Pianomania: *** 1/2 (out of 4)

Roger Ebert, film critic extraordinaire, is a native of my home town. This fact offers a couple of small advantages. First of all, it's a fun little fact to mention at parties. Second, and much more useful, Ebert runs an annual film festival in my hometown. It's actually a fairly big deal, and it brings all sorts of people to central Illinois that would never otherwise consider it; but for all that, I hardly even took notice of it while I was there. Looking back, I regularly kick myself for not taking advantage of EbertFest while I was there; after all, now I have to drive for at least an hour to go to a proper movie festival.

I mention this because there's currently a film festival going on up in San Francisco. I did make it to one movie, and it turned out to be great. I may not quite know how to review it, but I figure it's worth trying.

Pianomania is a documentary about Stefan Knüpfer, a master piano tuner and technician that works for the Steinway corporation in Austria. The movie documents a year in his life, as he prepares a single piano for use in the studio recording of Bach's 'The Art of Fugue'. The work is painstaking and deeply collaborative; the tuning itself is as much art as the work that is to be played.

I went into the movie fairly blind, but it turned out that this topic appealed to me pretty deeply. I love stories about the heroic work of technicians; after all, as a sysadmin, these are My Kind Of People. While I may not have understood the details of what he was going, I could see the heart and devotion that Stefan was putting into his work, trying to help out and impress his client while also being willing to fight for his own position. The relative "status" of the parties involved was also clear - while the big performers are clearly "more important", they clearly depend on the work of their techs and support staff, and the truly good ones know how much they depend on it. So when that final performance sounds so amazingly perfect, the technician feels as much pride as the performer. I know that feeling, and it was well-captured and portrayed here.

(As a side benefit, the fact that the movie was in German connected me to the content even more. My old boss is German, and I recognized the turns of phrase and the idiosyncrasies between him and the master artists shown in this movie. I'm sure I giggled a bit more than most of the audience at a few pieces of dialogue, and I'm just as sure that I shivered more than them too...)

Outside of this, the technical presentation of the movie was excellent. While the film generally consisted of standard documentary fare mixed with a number of montages of the city of Vienna, there were several times where the camera was focused solely on the pianos themselves. Many of these shots were clearly extremely intricate to set up; just as clearly, Stefan was clearly working during these setups, so the fact that they were able to get them done without getting too much in the way is also quite impressive. The sound was also top-notch, but somehow that seemed less surprising; I got the impression that the filmmakers would have been embarrassed otherwise.

The movie was also interspersed with a number of comedic bits, surrounding a musical comedy troupe that Stefan worked with in his spare time. I'm loathe to spoil any of it, but... the closing bit was glorious, both in its humor, and in its true-to-life look at technician humor. It was this comedy that made me start to understand the technician's art in this case.

All told, Pianomania warmed my cold sysadmin heart. I highly recommend tracking it down, at least in a theatre with a good sound system.

*** 1/2