Song for a Sunday


Jim Jarmusch’s films are all about textures and surfaces. It sometimes feels like he’s hinting at wellsprings of deeper meaning or emotion, but everything is held at a remove – cold, observing, often ironic. This probably contributes to the love-it-or-hate-it reactions his films seem to inspire, especially the early ones: are they studies in the carefully calibrated hipsterism of people who cloak their authentic selves in the trappings of cool, or particularly egregious examples of it? Both? Neither?

In either (or any) case, they certainly look good: shot in stark black and white, and obsessed with contours and physical details, the camera glides over the surroundings, or stays completely still as people come and go. It’s hard to find a better word for it than “cool.”

In his feature debut, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, the arrival of a foreign, female cousin broke the routines of two caddish, cynical American guys, and the three set out on a bickering, amusing road trip to Florida. It even obliquely addressed issues of constructed identity: the cool guy’s cousin irritates him, with her old-country ways that highlight how much he’s tried to leave them behind and her unironic embrace of American pop culture. (It also is easily a contender for another Song for a Sunday, as she dances around the kitchen to Jarmusch regular Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” “Fuck is that?” he asks. “I really hate that kind of music.”)

Down By Law, from 1986, features another triad: a pimp, an unemployed DJ, and an Italian tourist who wind up, for various reasons, in a jail cell together in New Orleans. It’s typical of the film that their escape from jail is left off camera: one minute they’re locked up, the next they’re on the run through the Louisiana bayou. Jarmusch doesn’t have the time or inclination to sketch out their big plan. The movie traffics in Hollywood tropes, but from odd angles.

According to Roger Ebert, Jarmusch said he’d never seen the bayou before arriving to shoot Down By Law. This also makes a lot of sense. The New Orleans and surrounding areas here are more related to cinema than geography – these are noir landscapes, Southern Gothic cemeteries, sweaty unventilated upstairs rooms in fleabag motels, waterways that seem more out of Night of the Hunter than anywhere specific in the world.

The film’s opening conveys a lot of this. Beginning with a sleek shot of a hearse, it’s a constantly shifting montage set to Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” the first single off Rain Dogs. It’s a travelogue of some sort of imaginary South, gleaned from film. Waits also stars – again, appropriately enough, for a very self-aware kind of movie – as the unemployed DJ who’s set up for a murder he didn’t commit.

The song combines a lot of things at once: spaghetti western flourishes, driving blues, jazz riffing, Waits’ whiskey growl. The lyrics are pastiche nonsense, but the repeated phrase lingers at the start of this movie, giving everything a feeling of rootless dread: “The house is on fire, the children are alone.”

I especially like how Jarmusch fades the song out for brief exchanges, before coming back full blast. John Lurie rises from his bed, asks (presumably) one of the sex workers what she’s doing outside on the porch – she replies, “Just watching the light change.” He lies back down, and the girl in his bed opens her eyes and stares at the ceiling. Waits enters some other room in town, clearly drunk at dawn; graffiti on the wall has a gallows’ humor thing going – the most visible reads, “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.” He too lies down next to a girl, who might’ve just been pretending to sleep; her eyes open and she too stares at the ceiling.

Jarmusch manages to convey a lot of information quickly about these characters, where they are, and how they relate to each other, while leaving much of it mysterious. And all the while, the song keeps pulsing, with Waits warning, “The house is on fire, and the children are alone.” The shots are beautiful and alluring, but there’s clearly some bad shit afoot.

One of the Big Deals of the 70s films we’d later refer to as the New Hollywood was their use of contemporary music, as opposed to a scripted score or relying on the classics. These choices could comment on the things happening on the screen, underline them, or invert them: Robert DeNiro’s entrance in Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” manages to do all three at once. Previous entry McCabe & Mrs. Miller did something similar with Leonard Cohen dirges: they seem to be tailor-made for the scene, but we know they exist outside of it. It’s sort of showoff-y, this impulse to sync radio hits with camera movement, but when it works, it really works.

And after all, Fellini and others had music playing on set to provide a rhythm to the actors’ movement; it’s just we didn’t get to hear the music. In New Hollywood cinema – and, unfortunately, in attempts to replicate it – the music sometimes seems to come first: the mood and perspectives hinge on it, the score clues us in on what the script leaves out. After the creation of MTV and all the montages we’ve suffered under, we might wonder if it was worth it, given how shitty most people are at this.But it’s worth remembering it was new and dangerous once.

Scorcese’s Goodfellas, released far after these 70s breakthroughs and their inferior replications were over, is essentially a master lesson in how to use songs to further plot points, focus energies, and contextualize perspective. Each period of the lives of its protagonists is perfectly scored, so that we both know when and where we are, and what these people are like. It comes off a bit like a stunt maybe, song-wise: “Oh, Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You”? Got it!” But at least everyone can probably admit the songs they chose are pretty rad and would make a good mixtape.

The genius in Goodfellas, though, is how Scorcese matches song with moment. This is nowhere more apparent than in the famous Copacabana scene, where rising mobster Henry and Karen – the girl he was set up with on a double date, spurned, and then fell for – go on their first proper outing as a couple. The song is The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.”

This is in many ways the easiest choice imaginable, on my part. It’s a great song and it accompanies one of the most impressive scenes in modern cinema, as the Steadicam tracks Henry and Karen leaving a car with an attendant, descending through a secret entrance to the club, winding their way through corridors, bantering with people Henry seems to know, palming $20 bills on everyone, gracefully side-stepping people as they pass through a working kitchen, and emerging in the club, talking charmingly all the while and occasionally guiding, gently, his awestruck lover.

It’s an undeniably virtuoso job, technically amazing. As they arrive on the floor, a man swoops in with a table to seat them, someone buys them a bottle of wine, and the camera itself almost seems out of breath; it hasn’t stopped either. It might be the most exhilarating, dinner-related sequence ever filmed.

Karen’s question when finally seated: “What is it you said you do again?”

Which brings us back to the song. “Then He Kissed Me” is as breathless as the scene: it describes a whirlwind romance, moments of doubt. It’s a song for a prom: nervous, hopeful, longing, and a bit awkward. It even starts with the word, “Well….”, like it was in mid-sentence. Its thundering production insists that something earth-changing is afoot, even if it’s just kissing a boy, and its use here immediately position us with the characters (and mostly with Karen). We sort of luxuriate in Henry’s privilege and are as wowed by it as she is: the song and the shot keep us on everyone’s team, ultimately, at least for the time being. It’s a wonderful moment when anything seems possible.

Of course, all things aren’t possible, if you stop to think. It makes complete and total sense for Karen to finally sit down, catch her breath, and wonder aloud what it is this guy does. But the dizzying motion and excitement of everything that preceded her question also explains why she might want to hang around, even after she finds out the answer.

Yes, three “Song for a Sunday” features and two of them are Robert Altman films. (Wait until we get to Nashville!) The only connecting thread in these is that I like them and think the songs are used well in the movie, and Altman definitely knows how to deploy songs to structure the plot and mood.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an austere version of that skill, and maybe the best non-Nashville example of it. The story – of a travelling gambler and would-be whorehouse entrepreneur teaming up with an experienced madam to make a life in the mining town of Presbyterian Church, just as the mythic West of the American imagination is being overrun by the trappings of civilized society – is scored to exactly three songs, each by Leonard Cohen, which fade in and out of the film at distinct points. Cohen’s vaguely, ambiguously mournful melodies, the enveloping strumming of the guitar, the barebones nature of the recordings, and his seemingly wise, exhausted crooning suit the film perfectly. It’s a funeral for something or someone – a way of life, a possibility of a kind of freedom, and, eventually, for a flawed hero who told himself he had poetry in him, even if no one else could see it.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of my favorite films, so it’s easy to wax rhapsodic about it, but as far as the music goes, it really is singularly effective. In terms of the washed-out images, the scenes so damp you feel kind of cold just watching them, the lamp-lit interiors that Stanley Kubrick apparently phoned Altman about, to find out how he got those shots – these are natural environments for a Leonard Cohen song.

And, in terms of plot, it’s amazing: when Cohen sings, “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” how could he be speaking about anyone except Warren Beatty’s McCabe, rising and falling and searching for rebirth in a town called Presbyterian Church? When, in “Winter Lady,” one of the two other songs, he intones, “I’m just a station on your way / I know I am not your lover,” how can he possibly not be referring to McCabe’s melancholy desire for Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller, doomed by their partnership, his impetuousness, her aloofness and addiction, all the dangers and distractions of this self-creating town?

And yet Cohen had already written and recorded the songs before the film was even in production. (In fact, he didn’t even initially like how Altman used them, if “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Peter Biskind’s rather disreputable catalog of 70s New Hollywood gossip, is to be believed … which is a big if.)

In any case, the lyrics and mood are almost too on-the-nose … or would be, if they had been written for the film. That they weren’t ends up feeling mysterious, like a lot about McCabe & Mrs. Miller. A few more: “Like any dealer he was watching / for the card that is so high and wild / he’ll never need to deal another,” for example. Or: “I was waiting, I was sure / we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for / I guess it’s time to board another.” That’s, of course, part of Cohen’s genius as a songwriter and part of why he’s so intensely admired by his fans: these are lyrics from everywhere and nowhere, oddly specific and yet taking on the feel of a universal statement. You can enter into them from wherever you stand, and imagine they were written specifically for you.

But notice the past tense in each of those lines, and the resignation: these are, if nothing else, songs written from the future. McCabe’s dream unfolding in the film, and Mrs. Miller’s too, weren’t even impossible … they were already over while they were beginning, in the rain and snow and creeping politics and sudden violence of a non-place in the middle of nowhere. They were just some Josephs looking for a manger.

Opening scene:

Full song, live version:

It’s rare enough to find a film that believes in revolution, much less one willing to posit a post-revolutionary world. What do we do with one that imagines both, but worries about how oppression will be handled after the rev?

Born In Flames is flawed but fearless; it’s a masterpiece. Its creator, Lizzie Borden (yes, Lizzie Borden), is out to gut some motherfuckers. But her film cares about people, it’s democratic in its airing of voices, it recognizes difference, and it doesn’t have an answer. It’s a punk rock interrogation of radical culture and politics, and it’s as smart an independent film as any made in the last 50 years.

The title is taken from the Red Krayola song that plays no fewer than four times, always as a propulsive political force and a connecting thread. The pulsing of the song is the movie’s backbeat; watch the movie twice, and I guarantee the opening notes will make you want to beat up a rapist. As you should.

Trailer:

Song:

You can watch the whole movie here.

Of all the American directors who came to prominence in the 1970s, Robert Altman is the warmest, the most democratic and the most disarming. The overlapping dialogue, shaggy plots, lived-in sets, and sharp characterization make nearly all of his films feel both like “slices of life” and something much more personal and unique — it’s just that the lives being portrayed are themselves theatrical and all over the place.

In the case of 1980’s consistently enjoyable, occasionally bizarre, and criminally underrated Popeye, he recreates the world in the image and vernacular of classic cartoons, made for kids, but peoples it with complicated individuals adults can recognize. Again like most of his films I’ve seen, the sets are characters themselves, that seem to have existed before we showed up and will continue once we’ve left its world. Harry Nilsson’s whimsical and wry songs form the basis of the structure, and serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the goings-on (and also a possible testimony to the amount of narcotics being consumed in the movie’s production).

For me, the whole thing peaks with Shelley Duvall’s song (as Olive Oyl), “He Needs Me.” It perfectly encapsulates the longing and celebration of the film as a whole, tinged with regret and inevitable awkwardness — her clunky feet and loping, lovely dance. It’s adorable from the start, but Duvall’s creaky delivery of “But he does!”, after Robin Williams mutters the same, sends it over the top.