Once: For me, Once is one too many
I wonder if the recent success of Once, a slight new independent film from Ireland, was due to the serious moviegoers’s starvation diet: denied depth, charm, and organic believability in their film menu, they’re willing to gorge on the empty calories of a movie dressed up as handmade art. I guess audiences looking for something with a hint of originality were willing to embrace a small, grungy looking relationship drama with hardly any drama, barely intelligible dialogue, and a decisive lack of both star wattage and regular, you know, electrical wattage. This movie, lit entirely with desk lamps, couldn’t make Dublin look less inviting unless it coated the town in chimney dust.
Once, directed by the first-timer John Carney, was an audience hit at Sundance, a label that is usually the kiss of art-house death for these wan, contrived little navel-gazers. The movie is about a Dublin busker and a Czech flower seller who hustle up a backing band and a bank loan in order to produce a CD of the busker’s music. They dance around their feelings for each other, since both are semi-involved in other relationships, and their scenes together have a naturalism that is quite different from the strained, frenetic montages that pass for courtship in studio-driven movies. There are two or three wonderful scenes of music being created on the spot, and one remarkable sequence of a makeshift jam at a house full of beer, food, and Dubliners with great voices and plenty of instruments. These are the moments when Once does indeed exhibit considerable freshness, but they are hardly enough to sustain what is otherwise an undernourished plot.
For some, the picture’s main liability could be the music, the kind of singer-songwriter folk-pop infused with opaque metaphors and sung in a high, whining key more suitable for showers than recording studios. There isn’t one hummable tune on the whole soundtrack, which is unfortunate for a movie whose main character expresses himself mostly through his lyrics.
I certainly respect the simple means of a film like Once, and maybe the people who made it and star in it are as equally baffled by its critical and commercial success as I am. But the movie made me wonder how many people in the audience remember the films of John Cassavettes, who made low-budget, low-lit, hand held films about real-time relationships that were devastating in their intensity and depth; or the early great relationship comedies of Woody Allen, movies in which—like Once—two unlikely people would come together and with wit, intelligence, and sophistication enlighten, entertain, and leave us walking out a theater feeling as though something shifted in our own perceptions of love and life.
Once just left me wondering two things: why someone in the crew didn’t pull back a curtain to let a little light in and who in the world would ever buy this guy’s record