Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro (16 screens) has been lurking on a few arthouse screens all summer, pulling in less than half a million dollars to date, and earning mostly lukewarm reviews from the handful of critics that bothered to see it. Rotten Tomatoes has 55 reviews on file for it, as compared to the 267 reviews for Star Trek (307 screens). In any Hollywood book, that's pretty much a dud, not even worthy of a moment's cocktail conversation. But in my book, it's a triumph of creativity over career. Coppola is 70 as I write this, and no longer the young stallion that won an Oscar in 1970 (for his Patton screenplay) and went on to create the biggest blockbuster of its time -- and one of the greatest films ever made at a major studio -- The Godfather (1972).
Even when Coppola made that in his early 30s, he had already directed five other films -- one with Fred Astaire -- and one other that is considered a minor classic of indie filmmaking, The Rain People. He was cocky and full of gusto. He intimidated the suits and convinced them that he knew more than they did. Now, he takes meetings with suits that are the same age as the suits were when he made The Godfather, except that he's much older now, and has a much harder time convincing them that he knows more than they do. (This time he actually does, but try convincing any 30 year-old that they know less than a 70 year-old.) So he's stuck, like many other directors his age.
Many of the great directors from the celebrated 1970s renaissance of American films have a hard time getting jobs now, at least the ones who are still alive, which is a sad state of affairs. William Friedkin, who is far more talented than anyone gives him credit for -- perhaps even more talented than Coppola -- has made a scant four theatrical features in the past 14 years, and his last one, Bug, was a near-masterpiece that was practically ignored. Peter Bogdanovich has lately made money through acting and through his expertise on and friendship with some of the great studio directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, but his The Cat's Meow (2001), was a very good, mostly overlooked film. This trend continues backward to Welles himself, who struggled to fund most of his final half-dozen films.
Which is why Coppola's Tetro is such a major achievement. Funded entirely by foreign investors and self-distributed in the United States, it's a losing proposition, with almost no chance of ever gaining back its $15 million budget. But future historians will care nothing about that, other than to suggest that critics of our time were stupid not to appreciate it. It's a highly personal work, challenging and daring and refreshingly unconventional; it exists almost out of time with our hype-driven movie system of today. And it's living, palpable proof that risks are still possible.