Closing the Distance

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When I was in India researching "Midsummer Night's Dream," we went to this huge, ice cream picture palace to see a Bollywood movie. Here we were, with 2,000 Indians watching a film in Hindi, and there was the lowest possible comedy and then incredible drama and tragedy, and then (they) break out in songs. And it was three-and-a-half hours! We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi, because we understood everything! We thought it was incredible. How involved the audience were. How uncool they were — how their coolness had been ripped aside, and how they were united in this singular sharing of the story. The thrill of thinking, "Could we ever do that in the West? Could we ever get past that cerebral cool and perceived cool?" — Baz Luhrmann

Musicals have been on my mind lately. I revisited Singin' in the Rain several weeks ago, and in the past few days I've rewatched the 2007 edition of Hairspray and selected moments from Moulin Rouge!. What continues to stand out is the paradoxical tension in the way musicals do increasingly fantastical things as a means of removing emotional artifice from the narrative. Those moments that are the least realistic, that is, least representative of the world we live in — the moments when men and women actually slip into song, or dance, or rearrange reality entirely — are precisely those moments where the characters in question are being most honest with themselves, with each other, and with the viewer. The songs are what allow the characters to say how they really feel, and they almost always do this in exposed, even flowery language.

I wrote about some of this a few years ago, in a piece on Moulin Rouge!:

Against the wall and unable to think, [Christian] begins to recite Elton John’s "Your Song," and the easy devotion of the lyrics fit his character perfectly. But it’s when he lets loose and begins to sing that the scene takes on new life and dimension. There are better songs out there than this one, but what matters in the moment is the honesty of the relationship that’s blooming. Luhrmann makes giant, candy-colored, often surreal-looking films, but he never fakes emotion. Ever. That genuineness comes shining through as Christian sings to Satine, sailing her out onto a cloud and capturing her heart. He returns to her later that night and unleashes a medley of pop songs covering everyone from The Beatles to Kiss to U2 to David Bowie. It’s an amalgam that would be almost laughable if there weren’t so much heart behind it; it’s like Luhrmann is having Christian assemble the ultimate mix tape. [...]

Luhrmann manages to inhabit a space that allows for large-scale filmmaking that still relies on honest emotion, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The film lives for two hours in the tension between losing control and having the courage just to try, just as the narrative itself discovers that every love story is underpinned with loss. By turns comic and tragic, funny and sad, the movie is ultimately concerned with trying to capture as many disparate aspects of love and life as it can, leading to a finale that’s as uplifting and heartbreaking as any Luhrmann could have hoped to create, and he hasn’t topped the film since. "Moulin Rouge!" is a moving tribute to that notion of love constant beyond death, of forgiveness for wrongdoing, and of the belief that the cost of losing love is always worth the risk of searching for it.

In film, as in so many things, it's not just what you say, but how you say it. And Moulin Rouge! says its piece well. Luhrmann stuffs the frame with ideas, and as ostentatious as he is, he's also willing to not call attention to certain images or details, content instead to let the viewer find them or to just let their existence color the experience on a subliminal level. (A nice touch: when Christian's rendition of "Your Song" transitions to a fantasy, his jacket changes to one lined with sequins to catch the moonlight. He's never still long enough for it to be really noticeable — it's more of an atmospheric touch than anything.) Yet the statement works in a different way for the medium: musicals are often saying big, broad, poetic things, and they're doing it through theatrical devices specifically designed to make the performer and viewer more vulnerable. There is no hiding here. It's the opposite of almost every other film form, in which characters often struggle to remain independent or stoic as they experience life and love. This is a genre that practically bleeds through the projector. To watch someone sing and dance with all their heart is to witness something pure, and gentle, and honest in that we don't often see on screen. Giving yourself over to a work of art that does this means allowing yourself to be as vulnerable as the characters, and that's increasingly a difficult thing to do.

What mostly keeps us from engaging with works on this level is the fear of being seen as vulnerable, or being marked as soft. It's not a requirement to like a musical just because it's a musical, of course, just like there's no guarantee a musical is automatically going to be good just by the merit of its genre. But honestly reckoning with something that requires such a high degree of vulnerability from the viewer is hard to do when most of us are used to dealing with things through at least several different layers of ironic posturing. As Christy Wampole wrote in the New York Times in 2012:

As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom? […]

What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

If we find ourselves less willing in general to be honest, to risk being sad or happy in a genuine way — to risk being moved by a work of art, or risk being let down by one — how much harder will it be to give ourselves over to those works that are designed to be especially vulnerable and revealing? If there's nothing more honest than someone singing their heart out, how do we keep ourselves from losing the strength to watch? Romance, musical, family drama: any genre that revolves around (or even touches on) the need for emotional frailty will come to seem foreign, difficult, frightening. Keeping ourselves at a distance from the work is a great way of protecting ourselves, but a lousy way of enjoying something, and of living. Closing that distance is necessary.

That's the danger of the "cerebral cool" or "perceived cool" that Luhrmann fought when creating Moulin Rouge!, and which continues today. It wasn't just a musical, but one about love, and one that used existing pop songs in awkward and endearing fashion to get its point across. Contrast it with something like the 2012 film version of the musical Les Miserables, which is somehow cooler and less resonant. The best I can figure is that that version of Les Miserables feels like it's trying to impress me, whereas other musicals feel like they're unafraid to tell a sweeping story and be a little corny. They put a little more on the line, and it comes through on some deep level I can't explain. But I know that I don't want to give it up, or become immune to it.