* Spoilers *
We first heard rumors of Coppola’s Megalopolis script. We knew that his story drew upon mythology and a woman who was a student of mythology and that there was a male protagonist who had the ability to stop time while he alone remained awake and active, “a variant of Peggy Sue’s unique experience and a power that Francis had arranged for him to use in fiendishly cunning ways,” said Wendy Doniger, a longtime friend and scholar, as quoted in Zoetrope magazine.
But in draft after draft, the story kept spinning away from him.
So Wendy hooked Francis up with a book called “Youth Without Youth” by Mircea Eliade, because similar themes were explored in Eliade’s novella. Well, Francis leaped at the chance to adapt it.
Some of my more devoted readers may recall that we had a discussion here last February over some remarks Coppola had made in the diary portion of the film’s official website. And I think his words are still fascinating enough to be shared again:
“I've been thinking about what seems to be a repeating pattern: artists who distinguish themselves when they are young, and then never can quite reach those levels again. There are many examples, especially in literature, the theater, and of course in film. I think of some of the greats I've admired in my own life: Tennessee Williams, who wrote THE GLASS MENAGERIE and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE when he was in his thirties and then was tormented by critics as well as himself for failing to match those achievements later in life; Norman Mailer, who was twenty-five when he wrote THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, and kept working, reaching ever upward and not quite making it; Joseph Heller, who wrote CATCH-22 in 1961 and never topped it; J. D. Salinger, who wrote his two great books and stories early on and then nothing; and many others, including poets and playwrights who took their own lives rather than face the fact that their creative summits seemed to have passed. Many artists arrive at what seems to be the peaks of their careers when they are quite young, and though they try hard, find that in the eyes of critics, their readers or audiences, and perhaps even themselves -they never match or outdo the work of their youth. Even the great Fellini tormented himself over what he felt were a series of failures beginning with GUILETTA DEGLI SPIRITTI. But there have been exceptions, of course - few but great. Think of Shakespeare, who continually seemed to be able to reinvent himself; and Akira Kurosawa, who made magnificent films throughout his long life despite great periods of depression. Braque never was able to outdo the work of his younger self, but his colleague Picasso did. And when Giuseppe Verdi was eighty years old and considered at the end of a beloved career, he astonished all with the great work FALSTAFF. Why is this? What are the reasons? Is it only that genius at the level of Shakespeare, Verdi, Kurosawa and Picasso is as rare and precious as it would seem, or are there other factors as well?”
“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. When I finished Apocalypse Now I of course thought ‘If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have even tried...’ Certainly old age brings ‘experience’ and that is not to be discounted, but in the arts, fearlessness is a more desirable genie than experience. Fearlessness is cousin to innovation, whereas experience can be the parent of fear. Once you've fallen out of the tree a few times; felt the pain of those bruised knees and suffered the embarrassment of the inevitable ridicule —it's much more difficult to be as daring in what you do, or even what you attempt to do.”
In a recent piece in the NY Times, A.O. Scott pointed out:
“Mr. Coppola’s record through the ’80s — at the moment everybody’s least favorite decade in the history of American cinema — is disappointing only when held up against his work in the ’70s. Nobody will argue that “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986), “Gardens of Stone” (1987) and “Tucker: The Man and his Dream” (1988) are masterpieces, but they hold up pretty well. Kathleen Turner, James Caan and Jeff Bridges are all in good form, and if the movies were underappreciated in their time, it was in no small part because the man who directed them had, not so long before, made “The Conversation” and the first two “Godfather” pictures in a three-year span. In other words, it may have been the burden of the big career that made it hard for Mr. Coppola to carve out a medium-size career as a maker of moderately ambitious, high-quality commercial movies.”
So what do you do? Do you keep going and take the hits or aspire to create more masterpieces at the risk of financial security? I’ll say this – I don’t agree with the idea that you forget everything and start over late in your career. Whatever you work on at ANY stage of your career, keep it simple and pursue a mastery of the craft. Apply everything you know to every new story you work on, do the very best you can EVERY TIME, and let the chips fall where they may.
YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH
Okay, the story involves “Dominic Matei, a professor whose life changes after a cataclysmic incident during the dark years prior to World War II.” In other words, he got struck by lightning and by some medical miracle, he’s young again. Hence, youth without youth - he’s young again without actually being young. Wonderful! LOVE the concept! I have 5 outlines about stories involving a return to youth in some fashion, and I couldn’t wait to read the book. But this damn thing is not available anywhere in the U.S. Well, during my recent disappearance, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Eliade’s novella (in English no less!), which I read in one sitting.
I have no idea how anyone could possibly adapt this book.
There is very little about this novella that makes it a “story” in any traditional sense of the word. The setup of Matei becoming young again, kinda like Solaris, was just an excuse to have a string of philosophical and/or metaphysical discussions. The “story” does move forward, not because a plot moves forward, but because time moves forward from about 1938 to 1968. After the inciting incident of the lightning strike, a Professor takes an interest in Matei in the hospital. As Matei slowly recovers, there are flashbacks to his past and a woman he loved and lost. Once re-awakened, both Matei and the Professor quickly realize he’s miraculously young again. This once 80-year-old man remembers everything he's ever learned with incredible precision. Word spreads about his amazing story. The world becomes fascinated. The Gestapo wants to take him away for experiments. The hospital is surrounded by mysterious men scrutinizing Matei’s every move. And Matei can’t go back to his old life because all of his friends think he’s dead. He has to find a way to start anew and avoid all of this attention.
But then nothing happens. We skip ahead to a few years. The threat of the Gestapo never played out. We’re told that the Professor had died. Other men who had taken an interest in him while he was in the hospital are dead, too, from WWII. Matei is in another city, and we’re never told how he managed to sneak out of the hospital. Eliade highlights a few moments throughout Matei’s new young life where certain individuals or reporters recognize him but those encounters won't lead to anything else. Matei has no goals (in the traditional narrative sense) except to abandon his previous life’s work, avoid getting noticed, and drift through his new life while trying to come to terms with what's happened to him on a philosophical, metaphysical level. Thus, we're fed one intellectual discussion after another. Here’s a sample. Matei talks to himself (this'll explains the roses):
“He came to, laughing, and sat bolt upright. For several moments he looked around, then whispered, pronouncing the words slowly: ‘So, I’ve come back again to my old passion, philosophy. Will I ever succeed in demonstrating logically the reality of the exterior world? Idealistic metaphysics still seems to me today to be the only perfectly coherent construct.’ We’ve gotten off our subject, he heard the voice say. The problem was not the reality of the exterior world, but the objective reality of the ‘double’ or the guardian angel – pick any term that suits you. Isn’t that true? Very true. I can’t believe in the objective reality of the 'person' with whom I’m conversing; I consider him my 'double.' In a sense, that’s what he is. But that doesn’t mean he does not exist in an objective way, independently of the consciousness whose projection he appears to be. I’d like to be convinced, but… I know, in metaphysical controversies empirical proofs have no value. But wouldn’t you enjoy receiving, right now, in a moment or two, a few fresh roses picked from the garden? Roses! he exclaimed with feeling and some trepidation. I’ve always liked roses. Where would you like me to put them? Not in the glass, at any rate… No, he replied. Not in the glass. But a rose in my right hand, as I’m holding it now, open, and another on my knee. And a third, let’s say…
“At that moment he suddenly found himself holding between his fingers a beautiful rose the color of fresh blood, and on his knee, in an unstable balance, another was rocking…”
It’s not until the end of Matei’s life around 1960 that Eliade even indulges in a philosophical discussion about what to do with time. You’d think that discussion would’ve taken place when Matei first discovered he was young again. In any case, by all the photos I’ve seen and the trailer, it appears that Francis is actually staying quite faithful to the book. As best as I can gather, this could be the structure we'll see:
1) Matei is struck by lightning.
2) As he slowly recovers, there are flashbacks to his younger life and a girl he once loved (and lost) named Laura.
3) They figure out he’s young again. Tensions rise due to the fast approaching Gestapo. At one point, he slips out to be with a hooker who turns out to be an informant for the Gestapo.
4) He escapes. Fastforward a few years. He falls in love with a new girl, Veronica (who is like Laura and played by the same actress). Veronica also had an incident with lightning. She slips in and out of different realities and can speak Sanskrit, Ancient Egyptian, and Babylonian.
5) They part for the sake of her health.
6) We move ahead to the end of his life. A discussion about time. Matei invents an entirely new language to record his ideas, a language decipherable only by a futuristic computer program.
7) He dies. He thinks of Laura.
A.O. Scott wasn’t kidding when he wrote, “The plot of Youth Without Youth is an otherworldly blend of moods and genres” or that it “bristles with restless, perhaps overreaching intellectual ambition, and without being overtly autobiographical, it feels intensely & earnestly personal.”
Well, I cannot criticize Eliade’s book. I am not qualified and I cannot say that there’s anything wrong with creating a setup like this in a book for the sake of having a lot of metaphysical discussions. In a film, I can't recommend it. In the hands of an amateur, this screams "lots of talk." In the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, we know he'll turn this into as beautiful and cinematic an experience as he can muster.
The problems I had with the book may be my own fault, really, because I am so accustomed to traditional structures with horizontal planes of development. I just wasn’t that interested in the metaphysical aspects of it – I wanted to feel the heart of the story. I wanted to feel the joy of being young again and see how Matei changed and how he used this blessing of extra time, and I was never quite satisfied. Since Matei spent so much of his first youth devoting himself to becoming brilliant (and in the process losing the love of his life), I wanted to explore emotionally how his brilliance was put to good use the second time around. I wanted him to really fall in love again and do it right and I just wasn’t satisfied with Veronica. His time with her was designed to be more of a metaphysical conundrum than a human story.
Does this mean that the film will be terrible? I have no idea. I can’t help but admire the wild, blind courage of Coppola to tackle a story like this, and I’ll be first in line to see the film. And I'll try to forget what I wanted and didn't get out of the book. Sometimes I wonder if we don't judge films/scripts too harshly because they're not the films/scripts WE would've created, as opposed to considering, on its own terms, the one that the director/screenwriter created.
Even if he fails, I won’t care. When it comes to Coppola, I’ll take the bad with the good. I’d rather him fail and keep trying than to see him do nothing at all. To hell with embarrassment.