Friday, October 1, 2010

TV Bites: Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste)

Un Sandwich de Poulet, Pomme et Brie
(Roast Chicken, Apple & Brie Sandwich)

It's TV Bites time and this time around I'm doing two French movies back to back. But not just two movies directed by two great French directors. Both movies, 21 years apart, were adapted from pulp novels written by American authors. Both movies' locations are transposed to different locations. Both to different eras than when they were written. Both are done with a jazz score. Both are available in Criterion DVD editions. And both movies, I love dearly. Oh yeah, and both movies are rarely, if ever, broadcast on any American cable channel. Any guesses on the 2nd?

Shoot the Piano Player is available to watch at Netflix on Demand.


“My old man used to say: ‘When the doorbell rings, imagine it’s a murderer.... then you’ll be glad if it’s only a thief.”

Director Francois Truffaut first came to public attention as part of a group of writers at the French cineaste magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, in the 1950's. The brash critics, included Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. Most would become film directors themselves, and would be dubbed the leaders of "French New Wave Cinema." But first and foremost they were the first real film geeks; the first to realize that films could be looked at and interpreted not just by genre, but that many directors (and even some producers) had a stylistic and thematic thread that ran through their body of work. They rallied and elevated film directors (and some may say for their own egos as wannabe directors) to be thought of as more than just guns for hire, and that movies were not just disposable entertainment, but real art. Truffaut continued even after becoming a filmmaker to write extensively about film and filmmaking during his life. And so, I’m going to let him do much of the writing here.

Shoot the Piano Player was made between The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim in 1960, but was released in the US after Jules et Jim in 1963. Both those films have a gentle sweetness to them, a style of film which allowed Truffaut to show his love of the work of French director Jean Renoir. (“I think Renoir is the only filmmaker who’s practically infallible, who has never made a mistake on film. And I think if he never made mistakes, it’s because he always found solutions based on simplicity.”) Shoot the Piano Player, however, is his tribute to directors like Nicholas Ray (“[H]e never explains, never underscores his meaning. He makes outlines rather than films.”) and Robert Aldrich (“In Aldrich’s films, it is not unusual to encounter a new idea with each shot.”). Truffaut has said: “In le Pianiste, I was paying my debt to the American cinema.... [It was] a pastiche of the Hollywood B-films from which I learned so much.

Annette Insdorf writes in her book on Truffaut, that Shoot the Piano Player had two main influences, his love of jazz, and his love of film. Before Quentin Tarantino was even born, the French New Wave filmmakers were making films that reveled in their self-awareness of being films, postmodernists before postmodernism, referring back constantly to the rich cinematic past that came before them – something that hadn’t really been done before in America, as well as exploring new possibilities for story-telling. Truffaut “makes us conscious that we are watching a film,” she wrote. But at the same time “continually surprises us... deliberately disrupting tone; it disorients and improvises and flies – in the best tradition of American jazz.

Richard John Neuport, in his “A History of the French New Wave Cinema,” also compares the film’s structure to a “jazz score.” “[T]he film has its own unique structure, and it is not unusual for first-time viewers to be simultaneously impressed and confused by its meandering narrative and ironic tone,” he wrote. Even Truffaut himself once noted that Shoot the Piano Player was “practically a musical film.”

The film was not nearly as well-received as The 400 Blows nor Jules et Jim when it was first released, and partially it may be because of its jazz-like loose structure. Many film reviewers in the US found the film disorienting and disconcerting. “I know that the result seems ill-assorted and the film seems to contain four or five films, but that’s what I wanted,” Truffaut said at the time. “I know that the public detests nothing more than changes of tone, but I’ve always had a passion for changing tone.

But also perhaps it was off-putting then because audiences of the time did not yet appreciate the Noir genre as we do today. The French were way ahead of Americans for not just appreciating Hollywood Noir, but also Noir novelists like Jim Thompson and David Goodis. Goodis was one of Truffaut’s favorite writers. He turned famed french singer Charles Aznavour on to the book and they decided to try and make it a film. At first, Truffaut wanted it to be his directorial debut. "I was enthused by the dialogue, the poetic tone of the book, the love story, the evocation of the past," he wrote. "Then while working on the adaptation, I felt that it was not right to start with this film.”

The subject is freely adapted from [the novel], and the setting moved from San Francisco to Paris," he wrote. "It’s about the life of a broken-down musician who used to be a celebrity and is now reduced to playing the piano in a bar. There isn’t much story to tell. I have tried to give a portrait of a timid man, divided between society and his art, and to show his relationship with three women. But no treatise, no message, no psychology; it moves between the comic and the sad, and back again. I don’t assume to judge my characters: like Jean Renoir, I think that everyone has his own reasons for behavior.” He also remarked, “My characters [in the film] are on the edge of society. I want them to testify to human fragility because I don’t like toughness, I don’t like very strong people, or people whose weaknesses don’t show.

[T]he idea behind le Pianiste was to make a film without a subject, to express all I wanted to say about glory, success, downfall, failure, women, and love by means of a detective story,” Truffaut said.

Because spectators see the same scenario in so many films, they have become good scenarists and can always foretell what’s coming and how it’s going to end," Truffaut noted. "With le Pianiste I would like them to go from surprise to surprise.”

So I hope if you've never seen Shoot the Piano Player you will allow it to surprise you in a way that it always is a surprise to me -- finding always a new way to love it with each repeat viewing.


There are two famed French singers in Shoot the Piano Player. One, of course, is the great Charles Aznavour. Aznavour, the son of Armenian immigrants, became not just one of the great French singers and actors, but was named “Entertainer of the 20th Century” (beating Elvis Presley) by a CNN/Time magazine poll. The other is Boby Lapointe. His story is truly amazing....

Boby Lapointe was born in the south of France in 1922. He was known as a bit of a troublemaker, but by the time he was entering college he was being recognized as somewhat of a mathematical genius. Later in life, in 1968, he devised a method of calculation based on the hexadecimal system, that he named the “Bibi system” (I have no idea what I just wrote there). But his early accomplishments, including inventing an automotive automatic clutch (which elements are apparently still used in cars today), were thwarted by the outbreak of WWII. Lapointe was sent to an Austrian labor camp from which he soon made a daring escape from and eventually resurfaced (so to speak) as a deep sea diver in Marseilles until the war ended.

With the war over, he got married and moved to Paris, opening a clothing store for kids. That didn’t last long and he then earned his living installing TV antennas while trying his hand at songwriting. Eventually, he developed enough material and courage to start singing at a Parisian cabaret nightclub, Le Cheval d’Or.

Comedian/filmmaker Pierre Etaix recalled seeing him during his days at Le Cheval d’Or. "It was amazing, despite all the problems Boby had with diction and pronunciation, despite an overall lack of rhythm, the guy just had something about him. He oozed his own natural charm."

Truffaut saw Lapointe at the cabaret and was enthralled by his look and sound. He hired Lapointe to sing the song he heard in the club that night “Avanie et framboise.” The producer of the film wanted Truffaut to cut the song, but he refused. Aznavour liked him so much he hired him for his opening act which led to Lapointe recording his first album and a career that lasted another 12 years until he died from cancer in 1972. He never achieved real success in his lifetime, but since his death he has been rediscovered and is now revered for hiswhimsical displays of verbal pyrotechnics, the lyrics woven from masses of puns, spoonerisms, and other word play.


So today's snack is not featured in the movie, but I thought that if I could go to Mammy's (the name of the bar in the movie) and eat lunch whilst listening to M. Aznavour play piano, I would very much hope to find a sandwich like this on the menu.

According to an article originally printed in The Economist last year, the people of France ate 1.3 billion sandwiches in 2009 (there are about 62.3 million people living in France which comes to an average of 21 sandwiches per person per annum). It appears the traditional le déjeuner is on its way out and typical lunch restaurants are going out of business. Between 2003-2008, the French market for sandwiches increased by 28%. Around 3,000 traditional French restaurants, cafes and bars went bust in the first three months of 2008.

"Lunch customers used to order a main course, dessert, coffee and a bottle of wine," said Jean Guillaume, owner of Le Bouquet brasserie in Paris. "Now they're limiting themselves to a main course, tap water, and giving up the rest. Of 75 customers in this lunchtime, none had a bottle of wine... It's the end of a tradition of lunching out and it looks like figures will stay this low for two to three years." The economy apparently has a lot to do with it, but also lower wages and longer working hours for the average French worker have contributed to this change in diet.

The annual European Sandwich & Snack Trade Show in Paris will be taking place in March next year. Maybe I should fly there with my creation....

Un Sandwich de Poulet, Pomme et Brie
(Roast Chicken, Apple & Brie Sandwich)

Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 2

2 10-inch mini baguettes, fresh, sliced in half lengthwise
8 ounces roasted chicken*, de-boned, sliced 1/3" thick
1/2 medium/large apple, sliced 1/3" thick
4 ounces French brie cheese, sliced 1/3" thick
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 teaspoons apricot spreadable fruit or preserves
frisee, tango or mixed lettuce

* Feel free to use store bought roasted chicken or, if you prefer to make your own, I recommend this popular recipe from San Francisco's Zuni Cafe.

On one half of the baguettes, lay the brie and chicken evenly across.

On the other half of the baguettes, spread dijon and apricot spread, then top with apple and lettuce.

Toast the half with the cheese & chicken until cheese melts then put sandwich together. Alternately, you can put the sandwich together and put in a sandwich press.

Slice diagonally and serve with chips, french fries, or salad.

Francois Truffaut Bio
Cahiers du Cinema
Charles Taylor @ Salon on Francois Truffaut
Shoot the Piano Player, Criterion Page
Boby Lapointe Bio @ RFI Musique
David Goodis Tribute Page (beware, it has annoying music on every page)
David Goodis Bio

Shoot the Piano Player, a novel by David Goodis
Shoot the Piano Player, DVD Criterion Edition
Truffaut: A Biography, by Antoine de Baecque & Serge Toubiana
The Films of My Life, by Francois Truffaut
Francois Truffaut, by Annette Insdorf
Francois Truffaut: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers), by Ronald Bergan
A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Wisconsin Studies in Film), by Richard Neuper
The New Wave: Godard Truffaut Chabrol Rohmer Rivette, by James Monaco
Charles Aznavour MP3s & CDs @ Amazon
Boby Lapointe MP3s & CDs @ Amazon
Bistro Cooking, by Patricia Wells

No comments:

Post a Comment