Cameron Crowe: Storyteller of America
by Theo Zenou
How do you tell the story of America? The dream, the pursuit, of happiness? How do you describe the alienation, the loneliness, that can result from ruthless competition and brutal hypocrisy? There have been many great twentieth century storytellers drawn to the subject – Frank Capra, of course, and Billy Wilder, Bo Goldman and…Cameron Crowe.
In each of his films as a writer/director – among them Say Anything…(1989), Jerry Maguire (1996) and Almost Famous (2000) – Crowe has strived to capture the American spirit on film. Crowe’s finest love letter to all things and people America is his outrageously under-rated picture Elizabethtown (2005), the last 20 minutes of which feature a montage of Drew (Orlando Bloom) taking a solitary drive across the South. As Drew scatters his father’s ashes in a river leading to the Mississippi, the voice-over speaks three meaningful words: “This is America.”
But, what is America exactly? Or more precisely, what is Crowe’s America? And how does it translate to his cinematic creations, including his mystery-romance Vanilla Sky (2001) and his recent family drama We Bought A Zoo (2011)?
Cameron Crowe’s films are rooted in the American Dream; that dream whose icons Elvis & Marilyn are proudly showcased on every wall of every diner of every town west of the Hudson River. It is an America made of humanity and integrity, still anchored in a long-gone era when individuals defined their country and cared for one another, when the experience of a journey bore more worth than its destination.
In the first act of Elizabethtown, Drew comes to a revelation: “In that moment I knew success, not greatness, was the only God the entire world served.” Crowe wants to expose the greatness, the greatness in affirming who we truly are. Ultimately, this is the recurring endgame of Crowe’s pictures. He believes that too many of us live our lives pretending to be someone we are not, in order to fit in. How can we be true to ourselves when, overstuffed by the hypocrisy around us, we can only feign sympathy for others? For Crowe, to affirm our identities, to find our way back to childhood dreaming, to believe in an ideal, is to approach greatness.
America is a land where the pursuit of happiness is written in the constitution, and Crowe’s characters endlessly fight for even the possibility to reach that “unalienable right:” Lloyd Dobbler (John Cusack) holding a boom box playing In Your Eyes, Drew finding soulful joy in being alive, on the road again. Jerry Maguire presents a picture of America dramatically at odds with, say, that of Oliver Stone’s ferocious and ruthless banker Gordon Gekko. Gekko was a Wall Street exec who saw greed as the only way to save America. Jerry (Tom Cruise) is a top sports agent who refuses to be “another shark in a suit.” He cannot keep turning the American institution of sports into a game of cynicism and hypocrisy. And for being honest and idealistic, “he is deemed a failure.”
Crowe’s country is a crushing organism; it is tough and it is mean. You will only be assessed on result. You will be loved because you are successful. You will be left on the side of the highway to success if you fail. It will make you feel alone; it will make you feel weak, purposeless. But you must never give up. In true American fashion, you must, like Jerry, start a journey towards greatness – a journey that conjures up the pioneering American values of freedom, opportunity, boldness, and optimism. Elizabethtown suggests that success is not the defining American virtue. Indeed, Drew learns that success and failure express only materialistic values, and that the true greatness is to “make ‘em wonder why you’re still smiling.” Crowe could have derived his conception of greatness directly from the opening lines of the US Constitution. He can only tell the story of America by making myth reality.
For Crowe, family is the American cradle. In his latest picture, We Bought A Zoo, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) argues he “is trying to give [his] kids an authentic American experience.” It turns out this experience is the feeling of belonging to a group as crazy as you – like any of Crowe’s literal or metaphorical families. Although America is a land of individualistic opportunity, one cannot achieve greatness on one’s own. Then-senator Barack Obama articulated this principle in his address to the Democratic National Convention: “Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief we’re all connected as one people.” The final minutes of We Bought A Zoo offer one of the most deeply uplifting endings of all time – shining with pure light and conveying to us the joy of a valuable happiness. And what triggers all of the sweeping feelings above? The communion of family, of course. The certainty, that no matter what, your pursuit of happiness will not be solely individual. It is no coincidence both the endings of Elizabethtown and We Bought A Zoo focus on individuals finding common happiness among a wonderful crowd of strangers.
Nevertheless, for Crowe, there is a duality to the concept of community, the corruption of being accepted by the norm as opposed to the beauty of being accepted by one’s alter egos. This is one of the (many) running themes of Vanilla Sky, which explores the dark side of the American Dream: the path from guilt to redemption, from narcissism to true love. David Aames (Tom Cruise) is a man who has “snowboarded” through his life, finding it too difficult to become the man he wants to be, and thus settling for the man others want him to be. The opening sequence serves as a perfect metaphor for the character’s inner life: the visceral image of an empty Times Square only illustrates the void of David’s existence and his own responsibility to live a life that awakens him to the values embodied by the film’s recurring father figure: To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, who watches over the proceedings from within a TV screen.
Cameron Crowe lived the American Dream, as told in his semi-autobiographical road-movie Almost Famous. At the age of 16, he started writing for cult music magazine Rolling Stone, interviewing the likes of Bob Dylan or David Bowie. In the film, William Miller (Patrick Fugit) finds his spiritual family among rock stars and groupies, people who share his meaningful passion for rock. Indeed, no one uses soundtracks like Crowe and his longtime music supervisor Danny Bramson. Crowe once said that “great music is its own movie already.” For Crowe, songs do more than support the storytelling; they become part of the storytelling process itself. The “Tiny Dancer” scene in Almost Famous transcends its now-YouTube status of “musical interlude.” The young journalist, the band and the groupies are all sitting in a tour bus, dwelling on their conflicts in silence. But through the perfectly timed, slowly built sing-a-long of Elton John’s hit, Crowe brings his characters together as one common group, as a family. Vanilla Sky’s soundtrack is notably dark and ‘lucid’: Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, Sigur Ros. Jerry Maguire features an original song by Bruce Springsteen, “Secret Garden.” Who better than The Boss to convey the American spirit? The greatness, the sweet and the sour, the inherent feeling of romantic nostalgia washing over you. In Elizabethtown, even more than in any other Crowe films, the music conducts the narrative. In the film’s climax, Drew drives through the South, discovering his country’s soul through the evocative tunes of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, My Morning Jacket and Patty Griffin – visiting the legendary Sun Studios, where the spirit Crowe now shapes was born.
But as Claire puts it in Elizabethtown, “Some music needs air. Roll down your window.” In Crowe’s films, cars (and the act of driving) suggest freedom. In Jerry Maguire, following a successful contract, Jerry drives down an empty highway, smiling as he sings “Free Falling,” the car touching the horizon. The feeling is one of immediate exhilaration. The compositions, colors, characters and objects recall Norman Rockwell. Crowe’s compositions are as evocative, poetic and relevant. From his original perspective, Crowe is to cinema what Rockwell was to painting.
Dashing camerawork or complex Steadicam movements do not necessarily make a great director. A great director must be able to capture the tone of the picture on-screen, highlight the characters’ moral and emotional dilemmas and immerse the viewer within the story by creating iconic images. The ending shot of Jerry Maguire dazzles with its purity: the united family in the foreground, hit by the sunlight; the old-fashioned quality to the baseball stadium in the background. In that moment, Crowe’s pictures leave us with a feeling of regeneration and the ultimate expression of the possibility of the American dream. In many ways, the American dream is - in its axioms - a story. From Say Anything to We Bought A Zoo, Crowe emphasizes the notion of living a story, taking part in an “adventure” as Benjamin Mee likes to call it. His style conveys it, with multiple compositions through windows. Indeed, there’s an inherent, magical feeling to watching an emotional scene through a window, as if we were just kids. What is a movie screen, if not a window to another world?
Cameron Crowe’s greatest achievement is his ability to relate the particular and the general: the intimate life stories of his characters and the extraordinary dream of his country. And ultimately, Crowe’s films are about the particular overwhelming the general: individual men and women who believe in the American myth constructing their realities according to it. Cameron Crowe is not only the storyteller of America; he is also the ultimate American artist.