20 June 2008

three portrayals of almost love

Or, films with characters that sing.

click on the song titles to listen

An Irish indie hit from last year, Once tells the story of a relationship that develops between a Dublin busker and an immigrant flower vendor who inspires him to pursue his recording ambitions. I first saw it on a plane and fell asleep halfway through. I thought the story was more interesting than the music, but felt it was too slow to keep my attention. I gave it another chance on DVD, and loved it. It's intimate storytelling; we don't even get to know the characters' names. Theirs is a relationship of mutual respect, admiration and love of music, with physical and emotional attraction an undeniable presence, a looming uncertainty over how it might change the course of the lives they're trying to carve for themselves.

One of the film's many charms is the simplicity of its story, and watching it unfold raises only two questions: Will he make it, and will they end up together? Spoiler alert. We only learn about the latter, and I can't think of a better ending: They record, he decides to go to London, they spend a day together before he leaves, and they confess to a mutual attraction in a sweet, awkward goodbye, where she declines his suggestion to consummate the relationship, afraid it would only lead to pointless "hanky panky." What a girl.

So here are my two favorite songs from the film. Frankly, we've heard Hansard's style before, which many people say reminds them of Damien Rice, but to me sounds more like a stripped down, pre-White Ladder David Gray. I like the way When Your Mind's Made Up develops by gradually adding and removing various elements – guitar, piano, voice, drums, backing vocals – to complement the mood of specific parts of the song. Gold, on the other hand, is a duality, alternating string virtuosity with vocal and lyrical purity. The latter, however, stands out in its earnestness. Vocalist Fergus O'Farrell sings with the withered voice of a medieval troubadour, delivering a song that is not only traditional in sound, but also in its use of metaphor. It's amazing to me how a song like this can still come from this century.

click on the song titles to listen

The Hottest State had its moments, but in the end I decided that it was an overdramatized piece of work that lasted far longer than its statement was worth. Written and directed by Ethan Hawke based on his own debut novel of the same title – in other words, it's self-masturbatory – The Hottest State tells the story of how a young struggling actor, William, falls in self-destructive fashion for a young struggling musician, Sarah. Their mutual attraction is obvious from the moment they meet – he is beguiled by her air of mystery, she by his mawkish verbosity – but the relationship they eventually establish remains platonic, until Sarah declares herself ready to get over a prior rejection, and by extension, to let herself fall in love again. Not long after the act, she begins to distance herself and decides that she doesn't want a relationship after all.

Unable to understand why, William tries to win her back, progressively becoming more obsessive, through midnight phone calls and recitations of Shakespeare in front of her apartment. You begin to get the idea – which, I guess, is that love can be real and passionate even at an early age – but Hawke rubs it in by sending William to a downward spiral that becomes too exasperating to watch. Perhaps it's due to a weakness in direction. Unlike other talky films that Hawke is very well familiar with – like Before Sunrise, where the conversations cleverly explore each character's lives – The Hottest State uses uncreative dialog and narration to explain. The flashbacks of William's early separation from his father are a disjointed explanation of how he developed his need for a relationship he could hold on to, and everything we get to know about Sarah's past is crammed in a dinner scene almost as an afterthought. This is, of course, a film about William as much as Ethan Hawke, who has called his novel a work of autobiographical fiction. But the film takes itself too seriously that it becomes pretentious – words that have been used to describe Hawke himself.

Thankfully, the soundtrack is enjoyable, made up mostly of songs written by the unheralded Jesse Harris, performed by some good artists and himself. One Day The Dam Will Break is an uplifting self-medication against an inevitable fall, and Never See You is a shy wish for a second chance.

click on the song titles to listen

I don't really have much to say about this film, which the world and half of Mars have probably seen, other than it's worthy of its acclaim. The soundtrack is an excellent alternation of mostly classic folk/rock songs and Kimya Dawson's jocular songwriting talent and tongue-in-cheek folk sensibility. Director Jason Reitman's song choices give the soundtrack a character as quirky as the film itself, and it's impossible to listen to it without thinking of the film's story and its starkly different characters. I predict Juno will be up there in the company of Singles, Garden State, and Pulp Fiction in all-time lists of Hollywood's most memorable soundtracks.


  1. This is an amazing soundtrack, you do not often experience it where you can listen to an entire soundtrack without having to skip one track! www.indiearto.com