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Moulin Rouge, the Erasure of History, and the Disneyfication of the Avant Garde
by Lael Ewy

At best Moulin Rouge is a lot of fun. At worst it represents the erasure of history. Moulin Rouge is set in the Paris of 1900--at least ostensibly it is. The actual Paris of 1900 is the Paris of Satie, the Paris of Ravel, of Debussy. The actual Paris of 1900 is the Paris of Matisse, and at least for part of the year, the Paris of Picasso.

This is very fertile ground for a love story, a musical, anything, really. Puccini found it good enough for La boheme, after all. What we get in Moulin Rouge, though, is a Paris of 1900 filtered through the myopia of late 20th Century pop culture, especially pop music. We get an anachronistic melange of Madonna and Elton John, of Nirvana and Olivia Newton John.

In other words, it isn’t the Paris of 1900. It isn’t even close.

Granted, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec shows up as a supporting character and there is, in the film, a nightclub called Moulin Rouge from which the film cribs its title. But other than that, and the ubiquitous absinthe, there’s not much Parisy about Moulin Rouge the movie, much less Paris, 1900. The character of Toulouse-Lautrec speaks vaguely of the “Bohemian Revolution” but only long enough for the film to make fun of it, and never in enough detail for either a credible manifesto or a credible satire. And, of course, it has to be advocated by Toulouse-Lautrec because Hollywood still thinks dwarves are funny, especially dwarves with lisps.

So why does so little of the real Paris of 1900 appear in this film? I have my suspicions that to use, say the music of Erik Satie, would have been too “challenging” for contemporary audiences. It may have been deemed out of the target demographic of the film, probably “indie” movie buffs in the 19-30 range whose introduction to the avant-garde was Trainspotting. A movie about a writer in Paris that actually dealt with other writers who were really there, other artists who didn’t have the luck to be born lisping dwarves, would never have been made. I mean, who would go to see it? Old people?

The problem, of course, with always making things people can “relate” to, is that in constantly recycling what we know, we fail to ever learn or be challenged by anything new, even if that thing, new to our experience, is past history. We are never able to deal with anything but that which is most immediately known or knowable to us. So Debussy is substituted with the Doors. And there is nothing new in Moulin Rouge: the plot is the standard “hooker with a heart of gold,” the soundtrack, as has been noted, is almost completely pop songs from the past 40 years, and many of the scenes themselves are recycled, most obviously from Singin’ in the Rain and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

I suppose we could chalk this up to po-mo video sampling. We could call this the filmic version of hip-hop. But it follows a trend that began for many viewers of Moulin Rouge with the Disney films of the ‘80s and ‘90s: it takes perfectly legitimate literature and history and washes it with contemporary good feelings to gain a new audience. Disney has been cleaning up some really Grimm fairy tales since Snow White. But it went beyond itself with The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the myth of Hercules, turning heart-wrenching tales of star-crossed loves, tales, some clearly aimed at children, all clearly challenging to Romantic notions about love, into cute little animations embracing just such values. This same trend is reflected in advertising where Janis Joplin’s song decrying the materialism of Mercedes Benz ownership is used to sell that very marque.

Let me be clear: this isn’t “irony,” and it gives cynicism a bad name. For this sort of thing to be ironic it must be understood so by its audience, and if it is, it’s self-defeating: to make fun of materialism while you try to sell Mercedeses with a song that makes fun of materialism, tells your audience not to buy your car. The most likely explanation is that the ad makes fun of the song, saying, in essence, “Remember back when we were idealistic and thought materialism was bad? How foolish we were!” In other words, this is advertising critiquing art, advertising embracing, and indeed celebrating, superficiality and dumbness. It is, in other words, meant to make the viewer more comfortable in having sold out (No values? Well, at least you’ve still got a bigass luxury car all your friends will be envious of!). The ad says it’s ok to be a capitalist pig since the Mercedes Benz company gave you permission to do so. It makes palatable a difficult problem in social ethics at the personal level.

In the same way, then, Moulin Rouge glosses over the more difficult aspects of Paris in 1900, the deep changes in culture, the clash (who says it doesn’t speak to today?) of high and low art that sent spasms through painting, sculpture, music, writing, and replaces it with, well, with just low art. If Ubu Roi made low culture avant garde, Moulin Rouge makes the avant garde Disney. In the same way that the millions who grew up with Disney’s version of Grimm, of Hans Christian Anderson, of Greek mythology will never know the real things with all their depth and terror, so the millions who know Janis Joplin’s song only from the ad will never know the real anger and disappointment at the heart of the satire. They may never even understand that it is satire, and that’s as great a loss as anything.

In like style, the WB Network has recently begun airing a set of promo spots in which The Who’s “My Generation” is redone hip-hop style to promote shows aimed at the so-called “Y” generation--those born post 1976. Of course, this generation will never know the original, don’t remember The Who, and will never understand the song not merely as an anthem of a particular set of people, but as a meaningful part of history. It will only be a jingle to them, the WB’s song to sling its own shows, made “relevant” with a sampled beat and an inner-city rap-type delivery. They will never understand a generation disillusioned with the powers that were, angry at their war, at their values, at their lifestyle. They will understand that it’s just another ad in an endless wash of ads in which they’re virtually dissolved.

What’s lost here is history. History tells us what is here, what it means, how it got here, and hints as to what should be done with it. With every cycling of culture, a little meaning is lost, the sense of the song falls away, the context of the book is forgotten, the footnotes removed. With each transvaluation of culture, which is what Daimler Chrysler has done in its ad, what Disney has done, what Moulin Rouge does, history is erased, meaning turns in on itself is repolarized and destroyed. It is worse than the old Soviet practice of writing the unfavored out of the history books since the persona non grata were obvious in their absence, since the practice is blatant and bold. What Moulin Rouge does, however, is much more insidious: it resells you Paris, 1900, gutting it of what was there and replacing it with what wasn’t, paternalistically, to “reach” you, to “relate.” It gives you just enough to make you think it’s somehow fantasy, but fantasy lives on its own terms, uncompromisingly. It does not need to relate to you. This is why Dada and Surrealism continue to challenge: they make no attempt to accommodate your experience and are all their own. Fantasy creates history; Moulin Rouge replaces it. And with this we get back to the real Paris of 1900, fantastic, challenging, new.