I haven't seen Music & Lyrics, the comedy from earlier this year starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore as a romantic/songwriting couple. But John Carney's Once, the small-scale, extremely non-traditional Irish musical, probably could be described as a cross between Music & Lyrics and Brief Encounter. Carney's delicate, funny, poignant story of the musical collaboration and almost-romance between a Dublin street busker (Glen Hansard) and a young Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) has much of the enchantment as David Lean and Noel Coward's classic film, but in a much rawer, more realistic context. And I would bet my next paycheck that the songs in Once are infinitely better than those in Music & Lyrics.
Moviegoers have been trained to think of glamour and glitz when they think of musicals, before they even think of music. In that light, Once could be considered the first anti-musical, making West Side Story and Rent look unbearably posh by comparison. (OK, so Once has a few affectations of its own, such as never naming Hansard and Irglova's characters; for the sake of clarity, I will call them Hansard and Irglova from now on.) Using hand-held cameras that give the film a semi-documentary feel, Carney lets us know immediately that Hansard and Irglova's lives are defined mainly by poverty. The very first scene shows Hansard—who busks to supplement his slender income repairing vacuum cleaners in his father's shop—trying to stop an obnoxious drunk from stealing his tips. Similarly, we see Irglova selling roses in the street, cleaning houses, demonstrating pianos in a music store—anything to support herself, her mother and her toddler daughter in their cramped flat.
One day Irglova comes up to Hansard in Grafton Street, slipping him ten cents—all she can afford. She likes Hansard's singing, and notes that he plays different songs at night than he does during the day. Hansard explains: During the day, he only plays covers, because then people are busy and want to hear only the songs they know. At night, when passersby are more inclined to really listen, he plays his own songs.
Irglova reveals that she too is a singer/songwriter, and leads Hansard to the music shop where she demonstrates pianos. She plays, he strums his battered guitar, and—to quote The Producers—it's magic time.
The songs in Once—virtually all of them by Hansard and/or Irglova, who collaborated once before on a 2006 CD titled The Swell Season—are beautiful, and Hansard and Irglova sing them beautifully. But, even more than that, the songs rise far more organically from the story than in any other musical I can think of. Hansard and Irglova are musicians, and music is how they express their deepest emotions. Carney is careful from the beginning to make sure that Hansard and Irglova sing only in places where it's natural for them to do so; the one place where it isn't—in the back of a bus—Hansard apologizes to an elderly passenger for singing an explicit lyric a little too loudly. The integration of the music with the action is reminiscent of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; however, Carney's movie, unlike Jacques Demy's, is not an opera, and Demy's bonbon-colored vision is worlds away from Once's gritty urbanism. Only Hansard and Irglova's quick motorcycle trip to the (breathtakingly beautiful) Irish coastline offers a brief change from the soot of Dublin.
From the start we know the barriers to a romance between these two: Irglova has a husband in Prague, not much loved perhaps, but he's her daughter's father and she's loyal to him. Hansard, for his part, hasn't quite forgotten an old girlfriend who has moved to London. Not that he wouldn't like a one-night stand, but when he suggests it, early on, Irglova rebuffs him. Later, when a more seriously smitten Hansard asks Irglova if she loves her husband, she answers in Czech, which of course Hansard doesn't understand. No matter: the musical component of their relationship always, and completely, transcends the physical.
Once is an enchanting film, not only for the beauty of its music but for the unpretentious, unadorned purity of its emotions. Hansard and Irglova are both strong singers, and—even more importantly—the camera loves them. This is Irglova's first film role, but audiences will remember Hansard as Outspan, guitarist in The Commitments. Hansard proved himself one of the most talented of that film's young actors, though his musical contributions were drowned out by the horn section and Andrew Strong's blue-eyed soul singing.
At the end of The Commitments, Outspan is back on the street playing for tips, and Hansard's Once character could easily be Outspan fifteen years later, deserted by his old band mates, still hoping for his big break. In reality, Hansard has had probably the most successful post-Commitments career of any of its performers—leading his own band, the Frames—but he did not act again until Once. (John Carney is the Frames' ex-bassist, and also directed some of their videos.) With his flaming red hair and beard, basset-hound eyes, and boyish smile, Hansard may not be the Aristotelian ideal of what an Irishman looks like (Pierce Brosnan and Cillian Murphy are still around, after all), but he comes close enough. He could have a considerable career as a leading man if he wanted it, though I doubt that he does.
Irglova—more intellectual-looking than Hansard, with a Chopinesque face—has an honest and winsome screen presence like no other performer I can think of. There is an endearing aspect of the absent-minded professor about her, which makes all the more believable her funniest scene: as she walks down the street one night, writing lyrics in her head as she listens to one of Hansard's tunes on a CD Walkman, the camera slowly reveals that she forgot to change out of her fuzzy bedroom slippers.
Will Oldham, like Hansard, began his career when very young in a well-reviewed movie with a large ensemble cast (in Oldham's case, John Sayles' 1987 film Matewan), then largely abandoned acting in favor of music. But there the similarities end. Oldham's musical career has been much more on the avant-garde edge of alt-rock than Hansard's, and Oldham continued to act in occasional movies over the years, working with such directors as Phil Morrison and Harmony Korine. Also, Oldham's acting career has had very little to do with his career as a musician.
Oldham's latest film, Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, is much less of a crowd-pleaser than Once, though both films won prizes at the Sundance Festival. (Old Joy received a very limited release in 2006 and came out on DVD from Kino International on May 1 of this year.) But for those susceptible to the film's placid, deliberate rhythms, the experience is hypnotic and—in the end—heartbreaking.
Old Joy is, by any measure, a miniature. Barely seventy-five minutes long, the film tells the story of Kurt (Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), two old college friends who haven't seen each other for a while, going on an overnight camping trip from Portland into Oregon's Cascade Mountains. They stop for gas, get lost, spend the night at a campsite littered with discarded furniture, find the hot springs they were looking for, take a dip, and go home. (More than one viewer has pointed out an unfortunate howler in Old Joy; Mark pumps his own gas, but self-service gasoline is illegal in Oregon.) Mark's pregnant wife is seen briefly at the beginning, but otherwise the only other real character in the film is Lucy, Mark's adorable mixed-breed dog. (The name of Reichardt's production company, LucyIsMyDarling LLC, gives us a clue as to how Lucy was cast.)
This description should make it clear that Old Joy is not a film for audiences impatient with reading between the lines. For Reichardt and co-scriptwriter Jon Raymond, everything is in the details. From the details of their lives, we can tell that Mark and Kurt were campus radicals, but their lives have diverged in important, irreconcilable ways. Mark has a pleasant bungalow with a meditation garden in the Portland suburbs and drives a new Volvo station wagon, in which he listens, compulsively and exclusively, to Air America. On the road, he makes several cell phone calls to his wife, the tone of their conversations always more anxious than affectionate. Kurt lives out of a decrepit old van; although he speaks (when he does speak) of transformative communal wilderness experiences, it quickly becomes apparent that his only constant companion is his hash pipe.
Soaking in the hot springs, Mark and Kurt are surrounded by unhurried nature, the opposite of the long stretches of factories and strip malls they just left. Birds sing, Lucy chases squirrels, a glistening slug inches across a mossy rock. Mark and Kurt's reaction to the springs, however, is a prime demonstration of the saying, "No matter where you go, there you are." Puffing his hash pipe, Kurt tells a convoluted story involving himself, a bicycle, an old man and a convenience store clerk, ending with an observation that sorrow is just "worn-out joy." Then something happens that suggests Kurt's feelings for Mark go beyond friendship. Mark reacts to it the same way he reacts to everything: passively, with just the slightest undercurrent of panic.
Old Joy, essentially, is a film about old boys—two men who made wildly different yet unsuccessful transitions to manhood, in a society in which they feel alien and betrayed. One functions despondently in that society, the other doesn't function at all. The last ten minutes of the film—bolstered greatly by Peter Sillen's poetic cinematography and Yo La Tengo's sparse, haunting guitar music—have a quiet, elegiac poignancy; the last two minutes in particular made me want to watch the whole movie again, from the beginning. Old Joy isn't a film for every taste, but for those in the right mood, it is a tragically beautiful paean to lost time, lost friendship and—at least in one case—lost souls.