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Thursday, August 23, 2007

This week at SFC: 'Round Midnight

Our screenings are free and all are welcome.

Thursday 23rd August 2007

Film starts 8:15 pm. Doors open 7:30 pm.

'Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier/1986/USA France/133’)

No actor could do what the great jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon does in 'Round Midnight, Bertrand Tavernier's glowing tribute to the golden age of be-bop. Mr. Gordon, who stars in the film as an expatriate American named Dale Turner, becomes the very embodiment of the music itself. It's in his heavy-lidded eyes, in his hoarse, smoky voice, in the way his long, graceful fingers seem to be playing silent accompaniment to his conversation. It's even in the way he habitually calls anyone or anything ''Lady,'' as in ''Well, Lady Sweets, are you ready for tonight?'' In that instance, he's addressing his saxophone.

The film, with its lovely, elegiac pacing and its tremendous depth of feeling, was, according to an opening title, ''inspired by incidents in the lives of Bud Powell and Francis Paudras,'' the American pianist and the French jazz enthusiast who befriended him. Drifting easily between French and English, it takes place largely in Paris in 1959, among the expatriate jazz musicians and the French aficionados they attracted. Dale Turner arrives there from New York, and has an instant caretaker in the form of Francis Borier (Francois Cluzet), who is his longtime admirer.

At first Dale is only interested in cadging drinks from this fan, but he quickly realizes that Francis's helpfulness will be far more substantial. Francis, who himself lives in straitened circumstances, nevertheless undertakes to make sure Dale is well-looked-after. He does what he can to keep the musician's self-destructiveness in check (''S'il vous plait, I would like to have the same thing he had,'' Dale says to a bartender, after watching the man next to him keel over), and even begins to water down his wine. He takes Dale home, introduces him to his little daughter Berangere (Gabrielle Haker), and even borrows money from his estranged wife so as to rent a larger apartment. His present place, she points out, was large enough for a family of three. But now Francis wants to look after Dale on a full-time basis and, as he puts it, ''I want the greatest sax player to live decently.''

'Round Midnight, which takes its title from a Thelonious Monk composition, doesn't have a great deal of narrative, and it moves with the leisurely feeling of a reverie - sometimes it even seems to drift forward in time, so that the vibrant, colorful images of Dale and Francis briefly turn into the black-and-white, home-movie memories they will someday become. Much of the film takes place in the Blue Note, a jazz club, and simply lets the audience experience the place and its atmosphere. Here, and in a recording studio, and in several other nightclub settings, Mr. Gordon plays with musicians including Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. The music is sublime. Much of the film is purely atmospheric; the camera may move through an empty apartment as a saxophone plays lazily in the background and Dale, in voice-over, offers his thoughts. ''You just don't go out and pick a style off a tree one day -the tree is inside you, growing naturally,'' he says at one point. ''When you have to explore every night, even the most beautiful things you find can be the most painful,'' Mr. Hutcherson (in the role of a fellow musician and neighbor) explains. The screenplay, by Mr. Tavernier and David Rayfiel, is both rich and relaxed, with a style that perfectly matches the musicians'. Some of the talk may well be improvised, but nothing sounds improvised, but nothing sounds forced, and the film remains effortlessly idiosyncratic all the way through.

Among the film's many memorable moments are a Billie Holliday number by Sandra Reaves-Phillips during a party scene, and Lonette McKee's brief appearance as Dale's old flame; there is also the sight of Mr. Gordon, as much of a giant physically as he is musically, wandering around Paris with his diminutive French friend, getting the lay of the land (''Very pretty town,'' he pronounces Paris, with typical sang-froid). Once the action shifts to New York, Martin Scorsese turns up as a club owner, and a very unlikely civic booster. ''When you go back to Paris, you're going to be raving,'' he says, ''just raving about how nice New Yorkers can be.''

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