Driving Miss Misery
Published on January 23rd, 2012 | by Allie Conti0
For the third installment in our new series “Soundtrack of the Week,” Allie Conti discusses the use (and abuse) of several songs by the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith (1969-2003) in Gus Van Sant’s 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.”
It’s upsetting to imagine a world in which a supposedly meritocratic committee would let Celine Dion edge out Elliott Smith in any manner of competition. The idea of a ghostwritten ballad is laughably ersatz when compared to the creation of a singer-songwriter so earnest about his shortcomings that he stabbed himself in the heart. And that’s no metaphor: We’re comparing Dion to someone who wrote confessional music about social anxiety that was so literal it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, while the mythology surrounding Smith colors his musical legacy, his autobiographical details don’t overshadow his subtle complexity. Smith’s catalog is equal parts darkness and mirth, and these two qualities often co-exist in the same song. Although certain filmmakers–notably Wes Anderson with “The Royal Tenenbaums” and Pedro Almodóvar with “The Skin I Live In”–have recognized and utilized the Sturm und Drang of Smith’s music to great effect, Gus Van Sant failed in this regard with “Good Will Hunting.” It is because of Van Sant’s vain attempts to simplify Smith’s music and place it in incongruous filmic moments that this Dion-crowning, Smith-snubbing world–unfortunate though it may seem–came into existence on the night of the 70th Academy Awards, March 23, 1998.
Smith’s music speaks in personal and plaintive terms. The fact that both “Good Will Hunting” and Smith’s outpourings are fundamentally about the isolating effects of genius makes them perfectly complementary on a surface level. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Oscar-winning screenplay follows a troubled autodidact who struggles with emotional intimacy and neglects his potential as a mathematical prodigy. Will is a modern-day Srinivasa Ramanujan born into a South Boston foster home rather than the Bahrain culture of India, and instead of mirroring Ramanujan’s attempts at academic recognition, he seems content to drown his thoughts in a never-ending pitcher of Sam Adams shared with a coterie of blue-collar friends.
With the guidance of a haughty MIT professor and an avuncular psychologist, Will makes strides towards self-actualization in both his intellectual and personal life. It is the tension between these personal and professional ambitions that drives the film, and Will ultimately reckons with the implications of prioritizing one of the value systems epitomized by the supporting characters.
The first trace of Smith’s music invokes the dismal realities that underlie a brief triumph. The achievement that accompanies “No Name #3″ is banal–getting a girl’s phone number at a bar–and the playfulness of that scene is juxtaposed with and subverted by melancholic images of South Boston. It is this banality that seems to cue songs throughout the film, and Smith’s place in the soundtrack is to normalize the quiet despair implicit therein. We hear Smith again when Will makes his initial call to Skylar from prison, something that is highly irregular but which he treats with an air of flippant nonchalance in an attempt to push away his potential love interest. This music’s second function is to accompany the revelation of a gritty personal truth, evident in the scene of Will’s psychologist, shaken by the memory of his deceased wife, drinking alone in his humble kitchen while “No Name #3” plays in the background. These two functions, condensed into one, serve to show the (not so silver) lining hiding beneath a constructed exterior.
Thematically, snippets of Smith’s oeuvre serve as appropriate motifs for a film like “Good Will Hunting.” However, when “Between the Bars”–from 1997′s “Either/Or”–accompanies a scene of intimacy and burgeoning romance, continuity issues arise. Often in Van Sant’s selection of Smith songs, it is only the first lyric that is applicable to the action on screen. The fact that “I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl,” the first lyric in “Say Yes,” is heard as Will and Skylar try on silly costume glasses on their first date, suggests a sort of deadpan literalism in the pairing of non-diegetic music with on-screen happenings. The problem is that “Say Yes” is a song as much about the dissolution of a relationship as the forging of one. After the initial, relevant line, Smith describes a break-up and the process of personal growth that follows the realization of a mistake; whether that mistake can be rectified is left up to the unnamed partner, and the conflict goes unresolved in the song. While Will’s personal growth can be foreshadowed by Smith’s lyrics, it feels strangely inappropriate for a soundtrack to dictate the story rather than serve it.
Smith’s deceptively mellifluous tone is befitting of a film that frequently contrasts both the apex of terrific joy and the nadir of cataclysmic despair against the muted atmosphere of working-class Boston, but his lyrics are, as a whole, too complex to have any place in a film with a traditionally happy ending. “Between the Bars” is a song about alcoholism, and that it is masqueraded as a love song in the context of the film is positively maddening to the astute listener. The only plausible explanation for its inclusion would be if Van Sant intended the song to characterize Skylar as an intoxicating agent who will ultimately lure Will away from achieving his mathematical potential. This reading is equally troublesome for making Skylar a villain and for the way it would, like “Say Yes,” be more convoluted than necessary. The ambiguity and circuitousness of Smith’s lyrics make it almost impossible to pair one of his songs with a straightforward love scene as part of a linear plot progression in an unambiguous “feel-good” movie. At worst, Van Sant made a lazy, ill-informed song choice with “Between the Bars”; at best, he uses it in the same way that he uses “Say Yes” and lets complex lyrical metaphors dictate our reading of his characters. With a bit of mental gymnastics, the song foreshadows Hunting’s impending decision about whether to value the intoxicating distraction of romantic love over intellectual renown, although I am inclined to assume that Van Sant’s error falls on the side of laziness (“They’re trying on glasses, so let’s play a song about a girl’s eyes,” or “Will is talking to Skylar about moving to California, so let’s play that Elliott Smith song that references Los Angeles”). Either way, Van Sant is underperforming or overperforming his authorial role.
This brings us to the song that got Smith the Oscar nod. “Miss Misery” plays as Will drives to California to reunite with Skylar and is a memorable footnote to an otherwise overrated, poorly soundtracked film. It is evidence of how much better Smith’s music works when it isn’t being re-purposed to serve the needs of Van Sant’s film–the aural equivalent of trying to fit something round and dynamic into a square context. The plot is referenced, although obliquely, when Smith writes of tickets torn in half (the original plan to move to California getting nixed) and a man in a park foretelling the future (Will’s psychologist finally convincing him to reverse his decision). Still, “Miss Misery” is an Elliott Smith song through and through, which means that a certain moral relativism is implicit in its meaning.
When trying to explicate the meaning of “Miss Misery,” it is illuminating to consider Smith’s fascination with the nineteenth-century Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Given that both Smith’s album “Either/Or” (whose title Smith borrowed from one of Kierkegaard’s most famous and influential books) and “Good Will Hunting” were released in 1997, it follows that this preoccupation carried over into his writing process for the target of our exegesis.
In Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or,” he writes, “Besides my other numerous circle of acquaintances I have one more intimate confidant–my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though I physically stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known; what wonder, then, that I love her in return.”
“Miss Misery” is obviously about celebrating the concept of melancholy, and the titular mistress is not a human companion but the concept of emotional baggage itself. It is an excellent song, but when compared to the quite literal “My Heart Will Go On,” it seems as if it were written by an alien with a penchant for metaphysical conceits.
I vividly remember seeing “Titanic” in the theater. Even as a third-grader, I knew what to expect going in. It’s about a historical event; I was under no illusions that the boat wasn’t going to sink and that I wasn’t going to walk back to my mother’s sedan feeling very, very sad. There was much controversy surrounding my parents’ decision to let me watch that movie at the tender age of eight, and I did my best to hold it together in the theater, lest their ultimate decision be regarded as a mistake. It wasn’t until we reached the car and turned the ignition that my sensibilities betrayed me: Celine Dion was the first thing that came on the radio. With the images of the film all too fresh in my head, I began to cry. Actually, I cried so hard that my mom had to pull over the car, because she was afraid I was hyperventilating.
This anecdote illustrates the precise difference between Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning recording of “My Heart Will Go On” and Elliott Smith’s Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery.” With the former, it is only possible to experience the intended emotional discharge with the context of the film in mind; with the latter it is almost impossible to feel anything unless it is divorced from “Good Will Hunting.” As ridiculous as it may seem to argue, it is Smith’s complexity that made him less worthy of an Oscar win than the authors of a song so tailored to its filmic appearance that it has become iconic.
Although Smith was doubtlessly superior to Dion’s ghostwriters on paper, film does not exist merely on paper. Likewise, although Van Sant intended his soundtrack to convey conflict and depth, the result was a flattening effect. Put simply: Smith’s songs have no place in a major motion picture because they exude a profundity that defies easy contextualization. There is no universal morality in a song by Smith; no clearly delineated Either/Ors. As such, to put one in a film so simple is utterly criminal.
Smith agreed to write “Miss Misery,” but he couldn’t mask the subtle complexity that was his namesake, despite his best efforts to plug himself into the formula of Damon and Affleck’s script. He sings, after all, in the last verse, “I try to be, but you know me.” A square peg in a round hole, but exactly the opposite. His admission just confirms it.