REtro REview: Dementia 13 (1963) | Characterization Is The Key, Which This Movie Lacks

A few years ago I had a debate on Twitter with James Mangold (Identity, Logan, the upcoming Indiana Jones 5) about directors being artists.

I said that I didn’t believe that to be the case; he took the opposite tack though after years of thought I still believe that I was right – and wrong – in that directing is a craft, not an art in and of itself.

That’s not to say that it can’t reach that hallowed place, but like any other craft that’s not the default position.

For instance, I don’t think that most people would argue that what Ikea does is art (in fact, I don’t think even Ikea would argue that). What they tend to do is create functional furniture that serves a particular purpose.

It’s utilitarian, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Conversely, there’re people who also construct furniture that invest significantly more time and effort in doing so (which still doesn’t necessarily make it Art, though it’s certainly closer).

Art lives in the space between effort and intent and can difficult to quantify, which is why directing movies isn’t in and of itself isn’t an art form. It can be elevated to that level, like most things, though that doesn’t mean that movies are Art just because ‘movie.’

I mention this because there’s little doubt that Francis Ford Coppola is an artist, but I’d argue that that wasn’t always the case, and Dementia 13 proves it. It’s a early movie in Coppola’s filmography and isn’t particularly good in most respects – which isn’t to say that it’s unwatchable, because it isn’t. There just isn’t much to be gained by doing so – particularly when compared to some of his later efforts.

The movie opens on a dock that seemingly goes nowhere. If it weren’t obvious by the year it’s produced, Dementia 13 is black & white so the water looks less like liquid than a massive pool of treacle.

It’s a pretty striking image.

Soon a couple enters the frame, who if we’re to judge by their conversation are in a fairly loveless marriage.

The husband – despite being dressed in a business suit – decides to take the rowboat out, like people in suits tend to do.

His wife accompanies him, and he chooses this time to tell her that that he has a heart condition and if he dies she’ll get nothing (his family is loaded).

Knowing that he has a heart condition, why would he decide to do something as strenuous as rowing a boat, never mind using this moment to tell his wife(?) that if he dies she’ll get absolutely nothing?

The story, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is less about people than outlines of people, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself it the situation were so dynamic that you don’t notice.

Though 10 minutes in there shouldn’t be this many questions about what’s happening on screen. In fact, the only thing that’s keeping me watching is that it relatively short at an hour and 14 minutes.

And speaking of his wife (or I should say the woman I assume to be his wife though if she weren’t why was their conversation even a thing?), why wouldn’t she get anything if he dies? Was there some sort of prenuptial agreement? Were laws different in the 1960’s? I have no idea though she decides to dump his body in the lake, and forge a letter from him to hide the fact that he wouldn’t be attending an upcoming family reunion.

She goes in his stead and soon arrives in Ireland – the movie was actually shot there though there there’s so little production value gained by doing so beyond using a castle as a location that it seemed almost pointless – with the intention of manipulating her mother-in-law into giving up that sweet fortune.

That is, before a mysterious killer axes her out for her treachery.

And why is this movie called Dementia 13 anyway? I like to think it was due to the influence of Roger Corman because the title implies something more phantasmagorical than the movie even attempts to deliver.

Dementia 13 can be called a lot of things, though I don’t think ‘Art’ is one of them.

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