Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Adding to Amadeus

A.C. Douglas has this to say about Milos Forman's* Amadeus,
But even though Amadeus is Salieri’s story about Mozart and a work of fiction, the film’s portrayal of Mozart captures and embraces in a brilliantly dramatic, theatrical, and, as is befitting of Mozart, comic way the awesome contradiction between the to all appearances ordinary man — a man, pace Maynard Solomon, as much child as man — and an astonishing body of work that in number, multifariousness, and profundity beggars the imagination as I’ve elsewhere put it on this blog.
I might say that Milos Forman's adaptation, written by Peter Shaffer - who wrote the play Amadeus - amplifies the themes in the play, even as he downplays others. The play had much more about the conflict between man and an inscrutable, distant God (as Salieri sees Him in the play) as anything else. Indeed, the title of the play - which could very well have been Mozart with no concomitant loss of effect - gives away the game at the beginning: God's love. [1] Indeed, if one wanted to boil down the play to a very cursory and very glib summary: "Salieri sees that Mozart has more talent, which apparently came from God. Salieri does not respond well."

That is a gross oversimplification, but one must realize that contradictions and confusions are at the heart of the work. When we see Mozart himself as a complex, three-dimensional character, it is because the context of the work demands it. Otherwise, he becomes a parody of the genius with the bad sense of humor, or the image on a Mozartkügel wrapper. To have a work as deeply rooted in very human responses to situations that transcend the human, but have a two-dimensional parody, would be to subvert the work itself. As drama, Shaffer's play only really works if the audience connects and empathizes with Salieri - not Mozart! As viewers the contradictions of Mozart - in Salieri's view: a man with the greatest talents and very human flaws - must work on us the way they work on Salieri.

Does that necessarily imply that we react in the same way as Salieri does in the play? No. Of course not. Indeed, I would say that the message of the play demands that we react differently. Salieri couldn't rectify great talent with humanity, and he was driven to grotesque extremes as a result. He cannot be any more a cartoon villain with a vendetta than he can be totally reasonable and correct in his assessment of the situation. In other words, Shaffer's Salieri is a human-all-too-human protagonist.

The only way that happens is if Mozart is a human character with all the genius and flaws that he had. Flaw is also a pretty strong word. What do we really have? By the time of 1791, it looked like the days of borrowing heavily were on the way out and he started to make payment. In other words, Mozart was not without his faults, but we're not talking about incurable alcoholism or penury.

That's the genius of the play and the movie: where the temptation existed to paint in glittering generalities with a broad brush, Shaffer and Forman chose a human presentation. The sympathy such a presentation engenders makes Amadeus the sort of drama that really works in a classical sense (is there another?) for me.

*I continue to contend that Forman is the only director who has made an intelligent, funny movie starring Jim Carrey, Man on the Moon, which is more of a testament to Forman than anything else. Even Amadeus.

[1] The history of how Mozart ended up with 'Amadeus' is a bit complicated. He was baptized, Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. It appears that he dropped the John Chrysostom bit, leaving himself with Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Amadeus is the Latinization of the Greek Theophilus, but Mozart seemed to like Amadè - though Amadeus and Gottlieb were used somewhat interchangeably.


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