Thursday, January 7, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Moulin Rouge!" is the Worst Best Picture Nominee of the 21st Century (So Far)

Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Oscar nominations are coming next week.
Theory: Moulin Rouge! is the worst Best Picture nominee of the 21st century (so far).

Scene from Moulin Rouge!
Like most Oscar prognosticators, I look at the general Best Picture category with more of an assertive eye. Even if I disagree with a few nods here or there, I still am able to accept why some films were nominated. As much blame can be thrown on "Because it's Harvey Weinstein" as the sense that a film is overtly sentimental or trying to be more important than it is. It is a conflicting feeling to wish for surprises, but also expect the obvious year after year. It is generally why 2016's nominees are bound to be exciting, as there appears to be no significant list of films to expect (it's Spotlight and... everyone else). However, there's been one film that has baffled me more than any other in my time accumulating familiarity with the nominees and winners. Where I can understand cultural significance and the fact that some films' appeals are lost to time, I still have no idea why director Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! was even nominated for Best Picture.

Okay, I will first backtrack from the inevitable crankiness that I am about to bestow for a quick defense. I get the appeal of Moulin Rouge! as it appeals to 21st century culture to come. It is a post-modern take on the jukebox musical. Those various mash-ups (specifically the "Zidler's Rap" portion that combined "The Can-Can" with "Smells Like Teen Spirit) are impressive achievements in a time before Girl Talk created dizzying, copyright-challenging music that combined anachronistic tastes into something wholly sublime. To say the least, the film's status as a musical is very much earned in that it does something ambitious with it. With that said, this is one of very few movies that I feel works more as a concept album than an actual film, because the images which these songs accompany are appalling.

It doesn't help that I have had a mixed relationship with Luhrmann the director. I didn't care for Romeo + Juliet's 90's take on Shakespeare, yet I think The Great Gatsby perfectly embodies the lush excess of Fitzgerald. I am unsure what separates the two, as they're both inherently singular visions of the same man. For starters, Luhrmann has always had a gift for great soundtracks and visuals that are flamboyant with color. His skills with direction and stories are another thing. There is nothing wrong with him making lackluster stories look and sound good. In fact, there's certain aspects that make me think that he's an auteur of this style. However, I just wish that his films were far more enjoyable than they actually are. The issue for me with Romeo + Juliet is that it feels like a gimmick. It's contemporary settings with jarring text. It's hard to take most of it seriously because it wants to do that while also doing something completely ridiculous.

Which brings me to Moulin Rouge! and its general problem. This was the director's third film, and one that clearly owes its heart to old school musicals (stylistically). It wants to be the pomp and circumstance in every frame. For the most part, the music sounds great. However, it quickly devolves into a mediocre romance between actors Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. The premise is flimsy and the build up is about as cornball as Luhrmann will ever get. It's a love affair in which every character is comically overdone and the sincerity left before the film gets going. It's an excuse to explore vapid style and the director doesn't bring anything exciting to it, especially with an ending that packs in a mixture of "take me seriously" moments alongside broad humor that doesn't work at all. Tonally, the film is a mess in awe-inspiring ways.

If there is one thing that seems more offensive than a bad story, it's the feeling that Luhrmann's style is genuinely undermined by the amount of editing that goes on in an average minute. For average viewers, this may not seem like an issue. However, once you notice the impact that editing makes on an average scene, you'll understand why Moulin Rouge! is disastrous (and didn't deserve that Best Editing nomination). In general, a film's impact can be measured by how long a take goes on for. An uncut moment is able to allow that moment to sink in, letting the viewer comprehend the scene in a more satisfying way. As much as quick-editing benefits film too, Luhrmann is by no means capable of pulling this off, especially since this is a drama meant to emphasize emotional connection. The constant cuts are distracting, never allowing one moment to sink in before the other starts. It also takes away from any stylistic tricks of the camera that Luhrmann could possibly have. There's no time for a crane shot or interesting angle, largely because it will transition into something else just as quickly as it took for you to register it. Of course, Luhrmann has never been good at this, and it does raise the question on if he's even a good director period.

The story is atrocious as well, but I've already covered that. I don't entirely understand what makes this particular film Best Picture worthy in 2001. The one easy comment is that it was part of the 00's resurgence of musicals. With this in mind, it makes sense that a bombastic film does capture attention, but usually The Academy is smart enough not to nominate populous entertainment with nothing on its mind but vapid romance. Maybe it was the sense of freshness that it had in 2001, especially as a post-jukebox musical. Even then, the story surrounding what works is obnoxiously awful and feels more like a two hour advertisement for buying the far superior soundtrack. The fact of the matter is that if this was a musical in the way that Les Miserables was a musical, then it would have actually been interesting. Instead, it is mediocrity with a bright ribbon on it.

While this is still a flimsy excuse, I do believe that the film benefited from current events. Think of the 1950's Best Picture winners. They're predominantly big films with a lot of color and spectacle. It was an era following World War II where America wanted to forget their troubles. That explains (though not very well) winners like The Greatest Show on Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. Now, cut to 2001 - which may arguably one of the more somber years in 21st century history to date. I'm specifically referencing the September 11 attacks where The Twin Towers collapsed and the country had faced its biggest on soil catastrophe since Pearl Harbor. What do you turn to for solace? Suddenly, it begins to make sense. Moulin Rouge! only did well because of the time it was released, connecting more with audiences for being enthusiastic than actually being good. While it lost to A Beautiful Mind that year, it definitely mirrors why many films in the 1950's won despite many considering it notoriously contrived.

I know that I contradicted myself by proving why Moulin Rouge! was a Best Picture nominee, but I still don't get it in general. As much as you can accuse The Academy of nominating mediocre work, there's usually a competent artistry to the final product. There's been a lot of Oscar bait movies over the past 15 years that seem more plausible than Moulin Rouge! as a nominee, largely because they are well made. True, "well" is a subjective terminology, but when you consider that a film is capable of capturing a dramatic tone or capable of having lofty ideals, suddenly you'll understand why it was nominated. However, there aren't too many examples of films that are poorly directed and poorly written that managed to get Best Picture nominations. As thankless a job as directing can be sometimes, at least make it tell a story by which the audience can comprehend visually. Luhrmann doesn't do that. He's all bombast and no heart; a strange combination for a romantic story.

Now onto the bigger question: Is it really worse than the 15 years worth of Best Picture nominees and winners put together? Frankly, it hasn't had much of a competition. I am unwilling to say it's the worst nominee in history, largely because I am unfamiliar with many early nominees. However, I cannot think of any within this current century that comes close to being so jarring in its inability to reflect what is best about cinema in that year. You could argue that Crash or Slumdog Millionaire are bad movies, but at least they had thorough stories worthy of their praise. You could argue that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is too manipulative, but at least it is tonally consistent. You can argue that Precious and Beasts of the Southern Wild were too quick to embrace "poverty porn," but at least they had performances and soundtracks to back them up.

What does Moulin Rouge! have to offer the landscape of film in comparison to every other Best Picture nominee since 2000? I honestly don't know sometimes. It could just be that the story has aged poorly and mash-up culture has only improved since 2001. However, if it was as influential as some claim, shouldn't it hold up better? Shouldn't one be able to look back on the dramatic routine set to The Police's "Roxanne" and find something artistic about it? Luhrmann wants to be serious and silly at the same time, and I frankly don't believe that he's good at it - and Moulin Rouge! is him at his arguable worst tendencies. It isn't the worst film in general necessarily, but it definitely doesn't offer much that is significant to how musicals are now perceived in the 21st century. Considering that musicals never truly went away (see: Evita, Disney's various films of the time), there's not really a crutch for this film to stand on. It's just bad and, had it just been the feel good movie for post-9/11 grief, it would likely have a better legacy to its credit. Unfortunately, it was nominated and leaves generations to come what lead us to this conclusion in 2001 to give a Best Picture nomination to such a flimsy film.

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