Thursday, May 10, 2012

ONE FROM THE HEART 1982

Stephen Sondheim’s onetime-flop/now-revered 1971 Broadway musical, Follies: a tuneful, dark-hued elegy to aging and its attendant lost illusions, has always been one of my favorites. At age 14, my adolescent arrogance (a redundancy if ever there was one) convinced me that I had fully understood the show’s themes, when in honesty, all that my then-limited life experience could reasonably have brought to the table was sympathy. Now that I’m roughly the same age as Follies’ representative cast, I find the show to be not only infinitely smarter and more insightful than initially thought, but the passing years have added empathy to the mix. What I know now that I couldn’t have known at 14 is that the follies of one’s life aren’t regrets; they’re just youthful dreams that have just grown too burdensomely heavy to continue to carry with us as into old age.

This all calls to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious but flawed dream-project, One from the Heart being dubbed “Coppola’s Folly” on release, and the irony of its creation being instrumental in the demise of that other Coppola dream; his American Zoetrope Studios. As someone who came of age and developed a love for movies during the youth-centric, formative years of The New Hollywood out of which Coppola emerged (roughly 1967 to 1979), I've discovered one of the more sobering realities of aging has been bearing witness to what’s become of the ideals and ambitions of the golden boys of the Hollywood Renaissance.
Francis Ford Coppola takes an ordinary couple and places them at the center of an extraordinary, fantasy vision of Las Vegas
George Lucas, the once-venturesome director of the lively American Graffiti, now seems a virtual prisoner of his own success, holed up in Skywalker Ranch like Charles Foster Kane in Xanadu, content to spend his days endlessly tweaking and re-tweaking the same movie; film geek Peter Bogdanovich, after a couple of ill-fated Svengali episodes, struck creative stasis after exhausting his fan-boy catalogue of borrowed film styles; Martin Scorsese is making kid’s films in order to stay relevant; and Steven Spielberg, always more a company man than maverick, has emerged more quotidian and old-guard than the most journeyman of filmmakers from the rigid days of the studio system.

Of all the directors of the era, the trajectory of director Francis Ford Coppola’s career is perhaps most indicative of what was right (individualistic, innovative, artistic) and wrong (arrogant, undisciplined, insulated, and out-of-touch) with the American New Wave in cinema of the 70s. His Godfather films (1972 & 1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) had all made good on the movement’s assertion that commercial film was a viable medium for artistic and personal expression; and of any of the film-school breed that proffered themselves up as worthy heirs to the thrones of the deposed moguls of yesteryear, Coppola alone seemed to possess the requisite business smarts and creative vision to see it through. Or so it seemed.
Raul Julia and Terri Garr lead a cast of seeming hundreds through a dance number staged on one of the meticulously recreated Las Vegas street sets 
Throughout his career, Coppola has spoken out (exhaustively) about the levels of studio interference he’s had to battle in order to get his films made. His unparalleled track record of critical and commercial successes only seemed to confirm his contention that meddlesome studio heads were the enemies of art. When, in 1980, Coppola purchased Hollywood General Studios to form his own, independent motion picture studio— American Zoetrope— it was the realization of a groundbreaking New Hollywood ideal: a space to make films independent of the interference of the Hollywood money men. 
Oh, but that Coppola could have had such interference. 
As the studio’s debut feature, Coppola envisioned a simple, old-fashioned Hollywood musical given a modern twist through the employment of cutting-edge digital filmmaking innovations Coppola would dub “Electronic Cinema”; an allegedly creativity-enhancing/money-saving innovation that proved no match for a director unable to understand that technology fetishism is never a viable substitute for basic storytelling skills.
Terri Garr as Frannie
Frederic Forrest as Hank
Nastassja Kinski as Leila
Raul Julia as Ray 
Have you ever had a McDonald’s hamburger served to you on an antique sterling silver salver tray? No? Well, if you had you would have some sense of what it’s like to watch One from the Heart: an intimate, almost inconsequential, character-driven dramatic musical about a young couple as ordinary and uninteresting as any you’re likely to meet, inflated to near-bursting by a staggeringly inappropriate $23 million budget. Frannie works at a travel agency while Hank is co-owner of an auto junkyard. After five years together, on the eve of their July 4th anniversary, the couple finds themselves at a romantic crossroads; she wants adventure, he wants stability. How each works through their respective five-year itches is beautifully rendered in a meticulously recreated Las Vegas (everything was shot on the Hollywood sound stages), but the content never justifies the presentation.

It’s my guess that One from the Heart, in all its brobdingnagian excess, is attempting to comment on the transformative power of love and its ability to make even the most unprepossessing of souls feel as if they have suddenly stepped into one of those lushly romantic, old-fashioned MGM musicals. A charming idea, at least conceptually speaking, that holds a great deal of potential. It’s only in the practical application where things start to hit a snag. Where a feather-light touch and considerable wit is required for this kind of material, One from the Heart keeps tripping over its own intentions because Coppola’s directorial approach to tender matters of the heart is to pound you over the head with his tinker-toy infatuation with the technological.
To anyone who has ever actually experienced the pains and joys of life, love, and romance, it’s plain that the only intensely felt passions on display in One from the Heart are the hots Francis Ford Coppola has for his “Electronic Cinema” gadgetry. A prime example of a man so lost in an onanistic orgy of film love that, $23 million later, he failed to even notice that he hadn’t yet made a movie.
Frannie finds her idealized vision of romance in singing (and apparently dancing) waiter,  Ray

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
By 1982, bad word of mouth preceding the release of a Francis Ford Coppola film was as common an occurrence as an appearance by Charo on The Love Boat. From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, Coppola seemed to willfully perpetuate the image of himself as the wild cannon maverick that could pull a masterpiece out of the ashes of months of troubled production rumors and bad press. It’s in light of all this that Coppola’s long-held assertion that One from the Heart didn’t get a fair shake from the press has never quite rang true.
I remember being among the throngs of people clogging the streets of Westwood Village in Los Angeles, excited beyond all reason at the prospect of getting a pre-release glimpse of One from the Heart in January of 1982. The crowd was abuzz, each of us parroting to the other Coppola’s rhetoric hype about being eyewitnesses to the beginning of a new era in filmmaking.
One of the many miniatures of Las Vegas signs used in the film's clever title sequence. I got the opportunity to see this and many of the other props from One from the Heart when, in 1984, American Zoetrope auctioned off its assets after declaring bankruptcy. As staggeringly beautiful as it all was, it was also very sad.

As is typical at these kinds of preview screenings, a general atmosphere of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” takes over and everybody loves EVERYTHING. Each set, dissolve, and digital camera trick was greeted with thunderous applause (partially because we all suspected Coppola was somewhere in the audience) and we were all convinced that we were watching the Citizen Kane of the 80s. It wasn’t until I was walking back to my car that I realized that all of my laughter had been forced, all of my emotional responses self-generated; and though dazzled by the visuals, a great many of the much-touted innovations were in reality, age-old theatrical stage effects (walls dissolving, color fades). I love romantic films and anyone who knows me knows that I'm a sentimental slob who cries at the drop of a hat...and yet the only sequence that brought forth waterworks was the finale…and even that was due more to the still-touching-to-me instrumental theme "Take Me Home," arranged to sound like a child’s music box. 
Reluctantly I had to admit that all of my positive feelings about One from the Heart were keyed in to my anticipation of the project and to the artistic potential Coppola’s candy-colored confection presented. One from the Heart’s visuals and technology were indeed impressive, but as evidenced by the audience’s meeting each display of cinema magic with a round of applause; none of us got lost in the magic enough to stop taking notice of it. Shades of Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York!

PERFORMANCES:
The structure of a great many musicals is to have at their center, incredibly ordinary, if not downright dull characters (e.g., Bells are Ringing, Sweet Charity, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Oklahoma) who find their lives magically transformed by love. However, few, if any, of the people involved in the making of these movies have ever been so ill-advised as to actually cast dull, ordinary people in these roles. Both Frederic Forrest and Terri Garr are wonderful, talented character actors, but neither has the requisite something (star-quality?) to make watching them more interesting than, say, spying on my neighbors over the back fence. (Imagine the 1949 Stanley Donen musical, On the Town with the emphasis placed on the Ann Miller/Jules Mishin romance instead of Gene Kelly and Vera Ellen.) 
Hammering home the obviousness of this fact are One from the Heart’s stupendously charismatic co-stars, Nastassja Kinski and Raul Julia. Both actors have in abundance what the film’s leads lack: screen presence. I kept wishing the story would somehow shift gears and magically become a love story about the circus girl and singing waiter.
Harry Dean Stanton and Lainie Kazan are terrific in their brief roles as the supportive friends of the constantly bickering lead couple 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
For good reason this blog isn’t titled “Levelheadedness is What Le Cinema is For…”, because movies, like dreams, have this ability to get to us on so many different levels…even when said dream or movie doesn’t make a lick of sense. By the same alchemy that interprets movement from still images flickering past one’s eyes at 24-frames per second (precisely the way a zoetrope works, the magic lantern device from which Coppola’s production company derives its name), One from the Heart’s almost non-stop flashes of technical brilliance do much to mitigate the emotional hollowness at the center of the whole enterprise. The shimmering images Coppola devises for One from the Heart enchant in a way not dissimilar to mentally flipping through an expensive coffee table book on photography; beauty in no need of context.
Fanciful imagery abounds: Hank finds his romantic ideal in circus performer, Leila - here seen dancing in a martini glass
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
When it all began, the New Hollywood presented itself as the antidote to the bloated, outmoded, assembly-line methods of studio system filmmaking. With minimal budgets but ingenuity and talent to spare, a veritable army of young and enthusiastic movie-makers succeeded for a time in rejuvenating American motion pictures in a way we will likely never see again. 
Unfortunately, success begat money, money was met with unbridled freedom, and with freedom came arrogance, a lack of discipline, and even respect for the principles that inspired the revolution in the first place. Directors once up in arms over the fact that the budget for a single over-inflated bomb like Paint Your Wagon ($20 million) could have financed 20 smaller, perhaps better films, themselves nearly brought the industry to its knees due to their own ego-driven excesses.

Of all the golden boys who imploded when given a big budget and free-rein (Michael Cimino -Heaven’s Gate, Stephen Spielberg – 1941, Martin Scorsese - New York, New York) it can at least be said of Francis Ford Coppola that he bankrupted his own studio and wasted his own money.

The version of One from the Heart currently available on DVD has been re-edited and is a tighter, and in some ways, better film than the one I saw in previews back in 1982. Alas, there’s just no getting past the fact that this neon heart has no real pulse. One from the Heart feels like a film made by someone who knows an awful lot about movies, but not much about life.
One from the Heart would have benefited greatly from the intimacy Coppola brought to The Conversation. Instead, this simple romance was handled with the bombast and overkill of Apocalypse Now
Today, One from the Heart still has the power to thrill me as eye candy, and pleases with its sometimes hauntingly beautiful jazz-tinged score, but in an odd way, it offends me in its epic waste.
In The Towering Inferno Paul Newman says of the smoldering shell of the skyscraper that needlessly took the lives of so many: “I don’t know. Maybe they ought to just leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

Maybe that’s One from the Heart’s ultimate merit: it stands as a melancholy shrine to all the tarnished optimism and corrupted ideals of the Hollywood New Wave of the 70s.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
Teri Garr autograph from when I was working at a bookstore on Sunset Blvd.

Harry Dean Stanton autograph I got when he came to the Honda dealership where I used to work

Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. Wow Ken, amazing post. This is one of the few movies that I can even comment on, having seen it in the 80's in NYC. Couldn't agree with you more. I love Terri Garr and was hoping for so much more to unfold.

    "One from the Heart’s almost non-stop flashes of technical brilliance do much to mitigate the emotional hollowness of the whole enterprise."

    Thinking about this, I think this was endemic to the time, certainly the early 80's. Much of the same "flash" or techinical drama was mirrored in fiction of that time leaving readers feeling just as vacuous. Janowitz, McInerney. . . Interesting . . . always love hearing/reading your point of view.

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  2. Hi Kel! Thanks very much.
    I think in the hiring of Garr and Forrest, Coppola was attempting to create a rep company of Zoetrope stars (a la Orson Welles), but something went wrong.Maybe in another film they both would have been fine, but for two such underwritten, argumentative roles, Coppola seriously overestimated the duo's charm.
    You may be right about it being something perhaps endemic to the early 80s. It was the start of the blockbuster culture and size was starting to win out over substance. Thanks, Kelly. As my very first follower, it's always a pleasure to hear from you!

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  3. Another amazingly insightful and and revealing post. It amazes me the way you can size up the conditions and attributes of certain people in their time that matches what I think, yet I had never done the mental homework myself to have thought of it and verbalized it! (Primarily, I'm referring to your descriptions of the careers of Spielberg, Scorcese, Lucas, etc...) Now, off to figure out what in the hell "brobdingnagian" means!

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    1. Aw, thanks Poseidon. Although you're still perhaps too young to know this first-hand (although you do have a rather exhaustive grasp of movie history) but one of the chief benefits of age is the perspective it allows in the forming of critical opinions. I've been around long enough to see past the curve of many cinematic phases and trends, and if there is anything I bring to my posts, it's a perspective born of having been in love with movies for well over 4 decades and its attendant "history repeating" insight.
      You made me laugh re: the word "brobdingnagian"...because it became my favorite word (my personal supercalifragilisticexpilalidocious) after a film critic used it in reference to the Dirk Diggler's penis in the movie, "Boogie Nights" and had me rushing to the dictionary. It's such a WONDERFULLY descriptive word, don't you think?

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    2. Yes, that word is wonderful and amusing! (I won't type it out again here because I'm trying to avoid carpel tunnel. LOL ) I love the fact that someone out there uses words that challenge people to look them up and broaden their vocabulary and knowledge! "u no wht I mean?"

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  4. Excellent post. I saw this movie under similar conditions right before its (brief) theatrical release - a screening at Radio City Music Hall that was billed as a 'preview.'
    Thrilling electricity in the packed crowd waiting to see how Coppola would follow 'Apocalypse Now,' lots of applause at first and then a very gradual letdown.
    You are so right about the two leads not being charismatic enough to hoist the film over the top. They were upstaged by the scenery and the supporting players.
    I do still love the Tom Waits-Crystal Gayle pairing on the soundtrack, however - some great tunes!

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    1. I envy your seeing the Radio City Music Hall preview! That must have been some night. And yes, much in the same way the public always greeted the release of a new Stanley Kubrick film with the excited anticipation of wondering how he was going to top himself; there was HUGE anticipation (fed by Coppola's own humble comments that his film and its technology was going to make the Industrial Revolution look like an out-of-town-tryout) attendant this film that could almost only end in letdown. You know, when I first saw the film, I wasn't overly-swayed by the music (I was expecting a pop soundtrack), but in the ensuing years, it has been the one unchanging element of excellence about the film. I play it in my classes, have it on my ipod, and have gifted the CD to many friends. Thanks for the comment Joe. Your site still has some of the coolest art/pop cultural writing on the web (especially loved the "Two for the Road" post).
      http://blog.ctnews.com/meyers

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  5. I haven't seen this one; but, considering Coppola's botched direction of FINIAN'S RAINBOW, in which he couldn't keep the camera and editing still enough just to let us see a dance, I wonder why Coppola would have chosen a musical to start his new enterprise. You also wonder how lucky Coppola may have been in his casting - Gene Hackman nailed THE CONVERSATION with his brilliant acting, giving heart to what might have been another technically expert but hollow film; and Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro's star-making performances helped anchored THE GODFATHER I & II. Teri Garr is a nice enough actress but, as you note, she wasn't a star; and even from the photos, you can see that Frederic Forrest has an uninteresting, bland face (even before you brought up the point I found myself thinking, 'why weren't Julia & Kinski the stars?'). It seems a sad case of a director not understanding his talent.

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    1. Excellent points.
      I may be wrong, but I think Coppola comes from a musical family. My feeling is that he loves musicals very much but has very little understanding of how they actually work (what director in his right mind cuts away from Fred Astaire's feet when he's dancing?!?!).
      On the commentary for "Finian's Rainbow," Coppola talks about how he fired Hermes Pan (Fred Astaire's longtime choreographer) and took over the reins himself (!), and on "One from the Heart" he talks of hiring the great Gene Kelly in an advisory capacity, yet ignoring his advice. I get the impression that no one could tell Coppola anything, and that hubris alone was at fault for the failure of "One from the Heart" (although to this day Coppola likes to think the critics had it in for him).
      You're right when you point out that DeNiro, Pacino, and Hackman all give stellar performances in Coppola films, yet I think a director as egotistical as Coppola is likely to convince himself that it was he who shaped the performances and that, in the cases of Garr and Forrest, he was talented enough to spin straw into gold. Coppola never sounded like the most collaborative of directors and I think he took on too much with "One from the Heart," a film which ultimately only called attention to his limitations.

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  6. I've not yet seen this one, but the stills look amazing!

    All style, no substance? Great to see that Francis Ford Coppola passed on that philosophy to his daughter. Let me tell you, if you want a film that epitomises "all style, no substance", check of Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette".

    George Lucas is such a tragedy, isn't he? Apart from "American Graffiti", let's remember that he also directed "THX-1138" as his feature debut. Whereas "Star Wars" was space opera (albeit most entertaining), "THX-1138" was an interesting look at a dystopian future. It's strange that Lucas didn't pick up again on that theme after he'd finished with the first trilogy of "Star Wars" films.

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    1. Hi Mark
      Yes, if you really want to see some beautiful images (and bad 80s perms)this film is worth checking out on that score alone. These screen caps don't even do the film justice...it's gorgeous. But honestly, I haven't met a person yet who has in any way been moved by the romance. I've kind of avoided Sofia Coppola's films, so I'll heed your warning on "Marie Antionette."
      Oh, and I did remember "THX-1138", but for me that film had considerably less life than the myriad "Star Wars" chapters. I'm not sure I know what Lucas is all about these days. I've never known art to be as controlled as he seems to need it to be.

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    2. "THX-1138" wasn't as lively as the "Star Wars" films, but it was that way by design, and a very different type of sci-fi film. It seems like something that Michael Crichton might have attempted. George could've really went somewhere different if he continued the dystopian future path, but has settled for milking "Star Wars" for the rest of his career.

      Please don't get me wrong, "Star Wars" was a huge part of my very early years, but I think that Lucas is really possessive of something that, in all honestly, is rather derivative of other sci-fi films and films in general--and he well knows it. Certainly a huge (visual) debt is owed to "Metropolis" (e.g. C-3PO, Cloud City, etc).

      As for "One from the Heart", judging from your review, in an odd way it seems like one of those films that would be straight-to-DVD material...IF the visuals didn't demand to be witnessed on the biggest screen possible. I really need to see more Natassja Kinski films, ditto those from her father Klaus.

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