One From the Heart – A Re-examination (Part One of a Potential Series)

Introduction

Not all film directors’ films are received equally by the public. There are a few films in some directors’ filmographies that have become legendary for their failures. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is still remembered today as the film that spectacularly bombed at the box office.  But very few have seen the actual film itself to assess whether or not Heaven’s Gate was ultimately worth it from an artistic stand point. In fact, some directors (such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino) claim exactly that.

It is possible that there are many such flops that were poorly received upon their initial release, but grew in status as time passed. This is how cult classics are born, after all. But what makes these flops of the past unique is the level of passion the directors put into them, and how they were ignored by audiences. Such a reputation prevents any proper examination from taking place – it failed, the thinking seems to go, and so what else is there to say? But the flops may be the result of the audience failing to understand what the director intended in the first place.

Naturally, some flops are not worth mentioning at all. Many of them deserve their fate, and only exist due to lofty miscalculations of budgeting and a large amount of carelessness. Yet even the greatest flops may have some merit. They were the product of a director (or a creative team) trying to take a risk. Some of those films, such as Blade Runner, have already been redefined as the classics that they were all along.  This series will hopefully examine the flops in famous directors’ careers and try to look for the artistic merit in the films and see if they are worthy of a modern audience.

The first film I will examine is Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart. It was a film that had a troubled production, went massively over budget, and then was removed from theaters after about a week.  In the end, One from the Heart defined the rest of Coppola’s career. After its failure, Coppola spent the 1980s and much of the 1990s taking on projects so that he could work off the debt. Coppola had positioned himself to continue making deeply personal projects on a large scale and encourage other filmmakers to do the same. The failure of One from the Heart prevented Coppola from doing so, and he retreated to the studios he tried to transcend. He would make some good films, but the glory days of his career were over.

Yet was this a fate he deserved? Not entirely. Artistically speaking, One from the Heart was a success in many ways. It helped introduce some concepts of the modern musical that have been borrowed by others. Rob Marshall and Baz Luhrmann both copied several elements from this film in order to make their movie musicals. In addition, Coppola accomplished his goal. Apocalypse Now was a philosophical meditation of the dark nature of humanity. This film was not meant to be as tasking a work, but no less skillfully executed. The decisions he made were to the benefit of the film. He wanted to make a lighter film, and he succeeded in his own way. This work was Coppola’s one film “from the heart.”

The Making, Release, and Reception of One from the Heart

In order to understand what happened with One from the Heart, it is necessary to look at the state Coppola’s career was in in the early 1980s. After the clashes with producer Robert Evans on The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and long, tortuous shoot that occurred during the making of Apocalypse Now, Coppola was exhausted.  He wanted his next project to be a simpler, cheaper film that he could use to build the reputation of his recently purchased Zoetrope Studios.  This studio was meant to be a return to the Hollywood studios of the thirties, in which stars were under contract and certain directors were free to experiment.  One from the Heart was the first film to be produced with this intriguing venture, and was the perfect film to accomplish what the studio intended.

 

                Originally, the project was budgeted at $2 million. By the time it was released in theaters the cost had soared to almost $26 million (or roughly $69 million in 2011). A premiere at Radio City Music Hall did not produce spectacular results (according to a documentary included on the DVD, the filmmakers asked 15 people their opinion on the film, and 13 gave negative opinions). Paramount, which had distributed The Godfather , backed out of their deal with Zoetrope and Columbia Pictures distributed it to only 41 theaters. It grossed less than a million dollars, and destroyed Zoetrope’s original ideals.  Coppola would spend the rest of the 1980s directing studio films to try and stave off bankruptcy.

Zoetrope is still in existence today, and is co-owned by Sofia and Roman Coppola. It produces a wide variety of films, from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation to Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. But it is a far cry from its original intention of being an experimental studio and an artistic community.

A Critique of One from the Heart

All of that, however, is mere background to the ultimately question – is One from the Heart a decent film in Coppola’s incredible filmography or just as much of an artistic abomination as it was a financial one?

That question is not as easily answered. Coppola’s previous films had given him the sort of reputation that very few people in Hollywood possess. While this is good for his long term reputation (he is still considered one of the greatest American filmmakers in history), it placed enormous pressure on Coppola to perform – something One from the Heart could never live up to. In fact, the fact that Coppola had announced that he was not even going to attempt to do so probably turned many against him.

The plot of One From the Heart is fairly straight forward. A couple living in Las Vegas, Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr, of Young Frankenstein’s “roll in the hay” fame) separate on their fifth year anniversary. Both use the opportunity to seek out the sort of lovers they have long fantasized about. Frannie finds a well-traveled singer/waiter named Ray (Raul Julia) and Hank hooks up with a girl named Leila (the mesmerizing Nastassja Kinski) who works at a circus sort of show on the strip. Hank comes to the conclusion that he was the happiest with Frannie and desperately tries to win her back.

One from the Heart is just as personal as any of his other works. As Coppola explains on the film’s commentary track, his passion in high school and college was designing theatrical productions. He also directed musicals in college.  The aging Coppola was trying to recapture his youth that was quickly leaving him after the taxing Apocalypse Now shoot.  It was a simpler film (or seemed that way) because Coppola was dealing with far simpler themes. Yet he did so with just as much intensity as was present inhis other film, replacing despair and death with love and music.

There is one major problem with One from the Heart. The emphasis the film places on the score is a mistake.  This was quite a shock that I experienced while watching the film. The legendary Tom Waits wrote all of the songs, and the soundtrack that was released is fantastic. But when combined with the film, it is not as effective as it should be.  For the most part, the film never tries to become a musical (in the same way that Jean Luc Godard’s classic A Woman is a Woman never became a musical). The music in the film never differentiates from one song to the next, or from one mood to another. It is mostly just Waits growling with ennui and sadness (he does use this technique to brilliant ends on his albums) without really acknowledging what is happening on screen.  Now, it is still a good score. But it is not the GREAT score that the film needs.

Only twice does the music stand out in the film. One is close to the end of the film, when the titular song is played. The other scene that works is when the film becomes an outright fantasy and the music is taking place in a character’s mind.

This scene works because it goes for the pure fantasy aesthetic that the rest of the film is badly trying to utilize. Had the music, say, only been used in a character’s mind (as happened here) then it would have worked better. But such scenes are few and far between – mostly the music is used to the same ends that the average film score is used for now. It could be, of course, that One from the Heart was the film that reintroduced this technique.  But that does not mean that it works now.  A film like this depends on its score, but the One from the Heart mostly falls flat.

But then, for everything the film does wrong, there are many things it does right.  It does very well in one thing – creating its unique world.  The decision to create the sets entirely on stage was the right choice for the film. At the very least, this is a great looking film. The lighting is as theatrical as the classic television plays Coppola was looking for, and this film’s use of color has become the norm in the industry. Also, on the commentary track, Coppola explains that the film went over budget because he originally conceived the film to be a fluid piece (he uses live television plays as an example) and paid for the equipment to accomplish that but ended up depending more on traditional techniques. Yet more films now use those techniques Coppola tried to pioneer with One from the Heart. The cinematography (done by Vittorio Storaro, who later won an Oscar using similar techniques in The Last Emperor) is also highly inventive and uses clever editing. The film does not flow quite as organically as Coppola’s previous films. But that was deliberate; this was meant to be an artificial studio world. Just as any well executed stage show must create its own deep world using limited sets, so too does One from the Heart use the fact that it is fake as an artistic statement. Even the stilted performances in the film somehow work – they fit into the same theatrical world that the sets fit into. They are not as legendary as the undeniably human performances present in The Godfather but they make sense for the characters that only exist in a theatrical world, expressing simple (yet very deeply held) emotions. The film is a brilliant technical exercise, and a film that works as an emotional expression and of a tired artist trying to figure out why he was interested in making films to begin with.

The Potential Rediscoveryof One from the Heart

So, what has Coppola done to try and save the reputation of his film? Well, quite a bit. He started with a 2003 theatrical re-release (following his successful re-editing of Apocalypse Now) with the tagline of “the Coppola masterpiece no one got to see.”  This was followed by a well-crafted DVD, which includes the sort of attention that the Criterion Collection usually gives to more legendary films. However,  this has not given the film second glance it needs. On Amazon, it’s only the 29,000th bestselling DVD. By comparison, Apocalypse Now is ranked number 1000. Most people (if they think about it at all) still regard it as more of curiosity in Coppola’s robust filmography. Its theatrical re-release gross was reported as “modest” by NPR (Box Office Mojo does not even list the figures for this re-release) and the film still retains a 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This includes the reviews from the re-release.

Still, Coppola’s audacity to re-release the film and give it a deluxe DVD treatment demonstrates a loyalty to the work. Besides, any film by one of the most reputable American directors of all time is deserving of a second look. In some ways, that has already occurred. Every single modern musical borrows quite a few things, from a bombastic production design to an emphasis of fantasy, from One from the Heart. And let’s not even get started on how music videos have picked the film to the bones.

Even if the film was not as successful as it should have been, One from the Heart still manages to be artistically successful. One cannot help but feel that Coppola finally did make the film that he wanted to at that point in his career.  It is a wounded monster, one that cannot really be ignored.  One from the Heart is something that Coppola can be proud of. One from the Heart is one example where the flop worked.

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