Criterion Corner #8: The Musicals That Could Save The Genre

Criterion Corner #8: The Musicals That Could Save The Genre

Aug 08, 2011

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Tales of HoffmanMajor disclaimer: Comic-Con messed me up something fierce. Over the years I’ve built up something of a resistance to the event, and can now comfortably endure 100 sleepless hours of binge drinking between days getting shoved through several acres of grown men in spandex, but this year’s festivities spat me out feeling as if I had just tongue-kissed a dementor. On the flight home I was sapped of all my strength, lost in the petrified thrall of the Justin Bieber concert documentary playing on the tiny screen in front of me, the very concept of happiness nothing but a distant memory from another life. I needed to feel again. I needed to see a baby’s smile. I needed to change the channel.

But what I needed most of all was to see a musical. It didn’t necessarily need to be a happy musical, it just had to include some folks experiencing something -- anything -- so intensely that they could only express their sentiments through song.

So the first thing I did when I got back to my apartment was to rifle through my DVD collection in the hopes of finding some pre-manufactured zest. Actually, the first thing I did when I got back to my apartment was to down enough Ambien to kill a small pony and sink into a coma the likes of which you only read about in fairy tales, but as soon as that was over, I looked around for a musical. I began -- as I do while searching for just about anything in life -- with my Criterion section. And the pickings were slim. By my count, only 5 of the 586 films in the Collection’s main line are musicals of the classic variety, none of which were poised to hit the spot: There’s Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (too self-important), Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman (too stuffy), the musicals of Rene Clair (too jaunty) and The Mikado (too... not good).

I eventually solved this problem the same way I solve all of my problems: An ancient family panacea comprised of Fun Dip, box wine, and old episodes of Louie. Yet my immediate relief didn’t appease the nagging thought that the vast majority of my favorite musicals had been left behind, forgotten, or -- worst of all - released by inferior home video brands. Indeed, very few genre efforts that don’t fit the traditional mold have been celebrated or preserved in a way meaningful to film history. Between 42nd Street and Mamma Mia! exists a vast realm of toe-tapping goodness that needs to be more readily (and attractively) available to those of us fatigued by Comic-Con or otherwise deadened by the inertia of modern living (unverified reports suggest that life offers experiences even more trying than entertainment conventions, if you can believe that). The genre is hanging on by a thread, but I fear that if the more unusual and provocative examples of the form aren’t more widely appreciated, we’ll forget that concert films aren’t the ultimate marriage of music and movies.

With America’s debt crisis now finally solved completely and forever, this untenable musicals situation has obviously become our country’s most pressing issue. Yet The Criterion Collection is uniquely positioned to remind the movie-going populace that all lives, no matter how dreary or mundane, exist on the precipice of a show-stopping musical number, and that even misery can be beautiful if set to the right melody. Here are the eight films with which I suggest they accomplish just that.

 

Sholay

Sholay (dir. Ramesh Sippy) 1975

The biggest hit in Bollywood history (when adjusted for inflation), Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay is a lot like Seven Samurai... if Seven Samurai paused every few minutes in order for its stoic leading men to hold hands on their motorcycle and belt out insanely addictive songs about freedom, bromance, and the horrors of dismemberment. The shortest 204-minute movie ever made and the seemingly insurmountable zenith of the world’s most prodigious film industry, Sholay seamlessly intertwines Kurosawa’s humanitarian zeal, Peckinpah’s frontier justice, and Fosse’s shimmering jazz hands for an epic spectacle that still ranks among the medium’s greatest achievements. Despite its legendary status in India and universal appeal, Sholay is still largely unknown in the western world, but if that were ever to change it could open the floodgates for Bollywood cinema in a way that even the mighty Bride and Prejudice failed to accomplish.

 

Madam Satan

Madam Satan (dir. Cecil B. Demille) 1930

In the back of a bar one dark and typically cloudless Comic-con night, I fell into a conversation with two spirited gentleman from the Warner Archives. They presented me with a box of DVDs -- stacked to the brim with lost classics that never were -- and told me I could pick one to take with me. One of them was called Madam Satan, the cover of which featured the name Cecil B. Demille and a pre-code Catwoman smirking at a zeppelin exploding behind her. The rest of them were... not that. And thus, my choice was made.

Playing like the bizarre offspring of a Lubitsch musical’s drunken fling with Metropolis, Madam Satan is a ridiculous romantic romp that eventually winds up on a giant dirigible, in the process becoming a twisted ode to the seductive powers of modern technology (and also women dressed like cats). A yuppie meets a woman named Madam Satan (which, in retrospect, probably should have been a red flag) and falls for her charm, failing to realize that the object of his lust is actually his wife in disguise. They wind up at a ball on a blimp, the blimp goes down in the flames that reignite their romance. The whole thing is certifiably nuts, a kitschy special-effects show touched by the master of spectacle, and a film that demands a far more prominent place in the film lexicon.

 

Dancer in the DarkDancer in the Dark (dir. Lars von Trier) 2000

Finally, a movie that fills the gap between The Sound of Music and the death penalty. The most depressing work from a filmmaker whose latest film begins with the fiery demise of every living creature on Earth, Dancer in the Dark is the final installment of Lars von Trier’s unofficial “Golden Hearts” trilogy, a triptych of stories about pure women made prey for a sullied world. Bjork stars as Selma, a poor mother with a degenerative eye disease who toils through double-shifts at a metal factory in order to afford an operation that might spare her son from a similar fate. Filmed in von Trier’s once standard faux-Dogme style -- an aesthetic interrupted by rivetingly kinetic musical sequences shot with over 100 cameras at a time -- Dancer in the Dark weaponizes a battery of pop perfection and the most affecting lead performance of the 21st century into an unshakable parable of justice gone wrong.

Fun fact: Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called Dancer in the Dark “One of the worst films, one of the worst artworks, and perhaps one of the worst things in the history of the world.” To be fair, Bradshaw filed his review almost 11 years prior to the debut of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, so his frame of reference regarding musicals is a relic of a more innocent time.

 

The Wayward Cloud

The Wayward Cloud (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang) 2005

Okay, okay, The Wayward Cloud is a vastly inferior riff on Tsai Ming-Liang’s pre-millennial masterpiece, The Hole, but only The Wayward Cloud opens with a scene in which oral sex is performed on a woman whose vagina has been replaced by a watermelon, and that’s gotta count for something. Another of Tsai’s inimitably acetic romantic musicals in which human civilization’s lack of something vital (water, in this case) has assumed an apocalyptic tenor, The Wayward Cloud finds the residents of a Taiwanese apartment complex desperate to quench their thirst by any means necessary. Usually, that involves a lot of watermelon. Eating it, drinking it, fantasizing about it, wearing it, and -- of course -- singing about it. Loaded with explicit nudity and eventually cohering into a stolid,shambled metaphor of human contact and mutual fulfillment, The Wayward Cloud is the musical at its most cathartic.

 

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir. Jacques Demy) 1964

Finally, a musical for people who are completely tone-deaf! Jacques Demy’s tragic romance is remembered for its operatic gimmick (all of the film’s dialogue - unusually mundane for this kind of fare -- is recited to a melody that always just outpaces the viewer’s grasp), but it’s beloved for its gorgeous design and blistering sadness. A young Catherine Deneuve stars as a teenage girl with a big-time crush on idyllic Cherbourg’s local mechanic, a man named Guy with whom she sleeps the night before he must report to the Algerian War. And everyone knows that a man is always at his most fertile the night before he goes to war.

Their mutual affection renders their small town a hyper-romantic Gallic wonderland, where every color screams from the walls and every word alights into the reckless (and often atonal) song of young love. As a result, the film’s central romance feels both commonplace and impossibly magical, a neat reflection of love as it exists in the wild. Demy is an auteur on the tips of our tongues but the fringes of our memory, overshadowed by the mythic glory of his peers. The coda of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is enough in and of itself to argue for Demy’s place in the pantheon of the great directors.

 

Funny Face

Funny Face (dir. Stanley Donen) 1957

Audrey Hepburn stars in only one Criterion film (Charade), which means that there are 585 Criterion films that don’t star Audrey Hepburn. I didn’t major in math, but that seems stupid -- every film should star Audrey Hepburn (or -- now that she’s dead -- Andy Serkis mo-capped as Audrey Hepburn). They taught me that at film school, day one, 10 A.M. But not only does Stanley Donen’s Funny Face have Audrey Hepburn, it also has... other stuff! Stuff that’s less pretty, but still pretty! In fact, its chief trouble is that it’s a musical about beauty that can never quite equal the allure of its leading lady -- the dynamics are a bit unbalanced, the star outshines the subject, as if Margaret Thatcher were starring in a biopic about Meryl Streep, as opposed to the other way around. Okay okay, Funny Face (never, ever to be confused with Funny Girl) is a charming and visually extravagant musical in which Fred Astaire gets the chance to tear it up for keeps in the twilight of his career, enshrining a number of classic tunes from the 1927 musical of the same name.

 

Memories of Matsuko

Memories of Matsuko (dir. Tetsuya Nakashima) 2006

If David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet had a baby, it would be... a pretty big deal, probably, in both the film and scientific communities. In the unlikely event that said baby was Japanese for some reason, it would probably be Tetsuya Nakashima. Armed with an astonishing and waggish visual panache, Nakashima has quickly established himself as a filmmaker whose darkness is only matched by his daring. His whacked 2010 masterpiece Confessions begins with a schoolteacher possibly infecting two of her adolescent students with HIV, and Memories of Matsuko brings that same morbid spirit to an otherwise giddy musical that introduces us to its eponymous heroine after she’s been brutally murdered following a destitute life of domestic terror and abject poverty. A “golden heart” who would feel right at home in one of Lars von Trier’s jaunty death marches, Matsuko is abused by each of the men in her life, bouncing from one to the next in the increasingly irrational hope that heaven is other people. The musical numbers are few and far between, but they spark to life with an indefatigable energy that eclipses even the most euphoric moments of more traditional genre offerings.

Nakashima is a contemporary filmmaker long overdue for the attention of the world at large, and Memories of Matsuko remains the most accessibly fetching of his films. This musical won’t have reached its potential until “Happy Wednesday” has become a meme-strosity the size of Caturday, and folks on this side of the globe are commonly signing their e-mails with “Sugar, pepper, salt and all my love.”

 

Phantom of the Paradise

Phantom of the Paradise (dir. Brian De Palma) 1974

Because you people would have my head if I didn’t include De Palma’s cult classic, and sometimes the screaming fringes get it right. For what it’s worth, the French region-free Blu-ray is really solid stuff, hardcore Phantom fans who need to own this film in the highest quality possible shouldn’t hesitate to pick it up.

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