Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Value of "Silly Love Songs"

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return...”
...or, maybe to walk away when a tragic romance comes on. 

In my opinion (before encountering Plantinga's cognitive theory for considering spectator emotion), the film Moulin Rouge falls into a category with Titanic and A Walk To Remember-- or, “movies that I watch over and over again knowing that I am going to end up a crying mess by the end.” And no matter how many times I see ABC rolling the opening credits for any of these films and think to myself, “Remember, you do not like the way this film ends,” it almost never fails that my entire apartment of female roommates get caught up in these tragic romances. 

Let us just recall the plot of this 2001 musical love story. Male protagonist Christian is a struggling writer in early 20th century Paris who joins up with a troupe of writers and performers to sell their show Spectacular Spectacular to Moulin Rouge owner Mr. Zidler. Christian, the definition of a hopeless romantic, is drawn into this bohemian revolution based on his devotion to the very concept of love (though he admits his idea of love leaves something to be desired, having never been in love himself). 
Christian goes to share the story with dangerously beautiful lead courtesan Satine, the “sparkling diamond,” the love story begins. Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke Monroth, whom she is to be seducing so that the Duke will financially support the show. In a rather amusing show of arousal, Christian tries to share his poetry with Satine. What else gets hooks an aspiring actress being forced to work as a courtesan better than a heart-felt poetic expression of love? Unfortunately, just as Satine and Christian connect, the actual Duke Monroth enters. In order to mask the mistake, the performing troupe improvises a plot for Spectacular Spectacular that mirrors the developing love triangle amongst Christian, Satine, and the Duke. As they present this plot to the Duke, he ironically asks, “And in the end should someone die?” thereby foreshadowing Satine’s death. Of course, at this point, it is clear to the audience that Satine suffers from tuberculosis/consumption. As their romance progresses in time with the development of the show, the Duke grows increasingly more jealous and Satine grows increasingly more ill. In the midst of uplifting, sweeping love songs, the audience watches what can only end in tragedy, and indeed does. In the end, Christian expresses his love for Satine in spite of the evil Duke, only to have her die in his arms moments later. 

What about this film is so compelling for viewers? It’s pretty clear from the beginning (a quietly crying Christian at a typewriter) that the film is going to end sadly. At this point, I turn to Carl Plantinga’s essay to understand what it is about these films that attract an audience. Plantinga argues that spectator emotion can have ideological value. In his essay, “Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism,” Plantinga refutes two notions of film criticism that:
  1. emotions that an audience experiences cloud an audience’s critical judgement; in other words, that critical reason and emotion are mutually exclusive experiences; 
  2. a critic can make a judgement about the use of a stylistic tool without regard to spectator emotion those tools illicit. 
These ideas he refers to as ideological stoicism, and Plantinga argues that contrary to these notions that insist upon the separation of emotion from experience, that there is value in spectator emotion. He proposes a cognitive approach, involving emotion but also “inferences, appraisals, judgements, hypotheses, etc.” (151) He argues that such a model will “transcend reductive characterizations of emotion.” 
It was with this model that I approached watching Moulin Rouge this time I watched the film. I must admit, this film seems much less like a guilty pleasure when I consider the film using this cognitive approach; previously, I was also functioning under the dualistic notion of either critical reason OR emotive response. A consideration of Moulin Rouge is not about what is or is not sentimental, it is about how audiences respond to jealousy, to doomed romance, to tragic illness, and to the things necessitated by desperate circumstances and a drive for success. This film is clearly treating the subject of idealized sentiment, and it is only with an awareness of the emotions elicited and a critical judgement that an audience member can appreciate the commentary the film makes. 


  1. I really like your observation that until now, you had only viewed Moulin Rouge in terms of either critical reason or emotive response, not a combination of both. From a critical standpoint, one of the reasons I see Moulin Rouge as such a well-made film is its inevitable success in eliciting a strong emotional response from the audience, whether it be due to jealousy or the doomed romance. Especially in a musical film with quick changes between different sides of the emotional spectrum, sometimes the commentary can be lost, but I really like your analysis of Plantinga's cognitive approach involving emotion in connection to Moulin Rouge.

  2. Spot on. I think it makes sense that a movie like Moulin Rouge can still be enjoyable to watch despite it's obvious end in tragedy. Love and tragedy often go hand in hand, and tragedy can make love all the more powerful. Of course, most people wouldn't wish to have their love end tragically, but to experience the way in which tragedy adds to love vicariously through the characters in a movie is a treat most people will pay a $10 movie ticket fee for.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. Idealized sentiment has been a popular way to entertain ever since Greek tragedy, where people would go in knowing full well that their emotions would be touched. But at the same time, looking at any of these emotional films from a critical viewpoint gives a new perspective on these performances.

  4. I agree with what yall are saying, and I think Evan's idea about wanting to experience this vicariously is spot on. All of this reminds me of Aristotle's theory of catharsis in horror films. I've always thought it was a little contradictory for a romantic comedy to be the ultimate post-break up activity for girlfriends...why would you want to trigger those kinds of emotions? Wouldn't just a comedy be better? I do believe romance movies like Moulin Rogue can serve as a release for our emotions in nearly the same way Aristotle described catharsis, and sometimes it's enjoyable to purge ourselves of these emotions in such a safe way.


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