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.

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