Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart plays on July 29 and August 5 at Anthology Film Archives in New York as part of its Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s & 80s series.
"All style and no substance" pays a covert compliment to a totally visceral pop art. Still there are different types of pop and there's a question of what's changed between, for example, a Busby Berkeley number or Ziegfeld Follies’ "Bring on the Wonderful Men" (1946)—also playing this weekend in New York—and any sample of Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart:
Both are conscientiously ludicrous. The costumes' surplus value, the simulation of movement through a backdrop of twinkling lights, the lack of any relation between sequences or even shots means that all these elements are deliberately unmotivated, simulated openly by an off-screen hand. They defy any logic, narrative or otherwise, that could render them possible, plausible, and purposeful in any other way than to dazzle as avant-garde works for the masses: the sound can only be music, the image can only be a light-show, and the fake movement of the lights and montage makes sound and image analogs of an orchestrated rhythm. Both are works of craft in which the craftsman seems to be the main star.
Or nearly. Even before Teri Garr stumbles dancing, Copolla seems to have shifted the fantasy from the abstract fantasy of pure music and dance—performers just tools of their own talents—to a psychological fantasy of the characters themselves aspiring to the abstraction of all the Hollywood films they've seen. They're putting on a show, and every shift in color in One from the Heart signals a psychological shift from Bile (red) to Exile (blue) to Lustration (yellow), just as the characters no longer sing the music themselves but have it sung, as if in Platonic form, by Tom Waits and Crystal Gale on the soundtrack. They inhabit their own mental projections almost unknowingly. Adamant that every faculty of filmmaking can limn mental quagmires of jealousy, boredom, and wanderlust in color-codes or key-changes, the nostalgic world of One from the Heart, a prototype for the visionary Hollywood that now branches from Transformers: Dark of the Moon to The Tree of Life, displaces states of mind into formal effects: the characters seem to be drained of all reflective process altogether as cogs in their own dream machines.
In Coppola's self-contained universe, the formal effects of montage, camera, music shifting from one subject to another each work their own displacements so that one sound and body can be substituted with another in the film's communal imagination of a couple-swapping couple. When the souls of characters are to be represented by color charts, they have to be simple souls: like Malick—but also Murnau and Sirk—Coppola makes his people so common that they can only be universal, placeholder's in each other's fantasies. The same couldn't be said for Virginia O'Brien in "Bring On the Wonderful Men," who seems to be nobody other than herself in the position she's in. But the same could never be said of Janet Gaynor either.
In retrospect, One from the Heart seems to belong to the same post-human cinema of Star Wars and Transformers: a fanboy project that's compiled and edited as a mixtape of favorite effects, that values men only for their ability to daydream exotic landscapes and fantasy versions of themselves (whether robots or Tom Waits), though not their ability to play any part within these worlds of their imagination. Coppola doesn't mark a traditional, Quixotic divide between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, but erases it altogether: the characters' interior thoughts and dreams have materialized so awesomely around them that there seems to be nothing left inside, as they trundle through clichés of lingo and a schematic plot that finds each, enticed by an alternate lover, living identical situations and dilemmas over a night. And yet Coppola is obviously attempting some new sort of realism in which a couple that worries about money and leg-waxing will be given a chance to live out their dreams, even if the dreams are handed-down from Powell and Pressburger. Thus Teri Garr's dance, flitting in and out of rhythm, is just an extension of natural motion done whimsically: a code of improvisation and home movie charm that can seem suspicious in Coppola's overdetermined world.
Frederic Jameson on Star Wars, etc.:
"To wish to be haunted; to long for the great passions that now exist only in the past; indeed, to survive in a bourgeois present as exotic cosmetics and costumes alone, as sheer postmodern 'nostalgia' trappings, as optional content within a stereotypical yet empty form: some first, 'classical' nostalgia as abstraction from the concrete object, alongside a second or more 'postmodern' one as nostalgia for nostalgia itself, a longing for the situation in which the process of abstraction might itself once again be possible; this is the source of our feeling that the newer moment is a return to realism - plots, agreeable buildings, decoration, melodies, and so on - when in fact it is only a replay of the empty stereotypes of all those things, and a vague memory of their fullness on the tip of the tongue."
It's a weird result in comparing the two clips that Ziegfeld Follies, and any Busby Berkeley sequence with it, come out realisms next to One from the Heart: where those works from classical Hollywood value the performer to provide the substance of the film, its body and its voice, Coppola, like a lot of "visionary" directors since, sees them as screens for his camera movements, compositions, colors, montage, and music—as Malick can treat the life of a Texas family as a sponge for cosmic concerns. Tightrope walkers and Latin lovers, the characters aren't quite symbols, but they're always icons: early on at dinner, against a matte of red, the husband is framed half-naked with a shirt draped across his chest like a mead hall lord, while his wife, in reverse-shot, cowers in front of the fridge. Each could be replaced by any other actor.
And yet that exchangeability of characters again is nearly an operational principle of One from the Heart: in endless dissolves, they fade in and out of the film (and their own imaginations) along with the songs, colors, etc., each element coming and going autonomously enough that not even the characters themselves are stable reference points for the commentary of light/music. Instead, each element becomes a point of contact with the others, a note nested in a larger sequence that's less meaningful for its individual qualities than for it how harmonizes or clashes. Coppola's displacements, however simple and schematic their source code, are thankfully hard to evoke: they sometimes seem to presage Godard's video work with a rhythm that can make any sequence seem almost lucid. What's noticeable is less the fact of yellow or red or blue than a spectra of variations, as they wax, wane, and gradate across the screen. It's the light that matters—probably more than in any Hollywood film since—because it's what determines who these characters are as appearances and apperceptions exclusive to the eyes of a paying public.