Playing favorites: Cameron Crowe, redeeming Elizabehtown and trying my hand at film criticism

Q: What is your favorite film?

A: An unhelpful question. “Favorite” is vague enough to be meaningless and my answer is likely to change based on a variety of social contexts – none of which come into play when questioning myself.

Q: What’s a film that reveals something about you that you value?

A: Slightly better. Although my answer will still be random, at least we’ve eliminated Braveheart.

Q: Fine. What’s the movie you’ve had the most radical change of heart about?

A: Well now see Bravehearts back in the mix…

In this way we eventually approach Elizabethtown.  The linked trailer does justice to my first viewing. I almost walked out of the theater, casually dismissing the film as an unremarkable pat romance with some uninteresting family drama and a too long scavenger hunt at the end.

History has not been kind, and the general consensus seems agree with that interpretation.

Then I read Roger Ebert’s 3-star review, and I found an extra detail that caused me to reconsider. You see, at the start of the film, the protagonist is fired from the shoe company. This is the great professional failure that sets everything into motion (oh yeah- spoilers ahead for Elizabethtown & Almost Famous). Ebert writes:

“In the first cut of the film, there was a great deal more of the journey, followed by a pointless epilogue in which the Spasmodica shoe turns out to be a hit after all, because with every step you take, it whistles.” (emphasis mine).

It was this absurd detail Рthe idea that his great failure had been turned into success through some Jiminy Cricket like insane optimism.

Upon reading that I was suddenly able to see the movie not just as a long dirge with some manic pixie girl thrown in, but as a metaphor. Once I stepped back an inch everything else fell into place.

The scenes worked on there own just fine, but their power came from wielding larger concepts around with them.

Concepts about death. About love. About the meaning of life and parenthood and optimism and truly knowing someone else.

This highlights a few things:

1) I’m not so bright.

2) Context is everything. I could have gotten this context from knowing Crowe’s work.

Or from the opening of the film which signals it like a bat signal if you’re looking for it. Or maybe if I’d had a better breakfast that morning – who knows.

I do not mean to imply that detail about the whistling shoes should have been left in. Rather that viewing the film requires that we bring something of ourselves to the experience and what I bring can be unpredictable and may say more about me than the film.

3) Really good art can inspire interesting commentary even if the commentary isn’t particularly approving. Try searching for reviews of L. Cohen’s Old Ideas.

Once I saw the film with these larger themes in mind – it became a masterpiece.

The love plot became a layered balancing act of meaningful dialogue that commented both on the history of “meet cutes” as well as counter-balancing the foreboding sense of death, failure, suicide and regret.

Her manic pixie girl status wasn’t just a cheat or lazy writing, it was a conceit that opened doors.

Once I wasn’t watching just another romantic comedy, but engaging it as a something of substance it opened up and rewarded me for it.

Allow me to use an example from a better regarded Cameron Crowe film (since it has a youtube clip available – and because I’m slightly intimidated by Elizabethtown).

Sample Scene: Here

Here the “talent” of the band is getting back on the tour bus after a night of ill-advised partying. When they last left, it was unclear if he would return, or if the band was done for.

More importantly, the lead singer of the band, has made it clear that the rest of the band simply does not like him. The core of the tension is unresolved. This theme is hammered home throughout the movie. Time and time again when crisis hits – when you’d expect them to pull together and find a deep love for each other – they come up dry. They come up with selfishness and bitterness.

So why does the band stay together? Is it money/fame (partially yes). But then why do we care about them?

This scene argues compellingly that the answer is: music.

Sure they are all failures as human beings and friends.

But then there is the music. A theme (one of many) echoed throughout the film, from the rock critic to the too-wise band-aid. It is the heart of the film. It’s where the film begins, and ends.

Or maybe the movie is about a rock critic trying to maintain his distance so he can write about the music. Or maybe it’s about his love of the girl who puts her head on his shoulder, but is not with him.

It’s all there. The whole film is in that scene.

It also gets him out of the party, back on the bus and keeps things moving along pretty quick.

Or maybe it’s all in that song choice. It has the right kind of fame and feel to be sung on a bus. Not a bus I might be on, but a bus full of rock stars reaching for a way to show some appropriate manly sensitivity.

Not just a song that was famous around this time, but like the film, a song of this time. All enchanced if you bring certain cultural knowledge to bear on the moment, but works well on it’s own.

And of course it says a lot about the band-aid as well.

What I’m saying is, if you think Almost Famous has layers, give Elizabethtown a second viewing.

Or maybe it’s that I’m usually a lazy viewer and I woke up this one time.

More on this when I get the courage to break down Elizabethtown in detail. And if you beg, I’ll talk your ear off about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.