Amadeus [1984)

In these waning hours of Christmas, I give you…

a fucking masterpiece.

Indeed, I regret that I cannot express myself at this time without resort to expletive, but this film by Miloš Forman is truly bone-chilling.

And it is especially so for me:  a former composer.

Oh, there is always still time.

To set pencil to paper (or pen, if [like Mozart], you make no mistakes).

And so we shall take under consideration the director’s cut of Amadeus as our subject.

This later, R-rated version is from 2002 and adds 20 minutes to this magnum opus.

Yes, dear friends…we shall consider many things.

The uncanny embodiment of Tom Hulce.

The deft, dastardly thespian skills of F. Murray Abraham.

And even the indispensably aghast facial expressions of Richard Frank.

You might wonder why I have chosen this film to honor God on this day rather than a movie like Ernest Saves Christmas.

I will let you ponder that one for a moment.

But in the meanwhile, we shall press onwards with the young Salieri.

Please remember the pious of Western classical music.

J.S. Bach.

Antonio Vivaldi.

Haydn.  Handel.

Ok, perhaps not so much the latter.

Because he too, like Mozart, was a man of the world.

Of the earth.

A joyful sinner.

A composer with a dirty mouth.

Yes, there are miracles in this film.

Too many to count.

Salieri’s father choking on a fishbone.

For starters.

But let us consider the whole city of Vienna a miracle on assumption.

Wien.

A city in which one could dial the number 1507 and receive an A (435 Hz) with which to tune an instrument.

We have long appreciated this bit of trivia from scholar Norman Lloyd.

It has always endeared Vienna to our hearts.

A place where [it must] music flows through every pipe and connects the city in divine harmony.

But that time period for which we yearn…that “common practice” period is just the era in which Mozart is plopped down with his hilarious little giggle.

Jeffrey Jones is magnificent as the judicious statesman the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II.

Which brings us back to Christmas.

A child was born.  To a woman by the Holy Spirit.

Yet the child had an earthly father:  Joseph II (not to be confused with the Old Testament Joseph).

Mozart was a child.

Childish.

A hellion.

Yet I would choose him over Shakespeare and Einstein when it comes to true genius.

I had heard it.

With my own ears.

In my days of getting my bachelor’s of music in music theory and composition.

I had heard that Symphony #39.  I played it.

I was inside the music.

And it is like none other.

I had discovered the ingenious counterpoint in Mozart’s Symphony #41.

What lightness!  What architecture!

What a vision of the beyond…

It takes memory to succeed.

And we guard our memories.

But it takes observation to create memories.

An eye.  An ear (in the case of Mozart).

Yes, Mozart’s prowess for hearing something once and then playing it back or either writing out all the parts (if a mixed ensemble) is legendary.

His fame grew with these stunts.

His novelty tours with father Leopold and sister Nannerl (not pictured).

I had at least one Harvard/Stanford-trained Dr. of music warn me about the historical inaccuracies in this film.

But this is Hollywood.

Of course there will be changes.

And yet, it is an incredibly moving picture.

To borrow a programmatic description from Richard Strauss, this film becomes (for much of it) a symphonia domestica.

Which, let me just say, happens to grace us with the presence of genius beauty:  Elizabeth Berridge.

But always in life (even into the bubble of music) creeps in business.

Economics.

Finances.

Debt.

Mozart was gifted with a once-in-humanity talent, yet he did not have the self-marketing skills to always position his talent at the best place in the market.

Meanwhile, Signor Salieri activates a little psychological warfare (captured by Forman’s camera lit by little gaslights all around…).

And so it is machinations versus manifestations of God’s glory.

The story is rich.

That a composer might write his own Requiem mass…and that the writing of that mass might just kill him.

We know how cursed the 9th symphony became after Beethoven (Bruckner, Dvořák, Mahler, Schubert…).

Musicians are subject to powerful forces which attack their necessary imaginations.

Superstitions.

Salieri’s character proves that those closest to us are not necessarily to be trusted.  His disingenuous psyop has Mozart working himself to death.

And that is a scary thing.

To push and push and push.

And yet, who will be remembered?

The expert in psychological warfare?

Or the symphonist?

Times have changed, but it is still the creator who has the benefit of creating goods.

Super-warriors aren’t even creating bads.  They are creating nothing.

But, it might be argued, that they are doing the most good in this world which no longer appreciates the music of its heritage.

Yes, European classical music is on life-support.

But we return to Mozart, who is in not-much-better condition.

Part of me longs for the treatment of Ingmar Bergman in his underappreciated film version of Trollflöjten (The Magic Flute in Swedish).

But Miloš Forman does everything else right.

The scene in which Mozart and Salieri are working on the Requiem is masterful!

And still…Mozart doesn’t realize that his greatest enemy is posing as a friend to help him compose his own death from exhaustion.

It’s only when they’re throwing the lime on you that you get real perspective.

But by that point, you’re wrapped up.

It is thus a fitting Christmas story…that hatred and jealously are futile.

And that a naive genius had the keys to the musical kingdom.

For his 35 short years on Earth.

Perhaps Mozart was not a pious man, but Salieri (who burned his own crucifix in the fireplace) consistently recognized the voice of God in Mozart’s music.

I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season and that your hearts will be filled with melodies which could make the heavens weep.

-PD

Perličky na dně [1966)

I’ve never been much a fan of the omnibus film (or anthology film) genre.

Several directors.

One product.

But this one serves a very interesting purpose.

So far, we have only considered the work of Jiří Menzel (among Czech directors).

So now we will get to branch out a bit.

A sampler of sorts.

Funny enough, Menzel leads this whole thing off.

Start with your best speaker, they say.

Menzel’s contribution is fairly good.

It is closer in spirit to Capricious Summer than it is to the masterpiece Closely Watched Trains

Which is to say, it is largely “meh”.

But a true auteur is still engaging even when he or she is meh, and Menzel is interesting…even when he’s boring (as in Rozmarné léto).

If we want to know where the Belgian juggernaut Aaltra comes from, then we should look no further than Menzel’s short contribution on motorcycle racing.

As with all the stories in this omnibus, the author (in the literary sense) is Bohumil Hrabal.

We get our first bit of the “aging” theme in this installment.

The old man with his stories of Smetana and Dvořák.

The weird harpsichord music courtesy of Jan Klusák (or perhaps Jiří Šust).

It’s baroque, but just slightly off.  Anachronistic.  Neobaroque.  Like Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (and just as rococonutty).

But the “aging” theme really comes to the fore in the next section which is directed by Jan Němec.  Němec sadly passed away but four months ago.

In this scene we meet two old men in a hospital.  It is a very touching piece of cinema.

They try to keep each other’s spirits up.

We also start to sense another theme in Hrabal’s writing:  lies.

Lies notwithstanding, Němec’s segment is perhaps the most poignant thing about this film.

In the middle we get a splash of color (the rest of the film being in black and white) courtesy of the radical Evald Schorm.

What makes Schorm’s segment so beautifully jarring is the music (extremely reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen):  organ dissonance ostensibly courtesy of the aforementioned Klusák and/or Šust.

We are presented with outsider art in its purest form.  A painter who paints every wall in his house.  It is certainly reminiscent of the one-of-a-kind Henry Darger.

Incidentally, the scene is deliciously dark humor directed at not only the bureaucracy of the Czechoslovak state but also at the legitimacy of the insurance industry.

Věra Chytilová contributes a dark-yet-dreamy vignette suffused with desperation throughout.  Her use of slow-motion photography captures some very special emotions and is reminiscent of Jean Vigo’s use of the same in Zéro de conduite.

Finally, we encounter gypsies for the first time thanks to the loving depiction of Jaromil Jireš.

A Czech boy does his best Jean-Paul Belmondo before the cracked mirror near the lobby cards.

Dana Valtová might be the most convincing actress in this entire feature.  Her role of the dark-skinned gypsy (who remains nameless) is quite astonishing.

And so we learn a bit more about the Czech people thanks to this defining mosaic from the Czech New Wave:  Pearls of the Deep.

And little by little we learn a new culture.

 

-PD

Die Büchse der Pandora [1929)

Elle est une femme fatale.

Thus sang the chorus.  Der unsichtbar Chor.

On Big Star’s cover of The Velvet Underground.

Third/Sister Lovers.  Alex Chilton from Lou Reed.

And so if we want to really know the prostitute in Vivre sa vie (Godard’s best “movie”), then we must see G.W. Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora.

Pandora’s Box.

Is empty.

See Mulholland Dr.

Blue key.

Lighting.

Her hair.

Louise Brooks.

The gloss of her brunette bob.

Yes, this film is many things.

Confusing?  Yes.

Boring?  Yes.

Genius?  Absolutely.

And here is why.

The two climaxes.

One would fit seamlessly into Fritz Lang’s M…or virtually anything by Alfred Hitchcock.

But the other climax?

It is seconds before.

And worlds more important.

A candle.

Like Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation album.

Two lost souls.

Dreaming.

One is reflecting on a messed up life.  Perhaps.

The other is a messed up life reflecting on nothing.  Just content with a moment’s peace.  Maybe.

Together.

The misfits.

Soon consumed by cataclysm.

An act of God.

Or its opposite.

What I mean to convey is that G.W. Pabst did something remarkable with this film.

It really does read (watch?) like Mulholland Dr. or The Big Sleep.

Something is missing here and there.

Sound!  (for one thing…)

I’ve said it before, but it really does matter who picks the music for these silent films.

It takes some research to know whether the version which has come down to you has anything to do with any official release which might have happened in the year of said film’s premiere.

What I got was Tchaikovsky…and “Greensleeves”…

But, most remarkably…it is the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (by Пётр Ильи́ч) without the soaring love theme…which is to say, it is the build-ups…the violent cymbal crashes…the angular solemnity which Dvořák’s 9th Symphony also shares (particularly the bold final movement).

But none of this really matters.

What matters is Lulu.  Nana.

Alban Berg.  “Das Messer ist blutig…”

Émile Zola

The fine print.

Frank Wedekind

October 24, 1929

the fear index

abnormally low?

who was ready on December 1st to see the premier of Pandora’s box in new York city?

Yes, I’m afraid the world runs on fine print.

And so the glamorous flapper Lulu had a tortuous go of it (behind the scenes).

The difference between men and women.

Every word is labored now.

Because once you are caught in a font it is a vicious circle.

And so I only urge:

press on through the boredom for at least there is a candle.

-PD

Passion [1982)

All you need is the first word.  The first sentence to get you going.

You can meditate.  Think too hard.

And now that it’s started it is gloriously ruined.  Like Kind of Blue.

Miles Davis would tell his players…one take.

Perhaps there were caveats.  But Bill Evans was ready.  Coltrane…

It is the same with “Sister Ray” by The Velvet Underground.

One take.  Make it count.

Everything proceeds from the first word.  But don’t take it too seriously.

It is like many other first words.  “Once upon a time…”

From a mist rises Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Bruckner would use the same device many times (no doubt in honor of Ludwig van).

Yes.  We say Ludwig Van in honor of Mauricio Kagel.  And the entire spirit of everything here might be compared to Joseph Beuys.

And just like that <bam> we go over-budget.

Jerzy Radziwilowicz plays the Jean-Luc Godard character here (with the wardrobe ostensibly taken right off the back of Jacques Dutronc).  Thus Godard still creates a distance between his story and THE story.  The whole bit about Poland is made to throw us off the scent (a bit like the glorious obfuscation of Joyce in Finnegans Wake).

We find Godard to be right.  The available forms are too mundane.  The audience stops thinking when they are comfortable.  So we must disorient them a bit–prod like a brainiac Hitchcock.

You see, the most important thing is not who acted in this film.  Rather, the crucial component is the juxtaposition which allows for revelation.

We see the most perfectly-placed tableaux of human paintings.  Come to life.  The proper term is tableau vivant.  Maybe you see them at Christmas.  Perhaps a manger and the Christian genesis.

Ah, but with Godard it is Delacroix and Rubens and Rembrandt etc.  I assume Ingmar Bergman missed this Godard film because the former had already made up his mind regarding the latter.  And thus the admiration flowed in one direction alone.  We see the delicacy of Bergman–that technique of the long shot (temporally speaking).  You can almost imagine Godard telling his cast of thousands in this mini-epic to have no expression at all.

There is a connection to Stravinsky.  Neoclassicism, but really a radical belief in the purity of music.  To paraphrase Igor, “Music doesn’t have meaning.  A note is a note.”  Perhaps I have done the great composer an injustice with my memory.  Yet, a paraphrase is a paraphrase.

We humans are not computers.  No matter how many books we have.  No matter how steel-trap our memory.  No matter how fast our Internet.

And thus, that which is juxtaposed against the meticulous composition of the tableaux vivants?  Everyday life.  Careless shots.  The beauty of the sky.  The natural sway of a handheld camera.  The sun as it burns up the lens upon peeking through the bare trees.  Hanna Schygulla running through the snow with a lavender umbrella.

Real life.  Labor.  A factory.  And who is the real star?  Isabelle Huppert.  Her character in Sauve qui peut (la vie) was not a sympathetic one.  Can we say?  WE had no sympathy for her.  Very little.  Not none.

Yet here…she is the lamb of God (of which she speaks).  Huppert is the labor element.  Workers’ rights.  It is intimated that her monotonous job has caused her to stutter.  Why?  Because it is not easy to talk about the factory.

And why, she asks, are people in films never shown working?  It is not allowed.  Filming in factories.  Indeed, I believe there is a specifically French meaning here.  [And Swiss, as the film is shot in Switzerland.]  But the real shocker?  Work and sex (“pornography”) are equally prohibited on the screen.

Only Godard would find this fascinating link.  And that is why we love him.

But mostly it is another thing.

Life is so much richer in the films of Godard.  Sure, there are some exceptions, but the exceptions themselves are merely the process being revealed.  It is “the thinking life” to paraphrase Henry Miller.

Once you have been there, you don’t want to go back.  Or you can’t go back.  But we do go back.  Thinking is hard work.

And as the world bemoans what havoc Europe has wrought, let it be noted…the Beethovens, Mozarts, Dvoraks…

This is the humanism which little by little comes to occupy the mature films of Jean-Luc Godard.

Most importantly, he never stopped being a critic.

And his film reviews?  They are his films themselves.

-PD

Champagne [1928)

Music changes everything.  How do we start?  Mahler.  I doubted myself.  Barber.  But I was right.  It is that one dissonance which should have convinced me.  The notes rubbing against one another.

And then I slipped.  Like Betty Balfour.  Dvorak?  Berlioz?  No, it’s Sibelius.

A music scholar doesn’t need Shazam.  But I’m a shabby music scholar.  Rags to rags.

Betty Balfour gets to mingle with the ragpickers for awhile, but for her it is riches to riches.

This is a silent film.  Which is to say, it is not silent.

That is the history of cinema.  A misconception.

And music changes everything.  If it’s Giorgio Moroder providing the soundtrack for Fritz Lang…that makes a big difference.

I really lost my way at some point.  I thought I was hearing Mozart…

We thought he wrote a requiem for his pet starling.  Perhaps not.

Yes, at some point we became very lost.  Flying over the Atlantic.  Like the Mary Celeste.  Bermuda Triangle.

It wasn’t the Flying Dutchman.  I think we would have recognized Don Giovanni.  Maybe not.

Betty doesn’t know when to stop.  Lots of seasickness in these early Hitchcock films.

There’s no missing Bolero.  Ravel’s worst piece.  Worlds ahead of most music ever written.

But nothing beats the Piano Concerto in G.

When Betty is weightless…remembering the good times…champagne.  And now she is merely a wage slave.  Trading places.

No talking.  Some intertitles.  And prominently (most prominently) that music!  A choice…by someone.  It makes a difference.

Put a murder to the tendresse of Beethoven.  A birth to Schoenberg.

The orchestra makes a difference.  That flat, unwieldy oboe line…

Yes, I know it’s polytonal, but the intonation is rubbish.  Like the Salvation Army rendition of “Abide with Me” at the beginning of Fist of Fury.  Makes Monk and Coltrane sound absolutely polished.

No, I can’t stand it.  Gordon Harker is great…just as he was in The Farmer’s Wife.  Without italics that sounds positively lascivious.  Thank god for capitalization.

Did Hitchcock predict the stock market crash of ’29?  A case could be made.  Yet here it is charade.

Betty falls prey to Bresson’s predecessor…pickpocket filmed from the waist down.  Rage Over a Lost Penny.  Op. 129.  I’m just venting.

Gordon Harker parenting.  Like Gregg Popovich.  Pride in the name of love.

Nothing’s going very well for Betty.  Taken literally, this is a nihilist coup.  But just ask Bert Williams:  nothing don’t put food on the table.  Nobody.

More like “nothing to see here”…  Hitchcock would lament to Truffaut.  Nevertheless, the particular transfer I have (and the Romantic soundtrack) made this an interesting journey.  Most of all we learn that the auteur theorists were right:  geniuses never make bad films.

-PD