Film Review: Copying Beethoven

I must confess that when I first found the trailer for this film online a few months ago (which was the first I heard about it), I shuddered. First of all, Ed Harris playing Beethoven seemed to be a crazy miscasting. Second, the film was a fictional tale about a young woman who becomes Beethoven’s copyist in the last years of his life when he was working on his Ninth Symphony.

But, nonetheless, a film about Beethoven is a film about Beethoven, so I kind of knew I would probably see it. Also, having just recently discovered Beethoven’s string quartets, I was curious to see how they would be portrayed in the film.

As a bit of background, in the last decade or so of Beethoven’s life, he hadn’t been doing much composing. After the triumph of his 7th and 8th Symphonies, he got involved in a huge court battle with his hated sister-in-law over custody of his young nephew, Carl. This not only cleaned him out of money, it also took him away from the music. On top of that, of the three wealthy patrons who kept him in money to write music, two of them died, and the other one moved away. So he was quite on the poverty edge.

But then, in his last three years of life (which is the time period this film covers), he started composing again. He composed his Ninth Symphony, and then, in his final years, five more string quartets – widely regarded, to this day, as the greatest string quartets (and in some people’s view, the greatest pieces of music) ever written.

Anyway, it is here with Beethoven composing his Ninth Symphony that this movie begins. Beethoven’s publisher, Schlemmer, is coming down with cancer, and is unable to work fast enough on copying Beethoven’s manuscript of the Ninth Symphony. (For the uninitiated, copying means taking the composer’s scribbled version of music and writing it out neatly – and also separate versions for each instrument in the orchestra). So he sends off to a conservatorium (forgive me, I missed this detail of which one) to ask for their best composition student – and young Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) shows up.She goes on to become Beethoven’s copyist and works closely with the maestro to help him get the Ninth Symphony ready for performance. Beethoven being Beethoven, there are bound to be problems. If you’ve read any biographies about Beethoven, you’ll know that the man was quite difficult to live with. He ranged from being ultra-clingy and friendly, to abusively bad-tempered and obnoxious, to vulgar with a raucous sense of humour. And, despite my misgivings, I have to take my hat off to Ed Harris. He captured it all. Despite the fictional story, this was Beethoven exactly as I’d been readng about him. I could easily believe that this was what the man was like.

The main shortcoming with the film is that I found it ended about half an hour before I expected it to (which I suppose is a lot better than ending half an hour after you want it to). Some films feel like a novel, others feel like a short story. This was one that felt like a short story. So, I think, at first, I left with a slightly disappointed “is that all?” feeling. However, for the rest of the day, the film kept floating around in my head (I saw it yesterday, by the way), and so I’m now in more of a position to give it a proper review.

The film is about a number of things, but there are three main ones that you will notice.

1) The relationship between Beethoven and Anna. This is obviously what most people are coming to see the film for, and is probably the least successful element of the film. It’s not an uninteresting part of the film, and Diane Kruger, who has only played a token beautiful woman in the films I’ve seen her in so far (Troy and National Treasure) actually does a really nice, understated role as Anna. However, it’s clearly obvious that she is fictional and Beethoven is not, because there are so many more layers to Ed Harris’ performance, purely because he’s got more to work with. The story about Anna really represents a number of little messages – first of all, that women can do things as well as men. Secondly, that the arts is not useless (we get this message via the even more underdeveloped character of Anna’s boyfriend, who holds the rather modern position that technology and progress are the way of the future rather than boring old Beethoven music). Thirdly, of course, is the help she gives to Beethoven who was increasingly become isolated from the world on all fronts. This is the story we expect, and it’s pulled off well, but it’s nothing outstanding.

The interesting parts of the story are the other two strands:

2) The music of Beethoven. The great thing about any film about classical composers is that the soundtrack is going to be great, regardless of the rest of the film. Certainly, this film didn’t really let me down. However, it chose to focus mainly on two pieces, with a third thrown in at the end. The first piece is, of course, the Ninth, which dominates the first half of the film. As we see it being prepared and rehearsed, we start to realise how audacious it was. And then, for the scene of the performance, which has been widely publicised as going for 10 minutes (which it does), it was awesome to hear the music loud. So often we hear classical music at a soft volume on the radio or CD, without realising that it was meant to be heard loudly and clearly. It’s magic, it really is. I’m not sure if I’m a fan of the camerawork for this scene which, in keeping with the look of the whole film, consists of ultra-closeups and bringing blurry objects in and out of focus, but the music more tha makes up for it.

The second piece, by contrast, is a much more unlikeable piece (that usually doesn’t make its way onto any Best of Beethoven CDs), and this is the Grosse Fugue for string quartet. Beethoven originally wrote this as the last movement of one of his last string quartets, but it was too long, and people hated it, so he wrote a shorter more pleasant ending for the string quartet (this short ending was incidentally the last thing he wrote before he died) and the Fugue became a stand-alone 15-minute piece that is now one of the most difficult pieces for a string quartet to play. The reason this piece has been so disliked is because of its harshness. With a wild galloping tone, and angular melodies, it’s not a pleasant musical experience. But (and this is the point), it wasn’t meant to be. Life is not all pleasantness. Life is not all triumph. Life can often be harsh and brutal. And that’s the point about this music (which opened the door for the next generation of musicians to realise that harsh could be in the musical vocabulary). The film very cleverly makes this point by playing the Grosse Fugue over the opening credits as we see shot after shot of the poor and destitute of 19th-century Austria.

The third piece which got more than a brief mention is probably bettered talked about under the third subject of the film:

3) Beethoven and God. From everything we know about Beethoven, he was a man who believed in a God – some higher power up there that looked after him and made the creation that he loved. This film takes that a step further, and pits Beethoven in an ever-present struggle with God. It took me a while to notice, but throughout the whole film, Beethoven is constantly mentioning God.

Sometimes he seems to look on God as a bit of an excuse for the way he is. “Do you think I’m horrible? Well, God made me that way.” Other times, he gets rather arrogant about God. “God and I are like two bears in the one cage – snarling at each other.” But it’s not until just before the performance of the Ninth, when he realises that he is too deaf to conduct the orchestra properly, that we realise his true feelings – he is angry with God. Why did God let him go deaf? If God is like a Father, why should he trust him, considering that Beethoven’s own father was a bully and a drunkard?

Despite this, Anna helps him conduct the Ninth. The irony of this (which is probably lost on people not familiar with the music) is that the choir at the end, as well as singing a humanistic hymn that all men will join and become brothers, are also singing the praises of a loving Father in the heavens who watches all men. But does Beethoven believe that?

And, so after that, when he throws himself into the Grosse Fugue, it seems that this enables him to deal with the idea that the world is not perfect. It’s like he gets it out of his system.

And that’s when my favourite moment of the film occurs. Beethoven comes down sick (apologies if this is a spoiler) and as he is recovering, he asks Anna to start writing down a piece of music. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be in the film, because it is sadly missing from the listing on the Copying Beethoven soundtrack album, but as she writes down the music, we hear the slow movement from the Opus 132 string quartet. This piece is known as the “hymn of thanksgiving to the Godhead for recovery from an illness”.

As the string quartet plays a very simple, but very deep and profound hymn tune, Beethoven talks about how he is grateful to God for making him well again, and how he knows now that God is looking after him. As the music soars (and it really is one of the most transcendent pieces of music that Beethoven ever wrote), Beethoven describes how we are taken up to heaven, and hands reach down and hold us, and we know that we are safe.

This piece of music (which I had only recently discovered a few months ago), combined with that description, utterly moved me to tears, for a number of reasons which I find hard to describe. I suppose, one, is just the beauty of music (which is a completely subjective thing, and for that reason, not easy to describe why it moves me so much). Second, is just the beauty of Beethoven coming to peace with God. But, the third one, which is more troubling, is that I’m not sure which God Beethoven made his peace with. There is no indication that Beethoven was interested in following Jesus as Lord of his life. In fact, there’s every indication, that he was most interested in doing his own thing in life.

And so, despite the depth of his spirituality (and really, apart from people like Bach and Mendelssohn, most Christian composers rarely reach this level of beauty when contemplating God), ultimately, itmay not have saved him. And that I find truly haunting.

Anyway, I apologise if this film is more a review of my own thought processes rather than the film, but it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the spiritual life of a great composer, and it’s a credit to director Agnieszka Holland that she included that element of Beethoven that was so important to him in his music.

4 out of 5.

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DVD Review: Star Wars (Original Theatrical Edition)

When George Lucas updated his original Star Wars trilogy by adding extra scenes, more digital effects, etc. etc. some people thought this was a pretty good idea.  But there have also been a huge number of fans out there that wanted to see the original versions again.  The ones with no special effects.  The one where Han shoots first (I’m not going to bother to explain this.  Just Google “Han shoots first” and I’m sure you’ll be able to read thousands of pages about it.).

For a fairly cheap price, you can have both on this two-disc DVD set.  At the moment, I’ve only watched the second disc containing the original edition, so that will do for this review.

Star Wars is a phenomenon that I came to fairly late in life, despite the fact that I was born the year after its original release.  Being the eldest of five children, my parents were still trying to work out what to let me watch on TV and scary helmets and glowing swords were on the “no” list for a fair while.

Now, the problem with that is, for Star Wars to truly take its effect, I think you need to really get bitten by the bug when you’re young.  Because at heart, this is a kids’ movie.  The story is a classic good guys take on the bad guys tale – in fact, so much so, that the good guys wear white and the bad guys were black.  (I won’t get into a discussion on suspected racism in the film either . . .)

To that extent, it’s perfect weekend afternoon adventure fare (which was incidentally when I watched it a couple of weeks ago).  Watching the original version is an interesting experience, because the picture looks kind of old and faded, but I didn’t mind that so much, because I thought it was handy to be reminded that this film was made in the 70s, rather than trying to fix it up to look like it was made yesterday.  As such, I’ve got to take my hat off to the filmmakers.  The world is really immersive, and despite the fact that the action shifts from interior sets to plastic models (with a detour by way of the desert), you very quickly believe that they shot this film in space.  (Actually, probably all sci-fi films owe their debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey for setting the benchmark for believability.)

There is no real depth to this story, and the fact that the fans love to dig layers and layers deep into the mythology is more, I think, from the joy of analysing a beloved story in-depth rather than there being any real depth to start with.  But, for what it is, a light piece of action-adventure, the film works really well.

3 1/2 out of 5.

DVD Review: Spellbound

Spelling bees are not really a common occurence in Australia.  I competed in a few spelling contests in my high school years at a Christian educational convention, but it was nothing like a hardcore American spelling bee.

Imagine a room full of 100 kids.  One by one, they’re called to the microphone and have to spell a big word.  Unlike baseball, where it’s three strikes and you’re out, or any other sport, if one letter – one letter – is missing, a bell rings, and the child is out of the contest.  That’s it.  Game over.

Thus, each word becomes a major hurdle to be grappled with.  Each word is a matter of winning or losing.

What makes this contest so interesting as well is that the kids are all under 14, so they’re too young to pretend that they’re not disappointed.  Every time they go up to spell, you see the incredible range of emotions – fear, trepidation, confidence.  And then when they get it wrong – disappointment, devastation, puzzlement.

This, of course, was exactly what drew the filmmakers to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC.  Spellbound‘s premise is pretty simple.  They tracked down eight kids who were likely to place in the National Spelling Bee and followed them in the lead-up to the contest.  The kids are amazing, from a boy from California whose parents are Indian, and whose father makes him practise 6-7,000 words a day so that he can blitz the contests.  Or the daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants, whose parents can’t even speak English.  But she taught herself to spell big words.

The great thing about this being a documentary, rather than a film, is that because it’s eight real kids, you have definite favourites that you would like to see win by the time the National Contest rolls around.  But, because it’s a documentary, rather than a film, and we’re watching eight real kids, there’s no guarantee that the one you’re gunning for is going to be the one that wins the contest.  So we’re on the edge of our seat (at least the first time) as much as the kids themselves.

I’ve seen this twice now, once at the cinemas, and then again on DVD, and I must say that it does lose a bit the second time around, because the tension isn’t there to the same degree.  But, nonetheless, this film proves easily why a well-made documentary can be as riveting as any Hollywood blockbuster.

4 1/2 out of 5.

DVD Review: A Very Long Engagement

Set in 1919/20, just after World War I, a young French girl, Mathilde (played by Audrey Tatou), receives the news that her fiance, Manech, was executed during the war.  He, along with four other men accused of self-mutilation (they all injured their hands in various ways, some of them obviously hoping to be sent home because of it), were sentenced to death by being thrown up into the no man’s land area between the French and German front lines.

However, despite the official news, Mathilde believes that he is alive.  Because, as the film says, “if Manech was dead, Mathilde would know”.  Thus begins what is a highly convoluted film that mainly consists of Mathilde tracking down everyone who was anywhere near the trenches that night, and findining out what really happened to Manech.  The plot is complex to begin with, when you combine that with the fact that as an Australian, I recognise very few of the actors (though there are surprising faces that show up, like Jodie Foster) and the film is in French with subtitles, it can actually be quite difficult to keep on top of things.

However, it all becomes clear in the end, and I won’t tell you what happens.

The film itself is another film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and if you’ve seen any of his films (the first one I ever saw was The City of Lost Children, but his most famous one would be Amelie), you’ll know that his films live in a kind of quirky fantasy-land where every face is strange and exotic (almost every extra is picked because of their distinctive looks), and everything looks highly stylised.  I think the most unusual thing about this film is that it doesn’t actually require this approach to tell the story.  Whereas Amelie needed a quirky film-making style to tell a quirky story, this film could actually have been made by a regular film-maker using fairly ordinary story-telling conventions.  It would, however, have been a typical war film, as opposed to this quite distinctive arthouse offering.

Overall, I found myself fairly sucked in by the visuals, and I can appreciate the cleverness of the film-making.  There are sequences in this film that are absolutely stunning set pieces.

But, in the end, I was let down by the same thing that disappointed me about Amelie – this insistence that the heart of romance is sex.  Even American romantic films will have more going for them than just sex.  In the same way, that Amelie built up a madcap romantic pursuit as Amelie pursued her man around Paris, when they finally did meet up, they just wordlessly started making out, the camera moved away, and that was that.

It’s the same in this film.  In the main relationship between Mathilde and Manech (and, in fact, most of the romantic relationships in the film), apart from a few flashbacks when they were children, I don’t really see much of what they liked about each other apart from the sex.  Is this all that drives the French idea of romance?  I have no idea, but it seems pretty shallow to me.

3 out of 5

Review Backlog 10 of 10: Hyperion Schubert Edition – Complete Songs vol. 2

Again, a return to the excellent CD collection of Schubert’s complete songs (or lieder as they’re known in German) on the Hyperion label.  For those of you who missed out on the last review (which was right back in the early days of this blog), this is a series of CDs that was the brainchild of English pianist, Graham Johnson.  For every CD in the series (and there’s nearly 40 of them, so I’ve got a fair way to go . . .), he would select a singer, and a handful of famous and not-so-famous Schubert songs (not too hard to do, considering there’s over 600 of them) and perform them.  I should also mention, that lieder is particularly a song for voice with piano accompaniment.  However, “accompaniment” doesn’t really do justice to the music, because the piano plays an integral part in the song.  You can’t have one without the other.  It’s a perfect partnership.

This particular CD features the baritone, Stephen Varcoe, who is not particularly well-known in Australia, but nonetheless has a perfect voice for this kind of thing.  The theme for this album is water, and so there are a variety of songs all to do with various aspects of water.  The one conscipuous song that was missing is the ever-famous “The Trout”, but considering that there’s plenty more CDs, I’m sure they’re saving that song for another time and another singer.

But there’s songs about fishermen, songs about boats heading for hell, etc.  There’s also one song that has two different tunes (because Schubert would often come back a few years later and write different musical arrangements of the same song).  So by getting to hear one version straight after another, you get a real feel for the art of the composer.  Finally, capping it all off, is a monstrous half-hour song that tells the story of a king who sets out a challenge for any man who wants to win the hand of his daughter – the prospective suitor has to dive into a dark chasm of stormy water to fetch a goblet that he has thrown down into the depths.  Perhaps not the TV generation’s idea of fun, but you can see this being a real hit back in the days of parlour-room entertainment.

And, of course, the real highlight of these CDs is the fantastic liner notes by Graham.  In a day and age when liner notes are written by academics for academics and practically require a doctorate in music to decipher, Graham is a breath of fresh air.  While a little bit musical, he digs into each song, dissecting it apart in minute detail, so even if it only lasts for two minutes, you have a great understanding of what the piano is doing and what the singer is doing, and why the song is so brilliant.  These are great, because together with complete translations for every song, if you’re a newcomer to this type of song, you’ll be able to jump right in, and Graham will show you the ropes.  This series is great, and one of those CDs I’ll never chuck out of my collection.

4 1/2 out of 5.

Review Backlog 9 of 10: Brahms – Symphony No 1, Tragic & Academic Festival Overtures (Marin Alsop)

One of the main reasons my reviews have been backlogged has been the fact that I’ve had real diffficulty trying to get my head around Brahms.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the guy’s music is great, and this recording is only cementing that.  But it’s his structure I have trouble with.  Everything sounds as if it’s carefully planned and that things are subtly morphing into other things, but I have trouble hearing it all.

However, it’s that feeling that there is a bigger picture to it all that keeps me listening to this CD, and that’s probably a good thing.  If, at some stage, I’m able to find a good book that goes into detail about Brahms symphonies (something I haven’t yet found), then I’m sure I’ll be able to offer a lot more detail.

In the meantime, however, if you want really great orchestral music, this is a great CD to start with, and being a Naxos CD, it won’t cost you very much at all.  Also, another thing that I thought would be interesting about this piece is that it is conducted by a woman, and female conductors are rare as hen’s teeth (I’m not sure why – but they are).  Oddly enough, that seemed to make little difference, and if anything the piece sounded as if it was being conducted by Brahms himself, so maybe that’s a sign of Marin’s genius.

Either way, this music is very different from the high-energy symphonies of Beethoven, and the emotional highs and lows of Mahler.  Instead, the music feels very stately and dignified (almost as if we are listening to an older man think about life).  However, that’s not to say that this music is boring – it’s certainly not.  It has drama, fire and passion, but it all seems to be within well thought-out boundaries.

So unlike, say, Mahler, where he often tries to create the impression that the music has a life of its own, sometimes even wailing and collapsing in on itself, in Brahms’ hand, we feel that the music is guided strongly.

Anyway, words really don’t describe this symphony.  Have a listen for yourself, especially at the low price.  Included on the CD (to make sure you get your money’s worth) are two of Brahms’ overtures, the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture, both of which he wrote at the same time.  The Academic Festival Overture has become quite popular, as Brahms runs through a series of popular student songs, turning them into orchestral  melodies with both a sense of fun, and a sense of power.

Did I mention the sound was really good on this CD as well?  (If I had a more hi-tech sound system, I’d love to try the SACD or DVD-Audio of this recording.)

5 out of 5 (at least until I hear some more Brahms recordings)

Review Backlog 8 of 10: Our Sunshine (Robert Drewe)

Some of you may have seen the film Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger.  This is the book.

First off, I should say that I’m not sure how much of this is believable, because it is a novel.  However, I think that is also partly the point – because there have been so many stories that have circulated round in Australia for years surrounding Ned Kelly, it’s hard to tell the man from the myth, anyway.

This book is very much about the man, which is why you won’t really find a copy of the book with the familiar iron mask on the front.  (Even in all the marketing for the film, they very boldly showed no footage of Ned’s armour – the cover poster was a very stark, up-close photo of a bearded Heath.)

Robert Drewe’s novel is a stream-of-consciousness story of Ned Kelly’s life.  The story begins and keeps returning the pub at Glenrowan in Victoria where Kelly and his gang brought out their new armour for the first (and last) time, and were finally brought to justice.

But, the novel (like Ned’s thoughts) keeps jumping backwards and forwards through various parts of his life, and bit by bit, the novel builds up a picture of Ned’s life, and how he turned into the man who, at the time, had the word’s largest bounty on his head, and was allowed to be killed by anyone.

The novel tends to take Ned’s side, for the most part, showing him as a poor Irishman, whose family was treated badly by the local authorities, and who was often falsely accused of wrongdoing – before deciding to become an outlaw.

My main beef with this novel is that I felt like Drewe was deliberately trying to give Ned a bit of an excuse for some of his behaviour, and in some cases, trying to use the novel to paint him out as an innocent victim of the some of the crimes he was accused of committing.  But then again, I’ve always fallen into the category of not being a Ned supporter, because I think there must have been plenty of other hard-done-by Irish immigrants out in Victoria who didn’t feel it was necessary to start robbing banks and killing policemen to make the point, and I don’t see why he should be let off for this.

However, you don’t have to sympathise with Ned or agree with him to enjoy this book.  (And, after all, he was a human being, not a cold-blooded monster.)  This novel is so well written, that you just get sucked in, and because of who Ned is, it’s really hard not to put it down.  I finished it the same day I started it, which says something.  If you want a different take on Ned (or even just a different Australian novel), then this is very good.

4 out of 5.

Review Backlog 7 of 10: The Sponsorship Seeker’s Toolkit (Anne-Marie Grey & Kim Skildum-Reid)

It seems that the first great secret of being a successful sponsorship salesperson is to have a hyphen in your last name.  I don’t, so I’m not sure how this will affect my success . . .

On a more serious note, obviously, my new role at work is Business Development Manager, which is the professional way of saying “sponsorship salesman” (which is the politically incorrect way of saying “sponsorship salesperson”).  I got lent this book before I started work, so I could be thinking strategically about how to seek out sponsorship money.

Depending on whether you’ve been paying much attention to sponsorship in the last few years, you may have noticed that the way sponsorship is done has been changing dramatically.  In the good old days, non-profit organisations would trot along to big companies and ask for money.  In exchange, they would put the companies’ logos in every single possible location.

However, nowadays, everybody’s a bit smarter than that, and we now realise that people going to events, really don’t notice the logos.

So now we have to come up with more strategic ways of getting sponsorship money.  Which I think is all to the good, because why offer something that is a waste of money (temporarily putting aside the fact that it would be nice for companies to support non-profit organisations)?

So this book takes you step-by-step through the process of working out how to make offerings to sponsors that actually offer genuine value to them.  How to enhance their image, how to connect them with target audiences they are trying to reach, etc.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but the book’s approach is nicely systematic, and keeps you focused on the process you need to win sponsorships.

Obviously, I haven’t tested this in real life yet, so it will be interesting to see how it holds up, but it’s given me a clear path ahead.  4 1/2 out of 5.

Review Backlog 6 of 10: Further thoughts on Sunshine

For those of you who visit here a lot, you’ll know that one of my interests is applying Christianity to life, but I often find myself switching off thoughts about my faith when watching films and listening to music.  Part of it is, I think, because the arts are such a demanding time-filling, sensory medium.  Unless you’re hitting the Pause button a lot to stop and think (and who does?), movies and music drive constantly for their running time, not letting you stop and contemplate in the way that a book does.

They also take up several of your senses at once.  Music and films are both aural, not leaving room for you to listen to other things.  And films have the added benefit of being highly visual, meaning that you’ve got your ears and eyes working overtime.  They’re also engaging your mind.  Unlike, say, a beautiful mountain, where you can sit and think about it, a lot of films don’t leave time to do this.  (Some good arthouse ones do, because they like to leave you time to contemplate things, but these are rare.)  Music is perhaps not so engaging to the modern mind, because we’re used to it being in the background, but it should.

Anyway, the point of all that, is that I realised that a film like Sunshine raises some interesting issues for Christian viewers to think about.  However, to do so, might require a little bit more spoilers than I like giving away normally.  So therefore for those of you who want to read my further thoughts on Sunshine, you can find them under the next post, where you will need to put in the password “spoilers”.

You have been warned.