Archive for F Murray Abraham

Composing and Arranging

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2017 by dcairns

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I showed my students a scene from AMADEUS the other week. Happily, they seemed to enjoy it, but I think I screwed up — I don’t think I pointed out the best thing about it, as a piece of screenwriting.

The scene is the first meeting between Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Mozart and the Emperor (Jeffrey Jones) plus his various musical flunkies. What I want to say is that the scene beautifully supplies each character with a distinct attitude.

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The Emperor is an idiot, but a happy one because he doesn’t know it, and he has a whole palace of underlings dedicated to seeing that he never finds out. His good-natured imbecility is a joy to behold. Director Milos Forman originally planned to use Brits in the roles of those in the court, and Americans for the Salzburg interlopers like Hulce/Mozart, but he abandoned this promising scheme in favour of simply casting the best actors he could get, and never regretted it. Jones is superb, and his loss to cinema, owing to his unpleasant offscreen activities, is a huge shame.

The Emperor must be kept happy, which gives the scene a good chunk of its dynamic — a clear goal for all the surrounding characters is to make him happy, or to make sure anyway that THEY’RE not the cause of him being unhappy. The vicious rivalry among them means that they wouldn’t mind him being discomfited a bit as long as THEY couldn’t be blamed.

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Salieri, the court composer is the film’s most fascinating character. The real Salieri was essentially forgotten when Anthony Peter Shaffer’s play came out, followed by the film. And then you got a lot of commentary about how Salieri wasn’t mediocre at all, but a very talented guy. but that’s the point, isn’t it? Compared to genius, talent looks and feels mediocre. Salieri has the truly dynamic role in this scene, his sincere admiration for Mozart’s talent rapidly curdling, his intentions turning to the malign — how can I do this guy some harm? His whole stance in the movie is to be outraged that God has given a sublime musical skill to a gibbering ape while HE, Salieri the virtuous, can only pen forgettable trifles. Of course, it’s obvious that Salieri is not an inherently good man at all, but he’s nevertheless largely correct — genius is not dispensed in a fair fashion (otherwise everyone would have a share).

But the other underlings all have their own distinct attitudes. The rotund Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines, to the right of Salieri) seems a jolly old duffer, but he’s possessed of a jocular malignity — nothing pleases him more than seeing his rivals squirm, so this whole scene is hugely amusing to him; Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Charles Kay) is a chilly authoritarian, viewing Mozart as if her eyeglasses were a microscope affording a too-detailed view of a particularly unpleasant paramecium — when has asks if Mozart has shown him his libretto and Mozart cheerfully says No, but he’ll be sure to, the Count’s reply, “I think you’d better,” comes with a steely glint and a tiny smile more menacing than any frown — it doesn’t even need a closeup to strike home ~

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There are a couple of other characters here who get lines — Baron Von Swieten (Jonathan Moore) seems uniquely fair and decent throughout, and in objecting to the racy content of  The Abduction from the Seraglio he may well be trying to protect Herr Mozart, while another functionary, a guy with clown hair who spends most of the scene eclipsed by Jones, and who doesn’t rate an introduction to Mozart, seems perpetually peeved, maybe because he didn’t rate an introduction to Mozart or maybe because he’s eclipsed by Jones. Sorry, fella, without the introduction I can’t find out who’s playing you.

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Into this muso-political vespiary is thrust Mozart, who unsettles everyone with his oafish lack of correct court decorum — only Swieten seems willing to overlook this on the basis that the young man evidently means no offense. The Emperor exercises noblesse oblige like it was going out of style, and the other snakes move in for the kill, sensing easy prey.

The fact that the character who leaves the scene wounded is Salieri is not due to any guile on Mozart’s part — it’s his insensitivity to others and his casual acceptance of his own megatalent that allows him to crush Salieri so thoroughly.

Oh, I remember why I forgot to point out the dynamic range of attitudes in this scene — I was concentrating on subtext, because all the backstabbing and angling for promotion occurs via a discussion of opera. a subject that only really concerns one character — Mozart.

It’s no surprise that this film won the Oscar, of course, because like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, it’s as much about Hollywood as it is about its ostensible historic locale. There are geniuses, there are talents, there are mediocrities, there are snakes, and there are those with power, who lack the perspicacity to tell one species of underling from another. Everyone is at the mercy of powerful fools.

Milos Forman notes that the Count’s later line, “Too many notes,” has haunted him, being unfailingly uttered by screenwriters at the end of exhaustive story conferences. Of course it would be!

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Grand Hotel

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2014 by dcairns

The Grand Budapest Hotel

My friend Stephen Murphy worked on the makeup for the aged Tilda!

To the 100-year-old Cameo Cinema to see THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. They were also showing INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. You wait ages for a movie with F. Murray Abraham in a roll-neck sweater and then two come along at once.

I liked MOONRISE KINGDOM more than any other Wes Anderson film (though I still haven’t caught up with BOTTLE ROCKET which some people like best of all, considering everything subsequent to be an ever-downward spiralling into bloodless mannerism, which is a point of view) and I liked FANTASTIC MR FOX before that more than everything before that, so there was evidence that he was on a roll. I didn’t like this one as much as those but I enjoyed it. There was a slightly uncomfortable quality though.

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The art direction and look are as finicky and perfectionist as ever — I don’t dislike that so that’s fine. And he does vary the screen ratio, the font and even the lens I think on this one (unless all those zooms are all CG fake, which is possible), so in a superficial way we have to say he’s progressing artistically. I’ll come to the more thematic progress in a moment.

More good stuff: Ralph (it’s pronounced “Ralph,” by the way) Fiennes is extremely funny and a little bit endearing, doing his Leonard Rossiter impersonation which he always does when asked to be light. No bad thing. I can’t decide if it IS an impression or if it’s just his natural comic mode. Weirdly, Peter Serafinowicz’s impersonation of Ralph Fiennes as Leonard Rossiter seems to predate IN BRUGES, the first film I saw in which he got his Rossiter on properly. Maybe he was inspired by it.
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The whole rest of the cast is very fine. It’s deliriously overdone, like everything with Anderson. Is this role a good use of, say, Harvey Keitel’s remaining time on earth? He mainly seems to have been employed to jiggle his pectorals. Couldn’t somebody who needs the money and exposure more be given a chance at that? But it was nice to see Jeff Goldblum, who doesn’t seem to do enough movies, and who should still be a top leading man, not some kind of guest star. Nobody else can do what he does.

This is really the first Wes Anderson film with proper villains, it seems to me. Adrien Brody is not really heavyweight enough compared to Willem Dafoe, who does all the nasty stuff anyway, so there’s a slight problem of dramatic priorities in terms of dealing with those characters and their evil schemes. The violence was startling for an Anderson film. Sure it’s cartoony but it leaps out at you in this flat, pastel, artificial world. I felt it was a problem that (a) Anderson concocts his own version of European history, with a Ruritanian central setting (which is fine in itself) menaced by a fictional version of Nazi Germany (which was fine for Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR but doesn’t make such clear sense here) and (b) gives almost all the violence to some scheming aristocrats — in other words, Nazi Germany, present by proxy, has almost no role in the story. I didn’t get the sense that the personal perfidies of Brody and Dafoe were there to be compared to the encroaching political darkness, either in terms of “These minor villainies are insignificant compared to what’s coming” or “These minor villainies are a microcosm of what’s coming.” I felt Anderson was actually uncomfortable dealing with the politics at all. He’s said that the kind of politics he likes in films is the kind you get in DUNE — fictional factions whose movements add to the reality of the created world, rather than saying anything about this world or making any kind of point. I mean, there are NO politics in DUNE — there are good guys, bad guys, and different factions, but there is no sense that the Atreides clan, the Harkonnens or the Emperor desire any different kind of constitutional set-up. It’s similar in GBH.

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The natural comparison would be with Lubitsch and TO BE OR NOT TO BE. How do you stage a comic operetta narrative against a backdrop of fascism? The difference is, Lubitsch had a compelling reason to do it and he knew what the reason was, and he clearly thought deeply about all his choices. I mean, for all I know Anderson had reasons and thought deeply too, I just don’t see the evidence onscreen. I think the film falls short of that part of its ambition which is serious, which is why I don’t feel reminded of the work of Stefan Zweig.

One thing that was fun about MOONRISE KINGDOM was that it didn’t have any bad guys but still managed to function as a peculiar kind of action movie, making quite enthusiastic use of Bruce Willis as an icon of that genre. GBH has a chase through a museum seemingly inspired by the one in Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN (a lovely scene in a darkened hall full of suits of armour, each picked out of the enveloping blackness by its own personal spotlight, is the film’s most striking visual development — it doesn’t violate Anderson’s ironclad aesthetic, but it doesn’t look like anything else he’s done either) and a toboggan chase that comes either from ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (an influential film, these days) or THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, though the figures’ movements in longshot have the speeded-up zaniness of FANTASTIC MR FOX.

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I would like another animated Wes Anderson film, please.

City Limits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on February 26, 2014 by dcairns

Films seen in London, England — (slight spoilers for INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) —

You could play a pretty good drinking game with LONE SURVIVOR, the worrisome Afghanistan conflict story. Simply take a shot anytime any character says something optimistic (e.g., “We’re going to be OK,”) and then gets shot in the foot. A shot for a shot. You would die of alcohol poisoning before the halfway mark.

Alternative title: MARK WAHLBERG SLOWLY BECOMES A POBBLE.

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Clarification: by “pretty good drinking game” I mean “something you should not do, ever.”

The movie is excitingly-staged warnography, and gave me a very bad feeling.

Inside Llewyn Davis: teaser trailer - video

One way of looking at INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is as the feline version of Clint Eastwood’s THE CHANGELING.

Another way of looking at it is this — a common narrative trope of films made in the early sixties, when this film is set, but particularly in the UK (e.g. SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, A TASTE OF HONEY), is that whenever anybody has sex they get pregnant (if they’re a woman). Cue backstreet abortion and misery. Joy must not go unpunished, especially if you’re working class (this “yes, but” model informs socially conscious narratives from LAND WITHOUT BREAD and LOS OLVIDADOS to the present day: every silver lining must have its cloud). The question of birth control simply does not arise, since in that primitive age condoms were unmentionable. We don’t wonder about Albert Finney knocking up Rachel Roberts, I think it is (married to another man — did this directly inspire Carey Mulligan’s predicament in ILD?), despite his being characterised as someone experienced and aware of the biological processes. In INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS we do wonder about it a bit, especially as Carey Mulligan has a big speech about condoms and how Llewyn should be permanently wrapped in one, and especially as we learn this has happened before. Drunkenness, sure, and the guy’s kind of a dick, but still…

Actually, apart from the who serial impregnator thing, and some nasty heckling of another act late in the story, Llewyn’s dickishness seemed entirely justified to me. Maybe that’s why I’m not a bigger success in life. The only person he doesn’t offend, really, is F. Murray Abraham (always a welcome face, with the best scene in the film) — I guess because Abraham makes it clear he’s not offering any help. Llewyn only alienates people who might help him. Is that a character trait or a plot device?

***

London, until Saturday. Hoping to meet regular Shadowplayer Anne Billson, who’s passing through the big smoke too, on Saturday. Expect pictures! Possibly involving skulls. But the purpose of the trip is even more groovy, if such a thing were possible. Not sure when I’ll be able to tell you…