Thursday, February 09, 2012

'Amadeus' Blogathon: The Agony of Defeat

Note: Bilge Ebiri recently launched a blogathon in honor of Amadeus. This is my contribution.

Robert Christgau, the Dean of American Rock Critics, once summed up perfectly the secret to any critic's success. "There are two parts to being a good critic," he said. "First, you have to know what you like. And, second, you have to be able to explain honestly why you like it -- even if the reason is completely disgraceful." The second part is harder: Critics of every stripe are deathly concerned with acting as if their pronouncements are based entirely on aesthetic principles and deep analytical musings. But we all have to admit that some works of art affect us on a visceral, emotional level that goes beyond being moved or getting misty-eyed. Some films simply have our number to such a degree that we can't shake them. They understand us, they get us -- hell, they own us, whether we like it or not. Such is the case with Amadeus for me.

As you no doubt know, Amadeus (which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture) was adapted from Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning play, which was itself based on a 19th century play that later got turned into an opera. The 1984 film is now probably the best-known version of the fictionalized feud between Antonio Salieri (Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), the young upstart who arrives in Vienna near the end of the 18th century, quickly proving himself to be one of the world's finest composers. But Amadeus is not the typical biopic in which a great man overcomes hardships and resistance in an inspirational way: It's actually the story of a bitter, small man (Salieri) who does his best to undermine a genius -- an obnoxious, conceited genius, to be sure, but a genius all the same.

The different iterations of Amadeus came into my orbit in an unusual way. I first saw the work through Shaffer's revival of the play in 1999, which came to Los Angeles with David Suchet as Salieri and the then-relative-unknown Michael Sheen as Mozart. I still consider this the superior version of Amadeus, although I have great admiration for the film, which I initially caught in its "director's cut" version during its 2002 theatrical run. The reason why I prefer the stage version is that I think it drives home the work's essential point: Like it or not, we're all Salieri. In the play, when Suchet delivers his final monologue, absolving "us" of our mediocrity, the panel of mirrors behind him turns so that the audience sees themselves. Now, compare that to the ending of director Milos Forman's film:

Salieri isn't lumping the audience in with those "mediocrities": He's talking to all the other people in the loony bin, not us. It's a small but crucial difference that keeps Forman's film (which was written by Shaffer) from being the devastating social critique that it should be.

At a writing salon where I teach, I use Amadeus as a reference point on how to create great villains. And the reason why I do so is because the film illustrates a basic principle of indelible antagonists: They think they're the heroes of their story. Watching Amadeus, it's easy to assume that Salieri is the hero. (From a simplistic Robert McKee perspective on Hollywood writing, Salieri is the active character who drives the narrative forward.) But look at what Salieri represents: envy, pride, stubbornness, moral corruption. These aren't the qualities of your typical "good guy." But can Mozart be the hero? Sure, he produces all those great musical works, but he's a brat. He's conceited. He refuses to act the way a proper hero should.

And this is where Shaffer's story derives most of its power. Who are we to relate to in Amadeus? Is it better to be Salieri, a "proper" gentleman who has devoted his life to behaving the way he believes that he "should"? Or is it better to be Mozart, who acts childishly and impetuously but will be forever remembered throughout history for his masterpieces? And are those the only two choices we have in life?

When I look at some of the movies I consider the greatest of all time -- Barry Lyndon, Hoop Dreams, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, There Will Be Blood -- one of their overlapping themes is the fanatical male competitiveness that consumes their main characters. Obviously, most movies feature a protagonist who wants something, but these films (as well as Amadeus) are chiefly about competition as a ruling principle of men. Competition defines winners and losers in these movies, and woe be to those who end up the losers. Most critics agree that these films are superb for a lot of reasons, but I can't deny that this particular theme resonates so deeply that I can't quite separate my personal response to that theme from the movies' overriding attributes.

But Amadeus is perhaps the thorniest of these particular films because of how it forces the audience to look upon Mozart as "the other": the inexplicable genius that we'd like to be but simply cannot. But if we can't be Mozart, who are we? It's more explicit in the play, but the film also suggests that by default we're all Salieris -- and it's up to us to decide how we'll behave in the company of brilliance. Will we be gracious enough to acknowledge our betters while admiring our good fortune to be around such a prodigy in our lifetime? Or will we try to tear down that person in a vain attempt to fool ourselves into thinking that somehow he isn't as preternaturally gifted as we feared? On one level, Amadeus flatters us by letting us join in with Salieri's vindictive glee, but also notice how the movie is noticeably mum on these issues I've just raised. In its own way, the movie figuratively holds up a mirror to the audience in the same way that the play does literally. We're all blessed and cursed to be around extraordinary people who have talents and gifts we wished we possessed. But will we let their gifts define us -- and, in turn, destroy us? That's why Amadeus stays with me: It won't absolve me from these questions.