catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 22 :: 2007.11.30 — 2007.12.14



Few things seem to capture our incessant thoughts like the future. Recently I’ve been contemplating what might happen in the next few years of my life and I’ve been overwhelmingly plagued with ambivalence. On one hand I revel in the hope that I might actually obtain what I’ve been thinking about and working towards. Yet simultaneously I’m overcome with cynicism that surely what I hope for will not come to pass. Whether I’m undeserving or not, I slosh back and forth between these two competing emotions and I get emotionally tired.

This came to life visually in a movie I watched this week. I had been meaning to watch it for some time because it’s steeped in the influences of the classic pulp novels which I admire so much. The year was 1960 and Jean-Luc Godard had released his innovate feature debut Breathless. The film was written by a fellow Frenchman and film critic who also released a feature that year. Francois Truffaut’s sophomore effort in 1960 was Shoot the Piano Player, a follow up to his legendary debut the 400 Blows.

Based on the novel Down There by David Goodis, Player features a hybrid of qualities from gangster to romance but the reason it caught my eye was the way in which Truffaut captures his main character Charlie Kohler. Well actually his name is Eduardo Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) and he’s nestled down and hiding out in a tiny Parisian bar as a taciturn piano player. His affections soon turn to Lena (Marie Dubois), a waitress at the dive where he tickles the ivories. What Truffaut captures in the physical exchange between Charlie and Lena is a visual manifestation of how I feel about these competing emotions of hope and cynicism. His tight shots, angles, and disorienting jump cuts voiced over by a shy but hopeful Charlie is poignant to say the least. We see him internalize an attempt to motivate himself to make his move, to put his arm around her, but his hope is quickly seized and tortured by his cynicism. This exchange captures so eloquently the competing sentiments of hope and cynicism.

It’s what Aristotle referred to as “a waking dream” and what Oscar Wilde noted as that which “knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Hope and cynicism! If there’s one medium where I can find an inordinate amount of interchange between these two, it’s the movies. Another movie recently got me churning on this idea. Recently Sidney Lumet released his newest film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Lumet has an incendiary directing career and his newest film continues the tradition.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, such a unique title. Perhaps a hearty plate of fish-n-chips sided by a frothy pint will remind you of this ole Irish toast lingering about, “May your glass be ever full. May the roof over your head be always strong. And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead.” Well at least when it comes to a full glass, Sidney Lumet satisfies. At eighty-three years young he still has the cinematic gusto that made him so iconic with his films 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, and an amazing stretch of cinema between 1973 and 1976 with Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network.

Dead is a great crime melodrama but it’s more. It has its share of topsy-turvy twists and turns, revenge, and then some. It has complex emotions and a precise visual style. The casting is dead-on and the characters are an infusion of dark wit and tragedy.

We open with a steamy scene between husband Andy and wife Gina. But Kelly Masterson’s screenplay is a double-dutch frolicking of back and forth narrative jumps which maneuver us in and out and back again, into the vain little world of two distinctively different but nonetheless equally needy brothers, a family coming apart at the seams with each tug of the string.

The Hanson brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are both in financial disarray. Andy’s a slick payroll executive who has a troubling drug habit. Hank is a dim and equally needy loser who can’t pay his child support (or for his daughter’s class field trip). Each has their own reasons but both have the same need, fast money. What’s a quick and easy way to get money? Hmm, rob a jewelry store! We soon learn that Andy convinces Hank to collaborate on the perfect larceny. No guns, an early hit, and an insurance policy that covers the losses. Sounds perfect, right? But in the desperate attempt of characters wading in pools of their own inadequacy, we get a classic heist gone wrong flick with plenty of cinematic pizzazz. Not only do they have their own personal issues but cue Andy’s fireball wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), mom Nannette (Rosemary Harris) and pop Charles (Albert Finney) and you get a slew of familial dysfunction.

Masterson and Lumet keep us on our toes. Tossed around here and there, we don’t at first know who the masked man is storming into the suburban mom-n-pop jewelry store. We don’t yet know who the huffing-n-puffin hyperventilating man in the getaway car is either. But soon all the jigsaw pieces are framed and fitted. Masterson makes a masterful debut with her script. Lumet leaves you stunned and breathless, a brilliant filmmaker capturing characters with precision Sergio Leone close-ups. Acting is superb and features a myriad of Oscar winners and nominees spanning some 35 years. Though the film slops from climactic moment to climactic moment with layered tumultuousness, it satisfies again and again.

What the film captures simply is the harsh reality of a hopeless world. It’s what happens when we hope for things that we’re convinced are exactly what we need when in reality it’s the furthest thing from need. And that paralyzing sense of wanting to do or not do something but not being able to hold yourself back. Musician Ben Harper sang it well: “Human nature is a beast.” The good news is that we can live vicariously through the movies. We can think about how simple characters of entertainment are dealing with similar sentiments and how we might be able to make sense of our world, even if just a little bit. The volley between the two will always be lurking and hopefully our cynicism will get cynical and find some hope.

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