Sunday, December 14, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "AMADEUS"

AMADEUS (1984)

Director: Milos Forman
Screenplay: Peter Schaffer based on his stage play.



It's rather easy to look back and see the flaws in "Amadeus". The strange combinations of the more modern spoken language juxtaposed with setting and locations of late 17th & early 18th Century Vienna, as well as the fact that it's an English spoken film, with American actors, and much of the discussion of the film, revolving around what language should be appropriate for operas. On this level, the film is unlike any other period piece I can think of. Something it's so exaggerated, like the punk-like wigs that Mozart (Oscar-nominee Tom Hulce) obsesses over, with accents of pink or the ever slightest hint of a mohawk, it almost borders on parody, how the vast extravagant rooms of the Emperor's palace, can seem so empty from the right angles. In fact, it is farce really, the comic asides of Mozart being stopped at by the palace guards before entering the Emperor's (Jeffrey Jones) music room, where he's playing Salieri's (Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham) concerto he wrote for Mozart, which he masters by ear, with one listen, and then improves upon drastically, within seconds of playing it.

"Amadeus" is beloved, especially by film people. It won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it was credited with many for bringing back a resurgence of the popularity of classical music. (Although I would say classical music has always been popular in general.) Based on Peter Schaffer's play, I think there's two ultimate reasons for why "Amadeus" remains popular. One is that, it really showed the essence of rock'n'roll in the era and times of Mozart. Milos Forman purposefully chose some lesser-known actors for the majority of the parts. Tom Hulce had played Pinto in "National Lampoon's Animal House" before playing the greatest musical prodigy of all-time, and he didn't exactly have too many other credits to his name either. Mozart was the biggest musician of his time, and just because he didn't have an electric guitar available to him, didn't mean that he wasn't a party animal, a drunk, a sex fiend, or any of the other cliches of musicians, he was all that and more than that, he was unbelievably talented. That's the second and more important part of "Amadeus", it shows just how artists, and in particular, great artists work, especially when compared to some who aren't as talented. Salieri, is the Court Composer for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones), and has admired Mozart since he was a kid. He tells the story, in flashback, in an insane asylum to a priest, brought in to hear his confession and try to save him. Salieri's been claiming that he killed Mozart. (That's actually true about Salieri near the end of his life) While Salieri's work did receive a bit of a revival from the film, he talks about how he was the most successful composer of the time; Beethoven is even listed among his pupils, and he was especially big in Vienna, where Mozart was often more disregarded, as he wasn't favored among the Emperor, and his operas sometimes barely performed more than a handful of times per run, and he would often perform works in German, or use banned plays like his great "Figaro" as inspiration. Salieri would play a role in his troubles in Austria, behind the scenes, making sure his shows would only have very limited performances, but he would attend every one, even his vaudeville works that he did when he was at his most broke. Salieri had spent his whole life hearing about this boy prodigy, only to find him, a blithering, giggling lush of a man. He was deeply in love with his wife, Constance (Elizabeth Berridge), and they would be playful and loving, even as Mozart would go out drinking, and occasionally sleep with people he would perform with, like Salieri's singing pupil Katerina Cavalieri (Christine Ebersole). Salieri was obsessed with Mozart, paying for a maid (Cynthia Nixon) to show up and clean their house, just to see what he's working on, making sure he'd be as low and unsuccessful as possible,  but he was more obsessed with his genius. Dawning a costume at a masked brothel, to hear and watch Mozart play piano and by request, anybody from ear, crosshanded and being carried upside down by the partiers. (Which is actually a trick Mozart was known for.), amazed that, when he sees Mozart's originals, and that there's absolutely no mistakes, or erasing or crossing out, he's startled by the natural talent that God has seemed to have just handed over to Mozart. This is something that people don't realize about the history of artists, it was never say, one's own expression that their art represent or presented, it always thought that they were messengers of God, and they were mediums channeling the works of God through their art. And through Mozart, not only, is it just abundantly clear, how genius a music prodigy Mozart was, but how amateurish Salieri in fact was, and worst yet, Salieri was the only one who could see and know just how spectacular Mozart was, and for that, Mozart must be damned.

Salieri's last two acts towards Mozart, represent this two-sided nature of his emotional struggle, first to show up, disguised with the infamous mask Mozart uses in Don Giovanni, to request a Requiem Mass, the infamous one that Mozart never finished, and a sickly Salieri, trying desperately to peel out the Requiem out of Mozart on his deathbed. He had hoped that he would finish it originally, so that he could pull it out after he killed him, in a crazy scheme, even he must've known wasn't gonna completely work. Still, few movies truly get to the core of the process of the artist as well as "Amadeus". It's based on a Peter Schaffer play that most people once thought was unfilmable, but Milos Forman and producer Saul Zaentz, who had teamed together for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" earlier came together to help Schaffer adapt the work, and real key to the film is Salieri, 'cause,- when you think about other musical biopics, uh, especially the ones of great artists, they're really just great artists; you watch something like "Don't Look Back" and you see Bob Dylan, typing his lyrics, kinda behaving rather insipid towards most everybody else, you don't see the genius, it's just natural to him, but it's through this prism of somebody who's talented, but not a natural, not a genius, not a prodigy at the craft, and the differences between the two and what they're actually capable of, that's the sort of thing, that we don't see portrayed well much at all. This was one of the first rebel biopics that Forman would spend most of his later career working on, his best later films were "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Man in the Moon" about Flynt and Andy Kaufman respectively, and his common motif since escaping then-Communist-run Czechoslovakia, where he was one of the leaders of the Czech New Wave, has been people who rebelled against society. In a way, we get both sides of Forman with "Amadeus", the rebellious groundbreaker in Mozart, and the jealous envy of the amateur in Salieri. In the end, he didn't kill Mozart, but he wanted to and tried, and even after he died, of course, the music would live on, as great art has a tendency to do.
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