by The New Republic | November 12, 2007

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037



New Line

In 1874, Gerhard von Breuning, a Viennese, published a book called Memories of Beethoven, whom he had known fifty years earlier. In a footnote about Beethoven's love of improvisation, Breuning wrote:

When one looks at [Beethoven's] grand piano (still in my possession), considered one of the best makes at that time, with its tiny tone and its mere five and a half octaves, one finds it hard to conceive how it could have been adequate for Beethoven's tempestuous improvisations, while realizing that it was as a consequence of Beethoven's sonatas that the piano was altered and strengthened into its present state, indeed it had to be almost made afresh. His gigantic piano sonatas must be regarded as inventions in a double sense, for he must already have had in mind the piano as perfected today, the piano of the future; and it would be fully justified to call the modern piano the Beethoven piano.

The piano for which Beethoven composed before it existed is being made today, carefully, lovingly, in Queens, New York.

Watching Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, a documentary about the Steinway factory in Queens, I couldn't help thinking, after Breuning, that Beethoven would have been pleased. I've read that he sometimes visited piano factories and fussed about the instrument's manufacture. Difficult man though he was, he could not have been unhappy about the attitudes and the results in Queens.

Steinway, of course, makes no claim to be the only painstaking piano maker. One artisan notes, however, that this plant makes only two thousand pianos a year; some other places turn out one hundred per day. Yet the total number of factories has decreased drastically through the years, while Steinway holds fast. The director of this film, Ben Niles, has interviewed many of the workers in the plant. A skeptic may wonder if Niles avoided the less fervent, but every man in the picture likes what he is doing and likes what he is part of.

Note by Note follows the birthing of one piano, L1037, from start to finish, which in life takes almost a year. Plenty of other material comes along: for instance, the wooden case of L1037, as with all Steinways, has to age for eight weeks at one point. We watch men at their specialties, jobs with terrific names like "chipper" and "stringer." (We also visit a lumber mill in Alaska, where the wood bound for Queens is discriminatingly chosen.) We linger in the display room, where quite different pianists such as Lang Lang and Helene Grimaud and Harry Connick Jr. and Hank Jones come to try pianos and luxuriate in the sound. All the while, our protagonist piano is proceeding through the stages along the way to its final tone testing.

Then fantasy follows fact. For more than an hour we have been watching manufacture--shaping, molding, hammering, planing, polishing, and so on--and now that the work is finished, the result is not an article but a miracle. It ripples, it thunders, it sings. Certainly if we had followed the making of a violin or a flute or a trombone, the end result would thrill. But no other instrument is so integral to our society, our culture. (And our literature. Think, for just one out of innumerable instances, of Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata": "Evidently the sound of the piano is purposely made to drown the sound of their voices, their kisses.")

This documentary--quite unpretentious, simply good film reporting--feels like an oasis of civilization. For eighty-one minutes we are in a venue where storybook principles really apply, where pride is justified, and, for the last fortissimo, where they are giving Beethoven what he wanted.

The Clinton administration coined the term "extraordinary rendition" to doll up the practice of asking other countries to do the torturing of suspected terrorists whom we have nabbed. Hence Rendition. The film has been called a thriller, but it is centrally an expose and an indictment. As a thriller, it has only the visceral jolts that are inevitable with its materials; as expose, it is naive; and as indictment, it is flabby.

Much of it takes place in an unnamed North African country. (The African exteriors were shot in Morocco.) Early in the film a bomb explodes in a city square. Two CIA men are nearby in a car, and one of them is killed. The survivor, Douglas Freeman (that name!), is assigned to hunt down the perpetrators, a job he certainly wants.

The hunt soon leads--almost because there are no other usable suspects--to an Egyptian-born American, Anwar El-Ibrahimi, an engineer en route home to Chicago from Africa. He is lifted off his plane in Washington, his name is deleted from the passenger list, and he is extraordinarily rendered to the North African country. The scenes of his interrogation by local authorities, attended by Freeman, progress step by step, almost as if by blueprint, from the first polite office interview to physical extremes. El-Ibrahimi keeps saying as best he can that he knows nothing and that certain phone calls he got from an Arab were innocent. The interrogator disbelieves him, as does Freeman, who at one point, convinced that the prisoner is only injuring himself by refusing to talk, loses control and does a bit of strangling.

Interwoven with the gothic horrors are story strands that are meant, in their innocence, to make the torture more horrible. In Chicago, El-Ibrahimi's pregnant blonde wife--they also have a four-year-old boy--is frantically trying to locate her husband, who simply disappeared from his plane. She goes to Washington and asks an old boyfriend, now a senator's aide, for help. Neither his boss, Senator Hawkins, nor the woman who heads the pertinent CIA division, Corrinne Witman, can or will help or even acknowledge the problem. (Earlier Witman has said that the United States does not torture, though it was she who rendered El-Ibrahimi.)

Further context. The prisoner's interrogator, Fawal, himself a Muslim, has a teenage daughter who is carrying on with a college boyfriend. Suspicions about this fiercely immoral behavior arise in Fawal and would be inflamed if he knew that the boyfriend is a fervent jihadist. (The girlfriend doesn't know, either. ) Several sequences invade secret meetings of the boyfriend with other zealots, who hail the battle unto death against the Zionist and the Crusader.

Thus some of the elements of a giant global trouble are put in place, all vivid enough but all familiar. The flab takes over when, to save himself, El- Ibrahimi at last mouths some "information" that Fawal and Freeman take to be true, though we never learn if it is of any value. He is sent home to his Chicago family. (Is that what happens to suspects who confess?) A last sequence, involving a time trick, settles the matter of Fawal's daughter and her lover. The plot, or plots, are tied up. We are left with only one question: why was the film made?

Some have said that Rendition is a typical Hollywood attempt to cash in cagily on a contemporary problem. More discomfitingly, it seemed to me the two- hour version of the two-minute response from most of the retired generals and admirals who appear as experts on television news programs. The anchor, with humble deference to the expert's prestige, asks him his opinion of a problem, and the expert uses his professional rhetoric merely to restate the already- known elements of the problem--after which the anchor thanks him. Rendition, too, merely restates.

We cannot quite expect the screenwriter, Kelley Sane, or the director, Gavin Hood, to settle the problem they address. Still, at least they might do what the television experts don't do. They could be angry--at someone or at something. They could hope that some component of the matter might be improved or eliminated. But after the film's bombs and torture and killings, blandness is all.

Just because of its thematic weakness, Rendition exemplifies a familiar danger in film-making. Some of its making is so good that it is seductive: it almost makes us think, for a while anyway, that the picture is up to its subject. The production design by Barry Robison is fine. The senator's office seems both up-to-date and noncommittal. Witman's desk at home is in a corner of her kitchen; while she is dispatching fates on the phone, the vegetables behind her are waiting. The cinematography by Dion Beebe gives texture to some otherwise shallow scenes: interiors are lighted obliquely as fit settings for intrigue. The settings are better than what happens in them.

Hood is a South African whose last picture was Tsotsi, a veristic account of a black Johannesburg youth coiled in crime. Here Hood and his editor, Megan Gill, have some trouble in keeping the various strands not only clear but contrapuntal. But Hood does get flavor out of his African settings. The performances pass whatever muster applies here. Jake Gyllenhaal as Freeman has a bunch of lines rather than a character and serves them up adequately. Omar Metwally does what any good actor would do as El-Ibrahimi; likewise Igal Naor as Fawal. Alan Arkin incises the senator skillfully, and Meryl Streep, revising slightly her performance in The Devil Wears Prada, skates neatly over the ice of the CIA woman.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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