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Close Readings: A strange Moment in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (2018)

Written by Josh Schulze.

Photo from the article Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s much-anticipated follow-up to his debut feature Ida (2014), is largely cut from the same monochromatic silk as its predecessor. It takes considerable pains with regard to composition, lighting, costume, and camera movement (or lack thereof) to achieve its distinctive look. I found Ida to be quite thrilling for this alone - it was refreshing to see a film so comfortable in its minimalism, and so willing to strip itself down to the core elements of filmmaking. Cold War is slightly less restrained formally, as the camera occasionally swings around to envelop the lead couple in their embraces; Ida, on the other hand, rather memorably features a single instance of camera movement in its entire duration: the final shot. In spite of this, the two films are unquestionably related and part of a growing body of work with coherent thematic and aesthetic concerns. On the basis of these two efforts, no one could conceivably accuse Pawlikowski of not being rigorous or consistent in his craft. However, a single moment in Cold War completely baffled me. It coloured my experience of the entire film and has stayed with me ever since, compelling me to write this short piece. Roughly two thirds of the way in, during the period set in Paris, we see the lead couple in a nightclub, drunkenly spinning together in each other’s arms. The hazy, reckless, but still romantic moment is undercut by the strangest of soundtrack choices: a recording of the 1943 song “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” taken from the Tom and Jerry cartoon short Solid Serenade (1946) - complete with the diegetic sounds left in. (I’m not kidding).

Cold War charts an unlikely romance that develops over several years in 1950s Cold War Poland, and is structurally bound by musical performances. For instance, the first time Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) meet is over an audition for a Broadway show, and several times throughout the film we are treated to extended scenes of her singing. This functions as a nice way of marking the progress of their relationship through observations of the shifting performance styles, her demeanour when she sings, and his when he watches her (or is absent altogether). Her talent is indisputable; it is more a question of her class and background that begins to put a strain on their relationship early in the film. Most notably, at one of the many parties they attend together (it is part of the package with Wiktor, who is a relatively famous musical director) he tells dishonest stories about her to his friends, tactically designed to conceal her uncouth upbringing. The film goes through the motions of classical romance, pushing and pulling the two lovers toward and away from each other at various dramatic moments and over several years. Part of its intrigue and appeal (aside from the aforementioned visual style) is the politically loaded backdrop, which is reportedly informed by the lives of Pawlikowski’s own parents.

This is all good and well, I hear you say - but why the Tom and Jerry reference? This is precisely what I asked myself during the film. On a purely cognitive level, the music choice in the Paris nightclub scene most definitely ‘took me out of the film,’ to the ends that such a phrase is useful. I became unable to continue enjoying the scene on the tonal plane it seemed designed to function on: one of whimsy, romance, youthfulness, and passion. All I had was a vivid image of Tom plucking the lips of Spike, the dog - who is bound to his kennel in order for the titular serenade to take place - in a musical solo tangential to Tom’s double bass playing. There are several other distracting diegetic noises included: the smashing sound of Jerry’s plant pot falling to the floor, his strategic placing of an iron into the pie that he subsequently launches at Tom in protest, and the momentary pause after Tom is struck by the pie before continuing with the serenade. Thus, the point emerges: that even those who are (tragically) unfamiliar with the famous cartoon will likely still notice that something is off in the soundtrack. So why include it?

I tried some basic Googling to research the matter, but sadly, the film’s production history has not been as well chronicled as I would have liked. (Perhaps the eventual DVD/Blu-ray release will feature an extensive interview with Pawlikowski, questioning his musical decisions in order to clear things up). For now, we can at least speculate that the choice was entirely deliberate, given the wealth of alternative recordings available. Indeed, Louis Jordan, who wrote the song originally, released an achingly-smooth, seductive recording; Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, Nat King Cole and Ida James, Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, and Buster Brown have all contributed versions of their own. Brown’s is surely the most energetic and dance-friendly interpretation of the song that exists, and the others encompass a wide range of styles and scoring possibilities for a filmmaker. But, Pawkilowski (or whoever was responsible for this madness) settled on Ira "Buck" Woods’ recording for the Tom and Jerry episode. Woods himself is largely an unknown figure, always peripheral to pop culture - he appeared in Road to Zanzibar (1941), Mystery in Swing (1940), and Double Deal (1939), but was rarely given credit for the majority of his screen appearances (which were often briefly as singers or musical performers, typical for African-American actors at the time). To use his recording is hardly to cite a popular figure as would the other versions, and as does Cold War itself - the soundtrack includes Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” for instance.

So, if we were to take this decision as intentional, what possible kind of effect could the film be trying to achieve? Let’s consider “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” in its presented context. Solid Serenade is about the attempts of Tom the cat to seduce his feline companion-to-be, who watches down from her Juliet balcony. His efforts, as it goes, are repeatedly thwarted by Jerry the mouse and Spike the dog. There is a narrative inevitability that runs through every episode of the enduring cartoon: that Tom will not succeed. To use a song that thus denotes a failed courtship, and one that is threatened by an external force, certainly puts a different tonal spin on what is already a complex and far from utopian romantic moment. Is it too much to suggest, knowing that Zula later leaves Wiktor - who consoles himself by playing piano through tears of loss - that the use of Woods’ recording foreshadows the failure of his courtship? Guy Lodge, in his Variety review of the film, makes a note of the song’s lyrics being “on-the-nose” but doesn’t acknowledge that the recording features diegetic sounds from a cartoon (he also appears to misremember the context, suggesting that Wiktor listens to the song alone).

What his suggestion can shed light on is the shift in perspective for which the song functions as an indicator. During the first part of the film, we are largely confined to Zula’s perspective, and drawn into the complicated world through her eyes as an initial outsider. As the narrative progresses, and the central relationship begins to suffer, in Zula’s absence and alleged infidelity we spend more and more time with the suffering Wiktor. Might it be that using the recording from Tom and Jerry helps the film to move thematically from one character to the other, gradually morphing the story into one of failed courtship from Wiktor’s point of view? Solid Serenade is unquestionably about the male perspective - the female cat Tom strives to woo is largely anonymous and completely devoid of agency. With this in mind, can the song function as both a prophetic nod to which character the film ends up with, as well as working to comment on his womanizing intentions that were all style in the beginning, but which didn’t have enough substance to sustain over time?

Of course, this is becoming wildly speculative, but the purpose of this brief analysis was first and foremost to demonstrate what the slightly eerie and unprecedented effect such a song choice had on my viewing of the film. I couldn’t possibly accept that the music co-ordinator merely enjoyed Woods’ vocal performance the best, or that the rights to the other versions couldn’t be secured in time. Why Tom and Jerry? What does it mean? Part of the joy of Cold War is that I may never know. But, for better or worse, it completely derailed my experience of the film, and certainly gave me something I will remember for a long, long time.

This article was published on December 09, 2018.

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