One From The Heart
Coppola tries to strike in all directions: he looks back at the wonderful past history of the studios, forward with his experiments in the lab, has a warning for his contemporaries, and falls in love with a Las Vegas even more artificial than in real life, and therefore true. His characters try their luck in this electronic fairy tale. They don't get very far. As for Coppola himself, he's made two films since.
To all the near-sighted in the world: if you want to know more about the unique experience (a rolling of drums here) of watching ONE FROM THE HEART, remember (a flash-back here) your emotion the day you put on your first pair of glasses. You'd been blind as a bat without knowing it, you hadn't been able to see a thing and had put it down to the bad quality of the world around you. How wrong you'd been! Remember your muffled expression of delight: suddenly the world was beautiful, clear, hyperreal. To the extent that you were afraid of bumping into all these reputedly immaterial things: light, air, colors. For you, the ex-bat, nothing looked as it had before: everything needed to be looked at anew. It was like the (promising) beginning of ONE FROM THE HEART.
Then you got used to this improved vision. Gradually the old world closed in on you, and you couldn't avoid recognizing it for what it is: mediocre impressions, everyday routine, small-time dreams, useless stories. End of fairy-tale. It's as if the glasses, instead of exploring the unknown, had imperceptibly turned back on you, the all-too-familiar you. A nasty blow as at the (desolate) end of ONE FROM THE HEART. Coppola spends 107 minutes telling this melancholy story: how the brand-new too quickly becomes deja vu. How this dream - even the technological dream - doesn't have time to "gel."
For, being short-sighted himself, Coppola had to put on his electronic glasses to get as near as possible to the old alchemy of human affinities. This modest visionary has filmed a domestic row and, in order to do so, has taken a tremendous run-up. At the very beginning, as a curtain raiser, a camera, emerging from space and on its way to the planet Earth, floats between the credits and the real neons of a fake Las Vegas (and it is very beautiful.) In less than two hours, like a disappointed UFO, it has landed on the wet pavement outside te Zoetrope studios in Hollywood, waiting for the imminent arrival of the words "the end."
Coppola's electronic gaze comes from a long way and falls from a great height. Too great, perhaps. For what happens down there? A luminous point glitters in Nevada: Las Vegas. And what mini-apocalypse is turning human lives upside down? A miserable affair: on the evening of July 4th, Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Fanny (Teri Garr), who have been together for five years, have a row, have a fling and tearfully make up in extremis. It's a story of going back to square one. ONE FROM THE HEART is a sort of Son et lumiere on "Play for today," a little corner of boulevard theatre observed from a space ship. "Casa Coppola" seen from Mars.
ONE FROM THE HEART is also a musical. There is voice-over singing and bad dancing, but the feeble emotions, the red and green lighting, the way the decor constantly risks absorbing and destroying the characters, are not far from evoking the master of the genre, Minnelli. It is indeed the magic tradition (that of BRIGADOON and THE CLOCK) which Coppola the ogre has put on his menu. Except that in Minnelli's films decors and characters still belonged to the same world, were on the same wavelength, "enchanted" each other reciprocally. Singing and dancing had this miraculous power to attract brighter light, to encourage the camera to move, to set everything moving. Fred Astaire could relate with ease to a ceiling or a hat-stand. To be delivered from gravity was the only way to stay awake in his dream. But that was before: before video, before Coppola, before everything was already on the move and nobody knew how to dance.
When Vittorio Storaro's camera lands in Zoetrope's Las Vegas, the planet "Musical" has already long been looking like an exploded star, a dynamited rag doll (see Bob Fosse) or a mined corpse (see Herbert Ross.) Characters and decors don't belong to each other any more, the secret of that osmosis has been lost, the divorce between the body of the actor and the materiality of the image is almost final: it's everyone for themselves. Bodies, lights, objects, decors, camera, songs: they're all launched in space more or less successfully, on new orbits that have to be invented.
The result is the film. It's the "characters," for example. Non-singers and bad dancers, Forrest and Garr have not exactly aged, but put on "meat," bloated as they are with fast food, touchingly awkward and showing a provincial and unredeemable lack of elegance. Those bodies flatly stagger or undress for love. They have lost the power to transfer their dreams to the decor, to enchant the space around them. And yet they live by their dreams, they even sell them. She works in a travel agency (she does the window display), he on an artistic pile of scrap metal (the episode of the giant ruby.) But in the world of illusion, they are small-time dealers: Coppola takes them back to where they come from, the boulevard stage, the naturalist kitchen sink, the lavatory. And there, with a sure sense of well-oiled (even oily) comedy, he pins them up.
It's the same with the decors: they begin to live for themselves, to twinkle aimlessly like pinball machines left on by mistake, they stop functioning as a background for the characters' emotions. All this is intended. Coppola says: "The decor does a big solo, then it's the lights' turn, and so on." The lights touch on the decors without warning, independently, capriciously, indifferent to the actors, to their tears, their wrinkles, or their bad profile. And the music? The voice which hums the "songs" has won its freedom too: it is a voice-over. Tom Waits (with Crystal Gayle) whispers the commentary of this story with the ironic drawl of a spaced-out Orson Welles. Everyone for themselves, and Coppola for everyone.
Minnelli used to say "The world is a stage," but he would immediately add "The stage is a world." Those were the good old days. Nowadays ONE FROM THE HEART suggests that "The stage is only a stage." This is logical; Coppola had already filmed the Vietnam war like a series of revue numbers. His idea, still very Minnellian, must be that a good illusionist does not "break" the illusion, but constantly multiplies it, ad infinitum. The truth of a mask is not the face but an excess in the mask. And if Las Vegas is the falsest city in the USA, a studio-recreated Las Vegas stands the best chances of being a little less false. Two minuses make a plus. Two falsehoods make a truth.
ONE FROM THE HEART is a film about the impossibility of dreaming. There is no mystery about it. If Hank and Fanny have such poor quality dreams (the tight-rope walker worthy of a Chagall print - Natassja Kinksi - and "Vaselino," the Latin lover - Raul Julia), it's because they live as if asphyxiated, in the midst of a concrete American dream: Las Vegas. Dreams are everywhere, dreamers are nowhere. Images dream but actors crawl. The camera, in a state of weightlessness, dances in the Nevada sky: the actors, bogged down in their emotional baggage, wriggle in the rain. It's too unfair. Video is kind to the images but unkind to the actors, who are "under surveillance." All of a sudden, Minnelli is far away.
Coppola's films, like those of Brian de Palma or some of Spielberg's, are the mannerist side of American cinema. How can one define this mannerism? Nothing happens to human beings, everything happens to images - to Images. Images become characters with pathos, pawns in the game. We tremble for them, we want them to be kindly treated, they are no longer just produced by the camera, but manufactured outside it, and its "pre-visualization," thanks to video, is the object of what little love is left in the cold hearts (I am exaggerating) of the filmmakers. In a mannerist world, actors "of flesh, blood and celluloid" are quickly reduced to the status of stand-ins and quotations of themselves, to visual signals. They're still there, but they've ceased to be interesting ages ago.
Video is not just a technique, it's a state of mind, a way of seeing images in the future perfect tense. Video's present tendency is in the direction of control. "Control," says Coppola, "is power and it is what all organisms tend towards." The organism named Coppola doesn't please everybody. ONE FROM THE HEART didn't go down well in the States. Too Californian for New York. Too independent for the studios. Too modest for a self-proclaimed visionary film. Too pretentious for such a slender subject. Too expensive for a botched job.
Cinephiles, however, those fortune tellers who have not given up trying to guess the future of cinema, cannot remain indifferent to ONE FROM THE HEART. Of course Coppola invents machines in which, when the time comes, he has nothing to put. Of course, the exaggeration, the ugliness, the failure are often intense and their poetic effects often stale. But can we begrudge the builder of the cage if, at the crucial moment, he has only an old cat to exhibit in it? Isn't this lack of proportion, this "much ado about nothing," the most sympathetic aspect of the film? Coppola testifies to the abyss that separates the things we no longer know how to do (as they did before) and those we don't know how to do yet (as they will do after.) But he is a bridge-builder all the same.
Originally published in LIBERATION, September 29, 1982.
First published in English in FRAMEWORK #32/33.
Translated by Ginette Vincendeau.