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“The Mouth that roared”: Peter Benchley’s Jaws at 40

By Kirk Curnutt


The novel that scared a generation out of the ocean and inspired everything from Shark Week to Sharknado recently turned forty. Commemorations of Peter Benchley’s Jaws have been as rare as megalodon sightings, however. Ballantine has released a new paperback edition featuring an amusing list of the author’s potential titles (The Grinning Fish, Pisces Redux), and in February an LA fundraiser for Shark Savers/Wildaid performed excerpts promising “an evening of relentless terror (and really awkward sex).” Otherwise, silence.

The reason is obvious. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation is so totemic that the novel is considered glorified source material, despite selling twenty-million copies. Rare is the commentator who doesn’t harp on its faults, and rarer still the fan who defends it. Critics dismiss the book as “airport literature,” while genre lovers complain it lacks “virtually every single thing that makes the movie great.” Negative perceptions arguably begin with Spielberg himself. Amid the legendary production problems that plagued the making of the movie—pneumatic sharks that didn’t work, uncooperative ocean conditions that tripled the shooting schedule—the director managed to suggest that his biggest obstacle was Benchley’s original narrative: “If we don’t succeed in making this picture better than the book,” he said, “we’re in real trouble.”

Jaws by Peter Benchley, first edition paperback, 1975.

Jaws by Peter Benchley, first edition paperback, 1975.

It’s unfortunate that Benchley gets so little love. In the mid-seventies book-Jaws didn’t simply inspire a movie but was integral to the overall phenomenon. My mother brought home the hardback months before Spielberg even began filming. As the pre-release hype roiled throughout spring 1975, her ten-year old cobbled together $1.95 for his very own paperback, which featured Roger Kastel’s iconic illustration of a massive beast with a mouthful of stalactites and stalagmites speeding toward a naked woman. (The hardback’s cover was toothless, both literally and figuratively; the shark looks like an index finger with a paper cut aiming to tickle its prey). Shortly after seeing Jaws I owned the soundtrack with John Williams’s ominous dun-dun theme; co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log, which detailed the torturous filming; and a Jaws beach towel, which made me the envy of the pool, if only briefly.

Obsessed, I collected newspaper and magazine clippings on sharks. Following the loony lead of Mad, Cracked, and Sick, I drew goofy, pun-laden parodies (Paws) and became a connoisseur of gory rip-offs (Grizzly, Orca). My paperback was essential to feeding my frenzy. I managed only three matinees before the movie left town. That was as many times per hour as I probably pored over Benchley’s bloodier passages. The urge to revisit scenes would today send a young fan to YouTube for clips or to Google for GIFs and memes. For a pre-Internet, pre-computer kid, however, rereading was the original refresh and replay. I knew Jaws so inside out I could cite the page number where the legs of the boy my age “were severed at the hips” and “sank, spinning slowly,” and I could flip straight to the bizarre moment when the shark hunter Quint insults his quarry’s penis.

I also detailed differences between the book and movie in my journal. (I was an only child; I had free time). The first change beguiled the beginning writer in me: “[Benchley] didn’t like any of his characters,” Spielberg declared, “so none of them were very likable. He put them in a situation where you were rooting for the shark to eat the people—in alphabetical order.”

The director flattened Benchley’s characters into eminently relatable archetypes: the everyman-cop with a near-fatal fear of water, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider); Quint, the aged fisherman (Robert Shaw); and the cocky scientist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Their counterparts on the page admittedly lack both their comic relief (Scheider’s famous deadpan “You’re going to need a bigger boat” upon first seeing the shark) and their riveting monologues (especially Quint’s tale of surviving the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, brilliantly if soddenly delivered by Shaw). Benchley preferred his people perturbing, not heroic. His insecure, snockered Brody belligerently spoils his wife’s dinner party; Hooper beds Mrs. Brody; and for bait Quint uses a dolphin fetus he brags of carving from its mother’s womb.

Despite its armrest-gripping terror, Spielberg’s movie is cathartic because man ultimately conquers nature. Like most audiences, I fist-pumped and cheered when Brody blew the shark to smithereens by exploding an oxygen tank. The book’s battle is less intense and yet more primal. Benchley’s captain hurls his harpoons as Queequeg or Tashtego would instead of firing them from a gun, while Quint’s and Hooper’s deaths are cruelly ironic. Maybe it’s because my friends and I had great fun sneaking ketchup packets into the pool to reenact it, but Shaw’s blood-belching final close-up never haunted me as much as the novel’s Ahab-inspired image of Quint dragged to a watery grave snared in his own harpoon line. Hooper’s fate is even more macabre. As the ichthyologist is turned into a human toothpick Brody attempts an ill-conceived rescue by strafing the water with rifle fire. He manages to miss the shark completely yet land a bullet in Hooper’s neck. Long before reading Melville, I intuited that this was how a naturalistic universe mocked humanity.

Jaws remains a very seventies-novel. I rather like that quality, much as, by contrast, I like that Spielberg’s movie hasn’t aged a day. (Thanks to Deep Blue Sea and Sharknado, we know how un-scary CGI sharks are compared to life-size pneumatic ones). Benchley’s book feels the way the first half of its decade did: amorphous and off-center, dubious of heroes, titillated by dirty talk.

Perhaps I might feel differently if I hadn’t read it on the cusp of adolescence, but Jaws reminds me of how novels attuned me to adult frailties. It’s going overboard to say it exposed me to the sharkish side of humanity, but I could recognize Brody’s resentments, Quint’s unapologetic violence, and Hooper’s sense of sexual entitlement in men I knew. A year after I outgrew my obsession I was berated for entering a community-theater dressing room and discovering a very Mrs. Brody-like friend of my family’s kissing a man I knew wasn’t her husband.

Benchley’s novel certainly made me afraid of the water, but unlike the movie, it did nothing to convince me I was any safer on dry land.

Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University’s Montgomery, Alabama, campus, where Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre in 1918. His publications include A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald (2004), the novels Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009), and Brian Wilson (2012). He is currently at work on a reader’s guide to Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

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The American Noah: neolithic superhero

By William D. Romanowski


Reports suggest that Hollywood’s sudden interest in Bible movies is driven by economics. Comic book superheroes may be losing their luster and the studios can mine the Bible’s “action-packed material” without having to pay licensing fees to Marvel Entertainment. Maybe this explains why director Darren Aronofsky’s pitch to studio executives was not based on religious precursors, but the fact that Noah’s ark might be “the only boat more famous than the Titanic.” Did Paramount executives picture Titanic meets The Passion of the Christ?

Noah, first and foremost, follows the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster. The studio is targeting not just churchgoers, but more importantly, the most frequent moviegoers (the under-25 crowd), and foreign audiences.

To heighten the film’s universal appeal, Aronofsky tried to meld the “fantastical world à la Middle-earth” for nonbelievers with a treatment that would please those “who take this very, very seriously as gospel.” The scorched earth magically sprouts a lush forest—lumber for ark-building—with Noah and his family helped by the Watchers, powerful earth-encrusted angels resembling Transformers. For the religiously devout, well, the movie “contains just enough spiritual pretention to make you wonder afterward if you have missed something important,” as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson observes.

The film is “inspired by the story of Noah” with the Book of Genesis providing characters and setting. Noah is however more centrally shaped by American mythology, which is of course laced with Biblical motifs. In his classic study, R. W. B. Lewis describes the archetypal American as an Adamic figure, his innocence restored by virtue of having shed the baggage of history and ancestry. He is “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”

Transplant this mythic character into Genesis and voilà! There you have it. The American Noah: Neolithic Superhero. Indeed, as Aronofsky said, “You’re going to see Russell Crowe as a superhero, a guy who has this incredibly difficult challenge put in front of him and has to overcome it.” Like the usual action-adventure lead (think of Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator), Noah is stoic, fearless, determined, and not only capable of violence, but adroit in combat. Faith serves as Noah’s superpower with God providing some “magical outside assistance” that makes for amazing special effects (Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America). Forget the forty days and nights; in an SFX instant geysers erupt and the skies unleash a torrent of rainfall submerging the earth in the apocalyptic flood. Wow!

Logan Lerman and Russell Crowe in Noah. Source: noahmovie.com.

Logan Lerman and Russell Crowe in Noah. Source: noahmovie.com.

As expected, characterizations are stark and simplified. Conflict results from the different positions that characters embrace on two important Biblical themes.

The Biblical creation account is referred to variously in several scenes. The Creator of all that exists invests His image bearers with the care and cultivation of human life and the creation: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). Noah understands the Creator’s charge to have “dominion” in terms of creational caretaking. In contrast, his archenemy, the wicked Tubal-Cain, employs it as a divine license for exploitation of people and the creation.

There is much dialogue about whether human nature is basically good or evil. Noah’s wife Naameh stresses goodness as a counterbalance to Noah’s mounting pessimism. He believes he is chosen only because he would complete a task that is “much greater than our own desires.” Noah is convinced there is “wickedness in all of us” and that he and his family will eventually perish “like everyone else.” However, early on, one of the Watchers perceives “a glimmer of Adam” in Noah. This is more than a wistful allusion to pre-Fall innocence and foreshadows the anticipated payoff in the climax.

True to the blockbuster formula, the conflict peaks with a face-to face confrontation between Noah and his evil nemesis, but with a crosscutting twist that puts the fate of humankind in Noah’s hands (like all apocalyptic movies). The scene recalls Abraham’s test with his son Isaac (Genesis 22). At the decisive moment in Noah, however, it is not God’s intervention, but Noah’s “good” and better judgment that ultimately prevails. Such is the film’s deference to American self-reliance and the blockbuster formula that the ending is never in doubt. But let’s consider possible meanings of this crucial, if ambiguous scene.

Perhaps Noah is to be likened to the Creator, who punishes sin and remains faithful by preserving a remnant of humanity. Or maybe it’s just that Noah has seen enough devastation, which appears to have driven him (temporarily) mad, and now refuses to complete what he believes is his “mission.” The story is flawed here with Noah’s apparent—though plausible—confusion seeming contrived. The real effect of the scene is to elicit viewer empathy and admiration for the tried and true hero whose commendable faith turned dangerous. But Noah explains that when it came down to it he has “only love in his heart.” It’s a disappointing and obtuse cliché that I suppose is meant to be a comment by the narrator on both the divine and human nature. More than theological reflection, the line serves a thematic purpose: the American Noah’s autonomy and own integrity trump his trust in God.

Then again, this is an American-made blockbuster designed to attract the largest global audience possible. Among the trailers for Noah was Paramount’s next scheduled release, Transformers: Age of Extinction.

William Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His books include Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (a 2002 ECPA Gold Medallion Award Winner), Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in America Life, and Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. Read his previous blog posts.

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Discussing Josephine Baker with Anne Cheng

By Tim Allen


Josephine Baker, the mid-20th century performance artist, provocatrix, and muse, led a fascinating transatlantic life. I recently had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Anne A. Cheng, Professor of English and African American Literature at Princeton University and author of the book Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface, about her research into Baker’s life, work, influence, and legacy.

Josephine Baker, as photographed by Carl Von Vechten in 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Josephine Baker, as photographed by Carl Von Vechten in 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Baker made her career in Europe and notably inspired a number of European artists and architects, including Picasso and Le Corbusier. What was it about Baker that spoke to Europeans? What did she represent for them?

It has been traditionally understood that Baker represents a “primitive” figure for male European artists and architects who found in Baker an example of black animality and regressiveness; that is, she was their primitive muse. Yet this view cannot account for why many famous female artists were also fascinated by her, nor does it explain why Baker in particular would come to be the figure of so much profound artistic investment. I would argue that it is in fact Baker’s “modernity” (itself understood as an expression of hybrid and borrowed art forms) rather than her “primitiveness” that made her such a magnetic figure.  In short, the modernists did not go to her to watch a projection of an alienating blackness; rather, they were held in thrall by a reflection of their own art’s racially complex roots. This is another way of saying that, when someone like Picasso looked at a tribal African mask or a figure like Baker who mimics Western ideas of Africa, what he saw was not just radical otherness but a much more ambivalent mirror of the West’s own complicity in constructing and imagining that “otherness.”

Baker was present at the March on Washington in August 1963 and stood with Martin Luther King Jr. as he gave his “I have a dream” speech. What did Baker contribute to the struggle for civil rights? How was her success in foreign countries understood within the African American community?

These are well-known facts about Baker’s biography: in the latter part of her life, Baker became a very public figure for the causes of social justice and equality. During World War II, she served as an intelligence liaison and an ambulance driver for the French Resistance and was awarded the Medal of the Resistance and the Legion of Honor. Soon after the war, Baker toured the United States again and won respect and praise from African Americans for her support of the civil rights movement. In 1951, she refused to play to segregated audiences and, as a result, the NAACP named her its Most Outstanding Woman of the Year. She gave a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall for the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality in 1963.

What is fascinating as well, however, is the complication that Baker represents to and for the African American community. Prior to the war and her more public engagement with the civil rights movement, she was not always a welcome figure either in the African American community or for the larger mainstream American public. Her sensational fame abroad was not duplicated in the states, and her association with primitivism made her at times an embarrassment for the African American community. A couple of times before the war, Baker returned to perform in the United States and was not well received, much to her grief. I would suggest that Baker should be celebrated not only for her more recognizable civil rights activism, but also for her art: performances which far exceed the simplistic labels that have been placed on them and which few have actually examined as art. These performances, when looked at more closely, embody and generate powerful and intricate political meditations about what it means to be a black female body on stage.

Did your research into Baker’s life uncover any surprising or unexpected bits of information? What was the greatest challenge you experienced in carrying out your research?

I was repeatedly stunned by how much writing has been generated about her life (from facts to gossip) but how little attention has been paid to really analyzing her work, be it on stage or in film. The work itself is so idiosyncratic and layered and complex that this critical oversight is really a testament to how much we have been blinded by our received image of her. I was also surprised to learn how insecure she was about her singing voice when it is in fact a very unique voice with great adaptability. Baker’s voice can be deep and sonorous or high and pitchy, depending on the context of each performance. In the film Zou Zou, for example, Baker is shown dressed in feathers, singing while swinging inside a giant gilded bird cage. Many reviewers criticized her performance as jittery and staccato. But I suggest that her voice was actually mimicking the sounds that would be made, not by a real bird, but by a mechanical bird and, in doing so, reminding us that we are not seeing naturalized primitive animality at all, but its mechanical reconstruction.

For me, the challenge of writing the story of Baker rests in learning how to delineate a material history of race that forgoes the facticity of race. The very visible figure of Baker has taught me a counterintuitive lesson: that the history of race, while being very material and with very material impacts, is nonetheless crucially a history of the unseen and the ineffable. The other great challenge is the question of style. I wanted to write a book about Baker that imitates or at least acknowledges the fluidity that is Baker. This is why, in these essays, Baker appears, disappears, and reappears to allow into view the enigmas of the visual experience that I think Baker offers.

Baker’s naked skin famously scandalized audiences in Paris, and your book is, in many respects, an extended analysis of the significance of Baker’s skin. Why study Josephine Baker and her skin today? What does she represent for the study of art, race, and American history? Did your interest in studying Baker develop gradually, or were you immediately intrigued by her?

I started out writing a book about the politics of race and beauty. Then, as part of this larger research, I forced myself to watch Josephine Baker’s films. I say “forced” because I was dreading seeing exactly the kind of racist images and performances that I have heard so much about.  But what I saw stunned, puzzled, and haunted me. Could this strange, moving, and coated figure of skin, clothes, feathers, dirt, gold, oil, and synthetic sheen be the simple “black animal” that everyone says she is? I started writing about her, essay after essay, until a dear friend pointed out that I was in fact writing a book about Baker.

Tim Allen is an Assistant Editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center. You can follow him on Twitter @timDallen.

The Oxford African American Studies Center combines the authority of carefully edited reference works with sophisticated technology to create the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available online to focus on the lives and events which have shaped African American and African history and culture.

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Reflections on Son of God

By William D. Romanowski


2014 is being heralded Hollywood’s “Year of the Bible.” The first film to reach theaters is Son of God, a remix of material by the same producers of the History Channel’s successful miniseries, The Bible.

Still from Son of God

Still from Son of God via sonofgodmovie.com

It seems hardly a coincidence that Son of God opened on Ash Wednesday, ten years to the day after Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released. The promotional campaigns for both movies relied less on broad market advertising in favor of creating grassroots awareness in religious circles. Reportedly, over half-a-million advance tickets were sold across the nation.

After a strong opening weekend of over $20 million however, box office fell by more than 50 percent, then dropped to just over $5 million in its third week of release. Unlike The Passion, which earned over $370 million domestically, Son of God looks destined for humbler commercial prospects.

A perennial problem for evangelical moviemakers is that their efforts to mass-market the Gospel have to please the palette of born-again moviegoers who, despite the movie’s evangelistic purpose, remain critical to the film’s commercial prospects. What distinguishes evangelical art from its secular counterpart is what I call its confessional character; to qualify as “Christian” a movie has to contain a clear presentation of the gospel message. Son of God certainly meets this criteria. The result however, is that movie ends up preaching to the proverbial choir.

What I find interesting is the way Son of God caters to the Christian faithful while also attempting to make the Messiah’s story appealing to nonbelievers. Movies have to rely on a common cultural cache—ideals, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions—in order to connect with audiences. But the communicativeness of Son of God depends to a surprising extent on viewers having ample knowledge of the Christian Gospels.

The Son of God narrative lacks coherence and clumsily advances like a checklist of “the Messiah’s greatest hits,” as a Washington Post critic put it. Scenes are underdeveloped, but contain enough information to serve as prompts for those familiar with the Gospel accounts.

Consider Peter’s initial encounter with Jesus. As the scene unfolds, the lack of verisimilitude raises questions. Why would Peter, apparently an experienced fisherman, readily obey a complete stranger, set out, and cast his fishing nets again? And even after the astonishing catch, would Peter have not as much as a moment of hesitation when invited by the stranger to follow him? “What are we going to do?” he asks. “We are going to change the world,” Jesus replies. The cost of Christian discipleship is that simple.

However cryptic this encounter, there is just enough narrative information presented for a Christian viewer to “get” the significance of the scene by filling in any gaps with a mental flashforward: Peter, of course, is the rock upon which Jesus will build His church. Without such prior knowledge however, an uninformed viewer could easily find the scene contrived, puzzling, and even unbelievable.

Part of the power of this narrative viewpoint is that it shores up communal identity among the initiated who are aware that others won’t “get” these hidden meanings by virtue of being outsiders. To use a Biblical metaphor, the effect is akin to separating the sheep from the goats. The approach works as an extended metaphor with characters, like uniformed viewers, missing meanings to which only the faithful are privy.

During Pilate’s interrogation outside a prison cell, Jesus tells him, “My kingdom is not of this world.” On that line of dialogue, the Messiah’s head drops back and is engulfed in a ray of bright white light streaming down from above; the use of cinematography to make an all-too-obvious reference to Jesus’s “heavenly” kingdom. Before leaving, Pilate, looking perplexed, glances upwards at the light. The gesture is intended, I assume, to signify that the Roman prefect doesn’t “get” Jesus’s meaning (even if it looks more like he is wondering, as I was, about the mysterious light source in the otherwise dark dungeon). That Christian spectators do understand makes for a cinematic moment of solidarity.

Wrestling with the messianic character has been the raison d’etre of Jesus movies. The ascetic depiction of Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) leans on the divine side; Jesus being tormented with fear, doubt, and sexual fantasies in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) emphasizes the Messiah’s humanity. It is fair to expect any retelling of the Christ story to justify itself by offering a new perspective. The Son of God however, provides a straightforward, simplistic, and rather unimaginative version of the Christ story, representing Jesus as entirely free of any fear, temptation, reluctance, or uncertainty. In short, there is nothing thought-provoking about this movie’s treatment of God-become-flesh. (Although I do wonder why even the most reverent efforts ignore the prophet Isaiah’s description of the coming Messiah as having “no beauty that we should desire him” (53:2).)

Son of God is not meant to be great cinematic art. Apparently, the producers’ single-minded purpose is to provide a clear and unambiguous cinematic statement so that moviegoers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20: 31). Unfortunately, this approach leaves much to be desired aesthetically and religiously. As the Washington Post critic observes, “Son of God is nothing if not sincere, its earnest retelling of Jesus’s life story resembling a gentle, pop-up book version of the New Testament, its text reenacted for maximum reassurance and intellectual ease.” Even a reviewer for the evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today admits that “watching Son of God was not a dreadful experience, but it wasn’t a particularly inspirational or entertaining one, either.”

Others trace the film’s lack of originality to the merchandizing of The Bible miniseries, which is available on DVD now along with other inspired products. For that reason, Variety dubbed this theatrical spinoff “a cynical cash grab” and one religious reviewer took it to be more a “marketing ploy” than a movie.

Nevertheless, to the extent that Son of God was crafted as a matinee affirmation of the Christian faith, its success in that regard might well come at the expense of welcoming the uninitiated.

William Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His books include Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (a 2002 ECPA Gold Medallion Award Winner), Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in America Life, and Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. Read his previous blog posts.

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Grand Piano: the key to virtuosity

by Ivan Raykoff


“Play one wrong note and you die!” The recently-released feature film Grand Piano, directed by Eugenio Mira and starring Elijah Wood, is an artsy and rather convoluted thriller about classical music and murder. Wood plays a concert pianist plagued by an overwhelming case of stage fright; it doesn’t help that there’s a sniper in the audience threatening to assassinate both him and his glamorous wife if he misses a single note in the “unplayable” composition that has proven to be his undoing before. Looking past the silly plot, however, it’s revealing to see how this movie plays into a number of persistent popular culture tropes around Romantic pianism. It’s even possible to read the story as a parable about the pressures of a performing career in the world of classical music today.

First consider the grand piano itself as portrayed in the film’s evocative opening credits. The camera takes us deep into this menacing mechanical contraption of piano keys, metal strings, tuning pins, and tiny gears turning like clockwork while the accompanying music thuds, slithers, and slashes with ominous import. Wait, grand pianos don’t have tiny gears turning inside. This must be quite an unusual piano, as the first scene of the film clarifies.

press_Grand Piano

Grand Piano stars Elijah Wood as a concert pianist contending with both stage fright and a sniper in the audience. Image: Elijah Wood in Grand Piano, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures via Magnet Releasing.

We see moving guys in a creepy old mansion rolling this instrument out of storage while the thunder rumbles overhead on a blustery overcast day. There’s always been something mysterious about grand pianos, since the large black coffin-like case hides the mechanics inside from the listener’s view as the pianist plays on one side of it. There’s some kind of ghost in the machine of the Romantic pianist’s intriguing instrument.

There’s also the ghost of the pianist’s deceased mentor, Godureaux, the eccentric teacher who had composed that unplayable composition and designed that mysterious instrument. He stares out from large posters in the lobby looking like a cross between Rachmaninoff and Rasputin. “La Cinquette” is the title of his notoriously difficult and “terrifying” piece that has something especially problematic about its last four bars. Maybe the title refers to the fact that it is Godureaux’s op. 5, or that it requires “five little” fingers of each hand to play it to perfection. (The film’s closing credits scroll over an unexpected delight: the song “Ten Happy Little Fingers” from the 1953 film musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, written by Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. Displeasure over wrong notes begins quite early in the young pianist’s career.) Fortunately our hero-virtuoso is equipped with “the fastest, most agile fingers of any pianist alive,” indeed there are only “a few people who can play it, who can move their fingers that fast and spread them that wide.”

Fingers take on symbolic meanings around the male virtuoso pianist; these appendages have frequently been represented in popular culture as signifiers of a muscular technique and masculinity. “You need to ease up!” the sniper instructs our hero as he begins to play that challenging piece. “You’re going to tire out your fingers!” Indeed, this performance is framed as our hero’s opportunity not only to redeem his career, but his identity as well: “I’m offering you the chance to become your own man again.” Elijah Wood’s wide-eyed stare easily conveys the crisis of masculinity implied by the pianist’s uncertainty over his playing technique, while his body language conveys a nervousness and an impotence (see his scared-stiff kiss with his wife at intermission) that also reflect these familiar tropes.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Wood has spoken publicly about the off-screen technical challenges of making this film. At a discussion session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he described his own skills on the instrument remembered from piano lessons when he was young, but also how he worked with pianist Mariam Nazarian in Los Angeles for three weeks to learn to make it look like he knew how to play; in Barcelona he worked with the hand double for this film (the credits list Toni Costa as hand double, and John Lenehan as the soundtrack recording pianist). Wood recalls practicing first on a real piano (“the sound helped me to know if I was on the right track”) and then filming to the recording on a dummy piano, which made it possible to act out his gestures without worrying if he were hitting all the correct notes. It was also useful for Wood to watch a video of the real pianist’s hands from the pianist’s point-of-view, then to imitate what he saw as he watched his own hands on the keyboard. Some critics have noted the impressive “hand-synching” in this film production (see Eric Snider’s write-up) and the actor’s learning curve with this playback technique (see Clark Collis’ interview). One of the movie’s selling points, in fact, is our persistent fascination with virtuoso technique (see Harleigh Foutch’s interview): “So the main thing I walked away from this movie thinking was how damn difficult this part must have been for you.”

Serious pianists and pianophiles will probably roll their eyes over the inane plot and the unrealistic playing scenes in this movie. Which concertos have tutti sections so long that the pianist can run off-stage so often for urgent business? Why wouldn’t the professional pianist play from memory? Perhaps there ought to be a law against texting while playing! The moral of the story might be about that perfectionism we’ve come to expect in this era of note-perfect recordings. “I want you to play the most flawless concert of your life,” the sniper exhorts the virtuoso. “Just consider me the voice in your head telling you that good is not good enough tonight.” The conductor tries to comfort the anxious pianist by saying about the audience, “If you’re going to play music this dense, you’re going to hit a wrong note, and they won’t know. They never do.” The critics-as-snipers might notice and mark down your technique, but the real crisis is the Romantic pianist’s musical reproducibility. As the conductor points out, “you make your living playing stuff other people write.” The concert virtuoso has become “a genius puppet,” as he puts it, a technological wonder that stays close enough to the notes of the score and just far enough from the great recordings to sound like a unique epitome of a time-honored tradition. “Do you really want to be the thousandth guy to give me a respectable Bach,” the conductor asks, “‘cause you can keep that. I don’t need respectable.” This pianist saves his life by literally changing the score.

Ivan Raykoff is Associate Professor of Music in the interdisciplinary arts program at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts in New York. He is author of Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist.

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