Friday, August 31, 2007

Fuck you, batteries.


The joy of a musical - that is, a good musical, not a bloated Broadway adaptation made not out of passion but for the commercial viability of a familiar property - is discovering the moments when a song reveals emotions that words alone cannot reach. Such a moment occurs early in Once, as a street musician and a woman he's just met (we never learn their names) are hanging around in a music store. He invites her to accompany him on a song he's been working on, and as she joins him on piano, the song's achingly romantic message overwhelms them and us. Once, which follows these characters over the course of a week as they write and record a few songs while an unspoken romance grows between them, is a minor masterpiece of understated feeling. Delicate and insightful where too many musicals are bombastic and obvious, Once is capable of transporting both lovers and haters of the genre with its devastating love story.

Once introduces us to a struggling songwriter (Glen Hansard) who works in his dad's vacuum repair shop and spends his time off singing Van Morrison songs for loose change on the streets of Dublin. One night, while performing one of his own songs, he meets a young Czech woman (Markéta Irglová) who likes his song; the guy is leaving for London in a week to try patching things up with his ex-girlfriend, and she agrees to help him write and record a few songs before he goes. That's about all there is for plot in Once, which is built on the moments where the guy and girl get to know each other. As they work together, it becomes clear they're made for each other. The guy is the type to refer to himself as a cynic, sweetly oblivious to how wrong he is; the girl has a daughter at home and a husband in another country, and is far too serious-minded to realize the obvious. While this story has been told before, from Brief Encounter to Lost in Translation (likely its most direct influence), Once becomes completely unique in its study of two characters who cannot quite fully connect for precisely the reasons that they are perfect for each other. First-time feature director John Carney (formerly a member, like his lead actor, of the band The Frames) has a remarkable talent for revealing worlds about his characters in a moment; he's brave enough, for instance, to have a character deliver the most important line in the film in Czech.

Almost as impressive as the story itself is the way that Carney uses digital video to tell it. Until recently, I was dubious about DV, as most directors who used it raved about its functional ease without commenting much on its aesthetic qualities (mumblecore is commendable in theory, but I have yet to see a DIY film I like). But after last year's Inland Empire and now Once, the possibilites of digital have been blown wide open. In Once, the low-tech images have an intimate quality that matches the story of homegrown artists perfectly. Every shot is beautifully composed in a way I haven't seen in DV before.I was inspired not only by the story but by the filmmaking itself - it's a film that leaves one energized by possibility. There's a confidence in every moment that reminds of how imagination and vision are infinitely more valuable than a huge budget. I'm not always quick to buy into the romance of independent cinema, but Once fulfills this promise better than any film in a long time.

Once isn't a perfect movie - I agree with Todd VanDerWiff, who writes that "While the songs are good, the film requires us to believe that they’re so good that they simply cause everyone around Hansard to realize what an untapped genius he is." Still, its hard to complain about a film with this much soul, particularly since its imperfections become part of its charm. There are few films that contain as much pure warmth as Once; that it's a pretty great movie is all the better.

10 comments:

Paul C. said...

Good piece, and I agree with you about the film. One quibble is that Carney and Hansard's band is The Frames, not the Faces.

Bemis said...

You mean they weren't on the Rushmore soundtrack?

Thanks for the catch. I have this odd tendency to replace words with similar words in speech, and it occasionally pops up in my writing. And for whatever reason, I seem to be setting a personal record for goofs this week.

Jess said...

You have definitely captured how I felt about Once. It is my favorite movie of the year so far and I cannot stop listening to the soundtrack. It gets into your head and heart and stays there.

Bemis said...

Thanks, Jess. I enjoyed your top 10, and look forward to seeing how it looks by years' end.

Sarah said...

They way you compressed the essence of the movie in your blog sent shivers down my spine once again. What an incredible story, what a haunting soundtrack.

Bemis said...

How very sweet of you to say! Many thanks.

Kenny Hyder said...

Awesome, I searched on google for "fuck you batteries" and this post came up. Such a great quote, from a fantastic movie!

puertas metalicas said...

Hey, there is a lot of useful info above!

Online Pharmacy no prescription said...

It is a great show, I went to see it with my girlfriend and we both were very pleased with the show.

www.muebles-camobel.es said...

Very effective piece of writing, thanks for your post.