Shoot the Piano Player should not be so playful for being made by a man who had been a critic before he made it. The attitude of critics nowadays is anything but playful, but rather serious and pretentious, intellectually insecure and arrogantly taking it out on people clearly more creative than they. Which critic can honestly say s/he would rather write about art, music, literature, than create it? Francois Truffaut and all his cronies didn’t take any of their endeavors, critical or artistic, with too much seriousness, and so everything they did was all the better for it.
The Pee-Wee/Pepe-le-Pew main character of this film pulls off that kind of complacent zest for life that French New Wave characters embodied so well, perhaps especially Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Léaud. This guy, apparently really a musician and not an actor, must have been the inspiration for the health inspector (of course also French) in Ratatouille, with those apathetic eyebrows and protruding lower lip, with a stature that immediately makes you both feel sorry for him and kind of despise him. This film’s willingness to take periodic breaks from its narrative is, of course, directly related to the film noir genre of cinema that it loves so well. It isn’t that these breaks never took place in the Bogart films, but that they were significantly shorter, usually no more than a comment or gesture on the part of a character. But here, when a chase scene is interrupted with a brief discussion about the banalities and profundities of life, it’s refreshing, isn’t it?
Still, as with so many of these nouvelle vague films, there is a cruel insistence on the darker side of things. Death always coexists with the playfulness, not so much interrupting the party as joining it. It only ever feels out of place, like in Shoot the Piano Player or Pierrot Le Fou, when you stop and think about it. From the film’s perspective, it’s quite natural, almost a given that things would end this way. Perhaps in this way death isn’t so much treated as a “real” thing but as the cinematic convention it has become. All the conventions from film history are in these French films; they’re just tweaked and warped, rearranged to rip them out of conventional status and into a new one. If, as Tom Petty has insisted, Chuck Berry wrote the only three rock and roll songs there ever were and the others have all ripped off those, perhaps the only three films were made long before the French New Wave, and this movement was the Tom Petty of film movements, admitting finally that they weren’t original, so why not just have fun with it?