Once upon a time I was hanging out in Allston in Boston with my buddy Christopher Morrison, and Soul Coughing comes on. You remember them? “True Dreams of Wichita”? “Screenwriter’s Blues”? Anyhow we’re listening to them and Chris looks over at me and says “Those guys just took what they had and went all the way, didn’t they?” And that was around the time when David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest had come out, and it was sitting on – well, probably on the floor somewhere considering what Chris and Curt and Josh’s apartment was like. Chris nods toward the book and says “That guy too. Just took his thing and went all the way. That’s it, isn’t it?” “What’s it?” I ask. And he looks at me with the patented Christopher Morrison super intense realization eyes and says “Art.”
Having a clear personal vision for a particular work of art, let alone a whole career, isn’t easy. You have to be yourself relentlessly. That’s not easy. Realizing that vision’s a whole different kind of hard. That requires discipline, courage, determination, and craft. Art is that space where vision meets communication via craft. Or at least that’s how I see it. If it’s just craft and communication, that’s artisan work. If it’s just personal vision then it’s narcissistic gobbledygook. A lot of artists move from one end of that spectrum to the other throughout their career.
Up to and including One from the Heart, Francis Ford Coppola had a vision for every movie he made, even if he had to find it as he made it. Coppola’s determination turned even a sordid, pulpy book about gangsters into art. So when he came to believe that Apocalypse Now would be a total financial disaster, one that could completely ruin him, he decided to make a romantic, popular film that would give him some much needed capital. That movie is One from the Heart. Instead Coppola got caught up in his vision for the movie and made an innovative and gorgeous box office flop that would bankrupt him completely, hampering his artistic decisions for the next decade.
Coppola’s idea was to take a spin on the musical and create something totally modern. He told the story of a couple, played by Frederic Forest and Teri Garr, who break up and have dalliances with Raul Julia and Natasha Kinski, respectively. Will they get back together? Watch the movie to see. The innovative part comes when songs written and sung by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle reveal the characters’ emotional subtext. For awhile there’s something wonderful about this approach. Waits and Gayle’s songs tell us everything the screen couple can’t say. Over the course of the movie, however, this approach has a kind of flattening effect, leveling all dramatic tension. Still, it’s Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, so even when the songs don’t add texture they’re still pretty great.
What makes the movie a joy to watch regardless of the narrative weakness is the production design and cinematography. Coppola’s movies always look great. Great photography, great design. He takes pride in that. Maybe because One from the Heart was meant to be popular and romantic, and maybe because the dark locations of Apocalypse Now needed to be washed clean, Coppola had a replicate of Las Vegas built inside a sound stage. It’s beautiful. Somehow brighter and more confectionary than the actual Las Vegas strip, with even the recreated airport shining with dreamy neon. The set contributed to the ballooning budget that went up to 27 million from the proposed 12 million. That’s what sunk Coppola.
Far from making a blockbuster, Coppola had a hard time even finding distribution for his movie, and when it did come out, it was an absolute flop that set up a chain reaction. Coppola declared bankruptcy and lost everything he had except for one home and a vineyard up in Napa, California’s Wine Country.
Coppola himself is rumored to have said that the man who made The Godfather movies died in the jungle while shooting Apocalypse Now. If he did say that, it might be a bit of a hedge. One from the Heart isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s also clearly made by a man who had a vision and pushed it through to completion, come what may, just like he always did. It’s understandable that a man who went through what he went through would want to make a movie that didn’t have a lot of tension and looked real pretty, but that doesn’t mean he’s dead. It means he’s changing.
What is he changing into? Let’s find out.
Next week: the movie that debuted every male 80s heartthrob who isn’t named Corey.