Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Review: Amadeus (Part III)

This is part three of a three-part review of Milos Forman's Amadeus.
Part I | Part II | Part III

Now that we have discussed the relationships and arcs of the emotions in Amadeus we may discuss their significance.  Specifically for us, we want to know why they are ethically significant, what does Amadeus say is good and bad?

First, the structure of the film suggests that emotions have particular causes and relationships.  Feelings are not random, vague, inexplicable effusions of feeling but specific responses that either please or hurt us, and accordingly can affect our judgment.  Salieri does not decide to murder Mozart because he was slighted, such slights made him angry.  Salieri decides to kill him because Mozart’s existence gnaws at his soul.  Also, jealousy does not motivate Salieri to murder, such a weak feeling of jealousy could not motivate someone.  Envy can.

This may seem trivial, but think how many characters in films and television programs are simply caricatures, with their emotions indistinct and indefinite.  One might say, at best, that their emotion might fall somewhere around something called “jealousy,” but how many characters can you call to mind when you think of the word, “envy?”  Then, thinking of Salieri’s seething envy; how shallow does that “jealousy” seem?  This is not the “light” version of an emotion, this is an emotion in its purest and most elemental form.  It is only by having the characters pass from one distinct emotion through others, to its opposite that we appreciate the range and relationship of feelings.  

Aside from the structural relationships between the emotions, how do the emotions suggest ethics?  Foremost, morally positive emotions attend to happiness and morally inferior emotions lead to despair.  Mozart’s boastfulness only serves to alienate Salieri, and it should be obvious by now that Salieri’s host of emotions leads him down a dark path.  Let us examine him first.

Salieri is overwhelmed  by his emotions, which continually run away with him.  Running unchecked, his emotions degenerate from the positive (calmness, amity, kindness) to their opposites.  Unlike Mozart, Salieri is unable to channel his emotions into his music.  A moment that should have been his triumph, the premiere of Axur, his greatest opera, provides him no joy.  The fact that the emperor loves the piece is just another insult to Salieri, who realizes that even at the height of his powers he is no match for Mozart.  The emperor compounds the insult by awarding him a medallion, which he wears throughout the rest of the film as it becomes an ever-present reminder to the him and the audience of the composer’s mediocrity.  In contrast we see the premiere of Don Giovanni, an opera into which Mozart poured all of his genius, his creative energy, and his emotion, but instead of the great (and hollow) fanfare that Axur received, Don Giovanni is a flop.  Not only is the emperor missing but the house is half-empty and gives him a pitiful applause.  When Salieri turns around he looks directly at Mozart.  All that matters to him is Mozart’s appraisal of the work.  In contrast, Mozart is so carried away with giving his creation life that he can barely stand at the end of Don Giovanni.  Mozart is not awaiting anyone’s approval.  Where Salieri is still stuck in the conventions of the era, where Axur ends with the chorus singing gracefully and waving their little branches in the air, Don Giovanni ends with a chorus of devils waving torches.  (This is actually a bit of a trick on the part of Milos Forman, since Don Giovanni actually ends with another chorus that is a coda for the opera.  It is a just edit though, since the title character’s finale is a sufficient note to end on.  It is also a brilliant touch by Forman and Twyla Tharp, since the musical text of Don Giovanni does not specifically call for the devils or the fire, merely “deep voices.”)

We should also note that more reversals attend to the drama.  The opera that should be a flop is met with great fanfare.  The event that should be the height of Salieri’s career is of significance only in comparison to Mozart.  As Salieri’s emotions are degenerating to the unpleasant, his career reaches its height.  In contrast, the opera that should have been hailed is a disaster.   The event that should be the highlight of Mozart’s career is a flop.  As Mozart’s musical powers are that their height, his life is unraveling. Thus we see that while the more destructive emotions gain sway in Salieri, the significance of the events become much different.  The Salieri that would have rejoiced at having his favorite leading lady star in his best work and at receiving a prestigious award from the emperor fades away into the Salieri of envy. 

Yet Salieri’s faith and his war with God are at the center of his fall. Salieri clearly believes in a god, and he assumes two traits of this god that are relevant to his actions in the plot, 1) that this plays an active role in shaping our human affairs, and 2) that this god plays an active role in creating mankind, deliberately endowing us with certain traits.  One interpretation is that these two beliefs are what caused Salieri’s fall, and that if he believed that he and Mozart were not deliberately fashioned as they were, he might take some consolation in the randomness instead of feeling tested or punished.  Also, one might suggest that if Salieri did not believe a divine force was responsible for their talent, he might have attempted somehow to improve himself (perhaps even condescending to study with Mozart himself), rather than relying on divine intervention for success.  A more theological interpretation would be that Salieri erred in presuming to know the will of God, mainly that his vows were accepted.  Similarly, he erred in presuming to act as he desired (with the desire to becoming a musician) and trying to get what he wanted from God instead of acting to discover God’s plan for him. 

In great contrast to Salieri’s envy we have Mozart.  As an artist, fundamentally he is a creator, especially worthy of our praise because of the genius, joy, and brilliance of his work.  We overlooks his foibles and indiscretions because his powers are beyond ours and he can create what and as no one else can.  The act of giving life to something, Mozart’s creative acts are the perfect opposites to Salieri’s envy.  Mozart’s creative gift is an absolute good, and Salieri’s envy an absolute hatred of that good.  Mozart is the unwitting recipient of much evil by the end of the film, and particularly saddening ones at that.  He not only suffers death but illness and discord beforehand.  He suffers several misfortunes as two of his operas fail to bring him success and prosperity.  On his deathbed, he is deprived of enjoying the good when it finally comes (in the form of the profits of The Magic Flute and the knowledge that it was a success.)  Yet worst of all is that he suffers evil coming from a source from which good should have come, from the man who loved his music most of all. 

The final note on the ethics of Amadeus is that while our hero dies, his destroyer is punished and the greater composer’s music lives on.  Like in Don Giovanni, while the villain might have temporarily gained mastery of worldly matters, in the end supernatural power puts matters as it wishes.  While Don Giovanni killed the commander and outwitted his pursuers and Salieri killed Mozart and got away with it, powers beyond their control had the final say.  Don Giovanni was dragged down, Salieri was subjected to the slow torture of watching himself become extinct, and Mozart’s music is eternal.

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