Music and Movies (Quentin Tarantino)

At college one of my fellow students was a very attractive Scottish woman who, incredibly, did not find the notion of being in my company to be just too ridiculous . Part of the deal was that I had to listen to Stealers Wheel, supposedly a Caledonian Crosby, Stills & Nash but…well, they were never that. The LP’s hit single took its time to make a mark, the co-writer/singer had left the group before it was chartbound. I went with her to see the group (without Gerry Rafferty) & it seemed a dispiriting experience for both performers & audience. It was 20 years later that a young first time director, with the talent to match his ambition, used the “Dylanesque, pop, bubble-gum favorite” as accompaniment to a scene where Michael Madsen danced a psycho-shimmy of mutilation around a cop. Quentin Tarantino took “Stuck In The Middle With You”, a pleasant enough 70s hit, hooked it to a new visual stimuli & made it kind of creepy. It turned out to be something that he did quite adroitly…well played sir !

In “Death Proof” (2007) another Brit-hit, “Hold Tight” received the same treatment. A ridiculous (untrue) story about Keith Richards nearly joining Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich is followed by by a car crash of such violence that it is just too much for me to include the clip. “Stuck” misses out because it is too obvious, “Hold Tight” because it is too bloody. Hey, I’m possibly the last person around here to be drawing lines but, y’know, think  of the children ! Any road up, here are the opening credits to “Death Proof” (2007) which recycle “The Last Race”, a Jack Nitzsche composition originally  used in “Village of the Giants” (1965) “Delinquent teens ingest a substance and grow to 30 ft tall, then proceed to take over a small town”. Now that’s old school grindhouse.

“Death Proof” is QT’s riff on cars & girls. The great tune from a forgotten movie is the perfect start to another tangle of the low & highbrows of cinematic culture. The affectation that Tarantino is making an early-70s exploitation movie permits the director to play fast & loose with the peripheries, plot, characterization, pointing the camera in the right direction. In these 3 minutes the  mangled title credits are followed by some rather attractive bare feet tapping along to the music, fast cars, Sydney Poitier in a mirror image of a photograph of Bardot ( Sydney is the girl with the bong). A poster for “Soldier Blue” a mainstream movie with scenes of such violence that it seems to have been written out of Hollywood history. Oh & a young woman holding her crotch because she really needs to pee. There is probably a whole lot more that I have missed. The Tarantino way is to throw a bunch of stuff at you. If you miss some that’s fine, there will be something coming along right about now that is just what you have paid your money for. There will be no reprimand here for his over-referential style. I know “Vanishing Point” from “Two Lane Blacktop”. A bunch of attractive women shooting from the lip with imaginative rapid fire dialogue. Snake Plissken as the bad guy. “Death Proof” was made for people like us.

QT’s first 3 films really are a triple whammy & it was 6 years between “Jackie Brown” & “Kill Bill Vol 1”. It’s likely that even after the notoriously creative accountancy of Miramax he saw some big dollars. When he returned his budget was bigger & so were his ideas. I think that this 2nd phase of Tarantino’s career does have a touch of the ignis fatuus about it. His envisioned 4 hour “Kill Bill” and the Grindhouse double header were his idea of “event” cinema but just how did he expect such high-falutin notions to be received. He was not the first director overrate his own reputation (“John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars”…anyone ?) but surely he knew enough about cinema to avoid the fallacy that the longer a film is, the better it will be. These films, if released, would demand a change of habit, a commitment from the cinemagoer to tip their nights over to Tarantino. A hard-ass head of studio like Harvey Weinstein, who was all about the box office, would indulge his director’s B-movie pretensions but he had 4 movies here not 2 & that’s what happened.

So here came “Kill Bill Vol 1” (2003), the ultimate revenge movie with a plot borrowed from a 1973 Japanese movie, fealty paid to every genre of action film you know & then putting on the QT style to show you some new ways of going about it. The soundtrack is an equally eclectic melange. There are songs by Sonny Bono, Isaac Hayes, Neu !, Quincy Jones’ “Ironside” theme, film music by Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone & Luis Bacalov, the Argentinian composer of 151 scores, every one a belter ! I will not attempt to deconstruct “Vol 1” in a couple of snappy sentences, similarly this clip is the one where he hired a band he liked & then pointed a camera at them.

Tarantino shoots some impressive bars & clubs, the Titty Twister may be off the beaten track & tend to get a little late-night messy but it’s some place. Likewise how great did Jack Rabbit Slim’s look in “Pulp Fiction. So, if you are in his idea of an izakaya then the 5-6-7-8’s will be playing there. An Oriental Ronettes playing their own instruments & an approximation of surf/rockabilly. “I’m Blue” is an Ike Turner song, recorded by the Ikettes. There’s a good story about QT’s discovery of the band but extra paragraphs are creeping into this thing…Google then.

“Kill Bill Vol 2” (2004) is the substance to its predecessor’s style. Bill (David Carradine…yay !) shows up & we learn some things about those characters who had spent “Vol 1” fighting & being flash. We knew QT could do exposition because we had seen “Jackie Brown”, anyway there are enough whistle & bells in the film. Uma is still beautiful, the buried alive scene is a 21st century classic & the soundtrack just keeps on keeping on…again. “About Her” is Malcolm Maclaren getting cute but staying correct with a mix of Bessie Smith & the Zombies to a trip-hop rhythm. Malcolm did not seem to have any significant attention span about much at all but when he applied himself to the music it could stick around.

After Grindhouse Tarantino seems to have settled a little. This 3rd stage of his film-making has seen him direct his war movie & his western. “Inglorious Basterds” & “Django Unchained” are not sprawling attempts with an eye on posterity, they are not even in 3D. They are still event movies, still get me to hand over my hard-earned to the multiplex & are significant contributions to modern cinema as art & commerce.  Next up is “Kill Bill Vol 3″…we will see. Tarantino’s use of music in his films is, I think, as considered  & as stylish as the rest of the package. We got back home from”Django earlier this year, found the soundtrack online, then discussed the movie while we listened again. Really, that only happens with people like Fellini, Hitchcock or Scorsese. The music is that good.

The Routine Grind Drives Me To Drink. Tragedy I Take Straight (Cutters Way)

There is a book, OK maybe a pamphlet, to be written about the great European directors who grew up learning everything they knew about America from watching Hollywood movies  before coming to that very place to make their own wonderful contributions to cinema with accurate scrutinies of  American society. I am not the person to write about Karel Reisz, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Wim Wenders & others. I am the guy stood just behind that person insisting that the name of Ivan Passer & his marvelous movie “Cutter’s Way” is included.

Ivan Passer worked alongside Milos Forman in the Czech New Wave cinema. When, in 1968, the Russian tanks rolled into Prague the pair rolled out to the USA. In 1975 Forman’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” became the first film to claim the 5 major Oscars for 40 years. Passer made some interesting films & for “Cutter’s Way” he had some talented, heavyweight assistance. Cinematographer Jordan Cronenworth worked on the film between “Altered States” & “Blade Runner”, an artist at the top of his game. The soundtrack is by Jack Nitzsche, a man who began the 60s working with Phil Spector, hung out with the Rolling Stones & Neil Young before writing or supervising the scores for “The Exorcist”, “Cuckoo”, “Blue Collar” & “Cruising”. The opening credits, a slow-mo street parade seeps from black and white to colour, musical saws & zithers, combines these talents to set the mood for a dark journey which can truly be called a modern film noir.

Alex Cutter (John Heard) is a Vietnam veteran who left an eye, an arm & a leg in country. He is angry & bitter, spraying venom from a scattergun mouth. He drinks & screws around while his beautiful, sad, alcoholic wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) mourns the loss of any positivity in the man she married. Their friend, Richard Bone, is an amoral rich boy, getting by on his looks & his cynicism. That would be Jeff Bridges then. This triangle becomes involved in a mystery which involves murder & the city’s movers & shakers. For Cutter this will not stand. Those bastards are maybe not responsible but they are sure to blame for something.

“Cutter’s Way” has an intricate, subtle & sometimes surreal exposition. As study of a tragic menage it is uncompromising & moving. It’s post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism & paranoia places it alongside such films as “Coming Home”, “Dog Soldiers”,”The Conversation” & “The Parallax View”. There is an ambiguity about much of the film. Bone is told “sooner or later you’re going to have to make a decision about something”. The film was released in the year Ronald Raygun became President of a country which had little patience for innocence & idealism.

John Heard gives the performance of his life in this film. His anger blazes, his manipulation repels and his energy thrills. Jeff Bridges gives perhaps the last of his turns as a young man moving between different levels of society & enjoying what is on offer with little thought for the future. Lisa Eichhorn has a more complex role than I précised & absolutely nails it. I left the cinema blown away by this film. I neither know nor care if it is a cult movie or is just forgotten. This crepuscular work is comparable with Philip K Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly” as a caustic elegy for a generation. Here is how it ends.