Search Deeblog
Navigate through Deeblog
Categories and months of Deeblog
Login
Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Coppola (4)

Thursday
Apr272017

Youth Without Youth

There is a notion that people are not intimidated by great intelligence, but by great ideas presented intelligently. If you tell someone that religion can be boiled down to ten irrefragable commandments, or loving the one you're with, or the eternal return, or something that can fit on a business card or fortune cookie roll, they will smile because they have been initiated into one of the astounding mysteries of our world. It would be sad yet dutifully accurate to inform them, however, that the average person, even if somewhat well-read, would need at least ten years of intense study, incredible enthusiasm, and some cerebral propitiousness to be able to produce a first-rate book on religion or on literature. Of course, political correctness proclaims that all opinions are worth hearing and all viewpoints, regardless of education or perspective, are worth understanding. This I do not deny; these voices all have the same dignity, the dignity of human thought and feeling. But they do not have the same value. For value, you need minds who know their subject backwards, forwards and, in the case of this lush and beautiful film, also upside-down.  

Our hero is Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a seventy-year-old Romanian scholar who wakes up one evening in the spring of 1938 and realizes that he "will never complete [his] life's work," that work being the chronicling of the origins of language. He decides, quite logically perhaps, to hasten this eventuality. As he potters around a meek Bucharest that already seems to hear the crunch of Fascist boots, Dominic is lifted off the ground, scorched by lightning, then dropped unceremoniously to wither and die. So violent and unexpected is this scene that it sets the tenor for the rest of Youth Without Youth: what has just happened is a miracle of miracles, thus disbelief is necessarily suspended. He winds up mummified in an intensive care station where he signals his name and age by squeezing the hand of Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), yet the nurses who wash his crisped body giggle in his presence and only half-jokingly claim that this man is still very young. In short order we learn the truth: right before Dominic awakes, his image in a nearby looking-glass opens its eyes, soon to be met by those of the original Dominic, now young, handsome and completely unscarred from his encounter with a million heavenly volts. If we weren't already convinced by the fulminous scene outside this train station, we now know that what we are watching is science fiction.

And yet perhaps this is still not the right term. The old Dominic inhabits many flashbacks: he loved a young woman named Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara) who essentially leaves him because he has not fulfilled his potential; he is also a diligent student of Chinese who is dismissed by a French-speaking professor (likely patterned after this Swiss linguist) because without a mastery of Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Japanese, he would not take him on as a student. "To master Chinese," says the smug old fellow, twirling his moustaches, "you must have the memory of a mandarin" – which is precisely what the new Dominic acquires. Soon he is able to know the contents of any book simply by willing himself to know them; he can predict the final destination of a roulette ball, move objects by telekinesis, and absorb information at a capacity that can only be called unearthly. He also keeps himself company, literally and figuratively, by discussing his agenda and feelings with a psychic double of himself. If this sounds ridiculous, you may consider that while he has now exceeded all men in pure intellect, he has not lost the human need for conversation with a peer. Stanciulescu publishes a series of incredible reports in a medical journal that garners the attention of scientists around the world. One of these observers has a notebook marked with a wicked symbol that will be mirrored (in perhaps an overlong shot) on the garters of "the woman in room six who was placed there by the secret police." That symbol has now become the most important in Europe, much more vital than all those Chinese characters and all the mathematical equations and all the plethoric knowledge with which Dominic has stuffed his rejuvenated brain. In other words, if that symbol survives, Europe perishes. 

As the war rages on in favor of that symbol, Dominic flees to Switzerland, but he cannot exist as anonymously as he would have hoped. At a professorial gathering of leading Swiss scholars ("I knew more than each of them; I knew things that they didn't even dream existed") he is again accosted by that lovely young lady from room six who just so happens to worship that repulsive, all-important symbol and who tells him of a Doctor Monroe ("He's Swiss. Like me. Like you"). When she adds, "you know, I do have a name," he refuses this feeble stab at humanity because the knowledge of her body was no different than the countless books he absorbed, pure information. Monroe, for his part, is interested in running a million volts through some test subjects for the sake of science – and I think you might guess who foots his laboratory bills. To the film's credit, once Dominic extricates himself from this situation, there is a drastic shift in both time and tone, with the second half of the film outyelling its predecessor and continuing Dominic's spiritual journey in ways he could not possibly have imagined. And since they are beyond his own horizon, at least initially, we too will struggle to grasp why Laura seems to have been reincarnated in a young student by the name of Veronica, and why this may not be the only exemplar of metempsychosis that Dominic will witness.

While I am galled by the chocolate box of accents in English among the cast members, however realistic that has now become in the world (I invariably prefer unanimity of dialect), I should add a few words on the negativity of many of the film's reviewers. Youth without youth was a critical failure, particularly in America, for one very good reason: it holds almost no universal appeal. That some reviewers even stooped to labeling the film kitsch reveals a fundamental ignorance of aesthetic theory. Kitsch (and the closely related Russian term poshlost') tugs at the emotions by reducing them to the solution to all plot developments and all questions of character. A Hollywood film that pumps soft music against a still softer sunset and the embrace of two extremely good-looking young people who have only exchanged platitudes for two hours as bombs and bones detonated around them is the epitome of kitsch. Kitsch expects you the viewer to relate to the on-screen happenings because these emotions and lives and loves and hopes are common to all people at all times, and therein lie its eternal sadness and purported – and utterly fraudulent – artistic credentials. All this has absolutely nothing to do with the plight of Dominic Matei. The youth regained embodies the cerebral life Dominic always wanted, and it is his and his alone. He is granted by some Almighty force the time necessary to finish his life's work (a plot device probably borrowed from this famous tale), but then realizes that while he may conclude his intellectual existence satisfactorily, he will never again be a happy, love-struck youth, whereas precisely the opposite predicament would feature in a film devoted to cheap schmaltz. What is legitimately and artistically tragic in Youth Without Youth is that the wisdom and memories Dominic accumulated in the years before the lightning do not permit him to enjoy things with the same sense of invincibility that usually accompanies our early adulthood. He may be young in body but within him shudders the tortured soul of an immortal who has outlived every love and passion. And what can we say about those three roses? Only that Laura may not be one of them.

Tuesday
Apr072015

The Conversation

For the first few minutes of this film we simply hover. We are drawn down slowly to a street mime, then to a respectable-looking gentleman in a trench coat holding a coffee cup who makes sure that the street mime doesn't accost him. Just as that gentleman comes into focus, however, we start hearing some odd sounds (we are still, it should be noted, a low-flying hawk). Soon we are taken to the possible source of those sounds who is, of course, perfectly soundless, and the cross-hairs of his long, slender sniper rifle. Yet this is not a rifle. Only after enduring a variety of angles do we understand that positioned on the roof of an elegant San Francisco office building is an ultramodern microphone. We are still in the process of witnessing an assassination, albeit one of character not of mortal form, and the device's symbolism as a weapon cannot be understated. What we thought was a rifle is indeed trying to open hearts and minds, to make them bleed for all to see – or at least for some to hear. The targets are a young couple, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest), and the mastermind behind this eavesdropping operation is a respectable-looking gentleman in a trench coat by the name of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman).

Harry, we soon learn, is a superstar in his field. To avail myself of a contemporary analogy – we are ironically nearing the end of the Nixon era, although Coppola conceived and composed The Conversation years before – Harry is the Jackal of all wiretapping trades. His assignment, which he has accepted with the same sangfroid as so many previous jobs, is to follow Ann and Mark, record every word the lovebirds exchange, remaster the recordings to crystal clarity, then sell them to an unscrupulous corporate aide (a diabolical Harrison Ford). Harry’s collaborators Stan (John Cazale) and Paul (Michael Higgins) wonder and joke about their subjects because “that’s human nature,” but Harry insists on remaining aloof and impassive. “The only thing I want from this is a pile of tape,” he says so peremptorily that Stan quits his employ. After circumstances lead Harry, a guilt-stricken if impious Catholic, to visit his father confessor (a terse scene whose abrupt ending renders it disingenuous), we learn that his vocation has resulted in people getting hurt before. He doesn’t ask questions of those deep-pocketed and curious enough to hire him, so why should he be responsible for the consequences of his snooping? This trope, the notion of responsibility for taking orders, be they staked on self-preservation or, far more unforgivably, large financial gain, is one of cinema’s and, indeed, art’s oldest (you may have seen a movie or two about an emotionless ‘driver’ who takes anyone anywhere for exorbitant fees), and it is one that informs the shape and being of Harry Caul. He may be but a middle-aged nobody, but even middle-aged nobodies can have mistresses (Terri Garr) and hobbies, in Harry’s case, a saxophone always played in accompaniment to, well, a recording.   

With the tapes more or less remastered, Harry makes an appointment with the aide for a cash handoff, especially generous for a day's work and perhaps a week's planning. But something irks him; something isn't right or, at least, what it appears to be. Admittedly, the sleek, serpentine aide, whose name is Martin Stett, and his crooked smile do not inspire much confidence. Harry won't even try an allegedly homemade Christmas cookie until his host has swallowed one and survived. Stett repeatedly prevents Harry from meeting the corporate director bankrolling this scheme – so adamantly, in fact, that, if it weren't for his youth, one would have suspected Stett of being the man he claimed to serve. Somehow, however, we sense that the aide is not the font of evil, but gleefully in the thrall of a greater demon. Reviewing The Conversation I am convinced Harry changes his mind about almost everything on the basis of the timbre of Martin Stett's voice. To his trained, musical ear so adept at making the finest adjustments to achieve perfect audio, something is hideously wrong. In Stett he detects a profound wickedness and becomes terrified (the Catholic elements of Harry's personality, which wax and wane at some of the most inopportune moments, may have played a role). In the film's best scene Harry storms out of Stett's office only to espy someone he never expected to see by the elevators. As he turns away in surprise he glimpses, at the other end of the long hall, a fuzzy, wraith-like figure gently waving a triumphant envelope. Stett seems far away, yet as Harry escapes to the elevator the doors close upon the aide's devious grin like the shutters to some witch's cottage. Thus it is no coincidence that Amy, Harry's unbearably young and unbearably naïve part-time lover, is angelic in every respect and that he subsidizes her apartment with money from people like Stett. Just as uncoincidental is the fact that his birthday comes on the day on which he achieves his masterpiece of surveillance of those two young lovebirds, because a new life has begun. Perhaps, however, unbeknownst to Harry.

Other characters float in Harry's vicinity but their invariable aim is to shed light on our protagonist. Amy's inquiries into Harry's line of work – her discovery that it was his birthday makes her feel like they have come closer – exiles her for the rest of the film. Paul and, in particular, Stan gaze upon Harry in awe, although awe may be the last earthly thing their colleague desires. Harry may be regarded by people in his field as a hero and a genius, but his passion has not made him wealthy; to liken him to an impoverished poet only appreciated by other poets is more than a bit plausible. His foil must then be a rich fraud envious of Harry's untouchable reputation and keen on embarrassing him in front of those who respect him. We get this cardboard cutout in William P. "Bernie" Moran (Allen Garfield). Reviewers have praised Garfield's performance, but his every word and gesture are boilerplate, and we are very relieved when he finally completes his mission (humiliating Harry) and disappears. Yet his annoying presence illuminates aspects of the plot and Harry's scruples, both of which converge in a magnificent warehouse scene where Harry is pursued by Moran's slinky assistant, who turns out to be available on an hourly basis. Harry and this lady, who is neither young nor old, a perfect way to pass a night, will split some sheets, an encounter that evokes a gorgeous nightmare and an explanation for our hero's surname.

What we have intentionally omitted, of course, is the conversation itself. Without spoiling what has been revealed in countless reviews, the distinct advantage for the audience of The Conversation – and indeed, the film would otherwise be unwatchable – is the pan to Mark and Ann's faces as snippets of dialogue (perhaps the most important has to do with an old hobo) are restored by Harry's wizardry. Are we privy to emotions that Harry can only imagine, or are we seeing what Harry imagines and which did not happen at all? That matter is never resolved, even at the end when some loose ends do appear nicely bowed; as such, we must remain at the full mercy of Harry's interpretation. The innuendo when Harry spends that long and regrettable night with Moran's assistant is heightened by his very conscious choice to fall asleep to the conversation, to let it invade and alter his dreamscape. Harry, you see, is really a Romantic poet in disguise. A Romantic poet who, like a cloud, sits upon the air to dart upon his spellbound prey.

Thursday
May152014

Tetro

How many poets never become poets? It is the question that every writer asks himself, especially if fame has until now eluded him. Failure has many hues and brushes, but we accept that failure at certain trials means success in others because we have a limited amount of energy and attention. Most great artists of legitimate talent have become great because that was the only thing they ever wanted to achieve, and no other event – be it a marriage, the birth of a child, a death, a betrayal – could ever clutter the straight path of destiny. Art, while man's greatest intellectual accomplishment, is an all-consuming fire that some allow to engulf all the meadows of their everyday contentment. A brief preface to this fine film.

Like other movie monsters, Tetro (Vincent Gallo) does not take long to rear his scruffy head. An American resident of Buenos Aires, our Tetro was born Angelo Tetrocini, son of the famed conductor and generally pompous buffoon Carlo Tetrocini (a cetacean Klaus Maria Brandauer). This fact is the most important of Tetro's life, and the one from which all other facts may, seriatim, be revealed. The second fact, almost as important, is that he is a failed writer, and spends every second of every day under this invisible burden. They are merged in a flashback on a cruel beach when Carlo, informed of his son's literary ambitions, claps him patronizingly on the shoulder and whispers: "If you want to live from your writings, you have to be a genius. And there's only room for one genius in this family." Argentina, on the other hand, has been kind to Tetro, albeit not initially. We see him in a mental asylum called La Colifata (which the intergalactic weapon known as Google tells me is lunfardo for "crazy") with enough Spanish to participate in the usual group therapy sessions that always seem far too civilized and logical for a madhouse. He is a broken, humble man who "holds everything he ever wrote in a file pinned to his chest," and has a tendency to prevaricate about a past he has been unable to forget. Which, we are told, is exactly what makes him so attractive to Miranda (Maribel Verdú).

Unpretty but pleasant-looking with distantly placed eyes and a quiet mission, Miranda is that fictional necessity, the unbelievably good woman. More importantly, her foil, the unbelievably bad man, is not Tetro. Tetro is scarred, bitter, and somewhat enraged at the hand life has dealt him (in Italian, tetro means "gloomy" or "bleak"), but he is not evil. He copes with his perceived inequities by channeling his energy into being a different person, the author of a play that he "will never publish," a stagehand at a shoddy little theater plagued by vulgarian whims, and the husband of Miranda. They have no children because children would mean that Tetro would have to love and Miranda would have to love something other than Tetro. Into this uneasy truce with life comes Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich). Bennie is Tetro's brother from a different mother – and we learn that Tetro's mother didn't have much of a chance of having too many other children. Bennie is seventeen but lied his way onto a cruise ship where he works as a waiter. Of course, the cruise ship breaks down in Buenos Aires (precisely where I would scuttle my vessel if I were a captain), and Bennie is left with the option of spending a week in dry-dock or visiting that long-lost brother of his who once wrote him a terribly clichéd letter in which he promised his return. 

No one is fooled by this coincidence – not Miranda, not the viewer, and least of all, not Tetro. When Bennie first sees Tetro, the latter sports a cast and crutches from having challenged a bus; later in the film, another character will endure a similar injury and we correctly understand the appurtenances in both cases as excuses. Bennie asks the usual questions, often to Miranda since Tetro selectively ignores most queries from Bennie and everyone else. Miranda does not really apologize for her husband's behavior as much as contextualize it ("family dispute," "mother's death," etc.), and punctuates it with a magnificent adage: Tetro is "a genius without enough accomplishments," exactly how all young and unsung artists feel when they see others gushing over well-known mediocrities. Bennie recognizes his brother's talents and does not let him feel sorry for himself ("How do you walk away from your work? Doesn't it follow you?"), but the film's basic conflict persists: younger sibling wishes to know everything from the beginning; older sibling wants the past sunk irretrievably in some remote swamp. Given this disparity in outlooks, that the brothers communicate at all, and often through exchanges pregnant with meaning, is remarkable. I give nothing away by including the interference of a woman introduced as "Alone," in apposition, "the most powerful writer and critic in Latin America." Once upon a time, she was Tetro's mentor "until she turned against him" ("no one knows quite why" is the equally mysterious echo). People like Alone never have any talent and yet possess the despotic desire to determine who does – a trap which would repulse any first-rate writer. But Bennie sees the woman, an inexorable fraud who only cares about her reputation and control, as an opportunity. All of which leads to a festival so named, one supposes, in order for its founder never to be subject to its dreadful implications. 

While Ehrenreich, Brandauer, and Verdú are all excellent, this is Gallo's vehicle and he makes it hum. At times his Tetro reminds us of Willem Dafoe playing the lead role in a Michael Douglas biopic. The plot of Tetro is straightforward in that only one person is concealing information. Once that information is revealed, everything makes more sense, but somehow our impressions of the characters do not radically shift. The announcement is not inevitable, but it is plausible and, in a way, the best possible explanation for what came before it. And what of the family drama that came before it? Oddly, that natural self-awareness or stage presence that imbues interesting people with a sense of the dramatic is intentionally lacking in many parts of Tetro, lending it much of the amateurish feel of the horrible little play it encapsulates – which cannot really be coincidence. For the film's duration only the flashbacks and imaginary scenes are in color because they are exciting and actual life is uneventful and drab, and because for Tetro they are much more real than anything he could ever do in Buenos Aires (the dream sequences that borrow liberally from this work are especially wonderful). We may expect violence, nudity, or profanity, but thankfully our expectations remain unrewarded. For even though all these things occur in Tetro's life, he knows they are the easy resorts of the talentless hack. This is his film, and he does not care – as he tells one character after another, although each time with a slightly different insinuation – what others may think. So forgive him, if only this once, the axe he brings to dinner.   

Monday
Jun222009

Bram Stoker's Dracula 

One wonders why certain works of art attract us, and the common answer is that they respond to something that we lack in our own lives.  Desperate housewives will devour hunky, everlasting romances; pimply lads will become superheroes in the furrows of their imagination; old men will wax sentimental over movies contemporaneous to their youth.  Our modern fascination with tales of horror has provoked a slew of interpretations so banal that one cannot but impute this banality to the interpreters themselves, and the less said about these silly theories the better.  Yet this fascination is long-standing.  For those of faith, evil is as real as goodness – even realer in the sense that evil invariably predicates the destruction of good and cannot exist in any sort of vacuum.  The tangibility of the horrors of war, famine, pestilence, or ethnic cleansing cannot be mimicked in art, only referenced.  So as we let our fancies drift into ancient castles, unlock rusted wards, and pore over wicked tomes, we feel a need to confront these baleful shapes – and then something very odd occurs.  Amidst every malediction and ghoul that might infect our thoughts, we desire for a brief moment – indeed, perhaps even a while longer – the possession of that shape because that shape is power over the commonality of our existence.  Each of us wants to be not only a superior among men, but also privy to what lies on the other side of the ineluctable modality of the visible.  Evil, for whatever you might conceive it to be, offers us the straightest path to knowledge, even if what it teaches us is that we should appreciate every iota of our earthbound life and treat it like the flaxen stream it is.  Which explains our First Disobedience, as well as this immortal tale.

As one might expect from a production bold enough to invoke a deceased author's blessing, the plot closely follows that of the book.  At the acme of Victorian storytelling in the late nineteenth century, a young barrister by the name of Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) sits aboard an East European train on his way to meet a Romanian count (Gary Oldman) who needs little introduction.  His travels are true to the fantastic opening passages of the novel, and the aura of mystery and dread could not be richer or more imminent.  During this obvious precursor to very bad things Reeves remains unflurried and almost impassive, which led to some nastiness in the reviews of the film and whispers of mediocrity.  Whatever one may think of his thespian abilities, Reeves's casting is correct: his natural stiffness and timidity reflect the average citizen's view on unusual matters.  Harker may be the only one in the theater who does not find the wizened freakish count to resemble a grotesque, long-nailed cadaver, but he is also not in full possession of what else the count could be if not a human being.  The solipsistic age of reason (a most regrettable misnomer) bred a certain type of man: the skeptic who took the longest time to admit that he did not or could not know how to explain the phenomena of his immediate environment.  Harker is essential because as he overnights within the Count's lifeless walls, he will witness a host of terrible events and in some of them even be implicated.  These will include an abominable tower and moat, three vixens and a baby, a mirror and a razor, and a series of unspeakable occurrences that he confesses only to his diary and to us.

Whom he cannot inform is his fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), who awaits him in the company of her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and Lucy's triptych of hapless suitors.  The difference between the book and the film is an element that could only be theatrical and which is actually revealed by Ryder's presence in the very first scene not as Mina Murray.  Whether this conceit simply panders to the juvenile whims of the target audience depends on rather subjective notions of coincidence in art, although it can be said that in context the addition does more good than harm.  I would even go as far to say that it solves, in an artistic fashion, the main structural weakness of the original: namely, why on earth Dracula wished to leave the country in which he was practically invulnerable to expose himself to constant danger in a city brimming with enemies.  Mina worries aloud, a tidy way of containing the novel's original epistolary format, whilst the Count approaches, communicating through former barrister Renfield (Tom Waits) as around Gibraltar heads a boat replete with crates of his native soil (perhaps never in cinematic history has there been a crew so doomed).  Upon landfall, the Count begins plotting and scheming his way into the lives of strangers, all of which serves an ulterior motive.  Lucy becomes very ill from a mysterious sickness unknown to conventional science; an old abbey is attorned to a certain tall, dark foreigner; Mina suspects that Jonathan has fallen on very black days in that distant kingdom even though he is forced to pre-write a number of calming if overly plain letters sporadically mailed by the Count; and Renfield, who languishes in an asylum, has been predicting the arrival of his Master.  And what happens next will involve a hunt of the implacable monster who will flash enough of his former humanity to inflate what could have been a unerring fable into something deeper and more plausible. 

The pleasantries of the film are so numerous that we forget how simple and operatic the plot machinations really are.  Apart from sumptuous wardrobes and effects that convince us we have entered another dimension, the casting of all the main characters betrays Coppola's intuition for harmony among actors whose looks could easily have them mistaken for the heartthrobs of a daytime soap.  The exception to these pretty people is Abraham van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), a grizzled Dutchman and specialist on obscure diseases, as well as a perfect foil to the monster he "has been pursuing all his life."  He hijacks the search for answers and is necessarily branded a mystagogue; in time the other parties concur with his outrageous conclusions and finally know almost as much as we do.  Van Helsing alters every aspect of the film's course while also becoming its true crusader and detective; in the book, by contrast, more is accomplished by the peripheral characters although this may be a function of its inflexible structure.  That we first meet the Dutchman as he is making an old academic pun on an unfortunate pair of near-homophones indicates we must change our perceptions accordingly, and his humor and foreignness are much needed in the otherwise morbid London alleyways.  Not that you would want to go anywhere near those places.