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Classical Moods: Francis Ford Coppola’s "One from the Heart"

Coppola's 1982 retro-futurist, candy-colored, studio-bound musical exemplifies the risk-taking auteurism missing from today's cinema.
Carlos Valladares
One from the Heart is showing December 20, 2019 – January 18, 2020 on MUBI in the United States as part of the series Francis Ford Coppola: Reignite Cinema.
One from the Heart
Above: One from the Heart
What does it mean to take a risk when making movies? “Risk” is the word I’ve been dwelling on these past couple of weeks, ever since the publishing of the now-iconic “Scorsese Manifesto” in the New York Times. There, Martin Scorsese did one of the easiest things a film lover could do today: excoriate the Marvel pictures, specifically for their lack of “revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger.” For Scorsese, the rise of the multiplex, the decline of mid-budget works defined by artists’ weird tics (perversely enough, it’s now an event near to arthouse subversion any time a sturdy classical work like a Parasite or a Knives Out or a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood pops up at the local AMC), and the monopoly held on the audiovisual by the dull Imagineers at Marvel/Disney has created an unprecedented lack of Scorsesian risk in the industry. By extension, artistic and political cowardice has settled in. As Scorsese wrote, “Many of [the Marvel movies] are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”1
This talk of risk as it pertains to the individual film artist’s voice is nothing new. Just read what Glauber Rocha, the Third Cinema auteur of such mind-altering Marxist works as Black God, White Devil (1964), Terra em Transe (1967), and Antonio Das Mortes (1969), had to say about auteurism as it related to his situation in 1964 Brazil: “Being a film auteur is the most dramatic and absurd condition—which suffers from external pressure but which is crushed by the inevitable conflict of the auteur. The way of looking at the world is so individual that, even in forced cases, it is impossible to discipline the vision to the regulations of traditional ways of viewing: those which are formulated to entertain and make profit. Orson Welles and Jean Vigo, Robert Flaherty and Max Ophüls, Eisenstein and Visconti, Rossellini and Buñuel—these are the heroes of the cinematographic saga at various points throughout the world.”2 In Rocha’s 1964 Brazil, to be a film auteur was to pick up a camera and use it as a weapon of vision, to create moods of an extraordinary, awe-inspiring, dream-sculpted, even action-sparking nature. (As regards the U.S. situation, to the above parade of names, we must add the countless Black and female filmmakers who didn’t have the privilege of being gifted an absurd number of ballooning budgets or re-tries as a Francis Ford Coppola or a Martin Scorsese: Bill Gunn, Elaine May, Julie Dash, Barbara Loden, Joan Tewkesbury, Wendell B. Harris, Jr. They, too, are artists in the struggle over what fevered dream-visions the cinema can support, over who gets to make them and where they will be seen.)
Most of the films of Francis Ford Coppola scream “risk.” The intolerant grandeur of Coppola’s auteurist vision is what will first strike the senses when seeing One from the Heart (1982), The Cotton Club Encore (2019; an expanded recut of his 1984 Cotton Club), and Tetro (2009) as they stream on MUBI this month. The situation with studios has changed dramatically since the 1980s, when Coppola’s box-office bombs (along with Elaine May’s Ishtar and Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate) were laughed off the screens thanks to abysmal audience numbers; the critics and those in the industry clucked their tongues over the budgets more than they talked about the actual content of the films. Now, in 2019, Coppola’s post-1979 films hit with more inspiring force than they ever could during their time—the fate of all mad geniuses. As Scorsese’s film-brat comrade, Coppola knew what it meant to enter the mainstream as a young hot-shot artiste—the screenplay to Patton (1970), The Godfathers (1972, 1974), The Conversation (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979)—then to squander all posterity for a series of weird works each more discomfiting and more aggressively personal than the last. Tetro—indeed, all three of the Coppolas of the aughts—are still regarded in circles as aberrant old-man failures, falls from grace by a director-turned-winemaker, rather than the operatic, oneiric elegies to family and originality that they are—an impossible shotgun marriage of Elia Kazan and Raúl Ruiz.
What to say about a risky picture like One from the Heart? It’s a story whose emotional beats have been hit a painful amount of times in the past: working-class burnouts (Teri Garr, Frederic Forrest) love each other. They want to get out of their jerkwater berg (the “Paradise” of Las Vegas) and start a new life. They don’t think the new life can be with each other. They split. They flirt with others (Raul Julia, Nastassja Kinski). He misses her. He begs to be taken back. They realize they can’t live without each other. They stay put, deeper in love.
Above: Some Came Running
The mechanics of the plot hardly matter; it’s how they’re bash-beamed into your brain by Coppola with such off-putting, blaring grandiloquence. Coppola’s revisit to the past is not mere nostalgia; he bleeds a vibrant past (the Arthur Freed Unit musicals at MGM) into the present and show how the past haunts the banal present of an America about to enter into the dark Reagan years of violent, selfish prosperity. Coppola works within Expressionist traditions by creating a psychic musical, true to the interior perception of ambition, escape, desire, and love-inspired madness of all those who see and warm to it. When discussing the fairground finale of Some Came Running (1958), Vincente Minnelli described his hope that the scene would look like it was shot from the inside of a jukebox. Coppola went one step further: One from the Heart is a musical in a jukebox. But the jukebox is out of order and stuck on a Tom Waits/Crystal Gayle loop, whose songs float over the diegesis, never really grounded in the Tron­-like video game physicality of Coppola’s sets. None of the characters literally burst into song. We only hear Waits and Gayle, almost as if they were singing what the characters wanted to express, but never could because they thought that they weren’t good enough. Sometimes, they directly comment on the action, but oftentimes the only thing anchoring song and story is the striking similarity of Forrest’s voice to Waits’s. Forrest has a gravel tone like Waits, but he can’t sing, as he desperately tells Teri Garr over and over again at the end of a film. Waits does all the singing for this white working-class stiff, while the stiff can only stew in his unsung self-doubts. Forrest plays him with a remarkable vanilla blandness—partly a result of a brilliant character actor being asked to overexpose himself as the lead, partly the conscious decision to have a blank nothing become the unlikely (unconvincing) prole hero.
Teri Garr is a story onto herself. The female heavy, Fran (Garr), is a window-dresser—Vincente Minnelli’s first job before Broadway and Hollywood came calling—while Hank (Forrest) is a mechanic whose workspace is a Dalíesque landscape of broken signs: a junk-heap of burned-out Chevrolets, telephone lines that double as acrobat’s tightropes, the ball from a 76 gas station. This latter item becomes the synecdoche of the entire film and of Coppola’s melancholic, post-classicist mood in the 80s: Nastassja Kinski’s showgirl spins on the 76 beach ball as if she were a circus puppet while the shirtless mechanic with the halitosis-tinged Tom Waits growl (Forrest) smokes against a painted orange-red sunrise, appraising a ruby-red ring the size of a pram. Here, the characters become Flash-game avatars—simple types doing simple tasks in a proto-2000s video-game world that mixes bytes and Bazin. We’re a far cry from the psychologically dense anti-heroes with whom Coppola made his name, those loners seen in the brooding-delicate chiaroscuros of the Godfathers, The Conversation, and the first half of Apocalypse Now. With One from the Heart, Coppola embraced an aggressive impulse to remix and to fantasize beyond anything those more conventionally realist films ever showed. He jams together oil-and-water traditions: the boozy Waits albums of the 1970s; MGM musicals; a suspicious love of Las Vegas decadence; the video game aesthetic that makes it look like it was cribbed from N64’s 2001; and the principles of the deconstructed musical (1961’s Lola if it was shot by the guy who lensed 1981’s Lola).
Teri Garr is vibrant, her self-confidence feeding on her self-doubt and vice versa. When she cocks her body at strange angles as if all her sides were being photographed by her own private David Hemmings (Blow-Up, 1966), and when she stumbles as she hustles down the Strip like she was carrying three suitcases, she reminds one of no less than Shirley MacLaine — especially in her perfectly realized performances in Some Came Running, The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder), and Sweet Charity (1969, Bob Fosse). There’s the nervous MacLaine energy that Garr expends as she compulsively checks the inside of her purse, as well as when she makes up her sad face in a mirror shaped like a heart that’s asking to be shattered, Apartment­-style. Her scenes with Julia are the stuff of sexy legend; the heat of her neon-red dress spills onto Raul Julia during any one of their messy tangoes, shot in golden Bertolucci hues by Vittorio Storraro.
Still, Forrest/Hank manages to deliver a line for the ages: “America…it’s phony bullshit…nothing’s real! ’S’all tinsel!” He's completely right. It is. Whereas the movie around him is, though decidedly un-real, not at all phony or bullshit or tinsel. There’s a concrete, risk-loving craziness to the Heart spectacle—one that whets our 2019 appetite for a similar riskiness in today's Disney-industrial complex that have convinced scores of viewers that we’re just watching the same-old-same-old, business-as-usual from Hollywood. Except for the errant Whit Stillman image of fancy-doily private college girls tap-dancing in the fountains of Damsels in Distress (2011), the state of popular movies today (i.e., movies designed with mass appeal and spoken in classical film grammar) looks unchallengingly drab and streamlined. There aren’t any images in postmodern U.S. musicals (when they’re being made) as raw and erotic and baffling as Kinski grinding up and down inside a cocktail glass like a toothpick with no olive.
There’s a freak’s obsession with German Expressionism (especially of the outsized Fritz Lang kind) that pervades One from the Heart and most of Coppola’s idea of cinematic risk. It’s his noble fool’s dream to turn the world into an MGM soundstage. His dream could have succeeded were it not for the fatal flaw: the audience. Practically no one saw this bonkers vision when it came out; they never had the chance to, since the release was infamously pulled at the last minute by Paramount and rushed by Columbia. Only a devoted few flock to it today. This is despite its celebration of a mass cultural heritage (the movie musical) that Americans once partook in droves and which is egalitarian in its scope, history, and philosophy (anyone can dance, music is what comes out of our mouths when we speak about dreams).
Now as then, the auteur is altogether mad. That’s proven in every single one of One from the Heart’s Minnellian camera swoops down from the heavens, its painted clouds and cutscene comets, the reams of overblown postcards and dolls’ houses that make up the backdropped Las Vegas of a movie-sick mind. As Rocha put it, “At different moments: none of [the auteurs] succumbed, due to the resistance of their genius or to the greater force of the faith in ideas—but they all suffered and were mutilated by economic power or by censorship.” The film auteur can either conform within her country’s production system and make impersonal products that express little and mean less (the way into the big bucks for the Marvel-vetted directors of gelatinous CG’d crashes), or she can figure out how to temporarily placate the beasts of capital, force her artist’s dreams onto screens, sneak some mystical grace-hope-love into a flat, dismal, electronic picturescape that’s both too much and never enough.

1. Martin Scorsese, “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain,” New York Times, 4 Nov 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html.
2. Glauber Rocha, “Barren Lives (Vidas Secas) [1964],” in On Cinema, edited by Ismail Xavier, translated by Stephanie Dennison and Charlotte Smith (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2019), pg. 38.

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