Another guest article, this time by somebody I think I may have married a few years ago. Her name is Stevi Costa. I can’t be certain, though.
Almost Famous has been my second favorite film of all time for a decade now. (I’ll write about what’s number one on my list when we re-view it later this year.) So when my husband mentioned it was going to be part of this project, I volunteered to watch it with him and write about it. Before I reflect on my feelings about this movie now, let me tell you a few things about how I felt about it ten years ago, and one some memorable occasions in between.
At 15, I desperately wanted to become a published writer. I worked on my high school’s literary magazine. I wrote constantly and I had many, many notebooks filled with my mostly bad poetry. I loved books. I loved plays. I loved screenplays. I tried my hand at writing all of these genres in my spare time. And here was this movie about a 15-year-old kid who gets a shot at writing for Rolling Stone fucking magazine and actually gets to do it. How could it not speak to me?
I also remember finding Penny Lane to be extremely relatable in that, like me, she was the kind of girl people liked to be around and that the locus of her selfhood was often defined by what audience she was playing to. This is a feeling you have about yourself when you define yourself as much by your onstage presence as you do by your writing. Later, when my husband directed a scene from Almost Famous for a college film class, I actually got to play Penny Lane. Granted, the one look I can’t pull off is that hippie-ish vibe Penny rolls with, so my Penny was more like an 80s glam rock pixie, but either way the spirit of the role was the same. Though she’s clearly not the first of this ilk, Penny Lane ushered in a new era of Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
Watching Almost Famous at 25, I can tell you that I still love this film as much as I did when I first saw it. It is perfect — something I’ve come to expect for something that wins an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay — and only now have I really come to realize just how clean the writing is. While ten years ago it was very obviously a story about writing and honesty, I realize now it’s also about narrating the self and about the impermanence of the momentary. How good is Crowe? He establishes these major themes in the opening credits, where we see William writing down the names, by hand, in pencil, as the camera pores over his collection of rock souvenirs. The most genius part is when he misspells Frances McDormand’s name, erases a letter and pencils the correct letter in. Immediately, you know this is a film about the process of narration, self-correction and memory. Rather than write a really lengthy close reading of where I see these themes articulated in the film, I’ll just give you a list of lines and moments:
- “Isn’t it funny? The truth just sounds different.” — Penny Lane
- “It’s not what you put in. It’s what you leave out . . . The mistakes. There’s only one of them. And it makes the song! It’s what you leave out; that’s rock n’ roll.” — Russell
- When Penny takes William’s pen as he tries to jot down the order of the setlist at the first Stillwater show, asking him to revel in the momentary without trying so hard to preserve it. (William will have his pen taken again later in the film.)
- William’s tape recorder being on the fritz when he interviews Jeff Bebe for the first time.
- William repeating Russell’s message to Penny, trying and failing to repeat it exactly the way Russell said it, unable to recreate one moment in another.
- Anna Paquin’s Pilexia Aphrodesia explaining to William the way Russell and Penny’s romance will play out: “Act 1 in which he pretends he doesn’t care about her. Act 2 in which she pretends she doesn’t care about him. Act 3 in which it all plays out exactly as she planned it.”
- “He is the enemy. He writes what he sees.” — Jeff Bebe
- “I will quote you warmly and accurately.” — William Miller
- “I didn’t ask for this role, but I’ll play it.” — Elaine Miller
- “Don’t forget to remember yourselves as you are today. . . The key to the future is keeping today alive forever.” — The commencement speech at William’s missed graduation
- “He’s not a person! He’s a journalist.”
It’s so much more clear to me now the ways in which these characters all try to narrativize themselves. Penny, in fact, has a huge reliance on personal scripts, repeating the same lines she uses so coyly on William again in the lobby of Swingo’s. Elaine’s personal narrative extends to her family in the form of cultural control: taking away meat, butter, sugar, eggs, celebrating Christmas on a day in September when she knew it wouldn’t be commercialized. Her desire to remake her own narrative (or correct her own narrative) in her children eventually drives Anita away to become a stewardess — a career that relies on narratives that cannot be changed or remade, that are always the same no matter where you’re flying. Penny also likes this idea of a clear-cut narrative as she too has a fascination with stewardesses and delights in repeating the in-flight instructions. The members of Stillwater all have their own versions of themselves that they’re trying to rewrite through William, and William himself is remaking his own narrative by writing about Stillwater. Then there’s Lester Bangs, who fits into this grand collection of people trying to write or rewrite themselves by editing them through the advice he gives to William.
Rather than trying to produce something well-narrativized myself, I’ll borrow my husband’s format and give you some free-floating thoughts I had while watching this film again:
- Man, San Diego has always been fucking awesome.
- Marcus knows someone who inherited Penny Lane’s coat. I hate that girl, whoever she is.
- We have Cameron Crowe to thank for Zooey Deschanel’s career.
- This film really has some of the best casting ever. For one, I actually believe that little William Miller, Frances McDormand and Zooey Deschanel could be related. For another, almost every actor in this movie gives what I think is the best or one of the best performances of their career. I don’t know why Billy Crudup didn’t get an Oscar nom for this, because he was fucking great. This film is easily Kate Hudson’s best work ever, and I think is Patrick Fugit’s best work to this date. It might also be Jason Lee’s, and is definitely Jimmy Fallon’s.
- I think about Fallon’s monologue a lot, especially the joke about Mick Jagger, but what I should think about is his confession in the airplane: “I killed a man in Dearborn, Michigan.” It’s just a funny thing to attach to perennial yuckster Jimmy Fallon.
- The transition between 11-year-old William and 15-year-old William while he’s listening to Anita’s records is still awesome.
- Was drummer Ed intentionally designed to look like Derek from This is Spinal Tap?
- Penny and William’s “How old are we really?” scene might be one of the most perfect moments committed to film.
- Hey! It’s Jay Baruchel as Zepplin Kid!
- I like the Pink Floyd reference in the prism reflected on Penny’s windshield.
- So, this is only an issue in the director’s cut, Untitled, but there’s a scene where Anita’s boyfriend comes into William’s room after Anita has moved to San Francisco and I totally don’t understand why it’s there. Like, why isn’t Darryl in San Francisco? He drove Anita up there . . .
- This viewing was the first time I noticed the profusion of board games in the film. Anita takes Risk with her when she moves to SF, Stillwater has Operation on the bus and Russell and Penny play Parcheesi in his hotel room.
- I just want to say that I have never in my life been offered a grand for 3,000 words. This tells me that journalism has totally been devalued. Friends who make a living freelancing, how do you do this?
- The Emmy award-winning Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family is Sheldon, the clerk at the King of the Road motor lodge in Tucson. He’s got a great line, too. “Your mother called. She really freaked me out.”
- I also didn’t notice until this viewing just how many souvenirs William steals throughout the film.
- The “Tiny Dancer” sequence is one of my favorite musical moments in modern cinema. It really speaks to the sense of music as a basis for community and the value of art. It’s also just a great filmmaking technique that really brings the viewer into the film. As the characters start to sing along with the incidental music, we’re not just watching a film, we’re on the bus traveling with these people. We’re part of their community. And that’s a pretty spectacular feeling to achieve.
- I love the scene where William saves Penny from Quaalude overdose and “My Cherie Amour” plays over the hotel doctors getting her to induce vomiting. But after reading some of Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight, I wonder how problematic to eroticize a woman vomiting in this way. This scene is supposed to show us how much William really loves Penny, and I think it achieves that, but, you know, grad school asks us to problematize stuff. So my brain does that.
- When Mitch Hedberg died, my video store coworkers and I totally eschewed our store viewing rules and put on Almost Famous. During the poker scene, we paused at Mitch’s line (“Don’t mention me, or the Eagles.”) and demanded our customers provide him with a moment of silence.
I love this film. It was perfect ten years ago and it’s still perfect now. Brilliantly written, brilliantly directed and brilliantly performed. I encourage all of you to watch it again so that you can know what it’s like to be a fan, to love something so much that it hurts.