Saturday, April 17, 2010

Maggie 2010: The Beat That My Heart Skipped & Fingers

#53, 54 -- The Beat That My Heart Skipped & Fingers

In 1978 director James Toback came out with Fingers, an American film about a young man torn between his love of music and loyalties to his father, a loan shark in deep with the mob. In 2005 Jacques Audiard came out with The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a French film about the very same. And these two works are just as distinct as their nations of origin would have you believe.

The divergence is immediate. As Fingers opens, Jimmy Fingers (Harvey Keitel) is jubilantly playing music at his piano. When he finishes he sees a woman across the street, evidently listening to him play. He follows her with his radio, playing "Summertime, Summertime," a 1950s number by The Jamies, until she turns around. Pleased at her range of musical interest, a car ride and apartment courting ensue. Then he goes to lunch with his dad, with whom a whole crapload of exposition is unloaded in a conversation replete with hackneyed Italianisms. His dad laments his son's taste in 1950s music but shows respect for Jimmy's pursuit of a musical career. He asks for Jimmy's help with some loan shark business. He asks Jimmy for an opinion of the new woman he wants to marry. Jimmy gives his opinion frankly but without much invested interest. He's happy-go-lucky. He's got his music. What could go wrong?

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is no such bed of context-oblivious roses. Our first introduced theme is the weight placed on sons by their fathers, emerging in a quiet conversation absent any music at all. We then find Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) in the midst of shady work as a real estate broker, devaluing property, ousting squatters, and otherwise doing everything to turn a profit on the buildings he and his partners own. He's not happy about his life, and it shows. He goes to lunch with his father, with whom music is a taboo topic: His father doesn't respect it; his father wants him to focus on collecting bad debts; his father generally doesn't seem to appreciate how much his son cares about him. When his father's new lover is introduced this time, the lighting, the cinematography, the acting convey every bit of Tom's disdain. Far from open about his deeper passions, Tom comes back to music tentatively in this film, going through recordings of his late mother's skilled piano performances and struggling to overcome his own absence from the form for years.

At the crux of both films are a few core plot elements: the main character's flawed audition for a career-track pianist position, the father's problems getting money back from one particularly well-connected debtor, the senseless loss incurred soon after, and the main character's responses to it. But where Audiard's conflicts are developed gradually enough that we know why Tom chokes at his audition, it isn't until after the audition in Toback's film that Jimmy explains (yes! more exposition!) what made him screw up. So it goes with much of Fingers.

In fact, if I had to describe the difference between the two films in one word, the word would be "penis." While Audiard's piece focuses intimately on Tom's hands -- the crisis of personal identity they invoke, the ways they embody his failings and drives -- Toback takes an all-too-typical American gambit and places the seat of Jimmy's physical failings, well, in the seat of his pants. He can't get it up when he wants to. Lacking his mentally-ill mother's love, he sometimes needs women to want him before he can get it up or have an orgasm (I know -- a shocking state of affairs, isn't it?) Indeed, a sizable portion of Fingers has nothing to do with the conflict between being a thug and being a pianist, but instead follows alternating emasculation and violence around his relationship with Carol (Tisa Farrow), the woman from the movie's start. Carol's later relationship with Token Black (Bad) Guy, Dreers (Jim Brown) also serves, in truly American style, to further invoke stereotypical White Man Sexual Anxiety, and alpha male posturing ensues.

I know I shouldn't expect strong female portrayals from any movie before Alien (for superficial fare produced after 1979, I get progressively crankier), but it bears noting how staggeringly different each director's treatment of women is in these stories. Instead of this whole sexual emasculation subplot, Audiard's 2005 film introduces a female piano tutor who doesn't speak English, but takes Tom on anyway, as a client, after his failed audition. Their narrative arc completely eschews a common film archetype that says men and women can't occupy the same space without a sexual relationship being hinted at or rising to the fore. (The ending can be taken one of two ways in that regard -- a subtle note that again places the conflict between thug and musician at the fore of the film, where it belongs.) Nor is Audiard's treatment of women token in this regard: in both films a mobster's girl is stalked by the main character, in his effort to get the mobster to repay a debt to his father. However, in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the mobster's girl is every bit as strong, smart, and self-assured as she needs to be to survive in that kind of violent world. In Fingers, however, said girl gets herself sexually assaulted (and I use that language mindfully, because the actor is given to perform in such a way as lets the viewer know she was "pretty much asking for it"). Toback also pulls this shitty trick wherein, right after said assault, Jimmy is a) provided a convenient opportunity to redeem himself by helping a stricken, weeping woman on the street cheer up, and b) made to atone for his assault by getting a prostate exam. Yeah, definitely resetting the scales there -- thanks Toback! Also, when Jimmy bullies Carol into taking out her diaphragm before sex -- so jealous of the other men she's seeing he wants to knock her up so she'll have to stick with him -- we also conveniently get a portrayal of Carol's alternative, the skull-smashing Token Black Menace Dreers, in order to reassure ourselves that Jimmy is really "the good guy" in all of this. You can imagine my "delight."

Having watched and exulted in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, I honestly don't see what's so great about Fingers: from the ham-handed exposition, to the clumsily constructed character conflicts, to the diffusing of audience attention between Jimmy the Pianist and Jimmy the Dick (get it? I made a funny), to the weak portrayals of all women in this film, it's hard -- really hard -- to care about the choice Jimmy makes in the end.

Meanwhile, Audiard has a gift -- a real gift -- for conveying his characters as fully-formed upon first viewing -- bearing their pasts, their trajectories, in all that they say and do thereafter, right down to the smallest detail. Thus, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about a man who has the capacity to make music or effect violence with his hands, and who struggles -- plainly, privately, fiercely -- towards being a better human being, even if he can't ever really be considered good. Despite coming first of the two, Fingers doesn't even come close to carrying that tune.

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