Throughout the course of this project, I have tried, and failed, to find the perfect balance between ambitious commercial failures begging to be reconsidered and cinematic punching bags politely requesting a long, hard beating. Yet after suffering through Pay It Forward and Howard The Duck, I was suddenly gripped with a masochistic urge to plunge further and further into bad movie hell by subjecting myself to the black hole of ego and arrogance that is An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood Burn. It would be the bad-movie-watching equivalent of slicing open the webbing between my fingers and pouring lemon juice into the cuts. Oh, but you people seem to enjoy watching me suffer. Even more disconcertingly, I'm starting to enjoy the pain.
Alas, the random machinations of fate spared me from that cruel destiny. For the time being, at least. I couldn't track down Joe Eszterhas' odious tribute to himself so I was instead forced to revisit a film I genuinely like despite its considerable flaws: 1982's notorious One From The Heart. By a strange non-coincidence, this entry will be running alongside Scott Tobias' interview with Francis Ford Coppola. All I can say is that when Youth Without Youth rockets to number one at the box-office this weekend and goes on to sweep the Academy Awards, the A.V Club stands to receive a sweet-ass kickback from Mr. Coppola. I will happily accept my payoff in sparkling wine and unsold Marie Antoinette DVDs, Mr. Coppola, sir.
1982's One From The Heart is a film with blood on its hands. For if Coppola hadn't lost the gross domestic product of a small island nation on the film, he wouldn't have been forced to work as a gun-for-hire for the next decade to pay back his debts. Oh, One From The Heart: you have so much to answer for. It's an old story: a visionary director tired of constantly having to justify his mad-prophet vision to buttoned-down bean counters with calculators for hearts so he sets up shop on his own. It's gonna be different, this time, see? This time, the inmates will be running the asylum and making mad moolah in the process. Three months later, the now penniless, despondent visionary comes crawling back to his old studio, begging for any job, no matter how dispiriting or humiliating: assistant director on a Wallace Beery wrestling movie, production assistant on a Hercules flick. It doesn't matter. He'll do anything just to get back in the game. Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Coppola: all fell into ruin when they tried to buck the system.
It's telling that when a filmmaker succeeds in running his own studio, it's because he's learned to let his inner businessman veto his inner artiste. Coppola ran Zoetrope with his heart. It nearly destroyed him. Steven Spielberg runs DreamWorks with his brain, a decision that leads to much healthier returns on investment. I'm guessing Spielberg didn't green-light Transformers or urge the crapping out of another fucking Shrek sequel to satiate his delicate muse.
In a bitter irony, One From The Heart was a money-making proposition that rapidly devolved into a money-sucking vacuum. The plan was to film a quirky little sleeper fast and cheap to raise money for more ambitious Zoetrope ventures. But when Coppola's vision kept expanding, the original two million dollar budget became a bad joke and One From The Heart became that more ambitious Zoetrope venture, a $28 million working-class musical fantasia starring box-office mega-star Frederic Forrest, the young people's favorite. Rather than film on location in Las Vegas, Coppola filmed entirely on highly stylized, elaborately constructed sets. I suspect Coppola's mini-Vegas cost more than the real thing.
Coppola initially envisioned the film as a groundbreaking experiment in "Live Cinema," an elaborate homage to the early days of television, complete with long takes, stagy performances, and an army of cameras whirring simultaneously to capture the action from every conceivable angle. Coppola had to abandon some of his mad schemes, but the film still represents a stunning, perhaps insane, feat of ambition taken to its illogical extreme.
It's a lushly cinematic film that flaunts its connection to theater and live television. It even begins and ends with a curtain opening and closing, along with credits listing "understudies," including Rebbeca De Mornay, who ended up with a bit role as a restaurant patron. It aspires to gritty emotional realism against a floridly romantic, hyper-stylized backdrop. It's a small film that ballooned into something gargantuan.
Coppola's labor of love opens with a curtain that parts to reveal a big, luminous cartoon moon before traveling over the sensual curves of the Las Vegas desert and finally onto a riot of neon spelling out the cast and crew. Harry Dean Stanton! Frederic Forrest! For some reason, it just seems wrong to see those names in neon. Elton John? Yes. Harry Dean Stanton? Not so much,
All the while, Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle enshroud the film's opening sequence in a smoky cocoon of seedy glamour redolent of lost whiskey-soaked nights and too many cigarettes. It's a dream of Vegas, the most American place in all of God's United States (suck it, D.C.! Where are your slot machines, showgirls and legalized prostitution, huh? You might as well be the capitol of Mother Russia.)
The film then segues from the fantasy of Las Vegas, that lurid wonderland of sin and sensuality, Disneyland for perverts and gambling freaks, to the reality. Mousy Teri Garr runs from her job window dressing at a travel agency, to a house she shares with husband Forrest. Oscar-nominated song and score composer Waits and duet partner Gayle follow suit. "Looks like you spent the night in a trench, and tell me/How long you been combing your hair with a wrench?," Waits broods with exquisite world-weariness. "The roses are dead and the violets are too. And I'm sick and tired of picking up after you," Gayle answers testily. "This railroad apartment is held together with glue. And I'm sick and tired of picking up after you" is Waits' withering musical retort.
Forrest and Garr have been together for five years and the thrill seems to have left somewhere around year number three. On the eve of their anniversary, they exchange gifts that betray their antithetical desires. Garr wants to escape so she gives Forrest tickets to Bora Bora. Forrest wants to stay so he gives Garr the deed to a house not much better than the "railroad apartment held together with glue" that Waits sings so craggily about. But it isn't long until the couple's fragile peace is broken and they break into an argument charged with the ghosts of the million little squabbles that came before. They've reached the stage in their relationship where they've become little more than furniture to their mate: static, dull, and dependable.
After a particularly bitter tiff, they go their separate ways, vowing not to return to their sad little loveless nest. Forrest becomes infatuated with a "circus woman" played with spellbinding exoticism by Natassia Kinski. Garr, meanwhile, finds herself falling for a dashing Latin lover played by Raul Julia. Garr is suddenly a woman transformed. She stops seeing herself as furniture and begins seeing herself as reflected in Julia's adoring eyes: as a sensual, dynamic and exciting woman. Heart captures the giddy sugar rush of infatuation visually and musically: the world becomes a musical as Garr and Julia tango, then rush out into the street where an elaborate production number breaks out against a lurid wonderland of flashing lights and blinding casino signs.
Meanwhile Forrest takes his flexible new love to an abstract, painted junkyard that looks like it belongs in an art gallery. They canoodle under the stars but Forrest's jealousy leads him to burst into Julia's apartment and drags a largely naked Garr (incidentally, if you want to see Garr naked for long stretches of time, look no further) out caveman-style.
Can Garr and Forrest's relationship be saved? Should it be saved? The two leads do such a bang-up job of filling their onscreen relationship with lived-in bitterness and resentment that the answer to both questions, in my mind at least, is a firm "Hell No." Besides, Julia is such a charmer–warm, funny, charismatic, and romantic–that Garr would be a fool to choose a schmuck like Forrest over him. But this is a romantic fantasy so (LAME SPOILER ALERT) the two end up together after Forrest races to the airport and professes his love for her before she can go away with Julia to an island paradise. It's perhaps the quintessential lame romantic cliché–the hero climactically rushes to the airport to keep his baby from leaving on a jet plane with one last, impassioned protestation of devotion–but it's salvaged through sound and image. "Better get down on your knees. Suffer," implores Waits, the film's gothic Greek chorus, over hauntingly spare, almost non-existent instrumentation, on the film's soundtrack while Coppola's extreme stylization propels the film into an ethereal realm.
Heart is an intentionally modest human story hobbled by a male lead whose low-wattage presence is no match for the oceans of neon around him. On a narrative level the film is an overly precious trifle. At the risk of being controversial, it's entirely possible that they could have chosen a more dynamic leading man from Forrest. Take away the sets and songs and all that's left is the mundane romantic angst of two whiny, not-particularly sympathetic ordinary people.
But Heart is essentially all about sets and songs and mood and atmosphere. It's a triumph of style as substance. Coppola might not have succeeded in making his "live film," but he pointed the way towards a cinema so dazzling visually and musically that dialogue and plot and even characterization somehow don't seem to matter. Waits and Coppola wrap their mundane world in layer upon layer of stardust and glitter.
One From The Heart is best experienced as an elegant dance of sound and image divorced entirely from minor concerns like plot and dialogue. Thankfully the film's deluxe DVD offers a music-only feature so a new generation can strip away the film's rinky-dink plot and luxuriate in the seedy beauty of Coppola and Waits' intimate duet.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success