Song of the Day #4,828: ‘Stephanie Says’ – The Velvet Underground

Three years after the triumph of Rushmore, Wes Anderson returned with another brilliant work.

The Royal Tenenbaums follows the rise and fall of a family of geniuses, and the attempts by the flawed patriarch to reinsert himself into their lives.

Given double the budget of Rushmore, Anderson broadened his palette, assembling a large ensemble cast and setting the film in a slightly skewed version of New York. The effort paid off to the tune of $71 million at the box office and a Golden Globe for star Gene Hackman.

Hackman is truly a marvel, as his mischievous Royal Tenenbaum takes a sledgehammer to the film’s dollhouse aesthetic. Anderson has been criticized for the overly fussy nature of his films, but in the best ones he introduces an agent of chaos to hilariously bump against the boundaries of the frame.

This film is very funny, but it’s also very sad. Anderson’s movies are often both at once. This one includes a suicide attempt and the demise of a main character. Like Rushmore, it features characters grieving over the deaths of parents and spouses.

It’s that mix of sweet and sour that draws me to Anderson’s work. Few filmmakers so consistently wring both laughter and tears from the same material.

I remember how eagerly I anticipated The Royal Tenenbaums following my ecstatic reaction to Rushmore. It was the rare film that managed to not just meet but surpass sky-high expectations. And it holds up equally well.

[Verse 1]
Stephanie says that she wants to know
Why she’s given half her life
To people she hates now
Stephanie says when answering the phone (Stephanie says)
What country shall I say is calling (Me)
From across the world

But she’s not afraid to die
The people all call her Alaska
Between worlds so the people ask her
‘Cause it’s all in her mind
It’s all in her mind

[Verse 2]
Stephanie says that she wants to know (Stephanie says, she wants to know)
Why it is though she’s the door (door)
She can’t be the room
Stephanie says but doesn’t hang up the phone (Stephanie says)
What sea shell sea is calling (Me)
From across her world

But she’s not afraid to die
The people all call her Alaska
Between worlds so the people ask her
‘Cause it’s all in her mind
It’s all in her mind

They’re asking is it good or bad
It’s such an icy feeling
It’s so cold in Alaska (Stephanie says)
It’s so cold in Alaska (Stephanie says)
It’s so cold in Alaska (Stephanie says)

18 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,828: ‘Stephanie Says’ – The Velvet Underground

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie, but I recall liking it- probably because of the bashing of this “dollhouse aesthetic” that I find entirely too precious and pretentious.

    • Clay says:

      I get “precious” as a criticism of Anderson’s work, but I don’t get “pretentious.” His films are all comedies, and often quite silly, though they do have a fair amount of sadness and even violence undercutting the humor. They don’t strive to be much more than imaginative entertainment with heart. To me, “pretentious” describes filmmakers who believe their movies unpack the meaning of life, usually while boring the average moviegoer. Something like Kubrick’s 2001, or Malick’s Tree of Life.

  2. Dana Gallup says:

    I think a writer and director can be pretentious even with a comedy or light hearted subject matter depending upon how the material is presented. An adult film utilizing stop motion animation, for example, borders on pretentious in my opinion in and of itself. Throw in dogs speaking Japanese and you cross the border of pretentiousness no matter how light or silly the subject matter 🙂

  3. Peg says:

    I adore this movie. We watched it again not that long ago and am sure we will see again whenever it’s available 😊

  4. Dana Gallup says:

    By the way, there are a number of sources that identify “pretentious” and “precious” as synonyms. Here is one:

    • Clay says:

      Fair enough. My understanding of pretentious is purporting to have a ton of depth and importance. Like, say, Aaron Sorkin. 🙂

      And of course, what’s pretentious to one person is deep and important to somebody else for whom the work has the intended effect. It’s only pretentious if it’s not successful. And whether or not it’s successful is subjective.

      • Dana Gallup says:

        The definition I found, which aligns with how I am using it here is: “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. ‘a pretentious literary device'”

        To me, using the device of a “dollhouse aesthetic” or a movie intended for an English speaking audience set on a Japanese Island, with stop gap animated characters speaking Japanese objectively qualifies as pretentious. Whether one likes the movie that uses such devices or not (or likes the movie despite its pretentious presentation) is, on the other hand, subjective. 🙂

        • Clay says:

          The “than is actually possessed” part of that definition is key, though. If one believes the work does possess the qualities it aspires to, it isn’t pretentious.

          You can’t say that a movie is objectively “boring,” only that it is boring to some people and not boring to others. The same is true for “pretentious,” which is a negative characterization based on one’s response to the work.

          In short, there is no such thing as “objectively pretentious.”

          Also, it’s interesting that you find the use of the Japanese or Portuguese languages as pretentious in a film by an American. Is it pretentious when a European or Asian filmmaker uses English-language songs or dialogue in a film? Or does this tie back to your general dismissal of foreign-language films as pretentious?

          • Dana Gallup says:

            Okay, I get your point about subjectivity, but I still feel one can like a movie, song, art, etc. while acknowledging a level of pretentiousness about either the creator, the creation or both. Indeed, I acknowledge that Aaron Sorkin is pretentious and that pretentiousness surfaces in his work, but I still love his movies. Similarly, Sting has a pretentiousness about his persona and some of his songs, but I generally like to love his music. Perhaps this means that these artists and their work appeals to a pretentious side of my personality, as Wes Anderson may for you.

            As to the use of foreign language, if somebody in France was watching a film made for a French audience that used English language or had a character singing French songs in Polish (even though doing so was largely if not entirely unnecessary for the story), I think the French viewer would have a valid argument that the movie was pretentious, and I would proudly call this French viewer a brother-in-arms. 🙂

          • Clay says:

            I agree that one can usually recognize qualities that others might find pretentious, even in things you like. I certainly know what it is about Wes Anderson’s movies, or Sting’s music, that turns people off.

            I find a fair amount of Sting’s songs pretentious, but not the ones I like. Somebody might call the drum break in ‘Englishman in New York’ pretentious, but I’d call it perfect. “Hey Mr. Pinochet,” on the other hand… 🙂

            As for French songs in Polish, or whatever the equivalent, I don’t think things like that have to be necessary to the story. I think they can just be interesting and fun. Kind of like the drum break in ‘Englishman in New York.’

            But I would love to see you team up Siskel & Ebert-style with the French Dana!

  5. Amy says:

    Okay… clearly I came to this party too late! I will have to get into the weeds of this precious/pretentious debate some other time. I will say that this is Anderson’s film that I know/remember/love the most and that I felt that way from the moment I first saw it in the theater, perhaps the only time (certainly the only time I currently recall) that I felt that way about one of his films. I was hooked from the start and left the theater having loved it. I’ve subsequently taught scenes from it in film classes and seen the film in its entirety a couple more times at least, and every frame holds up.

    In my memory, this is the film of his that got me and Life Aquatic was the one that lost me, and I’m sure there were a bunch of others in between (whether chronologically or just … in between).

    And I can’t stress enough how important Alec Baldwin’s narration is to my feelings for this film.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.