One From the Heart

The fine line between 'archetypal' and 'generic'
Francis Ford Coppola
Teri Garr, Frederic Forrest, Raul Julia, Nastassja Kinski, Lainie Kazan
The Setup: 
Man and woman break up and get back together amid a flurry of film technique.

This is a film that comes with a lot of history. Coppola started it after Apocalypse Now, and it was supposed to be a small film, returning to character moments. It was also the first film of his American Zoetrope studios, which was supposed to be a place where art could flourish away from commercial pressures. He intended to renew the film musical form and create a 'live cinema' experience by watching from his trailer, via video feed, what he was filming, and planning edits as he shot. He also intended to give it a 'live' feeling by using scrims and sets and wipes to give the whole thing a continuous feel. The entire thing was shot on sets, to give it an audaciously fake look, and its budget ballooned from $2 million to $25 million. To make matters worse, the film was preceded by an avalanche of press about how Coppola was creating a film that was "Ahead of its time" and "Creating a new language" and such… and then the film came out and was a leaden bomb.

Now I watched the Director's Cut DVD, which is apparently vastly reworked from the theatrical version, and the theatrical version is no longer available, angering a lot of this film's original fans, who feel that this version is pretty much a travesty. So maybe I have a very skewed view of the film, although it was considered a notorious stinker from the start… apparently Coppola just made a bad film worse. We open with a image of a spotlight on a blue curtain, which opens to reveal a full moon exactly the size of the spotlight. We then see footprints in the sand, and have images of a Las Vegas returned to desert, with signs rising out of the sand dunes. Then there is a charming credits sequence where the names appear in Vegas-style neon signs. During this time we are hearing the first of many songs written by Tom Waits and sung by Waits and Crystal Gayle. It's all going fine—then the movie starts.

Teri Gar as Fran is making a New York display in the window of her travel agency, Paradise travel. She then goes home to Frederic Forrest as Hank, a tow truck driver who works for Reality Wrecking. Get it, she's Paradise, he's Reality? Please be ready for the rest of the movie to stay at that drearily literal level. The next day is the 4th of July, and also their 5th anniversary. They have dinner and we see that he's cheap and romantic… he wants to stay home and make a quiet, cheap meal, while she wants to go out for dinner. They are going to make love, and she wants to use a condom, while he doesn't. Already we have noticed that the soundtrack is nearly constant, with Waits and Gayle crooning in the background, and the lighting is extremely theatrical, expressive, and some might say out of control. During their conversation, they are sitting at the same table, but it looks like he is in the nighttime and her scene is happening during the day. There are lots of strong ALL yellow or ALL green or ALL red-illuminated compositions—and the lighting often changes right during the middle of the scene. Anyway, then they have a fight, and she goes to stay with her friend Lainie Kazen while he goes and stays with Harry Dean Stanton as Moe.

Already you can't help but notice that the story has gathered NO momentum, the characters don't engage at all, and the whole thing is dead in the water. And you have 60 minutes to go!

The next day Fran goes to work and meets Raul Julia who asks her for a date that night. Hank and Moe go to this rehearsal where they see Nastassja Kinski as Leila. She looks over at them and they're like "Hey, I think she's looking at us," and I, bored, at home, am like "No, she's not" and they're like "But which one of us is she looking at?" and I'm like "Neither of you!" because ain't NO WAY Nastassja Kinski is looking at Frederic Forrest and it is not in the REALM of possibility she's looking at Harry Dean Stanton. I wanted her to get down and be like "Uh, well, you see that clock behind you?" But no, she's just transfixed with Hank, and asks him to pick her up at nine that night. So now they both have dates? Golly, do you think they'll both go on the dates and have a good time but then realize that they're meant for Fran/Hank and run back to them and be reunited by the next day? I'll never tell!

Actually, I totally will. But should we even go into it? Nah—why? I'll just lay out some details. First, Hank, and we, see Fran naked and in lingerie a little more than I think is strictly tasteful. Then we intercut between both Hank and Fran buying new clothes, and both Hank and Fran getting their hair done. It is hammered into your head that it is the 4th of July—aka independence day—get it??? They go on their respective dates, and we get the now-tiresome thing of them both just barely missing each other or walking obliviously near each other. There's a huge musical number in the streets, which somehow manages to generate no energy. By now you're noticing that they keep on the same intersection—because that's the only set they have. Then Fran sees Hank with Leila—and you think "don't let the light go green, don't let the light go green," but, indeed, the light goes green. Jealousy, bitches! Fran has a nice date. Hank takes Leila out to this junkyard overlooking the city, where they talk and finally have sex. The next day there's a whole scene at an airport—including a real jet that flies overhead—which was an additional set, originally unplanned, that is one of the things that really pushed the budget into the red. The next morning Hank is home alone in the dark room—then Fran comes back, and the lights brilliantly come on! And you breathe a sigh of relief, because the movie is finally going to end!

The main problem is that the story just never comes to life. It seems that Coppola was trying to have archetypal characters that represent all couples, but the danger with this approach is that there's a very fine line between archetypal characters with a universal story and generic characters with a bland story, and this is solidly the latter. The characters just never come to life—and you can tell from minute two where the story is headed—and the terrible prospect of facing 100 more utterly lifeless minutes becomes very real. So you're left with only a lot of technique to keep you interested, and it just isn't up to the task. Green represents jealously. Red represents passion. You put it in expecting a highly experimental sentimental journey from an acclaimed director and what you get is an extremely obvious, boring slog. If you want to see this exact sort of thing done more successfully [and maybe entirely influenced by this], watch Moulin Rouge. This is not meant to constitute a recommendation.

Many people on the IMDb say that they loved the theatrical version, so I am prepared to believe that it could have been a sentimental favorite, despite the fact that Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert's reviews from the time are both absolutely scathing. However, no one seems to have any love for this new director's cut, and indeed it is a giant steaming turd. In the words of Bronski Beat: run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away.

Should you watch it: 

No! Unless you can rent it for free and just fast-forward through just to find out for yourself, but even then…