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By Adam Nayman
“Family is a stab in the heart,” snarls Vincent Gallo as Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro. It’s a remark that cuts two ways: the blood that flows from the wound is both a sacrament and a damned spot. Despite their marked differences in age and temperament, there’s never any doubt that tetchy writer Tetro and fresh-faced cruise ship waiter Bennie (the very appealing Alden Ehrenreich) —reunited when the latter’s vessel docks in Buenos Aires—come from the same roiling Old World stock. The question is why Tetro chose self-exile in South America, leaving behind both his loving baby brother and his birthright as heir to New York’s most fabulous performing arts dynasty.
Tetro’s desire to cut ties with his clan—and especially with his father, the illustrious composer Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer)—starts with his first name, which is actually a terse bastardization of his last: Tetrocini. “Tetro” is also Italian for “gloomy,” and Gallo glowers accordingly: as the film opens, he’s been given a (temporarily) bad leg to match his bad vibes. In a film largely comprised of placid, fixed perspectives, Gallo’s crutch-assisted stomping has the force of a tornado. It’s one of the script’s lovelier touches that, the night before he is supposed to return to his ship, Bennie suffers a leg injury of his own—a transference of physical weakness that also strengthens a sense of shared experience.
It is during Bennie’s convalescence that Tetro’s thematic strands begin to coalesce. Having discovered that his older brother has been hoarding cryptic unpublished notes in his apartment, Bennie sets out to translate them. He is aided in his subterfuge by Tetro’s girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdu), who hopes that their contents may help illuminate her beloved’s melancholy (she works at a mental hospital, but Tetro’s condition is beyond even her professional expertise). This being a family melodrama —a “trauma drama,” in Coppola’s parlance—there is indeed a past in need of uncovering, and the revelations are conveyed via flashbacks: Tetro’s memories filtered through Bennie’s subconscious. This co-mingling of subjectivities may account for the monstrous dimensions accorded to Tetrocini pere, played by Brandauer as a creature of low instincts and Olympian detachment. And it surely accounts for the palette shift in Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography, from immaculate widescreen black-and-white DV to high-grain, window-boxed colour film.
Eager to honour his brother’s talent—and also maybe to take his place within the prestigious family line—Bennie reconfigures Tetro’s notes into a theatrical piece that becomes the toast of Patagonia’s most prestigious arts festival. If this sounds like an unlikely series of events (and I haven’t even mentioned Bennie’s hotel room hot tub deflowering at the hands of a gorgeous local girl and her aunt) that’s because Tetro doesn’t have any pretenses to verisimilitude: it’s more obviously an operatic fable, with Malaimare’s exquisitely shadowed cinematography sealing the characters within a hermetic, slightly unreal screen space. (And also one that’s out of time: before the sudden, jarring appearance of Bennie’s laptop, this story might be taking place 50 years ago). Allusions abound, from theatre (Tetro, who works the lights for a small theatre company, disrupting a gender-bending burlesque version of Faust with his cackling) to cinema (the dancing-doll sequence from Powell’s Tales of Hoffman  is shown in its entirety as one of Bennie’s childhood memories), and even to Coppola’s own oeuvre—the avid/wary fraternal dynamic explicitly recalls Rumble Fish (1983) and family history. Coppola’s father was of course a composer, while the film’s preoccupation with the genealogy of genius could just as easily be about Sofia and Roman.
It’s this last optic—that of the “personal film”—that has proven most appealing to critics thus far. And why not: Coppola’s old-master status begs for valedictory assessments, and his much-publicized comments about beginning a “second career” with 2007’s similarly self-financed and distributed Youth Without Youth (itself a film about rebirth and second chances) fuel the argument that Tetro is a viable conduit to its creator’s psyche. Yet the film’s treatment of code hints that Coppola is wary of such analysis: Bennie’s cryptographic expertise does not yield a full understanding. After a road trip through the Andes, Bennie and his company arrive at the festival, depicted as a surreal multimedia affair presided over by Carmen Maura as an imperious, influential critic called “Alone.” The hoi polloi are mesmerized by the play, which restages moments from the narrative as baroque, mannered drama. Outside the hall, Tetro—who had disappeared after learning of his brother’s act of appropriation—emerges from the forest. He is armed with an axe and a final confession that explodes both the play-within-the-play and the immediate diegesis. The real drama is outside the hall, foregrounded against the naïve, Freud-by-numbers production unfolding within. This bit of staging prods the cozy notion of art as an ideal vehicle for personal narratives. The irony, of course, is that this sort of challenge is, in itself, a highly individuated gesture, and Coppola’s relief at not having to couch it within the movements of studio machinery is obvious.
Tetro is not a perfect film: in fact, it’s palpably imperfect, at times lurching between scenes and tones with the wildness of Gallo galumphing through La Boca on his crutch. But, for a film so haunted by dance—Miranda’s affectionate living-room shuffle for Bennie mirrors a long-ago betrayal involving Carlo and Tetro’s lithe young fiancée–it keeps finding its feet. When Tetro has his cast removed, he takes a tentative step towards Miranda before collapsing in a heap; after taking a second to soak in her panic, he bounces back up with a flourish. It’s probably too poetic to suggest that Coppola has similarly been playing possum for the last few decades, but even if he’s ultimately traversing familiar terrain (the sins of the father; the anxiety of influence; the glare of the spotlight) he’s doing so with a spring in his step.
CINEMA SCOPE: Can we start by talking about codes? Tetro’s unpublished novel is written in code: it’s like a contingency plan so that even if somebody finds the pages, they won’t necessarily be able to read them. That seems like a very suggestive metaphor for autobiography.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Metaphorically, it’s about the secret parts of your heart that you have the need to share but you don’t immediately want other people to be able to understand. All writing is filled with very personal revelations, and then when you turn it into fiction, it becomes disguised —sometimes, you don’t even know the extent to which it’s been disguised. I went back and forth about how to present the code, and I had the idea that Tetro and Benny had gone to the same military school where they would have each learned a little bit about cryptography. That’s how Bennie is able to decipher the code. I had other ways of showing how he would figure it out, but then I thought it was going to be too complex.
SCOPE: The implication is also that this elaborate linguistic disguise expresses some sort of subconscious desire to be understood. Codes are only devised so that they can be cracked.
COPPOLA: That’s inherent when you write something in code. You’re protecting it, but you’re also intending it for somebody who can decipher it. I needed Benny to find his brother’s writing, and because I couldn’t come up with anything that was appropriately brilliant, I decided that in Bennie’s mind, he reads and imagines Tetro’s novel in the language of Tales of Hoffman, because he associates his brother with going to see that movie.
SCOPE: Miranda calls Tetro a “genius without accomplishments.” You leave the question of Tetro’s actual genius completely open, because we never actually get to read his novel or see his work outside the context of Benny’s interpretation and adaptation.
COPPOLA: You do see it in a translated form: the images of Tetro as a poet figure caught up in a triangle with his powerful father figure, à la The Red Shoes (1948). Whenever a film has to portray something that’s supposed to be a great work of art, you have a problem. Even in The Red Shoes. It’s what my father used to call a “Gregory Peck concerto”—the character of the composer has written this great concerto, but it’s really some Hollywood composer who has written it. The heroine is crying because it’s like she’s hearing Brahms, but it’s not Brahms. We never actually see Tetro’s work, but we understand the impression it makes in his younger brother’s mind.
SCOPE: The way that those impressions become inflated through memory seems to be one of the major subjects of the film—the way that we sometimes end up idealizing or demonizing the formative figures in our lives beyond their real human dimensions, and then have to work to regain the proper perspective.
COPPOLA: That’s true of any drama, and especially of what I used to call “trauma drama.” In Tennessee Williams, you have characters haunted by the past and then you find out exactly what it is that really happened, as in A Streetcar Named Desire. So that’s par for the course. And as I’ve said, the father in Tetro has nothing to do with anybody that I’ve ever known: he’s more like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or the father in Desire Under the Elms. He’s the father of history and myth, this unassailable power that the hero must ultimately confront. With Tetro, I was clearly anxious to tell the kind of story I had wanted to 40 years before, when I was starting out. And what was I in my twenties? I was a theatre student in New York in 1958. So my heroes were the heroes of that kind of playwriting.
SCOPE: The visual scheme of the movie is interesting. The flashbacks are shot in colour, and so they seem more visceral and immediate than the scenes in the present, which are in black-and-white. It’s an inversion of the way that past and present are usually colour-coded onscreen.
COPPOLA: I decided that the film was going to be in black-and-white for a lot of reasons, one of which was that the films I had seen in black-and-white were somehow more realistic. Ninety-five percent of the great movies I’ve seen are in black-and-white. When I started to realize that there would be these little snippets of the past popping up as a result of Benny reading Tetro’s diaries, I thought not only that I would use colour, but also that I would shoot them handheld. You probably noticed that in most of the movie, there’s no camera movement, that the images are fixed. The colour sequences are almost like home movies, those little 8mm things you find, so the colour was washed out and there was more movement. When we got to Benny’s re-imagination of Tales of Hoffman, we shot it in a kind of Technicolor.
SCOPE: I’ve heard you’ve said that you think that Tetro is the best film that you’ve ever made in terms of pure craft.
COPPOLA: In terms of production. It’s not an artistic evaluation. Sometimes people will look at a film and say that’s a bit shabby compared to what we know you can do with makeup or this and that. But that’s a matter of the pictures that you’re being compared to, where they can throw enormous amounts of money at everything. On a production like Tetro, which has big scenes and intimate scenes, and needs beautiful photography and beautiful imagery, and has many actors and locations, my goal was to utilize the sort of training I had as Roger Corman’s assistant, making little low-budget horror movies. I wanted to use those sorts of methods and tools, but end up with a really beautifully produced movie. In my previous career, the best produced movie I ever did was The Godfather II (1974), which was shot in Lake Tahoe and Los Angeles and Las Vegas and Cuba and Sicily and Trieste—and it cost $14 million dollars at a time when that meant a lot more. With Tetro, we didn’t have those sorts of resources, but we did exactly what we wanted. So I think it is the most beautifully produced movie I’ve ever made.
SCOPE: Can you talk about the differences between your “previous career” and your current one?
COPPOLA: There are some very clear differences between the two careers. First: my second career is entirely self-financed. I don’t have to take what I want to do and find someone to finance and release it. I have the wealth to just do it. I’ve also made a rule that everything will be original material—no adaptations. Another rule is that everything will be shot electronically, in digital. And there will be no consideration of what the film business is predicting about commercial success. If I’m writing a script right now, I’m not worried about sending it to Harvey Weinstein and hoping he’s going to like it. It’s a very different process. It’s like having an angel watching over you, except that the angel is actually yourself.
SCOPE: What compelled you to set the production in Argentina?
COPPOLA: Part of the rules of this kind of filmmaking is that I can’t make a movie in places where it’s a big industry, where there are huge amounts of people who make their living within the industry. That makes filmmaking so expensive that only big companies can afford to work in those places, in which case the projects have to fit a certain profile. The movies I’m making, there’s not a big market, there’s a tiny niche. To go your own way, you have to make the film in another country that has an exchange rate that’s in our favour: you had that in Canada for a while, and there was a very successful program there. But another rule is that if I’m going to another country, it has to have a fascinating cultural tradition, a theatrical tradition, because that means there will be actors there, and creative people.
SCOPE: Did the casting of Vincent Gallo have anything to do with honoring that self-sufficient ethos you’ve been talking about? Did you recognize a kindred spirit in the guy who had made The Brown Bunny (2003)?
COPPOLA: No, I didn’t know him. I had written the piece for Matt Dillon. I wanted him, but I didn’t want him to fly in for two weeks and leave. With a role like Tetro, I wanted someone who would stay with me and really be a participant. When we lost Dillon, I was already in Argentina, and things were already underway. We had spent money that would have just been lost if we stopped. Someone there mentioned Vincent Gallo. Countries like Argentina are film-crazy; people there tend to know everything about films. I wasn’t sure who he was, so I got a hold of Buffalo ’66 (1998), I liked his performance in it, and I took a chance. I called him, I invited him to hang out, and I found him very different than the portrait I’d been given. People had said, “He’s a nightmare, he has terrible political views, he’s poison, he’ll drive you nuts.” I found that he has a very funny sense of humour, and that the things that people find offensive about what he says and does are really him putting them on. No doubt, he has a bit of a thin skin, because nobody likes to be berated by loudmouths. I’ve never really had feuds or difficulties with actors. I’m always on the actors’ side, and I try to make it as satisfying an experience for them as I can. That was the case here. Vincent worked hard and contributed a lot and I liked working with him. Afterwards, when I looked at his website and saw the sort of outrageous things he was saying, I just thought that he was pulling your leg. He’s not really selling sperm for a million dollars. He’s a conceptual artist, he comes from that New York scene.
SCOPE: Speaking of scenes, the long concluding movement at the Patagonian arts festival strikes me as integrating some of the ideas we’ve been talking about. Gallo took a lot of shots a few years ago at Cannes, where critics have the ability to make or break a career. Tetro, who has been so hesitant to share his work, finally ends up telling the critic played by Carmen Maura that what she thinks “doesn’t matter.” It seems to me that the depiction of this festival as a Felliniesque carnival presided over by this eccentric supreme arbiter of taste is rather pointed—as is Tetro’s gesture of resistance.
COPPOLA: There are millions of festivals now—any location you can think of, somebody wants to put a festival there. And they’re all looking for celebrities, people they can give a lifetime achievement award to. So yes, there was some humour in the film about how what might have once been a bona fide literary festival expands to become a “cultural festival.” But the critic in the film, “Alone,” comes from a real tradition in Latin America. There was a critic in Chile whose name was “Alone,” who was adapted into a character in Roberto Bolaño’s novel Night in Chile. That was where I got the idea for this character, who had always pooh-poohed Tetro’s work and then at the end comes around and says that it’s great. But his sentiment about not caring what she thinks isn’t really my sentiment—it belongs to the character. There is this idea that someone—an interesting person, a good person—only really has an identity if they have produced “work.” It’s like you have to have written a book, or painted a picture that is acclaimed in order to have your day in the sun. When Tetro says to the critic “I only have respect for you but it doesn’t matter what your opinion is,” that’s about how there are people who haven’t had that sort of acclaim but who are still great. In my own family, there are a lot of talented people. Some are very famous, obviously, and some are less so, but the less famous people may actually be the greater artists. But they haven’t had the luck to have a major success. History is full of artists who died thinking that they were washed up failures, like the guy who wrote Carmen. He died thinking it was a flop. This part of the movie is about my support for the people in my family who are not the famous ones, but may be the really talented ones—in every generation, I might add.
SCOPE: It’s telling that while the audience at the festival is transfixed by Bennie’s adaptation of his brother’s autobiography the real family drama is occurring outside the theatre space; the real revelation about Benny’s father—the key to understanding these characters and their relationships—is left offstage. People keep asking you about how “personal” this movie is, but I think that this scene addresses that question pretty succinctly.
COPPOLA: You’ve figured it out. There is personal stuff in this movie, but none of it ever happened. It’s all fiction, but taken from the flesh of real things that I thought about and worried about, like what we were just talking about: the fact that in my career, from the time I was 20, I was very acclaimed and very famous and very rich. I lost it, and gained it back, and lost it. But I had that day in the sun. There are others who never get that. This piece is filled with love for all of my relatives. The image of Tetro staring at the light is about the spotlight of success. I didn’t think about that when I dreamt it up—I was more interested in why moths were attracted to light unto their death. But when you start fooling around with metaphor, the metaphor fools around with you.
SCOPE: The film begins and ends with characters transfixed by lights, like moths or perhaps like deer in the headlights. And there is of course the moment where we think Tetro has been hit by a car only to discover that it was actually a deer.
COPPOLA: The light is usually a symbol of truth; it can be inverted into danger and death, as it is in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). The vampire smothers in a room full of flour, and light is death in the vampire’s realm. I imagined a character with an obsession with light, and so I made Tetro a follow-spot operator. The light beam is the light of success. When Benny emerges from being this young kid, he enters into that light, too.
SCOPE: The question of light also leads to the inevitable question about your affinity for digital cinematography.
COPPOLA: It’s what will persist into the future. We’ve been living in a photochemical world for 120 years, and suddenly film reached the apogee of its development. It’s a beautiful medium, but it’s still a mechanical medium, wherein the images are glued together. The new era of digital cinematography is not mechanical, it’s more like sound—it can be composed with. At my age, having participated in that development, I’m very fascinated to explore this new medium. Whereas my daughter wouldn’t touch digital cinematography with a ten-foot pole. She wants to be part of film, she loves film, but down deep she probably knows that she’s eventually going to be working in the digital environment. In terms of whether it’s more beautiful or less beautiful than film, I think it just comes down to the quality of the lenses and of the cinematographer.
SCOPE: That’s an interesting reversal for an older filmmaker—you see your fortunes as linked to the present rather than the past. When you think about your “second career,” do you see yourself as a “young” filmmaker?
COPPOLA: I don’t want a career. I had one and I gave it up voluntarily. I’m just an amateur. I do it for the love of it. I lose money when I make films. Clearly, I can afford to lose that kind of money. I have more bottles of wine in my life then my family could drink in a thousand years. At my age, I can afford for film to be a passion and not a business. I approach it with respect, and with the knowledge of how lucky I am to be able to express myself in this beautiful art form that is so young that it still requires experimentation to learn about it. I want to learn about it. My motivation in life is to learn.