Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I'm Sorry, Did I Break Your Concentration?

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite movie, I’m always ready with my default answer: Pulp Fiction.

The truth is that – as with any “favorite” thing – it’s changing all the time. Miller’s Crossing on Monday, The Third Man on Thursday, Duck Soup on Saturday. It depends on my mood, on the day, on the weather (given the current flooding here in Nashville, O Brother, Where Art Thou? would be a fine choice).

But Pulp Fiction is my ready, steady go-to for one reason: It’s the movie that changed my life.
The impression that Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough movie left on me is incalculable. It is THE film that made me, as an eighth-grader, curious about the inner-workings, the structure and the crafting of movies – and as a result, all of entertainment. It was so vibrant, it made me want to write about, discuss and investigate the arts.

Pulp Fiction’s vibrancy can be credited to any number of things – but for me, it always comes back to the music. It’s funny that a movie with characters which never sing – but do sing-along to Urge Overkill and the Statler Brothers – might as well be a musical.

Just like the best stage musicals, every single song on that soundtrack adds its own commentary to what is happening to the players. The lyrics might not be advancing the plot, but the tunes establish and enhance the mood. Even the instrumentals, heck, especially the instrumentals, display for you what certain characters are feeling, whether it’s Vincent Vega’s “madman” heroin high (“Bullwinkle Part II” by The Centurians) or Marsellus Wallace’s pawn shop basement low (“Comanche” by The Revels).

Speaking of “Comanche,” I don’t know that I’ve ever repeatedly enjoyed a song with such an uncomfortable connotation. Well, there is Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys” …

Back to Pulp – what film of the past 50 years has as iconic an opening title sequence? Nothing since Bernard Herman’s foreboding Psycho strains has cut as deep as Dick Dale’s “Misirlou.” All revved-up surf guitar, clackety-clack drums, blurting sax, cool-as-cucumber trumpet, drizzling piano, and cathartic hollerin’, “Misirlou” is violent, exciting, romantic, surprising and visceral. It’s the perfect two-minute representation of the Pulp Fiction hitman experience.

Pulp might not really be a musical, but it does feature a dance sequence, expertly tied to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Lighthearted, but not lightweight, “You Never Can Tell” is as much about young love as it is about loving being young, like most of Berry’s best works. It’s a song that is about a moment. It’s not the entirety of a relationship, just the beginning of marital bliss. So, it’s just right for the dance between Mrs. Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega, who have become a couple just for one night, for one dinner, for one entry into the World Famous Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist Contest. In their normal lives they are the boss’s wife and the boss’s employee, but as they do the Batman, the funky monkey and everything else, they are a couple.

You can paraphrase what Vincent says earlier in the film about foot massages and apply it to dancing: Dances all mean something. We act like they don’t, but they do, and that’s what’s so f--king cool about them. There’s a sensuous thing going on where you don’t talk about it, but you know it, she knows it.

C’est la vie, say the old folks.

One parting thought about Pulp Fiction and its music – there are very few soundtracks that cause me to relive the entire movie when I listen to them, and most of them are orchestral scores by Carter Burwell, Danny Elfman or John Williams. Even though the songs aren’t chronologically arranged on my CD, even though my original version of the soundtrack doesn’t include Link Wray’s “Rumble,” even though the album is 41 minutes and the movie is 154, the power of these scene/song combinations is strong enough to send me on that lurid, exhilarating journey all over again.

If the trip isn’t life-altering on each subsequent journey, at least it’s a surfboard-busting boogie every time.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree with you more. The soundtrack to Pulp Fiction is as much a character as Vincent or Zed. Maybe the only director who puts as much thought into his soundtracks as Tarentino is Martin Scorsese. Nicely done!

    Michael Wright