We went to see Once yesterday, and I came to an annoying realization.
First off, let’s get this out of the way: go see this movie right now. I guess it’s a musical, in that a huge portion of the film is conducted in song and that the music is essentially integrated into the narrative. The story is at once deftly simple and richly complex, and if you were unable to understand a single word of the dialogue you’d still get it. Completely. Rarely have I seen a film with quite this much pure heart. A+. Five stars. Run, don’t walk.
Now, to the bigger issue. As I watched this magnificent film, I kept waiting for the “something bad happens.” There was no substantive reason why something bad would happen – no reason to suspect that the van coming down the street behind the girl would suddenly veer to the curb and several thugs would jump out and haul her screaming into the back. No reason to think that the men hanging around on the stoop outside her apartment would hurt her. No reason to think that when they get on his dad’s motorcycle to head down to the beach that they might wreck. None at all.
But at several points in the movie these ominous thoughts intruded on my ability to track the narrative. I was invested enough in the characters, in the story, in the music, that these thoughts tightened my chest. You’ve been to movies – you know the feeling I’m talking about here. Foreboding. Doom. Manufactured anxiety. However, none of this was seeded by the movie itself. So where was it coming from?
After the movie it hit me. It Came From Hollywood! I’ve seen so many damned Hollywood films that the formula has infected me, imposing itself and exerting irrelevant expectations everytime I enter a theater. We all know the formula, even if we don’t know that we know it. In a certain type of film, at a certain point in the story, we expect a personal tragedy. 55 minutes into another genre we expect a car chase. Toward the end of yet another genre we know that she’ll leave the faithful, steady accountant (played inevitably by Bill Pullman) for the handsome, romantic interloper. Her soulmate. Her True LoveÂ®. And we know the camera won’t linger too long on the jilted lover – secretly, deep down, he’s happy for her, just like we are. He’ll be just fine.
In a way, this should be obvious enough – we create, and are in turn shaped by our creations. Great artists alter the landscape of what is possible, and since we’re all descended from monkeys we can’t help imitating. Admit it – when somebody says something shocking to you, your response is, to some degree, modeled on how a TV or movie character you’ve seen responded to a similarly shocking revelation. In your head, you’re the star of a formulaic sitcom or romantic drama or whatever genre is called for at the moment. Stand in front of a mirror and run through your expressive repertoire – how much of it is real, and how much of it is Hollywood?
Does art imitate life, or is it as Wilde said, that life imitates art? Some years back Jim Booth and I concluded that life imitates television, and that may be the saddest fact of all. But at least it’s tolerable if the effect is invisible – ignorance being bliss and all. But yesterday wasn’t the first time lately that I’ve noticed an impending and misplaced dread while watching a constructed narrative. I never stopped to examine the feeling in detail, though, and now that I have I’m trying to imagine the self-referential meta-artistic nightmare that awaits the next time I enter a theater. It won’t be bad enough that I have this artificial formula etched in my neural pathways that’s fucking with my ability to relate to a film on its own terms, but now I’ll be examining that inner conflict even before it starts. It will be a miracle if I can tell you the name of the movie after it’s over.
Thanks, Hollywood. Thanks a lot.