Sunday, March 20, 2011

Music of the heart: Sampling Gregg Araki's film playlist

Time magazine recently named the 25 Best Movie Sound Tracks. Lots of musicals made the list, like Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story and The Sound of Music. The list also includes several movies by directors who are famous for giving us that perfect song at the perfect cinematic moment, like John Hughes, Quentin Tarantino, Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson. Missing from that bunch (and the magazine’s list) is indie filmmaker Gregg Araki, who, in my humble opinion, has given us some of the best soundtracks ever. His omission (plus the recent release of his new film, Kaboom, which I reviewed in a previous post) is as good a reason as any to listen to some of the tracks he’s chosen over the years.

Araki has said his film ideas are primarily inspired by music, and indeed his soundtracks always seem like an integral part of the finished product. The music – dreamy, atmospheric songs by late '80s/early ‘90s shoegazer bands like the Cocteau Twins and Slowdive – often contrasts with the imagery, which can be extremely violent and disruptive. That contrast gives the films their heartbreaking quality. To quote the filmmaker: "My films [share] this longing for tenderness and affection. That's what makes [Mysterious Skin] so heartbreaking, because it's set in a world that's incredibly chaotic and hostile."*

Totally F***ed Up (1993)

Part I of the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, Totally F***ed Up goes out on a semi-hopeful note with A Thousand Stars Burst Open by Pale Saints. It’s interesting how the climax of this movie seems dated if you watch it today. Today’s teens have numerous ways of contacting their friends; they probably wouldn’t have to resort to drinking Drano if they got a bunch of busy signals while they were having a crisis.

The Doom Generation (1995)

One of the most cherished tracks by Slowdive, Alison plays in the background as troubled teen Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) attempts to deflower her boyfriend, Jordan White (James Duval) in the front seat of her car. This scene includes the immortal lines: “I’m afraid of catching AIDS.” “But we’re both virgins!”

Like Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation has a very bleak climax. Here, Araki approaches the material with ironic detachment. Nihilistic drifter Xavier Red (Johnathan Schaech) offers Amy Blue a Dorito, we catch a glimpse of a smiley face etched on top of her car, and Blue Skied An’ Clear brings the road picture to its devastatingly pointless conclusion.

Nowhere (1997)

Scored to Avalyn 2, the sex fantasy that opens Nowhere exudes the kind of open-hearted yearning for affection often found in Araki’s work – a quality that would find its fullest expression in Mysterious Skin.

Dark Smith (Duval) is 100% monogamous, while his girlfriend, Mel (Rachel True), believes human beings were built for sex and should dole out as much as possible. His post-coital marriage proposal is made all the more sweetly naïve by Trying to Reach You, an achingly beautiful track by Mojave 3.

Splendor (1999)

Araki’s lightest outing by far, Splendor is like an extended episode of Blind Date, complete with confessional cam. Mesmerise by Chapterhouse sums up the feelings of mutual affection between Veronica (Kathleen Robertson) and Abel (Schaech), as she tries to explain how much she likes him… and how much she likes this other guy she just met, too.

Bizarre Love Triangle could have been an alternate title for this film, which romanticizes three-way relationships in a way that's not all that dissimilar from Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Some of my favorite moments in Mysterious Skin feature original music by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd. This track, Snowfall, plays when Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) listen to the voice of God at the drive-in movie theater.

Neil has just moved to New York and started turning tricks. As Wendy tells him to be safe, we hear Dagger on the soundtrack, a song that speaks to the deep bond between this boy and this girl, his “one true partner in crime.”

Araki knew long before post-production that he wanted to use Samskeyti by Sigur Ros for the finale, when Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) uncovers the awful truth of his childhood trauma. It was a real struggle to retain the rights for this song, because at the time the dreamy post-rock band was resistant to the idea of having their music played in movies. (Not so much now.) Thank God those brilliant Icelanders relented. On the DVD commentary track, Gordon-Levitt says the song “sounds like what’s going on inside of you when you’re eight years old.” The director adds: “There’s something about this song that’s so childlike and so innocent. It’s almost like a little kid’s piano.” I love how Araki grants the characters the grace denied to them by the story. Neil wishes with all his heart that he and Brian could escape, “rise like two angels in the night and magically disappear,” and the filmmaker grants that wish with an unforgettable fade to black.

*From an interview conducted by Damon Young and Gilbert Caluya

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