Francis Ford Coppola’s great folly One from the Heart splintered the American New Wave/New Hollywood into shards of half-remembered former glory, casting the great American directors of the ‘70s across the land and possibly abetting the groundwork for the most corporate decade of all American cinema next to come. The famously impossible shoot of Apocalypse Now nearly killed him, of course, and for his next film, he wanted to gift himself a present, much as Michael Cimino did when his The Deer Hunter garnered award after award and he granted himself passage to direct his own pocket passion project Heaven’s Gate. Now, the New Hollywood barely survived Heaven’s Gate, the baroque masterpiece masquerading as a misfire, a grand accident of a film about the grand accident of America. But One from the Heart? The already rickety New Hollywood, a house on stilts with the whirlwind of Star Wars and other new-fangled pop cinema just waiting to topple it, couldn’t survive another go around.
And who can blame them? The first release from Coppola’s own production company, Zoetrope, was propositioned as a sort of New New Wave, an escape from the crumbling of the New Hollywood and a vacation land where directors could again exert reign over a dominion without pesky producer interference. So it’s no surprise that, if one is wont to harp on the delusional elephantiasis of the directorial auteur impulse, One from the Heart, which killed the impulse while it was still in the grave, is example number one. Meant to cost in the vicinity of 2 million, what should have been a punchy little incision, a pesky tingle on Hollywood’s spine, a proverbial heaven for directors, keeled over into a directorial purgatory, with the punch threatened immediately by director Coppola’s constantly kindling ego, insatiable willpower, and ever mushrooming budget. A neat little trick of a rabble-rouser combining Coppola’s worship idols, French New Wave/Italian neo-realist grubbiness and French New Wave/Old Hollywood glitz and glamour, the result is instead a maddeningly overblown toccata of nonsense, a 25 million dollar gilded crucifix for director-driven cinema.
And a work of constant inspiration and intermittent genius, almost in spite of itself. The story of a corrupted couple’s marriage on the ends of itself, the film gallantly counterpoises the radiance of Hollywood hope for the future with the slimy emptiness of the end of the present. Hank (Frederic Forest) and Frannie (Teri Garr) are the couple, but the film’s worship idol is really the neon tableaux around them, inflecting, refracting, and contradicting their loss of innocence with a semi-surrealist, outré imagination world where sin and sensuality reign supreme. The effect is something akin to neo-realism singed by its polar opposite, a luminescent, scalding-hot fantasia of color and looming sound, with the realism and arch-fantasia working like two, dialectical, seemingly insoluble elements that nonetheless saturate into a brew of contrast and counterpoint as the film breaks itself at the stylistic hinges.
A warped exercise in permeable stylistic boundaries, with the wall between the two identities in constant decomposition, the film erects petulant ugliness next to rhapsodic beauty, the latter never dipping into an adolescent, snotty commentary on the former. Much like the same year’s Pennies from Heaven, One from the Heart relies on stylistic contradiction not to mock dream-consciousness cinema (like the Hollywood musical) in cowardly, sniveling ways by undercutting it with harsh realism; instead, Coppola’s film, wary of but indebted to the Hollywood musical, suggests different perceptual realities, contrasting imaginative zones, and transgresses the boundaries between situation and desire, exterior and interior realms.
At some level, Edward Hopper’s urban loneliness painting Nighthawks is always lapping around the banks of the film, but with its toxic corrosion of humility and lack of narrative safeguarding, One from the Heart extends the ethereal loneliness to its logical, caustic endpoint, including sacrificing the film’s own sense of causality and logic. It also preserves Coppola’s visionary inelegance (inelegant from a monetary standpoint, if not an artistic one), which is tested for mettle in the luscious mise-en-scene, the painstaking result of a ten times inflated budget and Coppola’s bewildering commitment to erecting his Las Vegas obelisk out of wood, cardboard, and his hopes and dreams. Had the film’s energy not been up to the task, the maddening effort to build a multi-storied, multi-planed set Las Vegas would have been met with claims of hogwash and directorial egotism. These being claims the film was met with anyway, but not inherently worthwhile ones. Set against a giddily flashing wonderland of mental infatuation, Frannie’s frenzied relationship with a fanatical Raul Julia, an embodiment of kitsch and blinding glamour, becomes a feverish, stardust-speckled counterpoint to her venomous relationship with Hank, a dream world of foolishness but also a necessary liberation from dingy reality.
Her mind kindled into a fire of exoticism and romance, the world erupts into a fantasia production number in a possibly delusional fit of hysteria that also evokes the beauty of a mind clinging to an imaginative future, possibly at its own expense. Not unlike Coppola himself, with his scheming mind hell-bent on a hazy, hallucinogenic dream stanza of personal escape – Frannie’s escape, but mostly his own – as his film was transformed from a wiry, pugnacious little fighter to a cocktail of enormity and combustible spirits. It’s almost as if Coppola, trapped in his dreams but still capable of peering outward, knew what hell he had wrought on his potential for future Hollywood projects and couldn’t resist the urge to continue spending money on his dream project, the knowledge that it may be his last in full bloom. Infectious above all, even the conclusion where Hank and Frannie rekindle their romance with almost comic, spasmodic expediency feels like Coppola’s hot-headed quest to discover a happy ending for himself, to feel requited by Hollywood and earn its favor again.
Throughout, Coppola conscripts singers Tom Waits (who also writes the songs) and Crystal Galle to vocalize the two main characters’ inner turmoil, suggesting the closeted romantic in everyone desperately excavating for egress from the mortal flesh of reality. But the ebullience of the escape must make room for Coppola’s self-critical habit of having the singers cut the film down at the knees, with Waits’ wonderfully ghoulish Greek chorus providing running commentary and perverting Hank’s romanticism with his whiskey-soaked, gravel-pit of a voice. In the end, love is restitched, but the nature of the tenuous stitching, the sudden onset happy conclusion we don’t exactly believe, makes it feel like a test on Coppola’s part: believe my ending, or don’t, or, better yet, do both. Thus exemplified the dialectic beauty of his vision, with worlds slashing into one another in a heated fever of outré style as something we want to believe, but probably can’t, even as we tell ourselves to anyway.
Arguing that the film isn’t a failure is a Sisyphean task judging from how often it shoots itself in the foot; decoupling Coppola’s God complex is not a task not fit for a mere mortal. But in spite of the messiness, or maybe because of it, the film’s title lights the path: for Coppola, this is indeed one from the heart. It’s the heart that prematurely killed him, forcing him to play ball with Hollywood when he only ever wanted to. Whether buyer’s remorse sunk in immediately or not, One from the Heart became an infamous Faustian bargain where Coppola pined to have it all and only ended dealing with the Hollywood devil for twenty years; in attempting to buck the system, he was devoured by it. Warping Coppola into a nowhere man, the film made him a scapegoat, a justification for blockbuster producers to exert an iron-fist over directors, lest they produce an astringent mishap like this one. But if it took him becoming a nowhere man to be released, this is fascinatingly worthwhile nowhere film, an accident that ends up nowhere in particular, but wanders around more intoxicatingly than anything in your wildest dreams.