It’s always thrilling to discover a good new filmmaker. Sometimes it’s just a matter of him having discovered his forebears — and made his appreciation irresistible to the rest of us.
Consider “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” a jazz-inflected song-and-dance musical about the minor-key vicissitudes of urban romance. What a good idea for a movie, we might think at first, as if it were just a matter of originality. But of course it’s all been done before. Just not, until now, by writer-director Damien Chazelle in his feature debut. As Chazelle obviously understands, freshness is the thing — and knowing how to swing.
His film is an unabashedly modest effort, shot with a mostly handheld camera on grainy black-and-white 16mm stock, without a lot of characters, or dialogue, or plot. But it’s also slyly ambitious, with — among other things — a little bit of Cassavetes, a little French New Wave, and a little old-fashioned Hollywood musical. Not to mention just enough verve to evoke our favorite scrappy indies of ten or 20 years ago. Clearly Chazelle’s magpie frugality has paid off: “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” seems like a revelation at least in part because it also seems like a throwback.
Those romantic vicissitudes pertain to a self-absorbed but courtly jazz trumpeter (Jason Palmer) and a listless, introverted waitress (Desiree Garcia). Their story is slight and highly nonverbal, mostly revealed through the saunter and drift of attraction and separation. Chazelle wants less to spell things out schematically than to trust the chemistry between his two unusual but appealing leads. (Supporting players include Sandha Khin, as a rival for the trumpeter’s affections, and the winsome streets of Boston, as themselves.) Maybe you could say it’s about phrasing, and a grounding of certain fundamentals upon which improvisation occurs. It helps a lot, for instance, that our main man favors sweetly melodic hard bop. Anyway, there’s a lot to be said for “Guy and Madeline”’s breezy musicianship.
Yes, it has a few false notes, but Chazelle handles them like a practiced improviser rescuing a botched solo, by taking ownership. His close-looking camera is an active player in this intimate ensemble, and of course the cozy mood gets much reinforcement from Justin Hurwitz’s score. You know it’s working when even the melancholy has buoyancy. This is how we expect musicals to function, even after we’ve become too cynical to let them.
Sometimes it takes an eager Harvard guy in his 20s to remind us that our nostalgia for the cinema-history highlight reel is justified. Like Andrew Bujalski before him, Chazelle does operate with a sort of mumblecorean tension-building conceit, that even articulate people somehow just can’t manage to voice their feelings in conversation. But to avoid lapsing into a pose of inscrutable indie minimalism, he instead has them burst into song. Clever. What results is a more exquisite tension, between reticence and showmanship, and the giddy sense that a tune could come on at any moment. It’s good to be reminded that cinema and jazz can be two faces of the same unlimited inspiration.