Coppola: One from the Heart (1981)
Apocalypse Now is one of the most ambitious films ever made, but that’s been both a blessing and a curse to Francis Ford Coppola, whose entire subsequent career has been haunted by his anxiety about never making a film that can rival his masterwork. This anxiety has been all the more pronounced in that Apocalypse Now came relatively early in Coppola’s career, leaving him four more decades – and counting – to contemplate the impossibility of producing a film of that scale and magnitude ever again. For that reason, everything after Apocalypse Now feels like late work for Coppola, starting with his musical One From The Heart – his only really plausible effort to achieve the impossible and exceed Apocalypse Now. In that sense, One From The Heart forms the end of Coppola’s classic period, bankrupting Zoetrope Studios, and forcing him to resort to a grab bag of projects throughout the 80s – some auteurist, some mainstream – to restore his financial and artistic standing. It’s also one of the classic flops of the late 70s and early 80s – a time when New Hollywood was just starting to give way to the blockbuster, providing directors with a brief window to experiment with turning their artiest ambitions into the next enormous hit film.
However, while One From the Heart tries to outdo Apocalypse Now in scale and ambition, it’s diametrically opposed in style and vision. As Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Hearts of Darkness makes clear, Apocalypse Now was the degree zero of location shooting, as the cast and crew spent months sweating it out in the Phillipines, where they suffered one incredible setback after another, until the line between reality and fiction started to blur. By contrast, One From the Heart is a musical shot in its entirety on a sound stage – a scale replication of Las Vegas housed in an enormous Hollywood warehouse that climaxes around a rendition of McCarran Airport, replete with the nose section of a crashed plane. Whereas Apocalypse Now was devoid of opening and closing credits, Coppola takes his time here with an extra-long credit sequence that is a spectacle in itself, establishing the lurid pinks, purples, oranges and greens that anchor this hyperreal high point in Hollywood postmodernism. That sense of artifice carries over into the design and mise-en-scene, which is largely lit by neon light, and is heavily reliant on matte prints, backdrops, props and palpably plastic sets.
Since the whole film takes place over the course of a single night, we never see “daylight” in any naturalistic way, but instead move from twilight on the outskirts of Vegas, to the perpetual twilight of the Strip, to a new dawn, all the while following a pair of lovers – Hank, played by Frederic Forrest, and Frannie, played by Teri Garr – as they negotiate the ups and downs of their relationship. Beyond that broad arc there’s not really much of a story here, as Coppola uses the lovers to sketch out his hyperreal world, taking us on a series of long, sinuous trajectories that often recall the nocturnal flights through Times Square in You’re a Big Boy Now. In other words, Las Vegas is the main character in One From the Heart – the only place where Coppola can imagine a spectacle that outdoes Apocalypse Now, which is perhaps why Vegas seems to collapse into its own simulacra here, while absorbing every other place in the process. Early on, we learn that Frannie is a travel agent, and spends much of her time erecting models of different places in her storefront window, which opens directly onto the Strip. Time and again, Coppola cuts back from a scale model of New York, or Paris, or Bora Bora, reminding us that we are still in Vegas, and that Vegas has become a horizon for all cinematic representation, challenging Coppola to remake it in his own image.
This challenge drives One From the Heart – the challenge to reconceive reality in a postmodern sphere where reality has already been absorbed by representation. As Coppola’s surrogate in the story, Hank works at Reality Wrecking, the most artificial space in the film, cluttered with detritus salvaged from Vegas signage that he tries to repurpose against a permanent sunset that never correlates with the time unfolding across the rest of the film. Coppola’s purpose, too, is to salvage some connection between reality and representation from the wreckage of the film image that One From the Heart seems to mourn, even if – ironically – the hyper-spectacle of Apocalypse Now was itself complicit in this very wreckage, just as Coppola’s films of the 70s gradually edged further towards the very postmodern media sphere that he now seems so restless to escape. Coppola’s first language of escape is colour, as he searches for a palette as different from Technicolor as Technicolor was from black-and-white, experimenting with tones and contrasts that are so vivid that they seem to defy the eye, exceeding even the most lurid colourism of 1950s melodrama to produce a film lit exclusively by Vegas, a film that unfolds inside a Vegas sign.
Coppola’s second language is music, although this is not a musical in the regular sense. For the most part, none of the characters sing, but instead glide through musical mise-en-scenes accompanied by Tom Waits, who not only wrote but also performed the vast bulk of the score. At times, it’s like watching a movie on mute while someone plays a Tom Waits album in the background, as music and images float around each but never quite connect. This makes sound and vision both seem more artificial and palpable, untethered from regular reality, opening up space for Coppola to craft his own reality in turn. In essence, Coppola adopts the incipient language of music video, but without quite getting the balance right, producing an audiovisual experience that feels both more dated, and also more visionary, than the classic music videos that would start to proliferate in the early 80s. Much as Finian’s Rainbow marked the end of the classical musical, so One From the Heart marks the end of the post-classical musicals that flourished in the late 60s and early 70s. In its desire to fuse theatre and film into a new kind of hyper-spectacle, it plays as a precursor to the rock opera spectacles of the 80s and 90s, much as the arrival of the plane at the end anticipates the “signature” special effects that became synonymous with individual stage shows – the helicopter in Miss Saigon, the barricade in Les Mis, the chandelier in Phantom.
Not surprisingly, this spectacle climaxes with the Vegas Strip, which Coppola narrows and crowds with intersections so that he can include as much neon as possible in the centerpiece of the film – the sustained musical sequence that occurs in the middle of the night, when Hank chases Frannie through the city and tries to win back her heart. Coppola routinely includes nine or ten casinos in the space of a single pan, while using his pans to trace out imaginary trajectories in the sky, as if trying to converge his film as closely as possible with Vegas signage, before building to an epic dance sequence in which an enormous cast of extras continually moves towards the camera, pushing it further and further back, extending its scope more and more, until the lens seems to electrify and fuse with the neon signs that take up more and more of its purview, culminating with a series of sparklers that are let off in front of the frame, appearing to engulf the entire filming apparatus in flames, as diegetic and non-diegetic space collapse, and the characters take over the singing from Tom Waits for the first time. Coppola’s ambition, at this moment, is nothing less than to encapsulate all of Vegas in a single sublime image – and then exceed it.
This continuous movement of characters towards the camera, and of the camera away from the set, is the very definition of hyperreality, elaborating the expanse of the set in increasing detail, until Coppola finally breaks into the “real” world, only for our glimpse of this real world – the top of the studio roof – to once again reiterate the artificiality of the images we have been watching. Perhaps that’s why the film seems to exhaust itself once this glimpse of the studio roof comes into view, prompting Coppola to move away from the Strip immediately – much earlier than I was expecting – for an abbreviated third act that takes place largely on the outskirts of Vegas and at McCarran Airport. Before watching One From the Heart, I’d heard that the set overwhelmed the characters, emotions and plot, but I was more surprised to find that the set overwhelms Coppola’s capacity to use the set itself, since it largely vanishes from this point onwards, as if Coppola had tried to mount a battle against hyperreality, and to recommand some essential reality from representation, but had failed.
In the process, the sheer fact of the set overwhelms everything else about the film – including the way that the film actually uses the set. At times, that makes One From the Heart seem like a descendant of the Las Vegas variety show in its yearning to condense every possible attraction in Vegas into one multimodal spectacle. During the final third of the film, Frannie and Hank try to find some space “outside” Vegas, but the set becomes even more plastic and artificial when the action retreats to these supposedly “natural” spaces beyond the Vegas sprawl. At this point, the film starts to fall apart – the Tom Waits songs grow more self-effacing, as if he’s been told to create mood music but doesn’t want to intrude too much on the scene – while the story focuses most intensely on the rapport between Frannie and Hank, who didn’t have much chemistry to begin with, and certainly can’t sustain the film for very long away from the bright lights of Vegas. The more they dream of trips to Paris, Rome, Bora Bora – anywhere but Vegas – the more it seems as if they are dreaming of full-scale replicas of these locations within the hyperreality of Vegas itself, not unlike the Roman Forum in Caesar’s Palace, the prototype of Coppola’s style here.
This reflexively impotent yearning for escape crystallises around the final set piece in the film – a reconstruction of McCarran Airport, replete with the nose of a crashed plane that doubles as the flight Frannie almost takes to Bora Bora. The spectacle of this plane moving across the tarmac is the last decisively auteurist gesture in Coppola’s career – and initially seems like a departure for an even grander cinematic vision, only for Frannie and Hank to realise that the exotic space they’re searching for has already been colonized by Vegas, much as the viewer realises, uneasily, that this plane can only appear in the film by having crashed someplace else. Just as Frannie realises that Bora Bora is now a part of Vegas, so Coppola seems to acknowledge the finitude of his own cinematic vision at the moment when Frannie turns back, as he return to the city is accompanied by the most pared-back Tom Waits track, which also happens to be the title track, “One From the Heart.” At the very moment at which the film reaches its signature song, the film collapses under its own fantasy, ushering in a brief epilogue as the sun finally comes up, some slight semblance of natural light returns to the mise-en-scene, and the prospect of neon Vegas vanishes forever.
In these final moments, I was amazed that the film never once returned to the Strip after that central sequence, as the set not only seems to eclipse the characters, dialogue and music, but also eclipses itself. It is as if the auteurist gesture of One From the Heart stopped with the construction of the set, rather than the way it was subsequently used. As a result, the best way to experience One From the Heart may have been to walk through the set, or to be on the set, since Coppola segues film into a more plastic worldbuilding that anticipates both the growth of the Coppola vineyard in Napa Valley, but also Captain EO, the short film that he directed as a 3D attraction at Disney World in 1986. Starring Michael Jackson, Captain EO takes the language of music video to the next level, effectively creating a ride out of sound and images, which is ultimately what One From the Heart wants to do with its set – to create a ride that takes us far beyond the limitations of cinematic perception. No surprise, then, that Coppola’s later output paled pretty quickly, since this film, and Captain EO, are restless to move past cinema altogether, or else blend and fuse it with other media.
For that reason, the incompletion and frustration of One From the Heart is part of what makes it compelling from a contemporary perspective, as Coppola seems to have deliberately left the film unfinished, leaving it to be filled in by unformulated media at a later date. This incompletion, paired with the perfectionism of the set, is ultimately what makes the film so original and strange, since the weirdest thing about One From the Heart is not that the set exceeds everything, as so many critics claimed, but that the film is not very invested in showcasing the set, or worldbuilding around the set, in a conventional way. From the very outset, Coppola seems prescient that his film can never be commensurate with the set, falling back on a ninety minute effort that feels cursory for a set that seems to demand hours and hours of exposition. That has to be a conscious decision, given that most of Coppola’s films clock in above two hours, which is perhaps why One From the Heart feels like Coppola allegorizing his own failure to live up to the spectacular horizon of Apocalypse Now – partly because that film came out of a unique fusion of circumstances that could never be repeated, and partly because that kind of inspiration only comes once in a lifetime.
In the final minutes of the film, I wondered if Coppola’s restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an effort to make good on this promise, since, like One From the Heart, it seems to exist at the nexus between a film and theme park attraction, demanding three adjacent screens for the full scope of the action to be revealed. One From the Heart has a similar sense of scale, but the extra screens are never provided, making you wonder whether One From the Heart might one day be restored in the same way that Coppola restored Napoleon. Like Gance, Coppola seems to be hedging his bets with this film, waiting for a future time when its full vision can be properly completed. Whether that time will come, and whether Megalopolis, Coppola’s grand plan for the 2020s will bring it, is another matter, but for now One From the Heart remains frustrating, fascinating and oddly ageless – easily the strangest film in Coppola’s back catalogue and, in its own way, the most resonant.
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