07 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 91 | May 7, 2010

Plight of the Piano Player


Our theme this week
Piano-playing protagonists in peril

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste) (1960)
Tuesday         —   Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Wednesday    —   The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) (2001)
Thursday        —   Shine (1996)

The Pianist (2002)

the pianist

What can you say about Roman Polanski?  With a certain scandal in the news lately, it’s hard to find a kind word about the man.  Yet it shouldn’t be controversial to say that Polanski is one of the outstanding film artists of our time.  His body of work is impressive:  Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Tess, The Pianist, and The Ghost Writer.  (The current court case is outside my beat, but for the record, I have no patience for the argument that Polanski should be exempt from justice because of his film work over the years, nor for the argument that his work should be boycotted.  Both are very wrongheaded ideas, if you ask me.  Not that anyone did.)

If Polanski were to make a film of his own story, I think he’d take an approach you’re not likely to find in today’s media.  You get a sense of it in The Pianist, a film about Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish pianist who barely survived the German occupation during World War II.  Szpilman is a talented musician whose only crime is that he’s a Jew.  The film is about the Holocaust (and among other things, extraordinary survival and art), but Polanski, who lost his mother in Auschwitz, is not primarily interested in moral judgment.  The horror is a given, but the film seeks, as much as than anything else, understanding.  That seems to me what the best art is all about.

Adrien Brody gives a tour-de-force performance as Szpilman.  We meet him in a Warsaw radio studio, at the piano, unwilling to leave mid-song as the first bombs fall.  But soon he is knocked to the floor, the concert has ended, and his life will never again be the same.  He loses his family, his friends, his country, and the war grinds on.  As the years pass Szpilman is witness to, and victim of, unspeakable brutality.  His body is wasted, all vigor is gone, yet somehow he survives.  Toward the end of the fighting Szpilman is caught by a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann), who asks what he does.  “I am—I was a pianist.”  They walk into the next room.  “Play something.”  Szpilman takes a seat at a piano and plays Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23.  It’s a not-so-subtle statement from Polanski.  The German is moved, and Szpilman is saved.

After the war Wladyslaw Szpilman resumed his music career, performing and composing.  In 1945 he wrote his memoir, republished by his son five decades later.  Szpilman lived until 2000.   Polanski’s film is a remarkable tribute.


The Pianist
Roman Polanski, director
Trailer

 


The Pianist
Adrien Brody


Quote of Note
“I’m sitting here in my own house, minding my own business, playing my own piano.  I don’t think you can make a crime out of that.'”
—Vienna (Joan Crawford), Johnny Guitar (1954)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 03 May 2010 @ 02:49 PM

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Shine

 
 06 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 90 | May 6, 2010

Plight of the Piano Player


Our theme this week
Piano-playing protagonists in peril

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste) (1960)
Tuesday         —   Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Wednesday    —   The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) (2001)

Shine (1996)

shine

Relative to our theme’s other films, this story about a gifted musician suffering from mental illness may be the feel-good movie of the week.

Shine is based on the real-life story of David Helfgott.  The sub-theme for the week is the tyrannical parent, and in David’s case it was his father—the man who taught him how to play, drove him hard, and had no tolerance for failure.  As a teen, David wins a musical competition in his native Australia and has a chance to study in America.  The father, a Holocaust survivor played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, crushes the hopes of his son, forbidding him to leave.  In time, David moves to London, shows promise in winning another competition, but suffers a breakdown that leads to electric shock therapy.  From there, it’s a series of recoveries and relapses and a return to Australia, where eventually he finds the love of a supporting wife (Lynn Redgrave), who helps heal his wounds and prepares him for a comeback as a concert pianist.

Three actors play the talented piano player—Alex Rafalowicz, as a boy; Noah Taylor, as a teen; and Geoffrey Rush, in a Best Actor-winning performance, as an adult.  They are all very good, and Rush is especially effective portraying the manic man-child who desperately struggles to hold on—to his fleeting talent, and fleeting connection with normal life. 

The film has drawn criticism for taking liberties with the truth of Helfgott’s story (especially the relationship with his father), and for exaggerating Helfgott’s level of talent.  The former may be a valid point, though that type of dramatic license is often the case in true-life adaptations.  The latter is a more difficult call, since the events of Helfgott’s life made it impossible for him to realize his once-great promise.  His is not just a story of what might have been, but also a story of survival against difficult odds.


Shine
Geoffrey Rush
“Flight of the Bumblebee”

 


Shine
Noah Taylor
“Rach 3”


Quote of Note
“Well, if I’m going to hell, I’m going there playing the piano.”
—Jerry Lee Lewis (Dennis Quaid), Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 03 May 2010 @ 08:27 AM

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 05 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 89 | May 5, 2010

Plight of the Piano Player


Our theme this week
Piano-playing protagonists in peril

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste) (1960)
Tuesday         —   Five Easy Pieces (1970)

The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) (2001)

the piano teacher

Isabelle Huppert is one of the great names of French cinema.  For the role of Erika Kohut, a sexually repressed piano instructor at a conservatory in Vienna, she gives a shocking and memorable performance.  A woman in her forties, Erika lives with her domineering mother, sleeps with her mother, and secretly indulges in sadomasochism and self-mutilation.  Her taste for punishment extends to others as well, including insecure men and a female student she fears is a rival.

A young, attractive male student named Walter (Benoît Magimel) tries to seduce Erika.  She refuses his advances, then engages him in a cat-and-mouse game which fascinates, and disgusts, him.  Her motivations are colored by revenge against her mother, and the action leads to a final, violent climactic encounter with Walter.  Spoiler alert:  no happy endings here (you already knew that).  Erika gets to know better what she knows best:  pain.  She knows how to endure it, and inflict it—on others and on herself.

The bleak tale of The Piano Teacher was directed by Michael Haneke (Caché, The White Ribbon), adapting the novel of fellow Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.  The film won three awards at Cannes, for actress (Huppert), actor (Magimel), and the festival’s Grand Prix (Haneke).


The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste)
Michael Haneke, director
Trailer


The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste)
Isabelle Huppert


Quote of Note
“Playing piano is making you flip.  Stop it now!”
—Sami (Gilles Cohen), The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 04 May 2010 @ 10:47 PM

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 04 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 88 | May 4, 2010

Plight of the Piano Player


Our theme this week

Piano-playing protagonists in peril

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste) (1960)

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

five easy pieces

Jack Nicholson had been making movies since the ’50s, but not until Easy Rider in 1969 had he earned much notice.  In the next year came a performance that established him as a force to be reckoned with.

In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a complex and volatile man whose blue collar existence belies his musical talent.  He works in an oil field to get far away from his family, but there’s no escape from the failure he feels in never having fulfilled his early promise.  He’s a rebel against all he was brought up to be, perhaps with good cause, but all his rebellion has brought him is an empty, joyless life.  His girlfriend is Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress and fan of Tammy Wynette (“Stand by Your Man” is her anthem), and the two of them travel back to visit his dying father.  In the end, Bobby decides it is time for a change, but whether for better or worse it’s not certain.

Five Easy Pieces is best known for its “chicken salad sandwich” scene.  In the span of a couple of minutes, in an act as simple as placing an order at a diner, the conflicts of the times are played out.  His rage against authority palpable, Dupea confronts the waitress and her nonsensical rules with a combination of creative thinking and a violent sweep of the table.  Nicholson became a hero of sorts (you can see his persona in the making), but the movie doesn’t offer easy answers.  The old order still stood, the revolution didn’t come—not in that diner, at least, or most of society, for that matter.

As much as anything that year, Five Easy Pieces kicked off a decade of filmmaking when the old rules weren’t working, and for a time, something new was possible.


Five Easy Pieces
Bob Rafelson, director
Jack Nicholson, Billy Green Bush
Chopin’s “Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49” (with horns)


Five Easy Pieces
Jack Nicholson, Sally Struthers, Toni Basil, Helena Kallianiotes, and Lorna Thayer
Diner Scene


 


Quote of Note
Lloyd
:  There comes a time that a piano realizes that it has not written a concerto.
Margo:  And you, I take it, are the Paderewski who plays his concerto on me, the piano?
—Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Margo Channing (Bette Davis), All About Eve (1950)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 04 May 2010 @ 09:58 AM

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 03 May 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 87 | May 3, 2010

Plight of the Piano Player

Time was, a piano player in a movie was there for the obvious purpose, to offer a song or some background music.  Think Sam (Dooley Wilson) in Casablanca, or Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) in To Have and Have Not, or the pianists in countless musicals.  The piano player was the steady hand, the confidant, the untroubled eye of the storm.

Those were the days.  The poor piano players haven’t had it so good of late.  Victims of misfortune, living lives of desperation, fleeing malevolent forces, at times their own worst enemy.  It’s enough to make you wonder if they should have taken up the tuba instead.  Or maybe accounting.

Whatever the case, the lives of piano players, miseries and all, have made for some especially good movies.

Our theme this week
Piano-playing protagonists in peril

Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste) (1960)

shoot the piano player

Perhaps piano players can point a finger at François Truffaut.  A year after his debut feature, The 400 Blows, when the New Wave was still new, Truffaut directed this provocatively titled film.  Piano players have been under the gun ever since.

Shoot the Piano Player stars French singing legend Charles Aznavour (an unlikely pick for Entertainer of the Century in a Time poll), in the role of Edouard Saroyan, a once-famous classical pianist who’s taken a new identity as Charlie while playing in dive bars.  He’s trying to escape the past—his wife had killed herself—though he’s hopelessly in its clutches.  A waitress who loves him knows his secret, and trouble ensues when his brother needs help, on the run from gangsters.

The film is part comedy, part thriller, and though perhaps not his greatest creation, essential Truffaut.  The director plays with movie conventions like a kid with a toy.  Not content to follow the old traditions, he bends the rules of genre, mixes up the time sequence, adds in some novel techniques, and pays homage to some favorites, while in the process helping to invent a new form of moviemaking.


Shoot the Piano Player
François Truffaut, director
Trailer

 


Shoot the Piano Player
Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois


Shoot the Piano Player
Charles Aznavour et al.

 


Quote of Note
Anita Smythe:
  Now, darling, remember what the psychoanalyst said.  The child mind must never be coerced.  One must use reason and persuasion.  Now, dear, practice your piano and Mama will buy you something nice.
Joy Smythe:  What?
Anita Smythe:  Anything you like.  What do you especially want?
Joy Smythe:  A machine gun!
—Anita Smythe (Dorothy Christy), Joy Smythe (Jane Withers), Bright Eyes (1934)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 03 May 2010 @ 06:32 AM

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