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4.19.2008

ONCE

Once
Directed and Written by John Carney













Pin it all down to a moment that melts your heart like butter and gets in your eyes and sums it all up, and there it is, at the back of a music store, the brokenhearted busker giving the girl sitting on the piano a song to sing, a song he wrote for that other girl he can’t forget but transferable by fate and now a song for whoever, for the unfound One, the possibility beheld- - -“I don’t know you, but I want you, all the more for that . . .” What do you make of that hook when it digs into you and it’s someone you've just met? The giddy shaking to the core over a perfect stranger? It's all about the low spark when random lives overlap and emotional happenstance meshes into story. It's all about the angels shitting on you.

I break this down in my head over and over , out of how it sends me on so little, out of how words fail. Emotional happenstance is an old trope. Emotional happenstance without even a tic of melodrama is ,too, but it throws you on a loop for being so unfussy and honest. Boy meets girl, sort of fall in love, sing a lot. You can jot it down in the back of a bar napkin, like John Carney did, like you can with any love story. Boy’s Irishborn romantic depressive songwriter-in-waiting. Girl’s blithe Czech émigré, husbandless but with kid. She visits him at home and he makes a pass at her - - - lonely boys will be boys. He asks her if she loves her boy’s Dad and she answers cryptically in her own tongue which she wouldn’t if it was a yes and yet . . . yeah, women. Has all the niggling, baffling colors and noise and static that make men men and women women but still,I break it down and get parts that shouldn't fit but somehow do. I get a series of brief encounters banal on paper and on its own but somehow incandescent on a string. I get an ending I fervently wish is a beginning. I get naked and hurtful indiefolk love songs, fucking beautiful throughout and majestic at least three times, and blame it all on its wise mush.

And the way Glen Hansard & Marketa Iglova have with it, a delicate and almost icky earnestness that toes the line it has to cross before it becomes precious, a sense of its own vulnerability that refuses to back off, a clenching of all the tenderness and beyond loneliness and agony and pissed-offness into fists of pure emotion that not only catches in your throat but gets sticky in your forebrain. Marketa breaking down at her piano in the dark in The Hill. The skeptical engineer cracking a smile when he hears the cascading triumphalism of When Your Mind's Made Up. The indignant desperate yearning of Say It To Me Now - - -" . . . 'cause this is what you've waited for,a chance to even up the score, and as these shadows fall on me now, I will somehow, and if you have something to say you'd better say it now . . .” - - - that turns Glen's voice to gravel. The music store duet when it hits that tearjerky chorus - - -“take this sinking boat and steer it home, we’ve still got time”. Something for the longing. Tears on my pillow.

And the déjà vu when the songs snap into place as if you’ve heard them before. I have,sort of. And so have you. I’ve played some song just like any of these to myself in the grotty dark of my bedroom, headphones cutting me off from the cruel world, nursing a bottle of whisky, pining and pissed-off at the ex who left me for someone else or somesuch romantic crash and burn, poeticizing the apocalypse in my gut - - - which is really just me blowing trouble out of proportion but dammit if it doesn’t hurt and nag - - - with a pop song someone else wrote but feels uncannily as if whoever did fed a wiretap into my brain for grist. And I hang everything on its grasp of this eternal and emotional universality, also the singular virtue of the songs closest to our hearts, the pop beloved if you will. And there's no escaping how much song centers this.

If you can't be with the one you love , love the one you’re with - - - Stephen Stills was a prophet for nailing the dynamics of most modern relationships. And there may be a planet of difference between choice and decision but sometimes the stakes can be too high so you pretend there isn't. But much as true love may never run smooth for all the odds you have to buck getting there , it will find you in the end. Naive as it makes me, I hold out hope in that. And maybe it's just me but when Glen smiles to himself rushing to catch a plane and Marketa looks out the window, I can tell they do,too.

4.18.2008

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE



Across the Universe
Directed by Julie Taymor
Written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais
From a Story by Julie Taymor, Dick Clement
and Ian Le Frenais













The names are what rubs me weird before everything else: there's Jude, there’s Lucy and Prudence, Max - - -who hammers, Jojo - - -who doesn't get back, Sadie - - -who you can tell is sexy but some dork has to go blurt it out so the children get it, Dr.Robert - - -who’s Bono in a bad wig, Mr.Kite - - -who’s Eddie Izzard. No Eleanor Rigby but then that would’ve hit one more nadir of trite we don't need. No Strawberry Fields either, which would’ve hit yet another and all but ruined this fatally. We do get to hear the words “ . . . she came in through the bathroom window . . .” uttered and right after some girl does come in through a bathroom window,too! A green apple gets held up to the light at some point. Blue meanies cameo as chorus line but no yellow sub. And the Prudence chick holes up in her room just like the real Prudence Farrow did so her friends can coax her out of it by singing guess what song? Lord have Mersey.

Having seen her Titus and her Frida but not her Lion King , it's safe to say I’m no champion of Taymor. Florid and prone to overbear and needs lightening up - - -those are my nits. Florid has a place here much as prone to overbear doesn’t but they both show up regardless. Does her lightening up mean she has to stoop this low,though? When did she get this obvious, this corny, this kid silly? Did she not sift through the vapid rubble of Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)? Is everything now boilable to a pun? Is a little ambiguity too much to ask? Am I being a little too hard on Julie? Is Joe Roth really to blame? Mea culpa, then, for wishfully thinking that the prologue with the quasi-McCartney replicant on a beach cooing Girl to the camera was a portent, that its sublime crackle would keep throughout the piece.

No, I'm not above denying there’s high concept ore in making musical theater out of pop. I'm all for it, in fact. Show tunes suck for the most part. But until someone gets it right, we make do with Mamma Mia! The tricky part's how the ubiquity and presence of the music almost predisposes hanging all onus on it: never mind the libretto, the songs will out. Sure, but you end up with a revue that way. Not a very rock and roll circus, that. Baz knew to vogue on the mash-up. Also knew to fashion vivid new skins and vivid new contexts for his secondhand repertoire - - -some of which were boring at birth so he really had no choice - - - undergirded by Bollywoodian mutant La Boheme. Grotesque as Moulin Rouge often got, the synergies between song and libretto that are crucial to musicals never misfired. Funnish,too.

Not that this isn't, no, maybe not as wildly abandoned, but still a step up for Taymor, funwise. Making musical theater out of Lennon-McCartney does rope in a whole new make and model of tricky. I’m a third-gen Beatlehead who once briefly thought Siouxsie Sioux a genius for writing Dear Prudence but even I can’t sit through half the best-ofs on parade here without making my ears bleed a little from having heard them over and over and over. What are the chances of coming to Lennon-McCartney - - -the canon, not the obscurities, so not Rain, not I'll Cry Instead, not Polythene Pam - - - and sucking fresh sap from its old bones? Unless you're 12 , I'd say slim. Do these chestnuts have any give and flex left? Are they open to interpretation? Can we take a hammer to them instead ? And see what twists form in the shards? Is no one up for it? Should Taymor have asked for Siouxsie's help instead of Joe Cocker's? Oh, she does freshen I Wanna Hold Your Hand up with a churning, wistful eroticism - - -sung by a gorgeous Filipina lesbian cheerleader at that - - -that's better than the frankly crummy original. But if we go by yet two more (enough already) blues-rock vamps through Oh!Darling and Don't Let me Down here , if we go by the cover of Oasis' cover of Revolution, if we go by the riot footage playing over a bed of Helter Skelter, if we go by the overabundance of cliches, if we go by nearly everything else that very little is done to - - -could be what George Martin did for Love is as good as we'll ever get.

When she takes Let It Be to church, Taymor evokes the exhausted disillusionment of the 60s so poignantly that my theory of how she's refracting the era through the music starts to grow cartilage and bone. But the pablum 60s cliche she insists on is so determined, it pretty much second-thinks everything. The performances may be full-on and mad skilled - - -Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy and T.V. Carpio particularly - - -but the characters they sing through are so anonymous it all amounts to karaoke. I'm hanging on to my I Am Sam CD, if it's all the same to you. The songs don't tell a different story other than what we already know when we played those records, and therefore serve no story at all outside of its own nostalgic reflex, parsing as little more than robust but unimaginative covers, glorified retro, Sgt. Pepper Redux - - -and no I'm not being snide, I did like Earth Wind & Fire there, also the Steve Martin bit holds up.

And a softheaded pseudo-musical made from Beatles songs that is ultimately about nothing except maybe about singing Beatles songs is something a lot of people might want to tuck under their pillows. And who can blame 'em? We have shut off our brains for far worse pictures anyway. I'd argue for it somehow working as a valentine to the utopian aura of the Beatles' 60s but I'd stick with it being more often than not supernaturally pretty - - -and we're not even talking about Evan Rachel Wood yet. Taymor has a gift for visual pastry and for the times the gift spikes into odd coordinates of transcendence, this can be quite the ecstatic, empty eyeful. The circus folderol of Being for the Benefit of Mr.Kite may make me want to scoop out my eyes with a spoon, ditto the I Want You and Happiness Is A Warm Gun segments and maybe even Come Together, but I still haven't gotten over the underwater ballet set to Because. Nor those beautiful bleeding strawberries.

4.15.2008

BURDEN OF DREAMS

Burden of Dreams (1982)
Directed by Les Blank
Written by Michael Goodwin

Narrated by Maureen Gosling











The crackpot rubber baron Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald (a.k.a. Fitzcarraldo) took the steamship apart in real life, chasing this dream of his : Caruso among the savages, a dream sick with grandiose insanities. Werner Herzog's own sick dream only seems less sick except he was never going to shoot Fitzcarraldo (1982) in some wussy botanical garden with toy boats and Jack Nicholson. It was always Klaus Kinski and his epic tantrums in the veins of the Amazon herself. And he hauled the steamship up a mountain whole, on a 40 degree incline 20 degrees steeper than suicidal.

"I wanted the audience to trust its eyes again", he says now, hindsighting or,who knows, truly prescient about this fear he had back then of digital effects tyrannizing and falsifying the way movies looked and the way we looked at them because . . .well, they did. So much so that on rewatch, not only has that iconic sequence not lost the come-on of spectacle but gains, too, an exotic otherness to the rigor , to the whine and stress of the winches and pulleys. Scorn may have dogged the heels of Fitzcarraldo , some of it as it should, but when they pull that boat up, you can't neglect the way it trembles with this gauche purity.

The guts of the process transfix Blank. But it's in his laying bare the segregated encampments and the makeshift bordellos and the bodies in the mud and the internecine disputes and the aborted scenes like so much throbbing gristle that Burden of Dreams supernovas into more than some banal making-of, into something closer to a tactile contemplating of the schism between two cultures rubbing up against each other but never quite making a mesh. Werner stands on the precipice of another world openly lamenting this culture vanishing before his eyes, these natives in Mickey Mouse Disco shirts- - - "It's a catastrophe and a tragedy that's going on and we are losing riches and riches and riches and we lose cultures and languages and individualities and we're left stark naked in the end and will end up like all the cultures in the world and a universal kind of culture like America." But he is his own Fitzcarraldo here. And he, too, has embarked on a conqueror's folly. He,too, as he calls himself, has become a conquistador of the useless, an intruder who has made an enemy of- - -and fallen in love with- - - all this verdant and beautiful malevolence, all this vile nature, an enemy he never had a hope to quell but he could sometimes outwit - - - if it let him. "The Amazon's an unfinished country, a land God created in anger. A harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." Poison arrows for souvenirs and no getting drunk on the wine they ferment with spit.

Double-bill this with George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalpyse for the spiritual linkages, for the severity of the on-set turmoil edging into the surreal, for the same nutso charge it emits. Apocalypse Now was a set intimate with chaos,too. But Coppolla was not batshit like Herzog and in his grappling with the unfathomable, he was eaten alive and spat out broken: "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." Werner plunged into that jungle battle-readied. He had made his Apocalypse Now seven years before Coppolla with Aguirre Wrath of God. He was a man intimate with chaos. And prone to magnificent obsessions and the mad compulsions to act on them, at one point cooking and eating his shoe in public after losing a bet, and letting someone make a film out of it. He came out of Fitzcarraldo scarred but with a glint in his eye when he says "I shouldn't be making any more movies. I should be taken to an asylum."

Some quarters have upheld the ascendancy of Burden of Dreams over Fitzcarraldo, for hanging better as a piece maybe, which it does. But it doesn't so much supersede as it decodes and deepens, both uncannily symbiotic and separate. Blank directed Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, too. That tiny oddment spoke wryly between its freakshow lines on the impulses and logistics of art. This trawls over the same issues, but in its quintessence of the filmmaker as crackpot and the lengths he will go to when bullied by his sick dreams, it's a vaster and more fucked-up behemoth. It is, to put it one way, tremendously Herzogian.