Saturday, November 20, 2010

Elliott Smith. (Part 2)

Hi all. I’m taking advantage of the slow workday/traveling I’m about to do today, the day before Thanksgiving, to try to finish this Elliott Smith plan. As you know, I spent Sunday in a football-induced daze, and then Monday and Tuesday listening to Kanye West’s new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as many times as humanly possible. Both of these things were absolutely necessary. But now I’m back at it.

XO (1998)

What I thought of the album: Alright now this one sounds more different. I’m told (by Wikipedia) that this is almost assuredly the result of Smith’s signing to a major label (DreamWorks Records) and enlisting the aid of a bunch of other musicians (including the awesome Jon Brion). So we’ve got some rockin’ pianos and electric guitars and drums and such, on most of the songs. But Smith’s voice is still the same, double-tracked and whispery as ever. It’s an interesting combination. I probably didn’t like this as much as Either/Or, but he’s certainly spreading his wings a little here.

Maybe this is a function of how expanded the sound is on this album, but it doesn’t feel nearly as sad as the first three. The affable “Waltz No. 2 (XO)” features this positively swingin’ chorus, by Smith standards: “I’m never gonna know you now / but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” (I guess it’s sad that he’s never going to know her, but aww! Love! That’s nice.) And the jaunty “Independence Day” appears to be about a butterfly! WHAT.

Wikipedia tells me that around this time is when Smith began exhibiting signs of depression that would only worsen in the next five years. But man some of these songs are upbeat! “Baby Britain” is way poppier than anything I’d expected to hear from Elliott Smith, that’s for sure. So if the narrative I’ve picked up on in my cursory research is to be trusted, with a major label deal and a bunch of other cool musicians at his side, Elliott Smith made a kind-of pop album. Not bad for a guy who would eventually kill himself!

Saddest lyrics: From “Pitseleh:” “The first time I saw you I knew it would never last / I'm not half what I wish I was / I'm so angry / I don't think it'll ever pass / and I was bad news for you just because / I never meant to hurt you”

From “A Question Mark:” “Don't know what you mean / said your final word, but honesty and love could've kept us together / one day you'll see it's worth it after all / if you ever want to say you're sorry you can give me a call”

From “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands:” “You say you mean well, you don't know what you mean / fucking ought to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about”

And then all of “I Didn’t Understand” is actually pretty bitter for an album closer. Also see what he did there, calling the next-to-last song “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands,” and then the last one “I Didn’t Understand.” Tricky one, that Elliott Smith.

Either/Or (1997)

What I thought of the album: This is generally regarded to be Elliott Smith’s best album. In 2003, Pitchfork called it the 59th best album of the 1990s, and wrote of it, “Achingly spare, these songs were hushed and intimate…” (The kind of talk I mocked like three posts ago. Boom.) (Also, they ranked Pinkerton as the 53rd best album of the 90s. Which makes me want to throw up all over the place. I promise not to mention Pitchfork any more in this blog.)

But yes so I liked it very much. The three days I just spent listening to the new Kanye West album over and over again makes it more difficult for me to compare it to Roman Candle and Elliott Smith, but I’m pretty sure they’re fairly similar, all things considered. More drums on this album (Smith played all the instruments himself, which is pretty baller), and some of the songs are bigger, louder (“Cupid’s Trick”). I don’t mean to be a Philistine about this stuff, but they do kind of all run together at a certain point. I don’t know if this is a natural part of listening to an album once or twice and then writing about it, or if it’s a defect of Smith’s songwriting or whatever. Some songs do stand out, I suppose; “Say Yes” is obviously quite lovely, and I’ve always liked “Angeles.” I guess on the whole it’s probably the best of the three so far.

At the end of the day it almost feels like a chore though to get through some of these songs (not all of them). It’s like a lot of the movies I’ve watched, in that regard. Like taking your medicine. It’s good, I know it’s good, I appreciate the artistry here. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Saddest lyrics: From “Alameda:” “And now you see your first mistake was thinking that you could relate / for one or two minutes she liked you / but the fix is in/ you're all pretension / I never pay attention / nobody broke your heart / you broke your own because you can't finish what you start”

From “Ballad of Big Nothing:” “Now you can do what you want to whenever you want to / do what you want to whenever you want to / do what you want to whenever you want to though it doesn't mean a thing / big nothing”

From "No Name No. 5:" "Well I hope you're not waiting / waiting around for me / because I'm not going anywhere / obviously got a broken heart and your name on my cast / and everybody's gone at last"

From "Rose Parade:" "I used to like it here / it just bums me out to remember / can't you ever treat anyone nice? / I think I'm gonna make the same mistake twice"

From “2:45 AM:” "I'm walking out on center circle / the both of you can just fade to black / I'm walking out on center circle / been pushed away and I'll never go back"

Elliott Smith (1995)

What I thought of the album: Really good. Similar in style to the first album, but it seems more polished, or professional, or whatever. Maybe because it was not recorded in a basement. The songs are a bit more varied on this album; I had this notion that Smith has a very monolithic sound, where all the songs kind of run together, and that’s less true on this album as it was on the first. The extra instrumentation that pops up here and there (drums on “Christian Brothers” and “Coming Up Roses,” harmonica on “Alphabet Town”) helps break up the relative monotony. I also got a better sense of what a skillful guitarist Smith is on this album; he can make the guitar whatever he needs it to in each of the songs.

But what’s really striking on this album are the lyrics. Frequently bitter, accusatory, and angry, Smith’s lyrics are really dark here, and tackle some deep shit (alcoholism on “Clementine,” other drug abuse on “Needle in the Hay” and “St. Ides Heaven”). Sometimes the music reflects this darkness, and other times it kind of acts as a counterpoint to it (like with the pretty harmonies with Rebecca Gates on “St. Ides Heaven”). It’s often quite unnerving. On the whole, I definitely preferred it to Roman Candle. I might actually listen to this album fairly regularly now. It’s also getting pretty sad in here.

Saddest lyrics: From “Needle in the Hay:” “Strung out and thin / calling some friend trying to cash some check / he's acting dumb / that's what you've come to expect”

From “Clementine:” “They're waking you up to close the bar / the street's wet you can tell by the sound of the cars / the bartender's singing Clementine / while he's turning around the open sign / dreadful sorry Clementine”

From “Coming Up Roses:” “I'm a junkyard full of false starts / and I don't need your permission / to bury my love under this bare light bulb / the moon is a sickle cell / it'll kill you in time”

From “St. Ides Heaven:” “Cos everyone is a fucking pro / and they all got answers from trouble they've known / and they all got to say what you should and shouldn't do / though they don't have a clue”

From “Good to Go:” “I wouldn't need a hero if I wasn't such a zero / if I wasn't such a zero / good to go / all I ever see around here is things of hers that you left lying around / it's all I ever see around here”

From “The Biggest Lie:” “Oh we're so very precious, you and I / and everything that you do makes me want to die”

Roman Candle (1994)

What I thought of the album: It's good. Not overwhelmingly depressing, but certainly still pretty rough at times. Smith recorded this album pretty much by himself, in his girlfriend's basement with a four-track recorder. Just typing those words made me feel impossibly hip. I kind of expected each song to be terribly bleak, but that wasn’t the case. I think the issue is that, while the lyrics are occasionally terribly bleak (examples to come), the music isn’t as forbidding in that way. It’s even bouncy at times (“Condor Ave” and “No Name #2” in particular). “Last Call” features an electric guitar and something approaching a full-band sound, and the instrumental final track, “Kiwi Maddog 2020” actually features a semi-full-band. So it’s not completely spare and bleak and other adjectives that music critics use when they really mean “unlistenable.” It is decently listenable.

Smith’s distinctive vocal style (kind of whispery and like he’s kind of sick, or something like that), and the double-tracked vocals that dominate each track are what linger after listening to this album. Plus the whole lo-fi thing. I’m interested to see how things change once he gets into a real studio and stuff. Plus, while this album probably sets the tone for the rest of his output (by which I mean, pretty much all of the stereotypical Elliott Smith-type stuff is present here), it is almost certainly not as dark as the albums he would make as he sank deeper into depression and such (if you’ll allow me to apply a VH1 “Behind the Music” type approach to psychology here). We’ll see.

Saddest lyrics, yoinked from the official Elliott Smith fansite, Sweet Adeline: From “Roman Candle:” “I hear you cry / your tears are cheap / wet hot red swollen cheeks / fall asleep / I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain”

From “Condor Ave:” “Now I'm picking up to put away anything of yours that's still around / I don't know what to do with your clothes or your letters”

From “No Name #1:” “Leave alone 'cos you know you don't belong / you don't belong here / slip out quiet / nobody's looking / leave alone / you don't belong here”

From “No Name #4:” “For a change she got out before he hurt her bad / took her records and clothes / and pictures of her boy / it really made her sad”

And pretty much everything in the song “Last Call.” Oof! Bitter. I particularly like the line repeated several times at the end: “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me.” Not very happy.

Elliott Smith. (Part 1)

The albums of Elliott Smith

Category: Sad quiet indie lo-fi folk rock music. Bit specific there. But Elliott Smith is a very distinctive musician. By which I not only mean he has a distinctive, recognizable sound, but also that he has a pretty established reputation as one of the sadder artists out there. Here's a scenario for the lads out there: you're at a party, talking to a girl to whom you're sexually attracted. The conversation turns to music. The girl mentions that her favorite artist is Elliott Smith. Let's face it: there's probably very little chance of you seducing this girl. More likely than not, the night will end with one or both of you weeping (a very common occurrence in my life, but for different reasons). There is a slim chance that the girl will demand that you punch her in the stomach. No matter how you slice it (no pun intended, oof) it's not gonna end well.

As an experiment, I fired up the Pandora and started an Elliott Smith station. Here are the first ten songs that came up:

1) The Shins, "New Slang (Live)." Not really all that sad, I guess. I mean, It's a good thing I listened to this song. It changed my life.
2) Beck, "End of the Day." From one of my favorite albums ever, the 2002 breakup masterpiece Sea Change. I really should write about that album. So far, so good/sad.
3) Iron & Wine, "Naked As We Came." I don't really know Iron & Wine, other than that cover of "Such Great Heights" that made me want to kill myself. That about sums it up.
4) The Shins, "Girl Sailor." Not a lot of diversity on this station, huh? It's like the Tea Party of Pandora stations. ZING.
5) Alexi Murdoch, "Song For You." I'm familiar with this guy from his work on the Away We Go soundtrack. Nice and acoustic and melancholy and all of that.
6) Jose Gonzalez, "The Nest." Friend of the blog Zaree Gliddon put a Jose Gonzalez song on a mix for me one time. It was very sensitive. That's all I've got for this one.
7) Peter Bjorn and John, "Young Folks." Alright what the shit. This is like the happiest song ever. I'm bobbing my head back and forth as I type this. Man I wish I could whistle. I call shenanigans on Pandora for this one.
8) The Morning Benders, "Morning Fog." According to this Pandora bit, this band which I had never heard of is equally indebted to the Shins (duh) and Brian Wilson. This song annoys me.
9) Nirvana, "Oh Me (Live)." From that famous Unplugged they did. For those of you who have never watched VH1, the lead singer of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, killed himself because too many people liked his music. That's sad.
10) Bon Iver, "Skinny Love." OMG I can't listen to this yet. An upcoming Taste My Sad post, featuring guest commentary from friend of the blog Emily Rosenwasser, will be devoted to this album, which I have never listened to. Although just from the title of this song, I can tell I'll be able to relate to it.

None of these songs/artists are remotely as depressing as Elliott Smith, though. Pandora no doubt picks up on the sadness (or at least the whispery vocals/acoustic guitar shit), and yet can't find anyone who matches it. So that's saying something.

My familiarity with this person/music: I know the basics of his life, thanks to a careful reading of his Wikipedia page. His real name was Steven Paul Smith, but he changed it (not legally, as far as I can tell) to Elliott after graduating from high school. I can relate to this, as I often give Elliott as a fake name when making reservations at restaurants. True story. And then he grew up, and started a band, Heatmiser, which is a cool name. And then he went solo, did his thing, wrote a song that got nominated for an Oscar (“Miss Misery,” on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack), did his thing some more, got sad, and (allegedly) killed himself in 2003. I say allegedly because there are some who believe there was some kind of foul play involved, although he did leave a suicide note, so. Oof.

Music-wise, I’m decently familiar. I really like a number of his songs, most notably “Needle in the Hay,” a song I came to love after it was featured in a pivotal scene in The Royal Tenenbaums, one of my favorite movies. I’ll listen to that song, and a few others of his, on occasion – by which I mean I won’t skip past them if they come up on shuffle. I guess I don’t really listen to him that much because of his reputation of being really depressing, although I don’t think “Needle in the Hay” is all that depressing when not accompanied by images of someone cutting off all their hair, saying, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow,” and then immediately slashing their wrists with a razor. (Great scene.)

But somehow, I find myself in possession of all of his music. (By this, I mean the five solo albums he released during his life – Roman Candle, Elliott Smith, Either/Or, XO, and Figure 8 – and From a Basement on a Hill, the album he was working on at the time of his death, which was released posthumously. I don’t have the two other posthumous compilations of rarities and B-sides.) Throughout college and afterwards, I went on binges of burning lots of CDs from the Oceanside Library, stealing music from friends/kids in the hall, etc., to get lots of music that I still may have never listened to. I don’t exactly recall how I got all of Elliott Smith’s albums, but here they are, waiting to be listened to in one weekend for a ridiculous blog post.

So here’s how we’re going to do this: I probably can’t listen to all six today. But I’ll do at least three. Check back here throughout the day/weekend and see how I’m doing. Elliott Smith Day/Weekend begins… NOW.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009)

Category: Sad domestic abuse movie. I know I shouldn’t get into the habit of classifying how sad things are, or comparing them to each other, but here I am. (Still working on the disease bracket, BTW.) I’ll just put this out there: I think that domestic abuse is probably sadder than random abuse. While it would undoubtedly be rather unnerving to be beat up or yelled at by a complete stranger, the concept of being abused by someone in your family is terrible. Your family is supposed to love you! Or at the very least, not beat you up or say mean things to you. Gosh. Look, I understand that sometimes, family members can get on your nerves. Like if they always give you the weird fork when they set the table for dinner, even though you’ve told them not to like six times, because there are enough normal forks for everyone, and is it just that they’re stupid and keep forgetting about it or are they doing it on purpose, because if so then you’re gonna jam that weird fork right in their weird face. I get all that. But at the end of the day, that’s something that you should bring up to Mom first, before you take matters into your own hands. There’s always a peaceful solution to these things.

Precious is also a sad movie about poverty. The whole fact that poverty exists is kinda lame; I’m pretty sure we’ve got enough stuff to go around. Sort it out, Obama.

My familiarity with this issue: As discussed in the past on this blog, my family life was quite nice and abuse-free. (Maybe there were times when brother of the blog Tony Krizel wanted to start something, but he knew better. You don’t step to this.) But of course I have known people who had tough family situations; distant or absent or verbally abusive parents, that sort of thing. It’s terrible, especially when you’re in high school and you have no idea what the hell is going on anyway. It’s nice to have parents who have a better of idea of things than you do at that age. And it also sucks that this thing tends to be kind of cyclical. The damage that poor parenting inflicts on children can easily get passed on to the children’s children, and so forth. Tough stuff.

As for my familiarity with this film: it was pretty ubiquitous last year during Oscar season and such, so I’ve read a decent amount about it. I have not read the novel Push by Sapphire, on which the movie is based. I know that Precious is based on the novel Push by Sapphire because the movie is actually called Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. You’ll notice I didn’t write the whole thing out at the top. That’s because it’s bullshit. Since when is this an acceptable thing? The only time I can remember this being done is when the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet was called William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. That is more acceptable, because he’s SHAKESPEARE. This is a woman who’s named after a gem. It’s not OK. Good for Sapphire for getting her name out there or whatever, but Jesus. This has made me so irrationally angry for a year now.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “In Harlem, an overweight, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.”

What I thought of the movie: It made me uncomfortable. Sometimes, this is a good thing. And maybe for certain parts of this movie, it was the good kind of uncomfortable. It depicted a world that I don’t want to have ever existed, inhabited by people for whom there is little or no hope to speak of, and made me consider the ramifications of living in such a world. Movies like Precious have the capability, by sheer virtue of their subject matter, to shake people out of their upper-class complacency and really consider what life is like for those less fortunate. But, for the most part, instead of doing that, Precious made me the angry kind of uncomfortable. The filmmakers had an opportunity to tell a truly engaging story about characters dealing with really terrible stuff, and tried to do too much. Watching this movie was just an ordeal, with no payoff, no catharsis, no lessons, and ultimately no meaning.

A lot of the problems I had were, I imagine, the direct result of director Lee Daniels’s choices. Precious features a number of short fantasy sequences, where Precious imagines herself as a popular, famous celebrity with a fantasy boyfriend and fantasy talents and such. There’s also a bunch of times in the movie where dramatic or depressing scenes are accompanied by upbeat music, to underscore the quotidian misery of Precious’s existence. These juxtapositions frequently made me mad. They were distracting or hamhanded or dumb, and at times all three. Daniels also gives us shot after shot of fatty foods frying in a pan, and scene after scene of Precious’s mother, oh my God, just being the worst human being that has ever existed, and it’s just piling on after a while. I’ll return to this point later.

But the story itself, or at least how it’s presented in the movie, is kind of the worst part, particularly how it ends. The big dramatic final scene has Mariah Carey (not playing herself, by the way, although that would have been awesome; but no she plays a social worker, and they really ugly her up for it), who we’ve seen like twice in the movie before but we’re supposed to understand what she represents, confronting Precious’s monster of a mother for all the terrible stuff that she’s done. At this point Precious has liberated herself from the mother and is taking steps towards improving her life, and so this scene really feels forced. It doesn’t come close to working. This is Mo’Nique’s big Oscar scene, and she does a good job of crying, but it just felt so empty, so pointless, and so calculated. I’ll get to why this is in a minute, but the end of the movie just left me kind of dazed and confused. And not in a good, Led Zeppelin kind of way.

How I related to the movie: I couldn’t. (Aside from the fact that I am a skinny white boy and therefore pretty much the anti-Precious.) The supporting characters are really poorly conceived and developed and unrelatable, and even the character of Precious isn’t nearly as well-developed as she should be. But it’s the other characters that really stick in my craw. In an effort to show Precious’s mother as a monster, and her teacher as a saint, the filmmakers make both of them completely unbelievable characters. By which I don’t mean that I don’t believe that there are horrible mothers out there, or saintly teachers. I’m sure there are. But within the context of the story, and next to a relatively three-dimensional character like Precious, I did not believe them. For Christ's sake, she tries to drop a television onto her daughter's head, as she's holding her three-day-old son. We get it.

I understand that bad stuff like this happens to people. I have so much empathy for people that deal with abuse, with incest, with obesity, with teenage pregnancy and motherhood, with AIDS. (Oh yeah she has AIDS too. I didn’t know that going in. Add that to the list.) And it just felt like the point of the movie was to keep piling more and more and more on so that we would eventually have no choice but to surrender and agree that the movie was powerful and real and moving. But you have to earn that! You can’t just throw sad shit at the screen and hope it sticks. You can’t create a character like Precious just to manipulate my emotions. You have to be telling me about her because you care about her. And you have to surround her with deep and complex and realistic characters that remind us of actual people, so that we really can empathize with her. If the filmmakers had really cared about her, they would’ve put the work in, cut out the unnecessary shit, and done that. But they didn’t, or they couldn’t, and as a result Precious is just exploitative.

How I felt after the movie ended: You can probably tell. I’ve been in possession of the DVD for this movie for at least three weeks. It’ll be great to finally return it. Next on my queue: Beaches! FFFFFFUUUUUUUU--

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dear Zachary.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

[Note: Back to films. Sorry to those of you who are deaf and/or don't like Kanye West. More music stuff coming soon, but first, a film post with guest commentary! Today's film was recommended by/watched alongside lanky jokester, meme hound, all-around laff riot and friend of the blog, Mr. Zachary Gibson. Zach's guest commentary will appear later in this post, and includes a picture! Please do not skip down to look at the picture now. It wouldn't make sense without reading the earlier stuff. In fact, and this goes for all of my posts here, I'd recommend that you read the words I write in the order that they're written. You know, in case I make a reference to something from earlier in the post. Just a heads up.]

Category: Sad documentary. I’m taking the plunge here, a plunge that FOTB Joe Kirkwood publicly predicted would cause me to "[murder] relatives in cold blood just to comment on how horribly [my] remorse eats at [my] insides." (If I were a betting man, I'd put money on the cat being the first to go. She's sixteen years old, which seems a bit excessive. Also her birthday, on July 8, always distracts the family's attention away from my half-birthday on July 6. Outrageous.) Documentaries have been around since the dawn of cinema, but have really gained in notoriety and influence in the past decade or so (with An Inconvenient Truth and the films of Michael Moore at least partially responsible for this trend). Throughout the decades, however, filmmakers have documented actual sad events and their aftermaths in intricate detail, and created a number of films that no one would ever want to see, ever. Of course, I intend to tackle many of them in this blog. 

More specifically, Dear Zachary is a "true-crime" documentary. Such films not only recount the events leading up to crimes and their consequences, but often present new theories about who was really blame for the crimes and/or point out the glaring deficiencies in our criminal justice system. These films often pop up on your 20/20s and your Dateline NBCs and such, and occasionally get a theatrical release; the most famous of these was Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, which was instrumental in overturning the wrongful imprisonment and pending death sentence of an innocent man.

My familiarity with this issue: I have managed to stay out of trouble for most of my 24 years, aside from the occasional speeding or parking ticket. As such, I’ve managed to stay out of the criminal justice system, which is extremely fortunate. For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of the police, even though I know that their job is to protect weak, frightened citizens like me. Many of my nightmares involve me being chased (often while driving, another of my fears) by the police, for a crime that I either can’t remember or didn’t commit (or both, presumably). The prospect of being a victim of crime is also pretty bad. I’ve never taken a self-defense class, or ever really thought about how I might act if I were mugged or some such. Off the top of my head, I think I’d probably go with “immediately giving the mugger my wallet, keys, backpack, phone, iPod, clothes and insulin pump and then curling up into a ball on the street.” Not a fun thought. And then I’d have to rely on the notoriously beleaguered criminal justice system to redress the issue. It’s just best not to think too much about all this. I keep my nose clean and my head on a swivel.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: In 2001, Andrew Bagby, a medical resident, is murdered not long after breaking up with his girlfriend. Soon after, when she announces she's pregnant, one of Andrew's many close friends, Kurt Kuenne, begins this film, a gift to the child.” That’s all you should really know about this movie before watching it, for serious.

What I thought of the movie: It might be the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. Not to hyperbolize or anything, but it’s just really emotionally devastating. I’m not ashamed to admit this to all of you, but I cried a good deal. Zach and FOTB Micah Lubens did as well. Not a dry eye in the house. And while many of you might think that’s a bit gay, trust me: if you watched this movie, even with two of the lads, you’d cry too. You kind of have to. I really don’t want to give anything away, but what makes the movie so effective is how personal it is. As noted in the plot summary, Kurt Kuenne is one of Andrew Bagby’s close friends, and therefore is able to access not only his personal fount of emotions on the matter, but also those of just about all of Andrew’s dozens and dozens of close friends and relatives. The effect of this is that you feel like you know Andrew Bagby after about three minutes, and you experience an intense feeling of loss when the events leading to his death are described.

And then a lot of other crazy shit happens that just makes it more and more emotionally intense. It’s a uniquely affecting movie, even among the documentaries that I’ve seen. And of course knowing that this was a real person and these things really happened gave it a resonance that no other film (either fictional or based on actual events) I’ve watched for this blog has approached.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: For much of this blog, I’ve been thinking about how the movies I’ve watched relate to my own life, or how I would feel if the events that occurred in the films occurred to me. But that really wasn’t the case with Dear Zachary. I think it was because the events in the movie were so specific and personal that it felt like I would be doing a disservice to the memory of Andrew Bagby and the ordeal that his family and friends went through by trying to relate them to my own comparatively awesome and pain-free life. The film also immerses you so deeply into Andrew’s world that to attempt to relate to it during the movie would be kind of distracting and unnecessary.

But the main reason that it was difficult to relate this movie to my own life, and to therefore write glib jokes about it, is because there are things that happen in this movie (which I will not describe) that are so beyond the boundaries of acceptable human behavior and social interaction as to be incomprehensible. Not only could I not imagine what it would be like to go through the kind of shit that happens in this movie, I could not even conceive that some of it was even possible in the realm of human interaction. The emotional toll that the events of this movie inflicted was so severe that even thinking about something like this happening to me is just about impossible. My mind shuts down. It is a literally unbearable thought.

What Zach thought of the movie: “Hi RsOTB, Zach Gibson here. I recommended this doc to John, saying it might be the saddest documentary, if not movie, I've ever seen. This documentary is not comparable to other movies on this list. It rips your heart apart, but it is not designed to do so. The documentary was being shot as events in the film were transpiring. The interviews and footage are compiled together to show you exactly how the people in the movie were feeling at the time. You feel overwhelming anger and heartbreak as the real people in the movie feel this. It's astounding how you boil with rage, shock, and sadness. That being said, I stress again, don't read about this movie before you see it. It is so shocking because of how real it is, and if you know how it progresses, you won't feel as viscerally close to the people in the movie. There that's my piece. Below is an image progression of myself, Micah and John as we watched the movie. (Me and John ordered wingos before the movie started. Micah didn't. Taste my Grease.)"

[Editor's Note: Brilliant. We need more art on the blog.]

How I felt after the movie ended: As mentioned earlier, I really wasn't sure if I could write about the movie. When it ended, the lads and I sat in silence for a minute or so, wiping the tears away, and it was a few minutes before I demanded that we all do something manly to make up for the previous ninety-five minutes. I hope I'm not dissuading too many of you from watching this movie because of how relentlessly I'm describing its sadness. I don't really know your motivation for reading this blog (aside from being personally hectored by me to do so), and I wonder if reading what I have to say about these movies makes you more or less likely to watch them. But I do think you all should watch this, for any number of reasons but mainly because I'm not sure that you've seen a movie like this before. I sure hadn't.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Simon Birch.

Simon Birch (Mark Steven Johnson, 1998)

Note: As promised, today’s post will feature guest commentary from/sexy photos of FOTB Steve Isaac, a huge fan of this film.

Category: Sad movie about physically challenged children. Hey it’s kids week here at Taste My Sad! As we’ve discussed earlier, kids are generally pretty helpless creatures. Add to that a physical challenge, and you’ve got a potent one-two punch of sadness. In Simon Birch, the title character is a dwarf (not to be confused with a midget or an elf). A child dwarf, at that. Very small. Forget about reaching the dishes on the top shelf. Even the lower shelves are probably out of bounds too. A child dwarf isn’t going to be much help in the kitchen, is my point here. So that’s one issue that a movie like this could tackle. There are probably others.

My familiarity with this issue: Devotees of the blog are no doubt aware of my many physical challenges. While height is no longer one of these challenges, it was for quite a while. In seventh and eighth grade I was probably 4’11”, too short to be chosen for the school basketball team, despite my superb passing skills and high basketball IQ. So with the height issue, the diabetes (diagnosed in eighth grade) and a touch of asthma thrown in there as well, I wasn’t exactly Jim Thorpe in middle school. My growth spurt occurred in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, at which point I became a slightly taller near-invalid.

This is not to compare my issues with those of children with actual physical challenges, of course. Aside from the functional problems of their conditions, they also have to deal with the fact that children can be really, really mean, especially when confronted with people who are different than them. I was never really made fun of for my skinniness or weakness or limited height, but rather for my glasses (my childhood nickname was, for a time, “Glasses”). But lots of kids have glasses. Not a lot of kids are dwarves. It’s good to have some perspective. (Also, it should be noted that this movie is based on the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, which was apparently assigned to every high school student in the United States except me.)

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Simon Birch tells the story of Joe and Simon's heart-warming journey of friendship. Simon Birch was born with a condition that makes him much smaller than all the other kids in town. Now, due to his condition, Simon thinks God made him this way for a reason and highly believes in God. Together, Joe and Simon go on a journey of trust and friendship to find the answers to many things.”

What Steve thought of the movie: “Hello sad eaters… friend of the blog Steve here. Anywho, I saw this film in theaters a number of years ago and recall it being quite sad. Today, about a decade later, the sadness has become perhaps more profound, not less. I am extremely lucky, in that I have experienced almost no loss in all of my 21 years. This is perhaps why I find myself strongly affected by films that revolve not around tragedies, massive in scope, but around coping with the loss of loved ones. Films like Simon Birch don’t act as a reminder of things that I, personally, have faced. Rather they highlight a profound sorrow that I have yet to face but inevitably will. 

“In addition, I find the religious nature of the film to be deeply sad. Simon’s search for divine meaning in the tragedy around him is truly heartbreaking, especially as he is denied a godly justification time and time again. As often is the case (so I hear), loss can push people towards a religious search. The need to know that loved ones live on in some fashion, or that their deaths are part of a bigger plan is strong. As a staunch atheist I respect this search but believe, with the very fiber of my being, that such a search is futile. Again, this may also play a role in why I find the particular brand of sadness in this movie to be distinctly moving. That being said, I find that the film, from a cinematic standpoint, is pretty good while at the same time baiting us into some cliché sad movie traps. This is evident in the hyper-saccharine score and some ‘meh’ inserts (see deer). [Editor’s Note: Ohhhhh the deer. We’ll get to that.] That’s all for me. Peace and love.”

What I thought of the movie: I generally agree with our Steve. There were certainly things that I didn’t like about it. The movie does make it clear that it wants you to cry, and it’s fairly episodic, with some scenes that drag more than others. Most importantly, there is a scene in the film (that I will not spoil, but if you’ve seen the movie you probably know what it is) that is laughably ridiculous, and kind of took me out of the movie for a while. I still really can’t believe that I witnessed it. But on the whole, I liked more things than I disliked about it. It’s often quite charming and sweet. Most of the time it felt authentic, not quite so nakedly manipulative as other tearjerkers I’ve seen. The performances are generally good, especially Ian Michael Smith, a non-actor, in the title role. And as Steve noted, it really is quite thoughtful about the existence and nature of God, which is nice to see. It’s heartfelt! My heart felt sad at the end when he died. (That is not a spoiler, BTW; his grave appears before the opening credits are done.) So I'll give Steve some credit here for suggesting that I watch it; his "friend of the blog" status remains very much intact.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: Simon Birch was a pretty cool kid. Despite his physical challenges, frequent name-calling and terrible, uncaring parents, not too much really got to him. A lot of that was due to his faith that he was an instrument of God, which I’d imagine would help a great deal. But he was also quick with the jokes, and enjoyed a good pair of breasts as much as the next fella. You get the feeling Simon Birch would’ve been fun to hang out with, so long as he wasn’t chirping about God’s plan for too long. (This is not to say that religious people aren’t fun to hang out with, of course. It’s always annoying when someone gets hung up on one subject, be it religion or politics or my hair.)

The God stuff was interesting to me, too. I won’t be so bold as Steve as to announce my own personal religious beliefs on the blog, but I was certainly intrigued but the questions that the film raises are no doubt ones that many of us have pondered in our more reflective moments. I did some brief research on the Christian movie websites, including (yes, that is a thing), and on the whole, they all liked Simon Birch (although some complained about the occasional profanity). Many of them were really enthusiastic about it, in fact;, which reviews films based on a “conservative Christian perspective on suitability for family consumption,” called the film “the most spiritually intuitive, spiritually sensitive, pro-God, pro-faith movie released so far this year” (a judgment they no doubt reconsidered when American History X was released a month later). Heck, even Hollywood Jesus himself called it “brilliant.” And just a few paragraphs ago known atheist Steve Isaac described how moved he was by the film, too. It’s a rare movie that can straddle such a wide audience. That’s what she said.

Oh and also! I took some pictures during the film. Here they are.

Here is Steve at the beginning of the movie. He knows he’s in for some sadness. Also he knows that I’m going to occasionally turn and take pictures of him during the movie, rather obnoxiously, when I think he’s at his most vulnerable.

This was after the part we were talking about earlier, the ludicrous part. I was aghast.

We ordered from Wingo’s about six times during the film. This was during one of those times.


He knows I’m trying to catch him out. That sneaky Pete.

Now we’re getting towards the end of the movie. Notice how Steve is now laying down. This is not just because he is a lazy man. He’s also ready to let the sadness wash over him.

It’s gettin’ sad. Also I forgot to put the flash on for this one.

Ohhhhhhh no. A broken man.

How I felt after the movie ended: There were many emotions at play. Sad, yes; heartwarmed, yes; focused on calming down an inconsolable Steve, oh yes. Mixed bag here.