One from the Heart (1982)
Welcome to the Overlooked Hotel, where guests are invited to disagree with the conventional wisdom and re-evaluate the underappreciated.
For your average, garden-variety cinephile, not many filmic movements manage to rouse up as much excitement and debate as the New Hollywood development in America of the late 1960s and 1970s, an isolated period that overflowed with the innovation of creative minds against a backdrop of wild and unpredictable socio-political change. Of all the directors revered for their cinematic contributions, it is perhaps Francis Ford Coppola whose works are the most revered, particularly throughout the 1970s, in which he would release a string of towering American artistic achievements. Kicking off the decade with a little film called The Godfather, Coppola would not only direct its (superior) sequel two years later, but would also helm the underrated spy thriller The Conversation and the operatic Vietnam war saga Apocalypse Now.
For any artist, the successful creation of even one of those films, let alone four, would solidify a reputation. Which is why, when Coppola decided to follow up one of cinema’s greatest home runs with the flamboyant and artificial musical One From the Heart, the backlash was crippling. Not only is One From the Heart one of the biggest flops in film history, eventually bankrupting Coppola and his company Zoetrope, it’s also considered the first of many artistic blemishes on Coppola’s soon-to-be nosediving career. One has to wonder however, after actually viewing the film, whether such extreme reactions are necessary, or even warranted, as One From the Heart is no doubt one of Coppola’s finest films, a further extension of the Midas touch of his 70s output.
A surface level insight is all one needs to see that One From the Heart is a sharp detour from Coppola’s previous work; in fact, it’s almost a complete 180. For starters, it’s a musical. While Coppola certainly adhered to a steady diet of theatricality previously, with One From the Heart he embraced the romantic within absolutely, opting for a feast of sensory vibrancy both visually and aurally. Shooting the entire film on the sets of his own Zoetrope Studios (except for a junkyard set piece which was shot on the back lot), the film utilises techniques made famous by Hollywood’s great melodramatics like Douglas Sirk, as One From the Heart comes saturated in primary colours, expressionist lighting and a delicate, moody jazz score composed and performed by Tom Waits (accompanied by country singer Crystal Gayle).
As well as favouring the other end of the spectrum tone-wise, One From the Heart also strips back its narrative functions. In comparison to the elegantly plotted, familial-hierarchy of The Godfather films, One From the Heart seems regressive in its simple story of fading love. Taking place over a single July 4th evening in Las Vegas, the film follows Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr) as they attempt to celebrate their five-year anniversary. After an argument and subsequent break-up, the pair fly solo into the city’s celebrations. Frannie, a travel agent who yearns for greener, more exotic pastures (Bora Bora specifically), becomes romantically entangled with Ray (a superb Raúl Juliá), a lounge singer come waiter, whereas Hank becomes intoxicated by the luminous Leila (Nastassja Kinski), a circus performer who runs away from her troupe. While both Hank and Frannie are adamant in their pursuits, their love for one another riddles all actions with guilt, until the limit of their relationship is tested with a final show down at the airport’s Bora Bora terminal gate.
Based upon these differences, One From the Heart might seem to come from out of left field in the context of Coppola’s oeuvre prior to its release. Such an analysis, however, tends to overlook the influence of classical Hollywood structures and aesthetics in not only Coppola’s work, but also in the entire group of New Hollywood renegades. As well as being schooled in the traditions of the gangster film and the western, Coppola and co. were also consumers of the rich flamboyance of the melodrama and the musical. One only has to glance towards Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York from 1977, yet another film panned for its adherence to artifice. Looking at both films, but particularly One From the Heart, it’s clear that the tenants of social realism are far from the minds of these men and their projects. In fact, One From the Heart actively encourages the opposite, with its highly constructed sets, elaborate visual design and musical narration.
Composition is key here, and while the case was clearly the same for Coppola’s previous films, here it is the absolute backbone. While the actual production is clearly indebted to the artificial, so are the lives and actions of its main characters. Throughout the course of the couple’s breakup, the audience is witness to the pretence that dictates their lives, as we watch them attempt to comprehend and control their environments. During the argument that is the catalyst for their split, both parties exchange slurs about the decayed promise of their relationship’s early years and the situation in which they now find themselves. For Hank, Frannie now resembles an egg and never even bothers to shave her legs while Hank, once Frannie’s “Prince Charming” is now balding and unambitious. Each of them has fallen in love with an idea rather than a person, with time eventually breaking their illusion. After their split the pair attempt to re-invent themselves physically in an effort to project yet another false image to prospective partners. As Frannie dances sexily in the mirror and Hank gets a haircut, neither of them realise the futility of their routine, and in a sense, neither do we.
Even the reason for their split adheres to the practice of projection as Frannie seeks adventure and travel while Hank wants to settle down. Frannie works for a travel agency and numerous times in the film we see her building small display window replicas of exotic locations. The experience of culture is naturally equated with excitement, but Frannie’s idea of exoticism is also linked with escapism, which is based on generic cultural indicators propagated through snapshot images. At one point Frannie and her newfound lover Ray — a man who says he’s one thing and is in fact another — imagine themselves dancing in Bora Bora, yet this Bora Bora looks like something plucked from an “exotic” Disney cartoon. While Frannie courts Ray, Hank advances on Leila, yet another vision of illustrious beauty eventually exposed as, well, human. That doesn’t stop Hank initially envisioning Leila as a giant, neon vision; an embodiment of Hank’s seeing her as the cure for his heart’s ailments. While numerous films from 2013 looked at the cyclic, postmodern impact of popular culture embedded in the social psyche (I’m thinking Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and even Pain and Gain), it seems the movie brats of the 1970s had already got there. In actuality, they were self-inflicted victims of it.
At the end of the day though, One From the Heart is a film that celebrates love and spiritual connection above all else. Once Frannie and Hank can realise each other’s imperfections they take leave of their fleeting escapades and sweetly reunite. Even while they ran amok in Las Vegas alone, Coppola emphasised their interconnectedness constantly, through none other than cinematic technique itself. Cross fades, projections, synchronicity and musical segues never keep Frannie and Hank apart for very long, and while they take separate paths logistically, their night mirrors one another in more ways than one. In essence, it is cinema that binds them.
As the film comes to a conclusion, Tom Waits wonders over the soundtrack whether he hears a “siren or a saxophone”. There is confusion in the interplay of desire, a fact that Frannie and Hank will have to come to terms with both now and in the future. The hard-of-hearing Waits then moves on to exclaim that he “loves you more than all these words can ever say, oh baby, this one’s from the heart”. Romantic gestures abound in One From the Heart, both internally and externally, as Coppola comes to pay tribute to the cinema of his youth by uncovering the impact of its artifice on our reality. In more ways than one, One From the Heart is an acknowledgement of difference and departure, both for Frannie and Hank but also for Coppola himself. Unfortunately, Coppola would have to compromise his vision for an entire decade to pay off the funds he lost while producing this film and would never really recover, at least artistically. One From the Heart is therefore his artistic apex, a truly overlooked film that deserves far more prominent place in our cultural reality.