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A Hard Day's Night

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  • Noel Vera
    Yesterday Noel Vera “A Hard Day’s Night” opened some thirty seven years ago and has been in the public consciousness ever since. Just the opening
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 12, 2001

      Noel Vera

      �A Hard Day�s Night� opened some thirty seven years ago and has been in the
      public consciousness ever since. Just the opening number, with the title
      song and George, Ringo, Paul and John running from their screaming fans, has
      been played endlessly, either in MTV classics or rock-and-roll tributes, in
      one form or another. Even for someone not entirely familiar with the
      history of pop music, the images are indelible, something we all have grown
      up with--or grown old with.

      The film was conceived as a quickie project, meant to cash in on a hot new
      phenomenon before it cranked out its two or three hit albums and slip into
      eternal obscurity. Which was fine--no one knew any better or cared, least
      of all, I�m sure, the four band members. Except filmmaker Richard Lester
      borrowed a few editing tricks from Jean-Luc Godard�s �Breathless,� some
      casually lovely handheld camerawork from Francois Truffaut�s first three
      films (�The 400 Blows,� �Shoot the Piano Player,� �Jules and Jim�), the
      anarchic stop-start spirit of Louis Malle�s �Zazie dans le metro,� tossed
      everything in a bag with the Fab Four and their cheerfully infectious music,
      shook to mix, and the rest is history.

      Who would have thought that the aesthetics and innovations of the French
      nouvelle vague would work so well with pop music--would, in fact, work well
      in a way that seems never to have really happened, ever again? Lester�s
      off-the-cuff visual playfulness and John and Paul�s songs aren�t really new,
      but to the thousands who flocked to the film (the way they didn�t flock to
      Truffaut or Malle or Godard), it was a blast of fresh air, a liberating
      burst of impudence and giddy, pointless fun. It may not be really new, but
      it felt new, and it was something everyone felt they wanted once they saw
      it. It had the gift of having the right elements, presented at the right
      moment in time--destiny, if you will.

      You can�t even say it�s honest--the film is startlingly canny about what it
      wanted to hide or not hide about the four personalities. Certainly the
      constant screwing around wasn�t shown--George and Paul and John and Ringo
      coyly dance with girls, but are never seen fondling or even kissing them,
      and the word �orgy� elicits a big laugh when everyone jumps up in eager
      (though not really serious) anticipation. They drink, but never to excess,
      and only George Harrison does any smoking; they may genially disagree and
      gently tease each other but the real arguments are never shown.

      But there is the suggestion, a hint really, of amorality to them--a gentle
      shaking of the tree of convention that in a few years would grow into the
      storm that was the �60s and early �70s. �I fought the war for your sort,�
      an elderly stuffed shirt tells them; Ringo replies, �bet you're sorry you
      won.� The four are clean-shaven but not crop-haired; they are harmless and
      puppy-dog asexual (especially Spaniel-eyed Ringo), but display a new kind of
      cool, even cruel, wit--this possibly thanks to Lester, a director who (in
      films like �Petulia� or �Juggernaut�) showed he could appreciate this kind
      of coolly cruel wit, and allowed the four to express it.

      How does the film play today, in this millenium? Surprisingly, you don�t
      really appreciate the �innovations�--the handheld shots, the restless
      editing, the cheeky attitude--as much as the film�s more old-fashioned
      qualities. The editing is odd but doesn�t have the ticks of an MTV video,
      the twice-to-the-beat cutting that feels so exhausting today; Lester�s
      editing actually enlivens you, sharpens your appetite because it�s so
      unexpected--not a music-video director�s idea of editing but a genuine
      filmmaker�s. Gilbert Taylor�s cinematography looks more beautiful than
      ever, the austerity of black-and-white giving the busy images a distanced,
      aestheticized feel. Lester�s direction, once so fresh, now feels so
      refreshingly retro--no digital effects, simply the expert tricks of a man
      who knows how to play with the camera. The music can actually make you weep
      with its simplicity--unbelievable, how good John Lennon�s acoustic guitar
      sounds to electronically jaded ears--and the melodies, the plain but
      graceful lyrics, retain a potent charm. And the aforementioned humor is
      just right--cheeky enough to stand out in contrast to the filmmakers� older
      generation, gentle enough that it also stands out against our own
      generation�s terminally postmodern sense of irony.

      The intervention of years only serves to sharpen one�s affection for the
      picture--the knowledge that the band will break up, slowly, bitterly; that
      John Lennon will die a meaninglessly violent death, that George Harrison
      will find himself battling cancer. Tangent to the trajectory of the people
      in the film is the trajectory of the rest of the world--the upheavals of the
      �60s and �70s, the desolation and disillusionment of the �80s, the �90s, the
      uncertainties and terrors of the young millenium. Watching �A Hard Day�s
      Night� is like watching home movies--not even videos--of one�s impossibly
      distant, impossibly lost childhood; you can�t help but wonder when you were
      ever so happy.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)

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