—though he sometimes, without pardoning himself, goes to sleep for 15 minutes. Scorsese, of course, will rock you with references and wisdom and staccato urban legends. And Tarantino’s commentary on True Romance is like sitting at a table filled with comic books and jacking Red Bulls with a 16-year-old. But it’s Coppola, again and again, who hits this amazing place of stream of consciousness clarity, both calm and furious, and always enlightening.
He comes on The Conversation and you think maybe the nasally voice belongs to a 12-year-old pot-bellied science wizard. And as he continues to talk you realize that much of the boy wonder has indeed stayed thoroughly inside of him, alive and well. But that’s not all there is. Through the course of his commentaries he will shift in and out of being a father, a son, a little brother, an enfant terrible, Zeus with a camera, an indignant old indie filmmaker, a hippie, a tech prophet, a lover of actors, a beaten dog, a naive mama’s boy, a teacher, a paranoid pariah, a whiny genius…
He is almost always whining. But what he whines about is so wonderful that you join him. You whine with him. You start wondering, “Yeah, just how come Howard Hughes was one of the few rich guys to do anything interesting with his money? Yeah. Why is that?” You become riled up too. In fact, the entire commentary for the movie Tucker is an endless sulking diatribe against big studios, big companies, big money. And as you listen to him go on and on and on about the monsters who so often run our society, you start to see how underrated a movie Tucker is. Because it looks just like a piece of candy, and it’s fun and its fluffy and it’s Jeff Bridges smiling that Jeff Bridges smile. But the commentary confirms what makes the movie dynamic and great. It’s a cookie full of arsenic indeed. It’s a big beautifully wrapped fuck you to the unoriginality, fear, and stupidity that runs the big businesses of the world. It was really only after I listened to the commentary of Tucker that I realized it was one of Coppola’s six or seven masterpieces.
And what of his commentary for movies we already know are masterpieces? Well, with The Godfather, Francis is once again fighting the studios and the powers that be. Here’s a classic Coppola commentary moment:
“When people come up to me now, years later, and say how much they love The Godfather, I always wonder, where were those people back when I was making the movie?”
Is he bitching? Of course he is. But his point is so well taken. Just like Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” no one understood what Coppola was trying to do in making perhaps the greatest movie movie of all time. No one understood his casting choices. No one understood the pacing and the subtlety of his scenes. No one understood his talent. And to hear him, years later, still feel those wounds is to hear a true artist. A person distrustful, really, of anything but his own heart when it comes to his art. He is even distrustful of the world’s compliments and praise.
On Rumble Fish, Coppola proudly announces, like the king of the sandbox, that this would be the film he would show to anyone if he could only show one of his films! ‘Course, many filmgoers think Rumble Fish is a minor blip or a downright dud. But Coppola sees it how he sees it—and damn if I didn’t start seeing it that way too. He was on his game with Rumble Fish alright. It’s a simple teenage art film about neighborhoods and friendship, art and clouds, perception and time, and brothers… and then how violence can ruin it all. You hear him chatting about these things and you realize what is amazing about Rumble Fish is the innocence. It’s not pretentious, as so many critics have written. It’s too much made from the mind of a kid to be pretentious. And it’s also a very sweet and wonderful snapshot of an America that is disappearing with every tweet, text, and Xbox blast. It’s like a vision that no one will be able to remember soon. Motorcycles speeding down wet streets in the summer night.
But everything I’ve been sayin’, it makes it sound like he’s riling you up a lot of the time. In fact, his commentaries make for great lullabies too. He’s just as much The Sleepytime Tea Bear as he is The Pied Piper. Are you hurting? Sick? Did you just lose your job? Your arm? Coming back from a funeral? Got an insomniac baby? Put on Coppola’s The Godfather Part 2 commentary and watch that baby pass out within the hour. Coppola speaks quietly, never raises his voice, meanders along, talks about Sofia and his kids and Auggie and Tally and it’s just one long home video that seeps into your dreams so smooth like warm decaf coffee gushing through your ears and lush classical music swaying your toes and fettucine feelings and peacefulness—radiant and chocolaty, all spinning you leisurely up and then down into cozy slumber. Except the guy showing you his home videos happens to be, in my opinion, the greatest American filmmaker of all time. At the very least, he is the greatest DVD commentator.
As for waking up in the morning, you’re still alone. And the Cheerios are stale. But there’s a little bit of hope. A text message from her. She wants to see you. Maybe it will be okay. Because, shoot, love can win sometimes, right? The world’s complications can be crushed by love and talent and persistence. Anyways, that’s what my friend Francis was telling me while I admired the white chest hairs of Lee Strasberg, and tried to keep my brain inside my head.
— Noah Buschel
This guy is a great writer.
Tony Scott does really good commentary too.