Oh my, Nathaniel picked a doozy this week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot: only one of the most intoxicating visual extravagances of the 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous musical boondoggle One from the Heart. The film that was meant to be a quick cheapie designed to provide a financial shot in the arm to the fledgling American Zoetrope, but instead almost destroyed the company that Coppola had dreamed up as a sort of director-driven filmmaker’s commune. It’s one of the most idiosyncratic films of its era, overwhelmingly pleasurable despite being entirely unlikable and toxic in every possible way. I have no idea if it’s a great film or a terrible one that could only have been made by a great talent. Frankly, I don’t know that I care one way or the other: when all is said and done, we have the film itself, and I adore it even as it maddens me.
If you haven’t seen it, and there is a very good chance that you haven’t. One from the Heart is searing, savage neo-realist look at the decaying relationship of Hank (Frederic Forest, the movie’s Achilles’ heel) and Frannie (Teri Garr). It is also a luminous, hot-colored fantasia set against a dreamy version of Las Vegas that has been re-created entirely on soundstages. The combination of these things is hard to imagine beforehand, and exactly, perfectly right once you’ve watched it through. The pure, open-wound ugliness of the couple’s dying affection and burgeoning disgust for each other is legitimately uncomfortable and painful to watch, and in theory setting it against the Technicolor-like saturation and vibrancy of the Vegas neon should be ironic in the most childish, snotty way. Instead, it gives the film a level of quasi-surreal diffusion that makes the venom easier to take, and also explores it with more cinematic expression than just “look at the angry people screaming at each other” could manage. This makes sense, really: what are musicals, if not a way to translate emotion into sensory experience to make it more digestible.
Oh right, because it’s also a musical. Not sung by the characters: Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle provide the vocals for Hank and Frannie’s interior lives, with songs by Waits, and the howling despair and joylessness is yet another vehicle for the film to make its argument.
But we’re here to talk about images, not sound, and One from the Heart has the benefit of being so minutely controlled that there’s really not a single frame from anywhere in the movie that isn’t gorgeous and perfect. Even jut heading into the film with the goal of finding something that captures both the exhausting sadness of the story and the beautiful colors therein left me with far more choices than I could really sort through. In the end, I picked this:
Another great thing about One from the Heart: its images all feel so familiar and iconic. Here, Frannie has stormed out of the house she shares with Hank, heading off to find whatever new life can manage to be more pleasurable than the old one. There’s not much in the way of subtlety here, and I think it takes very little effort to unpack it: you’ve get your wet road at night, stretching off into the distance; you’ve got your solitary human figure walking away. And then, deep at the back of the composition, the place that your eyes can’t help but go as they follow the lines of the street and the direction of movement, you have the neon glow of the Vegas Strip, promising something like heaven, or redemption, or at least vitality. Plus, you’ve got those wonderful reflections on the wet asphalt, pulling the foreground into the background. It’s the effect of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in the body of an MGM musical.
Insofar as One from the Heart is about bitter loneliness and the hope of finding something comforting and redemptive to make that loneliness go away, this shot sums all of that up for me. It is a combination of the filthy, the physical, and the unpleasant, with the ethereal, the aesthetic, and the hopeful. “Hope”, maybe, is in short supply throughout the movie, but combining all of the other things into one experience is the film’s goal and its great success, and while this is hardly the only shot that exemplifies that approach, it’s the one that moves me the most.