3 July 2010
TETRO (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 2009, US/Italy/Spain/Argentina) - Wellesian Parallels
Receiving a limited release, Tetro is the nearest Coppola has come to personal cinema. Of course I am not the one who is saying Tetro is a deeply personal film, this has all come from interviews with Coppola who says that the low budget route in which film making is detached from mainstream studio interference is one that aspires to an art film ethos. Before New Hollywood there was Coppola, a director who was the first to make the French notion of director as auteur a reality in the mainstream. Coppola's achievements as a director proved illustrious and influential in the seventies but with the return to a commercialised cinema initiated by Coppola's protege George Lucas, Coppola went through an erratic period in the eighties. Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979) has arguably more creative ideas locked into its mythical landscapes than most of the work produced by many of his contemporaries of the seventies era. It is also the one film that has become central to the current crop of new Hollywood film makers including Wes Anderson and David Fincher.
I had to seek out Tetro at the local multiplex and the screening featured the presence of only four audience spectators which strongly indicates it will not be around very long. Admittedly The World Cup has kept audiences away from what is a very weak summer season of blockbuster films. I'm not saying Tetro has fallen prey to such circumstances but the reviews for the film were pretty poor. Add to that the films delayed release and what you have is an obscure art house oddity yet I was quite taken by Coppola's bold cinematic experiment. What stood out for me was the playful referencing to the work of Italian cinema of the sixties including Antonioni, Federico Fellini and even shades of Bertolucci. The obvious theme to pick up on is that of family which of course is central to the narrative but locked in the operatic subtext is the story of Coppola as an artist who has struggled to make himself heard and taken seriously by the Hollywood establishment. The love and hate relationship he has had with Hollywood and the system makes for problematic Wellesian parallels. In the eighties when Coppola failed, he was made into pariah and though he was constantly seen to be self critical of his shortcomings, he always felt that by submitting to the commercial demands of Hollywood cinema he had effectively sold out. Pioneering film editor Walter March has always been a crucial part of Coppola’s most interesting and personal films. Murch is a master of linking shots together so to create an organic, graphic and aural rhythm; no editor in the business quite knows how to make such expressive use of the transition edit.
The decision to shoot in black and white draws parallels with Rumble Fish, another of Coppola’s expressionist films that have been overlooked. In the production notes, Coppola says that he also looked at Kazan’s work especially On the Waterfront and Panic in the Streets for cinematographic inspiration. The mention of Kazan’s On the Waterfront seems relevant to the central conflict between the two brothers and in many ways is resolved in a way that recalls the traditional melodramas of the Hollywood era. Having said that Tetro is a reflexive film; like many of Coppola’s best films, it seems to say something about the nature of the director yet it is also one of the most distinctive films Coppola has made to date. On the website to the film, Coppola talks in length on the motivations for shooting on location, recalling the formative experience of making The Rain People with George Lucas. The premise was simple; film making on the road with all the equipment in the back of a van. Like his friend, George Lucas, Coppola’s interest in technology meant he wisely invested in his own equipment, thus freeing him from the system. The tragedy of Coppola is that whilst his peers including Spielberg and Scorsese spent much of the eighties producing some of their best work, he struggled to choose the right projects and really flourish as the great film maker he should have been. I don't blame Coppola, I blame the system. At least, Tetro attempts to make amends for such a period of under performance. Personally, The Conversation not only wipes the floor with most quality Hollywood films but is more accomplished than the entire oeuvre of some film makers working today. As for Coppola, he says he still learning to make movies.