Monday, December 28, 2009

Coppola, Zoetrope, and The Black Stallion

I'm sure there are many of us.  But I'm definitely one of those that wishes Francis Ford Coppola made more movies and (maybe even more important) that his dreams for his Zoetrope Studios were still very much alive and well.  He desperately wanted to bottle that potent seventies concoction -- personal filmmmaking with Hollywood-size budgets.  But instead, after a few budget overruns and box office disappointments, One from the Heart being the worst, his dreams fizzled out pretty quickly.

Yet, at least we're still left with a few signs of what Coppola might have produced if someone had reigned him in a bit more.  And one of the best examples of this, I think, is The Black Stallion.  I saw the film as a kid and could clearly remember sections here and there.  But this is the first time I've watched it again in twenty-five years, owing the re-visit to David Thomson and his excellent book "Have You Seen...?"

The Black Stallion is everything you probably remember -- a feel-good fable with a beautiful horse and a kid you wish you could be.  But there are also some things you might not remember.  It sports some very brave cinematography by Caleb Deschanel.  He's not afraid to go deep into the blacks (for instance, the scene when they show off the horse hoping to land a spot in the big race).  And, as a result, Deschanel pulls off this unusually hazy, magic quality that I would imagine is exactly what he was hoping to achieve.  Also backing Stallion is one of the greatest sound technicians in the history of the medium, Alan Splet.  Splet was David Lynch's regular collaborator before passing away in the early nineties.  All you have to do is listen to the symphony of sounds he creates in the final race to get a sense of Splet's special talent. 

I even felt a part of Coppola here.  He's produced many films throughout his career.  But this is the first one where I could really feel his directorial hand, too (in a good way).  I'm not even sure what it is exactly.  But in the final race, once the flashbacks kick in, I entered that Apocalypse Now trance-like state that Coppola pulls off so well in his own 1979 film.

Zoetrope might not have lasted.  But I have to give it to Coppola.  He bet it all more than once in his career.  And our 114 year-old medium is so much better because of it. 

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