Recent Entries
This form does not yet contain any fields.
    « Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann (2) | Main | The context for learning, education and the arts (5) »

    Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

    In the first few minutes of Moulin Rouge, the film by director Baz Luhrmann, two major references are made to the history of the cinema. The first is to Auguste Lumière and his 1895 film about a train arriving in the main Paris train station. For many, this film was one of the first documentaries, and it plays on the stark realism of trains, travelling and everyday life. In a shot reminiscent of that early and important moment in film history, Ewan MacGregor arrives in Paris in 1899 in search of love, liberty and bohemian culture. The use of Lumière is as much of a statement about the cinema as it is an exploration of how we tell stories through films. Moreover, this is one of the central themes of Moulin Rouge — does narrative still work in a postmodern age that often relies on cynicism and overstated irony?

    The other reference in Moulin Rouge comes from Meliès whose early films were seen as fantasies because he used sets and had little interest in shooting images from “real life. After a brilliant sequence of singing and dancing from Nicole Kidman and McGregor and when it has become clear that they are falling in love, they march out into the night and stand on the rooftops of Montmartre. Shooting stars appear (much like Peter Pan and other Disney movies), and as they sing we see the moon smiling in the distance. The moon is drawn exactly as Meliès drew it in the 1890’s film, Man on the Moon.

    The question is why would Luhrmann make such explicit use of these references? Why in fact does he make use of hundreds such references throughout the film? Why create this wonderful phantasmagoria of popular culture quotes? Luhrmann not only uses the history of the cinema but also the history of rock music and of musicals in general. No line in this film is spoken, delivered or framed without alluding to or explicitly invoking prior forms, genres and styles from other forms of popular cultural expression. At no point do the actors depart from their highly stylized representation of a world dominated by romanticism and the desire for pure love.

    The only director of equal stature, who has come close to this depth and playfulness, is Dennis Potter. It is clear that Luhrmann has watched Potter’s work. It is also clear that what we have with Moulin Rouge is a film that explores the very essence of the narratives that dominate the cinema and music. “The Singing Detective which is Potter’s most famous work and which to me is one of the most powerful television series ever made, does not use song in the same way. (Although Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven is very similar to Moulin Rouge in the manner in which the characters break out into song — Steve Bochko tried to imitate this on American TV and it didn’t work). But, Potter continuously referenced not only popular culture but literature and theatre as well. Moreover, Ewan McGregor acted in a Potter production, “Lipstick on Your Collar, which is about the British army.

    Luhrmann playfully explores popular culture’s obsession not only with love, but also with the love song. At the same time, he examines the power of loss in all the genres of our culture. For, at one and the same time, Moulin Rouge celebrates the romance and beauty of innocent love with the pathos of love lost. The simultaneity of loss and love is such a powerful metaphor that one would be hard put not to find this metaphor circulating through most of cultural production in North American society.

    Early in the film, McGregor breaks out into a song from The Sound of Music (“The hills are alive with the sound of music) and the same words are repeated numerous times throughout the film. It is as if The Sound of Music stands for all musicals that the cinema has ever produced. More importantly, it is the audience’s familiarity with the music and the score that is so crucial. It shows, at the same time, the connectedness of culture and the universality of music as the crucial link between different periods of time and radically different narratives.

    Mouin Rouge deserves to be studied repeatedly. Luhrmann has taken the music hall, cabaret, the circus, opera, and the grand tradition of popular theater exemplified by productions like Cats and melded them together. Although this kind of self-reflexivity often leads nowhere, in Mouin Rouge, Luhrmann has unveiled a wonderful strategy for examining the images and sounds that surround us. Take stories that we are familiar with and redesign them. Recontextualize how the stories are told in order to foreground their role and impact on the social context in which we live. Mouin Rouge is a beautiful movie not the least because it also uses digital effects to create the sense that we are in Monmartre — although at the same time, it is clear from the start that we are watching a set.

    Here is a quote from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that neatly summarizes some of the strengths of this film:

    "Bam! The next hour is a riot of color-saturated images, commedia
    dell'arte- paced comedy and musical set pieces scored with overfamiliar pop tunes. Cancan girls perform to "Lady Marmalade," Kidman descends from the rafters on a trapeze and vamps "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Material Girl." Broadbent camps his way through "Like a Virgin," and McGregor dons lederhosen and warbles, "The hills are alive with the sound of music . . ." Nearly everything in the movie is appropriated from somewhere else. Professing their love, Kidman (her singing voice is high and thin) and McGregor (his is much better) launch into a medley of tunes that's obvious and redundant: "All You Need Is Love," "I Will Always Love You," "Silly Love Songs, " "Up Where We Belong." Even the dialogue is taken from song lyrics…

    Reader Comments (2)

    What stood out for me from the first viewing to the last of the film, _Moulin Rouge_, were the common themes that, despite all of our postmodern "cynicism" (as you point out, Ron), still resonate in our culture.

    Take for instance the song Satine sings when she does Madonna's "Material Girl" doing Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." The tradition of the blonde bombshell is still with us whether we like it or not. It drives me nuts, but we have to ask, would Paris Hilton be so infamous if she were a brunette anbd frumpy? Not according to Luhrmann. Not in our culture.

    And the updating of the fallen woman theme seen in the song "Lady Marmalade," from the sleazy streets of New Orleans to the tawdry ones leading to the Moulin Rouge cabaret pokes fun at our pretensions that we are more sophisticated and worldly than our forbears. The truth told us in the film is that Christine, Lil' Kim, Mya, and Pink have nothing on Patti. They are all cut from the same naugthy cloth. Certainly all their hair is just as weird:)

    But I guess the most important theme to emerge from the film is passion--the kind that begins with strong physical attraction but grows into eternal love. When Christian and Satine sing the duet, "Elephant Love Medley," they engage in a seductive, verbal intercourse that presages the physical one they soon fall into. Most importantly, we come to realize that there is a parallel between the love they share and the kind we as viewers feel for art, for film––and for me, this particular movie.

    Thank you for talking about it. It ha made me have to think about it out loud.

    June 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDene Grigar
    Hi Ron: i enjoyed the posting regarding Moulin Rouge. The movie was sooooo fresh referencing so much of the hper romantic...the stuff that I enjoy and appreciate in opera, musicals and folk tales, and fantasy.

    I compare Moulin Rouge to Charle/Chocolate Factory and Wizard of Oz. All three full of colour, sublime, colourful, full of fantasy and complexities the Post Modern dialectics try to reduce to black and white. Of the three, the Wizard of Oz still remains the classic. The French "Man in the Moon" was, from my perspective replaced with the Rainbow.I wonder if Judy Garland and Jack Haley would be surprised if the knew that the Rainbow would become a symbol for something other?

    I am so happy that a "fun", "light" and "gay", if I may, continues in spite of all the polical retoric that seems to have been the style of the 80s and early 90s.

    As you may know that the Oscar winner for costum,Charlie Chocolate Factory was Gabriella Pescucci, who also designed the costumes for Torino Olympic Ceremonies.

    For the past week, I have been viewing 3 minute videos made by Chinese students concerning the Beijing 2008 Olympics. These films are full of the richness and fantasy that Oz, Moulin Rouge and Charlie delivers. I hope that the Beiing 2008 Opening Ceremonies goes beyond the ideas of Hollywood develops a new hybrid that still contains the riohness of Chinese 5000 years of culture, both Imperial/Polical and folkloric and the the Vancouver 2010 ceremonies go beyond the boring scenarios of Cirque De Soiel(so cool in the 90s and at Los Vegas) interpetations of 1st Natons culture with the "first came the French,then the English and then all the "others" as they expanded across the country via the railway.

    Oh, I hope the school kids of BC and all the story tellers from all walks of life might be able to deliver the fanciful and rich qualities I associate with Oz, Moulin Rouge and Charlie.

    Cheers, from Beijing, Sam carter
    June 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSam Carter

    PostPost a New Comment

    Enter your information below to add a new comment.

    My response is on my own website »
    Author Email (optional):
    Author URL (optional):
    Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>