"Movies and TV have brainwashed people."

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Francis Ford Coppola knows from garrulous. He called recently to discuss "Youth Without Youth," his modestly budgeted film with Very Big Ideas about time, human consciousness and humanity. Based on the novella of the same name by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, "Youth Without Youth" stars Tim Roth as a frustrated old linguistics professor who becomes young again after being struck by lightning. What happens from there is nearly impossible to shorthand. Just ask Coppola. We sought pithy and got . . . this.

-- J. Freedom du Lac

Help me out here. I've been struggling to explain the film in a clear and concise way. It's not easy to distill all those big, metaphysical ideas and to compress all those layers.

It's sort of not necessary to. On one level it's like a "Twilight Zone": An old man is dissatisfied, having never finished his life's work. He's a teacher in a small town. He never got over the love of his lost youth because he was foolishly involved in his life's work. He even contemplates ending his life, then gets hit by lighting and almost gets to begin his life anew. He learns all these languages, and it's the beginning of World War II and the Nazis learn of this. And so forth and so on.

So, on that level, it's just a story. And it's not necessary to take the story on some of the more interesting, as you say, "metaphysical," what-is-the-meaning-of-life levels. But it's there, underneath it. You can follow it as a fairy tale. It's almost like Faust. It's the parable of the old man, rejuvenated; he gets to live his life again, almost to love again. And in the second act, it becomes almost a thriller as he's horrified to learn that the Nazis want to do these wacky experiments. And in the third act, he gets the lost love again. Then, in conclusion, rather than lose the love, he sacrifices the life work to restore her health and beauty because he realizes that his very proximity to her is causing her decline.

My point is: You understand the story. You don't have to understand all the other stuff. It's like reading a book. When you're reading a book by a great author, a Tolstoy, sometimes you're enjoying it because it's: "Natasha, what's she going to do? She's caught between two great men." But upon ruminating, you get more.

How are we going to tell people what this movie is? Over 50 years, movies and TV have brainwashed people to think there's only one type of movie. You go in, you enjoy it, you leave. But I think cinema is broad enough that you can have silly teenage entertainment, and also the experience where it's like being with a good author, considering the story on more than one level, where there's this secondary function. And who among us has not wondered what reality is, whether it's the dream of my life. Is the Earth flat?

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