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

Häxan [1922)

One of my ancestors was hung for being a witch.

Susannah Martin.

1692.

When I speak of it or think of it, it gives me chills.

It.

What?

No, she.

As Danish director Benjamin Christensen makes so clear in this masterpiece.

Häxan is Swedish for “witch”.

Our film was released by Svensk Filmindustri:  a Swedish film production company which still exists to this day.

Thus the Swedish title.  And the Swedish premier(s) in 1922.  And the Swedish intertitles.

The Danish would be Heksen.

Swedish, Danish, English…

Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered.

This is the horror of religion.  The horror of irrationality.  Violence against women.  Abuse of the elderly.  Mistreatment of the mentally ill.

Christensen’s film is a masterpiece precisely because it combines the clarity of modern thought with the mists of medieval superstition.

It begins almost as a documentary.

Unlike me, he lists his sources.

But then the film takes on a life of its own.

As if the director was not quite sure whether to dismiss superstition outright.

As if some dark Freudian specters were haunting his deliberate phantasmagoria.

It was meant to be a lucid montage.

But the letters became transposed.

Lucid, Lurid.  Live.  Evil.

Miles Davis had it right.  And Howlin’ Wolf (by way of Willie Dixon) [not to mention Howlin’ Pelle].

Svensk Filmindustri.  Founded a mere three years before Häxan.

Only fitting that the parent company (Bonnier Group) should have its roots in København.

Because Benjamin Christensen is brilliant as the Devil.

And now for the juicy stuff.

Not Hell, but Hellerup.  Denmark.

Birthplace of Stine Fischer Christensen (ooh la la!).

But we’re mainly interested in ASA Filmudlejning.

Or are we?

An unfinished symphony of horror.

…eine Symphonie des Grauens

1922.

Possessed by self-punishment.

“More weight!”

And even more wait.

Tom Waits for no man.

I was tricked.

Must have been needles and pins.  Voodoo.

He can’t even remember her name.

Ripped my heart from my chest.

Call it punk rock.

Moloch.  Bohemian Grove.

If it’s all a bunch of bollocks, then these blokes are just bluffing, right?

-Bechtel

-H.W.

-Warren Christopher

-George Creel (investigative journalist and propagandist)

-Harlan Crow (this guy…son of Trammell Crow…buddy of Clarence Thomas [more on him later]…Thomas, who gave Crow the Bible of Frederick Douglass [what the fuck?!?]…Crow…owns at least one painting by Hitler…Napoleon’s writing desk…the Duke of Wellington’s sword [ca. 1815]…but weirdest is his Alec Trevelyan (006) / Janus sculpture garden which includes such spoils of war as Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Marx, Mubarak, Tito, Ceausescu, and Guevara)

-Draper

-David Gergen (of course)

-Inman

-Kissinger (naturally)

-John Lehman (9/11 commission)

-Henry S. Morgan (cofounder Morgan Stanley)

-Reagan (Owl’s Nest)

-George Shultz [sick]

-Tony Snow [“]

-Caspar Weinberger

Weaving spiders come not here.

 

-PD

 

I fidanzati [1963)

This is a fucking depressing film.

I don’t think I’ve ever started like that before.

Because it matters.  How you start.

But maybe it’s just a mirror.

This film.

I can imagine few pieces of cinema summing up my life at this moment quite as well as I fidanzati does.

I’m sure there’s a dangling modifier in there somewhere.

But what about the welder?

The man adrift.

Sent to some godforsaken place for the company.

I made the right decision.  But I went to the wrong place.

Unfortunately, there is no separating the two.

Work.

Too much work.

All of our thoughts occupied with work.

And what do we get out of the equation?

Nothing.

Almost nothing.

Might as well be nothing.

It is a particularly Italian version of hell on display in I fidanzati.

Ermanno Olmi was a brilliant director here.

And he lives.  84 years young.

Sure.

Some things end well.

Young girls like happy endings.

But this one is hard to get over.

It’s really harrowing having nothing to live for.

And how would I know that?

You have a phone.  It doesn’t ring.

In fact, you sometimes wonder whether your messages get delivered at all.

You have a heart.

When is the last time someone spoke to your heart?

I understand.

We are shackled.  Paralyzed.  Crippled.

Life is sucked out of us like a lemon peel in the Sicilian heat.

No, I don’t understand.

Is this how karma works?

Surely this jungle will spare me.

I can think of Anna Canzi.

Her face is a melody.

And I relate to those sad cheeks.

You keep writing because you haven’t yet expressed it.

It.

That which you need to get off your soul.

Soul.

That living feeling inside you.

Primitive man suffering with his superstitions.

Poor man paying for his ignorance.

Not all are willfully unprepared.

What could have prepared you for this situation?

Other than this situation?

That is Situationism.

Science and humanities will argue that metaphor…or rather analogy.

That this will teach you.

It is like this.  And like that.  But unlike the other thing.

No.

I disagree.

It is unlike anything I’ve ever known.

Youth was lonely.

This is vicious.

There is.

A bar down the street.

But only in the movies.

Yet here it is exposed for what it really would be.

Empty.

Loud music and louder lights.  Life!  Vitality!  Excitement!

Inside is an old woman at a cash register.

There is a little metal display tree with ballpoint pens on one side.

The rest of the lopsided taunt is vacant.

And then the little boy.

Getting ahead in life.

Like Michele Sindona.

Making the espresso.  Quicker!  Faster!

Washing the dishes…

And hauling the fruit back and forth…

The citrus.

The service.

The difference in price from one location to another.

Goldfinger.

They Drive by Night

Good god…

It doesn’t get much more depressing.

And there should be some positive message to end it off.

And there is.

Which makes it even more sad.

Because the film was running long.

And maybe it won’t win shit at Cannes.

Did you ever think about that?

So then you have a depressing film on your hands for domestic audiences.

And they spend their hard-earned cash.

And what the fuck is this shit?

Oh…Anna, Monica…don’t go see this film.

It is so depressing!

But there’s the answer.

I fidanzati succeeds because it shows a side of life we don’t want to see.

What?

It succeeds…53 years later.

Because it was true.

It stuck to its guns.

It was meaningful.

So many other films from that year…

Utterly pointless.

Diversions.

Sad candy.

But here…

Yeah.  It’s a bummer.

But it’s real.

You can stare up at it and wonder how Signor Olmi painted such color in black and white.

How he lovingly distinguished gray from grey…and Juan from Gris.

Is it the same?

From language to language?

Gray?

Even within the Commonwealth…

We damned Americans.

No.

And yes.

This.

Sadness transcends.

No explanation needed.

The machines rule us.

Time is our master.

Money mocks our fragility.

On every continent.

An indispensable story.

 

-PD

Čovek nije ptica [1965)

It makes sense that Man Is Not a Bird was Dušan Makavejev’s first film.  It has that first-film “breadth” to it.

Where Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. (Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator) struck with absolute precision, Čovek nije ptica meanders about a bit in search of the appropriate film language. 

[N.B.  Wikipedia spells “bird” in Serbo-Croat for this film as “tica”.  I’m not sure why that is as “tica” seems to mean nothing (whereas “ptica” means “bird”).]

Though our film is set in a strange, backwards town, the narrative is considerably sprawled.

Eva Ras (the star of Love Affair…) is here as a more minor character.  However, she is the one who most lives out the message of the title.

This film has a strange obsession with hypnosis.  There is a hypnotist, but the film starts off with a scientific denunciation of superstition.  Through hypnosis (we are told), a distressed person can be made to abandon the grip of superstition.

Back to our hypnotist in the middle of the film…he is more of an entertainer than anything.  I am not entirely sure, but I believe the initial “legitimate” hypnotist (psychologist) and the later “entertainer” hypnotist are played by the same actor.

If that is the case, then Makavejev’s later metaphor (the circus) makes more sense.  But what is really complex about this film is the layering of metaphors upon one another.  It makes finding meaning very difficult.

One “reading” would be that life is a circus.  Another reading would be that “cinema” is a circus which purports to present a more truthful version of life than what we know.

But what does that mean?

Every day we experience life is some respect.  What could be “more truthful” than our daily experience?  Is Makavejev implying that we lie to ourselves?  Quite possibly.

As film viewers (spectators), we may become immersed in a particular movie and identify with characters and stories.  In a way, WE are the fourth wall.  The fourth wall is our temporary reality.  We enter into the false reality of film.

But, film gives us a chance to observe “ourselves”.  When we heavily identify with a particular character, we are having a sort of “out of body experience”.

And this brings us back to hypnosis.

Man Is Not a Bird is a very beautiful film (in a grimy, socialist, factory soot kind of way), but it is (perhaps not surprisingly) a dark film as well.

Shot, like Love Affair…, in black and white there is something more sinister about this film than the more gentle and humorous Love Affair…  But who are we kidding?  Love Affair… is inextricably wound up with death.  What could be darker than that?

Answer:  life without life.

It is what Eva Ras experiences as she is emotionally abused and disrespected by her husband.  Her husband, as it turns out, is working a job which is so hazardous to his health that the position is being eliminated ASAP.  And that’s in communist Yugoslavia!  All through this film we see a sort of poverty which separates East from West.  The poor Eastern Europeans.  What the West would come to realize (like New York Times film critic Vincent Canby) was that the East had something of immense wealth.  If pressed, I would call it soul.

Man is not a bird (even if, under hypnosis, he believes this to be the case).  Man is also no angel.  Janez Vrhovec plays a sort of martyr in this film.  Another more light-hearted character prods him as to whether he can feel the tingling of his burgeoning angel wings (the prodding is actually quite sardonic).

Man is not a machine.  But Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), the deft Slovenian machinist/engineer, has become a slave to his job.  From Pakistan to Dar es Salaam:  Rudinski makes his comrades proud with his exceptional efficiency.

But let us return to Eva Ras.

To turn Godard on his head, A Woman Is Not A Woman.

Why do I say that?

Because the French word for wife (femme) is the same as the French word for woman (femme).

And so a whole new world of wordplay opens up for us concerning TWO Godard films (namely):

Une Femme est une femme

and

Une Femme mariée.

In the first, we could potentially have the proto-syllogisms:

A woman is a wife.

Or, conversely:

A wife is a woman.

Furthermore, we could have:

A woman is a woman (the accepted translation in the English-speaking world).

Or, on the contrary:

A wife is a wife.

It gets to be such that we assume there is some sort of “boys will be boys” idiomatic phrase in operation.  Not being a native French speaker, I cannot confirm or deny that.  But I do know that Godard loves word play.  And therefore, the simple answer may not be the intended answer.

To illustrate further we have,

Une Femme mariée.

The accepted English translation is A Married Woman, but could it not be the more perverse and thought-provoking A Married Wife?

One thing is certain:

Man Is Not a Bird will have you under its spell whether you understand it or not.  At least, that’s the experience I had.

I would add one final bit of exegesis (extra Jesus).

It may very well be that Makavejev was making a disparaging statement about the communist Yugoslavian state with his first film.  It would be like the secret messages which Shostakovich managed to work into his music (particularly the string quartets) while living in Soviet Russia.

In the hands of communist governments, art (and particularly film…after Lenin’s admiration of the medium for its uniqueness) had to represent the people.  On one side (with communist eyes) this is admirable.  From the other (with capitalist eyes) this is seen as propaganda.

Any astute capitalist would have realized that (particularly in times of war) there was not much difference from communist and capitalist propaganda.  Both economic systems availed themselves of the practice of propagandizing.

But my guess, regarding the film in question, is that Makavejev recognized his own role as a propagandist (he had no choice in the matter…either please the censors or leave the profession) and likewise saw film as a double-edged sword of hypnosis.

And so his first film is really a realization…of that power in film…that power that can drive the masses to love…or to kill.

 

-PD