October 20, 2010
Richard Gray’s debut feature release Summer Coda (2010) offers a slow meditation on love, loss and the complexity of reaching a conclusion for individuals whose lives are filled with a transience that is born of unstable foundations. Having already explored themes of organic rebirth and how the nature motif in the film informs its central relationship over at In Film Australia, I’d like to now say a little bit about the role of music in the film. Tuesday night’s Melbourne premiere of Summer Coda was my second viewing of the film and, as something I have always suspected to be true, a second viewing elucidates so much more of a film’s content and subtlety than can possibly be gleaned from one single viewing. In light of this, my second look at Gray’s first feature release opened up another reading of the film surrounding the role of music.
Heidi (Rachael Taylor) who returns to Mildura for her estranged father’s funeral meets Michael (Alex Dimitriades) when he picks her up hitchhiking along an all but deserted highway. As we learn more about Heidi and Michael it becomes increasingly clear that they are both experiencing a musical (artistic and creative which leads then to emotional) block whereby playing their instruments (or in another sense being in control of their own life score) becomes almost impossible as they are inhibited by their respective personal losses; the grieving process metaphoring their musical codas (a musical coda is a passage which brings conclusion through prolongation, essentially what the film is all about).
Heidi experiences two musical struggles before she meets Michael; first at home in Nevada where playing her dead father’s violin causes the first block and motivates narrative causality, bringing her back to Mildura; the second at the Roadhouse (roadside cafe) where Heidi stops for refreshments and where Michael first sees her as she tries again with her violin to move herself forward (busking for money). The violin stays in its case from here until the pair stop once again for refreshments, this time at a pub, where the violin is again brought out of its case. Here however, it is by a provoked hustler who plucks at its strings angrily and antagonistically, causing Heidi visceral emotional pain and jarring the narrative aurally for the audience.
Heidi’s very connection to her father is through music and what she wants more than anything else is to simply “see” his record collection, in particular, one record that holds deep sentimental value: her truest memory of her father. Following the funeral, when her step-mother forbids this, it is a personal affront and another block towards the final resolution of her pain or closure to the coda. Her step-brother Lachlan eventually reaches out to her and lets her see the record, a familial link that brings one conclusion to a very difficult chapter (or score) in her life. Similarly, Michael, who was previously unable to play the piano, referencing it as “just for show”, is finally confronted by Heidi about his own past. Once he actually begins to deal with his loss, he finds he is able to play the piano again, no longer just “looking” at it filled with pain, regret and remorse. A musical instrument, like a life, is to be played or played out and when abandoned, left to sight, dust and the passage of time, mirrors death and resounds in deafening silence.
The coda plays out over the summer and its conclusion is not one that could have been reached any sooner. Through teaching one another how to grieve, Heidi and Michael work through their personal pain and their prolonged resolution is bittersweet; beautiful and moving, in perfect rhythm with the film’s soft soundtrack.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.