Friday, December 28, 2007

Classical Gas

This review is from March 2007. Someone wrote an angry letter in response, saying I had "no soul." I guess you have to be pretty soulful to appreciate this cinematic gem.

Copying Beethoven, a fictionalized account of the last years of Ludwig van Beethoven's life, gives actor Ed Harris another opportunity to ham it up as a tormented artist. In Pollock, Harris portrayed painter Jackson Pollock as a boring cipher given to drunken rages. As Beethoven, he pulls out all the stops, imagining the composer as a ridiculous cartoon.

Granted, it's not easy to make a good movie about a composer's life; the act of putting notes on paper just isn't very cinematic. Sometimes directors choose to just go wild, as Ken Russell did with Lisztomania! And, with the life of Beethoven, there isn't much to work with except his irascible personality, his deafness, his domination of his hapless nephew Karl and, of course, his sublime music. The 1994 Immortal Beloved had Gary Oldman portraying Beethoven as a randy cocksman, something the stocky, unprepossessing Beethoven was not; he fell in love with many women, but had his affections returned by only one (the mysterious "Immortal Beloved" of his letters.)

Directed by Agnieszka Holland, Copying Beethoven takes certain biographical elements of Beethoven's life and twists them into a new story. Beethoven's friend and personal secretary, Karl Holz, is transformed in Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson's script into Anna Holz (Diane Kruger), an eager young composition student who is sent by Beethoven's beleaguered publisher, Schlemmer (Ralph Riach), to copy Beethoven's illegible manuscripts.
So clever is this Anna, who lives in a convent, that she can "correct" a perceived error in the Maestro's notations. The cranky, stone-deaf Beethoven, who lives in lonely squalor, comes to believe that Anna was sent by God to help him. She in turn feels privileged to empty the piss-pots and scrub the floors of Vienna's great musical genius.

Anna's chief task is to help Beethoven prepare for the Vienna premiere of his Ninth Symphony, which at the time was considered radical for its choral finale (the "Ode to Joy," based on a Schiller poem). Though quite deaf, Beethoven insists on conducting the symphony. (He did, in fact, beat time at the performance, but the orchestra followed the assistant conductor.) In the movie's account, Anna is enlisted at the last minute to cue Beethoven's conducting, which she does perfectly, without a minute's rehearsal or preparation.

To its credit, the movie does provide some useful historical perspectives on Beethoven's music. Schlemmer expresses regret that Beethoven's later music is less pleasingly melodic than his earlier works, and it's interesting to note that in its day, Beethoven's late music was considered grindingly dissonant, a concept that sounds strange to modern ears that have heard Schoenberg and other 20th-century composers. (The same objections were heard about Mozart's music in his day.)

But nothing could rescue the movie from Harris' disastrous performance, a caricature quite stunning in its bad taste. While Oldman, in the overwrought Immortal Beloved, captured something of Beethoven's look and demeanor, Harris plays Beethoven as a monstrous buffoon, an idiot savant who stomps about, smashes things and makes vulgar jokes, at one point even showing his backside to Anna in an anachronistic jest about his "Moonlight" sonata. I question whether Beethoven ever called his sonata by its later nickname, and doubt even more that "mooning" was part of the 19th-century Viennese parlance.

Another embarrassing scene has Beethoven mocking Anna's student composition by making farting noises while banging it out on his piano. Do the filmmakers mean to persuade us that this doltish, feral character could have created the brilliant music of Beethoven?

And there are other inaccuracies. At the time depicted, Beethoven was completely deaf, and yet here is shown as capable of understanding loud speech, which he was not. Beethoven kept "conversation books," in which his companions communicated with him in writing.

The film's major failing, aside from Harris' unforgivable acting, is that it has no drama. Anna goes to work for the Maestro, he premieres his symphony to great acclaim, and he dies. And in the end, having endured this movie, we've learned nothing about Beethoven that we couldn't have learned better — and certainly more pleasantly — by listening to his music.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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