BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE  #3  

ONCE
a commentary by Tony McRae

The classical Hollywood musicals of the 30s through the 70s depended on a blend of realism and metaphor, the music and dance symbolically revealing a character’s feelings and emotions more effectively than ordinary dialog.  In almost every case the hero and heroine act honorably, their good nature often proving themselves morally superior to those less talented.

If the music and story are well done, such as in Meet Me in St. Louis and “Singin’ in the Rain,” songs, dance and story are integrated almost seamlessly.  Gene Kelly sings and dances in the rain on a near deserted street (1); Judy Garland wonders if she’ll ever get to meet the boy next door (2), both expressing their innermost feelings accompanied by full orchestra.  We accept this convention of background music as an component of the musical.  

Since the glory years of the classical Hollywood musicals, the genre has undergone some changes:  “West Side Story” eschews the brightly lit scenario for a bleaker setting; “Cabaret” adopts the stage tradition of Bertolt Brecht; “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ” has the entire dialog sung (3).  In these cases, the contrivances work because the performances and rhythmic direction engage the audience, pull us along.  When the devices become too obvious—like the fast paced, video-style editing of “ Chicago ”—the contrivances remain just that, contrivances.      

Now there is “Once,” a stirring movie about a street singer in Dublin and an immigrant Czech girl who meet while he’s performing one of his own songs (4).  While the narrative is suffused with music, the songs are perfectly integrated into the story. We might say that the music is the story, not only because the busker (the Irish name for a street singer) performs for the public on the streets of Dublin but, we come to realize, music is his primary language, if you will, his means of communication with friends and especially with the girl.  

Like any public performer he exposes himself to the world, and in so doing puts his emotions, his feelings, on the line.  We realize almost immediately he is comfortable with his guitar, the tool that both possesses him and is possessed by him—he is unable not to lay himself bare.  We might even say his songs express a certain wretchedness, a plaintive feeling he must address and come to grips with through his music(5).  

It’s quite obvious that the guy is at home playing on the streets of Dublin .  He’s comfortable in his musician’s skin, more so than when he’s not singing.  This is quite evident when he invites the girl up to his apartment to listen to his music, and suggests she spend the night with him.  She is greatly offended and he realizes he’s misstepped big time.  This kind of faux pas never happens when he has guitar in hand and is singing his heart out.  

The girl has turned him down not because she isn't attracted to him but rather she intuits that their musical collusion will be the basis for mutual understanding which will take care of whatever the future holds.

What makes this film different from any musicals before is the total integration of music and story.  The editing rhythmically incorporates the songs into the story so there’s never a “time out,” a lull in the narrative.  When the guy asks the girl to play something on the piano, and later in their relationship has her accompany him as he works through a tune, a “system of dispositions”—as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu puts it—takes place which releases both of them from the narrowness of their lives.  We may call it love, but in any case their chemistry permits them to come into their own.  

Every song plays on this condition they’ve created together (6), which is really what “Once” is about.  If we are expecting a traditional love story—not unreasonable given the classical musical's boy-gets-girl endings—we will have sold the movie short.   

Director/writer John Carney has tried to show the pulse and flow of everyday Dublin life with its darkened hallways, bars and apartments, the crowded streets which ebb and flow with ordinary people who pay little attention to street singers (7).  We’re not quite sure what makes the busker create these songs of longing and near despair, but we know they are real, even if the passers-by don't.

Both Glen Hansard who plays the Guy and Markéta Irglová who plays the Girl have indisputable charm and musical talent; we have the clear sense that they are revealing themselves to each other as they reveal themselves to us the moviegoers.

The last shot of the Girl by a window (8) recalls for me the works of two great painters, Jan Vermeer and Edward Hopper, both of whom created works of pensive, solitary women.  Vermeer's "A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal" (9) is especially evocative, not only for the similarities of pose of both women, but also for the fact that the original is in the National Gallery in London where our aspiring busker is headed to promote his music.  Hopper. too, often frames his women peering out from a window (10&11).  For decades art critics has asked just what are they pondering, these women.  This is the question we are left with at the end of "Once."  

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A NOTE ON REVIEWS OF "ONCE"
How is it that one of the top rated movies of the year (MetaCritic 88/100; Rotten Tomatoes 8.4/10) is being bypassed by all those year-end awards?  Is it being suffocated by faint praise?  Some samples:  "a sweet little film," "a very little film with a very large heart," "real heart," "unpretentious."  

You get the idea.

I often wonder how one defines a "small film."  Foreign?  Unknown actors?  Modest budgets?  I can think of many films of the past that fit these guidelines:  "City Lights," "Sherlock Jr.," "A nous la liberté," "L'Atalante," "The Station Agent."

Let's not get into the mindset of categorizing movies by anything other than their power to move us.

Ignore the R rating which was given for a few swear words.   

Home or The Musical Page 

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