Gigantic (a Tale of Two Johns) (2002)*

No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful
Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful.

In what was certainly the funniest "rockumentary" I've seen in a long time (no, Spinal Tap doesn't count, but keep them in mind below), we are treated to the world of John and John--Flansburgh and Linnell, that is, the ubiquitous They Might Be Giants, one of the more equally obsessed-over and dismissed bands of the past twenty years.

Like any documentary, we're told of their first meeting in Lincoln, Massachusettes, their early days in the East Village performance artist scene, their rise to--well, if not fame then a certain everpresentness, as shown through their frequent collaborations, scoring the show Malcolm in the Middle, having their music appear on Tiny Toons (much to their chagrin), ABC, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and on and on.

Except this is They Might Be Giants, and so this ain't exactly a Ken Burns film. Well, actually, it is. You see, the film opens with a discussion by senator Paul Simon on the rise of Abraham Lincoln and what he symbolizes to the nation and its history. This is all a build up, though, towards the town of Lincoln, where John and John met in junior high. Lincoln, of course, is the name of their second album. Again, the second half of the film opens with a short piece on James K. Polk (of course), complete with photos and letters by Polk's wife being read in a voice-over.

There's commentary from Sarah Vowell, This American Life host Ira Glass, Frank Black, and Syd Straw (who gleefully--and jokingly--trashes them) among others. We see early performances, videos, and promos. We're also treated to Harry Shearer and Michael McKean--yes, two-thirds of Spinal Tap and the Folksmen--portentiously reading the lyrics to "They Might Be Giants" and "The End of the Tour". It's all very self-referential, playing with pop culture, using in-jokes--and all very appropriate, for a band which on the surface seems enamoured with gimick and novelty, who are pegged with the backhanded "quirky", but who actually write damn good pop songs with incredibly depressing lyrics.

And this fact is brought up and explored--not unlike, say, Syd Barrett or Robyn Hitchcock or Radiohead, the lyrics have a certain surreal edge, odd images, and rather depressing outlook, yet the music is stirring, exciting. In the case of the Giants, Linnell argues on screen that it's much more interesting to be unhappy but try to put a happy face on it, try to put a happy tune to it; it's easy and not very interesting to always have an unhappy song that sounds unhappy--it's expected, and thus not very effective. To an extent, I have to agree--the creating of a sort of dissonance between the subject matter and its presentation can have a more lasting effect than, say, a song which sounds very much like its subject matter--depressing, dirge-like.

So, in its own very postmodern way, the film follows the career of one of the most original duos to have come around, up until a very odd day: The film begins and ends with the release of Mink Car, their 2001 album. And so we're treated to seeing, of all things, a midnight sale of the album, with John and John at a record store, playing for their fans. They play "New York City"--and oddly enough, it's 12:30 AM on September 11, 2001. The truth, they later told us, is that that was simply the last day of filming. No one knew, of course, but in a way, it's oddly fitting, even if I'm not sure how.

So last night, wunderhorn1 and I went to the Philadelphia premiere at the Prince Music Theater. The nice thing--aside from enjoying the movie--was that the Johns were going to be there for a Q&A session afterwards. Sure enough, after the credits (which featured a fun rendition of "The Guitar"), they came out on stage and fielded questions from the crowd. Highlights (including the occasional paraphrase, since my memory and my handwriting isn't that good):

Q: You guys are, like, huge, like Bruce Springsteen now, I mean, do you use doubles like Saddam Hussein?

F: We use the same doubles as Saddamn Hussein.

Q: Would you say you're influenced by the Dadaists?

F: I think the context of it is very specific{...} It would be bullshitting of us to say we're influenced by it, but...sure!

T: You've had a number of collaborations over the years, working with This American Life, ABC, etc. Which did you like the best? What was the most rewarding?

F: Malcolm in the Middle was the most challenging...

L: The more frustrating something is, then, the more challenging it is. We were writing forty minutes of incidental music for each episode.

F: And the more frustrating, then the more rewarding it sometimes is... It's insane that we took their demands seriously.

L: "Everything else" is the answer.

There's one scene that plays close to my gizzard: a clip from an interview on The Daily Show, wherein the Johns recount with Jon the time the band played in a bar that Jon was bartending. They couldn't remember whether it was in Camden or Trenton. Eventually, they decided that one was as bad as the other; interchangable. They're right. I don't know why I like that, except that, well, I've been to (and live near) both and know it's true.

*Though it's only now making its way through the theaters, it premiered at the SXSW festival in March, 2002.