22 September 2008

Don't Shoot the Unemotional Man


I'm intrigued by the laconic post modern protagonist. One example is Charles Aznavour in Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Azavou's Charlie Kohler (nee Eduoard Sayroan) shows as much emotion as a sleeping cat. Smiles and frowns make infrequent and abbreviated appearances on Charlie's rather ordinary face. Alaim Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouri (1967) is another Frenchmen who can't be bothered with visible displays of emotion. He is the anti Pacino in his studied calm.

There is something engaging about these stoic characters, seemingly unruffled by fate or circumstance. Of course, seemingly is a key word for we can only guess at their inner turmoils. Given what we don't know about these men they are all the more interesting for their outward placidity.

A viewer has a certain confidence in a character who doesn't bark or blush. He allows events and other people to swirl around him reacting appropriately but betraying nothing of his feelings. Here is another key, these men act. There is little discussion, no conferences or negotiations they just do. Of course these men are loners although they usually have a beautiful woman nearby who loves him. His love for her will be expressed physically, not through words.

The French do not have a monopoly on such characters, witness Steve McQueen's Doc McCoy in The Getaway (1972) or Ryan O'Neal as the tile character in The Driver (1978). Both films were written by Walter Hill who was obviously parital to quiet men of action.

These are methodical men almost to the point of being robotic. Audiences root for them with the same fervor they do more effusive men. Perhaps because they intrigue us. Why are they so quiet? Does nothing stir them? Is there some trauma that robbed them of feeling? Or are they simply so purposeful as to be unaffected by the rest of us mortals? Perhaps that's it, while the rest of us expose our thoughts and feelings these men are in control. How wonderful to be in command of the one thing that we actually can be -- ourselves.

I love Shoot the Piano Player in part for how unflappable Charlie acts. Whether in the face of a kidnappers, a murder, or a new love he keeps on keepin' on. Given the events of the film, he is like the eye of the storm. But Charlie is not a simple man. His virtuosity on the piano and desire to raise a younger sibling suggest depth. So it is with these post modern silent types. They always suggest that there is a lot below those silent surfaces.

Such characters certainly are best suited for a particular type of film. Often European or North American movies of the 1960's and '70's. Sometimes a neo noir or crime film. Certainly where extraordinary events take place. (Being stoic in the face of washing the dishes is hardly remarkable.)

And it is not by accident that I used the masculine pronoun. This is a male type of role. Women are constitutionally incapable of such self repression -- thankfully. But, at least in film, women are drawn to the stoics, often with tragic results. Tragedy dances about and sometimes visits our silent heroes. And they never even bat an eye.

Finally it may be that in their very calm they act as mirrors for the surrounding action. In Shoot the Piano Player Charlie has brothers and co workers and neighbors who set in motion events and in turn respond outwardly and dramatically. Through Charlie the audience has a lens for the ongoing action. Charlie's mien provides our locus. We need him to stay cool he provides order.

Perhaps that's the true definition of being cool.

1 comment:

rdfinch said...

Thanks for writing about Aznavour in "Don't Shoot the Piano Player," a great performance in a great movie, one of Truffaut's very best. Two other great stoics who come to mind are Jean Gabin and Humphrey Bogart. Both were at their best when concealing their emotions and playing it cool. Robert Mitchum was also good at this; I'm thinking especially of "Out of the Past." "Piano Player" seems to be the Truffaut film most influenced by the American noirs of the 40's, so it is perhaps not surprising that his hero so closely resembles the heroes of those movies.