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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Godfathers, Outsiders, Rainmakers, and The Undead: The Coppolas


This past weekend, Minneapolis moviegoers were handed a couple openings courtesy of two cousins: Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, the fourth film by a director who is with each release displaying her acute emotional intelligence and singularly uncompromising sensibility; and Season of the Witch, a big, special-effects horror/action thriller starring Nicolas Cage (born Coppola), which with a 4% positive rating on the Rotten Tomatoes meter, which seems to be another example of Cage's recent penchant for pay-check projects, a sharp "action star" contrast to the talented and eccentric actor he was for so long. These two Coppolas have thus in a single weekend displayed the breadth of ambition, talent, and topicality reflective of a celebrity family, which will no doubt soon be offering a fourth generation of talent, surpassing in accomplishment and recognition the Barrymores and Hustons. This family has always wavered on the delicate wire of outsider ambitions with astounding innovation versus defeated submission to insider status, where creativity may decline into manufacturing within the same system it would presume to challenge. What better concrete and immediate examples are there than Somewhere and Season of the Witch?

I cannot possibly cover the full story of "the Coppolas." The subject, like other great families such as the Kennedys and Rockefellers, is worthy of half-thousand page books. But just glossing over the ways this family tree branches out gives a clear indication of how vast the influence is in so many categories of popular entertainment. The first generation of the dueling musician brothers Carmine and Anton already shows a kind of melodramatic strain extending beyond showbiz veneer. Carmine was married to Italia Pennino, herself the daughter of the musician Francisco Pennino, whose opera Senza Mama was featured memorably in a key scene of his grandson's The Godfather Part II. There are then Carmine and Italia's children – August, Francis, and Talia. The eldest would be a highly regarded academic; the second, one of the most famous movie directors in history; the third, an actress who gave faces to the immortal characters Adrian Balboa and Connie Corleone. August's son was Nicolas, who changed his last name to "Cage". Francis married Eleanor Neil, fathering Gian-Carlo, Roman, and Sofia, all of whom would be filmmakers. Talia's son is Jason Schwartzman, who found a degree of fame as an actor specializing in quirky films and television. The marriages of this third generation of Coppolas, predictably arrayed with the expectations of Hollywood divorce, then tie the family to both the Presley and Arquette families (Nicolas' hasty marriages), the famed music video and Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze (Sofia's first husband), and the highly popular alternative pop band Phoenix (Sofia's current boyfriend, and father of her two children, is frontman Thomas Mars). Other affairs and relations tie the Coppolas to figures in the industry ranging from Melissa Matheson (the screenwriter of E.T. and future ex-wife of Harrison Ford) to Quentin Tarantino. The Coppola company of American Zoetrope can be credited with helping launch numerous careers: George Lucas, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Carroll Ballard, Walter Murch, Teri Garr, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, John Toll, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Mickey Rourke, Joan Allen, and Matt Damon. Playing the "Degrees of Separation" game is considerably easier when Kevin Bacon is replaced by a Coppola.

The family's legacy, let's not kid ourselves, is completely tied into Francis Ford Coppola's emergence in the 1970s. The circumstances of his luck set into pattern a bizarre wheel of art reflecting life reflecting art, carrying on into the present. The film that made his reputation was an acquired for-hire project done out of desperation. Entitled The Godfather, it is about a richly ethnic family's inner turmoil as it struggles to survive amidst attack from outside forces in WASPy America. It is a success story with its victories set alongside inner strife, familial complications, and betrayal. Francis Ford Coppola has become the "Godfather" himself, the maverick who worked to provide security and employment for his family, and the subsequent trilogy plays almost like a grand home movie. Getting the job as director of The Godfather meant that Francis could hire his long-suffering father Carmine as a musician writing diagetic music to complement Nino Rota's themes. He cast his little sister Talia as Connie Corleone. His newborn daughter Sofia is the baby being baptized during the film's climax.

His role as "Godfather" extends beyond the Coppola Family, and is important in terms of how independent cinema developed within Hollywood during the 1970s. The irony of Francis Ford Coppola's legacy is that he probably has less in common with the revered Don Vito (Marlon Brando) than he does with the trilogy's real main character, Vito's successor and youngest son Michael (Al Pacino). The way that Francis created a niche for his family under uncomely circumstances, becoming a very rich man along the way, is indeed akin to Vito, but his incessant struggles to hold onto power, along with the particulars of how he was able to display his talent, is pure Michael. Like Michael Corleone, Francis Ford Coppola found himself in a system of which he did not necessarily want a part, so much as he wanted to change. Since he was a child, Coppola wanted to be famous. Polio-stricken, he lived in a world of imagination, designing puppet shows for himself that he filmed on a home camera. He became a determined theatre prodigy at Hofstra University, exhibiting unparalleled ambition. At UCLA Film School, he was the first student to make his thesis a feature (1966's You're a Big Boy Now). He landed a job writing screenplays for $5,000 a week at Warner Bros’ Seven Arts, eventually winning an Oscar for his script for Franklyn Schaffner's Patton in 1971.

The offer to direct The Godfather was at first an offer that he could refuse, much as Michael was content to choose a path separate from what his father had mapped out for him. His best friend and colleague, George Lucas, encouraged him to take Paramount Pictures up on their offer, because American Zoetrope needed any money it could get. There's poetic symmetry to the moment when the young and rebellious Michael kisses his ailing father in the hospital and says, "I'm with you now, pop," and Francis Coppola decision to work for an industry that was ailing.

Indeed, Michael Corleone would have the power to preserve the Family, conquering his enemies from the inside out, just as Coppola would take on a flailing project and make it great, doing things his way, conquering his own conniving Tessios and Barzinis (namely, Paramount executive and Coppola nemesis Robert Evans, who worked against Coppola's casting choices – like Al Pacino – and the film's length). But from the moment Michael Corleone goes against his original life plan and commits his first sin, the murder of Solozzo and Capt. McClusky at a restaurant for a sit-down truce, he is strung to a life of illegitimacy and darkness. His goal was to make the Corleone Crime Family socially and politically legitimate, and his method of achieving that end is through a seemingly necessary process of tying up loose ends – namely murder, even if that includes old friends (Tessio, Frank Pentangeli), his brother-in-law Carlo, or his biological brother Fredo. At the end of The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone may be the richest person in the world, but he is alone, a destructive and tragic figure scarcely resembling the idealist rebel he was when he deliberately went against his father's wishes on the old man's birthday and enlisted in the military.

The same thing, you could interpret with a bit of imagination, happened to Francis. With the success of The Godfather and Paramount's demand for a sequel, Coppola was able to make a deal where he would be able to make a small and offbeat personal masterpiece, The Conversation, as part of his agreement in directing a sequel of which he would have complete creative control. Winning three Oscars and more riches with The Godfather Part II, Francis had a family estate and American Zoetrope was primed for its Bolshevik takeover. But instead of launching immediately into his dream of independent filmmaking, he decided to personally handle one of Zoetrope's long-gestating projects, a more or less mainstream war film written by John Milius called Apocalypse Now, which could be made quickly and ensure more financial resources for Zoetrope's future. But like Michael Corleone, or Apocalypse Now's own Colonel Kurtz, Francis became increasingly self-involved, unpractical in his ambition, and megalomaniacal. Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls paints an unflattering moral portrait of the director, described by colleagues as a "pussy hound" increasingly neglectful to his marriage in light of fame's nectar. The "easy 16-week shoot" of Apocalypse Now stretched out into years, the Coppola marriage was nearly ruined, and Francis was in debt and infamous according to the daily trade newspapers.

But like after Michael's misfortunes with Hyman Roth in Cuba, Francis remained lucky. Apocalypse Now paid off commercially and critically in 1979. Damaged though his reputation was, he was able to completely finance his next movie and film it on Zoetrope's own studio sets, the musical romance One from the Heart. Another acquired screenplay, Francis claims that his reason for doing it was that he believed Apocalypse Now would go bust, and a sweet love story would be the kind of success required to equalize everything. The independent production of this relatively simplistic material was to be the basis for his long gestating innovations, as One from the Heart would be featured on background television screens in Coppola's own ambitious rumination on the problems of marriage and infidelity, a planned four-part adaptation of Goethe's Elective Affinities. Meanwhile, the director was becoming a mogul, and an entrepreneurial trend-setter. One from the Heart was supposed to launch "electronic cinema," beginning with a screenplay stored on computer disks and Francis' own director's chair set in what he called an "electric egg," the portable Silverfish. Coppola could sit far from the actual movie set, sometimes in a hot tub, directing scenes via radio while watching monitors. The film could then be edited live with in-camera effects and a bold lighting system developed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who electronically adjusted the cameras to his altering lights and colors on the big board. This was too complicated to full off.

This small and quirky musical love story, lovingly set to music by Tom Waits who sang off-screen like a Greek Chorus along with Crystal Gale, kept on growing larger and more opulent in design, to the extent that the budget matched that of Apocalypse Now. Trade papers again criticized Coppola and his dreams for Zoetrope. Opening in January 1982, One from the Heart was thrashed by reviewers and soon pulled from distribution. It bankrupted Coppola and rendered him a slave to Hollywood; he would have to work tirelessly on other studio films before even thinking about another project resembling The Conversation. His reputation as an independent filmmaker was tarnished by his behavior as a mogul. Like any executive, he would not hold back from taking a project away from an idiosyncratic director, as he did with Wim Wenders and Hammett in 1983. Before that, Coppola and Zoetrope were in negotiations with Roman Polanski to handle United States distribution of Tess; upon screening it, Coppola demanded the movie be cut by nearly an hour and have a different beginning with a book opening and the camera moving along the first words before the text dissolved into the film's landscape – an awful suggestion. Tess, which in Polanski's cut would be a moderately successful Best Picture nominee, was thus a lost opportunity. The dream of American Zoetrope was that it was fertile ground for visionaries to come together; instead, its productions were often unsuccessful, and being under the auspices of "Francis Ford Coppola Presents" did not necessarily ensure independence, exceptions though there were (Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion; Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha; Paul Schrader's Mishima).

The wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola was paralyzed. The four consecutive masterpieces in the 1970s were tempered with his imprisonment in the 1980s, fending off bankruptcy. Some of these films are very good, and some sorely mediocre, though no one can agree on which is which. I love One from the Heart, Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Tucker: The Man and His Dream; I dislike, in some cases detest, The Outsiders, The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone, and Life Without Zoe. Despite the moderate financial successes of The Outsiders and Peggy Sue, Coppola's productions routinely lost money, just as they were dwarfed by the four great works that preceded them. The writer Robert Kolker, whose A Cinema of Loneliness published in 1978 is one of the most rewarding and prestigious books on the 1960s and 1970s in American film, had chapters in its original edition on Kubrick, Penn, Scorsese, Altman, and Coppola. The updated edition in 1987 replaced Coppola with Spielberg. Kolker believed that Francis Ford Coppola lost his creativity during the production of Apocalypse Now. In movie magazines, Coppola was approached with reverence and awe because of his 1970s significance, but it wasn’t unusual to see a writer mockingly add some parentheses after the statement "the genius Coppola is," and within those parentheses have the word "was."

Francis Ford Coppola was an icon of independent cinema never able to direct an independent film after he got successful. The Corleone Family was supposed to be legitimate five years after Michael took control of it, but instead Michael became the worst kind of amoral criminal. Francis Coppola was going to usher the Movie Brats into the upper echelon of film production in the 1980s, but was stuck working in established paradigms on projects that often had nothing to do with his own conceptual creativity. He could have been working the same kind of boundless terrain examined by Fellini, Bergman, and Antonioni, being a restless explorer changing forms. He was yet often able to be highly stylized and eccentric with his work (Rumble Fish is a very avant-garde movie and the work of a true visionary), just as he was able to be personal. Tucker is a film about the innovator Preston Thomas Tucker (Jeff Bridges), who wants to change the tired car industry in the 1940s. But the big auto industries, in addition to Tucker's own unchecked handling of both his budget and his boundless enthusiasm, destroy his prospects. It's a very personal film made on a brash and colorful canvas, produced by George Lucas, with great performances by Bridges and Martin Landau.

As Francis' relationship to the film industry grew more resigned, he grew closer to his children and mentored them as filmmakers. His apprentice was the eldest, Gian-Carlo, whom the father allowed to direct full sequences during the unpleasant Cotton Club production. Sofia appeared as an actress in both Rumble Fish and Peggy Sue. His nephew Nicolas Cage played a minor role in Rumble Fish and major roles in The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue. Carmine wrote the music for The Outsiders and Gardens of Stone. However, in early 1986 tragedy occurred when Gian-Carlo was killed in a boating accident, just as Francis was beginning Gardens of Stone – a somber film with many scenes set in a cemetery. Along with the possibility of losing his dreams, Francis Coppola encountered the reality of losing his children.

This is where we return to Michael Corleone, who crept back into Francis' life. In 1989, Coppola at last agreed to direct The Godfather Part III, about which Paramount had been courting him for some time, and being the prime reason the studio distributed Tucker in 1988. Once more, and perhaps more poetically than ever before, art and life reflect each other in a hall of mirrors with no end. The Michael Corleone of this installment, which Coppola wanted to title The Death of Michael Corleone, is a man looking for redemption. He is a new kind of businessman desiring to implement an innovative set of methods in an antique and corrupt financial system. When Michael makes his bid to head an old real-estate conglomerate, he makes a speech where he says, "If Europe and America can learn to share our markets and pool our wealth, we can destroy any competition anywhere in the world." This Corleone is reminiscent of Coppola and Zoetrope's prospects in Hollywood during the 1970s – or Tucker's prospects with automobiles in the 1940s – just as it remained Coppola's dream in 1989/90. Controlling the conglomerate, Immobilaire, would spell Michael's redemption. As the Archbishop Guilday (Donal Donelly) tells him, "This deal could make you one of the richest men in the world. Your whole past history – and the history of your family – would be washed away." Michael must then make deals and do business with unsavory, though legitimate, public officials, making his daughter Mary the head of his own charity organization. The situation is equivalent to Coppola's own, as he makes the fateful decision to work with Paramount Pictures and signs the contract for The Godfather Part III in an effort to bail out the struggling studio, just as Michael bails out the corrupt Archbishop, the endgame being freedom from the constraints of studio work so that he can do what he wants to do in the precious time he has left, namely a screenplay titled Megalopolis that Coppola had been struggling with for years.

But to quote Pacino's classic delivery from the film, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Michael discovers that he's the victim of a swindle, prey for despicable tacticians and politicians. He's back in the familiar territory of betrayals, mistrust, and murder, with far less leverage than he had in the past. Mario Puzo and Coppola were given a very short time to work out a screenplay, and though he was given one of the biggest budgets at that time ($56 million), he was unable to secure Robert Duvall’s salary for reprising the role of Tom Hagen, a significant loss that gravely tampered with the original grand design of the story's trajectory. His title of The Death of Michael Corleone, which would immediately denote that this was not a film of equivalent stature of the first two Godfathers, also was disallowed. He had to rush editing for a Christmas 1990 release, which Coppola says was not nearly enough time. It had to be ready on December 25, and it had to be nothing less than a masterpiece.

The most dramatic parallel is with the middle-aged man's children. One of the most detrimental production set-backs for Godfather III had to do with casting Mary Corleone. A part coveted by every young actress in Hollywood, Winona Ryder was selected but had to drop out days before shooting due to exhaustion, having had worked back-to-back on Edward Scissorhands and Mermaids before arriving on Coppola's set in Rome. He made a leap of faith and went with his source for the character, his own daughter. Sofia was not an actress, but a recent high school grad studying art. Under enormous pressure, but assured by her father, she was a docile element in going along with this risk, a move that certainly upset any actress eager for the part, and a gesture that would be scrutinized by a press that had an interest in Coppola’s troubles. She's then not unlike the character she would play. Mary asks her father why she's been chosen by him to run his charity organization. She knows that she’s out of her depth. Mary’s a sweet daddy's girl, a fortunate daughter onto which the father is investing his hopes and dreams for legitimacy. We see the father's love for the daughter soon after she asks her question. He says, "I would burn in hell to keep you safe," something echoing his opening sentiments in the story as Michael writes, "The only wealth in this world is children."

This was a feeling very ripe in the elder Coppola's mind. One can only imagine how Gian-Carlo's death affected Francis. Gio, as he was called, was the protégé who would overtake Francis' duties as a director/producer in his own right, and as head of American Zoetrope. At the time of his death, Gio's wife was two months pregnant with Francis' first grandchild, Gian-Carla, or Gia, whom he would raise like another daughter. In deciding to construct a narrative where Michael Corleone would suffer for his sins in a just manner, Coppola knew all-too-well that there was nothing more appropriate than the grief of losing a child. At the climax of the film, it is not Michael who dies on the opera house steps, wounded though he is. It is Mary, struck by a bullet intended for her father.

The tragic catharsis in Godfather III is completely genuine, and like the first two films Coppola had taken a for-hire project and imbued it with something intensely personal, sublimating his own grief onto the coda. But the ironies are far more dramatic. As Mary Corleone looks confusedly at Michael, a red stain on her midsection, she says "Dad?" and dies. Life imitated Art here, quite infamously, as Sofia's performance as Mary was universally derided, a fault of incomparable self-indulgence on the director's part that may have ruined the whole movie. At the early screenings in December of 1990, some audiences laughed at the moment Sofia says "Dad?", noting how reflective it was of the whole alleged fiasco. The press, including Vanity Fair and an Entertainment Weekly cover story, mocked Coppola's decision. Sofia was out of her depth here in the company of Pacino, Diane Keaton, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, and Andy Garcia. She lacked movie star looks with her highly ethnic features, prominent front teeth, and Valley Girl accent. To an extent, Godfather III was a success in that it received generally favorable reviews, some absolutely glowing (Janet Maslin, Owen Gleibermann), had a decent box office run, and was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director. But it was judged nevertheless as a disappointment, particularly when compared to the first two Godfathers in both artistic and commercial strides. Sofia Coppola was immediately infamous, and that in addition to the tone of disappointment that greeted Godfather III would swell over the years and make the whole affair itself be seen as infamous. Michael comes close to redemption and legitimacy at the end of the film, but is tragically beaten as he sees his child gunned down by a bullet intended for him. Francis, too, lost, and he was devastated by the irony. He believed that the bullets in the press were indeed intended for him, and it was unbearable to know that his daughter should be dragged through the muck of entertainment tabloid reporting because of his own decisions. On the DVD commentary track to Godfather III when the director addresses the issue during the last scene, one can hear him begin to break up in tears as he relates the experience. Art and Life are hard to distinguish, an element that is displayed in the very story as Mascagni’s opera recalls various images from the Corleones’ story.

I should then quickly take a moment to comment my own sense of Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III, because in this essay on the Coppolas I believe that this particular film, flawed as it may be when compared to its predecessors, is the central event in examining the two generations in the family, in addition to how it perfectly, in its tragic way, completes the parallel between author and character, Francis and Michael, the idealists forever caught up in making deals to reach their desired destination. Michael reflects Coppola when he tells Connie in the film, "All my life I kept trying to go up in society…But the higher I go, the crookeder it becomes. Where the hell does it end?" Godfather III introduces the world to Sofia Coppola, who will in time become the unlikeliest of heroes in cinema, even being the guiding light for her own father. But I should point out that her performance as Mary Corleone is, again, an "alleged" fiasco only, just as the film's "failure" is in many ways more of a print media construct than a sincere reflection of the film on its own terms. Though it is true that Sofia's primary impressions are weak ones, as she embarks on a flirtation with her first cousin, Vincent (Andy Garcia), the film's failure to deliver as a love story is tempered by how well it works as a story about a father and his children. Sofia's inexperience is something that some critics, including Roger Ebert, praised for intensifying Mary's delicate vulnerability. The care that Al Pacino has for her feels more real for it, and his outcry upon her death – one of his finest moments as an actor – seems much more warranted to me than it would be had the part been played with the safe and assured familiarity of a starlet, like Winona Ryder or Julia Roberts. The confusion at the time of her death feels real, and so too then is Michael's responsibility for her death accentuated and the director's emotional goal of tragic catharsis a rarely matched success. Indeed, the reason I will often come back to Godfather III when I screen the trilogy yearly is because of its final 40 minutes, something noted by Owen Gleibermann, another admirer of the film who says that the key problem with the picture is how it's two hours of exposition, and 40 minutes of payoff – but the payoff is so terrific that it seems ill-advised to dismiss the whole picture as anything less than very good. The grace that I find in the denouement of Godfather III certainly owes much to how Mary Corleone's death plays out, and stepping outside of the film, it helps me be even more moved whenever I reflect on the work of Sofia Coppola.

*

After Somewhere, something is clear: Sofia Coppola has far surpassed her father in the ability to channel the same creative sensibility found in the films that influenced him. All four of her films – The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere – are completely uncompromising and unique, exuding an acute emotional intelligence in their simplicity is rarely matched. Though none of the four perhaps ranks alongside the four great works of Francis (time will tell for Lost in Translation), the consistency of vision behind them, in addition to their fulfillment of the artistic and emotional goals they set up, suggests that she is the superior artist in the family, a thought that I'm sure her father would be glad to endorse.

But who would have ever thought that this awkward Valley Girl, often so hard to listen to as public speaker (her usage of the word "like," the way she stretches out her vowels) and whose first appearance in the Hollywood spotlight was as a debacle, could also possibly be the finest American filmmaker of her generation? Certainly no one in 1991 would have believed it. Godfather III buried her, just as it further buried the beleaguered reputation of her dad, and just as it also buried her grandfather, as poor Carmine died of a stroke the night of the 1991 Academy Awards when his nominated song for the picture was beaten by a Madonna number featured in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy – something that infuriated the old man's vanity (he had won a scoring Oscar for The Godfather Part II, along with Nino Rota; Carmine was so shaken after receiving it that he accidently dropped his award while walking off-stage, shattering it to pieces). However, like her father, internet trolls may accuse her of being a one-trick pony, not necessarily responsible for her own work. After The Virgin Suicides garnered enthusiastic – though cautiously enthusiastic – reviews, there was an insinuation that the finished product may rather be the work of her father's editing, considering that it was produced by Francis for American Zoetrope. It sets into motion a notion that her success is indebted to the men surrounding her, be it her father, first husband Spike Jonze, brother and producer Roman, her cinematographer Lance Acord, Bill Murray, or ex-boyfriend Quentin Tarantino, who presided over the Venice Film Festival jury in 2010 that awarded Somewhere Best Film. Given the minimalism of her films, and the simplicity of what she shows us, it's easy to see her as a rather unsophisticated fortunate daughter, riding the crest of her family's fame and wealth. Her muted tones and sense of static setting would conceivably make one see her as Chauncey Gardner working the role of arty filmmaker.

Of course her father allotted her a security that most young filmmakers can never have. She is privileged. Her family's ties in Hollywood got her a top notch cast for her first film – Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Josh Hartnett – just as it possibly secured the hard-to-get Bill Murray for her second. She gets final cut. She can afford as much source music as she wants, to the extent that she was able to get the legendary My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields to come out of 12 years of self-imposed exile and make some original music for Lost in Translation. She was given unprecedented access to shoot Marie Antoinette in Versailles, applying her own idiosyncratic musical taste onto an 18th century period film. It's worth asking if any director, male or female, would ever be so lucky with the first 10 years of a career. Most importantly, unlike her father or other successful independent directors, Sofia is comfortable remaining in her insular world, content to work on small budgets as she draws out a vision at her own pace. There is no pressure, it seems, to make a big splash and fork her way into the mainstream as her colleagues have (Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino). Her one big production, 2006's $40 million Marie Antoinette from Columbia Pictures, is every bit as uncompromising as Lost in Translation. What's most remarkable about her body of work is how she has successfully almost completely avoided melodrama. This is what makes her films difficult for many audiences, even ones that frequent specialty houses. Dialogue exchanges are brief, vague, and superficial. No one talks about what they are thinking or feeling. Sofia is a sensualist, her camera fascinated as it looks, really looks, at things, fascinated, contemplating as the lens rubs against the glossy surfaces of existence. While melodramatic passion rules the work of her father, Sofia's emotional intensity is tempered and mute, though present and simmering as it climaxes to a very brief, but always moving, boil, the goodbye between Charlotte (Scarlet Johansen) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation being the definitive example.

As moviegoers, we are accustomed to being told a theme, and even if that theme is registered in a non-verbal way we nevertheless reduce the theme to words and a declarative statement. From a distance, were we to read the synopses of her films, particularly the last three (The Virgin Suicides is an adaptation of a Jeffrey Eugenides novel; the subsequent three are basically original screenplays, Marie Antoinette using Antonia Fraser's biography as a model), they seem like they could be very conventional: Lost In Translation could be about a jaded movie star in Japan who gets in "wild misadventures" with a young woman in an unhappy marriage; Marie Antoinette takes a period piece biography and imbues it with pop music and movie actors uncharacteristic for the genre (Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Molly Shannon, Marianne Faithful), and could be like A Knight's Tale as it quirkily plays with history; Somewhere looks like one of those warm comedies where a successful and decadent dad has to take responsibility and discover the meaning of family when his daughter is spilled onto his hotel step. The premises have their dramatic hooks for our expectations in place – and so when Sofia does away with most any dramatic dialogue exchanges whatsoever, and instead lingers on things quite arbitrarily in a fashion that seems free-formed and intuitive, many people find it deliberately arty and pretentious, even maddening, and most certainly, as we expect a movie to do things to us, boring.

This was the public's reaction to Lost in Translation in 2003 when the movie spilled out from the specialty houses and into the suburbs. Acclaimed by critics and touted as a certain awards contender, the curious casual moviegoer expected a witty and clever Bill Murray comedy. This is not what Lost in Translation is. It's as dreamy and intoxicated with color and hazy sensation as the shoegazy new wave music to which it's set. The film does not assert itself in its setting where characters issue observations allowing easy agency for an audience to identify with things (some people have made the mistake of comparing Sofia Coppola to films like Garden State; but Garden State is talky melodrama. Sofia isn’t). Bob Harris is basically a reactive figure as he enters Tokyo and adjusts to his hotel, his showerhead, his elliptical machine, his commercial director ("He say he want more intensity." "Are you sure that's all he really said?"), his television, his phone, his bed, and his escort. Charlotte is similarly along for the ride as her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) rubs shoulders with movie stars (Ana Faris) and industry insiders. She, like Bob, has very little to say. Sofia's protagonists are similar in how they are unable to – or have no desire to – play necessary social roles of interaction. When we think about the much-criticized way Sofia herself talks, in addition to the lack of dialogue in her films (when we're enthralled by the way the characters of Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin put words together and interact), we should also take into mind something she has said: "I believe people have problems articulating how they really feel." This is the key theme in her oeuvre. The characters have emotions for which words cannot appropriate. As entertainment and media insiders brush up together at meetings and dinner parties, the likes of which Sofia grew up around, nothing they say seems to have any weight. It's hollow language. Bob Harris, the passive young wife Charlotte, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and Johnny Marco in Somewhere, are individuals who think a lot, look a lot, but are docile as they allow the structures that they dwell in to govern their movements, be it a movie studio or an elliptical machine. What's lost in translation is what a person honestly means in their heart, recalling Nietzsche's belief that those things for which we can find words represent things already dead inside of us.

This is why that one scene in Lost in Translation is so important: the moment when Bill Murray whispers something into Scarlet Johansen's ear and we are not allowed to hear what it is. These two strangers, who could have consummated a May/December love affair (and then drag the story into the realm of so many other romances), are here sharing the most intimate symbolic exchange in the whole film, and I would argue more intimate than most any love relationship in a plethora of the most well regarded romance pictures. People who disliked Lost in Translation, and Sofia Coppola in general, roll their eyes about the faux intellectual threat of pretentiousness, indicating that there's some "deep meaning" there, but who the hell cares? This is a misinterpretation of Sofia and her art. I think the reason why Sofia is so marvelous is not because of any high-brow intellectual reason. Rather, she excels and outmatches her colleagues in an emotional intelligence that is never kitschy or reeking with false affectation. When Bob Harris takes the karaoke microphone and the music for the glam rock band Roxy Music's "More Than This" begins, we're expecting the kind of silly detached irony we've seen in so many other stories. But Bob sings the words with sincerity, not performing for anyone but his own self as the world is out of focus around him. That, much as the moment when the two characters lie in bed and he brushes his hand against her foot, or the final goodbye, is an expression of how Sofia's ambition of grasping something real beyond words and the scripts of our day-to-day lives is emotionally relevant to each of us as human beings, particularly in a world saturated by electric gloss or personae painted and televised on buildings and billboards.

Sofia is not pendantic in her search for genuine moments between individuals, decrying the false world of appearances, though she is amused by its falsity. She's not teaching. She's just searching and looking. We notice how these passive characters – in all of her movies – are always looking out of car/coach windows as they move through an environment. There's a sense of an individual relating to the space around him or her. The performances in a Sofia Coppola film, textured with this motif of quiet fascination – or if not fascination, just relaxed observation – have authenticity, even as they boldly eschew the kind of juicy "actorly" moments of impassioned speeches that typically win performers awards.

That same enthrallment with the world continues with Marie Antoinette. This was anticipated to be like any number of other historical costume biopics, albeit with the much heard-of pop music selections – the kind of thing that flirts with shallow gimmickry. Again, it is the work of a sensual impressionist, and quite an amazing one that impresses me more and more with each viewing. Mainstream audiences were again a little confused. I remember the old ladies behind me at the mall theater complaining upon the end of the film, "I wanted to see some beheadings." Again, many of the dialogue exchanges are offbeat, with casual observations, social performance and gossip, and most importantly the statements of a public figurehead. Throughout the film, whenever Marie (Kirsten Dunst) or Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) issue declarative statements, they are spoken very deliberately, being very flat. When Marie and Louis are told to leave Versailles as the Revolution erupts, both of them talk quite simply, "It is my place to remain here, as King/Queen of France." None of these fortunate and regal figures are allowed a natural, biological existence. They are governed by custom, a kind of mechanical cybernetics preventing them from living authentic lives with a "Self." That Louis is unable to consummate his marriage with Marie for perhaps years, is not because of homosexuality or even bashfulness. He is so utterly estranged from any kind of natural process as a biological being that it is nonsensical to assume he could acquire and enact any kind of basic performance of sexual arousal and action. Marie and Louis are contractual figures more than human beings, their marriage a tool to keep treaties in place. Appropriately, the song that opens the film is the post-punk band Gang of Four's "Natural's Not in It."

Another criticism of Marie Antoinette has to do with its place as a costume film, as Coppola does not rely on a typical classical score and instead borrows from any kind of music she wishes: classical, 1980s New Wave and Post-Punk, and modern alternative pop and electronica. Many scenes feel improvised, and yet events like the regal marriage or coronation are scrupulous in their historical reconstruction. The effect for me is not jarring; the music choices or acting style do not at all feel anachronistic. A problem with costume films, on both sides of the Atlantic, is how they refuse to deviate from a tired imposed paradigm regarding dialogue, acting, and film scoring, when in truth it would be impossible to create any motion picture that accurately conveyed a sense of music in its period or how people interacted. Actors in most period films, like the music for them, are doomed to feel insincere because they seem conscious of how they are occurring in the past. This is what is so startling about Marie Antoinette; in spite of, or indeed maybe because of, the music of New Order, The Cure, or Aphex Twin on the soundtrack, and how the actors communicate in a relaxed, casual fashion – without the post-modern snark of A Knight's Tale – the film feels more authentic to history than any other film of its kind, second perhaps only to Stanley Kubrick's magnificent (and similarly dismissed) Barry Lyndon (cited by Sofia as an influence). A true independent, her costume piece is allowed to breathe naturally, even as Marie in her condition as social pawn is rarely permitted to. Sofia will use whatever music is emotionally appropriate, and move from ornately static camera compositions to jittery hand-held ones that reflect the fond drunkenness of a present moment. The reasons for Marie Antoinette's failure at the box office and mixed reaction from audiences and critics seemed deliberately provoked by the director. The ill-words about the film tell us more about our prejudiced expectations of a genre that is every bit as schematic as a Western or Horror film. Marie Antoinette ends with grave melancholy that hits straight to the gut with its directness, as Marie looks out her carriage window to the Versailles she was forced into, saying goodbye with her eyes. The film cuts to the royal bedroom after it's been sacked by revolutionaries, the garish décor shattered all over. The sad tones of The Cure's "All Cats Are Grey" begin before the film cuts to black and the end credits. It is nearly as shattering for me as how Kubrick uses Schubert's piano piece at the conclusion of Barry Lyndon (which also ends in 1789, though the music is not historically appropriate – composed in 1827, I think – but Kubrick, like Coppola, understood the emotion in the piece was perfect).

Finally, it's impossible to look at Marie's life trajectory without thinking of Sofia's. Like Sofia, Marie is an innocent whose parents use her to their own ends and she just passively drifts along, enduring very harsh criticism along the way. When Marie cannot conceive to produce an heir for the French kingdom – because of Louis' cluelessness in the bedroom – the following gossip mirrors Sofia's experiences as an amateur actress in 1991, as a subject of social scorn. This leads to another avenue of discussion regarding Sofia, particularly as we begin to think about Somewhere, the issue of the Fortunate Daughter. When Marie Antoinette premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, there was a mixture of boos and applause. The boos were apparently born from a kind of French dogma tied to its own history, back to the Revolution – namely, this film has sympathy for the apathetic Ruling Class, unacceptable when the peasants are starving. Though the Reign of Terror has its own legacy of infamy, Marie Antoinette has been cast in our universal cultural consciousness as a kind of snotty poster child for the "Rich Bitch" who can't see beyond her own nose. With Kirsten Dunst's performance and Sofia's delicate touch, though, she becomes real, an inward figure, however unsophisticated and pampered she may be. Many of Marie Antoinette’s critics were angered that Sofia went out of her way to stay away from the revolutionaries' point of view; indeed, we are hermetically sealed in Versailles with Marie. Of course, it would seem a little obvious to me that any idiot could grasp the point of Sofia's decision to do so. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his four-star review of the film, the critics of Marie Antoinette would have it be a bland instructional film.




Nevertheless, critics of Sofia's new film Somewhere cannot help but see a pattern of privilege. Once more, her main character, action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), is rich and famous, with more than his fair share of leisure time and entitlements in regards to residence (the Chateau Marmont Hotel – a famous dwelling place for stars getting away from the spotlight’s glare), food, travel, and sex. The critical masses, much like those pitchfork carriers in Marie Antoinette, have amassed around Sofia's own Versailles, demanding that she cease, not only with her choice in focus, but also in how she operates formally: stop being so oblique, so muted, so detached in presentation and, goddamn it, give us the flavor of comedic melodrama we desire. Poke our ribs, amuse us, entertain us, you privileged snob.

Case in point, I turn to the attitude of Colin Covert's Star Tribune review: "Somewhere is another 'woe is me, I'm famous' wallow." The review makes it clear that Covert understands the premise and is conscious of Sofia's stylizations, namely with her "unblinking" camera that never looks away. But while he nods this off in dismissal, probably rolling his eyes as he acknowledges what he perceives as the themes, he is nevertheless lost in the translation, stuck in language concepts and resistant to the tempo or emotional rhythms of which Sofia is truly interested. He is smart to the story, but profoundly uncurious and resistant to the feeling. And that's where the juice is located in the director's art. Covert writes, "Somewhere is a fuzzy, unstructured, dialogue-starved film. Incidental details draw the camera's attention as much as the movie's central relationship. Nothing makes much impact, and Johnny's possible breakthrough at the denouement is half a baby step, at best. Coppola's message is clear minutes into the film: Celebrity without creativity is empty, life without love is meaningless, and the Chateau Marmont is still haunted by John Belushi's overdosed ghost. I hope this concludes her Antonioni-esque exploration of deluxe loneliness." Covert is stuck on the concepts as he lists off the themes and adds, "We get it. We really do," exhibiting art-phobia.

I don't think there is a "message" that Coppola wants to convey here; she is not didactic. She's observant. When Covert craves more from the movie's "central relationship" he shows how much he wants to fall back on the established schematic framework of narrative features (or as I would call it, the same old bullshit). Sofia really is, like her awestruck characters in the backseat of a moving vehicle, looking out while also dwelling inward.

These characters are lonely, but I'm not sure if "loneliness" is the key theme here (it is a theme) so much as it is "alone-ness," which for me refers to any kind of individual sensually interacting with an environment and looking inward. The characters look, but Sofia is doing something interesting here by pointing out how we, the audience, are also looking, and inviting us with that same leisurely gaze to also look inward. When Johnny looks into the mirror, any other movie would cut or move to his reflection. Coppola and cinematographer Harris Savides stay fixed on Johnny's face. You can either look away in boredom, or remain observant with silent wonder. Somewhere begins with Johnny's automobile going around a racing track – one time, then two, then three…then four. The camera has not moved at all. We hear the car off-screen approaching and brace for possibly a fifth time, but it comes to a stop.


While this is happening, again, we either can continue looking and waiting, or judge what we see and make our verbal presumptions regarding the theme. It sets up the rhythm for the whole movie, and if we are patiently in synch with that rhythm one may continue watching Somewhere with avid interest, as I did – indeed with endless fascination. Other viewers, like Covert, are quick to resist the pull of the film and set up their own barrier, writing up a smug review afterwards. Being that Somewhere seems to be a little satirical of the print media world and its endless regurgitations – which keep that repetitive simulation of reality in motion – I can then look at Covert's review with a little humor, as Sofia's ahead of the curve. Those tart "real" dialogue exchanges – part of "the bullshit" – are rigidly kept out of the screenplay, and the statements most resembling those "honest" exchanges we see in so many other movies are best represented by some text messages that Johnny receives from a private phone number: "Why are you such an asshole?" "You think you're such hot shit, don't you?" "What's your fucking problem?" These are questions asked of Marco just as I think Sofia knows her critics will be asking her during the picture. They are the needles of melodrama scratching on her oblique glare-laden window.

Being that we are doing exactly what Johnny is doing, looking and being hypnotized while doing so, there is the implication that the emptiness of Johnny's celebrity existence is not merely symptomatic to a celebrity, as we all live through patterns of simulation. There is no difference between "Us" or "Them" being that all of us are ceaselessly in pursuit of an authentic moment or relationship, even as we are distracted by things that dull and placate us from encountering the sometimes ecstatic reality of such a thing. No doubt there is emptiness in Johnny's lifestyle, the endless leisure of watching twin models dance on poles to the Foo Fighters, where the endgame is not sexual activity. He just watches, the same as he does when his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) ice-skates in an arena, the diagetic sound highlighted with Gwen Stefani's bubble-gum pop song "Cool" on loudspeakers – an ironic musical selection, being that the lyrics describe peace between two ex-lovers, whereas Johnny's constant lovemaking only results in his partners being very pissed and disenchanted ("It wasn't even that good," says one) The pole dancers and their routine, complemented by Richard Beggs' sound design of skin brushing against the poles, is silly; Cleo skating is oddly beautiful. It's a contrast of the innocently beautiful versus the simulated artifice of desire.

Johnny is also something looked at and dissected endlessly, in this case the press asking him frivolous questions about his movie, Berlin Agenda. "What do you think of your film as a reflection of today's postmodern globalism?" he is asked, which can only make him shrug (also another poke by Sofia to the critics who will scoff at her presumed pretentiousness). Like other Coppola heroes, he is just another docile body drifting through time, surrounded by technicians that powder and pamper him for public displays. His function is to breathe and perform; we learn that he does not even have any "proper" acting training. He undergoes a makeup test in a special effects studio, his face being casted as gunk has covered his face with only two holes beneath his nostrils; we hear his erratic breathing, the camera slowly moving in. When the cast is removed, the makeup artists (one of whom has the word "Robot" written on a T-shirt; indeed the technicians and artisans in this glitzy lifestyle are allotted the behavior of cyborgs in the sculpture of a simulacrum) show Johnny as a finished experiment, in perfect old-age makeup.

Human responsibilities are difficult for Johnny, because he too is something of a "cyborg," a figurehead robot, just as Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI are, just as Bob Harris is. The kinds of basic relationships and familial functions we take for granted are more difficult for this class of individuals to grasp, which is something people entranced with the TMZ TV world often forget, for example as we watch the dramas unfold involving Tiger Woods and Charlie Sheen, and harshly judge them for their irresponsible behavior. Sofia Coppola grew up in that world and understands how it's a universe far removed from the semblance of the "normal" we are acquainted with day-to-day, which is why I am angered by the accusations of nepotism and the selection of her privileged characters; frankly, as someone who watches a lot of movies, I would rather have Sofia make movies about the kinds of people she has been acquainted with since birth and their strange world, than I would of so many other rich producers and directors who live that exact same lifestyle and presume to make movies about the middle class and struggling citizens, wherein they reinforce those "normal" humanistic middle class values they know little about. The pain and alone-ness in Sofia's characters is so poignant because it is not artificial, though the worlds surrounding them are. They are still human. Johnny is troubled that he may hurt the constant stream of women coming into his life, and he is uncomfortable with being a father, however much he loves Cleo. But the basic exchanges of meaningful information between a father and a daughter are difficult for him because of his estrangement from articulation; he would rather play Guitar Hero with Cleo than ask her about her life.

Cleo's on to Johnny, and she tries to ignore the irresponsible side of her father, which will cast its own lonely shadow over her own life as she heads into late adolescence. There is something vulnerable and sad about Cleo's ice-skating routine, being that we can only compare her exposed skater's body to the pole-dancers that we saw before, or the countless other models seen elsewhere. Women in this entertainment world are vapid creatures on a mass assembly line for men like Johnny, who only know how to consume them. The tragedy is that there is a sense that Cleo is headed to the same place as any of these other out-of-focus creatures of the night, basically slaves to the dispassionately carnal appetites of the rich and famous.

Somewhere is a kind of "vampire story." In fact, the character of Johnny Marco was originally a minor character in a large vampire story Sofia was planning on making as a film; she became so interested in the character that she dumped the supernatural scenario, and decided to write Johnny’s story instead. It's also interesting that in 2008 she was on a short-list of directors to helm the fourth installment in the young women's teen book series Twilight, Breaking Dawn (Bill Condon got the job instead, mercifully).

But Coppola in Somewhere retains echoes of the vampire myth, a mythological allegory, in Johnny's story. He is the undead, feasting on women and making them part of his undead harem, an aristocrat unable to live a normal human existence with the implications of mortality and temporality that the rest of us have to think about. We notice that three softly-focused models pass by Johnny in the hotel, dressed in black and eyeing him with desire; in the credits they are listed as the "Vampire Models." We see such women in Sofia's father's 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, where the undead Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) has his own set of three undead, sexually desirable but vapid women – who are also wrathful in their spite towards their benefactor ("You yourself never loved!" one of them angrily accuses). Francis' Dracula is conscious of a tragedy to his regality, and reveals a bit of conscience when he is hesitant to infect the woman he loves (Winona Ryder) and make her a vampire: "If you are like me you will be forced to walk the earth as living dead – I love you too much to condemn you," noting something that Johnny Marco will say: "I am nothing; lifeless, soulless, dead to all the world" – though he's rich and can have anything he wants. In Somewhere, we overhear Cleo talking about the Twilight books. She discusses the premise of a young woman falling in love with a vampire who lives with a family of other vampires, and how they can't be together. "Why not just become a vampire?" Johnny asks. "Because she just can't," is Cleo's simple explanation, but we understand (perhaps more than Stephanie Meyer does) when we compare the vampire mythos of the Undead to how femininity is made soulless commodity in Johnny's own wasteland, Hollywood as Castle Dracula. (It's also worth noting that one of Stephen Dorff's most famous roles as a younger actor was as the villainous vampire in Blade).

The father and daughter finally have an honest moment, however brief. On the way to camp, Cleo begins crying in the car, grieving how her dad's never there. He consoles her as best he can, but we see in his eyes that he understands that he cannot salvage this. As they bid farewell as a helicopter loudly waits to take Cleo away, Johnny yells "I'm sorry I was not there as much as I should have been, Cleo." She hears him, smiles, and walks into the helicopter. Without Cleo, to whom he's grown accustomed over the past weeks, Johnny's sense of isolation is amplified. With Cleo, the simulations were more honest and mirthful, such as when the two play-act "tea time" underwater and a Strokes song plays on the soundtrack with lyrics meaningful in the context of this film: "Everybody plays the game, and if you don't, you're called insane." I think about this when I see Johnny and compare aspects of his confused existence to the demands and passive/aggressive stimulatory onslaught of the TMZ entertainment buzz world in the media, a grotesque institution that loves to sentimentalize human themes while also trivializing them with condescension, e.g. Colin Covert's review of Somewhere, or any number of articles that "oh-so-cleverly" proclaim, "Sofia should have called it Lost in Somewhere," ignorant to how the filmmaker is understands the superficial dynamics of the institution criticizing her with hollow and catty put-downs. TMZ is also part of the "Undead."

Johnny has no home. He has no stable destination where a celluloid or pixilated digital existence can take root to become solid. He leaves the Chateau Marmont, leaves Los Angeles, and then leaves his vehicle as he walks towards the sun – Somewhere – a place where he can be real and alive again, cured of his vampire sickness. The beauty of this emotionally abstract denouement relates to the sense one has of Sofia's other great films, where at the conclusion we experience the depths of an individual's existence in a hollow though fascinating and well-lit ornate world. Phoenix's "Love Like a Sunset, Part 2" triumphantly plays on the soundtrack as Johnny walks away from our incessant voyeurism, perhaps towards a location away from the spirit-stealing camera eye, a journey to an authentic life away from the decorous wasteland. As some critics want Sofia to cease with her "Antonioni" artfulness, I have to wonder, as I experience this film that is so genuine in its approach to character, space, and emotion, would they have her manufacture products at the bullshit factory of manipulative Hollywood melodrama, where the rich mixture of beauty and sadness would not be nearly as pointed? To have an artist so steady and direct with her vision as we are incessantly drenched with said bullshit week after week, at both mainstream and specialty movie houses, I feel grateful.

Sofia has made the kind of movies that her father exhausted his life dreaming to make, embarking on a journey which will no doubt continue to reap a curious singular vision just as it will also stir argument and derision. With her criticized stance of rich-girl privilege, she may rather be an example fulfilling Virginia Woolf's concept of "Shakespeare's Sister" from A Room of One's Own, provided the tools and comfort in her education and life to make her an equal to her male counterparts, in a world where the passions of a woman's struggle to compete with men is hushed, so the vision can be incandescent, an androgynous consciousness "transmitting emotion without impediment" creating in "the red light of emotion, not the white light of truth," something that may distinguish her from the overly tempestuous though magisterial art of Jane Campion (though the recent Bright Star suggests a more tempered genius than that of The Piano), Kelly Reichardt, or Julie Taymore.

*

After The Godfather Part III, Francis' dreams for Zoetrope were saved by the surprising international success of Dracula. As he continued to struggle with Megalopolis and adapting On the Road (in 16mm black and white with a young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio as Sal Paradise), Coppola found himself again working on commercial projects to help finance his independent dreams: the terrible magical realism of the Robin Williams vehicle Jack (1996) and the very good adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker. Zoetrope came close to experiencing a revitalization when Coppola won an unprecedented lawsuit against Warner Bros, dealing with his allegations of how the studio went out of its way to prevent him from directing his version of Pinocchio in 1994. Awarded $80 million by the jury, the decision was reversed when Warner Bros. appealed.

As the 21st century began and Sofia began making movies, Francis decided to stop being "Francis Ford Coppola" the studio director, and followed the his daughter’s path. He had realized how caught up he was in the game of big budget spectacle and mega production manufacturing. He yearned to return to his film school roots with small budgets, small crews, and modest casts. As the owner of his own winery, Francis understood that he could do just what his friend George Lucas was doing with the new Star Wars films – albeit on a much smaller scale. He could afford to finance his own films at a limit of $15 million apiece, completely without Hollywood interference; he would make movies for himself. When we look at those two films, Youth Without Youth (2007) and Tetro (2009), we may note the negative side of this self-indulgence (just as it’s there in Lucas' new Star Wars films, the first of which ranks with one of the worst wide releases I’ve ever seen), as the vision is completely unchecked. Youth Without Youth, adapted from a philosophical novella by Mircea Eliade, is undoubtedly the work of a master, gorgeous and strewn with deep concepts, but it struck me as listless, its intellectualism too calibrated (as opposed to the dreaminess and ephemeral quality of Sofia's films). But the story reflects Coppola's present situation. Youth Without Youth is about an aging scholar (Tim Roth) who is struck by lightning and begins to age in reverse with advanced intelligence, his genius with linguistics taking him close to the root of human consciousness. In directing this project, his first in 10 years and at a very small budget and scale, Coppola was also treading back to his youth, a theme that he's often dealt with (The Godfather trilogy, Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married, Life Without Zoe, Dracula, and Jack are all about Time), but experiencing it as a craftsman, embracing innovation and new techniques without the pressures to make anything commercial. Critics were unkind, Owen Gleibermann even naming Youth Without Youth the worst film of 2007. But his subsequent film, Tetro, about a writer (Vincent Gallo) from an artistic family who has hidden himself away from creativity so as to evade any criticism or exposure, revels in emotion as opposed to intellect, and works marvelously with its striking indulgences. Tetro is boundless in its approaches, with black and white noir expressionism, Tennessee Williams family melodrama, richly saturated color flashbacks, gorgeous theatrical and musical sequences, and spectral allusions to other films like Powell and Pressburger's Tales of Hoffman. Tetro is like Coppola, who has strayed from his personal vision for many years, giving himself over to the theatrical establishment as a mere technician, a talented hack. But at the conclusion, he overcomes his fear of the critics: he will create in spite of them. He will not create to make money, win accolades, or win Academy Awards. He will create because his soul demands it. The nakedness of Tetro feels uncomfortable at times, just as it is thrilling, as we are watching the artist dissect his own soul and famous family in front of us: we can recognize the vanity of Carmine, Francis, and August in more than one character apiece, just as we may see Nicolas Cage in Tetro as much as we see Francis – the artist who changed his last name to separate himself.

This kind of creativity is undoubtedly indebted to the path Sofia has taken and will continue to take, and as Francis, 71, is perhaps running out of time, we can hope to see more of his raw, beautiful, flawed, and indulgent art and wonder how far along he would be if he had taken this independent small-scale route earlier, perhaps immediately after Dracula – or why not immediately after Godfather II? He has already finished filming his third independent Zoetrope production, Twixt Now and Sunrise, a horror film with Val Kilmer and Elle Fanning. As long as there are wine drinkers, Coppola could probably care less that almost no one sees these pictures, and there's a kind of beauty in that.

I should then like to make a short word about the most "glamorous" of the Coppolas, Nicolas Cage. Son to Francis' older brother August, Nicolas impressed early on in films like Valley Girl and his uncle's productions of Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, and Peggy Sue Got Married. With each succeeding film of Francis, Nicolas Cage exhibited more courage and eccentricity, to the extent that his characterization as Kathleen Turner's doofus doo-wop singing boyfriend/husband in Peggy Sue roused as much controversy for its self indulgence – which I think we can call a habit natural to this family – as it did praise for its offbeat hilarity. He moved beyond his uncle's films and made similar indelible impressions elsewhere, really solidifying his relevance – at the age of 23 – in 1987 with the Coen brothers' comedy Raising Arizona and as the amorous one-handed lover of Cher in Norman Jewison's Moonstruck. Cage's film roles were unique and he played them with the same kind of ecstatic self-abandon that one sees in the best work of his uncle and cousin, the 1990s beginning with David Lynch's Wild at Heart (where Cage sings Elvis songs to Laura Dern) and some well-regarded comedies directed by Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas and Guarding Tess). 1995 was then his peak year, excellent in a supporting role as a brutal thug in Barbet Schroeder's remake of Kiss of Death, and then sweeping the awards season with his performance as a man bent on drinking himself to death in Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas, probably the best portrayal of alcohol abuse on screen since Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend.

But then something happened. I think Cage's descent into action movies in the late 1990s was at first not bad; actually, it was kind of fun to see him in The Rock and the wonderfully dumb Con Air (“Put the bunny down.”) Though far from a great movie, he is still electrifying in Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes; he makes a fine villain in John Woo's Face/Off. Nevertheless, during this period the eccentricity that distinguished Cage seemed to be evaporating as roles like National Treasure, Gone in 60 Seconds, Ghost Rider, etc. continued to emerge. The easy paycheck and Hollywood highs created a stigma on Cage. He moved through bad movies as quickly as he moved through marriages. At the present time, Cage is a joke for many in the intelligentsia because of his choices and brash persona, the same way that Tom Cruise is. But like Cruise, we should remember how when Cage has his family-given genius light on, he is dazzling; Scorsese used him to great effect in Bringing Out the Dead (1999); he was great as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in Spike Jonze's hybrid gonzo comedy Adaptation in 2002; he did very well as an obsessive compulsive con-man in Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men (2004); he aped Richard III and Richard Nixon in Werner Herzog's goofy near-masterpiece cop thriller The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in 2009; and he was a hoot as a crime-fighting dad in Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass last year.

And despite the continuation of bad choices like The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Season of the Witch, or as Ghost Rider 2 has just been announced in the trades this week, we should also remember how young Nicolas Cage is; at 46, he's got more than enough time to provide more Bad Lieutenants and Adaptations and Leaving Las Vegases in the future. Granted he may just be imposing himself to the Hollywood action simulacrum to pay off owed taxes, alimony, and child support, but his on-game shows that he also has the best of his family running through is veins, and we're foolish to dismiss him.

This barely covers this amazing family whose artistic endeavors mirror its own real-life history in so many poetic instances. I regret that I can't spend too much time on Jason Schwartzman, Talia Shire's son, whose career blossomed in 1998 with Wes Anderson's magnificent Rushmore. Schwartzman auditioned for the role of Max Fischer, a precocious and ambitious high school student who is too adult for his age as he flunks his classes while directing stage spectacles at the Rushmore Theatre and duels Bill Murray for the heart of a teacher (Olivia Williams). But there is so much of Schwartzman's uncle in the character of Max Fischer, a boy who basically puts Apocalypse Now on stage with the same spare-no-expense mentality and megalomaniacal vision, that I can't help but think that Wes Anderson recognized the skin-deep Coppola qualities of Schwartzman and knew an audition probably was unnecessary. Perhaps Fischer is as good a way to end here as any other, as Max Fischer in Rushmore is a projection of Francis Ford Coppola created by a director influenced by the Godfather, Anderson being a young man who grew up with the family's blossomings and downfalls throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Max Fischer is a genius just as he is a boy too easily ruled by irresponsible impulses and emotions, but there is so much heart in his "big shows" and unpractical dreams that he recalls the best of fairy tale heroes. So it is with Francis Ford Coppola, and the family extending from his fateful strides taken as a young man, and the closures he seeks as an old one.

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