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The films of Joni Mitchell: A brief retrospective

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View image Hejira: The refuge of the road, a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway...


Joni Mitchell is a gifted musician, a great songwriter, and a damn fine actress. (People always talk about her lyrics, but its her performances that make those words sing.) She's also a terrific director and cinematographer and all-around filmmaker and critic — and I'm taking exclusively about her recorded music. I've been thinking about this for a long time, and then a thread on girish's blog a while back made me want to write about it. So, here goes. A few of my favorite examples, music and lyrics, analysis and critique (hers), composition and montage:

How about the camerawork in this shot from "The Boho Dance" (from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns"):

A camera pans the cocktail hour Behind a blind of potted palms And finds a lady in a Paris dress With runs in her nylons

I see this as a horizontal dolly shot more than a "pan." And not too much zeroing in on the legs. Maybe a tilt down as the lady drops an hors d'oeuvre, just so you have a chance to notice. Or maybe somebody seated in the foreground spots the flawed stockings from across the room and there's a bit of rack focus to the lady's gams. Maybe we just see her in a full shot, with her back to us, standing in a cluster of other people who can't see the runs that are turned toward the camera. Or, if she's seated, perhaps she crosses or uncrosses her stems briefly, allowing us a glimpse of the telltale hosiery. There are lots of ways to shoot it, but Mitchell tells you what the shot needs to convey so you can come up with the specific compositions yourself.

Then there's this amazing zoom out from "Hejira" (song and album — my personal favorite):

White flags of winter chimneys Waving truce against the moon In the mirrors of a modern bank from the window of a hotel room

You see the snow-topped chimneys and the moon and you feel the mood. Then your perceptual awareness shifts. The tone drops a bit and you realize what you're seeing is a reflection off a bank building. The music slips higher and you pull back even further. These images aren't just objectively out there. You're watching them from the window of your hotel room.

It's a song about traveling, about getting away, about returning to oneself after the "possessive coupling" of a recent love affair. But it's been fairly impressionistic ("all emotions and abstractions," as she sings in "Song for Sharon") until this point: "I'm traveling in some vehicle/I'm sitting in some cafe." It's an anonymous landscape, dotted with specific observations: "... as natural as the weather/In this moody sky today," or "snow gathers like bolts of lace/Waltzing on a ballroom girl. And then, at the end, you (and the narrator) are actually back in the world, at a specific place at a particular moment, with the understanding that, even as a "defector from the petty wars," it's only until "love sucks me back that way." Jaco Pastorius' gray and wintery bass is just like that moody sky.

If Mitchell has a signature shot, it may be that hotel-room long shot. Like this one overlooking Central Park in "Song for Sharon" (from "Hejira"):

Now there are 29 skaters on Wolman Rink Circling in singles and in pairs In this vigorous anonymity A blank face at the window stares and stares and stares and stares

Or this one from "Harry's House"/"Centerpiece" ("The Hissing of Summer Lawns"):

He opens up his suitcase In the continental suite And people third stories down Look like colored currents in the street A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof Like a dragonfly on a tomb

Mitchell is also an expert sound designer. Watch (and listen) to this, from "For the Roses" (song and album):

I heard it in the wind last night It sounded like applause Chilly now End of summer No more shiny hot nights It was just the arbutus rustling And the bumping of the logs And the moon swept down black water Like an empty spotlight

Or this atmospheric (and subjective) sound work from "Car on a Hill" (on "Court and Spark"), where the protagonist waits, anxiously and uncertainly, for her lover to arrive in the Hollywood Hills. I think of this song as a kind of sequel to the Beatles' "Blue Jay Way":

Ive been sitting up waiting for my sugar to show Ive been listening to the sirens and the radio He said he'd be over three hours ago Ive been waiting for his car on the hill...

Fast tires come screaming around the bend But theres still no buzzer They roll on...

Can you hear that? Definitely a Surround effect. Squealing tires in the canyons, maybe emerging out of the distant sound of sirens — you can't quite tell where the sounds are coming from up here — getting closer, then... no buzzer. The song ends with a repeated circular figure on Fender Rhodes and guitar, with drive-by oboe (or synth), that leaves you — and her — hanging...

"People's Parties" (from "Court and Spark") is a montage from a Fellini soiree — maybe the final dismal party/orgy from "La Dolce Vita," only in color, in the 1970s, and in Malibu. Mitchell takes you around the room to offer her impressions of the stylish characters with their "stamps of many countries" and "passport smiles":

Some are friendly Some are cutting Some are watching it from the wings Some are standing in the center Giving to get something

Photo beauty gets attention Then her eye paint's running down She's got a rose in her teeth And a iampshade crown One minute she's so happy Then she's crying on someone's knee Saying, Laughing and crying You know it's the same release...

Throughout the party she flips between external observations and self-awareness/inner monologue — constantly scrutinizing and assessing herself and those around her. That's because Joni Mitchell's signature persona is that of... The Critic! She turns her laser-fine, high-powered perception on people, moments, interactions, situations, images, then anatomizes them, weighs them and judges them. And not always harshly or unsympathetically. Sometimes she'll "just let things slide," but never without examining them in detail first. And that's what makes her a first-rate critic.

Cry for us all, Beauty Cry for Eddie in the corner Thinking he's nobody And Jack behind his joker And stone-cold Grace behind her fan And me in my frightened silence Thinking I don't understand...

Sometimes the cinematic devices are more overt, like the shimmery dissolve into the idealized dream sequence (Johnny Mandel's "Centerpiece") in the middle of the suburban ennui of "Harry's House"/"Centerpiece":

Yellow checkers for the kitchen Climbing ivy for the bath She is lost in house and gardens Hes caught up in chief of staff He drifts off into the memory Of the way she looked in school With her body oiled and shining At the public swimming pool...

Background vocals: La - dream - la - dream - la - dream...

Then the music slips into a steady, bluesy swing beat with crooning girl-group vocals:

The more I'm with you, pretty baby The more I feel my love increase I'm building all my dreams around you Our happiness will never cease 'Cause nothing's any good without you Baby, you're my centerpiece

There's another sound collage coming out of "Centerpiece," with replaying spoken fragments echoing through his head, her head, or both: "When you coming home, Harry?" "Get down off of there!" "Nothing's any good"... And then the song shifts into a higher gear for the last few dramatic moments:

... Shining hair and shining skin Shining as she reeled him in To tell him like she did today Just what he could do with Harry's house And Harrys take-home pay...

Who's POV is that last bit from? I like the ambiguity... And I love the defiant, disgusted reading of "And Harry's take-home pay" — as if she'd just tossed a wad of cash back at him and it flopped on the mattress.

A lap dissolve on "Court and Spark" takes us from "Trouble Child" (narrated in the second person — or perhaps the institutionalized title character thinking in a dissociative third person) into Annie Ross's "Twisted," a comic first-person story about a kid convinced she's a genius (with cameos by Cheech and Chong!).

The album's penultimate track is sympathetically addressed to a youngster in a mental institution, with water imagery overflowing everywhere:

So why does it come as such a shock To know you really have no one Only a river of changing faces Looking for an ocean They trickle through your leaky plans Another dream over the dam And youre lying in some room Feeling like your right to be human Is going over too...

Trouble child Breaking like the waves at Malibu...

The cymbals splash like the waves, and, with muted trumpets soaring overhead like planes or seagulls, one song flows into the next. One quirky rebel trumpet breaks out and becomes the snappy opening figure of "Twisted":

My analyst told me That I was right out of my head The way he described it He said I'd be better dead than live I didn't listen to his jive I knew all along that he was all wrong And I knew that he thought I was crazy but I'm not, oh no

It's a clever POV shift — from outside to inside the head of a "crazy" person. But the "Caligari"/"Psycho" twist, the punchline, is perhaps that the narrator of both these linked songs is the same schizoid person. A split personality, perhaps — a first-person with delusions of grandeur and a second-person who expresses empathy and encouragement for her (younger?) troubled self? Or did the "Twisted" girl grow into a "Trouble Child"?

There's similar effect (also with a muted trumpet transition) that links "The Boho Dance" and "Harry's House"/"Centerpiece." In the former, a character who bears some resemblance to the Roberta Joan Anderson who became the successful artist known as Joni Mitchell, tries to return to her roots in the "boho zone," and feels a bit estranged from and defensive about it. Now in her mid-thirties, she sees through the boho poses, but she wants to convince everyone (including herself) that she's not just a glittery sell-out pop star, either. She doesn't feel comfortable in either milieu. She tells herself (or some unnamed accuser — perhaps in the back of her head):

Nothing is capsulized in me On either side of town The streets were never really mine Not mine, not mine these glamour gowns

On the last note, the muted trumpet comes in, fading up like an aircraft coming in for a landing. And, sure enough:

Heatwaves on the runway As the wheels set down He takes his baggage off the carousel He takes a taxi into town Yellow schools of taxi fishes Jonah in a ticking whale Caught up at the light in the fishnet windows Of Bloomingdales

That's a hell of an atmospheric opening montage. I always think of the beginning of Billy Wilder's "The Seven Year Itch," or Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (speaking of reflections in the windows of modern buildings. It's interesting that she connects a song about a pop star who feels ambivalent about her boho past to one about a middle-class husband and wife. He's a businessman and she's a homemaker, and they don't seem to be living the American Dream. Or are they?

Battalions of paper-minded males Talking commodities and sales While at home their paper wives And paper kids Paper the walls to keep their gut reactions hid

It was the 1970s. It had become commonplace to take digs at the phoniness of suburbia and the shallowness of middle-class values. (Malvina Reynolds, 1962: Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes made of ticky-tacky... / And they all look just the same." Dionne Warwick, via Burt Bacharach and Hal David, 1970: "Twenty houses in a row / Eighty people watch a TV show / Paper people, carboard dreams / How unreal the whole thing seems / Can we be living in a world made of paper mache?")

But "Harry's House" (with "Centerpiece" at its center) is a little character study, not really a social satire. It's about the dreams young people believe in — the ones fostered by love songs and romantic movies — that they believe they can live, but that never seem to pan out. And, of course, this isn't the first time Mitchell's focused her lens on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams...

Flashback to "The Last Time I Saw Richard" (from "Blue"), a film in three brief scenes. One in a dark cafe in Detroit, 1969. The next several years later in a suburban house "with the TV on and all the house lights left up bright." An the final one back in a dark cafe, present day. There's the discussion about the fate of "all romantics" who wind up "cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe." But it's the observable details that make the song indelible:

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed Three buttons and the thing began to whirr And a bar maid came by in fishnet stockings and a bow tie And she said drink up now its gettin on time to close.

Richard (played by Tom Waits? Hugh Laurie? Probably an untenured English professor...) taunts the narrator, saying she wants to believe in all the "pretty lies" of the pop love songs on the jukebox, while she counters he hasn't really changed; he's just like her:

Richard, you havent really changed, I said Its just that now youre romanticizing some pain thats in your head You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs You punched are dreaming

"When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?" she asks him. The answer is not what she expected. An abrupt flash-forward crashes into the scene and shatters its illusions — but it's presented matter-of-factly, almost in shorthand:

Richard got married to a figure skater And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on And all the house lights left up bright I'm gonna blow this damn candle out I don't want nobody comin over to my table I got nothing to talk to anybody about

The equally startling cut from Richard, drunk in front of the tube in an overlit living room, to the narrator blowing out a candle in a dark cafe so she can disappear into the darkness is both shocking and comforting. To her, Richard has settled for a fate worse than death. (Rejecting her for a "figure skater" and "percolator" — ouch!) She's petulant (and probably still mad that he laughed at her belief in "all those pretty lies"), but she also feels betrayed. For better or worse, however, she clings to her remaining illusions:

All good dreamers pass this way some day Hiding behind bottles in dark cafes Dark cafes Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings And fly away Only a phase, these dark cafe days

This is one of Mitchell's finest performances, too. The way she snaps "I'm gonna blow this damn candle out..." and the way she imagines her "goooooooorgeous wings" soaring. This is great acting.

Another of my favorite performances is the way she half talks her way through "Coyote" (from "Hejira"), recalling a farmhouse burning down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and then pulling into a roadhouse where a local band is playing:

And the next thing I know That coyote's at my door He pins me in a corner and he wont take no! He drags me out on the dance floor And we're dancing close and slow Now he's got a woman at home He's got another woman down the hall He seems to want me anyway

That last line is tossed off as a quizzical afterthought, running together with the previous line, almost under her breath, which is what makes it so funny: "Oh well, whaddaya gonna do?" But even funnier is the next morning:

Coyote's in the coffee shop He's staring a hole in his scrambled eggs He picks up my scent on his fingers While he's watching the waitress's legs

Can you see him? I picture Warren Oates in the 1970s, with a stubble and a stogie, probably with a cowboy hat pulled down to keep the glinting sun out of his bloodshot eyes.

And, of course, that's another of Joni Mitchell's cinematic strengths: Good eye for casting.

Check out Sean Nelson's 33 1/3 series book on "Court and Spark."

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