Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Always Stand Next To The Camera

In search of something to watch which seemed like the right spirit for the New Year, I found myself reaching for the DVD of Roman Coppola’s CQ, a film which also is appropriately set around the changeover from one decade to another. Thinking of it this way made it the ideal choice but it also seemed like the sort of quietly hopeful film that I was looking for. An obviously personal creation it addresses the type of movie it’s examining in the most loving way possible—not as something to mock but as something to enjoy and respect for both the ingenuity that can go into it and how one can ultimately make it personal. It’s small, sweet, slight and maybe ultimately a minor piece of work but it does make me feel better every time I see it, which has to say something right there.

Paris, 1969—Film editor Paul Ballard (Jeremy Davies) is balancing his job, editing a science fiction film set in the distant future year of 2001 entitled CODENAME: DRAGONFLY about a beautiful spy who lives in a swanky futuristic pad at the top of the Eiffel Tower with his own personal project, a documentary about his own life. This barely leaves him room to focus any attention on girlfriend Marlene (Élodie Bouchez). Troubles in the DRAGONFLY cutting room involving producer Enzo Di Martini (Giancarlo Giannini) lead to the firing of ambitious director Andrezj (Gerard Depardieu) and the eventual recruiting of Paul to take over the film. His private obsession with DRAGONFLY star Valentine (model Angela Lindvall) doesn’t help his home life and as Paul works on each project further he tries to find some way to reconcile the various elements which are colliding.

CQ, which premiered at Cannes in 2001 but not released in the US until the following year (the New York Times review mentions that it was recut after the festival and the listed running times differ slightly), is much made up of three types of filmmaking styles and reality—the everyday world shot in a direct style that seems to present the world of 1969-1970 in a way that seems somehow correct, the black & white sections of Paul’s ‘personal’ film shot in a style resembling the satirical DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY (which, truth be told, I’ve only seen sections of and thanks to YouTube for that) and the world of CODENAME: DRAGONFLY, a sort of fusion of BARBARELLA, MODESTY BLAISE and particularly DANGER: DIABOLIK. All three approaches eventually become fused together in the Paul’s head and through that he is somehow able to discover his own personal filmmaking style.

Maybe anyone not already interested in 60s films or the Coppola name wouldn’t get much out of the film but even if CQ is mostly about the preoccupations of its director with films made during a certain time and his own memory of how films were made back then its sweetness shines through. Along with the obvious nods in CODENAME: DRAGONFLY, it contains numerous tributes throughout the ‘real world’ portions to things ranging widely from CONTEMPT to ANNIE HALL--there’s also an obvious affection for the craft of how these films were made (it should be noted that Roman Coppola was responsible for the old-school visual effects in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, directed by his father), not to mention bits of business involved in the creation of this film that clearly either came from stories Roman Coppola heard from (or about?) his famous father as well or witnessed himself during the massive productions of any number of films. Even Dean Stockwell as Paul’s father somehow seems very much like Francis (an executive producer on this) himself—I wonder if any businessman in 1969 would speak so openly about dreams he recently had but the brief connection between the father and son is a scene the film couldn’t do without--the simple embrace between the two at the end of the sequence feels like one of the most nakedly emotional beats in the entire film. There’s a genuine feeling of affection throughout its running time taking in both this film world and the people that surround it which also extends to the sublime score by Mellow—I could listen to the soundtrack album for days—and if this isn’t what the world of Paris and Rome was like during the changeover from ’69 to ’70 then it’s the way it should have been. Maybe CQ romanticizes the period it portrays—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but the love that Roman Coppola quietly has for not only this type of film (as well as for all films) but for the possibilities of creating one of these films genuinely comes through.

Even in this environment (some might call it ‘twee’) the earnest harshness of the character Marlene makes sense and we feel just as sorry for her as Paul does (Bouchez handles the role well and maybe looks more period-appropriate than anyone else), even as he feels unable to communicate with her. She’s simply out of place in his world and he can’t put aside his preoccupations to focus on her. Relax, it’s just a movie, he’s told, but that doesn’t do any good. After all, is any movie really just a movie? If any movie was really just a movie would I even be writing all this? CQ is more of a bemused, loving observation of everything in it, not treating anyone with anything less than affection—Coppola clearly loves everything about DANGER: DIABOLIK and in recreating its stylistic fun with just the right tonal approach he appears to be as fascinated by putting together the DRAGONFLY excerpts we see as much as the main story—and the touches of the future underlined in the changeover from ’69 to ’70 and displayed in mentions of the sonic boom of the concord that’s heard and even a cameo appearance by a video camera--the future is coming, as indicated on a few occasions, and everyone is looking forward to it with excitement. I wish it was that simple and maybe it is—it says something that Paul doesn’t seem much more certain at the end than he is at the beginning but he is in a better place, a little more aware that we can never really get all the answers we may be looking for. If we can accept that then maybe we can be open to all the possibilities of what might happen.

Jeremy Davies, one of the many highlights of LOST over the past few seasons, manages to make his expected intensity extremely likeable, almost endearing by a certain point. He can be a fascinating physical actor to watch and he keeps his character strangely ingratiating as self-absorbed as he is (I’m guessing that that the name Ballard comes from the director of THE BLACK STALLION, a Coppola production). Angela Lindvall (Harmony’s friend Flicka in KISS KISS BANG BANG) captures both roles of Valentine and Dragonfly in just the right way, never coming off as simply a model doing this as a lark. The rest of the cast is excellent, with Giancarlo Giannini particularly enjoyable as the Dino De Laurentiis-like producer and Jason Schwartzman is obnoxiously funny as the temporary replacement director—is he aping the young William Friedkin? Dean Stockwell, obviously taking a cue from his experience with the elder Coppola, brings a great deal of warmth to his small role. John Phillip Law, Diabolik himself, is a welcome sight playing the Chairman in CODENAME: DRAGONFLY, Billy Zane is “Mr. E” and Roman’s sister Sofia is briefly seen in the Rome sequence as Enzo’s mistress.

Whether Roman Coppola has more to say as an artist is still open to question since he has yet to direct another feature though he has worked behind the scenes on several Wes Anderson movies—like this film, shot by Robert Yeoman—including co-writing THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Based on what is evident here, it somehow doesn’t seem like a surprise that they would get along. With CQ he seems to be saying that along with the necessary ingenuity in completing something like this comes the personal (even Depardieu’s departed director sees it as more about “the revolution” than anything science fiction) and that sort of filmmaking which can be potentially the most rewarding. It knowingly examines those times when the film world can suddenly intersect with the real world and how sometimes one should simply accept that it’s happened. Even in the city of Los Angeles in the distant future of 2010 it can still happen and, for some of us, those are the times that make us want to press forward.

“Dragonfly, what happens in the end?”

“I don’t know. But don’t worry. We’re going to find out soon.”


christian said...

I love this film natch and listen to the soundtrack on a frequent basis. John Law told me it was fun to shoot and he seemed pleased about the DIABOLIK comparisons. CQ is a real movie lover's feast. Surprised it doesn't have a stronger cult.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Very glad that John Phillip Law was pleased with it. It's nice to know that he was able to witness how much people enjoyed some of his work and it was a thrill to see him speak at a few of those Cinematheque screenings. Sadly I never met him--did you know that he once played a character with my real name? Anyway, glad to hear from another CQ fan, there should be more out there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for covering CQ- it's a real treasure. Wish Roman would direct another feature rather than doing second unit work for his sister!

Wilde.Dash said...

I love CQ. Had the poster hanging in my dorm room all through college. It's flawed, sure, but i always come back to it. Nice to see it covered here.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Agreed. I hope he finally gets around to it soon!


Very nice to hear from another CQ fan! Why didn't I ever get the poster? You're right, it may not be perfect but I'm still glad it was made. At it's best it's a very special film!