Thursday, August 12, 2010

Music for the deaf

There are a lot of good things in the film version of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968) some of which I'll get to, but perhaps the most significant is right up front, when the Warner Bros. - 7 Arts logo begins the credits. The film dates back to the long-forgotten days when the major distributors were still interested in making good films, no matter their size, and no matter if they weren't necessarily Oscar-bait.

It's based on a novel by Carson McCullers, who is best remembered today for Member of the Wedding, due to both the fine film version and the continuing life of the play in the theater. Like Member, but instead of an innocent girl, it is a deaf-mute men who manages to touch the lives of everyone around him without really being known himself. There is also a young girl (presumably a surrogate for McCullers), who finally makes a connection with John Singer (ironic name, that), played sensitively by Sondra Locke, an actress who never impressed me otherwise, here making her film debut.

Alan Arkin's portrayal of Singer demonstrates his usual total absorption and complete lack of narcissism as an actor. It speaks well of American film that he was a movie star for a while, and is still a dean of acting. For a character who must indicate his thoughts, he never indicates his performance. I have to admit a personal satisfaction with the performance of kiddie show host Chuck McCann as the town's other deaf-mute, who, despite his limited mental capacity, has become a brother to Singer.

A few things to celebrate in the film: the eminently practical music of Dave Grusin. By practical, I mean that each music cue has a clearly defined function, moving us from place to place, whether literally or in terms of character. So much instrumental film music is poured over a movie like syrup, drowning everything in its wake, especially clear emotions and transitions. Another is the unfussy depiction a self-acknowledged, unrepentant drunk with a streak of chivalry by Stacy Keach, Jr. (His father was still working in those days--he can be seen as a scientist on Get Smart.) And another is the offbeat casting of Cicely Tyson, who quickly became a Noble Self-Sacrificing Black Woman, but here is an impulsive, loving, sometimes self-absorbed, hot-headed but generous girl on the way to becoming a woman.

And then there is this marvelous cross-fade. We don't see cross-fades in movies much anymore. They used to represent a passage of time and were very useful, especially for giving the audience time to breathe and reflect, something they're not called to do anymore. The one I'm thinking of begins with one of those lightboxes doctors use to read X-ray photos. The X-ray photo in question shows that the one doctor in town who will serve blacks will soon be dead. The image of the bones and organs and that ominous black dot dissolve into a strange organic fretwork which gradually becomes green with sunlight pouring through, and we see that it is the underside of the canopy of a large tree, probably an oak, and the camera tilts down to begin the next scene. If you can picture that rhythmic device in your mind, you can begin to conjure this film from a time which has disappeared about another time before, also long gone.

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