Grafton Street. Night. In a long shot from across the street we see a busker strumming a guitar in a gap between shops. The angle is reminiscent of a tourist video – a casual passer-by who happens upon this interesting musical specimen and chooses to pause for a moment. At this hour of the day the singer is without an audience, and seems to be performing largely for his own benefit in the darkened thoroughfare. As his song progresses he becomes more passionate, his fingers assaulting his guitar while his voice is pushed to its limits. As he reaches the song’s zenith the camera moves across the street, catching him in a mid-to-close shot that transforms the accidental style into something more akin to a rock video. As he finishes we become aware that he has an audience: one person: a young woman.
The woman asks him why she has never heard this song before; he tells her that he has written it himself. He only plays his original songs at night, he explains, because during the day people want to hear something familiar. After all, this is how he makes his living. While he’s happy that people like her appreciate his music, people like her can only afford to throw ten cent into his guitar case.
Scenes from modern Bohemia
The first meeting between the two nameless protagonists in John Carney’s Once recalls the initial encounter between Rodolfo and Mimì in La Bohème. The main characters in Puccini’s opera are an impoverished young poet and a consumptive seamstress who inhabit a realm of beauty that lies beyond their immediate, penurious circumstances. Rodolfo explains his trade in the famous lines: ‘Who am I? I’m a poet/My business? Writing/How do I live? I live.’ While the denizens of Carney’s modern bohemia are musicians, rather than the assorted artists of the Latin Quarter, Once operates within a similar tradition. The busker eeks out a living between playing music on the streets and working in his father’s hoover repair shop, while his female companion sells flowers on the street and works as a domestic cleaner. But both have talents that only the other seems to appreciate.
If Bohemian Paris was a reaction to the years of bourgeois affluence culminating in the Second Empire, the Bohemian circle explored by Once represents a cultural byproduct of Ireland’s boom years in the 1990s. Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years have been documented, temporarily at least, by a corpus of romcoms and thrillers. Once depicts the other side of the boom; there is no cosmopolitan glitz, but neither is there probing of a (by now well-prodded) ‘dark underbelly’. In a property-obsessed society, both protagonists live in unglamorous circumstances with one of their parents. No-one in the film (apart from Eamon the record producer) uses a mobile phone or drives a car; no-one drinks a cappuccino, eats parma ham or rockett, uses an iPod or goes online. There is a single scene in which Glen Hansard uses a laptop while writing a new song, but otherwise the trappings of the new disposable income that we are all supposed to be enjoying are noticeable by their absence. Characters travel by bus and use public phones as if the Celtic Tiger never happened.
The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.