Unable to admit the true depth of his distress verbally, however, the Blues became the indisputable outlet through which Oliver’s pain found articulation. Each Blues song spoke to the raw nature of Oliver’s emotional and psychological struggle in Higher Ground, while also revealing the subtle, but critical, growth produced through his pain.
But before we can discuss how the music functioned to reveal the depth and breadth of Oliver’s experience, we have to explore how the connection was established.
Perhaps, as always, Shane was trying to teach Oliver something. As we joined their conversation, it seemed that Oliver made some comment that Jazz and the Blues were hardly distinguishable in some sense, prompting Shane to assert they’re actually “apples and oranges.”
“Jazz isn’t about the notes you hear---it’s about the notes you don’t hear. And with the Blues it isn’t about what you hear---it’s about what you feel. It’s rhythm and truth---it’s pain set to music.”
The statements themselves were, indeed, quite profound, but they became even more profound in how Shane turned the observation into a literal object lesson using Oliver’s pen and a napkin. A captivated student, Shane’s instruction to “watch and learn,” challenged Oliver to “open [his] mind and use [his] imagination.”
“When I close my eyes and I listen to jazz this is what I see---surprise and light, crazy possibility…” and, through her doodle, expressed Jazz as a genre of music that could be visibly and concretely represented to some degree.
Where Oliver joked before that her initial observation was “quite profound coming from a woman who [drank] kombucha in the afternoon and martinis at night,” Shane’s brief lesson captured Oliver’s imagination in a way that allowed not just his mind, but his heart, to connect with the subject matter as evidenced by his response, which completed her thought:
“...but it’s always…”
“Painfully, but exquisitely true....I imagine.”
In this moment, Oliver learned to associate the Blues with deep sensitivity and subtle understanding. Like the Blues, Oliver’s journey throughout Higher Ground found him, “sometimes...full, sometimes...empty, sometimes...broken.” But where he was only able to connect through his imagination during their date, Oliver’s experience of his pain in Shane’s eventual absence ultimately produced immense growth and understanding that proved, “painfully, but exquisitely, true.”
Anybody Seen My Girl?
Interestingly, that separation seemed to begin before Shane ever actually left, revealing a deep-seated vestige from the past, which Oliver’s separation from Shane was, in part, designed to expose and heal.
The inextricable link between the Blues and Oliver’s emotions began immediately outside the Ephlat Lounge. If you were paying careful attention, the score of “Anybody Seen My Girl?” began to play as Oliver and Shane ascended the steps outside the lounge and shared that first, unseen kiss. In retrospect it seems strange the moment Oliver connected with Shane most completely---and even intimately---was juxtaposed with a score that suggested some element of uncertainty, longing and distance. But it was actually the first hint at the depth of the unexpressed, lingering pain Oliver still harbored where his heart---and Holly---were concerned.
“Anybody Seen My Girl?” established musically the pain which Shane’s absence ultimately exposed in Oliver. But, like most wounds, healing often comes in phases, and so it would with Oliver, beginning with a more complete picture of the state of his heart where Shane was concerned, painted by the lyrics of the song.
Music & Lyrics
Where their kiss---or perhaps Shane’s presence?---possessed the power to resist the full weight of Oliver’s concerns at the time, they surged forward in her absence. We know this because “Anybody Seen My Girl?” returned in the aftermath of Oliver’s discussion with Joe with both music and lyrics. The reprise occurred specifically after Oliver attempted to describe kissing Shane outside the Ephlat Lounge, to which Joe replied, “next time you get the chance to kiss her...take your time.” You got an immediate sense that Oliver began to wonder about that next time, and about Shane.
The lyrics of “Anybody Seen My Girl?” perfectly represented the tension between Oliver’s care for Shane, and the questioning and contemplation associated with the wait for her return.
Shane’s assignment really was “none of [his] business” in some sense, but her absence certainly attracted “all of [Oliver’s] concern,” especially with her old “flame,” Steve, involved. No doubt Shane’s tendency to “come and go” in the past had Oliver concerned if she “was ever coming home,” even though she claimed she would “be back.” And, perhaps for the first time, this song even revealed that her self-terminations “hurt [Oliver]” and made him “wonder if [Shane] really care[d]” about him, a sentiment exacerbated by her current absence.
There was even a sense of loss of direction for Oliver as expressed in the song, “where am I goin’? What am I gonna do? I know I’m not crazy...I’m just hooked on you.” And that sentiment was mirrored in the fact that the DLO was in complete disarray, the work slowed to a stop as Oliver fixated on Gabe’s letter to Hattie. Though, of course, Oliver could only lament that fact that he, Rita and Norman “[hadn’t] been able to accomplish in a month what Shane could do in a day.” Interestingly as he voiced these sentiments, the lyrics of “Anybody Seen My Girl?” were replaced by his dialogue. Even then, Oliver couldn’t reveal his motivation for pursuing the letter so doggedly, only able to express that he “made a promise to…himself,” even as he gestured to Shane’s desk.
“Anybody Seen My Girl?” captured the experience of Oliver’s pain in all its unverbalized, unfiltered complexity during the early part of their separation---his desire for the return of a woman whom he loves and would do anything for, but whom also possessed the capacity to hurt him in a deep way. Confronting Oliver with these truths---allowing him to not only see, but feel them through Shane’s absence---was the first phase in a process of pulling back the layers on his long wounded heart.
God Tryin’ To Get [His] Attention?
What’s so brilliant about this song is how it perfectly encapsulated the idea that perspective is everything, a truth which Oliver’s interaction with Gabe reaffirmed:
One way or another, we’re gonna find Higher Ground;
Might be deaf, might be blind, she’ll put the message right in your mind;
Might look like a plan, or a coalition;
Or it might be God tryin’ to get your attention.
It was immediately clear Oliver received a second-wind of hope as he listened to Gabe speak about Hattie. “A mile high,” Oliver, too, came to believe “anything [was] possible” and resisted the urge to remain discouraged. The problem was, Oliver responded to that hope by throwing himself into locating Hattie---something from which he expected to yield another outcome he could see.
Where God, perhaps, meant Oliver’s encounter with Gabe to refresh his perspective, and stay the course of patience and faithfulness in the promises already made and fulfilled, Oliver picked up a new mission. In doing so, Oliver once more delayed the inevitable. In one sense, Oliver had the right instinct to pursue, but the person whom he should have been pursuing was Shane, not Hattie. And he might have found both sooner if Oliver had leaned into his pain rather than avoided it, as his pursuit of Hattie ultimately proved.
What’s interesting about Oliver’s pursuit is that it’s clear “Every mornin[g] an[d] every evenin[g]” Oliver spent “think[ing] of [Shane].” His effort to fight to find Hattie, pushing back on the disinterested bureaucrats on the other end of the phone line, was just as much---if not more---about Shane than locating Hattie. It’s simply that he knew what steps to take in locating Hattie and therefore pursued that, perhaps not realizing that a similar approach could be taken to find Shane.
Surprising, perhaps even to Oliver, is that it also marked his arrival at a point where could finally admit the depth of his frustration verbally. Not coincidentally, he did so in the context of the conversation regarding Hattie during Poker night. Much like they lacked any further information on Hattie, so Oliver lacked any additional information on Shane. Rather matter-of-fact, Oliver offered that perhaps they should tell Gabe that, because, “No man should have to wait forever for someone who is never going to come.” In addition to silencing the table for a time, Oliver appeared so shocked to have spoken his fear aloud that he excused himself from the table. Voicing such sentiment in the company of his “coalition,” he inadvertently and indirectly invited them into the situation to a degree, an invitation of which Norman took immediate advantage.
In short, Norman confronted Oliver with the reality of Gabe’s pain when his suspicions about Hattie were confirmed, and how his decision to “sing a new song,” gave Norman the revelation that “[him] and [Oliver] [had] a lot more to hope for than Gabe [did]...[but] he was the one out there singing.” Though Oliver seemed to imply it was “insane” to keep singing, it finally allowed Norman to confront Oliver with his own, well-known response to pain---“waiting for [the important women in his life] to come back.” In doing so, Norman provided the perspective Oliver needed to realize that he had choice to do something different, whereas Gabe seemingly no longer had that option. And while Oliver professed he “didn’t know what to do,” it wasn’t long before, accompanied by a new song, Oliver figured out his next step.
“Every Morning” added gravity and raw truth to the latter stages of Oliver’s emotional journey. It also revealed how Oliver arrived at a place to be inspired by Gabe’s example, and encouraged through Norman’s tactful wisdom and advice, to “sing a new song” and become proactive in his search for Shane.
I don’t think we’ll ever get the full picture of how Oliver came to the conclusion that an impromptu trip to D.C. should be his next course of action, but it was a journey nonetheless accompanied by a song all about pursuit and persistence in “Loola Loo.”
What Oliver perhaps didn’t anticipate, however, was the fact he not only had to confront Steve, but Shane as well. Oliver and Shane’s interaction in the lobby was an interesting one. They began by attempting to address her whereabouts, but as the conversation edged towards a confrontation about Steve and her work, they quickly changed the subject from the personal to the professional bond they shared where Gabe and Hattie were concerned. Not coincidentally, Oliver’s pursuit of Shane was the key to discovering the next step in locating Hattie. But, of course, it was not the primary objective of Oliver’s trip.
Having finally pursued his “Loola Loo,” and fought for her in every way possible, Oliver had no other choice but to “Hand It Over.”
Hand It Over
With that mission completed, Oliver was once more left with the reality of Shane’s absence. But even though his “problem [didn’t] go away,” and instead of “worry[ing] night and day,” Oliver exhibited a certain peace about the situation, conceding to Rita that bringing Hattie home was “almost” as good as bringing Shane. Something changed in Oliver, and it allowed him to finally begin to participate in the community which surrounded him all along. He told his father he loved him, engaged Ramon in a brief conversation, and even rejoiced in the engagement of Norman & Rita from outside the Mailbox Grille. It was the behavior of a man aware that life would continue without Shane, and who didn’t isolate, but rather embraced, those around him in spite of that reality.
Anybody Seen My Girl? (Reprise)
An echo of the early stages of his separation from Shane, the lyrics of “Anybody Seen My Girl?” returned to hint at the fact “none of [his] business” was still “gettin’ all of [Oliver’s] concern.” One wonders if he was replaying his encounter with Shane in D.C. in his mind as he walked. Regardless, somewhere deep down, Shane was still “[his] woman” and, despite everything, Oliver had hope in his heart for Shane’s return. To the point, even, that he flashed back to the first time he met Shane at a coffee cart as he passed by the Capitol building, perhaps even thinking the woman at the cart might be Shane for a moment, only to be disappointed.
Little did Oliver know, he was only being positioned for Shane to “come home to [him].”
I'm gonna make my world a better place
I'm gonna keep that smile on my face
I'm gonna teach myself how to understand
I'm gonna make myself a better man
Make myself a better man
A better man...
Fulfilling his promise to find Gabe, tending to things that were important to Shane (the roses, the swing, recreating the smoothie recipe, finding Gabe), and choosing to pursue and fight for her in D.C., developed Oliver into “A Better Man.” More specifically, the man he needed to be in order to more fully embrace and operate in his relationship with Shane upon her return. But there was still one area in which he needed to improve, which his reunion with Shane in the DLO exposed.
Oliver’s return to the DLO possessed strong callbacks to From Paris With Love, specifically where Holly was concerned. When Oliver came upon Shane’s purse, and desk once more in its rightful place, the camera specifically followed his eye-line to the coat rack. In From Paris With Love, Holly’s purse hung next to Oliver’s hat, a signal of its temporariness. By contrast, Shane’s cost hung next to Oliver’s hat in Higher Ground, which, in conjunction with her replaced desk, was a clear signal of her intent to stay. Though subtle, it divorced (no pun intended) Oliver's experience of Holly from his experience of Shane once and for all. And it’s this distinction which, perhaps subconsciously, facilitated the opportunity for transparency, truth and reconciliation that unfolded.
At its core, Shane’s pointed interrogation forced Oliver to verbalize and articulate the nature of his pain as it related to being separated from her, demanding he dig in a few minutes to the core of feelings that accumulated for months. Feelings, we know, he largely refrained from articulating to anyone else over the course of their separation. In real time, Oliver had to “teach himself... to understand” his feelings to the point he could share them with Shane to “make [himself] a better man.”
The entirety of their exchange, from Shane’s jab about Steve commenting Oliver “never say[s] what he means,” and her correction of “you mean you missed me,” to Oliver’s statement that her desk was moved because “it was hard to look at every day,” was designed to elicit transparency hitherto yet unheard from Oliver.
Frustrated, Oliver expressed not only his awareness of his deficiency in this area, but something else as well---his pain: “I mean what I say when I say it. Though I don’t always say what I mean. When I do say it---I mean it,” and cited “I hope our first date isn’t our last” as “a true and transparent statement” as proof. His defense, however, descended into a lament where their failure to complete a first date (implying it was Shane’s fault for leaving), and Shane’s “extended absence,” forced him to conclude that Shane’s “intentions...were not in concert” with his. For the first time, Oliver’s unexpressed pain found full articulation in his own words.
When Oliver pulled Shane into that kiss, it was as much for him as it was for her. What followed, however, exhibited Oliver’s keen, rapidly developed understanding of Shane’s perspective, and what needed to happen next.
In addition to admitting just how much he missed her, Oliver immediately invested himself in Shane’s well-being, reconnecting her with the people and things which meant something to her, including Kombucha smoothies. He even demonstrated a teachable spirit by correcting his mispronunciation of the word “kombucha.” Most importantly, he demonstrated an interest in learning the content of her heart by suggesting, “Shane read [him] all [her] letters,” even if it “[took] all night.”
The final music cue of the film, “Better Man” served as a summary statement on the purpose of Oliver’s journey in Higher Ground. Through his pain, Oliver developed the tools to become the man God called him to be in his relationship with Shane not just in action, but in speech---a man not only in touch with his feelings, but able to articulate them when it mattered most.
More than simply being a unique element of the story told in Higher Ground, the Blues was a critical lense into Oliver’s experience throughout the film. Established during his evening with Shane at the Ephlat Lounge, the “rhythm and truth” of the Blues captured the unverbalized depth and nature of Oliver’s “pain, set to music.” Each Blues song revealed Oliver’s deepening sensitivity to, and revelation of, his feelings for Shane in her absence.
A painful, and at times lonely, process of discovery, their separation also forced Oliver to confront the wounds of his past, and his dysfunctional coping mechanisms, for the express purpose of eradicating them. At the same time, the experience of that pain produced growth in Oliver that developed him more fully into the man God called him to be in both word and deed.