Monday, July 20, 2009

Tetro: Room for Only One Genius

“Tetro” left me baffled. Not by the movie I saw, which I felt was Francis Coppola's most engaged movie in years. I am baffled by the movie most others saw and that even arthouse audiences have completely ignored. In New York City, “Tetro”, which played at primarily on one screen at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema for 5 weeks, was replaced this past Friday by Zack Snyder's "visionary" director's cut of “Watchmen”. The movie has been popping up throughout the country with absolutely no publicity or even press screenings. The reviews have been pretty dismissive even when they have been positive.

I caught “Tetro” near the end of its run and the audience was rather sparse. I flashed back to just last year when the restored versions of “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” played at New York's Ziegfeld Theater for one week. I went there on a Sunday to watch both movies with about 30 or so other people in a 1,100+ seat theater. After watching them again and still finding both films powerful and relevant, I wondered why few people turned up for films that are supposed to have a huge following. Had the “Godfather” films become too slow and esoteric for moviegoers to commit their time to absorb it? Perhaps, that explains the reaction to “Tetro”.

Francis Coppola, who, for the most part, has directed studio-backed dramas, decided to self-finance more personal films with the profits from his wine business. The first movie he made was “Youth Without Youth”, which is a film to admire for its ambitions while acknowledging that it is a slog to get through. “Youth” turned out to be a showcase for the young cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., whose high-definition work on this and “Tetro” is often original and beautiful. Both movies employ the 2.35:1 frame in a way that movies used to before television-level framing made compositions too centered and afraid to focus on the film's environment.

The problem with “Youth” was its self-conscious method to make a capital “A” Art Film. Lofty themes mixed with David Lynch-ian “Things Aren't What They Seem” tablecloth-pulling plotting doesn't necessarily lead to a rewarding viewing experience. Despite “Tetro” being filmed in widescreen black & white with color used for flashbacks and dance sequences and conjuring up imagery from Fellini, Kazan and Visconti, it is a surprisingly relatable and touching film. It is clearly a melodramatic movie that isn't afraid of taking melodrama to its inevitable conclusion.

Tetro, played by Vincent Gallo, is a writer who abandons his family to live in Spain. There is clearly a rivalry between him and his conductor father Carlo, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, who proclaims that there's “room for only one genius in the family”. The family rivalry doesn't end there, as Carlo has also squelched the ambitions of his conductor brother. There is also Bennie, played by Alden Ehrenreich, who comes to visit his half-brother Tetro in Spain. Soon, the artistic rivalry between the two brothers begins to ferment.

Clearly a very personal project by Coppola in which you can point out how some of the characters resemble his famous family, the passion of the filmmaking often overcomes story elements that most of us have admittedly seen before. You can remove the artistic ambitions from the characters and the movie's depiction of family strife and resentment was, to me, just as relatable as the “Godfather” movies if you were to remove the gangster elements from them. And those movies were not afraid to be effective melodramas in their own right.

This is why I had similar feelings leaving after “Tetro”, as I did after seeing the “Godfather” movies last fall. When did family drama told at a measured pace become too esoteric for people today? Though “Tetro” can be seen superficially as an art movie, it is also alive in every frame that more soul-deadened, but faster-paced movies can never achieve. Is it a bit indulgent? Sure. Does the ending of the movie become more than a little absurd? Of course, it does. Is our movie culture over-obsessed with pseudo-realism rather than a more stylized artistic expression? More than a little.

That said, Coppola still pulls “Tetro” back down to earth just enough, often with the aid of the performances. Though I haven't thought much of Vincent Gallo outside of “Buffalo '66”, his casting actually grounds this movie, believe it or not. Once you see the performance (and ignore his reputation), his skeevy persona deromanticizes the troubled writer role that's written for him. He probably resembles what most troubled, unsuccessful writers look like rather than the hard-drinking, hard-living artists we usually get in films. Gallo reminded me a bit of Mickey Rourke (an actor Coppola has used a few times) in “Barfly”, where you almost cannot reconcile the man with the words he writes, but realize his unremarkable life probably feeds the pain in his art.

The rest of the cast also works. I have never seen Ehrenreich before, but he plays off Gallo well and isn't really the normal, well-adjusted brother he originally seems. Maribel Verdu, who gave a great performance in “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, does so much with what could have been the thankless role of Tetro's “wife”. It is rare when I see most of the cast seeming as if there having a ball playing such heavy material. Most seem to forget how many great performances Coppola has directed in the past.

As I had discussed about Michael Mann before, much of the reaction to “Tetro” has been about Francis Coppola, who has often been one of the most frustrating directors of our time. Having directed four of the greatest movies I have ever seen (“The Godfather”, “The Godfather Part II”, “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now”), his work after the infamous production of “Apocalypse” has been marked by ambitious failures mixed in with a few downright embarrassing pictures to his resume. After “Apocalypse”, he only made a few movies that I enjoyed. “The Cotton Club” is still a very watchable movie with a nearly great cast (except for the leads Richard Gere and Diane Lane), but needed to be an hour longer than it was. I actually thought his adaptation of “The Rainmaker” was underrated, but, in the end, it still has the limitations of being a John Grisham adaptation. “Bram Stoker's Dracula” sort of works equally for its visual splendor and its camp value, while “The Godfather Part III” is a decent film that had absolutely no reason to be made.

Considering his career for the last 30 years, I was surprised by how much “Tetro” affected me. It had been a long time since any Coppola film had actually gotten under my skin. His films have often had the problem of standing outside its subject matter, afraid to bear his soul. He will often have allusions to his passions, but never lets you inside them, often choosing to serve the narrative rather than reveal that he deeply care about any of his characters. In “Tetro”, Coppola demonstrates he truly loves his characters, even the father Carlo, despite his destructive tendencies towards his brother and children.

Not enough can be said about the filmmaking on display. Though Coppola has always had good-looking movies even when they don't work, the beauty of the cinematography and compositions is not a superficial one. Light, shadow, and how both color and black & white are used add to the emotions of this film, although it could have easily become gimmicky. It put a smile on my face to see Coppola invested this much in a movie again. It also makes me sad that this will be largely ignored.

As much as any of us would hope that Coppola can make films as great as the ones he made in the 1970's, we do have to realize that making four films as good as those in a row is a fluke that hasn't been replicated by any other director. As I mentioned about my viewing of the “Godfather” movies last year, I wonder how many truly appreciate the artistry in those early works and whether they would be as welcomed today. I am well aware that “Tetro” was never going to break box office records or get universal critical acclaim. But I thought it deserved better than being dismissed as another failed Coppola film. Whether you think these recent self-financed films work or not, it is clear Coppola has reinvigorated himself as a filmmaker when he could have easily have been coasting on his successes. That alone makes these films worth discussing.

I wonder if the “one genius in the family” in “Tetro” is meant to be the Coppola who made those classics, while the new Coppola is the aging, frustrated writer Tetro who chooses to escape to another place to wrestle with his art. Sometimes, working on your art is more important than worrying about the reputation you're supposed to have. Geniuses shouldn't be the only people allowed the means to express their passions.

Tetro was viewed at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

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