PJ Harvey Tuesday #17: “The Faster I Breathe, the Further I Go”
This is a continuation of the PJ Harvey Tuesday series started at the Rumpus. You can see the Rumpus installments here and the rest of the Tusk installments here.
Last PJHT, I wrote about a song from the first of a two-disc compilation of PJ Harvey B-sides, so this time I’m going to take on a track from the second disc, Harder, which brings together B-sides from the years 1995–2001.
That track is “The Faster I Breathe, the Further I Go.” Despite its title, it is not a Morrissey song, and despite the fact that it was originally a B-side for a single off Harvey’s fourth album Is This Desire?, it sounds more like an outtake from Rid of Me or To Bring You My Love—frizzy with distortion, its bass line too low for cheap speakers. The real fun fact about this song, though, is that it was used on the soundtrack for the 1998 Hal Hartley film The Book of Life, in which PJ Harvey plays a vampy, modern-day version of the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene.
The Book of Life is one of six hour-long films, each taking place on the last day of 1999, commissioned for the French “2000 Seen By” series, which set out to document the turn of the millennium as seen by filmmakers from a variety of countries—France, Belgium, Spain, Taiwan, Mali, and the US. In 1998, they were screened at film festivals and arthouse theaters around the world. The Book of Life is the American entry, and it seems to have gotten positive reviews when it came out, but guys. Guys, it is not good. Maybe it seemed better back when everyone was still really anxious about Y2K, I don’t know. But from this side of the year 2000, it is not good.
The plot of this movie is that Jesus comes down to New York with Magdalena in tow in order to perform the last few tasks needed to set the apocalypse in motion just in time for the millennium to hit. The devil is also hanging around Manhattan in human form, trying to scam souls from a gambling addict and his overly generous girlfriend. At the end, after much stilted, faux-profound philosophizing from both himself and the devil, Jesus decides that—shocker!— he likes humans too much to release Armageddon upon the world.
Just so you have an idea of what we’re working with here, I want you to know that the titular Book of Life, from which Jesus has to break the seven seals as specified by the book of Revelation, is stored on a laptop. Because, you see, it is the millennium, and the apocalypse will be computerized. Jesus retrieves the laptop from a locker in a bowling alley, and when he boots it up on a rooftop with a view of the city skyline, the Mac OS startup screen from the late ’90s appears, and the camera actually zooms in and out and in and out again. Mac OS!!! Because, you see, it is the millennium. Jesus’s mouse arrow flies with great urgency to a file saved on the desktop as “Book of Life.” He opens it, and it’s, like, a picture of a document closed with binder clips? Four out of seven of the binder clips are open, and he clicks the fifth one and opens that too. Uh-oh, five out of seven digi-techno-seals open!
On the upside, Polly Jean is great, as is Miho Nikaido, the actress who plays the gambling addict’s girlfriend. Or maybe instead of “great,” it would be more accurate to say they give understated, confident performances in minor roles, and thus can’t help but look good compared to Jesus and the devil hamming it up with their soliloquies about human nature, wherein they establish that humans are pretty dumb…but also kind of great??
Plus a young James Urbaniak plays a street preacher for like ten seconds. And Yo La Tengo plays a Salvation Army brass band, also for like ten seconds.
Anyway, this column is supposed to be about a song called “The Faster I Breathe, the Further I Go,” so let’s get back to that. The way the film uses “The Faster I Breathe, the Further I Go” is, as you might expect from a movie that thinks it is deep to name a law firm “Armageddon, Armageddon & Jehoshaphat,” somewhat baffling. The song starts playing in the background. Magdalena walks into a record store, puts on headphones, and starts singing “To Sir, With Love.” The scene continues with both songs playing, making them both more or less unintelligible.
I guess maybe it’s supposed to signify the juxtaposition of Mary Magdalene’s holy side with her past as a prostitute, because one song is dark and one song is sweet? But you can’t really figure out that one song is dark and one song is sweet because you can’t tell what’s going on in either of them because they’re both playing at the same time. Also, the “sir” in question is presumably Jesus, because… he’s just like Sidney Poitier in that movie where he taught white schoolgirls the true meaning of tolerance and respect? I don’t know, I don’t know.
In conclusion, if you’ve made it this far, there is no reason to see this movie unless you are a huge PJ Harvey fan, in which case, this montage with “The Faster I Breathe” by itself playing over it might be good enough.
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