Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rock Me, "Amadeus Director's Cut" (Part II)

Two more viewings, the latter in company of the helpmeet, assure me that I will become no stranger to this film. In terms of visual and narrative exuberance it smashes such would-be-frothy concoctions as "Marie Antoinette" against the hearth. It comes at the viewer with all the unbridled over-the-topness of the greatest cinematic extravaganzas-- "Ivan the Terrible", "One from the heart", "Heaven's Gate". Add to that its outpourings of music-- by definition incomparable-- and its definite, though majestic, storytelling gusto, and it's impossible to miss why David Thomson saluted Forman on the occasion of "Amadeus"s 1984 release as the new Vincent Minnelli.

Two sequences may illuminate this particular aspect of the film. The costume ball, with its giddy game of musical chairs and the bearing-in of a roasted ox, winged cherub mounted athwart it, is as unabashed in its visual indulgence as the great opera sequences staged in the Tyl Theatre. Its dramatic content is to detail Leopold's real mission in visiting his son, and to germinate in Salieri's mind part of his later program for destroying Mozart. It also gives us a supreme example of Salieri's unnerving masochism, as he offers his own name for Mozart's forthcoming ridicule. "That was God laughing, Father" he tells the priest to whom he recounts his tale, ultimately not in quest of absolution but in the pride of discovery. "Someday I will laugh at you." With the blowing out of his candle, the original release cut to the beginning of the Figaro saga that occupies the film's middle section and represents Mozart's halcyon phase, as all worldly obstacles seem to dissipate until the Emperor's miraculous yawn topples his every chance of success.
Now, in the new version the composition of "The Marriage of Figaro" and its attendant difficulties occupies quite a larger chunk of the story, and we know throughout that Mozart's fortunes are very far from secure. Originally, we might have taken issue with Leopold's accusation "they say that you have debts" (though we know it would be foolish to doubt the pragmatic Leopold on this); but now we see Mozart hitting up Salieri himself for a loan. This thread is interwoven with the quest for pupils, a theme introduced right after the successful premiere of "The Abduction from the Seraglio", one which previously was but a footnote. In the Director's Cut the battle for pupils grows from a tertiary friction with the Court into a full-blooded contest, pitting Constanze against Mozart (and driving her to throw her body at Salieri), giving Salieri occasion for a dark machination worthy of his diabolical declaration of war with God (his molestation charges against Mozart before the Emperor, which immediately follow it), and allowing one of the film's most riotous exercises in comedy, as Mozart attempts to give a music lesson to a nervous nubile jungfrau while her philistine papa (Kenneth Macmillan, always a riot), her maman who cuts the air with bent arms to Mozart's music in a pattern familiar enough to those who have seen old ladies attempting to accomodate themselves to a hip-hop rhythm at a wedding (or to those familiar with my helpmeet!), and a gaggle of noisome mutts all look on while making as few concessions to pedagogical decorum as could be imagined.
Now, in the midst of this "Figaro" Act of the film, the party sequence acts as a sort of-- well, not idyll, since the most idyllic scene in the film must be the outdoor performance of the Piano Concerto No. 22, whose finale seems to delight Constanze and Joseph II in equal measure and which may be regarded as the height of Mozart's professional career in terms of the film-- but perhaps a kind of jubilee or Roman triumph, as even Leopold must bear witness to the dear Viennese' love for his wastral boy, and Salieri feels himself at his lowest ebb. After all, those are HIS Viennese who whoop it up riotously over Wolfie's grimacing, grunting, fart-blowing parody of the Court Composer. The bewigged beauties who patently dote on Mozart, the little boy who seems to stand in for the child Beethoven who would draw sustenance from his interview with the maestro-- they prefigure the women of "The Magic Flute" who carouse with Mozart in the cabin, and the children who step up behind him as he conducts the Queen of the Night to get a closer view, as our closest proxies within the film, who give Mozart the absolute and unconditional adulation posterity owes him as his due. Even as Salieri feeds his wicked designs, therefore, this sequence is celebratory, and its extreme extravagance, mingling as it does all the riches of Rococo with perhaps some gestures towards native Czech rusticity (the grotto-like setting, that roasted ox which Forman tells us in his commentary was looked forward-to with great appetite by the extras, except it got past three days before they were done with the sequence and the carcase reeked!) delights the viewer, as so much in this extraordinary film does, with its willingness to place us firmly in the midst of its unstintingly lavish vision-- to encourage us to LIVE inside the film, inside its luminous interpretation of that magically bejewelled place and time-- even as it serves to advance the drama's tensions, to push us into the enveloping tragedy that unfolds.

The second sequence I wish to ponder is the one which certainly does the least to advance anything like "story" in the film-- the parody/pastiche of Mozart operas staged by Schikaneder in his People's Theatre. I've always felt there was something meant to be "political" about this sequence-- that it was Forman's own special gift to the people of Prague, to give the extras (in the guise of poor plebeians rather than bewigged aristocrats) a good show, and to prove that Mozart is "for the masses." On a related note, I find something displeasingly Kundera-like in this scene: Forman's jovial vulgarity seems close to Kundera's spirit here, what in Kundera's very odd scheme would be anti-vulgarity, since "vulgarity" for Kundera means false high sentiment (thus, Beethoven's music is vulgar, orgies are not). Kundera himself introduced Forman to Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", which Forman would eventually film as "Valmont", so we may assume that Forman's ideas about the 18th Century were formed in part by Kundera. Likewise, any political message Forman might wish to consider in a 1984 Prague would be invested with Kundera's concerns. The transposition of Mozart's music into a vaudevillean lexicon results in something that might be playfully considered as "silly" but, in brutal honesty, is stupid. Does Forman wish to tell us that Mozart's tunes work in any context, even when removed from the fabric of his own music? Hopefully he does not wish to push this remix-mentality very far; Mozart himself seems to take it in stride as a brash theatre piece, while Constanze stands bravely upon High Art principle ("I didn't like what he did to your opera; it was comic") while insisting simultaneously upon the rules of High Finance ("Half the house? You'll never see a penny!"). Since "Amadeus" is blithely indifferent to the role of Freemasonry in the life of Mozart, the unwary viewer has nothing to guide them into the mystical and late-Shakespearean motifs of "The Magic Flute", but at least they can see that it is all opera and no parody. But the shots of the audience during the parody's performance are a bit of a sore spot for the movie-- one has to accept, with Mozartean graciousness and egalitarianism, that Forman looked for some Real Czechs off the street and put them before the cameras in an "unwashed" state, as if to say-- See that old lady looking for the sausages to be thrown her way? That old lady lives under Communism. Those sausages would feed her for a week. Thus, strangely, the parody sequence may be the populist mirror of the scene at court where Mozart must sruggle to lift the Emperor's ban on "Figaro". In these scenes Forman wrestles again with the spirit of his Iron Curtain censors, under their supposedly obliging noses.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Rock Me, "Amadeus Director's Cut" (Part I)

Once you've grown past the naive assumption that more is always better, you become, not wary merely, but afraid, very very afraid, of "Director's Cut"s. Once upon a time, of course, you thought of them as a Holy Grail, like letterboxed VHS-- better still, often they actually came together, since either was rare. Think "Blade Runner". Or that restored 311 min. "1900" on Bravo, letterboxed and then censored of all the explicit sexual bits-- the violence, of course, could be safely retained, in all its grisly head-smashing expliciteness; the sexuality too, naughty stuff that it is, was more or less left untouched, but Dominique Sanda's nudity, which I can only assume was in radiant evidence somewhere or other, was gone. Well, it was an experience nonetheless and hey, where else were you going to see any of it?
All of that has changed. Perhaps it came with that "Basic Instinct" director's cut with, what, 23 seconds? of additional footage. Or was it the opposite extreme that would define the self-indulgence of the director's cut?: Oliver Stone packing entire new over-the-top studies in satiric grisliness into his already bursting-at-the-seams-grisly "Natural Born Killers"? Time was, Ridley Scott could rescue a masterpiece from the ashbin of travesty-- "Blade Runner: The Director's Cut." Now he's working on the director's cut of the director's cut, having in the meantime taken his original director's cut of "Alien" and turned it into something of a travesty, in between breaks in retooling "Gladiator", "Kingdom of Heaven"-- who's keeping count, actually? Has he decided who gets to do the soundtrack for "Legend"? Will there be a subtler, boarless "Hannibal"? Will he decide to let Thelma and Louise make it to the bottom of the canyon, or will he stake out his claim to the Pantheon on a three-hour "Someone to Watch Over Me"? --All, more or less, fine films; Scott's a major director, a visual maestro with a definite auteurist streak in terms of theme and story, but should he play Henry James with his entire canon? With the films he had control over the first time around? . . .

The Director's Cut that has loomed largest with me is Milos Forman's new millennium "Amadeus." We can take the 5-hour "Fanny and Alexander" out of the running, since that actually WAS the original conception of the film, with the theatrical version as Bergman's willing response to the logistics of the theatre and the requirements of an international release. But Milos Forman's case is different. A true auteur with a proven record of bending the most disparate literary sources to his will, producing a set of films as conspicuously of-a-piece as any body of work in the cinema, Forman, teamed once again with Saul Zaentz, the producer he propelled to Oscar glory with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", gave the world his entirely original and personal re-vision of Peter Shaffer's stagework in 1984, fighting perhaps a rather stern battle-of-wills with the nominally compliant Czech authorities, but assuredly not one in the editing room. The 1984 director's cut laid claim to eight Oscars (though cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek and editors Nena Danevic and Michael Chandler would have to content themselves with the British Academy's prizes), and had a good eighteen years to settle in the minds of an international audience. Though some journalist or other scoffed at comparisons with "Apocalypse Now Redux" when "Amadeus Director's Cut" came out, in fact Forman's revision of his own original vision is a more radical departure, not least because the public had a general idea at least of the sorts of things Coppola had left on the cutting-room floor. The new Forman cut returns the film somewhat to the scabrous spirit of Shaffer's play (which itself exists in at least two distinct versions, losing "Cosi fan Tutte" among other things along the way), in the process threatening its own, quite superior dramatic integrity, and dampening its incomparable joie-de-vivre.

Having anticipated this, I put myself in no hurry to view it. But life is cruelly defined by limitations, and whether Heaven or Hell awaits, it cannot be put off forever. Especially since, whether by Forman's own intention or as another clever DVD marketing scheme to force the devoted viewer to purchase ever-new "Special Editions", the theatrical "Amadeus" (I remind you, the ORIGINAL director's cut) is quite unavailable today. Its only dvd release was on an early, "flipper" disc compelling the viewer to turn it over halfway through the film. On the "Amadeus Director's Cut" release, disc two is full of bonus extras. As the endtitles have been expanded, not only to make the usual allowances for the limited number of hands doing digital remastering and the restored cameo performers (hello Kenneth Macmillan!!), but to credit bits of music that have mysteriously insinuated themselves into prominence, whether they were already there or not ("Caro Mio Ben" by Giuseppe Giordani, Michele Esposito, soprano?), I would hardly wish to trust "seamless" same-disc viewing options anyway-- nevermind the horrific object-lesson posed by the fate of Forman's "Valmont" on its MGM dvd, where an ENTIRE SEQUENCE has disappared, with no corrected re-release in sight! For me, even the original endcredits are a part of my film history, and with the zeal with which Forman has reinserted bits great and small, only a separately issued disc could reassure me that the original version is safely preserved for posterity.

It behooves me to consider how drastically the new material changes the entire spirit of the film, in addition to its dramatic cohesion; but I must first note, as the matter has been neglected by every commentator I've encountered, the parts that are MISSING from this new version. Thankfully I have the vhs widescreen release of old "Amadeus", as well as the rather poorly transfered pan-and-scan from "Republic Pictures" (this released somewhere between the much more pristine HBO home video on which I experienced the film the first sixty-odd times, and the later Warner Bros. release); but these will not avail me here, as I admit I haven't consulted them lately. But I have quite clear enough a memory to assure me of two particular points concerning the soundtrack, and another, almost as certain, about a precious slice of film I miss in the "Director's Cut."
Inscrutably altered is the voice of the operatic party-girl during the bacchic costume ball, who once offered the pleasing suggestion (to the audience at least, though Mozart, against his real taste, demurs) "Play Handel!" In deference to the thrilling uninhibitedness of the original voice, we should write this: PLAY HANDEL!!! It's a trilling, greedy songbird sort of voice, utterly appropriate and for me, utterly beloved. Shockingly, there is now a different voice altogether, and all it has to offer is, "Pl'handl". --I can only imagine that Forman had once re-dubbed a poor bit player's wilty voice and now, perhaps out of patriotic deference to a native Czech, has restored her own utterly banal voice to her mouth. But this new voice clearly does not belong to that delightful orifice, and I am outraged. Did someone in the Zaentz compound have a Nixon-secretary moment with the original track? Has 1984 "Amadeus" been consumed by flames?
Equally certainly gone is Roy Dotrice's unforgettable offscreen barking at Constanze and his overburdened son as Mozart returns to work on "Figaro". We are now allowed to see that Constanze opens the door to accept Lorl's services (well, obviously!) but we are denied, in the interest of hearing more clearly Mozart's music (never mind that it is, for dramatic purposes, interrupted and interfered with on innumberable occasions), the pleasure of "Parties all night! parties every night! . . . dinner at eight, dinner at ten, dinner when anybody FEELS like it: IF anybody FEELS LIKE IT!!!" How the devil are we to appreciate the full weight of Leopold's impossible disapproval without this, its single most magnificent outburst, all the more effective as it shows Leopold always hovering over his son's consciousness even when he isn't in the room, impossible to escape even from the sublime heights of musical inspiration.

For in place of the diffident hero-villain of the original film, who wars early with God but only becomes earnest in his war with Mozart once Leopold is dead and he conceives his diabolical way through the storms and stress of "Don Giovanni" which split his mind apart, we now have a Salieri whose madness gathers so early and so heavily that the entire film threatens to careen into the abyss opened by the first Act. Now we have a Salieri so malign, so vicious that it becomes implausible that he won't wring Mozart's neck before he can cough out a minor-key Concerto, let alone the Requiem. Before, it was as if Salieri allowed his murderous intentions to follow through a door seemingly (to him) opened by God Himself: after all, it was a "miracle" that the Emperor yawned during "Figaro". In the end, Salieri insists it was God who murdered Mozart; implicitely, it is God's own diffident cruelty with his musical Incarnation that emboldens Salieri to take matters into his own hands. Not so with the "Director's Cut". Here, Salieri tries to force God's hands, and with a homoerotic fervor that was only dimly implicit before in his Chillingworth-like attachment to Mozart. "Enter me!" he cries in prayer, bent over, furious with need, attempting to blackmail the Almighty with the threat of immediate sins he himself can hardly contemplate. This is Salieri on the threshold of his sexual humiliation of Constanze, a sequence matched in its operatic fury only by the original version's staging of "Don Giovanni". Forman rarely cuts in an overt, "cinematic" way, but here he is operatic, cueing a later passage of the C-minor Great Mass as counterpoint for Constanze's undressing as she forces a guileless smile upon herself while she whores for her unheeding husband's career. We are swept up in unaccustomed suspense, the music soars, Constanze's clothes fall, we are upon the brink of we-know-not-what abyss, we plunge into it. Adultery is denied, but the shock is almost as bitter as the threatened reality. We know better than Salieri did, I think, that he wasn't going to follow through, but it is a small and unknown recompense for the blighted Constanze that, had she submitted herself to a willing Salieri, it would have been all for naught. But then, she came there, she was used, and she understands well enough that she lost in a terrible, rigged game she should never have entered into.

All well and good, so far as dramatic fireworks go-- except, first of all, the sneaking suspicion that this scene, though it may be the locus classicus of its type, is of a type nonetheless. A Calvin Klein tv ad of the late 80s or early 90s featured a waif doing laundry (bringing it up on the elevator?) with the "Rex Tremendae" of the Requiem as accompaniment. Innumerable shlock Showtime sleazefests have used classical music to score scenes of arch, goofish debauchery. This suppressed scene may be original in its time, but, for all that it delivers "Amadeus" into R-rated territory, does it succeed in raising the dramatic stakes in the film or only in crusting the palate?
This is the second, and more essential consideration-- the scene damages "Amadeus"s 'sense-of-life'. For all of Salieri's Miltonic soliloquies against the Almighty, the first film was essentially as joyous and spontaneous as all the happier parts of "Fanny and Alexander". Mozart would begin to suffer sad reversals, of course, but they were constantly dispelled by the eruptions of his music. By the end, paradoxically, poverty and even death could hardly maintain a grim spirit against the exuberance of "The Magic Flute"s constant interruptions and the joy of creating the "Requiem". Alone with his nemesis and in his power, Mozart is conscious only of dictating thrilling passages of music to a helpful friend with a big paycheck on the way--pulling an all-nighter to get the latest masterpiece in on time. And wonderfully, paradoxically, Salieri's murderous intentions recede away completely. Never has he been more solicitous; clearly, here in his terrible moment of victory, victory itself seems to be the last thing on his mind. Perhaps this is an awesome misreading on my part-- Salieri wants to get "his" masterpiece finished of course, and he wants to work Mozart to death; but everyone besides the musical illiterate know the damn thing is nowhere near completion (indeed, Mozart's real hand in the "Confutatis" and the "Lachrimosa", which mysteriously gets wrapped somehow in the early moments of dawn, is probably rather less assured than even the film's dictation scenario implies), and Salieri seems utterly subsumed in his role as faithful amanuensis. For once, he is absolutely humble, and it is here, if at all, that the terrible paradox of the "patron saint of mediocrities" achieves a kind of uncanny realization. It is this terrible joy in Mozart's divine music, a joy that can make him forget his own awful self-- the burden of being that terrible selfish man-- that is perhaps what is most lost in the swirl of the "Director's Cut." Thanks to the many new scenes of vehement conniving on Salieri's part, it becomes harder to believe that this man would really come to "Don Giovanni" five times, strangely aghast that he alone has ears to hear a music he has swatted out of public earshot. He is even more of an Iago than ever, but his own malevolent designs, begot of sexual torment, professional arrogance, and a brutal sense of divine entitlement, seem too deafening to allow him much space to wonder, Caliban-like, at the unearthly beauty born of his better. This Calibanesque childishness, if you will, is what made the original film's Salieri so strangely sympathetic (much more so than Shaffer's incarnations); now, the Italianate stage-villain is back and, even without sexual dominion (here too, at least, we may credit Forman with a greater psychological sense than Shaffer, who perhaps missed the "Othello"-borne implications of his own design) is, front and center, an aesthete not of music but of malice.

[On this day, in 1626, that great man Francis Bacon, to whom all but everything is owed by each one of us today, passed away of a fever born of his extempore experiment in the preservation of a fowl by stuffing it with snow. He fell into the Immortal in the noble pursuit of immortality, and there, we may solemnly hope, he is treasured to the full measure of his desserts as he is honored here for his many monuments of wisdom. Godspeed, Francis Bacon.]

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Frank, you're lawyered

There is much waiting to be said: Ferrero on history and the art of statesmanship; why David West's blowhard translation of the "Aeneid" is no match for W. F. Jackson Knight-- and, most of all----------; but that will be seen shortly.

But for now, hats off to "The Apprentice:LA"s Frank.

Donald Trump told him he may not have the polish, but by the time he was through with Heidi, he and "Don Jr." (as if we care about him!) had to concur: he's a fighter.
But Frank showed more than his old fighting spirit. He offered Heidi a cross-examination, and his insistent, levelheaded forcefulness in honing in on the essential points in order to save his skin and compel Heidi to impale herself upon the stake of her own responsibilities was positively dazzling. The Trumps may think he's the boy for the construction sight, but if he's not the apprentice, a law degree may not be far behind.
The man has polish. Frank, I'm rootin' for you . . . .