In certain fundamental ways, the movie musical is a dead genre. Sure, there are occasions like Chicago, in which a popular Broadway show makes it to the screen more or less intact, but musicals have been so marginalized in the past few decades that generations of moviegoers have a hard time accepting the conventions of the genre. As a result, the few musicals that do get made are crippled by self-consciousness and irony, as if they’re too embarrassed to make an earnest leap into pure fantasy and emotion. No matter their vocal abilities, the stars always sing in their own voice (Dancer In The Dark, Everybody Says I Love You, etc.), and the dance choreography has a deliberate clumsiness that’s intended to bring it down to earth. Back when musicals were a thriving enterprise, there was a mini-industry of craftsman on both sides of the camera. Now, all those muscles have atrophied: Without gifted new songwriters, filmmakers rely on recognizable old standards instead of original songs, and the choreography (of the dancers, the camerawork, and the editing of the two) has slackened considerably.
I can’t speak for the last 65 minutes of John Turturro’s new musical Romance & Cigarettes, but the first 40 are by far the most excruciating I’ve witnessed at this or any festival—and that includes a looped showreel of Barry Avrich’s lame New Age-y intro trailers. (This year’s is Avrich’s worst: A series of hands signing and clasping in cinematic/one-world ways while a soprano bleats an operatic mush that sounds suspiciously like “Can-a-da!” in spots.) As with many features by actor-directors, casting isn’t an issue: James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Walken, and other talented, sensible performers are willing passengers on this Titanic. Turturro is going for bawdy, amped-up, working-class melodrama, but what he achieves is so vulgar that your ears bleed even when the musical numbers have stopped. And wow, those numbers: For some reason, Turturro doesn’t trust his actors’ voices enough to let them stand on their own merits, so he basically has them sing along to popular favorites by Engelbert Humperdink, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, and the like. And no one’s allowed to dance with any conviction—not even a fleet-footed pro like Walken, who at best manages a geriatric shuffle. I’m told by trusted sources that the film actually gets worse in the second half, which I sincerely hope never to see in my lifetime. (If a fellow Onionite can fall on this bullet, I hereby promise to review a box set of Margaret Cho concert films as penance.)
The Dardenne Brothers manufacture their own brand of intensity in their Palme D’Or-winning L’Enfant (The Child), but unlike Turturro, they don’t need to amp up drama that arises from raw desperation. Though the Dardennes slightly scale back the severity of their handheld aesthetic from Rosetta and The Son, the film still plunges into the lives of people whose options are as clear as they are limited. When two young vagabonds, used to hustling and panhandling for every dollar, have a baby together, the father sells it on the black market the first chance he gets. In a devastating scene, he returns to his girlfriend with the cash and she collapses in shock and grief; clearly, he didn’t anticipate such a severe reaction, because they’re so used to converting their possessions into commodities. The father immediately sets about getting the child back and redeeming himself in his lover’s eyes, but the sacrifices involved are immense, leading to a finale that’s completely devastating. Among their many strengths, the Dardennes excel at telling stories that are propelled by raw need and bound by inexorable logic, and L’Enfant bristles with urgency and emotion.
A short day came to a close with John & Jane, an unconventional and hypnotic debut feature about globalization that could be called an impressionistic documentary—the people and situations are real, but the movie has a stylized eeriness of science fiction. It concerns a few of the tens of thousands of Indians who work at call centers for American 1-800 numbers. Part of their training is to learn American value systems and adapt themselves accordingly, and after spending 14-hour shifts connecting to their clients, many of these young, outsourced souls are convinced that they’re wired into paradise. Their fantasies are delusional—one expects, in all sincerity, to become a billionaire within the next couple of years—and they say a lot about how effectively the American Dream has been advertised, even if its promises have no hope of being realized here. In John & Jane, the effects of globalization are not just evident in McDonald’s franchises and other material goods, but in the blinkered souls of young people who have bought into a scripted sales pitch.
If you’re attending a film festival for the full 10 days, there are going to be at least one or two days late in the festival where fatigue gets the better of your ambition: You oversleep an early morning screening, skip out on marginal fare in order to catch a late-afternoon nap, and retire early to your room with a nice dinner rather than hustle for evening screenings. So while Noel was spending his last full day of the festival on a heroic seven-movie marathon, I devoted my day to one of my favorite directors, Tsai Ming-liang, and little else. The most gifted and distinctive member of the Asian master shot school, Tsai specializes in “melancomedies,” films like Vive L’Amour, The Hole, and What Time Is It There? that capture urban alienation with unexpected moments of deadpan humor and whimsy. He was in town for his latest film The Wayward Cloud, which I’ll get to in a moment, but he was also invited to present a 1960 Grace Cheng vehicle called The Wild, Wild Rose.
Since Cheng’s films are only available via import-only DVD—no available prints of The Wild, Wild Rose had subtitles, so it had to be digitally projected (a prospect that sounds more horrifying than it turned out to be)—Western cineastes have had few chances to discover her. For me, seeing Cheng’s first appearance on stage as a nightclub singer was akin to watching Marlene Dietrich’s entrance in The Blue Angel; both have a presence that’s dangerously transfixing. The overstuffed story of temptation and female self-sacrifice will be immediately familiar to people brought up on classic Hollywood, as will the songs, which are adapted from Bizet’s Carmen. The movie’s too long and gets mired in sticky melodrama in the second half, but Cheng’s a marvel, with a voice that’s playful and virtuosic and a personality that can be wickedly funny or heartbreaking at the flip of a switch.
Tsai used six of Cheng’s songs for The Hole and another one for his new quasi-sequel The Wayward Cloud, which similarly uses bright musical numbers to break from the miseries of everyday life. Water always plays a key symbolic role in Tsai’s work and The Wayward Cloud takes place in a drought that leaves its characters in search of replenishment. Given only a single line throughout the entire movie—and an inconsequential one at that—Tsai’s stone-faced, Buster Keaton-like leading man Lee Kang-sheng plays a porn star who attracts a lonely young woman in his building. Relationships are rarely normal in a Tsai movie, but Lee’s occupation becomes a serious impediment, especially in the closing scene, which comes as such a shock that took me some time to process. I think it’s a strong and provocative effort—and often hilarious, too; you’ll never look at watermelon the same way again—but I wonder if anyone will have the courage to distribute it.
Coming soon: Drive-by reports of Wallace & Gromit, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Thank You For Smoking, the Pusher trilogy, and Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, a leftover from Day Eight that didn’t make it into this update. Now, I’m off to my last movie of the festival. Woo-hoo!