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First Look: Alone Together

Fred and Ginger meet John Cassavetes in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Despite the hype from Sundance about this or that “Obama moment movie,” nothing at Park City sounded as if it fit the bill as nicely as Damien Chazelle’s debut feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (rumored to be premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival). An ingenious, enchanting hybrid of an old-fashioned Hollywood-style musical and a vérité cityscape, the film was shot in 16mm black-and-white on a shoestring budget that was stretched to accommodate the orchestral arrangements of Justin Hurwitz’s lilting tunes and swingy score. It’s the latest in a series of brainy, innovative fiction films displaying a bent for urban ethnography nurtured in Harvard’s undergraduate film program. Among the others: Gordon Eriksen and John O’Brien’s The Big Dis (89) and Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (02).

Set within Boston’s famed but far from economically thriving jazz community, Guy and Madeline is a desultory variant of the classic romantic meet-cute/break-up/reunite narrative. Here it’s boy meets girl, boy dumps girl, boy realizes he was an asshole and returns to girl, girl may or may not want him back. The “Guy” of the title is a jazz trumpeter (Jason Palmer), who begins and terminates his vaguely promising romantic connection to Madeline (Desiree Garcia) within the movie’s first 10 minutes on the park bench that is the title’s third term.

Madeline carries a torch for Guy for the rest of the movie, which doesn’t prevent her from briefly moving in with a New York–based French crooner (Bernard Chazelle, the filmmaker’s father). Guy, who is far more devoted to his trumpet than to any of the women in his life, is immediately distracted from Madeline by Elena (Sandha Khin), with whom he connects in the most erotic subway scene since Richard Widmark lifted Jean Peters’s wallet in Pickup on South Street. More wary than Madeline, Elena cocks an eyebrow when Guy tells her to cook up some pasta for his band, and turns off totally when he leaves for a couple of days to entertain his family, up from North Carolina for a visit.

The camera moves smoothly from lingering close-ups to wide shots, and it’s every bit as interested in chance happenings at the real-life locations as in the fictional narrative.

Unlike the chatterboxes in Bujalski films, Chazelle’s characters barely communicate—except when they’re talking about or making music. Thus we are left to speculate whether, for example, Elena is pissed off because she doesn’t believe Guy’s story about his family or if she’s mad because he doesn’t offer to introduce her to them, and whether Guy doesn’t want her to meet them because he’s not that into her or because he thinks they’d be upset because she’s not black. Again, pure speculation. Where Barry Jenkins’s romantic talkathon Medicine for Melancholy puts the issue of African-American identity front and center, Guy and Madeline suggests a “post-race” Bohemia, at least as far as relationships are concerned. Art is another matter: Guy’s idols are Clifford Brown and Grandmaster Flash. Indeed, one of the ways to look at the movie is as a sequel to John Cassavetes’ Shadows; 50 years later, that film’s blow-out sequence about racial difference and passing as white is barely conceivable, and definitely not cool within this milieu. I’m a bit embarrassed that it even crossed my mind.

Chazelle has a light touch with his references—in addition to Shadows, Guy and Madeline footnotes Fred and Ginger musicals, Akerman’s Window Shopping, Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman, Rohmer’s Summer (aka The Green Ray), Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and, closer to home, Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha. And that’s just for starters. What keeps the film from becoming mere pastiche is the handheld shooting style, which resembles Ricky Leacock’s with a bit more panache. In addition to directing and writing the script and the lyrics, Chazelle is the film’s uncredited cinematographer and editor. The camera moves smoothly from lingering close-ups to wide shots, and it’s every bit as interested in chance happenings at the real-life locations as in the fictional narrative. One of the best musical sequences involves a jazz performance in what looks like an apartment converted to a club by dint of a single illuminated exit sign. Stuck in a hall next to the minuscule main space, the camera covers the action by panning back and forth between two narrow doorways, the repetitive movement defining the music rhythmically and spatially. Chazelle is an exceptionally talented filmmaker. Let’s hope the independent film world has enough life left in it to do him justice.