Re-View: Amadeus (USA, 1984)

MPW-18717Directed by: Miloš Forman. What is it about this movie? Like many, I was forced to see it as a teenager in school, likely in Band class, but I always really enjoyed it, so I picked it up again as an adult. Then, on the cusp of my first trip to Europe, I was compelled to take a look again, not because I feel I had forgotten anything, that there were any layers that I was missing, some secret, crucial layer of meaning, some mode of interpretation that I felt was missing, but purely out of good-old-fashioned, passive movie enjoyment as a fan. That being said, when I did watch it, and when I did read up on it, I couldn’t help but notice how this tied in with some questions I’ve been stewing with for a while regarding cinematic depictions of the past, the fictionalization of historical events and people, and—the juicy part—the desire we have and the effort that cinema makes to construe these works of fiction as fact. Basically, we watch the movie, we know it’s a movie, we know it’s actors and not real people, we know that there is literally no possible way that what we are seeing is actually the life of Mozart, for starters because none of the technology involved in making movies existed during that period. And yet, a huge part of what makes the film (all of them, but I’ll focus on this one) so effective, so enjoyable for us—for me!—the viewer, is a little kernel, coming from somewhere, suspended in a vacuum outside of rational judgment, that allows me to sustain the fiction that what I’m watching is somehow reality. And this, somehow, for some damn reason, enhances the enjoyment I get out of it. To pose it as an academic question: what’s the deal?

Everything You’ve Heard is True

If you expand the poster image above, you can see the tagline used to promote the film and the play, which states flatly, “Everything You’ve Heard is True.” I don’t think it’s much of a leap to say that what this declaration amounts to is a claim that “everything in this movie is true” because what they’re talking about is, in fact, the plot of this movie. All of the assertions that the film makes in order to deliver a gripping and effective narrative—Mozart was a genius, touched by God, and Salieri was a failure, wracked by jealousy, who hated Mozart and conspired to kill him—are all true. But of course, in reality, the exact opposite is true. All of that shit, the entire plot of movie, if we’re holding any remote criteria of factual accuracy that we carry in regular life, outside of the movies, is total horseshit. I can’t remember exactly which articles I consulted (other than Wikipedia), but here’s a sample. I think by now, it’s pretty open knowledge: Salieri was quite successful and highly respected in his day, there’s very little evidence of any animosity between him and Mozart, there is evidence that they were buds and they collaborated together, and there’s a pretty good paper trail to see how the rumours about the death of Mozart began, shortly after his death, a conspiracy plot involving Salieri as a poisoner, which was picked up in the 19th century as a play by Pushkin, then as an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, until making its way to Broadway for the Peter Shaffer play that we know today, Amadeus. The story of the transformation of Mozart’s life and death into a highly effective, streamlined, vividly detailed murder-conspiracy fiction is such a clear and exemplary instance of how facts are turned into fiction, of how conspiracy theories are formed.

Ouroboros Feedback Loop

It raises a question I’ve always asked when I see a poorly adapted work of fiction on film. When I was younger, especially, it used to irritate me to no end when a filmmaker (or filmmakers) decided to take a novel or comic book, and contort and alter the source so greatly that the film bears only a passing resemblance to the source. My thinking was always that, if you wanted to make a film that is so uniquely distinct from the novel/comic book, then why bother with the novel/comic book at all? Surely, you could just change the names of the characters, make your own story, and leave the novel alone so that you don’t pollute the waters of the sacred purity of this story, and also to leave the way open for real adaptations in the future. But really, doesn’t this apply even more poignantly and importantly for films that aren’t based on fiction, but on real events that actually happened, and real people who actually lived? This story of Mozart and Salieri, the murder plot, is such a gripping and interesting story, but it’s completely invented. So then, if it’s completely invented anyway, why not just change the names? In other words, why could Shaffer and Forman (and Pushkin for that matter) not have created a story of two fake, fictitious 18th century composers, and told a story about their rivalry, ending in one murdering the other? If it’s fake, then why construe it as real? Of course, the short answer is the same as with films based loosely on novels—name recognition. Films count on money, and they count on audiences being interested. How big of an audience in 1984 will be interested in some composer secretly murdered by a mediocre rival? But if it’s Mozart, the “greatest” of all composers (and yes, I should look into Mozart’s Sister—and for that matter, Mozart’s Sister), then people really give a shit, then the story becomes a cultural sensation, and the plot of this story becomes internalized as fact by millions of people over the generations. What’s really interesting is how, in order for the story to be the most effective it can be as a fictional narrative, it has to be sold to us and conveyed to us as if it were completely true. The story just wouldn’t work if we were watching two fictional composers, nor even if the story were presented in some way to account for the fragmented nature of narrative, the unreliable narrator, the fogginess of cultural memory, the complexity of history, like JFK, or Rashomon. And, to make this thing a weird kind of ouroboros epistemological feedback loop, the fact that it’s presented as 100% true, predictably influences our collective opinion on the factual topic of Mozart the real persona and his relationship with Salieri the real person, even though those real things, again, bear only a passing resemblance to the plot of Amadeus, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? relates to Blade Runner. The lie increases our enjoyment of the narrative, but it also increases our enjoyment of the history, by infusing history with fiction. I suspect that, like me,  a lot of people were compelled to read into the biographies of Mozart and Salieri in the wake of enjoying this fictional film, dutifully filtering through all of the boring, stuffy “historians” with their buzzkill “facts” pointing to the scarcity of evidence to support any of the plot points of the Amadeus story, and finding the few shreds to support the existence of a real-life murder conspiracy. And so, this Mozart-Salieri story raises an important question: you make a film loosely based on a fictional novel story, take as many liberties as you need to make a good film, you call the film an adaptation of that particular novel, and maybe a few fans of the novel grumble at you, no big deal. You do the same thing, but instead of a novel, it’s actual people, actual lives, actual facts—is there any ethical consideration there? Or even just a logical one?

Von Däniken’s Assumption

What this film and its position as a piece of “historical fiction”, fiction “based on history” (but again, even this innocuous descriptor seems to answer the question it should be asking) seem to point to, for me, is a great case of something that probably has a name already, but which I call the Erich Von Däniken Assumption. It’s like Ockham’s Razor: the simplest explanation is the more likely explanation. If you’re not aware, Erich Von Däniken was an author who got big in the 70’s with a book called Chariots of the Gods, appealing to the 70’s obsession with pyramidal healing powers and Leonard Nimoy’s great In Search Of TV show, and he basically pioneered and popularized the idea, taken as fact by a depressingly large amount of people today, that a bunch (if not all) of the major architectural achievements of ancient and/or non-white civilizations were in fact constructed by aliens. You see variations of this everywhere, in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, in the TV series called Ancient Aliens (which appears on the fucking History Channel), and the extreme version of this, that all of humanity is descended from the interference and/or guidance of sophisticated extraterrestrials (which appears all over the place too, most recently in Prometheus, but also Stargate, The Fifth Element, not to mention in the foundational tenets of the religion of Scientology). And these are very interesting theories, don’t get me wrong—they tick off a lot of boxes for people, including me: interest in the past, the idea of uncovering something that was once hidden, the existence of sophisticated alien civilizations, contact between those alien civilizations and humble old Earth, the existence of complex conspiracies, the answers to the meaning of life, the assertion that us paltry, pathetic human beings have a connection to the vast, sublime, wondrous eternity of the stars, etc, etc, etc. All of this is very interesting. But, the crucial thing to keep in mind about all of this is that just because an idea is interesting doesn’t mean that it must be true. This is the assumption that seems to fuel all of this ancient alien stuff, and probably all conspiracies, from the moon landing to flat earth theory. And I know it sounds obvious and maybe a little condescending, but we all do it, I do it, and I think it probably speaks to something in our brain chemistry. An idea that sparks a lot of interest for us, that ignites our imagination, is going to hold our attention much easier than an idea that, even though more firmly entrenched in logic, isn’t nearly as interesting. Especially for the majority of us raised on television, the parts of our brain that respond to imagination, to farfetched ideas and possibilities, are going to be much more robust and strengthened than the parts of our brain that deal with a train of logic, a step-by-step, rational, idea rooted in logic and evidence. But it is disheartening to see these ideas be taken up by huge portions of the public because they’re making this crucial logical error—they’re mistaking an idea that’s interesting for an idea that’s persuasive. What’s more likely—the idea of two individuals working at the same time, living their lives like we do, having basic admiration and regard for each other, and for many many many other individuals that they encounter in their lifetimes, then dying, the end? Or the jealously, murder, etc? The latter is definitely more interesting, and we can’t blame the filmmakers for choosing that to be the subject of the narrative, because that’s what that theory is—a narrative. The criteria that make it a great narrative are different from the criteria that we ought to hold for judging a reasonable and persuasive argument. And really, I’ve only just started asking what ought to be the real question—what is the mental process that accounts for this Von Däniken Assumption, what is it that allows the brain to do that, to conduct the logical error that something interesting must be true also? Is it simple self-preservation? Would we all be too embarrassed if we admitted that we’re really interested by an idea that’s logically laughable and absurd, so we protect ourselves by convincing ourselves that it’s actually really plausible and reasonable too? Perhaps this phenomenon is a symptom of the excess of empirical scientific fact-culture, in a world governed by hard science, our brains seek a way out, outright ignoring the capacity for the logic that we’ve spent centuries cultivating?

I think it’s obvious by now that I’ve exceeded my own ability to answer any of these questions in a meaningful way. Either way, it’s a fascinating idea, and this is a fascinating movie. Like a lot of people, this movie did a lot to introduce me to the works of Mozart, and I hope it introduces more people to Salieri too, the real Salieri, who apparently was actually pretty good, and not the hack that F. Murray Abraham so incredibly makes him out to be. And now that I’m at the end, I remember a whole other train of thought that this film pointed out to me, how the casting of this film, two amazing but basically unknown actors—Abraham and Tom Hulce—give us more fuel to the suspension of our disbelief, to enable us to pretend that it’s really Salieri and Mozart in a way that we couldn’t do if they cast A-list known celebrities. And this, in turn, ensures that we forever think of those actors as those iconic roles, so iconic that, even though I recognized him as the nerd guy in Animal House, I somehow blocked it from my memory. And I’ll probably always think of Tom Hulce’s face and that irritating laughter when I think of Mozart. And If anyone has a grandstanding phoney-baloney theory to explain that bit of brain chemistry, I’m all ears.


5 responses to “Re-View: Amadeus (USA, 1984)

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