I recently saw Jupiter Ascending. It was a rainy Sunday and I received tickets to watch it in 3D, and instantly I’ve forgotten everything about it.
Despite decent CGI shots and such, the movie has now exited my brain without a single memorable scene in mind, leading to me having to Google the name of Eddie Redmayne’s villainous character as a reference for this article.
All of this has reminded me of the importance of creating works that will stick. Great films are made with the intention of making the audience leave with images that will stay with them forever. When you explain a character in a movie you love to a friend or a family member, you will have the ability to recall the character as how he looks, how he acts and how he engages the audience.
The Red Letter Media review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace demonstrate this perfectly. Jay Bauman, Jack Packard, Gillian Bellinger and Rich Evans were able to recall characters like Han Solo and C3PO from the Originals because of how memorable they were to them as audiences, but not characters from the Prequels. The more creative the description were, the better the character are.
Films like Robocop are filled with memorable scenes like the first ED-209 scene in which one shoots an OCP staff member, killing them, and another where Peter Weller gets brutally shot by Kurtwood Smith and the gang. Images like these will stick with you forever and that is the purpose of making a great movie.
One of my favorite movies that demonstrate this is Tirez Sur Le Pianiste aka Shoot The Piano Player, a 1960 French film directed by Francois Truffaut.
Truffaut is a master of memorable cinema. In the 400 Blows for example, the final shot of Antoine Doinel looking for his friend at the beach sticks to many with its beautiful cinematography and music. In Jules & Jim too, the scene of Henri Serre, Oskar Werner and Jeanine Moreau running together on a bridge is truly memorable.
Shoot The Piano Player stars Charles Aznavour as Charlie, a rundown piano player who suddenly gets a vision of his past from meeting Lena (played by Marie Dubois.) It’s Truffaut’s own take on American film noir, and it’s personally my favorite Truffaut film because of how memorable it is.
The opening scenes feature Charlie’s brother running from two gangsters in a dark alleyway in Paris, all shot in black and white. Then we see Charlie playing piano in a nightclub while someone sings Framboise after his brother ran away from the gangsters.
Both those scenes happen within the first 5 minutes. The film gets more memorable as it develops as we see flashbacks of Charlie’s previous life, such as when Charlie and Lena meet the gangsters, Charlie fights the nightclub owner and the most memorable part of the film: the ending.
Truffaut hated gangsters, and while Truffaut made Charlie into a shy and timid character in contrast to film noir characters like Philip Marlowe, Truffaut decided to humanize the gangsters. They are not seen as tough scary men – instead they are seen as nothing more than people who just want to get paid doing dirty work. They laugh with Charlie and Lena and provide Charlie’s son with advice on adulthood. It’s these simple quirks that will stick with the audience after they finish the movie.
Speaking of characters, what is also important in creating memorable characters in films are the names. The simpler the name, the more memorable it is. Another interesting point made by the Red Letter Media reviews is that names play an important role in making a great character stick with audiences.
‘Han Solo’, ‘Yoda’ and ‘Ben Kenobi’ are all names that stick with you. However, no one’s going to remember ‘Balem Abrasax’ after watching Jupiter Ascending and pretty much most of the people who saw John Carter have forgotten who ‘Matai Shang’ was.
In Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut made their names as simple as he could. The character ‘Charlie’ is named so because it’s difficult to make ‘Edward Webster Lynn’ a lead character in a French film and so ‘Charlie’ was picked because he’s played by Charlie Aznavour. However, that led to the effect of Charlie becoming memorable simply by his name. It’s easier to remember a Charlie than an Edward, and that was referenced in the movie too, as Charlie’s previous name was ‘Edouard Saroyan’ and everyone completely forgot Edouard’s existence after becoming Charlie.
Another important aspect of this film is the use of improvisation. Because of the lack of funding, Truffaut just makes up the script and both Aznavour, DuBoisand most of the other actors had to improvise a lot whenever they were together on set. In a simple story, improvisation helps with character motivations and allows for more nuance within personalities. Improvisation helps visualize the nature of a character. it also allows actors to experiment with their characters and to me, that’s what makes Charles Aznavour shine in this film.
Sadly, Tirez Sur Le Pianiste was not a commercial success. It bombed in the box office in France, and Truffaut had to abandon film noir as a result. However, the lessons Truffaut learned in making Tirez Sur Le Pianiste becomes essential in making his follow up film, Jules and Jim.
In short, Tirez Sur Le Pianiste is an exercise in the visual language of cinema. The art of using simplicity in both visual and textual narratives to tell a story is something that Truffaut excelled at in this underrated masterpiece, and this is essential in telling a simple noir story, a Hero’s Journey movie or even anything that requires the audience to understand the context of the film. And at the end of the film, Charlie plays the theme by Georges Delerue on his piano as if nothing ever happened, but the audience will always remember Charlie, Lena, and how the gangsters wanted to shoot the piano player simply with the theme itself.