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The Act of Not Having An Act: Cameron Crowe's Ambivalent Humanism

From Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) blasting "In Your Eyes" outside the window of girlfriend Diane (Ione Skye), in "Say Anything…" (1989), to playboy David Aames (Tom Cruise), running in a daze through an empty Times Square, in "Vanilla Sky" (2001), Cameron Crowe’s body of work plays in the memory as a set of scenes and images, like pop singles spinning off a hit album. These images have certain elements in common: movie stars, longing, a search for some sense of community (even in a Manhattan dreamscape). They reinforce Crowe’s interest in human faces (close-ups are like a chorus he’s constantly returning to for emotional reinforcement), display his adept deployment of pop music, and extend Crowe’s reputation as a middlebrow humanist, the quintessential Nice Guy of contemporary Hollywood.

Despite writing the book and screenplay of "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" (1982), the film that established the parameters of '80s teen movies; despite establishing or redefining a host of contemporary film stars; despite major box office success, despite an Oscar, despite his role as a pop music shaman—there's little written about Crowe's work as a writer and director. There’s nothing immediately flashy in Crowe’s visual style, few of the references-on-the-sleeve that act like catnip to critics in search of click-bait. The consensus on much of Crowe’s work seems to follow a line from Stephen Sondheim’s "Into The Woods," where it’s framed as the ultimate putdown: “You’re not good, you’re not bad/You’re just nice.” But this definition of Crowe as simply a “nice guy” is wrong, at least when it comes to the work. Critics would be better served by the clear eye of Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), deconstructing the “everyday guy” persona of Steve (Campbell Scott) in "Singles" (1992): “I think that, a) you have an act, and that, b) not having an act is your act.” Or, as Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) says to young William in "Almost Famous," “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you are uncool.

Crowe's work is really that of a wary optimist, a humanist in a postmodern age. On the eve of his latest film, "Aloha," I wanted to explore this ambivalent perspective, tracing Crowe's cinematic body from adolescence to middle age (and back again), when the line between "cool" and "uncool" fades into something richer, more creative, and possibly tinged with grace.

"Say Anything…" (1989)

The trick of "Say Anything…." is that it doesn't believe in the boom-box myth.

Lloyd holding up a boom-box playing Peter Gabriel has become a defining images for Generation X. It's a moment that works primarily because of the pained earnestness on John Cusack's face. But "Say Anything…" knows that, however much you are transported for that moment, the real work occurs in the fuzzy spaces in between tracks on the mix; much of the film is about deconstructing the myths of love—romantic, familial, communal—and finding the honesty underneath. Diane's perfect-student exterior masks uncertainty about her future; her father's business-like facade masks an IRS scam; Lloyd's friends—from the losers hanging at the gas station to Lilli Taylor's Corey ("I've written 63 songs about Joe…I'm going to play them all tonight")—mask their insecurities with bravado. Only Lloyd tries to tell the truth at all times, but he can't. When words fail, he hides behind Gabriel's paean to then-girlfriend Rosanna Arquette.

It's why that dollying close-up of Lloyd is important—it's not a look of infatuation, but one of pain, as Lloyd tries hard to let his face go blank like Garbo, to let the music talk for him. But he can't quite pull it off—at one point, Lloyd's eyes flinch, flashing a bit of puppy-dog desire, and he tries to cover by tilting his chin up with rock star defiance. That might have been a nod to both Billy Idol (whose "To Be A Lover" was what Crowe had imagined would be playing when he wrote the scene), and some of Cusack's own dislike of the moment: Crowe says the actor resisted the scene, feeling Lloyd was being too "subservient" to Diane by coming over with the box: "I wanted to just have the boom-box be on top of the car and him sitting on the roof," Cusack said. "So I finally did it, but I did it without a look of longing and adoration and love. It was a different kind of feel than either one of us had originally planned."

"We Bought A Zoo" (2011)

Crowe told "Entertainment Weekly" that he was inspired to use "Eyes" for "Anything" because it was in his wedding—listening to an "I Do" cassette he'd made, the song came on, and the rest was history. Crowe would return to these themes of love, loss, and family with "We Bought A Zoo." It's an anecdotal children's film, and that's not an insult; in fact, Caryn James' description of "Say Anything…"—that it "resembles a first-rate production of a children's story," but one whose melodrama "distorts that perspective…The film is all charming performances and grace notes" is actually a fairly apt description of "Zoo." When Diane returns to Lloyd in "Say Anything…," he asks, "Because you need someone, or because you need me?…Forget it. I don't care.'' "Zoo" is about what happens to that kind of couple down the line.

Matt Damon plays journalist Benjamin Mee (from whose memoir the movie is adapted), who becomes a single father after his wife passes away. Mee is adrift—distant from his teenaged son, and de facto "parented" by his young daughter in the wake of the loss. Deciding a change of scenery is in order, the Mees go house-hunting, and find that their "dream house" has a zoo in its backyard.

It's decidedly square. Not all of the jokes land, the barrier between sentiment and sentimentality is as weak as the run-down fences of Mee's zoo, and the narrative's resolution can be predicted by glancing at the cover of the DVD (after all, it's not called "We Closed A Zoo"). But it works for me, primarily because Damon is able to convey Mee's swirling emotions without getting bogged down in any one moment. His wariness grounds the production in something real (enhanced by his interplay with Scarlett Johansson, who brings a similar no-nonsense quality to her role). And we don't forget the ghosts that hang about—being a widower shadows all the "feel good" moments Mee might have along the way. It's a reminder that a life can be less an arc of progression than a set of uncertain epiphanies. It feels right that the movie ends with Damon telling the story of his marriage's beginning: Everyone struggles with the question, where do we begin? Then, we begin.

"Singles" (1992)

In his "Singles" diary, published when the film was released in the fall of 1992, Crowe writes, “I can’t tell you much about the precise filmic style of John Ford’s westerns, but I can tell you about the pure emotional perfection of Todd Rundgren’s 'Hermit of Mink Hollow' or the Replacements’ 'Tim,' Mother Love Bone’s 'Crown of Thorns' or even the Beach Boys’ 'Pet Sounds.' To get the feeling watching 'Singles,' that would be something.”  More than any of his films, "Singles" is reliant on the concept of "mixing" as both structuring device and inspiration.

The genesis of "Singles" began in 1990, with a phone call from Crowe's friend, Mother Love Bone manager Kelly Curtis. “ 'Andy’s dead,' the voice said flatly." This is how Crowe begins the "Singles" journal. "Andy" was Andy Wood, lead singer for Bone, who'd died of a heroin overdose. Driving to Curtis' house, Crowe found many musicians from Seattle's rock scene gathered there in communion. From the diary:

… I felt rocked by the whole experience. I’d been working pretty steadily since I was fifteen, and looking back, most of my friends were made through work. They were acquaintances more than friends. And here were these disconnected single people, many from broken homes, many meeting each other for the first time, forming their own family… I was in the process of rewriting an old script of mine at the time. It was called "Singles," and that night it took a different course. I wanted to write something that captured the feeling in that room.

I was 19 when "Singles" was released, a sophomore at Indiana University. Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Pearl Jam's "Ten" were on a loop for much of the previous year. I was primed for a film about Seattle's burgeoning music scene; that it was a romantic comedy just made it more appealing. And along with R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People" and Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," "Singles" remains one of those talismans that can take me straight back to 1992.

I mention this because the film's sense of time and place is crucial. "Singles" is about a post-collegiate world of twentysomethings—it's the perfect movie for someone on the cusp of adulthood. Crowe's desire to "Capture the feeling in the room" takes on a generational tinge, and the title's pun on music and love allows it to use a loose structure that eventually coheres into a mosaic of perspectives, hopes and insecurities.

Crowe joked that he'd accidentally invented "Friends," and you can see the outlines of a sitcom in "Singles" (Matt Dillon's dim grunge rocker Cliff seems tailor-made for something on Fox). The movie sat on the shelf for nearly a year, until grunge's explosion forced the hand of distributor Warner Brothers. But even with the music of numerous hot bands (one of whom, Pearl Jam, plays Dillon's band, Citizen Dick) and appealing young stars, the movie only found its cult status on home video. Maybe its potential audience sensed the movie's wistfulness, its intentionally uneasy blend of desire and frustration—"Singles" is very funny, but it never forgets the ways in which "banter" can be a cutting weapon as much as a come-on. "Are my breasts too small for you?," Janet (Bridget Fonda) asks Cliff as he stares dumbly at a documentary. Without even thinking, Cliff responds, "Sometimes."

Disconnection is the movie's theme. Steve (Scott), watching his friend David (Jim True) brag about the numbers he got in a club, responds, "That's 20 numbers of 20 girls you'll never see in the daylight and only exist to make you feel like someone who can go out and get 20 numbers." Debbie (Sheila Kelly) uses the video-date membership her friends got her as a joke because she's been driven to desperation. Eric Stoltz's mime gets so mad that people are blowing off his performances that he breaks character and rants in the street. Steve and Linda (Sedgwick), suffer tragedy and dislocation before finally, tentatively reconnecting at the film's end. And Steve's design for a city monorail that will get people out of their cars and into a connective space is destroyed with one smiling "No" from the mayor.

For "Singles," love may be all you need, but the film's true love is for the communities people make to survive everything else.

"Jerry Maguire" (1996)

Jerry Maguire needs a community, too, but like an overgrown teenager, he's still working out how to connect with himself. I don't agree with Amy Nicholson when, in her superb book on Tom Cruise, she says that Jerry "started the movie full of empty swagger and lost the swagger, but stayed empty"—I do think there's genuine growth across the movie—but I think she touches on something important when she observes that "Jerry Maguire" might not really be a romantic comedy. Love's fragility in Crowe's work suggests why he conducted a book-length interview with Billy Wilder (whose "The Apartment" was "Maguire"'s inspiration, and whom Crowe wanted to cast as Maguire's mentor in the film; Wilder turned him down, but later praised the picture). We hope that when Shirley MacLaine tells Jack Lemmon to "Shut up and deal" at the end of "The Apartment" that they'll stay together, but we've seen enough to have our doubts. But that hope is still what counts, and for a Crowe protagonist, hope in the face of uncertainty is an act of courage.

That's why the sports agent setting for "Maguire" dovetails so well with its romance and comedy—everyone's taking a risk as they trot onto the movie's fields of athletics, business, and love, and having Tom Cruise at its center makes the whole thing go. I hope that Cruise will transition back into doing more comedies, because it remains the best showcase for his gifts. For me, Cruise's best moments are silently responsive—the way he drunkenly stares at Rod (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), his only client, after another of the wide receiver's rants; his puzzled delight at the little-kid rambles of Dorothy (Renee Zellweger)'s son; the moment (beautifully noted by Nicholson) when he watches his bachelor party video, and his face turns from good sport to dismayed as more women mention his inability to commit. It is—as so many Cruise performances are—a fascinating critique of male bravado, and the masks men wear to cover their insecurities.

If you're going to do a study of a successful man who falls apart, what better soundtrack than songs from "McCartney," made as a way of escaping the deep depression the ex-Beatle fell into when his band broke up? Jerry and Dorothy make awkward love on her porch as the album's "Singalong Junk" plays on the soundtrack; it doesn't contain the vocals of "Junk" (the "McCartney" track it reprises and revises), but a glance at those lyrics shows how apt the choice is for the film, and for Crowe's melancholy interests as a whole: "Motor cars, handle bars/Bicycles for two/Broken hearted jubilee…"

"Vanilla Sky" (2001)"

Noting his penchant for running in his movies, Amy Nicholson asks, "Does Tom Cruise run? Does a fish swim?" The run that opens "Vanilla Sky" is particularly unsettling. 

The film—a remake of the Spanish horror film "Open Your Eyes" (1997)—begins with a series of helicopter shots above Manhattan, intercut with black screens that fragment our flow over the city. Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" bubbles up on the soundtrack; as the helicopter shots carry us to the Dakota apartment complex, and then into the apartment of David Aames (Cruise), the music seems to be sourced from David's CD alarm clock. But even as he hits the alarm, the music continues (and Radiohead wasn't his wake-up call—it was the voice of a woman (sounding like Penelope Cruz, who co-stars in both "Sky" and the original "Eyes" as the same character) whispering, repeatedly: "Wake up"). The camera passes by a flatscreen TV showing Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina." David—hair tousled, a sleepy smile dancing on his lips—flips off the set, which descends into the floor just as Thom Yorke sings the song's opening lines: "Everything…In its right place." It's a joke on both the mise-en-scene of the set—everything in David's life is perfectly laid out—and the film's star, as Cruise smiles in a mirror, and picks one stray, gray hair from his head.

David leaves his apartment and drives his Ferrari through the city, and it's easy to imagine this as the start of any number of Tom Cruise movies: the Lost Boy picaresque hero beginning his journey. But as David drives across town, he begins to notice its emptiness—no pedestrians, no other cars on the street. Cruise's face is well-deployed here, his features becoming unsettled by the gaps. It's 9:05, his expensive watch tells him. Like a protagonist in a "Twilight Zone" episode, he begins to wonder, where is everybody?

David runs red lights, the only sounds the roar of his engine and an odd buzzing, like a drunken bee has gotten trapped in the microphones. David parks in the middle of Times Square. One of the world's busiest intersections is completely empty. David gets out, breathing heavily, and begins to stumble across the road, as if he's using his legs for the first time. He jogs, as the camera pulls up and captures him against the neon. Cuts to medium close-ups of Cruise's frantic face and bouncing torso capture that quintessentially Cruisian gait, but the editing's rapidity—his body intercut with the Square's signage, making Cruise just one more marketable item—undercuts the running's normally heroic purpose; in combination with Mint Royale's "From Rusholme With Love" on the soundtrack, the effect is both crazed and kind of funny. David wakes up in a prone position on his bed, and his actual day begins. Maybe.

"Vanilla Sky" is fascinating, and it's grown to be my favorite Crowe movie, in many ways because of its flawed ambitions rather than in spite of them. It finds Crowe trying on different stylistic masks (conspiracy thriller, science fiction film, New Wave romance) that never quite fit, but transform our understanding of him. In a recent IMDb chat with fans, Crowe revealed, "I’d love to make a third movie with Tom Cruise, we’ve talked about it for some time. It would be the third in a trilogy of characters studies that began with 'Jerry Maguire.' " I'd love to see that film, but it's hard to imagine it—"Vanilla Sky" is a movie that literally deconstructs Cruise's cinematic body, pushing his persona into darkly comic repetitions that lay everything bare. Where does one go after an empty Times Square?

"Vanilla Sky" has been described, not unfairly, as incoherent. But what if coherence isn't the point? On the DVD introduction, Crowe refers to it as a set of clues, offering one way to read its hyper-self-conscious use of film posters, movie clips, and star personae (to say nothing of a rich soundtrack). Within the film, its show-offiness is of a piece with David's life of sensual opulence, thrusting us into it just before it falls apart. But while every meta moment in "Sky"—from the recreation in one shot of the cover to Bob Dylan's "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," to the "Jules and Jim" poster on David's wall, to references to "To Kill A Mockingbird," to the extended riff on The Monkees' "Head" which closes out the film—has a narrative "justification," each also comes loaded with baggage, threatening to carry the viewer out of the picture and into his or her own memories and personal "movies" about each item.

Crowe probably wouldn't mind—he speaks in the DVD introduction of "Open Your Eyes," and being unable to shake its "folk song" qualities—it was "partly a committed conversation you'd have with someone late at night when big ideas float easily. I wanted to be a part of that conversation." The language is telling—folk songs, conversations—markers of community which David's wealth can't give him. For a remake, "Vanilla Sky" is surprisingly personal, a fractured autobiography that's less about Crowe's actual life than the life he'd "lived" through pop culture. And just as Crowe adds his own "arrangement" to the earlier film via casting, song choices, etc., so he invites the audience to add theirs (there's a section on Crowe's website, The Uncool, that archives fan readings of the film's mysteries, doing so with geeky enthusiasm rather than distanced condescension).

"Elizabethtown" (2005)

No wonder the follow-up, "Elizabethtown," feels exhausted. Midway through production, Ashton Kutcher was replaced by Orlando Bloom. Susan Sarandon replaced Jane Fonda as Bloom's mother. 18 minutes were cut between the Toronto Film Festival and the film's release, and it's been read as one of Crowe's weaker films. Eventually, it inspired film critic Nathan Rabin to coin the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" as a description for the love interest played by Kirsten Dunst, a term which was quickly applied to many millennial rom-com characters (Crowe himself took Rabin's term with good humor, saying, "I dig it … I keep thinking I’ll run into Nathan Rabin and we’ll have a great conversation about it”).

"Elizabethtown" is earnest, has some nice performances (Dunst's character is certainly a type, but she performs it with wit), and a gentle charm that makes you want to root for it. But there isn't enough incidental business to distract us from the story's feeling like a "Jerry Maguire" retread. Bloom is too nice for his role, as a hot-shot shoe executive made suicidal by a business catastrophe, who travels to Kentucky for his father's funeral and must deal with a world he thought he'd left behind. Bloom doesn't have John Cusack's quirk or Tom Cruise's manic drive—there's nothing to draw us to him. Sarandon is so far out on a limb that one recalls Diane Keaton's line from "Annie Hall"—"Nice ham this year, Mom"—and she throws the movie's tone off.

Then, suddenly, the movie ditches the career angst and family melodrama, and just hits the road: Dunst has provided Bloom with maps and mix CDs for his cross-country trip, each song timed for his various arrivals. It's done with such music geek passion that the film comes alive, and you wish this is where "Elizabethtown" had started.

"Almost Famous" (2000)

Getting his professional start at hometown underground paper the "San Diego Door" at 13, Crowe was writing for "Rolling Stone" and "Creem" by the time he was 15, turning in stories on bands like Led Zeppelin and The Faces. These were often derided by the more cynical writers at the magazine as puff pieces—Crowe, it was claimed, missed the depth a more adversarial approach might elicit. Journalist Bill Flanagan later spent time hanging out on music tours with Crowe, and noted, “I don’t know of any music critic who has inspired as much petty jealousy as Cameron, or in whom such pettiness is absent.”

The pettiness is also absent in this autobiographical film—if Crowe's empathy meant he'd never be the critic that his mentor Lester Bangs was, it serves him well as a writer and director. From Crowe alter ego William (Patrick Fugit), to the ambitious editors at "Stone," to William's rebellious sister (Zooey Deschanel) and over-protective (but ultimately heroic) mother (Frances McDormand), to the desperate groupies led by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), to the sniping egomaniacs in Stillwater (Billy Crudup and Jason Lee), it's a pop music "Rules of the Game," where, as Octave says in that film, "The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons."

It's a different French film we catch sight of in "Almost Famous," as William and his mother exit a theater showing "Stolen Kisses," part of Francois Truffaut's "Antoine Doinel" series. The reference to Truffaut's alter ego keys us in to "Almost Famous"'s connection to a history of cinematic bildungsroman, and also to the melancholy spirit beneath the slapstick humor and verbal play. As funny as the Doinel films often are, there's an underlying sadness in the character, the ways in which his broken childhood shapes his intractability, and sabotages his opportunities.

Crowe's sensibility is more optimistic, but with his gawky social skills and stammering around girls, there's still a lot of Antoine in William. The movie doesn't shy away from the abusiveness of its protagonists' actions, or the desperation everyone feels to make something of themselves. It's that sadness that gives ballast to the "Tiny Dancer" sing-along on the bus: this is a moment of communal grace amidst the storm, full of music fans hoping they don't have to grow up anytime soon.

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