The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia, James M. Welsh, Gene D. Phillips, and Rodney F. Hill (eds)

The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia (Cover)

Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010
ISBN: 978 0 8108 7651 4
US$70.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by The Scarecrow Press)

James M. Welsh, in his Introduction (“So Why Does Francis Coppola Deserve His Own Encyclopedia”) to The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia, writes that the main function of the text could be worded as explaining “why Coppola matters.” In his foreword (“Life Under the Hood: An Appreciation of Francis Ford Coppola”), John C. Tibbets summarizes the encyclopedia as being “a kaleidoscopic portrait of Coppola.” Although Tibbets uses language more associated with a reference work, also writing that the text could be interpreted as a “compendium of all things Coppola,” his use of the word kaleidoscopic actually gets closer to the truth concerning this unique work. A librarian myself, one who has in fact written some three dozen encyclopedia entries for various works, I have developed a sense of what informs an encyclopedia entry. One of the intrinsic elements, or so I have always been led to believe, is complete objectivity. Metaphorically speaking, all editors of reference texts are Joe Fridays, approving only information which constitutes a collection of what can be termed “just the facts.” However, Welsh, along with two co-editors (Gene D. Phillips and Rodney F. Hill) and some dozen contributing writers, approach the idea of a reference book differently: what they produce is a text that is filled with facts, but which reads like a partitioned narrative that is often deferential, gossipy, and personable. Strangely enough, this turns out to be the strength of The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia, as most entries include personal minutiae, the small details that are often omitted in reference works.

Fourth in a loosely related series of filmmaker encyclopedias (after works on Hitchcock, Kubrick and Ridley Scott), this encyclopedia obviously includes entries on Coppola’s films, spanning the entirety of his career: There are entries for his early sexploitation flicks, The Bellboy and the Playgirls (USA 1962) and Tonight For Sure (USA 1962); on his two forays into the horror genre, Dementia 13 (USA 1963) and the operatic Bram Stoker’s Dracula (USA 1992); on his sole musical, Finian’s Rainbow (USA 1968); and on his early drama, You’re a Big Boy Now (USA 1967), The Rain People (USA 1969), and The Conversation (USA 1974). As expected, entries on his trilogy, The Godfather (USA 1972), The Godfather, Part II (USA 1974), and The Godfather, Part III (USA 1990) are not only present but are fulsome. Then there are the entries on the masterful films of his middle career, Apocalypse Now (USA 1979), The Outsiders (USA 1983), Rumble Fish (USA 1983), and Peggie Sue Got Married (USA 1986). And despite its mostly laudatory tone, the encyclopedia does not gloss over Coppola’s disappointments, The Cotton Club (USA 1984), Gardens of Stone (USA 1987), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (USA 1988), Jack (USA 1996), and The Rainmaker (USA 1997). The text also addresses the most current films, Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), Youth Without Youth (USA/Romania/France/Italy/Germany 2007), and Tetro (USA/Argentina/Italy/Spain 2009). Keeping with the motif of being “all things Coppola,” Welsh and company also includes entries on films on which Coppola worked, even when he was uncredited, such as Roger Corman’s The Terror (USA 1963), as well as Coppola directed shorts and episodes, such as Captain Eo (USA 1986), “Rip Van Winkle” (from Fairie Tale Theater, 1987) and “Life Without Zoe” (from New York Stories, 1989). In fact, from what I could see, the only film associated with Coppola which is omitted from the encyclopedia is the Russian film Battle Beyond the Sun (Soviet Union 1960), for which Coppola directed a spliced-in alien fight scene for the American version (while working for Corman), under the pseudonym Thomas Colchart (according to the credits of the re-edited version).

The encyclopedia also includes comprehensive entries on a variety of film crew types: cinematographers, actors, directors, screenwriters, set designers, choreographers, musicians, composers, and dancers. In addition, Welsh and company include entries on related materials, such as literature on which films are based, authors of literature on which films are based, historians, film and literary critics and scholars, archivists, related filmmakers, and Coppola’s friends and family members. Also included are entries dealing with important cultural phenomena, such as important entities in Coppola’s life (for example, American Zoetrope, his own production company), landmarks (such as Astoria Studios, which Coppola refurnished to use as the set for The Cotton Club), essential concepts (like Artistic Collaboration and Criticism and Controversy), and other information necessary to the reader’s understanding and appreciation of both the human being and his oeuvre. And entries follow all aspects of Coppola’s career, including films on which he served as producer or consultant, as well as his later interest in becoming a vintner.

The typical entry predictably begins with a definition of the person or concept under consideration, but then goes on to often include omitted details which could be dismissed as factoids if they were out of context, but which instead serve to help weave a tapestry of the filmmaker’s life. The story behind each concept is chronicled, taking it back to its beginnings, and for entries on people, early careers are traced, including work done before the individual knew Coppola; this serves to create an even larger context. Relationships to Coppola are explored in depth, and the significance of the person or concept to Coppola studies is then explained. Many entries even include a discussion of the critical reception of a film or concept. Virtually all entries conclude with a list of References for credibility and for further research. The typical film entry begins with the story of the conception of the film, peppered with a list of the names of people involved in its creation, from the most important to the most tangential. The entries’ writers also give information on problems encountered while making the film. Each of these entries includes a well-written summary of the movie’s plot, as well as a discussion of any cutting edge techniques used by Coppola (or other directors, if Coppola produced or worked on the crew), and how these techniques were received. All films are categorized by both genre and story type, and all films based on source material have a discussion of their relationship to that material included in their entry. Reviews of films are then noted, and a general discussion of each film’s reception by the public is included. Finally, each entry on a film contains a note as to the significance of that film to Coppola’s career, as well as to the movie industry.

Perhaps the best summation of this text is by Tibbetts himself. This Associate Professor of Theatre and Film at the University of Kansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics (and divides his time as a journalist for CBS Television and National Public Radio and as an author of books, articles, and short stories) argues that The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia “takes a fresh look … at the technological dazzle and the dramatic machinery of Coppola’s world.” Indeed, Welsh and company do create not just a fresh look at Coppola, but a fresh approach to the encyclopedia as an information delivery system, for it does more than simply supply facts about the director. As Tibbetts writes, the book also aims to chronicle the “endless, entertaining turmoil” about making movies in America, by providing stories about one of Hollywood’s most prolific and daring directors. This is a laudable goal, and Welsh and company manage to achieve it admirably. Readers will find the book both enlightening and entertaining, especially once they can get beyond the overly deferential—sometimes fawning—tone of some of the entries. But as Welsh, Professor of English at Salisbury State University (Maryland) and Editor-In-Chief of Literature/Film Quarterly (and the founding President of the Literature/Film Association) notes, the entries in the encyclopedia look to capture both the “larger-than-life filmmaker and entrepreneur” as well as the person “who can be incredibly kind, forgiving and generous,” while simultaneously shedding light on Coppola’s standing as an “anti-establishment maverick” who serves as a central figure in Twentieth Century film. And perhaps ultimately it is more effective to recreate the filmmaker’s life as a series of interrelated narratives (in fact, Welsh and company make sure readers understand this, as they very clearly indicate the link to related entries by use of an all caps font), rather than as a loosely connected collection of “just the factoids.”