A Musician's Defense of Amadeus - Rivalry Week

Set in the decadence and splendor of 18th century Vienna, 1984’s Amadeus lies in a curious category of Oscar winner. While it may be shrouded in all the prestigious accolades we tend to bestow on what’s universally recognized as “quality stuff,” it’s also the kind of film your film professor probably loves to hate for its lack of directorial frills or remote sense of personality (see also The Shawshank Redemption). As a document, Amadeus rivals Disney’s Pocahontas in demonstrating little if any credible historical accuracy. In fact, by nearly every account, there’s nothing to suggest that Antonio Salieri was anything but a devoted friend to Wolfgang Mozart.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Normally, this wouldn’t necessarily hurt a film unless its aesthetic didn’t take itself so seriously, which it does in Amadeus in a major way. We see the opposite effect in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – a film faithful enough to history, but weighed down by postmodern exercises in anachronism.

Yet against every notion of quality in my film-loving bones, one element causes me to return to this 6th grade instructional video on classical music again and again: the way the screenplay (and stage show before it) boils down an essential trope of musical and artistic process that few works of fiction do, that being, the curious case of competition in the arts.

Throughout Rivalry Week, we’ve touched lightly on sports rivalries where the motivation for competition is obvious – the other guy has more points than I do, and I want more than he has. Every human being can relate to this as it provides a palpable metaphor for every conflict of our lives, either minute or magnanimous. Whether our rival is our fellow co-worker going for the job promotion we want or merely the unfeeling alarm clock, we all have an object to compete with. The desire to ascend that competition, attached to a faulty expectation (possibly propogated by fiction) that with ascension comes the end of conflict, is what drives us to see almost everything through life’s great scoreboard: our goals vs. the obstacles, whatever they may be.

It’s a conflict that is cold, calculated, uncomplicated, and founded on the sort of objective self interest that, by in large, most artists consider the very DNA of personal destruction. Whereas in art, as is so often and unfortunately the case does its purveyors find themselves in the place of the miserable and “mediocre” Viennese court composer, Antonio Salieri – broiling with hate because someone has created something you could only dream of doing. As thoroughly unlikeable and corrupt as Salieri is (and dutifully performed by F. Murray Abraham), his dooming affliction, jealousy, becomes the key to his role as anti-hero, giving the audience an opportunity to express sympathy for him.

Our first impression of Salieri is that he is a confessed ‘murderer’ locked in a mental institution, slouched over a harpsichord, and looking ghoulish and unattractive in a way that immediately challenges the look of a conventional male protagonist in film. Sure, it’s not revolutionary. There have been other even uglier dudes in movies, but it is compelling. Yet more than any single factor that drives the audience to identify with Salieri, however, is how disagreeable Mozart’s character is throughout the film. In fact, I would argue that Mozart’s hideous portrayal is one of the reasons that both the film and play have accrued such undeserved negative criticism.

First off, there’s the laugh, the cackle of a spoiled child that pop culture best associates with the film. Some deem the annoying edges of the character as errors on the part of Tom Hulce but I wouldn’t – if it made you queasy with the character from the start, then the actor’s work has been done (assuming that was his direction). Then there’s the impish sense of immaturity contrasting with the obvious and overwhelming talent – a Peter Pan syndrome that’s also not entirely verifiable by historical account, even if it is easily imaginable. As Hulce glides into his character’s eventual physical and spiritual descent, these attributes become amplified along with his alcoholism, which is, again, largely fictional.

It’s here I tend to take issue with most in the criticism of Amadeus in that, how is this the film’s most egregious foul? Historical accuracy aside, if we’re not comfortable with the depiction of Mozart here, then we’ve placed him, if not the entire critical bias toward the author, on far too high a pedestal.

You don’t need to read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, see Almost Famous, or The End of Western Civilization to understand how easy it is for musicians to embody human callousness. Regardless of how the Mozart of Amadeus stands up to the true, historical Mozart, he is realistic if only because he repulses the audience (seeing the world through the eyes of Salieri) in the same way many popular entertainers do with their audience when placed in close proximity.

Why we expect that behavior during the Enlightenment was so much more refined than the prodigality of modern pop is beyond me. I can understand if this has to do with how the inherent class struggles in Amadeus – the gross disparity in the quality of life between the people attending the opera and those attending the vaudeville – place great distance the world of the film from the one in which we live. Take it from a music writer: concern for bourgeoisie taste in regards to music appreciation is a notion nearly absent from current American consciousness.

But perhaps the reason we have such distaste for Hulce’s Mozart is because we, like Salieri, expect talent to be accompanied by virtue, no matter how absurd that expectation is. For instance, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that the minute Chris Brown gets his Twitter account back, someone calling themselves an honorable feminist will try to once again illicit a response from Brown expecting something besides sexist dribble to come from his fingers. It’s inevitable, but such expectations of Mozart only help me become that much more engrossed by the plot, where for others (I suspect even those who would expect Brown to react differently in that scenario) it’s somehow all too much.

I wonder if this is because obsession is a deeply pervasive gothic theme in American fiction, but not one taken lightly especially in times of peace in prosperity – it was the ’80s after all. In times of social and political dischord, depicting obsession usually means projecting the imbalance within that central character onto the environment in order to convey its gravity to the audience. Thus, the class dynamics of the surrounding society are pushed past tranquility (a simple example of this is Gladiator).

In European form, obsession tends to be dressed with pretension and, in hindsight, absurd expressions of privilege. Anyone who wants to accuse director Milos Foreman of that crime here wouldn’t hear much opposition from me as Amadeus does tend to suffer all the melodramatic distaste of Andrew Lloyd Webber (who was working on Phantom at this time, unsurprisingly), that’s for sure. Admirably, however, he doesn’t take the historical liberties of portraying the class tensions of 18th century Europe as a foil for both Salieri’s and Mozart’s failing psyches.

Still, no amount of over-caked Broadway makeup can obscure the beauty, or rather, accuracy of Salieri’s insanity, if only because it rests on a unique form of conflict that goes without being fully realized in a lot of American fiction being made these days in ways I don’t think we talk enough about. Specifically, I’m referring to that curious space on the fringes of the love-hate spectrum of relationships where the linear conception yields to a circular one; where characters find that their love or their hate of something or someone so intense that it feeds into its opposite – hating to love, and loving to hate.

The failure to recognize such a emotional and thematic dynamic, to take an example of a film outside the world of ambitious creatives, was my primary gripe with the Star Wars prequels. Throughout the originals we were told in very black and white terms what emotions lead to what sides of the force. Anger leads to hate, hate leads to fear, fear leads to suffering – and so it goes on the dark side. But when Anakin breaks his oath of celibacy to secretly marry Padme, only then does he sew the seeds of his destruction – cementing his fate to a life spent in a black steel breathing apparatus.

What I’m saying is it would’ve been nice for Yoda to deliver some great paradoxical reveal, “But Anakin! Leads to the dark side, love does.”

What a compelling irony that would have made for mainstream cinema and what an incredible missed opportunity by the man who turned Joseph Campbell into blockbuster gold. I guess we got a slice of it when Heath Ledger sneers in Dark Knight, “I don’t want to kill you – you complete me.”

In Amadeus, however, the irony is broadcasted in full, lush, yet perhaps too dimly lit colors; if only because that’s how art, and music especially, works – what you love can just as easily breed what you hate. Understanding that simple quirk in creative ambition is what helps this flawed film transcend historical demagoguery into truly worthy theater.