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Entries in Mix Tape (13)

Saturday
Apr232011

Mix Tape: "Perfect Day" in Trainspotting

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here, with the scene that served as my introduction to Lou Reed.

At his best, Danny Boyle knows how to mix memorable visuals, dynamic editing, and pop music into one striking, powerful package. The overdose scene in Trainspotting, his saga of Edinburgh heroin addicts, has all this and more set to the morose tune of Reed's "Perfect Day" (an ironic song title if there ever was one). Anti-hero Mark Renton, eager for "one fucking hit," returns to the desolate apartment of a sleazy dealer, where he shoots up... only to fall into a catatonic stupor, which Boyle represents by having him sink into a hole in the carpet, as if into a grave.

This is when Reed's flatly casual voice breaks in, singing the lyrics ("Just a perfect day, drink sangria in the park...") in a subdued tone that belies their supposed cheerfulness. As the dealer deposits Renton's immobile body on the street to wait for a taxi, Reed bursts into the chorus, and already the irony is palpable: clearly, Renton is having anything but a perfect day. But the irony goes far beyond that simple "happy song, sad scene" incongruity—because the song is self-contradictory to begin with, and the scene isn't merely sad.

Boyle's depiction of the overdose traffics in the same dark, sometimes satirical humor as the rest of Trainspotting, and it's shot in the same kinetic, self-conscious style. For example, the burgundy carpet, which blinkers Renton's POV shots while he's unconscious, functions as both a metaphor for his isolation in the depths of his overdose, and as a bleak visual joke. Similarly, the grim way he's passed along from dealer to cabbie to hospital orderlies borders on kafkaesque. This is no self-serious afterschool special; Boyle has an eye for the funny side of excessive drug use.

This clash between tragic subject matter and flashy style could come across as ridiculous or tasteless, but any such tonal ruffles are smoothed out by the faultless use of "Perfect Day." Despite occasional dips into ironic enthusiasm on one end and melancholy on the other, Reed's voice is stable throughout the song, almost to the point of monotone; this makes it the ideal song to accompany Renton's comatose journey to the emergency room. Even in its loudest, most climactic moments, "Perfect Day" is still as steady and patient as an elevator ride, and balances out the bounciness of Boyle's camera.

And throughout the scene, it offers a bittersweet lyrical counterpoint to Renton's current predicament, with the line "You just keep me hanging on..." ringing out just as the dealer shoves Renton into the back of the taxi, and the closing refrain, "You're going to reap just what you sow," as a dire reminder that he brought this miserable situation upon himself. It's also starkly appropriate that a song partially about self-delusion and ignoring one's problems should arrive in the center of a film about drug addicts.

According to rumor, "Perfect Day" is actually about heroin, and that may be case, but its usage here isn't just a matter of finding a song whose topic matches the film. (Had that been the case, Lou Reed wrote a song called "Heroin" that could've been used instead.) The scene derives much of its sticking power from the very precise interplay between the song's unique tone, the editing, and the camerawork, which together sustain a forlorn mood laced with many ironies. This seamless integration of visuals and music brings a light touch to the protagonist's near-death and rebirth, and forever entangles "Perfect Day" with the image of Ewan McGregor dying in a carpet.

Saturday
Apr162011

Mix Tape: "Put the Blame on Mame" in Gilda

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here, with one of the sultriest musical numbers ever committed to film.

Nightclub acts are scattered throughout the seamy annals of film noir. For starters, you've got Lauren Bacall singing "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" at the casino in The Big Sleep, and Veronica Lake putting on a magic act in This Gun for Hire. Live music, cut with equal parts despair and eroticism, is just perfect for noir's postwar underworld. In Gilda, Rita Hayworth outdoes every other noir chanteuse with her unforgettable rendition of "Put the Blame on Mame." It's sexy, sassy, and bundles up the film's themes in a black satin ribbon.

By the time the nightclub performance arrives, though, we've already heard Hayworth rehearsing the song twice. She's humming along to it during her indelible introduction ("Gilda, are you decent?" / "Me?") and later, her paramour-turned-husband Johnny (Glenn Ford) catches her singing it for Uncle Pio, the old washroom attendant. Throughout, the song acts as Gilda's leitmotif, emblematic of her fearsome sexual power. It's a side of her that the jealous, overprotective Johnny doesn't want anyone else to see.

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Saturday
Apr092011

Mix Tape: "Porque Te Vas" in Cría Cuervos

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here, to talk about one of my absolute favorite uses of popular music in film.

It's from Carlos Saura's Cría Cuervos, an underseen but beautiful film about three orphaned sisters being raised by their aunt in the twilight years of Franco's Spain. The whole film is seen from the (often distorted) perspective of the sensitive 8-year-old Ana, played by Spirit of the Beehive's precocious Ana Torrent, as she reckons with the loss of her adultering Fascist father and her sick, emotionally fragile mother, whose ghost is played by Geraldine Chaplin.

As she retreats into her inner world of memory and fantasy, away from the mundane realities of school and her strait-laced aunt, Ana has one major ally: the song "Porque Te Vas" ("Because You're Leaving") recorded by the British-Spanish musician Jeanette in 1974. It's a surprisingly downbeat pop song, but still fairly generic, and that suits Saura's purposes perfectly. After all, a song doesn't need to be perfect to be the cultural centerpiece of a small child's world.

For Ana, "Porque Te Vas" is special. It speaks to her. It's not profound, but it boasts a catchy beat and unapologetically emotive lyrics, including a refrain that roughly translates to, "All the promises of my love will go with you...", and that's more than enough.

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Saturday
Mar192011

Mix Tape: "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" in It Happened One Night

 

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here, to talk about an impromptu musical number that doubles as a historical document. Frank Capra’s Oscar-sweeping screwball comedy It Happened One Night is naturally best remembered for the cute love story that unfolds (over the course of several nights) between stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

However, it’s also something of a postapocalyptic travelogue, since the odd couple’s odyssey by bus up the East Coast gives them a panoramic view of a nation debilitated by the Depression. They run into purse snatchers, con men, starving children, and crowds of poor families forced together by poverty. For Colbert’s spoiled heiress, it’s a shocking glimpse of how the other half lives. But the world she discovers is not all negative: the bus’s passengers comprise a makeshift community, and it’s one that loves to sing.

So while the bus chugs along, a band suddenly forms in the back—complete with fiddle, guitar, and vocalist—and, apropos nothing, starts playing the decades-old standard “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Soon the whole bus joins in on the chorus, and individual passengers stand up to sing the verses alone. Out of nowhere, a form of communal vaudeville springs up, a show-within-a-show that Gable and Colbert watch with delight.

Everyone gets a chance to shine, including a mincing sailor who gives a lurid emphasis to the line “His eyes would undress every girl in the house!” (It’s a surprisingly bawdy song for such a public performance, but no one seems to notice or care.) The film’s main plot continues during the song courtesy of clever editing, as close-ups on the sleazy Shapely and the distracted bus driver appear alongside wide shots of all the other passengers with the band as their focal point. But this is decidedly a detour, albeit a spectacular one, from the fugitive couple’s episodic progress; it’s a sequence more about setting and the nature of Depression-era bus travel than about plot.

This spell of utter mirth ends, of course, with a minor tragedy, as the bus careens into a muddy ditch. Soon thereafter, Gable and Colbert lose the rest of their money and have to leave the bus for good due to Shapely’s half-baked scheming. But that spur-of-the-moment musical number is still a chance for bonding, as the sheer cuteness of the passengers’ singing cuts through the main characters’ lingering cynicism and world-weariness. (Gable even gets in on the act, passing a flask around to some dancing fellow travelers.)

Maybe it’s an American instinct to respond to times of crisis by putting on a show. Or maybe this is just a manifestation of the cliché that poor people are happier and have an easier time cutting loose—the same one witnessed in Titanic when Rose goes below decks to dance a polka away from her stultifying society friends. (Or in My Man Godfrey, or Holiday, or any number of other Depression-era comedies.) Cliché or not, though, the scene in It Happened One Night feels so alive and strangely naturalistic despite its improbability, because the sailor and all the other participants bring such enthusiasm to their performances. For these few minutes, money and class are meaningless: all that matters is the music.

(Trivia time: the guitarist in this scene is Ken Carson, who would later join the band Sons of the Pioneers. With them, he helped record the theme song for The Searchers and the song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” later used in the opening of The Big Lebowski.)

Saturday
Feb262011

Mix Tape: "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" in Inception

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here, with one more glance at memorable song choices as we anticipate tomorrow's festivities. Although it's only used sparingly, Édith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" casts a long shadow over all of Inception. Its texture and meaning clash heavily with the unearned gravitas and reformatted action movie clichés of Christopher Nolan's film, as Piaf's voice introduces a cosmopolitan, plaintive humanity. Less than a minute of the song is used in all of Inception, but it sure sticks with you when you leave the theater.

Within the film, Cobb's team of expert dream-burglars uses "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" in order to count down to the "kick"—in short, it's a glorified wake-up call wrapped in swaths of exposition. Whenever the dreamers are about to be woken up, it lets them know how much time is left to fulfill their objectives. So the song serves a neat plot purpose, like a flare gun being fired into the subconcious. (Even if those MP3 players do look a little too unwieldy to drag along on fast-paced mission.)

The song also creates a fun intertextual link to La Vie En Rose, since Marion Cotillard (Piaf herself) stars in both films, even though Nolan claims that he'd picked the song before she was cast. But more important than the song's actual function in the heist, or the Cotillard connection, is how Piaf's unapologetically emotional voice resounds across the epic vistas of Inception's shared dreams. It lends some pathos and strangeness to a film that's precise and diagrammatical, even when it's depicting warped gravity and collapsing buildings.

This is, after all, one of the most common (and valid) complaints about Inception: its dreams aren't even remotely dreamlike. If anything, they're the dreams of a British writer/director who fantasizes about clean gray suits, rainstorms, and shiny hotel plazas. The inclusion of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" is a step in the right direction, however, especially when it plays across multiple dream layers, with Piaf's throaty, melancholy voice echoing down staircases and snowy mountainsides. The juxtaposition of this song with these surroundings is unexpected and, if only briefly, makes these dreams seem mildly surreal.

The song's influence even reaches beyond its short appearances: as Hans Zimmer has admitted, it inspired the ominous, droning brass leitmotif ("BWAAA!") that's most closely identified with Inception's score. So although the film's visual sensibilities may lack any of the sloppiness or irregularity we associate with real-life dreams, at least its soundtrack is informed by Piaf's soulful, decidedly irrational belting. One final irony: that a song whose title translates loosely as "No, I regret nothing" should complement Leonardo DiCaprio's endless mourning for the wife he inadvertently killed. It's a dose of bittersweet humor, buried several layers down in a film that so sorely needs it.

Saturday
Feb192011

Mix Tape: "Baby, You're a Rich Man" in The Social Network

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here, with another look at the role of song choices in films. I'm gnerally dissatisfied with The Social Network's ending: first, the film's final line, with the legal associate Marilyn echoing the "asshole" comment made by Erica during the opening breakup scene, feels like forced parallelism. Second, Mark's attempt to friend Erica on Facebook (and his constant refreshing) suggests a pat, reductive explanation for his actions—he did it all for the girl that got away—regardless of how ambiguous the expression on Jesse Eisenberg's face is. Between these incidents, it's an ending unworthy of the layered, hyperactive film that preceded it.

However, the ending is somewhat redeemed and rendered a lot wittier by the choice of song that accompanies it, The Beatles' "Baby, You're a Rich Man." Of course, it's superficially appropriate to the film's last superimposed piece of information ("Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world"), but it's also laced with irony. Like, for example, how the tone of the song (warm, jingly, full of Beatles goofiness) clashes with the gravity and somberness of Fincher's film.

Just listen to it back-to-back with "Hand Covers Bruise," the first track from The Social Network's Reznor/Ross soundtrack, and the incongruity becomes painfully clear. The irony goes deeper, though, for while The Beatles' giddy attitude toward wealth and status may have felt suitable earlier in the film, like around the time Mark's buying his "I'm CEO, Bitch" business cards, the ending finds an older, sobered Mark who's realizing just how successfully he's cut off everyone else. The refrain "Baby, you're a rich man!" now sounds more like a prison sentence than a cause for celebration.

Most ironic of all, we've got that first line of the song: "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?" This recalls another possible explanation for Mark's behavior: his "Finals Clubs OCD," as Erica calls it, and his attendant rivalries with the ultra-Aryan Winklevii and his best friend Eduardo, who gets into the Phoenix. Mark—nerdy, insensitive, awkward, and yes, Jewish—has spent the whole film trying to move up the ladder of the Harvard community, to join the ranks of those "beautiful people," but now that he's among the richest people on earth, he's still compulsively, pathetically pressing the refresh button, pining for something (Erica's friendship) that he just can't have.

So with merely a four-decade-old song and the sound of Mark's clicking finger, Sorkin and Fincher's ending evokes all the inherent contradictions in the ways that Mark (and the film) view money, power, and friendship. He may be a rich man, but as they say, money can't buy you love.