Friday, June 03, 2011
Random Movie Report #91: One From The Heart
The film that killed Zoetrope Studios, Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart is the sort of film I just had to see despite not having any expectations as to it being any good. It was a work of sheer audacity on par with a lot of famous auteur stumbles from the late 70s and early 80s; a small romantic comedy that blew up into a $27 million dollar epic not because the story grew any but because the director insisted on building Las Vegas inside a movie studio and treating the whole thing like an old Hollywood musical with touches of modern realism and a soundtrack written by Tom Waits. It doesn’t really work, but it’s fascinating still, a trove of interesting images and sounds and techniques that simply fail to converge on anything significant.
As you might imagine, it’s a love story. Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Terri Garr) are our two young lovers, who have more or less lived together happily in Vegas for five years without actually tying the knot. But things have grown sour and a little boring, and an anniversary dinner slowly builds to an ugly fight which makes both of them decide to split up for good. Going into town, they both find opportunities for new love, Frannie with a charming singer/waiter named Ray (Raul Julia) who promises to take her to Bora Bora like she always wanted, and Hank with a mysterious circus girl named Leila (Nastassja Kinski) who seems to represent all of Vegas’ enchantment. But after one wild, music-filled Fourth of July, their thoughts drift to each other, and Hank becomes determined to win Frannie back at any cost.
Among other things, One From The Heart was Coppola’s first experiment in “electronic cinema”, a process intended to capture the feel of live early television- he directed remotely from inside a giant trailer, while cameras large and small followed the actors through sets on long takes. The picture was entirely studio-bound, Coppola wishing to create an idealized fantasy of Las Vegas as opposed to the reality. And to be sure, the film’s visuals are incredible. The city is bright and candy colored, with little division between day and night, sharp colored lights throwing characters into relief. Even the more subdued moments of the film are beautifully lit and composed, and the long takes, rather than feeling obtrusive, create a certain intimacy.
And here comes the “but...”. Romances, more than any other genre, rely on our connecting with the central characters and understanding their emotional links with each other. One From The Heart gets it half right- most of the characters are charming, and the acting is pretty strong, but the fundamental relationship at the core of it all doesn’t quite register. We know from the Old Hollywood look and feel of the picture that the instant our young lovers break up, they’re destined to get back together; unfortunately, the film never really makes us think that they should. They’re not completely miserable with each other, but they’re getting there, and as far as we can tell Ray and Leila are both good people who can offer them the chance at something better. Hank’s third-act mania to win Frannie over again comes off as more neurotic than romantic, and even taking into account the changing morés of the romantic comedy it gets a bit creepy. Frederic Forrest was an interesting and brave choice to cast in the lead, as he’s not the traditional heartthrob, but perhaps he’s been cast too well- Hank gets a little scary and you wonder if his behavior might not seem a little more palatable coming from a Cary Grant type. The pacing of much of the dialogue and particularly the romantic exchanges just feels off, like we’re missing beats that the music and visuals are trying to fill in.
So the film is basically fatally flawed. And yet, it offers a number of delightful distractions. The visuals, including a wistful but eerie title sequence, are constantly surprising. The song score, intended to act as the emotional window into the protagonists’ lives, is terrific, with the growling Waits counterbalanced by a soulful Crystal Gayle. Waits’ growling during the third act almost saves it, as he captures some of the breakdown Hank is going through. Leila is given a great surrealist song number in the most old-timey sequence of all, and Frannie and Ray dance a magnificent tango that spills into the streets and catches up an entire band of 4th of July revelers. You’ve got supporting appearances by Lainie Kazan and Harry Dean Stanton, and going back to visual beauty, this may be Terri Garr at her most utterly gorgeous.
This is not the sort of film you can recommend to most people. It doesn’t quite work as a romance and all the glamour put up around it isn’t enough to compensate. But I think if you’re a movie buff or scholar, you owe it to yourself to watch it at least once. There’s a lot here that works even if the whole thing doesn’t, and you can sense Coppola and company really earnestly trying to realize something important. Critics called the film heartless and mechanical, but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s made with love, and passion, and that perhaps the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for the story got in the way of their telling it properly. I don’t love it, but I’m very fond of parts of it, and I think I would like to see them again.
Story by Armyan Bernstein
Screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Francis Coppola (and Luana Anders, uncredited)
Directed by Francis Coppola