Tuesday, April 01, 2008

More Damn Irish Charm

Once, Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Written and Directed by John Carney, Bórd Scannán na hÉireann, 2007

I don't much watch romantic films since most of them are terrible shit. Sappy love stories may capture all the giddiness a new relationship brings, but as art or as entertainment, they're truly dreadful affairs. Thinly portrayed, stock characters speaking ludicrous lines against a backdrop of highly improbable events? Give me a zombie flick over that any day.

Luckily for me, I have forgetful friends. This one in particular visited, bringing her recent Netflix acquisitions with her, then leaving and taking a Backyardigans DVD instead of her DVD of Once. She, The Wife, and I had all fallen asleep midway through the other film she'd brought, the John Wayne Irish romance The Quiet Man. Had she popped in this quiet, almost-sleeper of a film, I doubt sleep would have come so quickly.

To begin with, the film is short. At a tight 85 minutes, there is no room for wasted time, frivolous embroidery, or fanciful title sequences. Once gets right into the meat of things with busker Guy (not his name, just his character designation; we never learn his name) performing with guitar in the street, then hustling down the same street in pursuit of a junkie who's snatched his guitar case and his earnings.

The two race down the street for some time before Guy catches him, gets his money back, then tells the addict he'll give him money if he wants, then asks after his ma. It's exactly that kind of film. Hanging over everything is this sense of dread that something bad may happen. The characters exist on this edge of poverty that every little thing has the potential to be a tragedy. I kept expecting someone to steal Guy's guitar, his father's motorbike, or something. When later, Guy meets Girl, a young Czech immigrant who makes a living selling roses in the street, and they forge an unlikely friendship and musical partnership, I fully expected some kind of violent end.

The movie, thankfully, avoids such dreadful typicalness or typical dreadfulness (the kind populating vast swaths of Irish art and literature), instead opting for a very touching kind of realism. The characters are neither particularly good, nor particularly dramatic, their dialog is fairly spare yet still intimately revealing.

What makes Once different in a big way is that it is technically a musical. A modern musical, to be sure, where the songs blend themselves seamlessly into the lives of the characters. Gone are the sudden sweeps into full orchestration and dance numbers of Hollywood's Golden Age (or even of Chicago from not too many years ago). They are replaced by organic uses of songs. When the mood strikes and we need a song, a character will sing in the street with his case open for passersby or in a music shop while trying out an instrument or, in one particularly nice scene, will rob her toddler daughter's piggy bank for change to buy batteries for the CD player and will sing the lyrics she's been writing as she strolls the night streets of Dublin.

The characters share their loneliness, their talents, and their stories, and what makes the film work so well is how honestly things unfold. When Guy tries to convince Girl to come to London with him, she asks if he's ready then to live with her, her daughter, and her mother. Ahh, he says, pulling back. No, that wasn't part of his plan. The film carefully and constantly treads this delicate space where the characters dream of the future only to have reality gently squash their dreaming. They may be poor, they may be lonely, they may (at least temporarily) have each other and their dreams, but the world has limits.

Which is not to say that the film is at all a downer. Partly it is the power of their dreams that fuels Guy and Girl's short-lived adventure and romance and they also lend charm to the tale, but it is the way they navigate toward their dreams without losing sight of the rocky shores of Things As They Are.

Much has been made of the film's shoestring budget and unprofessional pedigree. Funded in part by the Irish government, Once cost only $130,000 to make and was filmed in 17 days, we should consider ourselves lucky to be blessed with such quality film making for such a pittance. I would take as many Once's as you could film for the total budget of the third Spiderman and consider that a good year. A damn good year.


Saw Lady said...

I watched 'Once' a few days ago. A friend lent me the DVD saying I have to watch it because it's about a street performer (and I am one, too). The scene where the busker runs after a guy who stole money from his bag rang very true - I had that happen to me, too, and it ended the same way as in the movie. From there on the movie kept growing on me as it went on.

All the best,

Saw Lady

Kimberly Nichols said...

Isn't it a gem? G & I saw it in the theater last year and were completely charmed. Huge fan.

The duo are touring the US right now. We're going to see them here in MI in May.

The Critic said...

I must add that a recent profile of David Lean by Anthony Lane in the March 31 edition of The New Yorker reminded me of Lean's film Brief Encounter. Were you to describe the film as an Irish musical version of that film, you'd get a fairly decent idea of the pic.