Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - One From the Heart

To call Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart "stylized" would be an understatement. To call it "artificial" would be even more of an understatement. It is, by a pretty good margin, the strangest American film I've ever seen, and were it not for Nobuhiko Obayashi's completely batshit insane House, it would be the absolute weirdest fucking film I've ever seen, period.

To begin with, it takes place in Las Vegas, and takes the artificiality of that city as far as it can go: The entire thing is shot on a soundstage, and looks it. BOY does it look it.

Then, there's also the almost expressionistic lighting, shading nearly every scene in neon shades of red, green, blue, and yellow.

They're about to do it, so they put on the red light

And on top of all that, it's mostly shot in a series of long takes, which often overlap with others that may or may not be taking place in the same place/at the same time, sometimes to wondrous effect, sometimes to disastrous effect. I say "disastrous" because of that whole "may or may not" caveat. There are times when characters appear to cross paths (they actually cross right in front of each other, in full view, and we watch them do it), except then the camera pulls back to reveal that the second character is actually not in the same place at all. Which makes it more confusing when it happens later and the two characters actually ARE in the same space at the same time.

And as if ALL THAT weren't enough, it's all set to a song score by Tom Waits that is near-constantly blaring on the soundtrack. If ever there was a musical film that was ashamed to be a musical, it's this one. The characters never sing, the songs just play like a third-person narrator or Greek chorus that we never see. Except that the songs don't really ever make that much of an impression, partly because they all sound very similar, partly because it's occasionally difficult to make out the lyrics over the dialogue, and partly because the lyrics don't always seem to fit quite right with the story as it's presented. Songs in musicals come organically out of the narrative, when a feeling is so strong or a situation so important that expressing what's happening in mere dialogue simply isn't enough. But the songs in One From the Heart aren't really used that way. Or at least it doesn't feel like it.

I don't know. It's all very strange. I can't tell what's going on - whether this doesn't have any emotional impact because the performances are lacking, or because the script doesn't articulate enough of the characters and their history together to make us understand the weight of what's happening, or if Coppola was just too enamored of the ambitious camera movements around the sets to care about much of anything else. I mean, it all looks great - or at least, as great as something this obviously, shamelessly artificial can look - and you will never EVER heard me complain about long takes where we actually get to see people do things (what a concept! And yet you'd never know that films used to do this ALL THE TIME from today's world of close-ups and two shots). But it's all so, SO empty.

There's a very fine line between expressionism and magical realism, and at about the mid-way point, One From The Heart just waltzes over, on top of, and around that line in such a way that I actually started wondering if the whole thing was a dream. Certainly, by all means, cut from a beautifully lit tango:


To the two dancers in a fantasy paradise world:

That's perfectly fine, and both shots are gorgeous. But to then have them from there bust out of the window of a travel agency (where Teri Garr's Frannie works) onto the Las Vegas strip and start a dance routine complete with little miniature disco floors?!? AND THEN run into the other main characters in a way that makes it overtly clear that they are all REALLY THERE and seeing each other?!?!? Does Vegas really install disco light floors in the street for the Fourth of July?!?

I could almost go along with the film, since it sets up the expressionistic tone it's working in fairly early on, but it keeps doing things like that, things that break the rules it has already set up without rhyme or reason. Not that the film has much rhyme or reason to begin with - the central couple, Frannie and Hank (Teri Garr and Frederic Forrest, who very nearly sinks the whole damn thing on his own), get into a fight, have make-up sex and promise to never fight again, and then immediately after, they're eating dinner and she says, ya know what? Nah, I'm leaving. Look, I know that couples in long-term relationships often get into fights about absolutely nothing (it's kinda their thing), but this is such whiplash that I'm not sure these people are even human. I mean, not one year after this, Garr would give one of THE great comic performances of the 80s, but Frannie has a practically Nomi Malone-level personality disorder the way she plays her. Why?

Anyway, I can only rant about this film for so long. There are parts that are enjoyable, and the terrific camera work holds your attention, which I suppose is the point. So what if randomly, for no reason other than that the script requires it, Hank wakes up from sleeping with Nastassja Kinski (who is really, really lovely as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl), and has a vision of EXACTLY what Frannie is doing at that moment (still having sex with Raul Julia - and who could blame her)?


Anyway, as you can see, there is no shortage of lovely images in One From the Heart. I just wish they were attached to a better script and contained better performances. And after all, we're here to talk cinematography. My Best Shot is one of the times where Coppola's crazy ambition actually worked. It's from early on in the film, not long after Frannie and Hank split up, and they're both staying with friends. Despondent, they each call home to see if the other is home, and this happens:

It's like something you would see onstage - two lovers, who have major communication issues, separated by miles in reality, but in our view only by a scrim. They're facing each other but not looking at each other, one in light the other in darkness, both wanting to talk but unable to. I don't think I've seen anything else in the movies like it that didn't use fancy editing or special effects. But this is all practical, and it shows. One From the Heart's naked ambition and artificiality may not always work, but in moments like this it's easy to see what Coppola and his admirers saw in this film, and to want like hell to see it yourself.

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