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...
Opening to a lonely and rather prosaic vista of Iraq that looks like it might very well have been shot in the famed Bonneville Salt Flats of southern Utah, David O. Russell’s 1999 movie Three Kings is the first but doubtlessly not the last major-studio film set in and concerned with America’s involvement in the first Gulf War (I refuse to actually refer to Gulf War: Part II by its well-designed appellation, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and will not be doing so for the remainder of this column). Combining a wealth of novel cinematographic techniques with a comic book-inspired depiction of the violence of a war which most Americans, thanks to similarly innovative camera efforts from the good folks at CNN and the U.S. armed forces, believe to this day to have been a virtually unarmed affair for American troops, Russell admirably achieves that which most other directors of war pics fail at doing, namely creating a believable, character-driven fiction within the constructs of a place-driven historical event. But then perhaps the production’s proximity to the war is an asset, rather than the liability many would likely view it as, since Russell’s audience, particularly in the very different pre-9/11 climate, had not yet had the opportunity to become entrenched in the official dogma surrounding the war efforts of Gulf War I.
While David O. Russell certainly doesn’t in any way seem to be the connoisseur of the pop world’s musical oeuvre that so many of his contemporaries are, Three Kings nonetheless uses its comparatively few pop choices adeptly. As anyone watching the movie will note, there would be no bloated two-disc soundtrack, no aggressive marketing campaign by Miramax pairing the release of the DVD with the film’s original soundtrack. Obviously Russell isn’t one of those directors who stays up nights, scouring virtually interminable crates of old records looking for that one perfect song to accompany or even drive that scene he’s been envisaging all those many months of preproduction, drooling over the aesthetic possibilities of pairing the Rolling Stones “She Smiled Sweetly” with an image of a brother and sister duo making out. Instead the pop songs scattered throughout Three Kings sound more like that obnoxious mix tape the kid who works afternoons at the Laundromat down the street plays relentlessly, pairing the atrociously bad works of Rick James in an non-ironic fashion with the sublimely overused radio standards that even deaf people seem to know the lyrics to, having seen them mouthed by the hearing-enabled enough times that they are recognizable on site (prime example: The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around”).
But that’s okay—the man and his work are still worthy subjects for this kiss after supper, largely because of Russell’s ability to extract performances out of his impeccably-chosen actors. Oh yeah, and the cinematography is fucking gorgeous! Also he managed to cast not one but two former rappers (I know, Cube fans out there have just taken a collective gasp of shock at the notion, but face it—Cube’s not a rapper anymore) in his starring roles and not have two years of work rather predictably turn into pure farce. All in all, a relatively impressive performance.
Wahlberg, for once, is well-chosen for his role in a film which demands a sense of the deadpan to achieve a precariously-balanced black humor. While his whining voice and monolithic facial expressions usually fail to convey anything other than the fact you’re watching an underwear model try to act, Wahlberg succeeds from the outset at portraying the blue-collar reservist Troy Barlow convincingly. The black humor which so indelibly marks the movie begins with his engagement in the Gulf War’s equivalent of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” routine, as he asks someone else in his platoon “Are we shooting? Are we shootin’ people or what?” When answered with the echo of his own question, he responds in kind “That’s what I’m asking you”, only to be answered with the off-camera voice querying “What’s the answer?” just before he shoots an Iraqi soldier attempting to surrender. Wahlberg lends this brilliant, darkly-comedic opening the straight-faced naivete it requires.
Through subjective camera work the audience is transported shortly thereafter to the U.S. Army’s camp, a scene starkly reminiscent of similar ones in countless other war movies. However, unlike Platoon and Apocalypse Now, there seems to be no undercurrent of remorse or loneliness to bring three-dimensionality to the scene—the atmosphere is plainly festive, as a soldier runs up to spray the camera’s subjective eye with bottled water while others dance in the noonday sun or lift weights. A well-toned and well-tanned man bounces on some sort of makeshift trampoline while other soldiers sun themselves sans shirts, all to the buoyant tune of Rare Earth’s “Celebration”.
Which is appropriate, as the troops are celebrating their successful liberation of Kuwait. A near-pedantic point of Russell’s emerges in this scene, as his barely-disguised directorial voice and its accompanying theory of the Gulf War being a “media war” finds an outlet in its depiction of journalist Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), who does take after take of an opening for a purportedly ‘live’ feed while soldiers exuberantly holler about their successful liberation of Kuwait. They ignore her questions and slip into a rendition of “God Bless the USA”, a song that ably represents the self-important feeling accompanying American military action in the movie. This in turn segues seamlessly into Troy Barlow and his fellow soldiers celebrating to Public Enemy’s well-juxtaposed “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man”, a song whose convoluted and somewhat insensible lyrics contrast so starkly with the directness of “God Bless the USA” that the audience has no choice but to appreciate the sheer denseness of the ‘grunt’ troops.
Like all good filmmakers, Russell uses his pop songs to give the movie’s thematic content a greater depth, relying more heavily on its score to convey those less-tangible, more emotionally-based sentiments. Carter Burwell, perhaps most famous for his collaborations with the Coen brothers on movies such as The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou? reinvents a number of classic Middle Eastern songs, infusing them with more up-tempo, disco-inspired beats to create a score that surprisingly doesn’t overreach in its attempts to Anglicize music for the sake of its audience. When the film’s characters repeatedly find their actions colored by Burwell’s tracks (original or, in typical Burwell fashion, ‘unearthed,’) the languorous quality of the Middle Eastern music contrasts effectively with the commercialized American pop.
Doubtlessly Three Kings seems most impressive when one realizes that, despite any other criticisms, Russell nonetheless succeeded in directing a movie that is at once visually-stunning but also well written. The slew of quick, almost jarring camera zooms silently convey the tension of armed combat. Oft-used upshots give viewers a sense of the largeness of the land (and the accompanying void its protagonists find themselves in). And, yet, ultimately the movie’s writing may stand alone, safely herded away from its inventive visual makeup. Portraying the uneducated hillbilly Conrad Vig almost frighteningly well, one senses that the Spike Jonze-spoken line “Man, I didn’t join the army to pull paper outta people’s asses. No sir, not what I signed up for”, would be just as effective in the hands of a director not responsible for writing his material. And the movie is chalk-full of similarly hearty one-liners and brief exchanges, such as Ice Cube’s protest “I don’t wanna hear dune coon or sandnigger from him or anybody else”, a point that ultimately finds Wahlberg’s character explaining to Jonze “Look, the point is Conrad that towel head and camel jockey are perfectly good substitutes”. Amen.
By: Drew Miller
Published on: 2004-12-14