One From The Heart (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
Scoop's Notes in White
Ol' Chuck Dickens wasn't just whistlin' Dixie there, was he? I think the lad was onto something. What is truly astounding about that quote is that he was talking about the 1770s, and not the 1970s. In both of those springs of hope, the smell of revolution was in the air. There were no guillotines in the 1970s, but that epoch was a time of cultural revolution which changed the world almost as dramatically as the American Revolution. If our age had retained the tradition of using the guillotine to remove those who once abused power, Nixon would have been buried in a shorter coffin. During the first counter-cultural stirrings in the Summer of Love in 1967, nobody could have predicted that within a few short months the student protests would drive LBJ, the most powerful man in the world, to announce he would not seek a second term in office; nor could anyone in that early euphoric hippie haze have foreseen the movement's final, triumphal moment when a muttering, drunken, half-crazed Richard Nixon was shooed from the White House as unceremoniously as if he had been a dog who pissed on the floor of the Oval Office.
The movie business underwent its own parallel revolution in the sixties and seventies. The greedy studio system crumbled, the restrictive Hays Code was repealed, and the lone wolf auteur became the romantic hero of the hour, with the freedom to do as he pleased. In the old studio system, directors had been virtually anonymous. Did you ever hear of Michael Curtiz? Well, in the old studio days, up until 1961, he directed sixty five films, including some of the best ever made. You've probably heard of Casablanca, Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce, The Sea Wolf, Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Elizabeth and Essex, and The Charge of the Light Brigade. Curtiz directed them all, and many others as familiar, all while working as a salaried employee of Warner Brothers. If he had been born twenty years later, he would have been a household name. Within a few years after Curtiz ended his career, by the time the 1970s rolled around, directors had become familiar even to the average Joe Six Pack, who could probably identify at least Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, and Woody Allen. Those guys were stars, even though all their great movies added together may not equal the career of the anonymous Michael Curtiz.
With the newly established stardom of directors came independence, and with that freedom came a high level of risk for the major studios. The studios, stripped of artistic control and reduced basically to the banking function, were not especially pleased to have an additional tier of stars. It was difficult enough to deal with egomaniacal actors, but the combination of acting stars and directing stars was enough to drive any studio head to retirement, and enough to drive studios to bankruptcy. After all, a perfectionist actor could only cause so many problems, but a perfectionist director could blow costs sky-high and delay films by months, or even years. Perfectionists, once they have been declared geniuses by the general consensus of their peers or by the overwhelming approval of audiences, stand above criticism. They are infallible until proven otherwise.
The mystique of the infallible revolutionary seems to be an inevitable part of the process of revolution. Dickens's subjects, the French of the 1770s, had been inspired by, and had contributed much to, an America which had declared itself independent in order to establish rights which were "self-evident." There is something in that hyphenated word which says a great deal about both of those hopeful springs two centuries apart - there is a presumption of infallibility, a cavalierly pre-emptive dismissal of any opposing argument as being so obviously wrong that discussion cannot even be entertained. Why? It's "self-evident." The need to do things his way was as self-evident to Michael Cimino in the 1970s as it was to Thomas Jefferson in the 1770s. And so were born deals for vaguely defined projects, open-ended budgets, and directors with the right of "final cut." These notions were conceived with the noble purpose of sheltering the high-minded genius auteur from the meddling of artless studio accountants and shysters. These same notions, conceived in the spring of hope, would ultimately bring the studios to the winter of despair.
Once a man has been lifted upon the pedestal of genius, given a blank check and final cut, the only thing that can knock him off his pedestal is a reversal of the successes and approvals that originally anointed his genius. Steven Spielberg (1941, made in 1979), Frances Ford Coppola (One From the Heart, 1982), and Michael Cimino (Heaven's Gate, 1980) were three of the superstar directors who eventually used their complete freedom to prove just how fallible they were. It all came tumbling down for the studios, appropriately enough, just as the seventies ended. Clio, the Muse of History, can not normally provide the convenience of ending epochs on a timetable consistent with calendar decades, but in this case everything worked itself out quite neatly to separate "a seventies film" and "an eighties film" quite clearly in our minds.
One From the Heart, although dated 1982, was basically vestigial - the last gasp of the seventies. The project actually debuted (and closed) at the very beginning of 1982, and Coppola had been working on it for two years. Coppola had created a new studio, and his original idea was to launch it with a small picture - a sound stage musical with no location shots - no exteriors at all, for that matter. It would be a film in which he would manage every set, every light, every frame to give off the special romantic aura he wanted to create with a minimal investment. At least that was the original intention. Of course, once a genius auteur starts punctilious management of every frame of a film, you just know that things are going to get out of hand. The "small picture" grew into a $26 million dollar Topsy.
There were plenty of warning signs along the way. Coppola started referring to himself not as the director, but as the film's "composer." He determined that he would not "compose" from the physical set of the film, but from a high-tech control room where he could view instant rushes through video technology, as if he were Roone Arledge directing the Olympics. This was pretty much of a symbolic declaration that the film was about the technology, and not about the humanity of the story. On a less symbolic level, he declared that the film was actually about "fantasy and reality," and was far ahead of its time. All of that translates from director-speak into English as "I don't have much of a story, and Joe Moviegoer isn't going to get it because it looks kinda like a Fellini thing." To cap off the pretentious presentation of the film, Coppola premiered it at a reserved seat engagement in Radio City Music Hall.
The public reacted the way they always react to a film ahead of its time - by rejecting it in favor of films that belong to their own time. The total gross was $900,000, a mere drop in the budget's bloated bucket, and Coppola voluntarily pulled the film from theaters in short order. If the public was merely indifferent, critics were bilious. They seemed to despise it and everything it stood for. Roger Ebert was reasonably polite in assigning a weak two stars, but Pauline Kael hauled out her heavy verbal artillery for a scathing attack. Here are some of her choice barbs:
It is a musical, in a way, but the characters don't sing the songs. They stare out longingly into the middle distance while Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle sing for them. That might have worked out fine, except that the songs, written by Waits, are so ... unmemorable. I like musicals, and often come out of them singing a couple of the best songs, but I can't remember one damned phrase from any of these. There was also a second problem with the songs. The duets don't work. Waits is an interesting guy and has developed his own signature growling, sliding style which is perfectly appropriate to represent the singing of a blue collar worker, so his imprecise sliding between the notes works out fine for the bluesy solo numbers, but he sounds pretty damned sour when he misses the harmonies in the duets. In addition, their voices are very dissimilar and Gayle simply overpowers him. Even when Waits hits the notes, their duets often sound like he's humming along from the audience while she sings with a microphone. It sounds like Ethel Merman singing a duet with Donovan.
What's the film about? Not much of anything. That's the real problem.
The story centers around the relationship of two average, boring, ordinary people. Frannie works in a travel agency. Hank drives a tow truck. They live and work in Las Vegas, which Coppola re-created on a sound stage because he wanted a fantasy feeling. No, really. Apparently the real Las Vegas is just too real - too mundane and fantasy-free, as gritty as the South Bronx.
Frannie and Hank have been together for five years and each of them has bought a present to mark the occasion. Frannie has bought two tickets to Bora-Bora. Hank has bought the house they've been living in. The presents don't hit the mark. Frannie thinks Hank's present is too earth-bound and unimaginative, and she doesn't even like the house. Hank thinks Frannie's present is extravagant and impractical. An argument follows the gift exchange, and they break up.
Within 24 hours, they are each getting laid with a sexy new partner, after he is pursued by a beautiful Vegas showgirl, and she does a tango through the streets of Vegas with a professional dancer.
Now that's some gritty South Bronx mean streets realism!
Anyway, here's the big spoiler: the lovers manage to get back together.
I'll give you a little time to recover from the shock and surprise.
Because it was shot entirely on a sound stage with many of the techniques of live theater, One From the Heart seems to be a filmed play, but that isn't really such a bad thing. The artiness might have worked under different circumstances. As I see it, the film didn't fail because of Coppola's grand excesses or clinical aloofness. Deep down, the one thing really wrong with this movie is the same thing that is usually wrong with failed movies - the script. If Coppola had put the same time and effort and wizardry into something witty and engaging, it could have and would have resulted in a worthwhile film. As it stands, all of the pyrotechnics really don't matter, because the script is trite, superficial, insubstantial, pointless, whitebread bland, and sorely lacking in humor. As a result, there is nothing to the film except the technique. People do not pony up their hard-earned cash to watch dazzling technique alone. As Pauline Kael pointed out, it's a long Dr. Pepper commercial, and we don't always watch those, even though they are free.
Tuna's notes in yellow
One from the Heart is a musical romantic comedy produced by Francis Ford Coppola in his Zoetrope studio. It is a concept film with a rather simple formula love story but a very radical method of filming.
It begins with 20 minutes of connubial combat between Teri Garr and
Frederic Forrest. After they have been together for five years, she buys them
a trip to romantic Bora Bora, he buys the house they are living in.
Both are furious, she thinking there is no romance in her life, he
wanting stability and commitment. After a fight, she leaves. She
meets someone through the widow of the travel agency where she works
doing the window display, and he bumps into a stunningly beautiful
circus performer (Nastassja Kinski). I already said this was a
Hollywood boy meets girl formula, so it is not revealing much to say
that they both have affairs then end up together.
This experiment, which was meant to be the first of a long line of "real time cinema," was a flop, but is not without interest. Kinski did her own circus stunts, including tightrope walking and walking on top of a huge ball, skills she acquired for this film. Gene Kelly assisted in the choreography. The music is by Tom Waits, who also sings duets with Crystal Gayle. Terri Garr is her usual charming self, and the visuals are stunning. It does have the pace and staging of a stage show, but Coppola and Waits used music and lyrics to advance the story, so the film is not overly talky.
All in all it is an oddity worth seeing once.
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