Movies that move me 5: Amadeus

I don’t speak the language of classical music. Not because I don’t like it, not because I can’t recognise it as beautiful or brilliant, not out of some sort of inverted snobbery. It’s simply that it takes much work for me, like a very alien language. I don’t have the time or energy for another language in my life, so I leave well alone.

As proof that this is the case, not dislike or ignorance or whatever else people have opined to me as the reason, I offer consistently one of my favourite films. Amadeus was released in 1984, the year of my eleventh birthday. I can’t recall when I first saw the film – I suspect about 3 years later on its television premiere – but it made a huge impact on me. In the year of forty-first birthday that impact hasn’t diminished.

It’s directed by Milos Forman (most famous for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and adapted by the great Peter Shaffer from his own stage play. It tells the story of Mozart’s professional life through the lens of court composer Antonio Salieri, a man tormented by his own relative mediocrity. It opens with an elderly Salieri in some kind institution for the mentally ill, claiming he killed Mozart and unburdening himself to a priest. Through that relationship, with the priest claiming to offer God’s forgiveness, Salieri confesses his awe, jealousy and manipulation of the young genius, ultimately playing a key role in driving him to an early, overworked death.

It’s majestic, moving and utterly beautiful. It’s a study of guilt – who doesn’t reach Salieri’s age without secrets they need absolution from? It’s a study in the corrosive powers of success – the film’s Mozart is perhaps most akin to a modern-day elite sportsman, feted with praise and money he doesn’t have the maturity to handle. It’s a study in marriage under pressure – Constanze, Mozart’s wife, is brilliantly played by Elizabeth Berridge; devoted to her husband, but one partner always just out of reach of the other.

Most of all, it’s a study in creativity and what we who benefit from the creativity want the creators to be like. Mozart should be as sublimely beautiful, dignified and upright as his creations. Instead, as this film and Tom Hulce’s performance renders him, he’s an obnoxious brat with an annoying laugh, no discipline and no self-control. It’s that laugh that divides viewers; it’s that laugh that Salieri hears even before he first lays eyes on the man he discovers to be Mozart. How can this man create such beauty? Thereby hangs the crux of the film, and Salirei’s existential torment. It drives deals he strikes with himself and with God; it defies belief and offends the ears as much the music entrances them. It reaches its height in a spellbinding, unforgettable scene where Salieiri helps a bed-ridden Mozart work on his Requiem (a piece commissioned by a shadowy figure Mozart doesn’t realise to be Salieri himself). Mozart hears the music in his head and dictates it to Salieri, who even then can barely keep up. Even with his nemesis at death’s door, he can’t hope to match him.

Based in truth as it is (though how true it actually is, I don’t know), the film achieves a kind of truth much more true than mere facts, uncovering the deeper realities of limited humanity’s quest for transcendence. That’s why, for instance, the American accents the actors keep throughout the film don’t bother me one jot. The film is so true that the accents are frankly irrelevant; I’m not distracted by them, which I most certainly would have been by bad European accent imitations.

It’s a film which teaches me about beauty, hope, work, creativity and the freedom to take all my prayers – not just the safe, nice ones – to God and leave theme there. In my life as I live it, it’s unmatched, unique and irreplaceable. I can’t imagine my life without it; and I don’t own a single note of Mozart’s music.

I rated this film 5/5 on rottemtomatoes.com and 10/10 on imdb.com

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Trainspotting

Fire In Babylon

Pan’s Labryinth

Shaun Of The Dead & Hot Fuzz

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Movies that move me 4: Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz

In this article I’ve linked to a few scenes from the films. You should know that these may not be to your taste.

That caught you out, I suspect. You expect a series of posts under the title ‘Movies That Move Me’ to be about emotional, sad, touching films. Especially if you’re one of those who think that people who are into movies in the way that I am only like serious ones.

It’s part of a common misconception – that comedy is lower than drama, that pain is harder to portray than it is to make the audience laugh; so serious drama is the superior form. It’s nonsense, not least from the perspective of the performer. From the very little acting I’ve enjoyed doing myself, it’s the comedy that’s most stretched me and been much harder work. You pretty much know in rehearsal if a drama or tragedy is going to work; a comedy you only really know about once you get the finished work in front of a live audience who’ve paid to be there. Real comedy is hard work; performers sweat blood over making people laugh, often at immense emotional cost to themselves. Really good comedy that’s just plain funny, or is both funny and about something is one of the hardest artistic disciplines you could find.

That’s especially the case, I think, when it comes to the kind of comedy which is using something familiar but ‘serious’ and turning it into comedy. The worst versions of these often make serious money but are scarce remembered. Take for example, the Scary Movie series or pretty much any of the Police Academy movies after the first one (or maybe two). Poking fun at something familiar, using the format of the target for laughs … you may even have laughed when you first saw it. Especially if you saw it in a group at home or in a crowded cinema – people are statistically much more likely to laugh if surrounded by others. Even if you did laugh the first time … can you remember any of the jokes more than a week later? Have you every felt a desire to revisit these? Do you know anyone who actually owns these films or loves them? Exactly.

The key is love. If you don’t love the object of your comedy, then you’re just being a bit cruel. Cruelty can be funny, of course; but if you don’t love the genre you’re laughing at, then you don’t understand what makes it appealing to people, and if you don’t understand that then you won’t get soul-deep laughter.

Which brings me to Shaun Of The Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), prime examples of movies which love the object of their laughs and which still, on repeated viewings by myself make me ache and cry with laughter. Both are British films, written and directed by the same people, starring many of the same actors. Both films mainly feature actors successful in some of the more left-field British television comedies of the last few years. Shaun Of The Dead takes the format of a zombie movie, twins it with a romantic comedy and sets it all somewhere in England. Hot Fuzz goes for action movies and British television detective shows (with a little hint at a few horror films thrown in) for a story of murder and fear in market town England.  The third in this ‘three flavours cornetto’ trilogy (The World’s End) arrives on these shores at the end of the year so these two must keep me going for now.

In both these formats there’s much to make fun of and laugh at. It would be easy – and lazy – to go for cheap and quick laughs of the Scary Movie type. No such get out here; instead it’s clear that Edgar Wright (director, co-writer), Simon Pegg (co-writer, star) and Nick Frost (star) love the originals they’re laughing at. It’s in the perfectly played flat-mate interactions or the scene with the records or the way the rolling news coverage is used in Shaun. It’s only when I stopped seeing Hot Fuzz in the light of Shaun that it made the jump from liking it very much to loving it in my estimation; the love there is in the swift cutting from scene to scene, the supermarket shoot-out, the re-contexualised repeated gags from Shaun

Circumstances conspired against me seeing Shaun in the cinema, so I finally saw it for the first time in the worst possible circumstances: on a plane, in the middle of the night. I couldn’t laugh out loud of course, for fear of waking up the others. Which only made it harder not to laugh. By the time of the fight in the pub with that Queen song playing on the jukebox I was crying with laughter, doubled over in the kind of ecstatic pain only good comedy can provide. At that stage I had a nodding acquaintance with zombie films, not enough to really get the genre. Which made it no less funny. Now I’m more of a fan of this type of film, there’s even more to enjoy. I’ve since seen it 7 or 8 times, and each time I get new pleasures from it.

Hot Fuzz I recently re-watched for the about the tenth time. Again I ached the morning after. In the case of both films there’s a warmth to them, even when they’re violent (Hot Fuzz) or also a little frightening (Shaun). Both have a story to tell and tell them well; both have characters you warm to and want to spend time with; both have good hearts beating at the centre of them. Both take a little bit of the viewer and reflect it back at you, asking you to see yourself as just as funny as the people you’re laughing at. You laugh at characters whom you see yourself in, who show you something of who you are in the sight of others.

If a film moves us, then it’s affected our emotions. Joy is an emotion, laughing a symptom of emotional life. So comedy belongs here; and in these two films that it’s better demonstrated than almost anywhere else.

I rated Shaun Of The Dead 10/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com. I rated Hot Fuzz 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Other posts in this series:

An Introduction

Movies that move me 1: Trainspotting

Movies that move me 2: Fire In Babylon

Movies that move me 3: Pan’s Labyrinth

Movies that move me 3: Pan’s Labyrinth

Sometimes you just know. I knew with Pan’s Labyrinth. I knew from what I’d seen and read and heard that I would like it. I wasn’t prepared for the effect it would have on me. Financially we were in a difficult place. In 2006 my wife as running her own business and as month’s end drew close, money habitually grew tight. Often very tight, occasionally too tight. Movies are oxygen to me; they’re a place of prayer and meditation; of self-discovery and of God speaking. So, at month’s end I gathered the fumes left in our bank account, took the underground the handful of stops from East Putney to Wimbledon in south-west London, to the only cinema in the vicinity showing Pan’s Labyrinth and handed over enough cash for a ticket safe in the knowledge there was enough in the fridge to see us to pay-day. Just.

It was a Monday night, and the small screen was only about half full. I sat in the back row, next to wall; immediately to my right was the entrance-way into the screen which divided the back 5 or so rows in half. As the trailers rolled a group of teenage boys wandered in, loud and laughing, clearly in the mood to poke fun at the film. Just the thing to set me on edge, nervous as I was anyway; I hoped beyond hope that the film would be worth the financial investment I’d made.

What unfolded before me needs some description for the uninitiated. It’s a Spanish-language film from Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, also the film’s writer. He’s a director most at home in the dark lands where fantasy and horror meet. Pan’s Labyrinth gives us a story set in Spain in 1944, in a rural backwater during the Spanish Civil War. The central figure of the story is a book-absorbed, imaginative young girl, the daughter of a woman recently remarried to the father of her unborn child, a sadistic army captain. They arrive at his base, where he’s leading a campaign against a small but dogged group of rebels; the daughter is visited by a faun, who tells her that she may be the long-awaited princess of a fantastic underground kingdom. She believes the faun, and has to undertake 3 treacherous tasks to prove she is the promised princess. Growing more fantastical with each task, the story of her maybe make-believe, maybe-real adventure runs in parallel with the drama of her mother’s pregnancy, her stepfather’s cruelty and his bid to quell the uprising.

In the space of 118 minutes a war story, mixed with family drama, mixed with fantasy and fairy-tale rolls across our vision. It tells a simple story well; the violence when it comes is real and hard-hitting but not too much. The fantasy is breathtaking, the mythical creatures tangible. The suspense is immaculate and unyielding, all the more remarkable for a film which gives us a key shot from near the story’s climax as the film’s opening frame.

Or does it? Therein lies the film’s power. Nothing is what it seems, and that’s what the film’s about. It’s about people, for better or worse, discovering who they are – just as a country sets a course of self-definition for the future. What is a civil war, after all, if it isn’t a country tearing itself apart over its own identity? The young girl at the film’s centre is at an age of discovery of who she is; her quest to discover if she is the mythical princess leads her to dark and scary places, as well as beautiful ones. She’s not unique, though; don’t we all visit similarly dark and beautiful places as we shape our own lives? It’s no coincidence that she’s guided through the story by a book of blank pages, the pages of which reveal their content as she needs it.

It all ends with uncertainty, fear, a flash of violence and a powerful shot of redemption. By the film’s end we still don’t know what’s real, but we know what’s true  – which is far more important. The period in which I saw the film was the outset of what turned out to be the hardest part of my life so far, a set of experiences through which I wouldn’t want anyone to live. They broke me, they shaped me, they made me. That Monday in a Wimbledon cinema as the film’s closing credits scrolled and the haunting score played, the audience sat silently, no-one moving for at least two minutes as we all absorbed the power and beauty of what we’d seen.

I don’t have a favourite film; the answer to that often-asked question is too dependent on mood or feeling or stage or life to be definitive. But I have re-watched Pan’s Labyrinth many times since that Monday in 2006 and I still consider that for me it’s as close to a perfect film as I’ve ever seen. I can’t see a single error in it, not one mis-step. Maybe I’m biased, maybe it’s too wedded in my mind to the stage of life at which I saw it. So be it. Still, it nourishes and moves me, which is why I continually revisit it. My list of favourite films is a long and varying one, changing with mood and season and experience. In 7 years this film hasn’t shifted from my list.

Those teenage boys? Within 5 minutes of the film’s start, their vocal bravado had gone and I heard them no more. They sat silent at the film’s end with the rest of us, and as they walked quietly past me on the way out I saw each of them subtly, privately rub away at eyes which seemed suspiciously moist.

I rated this film 10/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Other posts in this series:

An Introduction

Movies that move me 1: Trainspotting

Movies that move me 2: Fire In Babylon

 

Movies that move me 2: Fire In Babylon

For two years or so, early in my life as ordained church minister, I was co-chaplain to Leyton Orient Football Club. This wasn’t a paid post – it was in the parish I was working in, and an opportunity arose to help out there as part of my day-to-day work. Leyton Orient isn’t a big club – outside of English-based football fans, it’s a club unlikely to be known. It sits in a diverse, bustling part of East London, at the heart of the community of Leyton from which it takes its name. It has a small stadium which I rarely saw full. It was during my time there that a chaplain at another club said to me words which explain much – both about the mentality of the professional athlete and that of the committed fan. “There are two crucial lessons you need to learn as a sports chaplain”, he said. “The first lesson is that it’s only a game. The second is that it’s never only a game. Learn those lessons and you’ll be alright”.

Those words came back to me when I first saw Fire In Babylon – a 2010 documentary film about the dominant West Indies test cricket  team of the 1980s. They were only a playing a game – but, as the film compellingly demonstrates, it was never only a game. The film simply, creatively tells the story of Test match cricket as the quintessentially English pursuit. A sport exported via colonialism to a select, but diverse collection of countries: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean Islands. It’s that last geographic destination that this film concentrates on. That’s because cricket is everything to that group. Everything in that they only exist as a collective for the purposes of international cricket. The West Indies national anthem is about cricket. The team plays home games on a variety of different islands. They unite, different cultures and passports and places, around this and this only.

So the team rediscovered something – aggressive, direct fast bowling. I say fast – a small, hard missile aimed at your head or ribcage, travelling at 90-95 mph. As team after team fell – literally fell – before them Test cricket was turned from a 5-day chess match to a full on contact sport. Equipment and rules changed, and the West Indies dominated.

But what this meant beyond the game was more important. A team of black players, finding their own voice and expression, defeating and humiliating the white colonial masters on their own soil. Wrestling with the decision to play – for money – in apartheid South Africa. Moving from loveable, but flawed entertainers to a beautiful, brilliant, at times flawless professional team. Bob Marley was the soundtrack, the West Indies team the visuals.

Fire In Babylon is the 90 minute explanation, with fantastic music, of why 5 day test cricket is way more than a sport. It’s a test of mind and body, heart and soul. It’s an expression of freedom and means of oppression. It is  – like all great sport – metaphor for many, many deeper things. It reminds me that when I can’t tear myself away from updates and coverage of an England Test match or Arsenal; that the emotions that bruise, batter, enrapture and enfold me as I follow are not really about the sport. They are about the family I grew up watching these sports in, learning about them in, going to the grounds as part of. These games aren’t games; they are a way of telling the story of our lives, our families, our countries and our communities. Ask South Africa about 1995; Liverpool Football Club about the number 96; or the American people why it’s important that a team of (then) no stars called the Patriots won the Superbowl in early 2002. If you want a book to read, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is as good as you’ll get on this – in that case from the point of view of a football fan.

There must always be perspective – we all know people, or are people who need to remember that sport is, just sport. But those tempted to criticise and sneer must also know that it’s never just that. Fire In Babylon shows and tells this, to stunning effect.

At the time, some said the West Indies team that was sweeping all before it was ruining Test cricket. In a way they were.

But sometimes you have to ruin something in order to discover it.

I rated this move 9/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Movies that move me 1: Trainspotting

Like many of the things which shape us, I saw this film at the perfect time. I was in my early 20s, trying to decide what I was going to do and where I was going to do it. As an added bonus, I was born and raised in Edinburgh. If there was a target market for Trainspotting, it was me.

The mid-90s had seen an explosion of suave, knowing, coolly post-modern films; rich in violence, explicit sex, bad language and dialogue which referenced the highways and byways of popular culture. This was led by Quentin Tarantino – the self-confessed film geek working in a video store turned movie-maker. First came Reservoir Dogs then Pulp Fiction (1994); confirming that America was at the epicentre of the new mood.

Britain responded. Along with a new Labour government and a flourishing music scene came films which spoke of the moment. There was 1994’s Shallow Grave, a darkly comic thriller-morality tale of greed and broken trust in Edinburgh. Its director, Danny Boyle, high on the critical and not insignificant commercial success, announced that for his next trick he’d direct the adaptation of cult book Trainspotting; Irvine Welsh’s bizarre, dialect-heavy short story collection about drug addiction in 1980s Edinburgh. Danny Boyle was widely considered to be talented, but over-ambitious. Received wisdom had the book as un-filmable and certainly not for the mass market.

So the film arrived, on a wave of hype in 1996, with an iconic marketing campaign, claiming to herald a young and urgent voice to compete with Tarantino. It couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.

It did. Surfing the wave of popular culture and critical fame it became enough of an international hit to launch director Danny Boyle’s career on a path that would eventually take him to the widely loved Slumdog Millionaire. Whatever you knew about Trainspotting, whatever you hoped for from it, nothing quite prepared you for seeing it. The opening monologue which felt fresh but familiar as soon as you heard it; the music; the daring and sharp cuts from scene to scene; an ability to seemlessly move from realism to flights of fantasy and hallucination; the unapologetic Scottish slang.

It didn’t so much try to adapt the book as jump off from it. Inevitably some thought it was trying to glamourise drug use. Quite how that conclusion is reached given the consequences in the lives of the characters along the way is beyond me. I do, though, know of recovering addicts whose reactions to the film take in the whole spectrum. Some loved it; some couldn’t bear to watch it. It’s certainly not for everyone – it’s explicit, it’s foul-mouthed and features a lot of bodily fluids. Masterpieces, though, don’t have to be for everyone.

What it does so brilliantly with addiction – in this case to heroin in 1980s Edinburgh, at the time Europe’s AIDS capital – is, as the central character says early on, show that it starts because of “the pleasure of it”. The film is structured like an addict’s experience of a drug hit – the rush, the hallucination, the brutal come-down, the attempt to rebuild life … and when it’s over, many of us will want to watch it over again. The film’s genius is, even in the midst of tragedy, not to ask us to pity, in fact to move way beyond pity to something deeper and further reaching. That’s called understanding. For all the pulse-quickeningly brilliant music, the laugh out loud moments and the moments of shock and disgust, all it does is present the truth: people get addicted because it’s an escape they enjoy. The consequences are there if you want to look – but too often those are ignored at the price of the next hit of self-preservation.

Like all great works of art new things jump out on re-watching; not least one character, on the high of a recent hit in a fulfilling requirements interview for a job he doesn’t really want, speaks of those who went to schools like his and those who who went to more prestigious ones as ‘all in this together’. Those four words were the fanfare of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s flailing coalition government, seeking to reassure a disbelieving electorate that the privileged were with those who were suffering. The government’s actions since suggest otherwise; and those four words have become a stick to beat the government with. To hear them now, from the mouth of a chemically-dependant man seeking to avoid work at all costs, adds a delicious layer of irony.

Of course it has brilliant performances – uniformly. Robert Carlyle, Ewan McGregor and Kelly MacDonald all stand out. It’s an adrenaline fuelled masterpiece with a sting in tale; I’ll say again that it’s not for everyone and if you don’t speak Scottish you’ll probably need the DVD subtitles. It asks you to move beyond pity to empathy and self-examination. And it announced once and for all the greatest British director of his generation. Not bad for 94 minutes.

I rated this movie 10/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Coming soon…

What are the films, books, music … things that have shaped and influenced you? What are the stories and sounds that have become part of you?

Starting soon on the blog, an occasional series on movies and music which have moved and shaped me. Will start with a British film which launched a few careers and asks us to move beyond pity towards empathy. With a brilliant soundtrack and a dark sense of humour. All in 90 minutes.