n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey is a movie about how people fail other people. We like Terence Stamp’s thief/avenger/protagonist, Wilson, we even respect him; but ultimately what happens, what draws him across the ocean from England, is in some way his own fault. Oh, there’s nothing so crude as a single action he takes that lead to his daughter Jenny’s death, but in the closing moments of the film we find out that his entire life, the patterns of existence imposed on him that he imposed on his daughter, caused (in however trivial a fashion) what happens. It is thus an inalterably sad film, even if a large part of this sadness is contained within flashbacks and Stamp’s eyes.
But let’s go back to the beginning: A black screen, Wilson grinding out “Tell me. Tell me about Jenny”, and then the screen and speakers burst to life at once, “The Seeker” by the Who guiding us into the movie. As with the few other proper songs on the soundtrack it seems a bit obvious at first, striving a bit too hard to establish Wilson’s toughness and coolness (which Stamp amply provides without any exterior help). But note two things about the portion of “The Seeker” that gets played: The lines “People tend to hate me ��cause I never smile / As I ransack their homes they want to shake my hand”, and where it cuts out. The lines are a far more accurate reflection of Wilson, and his flaws, than “I won’t get what I’m after ��til the day I die” (even if the end of the movie proves the truth of that line). He seems genuinely baffled by the way Eddie and Elaine, both friends of his daughter, wind up reaching out to him. At first he just uses them as efficiently as possible, but by the time he is reminiscing about Jenny with Elaine you can see him defrost.
Also, right after the “I’m a seeker, I’m a very desperate man” line, the song cuts out dead. As a result the line stands out more than it might otherwise. Wilson is broken by gaps, the gap between his intentions for his family and what’s happened, between his world and L.A., between codes of conduct he is used to and the sheer banality of Peter Fonda’s Terry Valentine. Wilson does eventually succeed in getting where he wants to, but he’s as outmoded in this environment as a gunfighter would be in Vietnam, or a samurai at Hiroshima. He has failed his daughter, and himself, many times over, and he won’t realize it for quite a while.
Of course, that’s not the surface impression he gives, far from it. At one point Lesley Ann Warren’s Elaine asks him probably the key question of the move: “What makes you so certain?” Wilson moves through the movie with what seems like a stony implacability, punctuated with bursts of rage. We get a glimpse of what is probably the old Wilson when he quickly and glibly fires off a speech at the DEA agent detaining him, but mostly he is all fire and silence.
But note the backing music; often it relies on a queasily seesawing effect, pitching and yawing even as the camera stays steady. It happens either when Soderbergh plans to upset what seems like the natural order of events or whenever Wilson is venturing into unknown territory (sneaking into the garage near the beginning of the movie). It deliberately undercuts his calmness to hint at what may be happening within.
The most striking example of when Soderbergh employs this sound are the two appearances of the thug Tracy and his accomplice. In each case, it’s set up so that the audience expects a confrontation between Wilson and Tracy, who after all has been sent to kill the former. But each time something else–the DEA agents, Valentine’s henchman Avery–intervenes.
And then of course there’s Terry Valentine. As his new girl, the replacement for Jenny, notes, he’s not a person because he’s “not specific enough to be a person”. There is an absolutely brilliant visual and sonic representation of this when we are introduced to him; the old Hollies chestnut “King Midas In Reverse” plays, and we see a series of shots, stolen from elsewhere in the film, that play like a trailer for the man. It seems cheesy at first, but when the movie’s done you realize those images are all he is. He’s what Wilson thinks is the cause of the pain in his life, and he’s not even a cipher; he’s a blank. What plays when he goes on a drive with the new girl? “Magic Carpet Ride”. It doesn’t get any more generic for movie driving scenes.
The other key use of music in the film is that it heightens the sleaze of the setting. Wilson, just by being Cockney and unyielding and seemingly righteous, throws the landscape into sharp, unflattering relief. All of the American goons he goes up against and kills, is mentally and physically flabby, and they all seem low rent compared to Wilson. Avery is arguably the more dangerous man in L.A., with his contacts, but it’s impossible to respect him, while a 60-something Englishman with a single gun is not to be crossed. When Avery visits a dive bar to recruit Tracy, the Doobie Brothers’ version of “China Grove” plays; at the party at Valentine’s, a selection of anonymous vaguely electronic “happening” coffee table music gets trotted out. Wilson, despite his faults, makes L.A. look shabby by comparison.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-10-05