One From the Heart

Rant by Steven Lewis

With truly great directors, it can often be just as rewarding to examine their infamous misfires as their greatest successes. Well, you couldn’t ask for a greater director than late ’70s Francis Ford Coppola – and there exists no misfire in ANY director’s career as big as “One From the Heart” was for him back in 1982. For those who don’t know or can’t remember, this is the film he made after “Apocalypse Now” and it basically bankrupted him: it went wildly over budget and it was universally panned – I mean everyone really really hated it. It got distribution for, like, a month in only about nine cities and then faded away ignominiously. So much of his own money was involved that he essentially had to whore himself as a hack-for-hire director for the next fifteen years just to become financially solvent again, allowing any personal projects or ambitions he had to whither on the vine. In short, it is the film that ruined him.

Now, with all that bad mojo as part of its rep, you may ask what the problem is with “One From the Heart”. I’d certainly been curious enough over the years to finally check it out some time back, and I can say this right off the bat: whatever else the film may be, it is unquestionably a finely crafted movie made by a director at the height (or near enough the height) of his powers. The problem, such as it exists, is that his skill and attentions are channeled exclusively at the visual elements of the film. (Perhaps I should actually say technical aspects, because there is also a running-commentary-type songtrack composed by Tom Waits, and sung by Waits and Crystal Gale, which is brilliantly faded in and out to counterpoint and comment on the action of the story.) Lighting, transitons, editing, scrim work, gorgeous set design – the film is quite a sumptuous visual feast, and the artistry is so upfront and on display that you can’t help but be tickled by it – essentially, by the director’s ingenuity and tour-de-force style. However, the central story of the movie – basically, a prolonged lovers’ spat – is so hoary and cliche-ridden you wonder why anyone would bother building a film around it. I mean, everything about the actual STORY itself – dialogue, acting, character motivations, in fact the entire central premise – is so laughably weak that any moon-eyed junior high hack romantic could come up with something better. And yet. . .

And yet, I’m reluctant to call all this a mistake on Coppola’s part – at least in the sense that he didn’t know what he was doing (whether you agree with his artistic choice is entirely another matter; clearly, no one did). Free from a story that’s compelling, the audience can better give itself over to and be enveloped in the kind of lush atmospherics that the director is interested in crafting – the kind that would be annoying and out of place if our primary goal was to find out “What’s going to happen? Where’s this story going to go?” It’s a tone poem, essentially – a visual and auditory tone poem, and to criticize it by saying it presents a weak story is to fail to encounter the film on the level it means to engage you. Just as to criticize “2001” for having so little dialogue and an ending that makes no literal sense.

This is not to suggest that “One From the Heart” is anywhere near the achievement of “2001” (far from it!). Nor am I claiming that the film is a complete success even on its chosen level (it isn’t – which I’ll get to in a minute). What I’m saying is I can see why it bombed – and bombed big time – because with movies, people generally take in with them (consciously or not) the notion that the telling of a strong or compelling story is the film’s ultimate reason for being. What Coppola was challenging here (and what Kubrick challenged in “2001”, far more purposefully and successfully) was the idea that story was anywhere near as important as the visual and the sensory in the crafting of a film. Thinking that way comes from a novelistic, literary approach which does not necessarily best conform to the notion of what film is all about. That is: theoretically, anyway, film could begin and end with visuals (“Un Chien Andalou”, anyone? “Fantasia”?). Film CANNOT begin and end with story and dialogue: these exist to complement the visual and to aid in the trajectory of the film – but they can be jettisoned if a director feels they get in the way of the mood he wants to evoke or the sensory experience he wants to impart to his audience.

Let’s put it this way: Coppola used an archetypal story here. Basically, it is this: boy and girl fight; boy and girl break up; boy and girl take up with other lovers for a night; boy and girl realize that they love each other and get back together (all under the bright and gaudy lights of Las Vegas on a festive Fourth of July). It’s not so much that it’s a bad story, just such a basic one that the viewer is clued in to the fact that it is not where his or her attention should be directed. Much like, I guess, opera plots: I personally don’t care much for opera, but I at least know that the people who do are not drawn to it for the profundity of the stories. These are basic, melodramatic, and corny. But without that thru-line to hang the music and pageantry onto, it’s not an opera – it’s just a recital.

What gets tricky in describing it, I guess, is that Coppola did not do it particularly well. At least, he didn’t follow it through completely enough. If the whole picture had been structured more like a silent film, where the characters didn’t talk – but where the Tom Waits songtrack incessantly played and commented upon their emotions – it would have found, I think, the right pitch. As it is, the sequences that are shot like this work wonderfully. It’s only when the characters speak, and Coppola tries to introduce at least a suggestion of realism, that the thing fails because the rest of it has the logic of a dream (or at least an extended production number) and the contrived dialogue falls clunkily flat. Still, I found it to be an interesting (if failed) experiment because it’s one I’d never seen tried in quite this way (at least in the medium of film) and parts of it do achieve a purity and beauty of form. I feel I can see its influence on such subsequent film musical experiments as Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge” and Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” adaptation. Anyone who enjoyed either or both of those films would, I think, get something positive out of a viewing of “One From the Heart.”

As for Coppola himself: had I seen this film when it first came out – particularly on the heels of “Apocalypse Now” – I would have been stunned, dumbfounded, and absolutely certain that he had lost his mind and given away his right to be called an Important Artist (which is basically what happened to him – in both critical and audience circles). However, I still would have been blown away by the sheer artistic technique and the talent he displayed in getting this vision on screen. To paraphrase Quentin Tarantino’s remark about Brian DePalma and “Bonfire of the Vanities” – I would have said (in 1982) that “One From the Heart” is the kind of bad film that only a truly great director could make. Going on thirty years later, I don’t think I’d call it “bad” anymore – but it certainly does itself no favors in directing an audience to its virtues; you have to work at this film a little bit and make some allowances in order to get enjoyment out of it. It stands as an unquestioned “technical achievement” – and we all know how cold those can be, albeit fun and interesting if we’re in the right mood – but with the possibility that it could have been more had it been more rigorously conceived. That is – more (not less) stylized and rarified, hence truer to its own intentions, without the embarrassing and half-hearted attempts at “realistic” character portrayal, which only underscore how wildly fake and unbelievable everything else is.

But you know what? Fakeness and unbelievability, when achieved with this degree of skill, and with this much care, love and finesse – I’ll take ’em!

“One From the Heart” is available on DVD.

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