as an investor in a restaurant that's earned plaudits from all the right palates, and the overseer of a winery that's poised to become the upscale analog to Planet Hollywood when its movie memorabilia-enhanced museum opens this summer, Francis Coppola is showing a defter touch off screen than on.
Most recently, Napa Valley's nouveau-Medici has turned a portion of his considerable peripheral attention to publishing. The result is Zoetrope, a tabloid-sized literary journal devoted to the short story. Published on newsprint, Zoetrope announces its modestly stylish earnestness right from the start, with a monochromatic, slightly out-of-focus cover photo of a bare light bulb illuminating a book. Screenwriters seeking inspiration, search no more -- literature shall be your muse!
Perhaps recognizing that the public's appetite for short stories isn't as strong as it is for seared Maine scallops and award-winning Cabernet, Coppola isn't charging anything for Zoetrope just yet. The first issue, featuring fiction, short plays and essays, was mailed to some 30,000 writers, writing workshop students and literary magazine subscribers (and for the time being, anyone who wants a subscription can write to the magazine at its New York offices to request one). A gesture that magnanimous is usually informed by at least a little hubris: In an introductory "Letter to the Reader," Coppola suggests that by launching Zoetrope he hopes to revive "the storytelling tradition in force in the twenties and thirties," when writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Ring Lardner were plying the trade.
Coppola's implication that the "great tradition" has all but disappeared may come as a surprise to the genre's many current practitioners. While some high-profile magazines -- The New Yorker, for one -- are publishing less fiction than they used to, the latest edition of "Novel & Short Story Writer's Market" includes over 2,000 listings for literary magazines, commercial periodicals, zines, small presses and commercial book publishers seeking short stories. Don Lee, editor of the Boston-based literary magazine Ploughshares, says he receives some 5,000 submissions a year. "The state of the short story is actually pretty healthy, and has been for the last 15 years," he adds. "If anything, a real renaissance has been going on."
That the film community has largely overlooked this fact seems obvious every time I fidget my way through the slack Ephronics of the latest Hollywood romantic comedy. Why, I wonder, aren't studio heads lugging suitcases of money to wherever Lorrie Moore lives and forcing her to write screenplays?
But even those put off by Coppola's solipsism will find it hard to fault the filmmaker for showing serious interest in serious fiction. The world's short-story writers are undoubtedly pleased to have another potential venue for their work, especially one in which publication might ultimately lead to screenwriting credit, top-bracket taxation and profiles in Vanity Fair. Still, Coppola makes it clear that Zoetrope isn't seeking screenplays, and isn't choosing stories "on the basis of whether or not they could be made into a film." Of course, if the next "Rear Window" shows up in the slush pile, story conferences will likely commence, but Coppola's main objective is to encourage writers to work in a form that requires a more complete development of voice and vision than the screenplay does.
As if to reinforce Coppola's point, Zoetrope's staff appears to have deliberately chosen stories with little chance of a celluloid future. Only Thom Jones' "Tarantula" -- an unsettling tale of Conrad-quoting janitors, spider murder and forced branding -- incites the "frenzy of suspense" that film critic David Thomson (in his contribution to Zoetrope) suggests short stories share with films. As for the other stories in the first issue, well, see if you think any of these plots has enough cinematic spark to get ambitious studio execs spinning grand dreams of imminent mogulomania: A woman wonders if her husband is lying to her about something; an irritating contractor renovates a rich lady's attic; a jailed murderer makes mango chutney for a visitor in order to gain a reprieve from her nosy romanticism.
Oddly enough, the most cinematic of the stories in the first issue appropriates its characters from a TV commercial. It's a premise that seems to portend certain disaster, suggesting the kind of literary preciousness that gives irony a bad name. But "Tide," by Matthew Sharpe, has less obvious intentions. Nine-year old Jenny has been asking questions about menstruation as she and her mom prepare for her ballet recital. Mom manages to remove a grape-juice stain from Jenny's leotard before show time -- then watches with a sort of horror as her daughter hits the stage with red lipstick smeared on her crotch. And thus an exercise in product placement turns into a dramatization of what Flannery O'Conner called the "mystery of personality." By the end of the story, the product displacement is complete: The title no longer seems to refer to detergent, but to Jenny's incipient menarche.
It's a story that makes you realize how idealistic Coppola's project is; even the more literate Hollywood of decades past had little use for narratives with no reductive answer to the final "Why?" In today's Hollywood, where marketing partners and merchandising strategies claim more studio attention than character or plot, such mystery is in even less demand. Indeed, if Coppola is really interested in creating a vehicle for generating future movies, he should probably consider funding a comic book rather than a magazine devoted to short stories; broad, simple, easily salable ideas are Hollywood's current currency of choice.
At least one of Coppola's colleagues appears to recognize this: Spike Lee recently decided to channel even more of his jazzy sloganeering ("She's Gotta Have It!" "Do the Right Thing!") into commercials by partnering with DDB Needham Worldwide to create his own full-service agency -- Spike/DDB. While that venture's charter says nothing about turning ads into movies, the recent cinema success of Spike's favorite pitch man speaks for itself. In time we'll see which is the more fertile ground for future blockbusters -- Spike/DDB or Zoetrope -- but right now only sentimentalists and librarians are betting on the latter.