Ivory pure? Er, hardly
IN 1970, when Jack Nicholson gave life to the conflicted dropout Robert Eroica Dupea in Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces,” it was rare for a classical pianist to be depicted onscreen as anything other than an eccentric genius, an obsessive or a dandy. The avalanche of gritty, character-driven indie films that was about to rock the studio system was just a trickle, and in popular culture, it was still considered rebellious to glorify the domestic lives of Mafiosi.
So a few years later, when young filmmaker and frustrated amateur musician James Toback persuaded George Barrie of the Faberge perfume company to finance his directorial debut, “Fingers,” about a turmoil-ridden young pianist, Toback -- and all movie lovers receptive to the connections between “high” and “low” culture -- had a lot to be thankful for.
In a richly detailed portrayal of a character torn between life as a thuggish debt collector for his gangster father and as a musician who just might vicariously resurrect the concert career of his mentally ill mother, star Harvey Keitel created a moving portrait of a new-to-the-screen but surprisingly realistic archetype: the deviant pianist.
Ask anyone who has toiled for years at a conservatory about the dark, volatile personalities lurking in the cracks of such ivory towers, and that term is unlikely to raise any eyebrows. In her recent, overtly cinematic book, “Mozart in the Jungle,” for example, author Blair Tindall, a freelance oboist, writes of classical musicians snorting cocaine, having orgies and committing sexual abuse in 1980s Manhattan. As the violinist son of Juilliard-trained pianists, I myself am all too familiar with tales of morally corrupt, aberrant and violence-prone classical musicians.
“Only a few ‘make it,’ ” my parents told me as I practiced. “Among all of the winners and losers, there are many characters you don’t want to know.”
But for better or worse -- and without even a hint of reference to my terribly upstanding colleagues and family members -- it’s pianists, in particular, who seem the most narratively and pathologically appropriate musicians to be depicted on celluloid as twisted personalities. Look for signs not only in “Five Easy Pieces” and “Fingers” but in Michael Haneke’s 2001 S&M; romp, “The Piano Teacher,” and in Jacques Audiard’s new remake of “Fingers,” “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” -- an electric film introducing even more people to the mad-pianist type while also, according to Netflix, prompting a sharp spike in “Fingers” DVD-renting.
In a recent phone conversation, 25-year-old Jonathan Biss expressed no surprise at the way filmmakers have taken to portraying his fellow pianists. “I know of even more pianist-deviants in real life than I do on film,” he said, tongue only partly in cheek. “If you play the piano, you spend a ridiculous amount of time alone in a room doing something that encourages those voices in one’s head to scream.”
Pianists, after all, must extract from their scores numerous characters -- lines, harmonies and rhythms among them -- at once. And alone. Moreover, the percussive nature of playing the piano -- the fact that you can bang the devil out of one and receive acclaim for doing so -- makes it plausible that an emotionally contrapuntal keyboardist could easily veer between highbrow and lowbrow, sensitivity and violence, love and aggression more successfully than, say, a neurotic violinist, swaggering trumpeter or quirky bassoonist.
In “Fingers,” Keitel’s stoic yet unstable Jimmy -- firm brow, wide, hard-worn face, powerful hands -- carries a boombox around desolate, open Manhattan spaces. He confidently flips on saccharine but “musically inventive” doo-wop in a fancy restaurant and, at one point, sparks a fight with a banker type over the grating tune, only to return home for a solitary, near-orgasmic encounter with Bach’s similarly repetitive E-minor Toccata -- an encounter made of far more passion than his brutish sexual trysts with the mistress of an enemy or a downtown sculptor-prostitute.
Later in the film, he tries to explain to a cop that he doesn’t deserve jail time for collecting a debt; he has an imminent audition for a music “impresario” at Carnegie Hall. The cop doesn’t buy the excuse. But he also doesn’t realize just how revealing his prisoner has been and how smart he was to arrest him. It’s not just that Jimmy has an important audition. It’s that he can’t learn to quiet his mind, to escape the aberrance-jail that a pianist’s life can lock you in, so that he would, perhaps, be as effective a Bach interpreter as he is a strong-armer: a public master of emotional duplicity, a deft negotiator between physical aggression and the art of both controlling and manipulating it.
In Audiard’s slick remake, the intense young French actor Romain Duris (here called Tommy) listens to hypnotic electronica through headphones instead of blasting the Jamies’ “Summertime, Summertime” from a tape deck. But he too ricochets between frustrating bouts of practicing and lightning-like eruptions of physical rage. In “The Piano Teacher,” Isabelle Huppert is buttoned-up on the outside but vengeful and vicious just beneath: She blithely puts broken glass in the coat pocket of a student she sees as a threat.
WHY do these characters play the piano, as opposed to another instrument? The answer may partly be that pounding a keyboard provides more of an emotional release. But the dark-versus-light struggle inherent in the very construction of the piano and the music that’s written for it could also play a part.
“I have known a slew of pianists and was friendly with Aaron Copland and Lenny Bernstein for years,” Toback told me from New York, explaining that with “Fingers,” he wanted to humanize a pianist, to integrate a classical music character into urban, visceral life as no other film had done. “It isn’t that these composers resembled Keitel’s character per se. But there was usually something rather surprising and challenging to, if not contradictory of, the musical side of their personality. There was a lot of other stuff going on that certainly was parallel to their musical lives.”
Like most pianists, Toback’s and Audiard’s protagonists are tragically self-conscious. They may suspect they can be their true contrapuntal selves, unedited, only when alone with a large wooden machine of sonic betrayal, where one voice is never enough, and art can come only from struggle.
“With the possible exception of the violin, the piano is also the instrument that gives the greatest opportunity for exhibitionism, for show. There is an inherent narcissism about the instrument,” added Toback, who gave Keitel a film of Glenn Gould -- perhaps the ultimate study in narcissism -- to watch before production began.
Since its initial release (and failure) in 1978, “Fingers” has steadily acquired a cult following. Among its devoted fans is Christopher O’Riley -- a concert pianist known for interpreting electronic Radiohead songs as deftly as he does Stravinsky. He respectfully offered an excellent counterargument to Toback’s.
“I think pianists’ working well as deviant film characters has less to do with emotional and musical counterpoint and more to do with sensuality,” he said. “The human voice is the embodiment of music. The pianist’s hands have more of a slight distance than the voice and evoke more of a sensual quality. Things the hands can do may even seem in some performances to be separate or distanced from the person playing.
“Witness other pianist movies, such as Peter Lorre in 1935’s ‘Mad Love,’ involving a hand transplant on a pianist who inadvertently ends up with the hands of a murderer. There’s also the rather silly melodrama ‘Letter From an Unknown Woman,’ with Louis Jourdan as a pianist wholly unaware of the havoc and pain he has wrought on the life of a young girl who heard him play from outside his window. There’s an obliviousness in some pianist characters that places them outside the laws of polite society. Their empyrean demeanor is something that somehow comes off convincing.”
To me, it has always seemed that many pianists don’t just have to be isolated, they want to be. I have long recognized the look of dark delight that comes over the face of a pianist who interrupts a conversation or encounter to say, “I’ve got to go. I need to practice.” There’s frequently an antisocial -- and sometimes lightly sociopathic -- quality to people who choose to play the piano, and nowhere are characters like this more beloved than on the big screen.
In the movies, as opposed to real life, a person who keeps you at arm’s length, making you more interested, will then, often, grant you a private passport into secret sides of his or her life. It’s deliciously invasive, revelatory -- a marked improvement on reality. No one knows what goes on in a pianist’s practice room except the pianist. No one is allowed to intrude. But a movie about a pianist must show this private world to its viewers if it’s going to be successful, both narratively and dramatically.
Going to extremes
EVEN if it doesn’t, though, viewers must assume pianists capable of going to extremes -- or else the movies would stop using them that way. For instance, in the 1971 “Mephisto Waltz,” an aging, Satan-worshiping pianist desperate to live and play switches souls with a young music journalist played by Alan Alda. Would the film have worked if the pianist had been a French-horn player? In Francois Truffaut’s 1960 “Shoot the Piano Player,” Charles Aznavour is a virtuoso whose existence is dominated by crime and grief -- he’s ensconced in a family of crooks. Perhaps it’s because the piano is its own limitless orchestra that those who can make it hum at the highest level, on all cylinders, seem to possess the ability to commit dramatic acts on all sides of the human behavioral divide.
In a phone call from France, Audiard, the director of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” took a stab at this hypothesis.
“It’s interesting that you have this idea of pianists,” he said, “because among the musicians I know, many develop a kind of neurosis, and playing music onstage becomes more difficult for them as they age. It’s almost an illness. And yet these are some of the most generous people I know. To perform like this is a generous act.”
I didn’t disagree that many people do perform for the sake of generosity. And I certainly didn’t disagree that, for many, performing is an affliction they can’t escape. But I did reply by suggesting that perhaps Audiard hadn’t known the pianists I have, from a childhood of musical immersion.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that the majority of people who follow this career path, successful or not, aren’t exactly in it for the sake of generosity.”
In fact, watch any of the aforementioned films -- watch how any of the pianist protagonists reacts physically to the act of performance -- and you’ll see a human response inescapably similar to that of a criminal who has just pulled off the score of a lifetime, beaten an archenemy to a pulp or indulged in any number of ego-satisfying compulsions outside the boundaries of the law.
Behavior that plays well in the cinema plays well because we believe it’s plausible.