Monday, June 20, 2011

Clip Joint Round-Up: Pianos

Hello. It's been a while. Been busy with proper life stuff and general brain freeze. To get back in the groove I thought I might do a round-up of last weeks's Clip Joint over at The Guardian, one of the few things I've had the attention span to contribute to recently. So, the task, choose five from all the suggested clips. This week's theme was pianos, which turned out to be an inspired one. As the great clips kept coming I thought to myself, god, I wouldn't want to have to pick five from this lot. And then I thought, but if I had to, what would they be? So here I am, doing that. The five chosen by Tess can be found here, just scroll down a bit to see them.

First up for me has to be Jean Arthur and Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings. It was hard picking just one Howard Hawks scene as I've had to leave out Hoagy Carmichael and Lauren Bacall's iconic double-act from To Have And Have Not but in the end that undulating thing Arthur does with her arm and Grant yelling PEA-NUT! swung the deal. In two minutes the piano tells us plenty about her; that she's a tougher cookie than she first appears, a practised performer who's been around plenty of those disreputable rogues, musicians. And the brief bit of introspective noodling tells us she's been hurt in love too, almost certainly by one of those musicians. Here then, we not only have the Hawksian world-view encapsulated in one scene but also an example of the way pianos act as social hubs, focal points for gathering around, starting parties, lining up shots glasses. A piano, this scene tells us, is more than an instrument, it's a test of character, a hurt unlocker, a standing invitation.

Or, in the case of The Seven Year Itch, a libido unlocker. That's certainly how Tom Ewell sees it, or imagines it. This was the scene posted, but we forgot about an earlier one, where Ewell fantasises about the effect Rachmaninoff will have on Monroe, how its deep romantic seriousness will induce shakes and quakes and goosebumps, leaving her helpless putty in his arms. Here we have the less exalted reality. Instead of Rachmaninoff we get chopsticks, instead of a fantasy sex goddess there's a girl having thoughtless fun. Marilyn still gets goosebumps, though. And how! But Ewell ends up flat on his face. Monroe's girlish enjoyment is infectious. She's not some pretentious siren of desire, classical dream-cords reverberating through her body. She's the simple, surface fun of chopsticks. The piano, in this case, is a personality decoder, an arena of (would-be) seduction, a reservoir of lost childhood pleasure.

As I said above, the piano is a standing invitation. Especially in an empty room. And double-especially in an empty bar. It seems to call to certain people, to tempt them away from reality, like Alain Delon in this scene from Jean Pierre Melville's Un Flic. It's a homage I'm sure to Sinatra, who invented (or crystalised) this tough-guy-reveals-sensitive-side-playing-piano-in-an-empty-bar schtick. It's a moment of private reverie, time holding its breath, Delon playing an introspective, jazzy piece, cigarette in his mouth, Catherine Deneuve listening unseen in the shadows, falling for him with every note. The piano, this tells us, is an interzone, a world unto itself, touchstone of timeless cool, summoner of goddesses from the dark.

'It hurts', Ingrid Bergman explains to Liv Ulmann, 'but he doesn't show it.' The film is Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata, the he is Chopin, the piece is his Prelude No. 2. which Ulmann has been playing just before this, every halting note clearly torture to her concert pianist mother, who is now going to show how it should be played. What follows is a lesson and a humiliation. As she plays, Ulmann gazes at her. The look is mesmerising, total; need, resentment, love, hurt, all held in sway by those hypnotic, mysterious notes. Just look at me, notice me. It's almost unbearable, the longing for her mother to pay her the same attention she does the piano, to touch her with the same tenderness, the same care. 'Total restraint the whole time,' Bergman emphasises, surely aware of the naked gaze, but refusing to acknowledge it. 'Feeling is very far from sentimentality,' she lectures, as her daughter sits meekly, saying nothing, craving sentimental connection, reduced to a mousy nothing by her elegant, brilliant mother. This piano is a cuckoo in the nest, an all-consuming lover, an instrument of pain, both exalted and plain.

And finally, I've gone for this old gag from Ballot Box Bunny, so good Looney Tunes used it more than once. I like this one best mainly because Yosemite Sam says pie-anna but also because his volcanic temper makes what he does in the end wonderfully inevitable. It's all in the timing. Get that right and it'll be funny forever. I've watched this ten times in the last week and laughed every time. Why when I know what's coming? Well, partly because I do know it's coming and partly it's the rhythm of it. Bugs plays the tune slow, Sam plays it fast. That's part of it too. So, what does this scene tell us about the pie-anna? That it's a potential booby-trap, a punisher of impatience, and comedy's favourite slapstick musical instrument.

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