Looking Forward While Looking Back: The Recent Films of Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola Movie Essay - Twixt Film

The year 2019 is a major one for Francis Ford Coppola, a New Hollywood icon. He turned 80 in April, celebrating the event with the announcement of a third, “final” cut of his landmark Apocalypse Now (which itself turns 40 this year). Reports also surfaced that Coppola may start production on Megalopolis, his long-promised epic about the rebuilding of a city after a major disaster. The two projects are representative of the “mad genius” side of Coppola, the part that tests whether it’s possible to accomplish something that’s not just great, but revolutionary; not just stylistically vivid, but suggestive of greater possibilities in the medium. That neither project, even the already-released, towering Apocalypse Now, feels like they’ll ever be “finished” is appropriate in that Coppola has long been interested in stories of failed or incomplete greatness, of people trying to break new ground who either fall short or wreck their lives tragically. That idea has grown more prominent as Coppola has grown more reflective, and a trio of late, self-financed films from 2007 to 2011 see him considering this ambition, and the failures and regrets that come with it, while attempting to push the medium forward as he once did.

Francis Ford Coppola had spent 10 long years away from behind the camera when he made 2007’s Youth Without Youth, an adaptation of Mircea Eliade’s novel. Tim Roth stars as Dominic Matei, an elderly linguist who ages decades backwards after being struck by lightning. The newly youthful Dominic rededicates himself to his search for the origin of human language, all while being chased by Nazis (who seek the secrets of his rejuvenation) and haunted by a charming Mr. Hyde-esque alternate persona, visions of the future and the possible reincarnation of his former fiancee Laura (Alexandria Maria Lara), who had ended their relationship as his life was consumed by work.

At the time of release, many critics picked up on the theme of rejuvenation as it related to Francis Ford Coppola, who had spent the 90s on studio projects following a long, bankruptcy-causing period of financial disappointment. Those films ranged from inspired (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to embarrassing (Jack), but none hinted at just how far outside of the mainstream Coppola ventured with Youth Without Youth. Coppola’s film moves through nations, continents and decades of time in dreamlike leaps and bounds, by turns fluid and jarring. The lush, colorful cinematography by Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (who would gain greater acclaim on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master) and the exuberant score by Osvaldo Golijov seduce while the film’s erratic pacing ventures into magical realism. Roth’s inquisitive performance provides a steady ground; his conversations with his double obliterate it — how thrilling those in-camera illusions are when they first appear! Youth Without Youth is the work of someone defiantly uninterested in repeating past glories and more interested in exploring what he’s still able to do for the first time, commercial interests be damned.

The film was met with disappointment, even derision, for its confusing, enigmatic narrative and overabundance of ideas at the expense of clarity. This, however, comes with the assumption that straightforward narrative logic is required or productive in a film far more concerned with the inexplicable, more akin to the oneiric art of Raoul Ruiz, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez than classical dramatic structures. It also ignores the film’s own preoccupation with artists and creatives struggling to set down their ideas coherently or finish them to their satisfaction. In a key scene, a young Dominic breaks away from his colleagues after relating the vast scope of his origin of language project, never mind their observation that it would be impossible to finish; one friend can only remark with frustration, “He’s brilliant. Brilliant. But… ”. Francis Ford Coppola had recently abandoned the long-promised Megalopolis after the 9/11 attacks made it feel too painful, and had released Apocalypse Now Redux to a mixture of praise and criticism that he couldn’t leave a masterpiece alone. There’s no doubt that he could relate to critics’ frustration, but felt the need to explore despite the possibility of grand failure.

Youth Without Youth is also a film marked with the pain and regret that comes with memory, opening with considerations of suicide following a life wasted (Francis Ford Coppola himself reportedly threatened suicide when Apocalypse Now was on the verge of flying off the rails) and continuing with reflections on a meaningful relationship ended thanks to Dominic’s myopia. His conversations with his double, whether real or imagined, effectively convey the idea of someone stuck talking to himself, too stuck in his own head to live. The director himself managed to have a more fruitful life with a family, but he no doubt relates to the fear of losing everything as one closes one’s self off to others. That was Michael Corleone’s arc in The Godfather, and it’s the one that threatens to dominate the life of Dominic Matei twice over as he relives his relationship with the reincarnated Laura, now called Veronica. This time, his work seems to infect his love, obliterating her identity as she takes to babbling in ancient tongues and aging rapidly as Dominic retains his youth. This is mirrored by Dominic’s realization that his existence as an ubermensch-like figure threatens humanity. Though many complained about Youth Without Youth’s labyrinthine plot, the emotional throughline — that of someone forced to abandon his work for the good of those he loves and mankind — couldn’t be clearer or more moving.

Where Youth Without Youth alienated many critics, 2009’s Tetro, while hardly a runaway hit, received warmer reception. Conventional by comparison but no less rewarding, it follows Bennie Tetrocini (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenager who travels to Argentina to reunite with his long-estranged, much older brother “Tetro” (Vincent Gallo), who lives with his girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdú) and wants nothing more to do with his family. Once a gifted writer, Tetro has abandoned his work, but his stories are appropriated by Bennie, who becomes a successful playwright. Their relationship mirrors that of their domineering father (Klaus Maria Brandeur), a renowned conductor, and his lesser-known brother.

Aided again by Golijov and Mălaimare Jr., Francis Ford Coppola crafts a film that, at different turns, suggests the expressive mix of theatricality and realism of Elia Kazan and the florid cinematic style of Michael Powell (whose film The Tales of Hoffmann is featured). Tetro is shot primarily in stark black and white in a way that initially suggests a long-lost film from the 1950s, only for modern devices (cell phones, laptops) to gradually invade as Bennie grows more assertive and recognized for his work, puncturing the bubble that Tetro has used to isolate himself. Coppola and Mălaimare Jr. use light in a way that’s blinding in a harsh, obscuring fashion at one moment and cleansing and clarifying in the next. These contrasts between the theatrical and the operatic, the old and the modern, the harsh and the soft, show the two sides of Coppola — the classicist and the fantasist — in conversation with each other, just as the film sees two sides of Bennie (artist and abandoned boy) and Tetro (recluse and family man) in conversation and at war with each other.

As Youth Without Youth drew parallels between Dominic and Coppola, so does Tetro between the Tetrocini family and the filmmaker’s family. The director was quick to say that his relationships with his own father and older brother — composer Carmine Coppola and academic August Coppola — were much warmer than those of the shattered family in Tetro, and one can easily see the director addressing the inherent potential of jealousy, fear and resentment that comes from being in a family of artists, with the younger brother feeling overshadowed by the mere existence of his brilliant older brother… until he becomes the grand artist that Tetro might’ve-been. If Tetro is more optimistic than Youth Without Youth, it’s because the latter looks back at how one’s work can isolate someone from those they love, while the former sees the pain that comes with reopening and re-examining old wounds while suggesting that acknowledging them is the only way to heal them.

The 2011 horror film Twixt was the least-seen and least-well-regarded of Francis Ford Coppola’s recent works (it didn’t even get a proper U.S. release), but time has been kind to it. Val Kilmer stars as Hall Baltimore, a low-rent horror writer whose detour in a small town sees him get caught up in a murder mystery involving local youths and collaborating with the local sheriff (Bruce Dern) on a vampire book. The film’s odd tone confused many, coming off at different points as schlocky, romantic, tragic, comedic and self-parodic, all the while playing like a strange, waking dream.

Years later, however, Twixt seems like a distant cousin to David Lynch’s most recent season of Twin Peaks, mixing the oddball rhythms of small-town America with more overt dream logic, all the while shooting (again with Mălaimare Jr.) in a similarly dynamic digital grading that’s starkly different from the more ravishing aesthetics of Youth Without Youth and Tetro. What was billed as a potential return to his days experimenting under Roger Corman’s wing reveals itself to be a walk through Coppola’s whole career, from the schlocky terror of Dementia 13 to the more florid horror of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the story of a loner voyeur (there’s a bit of The Conversation’s Harry Caul in Hall) and of self-forming communities among outcast youths (The Outsiders/Rumble Fish); a look at one man’s descent into hell (Apocalypse Now) and his attempt to accomplish something great (Tucker: The Man and His Dream).

Twixt is also one of Francis Ford Coppola’s most personal films, dealing with an artist’s fear of irrelevance and with a man’s pain from loss. Kilmer’s performance is at once arch and sympathetic, suggesting someone who knows he’s slumming and who has done everything he can to separate himself from the memory of his daughter’s death in a boating accident (Coppola’s own son, Gian-Carlo, was killed in a boating accident in 1987). A scene of Hall trying and failing to write an opening paragraph to his new novel captures the comedy of grasping desperately during a difficult writing period (Kilmer’s improvisations are hilarious), but it becomes clear that his writer’s block, and the humdrum nature of his recent work, comes from not engaging with or channeling the pain that might make his work more meaningful. Even then, it’s possible that he’s writing only for himself, just as it’s possible Coppola is making films only for himself, but the need to create resonates all the same. Twixt shows little interest in conventional thrills because it’s far more interested in exploring the difficult process of findings something meaningful to say about tragedy, even if it is just in a pulp work.

Francis Ford Coppola’s recent work is not a “return to form,” whatever that means, but rather part of an ongoing exploration of what the form can do, showing an artist increasingly interested in only trying things he hasn’t done before. That work has continued — Coppola has spent the last several years working on Distant Vision, a “live cinema” project that seeks to bridge the immediacy of live performance, the careful lighting of cinema and the ingenuity of early television (Coppola cites live TV plays such as The Comedian and Days of Wine and Roses as inspirations in his book Live Cinema and Its Techniques). The ambition of the clearly personal project — which chronicles three generations of an Italian-American family during the birth and growth of television — suggests a potential masterpiece a la Apocalypse Now, or an expensive (but secretly rewarding and beautiful) fiasco like One from the Heart, or perhaps another Megalopolis, a project that may or may not ever be finished. I hope that Distant Vision will be completed, and knowing that Francis Ford Coppola, now in his 80s, is continuing to search for new ways to create makes one wish that filmmakers half his age had half his spirit, his talent and, indeed, his willingness to look forward while looking back.

Max O’Connell (@maxboconnell) is a writer and critic living in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University, and he has worked as an arts reporter and editor in South Dakota. He likes Jonathan Demme, Joni Mitchell and sometimes non-”J” things, too.