M is for Man, Music, Mozart

M is for Man, Music, Mozart (1991 Britain 30 mins)

Source: CAC/NLA Prod Co: Artifax Prod: Elisabeth Queenan, Anette Moreau Dir, Scr: Peter Greenaway Ph: Sacha Vierny Ed: Chris Wyatt, James Marshall Mus: Louis Andriessen

Cast: Ben Craft, Kate Gowar, Karen Potisk, Astrid Seriese

For the bicentenary anniversary of Mozart’s death in 1791, six filmmakers and six composers were commissioned to do a 30 minute homage to Mozart. The collaboration of Peter Greenaway and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen resulted in M is for Man, Music, Mozart, which at first glance resembles many of Greenaway’s other taxonomical (list-making) narratives (A Walk Through H, H is for House, A TV Dante, The Falls, 26 Bathrooms, Drowning by Numbers, Death in the Seine). However, Greenaway deliberately plays against the grain of these other narratives, postmodernizing Mozart and sometimes parodying himself in a stunningly beautiful and cerebral collage of dance, animation, scatological jokes and allusions, both to show the humor and corporeality of Mozart, himself, and Mozart in and outside of his music, but also to play counterpoint to the loose jazz/funk score of Andriessen, “itself riddled with Mozart quotes, disguised and otherwise.” (liner notes on the video box). Are they faithful to Mozart in their homage? Decidedly no and inventively yes are the paradoxical answers. For example, the talking busts of Beethoven and Haydn coexist with the manic Mozart composing in his bed as an acknowledgment of the debt they owed to Mozart in their music. In the same vein Andriessen’s jazz score using the same instruments Mozart did is an acknowledgment of the debt contemporary music owes to Mozart. Just as he did in postmodernizing Dante with images of contemporary culture in A TV Dante some five years earlier, so too here Greenaway contextualizes Mozart outside of his own lifetime through an intricate interplay of metaphor and metonymy, fitting figures to use because of their beginning letter m.

The film begins with the logo for the entire six film series: Not Mozart. The visual reinforces the title through a metonymy (part for whole, focus on absence, lack, loss, what is missing): a red coat and a white wig (both pieces of clothing worn in Mozart’s time), but with no face connecting them. Literally, then, not Mozart. This opening is also ironic, because the main actors of the film to follow are completely nude throughout, which emphasizes both their temporality as bodies (a major Greenaway theme in all his films) and their corporeality as metaphor (to cancer in Belly of an Architect, to various circles of hell in A TV Dante, to writing and books in Prospero’s Books, etc.).

What looks like a scroll through the complete alphabet begins with two naked dancers (Kate Gowar and Karen Potisk) and only proceeds from A to M (the halfway point of the alphabet and the conflation point of man, music and Mozart). Instead of litany/taxonomy, what we get is a dance re-enactment of genesis, Adam and Eve to be exact, but without procreation, since the dancers are both women. A is for Adam and E is for Eve, and the letters in between are filled in: b for blood (later bones), c for conception and d for devil. The conception can only be conceptual or metaphorical, since the two women can only dance the intercourse, not do it. The devil is the interloper here, since Mozart (Amadeus) and everything else in the film seems to proceed from God. I think the devil must be seen figuratively, as in A TV Dante: that is, metaphorically, not literally.

The next pairings are equally important: f is for fertility and g is for germs. Both refer to Mozart’s equal infusion of bad health and prolific creations. Even as he was dying of fever at the age of thirty-five, he was reported to have been composing a movement which would never make its way into a symphony. The same fertility and germs coexist in the film’s last images between the dancer’s open legs, represented as well by the two swinging chandeliers in the background.

I is for intercourse, which is paired in metaphor with c is for conception: both are impossible literally between the two women dancers and both words have figurative meanings: intercourse for speech and communication, conception for idea and birth.

J is for Justine or the misfortunes of virtue. This one comes out of nowhere and seems as gratuitous as S being for a Samuel Beckett bathroom in 26 Bathrooms. But the reference to the Marquis de Sade enjoins the devil of before and Mozart in terms of creativity and corporeality. It is fitting then that the dancers reprise their pose of sex from the rear, the pose they struck earlier for conception.

L is for lust and lightning. This enjoining of lust and lightning is a reprise of their being together in Dante ‘s Inferno: visual of interlocked bodies (lust rather than love because their heads are at opposite ends) and the sound of thunder (linked with lightning) becomes the drum-roll for M, the letter M, itself a joining of interlocked halves (if we look at the letter as a right and left side). And, as though the scrolling letters were somehow the pre-credits of the film, the letter M is accompanied by the intertitle: “Aural and Visual Variations on a Conundrum of the Apotheosis of the Spirit of Mozart.” The key words here are variations and conundrum: variations as in theme and variations (synonymous with fugue) and conundrum, as in a riddle whose solving involves the use of puns. The rest of the film, then, will be Greenaway and Andriessen playing out a riddle or game of variations, puns, jokes, metaphors, metonymies, and “apotheosis of the spirit of Mozart” means we will not be watching a faithful biography of the composer’s life.

Greenaway uses a 17th Century Theater of Anatomy as his set for creating man, music and Mozart: operating table or tables in the foreground, spectator’s seats in beige/ecru rising three or four levels high in the background. These spectators are assigned cue cards, many with the names of body parts, some with the names of musical instruments, some with other words which somehow connect the body to music: calf, buttocks, arse, bun, rectum, larynx for some; piccolo, violin, tuba for others; whore, drawers, addendum for others. The connections are by way of metaphor and metonymy. For example, there are cue cards for scatological functions such as “belch” and “fart” so that we can have a metaphorical series like buttocks/fart/tuba. “Drawers” refer both to dresser drawers for holding clothes (and there is a section entitled “Man of Cloth”) and to underpants. “Whore” is followed by “groin” and then curiously by “Gentiles.” The joke here is a metonymy, with “gentiles” sounding like and replacing “genitals,” the word we would expect to be there. On the operating table are various fruits. In a metonymy of the human body, bananas are where the penis would be. All these jokes are there, perhaps not on first viewing, but on repeated viewings, which is one reason why I like Greenaway so much: his films keep on yielding meanings with repeated viewings.

The dancers re-enact the long slow evolution of making man, including the many mistakes in the experiment, represented by peripheral figures carrying away bodies. A man of flour gives way to man of cloth, man of metal, man of straw, man of clay, even as there are “puns” and other meanings to be attached to all of them: man of flour is also an allusion to Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers (1983). The man of cloth is represented visually by the two women dancers paying excessive attention to the genital area of the man on the table (a reference to the fig leaf and the clothing of Adam after the fall in the garden of Eden).

Many of the M words that flash across the screen have internal puns or are made into multiple words by Greenaway. “Manichean,” which refers to a split in man, is metamorphosized by Greenaway’s emphasis on “niche” in the middle of the word, which is “corner” or “dark shadow” in English but also refers to sex in French slang (creating the split). Macaroni refers to Italian pasta but also a mix of Latin with other languages (macaronic words). Masque is separated from masquerade, the m is added to alice to form malice, mata (Spanish for “kill”) is added to matador. The point I want to make here is that language is splitting, reconnecting, experiencing its own kind of genesis, even as the dancers attend to the making of man on the operating table.

The many “false” stages of man are disposed of in various ways: one body is submerged under water. Ironically, there is a cue card for Mars, the joke being there is no water on Mars, but also it’s referred to as the “red planet,” befitting the washing of the operating table with blood. The straw man is burned (the joke here is moving from straw man as scarecrow to straw man as someone “burned in effigy” in a political sense). All stages of man are disposed of until the making of modern man (he is called this in the credits), represented by the body upside down and everyone in the audience spanking him/herself. The upside down posture for birth will be repeated by Ben Craft, who plays Man so beautifully, representing death as well at film’s end.

The logic of the film goes like this: “Having created man, it was necessary to give him movement; having given him movement it follows that he should have music; and having invented Music, it was necessary to invent Mozart in order to have Perfect Music.” (liner notes). But with the idea of the conundrum in mind, we should also be on our toes, aware that Man can also mean Mannheim, where Mozart was so prolific; that Movement, which precedes Music, is also an integral part of music; that Mozart’s name contains the internal ART, so as to be the epitome of music.

There are several esoteric references to real people in the film. They can and should be ignored on first viewing, without any loss of appreciation. Greenaway is intimidating if one wants to get everything there is to get out of a single viewing. The references and allusions do reward the search, however, by way of metaphor: that is, bringing them back to the film with extra meaning. There is reference, for example, to a Cellini saltcellar (“Made of unequal parts like a Cellini saltcellar”). Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) was an Italian sculptor, metalworker and writer. He is one of many allusions to things Italian, to signify the influence of Italian art on Mozart. But the word saltcellar also refers to salt seller, the pun name for Marcel Duchamp in French as the marchand du sel (salt seller). Duchamp is important here for his mechanical “Nude Descending the Staircase,” a reference to the nude dancing Man here. Another reference: Bruno Schultz was a Polish author and painter who mixed fantasy and personal memories in his stories. I suppose the reference by metaphor means that Mozart mixed fantasies and personal memories in his music as well.

Scatological jokes remind us that Mozart was quite immature as a person, taking delight in belching and flatulence (amply shown in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus). Greenaway follows suit. The singer (Astrid Seriese) mentions “a little sulphur” as part of the recipe for making man, and the corresponding visual is a high angle down on the dancer’s buttocks, primary site for sulphuric flatulence. The singer intones “and a smell.” In the spectator box is a woman with a cue card for “rectum” and the entire audience responds by holding its many noses. A man draped in his tuba climbs a ladder next to a sign for “gall bladder.” Ladder and bladder are enjoined by way of metonymy, even as the man seems to wear his tuba externally the way the gall bladder would be internally.

All of these jokes would seem to make Mozart into silly games. No so. Mozart was a mixture of silly man and sublime musician, and Greenaway has captured both. In the same way he sabotaged Dante in A TV Dante with all the contemporary postmodern images (planes, war footage, etc.), he also showed Dante to be the first visceral poet of the body. Likewise for Mozart. While all the sight and sound jokes seem to undercut our homage to Mozart, they really end up portraying both his immaturity and his brilliance. I should point out that Greenaway himself emerges as both immature and brilliant as well. His framing of the action makes everything seem like a hung painting or a theatrical performance, certainly not anything “realistic.” Artifice is flaunted, even ironised, as when Ben Craft leaves the space of the operating table and dances atop the many tiers of the spectators. It looks like he has gone from foreground to background. But then Greenaway has another screen of action moving right to left behind the spectators, so there’s a new background and the dancer, then, is still foregrounded! Sacha Vierny’s camera and Chris Wyatt’s editing conspire to be the invisible other dancer to Ben Craft’s dancing. Through a process called optical printing, Craft seems to step out of himself, “evolve” from himself as it were, and the overall effect is stunning, not unlike the motion studies of Eadward Muybridge over one hundred years ago.

The film doesn’t end with the chandeliers swinging and the fertility and germs alternating between the dancer’s upstretched legs as he stands on his head. Rather, it ends with the spectators coming forward and cheering/clapping on top of a table, just as we might expect at the end of a “performance” (similar to the play between actors and spectators in The Baby of Macon and our changing relationship to both as audience becomes actors). Just as the immortal music of Mozart finally triumphs over the mortal body of Mozart, so too the artifice triumphs over the real in Greenaway. In other words, Greenaway is never invisible in this process; he is always present in the homage to Mozart. In a sense he stands in our way of appreciating Mozart directly. As with Dante before, Greenaway seems to eclipse Mozart in his supposed homage to him.

About The Author

William Van Wert teaches film and creative writing at Temple University (Philadelphia).