Moulin Rouge Offers Techno Gimmicks and Cultural Mishmash as New Thrills; See Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home Instead

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


Prevailing
non-wisdom says that the movie musical is dead. But that can only be so for critics
who haven’t noticed the genre’s rebirth over the past two decades as
the music video. Maybe that’s why so many have fallen for Baz Luhrmann’s
Moulin Rouge
. Media muckers have acclaimed Moulin Rouge with
a blind enthusiasm tantamount to esthetic idiocy. It’s as if critics sought
a hit film to match Broadway’s blockbuster The Producers or were just
caught up in that Summer Movie capitalist fever in which every dumb attempt at
entertainment must be praised–er, uh, promoted. But all the commotion only
comes down to this: The Blair Witch Musical.

In
lieu of taste, talent and style, Moulin Rouge’s bandwagoneers settle
for the latest techno gimmicks and cultural mishmash as new thrills. Fact is,
the best musical moments in movie history have been simple displays of performing
talent. Whether the "Charlie Kane" number in Citizen Kane or
the title number in Purple Rain, it’s trust in a performance (the
quality of a song or a singer or dancer) sustained for our delectation that is
moving. Not Luhrmann’s hurtling camera movements, quick editing and song
snippets. Even a simple setup like a cabaret star smiling down on her crowd of
admirers gets shredded. TV-commercial conventions make that star/fan interaction
readable, but the art of film happens only if such a moment takes imaginative
hold and you participate emotionally. This film’s pushy style says "Isn’t
it exciting!" rather than actually being exciting. Luhrmann doesn’t
hold on an image, a performer or a idea long enough to do anything but blur your
consciousness.

Take
Nicole Kidman (please!). No actress since Demi Moore has been the recipient of
such predictable industry sponsorship and inevitable audience indifference. Flashing
cold good looks as Satine, the "courtesan" dance-hall diva, Kidman neither
sings nor dances well enough to command attention. When Ewan McGregor as Christian,
an impoverished writer, falls in love with Satine, you know you’re watching
an artifice because their La Boheme/Camille coupling doesn’t chime.
The way Judy Garland and Gene Kelly synched in For Me and My Gal or Irene
Cara and Philip Michael Thomas traded dewy-eyed verses in Sparkle never
happens for Kidman and McGregor. Luhrmann, who seems incapable of such sustained
emotion, also seems contemptuous of it. (This is a director so hip that he short-changes
romance.)

All
the actors mug and leer. Jim Broadbent, as the apoplectic owner of the Moulin
Rouge, disgraces his grave, subtle performance in Topsy-Turvy by sweating,
flushing and then bellowing almost every line. That’s the Luhrmann style:
overstatement in place of finesse. Broadbent, at least, is capable; Kidman as
the doomed, consumptive heroine is just a game amateur (she’s a better cougher
than singer) and McGregor is simply miscast. Lured into teen-idol poses, McGregor’s
callow longing is meant to turn the same trick Leonardo DiCaprio did in Luhrmann’s
Romeo + Juliet. Several remarks about Christian’s "large talent"
are actually sly references to the sizable endowment McGregor displayed in The
Pillow Book
. But the audience Luhrmann panders to won’t catch such misdirected
camp. Despite innuendo, Moulin Rouge winds up more shrill than sexy.

Not
a single musical number achieves eroticism. From the first stereopticon view of
1900 Paris to the head-spinning (and head-aching) use of too many accelerated
zoom-ins and zoom-outs–too many CGI "epiphanies"–Luhrmann
never accomplishes the simple expression of credible emotion. Cinematographer
Donald McAlpine goes through several "looks"–French Impressionism,
Indian movie musicals, Peking opera and catalogs of Hollywood kitsch–yet
none of it works. That interior glow that still makes the Maxim entrances
in Minnelli’s Gigi memorable appears here like flash cards printed
"mood" but it’s non-atmospheric and unsuggestive. It’s an
abuse of style. With his boomeranging bad ideas, his lack of true style,
Luhrmann creates his own handicaps. He uses new technology as a means of boastful
inconsequence–as if the ability to edit on an Avid justified his scatterbrained
narrative. Why bother to harmonize theme, style and tone when you’re after
a youth audience that is ignorant of structure, if not hostile to the notion of
cultural continuity? (Luhrmann’s intro calls the fin-de-siecle setting, "the
Summer of Love.") This hodgepodge–this deliberate chaos–is as unconscientious
as a marketing strategy. Moulin Rouge exemplifies pop’s devolution.

Having
enjoyed the cross-cultural, time-shifting marvels of those 1991 Son of Bazerk
videos from the inventive Chicago outfit H-Gun, I insist that Luhrmann’s
six-second edits don’t communicate to a new generation in a new way. If brevity
were all teens wanted, there’d be a rage for poetry–skateboarders and
hiphoppers reading Wallace Stevens. Besides, rap–conspicuously absent from
Moulin Rouge’s playlist–isn’t about compressing language.
Every good rapper displays concentration, consistency of tone and reality-rooted
imagination. But Luhrmann’s Blair Witchcraft travesties pop’s deep pleasures
only to replicate the heartless inconsistency of the contemporary marketplace.

That’s
why Moulin Rouge is far more offensive than Pearl Harbor, this month’s
other cultural debacle. We’ve gotten used to Michael Bay’s prosaic shorthand
(cuz it’s all over tv) but this is frenetic and frustrating. If the hyperactive
Moulin Rouge is the "masterpiece" some critics suggest, then
it’s an attention-deficit-disorder masterpiece. You either accept being sold–responding
to everything as if watching a two-hour commercial. Or you resist Moulin Rouge
(and its shills) with all your intelligence, sensitivity, taste–a filmgoer’s
only armor.

Admittedly,
Luhrmann’s Blair Witchcraft shows frantic conviction (the little singing
moon suggests a dopey Ken Russell) but it’s destructive–a "scavenger
aesthetic" in David Bordwell’s term. If you love pop music, it really
isn’t much fun to see it cannibalized and trashed this way. And if you love
musicals, the critical acceptance of Luhrmann’s cheapened emotion and degraded
pop is infuriating. In a typical Luhrmann trope, Satine sings "Diamonds Are
a Girl’s Best Friend" followed by "Material Girl"–a medley
for the culturally backward. Seconds later a chorus singing "Lady Marmalade"
segues into "Smells Like Teen Spirit." This is nonsense. There is no
world in which those songs go together. (A friend commented that Luhrmann would
make a lousy club DJ.) Luhrmann not only dismisses the meaning of particular songs,
he falsifies their cultural context.

Think
back to 1985 when director Mary Lambert utilized the Marilyn Monroe iconography
of "Diamonds" (the pink satin gown and lipstick-colored cyclorama) to
inventively insert Madonna’s "Material Girl" into the cultural
imagination. Lambert’s music video wasn’t simply parodistic, it ventured
a new, compounded pop statement. (She also peaked with Like a Virgin and
Chris Isaak’s Dancin’.) Luhrmann’s mess–coming 16 years
later–appeals to people who never understood the language of signification.
(Teenagers understood it; some film critics still don’t.) Instead of satirizing
Madonna’s materialist message, he accepts it–and her implied amorality,
here reduced to backstage slapstick as the slutty Satine juggles career and lovers.

Anachronisms
aren’t the problem; it’s worse and simpler than that. These pop fragments
and layers never cohere in Moulin Rouge. (Luhrmann snubs his betters on
the same subject: Jean Renoir’s 1955 French Can Can and John Huston’s
1952 Moulin Rouge.) He fails to provide consistent meaning whether in the
melange of pop imagery or the barbarized love lyrics. Elton John’s insipid
"Your Song" (used as dialogue!) clashes with the melancholy of "Nature
Boy" and the wit of the Beatles. Broadbent’s roguish male rendition
of "Like a Virgin," accompanied by waiters’ Hello, Dolly!
choreography, is just a jumble. The song doesn’t express their personalities,
it’s used for silly audience recognition. (If this passes for wit in Australia,
no wonder it’s a third-rate culture.)

Luhrmann
bears the same bogus relation to pop music as R+J did to Shakespeare. However,
Renoir’s French Can Can explored cabaret culture, presenting its brazen
dancing as an audacious development in social sensibility; you realized how Offenbach’s
"Orpheus in the Underworld" became the can-can anthem. In history’s
first pop remix, it perfectly evoked violent, unbridled sensuality. Luhrmann just
rifles through old jukeboxes and tv adverts. The whole mess looks like a car commercial
without cars. His disrespect for cultural history is epitomized when Toulouse-Lautrec
(John Leguizamo repeating his Spawn dwarf) says, "You may see me as
a vice-ridden gnome."

Baz
Luhrmann is a trash-besotted gnome. Where do you start (or stop) listing the many
incandescent movie-musical moments that are superior to his? The snow-covered
gas station in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the stage frenzy in De Palma’s
Phantom of the Paradise, the bacchanals in Oliver Stone’s The Doors,
Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, the entrance into the Brooklyn Paramount
in Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Prince’s red-hot Sign O’
the Times
. Even the "Ladytron" number in Todd Haynes’ Velvet
Goldmine
caught pop’s lyrical essence. Luhrmann’s crime is counterfeit
postmodernism. Nothing here has the pomo complexity, or the heart, of The Long
Day Closes
–either its magnificent "Tammy" sequence that linked
music-school-church-cinema or the scene where a brother and sister perform "A
Couple of Swells" (from Easter Parade) in the hallway of their modest
home. Terence Davies knew how deeply pop resonates. Moulin Rouge keeps
things ephemeral and disposable. Instead of testifying to the glory of pop music,
Luhrmann only proves that any profundity can be made trite.

 

The
Road Home

Directed
by Zhang Yimou

Crazier
pop echoes happen in Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home. The story
of a young man who returns from the city to attend his father’s burial in
the small village where the son was raised was inspired by–yikes!–Titanic.
Zhang doesn’t imitate James Cameron’s dumb gigantism; in fact this movie
is refreshingly small-scale (and yet visually ravishing). It’s Old Rose’s
romantic memory that Zhang references when the young man’s stubborn mother
(who decorates her home with Titanic posters)recounts her maiden days
and courtship. Most of The Road Home is a touching flashback in which Zhang
Ziyi proves a more interesting and charming actress than she was in Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon
.

That
stupid gun Billy Zane waved about in Titanic reappears in Moulin Rouge.
Tossed in the air it bounces off the Eiffel Tower (Awesome, dude!) because Luhrmann
has no taste–and, literally, no sense of proportion. But Zhang, who proved
his skill at visually evoking passion in Ju Dou, has the ability to enrich
a generic melodrama. As in Raise the Red Lantern he shows a facility for
complex emotions and politics. Incredibly, Zhang divined decent romantic sentiment
in Cameron’s circus and it’s this return to compassion, nostalgia and
family custom that he successfully translates to authentic Chinese experience.
The music’s a bit over-uplifting but the example of a parent passing virtues
on to a mature, sympathetic child makes The Road Home an affecting experience.
It’s half Titanic’s length but infinitely superior.

..