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

Au Hasard Balthazar [1966)

If life has no meaning, then do not continue to the next sentence.

Thank you.

For those of you still reading.

You must excuse my reliance on 1/3rd of the trivium (to the detriment of the remainder).

It must be rhetoric which I employ.

Like a donkey.

No.

It doesn’t work that way.

But for those of us in poverty and misery.

How do we express our futile existences?

By affirming their meanings.

Their meaningfulness.

You have not worked your whole life for nothing.

You worked to survive.

But you survived for others.

You loved.  You cared.

You were curious.

Too curious to let the human race go.

And so, slow and easy does it goes [sic]…the autumn of your years.

Perhaps.

Another spring.

Hope.  Eternal.

Robert Bresson slips a note under our door.

A key.

At first viewing it is dull.  Ugly.

Like a donkey.

Yes.

But Bresson knew Beethoven.  Concision of expression.

Economy of means.

It is no wonder that we hear Schubert throughout this film.

And no wonder that Schubert is Philip Glass’ favorite composer.

Those ostinati.  Figured bass.

Even simpler than Alberti.

More like a rail fence transposition.

Or a Caesar shift cipher.

Ostinato.  Obstinate.

Like the donkey.

But I have patiently borne the humiliation.

I am still a youthful beast of burden.

And yet I know my hooves.

I am a genius.

A four-legged mathematician.

Give me three digits…and a single digit.

And I multiply.

I fecundate the field with feathery flowers.

Four digits.

Do I hear five?

With a memory like an elephant.

A stare like a tiger.

And a harangue like a polar bear.

But look how he shivers.

The donkey.

So humble as to not say a word.

Perhaps it was the wisdom of salt.

Salt of the earth.

A wise ass.

Yes, forever in trouble.  With my pride.

Getting kicked in the rump.

But these are really nasty assaults.

The other side of James Dean.

François Lafarge as Gérard is a real asshole.

Not enough love at home.

Feels a need to punch donkeys.

[pause]

Quite literally…the world comes to life through Bresson’s filmmaking.

Prostitutes pop up.

Pimps prance and preen.

But here we have “merely” sexual assault.

A first step in losing the ability to feel anything.

Numb.

And we have rape (through allusion, of course).

Gérard toots his horn.

Literally.

The other side of the James Dean coin.

The underside of Jean-Paul Belmondo.

A disproportionate riposte courtesy of the one filmmaker with the balls to be simple.

So simple.

On first glance it is nothing.

A donkey.

But live a few years.

And then revisit.

It is a novel.

It contains everything.

We can’t catch it because it doesn’t pop out at us in color.

One way would be to say that no one has ever looked more sad on screen than Anne Wiazemsky here.

Before Godard.

Perhaps a first conversation.

A nervousness.

It was through Wiazemsky that Bresson told this tale.

To teach the New Wave.

They hadn’t learned all the lessons yet.

He wasn’t done speaking.

The quiet tone of an old man…

I want to tell you more more more.

But this is best secret.

To appreciate the simple things.

Before they are gone.

The patient animals.

So gentle in their existence.

Not presuming.

Not running.  Not hustling.

The pack-animals.

We know this look.

In cats.  In dogs.

This wisdom.

We laugh at their carefree insolence.

But they have shown the way.

Such resilience!

Such love…

And we are taken in.

Our hearts are melted.

Yes.

Few moments in cinema feel more lonely than the end of Au Hasard Balthazar.

It is almost unbearable.

The quiet dignity of humanity being shamed.

How could we ever forget our love.

For even a second.

When we rub two sticks together at such an eyelevel perspective, the meaning of life is very clear.

But unutterable.

 

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 21 [1976)

Saturday Night Live was still a small show in 1976.

A growing concern, to be sure, but still a show with an off-the-cuff, communal vibe to it.

We feel this insular aspect most when hosts or musical guests are repeated.

For instance, Candice Bergen hosted episodes 4 and 8.

Phoebe Snow was a musical guest on episodes 2 and 18.

And finally, Buck Henry was the host of episode 10 and (voila!) episode 21.

Buck Henry is a hard guy to get excited about.

He comes out in a cardigan.  A sort of Bob Newhart look.

But the man was brilliant.

The two shows Henry hosted to this point, taken collectively, both show signs of superior comedic writing.

One gets the sense that Buck was allowed to contribute to the writing process (which only makes sense considering who he was).

However, this is still a rather mediocre installment of the show.

The big surprise is that Gordon Lightfoot is not, I repeat, not horrible.

I had heard a bit of Lightfoot previously.

In one sense, he is the prefect pairing for Buck Henry:

unassuming, understated, dullish…

Henry, at least, seems aware of his fatherly image and manages to make the presentation work for him.

Lightfoot, while not apparently a comedian, is a sort of breath of fresh air as far as musicians go.

He just gets on there and sings his songs.  Plain and simple.

And his band…whoa!

I thought the MC5 had cornered the market on denim, but Lightfoot’s group is like a Wrangler gang on the prowl.

Tamely…

Hell, Lightfoot’s young lead guitarist sits down for the performance.

This is some m e l l o w stuff.

But not in a druggy sense.

Lightfoot really has a sort of John Denver purity about him.

But really, nothing can compare to Garrett Morris singing Franz Schubert’s “An die Musik” on this show.

It is breathtaking.

It’s one of those special TV moments which catches one completely off-guard.

They just don’t make TV like this anymore.

 

-PD

Detective [1985)

How do you get that much emotion into a film review?  In order to start saying things again, we must stop saying things as we have been saying them.

Year zero.

As much as I might like to find fault with this film, I cannot.  Not really.

What for some directors would be their masterpiece is for Godard merely another step in the journey.

We get used to genius.

We expect perfection.

But let us descend from the cosmos to discuss the film at hand.

No…on second thought.

It is the prolongation of the opening titles.  Not like James Bond.  It is not a formulaic gun-barrel sequence.

It is merely (merely?) the opposite of diminution.  Augmentation.  A fugue.

There are too many words to remember.

And so Godard takes his sweet ass time telling us about the players.

Quite a cast.

If we come in blind (and cold), each addition piques our interest further.

Was it Alain Sarde who put together this troupe?

Perhaps he only wrote the checks?

No no…it is better to discuss how Godard used this extensive cast.

A cast of thousands.  Mahler Symphony #8.

Wikipedia.  Poor pathetic Wikipedia.

But maybe not.

If you are accustomed to mainstream fare, this picture may appear to have no plot.

It is the pacing.  The cuts.  Montage?

No.  No diatribe.

On to the cast.

Jean-Pierre Léaud.  How long had it been?

And Claude Brasseur!  Christ!!

But we really start moving with Johnny Hallyday.

Once upon a time…

(should start)

I (me)…I was in some city…I believe it was Quebec.  Quebec City.  Québec.

I had a room at the top of the world for the night.  I believe it was the 22nd floor.

Enough to make you shit yourself…

And in the morning, there we were…a band apart.  Bleary eyed, perhaps.

And out comes Monsieur Hallyday.

And the press clicked away.  The hands went up to shield the bright lights.

And all I was impressed with was that he’d been in a Godard movie.

This one.

But let us not forget Nathalie Baye.

She is extraordinary here.

Brasseur is very strong.

Hallyday is surprisingly perfect.

All of these pop stars in films by the former nouvelle vague

But let us really focus on the viscera.

Emmanuelle Seigner.

I have written about her before in relation to Berlin:  Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Yes.  She is indispensable here.

And Julie Delpy.  With the licorice stick.

(that would be, clarinet)

Poorly documented.

Actresses age.  They become harder to distinguish from their former selves.

A stage of facial age.

But really the star (STAR)…(STAR) is Aurelle Doazan.

Sometimes it is her legs.  We study every shot in every Godard film.

The market for films.  The clearing prices.  For rare cinephilia.  Paraphernalia.  Saturnalia.

Alea iacta est.

Les jeux sont faits.

The sound.

All bets are in.  The die is cast.

The games are done.

Have been.

Godard here makes an art of either A.) saying nothing at all, or B.) saying everything that can possibly be said.

We happen to know he improved.

This experiment.  AGFA.  Audio Cassettes……….Video Cassettes.

Making an entire movie in a hotel.

Just deliver the equipment.

Arriflex.  Mitchell.  Panavision.

Schubert.  Liszt.  Honegger.

François Musy.

The engine is rattling.  Abandon ship.

-PD