The previous post, which obviously took a while to wrote and reflect on (hence my lack of Top 10/Skandies updates), was made as my commitment to an AMADEUS blogathon, led by my bud Bilge Ebiri, who also has a post linking to all the other posts in the Blogathon. The links I reproduce here (you can also obviously go to Bilge’s site too) as reciprocation and thanks to everyone else for participating.
Peter Labuza on Milos Forman’s use of music.
Matthew Wilder on AMADEUS as an 80s film.
Glenn Kenny on the literary origins of AMADEUS.
Paul Clark on his personal history with AMADEUS and Mozart.
Zach Ralston on Salieri’s musical talent — as a critic.
Andrew Welch applies Graham Greene’s theory of film to AMADEUS.*
Tim Grierson on audience identification in AMADEUS.
* Look for that theory tomorrow (I promise) when I wrote about #9
“For by grace you are saved … not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not by works, so that no man may glory. For we are His workmanship.”
— St. Paul, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 2
When describing AMADEUS, Salieri is frequently described as an initially pious man who turns against God because He gave Salieri the gift of the love of music while giving the gift of music itself to Mozart, an impious clown. I myself used almost those exact words a couple of years ago when describing the effect seeing AMADEUS had on me in the late-80s. While it is obviously correct as a description of the general narrative trajectory, I used one word there that is significant. “Initially.” The central event is the tossing of a crucifix on the fire, and the whole back half of the film is about an explicitly-named plot against God.
Or so I thought.
When I looked at AMADEUS again a week ago for this blogathon, I had religious questions and issues in the front of my head because I had told Bilge in vague terms that I would write something about how the character of God is presented. This caused me to look more closely at the ways in which Salieri describes his piety, and to privilege mentions of religiously-fraught details. Viewed in that light, the film turned itself upside-down from how I had previously seen it. Never before had I seen how spiritually inevitable it was and how Salieri’s undoing was the result of his own vices, which he sees as virtues. AMADEUS is not the story of a pious man cruelly treated by a Tyrant-god given to cosmic jokes (though that IS how Salieri presents it). Rather, it is the story of an impiously proud man who tries to exercise Providence as if he himself were God.
The “Skandies” half of my year-end wrap-up continues with my vote in the “Undistributed” poll, which, unlike every other Skandie category, requires that your film NOT have had a commercial release. To qualify for this section, also known as the “Undies,” a film must have an Internet Movie Database year of 2009, i.e., be two years old, but never have had a Skandie-qualifying run, which is defined as playing for one week in a commercial release in New York. Effectively, this means films that played at festivals but never got picked up.
In the past two years, I saw 29 such films with 2009 IMDb dates, a shockingly high number for me — in previous years I’ve typically seen about 12 or 15 and sometimes had to abstain because there weren’t 10 I thought were worth a crap. Not this year — I actually even liked (6 grade or better) the majority of those 29 films, and there were even some 7-grade films that didn’t make the cut for the Top 10. The film at #1 I graded a 9, and the next three I graded an 8, so there are some real “keepers” here. Like other Skandie categories, you get 100 points to divvy up among your 10 films, with the sole distribution rule being mimimum of 5 points, maximum of 30.
Since I already reviewed half of my ten films, I just say a few words on them and link to my earlier review. The overall results were revealed in December and are here. The 10 films I eventually voted for, with the number of points, are after the jump.
PROJECT NIM (James Marsh, USA)
Someone comes up to you and suggests performing and funding a scientific study of raising a chimpanzee as a human being and teaching him human language. If your immediate reaction is “yeah, that sounds interesting, here’s the money,” you might find PROJECT NIM lacking. If your immediate reaction is that of a normal person and of the functional-“all” until quite recently — that is, you look to the side, make a polite excuse and slowly back away — PROJECT NIM is a brilliant, pitch-black comedy about just such a 1970s hippie-science experiment, and how some forms of animal research really are about man’s view of man, to the detriment of both man and beast.
Marsh, whose previous documentary was the Oscar-winner MAN ON WIRE, isn’t terribly interested in the science of the Project Nim experiment itself — which had to do with efforts to rebut Noam Chomsky’s theory that language properly-understood is a uniquely human attribute, hard-wired in us, absent in animals. The chimp, taken from his mother at birth and kept away from all other chimps until he was 5 years ago, was named Nim Chimpsky, a fact that is in the film and which point I “got,” but it is not explained in the film and I don’t think Chomsky is even explicitly mentioned (I was distressed some years ago to learn that there is a subject in the world on which I’m a hard-core Chomskyite). The experiment’s trajectory also seems a little telescoped — lead researcher Herbert Terrace acknowledges the experiment has failed rather suddenly, though one suspects the motivation was other.
But the experiment itself is really just a Maguffin, or the occasion for the particulars of this hilarious sick joke, which (YAY!!) comes out on DVD and Blu next week. What Marsh is interested in, and he succeeds magnificently, is an Errol Morris-like portrait of human folly, human nature and how we anthropomorphize animals, and do much else, to play out our own ideas and agendas. The first words in my notes are “Errol Morris, minus Glass score [instead] more conventional strumming.” Indeed, you could almost say NIM was the second-best Morris comedy of 2011 (hint … hint …). Marsh has dramatic, portentous title cards to divide up the tale, cuts to interview subjects in an eccentrically-lit stage, and also uses some re-creations to fill in narrative gaps where archival footage doesn’t exist (though there is plenty of such footage). The Morris-aping (sorry) does, however, get a little much in the lengthy show-offy pans that introduce characters when they give their sit-down interviews today.
The other film that went through my mind a lot watching this one was GRIZZLY MAN, also about people (or in that case, one person) who don’t respect the difference between man and animals. In one of Herzog’s many unforgettable scenes, an Alaska Native says incredulously that while his people have lived beside the grizzlies forever, Treadwell “tried to become a bear, and we know you can’t do that.” PROJECT NIM is about that same sin in its opposite form, the one preferred by our technological materialist society — man wanting to make an animal into a man (curiously, the animals themselves never initiate these projects). While there’s plenty to laugh at in the Herzog film (and I did some), it was hard to really let loose because we knew right from the start that this folly ended with the grisly (sorry) deaths of two people. In PROJECT NIM, the stakes are a little lower.
With Skandies season now upon us (Mike has begun the 20-1 countdown here), I’m going to be writing a lot about my ballot and the top films of 2011 the next three weeks. The plan (fingers crossed) is for one post a day, alternating between my Skandies ballot category-by-category and my annual Top 10 films list, which I haven’t actually revealed anywhere (though if you follow my Twitter feed or look at my screening log, you have a pretty good sense of what will turn up). I’m almost certain to take a day or two off, at least for a planned New York trip, but I will do my best to see this through by giving myself a concrete “assignment” to write every day.
With just nine Skandies categories, I needed a tenth “category” post to fill out the symmetry, so I decided on the 10 Best Old Films of 2011. With one exception, explained there, all these films were unseen by me as of Jan. 1, 2011, and all of them received my highest grade for a first-time viewing (9). Rather than rank them against each other, I’ve just decided to put them in chronological order. I’ve also made liberal use of any tweets I wrote about the films immediately upon or shortly after exiting the theater.
One thing I hope might be valuable in this list, though I also can see it being intimidating, is making concrete the fact that the cinema canon is a literally endless source of new pleasures. Even someone like myself, who was asked semi-rhetorically a few weeks ago whether there was any film he hadn’t seen, can always find more. Whether it’s discovering a new auteur, seeing every last film of a favorite director in hopes of finding one more pearl, or being surprised and reconsidering old ideas (and there are examples here of all these phenomena), there’s always something new and so cinephilia never gets old.