Saturday, August 31, 2013

In defense of "Charlie's Angels"

Charlie's Angels

FROM SALON.COM: Tasty, not tasteless

"Charlie's Angels" is about cute butts kicking butt, and that's just fine with me.
By Amy Benfer

Nov. 16, 2000 | In the past month, my friend and I have made a habit out of going to chick flicks. Both of us are writers, and we had become jealous of Maxim and Esquire when we noticed that they were doing smart trend pieces on chicks in flicks. We wondered why we hadn't noticed Lara Croft first. Then we got it: We thought we hated those movies, but maybe we were boycotting for specious reasons. So we started to go. We didn't exactly give up on being vicious and snarky about the whole genre -- we even began calling ourselves the LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) Club -- but now we knew whereof we spoke.

On the night we went to see "Charlie's Angels," we were chastised by a mutual friend, a hardcore feminist who told us both, "I hope you're slumming." The next evening, after we had come out of the theater kickboxing our way down Market Street, I settled in with a cigarette and glass of wine on my front stoop. I consider my front stoop both my living room (it's where I go to smoke) and my community sounding board (it's where I go to test out my theories of the day by talking to the neighbors).

Most nights, I'm talking about the election or the next party or whatever new book or magazine I'm reading. That night, I couldn't stop talking about how much I loved this fab new movie recycled from a '70s TV show about three jumpsuited women at the beck and call of a disembodied male voice.

"Saw it, loved it," said my 22-year-old tough-chick neighbor who gets kicked out of parties for beating up on boys and supports her acting career by working for a San Francisco Realtor and as a makeup artist. Another neighbor, a 40-something intellectual who often quizzes me on what I've read this week, in, say, the New York Review of Books, looked appalled, then concerned. "But you can't be serious? I would think you'd find it deeply offensive."

Me, too. The trailer -- which featured Cameron Diaz jiggling her booty in her Underoos (but hey, they were Spiderman Underoos with a fly) and inviting her UPS man to "Stick something in my slot anytime," and Drew Barrymore covering her lush naked body with plastic pool furniture while demanding help from two saucer-eyed little boys -- seemed like nothing so much as an outrageous flesh fest, with neither irony nor intellect. When I noticed that the promo posters had replaced the famous angels' silhouettes of three babes with guns with three babes with Kung Fu hands, I was a little irked: What, Dirty Harry gets a big gun, but Dirty Harriet has to make do with the moves she learned in women's self-defense class? But damn, those fight scenes looked cool.

As it turns out, I loved it. It had nothing to do with the plot, which, like most action movies, is as skimpy as Diaz's bikini and disposable as a used hand grenade. And I could write an essay about Charlie as the voice of patriarchy, the trio of hotties as objectified inflatable sex dolls and questioned why all the angels' crime fighting had to be done in revealing jumpsuits. (I was once a women's studies major.)

But 20 years does a lot to change the role of a crime-fighting bimbo. First of all, they get to be more butch: Where a vintage Angel might have defused certain situations with a police revolver and a hearty "Hands up," the new (and yes, improved) Angels get five-minute action sequences synchronized with thumpy electronica, during which they kick, punch, throw and ram (as in two girls hoisting the third to use her body as a pummeling device) villains like the effete Crispin Glover or the leather-clad dominatrix/CEO Kelly Lynch. Unless you count the zip-off catsuits, there's not a cat fight in sight. (Glover is an exception to this rule -- he's the hair-puller, but he does it mostly to satisfy his weird erotic cravings.)

But they also get to be more femme. Sure, the original Angels came frosted with pounds of hairspray and lip gloss. But they have nothing on these new girls, who demonstrate their pussy power by vamping, mocking and altering their femininity at will. They wear wigs and makeup, serve up cleavage like a meal and display their asses like plumage. They wake up in men's beds. And this in no way diminishes their credibility as crime fighters or their likability as characters. They play to an audience that gets it, that understands that straight women appreciate other women's bodies (I was riveted by the sight of Diaz unzipping her wet suit to her navel), that sex workers and sluts deserve some respect and that there is nothing wrong with being a sex object if your objective is to have sex. These girls are definitely looking back in something other than anger, and winking too.

The best thing about "Charlie's Angels" is how liberally it steals from two clichés: the male action hero and the Hollywood vixen. It's like fusing GI Joe and Barbie.

This movie is targeted, like a heat-seeking missile straddled by a pinup girl (an image mocked by Lucy Liu, who straddles a heat-seeking missile toward the end of the movie), straight at the chicks who grew up in the '70s; it's loaded with '70s schtick: lip gloss, jumpsuits, baseball shirts, a soundtrack that resurrects disco and Juice Newton. Cameron Diaz even gets a cameo on "Soul Train."

Here's the thing: Many of us girls (well me and many girls that I know) have been reading boy stuff for years. We played with Star Wars action figures and video games and read comic books and watched "their" after-school programs and the "Dukes of Hazzard." We also played with Barbies and watched "Wonder Woman" and "Charlie's Angels" and traded nail polish. We were the daughters of Second Wave feminists, and for the most part, we had parents who encouraged us to play with boys' toys. It's just that we couldn't get the boys to play with ours. So we learned both parts.

"Charlie's Angels" is one girl toy that the boys definitely will want to play with. In fact, boys and girls both think this movie is aimed at them: In a recent Chicago Tribune column, writers Mary Scmich and Eric Zorn debated the question of whether or not "Angels" was a chick flick (Scmich: "It's one big self-aware, sexy wink. It's cleavage as camp") or a dude flick (Zorn: "It's a cross between an action comic book and Maxim magazine. Guys will be taken ... with ... the numerous shots of the rear ends of the female stars").

But this movie defies gender identification. If Zorn is looking at the rear ends, he does so at his own risk. There is no question that these girls are babes, but anyone who is blinded by their cleavage had better be prepared for their karate chops. In fact, men who are lured in by sexiness and taken out as sexist are the revolving joke of the movie: The girls dress as geishas to fleece a computer mogul, as belly dancers to collect fingerprints, as singing-telegram Swiss lasses to obtain a retinal scan.

At one point the villain (who has screwed Barrymore's character, literally and figuratively) offers his henchmen a bit of "angel cake" in the form of a bound Barrymore. She spreads her legs in a suggestive V to stop them in their tracks and then proceeds to describe in a flirtatious, girlish voice just exactly how she's going to dispose of them. Then she does -- striking poses and concluding with, "And that's kicking your ass." She does this all with her hands, literally, tied behind her back. (As for the paramour, well, he's taken care of: She kills him.)

(Vastly different interpretations of this scene are possible -- and have been made. Anthony Lane, for example, wrote in the New Yorker that he was troubled by the "rape fantasy" suggested by Barrymore's stopping the action with implied action. Maybe it's a question of where you insert yourself into the fantasy.)

What is so refreshing about "Charlie's Angels" is that it directly translates boy action movies: It cribs from kung fu movies, "The Matrix" and "Mission Impossible." (Diaz breaks into a room with a pressure-sensitive floor à la Tom Cruise, except that she, perhaps borrowing from a stint as high school cheerleader, escapes detection with a series of back flips and handstands.) The angels get punched in the face, survive no less than four exploding fireballs, dangle from helicopters, skydive and jump off cliffs.

The fight scenes are pure physical and sexual spectacle, all long legs and rock-hard abs. Of course they have flat stomachs and Barrymore can joke that all three burgers, fries and Cokes are for her: They are probably burning about 10,000 calories a day and they need those stomach muscles and biceps to do work -- like support them when they are dangling over chasms. Watching Diaz leap through the air, you don't just think about the grace of her ballet-dancer limbs, you think, "Wow, having legs that long must really help out in a street fight."

The Angel body taunts the self-conscious women's fitness craze launched in the early '80s by the likes of Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John. That vaguely feminist campaign was about slimming, not building muscle in order to inflict pain on those who deserve it. Even the "empowering" accessories to the fitness fad -- equal access to organized athletics for girls and hardcore self-defense classes for women -- firmly placed female followers in the victim role -- a constant and moving target of the male rapist. The angels, meanwhile, are into kickboxing (the aerobics of the new millennium), not so much to stay trim and safe but because they might want to fuck someone else up, simply for the pure, aggressive pleasure of it.

The one false note in the movie comes when Kelly Lynch, after watching Diaz take out a posse of thugs, scowls at us and says, "Never send a man to do a woman's job." (She then proceeds to viciously beat up Diaz on and off for the next 20 minutes.) This caused the boys sitting in back of us to hiss. I'm not worried about them, I groaned too.

The delight of this movie is its lack of self-consciousness. The angels don't talk about the clichés of being superheroes, they don't take pains to insert girl as a modifier, as one would say, "female doctor." They show, don't tell.

In fact, the only "feminist" lines in this movie come from Liu, who debates about whether to tell her boyfriend, a failing movie action hero, that she is not really a aesthetician (which he refers to as "a bikini waxer.") What is she supposed to do, she asks herself, tell him: "I'm one-third of an elite crime-fighting team backed by an anonymous millionaire" or quip, "You play an action hero on TV, I get a lot of action?" The problem, she laments to her Angel pals is, "They come on all lovey-dovey until they find out you can break a cinder block with your forehead."

Contrast that to, say, "Thelma and Louise." We were supposed to like Thelma and Louise, remember? That was girl bonding -- holding your girlfriend's hand while you drive off a cliff. In "Charlie's Angels" you hold your girlfriend's hand while you jump off a cliff, fall a couple hundred feet, fuck up your hair, scratch the shit out of your shin and land, right side up, like a cat, and run into the bushes to decimate some bad guy.

"Thelma and Louise" was, at heart, a "woman's movie." But it was all too real: Thelma's pizza eating, braying, control-freak husband, the lover who gives her an orgasm but steals her money, both women's minimum-wage waitressing gigs. 

Sure there were a few big guns, but they were all used for bitter retaliation -- necessary tools to act out against the reality of sexism. There is a place for that, but "Charlie's Angels" points out that chick rebellion does not have to be limited to gritty, social realist stories of female oppression.

Amy Benfer is associate editor of Mothers Who Think.

In praise of Michael Mann

Why Michael Mann is a terrific filmmaker

From MovieMaker Magazine. Copyright 2000.
By Rus Thompson

A search on the Internet turned up nothing about Michael Mann’s private life. Is he married? Does he have children? Where does he live? What does he do for fun, besides researching and crafting his meticulous, extravagant films? I want to know these things, because in each and every Mann film—from the made-for-TV The Jericho Mile up through The Insider—concerns about family, marriage and relationships drive the central protagonists. Their professions—whether criminal or legitimate—provide the modus operandi, but it is their concern for the safety of loved ones that forces these men (and they’re all men) to commit themselves to a course of action.

That action—obsessive and extreme—is the film.

There is no other director working today for whom domestic tranquillity provides the subtext for such hyper-masculine activity. The need to protect and ensure family consumes these uber males: Peter Strauss’ imprisoned runner in Mile; James Caan’s uncompromising Thief; William Petersen’s driven detective in Manhunter; Daniel Day-Lewis’ frontiersman in The Last of the Mohicans; Robert De Niro’s crook and Al Pacino’s cop in Heat; Russell Crowe’s whistle-blower in The Insider. They are in a race to keep hearth and home safe from threat, or they are haunted by their inability to keep a marriage together. The sanctity of family togetherness is a reality or, perhaps, an unattainable ideal. In the case of The Jericho Mile (1979), Strauss’ character was sentenced to life because he murdered his father to stop him from abusing a stepsister. He sprints 90 miles a week around a makeshift prison track as if trying to outrun the grief. In the movie’s pivotal scene, he recounts the heartbreaking memory of his father carrying him around on his shoulders all day at a seaside boardwalk, and you sense his wish that life should have stayed that way. I suspect that Mann made the whole movie to put that one scene on film.

In Thief (1981), Caan’s ex-con-turned-businessman carries around a postcard-sized collage of his American dream: wife, baby, house, best friend. He buys it, piece by piece, with stolen money, and then reacts with a Zen-like brutality when the dream crumbles.

In The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Hawkeye (Day-Lewis), motivated by revenge against the French who slaughtered a friend’s family, is always in the company of his adoptive Mohawk father and brother. The film—Mann’s most romantic—conveys a near mythic, unspoken strength in the bonds that develop under extreme circumstances. In the final scene, Hawkeye and his lover (Madeleine Stowe), having vanquished the evil Magua (Wes Studi), stand on a ridgetop looking across the vast panorama of a new America, the first family of the wilderness.

Manhunter (1986) and The Insider (1999) both offer heroes who make a last stand in the name of familial responsibilities. Manhunter’s brilliant detective Will Graham (Petersen) can’t fail in his pursuit of the psychopath who slaughters whole families any less than The Insider’s Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe) can cave in to threats from big tobacco, a failure of integrity in the eyes of his two daughters. And underscoring the battle of wits in Heat (1995), there is the issue of two men at a crossroads in their respective love lives. Vincent Hanna, the cop, is destroying his third marriage with his workaholism, while Neil McCauley, the criminal, tentatively begins a relationship with a woman who knows nothing of his background.

It’s a very serious business for Michael Mann, this domesticity. The details of love and marriage are treated with the same scrutiny as the elements of police work, which is why his films are nearly humorless. One is only tempted to smile while watching a Mann film during, say, the giddy run of an audacious set piece (the central shoot-out in Heat; the laser-beam vault robbery in Thief; the deciphering of the killer’s note to Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter); or at that moment when a specific sound or piece of music finds the emotional locus of a scene (the lone mandolin that accompanies Wigand’s arrival at the courthouse to give his damning testimony; the tomahawk’s rush through the air in The Last of the Mohicans). The “fun” in Mann’s work is to be found in his craftsmanship; his deep inspections of the psychology of main characters; and in the gorgeous landscapes—interior and exterior —his men must negotiate.

Mann once described the neighborhood he grew up in—a rough area called “The Patch” in Chicago—as “very masculine and very heterosexual.” Filmmaking was considered something only a “fairy” would do, so Mann, who was an English major at the University of Wisconsin, went to the London Film School, where he spent seven years shooting commercials and documentaries. His short, Janpuri, won a Jury prize at Cannes, and he eventually found work in the US. writing scripts for the ’70s TV series Police Story and Starsky and Hutch. The Jericho Mile was his first film, made for television, and shot entirely on location within Folsom Prison, winning Mann a DGA award for Best Director. His next film, Thief, was a stunning theatrical debut. Shot on watered-down streets in his hometown, it featured a mesmerizing score by Tangerine Dream and a remarkably singular point-of-view.

Thief introduced audiences to Mann’s idiosyncratic style, which combines a European attention to formal space and design with an American sense of lush self-indulgence. His craning, tracking camera movements have been compared to the work of Max Ophuls (La Ronde, Le Plaisir, Lola Montes) and his characters’ quests have an abstract single-mindedness shared with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai. But his fondness for throbbing synthesizer soundtracks is as American as disco. His interest in idealistic loners is as classic as Capra. His respect for professionals and their arcane rituals of male bonding are reminiscent of Hawks. His color schemes throb like a Vincente Minnelli musical. This is, after all, the director who gave us the “pastel noir” of Miami Vice.

Television was kind to Mann. Besides Vice, he also produced the memorable but short-lived Crime Story, two miniseries—Drug Wars: The Camarena Story and Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel—and the movie LA Takedown, which he later remade as Heat. He brought a toughness and professionalism to his TV plots, while exploring the inner psyches of his cops and crooks. He developed rich supporting characters, a love of electronic scores and ambient rock, and a tendency to let his scenes play long. This last trait is a favorite of Mann’s critics. Both Heat and The Insider contain passages where characters are doing nothing more than thinking. There are scenes when the glances between lovers grow repetitious. There are build-ups to important, defining moments that take so long you forget where and why things got started in the first place. And there are times when Mann’s musical tastes fail him and sequences are drowned in a bath of noise. All of these charges can be rightfully leveled against The Keep (1983), a film so seriously awful one wonders how Mann ever recovered.

After returning to his TV roots to produce Miami Vice, he quietly adapted Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon into Manhunter, introducing the lucky few who saw the film to Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox, in a less histrionic, more eerie interpretation than Anthony Hopkins’ in The Silence of the Lambs). Manhunter was one of the best, most underrated films of the ’80s, and it continues to enthrall with repeated viewings. It’s a crime thriller that pays respect to the procedural details of investigative work, while also sensitive to the recently healed emotional condition of the detective, Will Graham, who is plagued and motivated by issues of guilt and conscience.

What makes this film so intensely disturbing is that the killer (movingly played by actor-writer-director Tom Noonan) craves the normalcy Graham already has—love, children, home—but knows he has no hope of attaining it. That self-awareness turns him into a monster.

Manhunter was Mann’s first collaboration with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, which proved to be a perfect marriage of baroque stylists. Spinotti’s masterful recreations of time and place on The Last of the Mohicans rival John Alcott’s compositions in Barry Lyndon, but Mann’s requirements are much more kinetic than Kubrick’s. The camerawork alternately dazzles and quiets. The film combines a ’90s zeal for cranes and dollies with a painterly appreciation of nature. Spinotti’s vision, like Mann’s, is both muscular and aesthetic.

The film retains James Fenimore Cooper’s simplistic, mythical attachment to a frontier code that was outmoded even in 1826, when he wrote the novel, but that still fits right in with Mann’s concerns. Hawkeye’s sense of personal justice and loyalty is all that matters in a world on the brink of revolution. Survival of the few is as important as the survival of the many. “If he had been born 100 years ago,” wrote Michael Sragow about Mann in an article for Salon, “he’d have followed Jack London’s path, not just into bare-knuckled journalism but also into transcendent evocations of the beautiful and the wild.”

The Insider is Mann’s most fully realized creation. The movie bears the clean architectural lines of a David versus Goliath plot, but with a messy, full-bodied story of divorce, secrets, betrayals, and injustice. The luxurious visual textures he weaves would be mere decoration without the substantial weight of real life to deepen the context. A favorite Mann shot is the group of friends or family or colleagues gathered around a table deciding what course of action they should take next.

When that action is realized, even though it comes down to a single man to see it through, there is a loyal fraternity backing him up. The Insider is enriched by the complicated friendship that develops on-screen between Wigand and Lowell Bergman (Pacino).

Mann has said that he was one of the few graduates from his high school to go on to college. The awareness of that rare opportunity is perhaps what ennobles the professionalism and authenticity of his work. Whether it’s robbing a bank, ferreting out a killer, or producing a segment of 60 Minutes, Mann pays homage to “process.” He is never sloppy. He respects the skill and experience that get his characters to where they are. That quality is what makes the mid-picture shoot-out in Heat so galvanizing. De Niro and his crew operate like a military-trained unit. You root for them because they are so good at what they do.

I saw Heat at a summer matinee. It was one of the few movies of the past decade from which I emerged carrying the electricity of the film with me. In the bright glare of a city intersection, the cars and chrome and pedestrians seemed to sizzle. I felt like I was a character in the film, alive to any sensory event. The movie crackled with a vitality that was born in the real world, not in the movie world. The feeling was even more apparent with The Insider. The movie’s hand-held roughness (Mann operated the camera for about a third of the film) gave it a broadcast news immediacy, but it was the film’s brazen artistic passages and the fact that it was stuffed with the fullness of life which made me not want to let go of it.

I’m beginning to fawn, so stop here if you want, but Thief and Manhunter are two of the better films of the ’80s, and Heat and The Insider are among the few excellent films released in the ’90s; Michael Mann may be the best big budget A-list director this country has to offer. He combines Scorsese’s manic energy, Malick’s becalmed metaphors, Spielberg’s impeccable craft, and Stone’s nervy obviousness in a package at once grand and graceful, meaningful and meditative. His films are generous gifts waiting to be opened. To most of us, the mystery of his private life remains closed.

MovieMaker Magazine, Los Angeles, CA

Copyright 2000 MovieMaker Inc.


"Moulin Rouge"

Moulin Rouge
FROM SALON.COM: Glimpse of the future 

In an age when movie musicals are mostly children's cartoons, Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" brilliantly reinvents the genre and opens the door to a new cinematic style. So why didn't the critics get it?

By Julie Talen

Feb. 6, 2002 | I love "Moulin Rouge." Other people don't. I don't understand these people. Perhaps none of them got to see the movie the way it (and all great movies) was meant to be seen, on an enormous screen, with a sold-out crowd, in the kind of cavernous theater that only a handful of big cities have anymore.

The moment Ewan McGregor, clad in lederhosen and a silly hat, burst into "The Hills Are Alive," the whole theater bought it completely. We laughed when men in tuxedos sang "Smells Like Teen Spirit" while colliding with girls in lace colors you never imagined. We applauded the dance numbers. When a threadbare song, ruined from decades of radio overplay, suddenly sprang from our young poet: "My gift is my song -- and this one's for you," it was like hearing it for the first time.

How wonderful life is while you're in the world. Admit it -- you know you're in love when you're not only listening to those soft hits on the radio, you're agreeing with them. The first love duet between the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) and her poet lover is swathed in swatches of such hits. One critic (I've forgotten who) faulted the incompleteness, the fragmentary quality, as if it were a flaw. In fact, it's an unerring sense of the shared emotional scale of each FM hit song. "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann seems to know precisely how much of each tune we need to hear (not much) before the pleasurable shock of recognition sinks in. (And it is a pleasure. An audible gasp shot through the Ziegfeld Theater in New York when the hot-blooded Argentinean actor, explaining to the heartbroken poet the agony of loving a prostitute, slowly builds a tango which becomes, within two syllables, the instantly recognizable "Roxanne.")

Other words from other reviewers -- like "potpourri" or "anachronism" or "mélange" -- misread Luhrmann's mastery of a different vocabulary for a different purpose. It doesn't matter that Nirvana, Nat King Cole, the Police and Madonna are sung in the wrong context, by a singer of the wrong gender and at the wrong time. These songs have their unity in the great electronic now of radio, Walkmans, jukeboxes: the collective shared present we can hear, continuously, somewhere at any given moment in the world. I once heard "Fire and Rain" in a taxi in Beijing. If life were a musical, these would be the songs we'd sing. Not least because we already know all the words.

Luhrmann does something very old -- the musical -- in a very new way. We live in a real world of constant visual stimulation, a riot of competing electronic images. To get our attention, visual material must be faster, must capture our peripheral vision. Luhrmann and his editor, Jill Bilcock, grasp how abrupt the pace needs to be to hold our ravaged attention spans. With so much to see, the glimpse becomes its own unit. I call this furious visual field -- the Web, TV, video games, flat screens, movies like this one -- glimpse culture. "Moulin Rouge" is a glimpse musical. So we don't get entire dances, we don't get entire songs. We don't need them.

The editing style of "Moulin Rouge" seems to stun people who don't understand that ever since Bob Fosse, editors on dance movies double as choreographers. The edit is the dance. Bilcock, like her colleagues on "All That Jazz," "Fame" and "Flashdance" -- all of whom won Oscars for editing -- surely deserves Academy recognition this year.

Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, anchor this imagery with traditional ballast, swiftly established: Boy meets girl, sings to girl, kisses girl, loses girl, girl sings, boy and girl sing together, love arrives. The show must go on, since this is not just a musical, but that peculiar branch of musical that exists only in the movies: "Let's put on a show." Central to such movies is the "pitch song," in which eager showfolk throw themselves into a rough-and-ready version of the play to come ("That's Entertainment" in "The Band Wagon" would be the classic example).

The pitch song -- which has resulted in some of the most memorable moments in screen history -- serves important functions, all of them evident in "Moulin Rouge": a celebration of theater and make-believe, a goal for the third act and a plot that unites a motley group of unrelated songs, in this case songs lifted from India's steamy film musicals. The genius behind this kind of musical, MGM producer Arthur Freed, had collections of leftover songs lying around; he hauled in writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to link them together into "Band Wagon" and "Singin' in the Rain." (Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe, never wrote this kind of musical; their songs always belonged to a coherent plot.)

An original tune in "Moulin Rouge," "Someday I'll Fly Away," is what Disney animation used to call the "page 20 want song." It tells us what the girl or boy (or mermaid) really wants and will spend the movie trying to get: marriage ("Someday My Prince Will Come"), escape from a mundane life ("Something's Coming") or even just legs ("I Want to Be Where the People Are").

The Paris created by Catherine Martins, the production designer of "Moulin Rouge," belongs to that handful of visionary films in which, as Ridley Scott said of his own "Blade Runner," "The script is the set design." I hope Martins' work won't go unrecognized because she happens to compete in a year full of hobbits and wizards. The fabulous design of "Moulin Rouge" harks back to a time when movies were movies and life was life. No one thought, in the 1930s, that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing in real rooms. Josef von Sternberg created a fictional Shanghai on the Paramount backlot for the lustrous "Shanghai Express" (1932); later, traveling in China, he was gratified to see how different it was from the one he had made.

This may be where the "Moulin Rouge" lovers and haters part company. Many of us demand that movies be realistic, even though that involves a mode as artificial as anything in "Moulin Rouge." Dissolves, long lenses, drop focus, fast film, Foley sound effects, digital manipulation, production design that painstakingly mimics the ordinary -- all these techniques spell "naturalism" to us, the "real" in film. Maybe some people can't dwell emotionally in a world that does not conform to a film-based realism as rigid as the neoclassical paintings of Ingres or David, the brittle 19th century works against which the impressionists rebelled. In this environment, the movie musical survived the past two decades only by reverting to children's cartoons.

Part of the brilliance of "Moulin Rouge" is that Luhrmann leads us by the hand -- jaded, visually saturated and reality-spoiled viewers that we are -- into a world that not only doesn't exist but never could.
The moment our 1900 hero opens his mouth and sings a song that everyone knows was in a 1964 film, Luhrmann is telling us that we're in his world now. There are different rules in his world: people sing the songs you know. A green fairy becomes her own chorus line and sprinkles green fairy dust on our still-singing heroes, now in top hats, who fly into the roiling Moulin Rouge. Either you take Luhrmann's hand and hold on tight or you let go, like the child in a fairytale, and are lost forever.

For me, holding on through three viewings and the DVD (in which you can see marvelously complete versions of the dances), "Moulin Rouge" belongs in a group of rare films -- "The Red Shoes," "An American in Paris," "Singin' in the Rain," "The Band Wagon," "West Side Story," "Cabaret" -- that transform dance and music into a form unique to the screen.

Like "Cabaret," to which it owes a huge debt, "Moulin Rouge" begins with a British (in this case, Scottish) innocent in Europe. (McGregor even arrives at the train station in the same way Michael York does in "Cabaret.") Set loose in the capital of art and depravity, this young man is taken in hand by a girl, the star of an enclosed world from which she longs to escape. As in "The Red Shoes," young love must compete with a soulless, self-defined world for the heart of this talented, beautiful, morally divided girl, on whom everyone -- particularly a craven, manipulative impresario -- depends. As in every Marlene Dietrich film directed by von Sternberg (or every one except "Blonde Venus"), poverty is handsome and power is ugly and they compete and confuse everyone.

This movie references other movies the way Shakespeare references the Bible. And it's not just showing off: During the pitch song, Ziegler, the impresario played by Jim Broadbent, sings the villain's part and Satine remarks: "Oh, Harold, no one can play him like you can." Ziegler replies: "No one's going to." For those who recognize it, this lift from "The Band Wagon" tells us that Ziegler is the film's soul-stealing Mephistopheles.

Two great Hitchcock love scenes simultaneously wrap around the climactic lovers' duet between Kidman and McGregor (a Dolly Parton song made famous by Whitney Houston). We see both the fireworks that frame Cary Grant and Grace Kelly's embrace in "To Catch a Thief" and the 360-degree shot around Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, locked in a kiss, in "Vertigo." McGregor's startling rendition of Stewart's hoarse accusation from the "Vertigo" tower scene -- "You learned your part very well" -- invokes that betrayal of love just as Satine's enraged lover pushes her up the stairs. It's like a jazz musician's quote of another master's tune for an audience aware of both.

Luhrmann and Bilcock edit musically. Luhrmann is a cinematic equivalent of Gustav Mahler, who composed for enormous orchestras but created climaxes in which perhaps only three instruments play. At each climax, like a long intake of breath before the dive, we wait -- and the finish explodes. Satine faints on the trapeze at the penultimate word of her number. In the "Roxanne" tango, the entire Moulin Rouge -- boy, Duke, dancers and the girl herself -- must wait to see if Satine will save the show by betraying the man she loves. At the height of the Bollywood-style closing extravaganza, Kidman sings a fragile a cappella call across a silent room. Luhrmann knows how to use silence.

No American male that I know thinks of Kidman as a sex goddess. She is not our Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe or Greta Garbo --– mostly because no one is -- but also because her best roles have always been as an extremely tough cookie, a cold and scary manipulator of men. Part of the miracle of "Moulin Rouge" is to give Kidman the warmth on screen that I suspect she has always craved. The ice queen melteth. In her earliest scenes, she uncannily resembles Ann Margaret (who also yearned to be a real actress) and then Claudette Colbert, the cheerful, comic sacrificial lamb. Yet by the time Dietrich's veil shadows her face or, like Garbo's Camille, she falls to the floor, with her lover throwing money at her, we believe she's just a girl in love. Who wouldn't be, with McGregor singing to you night and day? The man can act more convincingly singing his heart out than most actors can just standing and talking.

The only realism in "Moulin Rouge" is emotional. It survives comedy scenes so extreme that sound effects accompany the actors turning their heads. In his autobiography, Jean Renoir, who directed "French Can Can" in 1955 as a direct rebuke to John Huston's "Moulin Rouge" of two years before (both films are actually rather leaden, except for their blazing dance sequences) wrote, "It is possible to be improbable and still true." In this sense, "Moulin Rouge" is true. Its visual universe is complete, its aural universe is adept and its exploration of both is entirely cinematic. At its core, it is a most amazing thing, a love story we believe.

Julie Talen is a writer and director living in New York.