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.

Comics: Stand Still. Stay Silent.

“Stand Still. Stay Silent” may be best described as a post-apocalyptic Nordic mythology inspired adventure story. The brainchild of Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish artist and writer, it reintroduces mages, myths and folklore against a backdrop of the ruins of the modern world. And it does so beautifully.

The setting is 90 years into the future. Disease has swept across the world but a few remote areas were spared: Iceland, the Finnish lakes, some inaccessible Norwegian fjords and a handful of isolated Swedish settlements. The rest of the world has gone silent, its technology and culture feared or forgotten. The safe settlements are constantly under siege by monstrous beings. No attempts has been made to reclaim any of the knowledge of old, and no expeditions have been sent into the infected zones. Until now. The story follows a small, underfunded and under-qualified team on their daring expedition into troll-ridden Denmark, seeking to harvest as many books of old that they can find for research (and profit, of course, plus possibly also a bit of fame).

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“Stand Still. Stay Silent” is a rare blend of uplifting and terrifying. On the one hand, it is a story about a thoroughly mismatched group traveling together, which translates into themes of bravery, loyalty and (slowly) emerging friendships,with a rich sprinkling of humour. On the other hand, it is outright horror. The monstrous entities lurking in the silent world are a perpetual presence, growing in menace as the expedition strikes deeper and deeper into the dead cities. Deformed remnants of the long-since deceased, man and beast alike, merged into shapeless hungry creatures, wait in the shadows. This is a story that goes from funny to frightening in the span of a page.

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The artwork is astonishing, growing prettier with each chapter. Even the gore is beautifully done (see above). The style includes elements from Nordic art and culture, and the filler pages often contain tidbits of information about mythology and folklore, again beautifully drawn. Maps and schematics are plentiful and gorgeous, and there is enough backstory about the disastrous pathogen to keep my inner scientist quite contented.

If there is one small point to deduct, it may be that the expedition takes a while to get underway. For those interested in plain horror from the get-go, the wait may be on the long side. But it is worth it. Also, the longer backstory serves to introduce the characters thoroughly, which is essential for such a diverse ensemble cast.

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The comic updates regularly (four times a week) and the artist is rarely if ever late. For those of us who have followed near-abandoned and sporadic comics, this is an absolute treat. At present (Jan 2017) there’s an archive of more than 650 pages (13 chapters plus change) to enjoy. This is also one of those rare occasions when I can wholeheartedly recommend that you DO read the comments, as the readers are a vocal, friendly and informative group, offering translations of the (odd) segment in Finnish/Swedish/Norwegian/Icelandic as well as comment on the story itself.

“Stand Still. Stay Silent” is a gem – an unusual story, nicely written and beautifully illustrated. Go read!

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(All images belongs to Minna Sundberg and can be found on the webcomic here.)

The best comics! (Last Blood)

I figured I’d do a series of posts highlighting some great (and free) online comics. There are some fantastic artists out there and it seems a shame not to plug their work. While I tend to prefer horror/fantasy comics, the ‘must-recommend’ list is still quite varied.

First out is Last Blood, which is a take on the typical zombie story but with a few clever twists. The art (by Owen Gieni) is beautiful in a rough and gritty sort of way, perfectly complimenting the story (by Bobby Crosby). It starts on familiar ground: the small group of survivors and the zombies closing in – you’ve seen it before. And just when you think you know what you’re in for, you suddenly get… (drum roll) vampires.

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The premise is simple: the zombie apocalypse happened and human blood is in short supply, meaning that any vampire not wanting to starve needs to protect the last human survivors from the undead zombie hordes. As for the humans, the situation is simple: the enemy of my enemy (and the lesser of two evils) is the only option available. The introduction of a human-vampire alliance is only the first twist, and I won’t mention the rest and spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that trust is at an all-time low, there’s plenty of peril to go around and the two types of monster lore fit together surprisingly well. Both vampires and zombies benefit from this fresh interaction, bringing a much needed different dynamic to story structures that do occasionally risk going a bit stale.

Last Blood is high on concept and perhaps less so on characterisation, but I’m willing to forgive that if the underlying idea works. And here it does work very well indeed. Last Blood is clever, it feels new and it makes surprising sense. The latter part is quite a treat, as I’m always happy to suspend my disbelief but very grateful if I don’t have to do it too much. So if you’re after a fresh version of ‘zombies and vampires and apocalypse, oh my’, prefer your plot hole-free, and don’t mind if the premise takes the driver’s seat, Last Blood is almost perfect.

There is one caveat: Last Blood is unfinished and has not been updated since 2011. While I’d very much like to see it continue, or even make it to the big screen, I’m not holding my breath after half a decade. Still, it’s worth a read, even if you have to make up the ending yourself for now.

Link to the online (free) comic: http://lastblood.keenspot.com/
(also available from amazon.com)

Let me know what you think, or if there are other comics/stories you think is worth a mention in the comments below?

Stranger Things

I grew up in the 80s, meaning I get nostalgic about cassette tapes and walkie-talkies. I also like horror, a lot. A horror series set in the 80s is definitely my kind of thing. With that caveat in place: I absolutely loved the new Netflix series Stranger Things.

Stranger Things is Silent Hill meets Stephen King sometime in the 80s, directed by Spielberg.

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The premise is simple: a boy, Will Byers, goes missing without a trace late one evening. His mother, Joyce, cycles through grief, desperation and rage as she refuses to give him up for dead. His teenaged brother, Jonathan, a loner, struggles with his mother’s apparent madness, yet slowly begins to suspect that she is telling the truth. Will’s three friends, fuelled by Dungeons & Dragons imagery, are joined by a stranger, the eerie girl Eleven, in their quest to find answers. Everybody says Will Byers is dead. There even was a funeral. Yet if you listen closely you can hear noises, and something’s moving in the dark..

With the strong influences from iconic 80s imagery and the inclusion of quite a few tropes (some of which are satisfactorily subverted), Stranger Things could easily have been derivative and stale. Yet it felt fresh in spite of its familiar components: like an old friend with a new story to tell. The pacing was great, moving effortlessly between outright horror and tense psychological thriller, with even a few lighter high-school moments to take the edge off. The scares were effective and cleverly done. And the ending… well, the ending was pitch perfect.

I’ll deduct points for length, however. It should have been longer. A second season, if you please, Netflix!