On Cameron Crowe, failure, and loving imperfect things
Hey there! Welcome to the fifth issue of Microfascination. Turns out that I still have a lot to say about Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown.
What’s your favorite “bad” movie?
This is one of my all-time favorite questions to ask. Just about everybody seems to have a beloved film that was critically maligned or tanked at the box office. When I mentioned my affinity for discussing these movies on Twitter earlier this month, responses included Xanadu, Uptown Girls, Doom, Absolute Beginners, the Buffy movie, Road House, The Fifth Element, Pacific Rim, Streets of Fire, Mars Attacks!, The Slipper and the Rose, and Joe Dirt. (It may relieve y’all to know that a few of these are “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, for whatever that’s worth!)
I’m a big believer in second chances. Part of why I love this question is because the answers often lead me back to things I wrote off in the past. Stories I previously dismissed take on new life when seen through other people’s eyes. Certainly I’ve loved my share of shiny studio-approved box office successes, but I’m also intrigued by the mechanics of imperfection. Art’s small flaws speak to the humanity of its creators. In the films I watched this month, I found humor and weirdness and — crucially — heart. Because really, who wants to love a story that’s been stripped of everything that makes it unique?
The day I brought this up on Twitter, I knew I had to write about Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown: a movie about failure widely viewed as a failure itself.
For all of its rom-com marketing, this is a film that very nearly opens with a suicide attempt. After learning that his design failure will cost the company he works for 972 million dollars, Drew Baylor has resolved to kill himself. He dumps all his earthly possessions on the street outside his apartment and constructs a questionably elaborate stabby machine out of an exercise bike. But at the last possible minute, his phone rings. It’s his sister, calling to deliver the news that their father has died of a heart attack in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. And so Drew grimly embarks on a pilgrimage to retrieve his father’s remains, intent on returning to carry out his suicide rather than face the idea of living with his failure. But the cosmic joke’s on him and his certainty — before that journey’s over, Drew’s going to fall in love.
Elizabethtown is a movie about living past the greatest failure of your life. (A “fiasco,” as Crowe’s screenplay asserts.) And because it’s Crowe writing, Elizabethtown is about finding the strength to keep going. It’s also about imposter syndrome and loneliness and trying to reconnect with a community you never felt like you belonged to in the first place. As Drew grapples with the loss of the relationship he and his dad never got to have, Elizabethtown becomes a story of grief and the surreal humor that can be found in moments of abject misery. “It’s so almost psychedelic how you’re in the arms of the greatest sadness of your life,” Crowe once said, “but you just instinctively know this is the time when people need to laugh.”
Some critics complained that Elizabethtown was not just one thing: a movie that waffled between genres, avoiding easy categorization. I think that’s part of what I love about it. For this reflects the unevenness of real grief, doesn’t it? The times you find yourself laughing when you felt you might never laugh again. The idea that the most brutal moments of your life might, against all odds, lead you to some new good thing.
Elizabethtown is a reminder that these threads of indescribable loss and impossible beauty often run parallel to each other, intersecting at the moment you least expect. That you can lose someone you care about deeply and then discover there’s still room in your heart to love someone new. “Death and life and death and life, right next door to each other!” exclaims the groom getting married at Drew’s hotel. Life is messy. Love and loss happen simultaneously. It is very rare that we get a clean break before turning around to hurtle headfirst into the next new thing.
There’s a scene near the end of Elizabethtown where Drew finally breaks down. “When it happens, it’s going to be for days,” his sister had promised him on the phone. Buckled into the passenger seat beside him is the urn holding his father’s ashes; they’re finally taking the road trip they always said they would. Crowe has said time and time again that he made Elizabethtown for his own dad, who died at the very start of Crowe’s directing career in 1989. Drew laughs and cries and talks to a dead man as if they were in the car together. Every time I rewatch I find myself freshly affected by Drew’s vicarious display of his creator’s grief, as if I’m witnessing it for the first time.
Why do I love Elizabethtown?
When I write an essay, it often comes out in pieces. Lines jotted down on my iPhone, disjointed paragraphs scrawled in notebooks, a series of screenshotted Google searches. I often write the first drafts of my short stories in single sittings, but essays are questions I return to over a long stretch of time. I come back again and again until I feel like I’ve worked out an answer — one that satisfies me, at least.
There are plenty of Oscar-winning movies I’ve never rewatched. Critically lauded films I couldn’t summarize for you now. And yet this film derided by many remains with me, year after year after year.
“Life imitated the movie which imitates life,” Crowe said of Elizabethtown’s critical reception. Maybe Crowe wrote the story he himself would later need: a blueprint for perseverance. “You want to be really great?” Claire asks Drew while he’s miring in self-pity. “Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make ‘em wonder why you’re still smiling!” I’ve heard many writers say that we sometimes write the stories we needed when we were younger. I like to think that there are times we write for future versions of ourselves, too.
The day I saw Elizabethtown it became a part of who I was. This is, I think, the best scenario that anyone making art can hope for. If Elizabethtown had been something other than exactly what it was, who knows if I would’ve connected with it the way I did — an outwardly cynical teenager who, despite her best intentions, still held a lot of hope for the future. In the end I loved Elizabethtown’s flaws, its silliness, the Susan-Sarandon-funeral-standup of it all. If executives had stepped in, if it’d been rewritten to death, if it’d been smoothed out and simplified, with all its quirks erased... it’d be something else then, wouldn’t it?
In my deep-dive of this film, I noticed that the very things critics derided were often praised by different viewers elsewhere. I read a blog post written by a widow who connected with the particular way Drew’s mother expressed her grief. It struck me that if even one person saw themselves reflected in this story, it might all be worth it. I was reminded of the fact that we can’t make art that pleases everyone, so the best we can do is make honest work from the heart. That’s one thing I think Cameron Crowe understood from the beginning.
I also think it’s important to love imperfect things. People, after all, are imperfect. We live in an increasingly filtered world, one where technology makes it easier and easier to pretend we’re something we’re not. Maybe sometimes we sand off our own edges, downplay the things we’re afraid to let others see. I understand the impulse to do that; I’m guilty of it myself. But one of the things I’ve always loved about Cameron Crowe is that he owns his uncoolness. He makes art out of unflinching emotional honesty and never pretends to be anything other than who he is.
The people who love Elizabethtown, even if they’re small in number, love it profoundly, and I think that means something. I think about my tendency toward being my own worst critic. When I write, I struggle to turn off my inner editor; I frequently itemize the qualities in my work that could be stronger, better, different. But when I consider the work of others, I’m more forgiving. You could spend your whole life trying to make something better, but then no one else would ever get to see the wonderful thing you made. I’m okay with letting imperfections show if it means a chance that my work might find its audience. And this is what Elizabethtown’s all about, after all: the search for authenticity. Something real.
A few weekends ago, my sister shared a childhood memory with me out of the blue. She’d had a terrible day and she came into my room and I gave her a hug and told her I was sorry and apparently said, “Let’s watch Elizabethtown.”
I laughed when she shared this memory, because she didn’t even know I was writing this. I think it’s kind of beautiful that my favorite stories wove themselves into the fabric of my relationships with the people I love. When we watched Elizabethtown on that day, years ago, Claire said what I’m not sure I would’ve known to say at the time. Words I now carry with me in the face of any failure, any loss, any fiasco:
“We are intrepid. We carry on.”
I’ve come to believe that art can communicate the things we haven’t figured out how to say ourselves yet. (See: every mixtape ever.) Sharing the stories we love can be a way of saying those things. Of teaching ourselves how to say them.
I bought Elizabethtown on DVD years ago and have carried that disc with me through every consequent move. From the South to the Midwest to the Northeast, in dorm rooms and apartments, I have watched it on every screen. Maybe a story can be a place that one carries along with them. A home, even. I think that’s what I found in Elizabethtown.
In publication news, I’m happy to say I had a short story about adolescent TV crushes in this month’s issue of Invisible City! (And, for what it’s worth, I’d still love to hear about the critically panned movies you love.)
Thanks for reading, y’all — see you again in April!