Written for The Dissolve Facebook group’s Lovefest feature.
LoveFest Summer 2016 #2: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sky” – Cameron Crowe’s Aloha
Aloha was probably doomed to fail even before it was released in theaters. Between the scathing emails by Amy Pascal unearthed in the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, with such choice phrases like “People don’t like people in movies who flirt with married people or married people who flirt”, and the rather unfortunate controversy over Emma Stone’s casting as a quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese Air Force pilot, the odds seemed stacked against the film’s success, on both critical and commercial levels. Aloha’s commercial failure, at least from an general overview, seems inexplicable, as almost all of his previous films turned at minimum a respectable profit (except, intriguingly, what is considered by some to be his best film, Almost Famous). Crowe’s critical cachet, on the other hand, has lessened over the years, as his past three films (Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo, and Aloha) have all received at best mixed reviews, and Aloha in particular has been savaged.
I should note here that I have not seen any other Cameron Crowe films, but earlier this year, when I saw Aloha on a plane as part of a sort of 2015 wrap-up, it completely knocked me off of my feet. Even then, I knew it was a special film, bursting with life and joy, and on a recent watch (after it had kept rolling in my head over and over) Aloha seemed to click on both intellectual and emotional levels.
One of the keys to Aloha’s charm is its setting. Like Lost in Translation, another one of my favorites (and perhaps a future Lovefest entry?), what could have (and is likely viewed by many, certainly much more than for Lost in Translation) been a cheap feint at exoticism becomes completely vital to both the characters and the narrative at large. Though Lost in Translation used its setting to evoke alienation and Aloha uses it to evoke a sense of tradition and friendliness, both emphasize the importance of relationships and the sometimes chaotic intersection between past and present. Theo Panayides described it in his Letterboxd review as a “magical setting”, and there is undeniably an almost mystical mood that bleeds through many of the most consequential scenes. Frequent mention is made of the mythology of the Hawaiian people, and even discounting the tantalizing glimpses at the possibility of spirits inhabiting the Hawaiian islands (mainly through too-strong gusts of wind and recurring whispers, especially the ones that happen right before Brian’s climactic decision), the magic of the setting makes the more outlandish situations and characters seem more believable, in a same way. It must be emphasized that the setting is not exploited; characters like the nationalist King Kanahele (playing himself) are treated not as caricatures (if anything, the military officials are more pigeonholed, though they do have their distinguishing, humanizing traits) but as idiosyncratic, strong-willed and passionate people, and the three main characters all have essential ties to the islands. In a way, the movie can be seen as fundamentally the journey of Brian trying to reconnect with his roots in Hawaii through the people he learns to love.
Aloha is also built on the notion of the sky; Brian, Allison, and Tracy’s son are or were at one point obsessed with the beauty of space and its contents, and the clash of Brian’s cynicism and Allison’s optimism in the first half of the movie is founded in part by his disillusionment. Indeed, the opening of the film is a mix of these two ideas, as it intercuts footage of the Hawaiian natives with objects in space before transitioning seamlessly into a CGI recreation of a space cluttered with objects, over which Brian’s wistful but resentful narration plays. The “action” part of the plot centers around Carson’s attempts to control the sky with his weaponized satellite, and no matter how far-fetched it seems (for me it fits in with the overall tone of the film, and is clearly never meant to be treated too seriously) it goes against the deeply-held beliefs of the Hawaiian people and Allison; for Brian his decision to eventually destroy the satellite is the final nail in the coffin for his cynicism and gray sense of morality, as he is willing to sacrifice his livelihood for both the woman and the home that he loves.
But the aspect that struck me most about Aloha this time was how it uses that mode of cinema so loved by vulgar auteurists: “gestures”, and more specifically, glances. Peter Labuza described the film as a rom-com without a single shot of coverage, and it is apparent how meticulously yet effortlessly planned each shot is; Crowe scarcely uses more than one angle on a person for each segment of a conversation, and each edit to something different, no matter how seemingly inconsequential the contents of that frame, feels purposeful. The apex of this feeling is through the gestures that happen extensively through the course of the movie, from military salutes to a friendly but firm shoulder touch to the hula dance. Woody (John Krasinski) is perhaps the personification of this ideal, as he stays mostly silent, only rarely saying something truly important, but the way he physically interacts with people says so much (a phenomenon commented on by Brian and Tracy, and hilariously literalized in the closing minutes with a series of Annie Hall-esque subtitles). Even more important are the glances that form a large part of Aloha‘s most indelible images. Most of the time, the words that the characters utter are almost secondary to their expressions, and large portions of the film are played out entirely through the way they look at each other, whether it be in anger, love, or even a sense of wonder. To carry the idea further, the sunglasses that various characters wear throughout the movie, especially the first half, obscures these glances, making their intentions somewhat unclear. Though it may just be my perception, the characters’ traits seem to be more magnified: Brian is more cynical and willing to bend his principles, Allison becomes more naive and reliant on her heritage, and Carson becomes even more enigmatic, and when each of these characters takes off their sunglasses they become more down-to-earth and more nuanced. It is perhaps not an accident that Carson, in his final appearance, briefly puts on sunglasses and then takes them off, laughing and accepting his arrest.
Turning away from this possible navel-gazing, even without these ideas Aloha is a wildly entertaining, immensely well-crafted film. Crowe’s screenplay may not be the most coherent, straightforwardly plotted thing imaginable, but it moves gracefully with a lighthearted but never weightless mood, as the characters feel alive and converse in an irrepressibly playful manner. Every main actor plays his or her part magnificently: Cooper gives a bona fide movie-star performance, mixing his natural charisma with a sense of inner darkness to create his character’s conflicted nature; Stone, unfairly maligned by the whitewashing controversy, gives a spirited and youthful performance that uses her energetic personality and expressiveness to their fullest extent; and McAdams produces an almost explosive performance (that, I might add, by far outpaces her still wonderful performance in Spotlight), as she is by turns sarcastic, witty, and tender, easily exposing the cracks in Brian’s cynicism in the relatively few scenes she has. The music choices (Cameron Crowe’s specialty) span a wide range of styles, easily mixing (and furthering the idea of the intersection of past and present) together classic rock songs, traditional Hawaiian music (Allison even asks for and is given a performance of an old Hawaiian song that she desperately wanted to hear again) and a modern indie musical score. Of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning Eric Gautier’s cinematography, which, with all due respects to our dear Narrator, is purposely shaky; in the first half Brian is still trying to find solid ground, so to speak, and so the camera careens around as he is thrust into the world and people which he had left; the camera steadies just before the Christmas party (the turning point of the film) and remains mostly stable from then on.
And yet, the most striking and indeed moving part of Aloha is its ending, which may seem almost inconsequential to someone not totally invested in its characters. The only main character in it is Brian, and it is the first and only time in the film that he and his biological daughter (with Tracy), Grace, interact. But it seems to encapsulate every part of the film’s driving ideas: the scene plays with no dialogue, driven entirely by the editing between the glances Brian and Grace share, and has as its subtext the past, present, and now future, as the final shot of the film is of Grace’s hands (another gesture) as she dances the traditional hula. As if to underscore all of this, the music gradually moves from non-diagetic Hawaiian music to the modern score.
In the end, I’m not sure if I can fully explain my love for Aloha coherently. It may just be something that appeals to me in a way that seems incomprehensible and incredibly misguided to most others. But, to my eyes, it is an incredibly well-crafted, moving, and genuinely funny romantic comedy, made with an overflowing amount of love and care.