The Movie Club

The Year of the Non-Musical Musical

Dear Friends,

The sight of hordes of hooligans braining and disemboweling each other in Gangs of New York did not upset me nearly as much as the casual emotional violence of Lovely & Amazing, which I found hard to watch (though I’m glad that, partly at David’s urging, I belatedly did). There were one or two false moments—it was plausible that Emily Mortimer’s agent would have failed to recognize Catherine Keener 20 minutes after meeting her, but not that she’d say “your sister is a neurotic mess” so baldly, and then walk away—but I’ve never seen a more incisive picture of how vicious people can be when they think they’re being nice. That hostile little chuckle that Keener uses to punctuate every utterance still gives me nightmares. But I must say that, like John C. Reilly, she is at mortal risk of terminal typecasting. She does brittle, smart, self-hating women better than anyone else I can think of, but surely there is more out there for her to do (and certainly no need to waste her time tossing around an inflatable globe in Full Frontal). Just as Reilly needs to show a little more sex appeal, Keener could allow herself a little more warmth. Maybe the solution would be for them to play a happily married, well-adjusted couple raising some cute kids somewhere, until one day something bad but not TOO bad happens, and then at the end they find out what’s really important. Or maybe she could be the vivacious daughter of this loving, nosy cartoon-ethnic family who meets this really great guy, and then …

OK, forget it. Best to let people manage their own careers. I’m glad you brought up music, Sarah, since this was a year of movies that sometimes behaved like musicals without actually being musicals. Not coincidentally, it was also a year of melodrama, whose “melo” comes from the same Greek root that gives us “melody.” Elmer Bernstein’s score for Far From Heaven, like those svelte ‘50s interiors, seemed at once to cushion the characters and to intensify their anguish, and I don’t know how anyone could find that picture cold (as some did) when the soundtrack is such a pure distillation of emotion. You would have to be in a coma not to be moved to tears by Alberto Iglesias’ score for Talk to Her—to say nothing of that Caetano Veloso song in the middle of the movie. And let’s not forget Frida, which would have been 10 times better as a full-fledged musical—Frida!—and whose best moments were the appearances of that amazing Mexican folk singer and Salma Hayek’s tango with Ashley Judd.

But my favorite non-musical musical was probably Punch-Drunk Love, with its inspired use of the Shelley Duvall song from Altman’s Popeye and that scene, near the beginning, in which the camera swirls around poor Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) as his phone rings, his sister nags, forklifts crash through the background, and the love of his life (Emily Watson) stands there blinking her eyes and the drums on the soundtrack get louder and faster and crazier. Not for nothing did that movie have as its metaphorical deus ex machina a broken-down harmonium. It was one of many that took account of how music penetrates people’s lives and how we use it to reflect, communicate, and comprehend our states of feeling and our relations with other people. This was explicit in 8 Mile, of course, and the irrepressible, irresistible Drumline, and implicit just about everywhere else, from The Pianist to Y Tu MamáTambién to Gangs of New York (with those buskers and jug bands on every street corner giving birth to Scorsese’s beloved rock ’n’ roll nearly a century too soon).

To go even further, maybe one of the things that made this such an exciting movie year was that so many movies eagerly and confidently reasserted the medium’s historic prerogative to cannibalize and incorporate other art forms, both narrative and spectacular. Some might complain that this signals a dearth of new or original ideas, but it seems to me that movies have often thrived on thefts, borrowings, and other transactions with literature, theater, music, and dance. At times last year all this transacting was done with a certain degree of self-consciousness, to be sure, but it was also frequently done (Talk to Her being the pre-eminent example) with a generous regard for the audience’s pleasure and emotional fulfillment. So Adaptation was at once a hyper-intellectual meta-meta-meta-disquisition on the instability of narrative logic, the difficulties of representation, and so on, and at the same time antic, hilarious, and oddly touching at the end. We are, it seems, conspiring to postpone a full-scale argument about that ending (which I agree with Roger is logically required, but which I also don’t find all that cynical), and I’m happy, in the spirit of the movie, to join in and defer it until a later time, unless one of us is eaten by an alligator, in which case, oh well.