Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On "Observe and Report" and the sweet sorrow of striving

[Note: contains moderate spoilers for Observe and Report, Nashville, Bottle Rocket and The King of Comedy.]

I’m a fan of stories about people who believe they’re meant to be something they very obviously are not. I’m thinking of folks like aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, would-be criminal Dignan in Bottle Rocket or striving country singer Sueleen Gay in
Nashville. These are characters who clearly have little to no aptitude for their chosen professions, but that never for a second makes them doubt that they are destined for greatness.

Hollywood’s latest take on this phenomenon, Observe and Report, doesn’t fully work as a film. Jody Hill’s story of Ronnie, an awkward, bipolar mall security guard who dreams of being a real cop, pulls off the odd feat of being simultaneously too dark and too wacky for its own good. It’s like Taxi Driver cross-bred with Napoleon Dynamite, with some borderline date-rape stirred in just for nastiness’ sake. Still, Seth Rogen’s seething, self-loathing portrayal of Ronnie struck a nerve with the struggling artist in me. I think that any decent artist believes deep down that he or she was destined for creative greatness. Likewise, I think most honest artists would admit to being terrified that they’re really just talentless, delusional hacks chasing a pipe dream.

Personally, I dream of being a beloved writer, or at least a cult favorite. For me, that dream incorporates an endless cycle of arrogance and envy. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve read a poorly worded article in a national publication and thought, “I could do so much better than that.” Even when I read pieces by writers I admire, I often think, “That’s great, but I’m just as witty as this guy. Where’s my nationally syndicated column?” Of course, there are also the times when I read a particularly well-written piece and think, “Damn, this is so far beyond my capabilities that I should just pack it in and go back to slinging coffee.”

The appeal of characters like Ronnie and his brethren is that they never have that last reaction, at least not until reality gives them a swift kick in the grill. In Ronnie’s case, the real facts of his situation don’t sink in until he flunks the police department’s psychological assessment and a receives a direct rebuke from the cop who’s been his mentor/rival. For Sueleen, the comedown is a degrading nightclub performance where she realizes she’s been hired to strip, not sing. For Dignan, it’s the total collapse of his grand heist scheme and a betrayal by one of his trusted confidants.

The wildcard here is Rupert Pupkin, an apparent loser who does everything wrong in his quest for stardom but still comes through when the chips are down. It’s the Pupkins of the world who keep the Ronnies striving. For every few thousand questionably talented dreamers, there’s a Tay Zonday, a William Hung or a Mark Borchardt who achieves a certain modicum of success. If you’re cool with attaining fame as something of a sideshow attraction, that’s got to be reassuring.

So where does that leave a guy like me? As I’ve noted here before, I’m a pretty successful fellow by most yardsticks. I’ve got a happy marriage, a reliable car, a sturdy house and a steady job. I should have very little to complain about, but I’m not going to be satisfied until I have that fabled “big break” that will vault me to the next plateau. I guess that’s another trait I have in common with those fictional touchpoints: we all just keep on striving, mainly because we don’t know any other way.

At the moment, I have one saving grace from the fear of failure a film like Observe and Report instills in me. I’m fairly certain that, unlike Ronnie et al, I’m actually good at what I do, and perhaps even better than most. If you have any evidence to the contrary, I’ll thank you to keep it to yourself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from these films, it’s that maintaining the delusion is generally much more pleasant than the alternative.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Mistah Kurt – he dead" or "How I learned to stop worrying and mildly appreciate Kurt Cobain"

All this week I’ve been listening to eulogies and remembrances of the dear departed Kurt Cobain, tortured artist and alleged voice of my generation. I’m told that I’m supposed to remember the exact moment when I learned of Mr. Cobain’s death, and so I do. I was flipping through the cassette tape racks in the Wal-Mart electronics department when the Z93 DJ broke into his shlocky Top 40 playlist to announce that the lead singer of Nirvana had just killed himself in Seattle.

I paused to rifle through my mental rolodex of alternative hard rock bands. I knew Pearl Jam were the ones who had semi-redeemed themselves by covering a Victoria Williams song, and that Stone Temple Pilots were the ones who sounded exactly like Pearl Jam. Nirvana wasn’t the one with the creepy music video with the smiling suburbanites, were they? Or was Cobain the guy who always wore the “zero” t-shirt? Eventually it clicked for me: Nirvana was the group that inspired Weird Al to re-write their biggest song as a meta-commentary on itself.

So yeah, what I’m basically saying is that I was decidedly out of the Nirvana loop when their leader offed himself. Not that I was entirely out of touch with my generational zeitgeist – I just connected with a kinder, gentler segment of it. The Lemonheads were my Nirvana, their It’s A Shame About Ray album my Nevermind. While my angstier peers were drowning their sorrows in flannel and grunge, I was cranking “Ceiling Fan in My Spoon” in my mom’s Honda hatchback on the way home from my church youth group meetings. At the time of his suicide, Kurt Cobain’s death didn’t mean much more to me than his life had.

But then came his afterlife. Cobain struck himself down and became more powerful than I could possibly imagine. Soon the halls of my high school were filled with Cobain memorial t-shirts, and trend-surfing kids who’d never been much into music were scrambling to get on board the cemetery-bound bandwagon. I saw it as the most insidious, disingenuous dead musician worship since the first “Jim Morrison: American Poet” shirt hit Spencer’s Gifts, and I was determined to put a stop to it.

As I’ve noted before, I was a teenage contrarian. Too immature to make genuine value-based judgments, I outright rejected that which was popular with my peers. Despite my ignorance of and indifference to his actual body of work, Cobain’s ever-growing cult earned him a place on my enemies list. If I found a copy of In Utero in a friend’s CD case, I scoffed and sneered. I railed at length to anyone who’d listen against the sacrilege of co-opting the great Neil Young as some kind of “godfather of grunge.” In one particularly shameful incident, I intentionally knocked a kid to the floor in a mosh pit for the crime of wearing a homemade Nirvana t-shirt.

By my junior year, I was a member of a full-fledged garage band called Inflatable Grandpa. Even though we took our musical cues from nerd-rock gods like The Dead Milkmen and They Might be Giants, the limited scope of the La Crosse, Wisconsin music scene meant we often wound up sharing a bill with harder acts. That meant plenty of Nirvana fans in the crowd and on the stage, so I naturally started working lyrical potshots at Cobain into our repertoire. Some of my output was legitimately mean (Although I remain rather proud of the line “When Kurt Cobain blew out his brain it didn’t bother me at all / Makes me sick to see his face on the t-shirts at the mall”), but I considered myself too punk rock to care. Still, I found the audience reaction to my unprovoked disses fascinating. Most of our listeners remained as passive and unimpressed as ever, but I saw a number of angry faces in the crowd, and even some that appeared legitimately heartbroken. In the back of my mind, I started to wonder how a guy I’d always written off as an overrated asshole could inspire that kind of near-religious devotion.

The storybook ending to this tale would have me digging into the Nirvana back catalog during my college days and becoming a full-fledged convert to the Kult of Kurt. The real story is a bit less dramatic. I did eventually abandon my Nirvana hatred, and even got rather into their excellent MTV Unplugged in New York album, but I never became a major fan. Sure, I’ll turn up the volume if “Come As You Are” comes around on the classic rock station, but I’ve never bothered to go out and buy a Nirvana album. Even though I realize I’ve left a sizable gap in my music education, I also know that they’re never going to mean as much to me as they did to my peers back in the day.

What’s changed the most is my appreciation of Kurt Cobain as a person. The more I read about him, the more I’m impressed by his resistance to selling out, his commitment to his craft and his championing of underground artists like Daniel Johnston. Plus, anyone who can offer solid covers of Leadbelly, David Bowie and the Meat Puppets on the same platinum-selling album deserves a good deal of credit.

So not that it matters, Kurt, but 15 years down the line, I’d like to apologize for all the things I said about you back in the day. It’s not your fault that you didn’t grab my fancy at the proper time, and you’re surely not to blame for the more dickish actions of your followers.

Still, in my book, you’re no Evan Dando. And I’m guessing you’d be okay with that.

- Ira Brooker