Saturday, August 27, 2016

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (Damien Chazelle, 2009)

In GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH the splashy Hollywood musical of yesteryear converges with low-budget independent filmmaking that draws inspiration from the French New Wave. The jaunty orchestral music by Justin Hurwitz suggests a widescreen Technicolor extravaganza. Instead, writer-director Damien Chazelle employs the jazz score and songs for the intimate and boxy black-and-white 16mm frame. As the music swells, it stands in stark contrast to the drab, grainy monochrome images and thus reveals the rich emotional symphony inside the characters.

The story is the essence of simplicity. Jazz trumpeter Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) are a happy couple in Boston until he meets the flirtatious Elena (Sandha Khin) on the subway. Guy breaks up with Madeline and takes up with Elena. Madeline drifts for awhile before relocating to New York City and finding a new man. Still, Guy and Madeline seem to have difficulty letting go of what they had together.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH places greater emphasis on mood than story. Naturally, this is best achieved in scenes built around musical performance. At a cramped house party Chazelle captures the feeling of having a good time while shoulder to shoulder with friends and acquaintances. In an unbroken shot the camera whips back and forth to see a singer and the trumpeter performing in close quarters but separated from the observer by the crowd and a passageway. A production number at a restaurant conveys more through song and dance about Madeline’s pent-up frustration and her decision moving forward than a mere plot point. While the comparatively bigger moments are the most demonstrative in expressing feeling, Chazelle is also capable of bringing the interior experience of loneliness to the surface through tight close-ups and lingering medium shots.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH deconstructs the film musical to its basic elements: a guy, a girl, and a song. Perhaps with a nod to Godard, Chazelle and his co-editor collapse time and dispense with narrative details that can be inferred from the gaps. Unlike the impeccably cut WHIPLASH, which Chazelle made after this, the editing rhythms are more ragged and make this relatively short feature feel much longer than 82 minutes.

Whether or not GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH was Chazelle’s thesis film, it comes across as an ambitious project mounted to cap the pursuit of a graduate degree in the arts. The filmmaker’s raw talent is on display while the learning happening behind the camera remains evident. While the roughness in Chazelle’s debut adds some vitality, the film may be more of interest as an intriguing first pass than as a wholly successful enterprise. Based on the huge leap from this to WHIPLASH, it’s exciting to anticipate how his upcoming musical LA LA LAND with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone might turn out.

Grade: C+

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