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June 2001, Week 1


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 6 Jun 2001 09:39:03 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (66 lines)
Gene Walz posts:

> Excerpt from: 'Moulin Rouge': An Eyeful, an Earful, Anachronism
> NY Times review
> <snip>
> It's not a novel idea to use anachronism as an anchor for musical numbers;
> "A Knight's Tale," which opened last week, employs the same tactic. But it
> has never been done as unremittingly as it is here. In one number, Patti
> LaBelle's sweaty "Lady Marmalade" morphs into the snarling grunge
> melancholy of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a combination that would
> be lost on even D.J. Qbert and the Columbia Record Club.
>  When the number works, as when Mr. Broadbent gives a new snap of the
> suspenders to Madonna's "Like a Virgin," it can be invigorating. But these
> songs became part of the cultural canvas because they distilled a single
> gesture, which is undeniably the true essence of pop. The lines "Oh, well,
> whatever, never mind" (from "Smells Like Teen Spirit") or "Voulez-vous
> coucher avec moi ce soir?" (from "Lady Marmalade") are given air in those
> original songs. Hijacked from their moorings, they float aimlessly.  etc.

I think the reviewer misses the point here. Once a song has "distilled
a single gesture" (if that is indeed the "true essence of pop"), it
gets tossed into the attic of cultural memory along with everything
else to be grabbed up and used by artists like kids playing with the
stuff they find in their grandparents' trunk.  The "moorings" are
inevitably lost--or at least become no more important than anything
else.  (Not that MOULIN ROUGE is unique; THE SIMPSONS has been doing
this kind of thing with both pop and high culture for years, if not
explicitly with pop music.)

Consider the way the story references not just "La Boheme," "Camille,"
etc., but also offers a snappier picture of 1970s culture than such
films as 54, SUMMER OF SAM or VELVET GOLDMINE.  "Nature Boy" is
appropriated here in the same spirit in which Bowie appropriated it
from Nat "King" Cole.  CABARET is appropriated in the way in which
Fosse appropriated Busby Berkeley--and the film directly plays on
Berkeley too (especially the choreography, if not the song, for
"Lullabye of Broadway").  It appropriates Madonna as she appropriated
Monroe.  No one version has priority.  Nirvana's "Here we are now,
entertain us" is a demand within the film's diegesis, a
cross-reference to Nirvana, and a reflection on those of us sitting
in the audience as well.  All of this is also explicitly framed within
the context of a film in a grand old movie palace, with a live
orchestra and a Meliesian singing moon.

The sense of cultural richochet is dizzying at times.  "Children of the
Revolution" is not just a Bohemian rallying cry or a rock song, but
also a reference to an Australian film of that title that co-starred
Richard Roxburgh, who plays the evil Duke here.  And what does one make
of an absinthe-inspired Green Fairy that looks like a red-eyed
Tinkerbell and has a voice by Ozzy Osbourne?

Don Larsson

Donald F. Larsson
English Department, AH 230
Minnesota State University
Mankato, MN  56001

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