Sunday, September 23, 2007

Youth Without Youth

* 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.


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.



Rose said...

Oy, this sounds like something the French would adore.

Joe Valdez said...

Coppola may not have managed to make a great film since the mid to late '70s, but I'll take One From The Heart or The Rainmaker over something based on a video game or directed by Brett Ratner any day of the year.

The finished quality of his films might not reflect it, but I think Coppola is one of the great directors of the last century. Just the way he worked with actors, with material, the sense of theatricality he tried to infuse his films with, and the fact that he built his own studio.

I tend to mumble if someone brings up Jack, but I hope his next couple of films get more people appreciating what he's accomplished in his career.

GimmeABreak said...

I know this is completely off-topic but my all-time fave mental image of Coppola is from the "making of" video that's part of Michael Jackson's Capt. EO (shown in 3D at Disneyland for ages). The shots of FFC showing MJ how he wants the dancing done are absolutely priceless!

Sorry - I return control of your TV to you...

Mim said...

Metaphysical discussions are a waste of time. Look at who has them. College professors who spend their time with books and colleagues.

The people interested in philosophy and stuff don't have to balance their checkbooks, take their kids to the doctor, fill out job applications, or worry how to pay for the new alternator so that their car will keep running.

They are people, in other words, without lives.

When I was in high school and college I was in love with philosophical discussions. I sat for hours talking about perception and time and other lofty topics. Then I had my first child and looked into her sleeping face.

These people use their philosophy to shield themselves from EMOTIONS: from the DRAMA of everyday life. But that's where the lessons lie: in life, not in dusty books.

Hopefully Francis will squeeze the juice out of this story, because it sounds as if the author couldn't face it.

Anonymous said...

JJ sez..

Gee, Mim, that's just about the most breathtaking combination of sentimentality, elitism and astonishing ignorance I've ever read.

Joshua said...


That wasn't me that wrote the above comment . . .

I just wanted to clarify since they signed JJ . . . it was someone else with the same initials I have.

I have no comment on this discussion . . .


Mim said...

Well, it was a pretty bold statement. I was bound to step on some toes.

GimmeABreak said...

Too bad the owner of the toes doesn't have the guts to sign his/her name.

Mickey Lee said...

I love this:

"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."

I always try to keep that in mind when I'm reading and reviewing scripts. It's difficult, to be sure.

And as for the anonymous poster, anyone who attacks someone else's character due to a difference in opinion is by definition elitist and ignorant.

Mystery Man said...

Rose - Hehehe... Probably.

Joe - I couldn't agree more. I loved the The Rainmaker, and now I'd like revisit Coppola's films of the 80's and see if my feelings have changed. I love him and his daughter's works, too.

Pat - Hehehe... I used to work at Captain EO, if you can believe that. I'm really dating myself. But I think I still have that film memorized and I could probably point out all of the little mistakes (and there were quite a few).

Mim - I support metaphysical discussions because I hope they'll finally crack time travel so that I can somehow meet and seduce any number of early Hollywood vixens. Hehehe...

JJ - Oh my! Let's play nice.

Joshua - How's that kid of yours? Are you sleepin well? Hehehe...

Mickey - Thanks. I recall Roger Ebert making similar comments on rare occasions in his reviews. He would criticize other critics on how they talk too much about the film they WANTED to see as opposed to considering the one that the director made. Exactly! True with us, too, I think.


Laura Deerfield said...

Quick comment, having only skimmed your post and not really read it yet: Eliade wasn't best known for his fiction, but for his scholarly texts - though there are some who claim that the latter include a bit of the former.

Did my undergraduate thesis on his book "Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy" - and I can't imagine a novel by him. I didn't think his writing was all that stellar, as writing, though the ideas were interesting.

I'd also suspect his fiction of being a bit propagandistic, since he very much had an agenda. (One of the basic tenets at the core of his investigations into religion was the idea that the human mind does not think in actual linear terms, or value actual history - but only values mythological "events" and so performs rituals and such that re-enact these events.

He was an interesting thinker, though a "loose" scholar - but not a great writer at any time. If he were, you'd think he would have been able to actually apply the structure of myth to his own writings.

I can see using something Youth Without Youth as a springboard, but can't quite imagine actually adapting it to a film.

That said, I'm still curious to see what Coppola does with it.

(And I've noticed a trend in art - that the girl who was loved and lost, who is unobtainable or gone, is often named Laura. Like the Sinatra tune, not to mention the Preminger movie. What's up with that?)

Mim said...

Enjoyment of any movie is subjective, to say the least. I try to remember that when I talk about a movie I didn't enjoy.

And, MM, you say you enjoy metaphysical discussions because they might lead to some tangible reward. You might be trying to take the bite out of what JJ said, so I thank you. But don't most philosophers enjoy the process of discussing itself?

I guess what I was trying to say is that I used to enjoy the process of mental exploration. But getting married and having kids was a much richer experience for me. So listening to people philosophize always reminds me that I, in MY OPINION, wasted those hours and days of my youth sitting around discussing things, when I could have been out doing something.

If philosophizing and having metaphysical discussions is an emotionally rich experience for you, then enjoy the process. I can't any more. I'd rather take my dog for a walk. It gives me greater insight into life.

Back in the days when I enjoyed philosophizing, I watched the films of Igmar Bergman. Metaphysical and philosophical discussions take up large parts of his movies. Jons and Death discussing life over a chess game, etc.

Then there are movies such as Like Water for Chocolate, in which the philosophical concepts are brought out visually, through the never-ending blanket for instance. I feel these have a much greater impact because the transition medium of words is bypassed.

So I hope Francis will find a way to render the intellectual concepts of Youth Without Youth visually, and not put characters into long discussions. In other words, squeeze the juice out of it.

bob said...

The book sounds like a great set up for a story. I suppose the extent FFC is willing to extend these beginnings will determine what this will become. Hey, if he needs any hired screenwriting guns on this story, I'm available and I've got some ideas, he he he.

As usual MM, awesome stuff. Your knowledge and understanding of this screenwriting stuff is unreal.

wcdixon said...

Fascinating discourse...

Laura Deerfield said...

I hope Francis will find a way to render the intellectual concepts of Youth Without Youth visually, and not put characters into long discussions. In other words, squeeze the juice out of it.

That is the challenge in adapting any work from the written word to the screen, and especially so in cases where the text is non-linear and/or non-narrative.

I love Like Water for Chocolate - one of the rare cases where the film surpasses the book. Another case where an adaptation succeeded by departure from, rather than faithfulness to the text is Blade Runner.

The director (IMO) who best succeeded at making films that explored philosophical concepts in an emotional/visual story was Kieslowski. Red, with the theme of Equality, is a story of human connection, and the way our need for it ultimately equalizes us all. That's a big idea, and it's shown rather than talked about - making it much more powerful than some talking heads.

Part of the apparent problem with "Youth Without Youth" however, seems not to simply be that the concepts are primarily in written form, but that the "novel" is a string of musings, rather than a story. It would (probably) have been more effective if Eliade had used conflict to bring about situations which demonstrated the ideas, or put them to a test somehow...

I do hope that Coppola decides to depart from the book and create something fresh from the concept, rather than remaining faithful to what seems (from the description and quotes here) to be a flawed text.

gnosior said...

First, most of Eliade's fiction was written in Romanian though he also had a fluent command of French, German, Italian and later learned English.. Having read most of it in original 15 years ago and loved it - the English translation of Youth without Youth seems very dry and didn't like it a bit. This might however be not the fault of the translation but a more subtle expectation on the reader's affinity with the world described. Also the same as with fairy tales and poetry - a lot of the message is tied to the language and is not universal at all. Myself, I love Dostoevsky and Cervantes but can't understand Shakespeare and most of the English based literature other than at a superficial level, so I expect the reverse would happen for others.

For me his stories are very emotional. For example the title - it's untranslatable - there's a popular fairy tale that every child is hearing very early in life - it's called (my translation is very aprox here) "Youth without Aging and Life without Death". It's about a prince that is born only when the king promises him Youth Without Aging and Life Without Death (this sounds awful in English but very nice in original) . When he's 15 he asks for his born gift and the king admits he doesn't have it. The prince than starts to travel the world looking for this gift. He finds it eventually after going through a number of beautiful told adventures and he also finds a princess he loves. However there's the forbidden place where he shouldn't go - the Valley of Tears. Without keeping any tension - once he mistakenly sets foot there - the desire to go back home takes on him. The last part of the story deals with his way back not being able to recognize the world he travel through on his way here. To him that's most troublesome as it seems only yesterday he has seen these places. When he arrives back home - it finds it deserted and sees flashbacks contrasting the beautiful world from his childhood with the emptiness he sees now. Upon opening the last standing door the Death - with a weak voice tells him - Welcome Back and with a breath turns him into ashes.

As this might sound silly for a grown up - for a child the magic and power of these stories are life changing events.

This is just one example of how the story's untold threads are making it so beautiful to me.

Mystery Man said...

Dix - Hey, man! Thanks so much!

Laura - What the hell is wrong with you? I'm surrounded by really smart people, which makes me happy, and I would obviously classify you as one of the smart kids. You obviously "get it" when it comes to the craft, except you are the only one whose scripts I haven't seen yet. We should put that really smart brain of yours to good work. I need to be fed by something dramatic and visual by you. And if your undergraduate thesis was on the "Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy", man, I CAN'T WAIT until I see that script. Hehehe...

Mim - I didn't say I enjoyed metaphysical discussions. I don't know if I've ever had one. I've had some metaphysical sex, though. Hehehe... I'm okay with others having those discussions so long as it helps to crack the problem with time travel. And it is a serious issue that needs to be resolved very soon. Hehehe... I do enjoy the mental exploration of the craft of screenwriting, though, but I'm single by choice.

gnosior - Well, hello! I loved your comment. I have no doubt you're correct about the beauty of his words being lost in the translation, and I so very much appreciate your time sharing those thoughts with me. There are quite a few English authors I read for the prose, not so much the stories - Salman Rushdie one of them. He's controversial, I know, but the man has such a superb mastery of the English language, which can be quite moving even if his stories tend to be all over the place at times. My problem with Eliade's novella was probably mine. I was looking for and expecting all the wrong things, I guess. "Youth Without Aging and Life Without Death" doesn't sound that bad to me in English. That sounds really great, actually. I'll look for it.


Joshua said...

I agree with King, in that writing IS time travel, writing IS magic, and taking it to the next level, writing then, in a sense, IS metaphysical discussion . . . and I get great enjoyment talking about it . . . tho' there's no direct evidence STORY can solve tragic world issues, I have a small, tiny, metaphysical belief that it might, it just might be possible.

It just might.

Hey MM, the kid is great . . . really, I'm a bit blown away, even though I'm a bit of a tough guy, it hit home hard . . . it's a great thing when one is ready for it, creating a new generation.

We gotta do some mo' talking soon, 'bout writing 'tings, right?

Back to work . . .

Mystery Man said...

Laura - By the way, I meant to say "what's wrong with this picture," not "what's wrong with you." It was meant to sound funny, not so confrontational. A bit horrified by that mistake. SO sorry!

Josh - Yeah, man! Happy to do it, of course. Geez, I don't know if I'll ever be ready for something like THAT. Ohh, man... I have no doubt you'll be a great father.


Laura Deerfield said...

MM - I wasn't offended, and your remark is more on the money than you know.

Mystery Man said...

Yeah, well, send me a script! I can't wait to read one, and the longer you wait, the higher my expectations will be. Hehehe...


Anonymous said...

What I find most interesting about Youth Without Youth is the risks that Coppola is taking with this picture. He's truly trying something different, adapting a book that doesn't have the typical movie structure. Depending on your definition of success, will it "succeed"? I have no clue, but I applaud him for trying. Even if it doesn't happen with this Coppola film I do believe that the structure of films will eventually metamorphosize into something different. Why in movies do we need the X act structure, with tons of exposition and buildup here, climax here, etc. Looking at other art forms makes me think that's possible, music (Philip Glass, Brian Eno), art(the impressionist movement), etc. Even Stanley Kubrick was thinking about changing the form of films as well:
(around 4:08)

- Joe (The other one ;) )

Mystery Man said...

Hey, Joe - I completely agree, and I likewise want to applaud Coppola for trying something completely different. Why not? I honestly can't wait to see the film. When it comes to structure, I haven't written at length about it yet. I'm not exactly one for structure, believe it or not, but when it comes to NEW writers, I do think they should master the 3-act first before trying something different. Altman, Bergman, Fellini, etc, all spent years mastering the 3-act before wandering into new waters, and I think there's wisdom in that.

Funny you should bring up Kubrick. I just posted a "Best Of" article about his Napoleon screenplay. Don't get me started.

Thanks, man.


gnosior said...

Italian trailer:

Mystery Man said...

Thanks for that. Loved the visuals. I'm very excited about it.