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August 25, 2008

DVD Journal: "Youth Without Youth"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Tim Roth and -- inevitably -- a mirror

Have there been many movie directors as obstinately wrongheaded in their evaluation of their own talents as Francis Coppola?

As far as the world is concerned, Francis Coppola is someone who occasionally -- all-too-rarely, in fact -- delivers rounded, worldly, stately narratives that feature a moving amount of warmth, mass, and dignity. He's a grownup entertainer / artist -- William Wyler with some additional splashes of blood and tomato sauce. But as far as Coppola himself is concerned, Francis Coppola is an enthusiastic, inventive kid, amusing himself with dolls and toys -- a born innovator bounding between surrealism and the early New Wave, playing mischievously and irrepressibly with ideas and styles.

Oh -- and not only that, he's also misunderstood. In the world's eyes, the first 2/3 of "Apocalypse Now" was pretty good -- too bad Coppola blew it in the final third. In Coppola's own view, the last third of "Apocalypse Now" was what the film was all about. Why doesn't anyone get that?

His recent "Youth Without Youth" was the first film he'd made as a director in ten years, and it's the latest in a long string of movies Coppola has done in pursuit of his image of himself as a childlike visionary / charmer, a string that includes "You're a Big Boy Now," "One from the Heart," "Rumble Fish," "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," "Dracula," and "Jack."

The main thing these films share -- in addition to an addiction to stylistic hijinks -- is an almost complete absence of emotional impact. As a style-noodler Coppola is unquestionably some kind of talent. Yet what's most striking about these movies is how little they convey in terms of human presence. Nothing counts, nothing takes; everything seems unanchored and arbitrary. They spin, they throw off a few sparks, and then -- pfffft. What? You were hoping for something more?

In terms of its style, "Youth Without Youth" -- set in Romania from the 1930s through the 1960s, starring Tim Roth as a nerdish old scholar who's struck by lightning and regains a second chance at life, and taken from a Mircea Eliade novel -- is melancholy as all get-out. But it's basically as weightless as "One From the Heart." The '30s-ish title cards, the never-quite-a-melody old-Hollywood-style score, the self-conscious touches of movie magic ... They don't illuminate the material or promote engagement with what's onscreen. They register as mere style choices, which means they feel contrived, troweled-on, and about a quarter-inch deep.

In the case of this movie, what Coppola mainly wants us to do is think about ideas. Our experience of time, mainly: cyclical vs. linear time seems to be what's fascinating him these days. Story, character, visuals, involvement -- these are there simply to get us thinking.

I'm OK with playing with ideas, strangely enough. What I'm less OK with is the way that Coppola seems to have lost interest in "selling" a story. The business of making fiction count for an audience apparently strikes him as silly and unimportant. What he'd really like to do nowadays is talk about religion and philosophy.

Which is fine, of course, and certainly the film deserves kudos for being unusual in today's movie climate. Judging from the viewer-reviews at Amazon, a fair number of people find the movie easy enough to enjoy. See it for yourself and let us know your own reaction.

Incidentally, there's a little trap that Coppola loves to set up for those who would complain about his playful movies. It's this: Why shouldn't he make movies like this? It's just a little movie, after all -- why not give it a try? Have you no generosity of spirit? And it's all about the freedom anyway, so why would you even consider coming down on him? He's just doing what he wants to do. Is there something wrong with that? Besides, he made this movie with his own money ...

My response: I agree that it's a free country, and I think it's cool that Coppola made his movie his way. No harm in any of it, wish him well, etc. At the same time, there's no reason I shouldn't report what my experience of the movie was, is there? Boredom and bewilderment, mainly. The movie was such a sleep-inducer that it took The Wife and me three evenings to get through it -- and The Wife is someone who adores "Rumble Fish"!

There's also no reason if / when we do bother to watch one of his movies not to marvel at the Coppola spectacle itself. By this point it has grown far more interesting than his movies.

In "Youth Without Youth, as in many of these films, the only real emotion that comes across is great gusts of sadness and regret. These blasts of woe are often affecting, but they never seem to have anything to do with the film's actual content. They seem to have to do with Francis Coppola.

What's that about? We can only speculate, I guess, and that might be unkind.

But, what the hell, I'll do it anyway. I'm guessing that what the personal sadness mainly represents is "Why won't they let me be an artist?" whininess. Francy-wancis is a big, ungainly bundle of enthusiasm and inventiveness who just wants to put on zany shows for the public. Why does anyone demand anything else from him?

I'm going to do something now that I shouldn't do. I'm going to hazard a guess at what might really be going on here. But, in my defence, isn't Coppola inviting us to do so? After all, aimless playfulness coexisting with personal-seeming misery and the theme of revisiting earlier times return so regularly in these films that it seems like something considerably more than just a tic.

FWIW, and I know you'll take my effort with a large grain of salt, here's the way I explain the Coppola mystery to myself:

  • Early on, Francis Coppola was a big, ambitious, cocky kid. He then had a completely unexpected hit with "The Godfather" -- and overnight he went from being a promising unknown to being the world's favorite boy genius.
  • The usual followed: drugs, throngs of yes-people, easy access to glamorous sex. In no time, he went quite crazy. (A breakdown of some sort is more than hinted at in "Hearts of Darkness," his wife Eleanor's documentary about the making of "Apocalypse Now.")
  • With the collapse, gears started failing to mesh. Was Francis put on serious mood drugs? Perhaps even on anti-psychotics? In any case, he flailed. The magic went. The hits didn't come, and he even lost his knack for connecting with material.
  • He has spent his life since staring in the mirror, blaming his "Godfather" success for his troubles, and trying to retrieve whatever it was that initially brought him into the arts. In true Boomer style, Francis can't stop trying to connect with the child within in the hopes that making such a connection will rescue him from his woe.

In fact, Coppola's so willfully determined to be the big creative child that his movies often leave me wondering what it must be like to be one of his offspring. What must it be like to have a dad who's so insistent about being the family's spoiled arty kid?

Please keep in mind that I could very well be wrong about all this. It's a story that suits me -- but does it also suit the actual facts? I have no idea. Besides, y'know, strangers really should avoid speculating in public about others' psychologies like this.

I found Coppola's commentary track on the DVD of little interest. Mostly, he narrates the film as though discovering it for the first time: "And look at him walking through the door, he's sad because his girl just left him ..." Thanks, Francis. Whenever Coppola does get around to talking about filmmaking choices, he almost never speaks about them in relation to characters, situations, or story. As far as he's concerned, everything's always about his own self-expression.

Any hunches about why the "I really need to be an artist!" thing was -- and I guess continues to be -- such a big theme for Boomers? (UPDATE/CORRECTION: Er, I see that Coppola isn't technically a Boomer. He sure carries on like one, though, doesn't he?)

Fast-Forwarding Score: Nothing, but only because I decided to meet Coppola's obstinacy with my own.



posted by Michael at August 25, 2008


I like this new Michael Blowhard we are seeing! Maybe the retirement thing has awakened a bolder, Too Bad If You Don't Like It kind of Michael Blowhard.

I'm all for armchair psychiatry when it comes to popular artists. Maybe Sophia will tell us one day what it was like to be his kid.

Next, you should do Speilberg.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on August 25, 2008 4:14 AM

Brilliant critical writing, and very entertaining. I think your analysis of FFC is spot on.

BTW, I assume you've read Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, wherein the indulgences of Coppola and the other directors of that generation are recounted?

Posted by: dan g. on August 25, 2008 4:42 AM

"Any hunches about why the 'I really need to be an artist!' thing was -- and I guess continues to be -- such a big theme for Boomers?"

Incredibly simple. Our fathers died by the tens of thousands, sacrificing themselves on the beaches at Omaha and Iwo Jima. We recoiled in horror and terror from the expectation that we should do the same. So, we reversed course, junked our fathers' ethic of stoicism and self-sacrifice, and embraced self-expression as salvation. We wanted to live out our lives, be known for our selves, rather than die in obscurity in some godforsaken place halfway around the world.

Hipster boomers still revel in their anti-Vietnam War activism, because that was the ultimate rejection of the self-sacrifice that our fathers taught. In our rebellion against the fathers, self-expression became the ultimate value.

World War II continues to be the defining psychological event around which everything revolves. PC... the obsession that eradicating "bigotry" will solve all human problems... is also a relic of WWII and Nazi-ism.

Human behavior is cyclical. When I was younger, I bought into the leftist belief that war could be attributed to those fabulous "root causes" Chris loves to talk about. Now, I see that war is just a reality of the human condition, and that those very efforts to prevent war are ultimately what causes war to happen.

So, this obsession with rooting out bigotry, the emasculation of men, the destruction of tradition and custom... all these great panaceas that developed out of a desire to never see another war like WWII... will be the cause of the next great, castastrophic war. The Islamic Jihad is the inevitable response to the liberal crusade to destroy tradition, religion, nationalism, etc. The religion of self that is now the obsession of the West is leading us inexorably into the next great war.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 25, 2008 7:25 AM

this one is almost as good your assessment of michael cimino, michael!

i saw youth without youth a couple months ago and almost none of it has stayed with me beyond a couple scenes and the basic plot of the first hour that anyone who saw the trailer knows. i wanted to like and admire it but alas...

my thoughts on some of coppola's old hits:

godfather 2: i only find the deniro flashbacks engaging. the pacino parts drag for me because i never found michael corlene as engaging a character as others do.

the conversation: great, one of his best, probably an antonioni influence there but gene hackman's peformance is what really carries the film.

apocolypse now: it's pretty great. don't have as much a problem with the last half as you and others do just cause i'm a fan of fat bizarr-o brando performances (see "missouri breaks"!!) and the film is such an accomplishment that i'm pretty forgiving of it's flaws. dennis hopper is great too.

"the outsiders"-way too melodramatic for me.

"rumblefish"- matt dillon's really annoying in this but i like the film's inventiveness, dennis hopper's performance and the looks of mickey rourke and diane lane enough to forgive dillon and again any of the films flaws.

"one from the heart"- the only thing i liked about this was the sets and natassja kinski. i couldn't care less if terri garr and frederick forrest got back together. still...i admire the ambition with this one....

Posted by: t. j. on August 25, 2008 9:00 AM

Yep. You nailed it , Michael. The KID thing.

In fact, it's hard to say who, among directors, are the grown-ups these days. Just some old guys... Eric Rohmer, certainly. Roger Corman, mentioned very aptly on this blog some days ago, is kind of a grown-up. I might have opted for Clint...but he recently euthanased my admiration.

Maybe directors are getting like architects: if you've heard of them, you've got problems.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 25, 2008 9:22 AM

Any hunches about why the "I really need to be an artist!" thing was -- and I guess continues to be -- such a big theme for Boomers?

It's hip. That's it.

The opposite of flirty art is science. Actual, real, tested (and tested) tedious science. And there is nothing sexy about science.

Even with a guy like Einstein, the actual work he did (that is, the day-to-day work he did at his desk and in the lab) was quite boring and tedious. The results, however, were amazing.

Who would you rather be, Einstein or Miles Davis?

When you are an artist you get the wine, women and song.

The boomers were not the first to try this. It started in the roaring 20's, but, then the Depression and War got in the way and had to be paused until the 1950's.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on August 25, 2008 9:31 AM

Say what you want about Coppola's artistic oeuvre; the man's put out a decent line of affordable wines and damn good line of Italian-style stogies, that in itself redeems him in my eyes.

Something tells me that if he focused on wine and tobacco he'd be a lot more pleased with himself.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on August 25, 2008 9:33 AM

Coppola's great theme is family, but he probably never would have discovered that if he hadn't been commissioned to do The Godfather. Funny how artists often do their best work on orders from other people. Left to their own devices they often start noodling around aimlessly and pretentiously. They become artistes. Steven Soderbergh is another one with this problem.

BTW I rather like the last part of Apocalypse Now. The best part of the film is the sacrifice scene at the end. That scene is what first showed me how powerful film images could be.

Posted by: Thursday on August 25, 2008 10:49 AM

S. Wolf -- Spielberg, gak. It'd be hard to face thinking too much about him, wouldn't it?

Dan G. -- Glad you enjoyed and thanks for letting me know. I sure did read the Biskind. I had some reservations, but basically got a lot out of it, and was glad he wrote it. How'd you react?

ST -- "Self-expression as salvation" is really good. It's one of the weirder phenomena I can imagine. I know all kinds of Boomers, many of whom have nothing of the artist in them and often not even much actual interest in the arts, who nonetheless torment themselves about it - they feel like they really oughta be an artist. It's like a whole generation of people going around muttering to themselves, I dunno, "I really ought to eat more Brussels Sprouts." I mean, who cares? And what's that about? Anyway, there's a big theme book in the topic for anyone who wants to pounce on it ...

tj - Excellent rundown. I especially like the way you point out how the people and performances in his films have played such an important role in whether the films have worked or not. I wonder if FFC is aware of that himself.

Robert -- You write "Maybe directors are getting like architects: if you've heard of them, you've got problems." V. funny, and too true.

UL -- That's an interesting point, that some kind of large-scale lust to be an artist started in the '20s, got postponed, and then roared off again the '50s. And you're right: The sexiness (or supposed sexiness, anyway) of the art thing certainly counts for a lot.

Spike -- I read somewhere that Coppola spent the last decade (his decade of non-moviemaking) making millions and millions from the wines, cigars, and resorts. Did I read that he's now worth a hundred million? Anyway, Francis seems incapable of doing things on a small scale. It's a funny question: how someone like Coppola really feels, let alone feels about himself. This "I need to be an artist" thing may actually be a fairly small part of his personality, if one that he's prone to dwell on. The rest may be charisma, raging ego, and lust for life. How else has he become "Francis Coppola," after all?

Thursday -- "Funny how artists often do their best work on orders from other people." Soooooo true. You've got me thinking about noodling, self-indulgence, etc. Nothing strictly speaking wrong with it -- a free world, why shouldn't an artist noodle, etc? And god knows there are even artists who's self-indulgencies are fun and engaging. (It'd be fun coming up with a list ...) Coppola just doesn't seem to be one of them. Instead he seems to be someone whose fuller talents are more prone to kick in when he's doing something audience-centric, performance-centric, and adult -- when he's being a businessman/entertainer, rather than being a nutcase weirdo artist (at least in his sense). He's a funny case -- at his best being an adult, and apparently fantastically successful as one (owns mansions, fortunes, etc), yet undervaluing that side of himself. Weird, no? Or at least peculiar. If I had his ability to be a grownup, make tons of money, push other people around, put on shows that millions of people love watching ... Well, I wouldn't be complaining about it. I'd be using it, and then on my off-hours kicking back and enjoying life.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2008 11:21 AM

UL, Jacques Barzun makes the same point in Dawn to Decadence, but he puts the start of it all in the 1890s. Free love, socialism, every man an artist, fight the corrupt system, defying social conventions, etc. In his view, it was WWI that cemented this mix into the deadly mixture of narcissism and nihilism that we're all so familiar with today.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on August 25, 2008 1:09 PM

I have to pass on Copolla's post Godfather career, not having seen any of his later work (which is almost all his work). So, what right do I have to comment at all? Just this: watching The Godfather was like watching a superb operetta: beautifully mannered, hypnotically paced, but essentially BRAINLESS.

I think that's the key to Copolla: a superb movie man: knows all about lighting, pacing, cutting; technically superb: but brain-dead outside his specialty.

Posted by: ricpic on August 25, 2008 2:26 PM

Coppola hasn't made a good movie since Apocalypse Now, but it's amusing to check in on him once in awhile. I keep hoping he'll do something good again. But yeah, what a great businessman.

Also, a lot if his sadness probably comes from his son's death. I was listening to an interview with DB Sweeney where he describes working on Gardens of Stone. Coppola's son died right at the beginning of the shoot, and 3 days later, he's back on the set directing a cemetery scene.

Posted by: JV on August 25, 2008 4:06 PM

Jacques Barzun makes the same point in Dawn to Decadence, but he puts the start of it all in the 1890s

That sounds right to me.

I still can not put all the pieces together, but something about Industrialization and War (or World War) that made the West go crazy.

Like you and Jacques said, these kinds of (subversive?) ideas started percolating in the late 1800's.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on August 25, 2008 4:20 PM

Michael touched on drugs in this post, and I can't help thinking that the history of how drug abuse permanently destroyed the creative energies of generations of artists especially in Hollywood needs to be written...and never will be. After all, how can you describe all the great work that wasn't done because of drugs? Not just abuse directly leading to bad work (Ishtar?) but permanent damage done to the brains of the abusers, who never became the mature artists they could have been. Oddly, alcohol doesn't seem to have had the same effect. Drugs really do get into the brain and burn its core to cinders in a deeply permanent crippling way.

And in terms of the movie itself--not having seen it this all grain of salty--but I can't help wondering if the kind of story FFC wanted to tell should be done by a Kid-auteur like, oh, Guy Maddin. I'm not proposing that Maddin would have done a better job, only that there are auteur filmistes who do seem to be able to work the Kid mode and turn out stuff that, while being an acquired specialized taste, nonetheless has a kind of peculiar integrity to it and which does connect emotionally to its audience. Some auteurs of this type, and not just in film, have been reviewed here before.

Back to drugs, it's sobering (!) to think that drugs may have permanently crippled generations of film makers and deprived us of what might have been decades of superior (and more mature) films. Music has also suffered terribly from drug abuse too. And once again, oddly, alcohol just doesn't seem to have had the same soul-destroying effect. And I say this as a former drug addict and raving raging boozehound. I've ingested thousands of gallons of hooch, and yet I would say my, oh, 30 or so Ecstasy rolls have done more permanent damage to me than all the booze I guzzled.

Hmmm....could it be that booze is somehow integrated into our society in such a way that it might be an aid to creation, while drugs, most of which became problems in the last two centuries, haven't? That they're these alien imports that haven't yet Darwinized out the people they most badly effect?

Rank speculation, not directly related to the post. But FFC does seem to my addict eyes to be a drug burnout. He's got the look, somehow.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 25, 2008 11:09 PM

Thanks. Great stuff.

By the way, I've always imagined that Coppola sees himself as some sort of Italian Renaissance figure: perhaps Cellini or Lorenzo de Medici. I recall the scene in his ex-wife's documentary on him where he explains some mad expenditure: "I want every moment of my life to be magnificent!"

His nephew Nicholas Cage also spends money like a 16th Century Pope -- even though his own tastes seem to lie in the direction of weird Johnny Depp-type roles, he's made a million action movies to finance his lavish lifestyle.

The Coppolas are from more cultured backgrounds than most Italian-Americans.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on August 26, 2008 12:23 AM

Maybe it just takes alcohol longer to kill someone. Seems like I've read about lots of artists whose death was hastened by alcohol, but still died in their 40s or 50s.

Ecstasy sure is nasty stuff. I did it twice and it felt like having a flu for a week afterwards.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on August 26, 2008 1:44 AM

Todd, true enough. It might also be that alcohol can take its addicts all the way to the grave, (my family drank themselves to death) which is why there may not be many post-drink artists still around to be burnouts. Coke drives its abusers to their knees pretty quickly, leaving many of its victims alive but (maybe) permanently damaged (Ecstasy too, of course). So there are more cokehead burnouts than alkie burnouts. Wonder how to prove that?

Posted by: PatrickH on August 26, 2008 11:46 AM

Sofia Coppola seems to have done all right as FFC's daughter. They are close, she is creative and successful and not self-destructive, etc.

As for the sadness in FFC's movies, isn't life irreducibly sad in certain ways? As one of the basic emotions, I'm not sure you need to search for big explanations its presence.

The cultural shift to self-expression is much broader and deeper than one generational cycle or "the 60s". It has to do with the move to an economy of abundance and a culture of individualism. It is part and parcel of the great cultural/technological/economic/scientific/political revolution that began with the Enlightenment.

Posted by: MQ on August 26, 2008 8:51 PM

I want to be able to write about movies this way, someday. Sigh.....

Posted by: MD on August 28, 2008 7:08 PM

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