Belatedly released on home video this week nearly two years after its festival premiere, “Twixt” is the latest in a string of films made by Francis Ford Coppola following his return to filmmaking after a decade-long absence with 2007’s “Youth Without Youth.” That movie, about an old linguistics professor who starts to age backward and develop amazing mental faculties after being struck by lightning, proved a fitting metaphor for the director’s resurgence. “Youth Without Youth” reintroduced the New Hollywood director-gone-studio hack as a true independent, working with his own money to tell a deeply personal story that may have confounded critics but undeniably showed off a Coppola closer to movies like “The Conversation” and “Rumble Fish” than “Jack” or “The Rainmaker.” But if Coppola himself could be linked to Tim Roth’s Dominic, the lightning bolt that restores him is Coppola’s use of digital cameras.
As much as with George Lucas, the late stage of Coppola’s career cannot be discussed outside his use of digital technology. However, where Lucas incorporated new cameras as part of his general technology fetish, pursuing the latest possibilities in images, sounds and effects to open up bigger and bigger projects, Coppola’s digital cameras first provide the benefit of smallness, both in camera size and a lower cost of production that keeps the director’s new productions, either independently financed or self-financed, economically feasible. More importantly, however the digital format, by virtue of its difference from film, unlocks the capacity for making images without a century’s worth of technical rules attached. Coppola’s three post-comeback films, “Youth Without Youth,” “Tetro” and “Twixt,” all operate on smaller scales than his older movies, but they burst with adventurous, form-bending compositions and esoterically intimate stories that add postmodern touches to the director’s modernist style.
A common feature of Coppola’s last three features is their jumbled, cross-genre narratives. The films begin with a simple occurrence: Dominic is restored to a body half its age from the lightning strike, the young Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) hops off the cruise ship on which he works at Buenos Aires to visit his brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo), and “bargain-basement Stephen King” Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) finds himself looking for inspiration in a small-town to get a desperately needed advance from his editor (an amusingly fed-up David Paymer).
From such beginnings, however, Coppola builds increasingly surreal detours that can shift the movement of each film without notice, seemingly just to tickle the director’s fancy. “Youth Without Youth” progresses from supernatural curiosity to wartime erotic thriller as invading Nazis attempt to lure Dominic to them for experimentation before finally morphing into a romance of past lives, as ghosts from Dominic’s own past reappear after the war to lead him back through ancient tongues toward the Ur-language he seeks. “Tetro’s” artistic and semi-autobiographical elements prompt numerous diversions into such strange areas as a free-verse “Faust” production that turns into a striptease and multiple citations of the Archers’ “The Tales of Hoffmann,” including clips of the film itself. “Twixt” languishes in its writer’s burnt-out self-defeat until it slips into dream realms in which the stumped writer can ask Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) to help him focus his outline.
In all cases, Coppola’s new movies use base events to explore the possibilities of the technology. The hyper-real lighting and color of “Youth Without Youth,” the digitally produced monochrome of “Tetro” and the green-screen heavy effects and color timing of “Twixt” all explore how digital cameras can pick up light and color differently from film. Even “Youth Without Youth,” with its numerous golden-tinged shots, looks nothing like the ostensibly similar tones of Gordon Willis’ work on the “Godfather” films. Even well-worn cinematic sights, like a sultry femme fatale waiting at the edge of a frame for her prey to come to her (against a backdrop of a building that ends halfway into frame like the final shot of “L’Avventura”), take on a new life, the mystery and darkness of noir traded for a more optimistic, if no less dangerous, sense of hope and sexual play.
Whether the “L’Avventura” nod is intentional or not, it fits within a general tendency of Coppola’s images in the three movies. As with Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” and the final works of Raúl Ruiz, Coppola’s digital films search for new kinds of film grammar while tethered, stylistically and narratively, to the past. “Youth Without Youth” often employs silent-era superimpositions to add a visual touch of doubling to match past lives and split personalities, while the digitally crafted dream world Hall navigates uses similar color patterns and melancholic tones as the ghostly reveries of centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s “The Strange Case of Angelica,” itself a throwback to an early form of filmmaking.
Coppola tucks references all over the place, from high art (a copy of “Finnegans Wake,” James Joyce’s dreamtime work of a punny master language, sits on Dominic’s desk) to obscure, old populist fare (2009’s “Inglourious Basterds” spoke of Leni Riefenstahl’s mountain movies, but, as Mark Jenkins noted, “Tetro” visually recalls their sparkling dazzle). Even the static long takes that make up the majority of Coppola’s shots these days, according to the director, ape Ozu.
“Don’t do me. Do you. I’ll do me,” Tetro snaps when Bennie sarcastically apes his brother’s mannerisms, but Coppola proves that “doing” others can lay a solid foundation to explore deeply personal stories. Each of his comeback films moves deeper into esoteric resonance for the filmmaker: “Tetro” dives into the nightmare of growing up in an Italian family of artistic geniuses, while the seemingly nonsensical tour of “Twixt” ultimately dredges up what may be the director’s first narrative acknowledgment of his son Giancarlo’s deaths. To boil down the progression to its essence: “Youth Without Youth” acts as a metaphor for the artist, “Tetro” as warped autobiography and “Twixt” as an exploration of some of the buried recesses of his mind.
Lest all of this seem too myopic and pretentious, Coppola has rarely, if ever, seemed so loose and playful. Armed with a lighter, more portable camera, he sets up shots wherever he can: on the camera’s side, upside down, suspended delicately above actors looking back at them. Shifting aspect ratios and color patterns also shake up the image just to see what happens. What’s more, these films are funny: “Tetro” unfolds almost as a series of seriocomic vignettes, and the bombast with which it treats its filial strife could be read as a parody of the director’s operatic scale. “Twixt” goes even further, its tawdry digital constructs a reminder that the touted all-analog effects of Coppola’s “Dracula” are no longer even a possibility in this industry.
The replacement of a refined, complex adult vampire with a tween (Elle Fanning) who still has braces over the teeth where fangs will eventually grow could even be a knock on Hollywood’s exponentially rising need to infantilize everything, a fixation on youth partially set in motion by the fresh blood Coppola and his colleagues brought to the town as part of a new wave. Even on a surface level, Val Kilmer’s willingness to poke fun at his own decline, lolling in a chair doing impressions for his own amusement and irritably begging shoppers in a hardware store to buy his book, adds an agreeable level of goofiness to the scattershot horror.
If the humor helps maintain attention on these films as their narratives fluctuate in and out of coherence and focus, the greatest pleasure of the director’s contemporary work is in their constant pursuit of new images. The aforementioned camera placements and occasionally shifting aspect ratios speak to Coppola’s search for new ways of visual communication, and the dense assembly and offbeat shot-to-shot editing of each picture examines how digital editing bays and post-production tools open up vastly more avenues for exploration than the arduous, disciplined task of physical cutting. The sumptuous, detailed and idiosyncratic visuals of each film bear the stamp of DP Mihai Malaimare Jr., now better known as the cinematographer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” The textured 70mm film shots of that film have roots in the digital sheen here, which Malaimare gives a tangible property it might not have otherwise had.
In their respective movies, both Dominic and Tetro take down notes in code, their (justifiably) paranoid fear of being monitored parlayed into an analogy for the new language Coppola wants to find while goofing around. The Ur-language Dominic seeks, the most ancient and fundamental tongue, is far removed from the present, but with these films, Coppola appears to be distilling the essences of what preceded him to look for unexplored lingual paths. When Tetro references Ava Gardner, Bennie asks who that is, but on-screen youth’s ignorance of the past is not reflected in digital itself, which can replicate a century’s worth of artistic progress while finding new contours to familiar images. If its home video release is any indication, the most radical of “Twixt’s” innovations—being partially shot in 3D and planned for exhibition with “live editing” that would produce singular cuts of the film at each screening—have already been relegated to footnotes, but even these inventive gimmicks have roots in the past.
In “Youth Without Youth,” Dominic’s alter ego tells him that he represents the end of mankind as we understand it while his lover’s regressions into past lives mark her as mankind’s beginning. But like the Joyce book that sits on Dominic’s nightstand, Coppola’s comeback projects loop the past and future to provide a snapshot of the immediate present, and one cannot solve its unpredictable and ever-shifting experience, merely surrender to it.