Monday, November 18, 2013

You think so, Bobby? You think they're, uh, they're evil sluts?

Twixt got me thinking about whether egocentrism is a necessary condition for a great artist. In the case of Francis Ford Coppola, his hubrise, grandiose ambitions and preoccupation with his own artistic persona have been evident throughout his body of work, and they largely motivate many of the best aspects of his films, as well as the worst. I can't help admiring Coppola's obvious, sincere desire to reinvent himself with almost every film rather than chasing his past success, even if it occasionally results in his disappearing up his own ass.* Twixt, the latest of Coppola's deliberate attempts at lower-budget, esoteric "student" filmmaking, frequently threatens to do just that - the movie always seems like it's just a moment away from becoming completely ridiculous, but that's also what makes it so compelling. It's a mess, but a fascinating mess, the kind of batshit experiment that perhaps only a great filmmaker with nothing to lose can make.

Coppola's surrogate protagonist is Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), a writer of trashy horror novels who is struggling with a strained marriage (Kilmer's ex-wife, Joanne Whalley, plays Baltimore's wife), money troubles, a drinking problem and unresolved grief over the accidental death of his teenage daughter. When visiting the small town of Swann Valley for a book signing, the sheriff (Bruce Dern), himself an aspiring horror writer, shares his suspicions that the town may have a vampire problem with Baltimore. This, coupled with a visit to a hotel where Edgar Allan Poe once stayed and a long night of drinking, causes Baltimore to have a dream (OR IS IT) about the mysterious hotel, a ghostly young girl (Elle Fanning) and a visit with Poe (Ben Chaplin) himself. The dream inspires Baltimore to start work on a new novel, and perhaps the best thing about Twixt is the way it captures the strange, internal journey of writing, constantly being in one's own head, eventually having to confront the most uncomfortable aspects of oneself in order to produce great work (or, as the hilarious final scene suggests, even pretty good work).

Coppola has always had these self-reflexive tendencies in his work - think of the scene where he inserts himself in Apocalypse Now with a film crew, announcing that it's a movie, or movies like One From the Heart or Dracula that are at once nakedly personal and preoccupied with the artifice of the creative process. One of the most revealing aspects of Twixt is that his artist surrogate is a hack who knows he's doing commercial hackwork, and the suggestion is that, as deep as he goes to write his latest book, it's no less schlocky than the rest of his work. Keep in mind that this is a movie by a director who has always seemed slightly embarrassed by the pulpy, crowd-pleasing origins of his most beloved movie, who made two sequels that deliberately subvert the things that made the first one popular (with varying degress of success, obviously), and who has always held onto (and is realizing, now more than ever) his dream of being a truly independent filmmaker. That Twixt is largely an homage to Coppola's mentor, Roger Corman, and a callback to Coppola's first movie, the Corman-produced Dementia 13, makes a lot of sense in this light. It's a case of a filmmaker no longer concerned with critical acclaim or distinctions between good and bad taste, throwing all these crazy ideas of his at the wall and seeing what sticks. And not all of it does, but it's exciting to watch it all splat against the wall.

This recklessness extends to the technical aspects of the film as well - the digital cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is sharp to the point of artificiality, and the use of greenscreen, surreal digital effects and weird, ambient sound design and music are so unabashedly kitschy that they transcend kitsch and become...I don't know what, but fascinating in ways that transcend our normal understanding of "good" and "bad" filmmaking. The performances are deliberately arch and theatrical, and Val Kilmer is given the opportunity to both play scenes of authentic grief and despair and do impressions of Marlon Brando and a gay basketball player from the '60s. Not all of it works, even in a metatextual way - a barely realized subplot about Satan-worshipping bikers that look like a Goth remake of The Outsiders is pretty painful, and there's a scene involving an Ouija board that provokes bad laughs. They're forgivable missteps, though, the byproduct of an artist truly pushing himself out of his comfort zone. A lot of the negative reviews of Twixt complained that it's an old fogey's idea of rebellious filmmaking, but to me that's precisely its charm. When I read about Coppola's aborted attempt to make this an interactive, Choose Your Own Adventure-style film, his disastrous attempt to pull this off at, of all places, Comic Con, and how he imagined and dictated the entire story on his iPhone when he was drunk in Istanbul, I'm filled with affection for the guy.

At the heart of Twixt is how Baltimore's creative process leads him to confront the memory of his daughter's death and incorporate it into his work. The details in the movie closely mirror the death of Coppola's eldest son, Gian Carlo, in a boating accident in 1986. This is the director's most naked expression of his grief and guilt over such an unimaginable loss; the dark joke is that it's that the catharsis the main character needs to experience to make the enormous creative leap of writing about vampires instead of witches. It's possible to read this all cynically, that Coppola is saying that artists mine our most personal, painful experiences for work that ultimately serves no greater purpose than fleeting entertainment for audiences who don't give a damn about the process. But Coppola's always been a romantic at heart, and I take the opposite reading out of it - all art, no matter how trashy, that comes from a personal place is valuable in a way that matters more than the reviews or sales. It's a great message, and while not every aspect of Twixt is successful, it's one of the most unpredictable and alive movies I've seen this year. It's funny, I began this review with the notion that Twixt was a flawed but fascinating experiment, but writing about it has already bumped it up half a star in my estimation; I suspect it's going to be a rewarding movie to revisit as time goes by.

*Then again, I feel more strongly than ever that we place way too much importance on an artist's consistency. Failure is an inevitable part of taking real risks, and the least successful parts of a movie like Twixt are still more interesting to me than predictable competence. At the very least, Coppola has become far more interesting than his protege, George Lucas, actually making the kinds of experimental movies Lucas claims he wants to make while he instead spends his time producing Red Tails and selling his legacy to Disney. But that's another topic for another day.

P.S.: Be sure to check out Bill Ryan and Keith Uhlich's four-part conversation about Twixt, which helped a great deal in clarifying my own response to the film.