'One From the Heart'
Coppola's critically, commerically, and conversationally ravaged Las Vegas romance makes a comeback
By Louis Black, Fri., Dec. 26, 2003
On the career road of director Francis Ford Coppola, One From the Heart is the sign indicating an abrupt dip. A few years before its release in 1982, when Apocalypse Now opened (August 1979) in limited release in 70mm in Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York, Coppola dominated the film industry, having achieved both critical and commercial success more consistently than anyone else. Readily acknowledged as one of the most creative and brilliant contemporary filmmakers, Coppola was also easily one of the most controversial. Despite an almost haunted production (including star Martin Sheen's heart attack and a set-destroying typhoon), going wildly over budget, and opening to decidedly mixed reviews, there was a public waiting for Apocalypse Now. Surprisingly, few critics got its genius: Reviewers had become far more interested in concentrating on the myth of Coppola rather than on his movies ... but what a myth!
Since 1972, Coppola had released The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and finally Apocalypse Now (1979). This run had no peer in terms of both quality and commercial success, though certain talents were bubbling under. George Lucas had written and directed the hits American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977), but the Star Wars phenomenon was still relatively nascent, and much of the critical community regarded the film as a step down from Graffiti. Besides, Coppola had helped get Lucas' first film, THX 1138, as well as Graffiti, produced (though later on in both cases the two directors had disputes over their deals). Steven Spielberg gained major attention with Jaws (1975), followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the jury was still very much out as to just how ambitious a director he was after the critical and commercial failure of 1941 (1979). Martin Scorsese's record was impressive, with Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), and The Last Waltz (1978), but none was a major commercial hit, and his recognition was more by critics than by the public.
Coppola's work, meanwhile, had earned both critical and commercial success with Apocalypse Now, a genuine cultural/cinematic sensation. Furthermore, Coppola was an outspoken cinematic visionary committed to new technologies as well as new production methods and systems. One of the first to break in the business, he was a leader regularly reaching out to and bringing along new talents. But damn! Coppola was so arrogant, his runaway visionary exhortations demanding a new Hollywood, a new paradigm, technology freeing the industry's slaves from the corporate ties of the past, the creative filmmakers from logistic and equipment restrictions. This creative community would be responsible only unto themselves, as well as owning the future.
One From the Heart was the commercial and critical disaster that changed everything. Recently at the Toronto Film Festival, Film Editor Marjorie Baumgarten and I watched as Francis Ford Coppola introduced a new, slightly revised print, which will show in a limited number of cities (including Austin, starting Jan. 2 at the Dobie) before being released on DVD in late January. As passionate as I've always felt about the film, which never got the respect it deserved, I'd only seen it on video, so I really wasn't prepared for how much more splendid it is on the big screen
The film was planned as a modest project, especially after Apocalypse. Coppola had just bought his own studio, christening it Zoetrope. In anticipation of One's production, he was busy stocking it with the latest equipment, including "$800,000 worth of experimental high-definition television equipment, all connected via a computerized mixing board to Sony Betamax video recorders," according to Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise's On The Edge: The Life and Times of Francis Coppola. Coppola's plan was to preproduce the film on video, then whiz through shooting, dazzling Hollywood mostly by how inexpensively this new technology allowed the film to be made. The budget could be trimmed by millions, Coppola figured, because the new technology would not only make it easier to shoot, but postproduction time would be drastically cut back. The film's production schedule was primed to be much faster than even most low-budget indie films: two weeks shooting, two editing, and two more in post. Coppola would direct by watching monitors from a custom-made, completely wired Airstream trailer with a Jacuzzi. He even hired Gene Kelly to help choreograph.
As with most every Coppola production at the time, nothing went right. After moving the story from Chicago to Las Vegas, Coppola decided against actually shooting on location (spooked by his Apocalypse experience), instead building sets in the studio. Much of downtown Las Vegas was re-created, complemented by carefully and expensively detailed miniatures. Word has always been that the entire fabled strip was matched in the studio, but in Toronto, Coppola asserted it was less than half. Preproduction took longer, cost much more, and ended up dependent on old-style construction rather than next-generation technological innovation. Production was very contentious, not only stretching out to almost three months (preceded by six weeks of rehearsals), but was also occurring during a very financially troubled time for Coppola. Kelly, among others, left during this time. All of this was nothing compared to the more than six months of postproduction, during which time the ugly, advance word-of-mouth kept intensifying.
This time, Coppola didn't pull it off: One opened to terrible reviews and worse word-of-mouth. Yanked from distribution after only a couple of weeks, it grossed less than $2 million, costing Coppola both Zoetrope Studios (it had to be sold) and his dreams. The terrible irony is that Coppola didn't knock out four masterpieces in a row, but five. Derided, neglected, dismissed, One From the Heart is an exploding neon valentine to the very heart of America.
A work of brilliant and defined contradiction, One offers the most predictable proletariat love story as a gushingly baroque grand opera. Mundane human actions are performed against insanely realized sets complemented by hyperintense coloring. Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr live in a typical neighborhood; they work regular jobs -- he in a junkyard, she in a travel agency; they drink beer, talk, and fight; and their car is a clunker. But their all-too-ordinary house is flooded by pastels, the evening sky drenched in otherworldly colors, the simplest scenes teased by split screens or exaggerated by highlighting characters and eliminating backgrounds while any rules of space or perspective are ignored. Coppola visualizes his deliberately plebian story with the kind of visual sensibility of the most elaborate historical epics mated to hallucinatory science fiction evocations of completely alien worlds. One is a giddy, nonstop series of volcanic explosions of too much cinema, the elaborate artificiality enforcing rather than contradicting the story.
Looking less Hollywood than most actors, though still radiating charisma, working-world couple Forrest and Garr quarrel, then head off in separate directions. Each goes to seek a friend, he to Harry Dean Stanton, she to Lainie Kazan, both also looking more as though they've spent a couple of years too many on the strip than like any star. As the evening unfolds, Forrest and Garr each find themselves falling for someone new, in both cases almost too-perfect pinup model representations of their opposite sex -- for Garr, it's Raul Julia; for Forrest, Nastassja Kinski. Their romances begin as evenings of impossible symphonic perfection, winding down to the dusty taste of an all-too-real, hungover dawn.
Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle perform Waits songs that also match the gritty to the mythic, one moment capturing the petty annoyances of romantic frustration, the next swinging up to the skies. Reminding me of nothing so much as a scene with Louis Armstrong in a Fleischer brothers' Betty Boop cartoon, Gayle's head fills the screen singing to the moon above, exalting the lovers below.
One is a film about dreams and dreaming. It is a Cornell box both totally contained, yet by its many mysteries ever-expanding. This is the mature romantic work of a long-married director, veteran of many very strained marital times, which understood that love, rather than cupid-arrow-driven magic, is constant work, compromise, and negotiation. But it is also an old man's adolescent invocation of passion, enamored as much by the structure and sound of the song as by any meaning.
Think of One as a coda to the four films that precede it -- The Godfather through Apocalypse Now. Those are set in a world dominated by men: Women are wives, girlfriends, mothers, and the only ones who work are strippers. The jobs of the men are violence, murder, eavesdropping, gambling, and betrayal. One is an act of repentance, suggesting that illusion and belief, which in the other films lead to destruction, are also all that really allow love to persevere. In the film's world, men and women work at routine jobs, live mundane lives, love in such small ways, and are elevated only by irrational hopes. What more perfect setting for the film then Las Vegas, where there is no substance but dreams, even if they're mostly driven by the most base aspects of American consumer culture? Defending Las Vegas more than attacking it, the film accepts the utter corruption of dreams, but in this rotting is redemption.
Los Angeles used to be the great American City of Dreams. Still is in certain ways. But there are requirements there -- you need talent, an inner magic, lucky breaks, the perfect body, for L.A. triumphs. Las Vegas is the land of the laziest dreams, where there are no requirements; where you can be fat, ugly, lazy, and stupid; where you don't need talent, intelligence, or charm. To realize the most world-changing dreams, you just need to put a coin into a machine at the right moment. Coin after coin after coin, people are working their ways there. The social-class message here is radical, empowering the working classes, the uneducated, the unemployed, and the unemployable. The very crassness of Las Vegas is not an indication of the corruptness of American culture, but of its genius. It is not just the upper class, the educated class, and the dreamers who deserve to have their wishes fulfilled, but all of us, regardless of effort, inner nobility, or achievement. To begin grading dreams -- this one is art and this one is plastic -- is inherently corrupt. To accept dreams is to love again, to live again. After the darkness of those four earlier films, Coppola perversely celebrates this. America re-creates itself; Forrest and Garr renew themselves; we, the audience, are reinspired. As time goes by, a kiss is not just a kiss, but a promise.
One From the Heart torpedoed Coppola's career. Lucas hit the trifecta with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi; Scorsese kicked out Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, After Hours, and The Color of Money -- his most commercially successful movie. Spielberg ascended to the throne with Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, producing Poltergeist, a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and The Color Purple. Although The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Dracula were to follow, Coppola's greatest films were behind him.
In the Q&A in Toronto, Coppola claimed that he hadn't done much to the film, just trimming some early on. Marge Baumgarten and I have to look at the old video version, because it seemed to both of us that the trimming went on throughout this new cut. I'm interested in whether it really does, or if it's just that the scenes I remember as dragging now seem all too brief.
Rewatching a much-loved film is always dangerous: Its majesties often fade. I remember first watching Five Easy Pieces again a decade after it had first ripped my skull open and being disappointed in how pedestrian it seemed. In Toronto, One From the Heart came across as even more emotionally powerful than I'd remembered. Coppola transcended his own history as he negotiated between dream and reality, between faith and knowledge. In his previous films, he had surrendered to inevitability. Ironically, in the film that brought him down, instead of crashing down to Earth, he soared toward the sun. This time his love of cinematic possibility championed hope over experience, desire over history. Having given us the worst verses from songs of experience, in the most inappropriately excessive way he now offered those of innocence. Given the film's contradictions -- between its story and its style, between what it knows of life and what it presents to believe, between the darkness of the four films before and its triumphant struggle toward light -- there should be no surprise it so damaged Coppola's career, but only that he survived at all.
One From the Heart opens at the Dobie on Jan. 2. American Zoetrope will release the DVD on Jan. 27.