Monday, September 7, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen....A List!!!

I love lists. I love making them, reading them, analyzing them, disagreeing with them, not following them. And any time movies are listed and ranked (Top 10 Scariest Scenes, Top Ten Best Endings etc.) it gets the juices going like Pavlov's Bell. So what better way to begin this hefty slice of self-indulgence than with a list of my own? And I have decided on....

Five Examples of Songs Being Ruined By Movies!!!

We've all been there. You hear a familiar song, once innocent and beloved in your eyes, and you wonder why you suddenly have this feeling of darkness and despair in the pit of your stomach? Why the horrific images filling your mind? Why the grin of shameless, perverse amusement wreaking havoc with your mouth? Probably because you've heard this song used to awful effect (or awfully brilliant effect) in a movie. And now it will be forever tied to that movie for better or for worse. There are scads and scads of examples of this phenomenon. These are five (six really) of my favorite examples.

Proceed With Caution. Here be Spoilers.

1. Song: Singin' in the Rain, Movie That Ruined It: A Clockwork Orange
There are few movie images more iconic or delightful than the one and only Gene Kelly dancing around a rain-soaked soundstage singing (and dancing) about how happy he is to be in love. And there are few movie images more disturbing than Malcolm McDowell gleefully singing the same song as he trashes the home of an unsuspecting married couple and proceeds to beat them both and then rape the woman in front of her husband. I remember seeing part of this scene (in AFI's 1oo Greatest Movies Special) when I was thirteen and being so disturbed that I nearly started to cry. And the song is part of what makes it so disturbing. You get the idea that something as joyful as Singin' in the Rain (song and movie) shouldn't be anywhere near a rape scene, and in a way, you hate Alex (the ultraviolent anti-hero played to perfection by McDowell) not only for what he's doing but also for dragging Singin' in the Rain into the act. Especially since, when you're forced to listen to it in that context, you have to admit the lyrics are an ironically perfect fit. Interestingly, director Stanley Kubrick didn't plan on using the song in the scene. He left the song choice up to McDowell and McDowell picked it because it was the only song he knew all the words to. For an added punch, the Gene Kelly version is played over the end credits. I do recommend seeing A Clockwork Orange (and reading the book which is one of my favorites) but with the warning that your untainted fondness for Singin' in the Rain might not make it out alive.

2. Song: Au Clair de la Lune, Movie(s): Quills, The Bad Seed
This is the only song on the list that has the (dubious?) distinction of having been ruined by not one, but TWO movies. Au Clair de la Lune (which in English means By the Light of the Moon) is a charming French folksong, almost like a lullaby, and one of the first songs I learned to play on the piano. Yes, it's that dainty and darling. However, it's been corrupted by pornographers and murderers alike. Quills, which came out in 2000 and held me in thrall during a frenzied, fevered viewing one night when I was 15, tells the story of the Marquis de Sade, the man who gave his name to sadism. The movie casts de Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) as an unlikely champion of free speech and creative expression as he desperately struggles to write his pornographic masterworks in an asylum in post-Revolutionary France with ever-increasing restrictions. His murmered humming of Au Clair de la Lune, a song about the longing to write and the subsequent moonlit search for a quill, becomes a kind of mantra. Its presence amidst the grisly goings-on of the asylum makes for a memorable contrast. However, I can never hear the song now without getting the itch to write, so this is one ruination that did me a lot of good.

However, long ago in the faraway land of 1956, another movie came out that took great advantage of this delicate folksong. The Bad Seed is largely remembered now as a camp classic and one of the first "evil child" movies. I watched it ad nauseum one summer when I was about twelve. In it, an army wife discovers her (creepily) angelic eight-year-old daughter Rhoda is actually a cold-blooded killer with a few bodies already under her belt. And wouldn't you know, the kid is learning to play the piano. She plays Au Clair de la Lune constantly throughout the movie and it's woven into the score. Most memorably, in one scene she plays it over and over to drown out the screams of one of her victims as he dies in a fire she set. The movie did a number on 1950's suburbia (my grandmother was pregnant with my aunt when it came out and she became paranoid that her baby would turn out like little Rhoda) but now it's more funny than scary. However, it does have its unsettling moments. And this scene, with Au Clair de la Lune and off-stage screaming mingled together, is one of them.

3. Song: Little Child (Mommy Dear) Movie: The Naked Kiss
This is a sick movie. The kind that leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth for hours after you watch it. It didn't just disturb me, it upset me. I found it on TCM one afternoon and watched it, desperately trying to avoid a certain reading assignment. The movie is about a prostitute-turned-children's hospital nurse who discovers her seemingly perfect boyfriend is a pedophile. And when I say she discovers, I mean she literally walks in on him in the process of raping a little girl. And this happens in scene. Because this movie came out in 1964, it's shot in a bizarre way so that we don't actually see anything inappropriate but it gets the message across complete with a very creepy shot of the little girl skipping merrily out the door. Anyway, this song is what's playing in the background during this scene. It's a very pretty song--a kind of dialogue between a mother and child about why the world is the way it is (why is the sky blue? is the earth really round? etc.)-- but it has a mysteriously creepy edge and is probably the perfect choice to represent something innocent being utterly violated. What makes the scene and song choice especially disgusting is that earlier in the film, the heroine's young patients sing the song as a kind of performance piece for the boyfriend who is one of the hospital's benefactors. And he records it. And this recording is playing in the background during THAT scene. So basically he's incorporating all these children in the act as he violates another. To add to the joy, this song has the staying power of It's a Small World After All covered in super glue. It. Will. Not. Leave. You will be singing it forever. And remembering THAT scene. Luckily, I eventually found an antidote in the form of a version recorded by Tony Danza and his daughter. Obviously, the strangeness knows no bounds.

4. Song: Hallelujah, Movie: Watchmen
Ugh. Just...ugh. I liked Watchmen. I really did. I loved the soundtrack and for the most part, I loved how the songs were incorporated into the movie (Unforgettable in the opening scene is, in my opinion, one of the best marriages between a song and a scene in a movie, to say nothing of the brilliant opening credits montage set to The Times They Are A-Changin'). But they plummeted down south when they chose Hallelujah for the long-awaited sex scene between Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II. First of all, the sex scene itself was just embarrassing. I have no problem with seeing Patrick Wilson in the throes (and a good thing too since it's getting to be a trend in his movies) but it went on for fucking ever. And it wasn't just long. It was in SLOW MOTION. I don't like slow motion. It works in comedies but it makes dramatic moments unintentionally funny (Dead Poets Society, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). I understand that we were supposed to be savoring the moment (yeesh) but slow does not equal savory. In this case, it equals me squirming uncomfortably in my seat as the sophomoric teenage boys behind me start to mumble incoherantly realizing they've exhausted their supply of dirty remarks. And to top it off....Hallelujah. Why? WHY? Hallelujah: ultimate ode to the brokenhearted, to decimated relationships, to lovers torn asunder. It doesn't exactly scream "Hey, after 20 years we're FINALLY sealing the deal!" It doesn't scream "We like wearing costumes in the sack and we're damn proud of it!" No, that song would be Billie Holiday's You're My Thrill, the song that underscores this scene in the book. But no, Billie got to serenade Dr. Manhattan and Laurie's passionless attempt. And the cos-play extraordinaires, lovers at last, on the brink of a hopefully happy relationship, got Hallelujah. Ugh.

5. Song: Ode to Joy, Movie: A Clockwork Orange
Indeed, my pickles, we have come full circle, for A Clockwork Orange has once again reared its ugly head. You might think it's cheating or overkill to include two songs from the same movie, but I couldn't resist. I'm hardly the first person to discuss the ironic indignity of Singin' in the Rain in this movie. Everybody yaps about; it's kind of hard not to. But hardly anybody talks about what the movie did to one of the best pieces of music ever written. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony figures prominently in Clockwork; it's one of the few things, if not the only thing, Alex DeLarge (McDowell) genuinely loves. And he loves it with a passion. So much so that when the government uses it as the score for some of the horrific films they force him to watch as part of their "behavioral adjustment" experiment, he can't stand it. "It's a sin!" he cries out over and over at the sight of Nazis and concentration camps sullying his beloved Beethoven. When the experiments succeed and Alex finds he must suppress all violent and violently sexual urges or else be overcome with sickness, he discovers he must also avoid all contact with his favorite piece of music. He doesn't only lose his free will; he loses the Ninth.
I also love the Ninth, particularly the famous Ode to Joy. It's one of my favorite pieces of music too. I've always thought it can make a person feel capable of greatness. However, there are still some sections of it I can't listen to without seeing Nazis and concentration camps, proving that the experiments in Clockwork can work even on members of the audience. How can one not covers one's ears and shout "it's a sin!" over and over at top volume? The Ninth has been used in other films, often brilliantly (I'm looking at you, Die Hard), but certain sections remain inexorably tied to the horrors of A Clockwork Orange. And so one gets the added terror of relating to a character like Alex DeLarge. But then some would say that is the point of the movie.

And that, my dears, is all there is. Until we meet again.