**Wherein we celebrate a previously unheralded contribution to film greatness.**
"Being good is always easy, no matter how hard I try,"
-Son of a Preacher Man
Quentin Tarantino is currently the best filmmaker going when it comes to selecting music to fill his movies. His choices are so strong that music used in his films become indelibly linked to the images on the screen. Misirlou, the surf rock track that opens Pulp Fiction, had been around for decades, but is now known primarily as the "Pulp Fiction Theme". I sincerely doubt anyone who has seen Reservoir Dogs ever listened to "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealer's Wheel again without an accompanying flash of Michael Madsen's menacing shuffle and accompanying smirk.
I rank Scorsese as the all-time champ of this particular category. Tarantino himself would likely point to Marty's Mean Streets as a powerful influence. Mean Street's tracking shot that follows Harvey Keitel through the inferno-red bar while the Rolling Stones blast is strongly echoed in Vincent Vega's leisurely stroll though Jack Rabbit Slim's. But now that Scorsese has increasingly gone over to using original scores in stuff like The Aviator, I think the crown passes to Quentin as the reigning king.
One of my favorite scenes from Pulp Fiction is built entirely around the choice of song. When Vincent Vega picks up Mia Wallace for their date that is not a date ("It's just, you know, good company") and he waits awkwardly downstairs, while Mia watches from above and Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" uncurls on the soundtrack. According to the DVD trivia track Quentin would have cut the scene entirely if he couldn't get the rights to the song. It's easy to see why he felt so strongly about it. After viewing the scene it's hard to imagine one without the other.
It didn't occur to me until I sat to write this, but "Preacher Man" is a song about a covert romance - perfect for Vincent and Mia's non-date where romance is forbidden and their obvious attraction must be resisted. My hunch is that if Tarantino noticed the same thing he also made the connection after the fact. The song is too perfect on its own. The lazy sexiness of the tempo, the way the crescendo of the song matches the rising tension of the scene. It justifies the choice completely without the subtext.
This scene is a textbook example of the kind of attention to detail that made Tarantino's name, his insistence that every scene have some element to make it memorable. From Mia's distinct turns of phrase -"Two shakes of a lamb's tail" "Over by the African fellows"- to Travolta's hilariously drugged-out, overly formal line readings of "Hello" and "Okay" into the intercom, to that painting that baffles Vincent, every inch of the scene has some element that makes it unlike anything we've seen before.
Dusty holds the scene together so well in fact, that it's able to sneak a few things past the audience unnoticed - first and foremost the fact that approximately two minutes of screen time pass while next to nothing happens. This is another Tarantino trademark. Putting in the material that other directors would leave out. The whole tavern sequence in Basterds, for example, grew out of his frustration with every other war movie ignoring the difficulty of pulling off a convincing accent. In this case, he leaves in two minutes of anxiety that hangs palpably over the entire dinner conversation until it is finally released in the cathartic twist contest.
It's not until later that one realizes Tarantino has cleverly hid several plot points in what at first glance appears to be a scene entirely about mood and rhythm. For starters, there is Vincent's concern that everything go well in order to please his incredibly dangerous boss, a concern represented in this scene by his nervous, overly-courteous manner. This explains not only the gentlemanliness that leads to the disastrous choice to lend Mia his coat with the heroin in the pocket, but also sets up the blind fear that appears when things go so very, very wrong.
That pervasive drug use is also a motif appearing in this scene with matching shots of cocaine and alcohol consumption by Vincent and Mia. Again, on first viewing this appears to be simple atmospheric touches. Mood setting timed perfectly to the music. It's only in retrospect do we realize that Tarantino has showed us how the evening's fate was already written by the time Dusty finished singing.
Incidentally is there any director better at close-ups than Tarantino? I hope when film students are taught about insert shots they are shown Uma Thurman pushing play on her reel-to-reel to begin Urge Overkill's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon". That scene at the end of the date that is the mirror of this one, the roles reversed with Mia waiting in the living room for Vincent. The song works just as effectively in that scene, but by that point Tarantino isn't being coy anymore, and its time for all the foreshadowing smuggled in with Dusty to pay off.