The View From Here

Whatever happened to Francis Ford Coppola?

Michael Bonner

Many years back -- the last century, in fact -- when we were putting UNCUT together, Allan and I drew up a list of canonical film makers whose work would become central to the magazine’s editorial remit. Our A list included Scorsese, Tarantino, Peckinpah, Coppola, Stone, Hill, Hawks, Ford, Eastwood, and so on.

In the intervening years, the list has pretty much stayed the same. With, arguably, one exception: Francis Ford Coppola.

In a way, Coppola has almost fallen off the critical radar. There were, of course, a number of major setbacks both professional and personal during the Eighties, plus a diverting interest in vintnery. All the same, it was admittedly difficult to get excited about the studio projects he undertook to get his finances back in shape during the Nineties – Jack and The Rainmaker. There was also the emergence of Sofia Coppola as a filmmaker, whose movies – particularly Lost In Translation – excited us in a way her father’s hadn’t for decades.

The arrival of Coppola’s new film, Tetro, raises an eyebrow, then, and inevitably makes you wonder whether it’ll encourage critical reappraisal anytime soon. Hearteningly, it’s Coppola’s first original screenplay since 1974’s The Conversation – a family drama with autobiographical touches that the director says is a return to his UCLA/Zoetrope roots. Basically, it’s the story of an Italian American family, their squabbles, fallings out and attempted reconciliations. 17-year-old Bennie (Alden Ehreneich) arrives in Buenos Aires in search of his reclusive brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo), who he’s not seen for more than a decade, since Tetro walked out on his family following a row with their overbearing father, (Klaus Maria Brandauer). There are some loose echoes of the Corleone dynasty here for sure (but without many guns), though most pertinently, Coppola’s own family dynamic seems to be a key inspiration, especially the reportedly difficult relationship between his father and uncle.

But Coppola has never been a particularly personal filmmaker, at least not in the same way Scorsese is. As with many Seventies’ movie brats, Coppola’s “personal” approach to filmmaking meant expressing his own almost religious devotion to cinema through his films.

So Tetro feels more concerned with Coppola’s own connection with movies than anything else. This is, I think, particularly true in the film’s style. It’s shot mostly in black and white, using static camera set-ups that give the film a stately, rather elegant feel and remind you of classic movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Striking flashes of saturated colour riff on Powell and Pressburger. In interviews, Coppola has also cited Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront as an inspiration, as well as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.

I’m entirely heartened by Coppola’s return to filmmaking, and his decision to step away from the mainstream to focus on more personal projects (I’m reminded of a Scorsese quote that seems incredibly apt here: “I’m not a Hollywood director. I’m an in-spite-of Hollywood director.”) All the same, I can’t help wondering where Tetro is going to fit in the grand scheme of things. In the production notes for Tetro, Coppola bemoans the “sameness” of contemporary cinema – “the lack of adventure and the overwhelming succession of remakes and sequels – from old films, comic books, even television programs. Or in publishing, it seemed that there weren’t new novels, only new ‘best sellers’.” It’s a rather curmudgeonly position to adopt, even if there’s some truth in it, and it certainly makes you wonder how he views The Godfather (itself based on a pulpy ‘best seller’) and its two sequels.

By returning to his film student roots, Coppola has adopted a defensive position with Tetro. Unlike Scorsese (again) who's overcome his own misfires and currently enjoys a period of tremendous critical and commercial success in the mainstream, Coppola's decision to cede himself from Hollywood could go either way. We could see him gradually disappear from sight with each passing movie, or it could mark the start of an exciting new creative undertaking for him. I would like to hope it's the latter.

Tetro opens in the UK on June 25. You can see the trailer here.


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