Thursday, February 9, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon: A Miracle! Amadeus, Critics, and Rock Stars

This entry in the Amadeus blogathon comes from TV producer and erstwhile critic Zach Ralston.

By Zach Ralston

“I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.” – W.A. Mozart

 What do you remember about Antonio Salieri? Chances are, it's not his music – it's his words. And that goes not only for the real Salieri, but for the Salieri character in Milos Forman's magnificent 1984 film Amadeus (titled, of course, after Mozart's middle name, not its protagonist Salieri).

In the opening scene, when Salieri begins what is essentially a 24-hour confession to Father Vogler, “the patron saint of mediocrities” (as he later deems himself) plays a couple of his tunes for the priest, who doesn't recognize them. The third tune he plays is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart. That, Vogler recognizes*, and so do we. Instantly the audience sympathizes with both characters – the priest, for being as familiar with music as we are (no more, no less); and Salieri, for the sadness of having no popular tunes.

But what we do end up remembering from Salieri is how he speaks – and particularly how he describes Mozart's music. Thanks to Peter Shaffer's sensational dialogue (he adapted his own play for Forman's film), we get succinct, fantastic analysis of Mozart's great genius. Salieri describes one concerto as starting off by sounding like “a rusty squeezebox” before an oboe soars high above it all, only to be taken over by a clarinet rescuing the fluttering notes. It's powerful imagery, and underscores Salieri's hidden genius – a music critic.

Now, Salieri wasn't Greg Kot or Lester Bangs. He actually did compose music, a lot of it, and did very well throughout his career, so he would pass Teddy Roosevelt's muster. But he knew so much about it that he was able to see what others (like Jeffrey Jones's perfectly goofy Emperor Joseph II) could not – when the conventional wisdom was that Mozart was using “too many notes,” Salieri saw how – even in first draft form – Mozart's pieces rarely wasted a single measure. “Take away one piece and the structure would fall apart.” And when face-to-face with his rival, Salieri honestly tells Mozart just how sublime a composer he really is.** Unfortunately, he can't translate that understanding into his own compositions, and is left to be merely competent in the face of genius. This is made clear to him in the film's climactic bedside dictation, one of the great scenes in movie history. Poor Salieri is struggling to write down the beauty soaring out of Wolfie's mouth, protesting, “You go too fast, you go too fast, one moment please!”

So what can we take from this? Being a great critic does not necessarily lead to being a great composer. Salieri could talk the talk, but he didn't have the divine inspiration of his rival. Conversely, being a great artist doesn't mean you're an intelligent analyst. Have you seen Quentin Tarantino's list of the best and worst movies of 2011? The guy is one of the best filmmakers alive in the world and his taste sucks.

Salieri’s humiliations in the face of Mozart's genius extend to the world women as well. Mozart, of course (much like QT) is a rock star.*** And as such, he has sexual charisma that Salieri, for all his desperation, does not. Salieri lusts for opera singer Caterina Cavalieri, only to discover that Mozart – or, as he calls him, “the creature” – “had had my darling girl.” And after Caterina, we never see Salieri go after any women at all – let alone succeed with one. (He does solicit the sexual favors of Stanzi, Mozart’s wife, but it's only to humiliate her and Mozart.) In real life, Salieri was married for much of the time he and Mozart were colleagues, but the film chooses to treat him as virtually celibate to contrast him with ladies-man Wolfie.

But the scales weighing the critic vs. the artist don't always tip in favor of the genius. Whereas Salieri lives with considerable wealth (even using some of it to overwork – and in his mind, kill – Mozart), Wolfie lives in poverty, the prototypical starving artist living above his means and scraping to get by while contributing magic to the world. His performance of Don Giovanni, an opera of staggering complexity, darkness, and skill (and given show-stopping choreography and production by Forman) is received with hilariously tepid applause. It's the way David Fincher must have felt when he released Fight Club in 1999 only to have it open to not-even-tepid returns.

Both critics and artists are necessary in all forms of media, whether it be film, punk rock, fine art, or classical music. And so are mediocrities, for without them, there are no geniuses to deify. But as much as the critic has the mighty pen to guide us through the experience of art, it's the select few with the power to create those works of genius that makes it all worthwhile. They may get all the girls and all the glory, if not all the money, and perhaps their legacy will last centuries.

Before I close this out, I want to get back to the subject I raised earlier – the comedy of Amadeus. This is a very funny movie, an aspect of it that gets forgotten when people consider and discuss it. It won its fair share of Oscars in 1984 – and for my money it's the best film to win Best Picture in at least the last 30 years, if not longer.**** Its costumes are brilliant, the makeup fantastic (a rare example of truly believable old-age makeup), and of course peerless photography, writing, acting, and direction. But people remember the music, the dramatic Requiem, and the final act leading to Mozart's death. I think the comedy element gets unfairly ignored. (Perhaps I'm just not reading the right stuff about this film).

Let's go back to the opening scene with Vogler. Salieri keeps asking if the priest has heard his tunes, and Vogler continues to shrug, “I can't say I know that one.” But as soon as Salieri mentions Mozart, Vogler says “The man you accuse yourself of killing?!” And Salieri replies, “You've heard that?!?!”

This is a pretty funny line. Vogler knows none of Salieri's songs, but he's heard of the murdering-Mozart rumor. And the pride with which the great F. Murray Abraham delivers the line shows that he's fairly giddy to realize that this rumor has gotten around. The scene this time around made me think of Phil Spector's recent scandal – here is perhaps the greatest producer in the history of pop music, and many people (though clearly familiar with his songs) can't name any singles he was involved with; but they know he shot a woman in the face. Can we choose what our legacy is?

Anyway, Forman and Shaffer get more comedy mileage out of the ironic use of “miracles” in Salieri's life. The first time Salieri proclaims a miracle is when his father dies. The second time is when Joseph yawns during a Mozart opera. Speaking of Joseph, Jones plays him just funny enough to be the butt of jokes, but not so buffoonish that he becomes an SNL sketch. I love his reaction when he sees the dancing in Figaro without music. “Well look at them!”

Forman also uses hard cuts to punctuate jokes. When his father writes him with an express order not to marry Constanze unti he gets to Vienna, Forman insta-cuts to a church where Mozart is getting married. When Mozart owns Salieri by revising his march, Forman hard-cuts to Salieri glaring cruelly at a crucifix and waging war against God.

There is some slapstick to the comedy (Mozart creatively mooning the Archbishop by bowing in front of open doors), there are a couple fart jokes, and Patrick Hines's Kappelmeister gets some low-brow reaction shots, but for the most part the comedy is mined from dramatic irony and sharp wit. It makes Amadeus a gloriously entertaining sit, one I can't wait to go back to time and again.

* Vogler's exasperated sigh when Salieri turns back to the piano for name-that-tune #3 is the first bit of rich comedy in a film chock full of it, which I'll get into more later.

** Though still able to criticize, to Vogler at least, the times when Mozart would waste “ten minutes of ghastly scales and arpeggios.” What I wouldn't give to have Salieri write for Pitchfork in 2012!

*** Forman does his best to paint Mozart as the rock star of his day, most notably in the scene where Wolfie goes shopping for wigs and tries on the most punk-rock pink-mohawk hairpieces he can find. Those '80s-fab punk wigs are one of the only touches that actually date the film. But Wolfie's rebellious attitude and childish insouciance are clearly hallmarks of the stereotypical punk rocker.

**** The first two Godfathers, Lawrence of Arabia, and Annie Hall are actually the only other films in the Academy's history that can challenge Amadeus in my mind for the title of greatest Best Picture.


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