Cinema Uncool

Cameron Crowe is not cool.

But since when did a filmmaker have to be cool? When did hipness and good art become synonymous? I suppose it happened some time around the premiere of Pulp Fiction, a film that was so much better than Forrest Gump that hipsters have been rolling their eyes at Hollywood and the Academy ever since. Under these auspices, I presume that the most influential filmmaker in the last fifty years must have been Jean-Pierre Melville, the director of such classics as Bob le flambeur and Le Samourai and the progenitor of what critics often refer to as the “birth of cool” in the 1950s. No doubt, Elvis had something to do with it as well.

If Cameron Crowe has never been cool – the square Richard Linklater – he wasn’t always so bullied. The cool kids tolerated Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, even if those films did affirm the possibility of heterosexual love, and some of the cool kids even dug Say Anything (back when Cusack was a God among men). So when did Crowe become “uncool in the flesh”? Was it simply because Vanilla Sky sucked so much? More ambitious than his prior undertakings, Vanilla Sky committed two carnal sins: it was bad and uncommercial (and with Tom Cruise, no less). But with Elizabethtown, Crowe is back to his usual bag of tricks, combining screwball comedy, sentimentality, and voice-over narration – in short, living up to his reputation as a modern day Billy Wilder.

Considering that it is all the rage to pay homage – another trend made fashionable by Mr. Tarantino – it’s curious that the arbiters of cool haven’t caught on to Crowe’s continual indebtedness to Wilder. Like Wilder, Crowe is that rare breed of filmmaker who both writes and directs – by some standards, making him an “auteur” – but began and sustained a career in Hollywood, never having to slum with the “indies.” As with Wilder’s films, it is difficult to pigeonhole Crowe’s films into a genre since they seamlessly blend comedy and drama. Like Wilder, Crowe begins each of his movies with a voice-over narration from the protagonist – a device typically looked down upon by screenwriters, but often pulled off to great effect by Wilder and Crowe.

So how can we account for Crowe’s lack of street cred?

For one thing, Wilder never had any either. The Cahiers du Cinéma critics bestowed Wilder with the unattractive label of “metteur-en-scéne,” which was to say that he did not meet their standards of what amounted to an “auteur.” It was always difficult to say exactly how Godard and Truffaut devised their canon, but Andrew Sarris shed some light on the matter by describing an “auteur” as a director who manages to express himself against the “gravitational pull” that is the Hollywood studio system. In other words, Nick Ray was an “auteur” because he had to find ways to smuggle his personality through the economic and moralistic obstacles imposed on him. Paradoxically, Billy Wilder was not an “auteur” – and thus uncool – precisely because of his freedom to write and direct and produce, granted to him because his films tended to make money.

Somehow, I don’t get the sense that this is what bothers the kids about Cameron Crowe today. Rather, it may have more to do with a certain degree of sincerity. After all, no matter how much Quentin claims to be sincere in his references to exploitation cycles and yakuza films, it is a sincerity of an altogether cooler nature: more, in a word, ironic. Even movies like The Man Who Wasn’t There and Far From Heaven can afford a certain degree of stylized sentimentality, but only because they wear their influences so self-consciously on their sleeves. Crowe works differently, and might I add, more maturely. At his best, the films achieve the kind of screwball pathos of Wilder’s best work, but without sacrificing Crowe’s own insights about the modern world. And here we arrive at Crowe’s precise gift, peaking with precision in Jerry Maguire: his mix of modernity and stylization. Hollywood has been turned off from stylization since the move towards “authenticity” in the 1960s, a move that became commodified when “Scorsese” became an institution of profit – see GoodFellas, Boyz N the Hood, Reservoir Dogs, City of God, etc. Grit replaced glamour, or became its own form of it. Even when stylization would make an appearance, say, with the Coen brothers, it was always with a nod and a wink. Far From Heaven juxtaposes modern ideas onto an old style. It is a film of considerable merit, but it is an intellectual exercise. What Crowe does best is stylize the present, not the past. His films are littered with catchy dialogue: stylized versions of what you might hear in today’s world. It isn’t enough to simply lift the snappy-talk from Classic Hollywood movies because those lines were stylized based off its own era. Jerry Maguire’s best speech begins, “We live in a cynical world…” A world filled with mission statements, cell phone rings, mix tapes, advertising, and most importantly, Rock and Roll.

This is another reason why Crowe is so reviled in all the right circles: he sneaks too close to their turf. It was one thing in the first few movies when all Crowe used for his soundtracks was that vagary of radio-constructed genres, “Classic Rock.” We are used to the idea that hippies have sold out. It came as no shock to hear Tom Cruise bellow Tom Petty. We could care less which ‘70s guitar-virtuoso bands Almost Famous meant to impersonate. And Peter Gabriel? Well, he was never exactly underground. There was a very precise moment when Cameron Crowe overstepped his bounds, when he became devastatingly uncool. It was in Vanilla Sky, when Tom Cruise said, “You wanna put in the new Radiohead?” It was bad enough that Crowe had compiled a soundtrack worthy of Coachella for a movie about as good as a Creed record. But to hear a character, played by the biggest movie star in the world, refer within the narrative to a band that changed the lives of a generation… It was too much to handle. If it had been any other band, they would have been instantly ruined (see The Shins or Coldplay since Garden State). As is, a hipster can secretly but not publicly like Radiohead, according to the Hipster Handbook. It was as though Crowe had insulted the young and hip by acknowledging them. Whereas once, countercultures rebelled against marginalization in the hopes to be recognized by the mainstream, it is today the opposite: the counterculture must continually fight for its fiercely stubborn independence. For its obscurity.

This is why Cameron Crowe is not cool, and why Elizabethtown was laughed off the planet by those who currently dig My Morning Jacket and Ryan Adams. For today’s mods, Crowe just hits too close to home.

But enough critiquing Crowe’s critics. What of the film? Elizabethtown starts with greatness: Drew (played by Orlando Bloom) “is fine.” Or so he says. Actually, he’s just sunk $972 million of his company’s money down the drain with a shoe that looks like an invention of Syndrome from The Incredibles. The setup is clean and concise: more Sturges than Wilder.

It becomes clear over the course of Drew’s trip to the site of his father’s death (and birth) – Elizabethtown – that the film is about learning from the deceased father. The movie contains a series of coded binaries: father and mother, Elizabethtown (or “the heartland”) and California, fun and financial success. Though the mother, played by Susan Sarandon, is given an excessive scene at the end where she proves to be both funny and endearing, for most of the film she is associated with California, which Drew’s father’s family associates with the liberal – godless – practice of cremation, and also with the kind of financial success that Drew must learn is not so important. He must learn this by going back to the land of his father, the “heartland” of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, the land of humility and “fun.” It is as if Drew’s shoe fiasco is as bad as Vanilla Sky and, like Cameron Crowe, must go back to his roots and relearn. For Crowe, this means rejecting art cinema, which is what he adapted Vanilla Sky from, and re-embracing Classic Hollywood. Unfortunately, with Elizabethtown, Crowe maintains the conservatism of Classic Hollywood’s themes and fails to grasp much of Classic Hollywood’s true genius. Despite the good setup and some nice stylized dialogue, there is one huge problem: Kirstin Dunst is no Kathryn Hepburn, and Orlando Bloom is no Cary Grant (or Tom Cruise, for that matter). Bloom manages okay until he speaks, at which point he appears to be sedated. Dunst, as usual, feels as though she were being told to giggle at gunpoint. These are not the charismatic movie stars of old.

Finally, Crowe commits one other Classic Hollywood felony: he fails to be concise, which is undoubtedly a result of his failure to collaborate. In a strangely superfluous sequence at the end of the film, apparently influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Drew notes that his shoes have become popular after all, as a result of a girl who cuts off the shoe’s wings, a teacher who wears the shoes in Manhattan, and a group of Manhattanite hipsters who turn the shoe into a trendy sensation. Drew refers to these Manhattanites as his “collaborators.” Despite the randomness and inappropriateness of this sudden intrusion of a new theme into the film, it is a theme from which Crowe could take a lesson. Occasionally, a writer-director will strike gold with a Jerry Maguire or a Sunset Blvd. But without the kind of collaboration that makes cinema its own unique form, there will also be movies like Elizabethtown and Irma La Douce.

The moral of this story: Cameron Crowe and Manhattan hipsters need to learn to get along!