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August 01, 2012


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I'm not sure how you'll take this, or even how I mean it, but over the years I've noticed that the appearance of a Tom Waits song in a film is almost never a positive thing in your eyes.

Glenn Kenny

It's nothing against Waits, Bill. I don't have a lot of his stuff in my record collection, but anyone who's cut checks for Marc Ribot, Robert Quine, and Ralph Carney et. al. can't be all bad. But as Mark E. Smith said, "Check the record..." Even more than Leonard Cohen, the presence of a Waits song on a movie soundtrack invariably comes off as self-congratulatory on the director's part AND a cheap and obvious wannabe signifier of a certain gruff emotionality. Try harder, people, is what I'm saying. Would it kill you to put a few residual dollars in the coffers of, say, the John Martyn estate? Even Nick Drake is minimally exploited by comparison...


I suppose that's true. Outside of Jarmusch films, Waits's weirder, meaner stuff doesn't get used that often, except in background or barely-there appearances, like "Earth Died Screaming" in 12 MONKEYS.

And honestly, my tone wasn't meant to be "Hey now, WAIT a minute!" It's just something I've noticed.


It also occurs to me, since you bring up Cohen, that you must have been a real big fan of BASQUIAT. "Hallelujah" *and* Waits's "Tom Traubert's Blues!"

Matt D.

"An Invitation to the Blues" was used to good effect in BAD TIMING.

Glenn Kenny

Actually at the time I didn't really mind, as the use of their songs hadn't yet become so codified/cliched. Of course Schnabel became a major offender down the road, e.g. the finale of "Miral." Have you ever heard the record Schnabel made, with Bill Laswell producing? It's like he wants to be Cohen backed up by a Waits band. Yikes.


the ONE FROM THE HEART stuff is pretty great, and excellently used.

Glenn Kenny

This is gonna make me look like a complete dribbling wuss, as well it should, but the "Bad Timing" song/scene that utterly and absolutely destroys--DESTROYS--me is that "Dreaming My Dreams" mess. God it's upsetting me just to think of it.


Bill's line about tom Waits reminded me of how I used to think certain films would just use "Slaughterhouse Five" as shorthand for "Hey, this guy's a rebel!" or "Hey, he's smarter than you think!" As far as Waits and Cohen go, I guess I've met too many people who are like "Huh?" when I bring them up that I don't mind movies using their music so more people will check them out(though I draw the line at "Hallelujah"). Or maybe I'm just overly fond of Alan Rudolph's LOVE AT LARGE, where Cohen's "Ain't No Cure for Love" bookends the movie.

Tom Block

Olivier Marchal's "MR 73" is about an alcoholic cop who gets mixed up with a serial killer blah blah blah, but it's got a great opening shot: a definitively bleaked-out Daniel Auteuil slumped on a bus seat while the strings at the beginning of Cohen's "Avalanche" crawl up your spine. It was good enough to give me a real chill, and for about 15 seconds there I was sure the movie was going to be *the* great embittered cop movie. Sadly, nah. That turned out to be the best thing in it...


I haven't seen BAD TIMING in nearly 30 years; that film may have been the first time I'd ever heard a Waits song.

I think the last time I saw it, it was a print that was missing the two main sex scenes, including the climactic one. If you thought the movie was a little hard to follow already...

By the way, was there finally a law forbidding the use of Cohen's "Hallelujah" in a film, because that one finally seemed to go away after nearly nonstop movie overuse a few years back.

Matt D.

I hope the placement of "Hallelujah" during a softcore sex scene in WATCHMEN finally put an end to it!


FIRST NAME: CARMEN uses "Ruby's Arms" to great effect, too. And that's Godard, Glenn! In case you didn't know that already.

Glenn Kenny



I know, I know. I just wanted to say that a Tom Waits song was used in a Godard film, to sound all smart.


in this realm the kind of thing that really bugs me is, for example, in RUNAWAY BRIDE, when after they make such a big deal about how much Richard Gere loves Miles Davis, the record that gets played to evoke his emotional depth is the 1954 Blue Note recording of "It Never Entered My Mind"-- instead of the unbelievably greater 1956 Prestige recording with the Coltrane/Garland/Chambers/Philly Joe Jones quintet!


"Hallelujah" is still alive and well on all the singing competition shows, where it is butchered on a regular basis.


I wish Glenn would stop knocking Altman for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It's a fine film.

Joel Bocko

I see where lipranzer is coming from; the 'Huh' response is common enough that I think complaining about use of Waits/Cohen music in movies may be looking a gift horse in the mouth. (Obviously this guy was more of a dick about it, but this reminds me of a kid I saw recently with a Joy Division t-shirt; I told him I liked them too and asked what his favorite alalbum was and he sneered, 'God, I HATE those stupid questions!' All I could think in response was a) what an asshole!, b) what a rarefied little niche - universes apart from the world I inhabit - this dude must live in that his response to a friendly inquiry can afford to be hipster disdain vs 'oh cool, someone else who likes Joy Division', c) its not a very tough question in the first place, wouldn't a simple 'Closer' or 'Unknown Pleasures' have sufficed? Maybe a Warsaw LP or live recording if he wanted to prove his bona fides? And d) maybe he's a poseur who thought the shirt was cool and got caught in his own bluff ;).

Anyway, back to the soundtrack thing the flip side of the evangelical bonus is the valid aesthetic critique Glenn aludes to. In this case it's less about over saturation of a certain song or singer than lazy, easy use of them - though the two often go together. The example I always use is 'Be My Baby' in Mean Streets and Dirty Dancing. The first uses the track in an unexpected context, evoking a certain era and mindset, one full of contradictions and rich ambiguities. It surprises us (gritty steeet scenes and girl groups? 1973 and 1963?) yet it also makes sense (Scorsese and the Ronettes arose out of the same urban milieu and there's a similar passion to both) and is part of an overall texture: the 8mm film stock, the small fame within a frame, the associations raised by the home movies we see, and especially the kinetic thrill of the cutting which isn't locked mechanically into a rhythmic pattern with the music but rather flows along in the same stream, at times butting up against it, at others moving in tandem. It's a fully conceived and beautifully executed sequence. Whereas the associations DD goes for are rather easy and less satisfying on a deep level: oh, it's the early 60s, oh it's romantic, oh the main character's name is Baby (more soft, abstract connections than sharp and visceral). Meanwhile we see dancing forms that don't seem to be in any real relation to the music, it's a classic case of 'just play the music under the scene' which sadly even Scorsese himself has started to fall into at times lately.

Which is a long way of saying it ain't about what song you use, or how many times it's been used (codified/cliched) before, it's about how you use it THIS time. I'm guessing in 360 it wasn't very inspired.


"this reminds me of a kid I saw recently with a Joy Division t-shirt; I told him I liked them too and asked what his favorite alalbum was and he..."

You missed option e)

He gave the only possible appropriate response for any kid wearing a Joy Division T-shirt to give to that question.

Joel Bocko

Possibly, though I'd like to be more charitable (either about such t-shirts, or about myself as the case may be...)


"though I'd like to be more charitable (either about such t-shirts, or about myself as the case may be...)"

While I wasn't trying to be uncharitable, unlike Glenn, in that comment I was not: Trying to be responsible. The T-shirt is signifying a way down down down in this subbacultcha thing. If the kid had been wearing a Belle and Sebastian T-shirt, I'm sure you'd have gotten a polite answer.

But don't give up writing.


So I figured the whole discussion was orbiting around 'kitsch', but I wasn't sure why, and I was trying to figure out the formulation for how Waits and Cohen are not kitsch, but their use in film soundtracks has long since turned into kitsch. So I turned to the Jimmy Wales thing, and found this in the kitsch article, with an unrelated bit ellipsed-out:

Furthermore, although original in their first expression, the subjects and images presented ... were disseminated to the public in the form of prints and postcards, which often actively was encouraged by the artists. These images were copied endlessly in kitschified form until they became well-known clich├ęs.

(And your fun trivia of the day is that Atom Egoyan could only afford the Leonard Cohen song for Exotica cuz Cohen gave him a fellow-Canadian discount.)

Joel Bocko

Eh I don't know - I'd venture Joy Division is more well-known than Belle & Sebastian though that may be wishful thinking given my own taste. The kitsch argument is interesting and something I'd like to see a (hopefully) post-postmodern culture get past; after the initial novelty and eventual over familiarity of certain works in the age of mechanical reproduction (not to mention virtual ubiquity) I'd like to think we can move on to a renewed appreciation despite pop culture's tendency to reduce everything fresh to the level of one-dimensional signifier. Again though, perhaps that's wishful thinking on my part. A good doc on the subject is Ways of Seeing which is, rather fittingly, available in its entirety on You Tube. As for writing, rest assured I will continue unabated, although given the time it takes and the irritation of constantly fixing (or worse, missing) typos, I may consider no longer doing so from an iPhone keypad...


Godard also used Cohen's Take This Waltz in Puissances de la parole (along with Dylan's When He Returns). Man, the 80s was some kind of golden age for Godard using pop music on his soundtracks. Then he had to go and use a snippet of Ben Harper in For Ever Mozart . . .


One review, twenty-five comments, and no mention of Ophuls's version of the play... somebody please assure me that I didn't dream that wonderful film...

Chris O.

The Waylon Jennings song? I've seen "Bad Timing," but I'd forgotten that was in there. What a great song.

Schnabel's use of Waits during the end credits of "The Diving Bell & Butterfly" didn't bother me. Was there one in "Before Night Falls?" Still haven't seen "Miral." I remember a friend of mine not liking the use of "Soldier's Things" in "Jarhead."


"One from the Heart" is, at best, an interesting mess, but I have to say that the Tom Waits songs are probably the best thing in it.

Godard of courses uses "Ruby's Arms" in a tricky way; each time the players enter a new room, there's a backwards "skip" in the track of a few seconds. Also it's accompanied by one of the most uncannily beautiful images Godard has conceived (and that's saying, you know, a lot): Joseph's hand caressing a television set filled with blue broadcast static. But when has Godard ever _not_ used music brilliantly?

I adore Cohen, but his music is seldom if ever put to good use in movies. The new Sarah Polley film is a bundle of the most execrable and self-righteous tendencies of lifestyle cinema, and the bombastic-bodering-on-meaningless use of Cohen (not least in the title) is exhibit A. I wish I could join the chorus applauding Michelle Williams for taking "risky" roles, but the movies she's in are more often than not just indie claptrap.

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