Tuesday, January 26, 2010
When the lights came up on Tetro, a woman sitting behind me declared of director Francis Ford Coppola, “He’s gone senile!” While no one rushed to defend Coppola’s mental faculties, another woman mused of the film, “But I wonder how much of it relates to his family…” The first woman cut her short. “I don’t want to know,” she said.
While I don’t think Coppola is quite ready just yet to be spoon-fed mashed carrots while wearing an adult diaper, I can understand the woman’s frustration at his latest film. The story begins quite modestly but succumbs to an incident-mad frenzy that lets a tight narrative center unravel as things spin out of control. Family history and fiction don’t just merge here—they fuck each other ravenously in the remains of Coppola’s film. It’s, um, messy.
The film begins with the reunion of two brothers, when 17-year-old Benny (Alden Ehrenreich) lands in Argentina fresh off a cruise ship and reconnects with his long-absent elder brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo, a galumphing terror here). A once-promising author, Tetro tortures himself with his failure, nursing a broken leg while hiding from his family—particularly his father, Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), known as a brilliant musical conductor to the world, but a tyrant to his family.
Tetro’s great unfinished novel is based upon the sordid history of his family, a morass of guilt and anguish that includes the death of his mother in a car accident (he was driving at the time, thus increasing the self-pity quotient by a factor of at least ten), as well as the rivalry between Carlo and his brother Alfie (also a conductor, and also played by Brandauer). But the ending of this story remains unwritten. Tetro, seemingly in love with this lack of resolution, leaves the manuscript tucked away in a suitcase, the text safely coded in a backwards scrawl that can only be read in a mirror (a fitting metaphor for the film’s own messy, inscrutable nature). His immense creative energy becomes lacerating, and Gallo, tearing through this world like a hatchet, compellingly embodies the tragedy and violence of a genius that creates nothing.
The parallels between Coppola’s life and the film are obvious, but pursuing these connections is ultimately unrewarding. Yes, Coppola presides over a brood of artists (his son Roman even served as second-unit director on the film), and his father and uncle were both composers and conductors like Alfie and Carlo. Strangely, however, much of the family drama—the jealous rivalries and guilt and betrayal— is inert and underdeveloped. Coppola takes these elements for granted while engaging in all manner of narrative diversions and unleashing some of the most baroque stylistic flourishes you’ll find this side of an Orson Welles film.
Even in this unruly form, you can see Coppola attempting to fashion something quite rare out of this film: a living opera played out on the world’s stage. The extravagant style and melodramatic plot are meant to combine into something larger than life—a musical expression of primal emotions exploding a repressive family structure. Dashes of Oedipal rage allude to the darker corners of the family unit, and the overheated drama and artful visuals are clearly an attempt at creating a larger canvas for these epic themes. The film builds such an aura of heightened unreality that I was primed for the characters to burst into song and dance, if only to bring this style to the absolute peak of its giddy absurdity. Gallo throws off his crutches and does a few fancy steps at one point, but I would have preferred a full musical number.
Alas, I may never get to discover the pleasures of Vincent Gallo’s soft-shoe routine, and the film falls short of its grand ambitions. It remains a style searching vainly for the content that could justify its excesses, finally done in by its own insular nature and that scribbled doodle it calls a plot. The film climaxes with a laughably left-field twist that hardly helps matters by muddying already murky waters. Indeed, the whole last section of the film feels like answers to questions no one had bothered to ask.
I grant that the energy—and sheer cinematic fervour—Coppola brings to Tetro is a rare quality, providing an abundance of style (misplaced at times, but lovely at the same) and ideas (often ridiculous, but still). A film that elevates its subject matter, whatever its other failings, will almost always be a more engaging experience than one that diminishes its content (see A Single Man for a pertinent example of this). But I also can’t deny the irresistible pull of that audience member’s contemptuous declaration, “I don’t want to know.” There are secrets here, she suggests, but why should I give a damn?
I wish I could tell her. Coppola clearly sees an invisible thread running through this increasingly unlikely jumble of ideas and occurrences, but he can’t communicate the source of his passion and belief—all we see is his ecstatic flailing, the gestures of significance. The film finally resembles nothing more than a private joke. The teller laughs, but the audience remains baffled, until all they can do is succumb to that final damning shrug of indifference.