In terms of artistic directors who do films personally and passionately, there is no better shining example than Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola is best known for being the Oscar-winning director of The Godfather. However, instead of going the route of most Hollywood directors, Coppola took a different thoroughfare.
Coppola wrote a personal letter, which got distributed at various Landmark theaters screening this independent film. In the letter, Coppola expressed that he wanted to avoid the trappings of a typical Hollywood director.
Hollywood directors are expected to do genre films, or films that are predictable because predetermined, films that are cookie-cutter assembled. Coppola didn't want those expectations. He wanted to do something different, something unique, something never seen before.
The films of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Akira Kurosawa were his inspiration. Those films were philosophical and artistic. They weren't blockbusters or movies that made a lot of money, but they were movies that had more of an emotional or intellectual effect on their viewers.
Coppola realized though that the Hollywood business wanted blockbusters, not philosophical or artistic. Yet, it's those types of films that Coppola wanted to make. Disillusioned, he distanced himself from the Hollywood mainstream.
Coppola hadn't even written an original screenplay in 30 years. The last time he did, he received an Oscar nomination for The Conversation (1974), but he was so turned off by the mainstream that he retreated. According to Coppola's letter, it wasn't until his daughter entered the game as a writer-director herself earlier this decade that Coppola even considered doing artistic films again.
Coppola is now 70. Going back to doing what he wanted to do when he was fresh out of college seemed daunting. That, coupled with the fact that he would get no help from Hollywood- he would have to finance his artistic films all by himself- made things seem even more difficult.
In 2007, Coppola got the chance to direct a film called Youth Without Youth. It was about an old man who becomes young again after getting struck by lightning. It gives him the opportunity to do things he always wanted, things he wanted when he was younger. It was the perfect metaphor for Coppola. No, he wasn't struck by lightning, but Coppola was rejuvenated.
Therefore, Coppola got to work on creating this film, which to date is definitely the most artistic and the most beautiful of 2009. Coppola shot the film in mostly black-and-white with occassional color interludes and flashbacks.
Anyone who knows me knows I have a weakness for black-and-white photography. The b & w camerawork that Coppola utilizes here is very evocative of 1940s studio films, and, no matter what someone may think, no one can argue that those films aren't gorgeous and glamorous.
And, that's also probably the best description I can give to Coppola's film here. It's gorgeous. It is such a rapturous, richly textured vision that there is not a single frame that isn't like eye candy.
Coppola is at once a master of mise-en-scene. This past decade, the convention has leaned more toward documentary-style cinematography. If something is happening, the convention is to capture it front and center, even and most especially if it's loose and off tripod, making it shaky and often ugly in its presentation.
However, it's not just about what you see. It's also HOW you see it. Film is a director's medium. Where a camera is placed in relation to the setting and the subjects is important and should be given care. A director must understand that every inch of the frame is precious and that every object in it is a weighted element that needs to be balanced like a seesaw.
That's mise-en-scene, and that's where Coppola is such a pro. His static shots are so much more interesting than the motion and frenetic editing of your best action film. His camera angles and the way he places people in them are so creative and clever. That combined with his layered writing makes for some compelling images.
Vincent Gallo stars as Angelo Tetrocini who gives by the nickname Tetro. Tetro is what some would consider a tortured genius. He's a brilliant writer but a tragic incident in his past holds him back. He eventually reaches a breaking point and escapes his New York City home and family to flee to Argentina, not unlike Governor Mark Sanford.
Tetro believes he has cut all ties with his family until his younger brother, Benjamin, who goes by Bennie, shows up on his South American doorstep in a sailor's uniform. Bennie has a lot of questions, questions about their family history, questions that Tetro doesn't want to answer.
Bennie is played by new actor Alden Ehrenreich who is much like Leonardo DiCaprio. Ehrenreich has the look, the temperament, and the skill to be a great actor. He's newly magnificent here. In the film, Bennie is given a young dog for his birthday. It's almost symbolic of Ehrenreich's character. Bennie is like a cute, curious, little puppy, sniffing around his brother's transplanted life.
There is an amazing shot toward the end that's almost signature. It's a scene with a colorful palette that occurs between two people dancing on a stage. A young man and woman ballet while an orchestra conductor is aside them but who eventually comes between them, as waves from a beach slide on stage and glaciers rise behind them. It's signature in that it represents what happens in the film so perfectly.
You have to watch the entire film to get the context, but, once you do, you'll see how Coppola in one shot that's so well composed tells you the whole story with no words, just one picture with all the right ingredients put in the right spots in the right amounts. That's mise-en-scene, at which Coppola excels. It's also good cooking. In many respects, Coppola is a chef, a top gourmet chef who provides sumptuous, visual feasts.
Coppola's culinary capabilities when it comes to cinema relishes in playing with light. With b & w photography as your base, it's more fun to play with bright and dark, to contrast something and really make it stand out. Coppola does that to great effect here. He particularly employs slivers, or beams, of light across character's faces.
The film in fact begins with a close-up of Tetro staring into a bright bulb attracting a swarm of moths. Throughout the film, Coppola uses the reoccurring theme of flashing lights. Tetro even has a job as a lighting technician at a small theatre company whose men and women get extremely dramatic like persons out of a telenovela. At times, the light distracts Tetro. This distraction and also fascination pays off later.
Coppola cooks up flourishes that are very interesting. There is an amazing shot where you see the reflection of handwriting that was backwards. His writing finds striking parallels between his characters and their situations. One obvious parallel is the use of crutches.
At its heart, this is a story about a father and son, and how much a father or close male relative can influence a boy's life. But, the film is not so heavy. Coppola has a very strong Frederico Fellini sense of humor, especially when it comes to sexual situations. The Fausta strip show and ménage a trois in Patagonia are entertaining in very titillating and very funny ways.Five Stars out of Five