There is a local library near our house that has very few books, and appears to be used primarily as a place to rent videos for free. In any case, it is full of completely forgotten movies on videocassette that no one rents, which my girlfriend occasionally picks up on a whim. Anyway, she picked up, as a joke, what appeared to be a kitschy musical called Pennies from Heaven, with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. The only indication that it was anything unusual or special was a bit of praise on the back from Pauline Kael.
In any case, we watched it, and it is extraordinary. It is one of the darkest movies I have ever seen - it's the kind of musical I could imagine Nathanael West writing. The movie deals with a song salesman in the great depression who dreams of opening up a record store. He is a stock figure from old movies: the big dreamer. His wife is frigid; he's sexually voracious. He falls in love (or appears to) with another woman, has an affair, gets her pregnant.
In most movies, the big dreamer's dreams are actually worthwhile, and his love is actually sincere. But everything about this person is incredibly second-rate. And his completely lack of consistency and sincerity ruins life for everyone around him. The songs, for the most part, instead of expressing any sort of exuberant emotion, just express the character's delusions. Throughout the movie -- which I can't say, incidentally, that I actually enjoyed -- there is this feeling of something like cognitive dissonance. You have no idea how to react to anything: a love song is sung with semi-obscene sexual gestures; sometimes songs run directly counter to what is actually happening, and occasionally express what the character is feeling.
Occasionally, I got the sense that this was because the filmmakers themselves didn't know what they were going for. The movie actually works a lot better when the songs work unironically -- as they do, for the most part, in the second half of the movie -- and just express what the character is feeling. Even then, the dissonance comes -- as in West's books -- with wondering how much sympathy we are supposed to give the characters, how seriously we are supposed to take their plight. Like that awful letter in Miss Lonelyhearts from the girl who was born without a nose. Her voice is captured too perfectly to not feel connected with her, but there's always this feeling that all of it might be a joke to the writer, who is just playing around with the conventions of what captures our sympathy.
I felt the same way here sometimes -- but too many of the scenes played too honestly, with too much compassion, to not have the hand of some sort of artist behind them. I read the biography of the writer at allmovie, and apparently he's a legend in Britain, where this was originally a seven-hour miniseries. Anyway, at first I recoiled a little bit with the usual line about movies like this -- why would anyone spend time and money on a movie just to get depressed? -- but it stayed with me for too long. It's worth seeing.
(Incidentally, I realize that DVDs are a superior technology, but in four or five years all of those discs in the library will be too scratched up to play at all, and get thrown away; old videocassettes may go fuzzy in places, but they will at least play - if our library is any indication - for about twenty years. It also struck me that, despite the greater cultural importance of movies, a pre-DVD/VHS movie that didn't immediately find an audience -- and isn't made by someone later acknowledged as a master -- is much more deeply lost and unlikely to be rediscovered than a book. Anyway, it turns out this movie has been released on DVD, so see it if you have the chance.)