Pay It Backward
If Six Feet Under is using “Calling All Angels” as a means to realize one of its loftier cinematic ambitions, it is somewhat amusing to note that “Calling All Angels” itself was a song that was originally born into cinema. Two years before Siberry included it on her When I Was a Boy album, the song appeared on the soundtrack to German auteur Wim Wenders’ troubled 1991 film Until the End of the World. To this day, the soundtrack album retains a lasting reputation as one of the finest soundtracks of the 1990s, even if the film itself was a failure. This is merely a footnote, however, compared to the song’s other cinematic usage, as the end credits theme to Mimi Leader’s painfully simpleminded Christ-figure allegory, Pay It Forward (2000). In that film, an earnest pre-adolescent played by Haley Joel Osment, at the urging of his emotionally damaged teacher (Kevin Spacey, done up in punishingly literal scar makeup), begins an experiment to make the world a better place through a series of charitable, if occasionally ill advised, good deeds. The boy’s experiment eventually becomes a fairly widespread cultural movement and (spoiler warning!) after he is killed defending a friend from a bully, the film ends with hoards of people swarming to the family’s home for a candlelight vigil, fading out on “Calling All Angels” as the credits roll.
Pay It Forward was not a success commercially (its domestic box office take stalled around $33 million) or critically (the reviews were generally scathing), but the film does seem to have taken on something of a second life on DVD and cable television. An argument could easily be made that it is exactly the kind of film that a certain audience, one that generally goes unrepresented by both critical raves and box office dollars, eventually finds after the various gatekeepers of cinematic relevance have long discarded and forgotten it; the kind of film, in fact, that is embraced not despite but rather because of its mawkish sentimentality (for further examples of this uncool subset of the “cult” movie, see also The Notebook, or anything by Tyler Perry). That Pay It Forward has developed some kind of legacy beyond that of a high profile bomb means that, like it or not, the film has become part of the legacy of “Calling All Angels” as well.
It may be reaching to suggest that Six Feet Under “reclaims” “Calling All Angels” from Pay It Forward, but someone may have had just that in mind. Odds are that it was Jill Soloway, the writer of the episode (lets hope it wasn’t Alan Ball cruelly lambasting Kevin Spacey for his post-American Beauty string of flops), who gives the episode a subplot in which Vanessa (Justina Machado), the momentarily estranged wife of Fisher family business partner and employee Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), hires a nanny to help out with the house and children. The nanny (played by Jayma Mays, currently on Glee) turns out to be airheaded, negligent and wildly unprofessional, using the kids to help record her audition tape for Survivor. Vanessa finally fires her when she realizes that the nanny has allowed a homeless man into the house (she is making him pancakes when Vanessa walks in to find the disheveled man sitting in her living room), in a scene that rather explicitly mirrors a similar occurrence in Pay It Forward. In having Vanessa tell off the nanny (and in the show’s playing the character for comic relief), Six Feet Under offers a sly dismissal of the Pay It Forward philosophy, as it were, as dangerously naïve. It’s Jean-Luc Godard’s axiom of “the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie” wittily put into practice, though one wonders if whoever was behind the slight was less concerned with debunking the dubiousness of Pay It Forward‘s message than they were with remedying the possibility of so great a song becoming forever associated with so lousy a film.
“Calling All Angels” makes one other appearance in the episode, playing over the ending credits immediately following the heartbreaking break-up scene between Ruth and her second husband, George (James Cromwell). Viewers otherwise unfamiliar with the song, however, might not catch that it is even the same one from earlier. The section of the song used for this last minute of credit scroll contains none of the chorus, but is instead taken from a verse that makes no reference to the song’s title or chorus refrain. What is odd about this selection, however, is not that the episode’s handlers did not make the obvious choice of simply playing the chorus of Siberry’s version of the song over the credits, but the fact that the song is playing over the credits at all. Nearly every other episode of Six Feet Under concluded with a bit of musical score played over the end credits, making this particular deviation a notably rare one.
Despite making the song the centerpiece of a scene, did the episode’s handlers perhaps want to give it an encore, bending their own traditions in order to grant the song a proper introduction to an audience that, more than likely, was previously unfamiliar with it? Or does it have something to do with the lyrical passage contained in the fragment of music selected to play this episode out:
And every day you gaze upon the sunset with such love and intensity.
Why, it’s almost as if you could only crack the code
then you’d finally understand what this all means.
Ah, but if you could, do you think you would
trade in all the pain and suffering?
Ah, but then you’d miss the beauty of the light upon this earth
and the sweetness of the leaving.
Does any other piece of popular music in existence sum up Six Feet Under‘s unique, messy brand of humanism with more eloquence than this lyric? A show about people who live ensconced in death, trying to offer solace to the grieving while navigating the choppy waters of their own often hopelessly screwed up lives, Six Feet Under never flinched from exposing humanity in its most harrowing moments, or the natures of its characters at their most brutally flawed. If watching the Fishers for five years often felt like being aboard an emotional rollercoaster that offered far more frequent valleys than peaks, the culminating effect of Six Feet Under was ultimately hopeful, finding real value in the experiences of lives worth living despite whatever tragedies are inflicted upon us or that we inflict upon ourselves. Few artworks in history, and far fewer in television, walked this particular tightrope between hope and despair with such breathtaking agility and emotional honesty as Six Feet Under did during its five miraculous years on the air. And it did so often with the help of a great soundtrack.