Monday, May 9, 2011

Song of Dissolution

The Beast was laid low this weekend with a massive chest/head cold and as a result sunk into the dregs of sickness on our couch while we went through our unwatched DVR list. We watched two entertaining if deeply flawed films -- Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces (2006) and Robert D. Siegel's Big Fan (2009) -- and was struck by the use of an old John Cale track in two very similar scenes.

"Big White Cloud" is encased in lush sun-kissed orchestral arrangements and choirlike vocal accompaniment that could only come out of the early 70s. (In many ways, Cale's solo debut is a lot like Lou Reed's Transformer -- both dated and timeless.) The album it comes from, Vintage Violence (1970) was Cale's solo debut and surprised many critics by sounding nothing like his early drone work with the Theater of Eternal Music or his groundbreaking amplified-viola work with the Velvet Underground.


So why does this 41-year-old song pop up two films in three years? Both Carnahan and Siegel place the song in pity-party scenes for our main characters. The former employs "BWC" in a long scene of unshaven, coke-addled ex-Vegas performer Buddy "Aces" Israel (a nice 'n' sleazy Jeremy Piven) staring at himself in the mirror as realizes his life is draining down the toilet behind him.

"Looking at bees, licking the trees...": Smokin' Aces

In Big Fan, "BWC" is featured in a short montage of the pathetic life of parking-garage employee/NY Giants fanatic Paul Aufiero (a suitably hangdog Patton Oswalt) after he is stomped almost to death by his favorite Giants player and then is practically exiled from his petty, payday-hungry family when he refuses to press charges.

"Sound of sun, missing my eyes...": Big Fan

The highlight of the song is Cale's quavering baritone, which contrasts with the syrupy Curt Boettcher-like production. It reminds The Beast of two other songs. One is Gordon Peterson's "Hard Sun" (later covered by Eddie Vedder on the Into the Wild soundtrack), which has the same kind of I'm-a-tiny-speck-in-this-giant-awesome-universe feel and lyrical POV; the other is "Tiny Tears" by the Tindersticks, in which lead singer Stuart Staples' own smoky, ominous baritone so mimics Cale's that we actually thought it was "Big White Cloud" when it played over a famous scene in The Sopranos. In the episode titled "Izabella,"a mob boss sits spaced-out in his shower as the camera tilts woozily on his lithium-induced face. Later, the song returns when his "Uncle Junior" attempts on him:

Anyway, "Big White Cloud" is now officially my "sick and feeling like shit" song. I am in great company.

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