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Falling (not so slowly) for "Once" - A Movie Smart With Heart

["Falling Slowly" is the Oscar Winning Song from Once now on the jukebox on your left.] 

This is the story of how my then girlfriend (not yet wife) and I came to watch a movie set in Dublin, in the city of Osaka, and then after, how we came out the theatre and into what should have been the Japanese winter's night and instead walked into an impromptu German Oktoberfest festival, sausages, milled wine and all. (Actually, I don't remember if they had milled wine. They had regular wine, I know that. It's just, milled wine sounded better. For the cold winter's night. You know?)

Actually, that's not really what this post is about at all. That story is really just an entry (and exit) point in how to recommend a lovely little movie. 

Once is a low budget film set in Dublin. The cameras are often hand-held, it seems many of the scenes in public are for real (not closed-off sets) and there are, to be honest, a number of slightly less than aimed for amateurish aspects to the film as well. There are holes in the plot and the acting has moments of slipping. Yet somehow in lieu of the film's tone the whole thing works, and works beautifully. A film about imperfect people in an imperfect world gets away with not itself being crafted perfectly.

Basically it's a love story. It's also the story of an artist. Two artists, in fact. Talk about preaching to the converted. You had me at love. You had me gaga at artist.

The main Guy (so named in the credits) is played by Glen Hansard, a musician. An actor too. He had a small part as a member of the band in the now legendary (Irish) movie about musicians, The Commitments. The other Irish movie about musicians, Once, opens with Hansard strumming his guitar and belting his sorry heart out on some cobblestone downtown Dublin street. He's busking. He doesn't make much money.

She (Girl) is from the Czech Republic. Come to Ireland for reasons not known, but come downtown, to this street to watch Guy play his guitar, and sing his passionate tunes.We don't yet know how well she (Marketa Irglova) can play a piano or sing a sad song.

What works is how much you like the two of them. The Czech Girl who has that eastern European zero-tolerance-for-bullshit thing. She says what she means. (She'd have a hard time doing business in Canada.) But there is an innocence to her. She's not all harshness and ex-Communist bitter. She has hope; the romantic in her is available all the time - you see it in her big brown eyes. The Guy is good, he's honest, you know it 'the way you know a good melon' (can you reference that movie quote?). The Irish guy with the reddish hair who seems so gentle and sweet until you give him a guitar and a voice, and then it's fierce, nearly angry the way he belts out heartbreak and yearning like the greats of old. Something that he wants so badly, that he gives so largely. Yearning. I'm not going thesaurus hunting to put it another way. That's the only word for it.Yearning

When I was young I had no interest in writing. I wanted to be rich. I wanted pots of money. How could I not? I went to a private school where every kid in my grade (save three or four) were richer than me, than my family. They had massive houses and fancy cars. That's what I wanted. Big house, fancy car, vacations that involved airplanes and not your family's crappy station wagon. (Oh the cars my father chose to drive!) Things old and small depressed me. Even my movies had to be glossy, shiny, rich and pretty back then. Luckily I grew up in the 80s. Ie. There was no shortage of gloss, shine or the ever light and wonderful Michael J. Fox. Then I grew up and decided I didn't like the bubble I'd been in. I got over Michael J. Fox, started to wonder if and why the guy had no dark side and began to see the world differently.

Now I like the old and the small. Like a 28 year-old South American student I was tutoring last year told me, 'When I was a teenager I used to look down on the people who clean bathrooms and do the simple work. Now I admire them.' But exactly. I admire the hard workers, the get down on their knees and scrub the floor do-gooders. I like that I live in a small apartment. Big suburban houses no longer mesmerize me. Even more so in movies do things simple, quaint, cheap, difficult, small, dingy appeal to something starving artist in me.

In Once I love how sparse the main characters lives are. I don't mean to romanticize poverty (besides, this is developed world poor: no one's going hungry), but there simply seems a more solid honesty to the struggling artist who works in his dad's humble hoover fixing shop, or the Czech girl who is excited - excited! - at finally landing a job cleaning people's houses.

These people in this story, they struggle. They strive. They won't necessarily succeed. There is unknown. There is hardship. But then, of course there is beauty. There is love. And the truest kinds of love, the truest happinesses come only from the toughest of strivings. It's the old Dickensian trope. From humble beginnings and all that.... None of us is much interested in the story of the billionaire's son going off to make another billion.

With a joke for a budget, and Ireland as backdrop Once has got none of your Hollywoody ra ra, Tom Cruise conquers all, drum-beating nonsense. Triumph is not certain, life is not glossy, the sky is rarely blue. But when the Girl plays the piano in that music shop and learns the song to sing so harmonious gorgeous alongside the Guy, it's just perfect. It's not chance the song won the Oscar.

Take me into a world so rich and I'll come out a better man, I'll come out with that fuzzy confusion I love so much, the film trailing on in my mind, clouding my eyes. Have this happen after I leave a crappy art-house movie theatre (what's so weird is how very phenomenal the Japanese can be at presentation (think food) and how remarkably lousy they can be at other kinds of aesthetic (think: the Detroit-esque drab ugly of the city of Osaka (that I so dearly love); think: housing a cinemateque type movie theatre in a businessman's high rise), and exit the film to return to what I thought was the Japan I was just getting used to, and it turns out that night, when Ai and I left the theatre, they were holding a German Oktoberfest celebration at the base of these skyscrapers (it's actually one skyscraper, The Sky Building in Umeda, the single architectural marvel in downtown Osaka) where we'd seen the movie. It was cold, winter, we could see our breaths. The film's music, it's tone was still very much with us and we weren't ready to go home. And the Germans who'd come to Osaka to sell their wares, their beers, wine and sausage one some weeknight at the base of these towering buildings, they managed to create a mood that was enchanting.

With Once in our hearts and in our brains Ai and I walked round this little circus of German fun eating overpriced, but worth it they were so delicious, candied cashews until we finally gave in to splurge on Japanese price-inflated German red wine and Japanese price-inflated German sausage to eat with mustard we'd squirted on paper plates (the mustard was free). There were picnic benches they'd set up on this freezing winter's night and there we sat and ate our sausage and toasted our wine and felt the right joy of being young and uncertain and not wealthy, neither owning anything more expensive than a plane ticket. But just that sausage, just that wine.

As Ethan Hawke so perfectly told Winona Ryder as the two unemployed twenty-somethings walked around a downtown scene smoking and sharing a coffee and realizing they were in love in Reality Bites: "You and me and five bucks."

Cause that's all you need.

The quote is also an expression my wife and I use with each other to this day.

Movies, OnceJonathan Mendelsohn