La Vie de Bohème
'Moulin Rouge' smothers avant-garde art in sea of pop clichés
By Gina Arnold
IN THE YEAR 1882, some avant-garde Parisian artists and musicians--among them Alfred Jarry and Erik Satie--formed a club called the Hydropaths, whose artistic goal was to shock the bourgeoisie. To that end, they did things like mount exhibitions of paintings that used bread and cheese as their medium, in order to make the point that nobody knows what good art is. They called their art the "Incoherent" school of painting.
The Hydropaths hung out at a club called the Chat Noir, in Montmartre. The posters, newsletters, and other detritus of their movement were recently on display at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in an exhibit titled "Toulouse-Lautrec and the Paris Bohème."
The day I went, the place was packed with art lovers viewing those giant posters of the dancer Jane Avril that one can now buy in any poster shop in the universe. It struck me as slightly sad the way art like that--beautiful but innately commercial--has gone from adorning the subways of Paris to being revered in museums, but I bought a poster anyway and hung it on my wall.
There's something about that time that will always move me, anyway, because at heart I agree with the philosophy of the Hydropathic incoherents: never take art, or life, too seriously. And anyone who's had anything to do with punk rock can relate to the reaction of critic Henri de Touche, who once said (approvingly), "It seems to me that in front of Michelangelo's masterpiece Moses, the true artist of today should say, 'I would like to do something else.' "
Perhaps that's what filmmaker Baz Luhrmann feels when he sees a corny old Hollywood movie like Titanic, or even something better, like The Godfather. Luhrmann is responsible for the new movie about the Paris Bohème, Moulin Rouge, which features Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as star-crossed lovers who hang out in Montmartre, circa 1900, and speak in the idiom of late-20th-century pop songs, the dumber the better.
Luhrmann has certainly made a movie that's not like any movie you've seen before, but whether it's a serious comment on film or a total put-on is as open to interpretation as a painting made of bread and cheese.
One nice way of interpreting his vision is to say that the film is a sendup of the utter banality of rock and pop. What else could it mean, when Luhrmann has composer Satie loudly applauding McGregor when he sings, "The hills are alive with the sound of music," and calling it, "So modern! So revolutionary! So Bohemian!"
It could be a comment on the nature of art, and the way something that seems ahead of its time at one juncture gets wildly dated the next. Or it could just be a weird deconstructive text on incoherence.
According to the script of Moulin Rouge, the whole point of living "La Vie de Bohème" isn't (as the Hydropaths would have it) to shake the complacency of the ruling classes but to uphold the ideals of "truth, beauty, and love"--unfortunately, via the medium of liquor, prostitution, and the exploitation of rich people. (Come to think of it, there's a school of punk rock/stripper/junkie bohemia that believes the same thing today.)
IN THE MOVIE, McGregor, who plays a starving poet, repeats his ideals with the catch phrases "All you need is love; love is like oxygen; love is a many-splendored thing; love lifts us up where we belong."
And those are just a fraction of the many inane pop choruses that are either sung or spoken throughout the film. Granted, I got a big kick from the opening shot of the sexy Moulin Rouge can-can dancers, who perform to a bizarre medley of La Belle's "Lady Marmalade" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And the finale, which uses T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution," is good for another laugh. But in between, Luhrmann seems to have deliberately picked every bad love song every written, from Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" to Elton John's "Your Song" (which is the movie's theme).
Moulin Rouge is a strange, strange movie, and not the strangest thing is figuring out who its intended audience is. I went to a matinee full of high schoolers who burst into giggles at every line. But I'm not sure they were laughing with the movie; they might easily have been laughing at it. (They certainly guffawed loudly all through the death scene.)
I have a friend, though, who says she enjoyed it because "most new musicals, like [Lars Von Trier's] Dancer in the Dark or [Woody Allen's] Everyone Says I Love You, have such bad music. At least I knew the tunes to these songs. They were relevant to me."
And that is true. But I couldn't get past the incongruity of people in Paris in 1900 singing songs from the year 2000. Speaking of history, the whole thing seemed like a degenerate view of the Paris Bohème that the Legion of Honor exhibit had celebrated. That era was rich in character and ideology. That Luhrmann relied on dopey cliché after dopey cliché is exceedingly lame.
Still, Moulin Rouge made me think about pop's place in the modern lexicon--especially about the way that the human race invariably embraces dumb aphorisms about love like the ones in the movie. These, after all, are just modern translations of all the love myths that have polluted the minds of youth down through the millennia. Dante and Beatrice, Héloise and Abelard, Romeo and Juliet, Rose and Jack in Titanic, the kids in Dawson's Creek. Talk about incoherent!
Moulin Rouge shows once and for all that all the silly love songs ever written are exactly the same underneath: trite, untruthful, and enormously, tremendously, idiotic and shallow. Where are the Hydropaths when you need them?
Whom do you trust?
From the June 28-July 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.