Sunday, February 24, 2008

Monday, January 18, 1960: Shoot the Piano Player


Tirez sur le pianiste

1960, The Criterion Collection,
DD 1.0/16:9/Sub, 81m 15s

If information found at the Internet Movie Database is correct, then it was during the week of January 18-22, 1960 that Francois Truffaut completed the filming of his second feature film, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. Were the final scenes filmed the climactic scenes in the snow? Yet another instance of the so-called “sophomore jinx” (in which a director follows an auspicious feature debut with a flop), SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, based on David Goodis’s novel Down There (1956), was a critical and commercial failure.

In defending his use of what an interviewer referred to as “trash novels” as source material for his films, Truffaut averred that the strength of these novels and novelists (David Goodis and William Irish [Cornell Woolrich] in particular) lie in their audacity: because their works are not considered to be literature (high), but pulp (low), they are free to put “into their books anything they choose.” Truffaut went on to say: “After seeing Shoot the Piano Player and liking it, Henry Miller was asked to write an introduction for a new edition of Down There and therefore had to read the book. He then phoned me to say that he suddenly realized that whereas my film was good, the book was even better. So you see, I don’t film trash.”

Had Truffaut made his comments about filmmakers instead of “pulp” novelists, and claimed that their strength is that they put “into their films anything they choose,” he could not have offered a better description of his own, individual style of making films, his personal poetics. I strongly suspect that those who have little tolerance for Truffaut’s films dislike them for precisely this reason: they are too “quirky,” too stylistically varied, an awkward combination of comedy, tragedy, and slapstick. Hence Criterion’s lavish double-disc set of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (released late in 2005), which includes an audio commentary by two noted film scholars, rare interview footage, vintage interview footage with the director as well as rare test footage and a 28-page booklet with an insightful essay by Kent Jones and an additional interview with Truffaut, is unlikely to win over many converts.

Truffaut’s aesthetics can be understood as a reaction to French movies that exemplified what he called the “tradition of quality” and to American movies that now might be called “politically correct” but perhaps are better characterized as “hot topical,” films on social topics that manage to generate a great deal of heat but very little light—referred to in the 1950s as “problem pictures.” Hollywood problem pictures—films that condemned racial intolerance and drug addiction, for example, or explored the social and familial reasons for juvenile delinquency, or the potential horrors of nuclear war—might best be understood as analogous to a politician who condemns child abuse. He or she is right to condemn child abuse, but no one is going to speak for it. (Occasionally an ingenious writer might re-combine these topics into novel formulations, as exemplified by a film such as The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959), which was about nuclear war, racial bigotry, and feminism, and resolved itself, non-violently, through, of all things, the ménage a trios.) Time has transformed these problem pictures—e.g., among many dozens, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Man With the Golden Arm, Blackboard Jungle, and, according to Truffaut, virtually everything by Billy Wilder (with the exception of Stalag 17)—into museum pieces. Truffaut had special dislike for films such as Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), not a problem picture as such but dull and predictable—Hollywood filmmaking at its best, that is, worst.

Unlike the topical “problem picture,” SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER is non-political in its subject matter—there’s no ostentatious display of “social consciousness.” Instead, with its innovative montage, non-diegetic digressions (Boby Lapointe’s “Framboise”), and sudden mood juxtapositions—visual jazz—SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER attempts to exploit the full possibilities of the cinema. Since it is concerned primarily with its images, not simply its issues, it has remained more fresh and viable today than those other films of the same era.

An anecdote: During the many years Becky and I devoted to writing Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006), Donald’s younger brother (and Associate Producer of Performance) David happened to visit us. The day before he arrived, I happened to have been sorting through some old laser discs to find out if I had any titles on laser disc that had not yet been released on DVD. Serendipitously, I left propped against the downstairs bookcase the Criterion laser disc of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. Seeing it, David pointed to it and asked me if I liked the film. I said yes, I do. He replied: “So do I, very much. That was the film that opened up the cinema to me. It made me want to start making movies of my own.”

Slightly over a decade later, Performance (1970) had precisely the same effect on me: I’d loved movies since I was a small boy, but it was the film he co-produced years later that opened up for me the full possibilities of the cinema--as SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER had for him.

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