Always Past, Always Present, Never the Moment: ‘Palo Alto’

Gia Coppola's film illustrates the paradox of the young and the old: each want wants what the other has. Neither can ever live in the moment.

We breathe because it is instinctive, but why do we make art? The answer to this question ranges from art as a business to art as personal expression, through which a communal and individual experience is created, similarly co-existing like the conscious and the unconscious mind. On occasion, as a film unfolds itself, I ask myself a silent question: are films made as an impulsive act or as an instinctive reaction? If so, the follow-up question is invariably whether or not there was any need to make the particular film that in that moment of that reaction, other than as an activity that defines the period of time it takes for the filmmaker to make it? Is making a film is an egotistical act that staves off existential crisis?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, this silent stream of thought thought that ran through my mind as Palo Alto neared its conclusion.

For her debut feature, Gia Coppola chooses a familiar walking route through the filmic landscape. The film’s theme of drifting characters lost in the experience of life’s void, in addition to its dreamy, voyeuristic camera, both serve to connect Palo Alto to both Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Somewhere. The work of aunt and niece conveniently merge to form a trilogy of films on the subject of adult and adolescent characters dealing with their own existential crises.

Palo Alto represents yet another collaboration in what has been a long and fruitful relationship between literature and film. In contrast to a novel, a short story collection is generally conceptual by nature, with each individual story pumping blood to the beating heart that is the core theme. With this film, Coppola takes actor and aspiring polymath James Franco’s interconnected short story volume of the same name and extends it into a feature length coming-of-age tale. She infuses the movie with the innocuous, nonchalant, and self-contained charm of the short story format.

The camera appears to float by as Coppola eavesdrops and captures a snapshot of her characters in this momentary adolescent chapter of their lives. The apparent freedom that fills these years infers a liberty from responsibility, a liberty to live and experience life with no pre-conditions. But the portrait she paints of parties, drink, drugs, sex, and hypothetical conversations is laced with the awkward trials and tribulations of being young: those first sexual, emotional and career steps. The importance of this central preoccupation of liberty from responsibility cannot be overstated; lingering throughout the film is the framing device of the end of a chapter and the start of a new one. Adolescence and adulthood cannot be separated, as liberty from responsibility directly leads into ultimately being held to account for said freedom.

The time of play, which is seemingly unshackled from responsibility, is not the dream it appears to be. It is a time when the adolescent are expected to know with little to no life experience what path they want to take in life. Perhaps Coppola is opening up a discourse on the crippling social tendencies to define the individual according to their occupation, and more importantly how the education system stalks our adolescent youth by forcing them to paint on their life canvas without actually having any feeling or reliable instinct to guide their brush. This uncertainty towards the subject of a future career, vocation, or university to attend is represented with humor by Teddy’s (Jack Kilmer) art teacher’s philosophical speeches about finding oneself. Even with its thematic dissection of the transition out of adolescence, Palo Alto remains connected to art and creativity by using another visual art form to metaphorically reflect upon this preoccupation.

These characters must move forward, which they must do under their own steam. They must learn from their mistakes and embrace the value of experience, therein understanding that they are part of something bigger. One of the integral reflections of the film is that one must adapt and move forward to remain on the shore, or risk the tide carrying her out to sea. These characters are no longer looking towards experience but rather learning from their adolescent years to propel them forward. As one leaves adolescence, life becomes increasingly less about looking towards the future and more about learning from the immediate circumstances of one’s life, allowing them to shape us and form memories which are the building blocks we use, consciously and unconsciously, to construct our identity.

One of Palo Alto’s intriguing narrative threads is the relationship between young and old, specifically how each has what the other desires: the latter, youth; the former, age. This alone is one of the great contradictions that eludes to the significance of the past and future over the present. The present is never good enough; ultimately, satisfaction is to be found in the past or the future.

This story is one in which the boys are the central protagonists. They represent youth either left on the shore or carried out to sea, while femininity is represented by the sexualized woman. Knowingly or unknowingly, she allows herself to be used, presenting herself as a sexual object and desiring the sexual act. Within the film’s narrative, one could interpret that one’s virginity is an embarrassment, something to be shed rather than to be kept intact. It could even be perceived as being symbolic of the urgent desire to advance into adulthood, physically if not emotionally. If the representation of women is an issue within the original source material as has been suggested, then it is not possible to excuse Coppola for this characterization. As the film’s writer-director, she had an opportunity to rework the source material according to her own artistic vision. The source material is Franco’s creative voice; the film is Coppola’s.

Coppola’s first step into feature filmmaking suggests an obsession with the image. Yes, there is an emphasis on dialogue, mostly the ridiculous hypothetical or just non-hypothetical mumblings of youth. First and foremost, however, her director’s eye is pictorially influenced. Together, Gia and Sophia Coppola possess a strong affection for the filmic image, through which one can sense that they do not desire to suspend our disbelief, but instead prefer that we maintain our conscious awareness of the image and therein our spectatorial position. To encounter their films is to remain consciously aware of the creative process and our interaction within it.

There is an inescapable impression that Coppola aspires to create interesting movies, but as we know the desire does not account for much. Ultimately, one must go out and create these kinds of films. This reflection of youth seen through Franco’s eyes and filtered through her own creative voice is a welcome addition to cinema’s interest in the anxiety of youth.

Similarly to how her characters look back on these experiences, Palo Alto is a film that we too should look back on as a memory rather than as a possible recurring encounter. In this vein, Coppola has created a film of sensual power that makes a home within our consciousness, one that embraces the art form’s reliance on dream logic.

RATING 7 / 10