by Jason T. Hams
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There’s a little rumor going around that Once is the first great movie of the year. This is erroneous for two reasons, the first being that 2007 has already seen Zodiac, The Host, Knocked Up and even the Oscar-winning foreign-language film The Lives of Others enter release with varied fanfare. All of which, especially Fincher’s unceremoniously ignored Zodiac, are exceptional pieces of work. More so than that reason, Once just isn’t a great movie, and at times isn’t really a good movie.
Right now, Once is in the process of becoming the hipster romance of the decade, a kitchen sink musical whose champions are becoming as rabid and incessant in their patronage as Moulin Rouge! saw some six years. Neither Moulin Rouge! nor Once are as strong as their parts, and neither film’s champions are capable of accepting this. You will hear: “But it’s the spirit of the thing! The feeling the overall whole evokes! I left feeling so good! I bought the soundtrack immediately and it hasn’t left my car!” As for the latter claim, I hope I don’t have to accept any rides from you anytime soon.
Emotional evocation is simply bland platitude without cerebral embrace, or at the very least acceptance. Half of your brain may be willing to run with Once all the way, and why not? It’s about the achingly tender romance between a lovelorn troubadour and a cobblestone rose salesgirl on the streets of Ireland. Speaking on behalf of myself, subjectively there’s nothing here for me not to swoon over. And yet, the other half of my brain resisted Once for just that reason. I felt as if I had written and directed this film, and was just embarrassed to even admit to putting it out there. My friend Dowd pointed out that this is a film you can steal lunch money from.
I am partial to The Holy Meet Cute-as-Film Package, the films of Rohmer and Truffaut, your Before Sunrises, your Before Sunsets, your Shop Around the Corners. Even the platonic aches of Brief Encounter, In the Mood for Love, and countless others depictions of love at an unhealthy distance. I want to go to the movies and fall in love. I am cynical about the state of film, but eternally optimistic about the communion of watching film, which is why I am down with the movie romance and the movie musical. Both Once’s romance and music are awkward, precious, trembling things, so easy to sneer at that, when pulled off, it’s quite a feat. Once is more than that: not content to be gloriously romantic and musical, it also attempts to be the first truly Dogme-style musical. Whereas Dancer in the Dark indulged in choral singers and film stock sequences, Once is Dogme in visual aesthetic and spirit. All songs are ingrained in the narrative; they are not used to forward the film anymore than they would in life. Characters simply share music with each other, often to transcendent results.
The film opens with Glen Hansard’s “Guy” playing for coins midday on the streets of Dublin, and in a bit of Spike Jonze-ian voyeurism as the camera watches from a distance, “Guy” is robbed by an old mate. He catches up with him, they talk it out, and “Guy” ends up giving him money. This opening sequence serves to both introduce us to the over-whelming decency of “Guy,” as well as introduce us to the film’s fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, and serve as a delightful bit of mischief that I cannot really do justice in words. I wish the rest of the film was this easygoing and loose. Writer/director John Carney has a decent grasp on how to utilize digital cinematography well enough, and the following sequence shows it. From a distance, “Guy” plays his motherfucking soul out in the middle of the night as the camera slowly moves in through the entire song to a close up, only to move back out to OTS reveal “Girl” (Markéta Irglova), a Czech immigrant who begins a twenty questions scenario about who his song is for.
I will now acknowledge that, yes, this is a movie about a Guy and a Girl, known simply as “Guy” and “Girl.” In and of itself, this knowing namelessness is not necessarily cloying beyond the point of redemption, but the entire film takes a cue from their non-entities. Guy works in a Hoover Vacuum store. Girl plays piano but cannot afford one. Guy yearns for his girlfriend in London. Girl’s husband is estranged from her. Guy comes onto Girl with the romantic tact of a 13 year old. Girl believes in Guy and they go into a recording studio together. Guy lives with his father. Girl lives with her daughter and mother. Guy and Girl sing their hearts out to each other in ballads that you will hear in Starbucks stores for months and months to come. And they do so with what can only be a notch or two above a MiniDV cam mere feet away from them.
Let it be said that Hansard (founder of The Frames) puts on a hell of a good show, both in his sweetly yearning performance and in his electric wail of a singing voice. He sells the shit out of these cloying songs. The same can’t be said for Irglova who, while a solid singer as well, is simply too passive a screen presence to match Hansard. They both recorded their songs together and let it be known that when Guy teaches Girl to play “Falling Slowly,” it’s a jam session that feels both spontaneous and classically musical. Once cannily skirts the edge of the musical and the earthy, and yet it feels so aware of itself that the result can be a little off-putting if intermittently lifting. At its most indulgent, Guy sits on his bed playing songs as Carney cuts to photos of his ex-girlfriend, home movie footage of his ex-girlfriend, and him calling his ex-girlfriend. For minutes. Minutes of end of aching pining until fucking hands across America.
And yet for all my resistance, shitting on Once is too easy and rather wrong. This is a hipster musical that touches on something fairly deftly that I wish there were more of: the visceral sensation of falling in love eternal in a dark room with soda and popcorn. For that, and for embodying the spirit of genuinely shoestring indie filmmaking (less than one hundred fifteen thousand dollars!), my hat’s off. I recommend Once with the caveat that it will be seen as either the most glorious movie in years, or the gayest thing you’ve ever seen.
Jason T. Hams is a film reviewer and filmmaker living in Chicago.
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