The Godfather

Winter 1970: An expansive, charming, portly, and jovial Francis Coppola and sidekicks sat behind me in the North of Market screening room at American Zoetrope, San Francisco. Francis was talking excitedly, leaping upward to cast shadows on the screen, while my Peoples’ Park film, Let a Thousand Parks Bloom, was projected much too large and much too close for its little 16mm frame.  But  it’s Hollywood by the Bay, so go with the flow. Francis pointed out parts of the film that might be of interest to Zoetrope because he was planning to produce a film about the painful aftermath of People’s Park.  In particular, during a military/police action in downtown Berkeley (Headline: Pigs Hate Park), several hundred people were arrested, taken to Santa Rita Prison, made to lie in the sun for a day, and roughed up by the sheriff’s deputies. The people who’d been arrested had been ordinary citizens for the most part; a postman delivering the mail, people out shopping, and others going about their business, and mixed in with the common folk were commie hippie scum. 

In the May 1969 issue of the Berkeley Barb, Robin Hood’s Park Commissioner — also known as Stew Albert, a twinkle-eyed yellow rag mopped yippie and rabble-rouser — called for the people to create a park on land owned by the University near the Berkeley campus.  The University was planning to turn this patch of parched earth into dormitories or perhaps a parking lot.  On a weekend in May, thousands of people gathered to build Peoples’ Park.  Robin Hood’s Park Commissioner had inspired us to lay sod, plant trees, plant flowers, and to create an oasis in a concrete desert.  People’s Park was born, and it was an action that was sweetly perverse; perverse because here were hippies, well known especially to the straight as a gate fifth estate as lazy, shiftless, drug addicted, sex fiends, Buddhist, Amerind loving weirdoes, sweating bullets to turn barren ground into a park; perverse because this experiment in urban renewal was a direct affront to the power structure. So ecodelic and ultimately so violent.

People’s Park was a turning point in my life and the lives of many of the people who lived in Berkeley or worked on the park, for on this occasion Governor Reagan and his henchmen upped the ante. They decided that protecting University property was worth taking human life, for in the military action to reclaim the park, one unarmed man, James Rector, were shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy, and another man was blinded by a sheriff deputy’s shotgun blast to the face. The people of Berkeley and the surrounding communities who participated in the creation of the park fought back by planting flowers.  I was there with my 16mm Beaulieu witnessing the building of our beautiful park, and I also dug in the dirt to help it along.  In an outburst of fecund energy people from all walks of life got together to help create the park.

People’s Park  had been in existence a few weeks when the University threatened to take it back by force, and one fine morning a chain-link fence went up and the National Guard were called in.  Hundreds of guardsmen, with bayonets drawn, surrounded the park.  A few days before this discouraging event Max Sheer, editor of the Berkeley Barb, my then-wife Diane, and I, went to a meeting at Scott Newhall’s house in the Berkeley hills.  Scott was the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He had phoned Max and wanted to see if there was some way to negotiate a settlement to the conflict between the state and the people who had been working on the park. Max had invited Diane and me along perhaps because he wanted witnesses more than he needed help.

High in the Berkeley Hills, we faced Newhall, who sat at his desk with his back to the nighttime lights of  the Bay Area, and surprisingly he thanked us for the Berkeley Barb and for the articles we had run because they had compelled him and his paper to cover stories that otherwise might have been ignored.  The Chronicle, and most papers in the United States, loathed all aspects of hippie movement — both political and spiritual.  When Max’s reporters uncovered and documented stories about the CIA trafficking in drugs, or other unpalatable schemes, or when the reporters at the Barb wrote well documented stories embarrassing to the government and its Vietnam policies, the Chronicle — which would otherwise have been disinclined to print such stories — was compelled to do so in order to uphold a semblance of journalistic integrity.

There may have been some activists who wanted a violent confrontation with the state, but I didn’t hang out with that crowd.  The people I knew viewed the creation of the park as an act of liberation and a kind of prank.  It was street theater that would educate while performing a public service — the building of a park on a bleak urban lot, in a neighborhood that could use a park.  More than once Newhall expressed his sympathy for Peoples’ Park and dismay at the over-reaction of the University and the State of California.  He picked up the phone and called Casper Weinberger, who was Governor Reagan’s right-hand man and California’s Attorney General.

Perhaps Newhall didn’t realize that the amorphous hippie government he thought we represented might be too anarchistic to listen to our recommendations.   I envisioned myself at a meeting, telling of our Newhall conversation, being greeting with catcalls and cries of:  “You’ve been co-opted!”  The worst of all fates, and the one that befalls many a negotiator, is that of being accused of being co-opted, and a dirty word  it was in that time of militancy. I loathed Reagan and with the passage of time my feelings have not changed. Weinberger, who Newhall called Cap, took the call, but would make no promises on behalf of Reagan. Newhall did his best to ask Cap to call off the dogs, but it didn’t work.

People who govern have access to to the power of the state and in its name they can commit violence with impunity.  Only days after our meeting with Newhall Reagan and Weinberger called out the National Guard and the sheriffs and turned the streets of Berkeley into a war zone. Planting a flower became an act of insurrection and a weapon used by urban guerrillas.  Police were arresting citizens for planting flowers on vacant lots and I recall one photo showing a policeman in a flak jacket uprooting a recently planted flower during the curfew.  Acts of violence were taking place all over the city, as police cornered people, beat them, and sometimes arrested them.  The people were armed with flowers; the police, sheriffs, and national guardsmen had batons, guns, teargas and bayonets. (Being teargassed is a treat — but I don’t recommend it.  It’s only virtue is that you can brag about being teargassed.)

One day during the occupation of Berkeley I was driving up University Avenue toward the campus in my red 1959 544 Volvo, a car that kept me under the hood as often as it kept me behind the wheel.  As I drove toward the railroad tracks by the old Santa Fe depot, I saw distant khaki Army trucks filled with troops headed in the direction of the park in my rearview mirror.  Some demonic spell came over me as I pulled onto the tracks; I turned off the engine, pulled open the hood, and pretended the car had broken down.  The crummy old car had failed me so often why not now?  Sticking my head under the hood came naturally. It was a tropism. For a few minutes, while several kindly citizens and National Guardsmen helped push my vehicle to the side of the road, the army was stopped dead. Too many movies, Lenny.  I thought I was in a film about the French Resistance but of course I wasn’t dealing with Hitler’s SS; I was dealing with Reagan’s National Guard keeping law and order by beating up and arresting people who built a park.

One night on a strip of vacant land that was later to become a BART station in Berkeley, not far from University Avenue, a mad party was held as hundreds of people gathered in defiance of the police and the National Guard.  We built a bonfire and lit by the flames danced and sang the night away — white people and black people.  On that night I felt that there was hope in the world, that all men were brothers under the skin, that there was one race, the human race, and that we could find a way to live together, and unite against tyrants.  I remember dancing and laughing and smoking a joint in the orange glow of the fire, as people whooped and yelled and ran around the lot.  A black man laughed madly in my face and said that he loved People’s Park — and so did I.

The Park united black and white people in the community; The hippies, outcasts by choice, and the blacks, outcasts by birth, had much in common since both distrusted the power elite and both were harassed by police.  The society was threatened by hippies and blacks since both groups were assumed to be disreputable, but the hippies in some way were an even greater affront, because after all, we could get haircuts and put on straight clothes and drop back in, but the blacks had no such option.  Some of them probably thought we were just playing at being different, and there is some truth to that, but many of those who had dropped out were on a deeply felt quest.  We came from lives where our material rather than our spiritual needs were met, but the blacks were seeking material advantages and recognition as equals.  The sight of middle-class white youths throwing away respectability and must have amazed, confused, or revolted, many black people.

After the confrontation an enormous march was organized that wound its way through the streets of Berkeley for many a mile.  I was hired to shoot  the march for the BBC and kept ahead of the marchers in my rusting red Volvo.  I got a lot of good shots, making the hippie freaks look heroic, photographically modeled after the work of Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will. But my work came to a halt when I took a young man who had been injured in a motorcycle accident to the hospital.

As I sat in Zoetrope, watching my movie in the room next to the pool table and the cappuccino machine, my memories and feelings were too big to be contained even by that ginormous (anachronistic use of an adjective that did not exist in the sixties – or did it?) screen.  Francis talked about this shot and that shot and how I’d done this and that, and that he knew as much about dodging police clubs and being tear gassed as I knew about dealing with a movie studio that wouldn’t give him the final cut — if you follow his meaning.  Francis liked my film and he took me on a tour of Zoetrope.  He was an equipment lover, showing me his gadgets and his studio.

Then he left me for awhile, and I continued on with a young man, Steve Weiss, who was going to be the director of the film. The subject matter of the film, as I’ve said, was the roundup that had taken place in downtown Berkeley and the subsequent torture of innocent people at Santa Rita Prison.  Weiss was exultant as he told me how wonderful it was that he had the final cut.  As we stepped into Francis’s office, Weiss was extolling the working relationship he had with Francis and the studio — it was Warner Brothers that was going to bankroll the film.  Francis, overhearing him, looked up from behind the desk of his two-story-tall office and said: “What do you mean, `final cut?’  I don’t get the final cut.  Nobody gets the final cut.  You don’t get the final cut.  I learned long ago not to negotiate for things that are impossible.  And the final cut on this picture is one of them.”  In this way Steve Weiss and I learned that he didn’t have the final cut — information that was of little importance to me but of some consequence to Weiss. (The film never got made.)

Weiss left the office, having suffered a mood change, and Francis and I continued to talk about filmmaking. Francis, through his intercom, told his secretary to hold all calls.  I was impressed that he done this.  It meant that I so important that he didn’t want to hear from the head of Warner Brothers Pictures or was he simply trying to impress me?  Maybe he was like a little kid, playing with his toy, in this case a movie studio. Once he called to the secretary on the intercom and asked her to copy an article for me, which she promptly did.  Deluxe. The Ritz. Mocho Mojo.

We spent an hour or so rapping excitedly about filmmaking and its possibilities, and the potential of the super 8 medium, which intrigued Francis. He informed me that it was because of him that filmmakers like me — experimental or independent or underground filmmakers —  would be given a  shot at making real movies, that is to say, feature films. I can think of only one experimental filmmaker of that era who got to make Hollywood features, and that’s Jim McBride, who had made an underground feature, David Hotzman’s Diary, and who later directed other features, the best known of which is probably The Big Easy.

At the time I resented Francis’ assertion that it was because of him that I would get a chance to make movies since I was making movies without his help.  A similar assertion about helping independent filmmakers was made by George Lucas. Who knows? — Maybe it’s feelings of guilt that motivate these super star filmmakers to assert they will help the starving huddled filmmaker masses.  On the other hand, maybe Francis meant well; maybe he wanted to help filmmakers, but then came the whammy:  “Why are you charging me a rental fee for the film and for coming over here?  This is not a friendly act, Lenny.  We’re both filmmakers and it offends me that you’re doing this,” he said.

“But Francis,” I told him, “This is the way I fund my filmmaking.  I don’t have Warner Brothers.  When I screen a film I get paid.”

We were talking about $60.  Who knows, had I gotten down on one knee and kissed the ring of my patronne I might be directing feature films, but at the time I took it this way:  This is a guy doing deals with Hollywood Studios, who said he wants to help filmmakers like me, and at the instant he has an opportunity to help, he balks at forking over a pittance.   Looking back on it, I see what happened from another angle: Francis was reaching out to me and saying that we were equals, and if we were truly equals, I would forego my fee.  Surely when he brought a film over to Spielberg’s to screen it, he didn’t charge a fee.  Seen it that context, I can understand his position, and I should have been flattered.

In the following year or two, from time to time, I‘d get a call from Francis.  He’d track me down — he would have his secretary find me in my peregrinations around the Bay Area.  One day he asked my opinion about some inventor who’d come up with a super 8 flat-bed editing machine.  He brought it by my studio, and I checked it out.  I told Francis that l though it was neat machine, but I didn’t know if there was a market for such a product, because the price might too high for super 8 filmmakers.

A few years later I ran into the inventor at a trade show and I learned that Francis had suspended further investment based in part on my advice.  The inventor was still fuming.  I had crushed his dream, and he would never forgive me.  In my own career as an entrepreneur, on more than 100 occasions, similar evaluations of my work were made by venture capitalists, and I was turned down every time except the last time.

The last time I saw Francis was at a party a few years later at which he attempted to spirit away my perfidious girlfriend, the beauteous Sindee.  If only he had succeeded.

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