Films of My Life — 2
AMADEUS (Milos Forman, USA, 1984, 10)
Much as I loved THE BREAKFAST CLUB, I would have to say that if I could only pick one movie and say “THAT is the one that made me a critic,” it would be Milos Forman’s AMADEUS.
When it was released in 1984, like most teens I suspect, I wrote it off sight-unseen as another PBS edumacational-type biography about that dumbass classical music composer that your parents and teachers were always trying to get you to “appreciate.” Hard as it may be to believe, I was fairly ambivalent about school; by the standards of Top-10-in-their-graduating-class bookworms, I fairly hated school. Then when it swept the Oscars, again like most teens I suspect, I just thought — well, that’s just those old farts who didn’t even have the sense to nominate BEVERLY HILLS COP.
One Monday night at home, around 1987 or so, AMADEUS was playing on TV on one of San Antonio’s independent channels at 7 p.m. and my father wanted to watch it. I wanted to watch Monday Night Football, which started at 8 p.m. I told him more or less what I just wrote in the previous paragraph. My father, who apparently already had seen the movie, assured me that it was nothing like I thought and that if I promised to sit through the first hour, but didn’t like it, we’d switch it over to MNF.
Long before the first hour was over, I was completely absorbed in the film, although as a bit of a comic murder mystery, not the theological paradox it turns out to be. What instantly grabbed me — literally in the very first scene, involving two comic servants and a dessert — is that AMADEUS was a fun film. It was, on the surface, an irreverent semi-comedy about a supremely-confident goofy naturally-talented guy secretly wracked by guilt (I can’t say I didn’t see myself in some ways). Besides changing my attitude toward critically-praised movies, AMADEUS also really whetted my appetite for Mozart’s music, precisely because it didn’t wrap it in a package marked “Educational.” Mozart generally produced light-toned, graceful works, and even his grand tragic material is simple but voluptuous. Forman made Mozart approachable to me. To this day, I repeatedly point out to people that operas, which we wrap in the forbidding aura of High Culture, are just foreign-language musicals and some of the central canonical works (Mozart’s own “Cosi Fan Tutte,” say) are, at least on the surface, as silly and frothy and fun as a Broadway premiere. I myself really got into “The Barber of Seville” thanks to Bugs Bunny.
But I will go out on a limb and say AMADEUS has the greatest score in movie history — obviously in significant part because the music is Mozart, but also because Forman used Mozart’s music to supreme effect dramatically and cinematically. His cutting rhythms, the way his actors moved through the frame, the subjective material (my favorite is from nagging landlady to “The Magic Flute” queen) matched the music near-perfectly turning what could have been a staid biopic into a kind of comic opera using various of Mozart’s music, orchestrated onscreen by rival-friend composer Antonio Salieri.
The scene where Mozart is dying in bed dictating the Requiem Mass to Salieri is as brilliantly profound (their different modes of composing and Salieri’s inability to keep up; this was something I remember Dad pointing out to me that evening) and as musically virtuoso (the snatches of music slipping in and out with Mozart’s delirious descriptions) as anything Forman, or practically anyone else, has ever made. I don’t know if “opera remix” is a category of music, but, if it is, AMADEUS created it. This is something I really only “got” on repeat viewings of course, but I “felt” it even on that Monday evening.
On that night, I even remember one of the earliest bits of film criticism I ever came up with. I told Dad that the reason Salieri went insane was not only because God made him a mediocre composer, cursed with the special knowledge of Mozart’s greatness (we both got that much), but also because God even frustrated Salieri’s revenge on Him. There would be no magnificent funeral procession filling the streets of Vienna to hear Salieri’s masterpiece “Requiem Mass Upon Mozart’s Death” because that death (the ultimate act of Providence) came at just about the only time when Mozart would have been a forgotten man dumped in a pauper’s grave. Significantly earlier, he’d have still been fashionable at the Austrian emperor’s court; significantly later, he’d have been in the musical pantheon.
Instead Salieri, an initially pious man, is driven mad with anger at God — not so much for not giving him the musical gifts that Amadeus (“beloved of God”) had, but for giving Salieri the gift of the love of music while giving the gift of music itself to an impious clown. God’s gifts are both delight and a cross, and it’s the special cur-sed gift to Salieri that he alone can hear God’s voice and how sweet it is, while that same gift lets him know how inadequate his own work is. It’s key to the film that Mozart and Salieri both know the court musicians, emperor and Viennese public are fools; making their praise of Salieri and his popularity worthless to him. Salieri, in the perfect touch, surreptitiously sabotages DON GIOVANNI, but secretly goes to every performance “to hear what only I could hear.” As Salieri says to the priest: “if He didn’t want me to praise Him with music, why did He give me the desire?” (I can’t say I don’t see myself in some ways).
A few days after that Monday night, I was browsing in a bookstore and alighted upon Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, the 1988 edition. I opened it to his review of AMADEUS and I thought “What a great review! How did he nail that film SO right!?” (Trust me, kids. This was from back when Ebert was good and hadn’t turned into a ranting political hack.) Here’s some excerpts from that review, all of which were insights that I’d already had.
The truth enters in the character of Salieri, who tells the story. He is not a great composer, but he is a good enough composer to know greatness when he hears it, and that is why the music of Mozart breaks his heart. He knows how good it is, he sees how easily Mozart seems to compose it, and he knows that his own work looks pale and silly beside it.
The movie begins with the suggestion that Salieri might have murdered Mozart. The movie examines the ways in which this possibility might be true, and by the end of the film we feel a certain kinship with the weak and jealous Salieri — for few of us can identify with divine genius, but many of us probably have had dark moments of urgent self-contempt in the face of those whose effortless existence illustrates our own inadequacies …
And then there is Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), the gaunt court composer whose special torture is to understand better than anybody else how inadequate he is, and how great Mozart is. …
in the character of Salieri it has given us a way to understand not only greatness, but our own lack of it. This movie’s fundamental question, I think, is whether we can learn to be grateful for the happiness of others, and that, of course, is a test for sainthood. How many movies ask such questions and succeed in being fun, as well?
Reading Ebert on AMADEUS had two effects on me. First, it made me want to read what else he had to write and made me to watch his and Gene Siskel’s TV show. I bought that Home Movie guide that day and later bought three of its successor volumes; the successors (1991, 1993 and 1997) all remain on my bookshelf to this day. Some of the late-80s seminal-to-me films that I had to read Ebert on and/or saw only because of him include THE THIN BLUE LINE, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, BULL DURHAM in theaters and RUTHLESS PEOPLE, A ROOM WITH A VIEW, THE LAST EMPEROR, 28 UP, MASK, THE KILLING FIELDS and PARIS TEXAS on home video. Those guides, because they had reviews of movies going back in some cases to the late 60s and also had essays on the Sight & Sound polls, also provided an entree into the history of cinema and into foreign films.¹
The second effect Ebert’s AMADEUS review had was, paradoxically, more self-flattering than the first, which can fairly be called fandom or hero-worship for Ebert. But that effect was — “I can do this too.” And maybe I could do it as well as he could. After all, I had a lot of the same critical insights he had, and a few that he didn’t (or didn’t seem to, anyway).
And with that, things were off to the races.
¹ Ebert’s successor “Video Guides” and “Movie Yearbooks” couldn’t serve that function because, last I looked, they just reprinted his last couple of years of reviews.