By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Once,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]
Even before I’d seen “Once,” the tiny Irish musical that could, it was apparent that those who had seen it and loved it which was all of them constituted a kind of epiphanic tribe, attempting unconfidently to communicate to the rest of us their magical experience. Once I saw it, I helplessly joined their frustrated company and word of mouth, handicapped by “just go” inexpressiveness, has kept the film in theaters for seven lovely months (so far, amounting to a roughly 100-to-one profit-to-budget ratio). Of course, John Carney’s modest movie can suffer as any movie could from the toxicity of hype surplus, which may be one of the reasons why articulation of “Once”‘s pleasures has been so difficult. The other reasons, I suspect, have something to do with “Once”‘s essential sincerity, unvarnished simplicity and basic movieness why else have people been drawn to cinema since 1890, if not for the empathic connection for fellow humans and bearing witness to their expressive dramas?
“Once” is nothing more than a romance-that-never-happened idyll, set in Dublin and taking place entirely between an itinerant busker (full-time folk rocker Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (real-life folkie Markéta Irglová) as they meet and, simply, begin to make music. Of course, Hansard’s keening, aching songs (several of which were culled from his years as front man to The Frames, of which Carney was also a member) work their peculiar magic, and Hansard sings them with selfless passion. But what makes this aspect of “Once” so powerful is the songs’ context: Hansard’s earnest, nameless street musician is, under his friendly surface, virtually boiling with grief over the betrayal and loss of his girlfriend, now in London. He only expresses himself in the songs, and once they begin to explode into such naked wailing, it’s hard to imagine any viewer remaining untrammeled by their visceral thrust.
In conjunction with that, there’s Irglová playing a completely disingenuous single mom with an errant husband, and her rapport with Hansard comes so easily that while neither can embrace the other, the film plays much like the “In the Mood for Love” of folkie indies. Its grown-up assumptions about adult behavior and history are bracing. (No one in the film resembles a stock dramatic character even Hansard’s gruff vacuum shop “da” is revealed to be matter-of-factly gracious and generous, introvertedly bowled over by his son’s first effort at recording). It may be a film that’s impossible to dislike, despite the fact that it’s formally and visually the cruddiest movie released to American screens since “Chuck & Buck.” But like Miguel Arteta’s film, it hardly mattered the honest glimpse of lost humanity did the work. It’s also, for what it’s worth, a perfect answer to the question of what happened to the musical. Instead of attempting to reconstitute the naïve tropes of the ’30s-’60s musicals, tropes which were themselves leftover constructions from vaudeville or fall into the camp abyss, “Once” integrates the songs into the action realistically with not only the timeworn but sensible let’s-put-on-a-show numbers, but also otherwise as with the exquisite long traveling shot of Irglová walking home at night listening to one of Hansard’s lyricless tunes on earphones and singing her own words to it as she goes. Everyone will have a personal reaction to the film, and everyone will respond from their stomachs to different moments, but I’ll say this: the first impromptu of Hansard’s “Falling Slowly,” pieced together by the two musicians in a piano store, convulsed me and may be the most transportive moment I’ve had at the movies since I can’t remember when. There, I’ve overhyped it.
Hype is as hype does: We’re well into election season these days, although it’s not even the election year yet, and for this, political documentaries are an essential antidote. Indeed, what could deflate the rhetoric and posturing quicker than film visions of past campaigns, successful or failed, and the sight of long forgotten pasty-faced aging white men in white shorts and ties struggling to convince everyone they meet that they’re not weaselly goldbrickers? No film does this as concisely as Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway’s “Feed” (1992), a found footage portrait of the 1991 campaign circus, in and around the New Hampshire primaries, that eventually led to Bill Clinton’s party nomination and presidency.
The primary visual tool at work here is the satellite feed, the video footage sent out to the networks (and therefore out into space, only to be captured by satellite geeks) during the unbroadcast moments of the candidates Clinton, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, George H.W. Bush, Bob Kerrey combing their hair, making lame jokes, picking their noses, chatting inanely with makeup people, and often sitting and doing nothing at all. The upshot is access to precious visions of our ostensible leaders, whose political machines work so hard to exalt them as leaders, as little more than opportunists, showbiz canards and empty-headed buffoons. The film goes a certain way towards demonstrating that, in many ways, Bush II is something of a culmination of tendencies in American politics one could only dream about what his stray satellite footage looked like, and the measures taken somewhere to prevent it from reaching public eyes. Rafferty and Ridgeway fill out the movie with public appearance footage of all kinds, much of which, 15 years later, has its own lessons to tell about the catastrophic distance between why we elect certain types of men to office (and what types of men want to be), and exactly what the job might require. A few years from now, when it’s not profitable news but appalling history, the Obama-Clinton-Guiliani-Romney-Huckabee-etc. carnival will offer the same sort of spectacle.
“Once” (Fox Searchlight) will be available on December 18th; “Feed” (First Run Features) is now available on DVD.