Sunday, July 26, 2009


Francis Ford Coppola is entering what may be the richest phase of his career, though you wouldn't know it from the tepid reception of his two latest movies. The director made a startling comeback in 2007 with the quixotic, transcendent Youth Without Youth; the material, about a man who ages backwards after being struck by lightning, was a brilliant metaphor for an aged film maker who was rejuvenated by new movie making tools. Digital technology has Coppola's creative juices flowing, and in two features he has proven himself to be the most innovative independent film maker in America; and this comes after many years of, to quote Coppola himself, being "in bondage" due to debts (though, even in his so-called 'bondage' phase, he managed to get Dracula made). Now he is making films his way, by his rules, and this is to his benefit as an artist and our benefit as an audience. His latest film, the intensely moving Tetro, proves that the invention and expression of his previous feature wasn't a fluke, although Tetro is a very different movie from the highly formal Youth Without Youth. Which isn't to say that formal invention isn't present in Tetro, it's just implemented in a very different way; as opposed to the visuals suggesting the meta-physical, they evoke the meta-personal. It's a world where the past--- full of dark secrets, tragedies, and betrayals--- feels more immediate than the emotionally distant present.

Coppola has said that Tetro is "drawn from real emotions related to my experiences and life---though not in any way autobiographical", and this is a key distinction; the narrative is clearly shaped from his background in a family of artists, but the links between his life and the lives of his characters are more figurative than literal. The movie begins with Bennie, the audiences' surrogate, arriving in Buenos Aires to track down his long lost older half-brother, Angelo Tetrochini --- though he's now known simply as Tetro (a sullen Vincent Gallo). They are half-brothers, the sons of a renowned Composer, which explains why Angelo dropped the family name: in an effort to forge his own identity outside of the shadow of his famous family (the same reason Nicholas Cage dropped the 'Coppola', undoubtedly). While this would seem to set the stage for another of Coppola's boldly operatic familial sagas, Tetro takes a more intimate approach than we would normally expect from Coppola; like a stripped-down, more textured version of The Godfather films.

When Bennie reaches Angelo/Tetro's apartment , he is greeted by his girlfriend, a kind Argentinian woman who is delighted to see him--- a far warmer reception than he receives from the brother he hasn't seen for over a decade, who keeps himself locked away in his bedroom. Tetro would be, I suppose, the embodiment of the 'tortured' artist: troubled, moody, and a little on the crazy side (he met his girlfriend while she was working at his asylum). Once an aspiring (and promising) writer, he is now confined to writing stories that he never finishes, in a code that only he can understand. Angelo wears his families' dark history on his sleeve, and Bennie spends the entirety of the film trying to learn the truth about exactly what it is that drove his family apart; the film plays it almost as a mystery, with Bennie in the detective role. Though Angelo, with his desire to keep the past buried, does everything he can from stopping Bennie from learning the truth about his family; and therefore keeps Bennie from learning his own identity. While it is understandable that the past may be too painful to discuss, not knowing the truth is far more painful. A lesser director would have idolized Angelo's bohemian brooding, for being dour is a sure-fire sign that one is an artist, but Coppola sees through it. He understands that the familial wounds are the ones that cut the deepest, and Tetro aligns our sympathies with Bennie by giving us as much information to start with about the Tetrochini family as he has, which is to say none at all.

When details about the past do finally come through, they are fleeting. The portion of the film set in the present day is shot in 2:35:1 black and white widescreen, and Coppola uses this canvas to lend a simultaneous feeling of intimacy and detachment to the present. During flashback sequences that flesh out the familial back story, the aspect ratio suddenly switches to 1:85:1, and from black and white to color. This is as unique an approach to flashbacks as I've ever seen in a movie; the stately elegance of the black and white portions, with static compositions and a fixed camera, is brilliantly contrasted with the immediacy of the full-color handheld work in the flashback portions. Angelo is a character who lives in the past, however much he may wish to bury it, which explains why the past feels more alive and vibrant than the dispassionate present. Though the switch in aspect ratio, with half the cinema screen being taken up by blackness, makes us feel like we've stepped out of the world the rest of the movie takes place in and into a coffin.

Critics expecting more of the same from Coppola don't understand why his digital phase is as rich, if not richer, than his storied 70s period. When Youth Without Youth was released in 2007, the reception was abysmal--- ranging from callous indifference to maddening frustration--- but Coppola reminded those of us who are moved by images what cinema is: stories, emotions, and ideas expressed visually. Coppola was always thought of of as an artist who used visual broad strokes to express his operatic themes; the cinematic canvas feels almost too small to contain his ideas, and in Youth Without Youth he pushed his visual expression to the absolute limits. Tetro, though undoubtedly more conventional a movie than Youth Without Youth, is no less a testament to Coppola's ability to express emotions visually. Mihai Malaimare's stunning, intimate black and white cinematography fleshes out the cold, detached present--- which isn't to say Tetro is oppressively gloomy in any way. Rather, Coppola is illustrating the way family defines who we are as people, for better or worse. In his last two features, Coppola has moved effortlessly from the cosmic to the micro-cosmic; in Youth Without Youth he managed to personify the mystery of life and death in a man (Tim Roth's Dominic), in Tetro he embodies men in a cosmic fashion. He may be making smaller films, but the scope of the work is no less vast.

Perhaps it's because I identified with elements of Bennie's life that Tetro struck such a deep personal chord. Like Bennie, I have a half-brother almost two decades older than I am and, also like Bennie, I have a father who is considerably older than I am (46 years, to be exact). While my family's history isn't ripe with the betrayals and tragedy like the Tetrochini's (though we, like all families, certainly have our moments), Coppola paints such a deep portrait of the Tetrochini's family dynamics that I still related to the characters (like Ebert says "the more specific, the more universal"). Perhaps part of the film's power is relating to the masculine dynamics of the two brothers, and the way they live in their father's shadow. I fully empathized with Bennie's plight over the course of the movie; being born so long after my older brother, and to a different mother, I felt left out of the family to an extent--- a day late and a dollar short. Like being the new kid at school, you feel left out of the present because you simply weren't around in the past.

So Bennie's frustration arises from his lack of understanding of his own family; family is the essence of our identity, and Bennie has been living his life in a sort of existential purgatory--- he barely knows his father, never knew his mother, and hasn't seen his brother in years. Angelo up and left abruptly when Bennie was but a child, leaving behind only a letter that promised Bennie that Angelo would one day come back for him. Bennie carries this letter with him throughout the movie, the one keepsake he has from his family. Angelo is more comfortable relating to the world through his writing, and this is why the letter has been such an important memento for Bennie; he knows that Angelo is more honest expressing himself through writing than he is verbally. When Angelo refuses to discuss the past with Bennie (his one rule for the duration of Bennie's visit is "no questions"), Bennie decides to dig up Angelo's unfinished writing to illuminate details about his families' troubled history. Coming from a family of artists, Coppola knows how life is channeled into art, and Angelo's writing reveals more about his life than he could ever express in words--- both because he is unwilling and unable. The one problem is that Angelo's operatic familial opus--- the kind Coppola might have made if the success of The Godfather hadn't taken his career in a different direction--- is without an ending, so Bennie takes it upon himself to finish his brother's play. When Angelo discovers this, this sends him into a rage ("You're worse than a thief, you're a plagiarist", Angelo tells him), not because he values the writing itself, but because of the wounds that the play re-opens.

With Tetro, Coppola has made his deepest rumination on the subject of family, a subject that has long been the heart and soul of his work. What separates Tetro from his earlier dealings with the subject is how intensely personal it all feels; Coppola said of the film when it debuted at Cannes that "Nothing like this happened, and everything is true" (Coppola apparently likes dropping abstractions on the generally clueless Cannes crowd). While Coppola may not be giving us the facts of his life, he is telling us the emotional truth about his family, and this is perhaps more 'honest' than if Coppola had made a movie that is straight-up autobiographical. Tetro is ultimately about the powerful link that exists between life and art, brothers and fathers, existence and death, light and dark. The light illuminates us and blinds us, it inspires us and it damns us; and in plunging the depths of his soul, Coppola has made a profound statement about the tenuous relationship between unbearable darkness and blinding light, how painful it can be not knowing the truth, and then the pain of discovering it. Somewhere in between those two polarities lies family.


roger ebert said...

You know something my real problem with the movie was that Coppola forces his own experiences on us in a context that does not quite fit the movie. There are the smaller habitual things like Benny taking off his pants when he is alone in the room that are handed down from Coppola but besides that there are events from Coppola's life that are forced into a certain context in the movie, that when thought about don't quite mesh for me.
What really stuck in my craw was the sex scene between Benny and those two girls right before the chaos really starts to ensue. Copa Cola often raps in melodic giddiness about his early sexual exploits and orgies and the connection between the losing of Benny's virginity that is a constant topic of discussion throughout the movie and the importance placed on it in the overall arc of the picture seemed ill fitting.

Adam Zanzie said...

Holy shit, Ryan. I'm so jealous that you've had the chance to see "Tetro". Coppola is yet another one of my favorite filmmakers of whom I have not attended a theatrical release. I DO remember sometime in 1996 when I was five years old and "Jack" was playing nearby, but we went and saw something else. Not that I missed anything special- "Jack" would a poor film in theatres or on video.

You have definately written the most convincing piece on "Tetro" thus far. Though I haven't seen the film yet, I have a feeling you're absolutely right on Coppola's intentions. If you think about it, Coppola's cinematic career has always been about the importance of family, from the Corleones to Colonel Kurtz's letters to his family, from the inner family quarrels between Gere and Cage in "The Cotton Club" to the disintegration of the Harkers in "Bram Stoker's Dracula", not to mention the families in "The Outsiders" and whatnot. Then there are the real outsiders in hiding in the corner of Coppola's career, such as Harry Caul and Dominic. They've got literally nowhere to go. Everybody they may once have loved is now out of their lives.

I wonder if maybe Coppola picked up the "color past" and "black and white present technique from Godard's 2002 film "In Praise of Love"? It would be weird if Coppola picked up a technique from an anti-Spielberg film.

Also, I can tell that whoever posted the above comment is not the real Ebert.

Miranda Wilding said...

Adam, I actually have a very good idea who it MIGHT be.

Patricia Perry said...

Ryan -

Very fine post.

I gave "Tetro" a mixed review, but in retrospect, I realize it may well be the best film I've seen this year - so inventive, so visually rich. I haven't seen "Youth without Youth" (although it's languishing in the DVR queue right now), but I think I need to see it soon.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yes, the above commenter is not Roger Ebert, clearly. I know exactly who it is, a valued friend and contributor to the comments section, who was also my viewing partner for this-here picture (seeing films with a kindred spirit always adds to the enjoyment). Obviously he wishes to keep his identity secret; perhaps it's because he's wanted for plotting to blow up the moon, attempting to drain the oceans, and impersonating the Pope, amongst other things. Far be it from me to violate his wishes. If you knew him as I do, you would find it hilarious as I do. So yes, Detective Zanzie, you were right. There's really no fooling you!

Anyway, onto Not Roger Ebert's actual complaint with the movie.

I guess I can see where you're coming from with that, the one that sticks out the most being the fact that their father is a reknowned composer. It sticks out, almost drawing attention to itself, but I also see this as more of a virtue than a flaw. Why criticize Coppola for being autobiogrpahical when film makers from Bergman to Fellini to Godard have thrown themselves up on screen similairly? I also really, really loved all the Powell/Pressburger allusions. Damn it. Meant to mention that.

As for the sex scene, why on earth not? Bennie is out on his own for the first time, and it makes sense that a young man would lose his virginity around this time. He is hanging out with Bohemians after all! And losing one's virginity is an important bookend to adolescence, which is a vital element of the movie. So no, I think that element fits in perfectly.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, do you know if it's coming to your area anytime soon? If not, I'd imagine it won't be too long before a DVD, but it also is definitely worth seeing on a big screen, in spite of the fact that it's a 'small' movie.

What I'm hoping is that the Ziegfeld in New York shows Apocalypse Now one of these days!

Ryan Kelly said...

Pat, I was feeling mixed about it for about the first half-hour of it or so. I kept going back and forth on it. But the power of it slowly crept up on me. Can't wait to see it again, though it's playing at exactly one theater in NY that is a real hassle to get to.

You must tell me what you think of Youth Without Youth when you see it, Pat.

Adam Zanzie said...

I sum it up for Pat right now: "Youth Without Youth" is awesome. Along with Charlie Kauffman's equally excellent "Synecdoche, New York" (my favorite film of last year), it makes some very incredible cinematic statements about aging. Both films put "Benjamin Button" to shame.

At this point, I very much doubt "Tetro" will ever come to St. Louis. It would have been here by now. My guess is that Coppola has had to finance the film's marketing all by himself- therefore, it won't be coming to middle America. And I was anticipating it over every other film this summer!

Anonymous said...

i read your article and loave it so much