Discovering a Francis Ford Coppola movie you’ve never seen is a little like that New York City dream in which you stumble upon a whole room you’ve never noticed before in your apartment. It’s true that Coppola’s movies have been sterile disappointments since the 1970s (although once you recover from your dashed hopes, The Godfather Part III’s better than you remembered), but it doesn’t matter: Coppola’s oeuvre includes four of the 20th century’s best movies. On the basis of The Godfather Parts I and II, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation alone, there’s many of us who’d be there with bells on just to see him take a crap on the screen.
That said, Coppola’s One from the Heart, originally released in 1982 and recently re-released to herald the DVD due this January, is hardly a lost gem. That bible of ’70s cinema, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, reports that the film bankrupted Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios and embarrassed everyone involved so badly that it disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. But viewed 20 years later, the film’s not half bad. Shot entirely on a Zoetrope set (as the credits proudly announce), One from the Heart is not only an important marker in cinematic history—that is, as the death knoll for ’70s cinema—but a movie musical that’s a lot more fun than such hollow efforts as the overly edited Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002).
It’s the story of Las Vegas denizens Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr), who break up on their fifth-year anniversary and find solace in the arms of handsome dark strangers only to reconcile again after a movie’s worth of Fame-style street-dancing, tangos, serenades, and strip-teases. Part of the fun is catching lost performances by some very fine actors: a post-Young Frankenstein, pre-carpool mom Teri Garr, all long legs and sexpot pouts; Harry Dean Stanton clad in a leisure suit, a perm, and the gorgeous jaundice of advanced liver damage; the young Nastassja Kinski, a tilt-a-whirl of a girl with wide lips and eyes and curves; and the now-deceased Raul Julia as Teri Garr’s heavy-lidded, light-footed paramour.
The film’s so deliberately, blankly American-heartland that Frannie and Hank begin and end their relationship on the Fourth of July, and guileless phrases like "son of a gun" proliferate whatever dialogue’s not drowned out by the Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle score. The use of Waits, who both sends up and epitomizes Las Vegas lounge acts, is inspired; Coppola’s recasting of the old MGM musical in a pastel ’80s neon is less a matter of style over substance than a harbinger of the use of style as substance. These days, that kind of postmodernism, where fireworks bursting over a fake moon in a fake sky is a thing of beauty unto itself, is old hat. For Coppology, it also must have seemed very soignée.
In hindsight, what’s best about this movie is that this feigned innocence now reads as genuinely innocent—such crow’s feet, eye bags, and paunches would be digitalized out of the final print these days, for example. But you can just aboutola, who’d just spent years in the heart of darkness filming Apocalypse Now, the movie he thought would be the one to break the bank, spinning such cotton candy must have been more than a welcome relief. Coupled with then cutting-edge digital techn see the ’80s taking hold, and in that way this movie really is an anthropological find. It documents the exact moment when a reverse kind of tarnishing took place, when the tawdry, raw sexiness of the ’70s was scrubbed to a too-clean gloss, not only for Coppola himself, who really never did make another great movie again (instead he made a daughter, if not a son, capable of making her own, and some decent wines), but for cinema and for the U.S. It says it all that, had Coppola waited only 10 years more, he wouldn’t have had to break the bank at all to depict such a sanitized Vegas. He could have just filmed it on location.
Of course, the best version of that classic New York City dream is loving a movie that you didn’t even expect to like. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s decision to set his second film in the US, shot entirely in English, seemed ill-advised, if understandable given Mexican cinema’s recent financial woes. After all, Iñárritu’s native Mexico figured highly in his first feature, the wild Amores Perros (2000), which surveyed class, culture, and ethics through the grainy lens of Mexico City. Throw in a messed-up chronology a la the gimmicky Memento (2000) and Irréversible (2002), and Iñárritu seemed poised for a classic sophomore slump. But 21 Grams turns out to be a deeply felt, beautifully conveyed film. If it’s occasionally heavy-handed, it is in the best of ways. Like Magnolia, P.T. Anderson’s equally sprawling, affecting second effort, 21 Grams’ flaws are born of an enthusiasm to tackle big questions in big ways with a big, ensemble cast.
Benicio del Toro is Jack, a tormented, born-again Christian ex-con who unintentionally runs over reformed junkie Cristina’s (Naomi Watts) husband Michael and their daughters with the truck he claims Jesus won for him in a contest. Sean Penn is Paul, a dying man who receives a new lease on life from Michael’s transplanted heart, only to pick up smoking again and leave his wife, who still plans to impregnate herself with his frozen sperm. Paul falls for the once-again drug-addled Cristina, who enlists him to exact revenge upon Jack, though it seems Jack’s not destined to be entirely ruined or saved. Each character sways endlessly and confusingly between birth and rebirth, addiction and recovery, death and a living death, and it’s not until the film’s nearly over that many basic details become clear. The central scenes are mostly displaced to the end, preceded by the crescendos and decrescendos that in real time would spiral around them.
There’s a method to the madness of this jumbled time sequence, and it’s not to disguise a weak plot or to tease the audience into submission (as is the case when Tarantino fiddles with narrative sequencing). Iñárritu splices the story to line up these three characters’ highs and lows, though these moments actually occur at very different times in their lives and in the plot of the story. To wit: Jack drinks alone while Cristina does a bump of coke; Cristina sits in an AA meeting while Jack counsels kids to just trust Jesus; Paul and Cristina make love while Jack and his wife grope each other in an almost uncomfortably hot scene (and Paul’s wife walks alone). The result reminds us of how unnecessary linear time is to make sense of our lives, and that, even in our most painful solitude, we are connected to others. In that sense, this film rouses us less intellectually than philosophically—prodding not only at the existence of an eternal God force, but at its morality, should it exist.
If all this sounds lofty, it sometimes is. But Rodrigo Prieto’s taut cinematography cuts through the storyline’s ether, as the very physically gifted actors inject it with much-needed flesh and blood. Del Toro moves and talks like he’s been carved out of a block of ice; he’s an aging action figure with a strange, graying pompadour and heavy, precise features capable of snapping at any moment. And Naomi Watts, who’s always specialized in visually exploring the duality of her characters (think of 2001’s Mulholland Drive), veers expertly between a bland, prissy prettiness and a ragged, feral despair. Her skin tone actually transmutes from pink to green in a matter of minutes when she plummets emotionally with a voltage only she can deliver plausibly. Penn, too, shifts his coloring, but from blue to yellow, as he wheezes and backs up against all kinds of corners. Always an interesting actor, he’s lately become downright compelling. His performance ties together the film, providing a restrained canvas for the other two actors to rage against. Only Penn could reassure a woman convincingly with just a small smile and a cheesy line. "Don’t worry," he tells Watts as Cristina. "I have a good heart."
As does Iñárritu himself, which is why, I think, 21 Grams succeeds where so many other ensemble movies fail. Less soap operatic than truly operatic, it tackles the biggest questions of them all with compassion rather than egoism. You are not alone, this director seems to suggest, even if you think you are. The movie is about nothing less than faith.