From blockbuster science fiction and crime family epic, let’s turn our attention to smaller films, and smaller budgets. Once has one of the smallest budgets of all the films on the first list of 50 [and if you don’t know what list I mean, I’d suggest you take a quick visit to the About page.] Combined with its rough, homemade aesthetic and amateur cast, one might expect the end result to be on par with Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space. Instead, director John Carney works masterfully within the confines of his limited resources, crafting an indie musical brimming with such poignancy and truth that it rivals our previous picks for artistic merit.
In his book Catching the Big Fish, renowned director David Lynch talks about cinema as a language that can say “big, abstract things,” communicating what can’t be easily verbalized. Many would argue that the best music serves much the same function. It might follow, then, that the best, purest musical films concern themselves with communicating these unspeakables. If so, Once must be considered one of the best, for this is its main subject.
Story Structure Break-Down
Hook: Our male lead — credited only as “Guy” — busks on Dublin’s Grafton Street. A sketchy-looking man steals his guitar case [in which he keeps his earnings], and the Guy gives chase. He catches the thief, who contritely returns his money. After a surreally friendly conversation, the Guy gives the thief some change, and the two part amicably.
Act One: The Set-Up
The Guy busks on the same street that night, playing a song he’s in the process of writing — “Say It To Me Now.”
Inciting Incident (Ii): His playing attracts the attention of the Girl, a Czech immigrant who asks about the story behind the song. The Guy reluctantly reveals a fragment of his past, a recent heartbreak. When he mentions that he works in a vacuum repair shop, the Girl explains that her vacuum is broken; she promises to bring it to him on the street the next day.
The Girl appears as promised the next day, vacuum in tow; taken aback, the Guy agrees to look at it while they get lunch. At a cafe, he learns that she plays piano, but can’t afford one at home. Instead, she plays at a nearby music shop every day. The Guy asks to come with her to listen; after some prompting, he agrees to teach her one of his songs.
Plot Point I (PPI): “Falling Slowly.” As the last strands fade out, our story changes irrevocably. This isn’t a movie about vacuum cleaners and those who fix them. From here on out, Once follows these characters as their musical and personal connection deepens.
The Guy opens up to her about his failed relationship [“Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” & c.] and introduces her to his father [and yes, they fix the vacuum]. He plays her some tapes of his songs, then propositions her. Offended, she leaves.
Act Two: Conflict and Complications
In the first half of Act Two (AIIa), the Guy makes amends, and becomes a friend. He learns about her life as an immigrant in Ireland — her crowded apartment building, her mother and two-year-old daughter Ivonka. “Where’s her da?” he asks. “He’s at home,” the Girl says.
The Guy asks the Girl to write lyrics for an instrumental track he’s been working on. She agrees, and sings the resulting song as she walks through the neighborhood that night [“If You Want Me”]. Meanwhile, the Guy continues to write songs about his ex, watching old video clips he took of her during their relationship’s heyday [“Lies”].
Midpoint (MP): The Guy decides to go to London to reconnect with his girlfriend. He asks the Girl to help him record a demo album before he goes, and she agrees.
The second half of Act Two (AIIb) concerns itself mainly with the logistics of setting up the recording sessions (finding a band, securing a bank loan) and the recording itself [“When Your Mind’s Made Up,” “Fallen From the Sky”]. Meanwhile, their relationship deepens. They attend a party together. They steal his father’s motorcycle and drive into the country, where the Girl reveals that she’s still married.
Plot Point II (PPII): During a break from recording the demo, the Guy and Girl wander into a room with a piano. The Girl plays one of her own songs, “The Hill,” but breaks down partway through. The Guy asks her to come with him to London, but she plays it off as a game. Realizing they can’t run away, they rejoin the band to finish the album.
Act Three: Resolution
The engineer takes the band for a ride to listen to the tape “on some shitty speakers.” They go to the beach and toss a Frisbee around. After, as everyone goes their separate ways,
Climactic Moment: The Guy and the Girl discuss their plans. He’s going to London; she’s going to try to make things work with her husband. He tries to get her to come over that afternoon. “For what? …We just hanky-panky if I come over now,” she argues, but in the end she agrees. In the end, however, she stands him up.
The Guy plays the demo for his father, who sends him off with his blessing. The Guy searches for the Girl to say goodbye, but can’t find her. Returning to the shop where they first played together, he buys a piano and has it delivered to her flat just as he arrives in London.
One Story Among Many: Long Lenses, Big World
Most of Once was shot with handheld cameras with long lenses. The primary reasons for this had to do with the production’s micro-budget. Carney opted to skip the expensive permitting process for filming on location, which meant it was in the project’s best interest to be as discreet as possible. Long lenses meant cameras could be further away from the actors, hidden from view, and still get a good picture. Moreover, it made it easier the nonprofessional stars to relax with less equipment in their faces.
The cinematography also becomes a key aspect of the storytelling. The handheld camerawork gives it a documentary-style realism rarely seen in musical films. Indeed, the studio scenes from AIIb call to mind nothing so much as the Beatles’ 1970 film Let It Be. But it really in the use of the long lenses that the camera becomes an equal partner in constructing the narrative.
What do we mean by “long lens”? A “standard” lens [usually between about 30mm and 75mm, depending on who you ask] is one which presents roughly the same field of view [what we can see] and depth of field [how much is in focus] as the human eye. Wide-angle lenses [which can range as low as single-digits to as high as 30mm] have a wider field of view [hence “wide-angle”], and more of the object is in focus. Long lenses are on the opposite end of the spectrum, having a narrower field of view and shallower depth of field.
On a longer lens, our background will be less in focus than our subject. Simultaneously, the distance between our subject and its surroundings is compressed, making the background appear closer to our subject than it actually is. Some excellent comparisons between a wide-angle shot and a long-lens shot of the same image can be found here.
Finally, since a long lens has a smaller field of view than a standard lens, it stands to reason that some amount of magnification is going on — the field of view may be narrower, but the image is still the same size. On high focal length lenses [very long lenses], this is your classic surveillance point-of-view shot, like this one from 1974’s The Conversation:
Indeed, the overall effect of this magnification is that it gives us the feeling of spying on our characters from afar. This is amplified by the unsteady quality of handheld camerawork, which often suggests a POV shot. We’re standing on Grafton Street, watching the story unfold.
This voyeuristic experience is heightened by the way shots are composed, particularly in the first half of the film. Street scenes are often filmed in such a way that passerby are constantly moving between the cameras and the leads [who frequently walk out of frame and disappear into the crowds at the ends of scenes]. When the Guy takes the Girl to lunch in Act One, most of their conversation is filmed from outside the cafe, with their features obscured by reflections in the plate glass window. A city bus passes. Shoppers hurry by with bags. The city moves on around them.
And indeed, their environment surrounds them in nearly every scene. Even the music shop where they first play together [“Falling Slowly”] is crowded, its walls fairly bristling with guitars, its floor-space dominated by drum kits. In multiple shots, the lens compression pulls the background in so that the instruments seem practically on top of them:
The ever-presence of the surrounding city speaks in many ways to the central character of this film and the story it tells. Once is a small film, its story a simple, everyday one. Carney has gone so far as to call it a “postage stamp film.” Yet its very ordinariness is, in many ways, the point. The movie’s final crane shot takes us from the Girl playing her new piano in her flat, out to the open window. We see that her building is comprised of dozens of similar apartments with identical windows, and then we gaze down upon the street and its traffic as we cut to black*:
In this final image, we are left with a sense of the millions of stories out there, stories of everyday kindness and beautiful, fleeting connections, waiting to be discovered. Once is but one story of many, and its title perhaps reflects this very idea — here is something that happened. “Once a sad and lonely guitar player met a girl who played piano…”
Such Distance Between Us: The Unspoken in Once
In a film that focuses so much on music, it should come as no surprise that its characters wrestle continuously with their inability to express themselves verbally. The relationship between the Guy and the Girl finds its clearest expression in the music that they make together. Similarly, the relationship between the Guy and his father comes through mostly in things unsaid, and in the small acts of affection which the son performs. Early on in the film, when he calls his ex in London and gets her machine, he hangs up without a word.
The most obvious difficulty in communication is the language barrier. When the Guy first visits the Girl’s apartment and meets her mother and daughter, he spends several awkward moments standing by the door as the two Czech women talk in their native tongue. We aren’t given any subtitles, either, so unless you happen to speak Czech, we’re right there with him, uncertain. Later, the Girl translates a few of her mother’s sentences; rather humorously, when the Girl asks her to “speak a little English,” the elder woman’s reply is a heavily-accented “No, thank you.”
The language issue comes to the forefront when the pair later travel outside the city, and the conversation turns to the Girl’s collapsing marriage. “What’s the Czech for, ‘Do you love him’?” the Guy asks. The Girl answers, “Noor-esh-ho?” When the Guy repeats the question back to her, however, she says “Noor-ho-tebbe.” While we can infer the meaning of the words, the Guy is at a loss — which of course is her intent all along. She can’t express her emotions for him in a way that he would understand. The circumstances are too complicated. And anyway, it’s not clear that even she’s sure in what way she means those words.
Neither character has a clear sense of what they want. After the pair recruit the other members of their band for the demo, they head to a party. The Girl calls her mother from a payphone to let her know, while the Guy waits under a nearby streetlamp. As the conversation in [again unsubtitled] Czech goes on, we focus in on the Guy’s face as he looks at the sky, his expression one of — what? Anxiety? Uncertainty? Longing? Perhaps all three. He’s declared himself London-bound, ready to reconnect with his lost girlfriend. But is that really what he wants? The more he gets to know the Girl, the more he wants to be around her. Later, at the party, as he and some friends perform “Gold,” the Girl watches from the background, her face similarly inscrutable.
In those rare instances when the characters do bare themselves to each other, an interesting thing happens: the ever-present background falls away, and we’re left with only two. This happens three times in the film: on the seaside walk mentioned above, when they discuss running away to London together, and near the film’s conclusion, when the Guy plays his songs for his father [who has been indifferent to his son’s vocation at best]. In each case, as the conversation becomes more honest, the camera shifts toward tighter coverage, until only the characters’ faces are in frame.
What’s interesting about the seaside conversation, though, is that it breaks this pattern precisely when it should — that is, when the barriers go back up. AS the Girl talks about her uncertainty about salvaging her marriage, we see the two characters as described above:
However, once the Guy turns the conversation to her feelings about her husband, the coverage shifts. He remains close-up, while her shots regain a little distance:
They’re moving into dangerous territory here. She almost needs him to not understand, to protect herself against her own vulnerability. I’ll let you in, she seems to say, but only so far, for this is much more complicated than just we two.
Later, at the piano, we see what happens when all of the background is completely stripped away. The walls are in shadow, the room empty. It’s just the two of them. In such a stripped-down world, the Guy knows exactly what he wants. For most of the movie, he’s been hiding behind a facade of cool, of easy-going friendship, keeping his guard up. Now that’s gone. “Come away to London with me.” They begin planning the new life they’ll lead. For a moment, it sounds like a fantasy come true. Then the Girl asks, “Can I bring my mother?” and reality smashes them back down to earth.**
And reality triumphs. Before heading to the airport, the Guy looks for the Girl. He goes to her apartment, but finds only her mother and a screaming Ivonka. He searches Grafton Street, but cannot find her in the crowd. Robbed twice of a dramatic [one might say cinematic] goodbye, he falls back on the only thing they were allowed to have — the music. There can be no I love you, no I’ll miss you. No word of thanks. Just this last gift, a small reminder of the time they shared [OK, a big, heavy reminder that must have been a bitch to get up that tight staircase]. Small things made big, as I said before. All those things that remain unsaid given tangible form.
Where most musicals seem content to be lighthearted spectacles, Once concerns itself with the struggle to communicate our emotions with words. Through its cinematography, we see this simple story as one of many that are out there, waiting to be unearthed. With a budget of less than $200,000, this film nevertheless went on to capture imaginations around the world, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2007. Steven Spielberg, of all people, said, “Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.”
Which begs the question, what are you and I waiting for? Let’s get out there and tell some stories.
Keep on truckin’…
*Before anyone asks, yes, I’m aware that this is a poor-quality photograph of the film playing on my TV set. I couldn’t find the image I wanted online, so I had to cobble one together myself. It illustrates the point well enough. Get off my back, eh?
**Later, we learn that she’s already called her husband and reconciled, even though, as she tells the Guy in this scene, “he’s an idiot.” She cries at the piano because she knows what she’s going to do. As she sings in “The Hill,” which she wrote for her husband, “I’m letting myself down / By satisfying you.”