Mommying Will Hunting

Blog Will Hunting welcomes guest contributor Claire, mother of two, and a contributor to the blog Rants from MommyLand.

Have you ever noticed that there are no parents in Good Will Hunting?

"That's a good takedown."

There are brief references to Will’s biological and foster parents, Skylar’s wealthy father, Sean’s abusive dad, and Chuckie’s Ma (and her VCR…). Certainly, Sean and Lambeau become a type of hybrid father figure to Will, together tumultuously strengthening Will’s ability to form healthy emotional attachment. But there are no actual moms or dads written into the script and we never witness any authentic parenting in the movie.

As a mother to two young children I sometimes find myself thinking back to this film and wondering, what about the parents? What’s their deal? What parenting successes led to Chuckie’s unabashed confidence? What drove the horrific foster parents to utterly ignore Will’s obvious genius?

Despite the lack of parental presence in the film there is still a lot of child-rearing wisdom to be reaped. In fact, I’ve managed to successfully incorporate several brilliant GWH one-liners into my own mothering repertoire.

Bill takes down Morgan

For example, the baby hates to don his snow suit. By the time I stuff all four extremities into the ball of down fluff he is sobbing as if I’ve submitted him to some kind of torture device. But then once he’s strapped in the backpack or the stroller and he’s outside in the fresh air he is hands-down the happiest kid in the world. At this point I get right up in his face and declare, “How do you like me NOW?!

A selection of various lego bricks via The Morning News | A Common Nomenclature for Lego FamiliesNext example: My 2.5 year-old decides to dump out every single Lego, block and puzzle piece we own about 35 seconds before we’re supposed to leave for preschool. My response? “Jane! No more shenanigans. No more tomfoolery. No more ballyhoo. Put. On. Your. Shoes.” If my request is subsequently ignored I have been known to take a deep breath and mutter, “Keep antagonizing me, watch what happens.”

And my personal favorite: as I break up a scrum between my son and daughter a sudden stench makes my eyes sting. I ask, “OK, who made a poop?” <They both look innocent.> I point to the guiltiest-looking child and announce, “Ya suspect!

Ya suspect!

Thank you, Good Will Hunting, for allowing me to share these truly awesome parenting gems with my kids, especially the most graceful way to exit an awkward social encounter: “I swallowed a bug.

Legos image via The Morning News, “A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families.”

A comedy of errors, you see

I must say, I was surprised to recently discover that there was a music video for Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery.”

“Miss Misery” is, of course, Smith’s song that plays during the Good Will Hunting closing credits as Will drives off to California. In 1998 it was nominated for Best Original Song (losing out to Celine Dion’s Titanic theme… because the Oscars are stupid.)

Some would say “having a good time is important when making a music video,” and never has someone seemed more miserable in a music video than Mr. Smith appears here.

As he would at the Oscar performance, he wears white formal wear, and like the Oscar performance, he is not having a good time.

Elliott Smith at the Oscars
Smith (in a white suit)

It would be fair to say, I think, that Elliott Smith didn’t belong in the spotlight. His music was for quiet, dimly lit moments, lingering in the background. That’s why it worked so well with the visuals of crumbling working class apartments and late nights in dorm rooms in Good Will Hunting. Once you start listening too carefully, though, you discover the severity of the pain in his lyrics — his melancholy runs quite deep. He wasn’t meant for People Magazine.

Beck (in a white suit)
Beck (in a white suit)

In a 2000 interview with In Music We Trust he explained his ambivalence with the fame that came with Good Will Hunting :

Too much exposure, it makes you feel like a cartoon character. I’m the gloomy folk cartoon figure. Nobody wants to feel like a cartoon, but at the same time I don’t want to complain.

It all depends on how much you buy into it, though. People Magazine called me a Beck impostor because I played the Oscars in a white suit. Great, both Beck and I wore white suits, so I must be a Beck impostor. Things like that… you can choose to buy into them or just ignore them. I choose not to read press about me anymore.

The success of Good Will Hunting (for the filmmakers, as well as for this musician) was unexpected, to be sure, and the icing on the cake is much like this white suit (if you will); under close scrutiny, it’s not quite what it seems to be. Is the film a conventional, hopeful, earnest story with a big movie star (Williams), dressed up like a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges indie drama? Or is it an unapologetic, ardent indie film, adorned with some Oscar-bait monologues that were tacked on to pay the bills? Either way, does the suit fit?

Justin Stewart of Reverse Shot writes in his article “New Math“:

There’s something hostile, even violent, about the way this movie’s writing screams for attention. As much as Van Sant and Elliott Smith are able to mute it, Good Will Hunting still gives one a feeling for what it must have been like for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in meetings with the Weinsteins (“Emotion the fuck out of this scene!”).

I like this notion of Smith’s role — to dampen the more freewheeling emotion of the film, bringing a subtlety to some of the more clunky aspects of the screenplay. It helps speak to the question of what on earth the song “Miss Misery” is doing alongside our otherwise happy, driving-off-into-the-sunset ending.

Good Will Hunting final shot

To vanish into oblivion
Is easy to do
And I try to be, but you know me
I come back when you want me to
Do you miss me, Miss Misery
Like you say you do?

The prevalence of Smith’s work on the soundtrack, not unlike Simon and Garfunkle’s in The Graduate, sets a distinct tone that — at first glance — seems to have less to do with the content of their lyrics than the quality of their sound. But the attitude behind the words are important, and I think the similarities between the films extends to the the ambivalence of their endings. One can’t imagine a sunnier-sounding outfit than Simon and Garfunkle, but what could be bleaker than the opening lyric, “hello darkness, my old friend”? “The Sound of Silence” informs the conclusion of The Graduate quite succinctly — the return of the dark, isolating unsureness Ben feels towards his future will surely set in shortly, and it perhaps already has for the pensive-looking Elaine in that final shot.

Still from The Graduate

With Smith’s tender “Miss Misery,” does Will’s uncertainty — a “vanish into oblivion” — also return? It rings true for me that would. A solo cross country road trip brings with it a lot of time to question one’s decisions and recoup some dark doubts. With Elliott Smith’s romantic ode to relapse seeping in as the credits roll, Van Sant deftly wrinkles the edge of the seemingly happy ending. No white suit can remain quite so pristine.

Check out this decidedly less uncomfortable — and surprisingly intimate — 1998 performance of “Miss Misery” on Conan O’Brien.

For more on Smith and Good Will Hunting, and to watch Smith’s Oscar performance, see Blog Will Hunting contributor Dave’s thoughtful piece on Smith’s soundtrack from last year and his essay on the album “Either/Or” on Tiny Mix Tapes.

The Mind of a Genius — Too Pure for Paper?

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for all the vertical reflective surfaces in the Boston area.

Good Will Hunting mirror
Good Will Hunting
The Social Network window
The Social Network

Thanks to these windows and mirrors, our genius janitors (Good Will Hunting) and entrepreneurial college students (The Social Network) can work out their formulas in an aesthetically pleasing manner with an inherent visual metaphor for self-reflection, intellectual clarity, and access — just through a window — into the analytic mind.

Bret Schneider of Chicago Art Criticism writes:

A Beautiful Mind window
A Beautiful Mind

For some reason it is common among films portraying genius to aestheticize their intellectual process by showing the protagonist writing on glass, mirror, or other reflective surfaces. In Good Will Hunting the film opens with the solitary genius writing abstract mathematical formulae on mirror, with few other objects in sight. A man and his mind, alone in a room. Oh wait, but also an obscure writing utensil that one would need to go far out of their way to procure. A Beautiful Mind has a similar scene, where the main character, a sociopathic math genius, writes his ideas on transparent glass. A plethora of pi glyphs and some mundane squares, punctuated by some other recognizable shapes like triangles and greater-than or less-than symbols writ in white mar the view of his dormitory window. Apparently geniuses are too pure for paper.

The following deleted scene from Good Will Hunting finds him math-ing away in his grungy Southie studio apartment. We see library books, and then a rare moment of him writing on notebook paper (actual paper!), which transitions to a scene in which he walks to the room’s periphery and starts writing on the wall.

Furthermore, a close look at the following still from the film also shows that Will has at one point resorted to doing math (homeomorphically irreducible trees, perhaps?) on the window shade. (Also check out Will’s beer of choice — a box for locally brewed Sam Adams sits in the lower left corner.)

Will Hunting at the window

Mathematician Keith Devlin (who discussed the math of Good Will Hunting on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1998; their conversation is considered here on Blog Will Hunting) defends this trope.

One of the most derided scenes in Good Will Hunting is where the hero starts to write equations on a bathroom mirror. Conveniently forgetting that the great Irish mathematician Alexander Rowan Hamilton scratched the key identities for the quaternions on a stone bridge — the only writing surface available to him at the time inspiration struck him — the critics scoffed that no mathematician would ever do such a thing. … Depicting a mathematician scribbling formulas on a sheet of paper might be more accurate (and you’ll see Crowe doing that in A Beautiful Mind, just as we saw Damon doing it in Good Will Hunting) but it certainly doesn’t convey the image of a person passionately involved in mathematics, as does seeing someone write those formulas in steam on a mirror or in wax on a window, nor is it as cinematographically dramatic.

That sums it all up rather nicely, I think. Both a visually-striking metaphor and a shorthand for the urgent intellectual passions of a genius, this cinematic cliché, like any other, gets its storytelling work done efficiently… even if the readiness of the appropriate writing utensil for such a purpose is rather unlikely.

When Ben Affleck’s character enters the Harvard bar in Good Will Hunting he announces, “So this is a Hah-vahd bar. I thought there’d be… equations and shit on the wall.”

Sorry, Ben — “equations on the wall”? That’s only in the movies.

A Call for Anecdotes

Okay, we know you’ve got ’em. We’re looking for anecdotes about the time(s) you’ve seen Good Will Hunting.

Maybe the first time you saw it. Maybe other times. Seeing a movie in a movie theater lends itself to a more textured experience, so maybe if you saw it back in 1997/1998 you have a couple distinct memories about the experience.

Leave a comment below, email us, or submit your anecdote here.

earthtonesI remember going by myself to the bigger theater in the next town, back in 1998. (It had a small release in December of 1997 but didn’t reach me in South Carolina until early 1998.) As far as I was concerned, Good Will Hunting was a small, indie movie for discerning viewers (like my 17-year-old self).

I had been to Boston before, and had lived in a suburb when I was younger. The next year I would go to college in western Massachusetts.

Getting home from the theater involved taking a small highway, not unlike the one seen at the end of the film, and I reflected upon my young life in a brooding, Matt-Damon-y way on the ride. Inspired (I was an artist, you see) by Gus Van Sant’s tonal choices in the film, I went to the little room off of the garage that I called “my studio,” where I had my art supplies set up. I did a small abstract oil painting, which relied heavily on yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and raw sienna (among my favorites, those earth tones).