Procol Harum

Beyond the Pale

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AWSoP in Lars von Trierís Breaking The Waves (1996)

Sam Cameron for BtP

A Whiter Shade of Pale appears in many films, dramas and novels. Usually for a very obvious reason: to anchor the action in 1967, portrayed as a time of liberation and psychedelia, as in the case of the film Withnail and I where the King Curtis version is used. Exceptions to this nostalgia fixing use are rare, the main exception being Coppolla's segment in the Short Stories movie where an abstract painter repeatedly uses the song (and Conquistador) as a backdrop to his creative activity.

There is nothing psychedelic or abstractly artistic about Lars Von Trier's film Breaking the Waves. Reality is its calling card. To make things clear at the outset let it be stated firmly that this film is long, bleak and depressing (152 minutes). Unless you happen to enjoy unflattering scenes of nudity with detumescent male members and young women descending from rural buses to vomit, having been the subject of an immediately adjacent senior citizen's totally-within-trouser onanism. There is no ray of hope or moments of catharsis to lift the gloom which is made even darker by the filming techniques: largely static camera angles with a letterbox format which feels literally like one is a voyeur looking through a letterbox (scenes often chop off the top of someone's head). Occasionally there is hand-held camera shakiness but not of the trendy American / UK television show variety: rather, one's focus becomes blurred with the movement going on. The film is now released on DVD where these tendencies are even more apparent (by the way the DVD sound is basic 2-channel stereo).

The most hope anyone can glean from this drama is that it gives a clear critique of the source of the malaise: viz. the hateful and destructive effects of guilt-infatuated repressed religions, in isolated communities, on unfortunate individuals. The unfortunate individual, on a remote Scottish island, in this case is played by Emily Watson who along the way marries a strapping Scandinavian oilrig worker who has a severely disabling accident which triggers her descent into sacrificial and therapeutic (her hospital-bound husband asks her to do it for his benefit) prostitution. Eventually, she is deemed to be clinically disturbed and perishes in a bloody suicide. The doctor she first offered herself to in accordance with her husband's wishes, in the end, refuses to give a conventional verdict on her saying that she died 'because she was too good'. This comment is inspired by the central irony that all her actions sprang from a simple-minded devotion to the suffocating religion of her environs, particularly the figure of Mary Magdalene. One could easily argue that she is shown as having, even before disaster befalls her, schizophrenia arising from overbearing religion.

Given the above one might expect bales of wailing choirs and religious music throughout the text. Surprisingly the only such piece is right at the end. Instead the film is interspersed with, in the main, fairly rousing pop songs. The soundtrack is listed at and it notably omits the bagpipe version of Like a Rolling Stone and the cheesy love ballad which is playing on the radio in a shower scene. There is no musical score as such to the film. The major incidents are presaged, played out and moved on from without music.

Despite this, there is a large amount of music in the film consisting mainly of rock/pop songs appearing, in the manner of quotations at the start of chapters in a book. Indeed, the film is divided into chapters with AWSoP appearing as the opening to Chapter 4. It starts at the vocal introduction and is faded going into a chorus. The accompanying scene is a static (or near-static) picture of a blue skyline with a faint rainbow. The next excerpt is Jeepster by T Rex and the Chapter 5 opening quotation is Suzanne by Leonard Cohen.

There are very few occasions where music issues spontaneously from the content of the frame. I spotted only two cases of music being played on the radio: one being where the naked men in the oil rig showers hurry to turn off a cheesy ballad (which I think was Love On The Rocks by Neil Diamond but I do not currently have access to the film to check this). The oddest piece of music in the film is a rendition of Like A Rolling Stone, on the bagpipes, at the wedding. As I am not Roland Clare it would not cross my mind to suggest that this song is picked due to its initials' spelling out the directorís name. [Tish Ö Ed]

Reviews of the film, see for example: were extremely laudatory but where they chose to comment on the use of music were extremely dismissive of this aspect of the work. The same seems to be true of other films by the same director. This might be one of those cases where the director simply put music he liked in largely arbitrary order with this certainly being easier to do in a low budget co-production than a Hollywood blockbuster. Taking the songs which appear as a whole it looks like the main intent was to set the time in the early 70s, probably about 1972-4. Aside from the music already mentioned we get three songs from Elton John (Love Lies Bleeding starts Chapter 6 followed by Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and finally Your Song appears in the 'Epilogue'). This was the period of his great breakthrough success. The same applies to Mott the Hoople (All The Way From Memphis) and Thin Lizzy (Whisky in the Jar) and Roxy Music (Virginia Plain) again providing us with songs that appear to have no bearing on the action.

Most of the songs were hit singles (the Elton John Ďalbum onlyí tracks do sound like singles) with the exception of a Deep Purple song and Jethro Tull's Cross-Eyed Mary. The surprising conclusion of all this seems to be that A Whiter Shade of Pale appears as part of the early 1970s scene setting. The record enjoyed many airplays and a healthy chart run, upon its 1972 reissue, peaking at number 13. Despite its funereal pace and the allegedly large number of folks selecting it as funeral and / or wedding music its appearance in this film is nowhere near the wedding at the start or the funeral at the end.

If the film had taken a more conventional route of illustrating its contents via the music track then one could have imagined other Procol Harum songs, like Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) or Nothing That I Didnít Know making a plangent entrance.

More about A Whiter Shade of Pale

More Procol music in films

More from Sam Cameron

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