Perfect Movies: Amadeus

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What makes a genius? Divine inspiration? Hard work? A discipline forged in fire and molded by repetitive strikes from the hammer in the soul? Or just the foolish manic artistry that comes from torrents of flowing ability? The answer is yes. All of these disparate elements create what we consider “genius” into this world: the slavish repetition that comes with mastering a task; the discipline that puts pen in hand or equations that must be solved by an obsessed individual; the ability to throw off the yolk of self-consciousness to reveal new, unexpected avenues of inspiration in the self; and yes, even what we could consider a “divinity” of sorts that can throw a human into a thrall that enables a single person to reach outside of the boundaries of normal perception to somehow see and understand a concept that has never been touched before by human hands and pull it to Earth seemingly fully formed.

But one of the biggest problems with geniuses is that they are often, on a personal level, insufferable. Either unable or unwilling to conform to social propriety or even conform to nominal behaviors that would make them bearable, instead the geniuses of the world are almost inherently separate creatures doomed to be ill-fitted in their time but be remarked upon, emulated, and adored for all time afterwards.

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Leonardo da Vinci was a hermit and besides that was most likely a homosexual so his sexual preference wasn’t accepted in his time period; Charles Chaplin was a workaholic who womanized but never felt much for other people, even his own wives and multiple children; Orson Welles was a megalomaniac that discarded people once they served his purpose, including one of the hottest dames of all time, Rita Hayworth; Socrates was such an asshole he was condemned to death despite the apparent unwillingness of his jury to actually carry out his sentence–but he was just that obstinate that he killed himself out of spite alone to prove a point; and a slew of mathematical geniuses could be named here but for want of brevity will be excluded. But rest assured, geniuses are almost uniformly assholes.

As it’s been established, geniuses are obviously gifted people who often lack the ability to see past their own milky-eyed wonders to realize that other people exist besides them. Which, in their purview, may be true: we all live short existences and if you’re a genius, it would be easy to dismiss everybody else in existence with the knowledge that what you’re doing far surpasses Wendy The Washwoman’s idiot existence scrubbing toilets and hoping to gather enough bits together to drink away her sadness for one more night.

Instead, the genius envisions galaxies in their minds and realize great ideas that will inspire people for centuries past their own corporeal existence to become part of the eternal in spirit if not body. In short, geniuses are kind of assholes–but they have good reason to be: they’re geniuses.

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And this is the nut of what makes Salieri so angry about Mozart: he’s constantly upstaged, whether Mozart realizes or not (he doesn’t) by his competitor’s innate brilliance. Mozart was a seemingly divinely gifted composer whose work outmatched his contemporaries’ efforts ten-fold but who was initially taken as a fool by these same contemporaries in Vienna due to his immature behavior. But he wasn’t a fool: he was just ill-adjusted to social life and acted foolish because he felt this would bring him popularity and add to his likability. While it did to more vulgar audiences, it didn’t help his esteem among polite society so Mozart was cast out while simultaneously heralded by these same people. It must have been difficult for him to not understand the contradictions of his existence–but such is the bright flame of genius and the cruel act of laying such gifts upon mere mortals.

Amadeus: A Perfect Movie

As shown in the film, few of Mozart’s contemporaries can grasp how brilliant he actually is: the  composers in the Austrian court in which Mozart is invited into are only concerned with political matters and are divided by ethnic affiliations. Only Salieri seems to be able to see Mozart as the true genius he is, and is seemingly mocked at every turn by said genius. Even their first meeting, where Salieri has composed a welcome march for Mozart, he is immediately upstaged by Mozart’s abilities, who improves the march after only hearing it once. And by improve, I mean make far better and more enjoyable than the clunky, blocky melody Salieri originally provided.

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And Salieri’s discontent only deepens as he finds Mozart a thoroughly foolish man whose oafish manner deigns him, in Salieri’s eyes, as a lesser creature undeserving of his obvious talent. But in reality, Salieri is a mediocre man that found wealth and success in his field but is also cruelly able to recognize brilliance when he sees it–but he is also locked away like a caged bird from such ability.

“Too many notes” seems to be the major stumbling block of Mozart’s career, at least in this film’s view, from ascending to greater heights: his work is simply too complex and dense for the audience to bear, so says at least tone-deaf Emperor Joseph II, who seemingly dooms Mozart’s ambitions from thereon out from this one proclamation.

Mozart The Genius

Henceforth being referred to as “The Creature” by Salieri, who increasingly finds Mozart a despicable figure–a boorish, insolent man who was seemingly touched by God for no good reason–and is depicted as such in the movie, as it is Salieri’s perspective that the film is told from.  

But when untethered from Salieri’s narrative, Mozart is depicted as both a typical man, who loves and marries the woman he’s betrothed to, and also a dedicated musician who works constantly on his music. Though Salieri may try to frame the film in his own jealous, angry perspective, Mozart was simply too gifted historically to be simply depicted as a buffoon. Arrogant, Mozart balks at the demands of modesty but finds himself subject to these constraints for economic stability–but his more level-headed wife subjects herself to what Mozart refuses: humility. But even when she’s refused by Solieri–even to the point that she offers herself sexually to him–Mozart still gets the needed commission in spite of this roadblock.

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In yet another stroke of personal defeat, Salieri is forced (by divine will, perhaps) to look at Mozart’s first drafts. What cascades in front of his eyes are the first drafts of Mozart: without blemish, error, or correction, and this drives Salieri further into hating God’s great creation of musical perfection, fuelling his hatred towards the master composer further. But how can such a perfect creature exist? Especially one that is so socially so awkward and whose manner suggests severe brain damage? And why is he able to create such music without any corrections? It drives Salieri to near-madness.

The answer, of course, is that Because Mozart was a genius. Often the most brilliant human beings are “off” in some sense: they cannot speak or interact correctly even to fellow intellectuals; they are bizarre creatures that are, due to their skills and acumen, somewhat freaks of nature; they are beings so separate from the natural order that they have no recourse simply because they function far outside of the world they currently inhabit. In short, the genius are damned.

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Salieri not only knows this but he hates it. Why couldn’t he have been the one to have such a gift? Why couldn’t he have been able to pour out these brilliant melodies and compositions effortlessly?

The answer is that Salieri is a limited creature: when he says that our God is a God of torture, he means it mostly because he cannot fathom the God that he prays to and strives for. He doesn’t realize–or egotistically doesn’t want to realize–that he is not God’s instrument: he is just another one of God’s many children that plod along without any divine gifts bestowed upon them. The part Salieri truly detests, however, is being able to recognize the divine when he sees it–because he sees it as a mockery.

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Even when confronted with The Creature at a public party, Salieri is further insulted: not only can Mozart do a perfect imitation of Bach’s style, and then perform it upside-down and backwards, Salieri calls out the challenge of Mozart reproducing Salieri’s work. Which Mozart does, in an insulting, ape-like manner that he punctuates with a fart. If that isn’t some blunt criticism, I don’t know what is.

Of course what makes the film truly brilliant is that it’s told through Salieri’s point of view. He sees Mozart as an ass, so of course the narrative of Amadeus is going to be colored by this perspective. The scenes we see that occur without Salieri in the film depict Mozart in moments of deep study and work, avoiding his domestic chaos to attempt to compose the masterpieces that we all know still hundreds of year later. That’s even as much as Salieri’s housekeeper/spy relates to Salieri, that Mozart works constantly at his music.

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And this sort of incredibly majestic music couldn’t have come from anything but a mind that spent years composing, thinking, and playing its precise melodies. This is where Amadeus soars: in relating to the audience the sort of mechanical, methodical mind that is required to create such sumptuous, eternal pieces of music.

But just as brilliant as Mozart’s work is, so too are his circumstances equally diminished: while he seems divinely inspired, Mozart is also shown to be nearly penniless. This is where Salieri’s uncontrollable egomania comes into play: he recognizes Mozart’s genius but only conspires to destroy the artist by any means necessary out of spite and jealousy alone.

And thanks to a casual yawn by the idiotic Emperor, Mozart’s work falls quickly into failure. While brilliant, Mozart cannot understand why his work flounders while Salieri’s mediocre work flourishes. But Mozart doesn’t have the benefit of history to realize that his work would inspire dozens of generations of musicians afterwards. After all, he is stuck in the idiotic present, locked away from the pantheon of eternal greatness that eludes him but waits for him after death.

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Without this film, most modern audiences would have never heard of Salieri, and the only association we have of him in our minds is as “that guy that was jealous of Mozart.” Even the story isn’t historically accurate: while Mozart had a rival that may have played a part in his death, it wasn’t Salieri, whom by all accounts supported Mozart’s work and was a friend to him. But this film isn’t about Salieri after all: or at least, if it is about him, it’s about how he represents mediocrity.

And that may be the most salient point about Amadeus: not about the life of a genius, but the life of mediocrity when compared to genius. Salieri’s story is the story of the average and mundane that may win the day in the present but whose work is limited to the present, as well. While Mozart won in history, after all, during his life he struggled financially while Salieri lived a much more comfortable existence.

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And the film also underscores the tragedy of genius. While a few geniuses are heralded in their time (which, as mentioned previously, usually has a terrible effect on them), many great writers, artists, and scientists did not find success in their lifetime, instead having their work gain recognition years after the death thanks to their influential nature. Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest geniuses of history but he lived in poverty and near-obscurity, dying in a run-down flophouse alone and penniless. Vincent Van Gogh only sold maybe a handful of paintings in his life before shooting himself, and now his work hangs in the greatest museums in the world while nearly everyone has owned a reproduction of one of his works at least once in their life. After finding some success early in his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald ended his career a drunken screenwriter in Hollywood, his work being rediscovered years after his death and placed in their proper place among the best of American fiction. There’s something so cruel about being a genius and having to suffer and toil in this life as mediocrity finds success and happiness in the present–and that’s ultimately what Amadeus depicts.

18th Century Vienna Revisited

Of course, much of what makes Amadeus a perfect movie is how gorgeous it is: perfectly depicting the regal trappings of 18th century Vienna, director Milos Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek create a lush reproduction of this historical period, making Amadeus a visually sumptuous film to watch. And although the royal court and halls that Mozart performs in are stunning, Forman also captures the dirt and poverty of the time as well, in the dirt streets and cramped public halls of Vienna at the time. It transports the viewer to 18th-Century Vienna–no small feat considering the film was made in 1984. Down to the costumes that people wore back then, this detail-oriented reproduction of the time period is impressive on a visual and technical level. That it won Best Costume Design and Best Production Design at the Academy Awards isn’t surprising–or that it also won Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham as Salieri), Best Director, and Best Picture that year. At least in this case, brilliance wasn’t overlooked.

The music is, of course, miraculous: while watching the movie, you’re surprised at just how familiar you are with Mozart’s music, even if you aren’t a classical music fan. It’s simply that good that it’s permeated Western civilization to the point that it’s as familiar to everyone as a nursery rhyme or a Beatles song would be. While it seems obvious to say, Mozart’s music is impressive. Besides being technically brilliant, it’s both complicated and simple at the same time, so that it gets stuck in your head and you find yourself humming bars from it days after watching Amadeus, even the operas.  

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Although the film depicts Mozart’s struggles in life, Amadeus honors his work properly. By promoting his music and life further in popular culture and providing audiences with a look at the world and times he lived in, Forman brought into the modern world a figure that had been gone for centuries, reviving interest in his music and now providing an easy intro to anyone that wants to investigate the man and his work.

The Patron Saint of Mediocrity

Back to genius one more time: Mozart was one, while Salieri was mediocrity personified. In the last scene of the movie, he names himself the patron saint of mediocrity, and it’s not an unfair assessment. Compared to Mozart, he was a mediocre composer, and indeed history has not remembered Salieri’s work. Even as the star of Amadeus, Salieri is far less memorable than the odd, fascinating character of Mozart that he detests.

And while this film’s a study of genius, it’s also a study of mediocrity and how the two possibly can’t exist without the other. After all, how would anyone know if something was brilliant if there wasn’t something lesser to compare it to? In a way, Mozart couldn’t have existed without the mediocre of the world for him to outshine.

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But this film isn’t mediocre–it’s brilliant. A historical drama that brings history to life, Amadeus is a visual and especially musical film that, despite its long running time, never drags for a moment. Although it may have fudged the facts here and there, it’s as close as we have to an authentic glimpse at 18th century life in Vienna and the life of Mozart. If you haven’t seen it, 1) I’m surprised since it’s a very popular movie, but 2) please do. You may assume that it will be stodgy, but Forman and screenwriter Peter Shaffer (who won Best Adapted Screenplay for his work here) convey the story through modern parlance, with period details being kept in as ironically humorous moments. Oh, and it’s also a very funny movie, despite being a drama. The humor comes from the boisterous and wholly inappropriate Mozart and the subtle digs at Salieri’s dignity and pompousness, and at the pompousness of the time period in general.

To the geniuses of the world–and the mediocre. There are few films that make it a point to contrast and compare these two states, but as a thesis statement, Amadeus elucidates the finer differences between them in no uncertain terms and in spectacular fashion.

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Categories: culture, film

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