Summer's end is near, and I still haven't seen all those big movies everyone was talking about: Spidey, Shrek, Fantastic Four, Pirates, all the big ones. And I feel terribly, because these movies have had such a profound influence on the culture that I felt left out of the national conversation. The entire summer passed, and while I was busy with such absurd projects such as reading and writing, I missed out on the tremendous interest these movies piqued regarding where we stand as a nation, love, death, and the fruitless search for meaning in the world. Damn.
But what? What is that you say? It's been only two months since the blockbuster season kicked off and these movies are already....forgotten? No, I don't believe it! But all the hype, and the money, and the advertising? Surely the major studios would put their efforts into something more permanent; after all, how can 90 minutes in a movie theater be such a fleeting experience? This is Hollywood after all, the place of dreams, not some vacuous corporate division that churns out pure shit primarily meant to make money in the overseas market...right?
Yeah, right. Well, fortunately, I did catch two films at the end of the summer season that will likely resonate beyond the trip to the parking garage.
I was initially skeptical of seeing this "musical" about a guy, his guitar, and the woman who inspires him; mostly because I hadn't liked fans of the band The Frames, whose lead singer Glen Hansard, stars as the guy. The fans were kind of dorky, and liked stuff like Dave, and The Shins, and I figured them to be a sort of mildly interesting band that could get middle aged people who liked Friends to shuffle around for a few hours. And it was going to be set in oh-so-hip Dublin, the new gathering place for young Americans and Europeans with lots of spare capital looking for the hot new thing. And the movie received a ridiculously high 97% fresh rating, meaning it didn't piss anyone off.
But, as per usual, my knee-jerk prejudices failed me, and Once turned out to be a lovely and charming story, which even the most heard-hearted critic would have to love. The story is simple: Hansard plays a street musician who also repairs vacuum cleaners, and one day he meets a charming girl from Poland selling flowers in the street. She also happens to play piano, and the remainder of the movie traces their professional and personal development, culminating in a weekend spent recording a demo tape.
There are so many ways this story could have gone wrong, like making Hansard too dumpy and sad, or the girl (Markéta Irglová) annoyingly cheery, or worse, like so many recent movies, the guy's savior. Instead, director John Carney centers the movie around the wonderful and mystical creative powers in music, and in several gripping scenes, depicts how a song can move from a few simple chord progressions to an opus. Similarly, you see (and feel!) the transforming powers of music on the soul. I don't know what I would think of these songs if I had heard them on the radio, or in the background of some TV drama montage, but seeing them built from the ground up is incredible.
This was supposed to be the big one, the one summer movie I had followed all year. This was Herzog, with the full power of Hollywood actors and production values. This was Bale, an actor of tremendous depth, in the career of a lifetime. This was, well, this was a pretty good, but not great, movie.
While I think Herzog has made better feature films (Aguire, Fitzcaraldo), Rescue Dawn has convinced me that Herzog is best when two things happen: 1) he makes a documentary and 2) he appears in the film himself.
While the movie and story are told at a good pace, and all of the scenes well acted, there was never a moment of pure transcendence here, where Herzog completely rips you out of the present state and alters your mindset: in Grizzly Man, you have the bears encroaching on Timothy Treadwell; in The White Diamond, there is the scene of the bats flying into the cavern; in The Wild Blue Yonder, it is the shots of a desolate planet and the recording of Tuvan throat singers. Despite the levels of heroics displayed by Bale's Dieter, there is nothing in the imprisonment, or escape, that rivals these moments.
And despite Herzog's choice of bizarre subjects, none are ever as interesting as the man himself. This may seem to be the indication of a megalomaniac, or that art suffers at the alter of personality, but I think Herzog may be on the path to cementing himself strongly as the best anti-post modernist director on the planet. While other directors try to hide their mark, or to try to convince you that what you are seeing is real, Herzog proudly admits that his work (even his documentaries) are fiction (see the recent profiles in the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker) and that the audience, and the art, will be better off knowing this. By removing the distance between creator and created, Herzog embraces, and at the same time, eradicates, the postmodern critique of authorship. I'm not sure about "l'Auteur", but I'm pretty sure that when it comes to Herzog, the director is not dead.