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COMMENTARY : ‘One From the Heart’: Less of a Tug Today

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Revisiting a work that seemed to be a high-water mark of freshness and astonishment even a short while ago can be a reassuring or a painful event. At a Richard Lester tribute earlier this year, a spot check of 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night” showed that the Beatles still kept their own, cheeky magic, whereas the kookiness of “Petulia,” in which Lester’s insights and innovations had seemed time-proof, felt infuriatingly self-conscious.

Looking again at Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart"--screening at the Cinerama Dome tonight with “Apocalypse Now” to mark the 20th anniversary of the Zoetrope Studios--the pain is all mine.

On that night in Westwood eight years ago, carried along by the visual astonishment of Coppola’s bittersweet love story, I thought the movie was enchanting. Its musical score still is, every ironic, revealing note of it. (“I told you before, I’ll tell you again,” Tom Waits’ disgruntled lover growls to his imperfect sweetheart. “Don’t defrost the icebox with a ball point pen.”) The fact that this rich original score--sung to such great effect by composer Waits and Crystal Gayle--was passed over for an 1982 Academy Award seems as much of an outrage today as it did then.

At that time, “One From the Heart” seemed a film that reveled in its surfaces. Now, alas, it seems to be only those surfaces--and its music.

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They are still prettily persuasive surfaces, however. The artificiality of the whole endeavor seems to be part of its point: a show-offy, “look at what we can do on a studio sound stage” boast, pulled off, on the whole, with extravagant success.

It still seems to be a film that’s less about Las Vegas than it is about the bungalow courts and neon of Los Angeles and the crap shoot that is the movie business. And to us here in Los Angeles, the film’s suggestion of impermanence is haunting: the threat that the wind that never quite leaves this sound track could cover over this place, too, at any time with the desert that lurks just a little offscreen.

The movie’s visual effects can suddenly transport you or make you grin at their audacity: that amazing moment, for example, when that huge, plainly artificial airplane takes off directly over our heads; the light-bulb jungle of downtown Las Vegas or the automobile junkyard garden, where a wire-walker blossoms overhead.

It seemed a great challenge at the time; recently, with a movie like “Tucker,” you can see Coppola’s further refinement of “One From the Heart’s” magical shifts in place and time, using light and scrims.

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But ah, my foes, and oh my friends, the stuff that sticks the marvelous bits together now seems, frankly, strained beyond the most passionate loyalty.

So what changed since 1982? Did a certain cynicism arrive, welcome as a death chill? I don’t think so. The waves of affection I felt for “One From the Heart” don’t embarrass me; I wish I could feel them again, but frankly I can’t . . . only scattered ripples here and there.

The answer, I think, is not to try to love films less or with less enthusiasm, but to understand that love is not fixed forever, any more than taste is. I asked an astute friend once if she liked an outrageous hemline in a fashion magazine. “Not yet,” she said, cheerfully.

From some of our past loves, we get a glimpse of who we were then, and an insight into why this or that persuaded us so. I can remember, for example, arguing that there was nothing neurotic in the behavior of “Jules and Jim’s” Catherine, so there is something to be said for a modicum of personal mileage. In the same way, each one of us could probably pick a book, a movie, or a bit of music that seems irreplaceable now and may only mortify us a decade later. Nuthin’ to get hung about.

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“One From the Heart” is still a landmark in the time-line of Coppola’s films, and a 70-millimeter screening of it is rare enough to seek out and try for yourself. Who knows, it may become the love of your life.


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