Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, January 16, 2006

What Is Spanish Key Doing In This Movie?

I’ve been getting caught up on my 2004 movies. A bit of time warp, but it’s like the after-Christmas sale. If you wait until the movies go from the movie theatre to the video store and in there from new releases to the regular stock, they charge you less and let you keep them longer. So you can actually get around to watching the movie. It’s the same principle as waiting to buy music until you find the CD used. Cheaper, but definitely takes you out of currency.

One of my 2004 movies was Collateral. It’s a Michael Mann flick about a contract killer (Tom Cruise) and the cab driver (Jamie Foxx) he hijacks to carry him around town for a series of hits. It’s set in LA, and Mann gets some of Southern California’s visual qualities dead on, like the in-between spaces, under freeways or the more or less empty spaces along roads in industrial areas or warehouse districts. When he isn’t busy executing someone, the hitman rattles on like Dr. Phil, helping the driver be more self-assertive and face up to his relationship with his mother. I would say the film is a crypto-comedy, but I don’t think I can convince myself of that.

One scene has been bugging me since I saw it. One of the hits takes places in a swanky night club, with a jazz band on the stand. The band is a conventional combo, tenor, trumpet, and rhythm section. At least that’s what you see. When the band starts playing, what comes out is Miles Davis from Bitches Brew, the track Spanish Key. The music doesn’t go with that band, not the instruments visible, not the physical exertions of the musicians. Where are the electric pianos? Where is Bennie Maupin playing bass clarinet? And anyway, its a landmark performance from a landmark album. You know where it comes from. After the band gets done, the hitman, the cabdriver, and the trumpet player, who also owns the club, sit down for a conversation mostly taken up with the trumpet player telling a story about the time he sat in with Miles. You hear Miles in a kind of ventriloquism and then immediately the characters start talking about him, like they knew what the guys were playing on the soundtrack even though they were obviously making different kinds of noises themselves if they were making sound at all. Then Tom Cruise kills the guy, scene ends.

My initial reaction was this was just messy, like poorly synchronized overdubs. The guy doesn’t acknowledge that anyone who listens to jazz much would know that this band isn’t playing that music. But something related happens elsewhere in the film. Early on, Jamie Foxx is giving Jada Pinkett Smith a ride and when he fiddles with the volume on the radio she comments that he likes the classics too (the two characters of course share a deep connection). The sound track sounds like James Newton Howard’s score, not classics either of the symphonic or popular types, but the dialogue makes it clear they are talking about classical music even though that’s not what you hear.

So this starts to look like alienation internalized into the features of the film that acknowledges illusion on several possible levels by creating a discontinuity between the sound and the visuals. It reminds you of the illusion of natural experience in the intangible light and sound environment of the film. The illusion of continuity and coherence in the field of sensory experience. And the artificiality in the soundtrack tells you that you are looking at a story.

Like the some of the hitman’s bit with the driver, which are either comedic or ridiculous, I can’t decide whether I think Mann is trying to create a complicated phenomenological situation within the film (like Terrence Malick). Mann does seem to be someone who would have those aspirations, but that means I’d have to watch this film a bunch more to get the point and get beyond just having the suspicion there might be one.

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