The Gilbert Adair files

Adair on music

Editor’s note:

It is scarcely a revelation that the author of such musical prose was himself a devotee of music: throwaway references abound in Gilbert Adair’s work, and the trio of mid-1980s reviews below is as much about the films’ musical as cinematic qualities – or, in the case of Ginger & Fred, a reflection on the way that Fellini’s art was hobbled by Nino Rota’s untimely death. He hails Amadeus as an enjoyably knockabout cartoon, while his wholly negative review of Francesco Rosi’s otherwise much-praised Carmen includes wider reflections on “audiovisual solecisms” committed by filmed operas in general.

— Michael Brooke

What’s opera, doc?: Amadeus


Reviewed in Sight & Sound Spring 1985, pages 142-3

In the beginning, probably, was the word; or name: Amadeus. Futile as it surely must be to speculate on the various mazy processes of free association rippling through an artist’s consciousness when a project enters its formative stage, it might just be worth playing the game with Milos Forman’s Amadeus (Columbia-EMI-Warner) – not only was creativity the subject of Peter Shaffer’s play, it was a shortfall of creativity that constituted its own tragic flaw. Why, then, did Shaffer call it ‘Amadeus’, instead of ‘Mozart’ or, like Rimsky’s opera, ‘Mozart and Salieri’? Because the word’s Latinate coda made it sound more like a ‘title’? Because the us suffix rhymed it, intertextually, with ‘Equus’? Or, which seems likelier, because in it lurks deus, Latin for god; and even, were one to indulge in punnilin-gus, A mad deus and I am a deus? For Salieri, of course, Mozart represented, as it were, an Amadeus ex machine, the unwary object of what could be described as a sad case of unrequited hate. More to the point, however, a divine artist he clearly is for Shaffer who (in a scene exclusive to the film version, which has the dying Mozart dictate, in a febrile, rasping hum, the closing pages of his Requiem Mass to his nemesis-turned-amanuensis) effectively inverts the proverb-honoured proportions of inspiration and perspiration in the recipe for creation. And it is to Shaffer’s affecting, almost adolescent, idolatry of Mozart (an idolatry which is paradoxically reinforced by the fictional being he has fashioned, an obscene Struwwelpeter, a nutty amalgam of the Marx Brothers, crossbreeding Harpo’s lunar appearance with Groucho’s preening lechery and Chico’s pianistic virtuosity) that we can trace the (noble) failure of his play.

What does it propose? Antonio Salieri, an eighteenth century petit-maître of by no means negligible qualities, who has, in his devotion to Euterpe, forsworn all worldly pleasures (excepting the glutinous Viennese eclairs to which he is unrepentantly addicted), finds himself upstaged by a lascivious tot brimming with unearned genius; whereupon he pledges that, in full – and, for the period, unseconded – cognizance of his rival’s prodigious gifts, he will, like some cultural Judas Iscariot, destroy this son, or favourite nephew, of God. Now that, even so sparely paraphrased, is a great theme, one of the contemporary theatre’s greatest, not unworthy of Shakespeare himself: dramatists’ names have rung down the ages for less than having lit upon such a theme. But Shaffer, precisely, is not Shakespeare, not, indeed, a poet; so that, short of tactlessly com-paring his plight with Salieri’s, one can imagine another play, its protagonist a playwright ‘of by no means negligible qualities’ entrusted with a grandiose theme to which he, practically alone of his contemporaries, realises that he cannot do, and has not done, justice. The ‘tragedy’ of Shaffer’s Amadeus is, in a sense, that it is not a tragedy, though it tantalises us with the uncultivated seed of a (terrible, Molièresque) comedy.

Forman has cultivated that seed. His is a genuine adaptation, not only because the play is permitted to stretch its legs beyond the pop-up book confines of a proscenium arch, but because he has leavened its High Art pretensions with a dash of showbiz raciness. What is forfeited by such a shift in emphasis (notably, the spine-chilling moment when Salieri, liquefying before us like a beadlet of congealed blood on the heart of a plaster Virgin, blasphemously defies the God he has so loyally served) is compensated for by the gain in coherence. The period, first of all. Let the press handout gloatingly detail the unheard-of numbers of candelabra and costume changes: the film is not stultified by ‘research’. Forman sketches a cartoon of the eighteenth century, Greenawayesque in its frisky over-codification and reducible to the period’s infallible emblem: the bubble bath periwig (here pink, punk and high as an elephant’s eye). The accents are mostly American, a convention which certain squeamish commentators have judged intrusive – though how a cast, say, of British actor-knights, aside from the reactionary cultural snobbery which their presence would imply (Amadeus is an American film), would be more ‘naturalistic’, or more admissible to either Mozart’s or Salieri’s compatriots, I cannot fathom. Besides which, Forman’s decision should be interpreted as consciously reflecting Mozart’s, when he liberated opera from the mellifluous tyranny of the Italian language by setting Die Entführung aus dem Serail to a German text; which is, in turn, why The Magic Flute, concocted by its librettist Schikaneder as a populist fairy-tale pantomime, is sung in English in the film (and conducted by its composer in a manner more appropriate to Geraldo than Gesualdo).

As for the pivotal duo, it has been cross-hatched with broad, caricatural lines. I likened Tom Hulce’s Mozart (whose casting, by succeeding where the other failed, vindicates in extremis that of Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon) to a composite Marx Brother, opposite whom Salieri has been stuck with the Margaret Dumont role. I might equally mention, from the cornucopia of popular culture, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, a Hook evilly dedicated to the proposition that his brattish bête noire never ‘grow up’; or else Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. The linking confessional exchanges between Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and a quizzically earnest young priest brought to mind scenes shared by George Burns and Richard Benjamin in the film version of Simon’s comedy; and I could also detect something in the curl of Abraham’s lower lip and the rhythmic jabbing of his index finger to recall Robert Preston as, aptly, Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Finally, rounding off this brief inventory of equivalences is the narrative’s odd resemblance, in its tug-of-war of lethal oneupmanship, to Sleuth, by Shaffer’s twin brother (and fantasised Salieri?) Anthony.

Or, rather, not finally. I wish to submit one more reference, the crux of the matter, hinted at in my description of the film’s eighteenth century as a ‘cartoon’. The relationship of Mozart and Salieri, as given the once-over by Forman, is very exactly that of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Or the Roadrunner and Wily Coyote. (Can there exist a neater encapsulation of the distance which separates effortless genius from mere plodding talent than a Warner Brothers cartoon?) In fact, what Amadeus presents us with is an unexpected and strangely moving spectacle: a Roadrunner cartoon in which Wily Coyote, mustering his usual armoury of dynamite sticks, big black bombs with lighted fuses and complex retroactive rockets, ends at last by stopping his fleet-footed foe dead in his tracks. And, as Salieri is wheeled through the asylum in whose noisy, insalubrious oblivion he has, as they say, sought ‘asylum’, offering sarcastic absolution to the assembled mediocrities of whom he styles himself the patron saint, and drawing this special edition of Looney Tunes to its close, I half hoped to see, scribbled across the screen in its familiar penmanship, the much-loved envoi: That’s All, Folks!



Reviewed in Monthly Film Bulletin March 1985, pages 79-80

Whatever more discriminating claims it may press upon its public’s attention, an opera has to be a loud, splashy, unembarrassed, even arrogant entertainment, or it is nothing. Francesco Rosi’s Carmen is therefore nothing. And given how easy it is for the reviewer to encircle this absolute zero with a pair of critical compasses, the only question of consequence worth posing as it meanders on and on is just why such a journeyman work, such a manifest potboiler, the most insensitive, most debilitatingly leaden of filmed operas (ex aequo with Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann), should merit its commercial and nearly unanimous critical favour.

Most of the audiovisual solecisms typical of filmed opera are present and incorrect: the ear-splitting overlay of sonic bluster (here, the Dolby-amplified chirrupping of a cricket makes it sound more like the sport than the insect); the situating of characters in the depth of the image while the voices attached to them remain raspily microphonic; the unhappy juxtaposition of filmic ‘realism’ and theatrical convention (with the wide-angle lens on which Rosi has always doted exploring a mediaevally sprawling Spanish village from picturesque detail to picturesque detail while, mooning about in the foreground, an American Carmen, an Italian Escamillo and a homegrown Don José sing French lyrics and speak French dialogue in their respective accents); and so on, monotonously. (The sensible approach to adapting nineteenth-century opera, as even Zeffirelli was aware, consists in ‘opening out’ the drama, not in relation to any cinematically defined space, but on to a vaster, more flexible and, in a word, impossible stage.)

Worse, though, than these maybe pardonable misjudgments is Rosi’s quite extraordinary shyness when called upon to film the not necessarily unlovely facial exertions to which every singer is subject. It’s as though he were terrified to focus full frontally on a throat, as though his wayward camera were impelled to look away discreetly the moment anyone opened his or her mouth. In consequence, almost all of the opera’s famous (and slightly boring) big tunes are delivered either in long shot, while the singers saunter off into the background, or in voice-off. (His handling of the chorus in particular seems an agony of indecision: sometimes all of them sing, sometimes none of them, sometimes just those located in the front row, sometimes a haphazard few.) If the aria is a solo, the singer will find him or herself obscured with comical regularity by a tree, a pillar, a passerby, by anything or anyone handy; if a duet, Rosi will, as like as not, zoom in on the nape of the serenader’s neck, thereby contriving to mask both his features and those of his interlocutor. A critical blind spot may derive on occasion, perversely, from seeing something which isn’t there, But the organising flaw of this Carmen, which turns it into one long longueur, lies at the nub of the medium’s specificity – of what it means to make, or be, a film.

Prima la musica: Ginger & Fred

Ginger & Fred

Reviewed in Sight & Sound Spring 1986, pages 137-8

Pace Noel Coward, there is one thing more potent than cheap music: great music. Except, that is to say, in the cinema, a medium which is essentially metaphoric and metamorphic; which has been known to ‘cheapen’ the better to exalt; and whose most characteristic modes of grandeur, unlike those of ‘higher’ art forms, are not of a type to make the spectator feel small. Thus what is required for almost any film, instead of the often trumpery appropriation of classical music as what might be termed an ennobling agent, is music that isn’t so much incidental as coincidental, music that coincides with the director’s vision to the point where it sounds uncannily as though he composed it himself. Cheap music, to be sure, for the most part; and, for a great director, great cheap music.

Of the few such musico-filmic collaborations, none seemed more mutually beneficial than that long enjoyed by Federico Fellini and Nino Rota. In fact, in the light of subsequent evidence, it could by argued that Rota’s death in 1979 was a personal tragedy for the director. With the febrile perseverance of James Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo, Fellini has been seeking not merely a successor to, but a facsimile of, his beloved court musician; and his understandable dissatisfaction with attempts at ersatz Rota (Luis Bakalov’s tinny cocktail-lounge score for La Citta delle Donne) has actually begun to orient the subject-matter of his films: the world of opera in E la Nave Va (for which he selected the most accessibly ‘cheap’ – or the most Rota-esque – themes of Verdi, Debussy and Ponchielli) and now, in Ginger & Fred, that of the Hollywood musical by which Rota was patently influenced. What I mean to imply, then, is that these films exist as a direct consequence of Rota’s death and would not have been made had it not prematurely occurred. And I will go even further: without Fellini, Rota remained a gifted film composer (as witness his gorgeous score for The Leopard); without Rota, it could be argued that Fellini has been immeasurably diminished as an artist.

First of all, choreographically. The premise of Ginger & Fred is oddly akin to that of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni play a nineteen-thirties dance team reunited in present-day Rome (fifty years on? the chronology here seems slightly askew) to participate, along with assorted midgets, transsexuals, defrocked clerics and oddball ‘speciality acts’, in a luxuriantly garish television superproduction, or ‘Big Broadcast of 1986’. Though a lot of the film’s running time is devoted to an acidulous satire of television (of which more later), it concludes with the self-styled ‘Ginger and Fred’ stepping hand in hand on to the vast, silvery, disklike sound stage to perform their fossilised routine. However cantankerous and oozing with bile the scenes preceding it, this one, so we trust, will find Fellini in his most transcendent ‘Barnum and ballet’ manner – a moment of sheer, a-narrative magic.

Well, talk of flat champagne. The sequence, all fifteen minutes of it, is quite clunkingly laboured, reminiscent of Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love rather than of Top Hat. It would have been silly to expect Masina and Mastroianni to rival their characters’ peerlessly debonair namesakes – in a sense, the whole point of the scene, the pressed-flower charm of the epiphany it strains to effect, is that they cannot. Well or badly, though, one does expect them to dance, not negligently whirl their legs to and fro, fro and to, like twin sets of twiddled thumbs. And the problem is the music. What Rota’s perky motoric rhythms and roguishly swooning melodic lines (witty, nostalgic, Europeanised paraphrases of Kern and Berlin) called for onscreen was a sort of treadmill trot, part-danced, part-shuffled, with the film-maker’s dramatis personae either advancing laterally along layered planes of movement that seemed as spatially discrete from each other as theatre flats (as in the excursion to the ocean liner in Amarcord) or propelled by a circusy, conga-like rotation – or Rota-tion (as during the delirious, Fellinissimus apotheosis of ). The genuine article – 30s popular music – imposes a totally different system of choreographic conventions, to which Fellini’s performers are not equal, alas.

Similarly, the scenes in and around the television studio, as the two forlorn old troupers come to terms with the punkish fauna of the 1980s, are – for this director – strangely verveless and unfocused. Without Rota’s quickening pulse to lend it shape and dynamic, Fellini’s fabled fertility of imagination is liable to strike one as less generous than profligate. Grown sloppy, he squanders his imagery: one would have to be fairly lynx-eyed just to catch a glimpse of the raven-haired gypsy stunner who, albeit in privileged, cropped isolation, gave such a mouth-watering (and misleading) impression of the film on the cover of this magazine’s Winter issue. Midgets are now too caricaturally Fellinian to afford us much astonishment (though one notes with considerable relief the absence of nuns and cardinals); and, drifting in and out of the frame with increasing aimlessness, the other colour-fully caparisoned freaks end by dissolving into a gaudy, pixilated blur.

The impoverishment is a choreographic but also an emotional one. Ginger & Fred is not the first of Fellini’s films to have its warm Mediterranean lyricism chilled by a shiver from the void: one has only to recall the Satyricon and Casanova. Yet these were not satires (and I wonder whether the cinema can ever truly assimilate the systematised sarcasm proper to satire), they were coquettishly nihilistic farces. Aesthetically, it is of little consequence that what Fellini ‘has to say’ about the way television plugs up every vacant space of (some of) our lives with its insidious audio-visual stream-of-consciousness proves to be old news (and what he loathes most in the medium – its vulgarity, its garrulity, its insatiable consumerist appetites – would apply no less to the cinema itself). More disturbing is the fact that his, in truth, somewhat dated and Tashlinesque raillery gradually seeps out into a more generalised misanthropy (and misogyny), as though he had concocted his gallery of flamboyant monstrosities with the sole purpose of corroborating his detractors’ worst suspicions. Even pasta becomes in this film the wormy object of his disgust!

But what has all this to do with Nino Rota? Only that the ghostly, goose-pimply music-box waltzes he composed for Casanova, let’s say, however macabre, were nevertheless waltzes. Waltzes, by their very nature and no matter how they might be ‘subverted’, are sweet, joyous, old-fashioned things, and it was that old-fashioned sweetness that pervaded the film and significantly coloured our perception of its mood.

If, in Ginger & Fred, the ‘mood’ now seems peculiarly phoney, it is perhaps because a Rota score served less as an accompaniment than as a Platonic distillation; that it could be more seamlessly, airily ‘Fellinian’ than the Maestro himself; and that, finally, to re-coin Walter Pater’s celebrated dictum, Fellini’s art has always been aspiring to the condition of Rota’s music.

See also

Introduction: Michael Brooke introduces our Gilbert Adair tribute trove (December 2011)

Early reviews: six of Adair’s early capsule reviews from the Monthly Film Bulletin (1979-80)

The rubicon and the rubik cube: Adair on exile, paradox and Raúl Ruiz (Winter 1981/82)

Memories of youth, anticipations of maturity: Adair’s reviews of La Luna and The Outsiders (Winter 1979-80 and Autumn 1983)

One elephant, two elephant: Adair’s reviews of That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl (Summer 1981)

Meandrous expeditions: Adair’s reviews of Stalker and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Winter 1980/81 and Winter 1982/83)

The Nautilus and the nursery: Roland Barthes’s [sic] April-Fools paean to the Carry On cycle (Spring 1985)

Double takes: Heurtebise: Adair’s pseudonymous contributions to Sight & Sound’s Double Takes column (Winter 1984 to Summer 1985)

Favourites: select Adair celebrations of Jean Cocteau, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and Robert Bresson (Autumn 1981; Spring 1985; Summer 1987)

Gilbert Adair’s Top Ten films (September 2002)

The Dreamers reviewed by Ginette Vincendeau (February 2004)

Last Updated: 23 Dec 2011