Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tetro (Francis Coppola, 2009)

Bohemian rhapsody

Tetro (2009) is the first Francis Coppola film I've seen in years, and it seems  clear Coppola has not forgotten how to make films. It's beautifully shot and lit, with the deep shadows and dramatic pools of light found on the opera stage, only in black and white (Can you imagine opera in black and white--how it must look and sound and, above all, feel?). The detail and texture of the cinematography belies its digital origins--if this is digital cinema, analog cinema has less and less reason to consider itself superior.

Strangely enough, for someone who started out writing for Roger Corman (The Haunted Palace (1963)), went on to win an Academy Award for his clever screenplay for Franklin J. Schaffner's 1970 Patton (clever in that it allowed you to both condemn Patton as paranoid warmonger and praise him as geopolitical maverick, whichever your preference) then went on to write his first two Godfather movies and The Conversation (1974), Coppola's scripts have often been the weakest element in his films. Perhaps not in the case of The Godfather films--the first was a model of film adaptation, the second an imaginative extension of themes put out in the first.

At this point, I have a confession to make: familiarity has not made the heart fonder of Coppola's most famous pair. I like them, think they're excellently done, but can't consider them absolute greats anymore--my heart now no longer races when I glimpse the TV screen and it happens to be showing the scene where Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) teaches Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, oh so very young) how to cook proper spaghetti: “You start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; you make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs. And a little bit of wine. And a little bit of sugar, and that's my trick."

Despite my Godfather apathy, I'd like to nominate that as one of the greatest cooking scenes in all of cinema. Simple recipe, delicious, wonderfully representative of what the film is like and all about--basic (garlic fried in oil), practical (meatballs, sausage), not adverse to a touch of decadence (wine, sugar), and all about family (“you never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday”). Clemenza does it all on-camera, right in front of your eyes, in real time (let's see James Cameron pull something like that out of his ass without reaching for a digicam).

Tetro is also about family--it even has a patriarch figure haunting the margins of the film, in the guise of Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a celebrated composer, and father of both Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Bennie's run away from military school, and has temporarily fetched up at Tetro's apartment to rest and presumably recover his bearings; Tetro with all his problems is hardly any help. He's an aspiring novelist who walked away from his father and has since lived a life of unfulfilled ambition, writing reportedly brilliant plays that “have no ending,” in a crabbed, near-indecipherable handwriting he shows to no one (shades of Charles Crumb, there).

If writing seems to be Coppola's Achilles' heel nowadays, casting is a pillar of a strength--Ehreneich and Gallo are wonderful together as brothers, one all dewy and innocent, the other all twisted anguish. Gallo, famous for his controversial projects (The Brown Bunny, (2003)) brings the right amount of passion and guilt and charm to the role--whenever Benny comes close to penetrating his secret or reading one of his hidden manuscripts, Tetro blows up and starts pushing people around; after he's offended everyone in sight he's all hangdog, begging for forgiveness; one only has to think “art film director” and his eccentric behavior is entirely believable. Tetro in effect is a monster of a brother, impossible to live with yet impossible not to care about--perhaps Ehrenreich's best achievement is in convincing us that he has enough love in him to want to care for Tero, flaws and all. Maribel Verdu is all angles, a charming, sharp-chinned beauty, but given little to do beyond being a nurturing mother figure (Tetro being her full-time spoiled brat of a charge); more intriguing is Carmen Saura as Alone, a prominent theater critic who can make or break Tetro's stalled career--there's a playful tension in her scenes with Tetro that suggest cat and mouse, Mephisto and Faust.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffman (1951) is quoted extensively here; there's the image of the clockwork girl disassembled--but beyond a rivalry between Tetro and his father for a girl's affections (hence possibly the image of a woman disassembled), women aren't really crucial to this story. A more useful predecessor is Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), where the father's presence looms over the brothers' psychological landscape, warping their development and relationship together. If Tetro's a monster, in effect, that's because his dad was monstrous too.

But that's subtext; unfortunately Coppola doesn't provide much more in terms of normal, aboveboard text. The film rambles, is ruinously self-indulgent (you need not just an Introduction to Cinema but a detailed dossier on Coppola's life to capture all the in-jokes), and meanders more than marches to its mildly startling revelation. Is Coppola of The Godfather back? Has he made a solidly entertaining film? No and no though to be fair I'm not sure he wants to (come back and make mere entertainment, I mean). He's doing personal films again, and the opportunity has re-vitalized him; there are pleasures to be had here, more for the eye than ear.

A fifteen million dollar independent production from a former major director, about two brothers and their domineering father. A hard sell, even if you mention the “R” rating. Perhaps what this picture really needs, after all is said and done is a scene where someone explains his culinary secrets to a young gun, the enticing results poured out onto your plate in a cloud of steam. If not--if a hot spaghetti recipe isn't needed to rock your world--then bon appetit.

The DVD:

The DVD is handsomely produced, with the sound in particular capturing Walter Murch's (a crucial Coppola collaborator)  design, down to the moth wings plinking against a light bulb. Coppola's commentary is crammed with anecdotes and personal reminiscence (the film might actually be better listening to him instead of the dialogue). Four behind-the-scenes featurettes round out the special features.

First published on Businessworld, 5.27.10

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