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Pop Playground
A Kiss After Supper: Cold Mountain

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. Appearing every other Tuesday under the Pop Playground banner, we’re pleased to plant a big sloppy Kiss After Supper on you. . .

Definitely Jaws. Unquestionably The Godfather. Arguably A Clockwork Orange. What do these films all have in common with last year’s Miramax release? Cold Mountain has inarguably joined the ranks of that rare but glorious pantheon of cinematic rarities in our world—a movie that exceeds in excellence the original on which it is based. Though Charles Frazier's novel won the National Book Award in 1997 and proceeded to spend more than 45 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List (a virtual miracle for 'literary' fiction in our TV-attuned times), the movie, though by no means extraordinary, is one of few examples of a film which surpasses its literary progenitor. Though I have no doubt that many who loved the immaculately-detailed novel, which has developed somewhat of a cult following amongst the middle-aged, will have reservations about this assertion, it nonetheless must be heralded as so.

When reading the novel several years ago, I was immediately taken in by the wealth of pastoral detail and attention given by Frazier to an era that is as bygone as it is well-etched into the collective memory of a nation; part of the book's appeal lies in its ability to take readers back to a time when the mythical elegance of tragic but edifying southern creations such as the Compsons and Snopes reigned supreme in our minds, an era that is sadly being replaced by Rusty Wallace fans and die-hard Republicanism. Unfortunately, what begins as charming, naturalistic detail turns to rather excruciating and monotonous minutiae by the time you are several hundred pages in (with several hundred more to go).

Which is perhaps why Frazier's story succeeds better on film than it does in print; whereas the narration of Cold Mountain must dedicate any number of consecutive pages to the kind of intense detail that the Catholic church might well term idolatry, the movie at points sweeps the viewer up with its stunningly-shot panoramas of the Carolina countryside, needing no more than a few seconds to impart the forcefulness and mystery of the harsh natural world against which man must battle all his life. Though director Anthony Minghella occasionally relies on overwrought CGI effects to convey something as simple as the wonder of a starry sky on Christmas Eve, such instances are easily forgivable when compared with some of the film's other wondrous shots, such as the one of its protagonist Inman (Jude Law) isolated on a Carolina beach at dawn as he begins on his southern Odyssey, the previous evening's moon still bright and full and low on the horizon as he stumbles, rather insignificantly, across the bottom of the shot. The movie is definitely one best viewed on the big screen.

One prominent aspect of the book, which Minghella gives a more vital role to in the film, is music, particularly the integral role it plays in the lives of its humble characters. The movie mixes a well-written score and contributions from such notables as Alison Krauss (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and the new man in black, Jack White, who is also of course featured in the film, in developing its vision of a war-torn Civil War-era South where worldly values (oftentimes symbolized by Nicole Kidman’s character) begin to give way to simpler pleasures, such as those offered by song, during the struggle for survival.

Opening with one of its most haunting and beautiful songs playing in the background (Krauss's "You Will Be My Ain True Love") as Union soldiers lay dynamite beneath the ground of the southern troops, the story, like any good homage to classical narrative, begins in media res. W.P. Inman has been away from his provincial hometown at the war for more than three years, and is still surrounded by the male companions who left Cold Mountain with him, their wide-eyed optimism at the prospect of war having since then been crushed by its deafening realities.

In such harsh light music serves as one of the few things that may be offered as a comfort to a dying boy, as Stobrod Thewes, played heartily by veteran character actor Brendan Gleeson, plays "Am I Born to Die?" by Tim Eriksen on his fiddle as the only worldly gift he can offer that is, at that moment, of any value. Careful viewers should take note of this scene, for it is from this point forward that Minghella deftly makes music a motif that weaves viewers in and out of the narrative. The soundtrack of Cold Mountain, taken as a whole, varies between those birds-eye-view, overlaid tracks, which are typically utilized to heighten tension and control tempo, and songs which connect us rather intimately to the lives of the movie's various characters. One of the more memorable scenes involving the cast as a whole involves the members of the Cold Mountain congregation singing “Idumea” together in the newly-constructed chapel over which Ada Monroe’s (Nicole Kidman) father presides; the song, which deals with those pesky metaphysical questions of life, death, and man’s purpose on earth, is interrupted as the town learns that war between the North and South has broken out.

And as with any good retelling of The Odyssey, Cold Mountain is filled with a proliferation of characters, both large and small, important and insignificant, and with a grand budget and bankable stars on board, Minghella seems to have had his pick of the litter in terms of supporting players. Between Gleeson, Ray Winstone (Teague), James Gammon (Esco Swanger), Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Reverend Veasey), Cold Mountain is a veritable feast of well-played supporting roles, and whereas smaller characters in the book (particularly those meant to serve as direct counterparts to mythical Greek characters) suffer from a lack of depth, cinema turns those weaknesses into strengths, allowing performers such as Hoffman to lend their own, oftentimes iconoclastic depth to their assigned roles. Hoffman doubtlessly gives one of the more memorable performances as a licentious and corrupt preacher, who, when speaking of his long-awaited bowel-movement exclaims, as he stands naked behind a bush shitting, “Oh god, oh my god! Hallelujah! The Tribes of Israel are about to flee from the banks of Egypt!”

Though music is skillfully-interwoven with the characters’ onscreen actions, as a whole it lends more a thematic blanket to the film than anything else. Most of the lyrics, either written exclusively for the film or traditional standards, speak to the themes with which the movie almost obsessively occupies itself—namely the concepts of home, exile and return—doing so in a way that varies from the doleful and old-timey (White’s rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger”) to folk-rock that sounds almost out of place in the film (White’s “Never Far Away”), and on to the sublimely spiritual (The Sacred Harp Singers’ performance of “I’m Going Home”). Though songs written by both Sting and Elvis Costello appear, Minghella relies for the most part on traditional arrangements to connect with the audience on an emotional, rather than intellectual level. As Inman gets closer and closer to home Minghella increasingly uses Gabriel Yared’s airy score and the startling cinematography offered by the Romanian countryside to move the film, far less laboriously than the book, to its ultimate and perhaps dissatisfying but inevitable conclusion.

By: Drew Miller

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Posted 04/18/2005 - 11:01:29 AM by Ed_Christof:
 Cool article. I avoided this movie, but after reading your piece, it seems worth renting. I had no idea about the musical part of the film.
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