In the first hour or so of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1970 Beware of a Holy Whore (original German title: see poster) the characters, youngish (mostly) film crew members, loll about in the lobby of a Spanish resort hotel, drinking heavily and playing the jukebox, and most of what they play is Leonard Cohen. As I write in a new post at the Criterion Collection's Current blog, these "drunken, despairing, love-starved children of the counterculture aren’t just consumers of Cohen’s music; they could be characters in his songs." The timelessness of Whore (at least as I intuit it) can slightly obscure the fact that the Cohen tunes, all from his first album, late 1967's Songs of Leonard Cohen, were contemporary at the time. (It would be a year after Fassbinder's film that Robert Altman would apply them, anachronistically, to McCabe and Mrs. Miller.) What Cohen and his cult following have become, and come to mean, in the intervening years, puts a different light on the songs. But one doesn't need to have been around at the time Fassbinder's film was made to see his characters in a particular relation to Cohen's music. While Canadian, Cohen was perceived as an American artist, one of Dylanesque pedigree; his embrace by this group of Europeans is not just a plausible signifier of a pop-culture mode of exchange at that time, but a signal of the alienation that the characters both genuinely feel but also like to wear as a kind of armor. Not an ironic one, either; these aren't hipsters, if you will.
The use of music in Fassbinder is always staggeringly spot-on and sometimes practically prescient. It satisfies diegetic plausibility and increases perspective. It's different from the towers of song that Wes Anderson builds for his characters in pictures such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It's more immediate, as befits Whore's idea of taking what had been the stuff of Fassbinder's life over the past nine films and throwing it on screen. Looking at Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas recently, and doing a bit of research on it, I thought a little bit about the likelihood of urban gangsters sharing Martin Scorsese's taste in '60s and '70s rock, and agreed with what Scorsese had pointed out in, I think, more than one interview, that stuff like Donovan's "Atlantis" and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" was coming out of jukeboxes and radios in the period depicted in the film. Still, there's something about the freedom of Fassbinder's use of music, freedom taken advantage of before the pop-song soundtrack became another commodity in a movie's marketing plan, that's exhilarating. In the Criterion blog post, I examine one particular song and its use in an extraordinary Fassbinder work in some detail. Check it out here.