' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting a Scene from A Star Is Born

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Dissecting a Scene from A Star Is Born

The pivotal moment in Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” happens in a grocery store parking lot where his country rock star Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga’s aspirant pop star Ally are talking after hours. If she has not chased him away, she still hasn’t let him in, but then she does when she begins composing a song freeform, harkening back to the moment in the cop bar just before that has led us here when she tells him she doesn’t sing her own songs. She doesn’t sing them not because she doesn’t think they’re good, necessarily, but because she’s afraid of being seen, literally or otherwise. But by singing to him here, now, she’s letting him, and him only, see her, the true her, which he picks up on, perking up, in his own hangdog way, listening.

If Cooper prefers keeping his camera in his actors faces for most of the movie, here the camera is deliberately just behind them, cooling its heels just over their shoulders, as if we are eavesdropping on this private moment. That privacy is underscored by the natural sound design, which is just Gaga singing and the wind blowing, the latter of which the below screenshot almost imperceptibly picks up.

The song she’s singing is, of course, “Shallow”, and she’s creating it on the fly because she’s communicating to him how she sees him. “That’s me?” he says. “That’s you,” she says. It’s hard, however, to make it seem as if you are simply pulling lyrics out of thin air, in the throes of inventing a mind-bending bit of tuneage that in a parallel universe might win an Oscar. Even Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t quite do it with “Folsom Prison Blues” in “Walk the Line.” And Gaga can’t quite do it here, either, especially after she stands up...

...and then imparts how she’d been working on the song and needed a chorus which she conveys by closing her eyes and kind of wrinkling her nose as a means to denote that “Hey, I’m thinking here.”

I don’t mean to knock Gaga. My God, I love Gaga more than anyone! But in moments like these the actorly holes, like it or not, emerge in her performance. (Could Marisa Tomei have effectively wrinkled her nose? I’d bet yes.) Then again, it doesn’t entirely matter. Because her stock-in-trade is stardom, not acting, which is why when she simply exists on screen, she sets the whole screen on figurative fire. And so, as she crinkles her nose, Cooper tightens the camera to cut out the grocery store sign so it sort of looks like she’s standing on a festival stage, like she actually will later, and as she rips into the full force of the song, throwing her arm forward, twice, she’s in her element, and in that element, no one – that is, no one – is better.

Which is why when she concludes, he looks down, as if needing to gather himself.

Then he looks up with an expression that is almost sickly, as if there is some strange continuum between illness and eurphoria that circles around and meets somewhere. It’s the face of a man who can’t quite believe what he’s seeing.

It’s been a decade now since I started listening to Gaga – a decade and not eleven years because I’m often late to the biggest pop stars – and, for reasons too lengthy and self-indulgent to address here, she metamorphosed from someone who made music I cherished into my heroine. A lot of what’s she done since I’ve adored, and some of what she’s done since hasn’t been my coiffure accoutrement, and I’ve never ever stopped loving her, but, as happens in the arts, other artists come along and, well, “your old music cannot sustain you through a life,” as Nick Hornby once wrote, and so I fell for other pop divas, Little Boots and Carly Rae Jepsen and a host of others. It wasn’t quite like initially encountering Lady Gaga, of course, because how could it be? Except that, selfishly, admittedly, “A Star Is Born”, whatever else it was, which was considerable if also lacking, gave me a chance to sit in that parking lot in Jackson Maine’s shoes and see Lady Gaga for the first time all over again.

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