Saturday, 23 June 2012

The word is whimsical...

Elizabethtown (2005): directed and written by Cameron Crowe

There are a number of scenes I’d be willing to excise as proof of what type of film Elizabethtown is. Much of the time I spent writing this review was spent on deciding which moment to use for best effect. It’s because as much as the film coalesces into a decidedly holistic entity (in its mood at least, not necessarily in its narrative tone), much of its thrust comes from the way individual scenes land effecting that feeling of having experienced a “moment”.

For example, –There’s a memorial service for a man, Mitch, (the protagonist’s father) towards the end of the film and his mother, Hollie, takes the podium surrounded by members of her dead husband’s hometown. They don’t like her much. What to do...what to do. She tries to bargain, explaining how difficult it was for her and midway through throws caution to the wind and launches into a dissonant tale of how she’s coped with her husband’s death – comedy classes, fixing a car, going to the bank with a mud-mask on, inadvertently feeling the erection of a “consoling” neighbour. And dancing. The climax of the entire scene occurs when Hollie begins to tap dance to “Moon River”. Never mind she’s not wearing tap shoes so you don’t hear much. Never mind, too, that the joy which seems specific to the dance and the entire memorial service seems a little  (or a lot) separated from the death of anyone. Elizabethtown town is marked by its ability to eschew pathos which, in a film where the major plot propellants are bathed in death, suggests a dubious position of evading real life and to call it a fantasy would seem a copout. It’s not a copout, though...

Drew Baylor, our protagonist, opens the film with narration. He is at the lowest point in his life thus far. His job at a top shoe industry has come into jeopardy after causing his company to lose something close to a billion dollars. He has experienced not just a failure, but been part of a fiasco (his words). “I’m fine,” he keeps telling everyone who’ll listen. And because Orlando Bloom walks around with a wan expression of calm we almost believe. Almost. Because, he’s not all right. He gets fired and the failure is looming over him, set to be made public in a few days. He goes home and attaches a knife to an exercise contraption – preparing to commit suicide. *Fate* intervenes (I shall return to this directly) and the death of his father takes him to the eponymous Elizabethtown to uplift the body for cremation. The fraternal relatives welcome him with reticent affection even if they’re less enthused about his mother having taken their Mitch from his home to California (one of the film's best running hooks since Drew and his family live in Oregon). This makes up the “main” plot, or at least the more all-encompassing one. The other is the romantic one, and the one where the thrust of criticism against Elizabethtown derives from.

On his way to Kentucky, in a moment of the meet-cute variety, Drew meets an airhostess Claire. She is loquacious, peculiar, wilful and unpredictable. As the other arc develops so does theirs as overtime a connection is forged between the two. It is this relationship, specifically the quirky bits which seem to define Claire’s character which have not landed as well with critics. The criticism is so boundless that Nathan Rabin (The AV Club) coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to classify her and others of her ilk, that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. On any level I’d probably play devil’s advocate on behalf of the films since, I suspect, by claiming that anyone with these inclinations is necessarily shallow is just as culpable a stance as the one criticised. Rabin’s thoughts are worthy of consideration nonetheless, though. His gripe, and others’, has been the superficiality which seems to define Claire and it’s a claim which intrigues me because I’d argue that superficiality is a trait which defines each character in some way (Drew aside) – and to the film’s benefit.

my suppositions on the supposed dreamscape in Elizabethtown, and coping with failure after the jump...

I said I would return, and here I am – Drew’s attempt at suicide...Interpreting literature to mean what you think it does is much simpler than doing the same for film. The written word urges your input; the cinema presents the finished product. Elizabethtown on the surface is so very straightforward that I balk at the idea of reading too much into it, but I like to imagine that filmmakers are putting more than just the incidental into their work. From that fateful from his sister informing him of his father’s death Elizabethtown turns into a better world for our protagonist. Consider this, the film’s entire preamble concerns his fall from grace, his work doesn’t need him, his boss doesn’t want him neither does his girlfriend but with that call from his sister his world becomes important – he, the older sibling, is the one with the responsibilities, in his “relationship” with Claire she is the aggressor, back in Kentucky he is the son of their beloved Mitch. I stop short of calling the majority of the film a dreamscape where Drew is enjoying the world he wishes to be in, but I take into account facets of the film so that even if it’s not a dream, it’s not completely honest, either.

For, the film opens with a voice-over narration and we’re more likely to take note of this in literature where the lack of an omniscient narrator means that we are definitely not being presented with a story with certainty of truth. In film the waters are murkier, but if the entire opening concerns Drew’s attempt at coping with his failure, and then ultimately deciding to commit suicide it makes sense that even if his father has died in the real world what follows – the “pixie” girl, the joyously kooky relatives – is presented in a deliberately unreal way as a way to make his worth seem important. All these people want him and love him, so there must be something being done right, right?

It’s entirely possible that in an attempt to make Elizabethtown more “important” than Crowe might have intended I have attached metaphysical meaning to cope with the fact that I find more to appreciate than denounce about this unloved film. When the two main plot strands depend on minor forward movement (Drew and Claire will eventually coalesce, Mitch must be eventually cremated or buried) the film is made up of a series of, as I said before, “moments”. There’s an extended moment where Drew and Claire spend the night talking on the phone and it goes on longer than you expect it to (and perhaps longer than it needs to) but Crowe makes it work as something specific to this duo. And even within the fantastical world of their experience when they meet the next morning and Claire says, “We might have been better on the phone” we understand exactly what she means. Or earlier when Drew first reaches the tow and he’s inundated with family and friends of his father and Bloom characterises Drew’s response as one of being overwhelmed but in a much understated way

It’s another reason I’m moved to think that the post-suicide attempt portion of the film is imagined or at least not completely real. It makes sense that after his fiasco Drew wants to be the least conspicuous in the room. Equanimity and control are the aspects which define him as everyone around him is marked by their larger than life personalities – Dunst’s illusory Claire, Sarandon’s grieving but not grieving mother, Paula Deen’s Aunt Dora (perhaps not a stretch for her, but she nails the obsequious but well-meaning aunt) and my pick for second-best-in-show Paul Schneider’s not quite grown cousin. Yes, a great part of Elizabethtown’s appeal comes from the goodness to be found in specific scenes and when the narrative does coalesce it does suggest an unrestrained creation not unlike Claire’s own capriciousness. But, even as tonally the film changes from minute to minute the mood never lets up. The singular feeling of easy joy is one which pervades for the enter post-suicide attempt world of the film and one which doesn’t let up after the credits roll. We open the film with a very dun version of “Jesus was a Crossmaker” (The Hollies), with a slower tempo than the original version. The music which follows later in the film is not always fast or even happy but it’s more hopeful – headily, so at times – and I’m still considering what it means a week after.

Drew spends a few minutes looking at his father’s body unable to put his hand on an inherent strangeness in the expression on his face. Eventually he realises it to be “whimsy”, a wholly unsubtle moment in a film that depends on whimsy just as much but one which makes sense because the very act of whimsy does not expressly depend on being restrained, and that’s okay with me. Grade: B
ADDENDUM: Scouring through thoughts on the film and Roger Ebert in revisiting the film supposes that Claire is a fallen angel sent to earth to put Drew on the right part and subsequently earn her place in Heaven. I do not wholeheartedly agree, but his arguments intrigue me and are better put forth than my suppositions.


Nick Prigge said...

I knew - KNEW! - you'd find a unique angle on this one and, sure enough, here it is. I confess, the thought of a dream scenario never occurred to me. Typically, I suppose, I take films mostly literally and at first I'd venture to say that because Crowe based this on his own experiences with his father's death that it couldn't be a dream. But then it's an experience I haven't had and maybe that's how it feels. Hmmmmm. Lot to chew on the next time I watch it.

(That article from Ebert blew my mind, too. I don't know. It might be reaching but it's interesting to consider.)

Runs Like A Gay said...

Really considered and unique take on the film which was, as you point out, largely passed over on it's release. Certainly makes me want to go back and revisit.

Paolo said...

We were talking about the MPDG. Anyway, if anything, Kirsten Dunst will be an influential actress of her time for making a 'type' or putting that type into the map, and bringing that film with her. Although she deviated from that twice and violently so.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick ebert's take is interesting to consider. the thing is, as i said, with literature we're always looking for hidden meanings - not so much with the movies, i don't know if it's good or bad.

truth is, the one thing i'm thinking about two weeks after seeing it is - why can't orlando bloom get a good role again? sigh.

ben i'd recommend you do go back. it's a shame it got such a terribly bad rap in 05.

paolo dunst doesn't make go crazy, but i've got more love for her than hate. this is not her best work (bloom does better than she), but her cadence is an important part of making it work.