Archive for Dancer in the Dark

They Call It Puppet Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2021 by dcairns

We enjoyed ANNETTE, with reservations.

I certainly liked it better than the last arthouse musical I can recall seeing, DANCER IN THE DARK. Though it has a slight echo of Von Trier, in its literal-mindedness. The characters sing a song to say the show is starting. They sing a song about how much they’re in love. They sing a song saying they hope we enjoyed the show. And the dialogue/lyrics often have a slightly leaden, awkward quality, as if written by someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language. But the Mael brothers, who wrote it, are American, so is it purely director Leos Carax’s influence making strange, or just the fact that they’re not experienced screenwriters? Probably the latter.

The Maels have written an opera, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and they were UCLA film students, so this isn’t all completely new to them. They also scored a Jean-Claude Van Damme action film, KNOCK-OFF. And some of the clunk has charm, particularly the intro and outro songs (stay through the end credits).

As the film got off to its slow start, I wondered if it had been really wise to make the protagonist/anti-hero (Adam Driver) a stand-up comedian. We get quite a lengthy set from him, and what I was wondering all through it was, Is this meant to be funny? It wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t — arguably the idea is to satirise edgy stand-up — the problem is the tone and intent aren’t clear. There’s a second routine, later in the story, which flops with the audience and is therefore easier to take — this is NOT meant to be funny, but it does contain some terrific stagecraft: Driver, speaking of death, lies flat on the stage, cruciform, laying his mic on his chest, and we hear his heartbeat. Stuff like that.

Anyway the first act felt LOOONG but there are some lovely visuals, mostly associated with Marion Cotillard’s character’s career as an opera singer. A scene of Driver driving and being tormented by visions from various operas kicks things up several notches. And it’s amusing how, in this film, characters sing while having sex, going to the toilet, giving birth. Then Driver’s character starts shedding all claims on our sympathy, and the plot runs through echoes of the Natalie Wood story and The Tell-Tale Heart (Carax thanks E.A. Poe in the end credits, but spells his name “Edgard” — in a way, that kind of idiosyncratic mistake is cheering in today’s era of machine-tooled cinema).

Sparks/the Maels are expressive and quirky lyricists, but not here. I’m guessing the pressure of having to create songs tied to a narrative has constrained their invention. But then why did the moments that seemed most plotty — the birth scene, and the police interrogation, for instance, give me the most musical pleasure? I think it’s because they each involve a little crowd of additional characters — so they bring in some exciting harmonies, and they don’t depend on Driver’s voice. Driver can sing, and he can sing emotionally — he really gives a dramatic performance while singing, which a lot of better singers can’t do, but his limited strength stops the music taking flight. On the other hand, he’s also a producer on the film and it’s doubtful we would have it if not for his input.

I don’t want to sound too down on the film — visually and musically, if not so much lyrically, it’s often extraordinary. And I enjoyed being back at Filmhouse. Didn’t enjoy the subtitles for the hard of hearing and couldn’t work out why they were there (are a lot of deaf people seeing this musical? If it was felt the lyrics needed help, OK I guess, but the sound effects didn’t need help).

Cotillard is strong, but the best perfs are Simon Helberg and singing sprog Devyn McDowall, a real prodigy. Of course they have the benefit of not having to carry the whole film, they breeze in like pint-sized breaths of fresh air, and in a film that’s almost entirely sung, you really need all the oxygen you can get.

See it, maybe not expecting perfection, and you should get something of value out of it.

What’s “Diegetic”?

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on August 6, 2016 by dcairns

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Richard Brody was very kind about yesterday’s post, written after his tweet about the great dance scene in PHFFFT inspired us to watch the movie. But since then, more than one person has asked me to define the word “diegetic.”

In film criticism, diegetic refers to things which are part of the world of the movie, like the music coming from a radio in a scene. Whereas non-diegetic refers to things like the film’s score, which is imposed on the action from somewhere outside the characters’ reality. We can hear it but they can’t.

(However, in my most recent watch, Arthur Penn’s THE CHASE, the main theme of John Barry’s splendidly bombastic, rambunctious score gets taken up by the little tune whistled by Jane Fonda, James Fox and Robert Redford as a secret code signal, raising the fascinating possibility that their characters CAN hear the film score — it’s loud enough, heaven knows — and have cribbed from it.)

So what does Brody mean by a diegetic dance sequence? One that is really occurring in the world of the film, as in PHFFFT, where Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday have both been taking rumba lessons and attempt to show off what they’re learned on the dance floor of a New York night club. This implies that other dance numbers are non-diegetic. This might certainly apply to the would-be showstoppers in Lars Von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK, which are explicitly positioned as fantasy sequences (because Lars treats us like idiots, he has Bjork EXPLAIN first of all that she likes to imagine musical numbers while working in the factory, and then he shows this happen). I would call this a fantasy sequence rather than a non-diegetic one. It seems to me that it’s coming from the world of the film, since Bjork’s imagination is within the film.

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In SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, are the dances diegetic? Clearly, those which represent musical numbers in films in which Gene Kelly’s character is appearing are diegetic as heck. But is Singin’ in the Rain itself diegetic? I would allow that the opening title rendition is gloriously non-diegetic — our three principles splash about in raincoats in a featureless set composed of pure Technicolor and rain machine rain, completely disconnected from the plot and before two of them have even met. In this respect, the title sequence is like many, many other title sequences, whether we’re talking GOLDFINGER or THE PINK PANTHER — the action portrayed is abstract and not part of the story or the characters’ reality.

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But most of the numbers are, I would say, diegetic. When Gene Kelly dances down the street with a happy refrain, he is witnessed by a policeman as he dances. If you can’t trust a cop, who can you trust? (It would be interesting, however, to imagine that Gene isn’t singing and dancing and then ask, What is the cop reacting to? A man flailing about in puddles, grunting and yodeling? I personally would pay to see that, but I’m not sure it would be wise to base an entire genre on such spectacle.)

The singing and dancing in these sequences — Good Mornin’ is another good example — is certainly happening as a somewhat stylised form of reality. Arguably even more stylised than the studio confection that is the rest of the film. And we have to admit that the musical score here is non-diegetic. But the characters’ ability to apparently make up great lyrics on the spot, and harmonize perfectly, and pick up from each others’ lines in a manner that rhymes and fits the melody, is diegetic. It’s just really, really unrealistic. Life isn’t like that. Sadly.

If you have any more bits of film criticism terminology you want explained, I’m here to help!

Here come the waterworks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2011 by dcairns

What the hell is wrong with me? I never used to cry all the time — well, I was a crybaby kid up to the age of about 16, but that was bawling for entirely selfish reasons. I fell down, grazed a knee, wanted attention. Eventually got that under control — if you’re bullied at school, you don’t also want to be a hysteric — and didn’t cry once until the age of about 28, in which I had a dream my mother died and woke up teary. Floodgates opened? I then became somebody who might blink furiously at a moment of high emotion, suppressing the urge to blub with manly dignity — actual weeping was still practically unheard of.

But lately I’ve been more and more a soft target for sentiment — this was brought home to me spectacularly when I screened THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK for students. Now, Sturges uses schmaltz almost shamelessly, that is he ladles it on with barefaced cheek, but he also peppers it with humour, declaring that he’s really above that sort of thing. When I first discovered his work, I felt like he was making fun of the sentimentality of Hollywood movies, and I was completely with him on that. Any set-up to a moment of emotion in a Sturges film is likely to be savagely punctured by the pinprick of laughter.

There are exceptions in the noirish crime stuff in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the social conscience stuff in that same picture (a social conscience film parodying the impulse to make social conscience films), and certainly in the screenplay of REMEMBER THE NIGHT, maybe my favourite Christmas film, and THE GREAT MOMENT, but neither of those were executed by Sturges alone: the first was directed by the great Mitchell Leisen, who was compelled to shorten Sturges’ script, and the second was subject to egregious studio interference by Paramount boss Buddy DeSylva, whose talents as songwriter did not transfer to his productorial or narrative activities.

I still feel that, in a major sense, Sturges’ use of pathos is all part of the set of tricks he uses to bum-steer the audience before hitting them with gags. And yet there I was, blinking back great salty globules of eye-water as Trudy Kockenlocker and Norval Jones are brought together by an outrageous narrative contrivance which ought to achieve the heights of Brechtian alienation by virtue of its sheer implausibility.

It’s a very real problem. If this goes on, I may require a Perrier drip just to stop me dehydrating from the leaking of clown-spray eyeballs. A dog-weepie like the terrific DEAN SPANLEY would make me shrivel to Angelo Rossetti size, a wailing wrinkled dwarf saved from complete desiccation only by the fact that I would be unable to see over the heads of anybody in front of me in the cinema. If I attempted to watch Jack Clayton’s sublime THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE again, I would probably dry up and blow away like so much dandruff. As it is, handkerchiefs may soon become hopelessly inadequate, as if one stood in the path of a bursting damn or DeMille’s Red Sea, holding up a tiny swatch of fabric before the tidal onslaught. I would need to carry a couple of buckets everywhere to wring my face out into. Or attach suction pumps to my tear ducts to drain off the excess fluid into a plastic bag strapped to my leg, maybe. Perhaps a Fremen stillsuit, as modeled by Kyle MacLachlan in DUNE, would be the ultimate answer.

Can you see me in one of these?

What’s more worrying about this than the idea of evaporating mid-sniffle is what it may do to my critical acumen, such as it is. It seems to be quite hard to take against a movie that makes you cry, and if all movies make you cry, where are you? I’ve had conversations with people who cried at DANCER IN THE DARK, and they seemed to think that proved it was a good movie, or at least suggested that it might be. I wanted to say, Your emotion is real, you had a genuine emotional experience, and I don’t intend to belittle it. But that movie is a turd, a giant unspeakable shit, as thick as a kettle, taking 140 minutes to emerge into the light, unspooling on the floor in great drooping coils, hissing noxiously to itself the while, reeking of effluent and paraffin. No wonder your eyes watered. But I didn’t say that.

I felt coolly superior to those saps then. Not anymore. Not anymore.