clap clap blog: we have moved

Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Saw I Heart Huckabees[1] on Sunday, and really really really enjoyed it. I had been initially excited about it but was damped in my enthusiasm by all the half-hearted reviews, so I went into it with low expectations. But I saw nothing of the disconnects or pretentiousness or "angst" that people were talking about. I mean, it was a comedy, and a good one. Did people miss that?

Just to mention intially, I loved that Shania Twain was this joke through the movie, the sort of shorthand symbol of emptiness, represented by a cardboard cutout (!) of her dressed in that embarassing Ramones t-shirt. And by the end, if you're like me, you start to get kind of uncomfortable about it: OK, David, I know she's a crossover country star and all, but she's a good one, you know? It seemed too easy. And then she shows up, in the flesh, to deliver the coup de grace to Jude Law's character in a sort of deus ex machina[2], telling him off in no uncertain terms, and after she leaves we get the wonderful exchange of "You know, I care about that kind of shit too much," followed by J. Schwartzman's environmental activist admitting, "Me too." This may or may not be the key moment in the movie, but we'll get back to that later.

The other thing that had worried me about this movie was that long piece in the Times about its troubled production history, especially where Russel keeps going on about how it was about these really important and intelligent Buddhist concepts he'd learned in college, because I know what that kind of stuff tends to produce. But the movie did everything I wanted it to and more. It didn't take the material too seriously, and it didn't really regard it as any great revelation; this was an idea, take it or leave it, no big deal, it's been said before, but it's kinda cool, huh? Miss Clap said that ultimately you could take all the philosophy out of the movie, have it be about anything else, and the movie would still essentially work, so it's there as gravy. Plus, how pretentious can a movie be when it ends with Marky Mark and the drummer from Phantom Planet sitting on a rock and hitting themselves in the head with a rubber ball?

The movie worked because the ultimate point wasn't to grasp whatever philosophy was being put across. It had a very good and very satisfying comic resolution, with everyone pairing off into their proper couples, order restored to the universe, etc. That there were still loose ends is undeniable, but the fact that the movie chose to gloss over these (or leave them for your own consideration, or on the deleted scenes on the DVD, which I'm totally getting) is a testament to its committment to the comedic form, which gets its message across much better than more philosophizing would. I mean, it cast all of French philosophy as a nihilist femme fatale, and how great is that?[3] It takes this stuff out of its perceived highbrow context and puts it where it belongs: in comedy. I don't mean that it's not true or valid or interesting, just that if it's properly applied and understood, it's essentially a comic idea. I think postmodernism or whatever would be a lot more useful if framed in this way.

But I could go on about this for a long, long time, so let's instead go back to "the Shania scene." Some context, in case you haven't seen the movie: Huckabees, the giant Target-esque corporate chain store that's sort of the story's McGuffin, has as one of its corporate spokespeople Shania Twain, in much the same way that Martha is for K-Mart or what have you. Jude Law's character, a marketing executive, keeps telling the same story about his encounter with Shania at a store opening, and near the end of the movie the existential detectives play him proof of how often he repeats this story as sort of evidence of his emptiness and he breaks down etc., all of which would be way more convincing if Jude Law had looked crushed instead of mildly constipated, but that's not really important.

What's important is Shania. Because if you didn't watch all the way to the Shania scene, it would be easy to read all this as some critics chose to, as an anti-corporate! anti-mainstream! liberal yay! movie that unflinchingly embraces all of those concepts, because after all what is a crossover country star if not the very embodiment of our lazy stereotype of a soulless, sold-out musician, someone with no worth whatsoever, especially if she's now whored herself out to a giant corporation, which is also, of course, Very Bad. Except then at the end, after everything has unraveled and it's been revealed that Jude Law's promises to help save a marsh are in fact only half-truths, Shania appears and gives the final condemnation: she was just as comitted as anyone to saving the marsh, she wasn't just some corporate mouthpiece believing what she was told, she is a human being and she knows what she's doing. It's a funny scene--I mean, it's Shania Twain yelling about environmentalism, how could it not be--but it's also an important one, because it flips our expectations on their head. We may want to make her into this cardboard cutout, this symbol of things we dislike, but those things are human and complicated and real, and every once in a while they need to show up and whack you on the head to make you realize what's going on.

And then the response: "I'm too into that shit." "Me too." Ah, now we see: this idea you detest, this Shania, which you've used as a prop and an easy laugh, she has just told you off in no uncertain terms, and she's right, too. You are no better than this. But: you are no better than this! And that's great, because you're pretty great, too, right? You are not above this, you are part of this. And what's the "this"? It's one of the things that connects us all: pop culture.[4] There is a commonality, something we can look to as a connection, and it's precisely this. Even if we don't like aspects of it, we're all aware of it. We are Shania, and Shania is us: ridiculous, compromised, fabulous, debased, banal, special. And we can proceed from there.

[1] Incidentally, my father must be pleased that people are referring to it as such.
[2] Woohoo, I hit the pretentiousness twofer!
[3] Also, how great is Isabelle Huppert? Mmm.
[4] You saw that coming, right?