Notable Festivals: Berlinale, San Francisco, Toronto (in retrospective/restored screenings)
The word “irony” is not lost on director Francis Ford Coppola. One could argue that Coppola’s entire career is ironic, due to him becoming a symbol of the very same studio system that he initially sought to oppose. After entering the pantheon of great American filmmakers with his two GODFATHER films and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), his next project would ironically bring him back to down to earth with a massive failure matched only by Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE (1980). This one-two punch of opulent misfires effectively ended the auteur era in Hollywood, with executives reasserting control over projects that subsequently usher in the age of the blockbuster.
After the success of APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola sought to make the exact opposite kind of film– a breezy, low-budget musical filmed entirely on soundstages. This project, entitled ONE FROM THE HEART (1982), was originally supposed to be made for only two million dollars– a mere fraction of the sum that consumed APOCALYPSE NOW. By the time Coppola finished shooting, however, the costs had ballooned to over twenty-five million. The film had become an albatross of a distinctively different breed.
ONE FROM THE HEART’s story is very minimal, instead choosing to focus its attentions on lavish set design, lighting, and visual trickery. The plot is set in Las Vegas, where a young, unmarried couple– Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr)– have reached a point of mutual dissatisfaction in their relationship. Following an explosive argument, they set out into the night, intent on finding comfort in the embrace of new lovers. Frannie finds herself in the bed of Ray (Raul Julia), a smooth-talking Latin lover and aspiring crooner, while Hank takes up with Leila (Nastassja Kinski), an alluring circus girl with a bohemian bent. Throughout the course of the night, Hank and Frannie’s separate encounters lead them to believe that maybe they do really still love each other after all, and that love is worth fighting for.
It’s a story we’ve all seen a million times, but we’ve never seen it done quite like this. The performances, while admirable, inevitably sink underneath the weight of Coppola and production designer Dean Tavoularis’ heavily-stylized mise-en-scene. Forrest, a Coppola regular who had previously played Chef in APOCALYPSE NOW, now takes center stage and assumes the affectation of a young Marlon Brando in his brutish, blue-collar take on Hank. Garr is energetic and makes the most of her comic abilities as the jaded, temperamental Frannie. Julia and Kinksi do a great job of being attractive and exotically-alluring characters, each with their distinct charms. Rounding out the cast, Lainie Kazan plays Maggie, a friend and confidant of Frannie’s, and veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton (who had previously played a bit part for Coppola in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)) plays Moe, Hank’s curly-haired and leisure-suited best friend.
Despite the tired story tropes and underdeveloped characters, Coppola crafts an unforgettable look that’s based around an overarching theatre conceit. Coppola famously eschewed location shooting, choosing instead to shoot the entirety of ONE FROM THE HEART on soundstages. In this regard, the central conceit is the film’s biggest success. Returning Director of Photography Vittori Storaro (working with Ronald V. Garcia) fills Tavoularis’ beautifully-designed sets with cathedral-esque shafts of neon light and striking bursts of color. Coppola and his twin DPs have adopted an unusual aspect ratio (1.37:1), but it’s a little unclear as to why– perhaps it’s to further Coppola’s visual conceit by evoking the literal, square proscenium of traditional theatre. This is further supplemented by real-time lighting changes not unlike one would see in a stage play.
Why take this visual approach, especially when it was largely responsible for extreme budget overruns? I suspect that Coppola was actively trying to evoke what it truly feels like to fall in love– that is, finding beauty and theatricality in the everyday and mundane. Romantic love brings heightened emotions that, upon future reflection, tend to take on an idealized, slightly surreal quality. If this was indeed his intention, Coppola absolutely nails it.
Ever the experimentalist, Coppola continues his pursuit of redefining the cinematic language that was so eloquently established by his cinematic forebear, Sergei Eisenstein. Besides the aforementioned proscenium conceit and in-camera lighting changes, Coppola plays with double exposures, as well as parallel action being projected onto the set to portray simultaneous events (as opposed to the more traditional cross-cutting). This approach also extends to the music, where it eschews the traditional definition of a musical by denying the characters of song or dance. Instead, the musicality comes non-diagetically, from the smoky, unmistakeable vocal chords of Tom Waits. In his first original film score, Waits crafts a moody, jazzy sound resembling old torch songs that perfectly evokes the Las Vegas setting and Coppola’s melancholy musings on love. It’s not for everyone, but it’s undeniable how well it actually works within the film.
If APOCALYPSE NOW saw Coppola at the height of his directorial powers, ONE FROM THE HEART is the first work in a long, drawn-out decline that would see his influence severely weakened. Much like how Cimino’s excesses and self-indulgence on HEAVEN’S GATE led to box office disaster and the sinking of United Artists, ONE FROM THE HEART performed abysmally in theatres— forcing Coppola to declare bankruptcy. It was a steep fall for a director who had been heretofore regarded as untouchable. The majority of his output for the ensuing two decades were primarily efforts to pay back the massive debt he incurred on ONE FROM THE HEART. To this day, his reputation has never fully recovered; not even a third GODFATHER film, shot in 1990, could restore him to former glory.
Thankfully, time heals all wounds, and all the venom spewed at and around the film upon its release has largely fallen away. What remains is the film itself, left to stand on its own merits. In this light, ONE FROM THE HEART is still a heavily flawed film, but its remarkable vision is creatively executed with considerable flair by a director firmly in command of his craft. You have to hand it to Coppola: the man makes even failing look fantastic.
ONE FROM THE HEART is currently available on Blu Ray from American Zoetrope.