'The Silent Eye': Film Review | Melbourne 2017

The Silent Eye
A delicate showcase for two veteran performers.

Jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor improvises with Japanese dancer Min Tanaka in the new film from Amiel Courtin-Wilson ('Hail').

Filmed over three days inside the Fort Greene brownstone of jazz piano legend Cecil Taylor, the 70-minute chamber piece The Silent Eye unfolds as one long jam, with only a couple of costume changes betraying the passage of time as the 88-year-old Taylor riffs with Japanese dancer Min Tanaka, a longtime collaborator. The result is a near-wordless tribute to the spirit of live performance embodied by the pianist-poet, with whom director Amiel Courtin-Wilson has been working for years on a more traditional biographical documentary. Screening in Melbourne after premiering at the Whitney's Taylor showcase in April, this intimate curio might put some festivalgoers to sleep but will reward those receptive to its meditative pace, as well as aficionados of the two forms it showcases.

Australian filmmaker Courtin-Wilson began his feature career with 2008's Bastardy, a years-in-the-making documentary about Indigenous actor Jack Charles, a homeless heroin addict with a soft spot for breaking and entering. Charles emerged from the project a changed man, and the director's obvious sympathy for his subjects has granted him near-total access to them in the years since. His subsequent films, 2011's Hail and 2013's Ruin, were hybrids of documentary and fiction, in which he embedded himself in his protagonists’ lives and even their homes and collaborated with them in finding a narrative. Courtin-Wilson's latest pairs the filmmaker with his highest-profile subject yet in Taylor, the classically trained innovator who emerged in the 1950s and is now considered one of the founders, alongside John Coltrane, of free jazz.

The Silent Eye provides no such context, beginning with both men shut-eyed, listening intently to the ambient hum rising from the streets below, and cutting to black after Taylor's final key strike. The sinewy Tanaka gyrates in front of Taylor's grand piano in a manner evocative of a distressed person, at least to the untrained eye (guilty as charged), contorting his neck and twisting his arms skyward. The maestro, silent save for brief musings midway through on "the invisible subterranean matrix," the fluidity of male and female and the Book of the Dead, looks on with open-mouthed awe. The wordless pleasure each performer takes in the other's work — the sheer alertness and quality of listening on display — bolds the film's title. 

So, too, does the camerawork from Courtin-Wilson's regular cinematographer Germain McMicking (Berlin Syndrome), who shoots on digital using natural light. The camera roams around Taylor's home in hypnotic slow motion: from smoke rising from a stick of incense to the high-rises out the window to the black and white photographs of former triumphs on the walls. The gliding, soft-focus beauty of the more impressionistic compositions is nicely balanced by less premeditated footage of the performers, with the camera occasionally pushing in jerkily or losing focus. Who is leading whom is constantly in flux, and that fluidity is mimicked by several gossamer images that look as if they were shot through a glass of milk.

Courtin-Wilson’s affinity for the spirit of liquid give-and-take between his subjects is reflected in his interest in surfaces that reflect or refract light, such as Taylor's piano top and windows, which the director and his co-editor Alena Lodkina cut to regularly. Blessed by the musician's room-to-swing-a-cat-in home, the filmmakers frequently inch away from the performers to consider the African carvings, pot plants, clothes racks and stacked sheet music nearby. 

Sound designer-scorer Rosalind Hall accompanies Taylor's playing with her own melancholy saxophone noodlings, as well as a soundscape of breaths — all of which sound more reposeful than Tanaka's. Probably best known to Western audiences for his work as an actor in films such as 47 Ronin, the Butoh performer is soon glistening with sweat, perspiration falling from his face at quarter-speed. A personal relationship between the two men beyond the work is hinted at only towards the end, when the dancer drapes an incongruous red hoodie over Taylor's head, grinning at the camera with child-like glee. 

Production company: Flood Projects
Director-producer: Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Line producer: Kate Laurie
Director of photography: Germain McMicking
Editors: Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Alena Lodkina
Sound designer: Rosalind Hall
Composer: Rosalind Hall

70 minutes