Wednesday, June 17, 2009


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Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro really shouldn't be watchable at all. The story of crippled princelings setting things to right with love smacks of the fairy tale, which is fine, I guess, for opera, the form Tetro keeps throwing itself against. But the actual storytelling in the movie is kind of a mess---after an efficient first act, plot points get raised distractingly and connected obscurely, information about the characters is taken for granted, and the dialogue often thuds its ways through Big Themes and narrative repetition (the words "on the boat" are repeated like the cast has been assigned tongue twisters).

What makes it hold together is that the whole movie is so utterly, tongue-dryingly beautiful. The black and white---choke!---videography fills every shot with a range of shade and texture that I didn't think even HD video could pull off. The high-definition online trailers don't convey quite how stunning it is on the big screen; this, even more than Che, is the movie that convinces me that DV is ready to take over from film visually, not just economically. And the framing, replete with shadows, mirrors, and careful balancing of elements, pulses with compositional intelligence---nearly any still captures the movie's themes of doubleness, dominance, and foreignness better than all the family shouting matches.

The film's full of the things that make a film enjoyable long before it makes any sense---visual ravishment, eruptions of comedy and eroticism, and a sure-footed forward momentum. It also helps that all the performances are as good as in anything Coppola's ever directed (yes, including that)---he knows how to give actors enough stage business to keep their performances natural, and when to give them space to roll. It's no surprise that Maribel Verdu continues to be both an intelligent performer and spectacularly hot, but it's equally great to see Vincent Gallo do some of his most generous scene-work ever, as though he's finally ready to stop being a performer and become an actor. Some of the dirty jokes risk descending into late-Bertolucci satyriasis, but they're presented with such delight that it's impossible to stay mad.

Honestly, I'm glad that Tetro doesn't bother to solve its narrative problems. There's something liberating about seeing a film at once so aesthetically accomplished, so obviously personal, and so blithely not giving a fuck whether you're following along. What Coppola wants is to move you, and a good Catholic boy knows that the best way to do that is to dazzle the eyeballs right out of your skull.

Coppola, like Tetro's title character, is an artist who's been tormented by both the success and the failure of his art---under the huffing and puffing of his 90s films, you could feel his yearning to sit like Harry Caul, peacefully playing saxophone amidst the wreckage of his career. The story's strange elisions---the way themes are abruptly yanked into play, the way plot points get taken for granted, even the characters' somnambulistic tendency to seemingly forget the explosions that happened in the previous scene---don't seem like failures of craft so much as the inarguable, inscrutable decisions of an individual language. Even the movie's oddest narrative jump---how Bennie goes from wanting to be saved by Tetro, to wanting revenge on Tetro, to wanting to save Tetro---seems in retrospect like a perfectly accurate depiction of the family, where love and punishment often twine together too closely to ever be put in sequence.

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