Time was when a feature film about classical music was an excuse to get a lot of great musical stars on-screen. The renowned pianist and sometime statesman Ignace Jan Paderewski played in 1937’s “Moonlight Sonata”; in 1947, “Carnegie Hall” presented cameos by such legendary artists as Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Ezio Pinza and others, linked by a flimsy tissue of a story. Rags to riches, boy meets girl, what did it matter; the key thing was that there was a climactic scene on the concert stage, and plenty of music.
Today, classical music has a whole different place in our cultural awareness. You could ask whether it has a place at all, but there’s evidence that it does, to some degree, in the form of two new feature films about classical music that came out this season within a few weeks of each other, both with some serious star power. In November, we got “A Late Quartet”, by Yaron Zilberman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken as the second violinist and cellist, respectively, of a renowned string quartet. And this Sunday, in limited release, there’s plain old “Quartet,” starring Maggie Smith as a retired opera singer — and marking the directing debut of another Hoffman, Dustin.
In the 1940s, classical music stood for glamour and larger-than-life excitement. In 2012, it appears to stand for, well, the 1940s. Both of these films subscribe to the idea of classical music as High Art, a signifier of the great and enduring; they are also both about aging, loss, nostalgia, and the pain of loving art when you are no longer able to make it well. The salient difference between the two is that one movie poses as a true-to-life story about today’s classical music world, and one is a sweet and wistful parable. Guess which one works better.
Hands off, it’s High Art
The problem with “A Late Quartet” is that this cluelessness appears to have extended to the director, Zilberman, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A pet peeve of mine is the way that many otherwise intelligent people turn off their critical faculties when it comes to classical music, accepting boring, turgid writing or patently silly statements in program notes, reviews and lectures as if classical music were so rarefied one couldn’t judge it according to normal standards of “good” and “crappy.” “A Late Quartet’s” screenplay demonstrates this suspension of common sense, and the fine actors labor to bring credibility to situations that would never have made it off the drawing board had the film been about any other subject.
Certainly film is often heavy-handed in portraying real life professions (let’s start with journalism); but in this case, the minor errors and tone-deaf character interactions gradually accumulate into a mass large enough to distort the big picture.
Are we supposed to believe that the first violinist in the quartet (Mark Ivanir) has never heard his colleague’s daughter play the violin? Can we imagine the second violinist blurting out that from now on, he wants to play first violin sometimes? When the cellist announces his retirement, would he also announce his successor, rather than leaving it to his colleagues to decide? And would he then go off to persuade another violinist (Wallace Shawn, beautifully cast as a gregarious, Isaac Stern-like figure) to release this successor from his own trio? These simply aren’t credible character interactions — particularly the latter one. Classical music is paternalistic, but it isn’t entirely feudal.