Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) by Francis Ford Coppola
Retro Review by Nathan Smith
Preston Tucker believed in America. He believed in free enterprise. He believed in the power of the market. But most of all, he believed in competition. Preston Tucker had been taught that any man in the United States with a better idea than anybody else’s idea could bring that better idea to the table and have it grow and succeed and turn into something great.
That’s exactly what Preston Tucker did: he built a beautiful car with a rear engine and improved safety features, a car better than any Detroit had ever made. But Detroit had one thing Tucker didn’t have: money. Which means they actually had another thing he didn’t have: power. To get both money and power, Tucker sold the idea of his car before he had an actual car. Because of that, because free enterprise is a lie and the market is always rigged by itself, Detroit buried him.
Francis Ford Coppola believed in America too. He also believed in competition, thinking he'd brought the best idea to the table in Hollywood. Coppola had some big hits, he’d won some awards, and he thought he could change the way things were done with his newfound money and power. But then he got lost in the Philippines, and then he tried to make an expensive musical, and then Hollywood decided to bury him, all because he spent a little too much of someone else’s money.
Tucker is one of history’s forgotten geniuses, a ghost—like Edison’s archrival Nikola Tesla—who haunts us with the lost promise of failed possibilities. What if society had accepted Tesla’s light bulb instead of Edison’s? What if every American garage had a Tucker inside instead of a Toyota? Human history—particularly the history of invention and the history of cinema, as the two go hand-in-hand—is littered with these shouldas, couldas, and wouldas. What has happened is only one amongst a series of doors chance decided to open; what will happen is equally uncertain. History is written, rewritten, and unwritten all the time.
Coppola is a genius both remembered and forgotten. He is an iconoclast, a fierce independent, and an audacious outsider who took on an entire industry, much like Preston Tucker. He is a canonical filmmaker, but a substantial portion of his work has been overlooked. Thank heavens, then, for the recent restorations Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dementia 13, and now Tucker: The Man and His Dream, which premiered at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and is now receiving a Blu-Ray Release on its thirtieth anniversary courtesy of Lionsgate.
After the Quixotic quagmire of Apocalypse Now and crippling failure of One From the Heart, Coppola was looking to rehabilitate his image with almost everyone: critics, audiences, executives, and even his own family. Everyone thought he was arrogant, egotistical, and out of control. Coppola couldn’t even catch a break with director-for-hire jobs he’d been forced to take; his only films to turn a profit in the 1980s were Peggy Sue Got Married and The Outsiders. Coppola’s antics on Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart—along with William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate—were all the evidence Hollywood needed in the case against the new generation.
Tucker occupies an odd place in Coppola’s filmography, flanked on one side by the curious experimentation of Youth Without Youth and Twixt and dwarfed on the other by canonical masterpieces like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Like Tucker and his car, Tucker was out of time and out of step.
So why did Coppola choose to tackle Tucker’s dream when he did? Part of it was timing. Tucker had been Coppola’s dream since the early 1970s, when he envisioned it as an avant-garde musical spectacle about the entire history of the American auto industry, written in collaboration with composer Leonard Bernstein. Coppola had been fascinated Tucker since childhood, when his father had invested in the futuristic automobile.
Each section of the film would have a distinct look, influenced by Brecht and Kabuki theater. Though the existent Tucker looks mighty different than what Coppola originally envisioned, repurposed traces of that vision can be seen in his “Rip Van Winkle” episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, starring Harry Dean Stanton; Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, produced by Lucas and Coppola, which scholar Jon Lewis argues “seems far more in line with Coppola’s Zoetrope style” than with Schrader’s sensibility; and Distant Vision, Coppola’s current “live cinema” project, documented in his recent book Live Cinema and Its Techniques.
Tucker didn’t have a chance of actually happening until the entrance of Coppola’s apprentice. George Lucas was eager to help an old friend and, after the success of his Star Wars trilogy, had the cash on hand to do so. But Tucker was a risk for Lucas too, as studios were hesitant to work with the man most recently known for Howard the Duck, so the film’s $24 million dollar budget all came from Lucas’ own pocket. At the behest of the Americana-loving Lucas, Coppola shifted gears, turning his ambitious musical experiment into a more restrained ode to Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra.
Lucas may have brought Capra to the project, but Coppola’s foremost aesthetic inspiration for Tucker might actually be a promotional ad for the man himself, Tucker: The Man and His Car, which appears on the remastered Blu-Ray with optional commentary from Coppola. The film even seamlessly turns into a commercial as we see how Tucker sculpts and shapes his own image. Tucker is not about the real Tucker or even the product he made, but about the image he made and sold of himself, his car, and a certain post-war way of life. That’s what any car dealer or filmmaker sells us: aspirations, ideals, and the possibility of independence. In Tucker, the image that Coppola sells us of himself is identical to Preston Tucker, and I'd argue that Coppola used that image in order to build a case for himself.
In 1980, Coppola purchased the vacant Hollywood General Studios with the hopes of turning his American Zoetrope production subsidiary into a real-life studio, giving him complete creative control and allowing him to take on Hollywood's major players. Zoetrope wasn’t all vanity project; Coppola hoped to let dear friends and old masters use his new digs to make the art they’d always dreamed of making, free from fear of producer interference.
At Zoetrope Studios, Coppola hoped to revolutionize the industry through what he called “electronic cinema,” a forerunner to the digital filmmaking technologies now commonplace 21st century. By using videotape to film samples, Coppola could quickly edit together a digital assembly cut that would allow him to test how different shots worked together, enabling the production to get precisely the necessary shots and nothing more. He would edit from an Airstream trailer away from the set, issuing direction over a loudspeaker. A 1982 American Cinematographer profile describes the outcome of this system best:
Coppola sounded like a mad genius at the time and that’s how most people took him. One From the Heart, the “scratchpad” for most of Coppola’s new ideas, was a flop, the Zoetrope lot was up for auction within two years, and Coppola was even further in debt than he’d been before. But within two decades, Coppola’s innovations, which he would continue to refine on special effects films like Captain EO and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, would become industry standard and enable the rise of digital cinematography, digital projection, and non-linear editing. Directing over a loudspeaker might have sounded impersonal in 1980, but in 2018, that’s how almost every film that uses a green screen is shot.
Tucker’s technological innovations—fuel injection, power steering, seat belts—were laughed off, but would also become de rigueur in the following decades. Beyond Coppola's childhood love of Tucker, it's easy to see why he'd be attracted to the project. There’s even a little bit of Tucker in George Lucas, who gets more credit for his innovations than Coppola, even if he also receives more scorn. Tucker and his team demonstrate the same kind of scrappy inventiveness as the special effects team working on Star Wars, who glued together Battleship board pieces to build the Death Star, repurposed a VistaVision camera to make it look like model ships could fly, and turned the sounds of an elephant crying and a car driving on slick pavement into the scream of a TIE Fighter.
Unlike Tucker and Coppola, Lucas gave audiences something that looked safe, comfortable, and nostalgic, all while radically changing how culture is produced under the surface. Like Tucker, Lucas and Coppola both spent their entire careers rebelling against an oligopoly that maintained a vicious stranglehold on the American industry. Every time either one attained some kind of creative independence, it was snatched from their grasp. The Godfather and Star Wars were era-defining works, but they were also escape routes: Coppola and Lucas seemed to believe that their colossal financial success would bring greater freedom, but it only shackled them more. The failure of Coppola’s “electronic cinema” project sent him deep into debt, forced to take on assignments he might have otherwise avoided.
In that failure, Coppola learned not to put all his eggs into the one proverbial basket. In the decade between The Rainmaker and Youth Without Youth, Coppola made a killing on wine, pasta, and cigars. The earlier incarnation of his American Zoetrope company may have advocated for a certain kind of lifestyle, born from the communal spirit of the 1960s, but its most recent manifestation is quite literally a lifestyle brand. Coppola spent that wine money on Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt, three of the strangest movies ever made by anyone not named Raúl Ruiz. It didn’t matter if they weren’t seen widely or received warmly; at least Coppola didn’t owe anybody for them.
George Lucas may have diversified his portfolio, but his eggs were trapped in a different kind of basket. Lucas began as the most radical member of the “Movie Brats,” more interested in the margins of the avant-garde than mainstream credibility, but he soon became the thing he hated most: an executive. He licensed the hell out of Star Wars with the hopes it would fund the “little experimental films” he’s been talking about making for decades, but they haven't come to pass yet. Lucas may have gained financial freedom, but he would never be free from Star Wars, even after washing his hands and selling the whole estate to Disney. Star Wars was so embraced by the culture-at-large that it would never truly be Lucas’ again, but it would also never leave him alone. Coppola’s failure was his success, but Lucas’ success was his failure.
As an auteur with a public persona, Coppola exists similarly to Tucker. Both sold products, but they also sold stories about themselves and their families. For Coppola and Tucker alike, there is no difference between the family, the firm, the factory, or the film studio: they’re all just a way of organizing business.
Tucker may advance Coppola’s own ego, linking him with someone who changed the course of an entire industry, but it’s also an apology to an audience Coppola felt he had alienated. “It’s not against the law to be wrong or stupid,” says Tucker when defending himself in court. Both men may have wanted to challenge the system, but they believed in capitalism—the very definition of the system—too much. Coppola may admit that he was wrong and stupid at certain times in his career, but there’s one thing you can’t argue with: he got the cars made. And those are some damn good cars.