(Cameron Crowe, USA, 2005)


Life on the Instalment Plan

There are the movies, and there is life. There are films which compare the two, which show the gap between the dreams offered by the former and the realities dished up by the latter (for example, Minnie and Moskowitz [1971]). And then there are films, more relentlessly upbeat films, but with many moments of darkness, bewilderment and melancholy, that try to say and show that life can still work out just like in the movies – at least for some perfect, brilliant moments.

In contemporary cinema, this life-can-be-like-the-movies highwire act belongs to two giants of the commercial, industrial scene: James L. Brooks and Cameron Crowe (the younger, unsurprisingly, being something of a protégé of the older). Their films are paradoxical objects, regularly despised and rejected by critics, and also sometimes shoved away by confused audiences: slick, high-key and boundlessly optimistic, and yet boldly digressive and eccentric, on the verge of plotlessness (like distant, American cousins of Jean Renoir), packed with strikingly well-observed, deep-dish truthful moments (of the kind Film Comment seizes on when it champions, say, Almost Famous [2000]).

We recognise their films, above all, by the way they suddenly spin the moods from light to dark and back again, furiously, dancing on a precipice to avoid being overwhelmed by too much bad stuff – and yet also to stay (or to appear to be staying) savvy about their own propensity to weave wish-fulfilment fairy tales. (Phil Alden Robinson would today be up with the big guys too if he could have stayed in the game, as his Field of Dreams [1989] offers another template for this contemporary, delicately-self-conscious-yet-oh-so-yearning storytelling style.) You can see that sort of dance in a heartbreaking scene of Elizabethtown – one of the many in the film that rehearse "last looks" – where Drew (Orlando Bloom) and Claire (Kirsten Dunst) keep magically coming together and neurotically falling apart just at the point of declaring their mutual love and saving each other from misery. (This kind of impossible clinch has long been a Brooks speciality in films including Broadcast News [1987] and I’ll Do Anything [1994].)

Both filmmakers – perhaps Cameron more so, in a period when Brooks tackles questions of social class with relative boldness in Spanglish (2004) – are involved in a perilous game with pop culture clichés: trying to redeem them and re-insert them back into the everyday, but maybe in the process being eaten up by them, and ending up absolutely inauthentic. Cameron seems very seduced by this Amélie-type notion: finding the meaning and redemption of ordinary existence in the dazzling, showbiz epiphany of a film, a pop song or a performance – not just registering it as a spectator but really, truly living it. The abysmal Vanilla Sky (2001), with its plot-reveal that the moments of a virtual life came minted from movie posters (Jules and Jim) and record covers (The Freewheeling Bob Dylan), seems to have well and truly set Crowe on this Road to Simulacra. But it was always there, latent, in his work, since his days as Rolling Stone journalist: it’s a particular but very powerful mentality in American culture, too little studied. What is happiness for Drew? To dance beneath the diamond sky with "one hand waving free", as the song instructs.

Such instructions loom large in Elizabethtown. Just as the film seems to be winding down – it boasts a truly eccentric structure, one that Crowe tinkered with after its festival premiere and will probably still be adjusting by the time of DVD release – we get a long passage, driven by wall-to-wall music tracks like the pasta-making/drug-running meltdown in Goodfellas (1990), where Drew takes his guided journey across America: he has the map, the sentiments, even the soundtrack all provided by Claire. (Jack Nicholson had the music playlist all figured out for the car ride in Brooks’ As Good As It Gets [1997], too, but that didn’t quite go to plan.) Some film fans will recall the odes to radio-on and cars-cruising-through-landscape that have been evoked so well by Wim Wenders (in his films and essays) or Kent Jones (in the book Movie Mutations). And Jarmusch in Broken Flowers (2005), too, uses a vaguely Crowe-like road trip and burnt-CD soundtrack. But by the time we reach the representation of this trope in the final stretch of Elizabethtown, it’s all like one giant pre-programmed epiphany, that is to say, a giant contradiction in terms (since you surely need some randomness, some chance, for an epiphany to arise) – until Crowe wakes up to himself and cagily "interrupts the journey" so that life itself can provide the happy-ending clinch. But even that detour (or at least the offer of it, the posing of a choice between two options) is part of Claire’s instruction sheet!

This pre-programming (cultural theorists might call it commodification) goes a long way. Drew visits monuments (such as Martin Luther King’s hotel room) and experiences Oliver Stone-like semi-hallucinated/internalised media-flashbacks that remind him of the civil rights movement and other momentous struggles. As Drew gets to know the "real people" of the South, he seems to be greeting pure, Amélie-like virtual images (especially that guy Chuck in the hotel corridor), parodies from a Wayne’s World movie or an episode of Saturday Night LiveElizabethtown never really transcends its initial problem-status (endemic to so many romantic comedies since the ’30s) of being a city-slick movie about country hicks, with all the strain and condescension that implies, even once the "healing" and the status downsizing has begun.

And the pre-programming goes on and on. Drew moves to the beat of Claire’s "mix tape" (the cultural phenomenon is name-checked and celebrated, ’80s style) even when he’s far from his car. (That’s cinema for you.) Earlier – in what is either the film’s most winning or most excruciating (either way, intensely protracted) scene – his mother (Susan Sarandon) pays tribute to her departed husband (the loose and in fact sole pretext for this whole shaggy-dog tale) by breaking off from her dour speech and free-styling across the stage, mic in hand, to deliver both a stand-up comedy routine and a tap dance to Moon River. Slaves to showbiz epiphany, Cameron’s characters are also prey to a peculiarly modern anxiety: peaking (as Drew calls it), missing the moment, messing up the timing or the staging. Actually, many of Crowe’s mighty mood-swing set-pieces are entirely constructed on this principle: the staging goes awry (as when the band’s "free bird" symbol catches alight and spoils the party) and then it comes right (Drew’s sister [Judy Greer] finds her moment of blessed solitude with her tears in the downpour). There is tension that sometimes unravels Crowe’s work: in the McCarey-Leisen-Cukor-Godfrey tradition, he prizes spontaneity, chance encounters with strangers, taking the wrong road, letting yourself hang out somewhere unfamiliar and soak up the atmosphere … yet the pre-packaging always seems to hint at some Amenábarian switcheroo, the perfect destiny already lined up in the split-second of a dying dream or in a thumbnail of sci-fi circuitry.

Like Brooks – who does it with a bit more aplomb – Crowe feels compelled to really project his human drama, make it all so physical, so extreme. The first section of the film (the part preferred, unfairly in my opinion, by most reviewers) traces, Jerry Maguire-style, the crash-and-burn of Drew the young, corporate hot-shot/inventor of a super-shoe. So he decides to kill himself, rather gruesomely – and his detour through the (seemingly) unplanned will indeed take him all the way not only to love but also (film’s final word) life. The change in Crowe’s films came with Jerry Maguire – when romantic comedy and comedy of manners (à la Wilder) were hitched to a grand theme of crucifixion and redemption (à la Capra) that was annexed to contemporary fantasias of capitalist success (à la Lasse Hallström’s Once Around [1991], a film that spookily predicted much to come in American movies). In Elizabethtown, coping with failure at the Big Job morphs into personal grieving over a death in the family. And from there (as in Moretti’s The Son’s Room [2001]), our hero fights back from a dark, solipsistic place to light and life. But what kind of life comes so pre-programmed, on the instalment plan? This is the dark and troubling flipside of the "life is a movie after all" reverie.

One of the limits to Crowe’s world-view – more obviously a crippling limit as his career stretches on – is that there is no real, lasting pain dealt out to anyone, and especially no evil. Not even the bloated, peeved shoe magnate (Alec Baldwin) can figure as a handy scapegoat for the hero’s ills! It’s the old, hand-me-down Renoirian alibi, re-routed to the USA through Truffaut and badly understood all the way down: there can be no "phoney movie" villains because "everyone has their reasons", blah-blah-blah. Has Crowe watched La Chienne (1931), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) or The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) – those abject tales of desire, status-climbing and revenge – lately? Or even Almodóvar, as opposed to Amenábar?

Because there’s no evil in Crowe’s world, there’s really no politics – distant, "historic" struggles aside. The apoliticism of his films chimes in with something else that he needs to get beyond: the borders of his own beloved country. Watching Elizabethtown is rather like reading Dylan’s wonderful Chronicles (2004) in this respect: both celebrate America as a place so vast, so varied, so full of sights and moods once you hit the road and traverse it, that it becomes a world in itself. There is undoubtedly a truth in that – and certainly it has provided the ethos for many fine works of American art (and critical writing: I recall Kael’s reverie on Demme’s Something Wild [1986], the whole of America inside a car barrelling down the highway.) – but it’s also the underwriting of American isolationism, offensive in today’s global situation (and particularly disturbing to a cinephile when we find it not only in songs by a Dylan or a Springsteen but also the writings of a Cavell or a Carney).

Crowe is working himself up to a dangerous pitch: he wants to be a poet of the American nation, its identity and its soul, like so many grandiloquent singer-songwriters he adulates and ingeniously wrestles onto his soundtracks (who would have thought Judee Sill’s "Jesus was a Cross Maker" – Jesus is a shoe maker? – could open a major motion picture in 2005). The mood swings of his characters are (supposedly) the mood swings of an entire country, looking for an epiphany to freeze into, looking for something to believe in. Hence the (again very ’80s) investment in affect, a pop/showbiz "vibe" that will echo forever in the memorial punch-in of a familiar power chord, a cherished line, an iconic image. Yet, since Crowe’s films are so empty of social content (beyond the "thick description" of this or that lifestyle or subculture: Irish-Americans, Southern conservatives, garage bands, gonzo journalists, religious communities … ), all they can give is the high of first-flush romantic encounter and the sentimental solidity of family ties.

MORE Crowe: Singles

© Adrian Martin November 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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