"Time, Who Eats His Own Young": Coppola, Corleone, and Catiline in "Megalopolis"
“Who am I, to conquer time?” – Serge Catiline, Megalopolis
The Godfather Part II brings full circle a picture of old values withering and crackling away like the dead leaves on the Corleone compound lawn, as a family is pulled into modernity and the expansion of wealth. For its time, The Godfather Part II ends perfectly. It’s a film about Time, the theme that would preoccupy Francis Ford Coppola for decades. The lament of Don Vito, “There wasn’t enough time,” defines the struggle of an aging film director who dreamt big and was then unable to creatively pursue his ideas.
Coppola’s motivations for making Godfather III, 16 years after the second film, were influenced by his financial interests. He had spent the last decade working on films meant to recoup money that he had lost from 1982’s One from the Heart, finding himself in economic limbo. He wanted to make small, personal films (like 1974’s The Conversation), over which he’d have complete control. As Jon Lewis’ 1996 book Whom God Wishes to Destroy documents, since bankrupting himself with an innovative studio within Hollywood (his company American Zoetrope), Coppola’s run as a maverick diminished. His career mirrors Michael Corleone (whom Coppola gave the middle name "Francis" during The Godfather's baptism, reinforcing an unconscious doubling). He became his own kind of hermetical control freak: directing scenes from within his technological “egg,” a van called the “Silverfish,” while often clashing with other directors on films he was producing (such as Wim Wenders’ Hammett). His stature was devalued to the extent that, in the 1989 2nd edition of Robert Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness, a marvelous book that explored the social themes of a handful of directors emerging in the late ‘60s (Kubrick, Penn, Scorsese, Altman, and Coppola), Coppola found himself replaced by Steven Spielberg (functioning more as a critique of the then-current "Spielberg/Lucas" paradigm that dominated movie screens in Reagan's America). In the introduction, Kolker lamented that Coppola had little to offer as a creative filmmaker, even dismissive – as a lot of critics were for years – of Apocalypse Now.
Coppola’s post-Godfather work has been somewhat ameliorated through critical reevaluation. One from the Heart (1982) is a dazzling and sensual romance that, much like Dracula ten years later, is in love with the artifice of movies, absolutely breathtaking if you fall under its spell. Its damnation were tied to the great debt it incurred, in the publicity of outrageous expenses and risks over an ignominious love story. A simple modern day fairy tale of a couple falling out and back in love with each other, it was not what admirers of The Conversation, Godfather II, and Apocalypse Now were looking for in a new Coppola production.
The Outsiders (1983) was hampered by its glossy romanticism and Carmine Coppola’s score, but Coppola’s 2005 revision eschewed the original music in favor of pop/rock music from the 1950s and, with the addition of 20 minutes of footage, is pulses forth with heart that’s less on its sleeve than in its soul. Rumble Fish (also 1983), Coppola’s personal favorite, is a formal masterwork, featuring some of Mickey Rourke’s and Matt Dillon’s finest acting work, its theme of brotherhood an extension of Michael and Fredo’s relationship in The Godfather Part II. It’s now part of the distinguished Criterion Collection.
In other hands, Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) could have the slightest of fanciful comedies, but Coppola molds something achingly tender, following a divorced homecoming queen (Kathleen Turner) going back to her teen years and balancing her wrong decisions against a 1950s teenager's capacious options (one wishes his 1996 time-is-fleeting fable Jack, Coppola’s one unequivocally bad feature, was handled as delicately). Tucker (1988), the only pet-project Coppola made in the 1980s (originally planned in the 1970s as a musical with Brando), is an electrifying period biopic with outstanding performances and a fireworks Joe Jackson score, all in perfect step with Vittorio Storaro and Dean Tavoularis' colorful visual bravado. With the story of Preston Thomas Tucker (Jeff Bridges), the radical inventor who challenged the auto industry’s engineering paradigm, Coppola made a thinly veiled autobiography that didn’t hesitate in shifting the gears of a fact-based failure into a fantasy, its happy ending probably owing much to executive producer George Lucas.
The failures ran deep, however. Coppola was unable to make back ground on his debt. As Zoetrope’s indie mogul, his productions uniformly floundered; the few exceptions were collaborations with his old chum George Lucas, with whom he helped finance Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Paul Schrader’s Mishima (two of the decade’s best films). His most prestigious pictures as director, The Cotton Club and Gardens of Stone, are of questionable artistic value (the former has been re-edited by Coppola and screened to good notices at 2017 film festivals, though it’s up in the air if MGM will allow him to release it on blu ray) and bombed commercially. Gardens of Stone, set in a cemetery, is overcast by the death of Coppola’s eldest son Gian-Carlo, which occurred during production. He ended the 1980s on his worst note, Life Without Zoe, a 40-minute short in the anthology New York Stories, about a wealthy father and daughter. Another rumination on time, co-written with teenaged Sofia Coppola, it plays like an embarrassing fall from grace, particularly when we consider that New York Stories’ other two shorts are very good efforts by contemporaries Martin Scorsese (Life Lessons) and Woody Allen (Oedipus Wrecks).
The subtexts of most of Coppola’s 1980s films point to the personal projects he wasn’t able to bankroll. With each laboring instant on a stalled production, he was running out of time to fulfill his dreams. He had owned the rights to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for years, but could never secure the financing, despite having Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt attached at different points. Studios were tepid about Coppola's plans to shoot it in 16mm black and white (it was finally released in 2012, directed by Walter Salles with Coppola credited as executive producer). One from the Heart was in fact designed to be the first in a romantic tetralogy influenced by Goethe’s Elective Affinities, each installment featuring a different city. And Gian-Carlo’s death inspired Coppola to adapt Pinocchio, written in 1994, Gepetto imagined as an old artist who wanted to re-animate a lost son.
The most significant project was Megalopolis. Coppola wrote a first draft during a rush of inspiration in 1983: a 400-page screenplay-as-novel about an architect determined to design the city of the future. Coppola’s utopian science-fiction film, constantly revised throughout the next two decades, details art’s aspirations and bureaucracy’s stagnancy as the libertine architect and scientist Serge Catiline is embroiled against the virtuous and conservative Mayor Frank Cicero. With his discovery of an adaptable material, "molecular-modulated polymers," called “megalon,” Catiline’s team believes that their new city design will wipe out the need for a labor force.
Megalon is described by Catiline as "plastic, in that it's organic and non-metallic. But the arrangement of its molecules and chains can be varied to suit a particular need. It's moldable, rollable, stampable, knotable, twistable. And it has built-in memories you can trigger with a specific kind of modulated current." Technology will do all the work while citizens, free of debt, will be able to dream, "learning, creating, perfecting, celebrating, teaching, enjoying art, sport, privacy, ritual, family, celebration, festival, etc." Catiline dreams that money will no longer make the world go round, but the human spirit will. "What is money really, other than plastic and computer sheets. The only reality is DEBT. This is my revolution. In my world of the future, debt won't exist. Ever since it was invented, debt is the shadow that blights every mind. Human beings endure debt in the hope that tomorrow they'll pay it off -- they won't owe. They'll be free."
In Megalopolis, the interests of the present are combating the design of the future. Cicero is adamant that Catiline lives too much in the future; the architect’s reply, doubling for Coppola’s philosophy about Hollywood, is, “If we don’t care about the future, there won’t be one.” Catiline mirrors other Coppola protagonists (Peggy Sue, Dracula and Dominic Mattei from Youth Without Youth) in having the supernatural ability to play with time, slow it down and speed it up, at the expense of being able to love other people in the present. Cicero is a compassionate and wise man, but his inability to dream leads to harm the thing he cherishes most, his daughter. Time, meanwhile, is identified by Catiline as “the eater of his own children.”
The model for the narrative was the Catiline Conspiracy in Ancient Rome. For Coppola, Ancient Rome is commensurate with fin de siècle America, debt being the plague of both societies while the moneyed structures at the top (government, church, banks, entertainment) are primarily concerned with keeping things as they are - which includes keeping people in debt. Secondary sources for the script included H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come (the Alexander Korda and William Cameron Menzies’ 1936 adaptation of which was a big influence on Coppola), and books by the futurist Alvin Toffler (Powershift). As he describes it in his Godfather II DVD commentary, Megalopolis is about a bad man who becomes good and good man who becomes bad. Dean Tavoularis was going to design the sets at Rome's Cinecitta Studios and Ron Fricke would be the cinematographer. It was a “Roman Epic” projected into the Future, an inverse of Fellini's Satyricon, at epic length (an available draft of the script is 212 pages) and scale. Professional wrestling doubles for gladiatorial bouts, a superficial pop star becomes the Vestal Virgin, coke parties are Bacchae orgies, rich bitches are incestuous witches, subway psychics are oracles, the prescient Cassandra is a beautiful stock-market analyst, Soviet satellites falling from the sky are judgments from the gods, and a Saturnalia of masks concludes everything, the peasants uprising and burning their savior in effigy. The violence is out of time, as in addition to gunshots there are crumbling temples, lethal arrows, and a crucifixion. Some of the discussed cast members included Warren Beatty (as the Mayor), Parker Posey, Robert De Niro, Russell Crowe, Nicolas Cage, Paul Newman, James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Claire Danes, Kevin Spacey, and Meryl Streep.
Megalopolis never occurred, and it likely never will, being that the events of 9/11/2001 (which transpired as Coppola was shooting second-unit images for it) have changed New York—and possibly the world—too much to fit his original frame. What’s in the pages and in the outline is a naked portrait of Francis Ford Coppola’s philosophy and hopes. Some of Megalopolis’ themes re-emerged in his Mircea Eliade adaptation, Youth Without Youth (2007), but the limitations of the film's period setting makes the gargantuan ideas more of a whisper (for better or worse, we’ll never know).
Knowledge of Megalopolis is helpful when discussing Godfather III because it was obsessing the filmmaker’s mind in 1989, when he was sitting down to once more write about the Corleones. He knew that the inevitable success of Godfather III would make Megalopolis possible, so finally Francis Ford Coppola could again be “Francis Ford Coppola,” both to himself and to us. But Godfather III wasn’t as successful as forecasted, and Coppola had to wait for the surprising success of Dracula two years later to move ahead (and even then, Dracula wasn’t enough to get Megalopolis made; rather, it saved Zoetrope and his winery. He endlessly rewrote his script while working on the travesty Jack from 1996 and the bracing, terrific adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker in 1997).
In Godfather III is the hibernating phantom (or developing embryo) of Megalopolis’ ideas and images. Its main character is an independent loner, eager to propel his own business – and America’s business paradigm – into the future, bridging America and Europe to the establishment of a Unified World (Coppola‘s diaries during the writing of Megalopolis express a desire for a one-world government). There are references to debt and equivalencies of debt to sin, and a need to eliminate both. Standing in the hero’s way is the Establishment– leaders of Government and the Church, propelling us in a storyline that, while not based on Sallust, certainly has the medieval flavor of the Borgias’ Italy, if not the Roman Republic centuries before that. Remembering Coppola’s remark on the progression on his dual protagonists of Megalopolis – a good man who becomes bad and a bad man who becomes good – how can we not think about Michael Corleone, possessing traits of both Catiline and Cicero, the chiaroscuro embodiment, a bright idealist who isn't contemptible so much as dreaded? Through the course of this final narrative, he is seeking to be born-out of his corruption and set things right before it is too late. But his final maneuver, like Cicero, only leads to the death of the person closest to him: for the old men in both Megalopolis and Godfather III, the beloved daughter is killed by bullets intended for another.
The company Michael seeks to control is Immobilaire, surely as much of a joke as “Unobtanium” is in James Cameron’s Avatar. Is it a coincidence that several of the men who influenced the characterizations of Michael Corleone's rivals here were true-life figures who, in addition to being involved with Vatican bank scandals and mafia murders, were frequent visitors to the Gulf + Western Paramount offices, riding the elevator with a young Francis Coppola as he was shooting the original Godfather? Hollywood’s subterfuge of Coppola and those forces arrayed against Catiline in Megalopolis are bent on being immobile in the face of innovation. Michael, Catiline, and Francis Ford Coppola all succeed and fail against the Establishment of Immobility in unison.
Originally written summer 2009, revised 2012 and 2018.
The Godfather Project: