Saturday, November 25, 2006

Chorale Fallacy

Note to self: NEVER, ever go see something Manohla Dargis recommends. In fact, if she says good things about a movie, avoid it like the plague.

This is not a new resolution, it's one I've made many times before (most notably after watching that three hour yawn fest that Ms. Dargis described as Spielberg's best film ever) - yet every once in a while I'll read a review that intrigues me and not pay attention to who it's written by, resulting in the waste of good money and precious time.

My latest such penance was this thing called Copying Beethoven. When I first heard about the film, I was in two minds about watching it - on the one hand, it was Beethoven. On the other hand, it had Ed Harris playing the great composer [1]. Then I read the review in the NY Times that said good things about the film and decided I would go see it after all.

BIG mistake.

As it turns out, Ed Harris is about the only good thing about the movie. He turns in a fairly creditable performance, all things considered - his Beethoven is a caricature, but it's a caricature with soul. Nothing else in the movie comes close [2]. The real criminals are the scriptwriters who produce a ludicrous rag of a story whose only conceivable virtue is its fidelity to every cliche known to period films about genius. Someone, it would seem, told Stephen Rivele when he was a child that "music is the voice of God" and the idea struck him as so original and so 'poetic' that he insists on sharing it with us some two dozen times in the film, as if it hadn't already occured to practically anyone who'd heard Beethoven and wasn't tone deaf. And as for Diane Kruger, watching her mince woodenly about is enough to turn you into a misogynist if you aren't one already. Ms. Kruger's only talent, it would seem, is for simulating orgasm, and she does this at regular intervals, under the guise of 'thrilling to the music' spending the rest of her time on screen delivering a performance that seems like something out of Keira Knightley's skits in junior high.

To be fair, the film warns you what you're in for pretty much from the first scene. This features Ms. Kruger sitting in a carriage being transported (literally and figuratively) through the (presumably) Austrian countryside to the strains of Beethoven's Gross Fugue. Staring out of the window, Ms. Kruger's character, Anna Holtz, finally 'gets' the fugue - a revelation she demonstrates by beating her palms against the window in a frenzy of excitement that leaves her co-passengers surprisingly unalarmed. One frame later, our heroine is running up a flight of stairs to where the Maestro lies dying, and proceeds to tell him tearfully that she finally understood the fugue whereupon he says he's glad, points to the storm raging outside and says "The storm, it's come for me" (no, I'm not kidding!) and proceeds to die, after which Ms. Kruger, with a devotion that would put any 70's hindi film heroine to shame proceeds to fall upon his chest weeping 'Maestro! Maestro!'

From here on things get steadily worse. The central plot of the film centres around the conceit that Beethoven, in his last years, needed a copyist to work with him, and (according to the powers that be in Hollywood) naturally chose a lissome and dainty young woman to be his workmate. This strange pairing becomes the basis for a number of 'insights' into the genius that was Beethoven. We discover, for instance, that Beethoven was not, in fact, the tortured genius we thought him to be, but a somewhat rowdy but overall rather affable old man, a sort of gruff teddy bear, who spent most of his time thinking about God, and (naturally) how his music was God's voice. We learn that it wasn't actually Beethoven who conducted the first performance of his own Ninth Symphony, it was actually Miss Holtz, standing in the orchestra, and Beethoven simply mimed her. We find out that Beethoven, master musician though he might have been, had a sense of humour that came straight out of the frat house, and was fond of 'mooning' his associates (we also discover that 'mooning' as a practise, was fairly well known in early 19th century Vienna). Finally, we are offered the astonishing revelation that Beethoven, the greatest egoist of them all, was, by the end of his life so desperately short-handed for help in copying his notes (the ability to copy music more than the ability to write it, being a rare talent) that he would burst into a nunnery and go down on his knees to a 23 year old girl begging her to come back and work for him. Now that's what I call good HR policy. One wonders if, according to the scriptwriters, Beethoven also wrote Cecilia.

But the movie isn't all about Beethoven, of course. Oh, no, it's also (how could it not be?) about the process of Miss Holtz growing up and 'finding herself' which means that she now scribbles musical notations with a sterner expression and has finally figured out that her boyfriend is no good (a fact made evident to the rest of us in the very first scene by the length of his sideburns) because, after all, what woman would want a spry young engineer when she can have a grouchy, fat old composer? Miss Holtz is also something of a feminist, a strong-willed, independent woman, who is a 'copyist', not the nurse / maid / prostitute others mistake her for. The fact that her secratarial duties 'naturally' include cleaning Beethoven's apartment, emptying his chamber pots and, in one particularly cringe-worthy scene, sponging his hairy chest with a wet cloth, does not, we are to assume, take away from her strong-willed independence.

Ms. Dargis, in her review, makes much of the scene where the Ninth Symphony is performed - calling that 'reason enough' to go see the film. Personally, I thought it encapsulated very well everything that is wrong with the movie. The fidgety camera work (culminating in a series of jerky camera movements to convey, no doubt, the earth-shaking quality of the music - as though the Ninth couldn't speak for itself), the abrupt cutting from one movement to the other, the terrible hokum of Beethoven saying "Now music changes forever" just before he begins to conduct, the nauseating sentimentality of a script that shows everyone magically transfigured by the music, including Beethoven's wayward nephew Karl who stands weeping at the door. That scene, in its contrivedness, is everything Beethoven is not.

The only thing that redeems this movie is, obviously, the music. If I managed to sit through the movie at all, it was because every time I made up my mind to get up and leave (pushing my way past the two elderly couples between me and the aisle) the soundtrack would burst into yet another well remembered melody, and everything would be forgiven. If this movie does nothing else for you, it will make you lust for Beethoven's music, if only for the joy of hearing it pure and unadulterated by all the idiotic dialogue the characters on screen keep spouting [3]. The ghost of Beethoven is not hard to conjure - it is there in every note the man ever wrote, the music soaked in his personality - and it is that spectre, more than anything else, that keeps this movie going. The point about Beethoven is that he, and his music, represents everything that we can aspire to, the absolute zenith of human glory, of mortal power. Beethoven, more than anything else, is the yardstick we measure our lesser greatnesses against, and it is both the exhilaration and the sadness of knowing that we can never measure up to so titanic an energy that makes those nine symphonies so special.

The other ghost that hangs over this production, much less successfully, is that of Milos Forman. It is more or less, impossible, I suspect, to make a movie about a composer without ending up referencing Amadeus at least slightly, but the contrast between the two films only serves to heighten the failures of Copying Beethoven. Everything that was deft and breathless about Forman's work is clumsy and jejune here. The chemistry between Ms. Kruger and Mr. Harris is non-existent, and scene after scene of the film has an artificial and self-conscious quality that suggests the work of someone yet (and unlikely) to graduate film school. Overall, Copying Beethoven is a copious waste of time - you're much better off sitting at home and putting your favourite recording of the Ninth on your stereo.

Notes

[1] Apparently the role was originally written for Anthony Hopkins, but he (wisely) declined. How the casting director made the leap from Hopkins to Harris, however, is beyond me.

[2] The fact that Harris is the only one who can actually act here adds an unintentional authenticity to the movie. You sit through the movie with the distinct sense that only Beethoven is real and everyone else is a sock-puppet.

[3] Second note to self: Listening to Symphony Seven and Eight back to back while 'air-conducting' and head-banging along can leave you very, very sore.

6 comments:

Tabula Rasa said...

or, watch this. Lasts longer, tastes better, headbang from the comfort of your own home.

Falstaff said...

tr: Nice. I own the CD set, which is what I've been listening to. I didn't know there was a DVD version as well.

szerelem said...

I was wondering if you would make the reference to Amadeus till I reached the last para :)
By the way, have you seen Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman as Beethoven? I have not seen it yet but have heard Oldman is quite excellent.

On a side note: didn't Amadeus show Mozart 'mooning' as well?

sashi said...

Or watch Karajan do the honors to the 9th, along with 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 7th, over at Youtube. I enjoyed reading your review with its mix of James-ian and Wodehouse-ian overtones.

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

One post from you that I could actually understand.
And as a bonus, that crack about Cecilia.
Thank you for the culture.

Diane Kruger said...

wuhooo! nice post here.. :)



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