Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Once in a while, a film comes along that holds a power over me I can’t quite describe. Such films tend to deeply influence me as a filmmaker. I think of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Todd Field’s In the Bed Room, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (that’s the original, not the Soderbergh remake, which I admittedly haven’t had the heart to watch yet). These are films that unexpectedly floored me. Some grew on me slowly, and I kept coming back to them and re-watching them because scenes kept getting stuck in my head and playing there in the background of my mind. That was the case with The Thin Red Line, one of the few remakes that is simply astounding, and completely overshadows the original. In other cases, I walked into something I knew nothing of, as is the case with In the Bedroom and Solaris. These films, and many others not mentioned here, reached inside and touched aspects of my personality, my spirituality, that have affected me ever since.
Recently, I watched another such film that truly has played with my mind, my soul, and my perspective on film. John Carney’s Once was an unexpectedly beautiful film. Now, this is not a beautiful film in the traditional sense. In fact, it’s not really a traditional film. As a musical, it breaks new ground. As a romantic drama, it dares to be low budget and gritty in its cinematography. Shot in the same exact format I shoot all my “no budget” films on, Once follows two musicians who find inspiration in their friendship. I found myself wanting to see what makes them tick, to feel with them the emotion so beautifully expressed in their music.

And that’s the trick Carney accomplishes with his approach to Once. He asked that the film be low budget. He chose to shoot digitally due to the advantages of long takes, small cameras, zoom lenses, and the inexpensive shooting format. I know that some will disagree with me, but I find the approach nearly perfect for the story being told. For me, the shooting works so well, I can hardly imagine the film any other way. Due to the hand-held shooting and prosummer HD format, the film teeters between musical drama and documentary. What Carney does so well is make the music truly an integral part of the story. This has always been a point of friction for me as it relates to most musicals. Often the music in a musical ironically feels tacked on to the story, as if the story really could just as easily exist without all these musical interruptions within it. In many ways, every musical ever made wishes it could be Once, in that Once manages to advance character and plot seamlessly with each song, where so many other musicals have to bring character development and plot advancement to a screeching halt just to toss a musical number our way. It helps that Carney chose to cast great musicians for his two leading roles.

This is one of those films impossible to make in Hollywood. It had to be made under the radar. Its simple approach stems from its simple story. But don’t get simple confused with bad. The very simplicity of the story lends it its power. Carney says he could put the whole story of the film on a post card. The characters remain nameless for the film. In a very real sense, we’re supposed to step into their shoes and go from there. This simplicity is transformed into universality. Whether or not you’re a musician, you have most likely faced your own fair share of broken-heartedness and disillusionment. What John Carney gives us is a study of ourselves. And at the same time, the film is also a love letter to the very things that inspire music in the first place. And lets face it, we all need music. It's part of being human.

In light of the more academic discussions I have engaged in lately on this blog, I want to balance that now with a simple request of my readers: Rent Once. Experience it for yourself. See how you react to it. You may or may not fall in love with it as I have. But its characters and music may also unexpectedly move you. Once in a while, a little gem like this comes along. Don’t miss it.

1 comment:

thegreatswalmi said...

wise words, mikel. My wife and I rented Once a few weeks ago, and were blown away. Since then I've picked up the soundtrack and had numerous discussions about the film. I loved it. The pacing was slow and brilliant, and the acting was fantastic. didn't seem forced or difficult, maybe because they were playing "themselves" fairly closely!

On an unrelated note, i'd love to chat sometime about filmmaking. My college group is trying to put together a film themselves, to explore new avenues of faith expression..thought it might be good to talk to someone who knows what he's doing!

peace to indiana,