Amadeus

amadeus 2What is it about our humanity that allows our perception of things to coalesce into metaphor?

From my layman’s perspective, I think this is the unanswered question of semiotics. Sometimes the parts of the information we experience are much more than their Sum. Our reliance on the rules and predictabilities of Logic denies this can be possible. Nothing, not even information, can be more than the sum of its parts.

And yet, we insist on metaphor. A word whose existence makes [of the rules and predictabilities] of Logic a semiotic mockery.

I bring these thoughts up now because not everyone will have read my review of Big Fish. Those who haven’t read it will not know how my initial viewing of the movie Amadeus has made a semiotic mockery of my life as a writer.

Suffice it to say, I have always wanted to be involved in making films because I saw this film on the perfect night and in the perfect circumstances for the individual parts of Amadeus to mean more than the sum of Amadeus.

I am at the point in my life as a critic that I want to examine the metaphor.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Voice Over Salieri gives us quite a bit of exposition in his ongoing confession to Father Vogler. Although I am perpetually opposed to exposition, it works in Amadeus and I will not count off for it.

Why? Am I the sort of critic that dismisses imperfection when it happens to the ones I love? I don’t think so. Instead, I will argue that sometimes it is okay to give us exposition if you give it to us with a mystery. When mystery accompanies exposition, the result is as easy to read as if there were no exposition at all.

In Amadeus this mystery manifests as our need to have an answer to a fairly simple question. We, the audience [even though we are far from Mozart specialists (and, really, this is the reason for the exposition)], know that Mozart wasn’t murdered. Yet, the opening pages of the script introduce us to Salieri… a man who is fatally convinced of the idea that he actually did kill Mozart. Now we have to know: why does he think that? Is he just crazy, or is there the possibility that there could be some truth in his story?

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) The subtext in this script is truly exquisite. I feel that every color in the spectrum of human psychology is represented.

Let’s look at Salieri’s prayer, offered on page 10, as the only example needed:

OLD SALIERI (V.O.)
Whilst my father prayed earnestly to
God to protect commerce, I would
offer up secretly the proudest prayer
a boy could think of. Lord, make me
a great composer! Let me celebrate
your glory through music – and be
celebrated myself! Make me famous
through the world, dear God! Make me
immortal! After I die let people
speak my name forever with love for
what I wrote! In return I vow I
will give you my chastity – my
industry, my deepest humility, every
hour of my life. And I will help my
fellow man all I can. Amen and amen!

To borrow from Emperor Joseph, “there it is”—a man in soliloquy.

You can see all the corners, hollows, and stains in Salieri’s character in this single piece of dialogue. His prayer isn’t a moment of genuflection; it is, instead, “the proudest prayer a boy could offer”. He wants to, simultaneously,

celebrate
your glory through music – and be
celebrated myself!

Salieri wants god to grant him the ability to live forever through the music he, Salieri, wrote. This is not a man who has a sincere understanding of what it means to pray. This is a man who barters his “chastity – my industry, my deepest humility” in exchange for being “immortal”. Salieri does not see that his desires are in contradiction. No person who wants to be famous and immortal is, at the same time, capable of deep humility.

Today’s author has given us a full and complete picture of a man fully present in the details of his life. He wants to be something that he can not be: BY DEFINITION. That is extraordinary and also beautiful because it is so completely like any one of us. It is extraordinary because it fully circumscribes what it means to be ordinary.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) I guess, if I wanted to be stern, I could say that Father Vogler is not the most unique character I’ve come across. I have [almost] zero desire to be stern with this script.

9 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

You might think, since we are in the realm of period biographical cinema, that this would be an unengaging first 10 pages—not so. These first 10 are ridiculously gripping. We have the opening scene of Old Salieri undone by guilt and confessing to THE MURDER of Mozart. This is followed up immediately by Old Salieri slashing his neck with a knife. From there we go to an asylum where Old Salieri begins telling his tale to the drastically unprepared Father Vogler. These first 10 are then summed up in the wildly illuminating soliloquy I’ve partially quoted above:

20 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) This story unfolds brilliantly. The mystery of why Salieri thinks he killed Mozart (when we know that, historically speaking, he couldn’t have) drives the story more than halfway home. I think that mystery gets us to this line from Old Salieri on page 60:

OLD SALIERI
Yes, Father. Yes! So much for my vow
of chastity. What did it matter?
Good, patient, hard-working, chaste –
what did it matter? Had goodness
made me a good composer? I realized
it absolutely then – that moment:
goodness is nothing in the furnace
of art. And I was nothing to God.

This is the reveal after which the engine driving this script switches. After Salieri realizes that he is nothing to God, Salieri’s motivations become solely influenced by his desire to defeat God. This is a fascinating display of hubris. One that also gets summed in a single line. From page 63:

OLD SALIERI (V.O.)
What use after all is Man, if not to
teach God His lessons?

This idea of Salieri’s needs a way to actualize, and the death of Mozart’s father provides Salieri with the means to his end. From page 116:

OLD SALIERI (V.O.)
And I knew – only I understood –
that the horrifying apparition was
Leopold, raised from the dead.
Wolfgang had actually summoned up
his own father to accuse his son
before all the world. It was
terrifying and wonderful to watch.

[Note: If I were analyzing this according to my own ideas about refabrication, I would call this the pinch point.]

Now it is just a matter of [from page 134]

OLD SALIERI
The only thing that worried me was
the actual killing. How does one do
that? How does one kill a man? It’s
one thing to dream about it. It’s
very different when you have to do
it, with your own hands.

Salieri mixes the knowledge he has gained from spying on Mozart with the akrasia in Mozart’s own personality to come up with a lethal combination. He will work Mozart to death in order to:

OLD SALIERI
His funeral – imagine it! The
Cathedral, all Vienna sitting there.
His coffin, Mozart’s little coffin
in the middle. And suddenly in that
silence, music. A divine music bursts
out over them all, a great Mass of
Death: Requiem Mass for Wolfgang
Mozart, composed by his devoted friend
Antonio Salieri. What sublimity!
What depth! What passion in the music!
Salieri has been touched by God at
last. And God, forced to listen.
Powerless – powerless to stop it. I
at the end, for once, laughing at
Him. Do you understand? Do you? [page 133]

defeat God for not caring about him. The genius of these reveals is that they all fit together like a linguistic puzzle that somehow has the effect of motion. As you read, you never feel that you are not reading the script to a movie. And yet, every single reveal is a verbal reveal. It is as though we are reading a logical argument which attempts to prove the nonexistence of God by building a personal version of the Argument from Evil.

It is, in my opinion, astoundingly extraordinary:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Oh my does Shaffer’s engine fit Shaffer’s protagonist.

It melts the metal of my soul a little bit to be aware of the fact that this movie obliterated my 12 year old self.

I could not have known all the way back then that I would grow up to be an artist of no consequence. That defeats time and requires omniscience that is beyond human capacity.

Yet, it remains an unqualifiable fact that this film, with its artist-protagonist of no consequence, obliterated the 12 year old self of an anonymous audience member who would grow up to be an artist of no consequence himself. It defeats time, but it is a fact nonetheless.

I hate to be so achingly sheer, but Shaffer’s accomplishment forces my hand by deserving to be recognized and remembered.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) There are so many things I have to say about the theme of Amadeus, that I think I could write an entire book on the subject [maybe someday I will]. Amadeus meant something to me when I was a child that it only means to me today in passing. However, this was so important to me then, that I think it is worth mentioning.

Possible Theme One for Amadeus:

Rage against the Machine.

Salieri is not a good man, but he is, without a doubt [maybe], the protagonist of Amadeus. So, why do we root for him even though he is acting in anti-social ways and deliberately trying to deprive the world of the genius of a person we know had a gift that only comes around once every four or five centuries?

Because we feel that his fight is our fight. Salieri is Everyman. He, like all of us, longs to be special. Unfortunately for him, he is not. The brutality of his self knowledge is oppressive. It is the knowledge we all have. None of us are special, none of us are Mozart. But, god dammit, we will not accept that self-knowledge. We will fight, with all our strength, against the source of that self-knowledge. We will try to annihilate that self-knowledge. Why? Because if we don’t, then we must all accept the fact that we are all just Artists of No Consequence.

These ideas impressed me deeply when I was young; they are, necessarily, Young Ideas. I no longer believe this is the intended theme of Amadeus.

Possible Theme Two for Amadeus:

Necessarily, the Artist’s Road is the road Untraveled.

So, when I reread Amadeus this time [when I am less than a year away from being 40] I became more and more convinced that the thing I always thought was most certain about Amadeus [namely that Salieri is the protagonist] was unilaterally wrong. Salieri is the villain and Amadeus is the hero who wins in the end [It is of no consequence to the theme that Amadeus has to die to win.] Shaffer’s script forces us to realize that the world will throw up every available obstacle in the way of true artistry.

Look at the characters who orbit Amadeus:

Salieri– His Peer. He is jealous of Mozart’s ability.

Leopold– His Father. He wants to control Mozart’s ability to glorify his own name.

Constanze– His Wife. She wants Mozart to commercialize his ability so that she may have status.

Emperor Joseph– His Employer. He has no idea what Mozart’s ability is worth and thinks himself superior BY VIRTUE OF HIS TITLE ALONE.

Schikaneder– His Friend. Wants to prostitute Mozart’s ability for a few pennies.

If you look at those five satellites, you will see a complete solar system. A microcosm of human civilization where every level of society bleeds the genius of an artist… to death. It seems to me now, after another three decades of experience, that the point of Amadeus is to warn us.

Art leads to abject loneliness and deprivation.

If this be truth, and upon me proved then… no one should ever write.

5 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) As I’ve already stated, I think Mr. Shaffer did a magnificent job translating his play from the stage to the screen. Amadeus is a movie. It lives, breathes, and feels like a movie. The ability to make mostly verbal reveals function like the kinetic reveals of traditional cinema is nothing short of breathtaking.

The choice and knowledge of music displayed in the script is also exquisite. Although the reader [especially one as unknowledgeable as me] can’t hear the notes in the script, the choice of where to place the music and how to combine it with the images is superb.

In my opinion, Amadeus makes as great a use of the potential textural elements of its medium as a script like The Matrix. The fact that it does this in the realm of period biography is nothing short of a miracle.

I feel sure that is the most superlatives I have ever typed in that short a space:

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing is wonderful throughout. I will fault the last fourth of the script for including too much description of the bawdy opera’s of Schikaneder. That is the only part of the script that does not careen.

4 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. (10 points)

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that I have spent the last thirty years of my life trying to tell a story at least as good as this one. That has been my bar [and maybe even my self-defeating cross]. In the end, I can’t take any points from the script in this area even if Theme Possibility Two is really the one Shaffer intended. The script is just too damn good.

Good things ought to be celebrated.

10 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 93

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2 responses to “Amadeus

  1. I love the way you write about this movie — while I do not connect to it on this level (My Amadeus is BLADERUNNER), it did motivate me to revisit the film and rediscover the joys of it.

    I find it interesting that your philosophical take is half-full on humanitarian issues, but when it comes to art and humanity I feel like you’re on the empty side.

    Did you see THE GAMBLER? The movie itself has major issues but it has its moments and one of them is a sort of enraged monologue that Wahlberg gives (His character is a lit teacher), paraphrase: “Most of you suck, there’s no point in being mediocre, talent is magic and it’s unfair.”

    People address writing, especially screenwriting, as if it’s something anyone can do. And since every book on screenwriting begins “You can write screenplays if you follow xyz beats, everybody can do story” this is understandable.

    However it’s wrong, as since the beginning of time, there really are only a few different stories. Screenwriting (and all storytelling) is not about the story. All there is, is execution. The work is the lens into you. And that means it’s all about the teller, not the tale. Experiences, observations, point of view. These are the things you bring to the work. And these things are acquired and change and refine and focus and are lost over time. These are the things to hold onto, as an artist. In doing that, there’s hope for every writer.

    • I’ve not seen The Gambler, although the trailer intrigued me to the point where I did a search for the script– which came up empty.

      I believe my artistic cups are also half-full. I know that Art can heal culture. [I’m half certain that Art is the only form of medicine available to culture.] My pessimism arises when I try to locate myself in the spectrum of artists I have known.

      It is hard to recognize that you just might be Salieri no matter how much you practice your craft.

      In spite of that, your take on the possibility latent in all writers strikes me as correct. The material that matters most is the material IN THE WRITER.

      You’ve analyzed me remarkably well, really. I’m very confident about writers, but I’m not sold yet [even after 40 years] on the particular writer known as Joel Barish.

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