Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Movies of My Life #4

I don’t know how many of you know this, but before I embarked on my journey through cinema, my great love was music. In my younger days, I excelled in many subjects at school, but none brought me the same pleasure as music. As an awkward, skinny kid who couldn’t play sports worth a damn, music gave me something I could both enjoy and do well. I took as many opportunities as possible, playing in both the concert band and jazz band at school, as well as singing in my church choir before joining the chorale at school once I had another period free. But the source of my love for music was the dozen years I took of piano lessons, between the ages of five and seventeen years.

My mother, happy as a clam that she’d instilled some culture in her older son, did everything she could to encourage me. Not being a musician herself, there wasn’t much concrete instruction she could give me, but she fostered a good environment for me in other ways. She would take me to local performances and concerts whenever possible, and she often played classical music at home. Sometimes, I’d glimpse her sitting in the next room, listening quietly while I practiced. And for years, she would buy me a small bust of a composer for my birthday, one whose base contained a music box.

At the time, I knew little about composers that I couldn’t have learned from the music boxes. To me, they were just famous dead guys who wrote music. This all changed for me in fourth or fifth grade when she first showed me Milos Forman’s Amadeus. To see the life of Mozart come alive onscreen was an eye-opening experience for me. All that music I knew, and the man who wrote it, all in one movie! If Back to the Future was my favorite movie growing up, Amadeus ran a close second.

At the time, given my hunger for music, I’m sure I would have enjoyed a biography of just about any composer. But for me, Amadeus was the right movie at the right time for more reasons than that. Most of my impressions of the great composers- and the great men in general- were the ossified images from the history books. In my mind, they were noble men with strong profiles, whose lives were so full accomplishing great deeds that there was no time left to do what normal people did. Amadeus was different. In the film’s early scenes- the ones that made the biggest impression on me- he was the genius as a spoiled, goofy, flatulent brat who mostly got away with his behavior because he was so unmistakably brilliant.

Needless to say, I wanted to be Mozart, even if by that time I was already behind schedule. And I honestly thought I could be. After all, that’s what they always told us- you can be whatever or whoever you want to be, as long as you try. And try I did, practicing as much as possible and learning all I could, getting good enough that I was the final performer in my elementary school’s annual talent show for three years straight, from fourth through sixth grade. Yes sir, I was on my way.

Of course, I wasn’t. As my mother sometimes said whenever my head got too big, I was a big fish in a little pond. For all but a select few, the point eventually comes where our talent has taken us as far as it will go. After a while, my best ceased to be good enough, and it was around that time that my attention turned to other interests like playing in the band. Interests that were somewhat more social- and which, not incidentally didn’t necessarily require upwards of thirty minutes of individual practice every day.

In the ensuing years, I’ve stopped performing music altogether. Instrumental music came first once high school was over, and the vocal once I graduated from college. Yet my love for music itself remains. Having spent many years learning music for myself, I now content myself with appreciating other people’s music. I’m better equipped to admire truly great composers, and to my mind, Mozart may have been the greatest of all. His greatest music is full of awe-inspiring intricacy and technical proficiency, yet is blessed with melodies so simply, transcendently beautiful that even a child can hear their greatness. More than two centuries after his death, his work hasn’t aged a day.

Yet as the years pass, I find myself drawn more and more to the character of Salieri than to my former role model Mozart. When we’re young we’re told we can do anything, but life soon teaches almost everyone otherwise. This can be a painful revelation, especially for those who honestly believe they’re destined for greatness. To be good, but just not quite good enough, is difficult for people to accept. Take it from someone who struggled with the idea for years.

Unlike Salieri, I haven’t risen to a high level of achievement in my field of choice. But in nearly all my endeavors in recent years, I’ve struggled to maintain a foothold while seeing others who seem far less deserving pass me by. The great irony of Salieri’s career as a musician is that he followed the rules and lived a clean, focused life in order to serve his art, only to discover that history rewards brilliance rather than diligence. I can relate to this as well- most people are forced to obey the rules, but the ones who truly soar are those who don’t need the rules.

There's a joke to the effect of, “if everyone’s kid is so brilliant, why are there so many mediocre adults?” Of course, it’s easy to be talented when you’re a child- after all, it’s not like you have much else to do. But one can’t live one’s adult life in a vacuum. It’s a messy, chaotic world, one that funnels even the most intelligent among us into relatively conventional lifestyles. Many are called to greatness, but few, it seems are chosen. When we’re young, we feel like we own the world, but although we grow, the world seems to grow even more, and part of being an adult is accepting how small- yet important- our place is in it. In the great machine, I’m just a cog, and there’s no sin in that. As Salieri says at the end of Amadeus, “mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you all!” Every time I revisit the film, I find a little more comfort in that.


J.J. said...

Yes. Although I never felt a kindred spirit with the Mozart character. I saw the movie when I was young (maybe 10?) and immediately identified with Salieri. How screwed up is that?

Paul C. said...

What can I say? I was a cocky kid. But life eventually sorted that out.