Not in My Wheelhouse: Amadeus
Welcome to “Not in My Wheelhouse,” a weekly column in which one of our staff members recommends a movie to another that is outside of their cinematic comfort zone! See other entries in the series here.
Amadeus (1984). Directed by Milos Forman, written by Peter Shaffer (adapted from his own stage play), starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. Recommend by Alex Rudolph as a good example of a historical drama.
How Far Outside My Wheelhouse is Amadeus?
It's probably bad form to start an article this way, but... HERE'S THE DEAL: I never WANT to see a historical drama. If given options, I will choose whatever option ISN'T a historical drama. I wish I could say I'm more cultured than this, but the honest truth is I assume they'll be stuffy, slow, and boring. And the worst part of it all? When I finally am forced to watch a historical drama, I really like it 99% of the time. It's not like my preconceived notions of this are based in any kind of reality - the objective reality is I enjoy this kind of movie almost every time I watch one. And yet I never, ever want to watch one. This is all to say - Amadeus is exactly the kind of movie I know I should see but would never in a million years choose to spend my time on.
I literally knew nothing about this movie going into it. I know I already sound like an uncultured moron, but I'm about to double down on that - I didn't even know it was about Mozart. My only reference for the name Amadeus until seeing this movie was that ridiculous Falco song (which I kept singing to my partner in a disappointed voice in the week leading up to our watching of this movie). When I found out the only available viewing option for this movie is its 3-hour director's cut, I went from being mildly curious for the purposes of this article to absolutely dreading it. The repeated catchphrase for this movie around my house all week was "Ah'm a dumbass for choosing Amadeus."
Well, three hours later and it turns out the only reason I'm a dumbass is that I didn't want to watch this movie. It's unbelievably entertaining and likely to be eternally relevant as a work of art about art and artists. It's far funnier than you'd expect, given the subject matter, and I suspect that's one of the reasons this will live on for decades to come as an easily recommendable and accessible movie, and one of the better Best Picture winners overall. Forman's film making is incredible here, both as an actor's director and a master of setting. There are some really beautiful shots in this that appear to be lit by hundreds of candles placed "just so" to achieve an elaborate set design that is often then further amplified by absurd, nearly anachronistic costuming. It really is a sumptuous, delicious film about perspective and self-worth.
But that's where my major criticism of this movie lies. After two hours of full investment in Salieri's storytelling, the last hour really started to lose me, despite containing some of the best scenes in the movie. I spent all weekend trying to figure out precisely why the last hour left me a bit cold, and I finally figured it out after many conversations with other Cinema76ers. The first two hours of this movie are told very clearly from Salieri's point of view - all we know of Mozart is Salieri's version of him, and that is the crux upon which the point of this movie is built. It is necessary that we only know Salieri's version of Mozart for the themes of jealousy and self-worth and where they intersect to hit with precision and force as they're intended to. Unfortunately, the movie leaves Salieri's point of view almost entirely in the final hour and we spend a lot of private time with Mozart. And without a point of view on the man to anchor us, without a reminder that what we're seeing is strictly Salieri's perspective on this man, it becomes wishy washy and unclear as to what we're even watching. Suddenly I'm questioning if this is meant to be historically accurate, a biopic of sorts, or simply one man's interpretation of events as I thought I was watching. Are we meant to sympathize with Mozart and his struggle as both an artist and a husband, or only know him as the loudmouthed fool that Salieri sees him as? Is Salieri a monster of a man and the lesson of the movie is to always be cognizant of our own bias, or is Mozart really so much of a shit that we really shouldn't exalt him at all, despite his undeniable natural talent? The loss of this anchoring perspective made the last hour feel meandering to me, and ultimately sucked the final punchline of the movie dry of its impact.
My understanding is the original stage play is very much exclusively from Salieri's perspective, and he is indeed the villain of the piece. Why Shaffer decided to stray from this format is beyond me, as this is in no way a biopic meant to give us a definitive version of historical events. It's a fiction that uses historical figures to illustrate a point about perspective and our self-worth, and a damn good one. So good, in fact, that this major issue I have with the movie hardly undercuts its power. I was really blown away by how much I enjoyed this, and how immediately I was taken with it. Within minutes I was laughing and in awe of the scope of it all, as both a story and a film. And there are some truly powerful moments in the last hour that make all these quibbles I have with it almost moot. This is truly a deserving Best Picture winner, and all the evidence I'll ever need that I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss historical dramas as slow or stuffy. Point well made, Alex.
Passing the Baton
Jill Malcolm's big blind spot is in the realm of horror, a genre she has begun dipping her toe into recently but still hasn't totally jived with. As a somewhat recent genre hound myself, I felt it was my duty to recommend something that might stretch her tastes a little bit and show her that horror is as much about having fun as it is about scaring yourself sleepless. And that if we want, we can usually dig a little deeper and see that filmmakers are often using horror's more subversive elements, like gore and splatter, to tell stories with interesting themes that would never make it into more mainstream movies. With that in mind, I've recommended one of my all-time favorite movies to her, Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, in the hopes that she'll delight in its over-the-top nature while seeing its perverse sense of humor for the commentary on bourgeoisie values that it's intended to be.