Salieri the villain

“I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

If I had to choose a favourite film, it would be Amadeus, almost solely because of my appreciation for Salieri. It is Salieri who carries the story, Salieri who narrates, Salieri with whom we identify. Salieri is the protagonist, and Salieri is the villain.

I have pondered this film often enough to figure out why I love Salieri’s brand of villainy so much, and have narrowed it down to four reasons.

First, Salieri and Mozart are similar. They share their love for music and their ambition to compose and be applauded. They occupy the same niche, even as Mozart is vastly more talented than Salieri. A relationship, even an antagonistic one, is built upon similarities as well as differences. The shared traits are amplifiers of the conflict. Without such parallels, the hero-villain dynamic becomes a simple black and white affair, but with them, we get nuances of grey. It is in these patches of overlap that relationships become interesting, but to achieve that, there needs to be common ground. Salieri is hopelessly fascinated with Mozart’s music, adores it like no other in the film. He is touched to the core by reading the sheet music for Serenade for Winds, and while he engineers the failure of The Marriage of Figaro, he attends all of its limited performances in secret. This fuels his hatred for Mozart but also creates complicating moments of sympathy between the characters.

Second, Salieri and Mozart are different. We see Salieri in the beginning of the film, a respected composer with reasonable talent, likable, civilised: a fortunate, content man. Enter Mozart, a loud and crass man, and from Salieri’s (and therefore the audience’s) point of view undeserving of his talent. Where Salieri is reserved, Mozart is boisterous; where Salieri is knowledgeable, Mozart is ignorant; where Salieri is manipulative, Mozart is naive. Interestingly, this is perpetuated throughout the film, but increasingly in reverse. As Mozart’s flamboyance, braying laughter, thoughtlessness and tactlessness give way to a much more subdued and arguably more sympathetic character, Salieri becomes aggressive, overtly nasty (see the scene with Mrs Mozart) and cruel.

This balancing of Salieri’s villainy with the tempered Mozart is crucial to allow the two characters to stay at opposite ends of the spectrum as the story progresses. It maintains the diametrically opposite relationship and forms the contrast against which Salieri’s descent can be more clearly seen. At the same time, the love for music tethers the increasingly villainous protagonist and his increasingly sympathetic antagonist to each other, never allowing them to drift apart.

Thirdly, Salieri’s justification is clear. From Mozart’s introduction and his tactless reworking of Salieri’s welcome composition in a public and humiliating manner, we understand Salieri. Who has not felt mediocre, envious, and bitter at the success of others, and presumably with less cause? His every petty thought is relatable on some level. Upon Mozart’s arrival, Salieri’s talent is instantly dwarfed, his self-image and ambition crushed. He is humiliated and insulted. It is no great stretch to see that he wants retribution. Maybe even deserves it. Unlike weaker villains, Salieri gives us someone with whom to identify, leading us every tiny step of the way into the role of villain. It is a well-crafted slippery slope, each move so easily justifiable almost until the end. Particularly since Salieri’s jealousy is ever tempered by his love for Mozart’s music. Even in his final deceit, Salieri supports the composition whilst working to destroy the composer.

Finally, Salieri is unable to win. Even though Mozart dies, poor and almost alone, Salieri still loses and destroys himself through his own inadequacy, jealousy and rage. If the story had ended with Mozart’s burial, the film would have been a much simpler story of one man destroying another. Instead, we are given the final scene: Salieri wheeled away, old, mad and bitter, having endured a front-row seats to his own destruction for 32 years, watching himself judged by time and found lacking. All to the tune of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor.

“Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all.”

Exit stage.

Song for David Bowie

It’s been more than a year since David Bowie passed away, striking the first notes in what has at times seemed like a 12-month long symphony of grief, strife and unpleasantness (despite the occasional happy jingle). After he passed, the wonderfully talented Kat Robichaud wrote ‘Song to David Bowie’. It is a lovely tribute, which makes me both sad for the loss of a great artist as well as oddly hopeful for those who will stand on his shoulders to create even bigger and better things. I figured now would be a good time to share this, if only to remind myself that art is not dead and that forwards and upwards is still the direction we should take.

I’ll be watching this today

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

(Abel Meeropol)

The Cordyceps

Just listen to the name: the Cordyceps. To me, that falls squarely in Triffid territory. It sounds as unsettling as it is. Those of us who saw Planet Earth (see clip below) could be excused for turning away at the segment where the Cordyceps fungus slowly sprouts from the head of a helpless ant riddled with white threads of fungal mycelium and controlled like a puppet. It’s like something out of the X-files. In fact, it’s like something out of the X-files episode ‘Firewalker’, for those of us old enough to remember hiding behind the sofa during those particular scenes with the throat-bursting fungus..?

The connection between a flesh-invading, mind-controlling fungus and zombie lore is so obvious it is barely worth pointing out. Fictitious variants of Cordyceps have made their mark on popular culture, with games such as The Last of Us and M.R.Carey’s excellent novel ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’. This means that Cordyceps belongs to the category of horrors that deal with predation and contagions/infection, which are incidentally the two features most reliably associated with successful horror films*. And of course there’s the element of death drawn out in stages of increasing terror, from the initial infection of the tissues, to the loss of the mind, down to the literal spike through the head. Now, that’s an existential horror to consider.

The Cordyceps clip is on YouTube in all its gruesome glory. The music lends it that extra creepiness, in case mind-controlling, brain-bursting flesh-eating fungi is not bad enough. Sir David explains better than I ever could:

Here’s the music without the commentary:

 

* Reference: Davis, H. & Javor, A. (2004). Religion, death and horror movies. Some striking evolutionary parallels. Evolution and Cognition, 10, 11–18.

The Royal Albert conundrum

I like to play the piano. I’ve always liked to play the piano. From the first time I sat down, immersed myself in the music, I knew this was something I enjoyed. When I tell people I like to play, they tell me which instrument they got for their 7th birthday, discuss what type of music they enjoy, ask me if I prefer rock to classical, treat me to an anecdote of their brother, a violin and the neighbour’s two cats, or admit that they just bought a drum kit to their nephew. Not once have I been asked if I’ve played the Royal Albert Hall yet.

I like to write fiction. I’ve always liked to write fiction. From the first time I sat down, immersed myself in the story, I knew this was something I enjoyed. When I tell people I like to write, they ask me if I’ve been published yet.

Why is writing measured solely by publishing? My piano-playing skills will never take me to the stage or studio, yet I doubt anyone will ever think that my lessons and hours spent over the keyboard were wasted as a consequence. So why is that the case for writing? What’s so inherently different between writing and other art forms that we presume the former is only validated by external approval, and the latter hold value in and by themselves?

Any thoughts?

(Royal Albert Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia. Why are you not playing there yet?)

5:03 minutes of calm (Wild Theme)

Right now, NaNoWriMo participants are writing (hopefully) and sweating (probably) over their keyboards. If stress is your thing, then November is your month. But if you need an injection of calm, then I suggest taking a few moments to read on.

Local Hero is a wonderful film. Go see it if you have time to spare. (Go see it anyway). Its soundtrack is equally wondrous. And the most evocative track, hands down, is the Wild Theme, of which the best version is the live version from the 1993 On The Night (also the one that made it to Sultans of Swing – best of). Here it is, 5:03 minutes of calm: