Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

First, some ground rules. We’re not talking about songs which make reference to movies. Breakfast at Tiffany’s song from the mid-90s – there’s no place for you here. Same goes for jokes. Maybe you could argue that Jonathan Coulton’s Re: Your Brains takes place in the world of a Romero movie, but it’s not about the movie. We are looking for songs based on movies, earnestly, or ambiguously ironically at the least.

The Drive-By Truckers The Monument Valley

Strange that on an album of slice-of-life character studies, the most heartfelt song turns out to be about westerns. But then, who doesn’t love John Ford movies?

“It’s all about where you put the horizon / said the great John Ford to the young man rising.” The opening lines describe the act of moviemaking. On the one hand, nothing is more irritating then meta-art. If I have to read one more book which equates writing with physical creation, I’m going to punch a wall. And an artist’s desire to put on display his or her influences is understandable, but tedious. Yes, I’m sure you’re very well-read and that you know a lot about 1920s wax cylinder recordings or 1970s summer camp movies, but show me what you’ve got.

That said, this song pulls it off – mostly because it so accurately captures the long quiet landscapes of the best westerns. And by the final verse, the lyrics tangle John Ford the person with the famous line from The Man Who Shot LIberty Valence. “It’s where to plant the camera and when to say action / When to print the legend and when to leave the facts in.”

In the end, far truer to what makes westerns so enduring than Burt Bacharach’s song The Man Who Shot LIberty Valence. (Sample lyric: “Cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood / When it came to shooting straight and fast, he was miii-ghtyyyy good!”)

Daniel Johnston King Kong

This might be the most straightforward film-to-song adaptation. It’s a chanted summary of the film, told from the point of view of the titular monkey. Daniel Johnston’s childlike lyrics make for an interesting version of the story, full of straightforward descriptions like “He stripped his woman / he stripped her bare / but there was a pterodactyl / there.” It’s more of a description of individual things which happen in the movie, rather than a story.

The Jimmy Castor Bunch King Kong

Here’s another musical take on the same film, but where Daniel Johnston’s focuses on the obsession and fall of creature, The Jimmy Castor Bunch celebrate his power, size, and restraint, apparently. “He didn’t dance or party,” they tell us. But like Daniel Johnston’s song, a good chunk of time is devoted to straight up summary. Regarding Kong’s fight with a Tyrannosaurus, Jimmy Castor sings “He stretched the creature’s mouth until it split / Then like a child, began to play with it.”*

Bob Dylan Brownsville Girl

Even the most unappealing Dylan album has something to recommend it. Knocked Out Loaded, marred by weird 1986 production, and mostly uninteresting songs, has Brownsville Girl, Dylan’s collaboration with playwright/actor/former Holy Modal Rounder Sam Shepard. Clocking in at close to eleven minutes, it’s a winding, half-sung, half-spoken song about, um, something probably. Dylan mentions a girl, a trial, a bunch of places in Texas. Mainly, the song seems to be about this movie Dylan seen one time, ’bout a man riding ‘cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck. As Dylan ruminates his way across the song (“The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter”, he sings at one point, and at another, “Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now”) he returns to his Gregory Peck movie again and again. He thinks he sat through it twice.

*I would’ve included The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s Dracula as well, but in fairness, that’s probably based on the novel.

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Slab City
Photo of Slab City, outside Niland, CA, taken by Alex.

After a recent camping trip in Death Valley (more on that to come!), and being in my early adult years, I’ve been reflecting lately about where exactly I want to live, and how people choose their homes. Death Valley is one of the more remote and inhospitable places in the U.S. People have lived, or worked, or mined, or otherwise subsisted in Death Valley, and continue to. However, it seems as if the natural state of that stretch of land is uninhabited. It is marked by the occasional ruined mining operation, or ghost town, or abandoned buildings. It is over 200 feet below sea level, one of the hottest places on earth, and the track record of humans in Death Valley is spotty.

Of course, as a society, we no longer depend on the land we live on for subsistence – look at desert cities Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Palm Springs somehow made the desert into a resort location. However, there’s always the possibility that your chosen community, businesses, or homes will one day fail, like the attempts to populate death valley.

The Salton Sea is on the ropes. It’s in the middle of the California desert, somewhere between Palm Springs and Mexico. And it’s huge. And no one knows about it. I lived much of my life in Los Angeles, and I never knew it existed until I drove past it on my way to Salvation Mountain. I was struck by how empty it was – no boats, no jet skis, no open restaurants. Plenty of buildings, but everything was run down, and not much was open. A documentary, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, came out last year, and traced the rise and fall of the Salton Sea as a tourist destination. The sea was an engineering mistake – water was diverted there accidentally, flooding land. And still, the water intake of the sea is not regulated in any way, meaning that it has risen to envelop what used to be property. It’s difficult to watch the nearby residents try and fail to raise money to build a wall to stop the water.

The residents of Niland and other towns around the sea dream of the sea becoming vacation destination, like Palm Springs to the north. It was once, before thousands of dead fish started washing up on the shore and avian botulism spread through the birds of the area. The cause of the decline into poverty of the area can’t be pinned solely on the sea, though. Various plans have been floated to lower the salinity to a normal level, which would prevent the fish die-offs. They’ve all seem to fallen through. The problems of Niland and nearby towns are the same problems facing cities across America, at a greater magnitude. Watching these people try to put a working society together, and seeing the lack of support they get, it’s hard not to think of the aftermath of Katrina. It’s nice to see something grapple with these problems – what exactly do we need for a successful community? How much support do we owe to people who’ve fallen on hard times? How much protection do we need to offer, and what kind of protection? Protection from financial hardships? Or at least protection from rising water levels?

The movie doesn’t have many answers, of course. Still, worth watching. It looks at one of the stranger places around, but identifies familiar problems. It does play up the strangeness of the area, though. John Waters narrates the doc, for some reason. Although, I have to say, living in a remote desert does seem like a strange choice to me personally. As I try to figure out exactly what type of place I should be living in, it’s clear to me that I’m a city person. Rural life isn’t for me, but I can understand it. Desert dwelling, on the other hand, seems almost unfathomable. And while the movie shows that the desert has the same planning and community-wide problems cities have, it doesn’t exactly answer the question of why – what is that continually leads people to try to live in the most remote place they can?

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea: ★★★★☆

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