Francis Ford Coppola’s beautiful failure

When Francis Ford Coppola made news in 2019 to call the franchise-heavy model of modern mainstream cinema “contemptible”, the setback was rapid. There were, of course, the countless published responses, and also lots of fan weigh-ins on social media. A particularly poignant remark from an acquaintance noted the apparent state of Coppola’s career. “It’s all sour grapes,” this person said in so many words. “Directors like Coppola are only protesting against MCU because audiences would rather watch movies like that instead of their big efforts. And besides, Coppola is a non-creature anymore. Has he released a movie at all since the 1990s?”

He certainly has; three of them, with another in pre-production. Coppola’s absence from the mainstream film industry is also by design. The trends that led to today’s IP-heavy media environment were built up over decades, and Coppola was disillusioned a long time ago. “I did not want to be a Hollywood director,” he said, looking back on his work in the ’90s. “I wanted to make personal films, but no one wanted to sponsor me to do that.” With his winery and other business ventures making a modest fortune, Coppola deliberately withdrew from the studio, where film became a hobby he could experiment with.

In the 1970s, Coppola could have his experiments and a pride in studio filmmaking together. The Godfathers appearance, tone and casting choices were challenged at each turn. Under the guise of a sequel to his previous hit, Coppola used to The Godfather: Part II to fulfill an ambition to tell the story of a father and son in parallel. The conversation, published the same year as The Godfather: Part II, was a markedly stylistic departure from Coppola’s mob film. And the legendary troubled production of Apocalypse now born one of the most surreal war movies ever made. Every single one of these films experienced a mainstream release, critically acclaimed and sound box office. But this charming series of daring and unorthodox projects that won the general public came to a disastrous end in 1981 with One from the heart.


Frederic Forrest and Nastassja Kinski in One From the Heart
Image via Columbia Pictures

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It was meant to be a simple movie. To get out of the living hell Apocalypse now, a game made with his own money, Coppola would have something easier, easier, smaller and cheaper to work on. He also wanted to maintain his hard-fought independent status. The answer to both questions seemed to be a small-scale revival of the old-fashioned study system. Coppola’s production company Zoetrope moved from San Francisco to a historic Hollywood studio, which he bought, actors and key people were put on contract, and investments were made in what Coppola called the “electronic studio”, an early form of preview and video village. With these initiatives, Coppola’s hope was that he and like-minded directors would have a “dream factory” to enable the economic production of creatively stimulating and experimental films under their complete control. One from the heart was to be the virgin production of the new Zoetrope, a modest romantic comedy brought in for $ 15 million.

The $ 15 million turned into $ 26 million when all was said and done, and rom-com blew up a bittersweet musical composed by Tom Waits. Most of the songs were performed by Waits himself as comments on the film instead of serving as an expression in the story of the characters, but there were still elaborate dance numbers to choreograph (with input from none other than Gene Kelly). Coppola indulged in a six-week rehearsal period for the entire film, a luxury for films of any size. The electronic studio was hailed in the press as a long-term cost saver, and Zoetrope’s paid artists voted unanimously to accept reduced pay to help production further. But investors ran scared as Coppola used its new facilities to recreate the Las Vegas strip on a soundstage, deliberately emphasizing the set’s artificiality.

A still image from One From the Heart
Image via Columbia Pictures

This was not extravagance for its own sake. The history about One from the heart is about a long-term but dysfunctional couple, Hank and Frannie (Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr). When their five-year anniversary gets sour, they swear to stop forever. When they hit the Las Vegas Strip, where the Fourth of July celebration is underway, they are both tempted by new romantic prospects that seem to offer everything they lack in life. For Frannie, a travel agent who dreams of visiting the places she advertises, it means an affair with the waiter / pianist Ray (Raul Julia) and his promise of an escape to Bora Bora. For Hank, a down-to-earth mechanic who has gone astray before, it means a one-night stand with the desperate circus artist Leila (Nastassja Kinski). The art of a stage-bound Vegas simultaneously reflects Frannie’s dreams of a glamorous life and Hank’s disillusionment with the American dream. “It’s all fake bullshit … it’s paralyzed!” he complains about his friend Moe (Harry Dean Stanton). Even in the relatively realistic setups of Hank and Frannie’s house or their friends’ apartments, dramatic changes in color and lighting mark emotional shifts in a way that is more common for theater than film. But against all this glimpse, the performances of almost all cast are naturalistic.

This is the film’s central contrast: All the romantic dreams inspired by squirt-like Hollywood musicals of this kind surround a relationship that is much more human. Hank and Frannie’s potential outs seem too good to be true, but having the two together is not a better idea. It’s complicated, and much of that complexity is expressed through music and images more than dialogue, not just through the conspicuously broad lines of designs. Coppola was no stranger to juxtaposing events, a la montager i The Godfather. IN One from the heart, he took the compilation a step further: a set for a scene between Hank and Moe was built next to a set for a scene between Frannie and her friend Maggie (Lainie Kazan), with a thin shape separating the two. The lights would be up on one set, down on the other, shifting back and forth in another ordinary theatrical unit. All the while, Waits’ songs provide insight into what made this relationship last so long and why it’s gone completely wrong without directly revealing what’s on screen.

It’s a thrill that works to a great extent. Waits wrote an amazing score, and the combined effort of the production designer Dean Tavoularis and film photographers Vittorio Storaro and Ronald Victor Garcia create a great movie to watch. Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr stand out as Harry and Frannie, with Raul Julia providing strong support as Ray (Nastassja Kinski as Leila does well too, but the role is not as prominent). If anything, Forrest and Garr are too compelling; the dysfunction in their relationship is so present that I was hoping they would remain divided, no matter how unlikely their other options were to give them what they wanted out of life. It is the wild images and music that paradoxically keep a certain spark of Hank and Frannie’s potential as an unglamorous couple alive, by marking the alternative as just a little too tempting. I’m still not sure if the end of their story is meant to be positive or not.

Raul Julia and Teri Garr in One From the Heart
Image via Columbia Pictures

I had already heard about the juxtaposition of performances and put upène before I ever saw One from the heart. I do not know that the value of that contrast would have been detected by a blind view. The old-fashioned styling is so upfront that it’s easy to imagine being the only thing an audience is left with, as the film’s story is thin, making an effort to fill even 107 minutes. It needs a viewer to shop around for what’s going on around the actors for the full effect. Taking all the pieces of an unconventional musical that pushes its performing arts in the face of you as a whole is a great wish for an audience. But challenging an audience is among the purposes of art. Literature, painting, music, and theater all have their commercial elements and appeal to the lowest common denominator, but across interviews and DVD commentaries, Coppola has long lamented the particular resistance that seems to exist in mainstream cinema against such experiments. Tackling the shape of small projects seen by few is relatively easy, but taking these risks with large budgets in front of large crowds is a different kind of challenge, and a Coppola had faced several times. He played almost everything he had on the idea of ​​it One from the heart, he could do it again.

He could not. The ballooning and an ongoing screening for exhibitors generated toxic press before the film even finished, and Coppola lost two distributors before Columbia Pictures finally picked it up. Compared to its $ 26 million budget, One from the heart earned less than $ 650,000. Even at a time when movies could build a reputation and gradually grow an audience, the writing was on the wall. Coppola himself drew the film, sold Zoetrope’s studio (but not the company itself) and spent the rest of the ’80s and early’ 90s digging himself out of the mountain of debt that his failed dream had incurred. When he finally showed up with the wine industry to sustain him, Coppola kept his promise to back out of the film industry as an industry. “The Godfather… Made me have an older man’s career when I was 29, ”said Coppola. “If I had my older career when I was young, as an old man, I might be able to have a young filmmaker’s career.”

Nastassja Kinski and One From the Heart
Image via Columbia Pictures

After the 2011s Twixt, Coppola’s last released film to date, he has prepared Megalopolis and holding workshops at universities on the idea of ​​”live cinema” through a script called Television. Like One from the heart, these are made through Coppola’s own financing of his company, now called American Zoetrope. The “electronic studio” that became groundbreaking with this film is now a standard feature in film production. But the updated studio system is gone, and none of Coppola’s latest films have attempted to break through to the masses. They each had limited theatrical views (if any) and are not easy to find now.

It’s a shame. While Coppola’s remarks in 2019 were often perceived as a targeted attack on the MCU, criticism of the state of the film industry as a whole was no longer playing on offbeat projects to the extent once seen in the 70s and 80s. I’m not so contemptuous of franchises that I would borrow Daffy Ducks’ favorite insult to describe them, but I’m tired of their dominance over cinema screens. Movies like One from the heart is more bumpy, technically and experientially, than many smart sequels, reboots or remakes. But it is a unique experience with several rewarding heights for anyone who is ready to take it on its terms, and an inspiring example for filmmakers to strive incompletely for an ideal. For all that I would rather see One from the heart again, or ten noble experiments and misfired by Francis Ford Coppola, than a more superhero origin story.

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