The Weirdest Part of ‘Illinois’

Disclaimer: While it would be untrue to say that the text I’m covering has nothing to do with my research, this has more to do with the forgiving definition (or lack thereof) of the current range of my inquiry than the focused attention I’ve laden on this artist. That being said, I do think of this text and its author quite a lot, so I may try to work them in somehow (but I’m highly dubious that I’ll actually put serious effort into doing so).

Disclaimer Two: I could probably pontificate at an unwilling listener about this album for the literal duration of my natural life, so while I’m going to knowledge that I’m barely going to scratch the surface here in hopes that I don’t try to do more, I’m going to try and just set up the connections without synthesizing them to avoid going over the word limit.

For a while, I would skip over “The Man of Metropolis Steal our Hearts” whenever I would listen to Illinois (Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 concept album about the state). I fucking loved the album, it was (and still is) my favorite album hands down, but I had no idea why he went from singing poignant ballads about wrongheaded teenage misanthropic, childhood sweethearts with cancer, and old ladies painfully reminiscing, to devoting a (six minute) song to Superman. It totally threw off my whole idea of the album and so I decided to just try to forget about it.

About a year after I first heard of the album, I saw a video of Stevens performing “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” (the one about the old lady [maybe — the gender of most of his narrators isn’t specified] I mention above). He and his bandmates stood on stage, all wearing the kind of fairy wings that parents buy for particularly girly girls. My first reaction when I saw the wings and saw the light sort of glitter off of what appeared to be glitter on his face was: “oh, that’s… oddly effeminate” — which I immediately regretted having thought, even while acknowledging that it was the most succinct phrasing of my genuine reaction.

To gloss briefly over that offputting statement (I swear I’ll come back to it): at the end of the introductory monologue, Stevens says, “maybe this is one of our theme songs for this tour, ’cause that’s why we all have wings on, it’s sort of to overcome my fear of flying things.” When I heard that, pieces immediately started to click together. When I began to think about it, I saw that flight was one of the main motifs on the album. From the UFOs on the opening track, to the Black Hawks on the next one, to the metaphorical “flight” of escape on “Chicago,” all the way to the predatory wasp of the song at hand (if you want to browse the full track listing to identify more instances, here it is), and, of course, to Superman (who’s even pictured flying on the album cover).

I then began to realize there were some more parallels between “The Man of Metropolis….” and “The Predatory Wasp…” Specifically, the former song espouses some pretty bold (though ironic/non-literal) statements about masculinity (“only a real man can be a lover… / only a steel man can be a lover”), while the latter stands in a very fragile relation to conceptions of gender (the narrator wears leg warmers, but Sufjan sings the song from his perspective / it’s not clear whether the love between the characters is a romantic or kindred one or even which gender the narrator is either way).

So, I began to associate flight with this struggle with masculinity, and then I realized that the motif of faith intersects with flight on “Casimir Pulaski Day” (“And the cardinal hits the window / … All the glory that the Lord has made / and the complications when I see His face / in the morning in window”) and with masculinity on “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” (the person referred to by the title being God… need I say more?) and “Casimir Pulaski Day” (The song’s namesake was a most likely transsexual military general / the indeterminate genders of the characters). Then, I realized fate and flight intersect on the title track with the UFO delivering the holy spirit unto some lowly cornfield.

With that simple guiding directive to focus on a specific element on the album, so much other shit just immediately popped out and began to intersect and this album that I knew and loved took on this vast, richer life in a matter of moments.

It was one of those spasmodic, beautiful moments of rapid-fire entanglements that overpower you with this overwhelming sense of density and scale. I stopped skipping “Man of Metropolis…” after that and, more importantly, I stopped trying to confine the import of someone else’s album to what made sense to me.

Re-purposing Reality in ‘Good Bye, Lenin’

“As I stared at the clouds that day, I realized that truth was a rather dubious concept — easily adapted to how Mother saw the world” (1:05:25).

This line is taken from the scene where Alex and Denis first shoot a fake news segment to account for a seeming irregularity in the world Alex has constructed for Christiane. This specific “report” was necessitated by the unfortunate placement of a giant “drink Coca Cola” banner on the one building that Christiane was able to view from her bed, her seeing of which brought an impromptu end to their slapdash parties with their neighbors and the (former (and impressively inebriated)) principle of Chrisitane’s (former) school. In order to try and explain how such a blatant capitalistic endorsement could be so proudly slung over the once hallowed condominium halls of their esteemed Socialist Germany, Alex decides to film a report outside of Coca Cola in which Denis details the unlikely story of how Coca Cola came to be integrated into a society in which it takes over three years to get a car.

From the very beginning, things don’t go as planned. An employee immediately walks into the shot and demands to see their permit, then storms inside to call the cops. However, instead of rushing to shoot the scene and get out before the balding harbringer of the sucralose-saturated free market, they decide to wait for the clouds to part and the lighting to improve.

In the final cut of the report that Alex shows to Christiane, a shot of the Coke employee trying to stop them from filming is used to show how, embarrassed by having to “meld with a factory in East Germany that actually invented Coca Cola,” the giant West-German conglomerate is trying to censor the press of the East. Christiane rightly points out that she thought Coca Cola was invented before the war, not in the 1950’s (and in America, not East or West Germany) as the report stated, but she readily dismisses that unsavory remembered fact for this new, fulfilling revelation that Coca Cola is a Socialist invention that the Capitalist West had tried to pry away from them. The reality of their situation — that they were rightfully prevented from filming without a permit in the attempt to concoct some far-flung lie — is able to be re-purposed into the truth of the lie they’re trying to tell.

The irony here is that truth isn’t being shaped to fit how Christiane sees the world, but how Alex sees it for her (and, as is revealed in the second half of the film, how he’d like Christiane to see him wanting it to be himself — which she (and he) ultimately does (/do)).

A further irony is that the realization Alex arrives out about truth by crafting his own for the sake of his mother, runs counter to the very socialism at the heart of his personal truth. The notion of a shared, objective reality seems to conform much more to the socialism he’s trying to proclaim still lives, than to the Nietzschian, forcefully imposed perspectivism (note the visual references to the beginning of Breathless in the scene where they all drive to the cabin). To my mind, the subjectivity implied by the phrase “dubious truth” seems much more akin to the free market he’s proclaiming they aren’t a part of.

As the film progresses, Alex’s ironic, dismissive attitude towards the politics of his upbringing dissipates as he’s made to keep it alive. In the scene where his money is refused he seems to have totally become the bitter East German he’d mocked earlier.

In having to create a reality out of reality and reinstate the universality of socialism out of his perspectivism (and fighting against the seemingly universal truth of his living in a dog-eat-dog free market), Alex is forced to repurpose the truth — both the truth of the outside world and his own, personal truth. His ironic dismissal of politics gave his mother a literal heart attack and so the only way to ensure her safety was to find some way to genuinely connect to the ideology he now had to keep alive.

So, sitting outside Coca Cola while the employee rings the cops, he looks at the clouds and waits for the sun to come out so he can show his mother their world as it really is(n’t).