Shoot the Piano Player

Shoot the Piano Player

Reviews of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Me and You and Everyone We Know and other new films.


Like the Tower of Pisa, the Cyclone at Coney Island or the La Brea tar pits, James Toback’s Fingers is a landmark: unbalanced, ramshackle and gloopy but irrevocably there. It is both a location in itself and a locator, which puts into place some of the most idiosyncratic traits of 1970s American cinema.

From Five Easy Pieces, Toback lifted the figure of a keyboard-playing misfit–a character who, in the earlier film, could not live in either of the social worlds available to him, those of the intelligentsia and the working class, but who became in Fingers someone who could not live up to his models for manhood: the artist and the thug. In another act of mimicry, Toback cast Harvey Keitel as his lead, exploiting the actor’s Mean Streets persona as sensitive yet explosive, thoughtful yet mobbed up–an image that Fingers exaggerated to the point of psychosis. The Golden Age of Porn gave Toback his courtship scenarios, establishing the far edge of fantasy for Fingers. The film’s far edge of realism was inspired by Scorsese, Lumet, Friedkin and many others, who led the way for Toback’s use of unadorned New York locations.

Toback set his borrowings into unsteady motion with a premise that only he, I admit, could have dreamed up: What if Glenn Gould were the enforcer for a New York City loan shark? The musical performances, as mimed by Keitel, were grotesque; the mob scenes, pure camp; and the sexual shenanigans, either risibly frank or frankly risible (you make the call). But because the film caught in passing so much of 1977 New York, and because half a dozen of its scenes were not just improbable but indelible, Fingers won a following that it maintains to this day.

Among its admirers is the wonderfully clever director Jacques Audiard (See How They Fall, A Self-Made Hero, Read My Lips), who with screenwriter Tonino Benacquista has now come up with a French remake titled The Beat That My Heart Skipped. It plays a game that hard-core fans of Fingers perhaps won’t care for, in that it’s credible and coherent. It even has a female character whose life isn’t defined by her relationships with men. Yet despite such faults (from the Tobackian point of view), The Beat That My Heart Skipped succeeds in pulling you deep into the experience of a febrile character who is so determined to change his life for the better that he just might destroy everyone he knows.

Brilliantly portrayed by the slim and vulpine Romain Duris, whose built-in sneer never quite conceals the bulge of his upper teeth, Tom is a Parisian real-estate operator of the hands-on school. When he wants to develop a property, he clears out the existing tenants by releasing rats, smashing windows or breaking heads with a baseball bat–techniques that are only slightly rougher than the ones he uses in negotiating with his partners. Audiard presents Tom’s career as a nocturnal chaos of murky, jumpy close-ups shot with a hand-held camera: the business world as one of the more restless circles of hell.

Tom needs steadiness–but true to his nature and milieu, he searches for it chaotically. When a chance encounter with an impresario brings back memories of his late mother, a concert pianist, Tom suddenly throws himself into preparing for an audition, despite the minor handicaps of lacking any professional experience and being at least ten years out of practice. So life-giving is his new activity that Tom soon abandons his needy father, lets down his business partners and enters into an affair that’s nasty even by the standards of French adultery movies. This isn’t exactly progress.

The only sign of hope is that he’s now concentrating on something. The Beat stops skipping and settles down as soon as Tom starts practicing. Why have so few filmmakers, other than Audiard, dared to show what pianists really do: go over a passage again and again? In these static, repetitive and utterly compelling scenes, Tom at last has stillness forced on him, though sometimes to his comic frustration–especially in the lessons he takes with a conservatory student (Linh-Dan Pham) who speaks no French. You will notice that she is the second woman to coach Tom on the piano, and he can no more converse with her than with his dead mother.

Already this year we have seen one French remake of an independent 1970s American thriller: an inappropriately artsy and star-laden Assault on Precinct 13. That picture almost drove me into the death-of-cinema camp; whereas Audiard’s film, though initiated by the same producer, reminds me that cinema has more lives than we may think. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is terrific entertainment. When compared with the original, it even suggests that movies are better than ever.

Jia Zhangke established his reputation with three remarkable films–Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002)–all of which were rapturously received at international festivals but are known in China only through bootleg DVDs. Made without government approval, these films officially do not exist and therefore cannot be shown. For his latest picture, though, Jia secured the right stamps in Beijing and Shanghai to go with his funding from Tokyo and Paris. His countrymen can at last watch one of his films.

And what will they see in The World? A fun-house reflection of the filmmaker’s situation, and theirs, as globalized yet wholly isolated.

Jia’s characters in The World are fictional workers at an actually existing theme park outside Beijing: a place with reduced-scale models of the Eiffel Tower, St. Peter’s, the New York skyline (with Twin Towers still standing), the Taj Mahal. See the World Without Leaving Beijing! reads a billboard on the property, selling people their own constraint as a form of entertainment. Tao (Zhao Tao), a dancer in the theme park’s gaudy shows, and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taishen), a security guard, are free-moving enough to have made it here from their rural birthplace in Shanxi, but it’s clear they’re not getting any farther. They may take the park’s video “magic carpet ride”; they may sit in the facsimile of a passenger jet, where Tao sometimes plays a flight attendant to help visitors imagine the wonders of air travel; but their real world will remain the workers’ maze of underground corridors and dressing rooms, where faint echoes of music and applause filter in from above.

I can see I’m in danger of insisting too much on the film’s social critique, and so making The World into castor oil. It’s anything but. Jia’s patient observational style makes plenty of room for humor and incongruity–as when his characters carry on an argument in front of a camel, tethered forlornly next to the theme-park Pyramids, or when they get so excited by the miracle of text messaging that they visualize the calls as psychedelic cartoons. Jia’s art can also open up the most devastating sorrow, sprung from nothing fancier than a chance meeting in a washroom or a few words scrawled on a cigarette wrapper.

Emotionally, The World is as full as any movie you’re going to see–and it has something to say, by the way, about the situation of a billion or so people, for whom modernity is a growing pressure, a bitter fantasy, a show to be played for a little money.

The international film circuit’s favorite Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, shares Jia’s love of long, steady takes and complexly layered soundtracks, rich in ambient sound and musical performance. He is concerned with incidents more than plot, atmosphere more than momentum; and like Jia he is particularly interested in the interplay between provincial and city life. That said, Weerasethakul (or, as he likes to be known in the West, Joe) takes you to places that are even stranger than Jia’s theme park.

Tropical Malady is set alternately in Bangkok and the jungle, with a narrative that is realistic at first and then folkloric. What makes the film so odd and fascinating is the way the two supposedly separate realms seep into each other.

Part one might be described as a love story, in which a young soldier named Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and an unemployed former soldier named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) hook up in Bangkok, then continue their affair on a trip to the country, where Tong’s mother lives. Part two, which begins almost before you know it, has Keng patrolling the jungle on his own, hunting and being hunted by a man-eating tiger, who is actually the ghost of a shape-shifting shaman. When not portrayed by a real tiger, the latter character is played by the actor who was Tong, now naked except for geometric designs painted on his body.

If you’re sensitive to green–lots and lots of green–and the sounds of God knows what stirring in the foliage, then the hourlong hunting sequence of Tropical Malady will work on you until it’s almost hallucinatory. And yet, even when the monkeys overhead start chattering intelligible advice to Keng, you may feel that his situation hasn’t radically changed. The first part of the film was already full of spooky rumors, mysterious legends, wondrous underground shrines. By the end of part two, you’re left wondering whether Keng has just been experiencing the inner meaning of his love affair, or whether Tong in Bangkok had really been a ghost tiger shaman, trying to lure Keng to his lair.

If you no longer care about the difference, then you’ve come down successfully with Tropical Malady.

In a film world that can boast of Audiard, Jia and Joe, it seems unfair to place America’s hopes on the slim and wistful figure of writer, director and actor Miranda July. But the big news recently has been the release of her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, so we might as well enjoy what we’ve got.

A Los Angeles-based conceptual artist who here plays a Los Angeles-based conceptual artist, July wittily constructs her film as a solar system of small, sad people sharing small, sad jokes, all of them orbiting a really funny joke of stellar magnitude that is revealed toward the movie’s end. Although I musn’t explain this core gag, I can tell you it involves the Internet, urban anxieties, the contemporary art world, infantile sexuality and what passes for grown-up sexuality. That July manages to address all these issues almost in passing, almost with a shrug, seems to me entirely to her credit–as does her honesty in summing them up with an image that may be translated as “same old shit.”

I might object to the film as too superficial, too nice–too American–on the grounds that almost everyone in it turns out to be an innocent. But since July makes her own character the exception, proving to be aggressive despite all that wistfulness, I will admit to having had a shrugging good time.

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