Sammy the Seal

You don’t deconstruct beauty

In celluloid, delicious, vinyl on Monday, 9 February, 2009 at 5:25

I just had a cultured, thoughtful evening. I think I was cleaning, and had a playlist on shuffle, but still skipping songs, and “Shut Up I Am Dreaming of Places Where Lovers Have Wings” came on, and I went from shuffle to Sunset Rubdown only. It’s not something you throw on just for the hell of it, but there’s something about that music that’s very familiar, tuneful, otherwordly, and heartfelt and passionate. Most music we listen to, we have to relate to it on some level, whether the voice, the style, or the lyrical content. It has to fit with a specific aspect of our personality. We are by nature self-centered, that’s how it is. But listening to this music, it seems to push boundaries of how personal something needs to be in order to be understood. The lyrics are mostly cryptic, to me anyway, but everything about the songs is meticulously and carefully crafted and disregards the idea that something has to be “relatable” to be appealing. To this day, the song “Shut Up I Am Dreaming…” is possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever heard (even if it’s not my favorite song). And that’s saying something, being a person who has little patience for songs past 4-5  minutes (the word indulgent comes to mind)– the song is over seven minutes long. I think I like to come back to this music because I can kind of forget myself and just admire how pretty it is. There’s poetry and mystery to people and things who exist on their own terms, and I just tend to be drawn to them. You don’t know why you’re drawn, you just are. I may not understand exactly what songwriter Spencer Krug was thinking, and yet I feel I get what he set out to convey. Then again, I don’t even really need to. Unless you’re soulless, sexless, and simple-minded, you don’t deconstruct beauty.

So then I made a fancy-pants peanut butter and jelly sandwich, using nut and grain bread, Bonne Maman fig preserves (ate almost the whole jar in one week), and that Adams natural peanut butter that you stir and refrigerate that I’ve never had before. (An old roommate had some once, and I thought, ooh look-at-me-I’m-so-special-you-have-to-refrigerate-me peanut butter.) It actually costs less than the more processed crap and you get four ounces more, go figure. After the first bite, I was taken aback by how fancy it was. I thought, “wow, if there’s such a thing as classy PBJ, this is it.” You should try it, you’ll feel like you’re not good enough to eat it. Stay tuned for the 8-grain bread and four-berry preserve report.

Then I watched May. I saw it once almost five years ago but didn’t remember it well, and I didn’t have anything on my Netflix queue to put ahead of it, along with a lot of other movies I’ve seen but wanted to re-visit. For 15 minutes near the end, it’s kind of a horror movie, but only in tone, but the rest of it is a touching, freakish character study. My hat must go off to Angela Bettis, who made a very odd character sympathetic, despite the fact that most people, even well-meaning ones, would be extremely put off had they met such a person in real life. I would think many people who seek this film out fancy themselves “different” in that they do not feel part of any crowd. It’s just part of individualism. Whether we try or not, we like to think there is something about us that separates us from the pack. It’s vogue to be “different” or “nerdy” or “alternative” or “weird”– it’s all about fitting in and looking cool for anyone, not just the popular kids– but May Canady makes charlatans of us all. From the first few minutes, you see that she is genuinely different– she’s not cutesy, adorable, or misunderstood, she’s weird. You accept her for what she is (a credit to the actress), and yet the reactions of every character who comes into contact her are understandable. You want to reach out and comfort her, then you realize you’d probably react the same way. I’m not judging anyone, but we have our limits. Like people who say “I’m all for free speech, but…” or “I listen to all kinds of music… except country/rap/metal” or how everyone says they believe in being honest, but they really don’t. Objectively, few people can face the truth (though most people probably don’t care either way). Like always, it’s the small touches that make the performance. Her body language is invaluable, the blink-or-you’ll-miss-it gestures, e.g. when she is walking down the street to run into her crush, and he stops and turns away to light a cigarette, and she abruptly has to shift her attention forward again and keep walking in order to look normal. I mean, look at every single social interaction she has and put yourself in the shoes of the “normal” character. I think it’s amazing that I can care so about a character, yet feel a little false about it. I fancy myself sincerely open-hearted, tolerant, and accepting, but I’ve never known anyone remotely similar to May. And therein lies the magic of good storytelling and seamless acting– pondering hypothetical issues and trying to relate to fictional people. I nearly failed to mention that May makes her own clothes, and being so involved in her character, I was going to praise her for her unique design, when it is indeed the costume designer, not the work of fiction, who deserves props. The clothes are a bit off-center, definitely not trendy, but I thought they were cute and well-done. Confusing fiction with reality even on csotume issues? That’s seamless for you.

After viewing it, I considered listening to one of the commentaries, but am now wondering if I should just return it, then buy it and listen at my leisure. The ultimate compliment I can give a film is to purchase it, to deem it worthy enough to sit on my shelf, and I’m certainly leaning this way. It seems like an odd choice, but given the diversity of the few films I do own, it would fit right in, in that it’s not much like the others. Then, I’ve always been averse to comparing films on an absolute scale (letter grades, stars, etc.). How can Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Enchanted, Go, Out of Sight, Ghostbusters, South Park, Lost in Translation, Batman Begins, Saving Private Ryan, Adaptation, The Fugitive, Eternal Sunshine, Jerry Maguire, This Is Spinal Tap, and Moulin Rouge be fairly measured against one another without being insulted? Most people would qualify May as a genre film, which would be completely incorrect. To paraphrase a film critic I once read, quite possibly Roger Ebert, a film should be measured by one criterion: does the film achieve what it set out to do? Hey, films are just like people– we shouldn’t be measured according to any scale, we should be measured on our own merits. The one criterion is pretty much the same– are we true to ourselves?

Bonus for watching the film a second time: having embraced Pixies since then, I was able to identify Kim Deal’s voice in a couple of songs– there was some Kelley Deal to boot– and was so thrilled to be now-enlightened enough to appreciate that. Then I listened to a Breeders album I’ve neglecting for a while (but will no more) while taking care of a final late-night errand. All it took was one scene and the song “Oh!” Funny what film and music can do for each other when it’s right– can’t you feel the synergistic love? I love film. I love music.

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  1. But how do we know if a film achieved what it set out to do? We could totally misinterpret its message.

    To me, a film is good if I was able to maintain my suspension of disbelief and felt empathy for the characters. If I really enjoy a movie, I’ll turn right around watch it a second time to absorb all of the technical stuff.

    I also get all giddy when I recognize a little known artist’s music in the background.

    Film, music, fancy-pants PB&Js — I wouldn’t want to live without any of them. You have great taste.

    P.S. Finally somebody else has seen Go.

    • That’s true, I realize it is subjective what a film sets out to do. I guess that’s why I added that bit at the end, about how was the storytelling, the acting, and how true was it to itself/how seriously did it take itself (still subjective, but probably what I really meant).
      E.g. the violence present could be considered gratuitous, and possibly the film could have done without it, but I will argue that to do so would have been a partial whitewash of the character. And yet, the final shot, cheesy as it looks, is her reprieve.

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