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

Make text smaller Make text larger

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.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters