"Beowulf" and "Youth Without Youth"
In 2006’s yearly recap column, I allowed myself a tie in my top ten list for the first time ever. It wasn’t just a tie, it was a tie for the #1 spot. In a year packed with, in my opinion, exceptional film product, I saw something in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” and David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” that indicated something unique: artistic progress.
At the time I wrote:
The art of filmmaking has stagnated. There are no two ways about it. Something good enough or even inspiring enough screens every year for audiences and critics, but nothing moves beyond that expected level of entertainment and/or narrative pleasantry. Nothing has attempted to push the medium toward another level of artistry in quite some time indeed, and filmmakers have settled into a steady, albeit accepted vein of typicality that seems almost as it should be. But it isn’t…and it shouldn’t.
2006 afforded two separate, diametrically opposed works of cinema that can finally be considered a part of another movement altogether. They are Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” and David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” and though qualification is a fool’s errand when it comes to each, both films combine to form the number one film-going experience of the year in this viewer’s opinion.”
2007 has so far been a strangely acceptable year for cinema. Lacking the spikes in quality I felt from many a film last year, the general flow has been characterized by wide-spread enjoyment at a large number of films, rather than passionate enjoyment of a select few. But when I came to the notion of reviewing two of the year’s steps forward, much like “The Fountain” and “Inland Empire,” I wanted to take a moment and digest them before going to print.
Robert Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth” are not brilliant pieces of filmmaking. They are difficult to qualify in the same way Aronofsy and Lynch’s films were, but they nonetheless fail, in many cases, where those films succeeded. There is, however, something exciting about what Zemeckis and Coppola, two veterans of the moving image, are doing this year in the shadow of Aronofsky and Lynch. There is, in fact, always something electric about an artist pushing theory and/or technology in the face of convention.
I realize these are dicey waters, drawing parallels between four films that are so very different. But I think this is the nature of an active movie-goer, picking up on the moments in the medium’s progression that symbolize something more than a finished product. Indeed, I sense something strong on the horizon. I won’t go so far as to prognosticate a “new wave,” but something is in the air regardless. But let’s look at the films.
“Beowulf” is exactly what Anne Thompson called it over the weekend: “good cheesy fun.” Zemeckis is playing with a lot of kitschy stuff here that has been lost in the critical community’s desire to anoint his film as “the future.” Nothing so serious can indicate such comedic trivialities, can it? Yet there she is, Angelina Jolie, essentially giving Beowulf’s sword a hand job until it melts in the most R-rated of fashion. There she is, rising out of the water wearing what appears to be stiletto heels (though I maintain they appear to be talons morphed backward in the APPEARANCE of stilettos). And there he is, Beowulf, naked as a jaybird while Zemeckis’ camera catches the right opportunities to conceal his grendel like a scene out of “Austin Powers.”
These moments are light-hearted and certainly “fun,” but they also take away from the levity the film aims for in other portions, specifically a denouement on the verge of exploding with thematic relevance. However, it isn’t the depth of the screenplay Zemeckis is aiming for here, it is the potential of the medium. And for the most part, he sticks the landing.
The eyes are lifeless. It is difficult to argue that unfortunate side effect of performance capture technology. Much of the drama throughout the film’s first two acts suffers due in some part to this, because one can’t sense a genuine connection between the characters. The third act, however, is when “Beowulf” springs to life like no film you have ever seen. The hero’s dragon duel contains a breath-taking moment around every turn, gives itself entirely to the 3-D environment and works together with Alan Silvestri’s amazing score like nothing I’ve seen since the creative action film explosion of the mid-90s. This is where Zemeckis pushes the envelope, and this is where “Beowulf” reflects the passion of an artist bored with the boundaries of his medium.
“Beowulf” is not a great film, but it is a great step toward wowing future audiences with the capabilities of a mere 100-year-old method of storytelling.
Where Zemeckis is taking daring steps with technology, Francis Ford Coppola is defying preconceptions of screenwriting in “Youth Without Youth,” perhaps the most ambitious film of the year. Taking off from the novella by Mircea Eliade, Coppola’s work gives some context to recent comments he has made regarding his colleagues’ lack of artistic hunger.
The film tells the story of Dominic (Tim Roth), a linguistics professor who survives a lightning strike only to find his youth rejuvenated and his intellect embossed. He seizes the opportunity to complete his search for the beginnings of human language, all the while capturing the attention of Nazis, falling in love and exploring the levels of human consciousness.
Yeah, it’s trippy. And it is foolish to give much more of a plot synopsis beyond that, because this film lives and breathes by its own rules.
The press notes for “Youth Without Youth” begin with an interview with Coppola, apparently being conducted by an alien (yes) striving to understand this notion of human consciousness as Coppola attempts to explain it. In doing so, the director explores the ideas himself and in many ways, that interview is a great lead-in to the film. It captures a lot of the mood and theme the director is striving for behind the camera and on the page.
The film FAILS COMPLETELY – but that isn’t the point. The point is how far and how thin Coppola stretched himself here. He seems to have done to his mind on “Youth Without youth” what he did to his body and psyche during the filming of “Apocalypse Now,” challenged it, destroyed it, dared it to come back for more, all the while nurturing it for doing just that.
The real star of the film is cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., who was charged with some captivating visual eccentricities. The camera never moves, by the way (beyond, I believe, one instance that included either a zoom or a dolly, I can’t tell which). This is unheard of in today’s filmmaking environment, but it was an interesting decision, given the demands it places on context and composition.
I knew upon seeing each of these films that I would not be able to complete a proper review for either, but I had to write something. “Beoowulf” and “Youth Without Youth” are their own worst enemies, but that is the hallmark of high art, I think. Neither deserves a medal for ultimate result, but both should be heralded for attempts at destroying the mold.
Thank God someone is doing it.