Igby Goes Down
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Through the ages cultures have displayed a peculiar brand of environmental conscientiousness, dutifully recycling the artistic pantries of conquered nations in vulpine efforts at enriching their own. In our culture, where things become passé with a stunning ease and rapidity, evaluations of artistic achievement is achieved with an egg-timer ethos, the fat of renewable narratives trimmed ever-closer to the flesh and discarded just as easily; while the heroes of Homeric legend may have existed, static and content, not simply for generations but perhaps centuries on end, we live in an epoch which forcibly refreshes itself each generation, sometimes incapable of showing even that degree of patience. Having long occupied a part of the middle class, 20th century American’s cultural purview perhaps not dissimilar to the importance more minor deities played to the Greeks, A Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s tale of woeful teenage disillusionment, has provoked its share of controversy over the years, and is still banned in many schools for its ‘graphic’ depictions of obscenity and sex. When talking of Igby Goes Down (2002), the comparisons to Holden Caulfield seem inevitable, though contemporary audiences would seem to require something a bit more forceful to illustrate the silver-spoon-fed adolescent’s disillusionment, which is where writer / director Burr Steers managed to carve a small but not insignificant niche several years ago with this cleverly-written tale.
Holden Caulfield, the hero of Salinger’s novel, has been replaced for our purposes with by a different disaffected, private-school kid, one still amazed at the insensitivity of the world but no longer shocked by gratuitous obscenities graffitied on the walls of elementary schools. Instead, Igby Slocumb, played with more verve and believability by Kieran Culkin than we suspect his elder brother will ever be capable of, finds himself looking at the world through an irony-tinged lens, angry at the contemptuous view of life he has inherited from a vicious mother and emotionally-troubled father. Thus, while the revelation of the phrase ‘fuck you,’ written on the wall of his sister’s school doubtlessly worked as a crystalline metaphor for the corruption of the innocents during Salinger’s early years, one guesses that not even a doodle, rendered with da Vincian realism, of a Cossack sodomizing a goat while smoking crack would serve to shock and dismay an elder brother or purportedly naive child in such progressively degenerate times as ours, and indeed Steers relies on much more graphic depictions in trying to shock the audience circa 2002, such as Amanda Peet shaving her armpits topless in front of the mirror (I know, I couldn’t believe I found such stroke material in a mainstream movie either!).
One of the most remarkable aspects of Igby Goes Down is of course the performances, delivered by an all-star cast of character actors who doubtlessly were attracted by the somewhat offbeat retelling of a familiar, nearly archetypal story whose preoccupation with class and hypocrisy nearly obsesses the American consciousness; Jeff Goldblum is stellar-as-always playing the elusive, confused gazillionaire D.H. Banes, while Susan Sarandon is convincing-as-always playing the drug-obsessed, cancer-stricken mother of an upper class family which has been left comparatively destitute by the crack up of the father some years before, a role played perfectly by Bill Pullman, who despite only appearing a handful of times is responsible for some of the film's most memorable lines.
While audiences have come to expect such performances from veterans like Goldblum, Sarandon and Paxman, what surprises, and ultimately delights, are the largely unheralded performances of several actors known more for their failed attempts at movie-stardom than a capacity to sink teeth into a good supporting part. Ryan Philippe’s omnipresent nasal snobbery finally seems well-suited in his role as Ollie Slocumb, Igby’s responsibility-burdened older brother with whom Igby has a convincingly-contentious relationship with, while Amanda Peet finally returns to her New York temptress roots. Filling out the cast are Jared Harris as the eccentric performance artist Russell and Rory Culkin, playing Igby as a ten year old.
Appropriately enough for a movie about a Holden Caulfield of the post Generation X generation (Generation Y?), Steers interposes what might be termed meta-MTV videos, sequences of film set to music where little or no dialogue occurs, the camera angle and film speed oftentimes manipulated for effect, between more conventional, dialogue-driven scenes. The first of these occurs just after the tense opening scene where Igby’s mother is informed that he has flunked out of parochial school. The audience finds its protagonist smoking grass in a friend’s dorm room just prior to ‘lights out’ at the military academy at which he has landed, the Beta Band’s “Broken Up A Ding Dong” backgrounding the scene where, after covering up evidence of that evening’s sesh in what is obviously an oft-repeated ritual, Igby is subjected to the hazing of a military school, Steers employing the subjective camera, sped up at roughly 1 and a half times speed, to depict Igby as he is prodded with the business end of brooms in the shower room with a bag over his head. The jaunty, syncopated harmonies of the Beta Band seem oddly appropriate for Steers’ stylized presentation of two ‘rituals,’ one enacted by Igby and the other by the symbolic system against which he rails so determinedly throughout.
Another of these ‘meta-videos’ comes slightly later, as The Dandy Warhols now overused standard “Bohemian Like You” begins to play during Amanda Peet’s playful introduction as Goldblum’s mistress, the song continuing to play, adding a thematic backdrop, to Igby’s introduction to Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), the Waspish Igby’s Jewish, Soho-Boho-lifestyle love-interest. As Igby makes his way through the crowd at his godfather’s (Goldblum) Hampton beach house, the audience is sternly reminded of just how much of a troubled golden boy he is, as he is greeted by the blithe, unfamiliar faces of his godfather’s friends, whom he has to shake off with disgust while searching for Sookie. The more you watch scenes such as this in Igby Goes Down the more Igby's self-destructive sojourn of self-exploration is etched into your brain as a convincing but not in the least unique narrative, and you realize that it is these smaller, more sapiental details of Steers' self-penned script and its execution that have allowed Igby to capture the imagination of film goers.
Igby differs from most modern cinema for similar target audiences through similar music and subject matter because of the relative sparseness of its choices; while there is rarely a dialogue-only moment in many films whose pop music pedigrees appear to have descended from the same genetic line as Igby, Steers spaces his use of pop music tracks out like a kid who’s worked at a lemonade stand his entire life, slowly having learned just how hard each dime is earned and thus thinking doubly hard about how he wants to spend them. When pop music is finally incorporated, it seems memorable and apt. Long periods of sustained dialogue in which Steers displays his grasp of oblique communication will suddenly be overwhelmed by a song when it seems nothing is left to be said. After discussing Sookie’s ‘vegetarian’ joints and being beat up by his godfather’s mistress, Badly Drawn Boy’s “Everybody’s Stalking” plays as the camera pans over Igby and Sookie’s discarded clothes, finding them playfully romping in bed; after the first verse the silence returns, this time to the kind of provocative, intimate dialogue that keeps the audience interested, as Sookie says to Igby “You know what I think about when I’m this close to another body? I think, one day, at one moment, this body that I’m holding in my arms, will stop breathing, stop living, just stop.”
I must confess that some of the songs, though probably fresh upon the film’s release in 2002, have become stale in the few years since; at the apex of his disillusionment, Igby’s wanderings around Manhattan are set to the now-ubiquitous Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic,” a song used in the similarly-themed Garden State (and countless other movies in the future, we can be sure) to achieve similar effects. In addition it seems that everyone and their grandmother have been clambering to soundtrack their films with Badly Drawn Boy or The Dandy Warhols, which makes Igby’s choice of soundtrack seem less Boho-authentic and more contrived commercial gesture.
The film's ending, like so many coming-of-age stories, teeters on that ever-vertiginous brink separating the moving from the precious; one has only to think of Ben's impassioned interruption of Elaine's nuptials in The Graduate to wonder at the precarious position staked out by the slew of films which attempt to unironically catalogue the plight of late teenagedom / early adulthood; whether it be of woman (think Thora Birch in American Beauty), man (C. Thomas Howell in The Outsiders) or beast (the pig in Charlotte's Web), movies which attempt to treat adolescence and early adulthood literally walk a fine line between convincing emotionality and dreaded melodrama, and though Igby certainly views life with a sense of irony, the movie's final scene, set to Travis's cover of the Band's The Weight, avoids the pitfalls of ready sentimentality. As Fran Healy sings Robertson’s original lyrics with less bravado and more open emotiveness, the film’s loose ends are tied up neatly. Igby travels from his mother’s funeral to visit his father in an asylum and finally jets off to California, his plane evanescing into the black as Pete Yorn’s “Murray” begins to play while the credits roll, a sort of final Emo piece for the audience to hang its hat on.
By: Drew Miller
Published on: 2005-07-07