I consider myself a cinephile, but much to my shame I have to admit that until recently, I had never seen Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1981). I had never even heard of the film. Some research learns that the film, made after Apocalypse Now (1979) and in the wake of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) was both a box-office and a critical failure. This was especially wry because One from the Heart was expected to be Zoetrope studios’ flagship picture. Similar to the old studio format of Hollywood, Zoetrope (founded by Coppola and Lucas) was a self-contained studio environment where there was a full-time staff of technicians and artists. Coppola even established a roster of contract actors, signing up Teri Garr, Raul Julia, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne and Albert Hall. The commercial and critical failure of One from the Heart eventually led to the bankruptcy of the studio and it was offered to the highest bidder.
Seeing One from the Heart I was not only astounded by the visual boldness and experimental guts of the film but I was also surprised to find how similar Coppola’s preoccupations were to my own as a filmmaker. The problem he tries to solve with this film is how to reinterpret or adapt old Hollywood practices and modes to the present times. It’s already apparent in his production method, trying to create his own Hollywood stage with his production company Zoetrope. It is also worth noting that before he shot one foot of film he shot a rough version of One from the Heart on video (at the time a format more associated with television than cinema) with the intention to streamline the production and cut unnecessary costs.
Coppola refers to One from the Heart as a love letter to musical comedies that he saw in his childhood with his family. The film however is much more than homage. But before we go further on that subject, first some necessary information about the story.
Las Vegas, fourth of July weekend. A man, Hank, and a woman, Frannie, have decided to put and end to their relationship (they have been together for five years). Why? They dream different dreams. Frannie dresses shop windows and dreams of going away with Hank to Bora Bora, while Hank works at a car junkyard and dreams of a small domestic life with Frannie. Coppola inverses the archetypes. The man has become the domestic type while the woman dreams of sex on the beach (a very banal dream). So they separate and they end up, depressed, in the busy streets of Las Vegas, filled with extravagant décors and all sorts of artificial lights. There they both encounter new lovers only to return to each other in the end.
I always wondered why films are being sold based on their pitch or premise, because it may tell you something about the ‘what’ but nothing about the ‘how’. And it is in the question of the how where the gaze of the filmmaker on the world becomes visible. Remember for example Fritz Lang and Prokosch’s discussion about the difference between film and scenario in Godard’s Le Mépris (1963):
Jerry Prokosch: You’ve cheated me, Fritz. That’s not what is in that script.
Fritz Lang: It is!
[he pulls the script away from Jerry, who is attempting to grab it out of his hand]
Fritz Lang: Oh, no!
Jerry Prokosch: Get the script, Francesca.
[he reads the script and then changes his tone]
Jerry Prokosch: Yes, it’s in the script. But it’s not what you have on that screen.
Fritz Lang: Naturally, because in the script it is written, and on the screen it’s pictures. Motion picture, it’s called.
We have learned one or two things from the short synopsis I have given you of One from the Heart, but in essence it is just another variation of the boy meets girl story. The film is set in Las Vegas but is not shot on real locations. Instead Coppola shot the entire film on the sound stages of Zoetrope studios. The point is that Las Vegas is already an artificial theme park (noteworthy fact: the year 1981 was also the year of the election of Ronald Reagan, a former B-actor of 40s and 50s Hollywood films, as president of the USA). Coppola chose to emphasize Vegas’ artificiality by using the inherent artificiality of the sets and décors of the soundstage. Can the studio-created Las Vegas contain more realness than the real one?
The film opens with a black image. On the soundtrack we hear a roulette ball rolling till it drops in a slot and clinks. Suddenly the music starts and the first image appears on the screen. A bright studio lamp that dissolves in the light that it casts on the blue curtains of a stage. On the soundtrack we hear a non-diegetic duet song (Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle). When they sing the words ‘once upon a time’ the curtain rises and we see a half-moon against which the title appears in diffuse neon-red letters. We are in for a musical show, a fairy tale.
The camera sweeps down from a great height and moves along neon-lit signs of different casinos and clubs and hotels. As the camera circles around we see that there is nothing behind these signs. No world is hidden behind the images. They are just loose pieces of décor. Only at the last sign, something changes. We travel through it and find us on a busy Las Vegas street, very detailed in its decorations and lighting but obviously a street created on a soundstage. The camera is not interested in the people walking around and takes us further along down the road (as if precisely knowing where to go) until we meet a woman, Frannie, who’s dressing the shop window of a travel agency. On the soundtrack we again hear clinking slots and a radio broadcast that is advertising flights to Bora Bora. (Bora Bora happens to be also the favorite destination of Julia Roberts character in Everyone Says I Love You, Woody Allen’s 1996 homage to the classical Hollywood musical.)
So in what way does this film differ from the old Hollywood musicals that more often than not also create imitations of real places on the studio lots? First of all in this film the music does not come from within the story world, nor is it sung by the characters that inhabit it. Rather, as we already have seen in the opening, the songs serve as a commentary track, commenting on the actions and feelings of the characters but without being part of the diegetic world of the film. The characters cannot sing. They lost the power to enchant; to enchant the décor, the lights, the camera movement, to make them come to life. And thus they lost the power to enchant each other. ‘If I could sing, I’d sing. I can’t sing, Frannie!’ Hank tells her desperately when she is leaving him. And that’s not all. The opening minutes of a film can tell you a lot because all the themes and concerns are introduced to us. If you look closely you notice how all the filmic elements are introduced separately. First the sound is introduced, then the music, then the light, then the décor, then the film set and only then the characters. In each shot there is a lot happening visually. The camera can move through walls; lights are switching on and off; clever dissolves take us from one space to the next one. The two main characters are the only elements that don’t act with the same elegance. Plain-faced and dressed in rather ordinary clothes they move clumsily as if coming from a television show, not accustomed to the wide spaces of cinema. When Hank catches Frannie with her Latin lover he accidentally falls through the rooftop, but not before he had given himself an electric shock from a neon light and walked into several small objects. It seems that there are still dreams in One from the Heart, but no dreamers. The characters are trapped in this world and cannot enchant each other nor us with their dreams.
Let’s look at a film made 33 years earlier that also deals with a woman unsatisfied with her life, dreaming to be swept of her feet: The Pirate (1948) directed by Vincente Minnelli. Like One from the Heart this is an underrated film in its director’s oeuvre and a critical and box office flop at the time of release. Judy Garland plays the lead role, a solitary women living in a small Caribbean town, about to get married to the local fat cat whom she doesn’t love, reading too many books (curiously, the next Minnelli film would be Madame Bovary) and dreaming to be swept of her feet by the notorious pirate Macoco. (The film carries a very masochistic erotic subtext. I am very delighted to see that they got it pas the censors.) Along comes a group of traveling players led by Gene Kelly (curly haired and mustachioed, in one of his best roles). When he enters the town and starts singing the song ‘Nina’ (about his love for women) something magical happens. His movement triggers the camera to move. The décor, first only serving as background, takes center stage. The song has little narrative merit, but it gives us the opportunity to explore every corner of this world. Kelly is both acrobat and dancer, climbing buildings and moving from one place to the next with a fluidity and elegance rarely seen since the days of silent cinema. He wins the women’s hearts just by looking at them. They dance for him, they fight for him, they are hypnotized by him. When he moves the filmic image is his. He has the power to enchant. The only woman who doesn’t succumb to his charms is Judy Garland’s character, Manuela. Yes, Manuela is indeed a strange name for a character portrayed by Judy Garland but we will see the name is deliberately chosen. At a performance of Kelly and his group of players, he presents her a rotating mirror that reminds me of the rotary disc shutter used in film camera’s. Garland’s character gets hypnotized. She begins to tell of her love for the pirate Macoco. She starts to sing and dance. She pushes Kelly away and by performing she claims the attention of all the elements in the frame. Minnelli’s films are all about these transitions; the first steps of a dance that lead to the character’s metamorphosis.
The rotating mirror has triggered Garland’s subconscious. The metaphor is explicitly stated: the power of cinema to hypnotize and delve into our subconscious to reveal our hidden dreams and desires. Now Garland has really become Manuela, meaning that the fiery, feisty, sexual characteristics that are associated with this Hispanic name are awakened in her. Later in the film she even dreams of an erotic dance ritual where she willingly is sacrificed to Macoco. But now Macoco is not an abstract product of the imagination, but has taken physical shape as none other than Gene Kelly’s character, Serafin. Of course he is not really Macoco, but he tricked the whole town into believing he is, with the goal of conquering Manuela and convincing her to join his actor’s troupe. (The real Macoco turns out to be the town’s fat mayor whom Manuela was supposed to marry.)
So the real mixes with the unreal, a lie reveals the truth and at the end of the film a new situation has emerged. Manuela has found out that Serafin is not Macoco but nonetheless has fallen for him. After all, what’s in a name? Serafin may not be the real Macoco but he does embody the mischievous and adventurous qualities of the Macoco Manuela know from the stories. Unlike the real Macoco, Serafin has the ability to enchant her and sweep her off her feet and show her her true nature. As the last song ‘Be a Clown’ demonstrates, it is the power of the performance that forms bonds, changes characters, transforms situations and relationships. Minnelli is less a director of dreams than of these metamorphoses.
In One from the Heart there is one moment where the two characters are given the power to enchant. When Hank and Frannie are walking around in Las Vegas they meet new lovers; the showgirl/circus artist (played by the ever so lovely Nastassja Kinski) and the Latin lover (played by Raul Julia, better known as Gomez Addams from The Addams Family). When they meet these archetypes of desire, they find the power to enchant and get enchanted for one magical night (just like in the fairy tales). The Latin lover initiates Frannie in the tango and when they move outside everyone is dancing in the streets. Hank takes the showgirl to his car-wrecking place and while she is walking a tightrope he switches on the car lights without touching them, like he is the conductor of the orchestra, in command of the filmic devices. We see here the classical device of the formation of the couple through dance/music/movement. Apparently this device only works when Hank and Frannie are forming a couple with some other person, not with each other.
In the morning the magic has gone. Hank wants to go back and make up with Frannie, but she stubbornly holds on to her dreams to go with her lover to Bora Bora. It’s only at the conclusion that she appears back in the living room of their house. Has she changed her mind because she realizes she loves Hank too much, or because there is no alternative? In Zoetrope’s artificial enclosed world of Las Vegas, the cardboard plane isn’t likely to take her anywhere is it?
One might say that not much has changed since the beginning of the film (even in one of the first scenes it was hinted at that in their 5-years relationship they had similar problems and one-night-stands before). No metamorphoses here, no fulfilling of dreams like in the Minnelli films, no making up through the ritual of dancing and singing.
And yet: in a last attempt to win Frannie back before she boards the plane to Bora Bora, Hank sings ‘You are my sunshine’ to her at the airport. It’s badly sung but heartbreaking. In the midst of all the artificiality of the décor and the lighting, a vulnerability can be glimpsed in the two main characters. So even though the perfect gestures and settings of the old Hollywood musical are lost, a declaration of love can still be magical as long as it’s one from the heart.