Song And Vision No. 5: "California Dreamin'" and Chungking Express

Song And Vision No. 5: "California Dreamin'" and Chungking Express

Why do movies and pop songs work so well together, and how does the union of sound and vision affect how you see the image in the moment and hear the song for years afterward? These are some of the pretentiously worded questions A.V. Club writer Steven Hyden will be trying to answer in the semi-regular column "Song And Vision," where he'll be writing about famous (and maybe not-so famous) movie scenes set to pop songs and all the weird and wonderful things that happen when directors and singers collide. Find the first four "Song And Vision" columns here

When Mackenzie Phillips chatted with Oprah Winfrey about the time she carried on a 10-year sexual relationship with her father, she said she was trying to put a public face on consensual incest. I think she succeeded, because when I bumped into consensual incest the other day it looked exactly like the older sister from One Day At A Time. But what else did Phillips accomplish? Well, she pretty much ensured that every time I hear “California Dreamin’”—a song I could otherwise play 38 times in a row and never tire of—my brain will flash at least for a moment to a profoundly skeezy Papa John Phillips putting the moves on his 18-year-old daughter. And, I don’t know, that kind of ruins the song for me. I suppose “California Dreamin’” could have also made me think about how Phillips used to inject young Mackenzie with heroin, which is nearly as horrid as sleeping with her, but there’s something about the phrase “consensual incest” that’s just catchier. Once you hear “consensual incest” it’s like a Lady Gaga song—it sticks in your head until your synapses snap.

Separating the artist from the artist’s work has always been a tricky proposition, as Phillips and Roman Polanski have reminded us lately. If you love Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, and Knife In The Water, you might want to give Polanski a pass on drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, especially if the girl now wants no part in a trial and, seriously, have you seen Knife In The Water? That creep can roll, man! But being a great filmmaker shouldn’t negate involvement in a horrible crime, just as a horrible crime shouldn’t mean Chinatown is any less incredible. (For the record, Robert Towne would really appreciate if you finally gave him most of the credit for that film.) Polanski is open to judgment just like anybody else accused of violating a child, but his best films will forever be beyond reproach. If Polanski ends up getting locked up, the work will still be free to be enjoyed by whoever wants to discover it. This shouldn’t be hard to wrap our heads around, but it is. We can’t help making associations. We’re like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, unable to enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth because we can’t get all that stomach-turning ultraviolence out of our heads.

John and Mackenzie Phillips’ twisted relationship hasn’t just affected how I think about “California Dreamin’,” it’s also entered into my thoughts about Wong Kar-Wai’s lovesick 1994 masterpiece Chungking Express, which uses “California Dreamin’” so much on the soundtrack that the song is practically a supporting character to Tony Leung’s lonely police officer and Faye Wong’s cute-as-a-button snack bar girl. When Leung first meets Wong, she’s blasting “California Dreamin’” so loud he has to lean forward and speak his food order directly into her ear. “California Dreamin’” is her cocoon, a place where she doesn’t have to think about the outside world, but Leung has broken though in more ways than one.

In the middle of this two and a half minute clip, Wong audaciously re-starts “California Dreamin’” and lets it play until the girl’s boss shuts it off. (Wong quickly sneaks it back on.) But this is far from the last that we’ll hear from The Mamas And The Papas in Chungking Express. Wong’s infatuation with Leung leads her to regularly break into his apartment, and re-arrange his belongings while he’s at work. If you’re going to illegally clean somebody’s place, you need a bouncy soundtrack, right?

Chungking Express is comprised of two faintly related stories that are brought together by their shared sense of deep romantic longing. Leung and Wong star in the second story, while Takeshi Kaneshiro and the glamorous Taiwanese screen legend Brigitte Lin appear in the first story about a cop obsessed with finding a lover before his tin of pineapple expires, and striking out with a sensuous mystery woman. In the first story, Wong repeatedly uses Dennis Brown’s slinky “Things In Life” to underscore the film’s omnipresent melancholy. Like “California Dreamin,’” “Things In Life” is about yearning for change, but Brown isn’t as desperate as Phillips. He’s resigned to his current situation, and determined to make the best of it. “Today you’re up, tomorrow you’re down,” Brown sings, “So thank god you’re still around town.”

(Note: This clip is slightly sped up)

The Mamas And The Papas are considered an archetypical ’60s California pop band, but when Phillips wrote “California Dreamin’” in 1963 he really was California dreamin.’ Living in New York City with much-younger wife Michelle Phillips—in his defense, it’s not like she was a blood relative or something—John Phillips was struggling to make it in the city’s folk scene and wracking his brain for a hit single that would get him out of the cold urban jungle and into a Southern California swimming pool loaded nubile young ladies just begging to be corrupted. It took three long years to make it happen—first “California Dreamin’” was recorded by shlocky pop-folkie Barry McGuire (best known for the silly-but-still-sorta-great Dylan rip-off “Eve Of Destruction”), and then the Mamas And The Papas recorded vocals over the same instrumental track and released their own version at the end of 1965. It went on to be one of the biggest hits of 1966, staying on the charts for more than four months.

For a song with California in the title, “California Dreamin’” is curiously lacking in surfboards, hot rods, and beautiful blondes named Wendy and Rhonda. Instead we get depressing imagery about brown leaves and gray skies. Phillips was writing about what he knew, and what he was trying to escape. For him California represented a new start, a fantasyland utopia where you’re always “safe and warm.” Wong in Chungking Express responds to “California Dreamin’” because she’s similarly looking to escape a drab existence. She wants to fall in love, and when she does fall in love, she wants to be closer to the object of her affection, Leung, even if it means rummaging through his things in clandestine fashion. But when she finally has the chance to be with Leung, she decides instead to leave and travel the world. Like millions of other people, Wong was no doubt inspired to pull up stakes in a more literal sense by Phillips’s romantic restlessness. Happiness at home will never be as alluring as the promise of something even better some place else.

While Chungking Express ends ambiguously—Wong returns home to find that Leung has purchased the snack bar where she used to work—we all know what happened to Phillips after “California Dreamin.’” I’d like to think that things turn out differently for Wong and Leung, and they live happily ever after and dance to “California Dreamin’” as they prepare chef salads for lovelorn customers. But the meaning of “California Dreamin’”—and by meaning I mean our perception of its meaning—has changed, and it’s this: Getting what you want can be absolutely the worst thing that can ever happen to you. All the fame, drugs, and willing women in the world won’t keep you safe and warm if it’s always a winter’s day in your head.

I guess you could say that Mackenzie Phillips has made “California Dreamin’”—and Chungking Express by association—a lot sadder for me. But maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention the first 38 times I heard it. Maybe the yearning for light made me forget that I was standing with Phillips in the darkness. It now seems painfully obvious when I hear the second verse, where Phillips stops in a church on the way to California and dupes the preacher into thinking that he’s praying for real. But he tells us he’s only pretending. What did Phillips mean when he wrote, “You know the preacher likes the cold, he knows I’m going to stay”? It’s a secret tucked inside the song, and Phillips decided not divulge it. “If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today,” he writes in the last verse. But Phillips clearly couldn’t leave, and now the rest of us can never go back.

Filed Under: Film, Music

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