February 17th, 2009

Rose-coloured Reviews *Once*

It seems small and petty to complain about random coincidences. Yet, small and petty as I am, I did wish that the year prior to my book being published, there hadn’t been a a major motion picture that everybody loved with the exact same title. Indeed, one of the (many) great joys of my little book gaining a little fame is that, when someone asks me the title and I tell them, *sometimes* they say they’ve heard of it or they’ve read a review, rather than, “Oh, like that Irish move?” Someone once even asked me if I was writing a novelization of the film (no, but is that gig still available?)

It was a similar pettiness that prevented me from seeing the film for over a year, but now I have and I’m feeling a lot better, because the other On(c)e is nearly as good as everyone says it is, and it’s pretty clearly a different animal from my book. *Once* the movie is about a Dublin street guitarist/vacuum-cleaner repairer with a broken heart, and the Czech flower-seller/pianist who inspires him with her love for music: his, Mendelssohn’s, her own.

Music is the core of this movie–when our stars plays as song, they play the whole of it, and we get to see them work through ideas, chord patterns, melodies and lyrics to make some of the music from scratch. It’s interesting to me that most of the blurbs and press on this film call it a “musical”–to me, the songs in a musical replace dialogue and are non-diagetic–the characters don’t acknowledge that they are singing, and the accompanying instruments are not on-stage.

To me, *Once* is not a musical; it is a movie about music, the same way *The Thin Red Line* is a movie about war and *Bring It On* is a movie about cheerleading. All the songs are sung by characters as songs, though of course as well-written and subtle a movie as this allows their emotions about each others to creep into the song lyrics. And all instrumentation is diagetic, too–there is a truly great scene where the girl is challenged to come up with lyrics for the guy’s music, and wanders the streets singing possibilities over the tune in her discman.

The music is amazing, and when people get done telling me that at least my book has a great name, they usually tell me that the songs in the film are what they remember. It is a true joy to get to hear these pieces in their entirety, and the music resonates more and more when a song recurs in the film, and the lyrics resonate with where you heard them last time and what’s happened since. These are the highest elevation of gentle acoustic rock, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I wound up buying the soundtrack.

If I were to write a novelization of this film, I couldn’t include the music and so, I think, that book would be about 20 pages long–not a lot happens in *Once* other than music, chat, and pitch-perfect awkwardness between two people who like each other but have a lot of problems. I have to admit, I’m stunned at how universally, unequivocally positive all the reviews are, since I myself quite liked the movie, but I was a little bored.

It’s less than 90 minutes, and all the characters are charming, but there’s little conflict and not a lot of action. There is a simple truth to the film–the characters have zero money and a fair amount of sorrow in their lives, and yet they are kind to their families, hopeful for their futures, passionate about their art. And they ride busses and carry courier bags (their is a spectactular frolic on the beach where everyone has their courier bag firm strapped to their torsos–that is my romantic urban fantasy!) *Once* makes the streets of Dublin look both quotidian and sunlit magical, but there’s a lot of sitting around, fiddling with guitar strings, making conversation.

A film–a popular film–at such a leisured pace is something of an achievement, and maybe it’s only my Hollywooden mind making me yearn for someone to make a bold gesture or statement. Another problem I had with *Once* that’s likely limited to me is that I had a terrible time with the accents–I actually missed a good bit of dialogue because of it. I kept thinking I was not making out the main characters’ names, and was relieved when I got to the end credits to find them simply billed as “Guy” and “Girl.” And that, too, is an achievement–the filmmakers make us (well, me) care about these characters while giving us only the sketchiest of backstories and not even names to hang our care on. And if you’re me, with 30% less dialogue, too.

And the ending, the ending blew me away because that just doesn’t happen in American films, and it was both genuinely moving and genuinely true to how human beings are. So, though I was a little bored at times, and a little confused at others, I have to give the other On(c)e the A grade, and concede that, if I have to share the name, this is a film worth sharing with.

Get out of bed / you little sleepyhead

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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