' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Up

Friday, September 03, 2021

Some Drivel On...Up

Jason Isbell’s 2017 album “The Nashville Sound” includes a remarkable ballad in which the title, “If We Were Vampires”, neatly epitomizes the song’s meaning, that the point of living is not eternal life but the very finality the glimmering hope of eternal life is supposed to ward off, that knowing all this will end should strengthen our resolve to live in the moment, even here, in America, where our cockamamie time-is-money mindset has always been moment-resistant. Of course, even this message comes steeped in paradox. Isbell frames the song through a marriage, his own, really, given how Amanda Shires, his wife, provides harmony on the chorus, where even if “knowing that this can’t go on forever” is what brings enlightenment, they still have to reckon with the truth that “likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.” The plainspokenness of the coda – “One day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone” – is not simplistic but just right. Because, what else are you supposed to say? I’ve thought a lot about this song ever since I married My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife three years ago.

In its way, “If We Were Vampires” also kind of crystallizes the famed first 10 minutes of the 2009 animated Pixar movie “Up” in which Carl (Ed Asner) and Ellie (Elizabeth Docter) Frederickson fall in love, get married, and then have life get in the way of, like, you know, living, at first in small, comical ways until it quietly, gradually grows darker, ending with a dropped anvil in the form of Ellie dying and leaving Carl behind, living out the pain Isbell is only theorizing. Carl remains in their home, those wonderfully drawn lines in his face only seeming to grow deeper, even as the world around him keeps to a steady course of change. It’s a little like the end of “Gangs of New York”, except rather than the new city rising above the dead, it’s rising around the living, illustrating how the aged get swept away in the current of life, trying to hold on to whatever they can even as they are thoughtlessly told to just move on. Carl finds an alternative in the form of escape, hitching his and Ellie’s beloved home to a bounty of balloons and flying away to Paradise Falls in South America, the place he and Ellie always wanted to visit but never did.

It’s reminiscent of “The Red Balloon”, though that short movie ended with the young boy flying away, freezing him in the fantasy. “Up” has no such idealistic designs, seeing what happens on the other side of these fantastical and fantastic opening passages. And like life itself, as Isbell sings in “If We Were Vampires”, that proves a blessing and curse. “Up” is a kids movie, after all, and so 8-year old Russell (Jordan Nagai), occasionally lovable, often irritating, stows away aboard Carl’s house, glaringly present just to help this old codger open up. And while the back half of “Up”, in which Carl discovers and confronts the renowned explorer Charles Murtz (Christopher Plummer) is exciting enough, it also exposes the false idyll of hero worship even as events themselves elevate to Carl to un-ironic hero status himself. I know, I know, I should be like Dug the Dog, standing tall among the great silver screen canines, and just unreservedly love the whole enterprise anyway, but it’s hard to square the more mechanical back half with this meatier beginning.

It was only recently that I discovered this 2-year old Medium piece, covering a lot of ground in a short of amount of time, by Harry Hew concerning my favorite Bob Dylan tune, “Desolation Row.” Hew writes: “We are taught to exalt in victory and to resist defeat, and for this reason we are ill-equipped to cope with the essence of our experience, which is sorrow. We turn life into a struggle against sorrow — and it’s a struggle we cannot win. Unwilling to face where we’re headed, we persist in trying to develop strategies that will bring us back to Paradise.” It was that Paradise, conspicuously capitalized, that got me, cosmically alluding to Paradise Falls, where Carl eventually arrives, pushing through the fog only to see the falling water on the other side of the canyon. This causes he and Russell to walk there, keeping the balloon-ed house anchored to their bodies so it will not float away, this spectacular image of someone struggling against sorrow, the emblem of his unfulfilled dreams hovering just above. Of course, eventually a photo album renders this adventure moot, further evidence rendering the whole Charles Murtz subplot moot too, putting into perspective that Carl’s life with Ellie, that was the adventure. And eventually, just as the Isbell or Shires of “If We Were Vampires” will one day have to confront it, just as Rose DeWitt Bukater confronted it on that makeshift raft about years before (years before) Elsa of Arendelle had to confront it too, you have to find the wherewithal to let go.

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