Francis Ford Coppola is a strange, yet revolutionary figure in American cinema. Though much of his work comes up in conversations about the greatest films ever made, the man himself is usually kept out of best director conversations. He seems to be viewed as this seminal figure that changed the cinematic landscape, only to fizzle out due to ego and financial failures. A perfect example of this came up recently as I was reading Robert Kolker's A Cinema of Loneliness, about the New Hollywood movement of the 60s and 70s, showing the running themes in society that translated into the movies of the time (though it strays to other areas as well). It's an excellent book, but I had a later edition in which he had replaced his section on Coppola with Spielberg, stating simply, “Coppola lost his creativity by the late seventies...”. While I believe Spielberg deserves to be in there, the 3rd edition also tosses in Oliver Stone, who not only stands out like a sore thumb compared to the other directors in the book (Penn, Altman, Scorsese, Kubrick), but had to have been cut out of any post-2000 edition if Coppola could so easily be cast aside. So, what happened to Coppola?
I'll keep this part brief, because it's been covered in depth by plenty of other writers. After the mayhem that was filming Apocalypse Now, Coppola decided to do a personal project on a smaller scale, which became 1982's One From the Heart (which I personally think is underrated and worth watching). In a combination of ego and auteurism, the budget grew exponentially (Coppola wanted to build every lavish set from scratch) and a 2-3 million dollar film ended up costing over 25 million. The film came out and bombed spectacularly, pulling in only about $637,000. This left Coppola in terrible debt and working as a hired gun for most of the 80s and 90s, with only a few pictures showing any real passion or interest. After 1997's decent, but ultimately forgettable The Rainmaker, Coppola didn't make another film for 10 years until 2007's Youth Without Youth. But he came back in a big way.
In the decade Coppola took off from filmmaking, he was able to financially right himself and even fund his next film personally through his lucrative vineyard. This allowed him to make a gorgeously epic, yet intimately thought provoking film, the kind no studio would allow him to make otherwise. Coppola incorporates many themes from his earlier work, while also putting in larger ideas that mimic his own career. One of the biggest threads in the film deals with the quest for knowledge and experience against the ticking clock of age and loss. The fear of non-accomplishment and being unable to complete your life's work (or satisfy your artistic expression) weaves through the story and Coppola's own experience. 30 years after his incredible run of initial success, Coppola was finally able to make the types of films he truly cares about and take risks on his own terms. But would anyone care to listen anymore? His return met with little to no fanfare, as he seemed to be viewed as an aging genius past his prime and unable to articulate what once made him great, much like Youth Without Youth's main character Dominic (Tim Roth).
Dominic starts the film as an old man who gave up love and personal relationships in the pursuit of knowledge and finishing his masterwork. But time is running out and he is losing his mental capacities while his work remains incomplete. He gets hit by a bolt of lightening and by some mystery of nature, he turns back into a young man with his mental powers amplified. Like Coppola, he basically gets a do-over, getting to live another lifetime with all the knowledge he gained along the way and more time to make use of it. This film shows Coppola with a youthful excitement and passion for filmmaking again, being able to make riskier pictures with all of his experience in the film industry. It seems like he's making up for lost time, throwing everything and the kitchen sink into Youth Without Youth and truly being a director again. The film has a throwback feel to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Impeccably shot and scored, filled with romance and a haunting darkness, Coppola focuses on performance while playing with angles, lighting, and duality of human nature.
Coppola uses beautiful shades of orange and blue throughout the film to show the warmth of the heart vs. the coldness of the mind and trying to find the middle ground between the two in your work and life. This film also echos many of the themes in his 70s output, from The Godfather (love lost, being consumed and cornered by your work) to The Conversation (privacy and paranoia, being infringed upon by the powerful), and even Apocalypse Now (the horrors of war, the dark side of humanity). Oddly enough, even while incorporating all of these elements, this film also embodies a similar vibe to One From the Heart (minus being a musical). At its core, Youth Without Youth is a love story, epic in scope and universal in its feelings and relationships. This almost feels like Coppola's do-over of that. He scaled back the expenses and widened his thematic spectrum while still doing something more personal that encompasses a new direction, while carrying over the elements that made his name. Despite its philosophical script, the film is a visceral experience more than anything, running the gamut of emotions and using its visual elements to rouse powerful feelings inside of the viewer. It may not be a perfect film, but it is a moving experience that proved Coppola wasn't done yet and still had that urge to create something new.
This piece was originally just going to focus on Youth Without Youth (and my unabashed love of it), but in doing research on Coppola's career, I realized that I hadn't seen the other two films he's made since dropping off in the 90s. This led me to his 2009 film Tetro, which I think is on par with some of his greatest work. Not only is this film brilliantly shot and directed, but it's a small story that feels the closest to Coppola's heart. It deals with the breakdown and messiness of the family dynamic, the overbearing shadow our fathers hang over us, and the strive to make art in the face of critics and self-doubt. Tetro is shaded in an oddly unnatural looking black and white, with punches of hazy color to reflect memories of the past. Again, it has the style of a classic film, but this one is modern in setting and mindset. With an amazing cast and his first original screenplay in decades, Coppola puts together a poignant film of tragedy and redemption.
Tetro is about two estranged brothers who come back together after a decade and end up working through their sordid family history and the personal catastrophes that formed who they are. The story unfolds in surprising ways as it deals with the jealousies and competition within the family. As we uncover more about the titular Tetro's (Vincent Gallo) past, it paints the portrait of a man with untapped artistic potential due to fear and resentment, emotionally stunted by the ghosts of his past. The younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, who exudes the charm and talent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio) helps push Tetro towards using his artistic expression as a way to cure the pain he's been through, which leads to more revelations and a literal burning down of their patriarch's hold on them. With so many film players springing from his own family, it seems as through Coppola is dealing with the pressure and competition that sprouts up in famous families, emphasizing the horrible things they can do to each other through the worst parts of themselves. Whether it's the parents casting a shadow impossible for the children to live up to or the kids outright rejecting and resenting anything you offer them, family can be a messy business.
Another big theme in Tetro is taking the power away from your critics and finding satisfaction through the process of your artistic endeavors, as opposed to the response to them. Tetro hides his work from the world for fear of dealing with his painful past and challenging the merit of his art. There is a critic character that was once a mentor to Tetro, but by the end of the film he doesn't need her anymore. It's not her approval that he seeks, but to free his own demons through his art and save himself in the process. After a few decades of making films as a shell of his former self and the lukewarm response to his return to form, it's easy to see Coppola mirroring his own struggles with this film. He takes personal elements and lingering demons from his own life and career, using them as a sort of cinematic therapy in creating one of his most unique and unexpected films. I can only guess as to how much of this story applies to his own life, but I think Coppola said it best with, “Nothing in it happened, but all of it is true.”
At this point it seemed like Coppola did quell his need for cinematic satisfaction, he came back and made two fantastic films on his own terms. Now it appears his main concern is experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what cinema and technology can do together. Which brings us to his 2011 film, Twixt. This one is a mess with only a few saving graces, but his overreaching original intent is what makes it interesting. Twixt is a weird Gothic horror film with one foot in a drab colored reality and the other in a distorted back and white dream world. The only problem is that the main body is stuck between the two and none of it makes much sense. Edgar Allan Poe is a main character, there's a side plot about vampires and a child murderer, Val Kilmer does his Marlon Brando impression, and Tom Waits is the narrator (sadly none of that is as cool as it sounds). To put it nicely, this film is all over the place and none of it really works, but if Coppola had his way, this could have been a worthwhile exercise in how an audience can interact with a film.
Coppola's intent was to be present at every screening of the film, using the best in editing technology to tweak the film as it played. He could lengthen or shorten a scene depending on the audience's reaction or he might change plot points with alternate footage he shot for different screenings and different crowds. Then some early scathing reviews and the overall impracticality of playing a film in such a way quickly put a nail in that aspirational coffin. He ended up putting together a locked cut of the film that came and went without much notice. I really can't defend this film as even its meager 90 minute running time was a chore to get through. It has some lovely shots and an interesting design, but it seems like Coppola picked all the wrong takes to put in the final version. It deals with a lot of the same issues as his other late period work (the artist's struggle, a family torn apart, regaining passion for your work), but it does so with no teeth and none of the personal touch that made the previous two films work so well.
Coppola hasn't made another film since 2011, at least not in the traditional sense. He recently put on a production called Distant Vision, a sort of live movie performance shot with multiple cameras that streamed live to several theaters over the world. Coppola is searching for the next evolution of cinema and taking it upon himself to throw different ideas against the wall to see what sticks. He's had some major twists and turns throughout his career. He started as a hungry young filmmaker working under Roger Corman and directing films like Dementia 13. He hit one hell of an artistic stride, making some of the greatest films of all time and gaining acclaim. A few miscalculations and perhaps buying too much into his own hype led to a down period where he had to do films that his heart wasn't in just to even out the sinking ship (though some good films still came out of this period). He then went into a 10 year self-imposed exile while he rebuilt his passion for making movies and came up with something genuine and personal to say. He's an artist always searching for a new direction, with a stylistic foot planted in the past and his eye always aimed at the future. Who knows what his next step is, but I'm pretty sure he's not done yet, and Coppola without youth is someone worth watching out for.