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 Day 19

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Late Quartet, a Classical Soap Opera

Hand Job, With Strings

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Musicians’ hands are actors, not only in the sense that they act upon their instruments to bring forth musical sound, but also because they are visually expressive. Musicians speak figuratively of shape and gesture when describing phrases. When they do this they are also referring, even if indirectly, to the movement of their bodies, and especially their hands. You can tell almost as much about the character of musician’s sound from watching him play as from listening, whether it’s Glenn Gould’s hunched body and single-minded fingers or Jascha Heifetz’s ramrod posture and the sublime confidence of his hands on bow and fingerboard.

Modern acting concentrates on the face and neglects the hands as purveyors of meaning and emotion. My vote for greatest screen hands goes to those of Jimmy Stewart.  Watch him come back home after a day fishing at the start of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of Murder uncork a bottle of whisky and pour a glass for his older sidekick (played by Arthur O’Connell), light a cigar, take down a law book and leaf through it with his long, slightly flat fingers. You will realize that these hands are telling us as much about the character’s self-doubts as Stewart’s drawling, nasal voice and his facial expressions that alternate between the resigned and the skeptical.  When Stewart sits down at an upright piano, Preminger keeps the hands below the bottom of the frame not because his actor’s fingers could not convince at the keyboard, but rather because they were not capable of finding the exploratory chords Stewart’s jazz-loving lawyer is supposedly coaxing from the instrument.  Stewart had learned the piano as a kid, and later in the film we do see his hands for few seconds playing a much simpler line in the upper octaves of a piano he shares with none other than Duke Ellington. In this faster but more straightforward music, Stewart’s hands appear fully capable of producing the music we hear.

The greatest moment for Stewart’s hands in Anatomy of a Murder comes in the unforgettable egg-peeling scene. Stewart worries the shell free from his egg and then directs O’Connell not to pass the salt directly to him but put it down on the countertop first. Watching Stewart’s hands and you understand why no-leading man of the present day can compare. You will also realize how important those same hands are in so many of Stewart’s films, especially those done with Alfred Hitchcock: fretting at the steering wheel in Vertigo; shaking with the discovery of the murder weapon and the firing of the gun out over the rooftops of the Upper East Side in Rope; and operating his camera with its probing, voyeuristic telephoto lens in Rear Window. 

Yaron Zilberman’s film A Late Quartet proves by negative example that actors’ hands are—or should be—as expressive as faces. The movie takes us into the intimate world of a great string quartet in mid- and late-life crisis. The script, written by Zilberman and Seth Grossmann, examines the thwarted loves, desires, and hopes on which many a great quartet has both flourished and flowered. Unfortunately, fraught intimacy becomes clichéd incestuousness: the orphaned violist (Catherine Penner) is raised by an older cellist (Christopher Walken) and his soprano wife (appearing late in the movie as a ghost in the form of the Sofie von Otter); violist has affair with obsessive perfectionist first violinist of undisclosed foreign provenance (Mark Ivanir) at Juilliard where both study and where the cellist foster father teaches; there they meet the man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who will become the second violinist and subsequently marry the violist after she becomes pregnant by him.

A Late Quartet picks things up twenty-five years and untold recordings honors after the group’s Juilliard origins. Walken’s cellist hands will no longer do what they are supposed to and his doctor soon diagnoses Parkinson’s. The cellist’s decision to leave the group after one last concert unleashes the demons of a fraught past and a destructive future. Second violinist wants to play first violin half the time. First violinist hates the idea and when condemned by the second violinist as a control freak who should release passion he does so on the violin-playing recent conservatory graduate daughter of the violist and second violinist.

In a soap opera such as this the clichés sound forth sforzando: Does archetypally supporting role of violist have to be given to a woman, here rendered by Penner in all her husky-voiced petulance? Does the frustrated second violinist have to stray from his marriage and the straight-laced tradition-bound world of classical music into the exotic bed of a Flamenco dancer? And does she really have to be named Pilar? When trying out a violin before a Sotheby’s auction does second violinist Seymour have to rip off the first bravura lick of the warhorse Zigeunerweise — like  Usain Bolt getting down in his start position and bolting from the blocks while trying on some shoes in a Foot Locker? Or does the domineering first violinist have to refer to Beethoven’s Op. 131—the late string quartet from which the film takes its title—as a “wild beast that has to be ridden”?

Worse than all this is that, at emotionally overloaded moments in the movie, Beethoven’s visionary music is tossed aside in favor sonic Kleenexes of sappy string sonorities with a plaintive oboe weeping away in the soundtrack’s foreground. This original material was composed by Angelo Badalamenti, who’s capable enough, but no match for Beethoven. Who would be?  A film purporting to draw audiences into the intensity of late Beethoven shamelessly deserts his music when the chips are down.

Even though the movie is lacking in depth and originality, it is a pleasure to watch the quartet of actors and the various side-players (especially the excellent Wallace Shawn as a cackling potentate ruling over his own piano trio) practice their craft with such consummate skill. The guide to keyboard playing that Beethoven himself learned from—a seminal treatise by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach—argued that good performers can render a mediocre piece of music effective. This explains why A Late Quartet succeeds in spite its penchant for the hackneyed and routine. The actors save it.

It is a joy to watch their faces and excruciating to watch their hands. The cast received intense coaching from professional string players, but fluidity of wrist and suppleness of finger cannot be learned in a few weeks, but only through a childhood and adolescence dedicated to practice and performance. While acknowledging the usefulness of this coaching, Walken has admitted that it was necessarily superficial, and in interviews regarding the film has bemoaned the ungainliness of his hands. The expressivity of his face as against the crudeness of his hands can be seen in stills from the production (http://www.moviefanatic.com/2012/11/a-late-quartet-review-beautiful-music/),  but the dissonance between them is even greater in the moving pictures. Watching the bows verve across the strings is a sight that the suspension of disbelief can more or less take care of, but even the way the actors’ hands grip their bows is devastating. In tight shots of the quartet in rehearsal, the faces are virtuosic in their simultaneous projection of hate and love for the other members of the group. But the hands are constantly in the frame, coarse and gormless.  The instruments seem like bricks in their hands. It’s as if an NFL nose guard were made to play the leading role in a biopic about Fred Astaire.

What is the alternative? The piano offers the chance to hide the hands behind the case of the instrument. But even here the attitude of head and shoulders and the weight of the arms give the game away. Few are the musically trained actors, who could convince at the violin in a way that Robert Redford’s left-handed swing does with a bat in The Natural.  Nor can what Walken himself describes as “movie magic” solve the problem. The hands betray all.

Millions of American kids have sluiced through the Suzuki string method, so there must be enough excellent actors sufficiently trained in string playing to take on such hand-centric musical roles. Would A Late Quartet have gotten funded or found an audience with lesser actors? Certainly not. In this haptic age of iPods and iPads whose touchscreen are now training the world’s fingers in new forms of finesse, perhaps the best we can hope for is that is actors and directors will begin to think more about their hands, even when they are not being asked to do among the most difficult things hands have ever attempted: to play late Beethoven on violin, viola, and cello.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com