Once is a film about a street musician in England (referred to in the credits as 'guy', narrowly preceding his on-screen opposite: 'girl') who writes great music, plays a good guitar, and navigates relationships with the nimble grace of a rage-blinded hippopotamus. 'Girl' is a pretty East European who sings, plays the piano, and works menial jobs.
You could imagine where this setup leads, but you'd likely be mistaken. Its not your fault though, you thought this was a movie, but it isn't. Once is a series of music videos hanging to dry on the same narrative clothesline. In that sense its a lot like Dancer in the Dark, only without Bjork dying at the end.
There has been a trend in Hollywood to have music video directors director movies made for the silver screen (which is apparently spreading to independent films too), and I don't think its a good change: you never know when you're supposed to treat the current situation like a music video, and when you're supposed to treat it like a movie. This is a real concern. Sure it doesn't matter to people who don't watch many music videos, but for people who do we have a serious problem: what set of expectations should we be applying to this scene? And the next? Ooh, ooh, what about this one?
The biggest distinction is that movies have real drama, and that drama is the focal point of their production. Music videos don't have real drama; sure there is a simple setup that gets us into the emotional frame the music video director wanted us in, but thats al it is: a clumsy shove into a initial emotional disposition. Once we start watching the music video we are focused on the interplay of the music and the scene. We don't sit there and wonder if Nelly Furtado is going to get mugged in a dark alley, because its just a music video. Bad things don't happen in music videos, and even if they do its going to end in two minutes so its not a big deal. Music videos don't ask viewers to be emotionally attached.
This is different from a movie because movies depend on viewers being emotionally attached. If the viewer doesn't care that 'girl' and 'guy' are happy or sad then 'movie' fails.
In Once, the scene where the divide between music video and movie is most prevalent is when 'girl' is walking home in a deep big city night, she turns corner after corner in her pajamas, oblivious to the outside world as she sings along to her handheld cd player. There is no one else around, and she is in an impoverished section of town. Watching, I sat in my seat and wondered what I was supposed to feel. I wanted to focus on the music that was being played, but I couldn't because this is a movie. A movie wouldn't include this scene unless she was about to get robbed or assaulted. Thus the watcher is paralyzed between wanting to appreciate the music and waiting for a movie's inevitable process of creating drama. Conflicting expectations paralyze the watcher's ability to submerse into the film's world.
So I'm asking you: does it make sense to combine music videos and movies in one film? And I am simultaniously answering: No, it doesn't! Dancer in the Dark was aware of the disparate expectations in the two mediums, and thus all song portions were clearly imaginary, taking place only in the head of Bjork's character. In Dancer in the Dark the musical portions were music videos in the truest sense: everything was safe and cozy, nothing bad could happen, and the world was benign. I wish that Once had paid more attention to this fundamental divide between the two art forms.
Why? Because I enjoyed the movie, it was pleasant, it was well shot, and the underpinning music was exceptional. Only it wasn't a movie. It was a long promotion for original music written by 'guy' and 'girl'.
I guess I don't like paying eight dollars to watch a ninety minute commercial. I end up feeling used (this is probably why I didn't go see, for example, Spiceworld when it was in theaters). Then again, I have this strange desire to go buy the soundtrack. So maybe what I should be saying is that its a pretty good commercial.