Tuesday, April 25, 2006

THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

As you may have noticed, if you looked at my "Complete Profile," I list "Punch-Drunk Love," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and "I Heart Huckabees" among my favorite films of the decade. These three movies have a key element in common. While I don't disagree with film critic Armond White's 2004 review of "I Heart Huckabees," he's talking about something different than I am:

David O. Russell is among that group of contemporary filmmakers (along with Wes and P.T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola and others) currently tweaking the system. A friend calls this new breed the American Eccentrics, a good categorization since it distinguishes these upstarts from that last significant grouping of 70s filmmakers who were drawn to exploring American experience and pop tradition in order to understand their place in the world. The Eccentrics, formed by the fragmentation and solipsism of the 80s indie movement, are more interested in their personal idiosyncrasy. They don't connect to life outside their own world but view it as absurd and different. Films like The Royal Tenenbaums, Punch-Drunk Love, Adaptation, Lost in Translation and Russell's I Heart Huckabees reinforce a sense of boomers' egotism; as with Payne's About Schmidt, there is an insistence on braininess rather than connection with popular sentiment.

The similarity I'm thinking of is more easily documented, though the feeling all three share is hard to explain. The common bond? Score composed by Jon Brion. Brion, who also scored PT Anderson's earlier film, Magnolia, as well as the first and last song on Fiona Apple's latest album, Extraordinary Machine, has a distinctive style: a whimsical, bouncy sound, almost as you'd expect if someone remade Mary Poppins after Brian Wilson's and George Martin's late-sixties operettas & extravaganzas. A spoonful of sugar channeled through a blotter full of acid.

Or something like that. A modern, late-twentieth century sensibility in terms of melody, but arranged with oboes, bassoons, organs, horns, strings. Since the only instrument I play is the "On/Off" button, perhaps I'm just hearing the sound of me talking out of my ass. Maybe none of those machines makes an appearance on any of Brion's compositions. Though I'm sticking with the oboe, if I have to pick one.

If you've seen any of the three movies you can surely think of a number of scenes where the characters leap into fantasy, imagination, or just caprice: Barry in Hawaii looking for Lena; Albert & Tommy riding their bicycles away from family, jobs, society; Lacuna's "scientists" re-constructing & deconstructing Joel's memories. All taking place with Brion's music setting the tone. His music manages to combine an almost childlike vision with something deeper: not so much soulful, but sincere, possessed of wonderment, of curiosity. A tone of cartoonish possibility mixed with an almost spiritual reverence for the characters and their struggles. Barry & his harmonium; Albert's poems & Tommy's impassioned rants; Joel & Clementine's desperate attempt to try once again. I'm no music critic and I'm certainly no musician, so I'm not gonna keep going here, piling on vague adjectives to describe that most subjective of experiences. I've done enough of that in the last paragraph.

So just check out the films, and if you've seen them already, check em out again. And notice the similar feel that runs through all three. Maybe White's right, and these American Eccentrics share some consistent vision of the world. Perhaps. But we know they share the same eccentric composer.

2 Comments:

Anonymous John Royal said...

Okay. Mike. I buy the theory, somewhat. And I've got to agree about Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine. I disagree about Huckabees. The only thing to recommend about Huckabees is Naomi Watts in a bikini.

But serously, I disagree about the eccentric. I think the thing that most of the films that you mentioned share is what I call the John Cusack feature, in that Cusack could've played the lead in all of them -- which may really have helped Huckabees since it lacked a focus. And when I think of Cusack, I think of an ordinary man, and not an eccentric.

But that's just me.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

John Cusack as Albert Markovsky???

Hmmmm . . .

I think we agree on Naomi though. Let's leave it at that.

3:11 PM  

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