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.
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.
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.
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.
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.