Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon: Antonio Salieri's Totally Awesome Eighties Flashback Weekend

This entry in the Amadeus blogathon comes from filmmaker Matthew Wilder.

The Eighties were a rough time to come of age as a movie lover. Almost all the good stuff snuck in through the back door. Brazil, Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in America, The King of Comedy, Southern Comfort, King Lear, Do the Right Thing; the only great moviemaker in that era pulling up to a VIP parking space and whistling while he worked was Steven Spielberg. It bums me out now when today’s retro-minded hipsters go to a revival joint and Get That Eighties Feeling, putting on their rainbow-colored wrist-sweat-bands and covering their torsos in fake Rubik’s Cubes, watching crapola like Legend and Labyrinth and Willow and Just One of the Guys and Lost Boys and Goonies and Satisfaction and—well, all the shit people at the time were cringing through to get to the good stuff. That’s what’s now called “the Eighties.”

One movie that bridged the gap between the high-minded and the genuinely popular was Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Smart teenagers of the time dug it. The gibes against it were obvious. First and foremost, it was “middlebrow”—an adjective John Simon, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann and La Pauline could all agree upon. Based on a play by Peter Shaffer (or wait—was it Anthony?), Amadeus focused on what everyone concurred was a pretty banal theme: the war between cagy, politic, shucking-and-jiving mediocrity, and God-given genius. And yes, depicting mediocrity as hand-wringing, evilly cackling Salieri (a hall-of-fame F. Murray Abraham) and giggly, pottymouthed, infantile Mozart (one-hit-wondrous Thomas Hulce) was cartoonish, simple-minded. And then there was the matter of Milos Forman’s style: the periwigs, the beautymarked boobies, the Barry Lyndonian candelabra, the firehose of Metro Goldwyn Mayeresque excess that the Czech expat spritzed across the stage—er, screen.

Yet to those of us at the time who clicked into it, there were some other compelling things afoot. First and foremost, there was Forman’s use of sound: Neville Mariner’s muscular and sumptuous handling of the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Field. The only recent movies that used music and sound with such assaultive, all-surrounding shock-and-awe force were The Empire Strikes Back and Ken Russell’s Altered States. My friends and I would see the movie over and over in the theatre, and each time there was a collective gasp when the door of Salieri’s humble room is knocked open, and the terrifying opening violin slashes greet an enormous dolly movement slamming into a frog-faced, theatrically made-up F. Murray lying on the floor, covered in squirting blood. Throughout, the juxtaposition of large-scale merriment and gale-force turbulence in the woodwind sections, heard against the eerie silence of Salieri’s loony bin, has a chilling, hammy severity. Forman works sound, especially non-musical sound, with a stylized abandon. The sound of sheets of Mozart’s handwritten music falling to the floor is as epic, as gruesome as an overwrought cue in a Jeunet-Caro extravaganza.

Amadeus plays like science fiction; it in no way resembles the real world. Its pomp and customs, and its insistence on black hats and white hats, bring it very close to the technologically heightened childishness of the George Lucas universe. And so, if you can ignore the shallowness, Amadeus plays as a terrific eighties teen movie, an adolescent’s version of the war between the compromised grownups and the playful ne’er-do-well juveniles. The clever kick of Forman’s movie is that it is firmly on the side of the schmucky adult. It brings you into middle-aged mediocrity the way The Dark Knight (or—if you want to be charitable—Revenge of the Sith) brings you into anti-heroism. The next major representation of Compromised Grown-upness versus Flailing Dysfunctional Adolescence would come with Paul Gleason’s study proctor daring Judd Nelson’s stoner with “one more, how about one more?” in The Breakfast Club—an equal but opposite display of the theatricality of totally arbitrary rules. Ingeniously, Amadeus takes us inside the pleasure of the bureaucrat finding ways to spiritually cockblock the id-driven outpourings of the rule-flouting youth. At some level (due largely to the ebullience of Abraham’s acting) we want the law-and-order capellmeister to punish the cackling hippie: did any movie so fully express the emotional exhilaration of the Reagan revolution?

It is haunting indeed that no one involved in this surprise hit went on to reenact his early success. Forman went on to utilize more wigs and more high-school-play age makeup in the stillborn Valmont and Goya’s Ghosts, and completely misread the American Zeitgeist in the First Amendment paean The People Versus Larry Flynt. (The original Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski script, in which Flynt was an ironically ingenuous gee-whiz lover of the beauties of the female sex organs, had a ghost of a chance of recapturing Amadeus’s admixture of the teenage-gleeful and the rancid.) Amadeus perfectly captured a certain kind of lightning in a bottle: the ruling baby boomers’ feelings of conflictedness, vacillating between a cynical love of the sweet life, and the easy-riding pleasures of “just being yourself.” Released just before the 1984 presidential election, the film ended Reagan Chapter One, and as America moved into the period of the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, the air strikes on Muammar Qaddafi, and the morass of Iran-Contra, Salieri-ism roundly defeated the freewheeling imp of the perverse. For American movies, solidly lining up behind formula until the arrival of another giggling nerd (an equally idiot-savant-y chap named Quentin Tarantino), the libertine movements of genius definitely constituted a case of too many notes.

MATTHEW WILDER is the director of the forthcoming Inferno: A Linda Lovelace Story with Malin Akerman and Matt Dillon. He directed Your Name Here with Bill Pullman and Taryn Manning. He graduated Yale College in 1989.


  1. Solid, thought-provoking comparisons aplenty.
    (But USS Cole was 2000 - did you possibly mean Pan Am 103?)

  2. Anonymous, you are right! This is exactly the kind of fact-checking atrocity that got me run out of the essay-writing business!