This is a new film from Frances Ford Coppola, the first he has made in a
I had better pause there for you to collect your thoughts. I suppose you
are now wondering why you have never heard of a film made by one of the
greatest living directors. You may also be wondering why one of the greatest
living directors would come out of comfortable retirement to make a film you
would never hear of.
Fair questions, both.
Let's backtrack a bit.
When Coppola was a young man, he created four of the greatest films ever
made (IMDb scores before the name):
- (9.10) -
- (9.00) -
Part II (1974)
- (8.60) -
- (8.10) -
At 8.1, The Conversation is rated the lowest of the four at IMDb, but is
still ranked #181 of all time as I write this, and was nominated for the Best
Picture Oscar, as were the other three. During the same era Coppola also won a
screenwriting Oscar for his script for Patton, another film which was
nominated for Best Picture and is ranked in the all-time top 250 at IMDb.
Coppola not only made great movies, but he made them with commercial
mainstream appeal and the ability to make money for himself and his investors.
All of that happened in the 1970s, before Coppola turned 40. Film buffs
dreamed of the future projects Coppola would give to the world.
Never happened. The rest of his life has been spent wondering why he could
never live up to the promise of his youth, or at least match the achievements
of that period. Here is that meditation expressed in his own words:
"What could be the reason that the same person, later in life, is unable to
compete with himself as a younger artist? Is anything missing at all, or is
the answer simpler — that each person is given only one or two truly worthy
ideas, like a couple of arrows in a quiver. When such ideas come on the scene
in an exciting work of art, it appears like magic; it's news. Critics and
journalists require fresh blood for their own professions, and so it's
understandable that a new artist with a new idea is seized up and catapulted
into fame . This is true, also, for a series of works from one artist: a
trilogy or tetralogy. Aren't the fourth books of The Alexandria Quartet or
Mishima's The Sea of Tranquility the weakest of the group? Could it be that
the ideas and innovations of the first or second book have already been
demonstrated and are played out by time the last are written? Originally, I
didn't intend to make more than one Godfather film; yet economic forces at the
studio were insistent: "Francis, you have the formula for Coca-Cola; are you
not going to make more?" But the first film expended most of the arrows in my
quiver or, more aptly, the slugs in my revolver. So, the second film had to
stretch into new and more ambitious territory to show a few more; otherwise,
it would have been weaker than the first. By the time the third arrived, the
basic ideas that made the first fresh and excited were all but used up."
When not ruminating thusly, Coppola has spent a great deal of the past
three decades working on, or at least noodling over, the film he hoped would
be his life's great masterwork, Megalopolis, a story about a future New York
City built as a utopia upon the ruins of the old city after a great financial
collapse. Coppola envisioned Megalopolis as a mega-project in the $200 million
budget range. Sources have reported the existence of a 200 page script,
indicating a film about three and a half hours long. Although Coppola has recovered
comfortably from the financial havoc wreaked on his life by One From the
Heart, he does not have the kind of personal wealth necessary to finance
such a film himself, and he has not been able to persuade anyone else to pick
up the tab, so he has more or less resigned himself to accept that his
masterpiece will never be made.
Lost youth and an unfinished masterpiece. Hold those thoughts.
Some time ago Coppola stumbled upon an obscure novella
Tinereţe fără tinereţe
(Youth Without Youth) by the famous Romanian
The story involves a 70-year-old professor who fears that his proximity to
death will prevent him from ever completing his masterwork on the origin of
languages. There are many who say that he never lived up to the great promise
he showed as a youth. In addition, he is haunted by having lost the best parts
of his youth, particularly his true love. Suddenly he is struck by lightning
in 1938, and through what can only be described as a miracle, the meta-surge
of electricity restores his body to age 35.
Can you see what attracted Coppola to this project?
From what I have revealed so far, you are probably thinking, "This could be
a great movie. One of the greatest filmmakers of all is returning to the
writer's desk and the director's chair to create a story for which he has a
great personal passion, and which touches him deeply. On top of that, it's a
great Romanian novel and he's actually traveling there to film it. What a
Yes, it could have been a great movie. It isn't. The explanation for that
lies in the fact that the
great director is not a great writer. It is one thing to feel a deep emotional
connection to a literary work, and it is quite another to be able to translate
that into worthwhile cinema. This is, to be blunt, one of the most muddled
scripts ever written. I'll just give you some samples.
When the professor becomes young again he ruins into a double of the woman
he lost in his youth. Or perhaps it is the same woman and she was also struck
by rejuvenating lightning. Or maybe she is the reincarnation of a Indian
princess. Or maybe she is just possessed by the spirit of a woman from the
14th century. Or maybe she is all women from all time, because the spirit or
spirits inside her seem to be moving farther and farther back in time.
Whatever the explanation, fate can certainly be cruel, because just as our
rejuvenated scholar is starting to care about life again, his once and current
love starts slipping in and out of various eras, and suddenly starts to become
old and decrepit at an accelerated rate while the professor remains young.
There are Nazis who want to study the professor's rejuvenation, and a
beautiful Nazi spy send to seduce him. You'd think the acknowledged genius might have suspected what
she was up to, since she wasn't much of a spy. She was wearing swastika
garters. (I'm not kidding.) And then there are the professor's other selves who appear as
Jekyll/Hyde characters, or perhaps as the Christian good and bad angels, who
speak to him (or inside him) constantly. Since he lives for several more
decades after the lightning strikes him, and never seems to start aging again,
he starts to acquire a God complex, a belief that he may live forever and can
acquire all possible human knowledge - and we think it may be possible, since
he also seems to have acquired the magical ability to absorb the contents of
any book merely by touching it. He has other super-powers as well. Layer in
all sorts of languages and metaphysics from both Eastern and Western
civilizations, and add a completely mystifying ending, and you have the makings
of an astoundingly confusing, and sometimes astoundingly pretentious film,
once that is virtually inaccessible to anyone who didn't actually write it.
It's the Finnegans Wake of films, as reinforced by the fact that I lost track
of how many languages are spoken in this film.
All the confusion and pretension is a real shame, because it's obvious that there could have been a
masterpiece here. It seemed like a perfect project to Coppola, and it seems to
me like a perfect project for Coppola.
There is great filmmaking on display here, for Coppola has lost little,
if anything, as a director. The problem is that he just had no idea how to
manage the rambling, internalized discourse on the many subjects Eliade had
mastered in many languages, ranging from linguistics to metaphysics to the
history of religion to the place of man in the universe. One cannot make a
film about everything, or even all the things in that last sentence, so
Coppola would have had to winnow all that down to a comprehensible and focused
movie which allowed us to understand and empathize with the characters. I
really believe this could have been a great film if Coppola had trusted a skillful
co-author to assist him in that process. Instead, it plays out just as you might
expect - as a brilliant student film, except one made by a student who just
happens to know more about filmmaking than any of his classmates or his
In Coppola's own words:
"I've begun to think that the only sensible way to deal with this dilemma
is to become young again, to forget everything I know and try to have the mind
of a student. To re-invent myself by forgetting I ever had any film career at
all, and instead to dream about having one. Certainly one advantage of 'youth'
in the arts is ignorance, to know so little as to be fearless. To not grasp
that certain things one may dream up are actually impossible to do. In the
arts, fearlessness is a more desirable genie than experience. Fearlessness is
cousin to innovation, whereas experience can be the parent of fear."
Yes, this film is fearless. Coppola obviously didn't care what the critics
would say about it. No problem there. Lord knows he's earned the right to make
personal little films, or his own type of Kieslowski films. The problem is
that he doesn't know how to write them.
Does this signal the end of Coppola's filmmaking career? I don't know.
Maybe. On the one hand, there are so many brilliant and evocative moments in
this film that you can feel how close he came to greatness and you want to see
him try again. On the other hand, it took him ten years to make this film, and
he turns 70 next year, so the math doesn't seem to add up in his favor.
botched adaptation is a bad portent. Think of Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut.
Think of what a great film that could have been if he had left the film
located in gas-lit Vienna, as the novella was. That would have eliminated the
film's glaring problems with character motivation (for example, a sheltered man back in
those days was far less prepared to deal with his wife's imagined infidelity),
and it would have closed up the plot holes (for example, there would have been
a real mystery about the fate of the pianist Nightingale, as opposed to one
that could be cleared up with a simple phone call). But Kubrick couldn't find
the great movie in that book, just as Coppola couldn't seem to find the great
movie in this book. When a great director leaves a great movie on the table,
especially one that touches him so personally, it may just be time for him to
pass the baton to the young guys.