Bright Lights Film Journal

Aural Drag: This Is What It Sounds Like, When Men Cry


There’s a whole new wave of sensitive guy films emerging in the last few years, a wave that finally begins to recede (hopefully) with the stunning failure of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. The films are about artistic, misunderstood young male loners, or the bitter old codgers they’re afraid of growing into. They’re made by sensitive guys like Wes Anderson, Zach Braff, and Cameron Crowe. And the stories in these films seem to exist purely as an excuse to stage emotional tableaux to the director’s favorite headphones late-at-night-cry-in-their-chamomile music.

There’s no denying former music journalist Crowe knows his pop music, but he seems blind to other aspects of music culture, and lives in his own navel-gazing bubble. For example, according to Crowe’s films, there are only about three people in all of Seattle who do drugs on a regular basis, and none of them are in bands or occupy the sphere traveled in by his precocious little bastard in Almost Famous. In this film, the whole great, rowdy rock-and-roll party of the 1970s comes to a dutiful halt whenever his overprotective mom gets on the phone, when in any sort of sane reality, Gregg Allman would hang up the phone and kick the little Rolling Stone reporter out of the bus. Instead he gets to accompany the band on joyful sing-alongs of Elton John songs. We are all supposed to share in the warm glow of Mr. Cameron Crow’s memories, it seems, because we share his love of Elton. Forgive him his errors of perception, as he is blinded by the sound. This navel-cam (or PONG — Point of Navel Gaze) carries through to the current — and thank god, maligned — film Elizabethtown, where Orlando Bloom plays a character whose physical beauty is considered more than enough as far as character detail, so that Kristen Dunst will stalk him and make him CD mix tapes and encourage him to drive around the country with this dad’s cremated ashes, purely because he’s so uniquely and taciturnly himself.

Another sad misconception in all these films is their refusal to honor the mundanity of Midwestern reality (I offer the films of Alexander Payne as a withering standard by which to measure this mundanity). Directed by sensitive actor Braff, Garden State reimagines New Jersey as a giant miniature golf course. There is, in reality, nothing “quirky” going on between the ears of New York and L.A., other than the usual headache-inducing mélange of overweight louts living with their parents, frightened capitalist Christian groups, Wal-Marts, and an endless succession of traffic lights.

These hetero-sensitive males are so enamored of the emotional vistas they experience while listening to whatever hetero-sensitive white boy music floats their boat, that their movies work as a sort of i-pod porn. Anyone who walks around with their headphones on knows the secret joy of being one’s own cameraman for the video accompanying the song they listen to, how sad it can be to stare out at a river while listening to some lonesome ballad, or hustling down 5th Avenue to some speedy drum and bass. The problem is that people like Cameron Crowe are then determined to actually make a film based on these cobbled-together feelings. Andre Bazin would turn over in his grave! In none of these films are we allowed our own emotional response! This is Crowe’s movie, or Anderson’s movie; they’re driving, they pick the music. We’re just supposed to sit in the back seat and soak up their brilliance like a theater full of admiring little siblings.

The mourning of a dad or the reconnection with a dad is what is at the core here. The eternal callowness of youth stuck in idle, cause dad didn’t play ball with them in the backyard and the tire swing grew sad and twisted. So they exorcise their daily angst by continually making mix CDs and now mix CD movies, designed as perfect date valentines. Since they can’t convey emotions with actions, they think the way to a girl’s heart is to think like a girl — to reimagine straight masculinity in a bed of posies with acoustic guitar and falsetto vocals. They scour the ocean floor for songs that hit the balance between chick-friendly emotion and guy-friendly indie attitude. When Bill Murray finally breaks his vow of ennui and starts shooting at pirates in The Life Aquatic, Anderson finally busts a ballsy “guy’s guy” Stooges tune, but the whole thing falls apart. It’s more a violent fantasy than reality, too little too late, and within seconds he and Owen Wilson are back moping around Cate Blanchett. If they had a CD burner, the pair would be trying to out-cry each other with mix CDs, but instead they leave that to the director.

Garden State fares a bit better. There’s a decent story in there somewhere about romance between two SSRI-addled Jersey kids, but the minute any sort of emotional payoff looms near the screen, director Zaff starts pounding out the emotional power chords of his favorite mope rock songs. He even has Portman outright plug the Shins, who are the definitive version of this sort of mope rock style, what the Beatles would sound like if Brian Wilson took John Lennon’s spot in the Beatles, thereby removing all trace of fangs and balls that band had.

As a straight (“tough” on the outside/a widdle boy on the inside) male who used to constantly make brooding, melancholy mix tapes and still does the same with CDs, I know the blithe joy of seducing a woman in your head through song selection. It’s a sort of aural drag, a dressing up in a woman’s ears, allowing yourself to experience emotions, all the lying around in bed crying and longing, stepping outside of one’s cumbersome persona to “cry like a woman.” Strangely, this only works if we are making the mix specifically for a girl, preferably someone we just met. The mix CD becomes our Cyrano De Bergerac, but an introverted one that operates backwards. It speaks the poetry of love up to the balcony where Roxanne should be, but she’s not there; there’s just a big mirror reflecting the words back to our sensitive guy hearts. Back in our rooms is where we can fall in love without anyone to see how pathetic it makes us feel. With a pair of headphones and a blanket over our heads, we can be heroes just for one day.

That’s all good, until you have the clout and money to lift the blanket from your head make a film instead of another mix tape. Then you wind up with Elizabethtown (Orlando Bloom), Garden State, The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tennenbaums, need I go on? Or shall I just go back in time and urge Mike Nichols to use an orchestral score for The Graduate?