SHOCK pits Schrader against Tarantino with David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder caught in the middle.
The world is still reeling from the shocking loss of David Bowie and many fans, both ardent and casual, are sifting through the late British musician, producer, writer, vocalist and artist’s dense catalog of remarkable work.
Last week we ran an appreciation of Bowie’s delicate and unforgettable performance in Tony Scott’s 1983 erotic vampire drama THE HUNGER. You can read that essay here
Now we’re going to have a bit of fun and focus on one of the man’s coolest songs, a track tied into cult film history and, even when taken on its own, a slick, moody and vital bit of new wave 80’s rock.
The song in question is “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, the title track from director Paul Schrader’s sensual 1982 rethinking of the 1942 Val Lewton masterpiece THE CAT PEOPLE, written by DEATHDREAM’s Alan Ormsby. Schrader lost the “THE” and his film bears the much starker title CAT PEOPLE.
CAT PEOPLE’s score was composed by Italian electronic pop music pioneer Giorgio Moroder who was fresh off the success of Brian De Palma’s violent and operatic drug dealer epic SCARFACE (another contemporary remake of a genre classic). Moroder had already written and recorded much of the CAT PEOPLE score when Bowie was brought in at Schrader’s behest to collaborate.
Bowie added his distinct vocal work and some typically interesting lyric to the main theme, which was then “rocked out” for its climax in order to fashion it into a hit single (which it became, hitting #1 in New Zealand). Interestingly, Bowie sound very much like fellow British rocker Peter Murphy here. Murphy was a Bowie disciple who kind of darkened up the singer’s “Ziggy Stardust” persona when forming the influential band Bauhaus.
In THE HUNGER, Bauhaus/Murphy is in the film and opens it with their track “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, itself a track that absolutely mirrors “Cat People (Putting out Fire)”.
But we digress.
The song was a hit for Bowie and Moroder and, to date, has been used prominently in 2 major feature films.
The first is, of course, the film it was written for, CAT PEOPLE.
The second time, Quentin Tarantino licensed the track from MCA for his 2009 Nazi-fantasy epic INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.
But which film uses “Cat People (Putting Out Fire) to greater effect?
Let’s have a look…
In CAT PEOPLE, Moroder’s full instrumental, sans harmonized rock guitars and dancefloor ready drum kit, opens the picture.
Arguably, the opening of CAT PEOPLE is its strongest moment. With red sands blowing across a desert, revealing human skulls, robed mortals farming a cracked, dead earth, giant panthers lounging in dreamscape trees and a mysterious tribe worshiping them and sacrificing women at their toothy alter.
It’s fucking magnificent. Have a look…
But as beautiful an opening as this is, this is not the Bowie song.
At the end of CAT PEOPLE however, when John Heard finds his shapeshifting lady love (Nastassja Kinski) in panther form at the zoo, the song swells again, with Bowie growling the opening lines of the song over a still of the slack-faced cat. Then, as the panther opens its jaws, we freeze frame and the track starts in from the “rock” verse with Bowie shouting “…with gas-o-leeeeeeen!”.
It”s great to hear the track, to hear Bowie’s voice.
But a frozen still of a smiling cat and a credit crawl don’t make for the grandest of visual aids.
Tarantino obviously loved the song (and the Schrader film) and, as he’s want to do, he took the entire single and re-positioned it into his own narrative, out of context from the film in which it was made.
His use of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is wonderful.
Tarantino uses the single version of the track (as opposed to the extended soundtrack album version) and let’s it run in its entirety over carefully edited scenes of vengeful Jewish cineaste Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) prepping her plot to turn her Paris theater into a giant Nazi-killing pyre while she sensuously applies her “war paint”.
“Putting out fire with gasoline…”
Unlike in the Schrader film, the lyric matches the action. The song seems like it was indeed tailored for the sequence,
Have a look and listen…
So what’s the verdict?
Which film uses “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” most effectively?
I would say that the music, Moroder’s music, is used in its raw state to perfection in CAT PEOPLE. Absolutely brilliant and haunting in sound and image. Schrader’s finest hour and maybe Moroder’s too.
But I think the song itself is squandered by being “dumped” onto the end credits; disposable exit music for half-awake theater patrons.
But Tarantino takes the track and makes a short film out of it. Not just a video, but one of the most intense and soulful sections of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.
Tarantino for the win, I think.
What about you? What are your thoughts on this grand debate?
Let me know below, Joe!