'Rouge,' 'Park,' 'Lantana' helmers reinvent classic forms

The saying is usually an admonition: Those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat it. But in film, that can be a good thing; the last year in cinema has seen several notable films that mix the old and new: directors tackling established genres and reinventing them out of their visions and obsessions.

Among the most prominent genre benders:

  • “Moulin Rouge”: Oz director Baz Luhrmann seeks to revive moribund musical cinema with his comic-tragic opera, a postmodern melange of anachronistic pop songs, audacious editing and delirious photography.

  • “Gosford Park”: Robert Altman rejiggers the Agatha Christie-style whodunit as an ensemble jewel that’s equal parts drama, farce, and study of the intersection and interdependence of social classes.

  • “Lantana”: Ray Lawrence’s cop/murder story is a character-driven study in existential angst, midlife crises, and the paradoxes of love and marriage.

  • “Heist”: Playwright-cum-filmmaker David Mamet take on the crime caper, undergirding the split-second expertise of a brilliantly planned rip-off with a study in loyalty among friends and lovers, and a constantly inverting framework of double- and triple-crossing.

“These are films that you can’t help thinking about how the director is trying to do something with the genre in (a) serious way,” says Thomas Schatz, a professor in the department of Radio, TV and Film at the University of Texas at Austin, who has written several books about the Hollywood movie industry. “These story forms are resilient, and will be reinvented constantly — good filmmaking is always about reinventing convention, taking the familiar and making it strange.”

There are other movies where classic genres — and the helmer’s responses to the rules and traditions of those story types — play a central role: neo noirs such as “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “The Deep End”; “Hannibal,” a recombinant horror pic that fashions a twisted but sincere relationship between filmdom’s most famous cannibal and the federal agent who pursues him; and Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast,” about British gangsters and the gradations of evil. Audiences are also responding to Ridley Scott’s harrowing “Black Hawk Down,” a pic about a U.S. military mission gone awry in 1993 Somalia that critics have lauded as a reinvention of the war movie.

Walk in the ‘Park’

Altman’s “Gosford Park” blends the lighthearted humor of a Charlie Chan mystery with the sort of careful composition and stately pacing that would be at home in a Merchant-Ivory production.

“The goal was to deliver a film that feels familiar to you, and then turn it two degrees off center,” says Altman.

“Gosford” opens with a classic setup: a series of upper-crust guests and their servants arrive at the country estate for a shooting party thrown by a wealthy but cantankerous blueblood. “Gosford’s” aristocrats work as hard at leisure and their sniping as the servants do at their butlering and serving. By the time a dead body turns up, we’ve seen that more than one of the estate’s dozens of occupants has motive for the murder.

But Altman’s characteristic interests are well in evidence, and the film is anything but the tightly plotted Christie-style story it superficially resembles. Instead, its looks through the different layers of society, using such familiar Altmanisms as multiple characters and points of view, juxtaposition of farce and drama, random intersections of lives — all techniques seen in the filmmakers’ best ensemble works: “Nashville,” “Short Cuts” and “The Player.”

So consciously was “Gosford” a genre piece that it mirrored an actual whodunit — 1934’s “Charlie Chan in London.”

“That was like the clothesline on which to hang all these little essays,” says Altman. “It’s not so much a who-done-it, as a who-cares-who-done-it.”

A splash of ‘Rouge’

Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” is third in what he has called his Red Curtain Trilogy, and does seem of a piece with his previous — and highly theatrical — films, “Strictly Ballroom” and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”

But “Moulin,” the most unconventional of the three, is proving the most broadly successful, ringing up $169 million at the box office worldwide and a steadily increasing number of awards. It also has demonstrated that life can be breathed back into the musical — a genre that was once a Hollywood staple but since relegated to the cinematic deep freeze.

“In short, our plan was to borrow the game plan from classical rules of the Hollywood musical and reinterpret those rules in contemporary cinematic terms,” says Luhrmann.

Certain rules of the genre could be adapted easily: like its musical film forebears, the movie sticks to a simple love story. The fun is in the telling, and it is here that “Moulin” departs from the golden age studio musicals.

For example, “Moulin” uses hip-hop’s sampling technique, with Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and others making many of their musical points by reciting and singing singing snippets of many of the most familiar and timeless pop songs.

“Audiences now can completely understand the idea of a sampled song,” says Luhrmann. “The entire film is made up both visually and musically of sampled ideas.”

“Moulin” also trades the slow, seductive editing normally found in the opening of a classic musical for the quick cuts and breakneck pace more frequently found in pop videos and commercials. But once Kidman’s showgirl Satine enters, the film adopts many of the classical patterns of romantic comedy as it depicts the love affair at the center of the story, says Luhrmann.

‘Lantana’s’ ruminations

“Lantana,” a melancholy rumination on love and loneliness, started out as a play by writer Andrew Bovell that Aussie filmmaker Lawrence saw four times when it was staged in Sydney.

“I loved what I saw as the mixing of genres,” says Lawrence. “In this case, a story of redemption mixed with that of a murder mystery.”

The film takes viewers on the typically twisty road of murder plots, from clue to suspect, with expected red herrings along the way. But Lawrence downplays the element of the police-procedural element that ostensibly moves the plot forward, and manages to keep Anthony LaPaglia’s detective character as an everyman, emotionally isolated from his wife, who has an extramarital affair triggered by the pain of a seemingly inescapable loneliness.

“I find when a character is a cop, everything seems a little larger than life,” Lawrence says. “So I felt the job in hand was to back off from the sensational elements of the story and concentrate on the characters and why they were like they were.”

Is there any reason these films appear now? “Moulin’s” Luhrmann thinks it’s a signpost of the young millennium.

“Just like back in 1900, everything was changing, the world was spinning, so it is in 2000,” he says. “The first 10 years of a new century, everything has to be shaken up, and cinema must always keep looking for a particular vernacular for a given time, to find the pattern to reflect the moment we’re in, and to find new rules of engagement with the audience.”

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