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Worlds Apart

copying beethoven


two or three things i know about her


Actors love to play geniuses. It's a chance to wear a superhumanaura without any of the burden. Geniuses of art are always favored:what actor wouldn't prefer Keats to Kierkegaard? Beethoven is ofcourse one of the most dramatic roles, and portrayals of him havenot been scant. The first I can remember is the French giant HarryBaur's in 1936, and the most recent is Ed Harris's in CopyingBeethoven.

Only six years ago Harris played Jackson Pollock--not precisely inthe Beethoven stratum, but still Harris showed fierce commitment tothe sources of the man within the man, not his mere actions andructions. It is not a step, or even a matter of steps, from Pollockto Beethoven; but faced with a human cosmos instead of a man,Harris has summoned all the thought and instinct and taste he cancommand--a considerable quantity of each--to keep his performancefrom being just another mad genius.

The beginning is partly technical: how Harris is physically altered.Beethoven's face is as well known as any great composer's, and itwould be hard to find a modern actor who looks less like him thanHarris, even with a wig and a reshaped nose. Further, Beethovenwas, to a contemporary, a "sturdy, thickset figure," which Harrisis not. But though a great many of us are sure we know howBeethoven looked and moved, Harris's first gain is that he overcomesour preconceptions. The inner strength makes his exterior credible.The storms, the depressions, the sometimes enforced but persistentconviction of his genius-- these are only some of the colors thatHarris masterfully paints in.

Now it is time to mention the director, Agnieszka Holland, who isPolish- born and Czech-trained, intelligent, imaginative. (Her lastfilm of note was Washington Square, which was uneasy but whichunderstood James's book.) It seems clear that the very making ofCopying Beethoven depended on collaboration between Harris andHolland about his performance. Without a Beethoven that the actorand the director both believed in, how could the film have beenmade?

It seems almost unnecessary to point out that the screenplay, byChristopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele, is unhistorical. Theplot is fantastication from the start: the only question is whetherit is pleasant. It is. Rather, it is quite possible that much of itcould have happened, and it is almost churlish to point out that itnever did.

Anna Holtz (played by the acceptable German actress Diane Kruger) isa young music student in Vienna in 1824 and does some manuscriptcopying for the composer. He is furious to see that his regularcopyist has employed a woman; thus we are prepared for his gradualacceptance of her and the growth of his trust. The score that he isworking on is the Ninth, composing though he is deaf (still one ofhistory's most stupefying marvels). By the time of the firstperformance, he and Anna have been through so much together--thoughnothing romantic--that he entrusts her to sit in the orchestra andbeat time to guide his own conducting. (In point of fact, a malemusician friend of Beethoven's sat in the orchestra and told theplayers and choir to watch him, not the conductor.) We hear aReader's Digest version of the symphony, played by an orchestraabout three times the size of the one we see.

Not long after the triumph of the Ninth comes the fiasco of theGrosse Fuge and Beethoven's illness. We don't actually see hisdeath, which came a year later. Indeed, the writers and Hollandseem to have been stuck for a finish. After some shots of thebedbound composer, we see Anna walking away from us across a greatfield. The meaning of this shot, Holland apparently hopes, will besupplied by us.

But her directing of the picture, aided by the lovely lighting ofAshley Rowe, creates a sense of transport to the past that makesmuch of the action credible; her security in the period helpsgreatly. But we are left finally with a double response: it is hardto know exactly why the film was made, what its emotional andthematic point is, yet we are glad it happened because of Harris'sperformance. Recently we had Helen Mirren's splendid comprehensionof a famous figure; now we have Harris's of a titan. Mirren has theadvantage of being in a generally sound film. Harris's film is muchless sound, but at least it gives him a place to be.

Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, re-issued ina fresh print with freshened subtitles, is an astonishment because,after the forty years since it was made, it still astonishes.Godard burst into the film world in 1960 with the unprecedented,invaluable Breathless and followed it swiftly with a spate offilms, some of which were more heterodox than fulfilled. Then hemade Two or Three Things, his best film since his first, a picturethat was-- and breathtakingly still is--both revolutionary andabsorbing.

The "her" of the title is, he tells us, the Paris region; but healso tells us that it is Juliette Jeanson, a young wife (played byMarina Vlady) with children; and he also tells us that it may beVlady herself. These intertissues are parts of the ceaseless,seemingly disconsolate inquiry that the film makes into the textureof Paris life, personal lives, even political lives. (Vietnam waspresent in French thinking then as Iraq is today.) Prostitutions ofseveral kinds register: in French politics, in the renovation ofParis by profitable construction, and literally in Juliette'sdaytime hours in a brothel to increase the family's income. (Herhusband never asks her where the money comes from!)

All these subjects would nourish a conventional film, which doesn'tinterest Godard. The method he uses is anti-method, a rejection ofthe strictures contrived by the world he is criticizing. Shots ofcranes, of street signs, of interesting faces, of cafe talk--ofanything that catches Godard's eye or mind-- slip into the film'sstory like sudden thoughts, and the effect is of super- reality:alert consciousness rather than formal construction.

The result is like a frozen impromptu, which certifies a Godard aimthrough most of his career. He seems to hate the fact that film isfilmed. He tries over and over in his work to subvert movie-ness:sometimes he shows the camera, sometimes he has people say they arein a film, sometimes he inserts seemingly random thoughts andsights, and so on, always to make the film seem as spontaneous asthe form permits.

On the sound track of Two or Three Things he whispers commentary,some of it philosophical query at the college-dorm level--shallow,yes, but genuine. (This phrase could be reversed.) What keeps thefilm tingling is the fact that we feel it is actually being made(yet again) at the moment we are watching it. Since 1966, so muchin film-making has strained for novelty, yet Godard's film is stillavant most of the avant-garde.