by Matt Levine
It’s tempting to describe Twixt as the kind of bizarro home video your off-kilter uncle might make—though most indulgent pet projects can’t employ the likes of Val Kilmer, Elle Fanning, dizzyingly innovative musician Dan Deacon, or one of the most promising cinematographers working in America today (Mihai Malaimare, Jr., who also lensed Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master). Then again, when you’re American New Wave pioneer and celebrated winemaker Francis Ford Coppola, even your most whimsical flights of fancy carry an inherent amount of clout and visibility. Like Coppola’s previous two films, Tetro (2009) and Youth without Youth (2007), Twixt is defiantly low-budget and almost stubbornly impulsive, erratically following whichever impetuous muse appealed to Coppola at its moment of inception.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producers: Francis Ford Coppola, Anahid Nazarian, Fred Roos
Writer: Francis Ford Coppola
Cinematographer: Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Editor: Kevin Bailey, Glen Scantlebury, Robert Schafer
Music: Dan Deacon, Osvaldo Golijav
Cast: Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, David Paymer
Premiere: April 28, 2012 (San Francisco International Film Festival)
US Release Date: June 11, 2013 (Video on Demand)
Blu-ray Release Date: July 23, 2013
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
In the case of Twixt, those muses lead to a scatterbrained lark that’s awkwardly pitched between ardent meta-commentary and Gothic B-horror. Shot with a mid-level HD camcorder and manipulated to within an inch of its life in post-production, Twixt features an amusingly glib Kilmer as schlock horror writer Hall Baltimore, a grade-Z Stephen King knockoff who’s suffering from writer’s block and a harping wife (played, uncomfortably, by Kilmer’s own ex-wife Joanne Whalley) who threatens to sell his priceless edition of Leaves of Grass if he doesn’t land an advance from his publisher. Whitman isn’t the only masterful author cited in Twixt; literary fans will likely bristle at the movie’s cheesy portrayal of Edgar Allan Poe, who appears to Baltimore in a number of dream sequences somberly pontificating about the importance of poetic refrains, morbid subtexts, and translating autobiographical trauma into fictitious thrills. (“The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Raven,” devoid of all mournful beauty and shuddering terror, make allusive appearances.)
Baltimore idles about a small town that may or may not be besieged by a troupe of vampiric nymphets, as well as by a biker gang headed by the androgynous “Flamingo”—an embarrassing vision of vaguely threatening counterculture that resembles a Garrison Keillor adaptation of The Wild Ones. (Is Coppola seriously so witless about what constitutes sexiness and alterity in modern American culture?) The plot is a pointless vacuum in Twixt—and it seems to realize this, given the fact that Baltimore needs to knock himself out with whiskey and sleeping pills in order to dream up his (and the movie’s) ending.
The capricious plot is somewhat explained by the movie’s intended distribution plan, whereby Coppola, Kilmer, Dan Deacon, and a few editors would travel to thirty American cities to premiere the film, using intuitive editing software to shuffle around the movie’s structure according to spontaneous reactions from live audiences. It’s an intriguing idea, somewhere between the “cinematic performances” of Jordan Belson and unpredictable experimental works like whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, but 20th Century Fox (Coppola’s bankroller) ultimately scrapped the tour and halfheartedly released the film (locked into a finalized sequence which may be somewhat arbitrary) on home video. The movie is both better and worse than this context suggests: worse, since the tacky visuals and aimless story are hardly satisfying on a cohesive, dramatic level; better, since the movie’s sardonic commentary on auteurist filmmaking is more intriguing than most straight-to-video horror releases.
That thematic subtext raises the possibility that Twixt is really about Coppola himself: Kilmer’s Hall Baltimore is a once-esteemed artist who ultimately realizes that he’s been practicing his (flimsy) art in order to come to grips with reality, or to wholly escape it. This epiphany comes when Baltimore reticently views video footage of his deceased daughter’s last living moments, before she was tragically killed in a boating accident—a traumatic incident that precisely mirrors the speedboating death of Coppola’s first son, Gian-Carlo, when he was only 23. Furthermore, a number of critics have pointed out that the movie’s indulgence in winking B-horror conjures the memory of Coppola’s first mentor and employer, Roger Corman. Admittedly, the conclusion reached by the movie’s self-reflexivity is pretty facile: any artist, even the most seemingly hackneyed, inevitably translates their own life experience into something consumable by audiences. But the sheer artistic freedom and erratic idiosyncrasy displayed by Coppola throughout his last three films showcases a restless experimenter who is unafraid to fail flamboyantly.
The image quality of 20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray seems to faithfully reproduce Coppola’s original vision, though audiences might disagree whether or not that’s a good thing: emphatically digital, bathed in a preponderance of filters and effects and marked by an uncanny, razor-sharp hyperrealism, Twixt is a litmus test in whether you prefer celluloid or digital production. (It’s unfair, but nonetheless revealing, to compare the forced digital eeriness of Twixt to the ephemeral, ghostly beauty of something like Jean Epstein’s 1928 The Fall of the House of Usher, which is absolutely inconceivable in anything other than shuddering 35mm.) At least the lovely musical score sounds hauntingly immersive, although I wish Dan Deacon’s talents had been employed a bit more often (much of the soundtrack consists of Osvaldo Golijov’s string compositions; Deacon’s music really only appears for one out-of-place scene, in which Baltimore obsessively arranges his writing utensils in a showy and unnecessary bird’s-eye view shot).
As far as extras go, 20th Century Fox has supplied us only with a 40-minute documentary by Francis’s granddaughter, Gia, who stumbles around the set (to the visible consternation of some crew members) with a low-grade digital camcorder. Most of the footage she captures is pretty dull, although Kilmer’s prickly reaction to a sweet-tempered townswoman who’s watching them film on location is remarkably cringe-inducing. More informative supplements might have been essential in explaining (and maybe excusing) some of the movie’s structural oddities, but it seems pretty clear that the Blu-ray was released with as little fuss and bother as possible.
Sometimes, late-career work by esteemed auteurs who have been forced to work on the fringes with a minuscule budget can invigorate their creators’ energy and resolve; notable examples include Billy Wilder (Fedora, 1978) and Orson Welles (anything after 1947). Coppola’s last three movies, though, have been more interesting hypothetically than in practice; the whimsy of his nonconformist ideas seems to contradict his skill with classical, ornate storytelling (the very trait that put him on the map with The Godfather and The Conversation). Twixt can best be deemed a failed experiment, then, but it’s one that’s often bewilderingly entertaining, both fascinating and infuriating in the ways it indulges its creator’s outsized impulses.