Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

10 September 2014

Two Musical Biographies

My favorite thing about Igor Talankin's Tchaikovsky (Чайковский) was the stunning costume design by Lyudmila Kusakova. Otherwise, it is standard, late-1960s biographical fare – it was released in the U.S. in 1972. It also omits all mention of homosexual affairs, if there were any. (Were there any? Inquiring minds want to know.) I recently also watched a biographical film about Frédéric Chopin called A Song to Remember from 1945 that is a more poorly made film than Tchaikovsky. In a lot of ways, though, Charles Vidor's A Song to Remember is a more interesting film than Tchaikovsky because it is such blatant nationalist propaganda for World War II.

Both Chopin and Tchaikovsky had guarded, mysterious personal lives, and neither of them felt the need to share whatever demons they possessed with the rest of the world. But Tchaikovsky treats those secret demons as a mystery, presenting the things we don't know simply and without comment – without attempting to understand them, really: Here they are. Pyotr Ilyich had night terrors. He was tormented. He couldn't figure out how to be happy. And this is how it must be to be a genius. And in its way, this mode of treating the mysterious emptiness at the center of this man whom the film does not understand is simply a way of giving up. It reminds me a bit of the way that Clint Eastwood so boringly treated the life of J. Edgar Hoover (surely a fascinating man, in fact). Tchaikovsky is sumptuously filmed – the costumes, I am telling you, are phenomenal (unfortunately, Google Images is being decidedly unhelpful as I try to search for examples) – but the film has nothing to say about the mysteries at the heart of this man.

This isn't to say that I think all biographies ought to be along the lines of Ray or Walk the Line, films that purport to explain an entire man's life through access to some particularly traumatic or marking incident in the man's childhood. But a perspective of some kind is welcome. A Song to Remember, while being totally silly and '40s and (therefore) part of the big studio propaganda machine, still makes some propositions about Chopin's life and work and his mysteries. To be sure, it explains Chopin's life as one torn between Polish nationalism and the love of an (ahem) evil, pants-wearing woman – Merle Oberon at her iciest – but it is at least some kind of explanation or perspective. It is at least a theory. I think I will always prefer those kind of risky explanations to the "just the facts ma'am" way that so many people think biography ought to be done these days.