Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Once: Musical or Diegetic Lollapalooza?

Bliss.
In some instances, it is very pleasant to have a significant other who is also a film student. We can say something like "We're on an express elevator to hell...going down" with the exact same Bill Paxton inflection. We are both bemused and fascinated by Kevin Costner. We will use irritatingly erudite terms like mise en scene and not get slapped. But we differ radically when it comes to the types of movies we like, and this leads to many situations in which I storm out in a huff and begin to stress-bake angry cookies. You see, I love classic Hollywood, in all its shapes and sizes. I love film noir, I love slapstick comedies, I love suspense thrillers, I love weepy romances, I love those soaring dramas blown up to the proportions of high Italian opera. Adrian...does not. I would say that it's because he lacks the patience to sit back and give them a chance, but he loves Kubrick for God's sake. I don't know.

Our biggest lasting conflict is on the subject of musicals. Adrian staunchly maintains that one day he's going to "do a musical the right way" (at which point I mutter something along the lines of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, grumble, grumble, no respect, grumble), and though I've tried time and again to get him to sit down and appreciate the blissful, colorful, gleeful joys of My Fair Lady or Gigi, he will have none of it. The only way I got him to watch Guys and Dolls was by piquing his interest in seeing Marlon Brando as a song-and-dance man, and even then, half  an hour in he was in the kitchen rummaging around the cheese drawer.

Audrey or a hunk of cheddar? Tough call.

I was having lunch with Adrian and one of his friends, Craig, when the subject of musicals came up. I sat grumpily with my arms folded, fully expecting another hatefest on my favorite genre, until Craig used the words Sondheim and fabulous together in the same sentence. Joy! Gleefully, I tossed back a shot of tequila (it was during the World Cup and the Mexican restaurant downstairs was giving free shots for every goal scored) and threw myself headfirst into that tumultuous fray that is film debate. We both ragged on Adrian for half an hour or so until Adrian confessed that he found musicals to be too fake. This struck me dumb. "What about Once?" I asked. "You can't get much more of a realistic musical than that."

"Once isn't a musical," he replied.

Well, that did it. Not a musical, my eye! What piffle! But then I started to wonder what it was that made him think that way. It was a tough call. Once doesn't really boast any soaring strings or tappy dance numbers. At most it sounds like nice young people singing various folky-poppy songs structured around a small storyline. What really makes a musical? Music, certainly, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a movie without music. Music in a central role? Absolutely, but then again, you won't really find many people classifying Amadeus as a musical and in that film the music is basically the whole point.

I'm now going to make a few posits about what I believe a musical to be. I know full well that there are exceptions and that many people will feel differently, but these are the definitions of what works for me. I think in a musical people should sing (again, there are exceptions--ballet, for one), and that there generally should be accompanying music. I think the musical accompaniment certainly doesn't have to be diegetic (presented in the realm of the story, as in a musician playing an instrument onscreen); in fact, most of the best-known musicals are not. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I think that whatever song is sung should somehow support the emotions or the conflicts of a certain character at a certain point in the story. For example, take O Brother, Where Art Thou? When George Clooney sings "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow", he is not, actually, currently a man of constant sorrow. It's just a diegetic song in the realm of the story, as are most of the other songs. Therefore, I wouldn't classify that film as a musical.

What about Once? It's easy to see how the music could just be mistaken for regular old song breaks, a la O Brother. But to prove my point, I'm going to offer as an example two of the songs from the movie. The first, which took me a long time to get around to liking, is "Say it To Me." Now, if you haven't seen the movie, I'll offer a brief sketch of the scene in which the song takes place. We've met Hansard busking on the streets of Dublin, and we've watched his little daily routine of singing for people, playing other people's songs, chasing off would-be thieves. You know, the usual. Then we see this scene*:

video

The first time I watched it I was distracted by the song itself which seemed too harsh and screamy and yelly for my own personal tastes. It sort of put me off of the whole scene. However, after watching the movie a few more times, I realized that this was because I wasn't thinking of it as a musical; once I changed my outlook the song became heartbreaking instead of harsh and the scene itself became extremely moving.

Take the scene as a metaphor. A man in the dark stands and sings a song that is filled with hurt, anger and loneliness. It is his cry for help, a literal musical scream. He begins alone, but by the time the camera pulls back out...there she is! Marketa Irglova's character is standing in front of him, beautiful and smiling, ready to be friends. Here, it's important to note the uninterrupted take; her apparition is almost a trick of the light--in some ways, it's every bit as magical as the entrance of Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life. And there, in this scene, in this song, you have the entire crux of the movie. She comes in as the answer to that musical plea for help, his way out of the darkness. Together they write songs and he remembers how to fall in love and resolves to piece his life back together and take a chance at making a life with his music. At the end (as is always the case with angels in movies) they go their separate ways, but remain all the better for having spent time together. Honestly, I can only think of a few scenes in more recognizable "musicals" that express the depth of a character's emotion and the theme of a story quite as profoundly as this.

Then, of course, you have "Falling Slowly", probably the best known song from the movie, and the tune that won Irglova and Hansard a well-deserved Oscar. This is where the music/reality metaphor becomes absolutely blatant:

video

Well, gee. I wonder what the subtext of that song is supposed to be! (For those unfamiliar with the film, Hansard and Irglova have begun a tentative budding friendship that results in their going to a music store where Hansard teaches Irglova the chords and they play the song together. By the end, he's hooked.) Let's consider the first words: I don't know you/but I want you all the more for that. Pretty topical, I'd say. Both characters have been romantically bruised, so the hesitant yet hopeful lyrics fit them perfectly. It's a song about falling sung at the first step off the proverbial romantic cliff.

The other songs adhere to the plot in much the same vein. "Lies" is sung by Hansard to video footage of his ex-girlfriend. "Fallen From the Sky", an adorable little ditty, is sung in the music studio at the height of their collaboration and happiness. My other favorite example is "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," in which Hansard hilariously recounts the tale of his breakup in song form:

Ten years ago
I fell in love with an Irish girl, she took my heart
But she went and screwed some guy she knew
and now I'm in Dublin with a broken heart
Oh broken hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy
Oh broken hearted Hoover fixer sucker, sucker guy
One day I'll go there and win her once again
but until then I'm just a sucker of a guy
And on that note (ha ha), I rest my case. I'm quite sure, though, that Adrian is going to come up with a million compelling reasons why I'm nuts and Once is really a slasher flick with Oedipal undertones, but I nevertheless remain steadfast in my beliefs. One last thing--if you haven't seen the movie yet, I highly suggest you do. It's lovely.

Cheers,
-Baz
*There is no copyright infringement intended. The courts recently ruled that it is not a violation of copyright to extract sections of a DVD for the purpose of essays or education, which is my intention here. If there is a problem, please contact me. 

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