Francois Truffault’s 1960 film “Shoot the Piano Player” was acclaimed as part of the French cinematic New Wave spearheaded by Jean-Luc Goddard. It even bears some resemblance to the tense pairing of characters who represent innocent liberated role-playing contrasted with overt criminality that marked Goddard’s brilliant “Breathless”.Truffault’s free-living but seemingly innocent musician is like the young woman newspaper vendor in “Breathless”, and his unredeemable thief brother is matched by the thug who becomes her lover. This was mutual social commentary on the emptiness of post-post-war French materialism echoed by the Beat Generation rejection of similar values in America.
“Shoot the Piano Player” differs from other New Wave films in that it has a wider philosophical arc. Personal identity and experience are laden with contradictions. Danger can be interrupted by absurdity, violence fade into tedium, desire for love diverted by the need for money. Truffault questions the relevance of making art to the individual search for meaning and loving relationships with other people. His concert level pianist allows people to do things for him but usually fails to act on the impulses that could make him reciprocate positively. He often hurts them instead, and this becomes the main dilemma of his life. The philosophical stakes are raised further when we realize that this may not even be his fault. Accidents, random events, manipulating people, or strangers can influence more of our lives than our will. The piano player unwillingly becomes a murderer during an incident where he is defending his girlfriend, and she is killed in a subsequent attempt to warn him about thugs who have come to get him. Truffault challenges presumptions about how much of what happens to people is actually controllable by their own acts.
He does this in the language of film as well as in speculative conversations and internal monologues of the central character. The film seems to begin at several different points by cycling through episodes in the musician’s life. When it opens we see him in a smoky honky-tonk café playing dance tunes for night life customers who include pimps and prostitutes. Later in his apartment there is a poster with him featured as a concert pianist. Later he is urged by his wife to audition for an impresario who makes him a concert Star. Toward the end he is a janitor sweeping up the bar and becomes the piano player there. Is this the actual beginning of the film or did this happen twice? There are frequent asides and a variety of intercuts from previous scenes repeated. A long final shot of his face while stolidly playing dance music leaves us wondering how much of what has happened to him (or ourselves) will ever be resolved.
The significance nearly half a century later of Truffault’s view of the human condition is that now there is the same if not more distance between our intentions and the outcome of our acts. The personal dilemma of the piano player is present in all parts of the world. It has even become a built-in aspect of globalism itself.
March 7, 2007