Merry Christmas, Mozart

Every year, critics, myself among them, trot out lists of their favorite Christmas movies. It doesn’t take much investigation to get past the iconic It’s a Wonderful Life, which is a damn fine film, to find The Shop Around the Corner, Christmas in Connecticut, or, darkly, Gremlins, which is a favorite of a friend of mine. Thing is, having grown up in the seventies and early eighties, most of these movies hadn’t made it to the video stores of tiny Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, where I grew up. We forget, too, that in the mid-eighties, no one watched Wonderful Life, since it was still forgotten at that time.

So for me, the great holiday movies are the pictures that conjure up memories of the holidays, as much as talking about the specific holiday in question. Just as we (or at least I) forever remember hot summers waiting in line for Star Wars and Back to the Future, two films that are not intrinsically about summer, so Milos Forman’s Amadeus reminds me of Christmas and snowy Decembers more than anything.

Some context: 1984 was a rough year. I was in high school in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, lived in the dismal Oak Tree Village apartments with my mom and stepdad, shared a bedroom with my brother (embarrassing at that age), and on weekends visited my unemployed dad in Saginaw, which might be the third most run down town after Detroit and Flint. I was a lunatic for movies and a horrible student, choosing to read film criticism and novels rather than my homework.  None of this is meant to engage your sympathy–my life wasn’t bad, or brutal, but in high school it was dull and I was depressed. Just like a lot of kids.

Mt. Pleasant was a boring little town, a college town, home of Central Michigan University and little else. It had a sleepy, dying downtown that literally had a restaurant called “Eat” and a bar called “Bar”. They had six movie theaters–the Ward (my favorite, see left) and Broadway theaters downtown, and out on the main strip, the Cinema Four. All these theaters are out of business today–Mr. Ward sold both of his palaces (he also owned the Broadway), and the Cinema Four, just a box, was razed for a Walgreens. As you can see from the photo, the Ward has become one of those hip Christian churches. I mean it in a very real sense that I think that’s blasphemy.

Movie-wise, very few decent titles came through town. Yes, I appreciated the blockbusters mentioned above (especially The Empire Strikes Back, Ghostbusters, and others), but I really wanted to see good movies. Every Sunday, I’d head on down to The Book Mark, our local bookstore, to buy the Sunday New York Times. With the Arts and Entertainment section spread out over the floor of my room, I’d lovingly pore over the movie ads and read the articles and wish to God I was living in Gotham.

Often times, there were disappointments or confusion even when so-called quality movies came to town. When Chariots of Fire won a surprising Best Picture Oscar in 1981, it came to Mt. Pleasant. I raced to the Cinema Four to see it, and damn if I didn’t think I could watch that movie any given Sunday on Masterpiece Theater. Boring.

(An aside: Chariots of Fire prompted one of the great overheard moments in my life. A couple sat in front of me at the movie, and they did not belong. He was a towering jock and she was his sexy girlfriend. As the show progressed, he kept fidgeting, and finally he said, none too quietly, “Where’s the fucking cavemen?”, took her arm and scrammed. Later it occurred to me that they meant to see Quest for Fire, playing that same night at the Broadway.)

The great movies of the seventies gave way to the blockbuster and tons of crappy movies in the eighties. Yes, I’d see every Woody Allen film that came to Mt. P, just as I saw every Tom Cruise movie, and most horror films. But the films in the Times, the movies Siskel and Ebert were talking about on Sneak Previews, simply didn’t come here. Until Amadeus.

Amadeus was different. Milos Forman was one of the great directors of the auteurist seventies, and this was seen as a return to form. It was about classical music, which I loved, a love of which was not considered all that cool at Mt. Pleasant Senior High School. Better still, it was supposed to be weird, daring, sexy, wicked. In short, it was supposed to be great. At the time, I honestly don’t think I’d truly ever seen a great adult film–a contemporary movie, mind you, one released and reviewed at that time–on the big screen with big crowds in my life. It’d all been crap like Chariots, big budget flicks, or stragglers like Never Cry Wolf (a good movie, but hardly great), and Fanny and Alexander on campus with ten others (which I didn’t really enjoy or understand at the time.)

When the Cinema Four began to show the trailer in October, I thought I was going to lose my mind. My friends had to put up with my talking about Amadeus for weeks.

Amadeus opened in New York in November to incredible reviews, only making me more frenzied. In those days theaters didn’t always get the movies they advertised, so Amadeus still seemed like a pipe dream. But to my surprise and delight, it opened, if memory serves, a week after Thanksgiving.

I remember that first Friday, the freezing cold, the early night, the light, falling snow. All day I’d been begging friends to see Amadeus, been talking about it at school, doodling the image of the masked man with his arms extended on the tests I was failing. I was listening to the soundtrack all the time, preparing.

For whatever reason, no one could go with me to see the movie, even though I was usually very successful at dragging pals to see anything I wanted to see. (They were apparently as bored as I was.) So I went alone. Without my friend Andy’s car, I had to walk to and from the theater, not far, but a couple of miles, through the blowing snow. Which was perfect.

If you recall the opening, it’s a doozy. Snow is blowing through the curved streets of Vienna. The cry, “Mozart!”, is heard through the snow. They must’ve shot in winter, because it is as quiet as a snowy day, and breath is steaming on people’s lips. We go inside a luxurious home, where the great character actor Vincent Schiavelli, wrapped in a shawl, stomps up some stairs in front of another servant who is carrying a tray of pastries and a giant bowl filled with whipped cream. The light is dim, nothing but candlelight and the glow of a fireplace.

Salieri, locked in his bedroom, is distraught and shouting gibberish, “Mozart, I killed you!” he cries. Schiavelli, he of the long face and sunken eyes, tries to convince the old composer to come out, that he has something special. Already we know, from his servant’s patronizing tone, that Salieri is old, retired, and bossed around, as old people often are, by the folks hired to take care of them.

Though it takes place over the course of years, Amadeus is a very snowy movie. It is also rich and lavish, filled with luscious images of food and festivity, peopled with incredible actors, including F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce as Salieri and Mozart, respectively. Neither were stars, and Forman’s bold casting made it an even more thrilling experience.

By now you know the story of Mozart in Amadeus. Suffice it to say, I was mesmerized. I walked home with the snow still coming down strong, the music ringing through my brain, and if there had been a later show I would have turned around and seen it again (alas, it was too long–one show a night, though I did go back a half dozen times.) How many times has a movie you’ve been anticipating for ages met those expectations? Not many, in my life. And the world seemed attuned to that, for when I emerged from the theater, I could almost imagine Mt. Pleasant as old Vienna. I could almost hear Salieri shouting.

Amadeus changed me. It helped me to actually listen to music, to appreciate food and art. I loved its charm, its humor, its wickedness–the burning crucifix even made my Dad gasp in surprise. Salieri’s description of Mozart’s music is pure poetry, and I mean that in a very real sense. It is rhythmic, transcendant, and you become amazed not just at the music, but at the character’s holy reverence of it, and the actor who has made this otherworldly moment so very real. I so wanted to hear Mozart like that, to feel it as Salieri did. To love opera and understand it, to close your eyes at the Serenade in B flat and not have some goon in a Nazareth shirt beat the tar out of you.

Mostly, though, I wanted to be able to talk about something, anything, like Salieri does here.

Later, as I grew older and became a writer, I would also come to know of Salieri’s jealousy and torment. For Amadeus continues to have an effect on me to this day.

Candy bars lost their appeal compared to the “nipples of Venus” Salieri offers Mozart’s wife in the movie, and I yearned for a costume like Mozart’s father to wear on Halloween (I still do.) Does this mean I wanted to live the life of luxury, like the kings of Austria and their court composers? I didn’t actually–I simply wanted to eat things that weren’t processed and frozen, to truly listen to the music I enjoyed, to live a life of the mind, away from Mt. Pleasant and its attendant video arcades and strip malls.

The point of this long, long story is simply this: there’s more to life in December than just plopping in a DVD of a holiday movie just because it’s a holiday movie, no matter how great said flick is supposed to be. Use your memory, your past, find that special film–in any season–that invokes strong feelings and makes you appreciate life more.

As I walked home that chilly December night, I was changed forever. Amadeus was a tremendous gift in my life at the time, one of the finest Christmas gifts the world has ever given me, and I always feel that Christmas-y glow when I watch it.

Or is that the scene of the crucifix burning?

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