Blue jean baby, I left work a little after 6:30 in the evening yesterday. It’s always kind of depressing when I leave in darkness knowing that I’ll be back in less than twelve hours. Well, here I am again. I’m pretty tired, but so proud of myself because when I got home last night I washed up, got into bed, watched about half an episode of Numb3rs (syndication is a wonderful thing), but shut it off before it ended. I somehow overcame the pull of having to know how it ended. I have a full day of classes followed by a conference with a student and his parents, real Tolkien stuff, you know? Anyway, I’ll probably end up staying late again tonight in an attempt to free myself from the responsibility of grading anything on the weekend. This is my 11th year at Damien. Do you think I have enough pull to have a shower installed in my classroom? A couch behind my desk, maybe?
Whenever I exile myself to my classroom for the night, I pop in a movie to keep myself company. It does drag my production rate down, yes, but it also makes me feel less depressed about being at work for 13 hours. Also, the voices coming from the television make me feel less lonely. I couldn’t have been Tom Hanks in Castaway, Wilson simply wouldn’t have cut it.
So I looked at the small collection of movies I have in my classroom on the shelf behind my desk and Almost Famous got the nod. Almost Famous is famous for two things: Kate Hudson’s almost nude scene and the revival of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” I have seen the movie many times before. I know it’s semi-autobiographical. I know it’s a coming-of-age story. But yesterday as I watched it intermittently while grading a bunch of Middle Ages unit tests, I realized something else. Almost Famous is the name of the film, and it is also the name of Stillwater’s 1973 tour. It is a fitting descriptor of the band as they are starting to build a name and following for themselves, but as yet are not a national act. “Almost” applies to many of the movie’s subplots, including the love triangle between Russell, William, and Penny (below).
In that way, the movie is also about the frustration of being so tantalizingly close to something you desperately want while simultaneously understanding – and then denying – the truth that it’s probably not going to happen the way you want it to.
Russell is married and carries on an affair with Penny. Penny is in love with Russell. William loves Penny. He feels ambivalence because he admires Russell’s talent but is jealous of his romance with Penny. All three characters want something that is standing right in front of them, but for numerous reasons, are unable to actually attain it, at least not on their terms.
Penny is in love with Russell and he has feelings for her, but their relationship is contingent upon the setting. Russell has no problem being with Penny as long as his wife isn’t around. Of course, Penny realizes that she can have Russell – only never completely.
William is in love with Penny, but she doesn’t view him romantically. He’s tragically locked in that friend zone with invisible bars: she can rest her head on his shoulder and flirt with him in other ways, but his feelings will always remain unrequited because she’s in love with someone else.
All three characters have hopes for unlikely outcomes. Russell wants both his wife and Penny, and for those two relationships to exist in parallel universes harmoniously. Penny wants all of Russell all the time. William wants Penny to feel for him the way she does about Russell. Anyone watching the film would know none of those things were going to happen. Anyone alive can relate to these ideas, either literally or metaphorically. Watching these characters pursue these idealistic yet doomed relationships evoked the emotions of pity and frustration, partly out of sympathy for the three main characters, but mostly because it conjured up personal memories. At one time or another, I’ve been Russell, Penny, and William. And by “one time or another” I mean “college.”
Near the end of the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman utters a few lines that sum up the film:
Great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love…
Almost Famous stirred up thoughts of every woman I’ve ever had romantic feelings for. All those near-relationships, failed relationships, and the stuff that I can’t quite call a relationship, but kind of was. Mostly, though, it made me think of Lynnette.
While I am a pragmatist in nearly every facet of my life, I am and always have been a romantic when it comes to romance. I have always held out hope for the best-case scenario, even to the point of being quixotic about the likelihood of a even entering a relationship, let alone having it flourish. Because of the circumstances surrounding Lynnette and I in 2003, though, it was the one time I became enamored of someone and actually held no hope for some kind of romantic success. There was only the guilt and the longing. Still, the dream that was Lynnette became a reality. Later, it became a marriage.
I’m not trying to say that the lesson is to cling to unrealistic hopes because somehow, some way, they’ll materialize. I think the Mets and the Cowboys and my hypothetical 5-team parlays have made a convincing counter-argument.
It’s the “almost” in Almost Famous that makes the film what it is. “Almost” is drama, is conflict. “Almost” is also the distance between a dream and a reality. I think that’s why I can watch this film over and over. If you think back to those times in your life you spent in “Almost” – that nebulous place riiiiight before success or failure – wasn’t something like 98% of it completely exhilarating?