Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Amadeus

This post marks my second entry in The Film Experiment series called Hit Me With Your Best Shot.  It’s a fun project where various bloggers all watch a movie (or pick 1 out of 3) and then have the difficult task of selecting 1 shot that in your eyes captures said film.

My first entry was the daunting Citizen Kane but today proved to be difficult in its own way. This weeks film is a different kind of masterpiece- Milos Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus. (Which was my 1984 selection in Movies From My Life btw)

amadeusBased on the play from Peter Shaffer it tells a fictionalized version of Amadeus Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) life.  It is done through a foil and narrator Antonio Salieri (F Murray Abraham) who in his words is ‘the patron Saint of mediocrity”.  He wants to compose music so badly but he is not given the special talents by God, which he bitterly resents especially when a buffoon like Mozart seems to be so blessed.

Part of the problem is Salieri’s warped view of religion.  He thinks he can make a deal with God.  If he is a ‘model of virtue’ than God will bless him with great talent.  If this was the case then we would all be making deals with God…Salieri claims at the beginning that he works hard, prays and gives many lessons for free.  This reminds me of the rich man who asks Christ what he needs to do to make it into heaven.  “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor”.  He goes away sorrowing.  Jesus knows there is that one part of his heart which is not given to God. Salieri is much the same way.  He goes through the motions of faith without being open to God’s plan for him.  He thinks he can earn the benevolence of God and that he knows what is better for his life than God- the ultimate in pride.

This is when that green-eyed monster called envy creeps in and Salieri allows it to fill his heart.  Whenever he hears Mozart’s music he is overcome by its perfection and the animosity grows stronger until it finally births a plan for revenge- not just on his rival but on God for being so foolish in his gift-giving. He even burns the cross he is so bitter.

amadeus5As is usually the case with envy Mozart is completely oblivious to the hold he has over Salieri.  He has plenty of his own demons to focus on with a father who is never happy,  substance abuse and a public that is not always accepting to his work.  In the great irony Salieri is one of the few who consistently realizes the genius of Mozart and yet that leads to his eventual death and demise.

Amadeus does a lot of things as good as any movie I’ve seen.  It looks great, the opera’s feel real and lush, music is sublime, costumes wonderful and a little surprising (for example, the pink wig is unexpected in a period piece).  But all that aside its greatest achievement to me is two-part:

1. It shows how envy will ruin your life.  Unlike last years Whiplash, Amadeus seems to say that we are either born with talent or we are mediocre. Mozart needs no Terence Fletcher to beat the talent out of him.  It’s just there.  That may be true but surely Salieri could have done better if he had not allowed his rival to overtake him? He certainly could have been happier. As an old man he is in despair, mired with guilt and all because he couldn’t be happy at the blessings of another.  No wonder envy is a deadly sin!

amadeus32. It shows the sublime beauty of a person absorbing a masterpiece better than any film I’ve seen.  That moment when Salieri first hears Mozart’s music is perfect.  He’s just looking at the notes on the page but he hears it in his mind and it almost overwhelms him, even years later he is overcome with the beauty of the music. This is why he thinks it is God speaking through Mozart because only a deity could inspire such breathtaking work.

The problem with the grandeur of music shots is you really need the whole scene to get the majesty of it.

You need to hear Salieri talking about the ‘almost comic’ start, “just a pulse” and then the wind instruments and an “oboe. A single note, hanging there unwavering.  Until a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such a delight” ‘  This is music “filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God”.

I think that’s the most beautiful description of music or art I’ve ever heard.  But like I said, you need the whole scene (a tribute I think to Shaffer’s amazing script).

So I will go with the envy shot.  I am going to pick old Salieri with very convincing makeup.  In the narrative he has just determined his plan for revenge on Mozart and God.  He describes the funeral and what a delicious day it will be for him. Pointing to himself he says “And God is forced to listen! Powerless, powerless to stop it! I, for once in the end, laughing at him!”  You can just feel the bitterness oozing out of this face. I love that he is pointing at himself because it is the envy in his heart that is the problem not God, not Mozart, not anyone else.

THE SHOT-

amadeus18But in fact, he is the only one left laughing at himself. “Mediocrities everywhere I absolve you!”

Whiplash: A Review

whiplash poster 2014

Today I got the chance to see the Best Picture Oscar nominated film Whiplash and it is a very good movie.  It is not my favorite movie of 2014 or anything but an extremely engrossing one, that I have a feeling I might like more the more times I see it.

Trailer:

It is about a boy named Andrew played by Miles Teller.  He is a freshman drummer  at Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the US and has dreams of being the greatest jazz drummer in the world right up there with Buddy Rich (I got to know that name quite well through this movie!).

The ‘Studio Band’ at the school is conducted by a man named Terence Fletcher played by the always great JK Simmons. He is a beast of a man who believes by manipulating and pushing his students he will push a student beyond what is good to what is great.

000036.2771.Whiplash_still1_JKSimmons_.JPGMy friends who have more experience in the arts felt this type of teacher could exist.  It seemed a little over-the-top to me but Simmons is mesmerizing in the role so whether it is or isn’t I bought it for the sake of this movie.

Fletcher throws chairs, yells, curses, makes Andrew play until his hands are raw and bloody.  A little challenge for me is unlike singing where I know when a singer is off key, the bad and good jazz music here sounded exactly the same. But it doesn’t really matter because even if Andrew played perfectly Fletcher is not going to tell Andrew that.  He says the worst words in the English language are ‘good job’ because it makes you rest.

I wonder about this basic premise.  I know for me when a mentor says ‘good job’ nothing makes me want to work harder and do better, so I’m not sure that Fletcher is right. What do you think?

Whiplash-4Andrew becomes totally obsessed with pleasing Fletcher and you can feel the meltdown coming.  He even breaks it off with his girlfriend because he is afraid it will distract him from the drums.

I would have liked to have learned more about why it is so important for Andrew to be the best?  There are a few quotes and we see him listening to Buddy Rich albums but nothing more.  What is it that makes him want to be first?  So many are satisfied with simple things but Andrew wants more.  Why?

Whiplash-Miles-TellerThe movie is basically like a pot of water getting hotter and hotter till it boils over.  Andrew practices like a mad man and Fletcher does not let go for a second and the ending is surprising and extremely satisfying.

Whiplash made me think a lot which is always a good thing.  It made me think about success or greatness.  According to Fletcher  to give such greatness to the world is of prime importance at any costs.

On a certain angle it is tough to argue with.  I’ve thought about this many times.  For example, if a young Mozart came to you and said ‘I’m sick of this. I’m going to live on a farm the rest of my life.  I know this music thing isn’t going to end well for me” Would anyone in their right mind say “Absolutely, do what makes you happy and live a good life”.  No, not when we know what resplendent masterpieces he left us with.

Miles-Teller-WhiplashTo continue on the Mozart comparison in the movie Amadeus Salieri is jealous over the seemingly lack of effort Mozart has to go in order to produce sublime works of music.  He is even angry at God for blessing Mozart with these gifts and only giving him mediocre talent. Whiplash is a different approach.  Fletcher seems to think greatness is either cultivated or it is wasted. Andrew works so hard it literally destroys his hands. Is it worth it? I don’t know.   That’s kind of the question the movie  and there isn’t a tidy answer.

Whiplash1I would have liked to have gotten in Andrew’s head a little more about these issues and had maybe one less practice scream session.  Andrew feels a little robotic at times and again I was left wondering why it is so important for him to be the greatest? The creators may assume it’s human nature to want to be the best and it can be but it can also be human nature to be lazy and do just enough to get by which is why Fletcher justifies his treatment of the students.  There has to be some underlying motivation for not doing the bare minimum for Andrew and I don’t know if I quite got that in Whiplash.

But that’s a bit nitpicky.  You certainly know he loves jazz music and maybe that’s enough.  Andrew’s father wanted to be a writer but ended up being a teacher and this is treated in the movie as a sell-out and maybe it is. Did his father not work hard enough, not innately talented enough or did he realize he wanted other things?  It’s a tough but insightful question the movie allows us to think about and ponder. I love that!

 

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Andrew even has a moment where he tells Fletcher ‘where is the line? When do you go too far and discourage people from playing at all?’.  Are the truly greats so great they can only be pushed, and pushed and those that give up simply weren’t good enough?  Or is someone with a slower more methodical training approach turned off from achieving their goal, which could be equally great?  I don’t know.

Another interesting question the movie had me pondering is isn’t it almost inevitable that someone better will eventually come along and then what have you sacrificed it all for? Again, that’s the struggle with Salieri in Amadeus. In another era he could have been great but someone who was simply better came along.

In contrast we have roles that only we can do like being a mother, father, sister, friend.  Doesn’t sound as glorious as being the greatest but in a way doesn’t it actually matter much more? I mean if you are going to offer your life up for sacrifice shouldn’t it be for something that only you can and should do?  But in the movie Fletcher says he has never found a truly great player (perhaps a testament to the problem of his methods…) so maybe they aren’t as common and repeatable as it might seem? After all, Mozart died in 1791 and I’m still talking about his genius on a blog in 2015.  It’s really tough. (See how this movie makes you think!)

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So to sum it all up- Whiplash is an excellent movie that asks a lot of intriguing questions with great performances.  All the music scenes are done incredibly well and it builds tension to a very satisfying ending. I wish we had gotten inside Andrew’s head a little bit more and understood more his desire for greatness but it still definitely earns a recommendation from me.  Worth your time to check out!

As far as content goes there is a fair amount of profanity including some homophobic slurs.  It is bloody and tense with shouting and other disrespectful behavior.  Whiplash is most appropriate for mature teens and adults, and I think it would be a good movie to show young people who have great ambition and talk about what success looks like and what is worth sacrificing to get where they want to go.

If you see it I am very curious what you think especially if you are an artist or musician.  Please share your thoughts and feelings in the comments. Thanks!

Content Grade- D, Overall Grade- B+