Tetro (2018)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Antonio Canova hired workers to carve marble into sculptures, and then he, the sculptor, polished the surfaces. This is not uncommon in the arts: for centuries the unnamed hands of artist workshops or atelier committed much of the labour to producing artworks, and the artist whose name you know might have offered its final touches- the colour blue, a hand, an eye. Even just the under-sketch: your favourite painter might not have laid their paintbrush on your favourite painting. Often if you know the artist’s name it’s because they took on a role that we might now associate more with a director, overlooking a coherent vision across the various people involved in the works’ production. When we look at a number of these works we look for the consistency of concern, and then the artist flourish. This should not be shocking: it’s not Beethoven himself playing the piano on your recordings, it’s not Sofia Coppola acting in every role or running every camera, and it wasn’t necessarily even McQueen laying every stitch. The reason that I have highlighted Canova is because his name is entirely synonymous with that final bit: the marble’s polish. The forms of his sculptures are beautiful but typical of his time, and it is the surface touch that differentiates the artist from his peers.

Coppola, to me, has always seemed a Canova type. Compared to most of his contemporaries (e.g. Altman, De Palma, Malick), who explored their hangups and artistic whims across the many hundreds of hands involved in each production, Coppola’s most celebrated works offer something that from a distance typifies the Platonic ideal of New Hollywood, but which up close go hazy with a Coppola sheen. This is not a criticism of the director; in fact, I have always admired his commitment to the solid and reliable over the scrappy and experimental, even if this is not to my taste. There is a real kick to be had from something that seems so obviously good that its ineffable flourish is just the sense of making complete sense. It’s almost artless in how much sense it all makes. I know this will read as sacrilege to fans of The Godfather, but even his fairly bizarre take on Dracula seems somehow to suggest that Dracula movies should look and feel like this now. Apocalypse Now is a horror movie with surreal bits, but it also shrugs and says Hey, I’ve got an idea for all war movies from this point on, what do you think? Unlike his peers who might’ve slummed it in genre to see how far their aesthetic could bend, Coppola seems to go in as a student genuinely wanting to learn, and then surprises even himself with how quickly he finishes the curriculum. The humility of it all just makes the confidence that much more compelling, the artfulness of the mechanics that much more artless. The production difficulties behind some of his best works just add to their professional anti-charm: like Canova, it’s all too good to seem daring. But unlike Canova you don’t see any of this stuff before Coppola, making him a kind of pioneer of artful artlessness, of professionally good popular art.

Half a century on a host of younger directors (Villeneuve et al.) are aspiring to their nostalgic idea of New Hollywood and in the process are producing formally conservative but very well done films. Coppola has been displaced as maker of well done popular films, but rather than taking this as a cue for retirement, he has become liberated from the solid and reliable. As a consequence he is now one of the best we’ve got. Whether he thinks popular cinema needs a bigger kick now than it did half a century ago or if it’s that he can no longer be bothered being polite about it, he is no longer being polite about it, and that’s what matters. He has recently become scrappy, stylised, broken, and against all expectation, personal. He messes with genre to squeeze every bit of melancholy he can from it, and he comments on film not because he makes movies for a living, but because they’re a memory we all share. Because where once long-shots seemed radical, now it’s an interrogation of our soul. Now that he has changed tact, he has gone from nineteen seventies America personified to a director that you know will break your heart.

Tetro‘s straightforward bio reads that a man travels to Buenos Aires to find his older brother, a failed writer whose unfinished play holds a great family secret. The way that the film negotiates the expectations of these promises (rather than delivering on them exceedingly well as the director did in his so-called prime) is why Coppola is now so revolutionary. If it suggests something noir-ish, something metatextual, something roman à clef, Tetro delivers. But it does so by undermining the now safe rhythms of the first two things using the third. He reintroduces a more immediate darkness to the noir, rescues the metatextual from the smug mindgame, and then in a virtuoso move, uses them both to universalise the autobiographical. As complex as it sounds it’s actually a dream arrangement: the more personal for him, the more personal for us. And the more the surface breaks, the more it gives way to a flow that sweeps and dives through feelings with the structure of an essay and the character of a piece of music. As Tetro slowly self-destructs on a dramatic level its images and ideas swell like the powerful middle act of Sans Soleil, doubling back and marching forward. Only without voice over narration and with its linear narrative still hanging on, the way he pulls it off is a complete mystery.

Ehrenreich has the gummy face for noir, but Gallo’s skull jars framed that way. Neither of these things matter too much, as Coppola directs Ehrenreich like Emile Hirsch, and Gallo, clammy as ever, snivels his lines less a Broken Genius than a dork student of Coppola’s nephew Jason Schwartzman. The way he rebukes Ehrenreich for using his ‘real’ name, They call me Tetro here, communicates the mystery, while its cutesy awkwardness makes it a believably alienating exchange between estranged brothers, rather than strictly a twee send-up. The black and white initially unsettles as well, and while this seems like a back to basics indie film setup for the director so that he can frame interiors in a stagey way (lamps to the left or right in the foreground, action in the mid, the placement of windows in the back, all become pleasingly obvious in black and white), it comes to mean more texturally. This world gives way to personal and film memories (here one and the same) rendered in full sticky colour. These memories are more conventionally cinematic than the film housing them, and this is emphasised by the boxier aspect ratio that turns the majority of the screen into a frame. We become a second-order audience to a film that is also a memory, feeling and remembering what we need to so that we can make more informed decisions in the present.

The director treats the melodrama seriously, even as it becomes tonally incongruous, rewriting the rules of Tetro as it plays out. Its use of lush cinematic drama and jarring perspective shifts to sincerely express familial wounds reminds in places of Twin Peaks: The Return, particularly with Coppola’s use of digital technologies to mimic the forgotten manual effects of film’s bygone era. It’s then dusty, melancholy, but shockingly contemporary. Although that’s the tingle at the top of your spine by your skull, it’s not the sum of it. Its rigorous structure, as much essay as poem as song, is the propulsive drum that you can feel and not hear, pushing you ceaselessly toward increasingly uncertain actions and images, conclusions that you can feel and not read.

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