Breaking the Waves
Minister: Can you tell me about anything of real value that the outsiders have brought with them?
Bess McNeill: Uh… their music?
As The Dark Knight continues to dominate the box office numbers even a month after its release, another film that shared the same opening weekend and an accomplishment for breaking records is being brushed underneath the bed. Despite its all star cast and its former life as a successful musical, Mamma Mia! is still being categorized as an underdog against the unstoppable Goliath of The Dark Knight. Though the numbers are not unexpected nor does The Dark Knight not deserve the accolades it is receiving, but Mamma Mia! deserves a little boasting itself.
There is a single line that is being said by both the yay and nay-sayers for the film: “Mamma Mia! is pure fun.” On one side, you have the positive interpretation of the line in that the film is a return to the escapist roots of cinema. On the other side, you have the negative understanding where “pure fun” means candy-coated rainbows/”lollipops vomitting Skittles onto the screen” a la the negative reviews of the big screen version of Speed Racer. It is a little too easy to de-merit a film by equating “fun” with lack of substance or lack of societal purpose. In all its glory, Mamma Mia!, as Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, “isn’t a movie. It’s vacation.” As my dad points out immediately after his viewing of the film, Mamma Mia! in every essence is both a film about escape and one that provokes its audience to escape. The film is align with the films of the 1930s such as those by Busby Berkeley that were products of a country undergoing economic downturn. Meryl Streep et al. provide a nice cinema experience as well as the cheapest way to travel to the Greek Isles.
Perhaps the most off-putting/criticized parts of the film are the performances displayed by the seasoned actors of the cast. It’s one thing to see Tony-Award winning actress Christine Baranski in a musical, but it’s a whole new thing to see Mr. Darcy and Chuck/Jan Nyman singing in spandex suits. I, too, at parts had a hard time immersing into this new world actors who have played lowly suitors or violent townsmen can be happy people seeking a good time. However, it is this reaction to the film that I found the most interesting about Mamma Mia! Not so much a film illustrating the struggle of a dramatic actor’s entrance into the musical world, but an fascinating display on how trained actors translate the form of acting they have been known for into a subcategory of cinema that requires a different type of acting language.
The Winner Takes It All
The “The Winner Takes It All” number marks a pivotal moment in the film where Donna (Meryl Streep) and Sam (Pierce Brosnon) discuss their former life together and the harboring feelings that still remain. It is THE scene where “actor” must come out. The Kramer vs. Kramer Oscar-type acting and musical acting both require an overt, exaggerated form of emotional expression, the two modes still have a little bit of variation between the two. With every emotional lyric, you see Meryl Streep translate her mode of acting we’ve become used to into the mode necessary in a musical as she is singing. Instead of focusing all her energy on creating subtle facial expressions of pain and joy to be captured in extreme close-ups, Streep moves around on the cliff with arms flaring around, an action that is exaggerated by a red pashmina at hand.
In his critical review of the film, Chris Wisniewski of Reverse Shot writes:
But what does it say about our collective moviegoing habits that the same audiences who mostly spurned Chris Columbus’s Rent (admittedly, no masterpiece) and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd have turned out in droves for Hairspray and Mamma Mia!? Columbus and Burton take their stories and characters—and the genre—seriously. They use the medium to their advantage, staging their numbers with and for the camera; through framing, camera movement, editing, choreography, or production design, they craft rousing, sometimes resonant cinematic spectacle out of their theatrical raw material. Hairspray and Mamma Mia!, by contrast, are clearly products of a post-musical era, in which the genre itself is treated like a joke, where musical numbers are less displays of technical virtuosity than extended gags, sometimes at the expense of the performers themselves (in Hairspray, John Travolta’s pseudo-drag performance becomes a running punchline; Mamma Mia!‘s male leads are made equally ridiculous without the aid of dresses or fat suits).
What Chris Wisniewski chooses to gloss over are moments like the “Winner Takes It All” number where acting, a part of the “medium” he doesn’t include in his list, highlights the great use of film in translating a stage musical. In the “post-musical era,” everything is not simply a “joke.” Rather jokes are another opening to the understanding of how a craft can delve into a story that has already been told in another form before.
What did Sky and Sophie do after they left the island? Become a recording duo!