<= 2001.07.21

2001.07.23 =>


I don't mean to get anyone unduly excited here, but you should know this apartment is so damn hot that I've capitulated and no longer wear a shirt while working at the computer.

The Amish bluegrass festival didn't happen. Instead I went with S. & A. Marlowe to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which had a lot of Grant Wood (famous for American Gothic) and Wood's pal Marvin Cone. The last few, abstract paintings in the list are particular favorites. S. Marlowe digs "Rakish Steps." They also had a couple of Abraham Walkowitz's paintings of the dancer Isadora Duncan: these particular pieces don't seem to be anywhere online, which is a shame. One is bright orange, one is bright blue, and they're kinetic.

In the evening we met Fred and Kelly and went to see Moulin Rouge, which I don't think succeeded, but was interesting enough to spend some time on. The film was essentially a 100-minute music video, with the same first-rate editing and production design, and the same shallowness of plot and character, that you get in a 4 min. 30 sec. MTV clip. The musical numbers take up most of the film's time and all of its energy, so that the story becomes filler, an excuse for the songs and a framework to attach them to, which should be got through as quickly as possible. All of the usual epic plot elements are there: a doomed romance, rich versus poor, high ideals versus harsh reality, but Moulin Rouge treats them so sketchily that we barely have time to identify them before another song begins. The film purposely employs a story as overused and familiar as possible, so that all of the audience's attention is free to enjoy the elaborate set pieces.

Camp films also use this strategy, often to great effect. Army of Darkness gleefully exhumed every horror-movie cliché of the previous thirty years and used them as a backdrop for Bruce Campbell's one-liners and inane, inspired action sequences. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut also got the absurd pretentions of the average musical pitch-perfect. The standard m.o. is to borrow older tropes with a wink and then slyly invert them, and when Moulin Rouge is content simply to be funny—as in the set piece where the duke chases the bridal-veil-wearing impresario around the boudoir to the strains of "Like A Virgin"—it's a blast. The problem is that the movie appears to think it's conveying a serious message about love, which is ludicrous given its format.

The film's director has said that he hopes to revive the movie musical, and in a well-written musical the songs can function as a sort of mainline to the emotions, performing the character development that the dialogue lacks. But the songs in Moulin Rouge, as everyone knows, are a mélange of pop hits from the last thirty years. Once again, technically nothing can be faulted; it's fascinating to hear "Diamonds are a Girl's Friend" seamlessly meshed with "Material Girl" over a big-band horn arrangement and sampled backbeat. And sometimes the choice of song makes a nice satiric point; to see men in top hats leering and shouting "Here we are now, entertain us" suggests that the pleasure-seeking class of the 1890s was just as disaffected and vapid as Cobain's audience of the 1990s. (This is assuming the point hasn't been driven home by the fact that everyone keeps yelling "End of a century!") But when the songs attempt to do serious character work—especially in the love story—the results are incongruous and flat. The thrill of the film's idiosyncratic presentation lasts about fifteen minutes, and after that it becomes apparent that while this style bespeaks flawless technical mastery, it's hopeless at conveying emotion.

The aesthetic of collage has a noble precedent, and given the film's time period it's even possible that the filmmakers had some of the experiments of modernism in mind. But modernist collage à la The Waste Land was meant to convey disorientation, fragmentation and terror; it communicated to the audience of 1922 that the totality of Western culture lay in shards around them. Collage doesn't have the same effect on pop songs, since by and large their sentiments are already interchangeable, and when Moulin Rouge does appropriate a song with some depth—e.g., U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)"—it immediately steamrollers all the depth out of it, so that the words retain no meaning beyond the literal. No one in the audience was thinking of Martin Luther King when that song came on, I don't think. The mixtures were sometimes clever but never moving, and in the end I just felt pandered to.

All done. Time to shower.


<= 2001.07.21

2001.07.23 =>

up (2001.07)

The Warm South
The Roof Rat Review