' ' Cinema Romantico: The Merry Gentleman: Sounds of Silence

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Merry Gentleman: Sounds of Silence

“(T)his little movie -- while brimming with quiet confidence -- almost slinks nervously under the rug to escape being noticed.” – Michael Machosky 

In “The Merry Gentleman” a co-worker of Kelly Macdonald’s Kate Frazier wonders if they are friends and Kate confirms that, yes, of course, they are, and why did she even have to ask. Her co-worker replies: “Because I tell you everything and I don’t know the first thing about you.” I’m pretty sure I gasped the first time I heard this line, particularly because people have SAID that line to me – much more than once. Maybe this is bad, maybe this is good, but we’re not here to psycho-analyze me.

No, this is simply my way of saying that my people – the introverts – don’t get enough love at the movies. Well, of course they don’t. It’s not easy to make a movie about people who prefer to abstain from other people for extended periods. And this, I suspect, contributed to the lukewarm reception to “The Merry Gentleman” because, to be sure, the two main characters at its core are introverts.

Kate is private because her situation necessitates privacy, yes, but she is also portrayed as being genuinely shy, introspective even when in public and polite to a fault – which is to say, she would rather let herself get stringed into a date with a “fat alcoholic chain smoker” than speak up against it.

Michael Keaton’s Frank Logan’s profession is hitman (as so many movie character’s professions are) which, by nature, cuts him off from a solid percentage of the world. But then, take a look at his cover job. He’s a tailor, tucked away behind a curtain in a remote room in back, walled off from everyone. Even when someone is allowed in there, he barely forms a word.

This, above all else, is what the makes the relationship so plausible. It would be easy to say they have nothing to say to each other, except that real introverts know this is not true. They have things to say to each other, they just don’t know how to say them or don’t want to bother the other person by saying them or just plain don't feel like talking. And this brings me right along to one of my favorite scenes in recent cinema, a scene I suspect left many a viewer looking for a way out.

It is set in the hospital room where Frank has been brought by Kate on Christmas on account of pneumonia. She visits him in the afternoon. She brings him sugar cookies and rum balls. She suggests he eat the sugar cookies because "Nurses love rum balls.” She pauses. “I don’t know what that means.” (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve made some inane statement and then declared “I don’t know what that means.”) She sits. He stands across from her at the window. And the silence in this scene is just extraordinary.

It is extraordinary not necessarily because silence is rare at the movies but because silence in a scene based entirely around a conversation is essentially unheard of. Keaton, as director, puts no music on the soundtrack. All we hear are the words exchanged and, even more crucially, the spaces in between those words. I cannot over-emphasize how risky and irregular this is, to HEAR silence. Not silence in the service of suspense, mind you, but silence on account of the search for what to say and how to say it.

He mentions the weather. She jokes that they have so little to talk about that they are already discussing the weather. He apologizes. Then they discuss the weather anyway. They discuss plans for Christmas, kind of, and her Christmas tree. Not much else really. It is not necessarily awkward in a tradtional sense - it is more akward because we sense that they sense that the social norm dictates that they need to say something in order to be comfortable when just hanging back and not saying anything is actually what brings them comfort.

They like each other, sure, of this there is no doubt, but they like each other so much because they sense how desperately the other one craves slinking under a rug to escape being noticed.

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