It’s often said that you only get one chance to make a first impression. It’s certainly true for films. In many movie reviews, the opening sequence is treated with a certain kind of reverence – it sets the tone for the remainder of your experience. It can succeed spectacularly, as in Boogie Nights, treating us to a sprawling masterpiece that introduces the characters and setting and kickstarts the plot all at once. It can hypnotize us, like in Apocalypse Now, where we see a vibrant green jungle lazily explode into fire. Or it can be a disaster, such as in Fox’s newly debuted Sarah Connor Chronicles, where guns appear out of thin air, the dream-sequence conceit is painfully obvious, and disinterested conversations fill a roomful of viewers after fewer than fifteen seconds have gone by. When presenting a product, a filmmaker needs to deliver a good first impression. Failure to do risks losing the respect of your audience before your story has even begun. But what about last impressions? If you make a sufficiently bad one, it may be the last impression you ever get to make.
In films, the song that is chosen to cover the final credits is often one of the most overlooked aspects of the soundtrack. For movies that succeed, it allows the viewer the chance to relax in their seats, pat their bellies in contentment, and gnaw on the bones of the feast they’ve just enjoyed. For movies that fail, it offers one last shot at redemption.
The Film: Natural Born Killers
The Song: “The Future”
The Artist: Leonard Cohen
In my last column, I mentioned Natural Born Killers in an unfavorable light. It was no accident. I couldn’t stand this movie. Despite several very isolated pockets of accomplishment (such as the brief interlude in the prison bathroom, featuring Nine Inch Nails’ “A Warm Place”), I found the film to be absurdly chaotic and pretentious. “But that’s the point!” you say. “It’s satire. Robert Downey Jr. explains exactly what’s being done to you!” Well, sure, but just because it’s being done on purpose doesn’t mean that it’s any good.
It’s my understanding that Quentin Tarentino felt much the same way. He was so dissatisfied by the rewritten version of his script that he publicly declined to accept credit as a writer. The film enjoyed a predictable controversy when it was released, due to the graphic violence throughout the film, but ultimately didn’t make all that big of a splash. Its tepid reception from critics and solid R rating contributed to a modest performance at the box office and a very mild cult following when it came to home video.
Despite my disdain for the film, I ended up feeling completely differently about the soundtrack. It was produced by Trent Reznor (whose music I don’t mind but am not a particular fan of) and features a plethora of songs from discordant genres that somehow manage to come together successfully. It’s almost like a mix tape that has been put together for you by a good friend who knows your musical taste, and manages to artfully arrange a selection of things he thinks you’d probably like into a single coherent package that you end up adoring.
“The Future,” the title track from the prolific Leonard Cohen’s ninth studio album, is used to introduce the final credits. Used as the film’s last words, the song manages to salvage quite a bit of Oliver Stone’s dignity through its own. It’s like hearing the last wheeze of some tweeked-out drifter on his deathbed, and discovering that despite a life of hard partying, petty thefts, cheap thrills, and an ultimately meaningless existence, he has finally managed to find something profound to say.
The movie itself is a long “satirical” statement on crime and celebrity, but Cohen’s song effortlessly makes the exact same statement in one-tenth the time, without the benefit of images, and does it in a far more chilling and convincing fashion. It’s impossible to imagine that someone with such a deep voice isn’t saying something important (even when James Earl Jones was doing cheerfully fluffy commercials for Bell Atlantic, it still seemed like he was telling me something I’d better not ignore), and as a songwriter, the peerless Cohen usually does.
Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here,
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that’s an order!
One of the aspects of their crimes that mass murderers find so irresistible is the sense of godlike power they feel when they’re in control of the life and death of their victims. In just a few short lines, Cohen has already managed to brilliantly evoke the image of a serial killer languishing in prison. And the descriptions that follow, of the Berlin Wall, blizzards, Hiroshima, Charles Manson, and having one’s private life “suddenly explode,” evoke the image of a voyeuristic society that has fallen into decay, and far beyond redemption. A society that, even if it wanted to, wouldn’t have the first idea of how to repent.
“Waiting for the Miracle”
In addition to providing a parallel theme to that of the movie, another reason that “The Future” works so well in Natural Born Killers is that it provides a sense of closure. The opening sequence in the film uses “Waiting for the Miracle,” another song from the same album, which pitches a similar message as “The Future.” Framing the film with a pair of brilliant Cohen songs almost renders the remainder of Natural Born Killers irrelevant. In about ten minutes’ worth of music, Cohen has already said everything that the film intends to say, and manages to do so with an eloquence that really can’t be matched by all the fancy editing and film tricks in the world.