They Might Be Giants holds a special place in my heart for two reasons. First, it’s a meta-detective story about the multiplicity of signs and clues in our world. In some ways, it has filmic resonance with The Crying of Lot 49, infusing the world with wondrous mystery, reading clues from garbage and random notes. It also trades in the notion that madmen have a keen insight on the world, a vision of truth that the rest of us cannot see. The crucial sequence comes from the middle of the film, in which Holmes and Watson discuss the mad quests of literature, referring not just to Holmes and Moriarty, but also to Don Quixote and the windmills at which he tilted.
Dr. Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is something else.
Holmes: He had a point. Of course he carried it a bit too far, that’s all. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be? All the best minds used to think that the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round? And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought about what they might be, why, we’d still be out in the tall grasses with the apes. (See the video below, around :40 seconds.)
The ambiguity of the film’s title is part of what makes it intriguing. Are Holmes and Watson pursuing phantoms through the streets of New York, or might there be something there — by the end you want his quest to be true, and Watson does too.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auCJp2fbC8M]
But more importantly, one of my favorite bands, They Might Be Giants has taken this film’s name as its own. Which leads us to ask what they might mean by this title. Are Jon and John like Holmes and Watson, chasing meaning in the metropolis, hoping to find deeper truth in the semiotic haze of the urban landscape, or are they like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills that might be giants, or are John and Jon the windmills who might be giants themselves? I think it’s the last, and we the audience are Holmes and Watson, chasing meaningless (and sometimes meaningful) signifiers through the musical landscape these men have woven?
Complicating this question even more is the strange case of the eponymous song from TMBG’s most famous album, Flood. Here are some of the lyrics:
Hang on tight
They might be giants (boy)
They might be giants
They might be rain
They might be heat
They might be frying up a stalk of wheat
They might be brain
They might be washed
They might be Dr. Spock’s back-up band
To make the merry-go-round go faster
So that everyone needs to hang on tighter
Just to keep from being thrown to the wolves
They might be bald
They might be snow
They might be something else in the snow
They might be fake
They might be lies
They might be big, big, fake, fake lies
Tabloid footprints in your hair
Tabloid footprints everywhere
We can’t be silent
‘Cause they might be giants
And what are we going to do unless they are
I’ve cut many of the repetitions of the title phrase and the deep “BOY” which sounds more like “Bow-eye.” But what can we do with these lyrics? The last line seems most apt, implying that the quest must be joined regardless, and that hope lies in the madness of hoping some of the objects of that quest are, indeed, giants.
Oh, and Wikipedia says this:
A common misconception is that the name of the band is a reference to themselves and an allusion to future success. In an interview John Flansburgh said (paraphrasing) that the words “they might be giants” are just a very outward-looking forward thing which they liked. He clarified this in the documentary movie Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) by explaining that the name refers to the outside world of possibilities that they saw as a fledgling band. In an earlier radio interview, John Linnell described the phrase as “something very paranoid sounding”.