I just finished watching a lamentably pan-and-scanned version of Copying Beethoven on Netflix. This movie made my ears prick up when it was released five or so years ago, because I'm a Beethoven fiend, but lackluster reviews placed it on my Eternal Backburner.
Having finally seen it, I can say that it is very tastefully directed. I mean that in the most insulting possible sense. That's not to say it's a bad movie, exactly. It's just tasteful in that dull Oscar-bait way. As I was watching it, watching the extremely competent cinematography and the yeoman set design and costume work and highly professional acting, I wondered to myself, "why is this not cinema? What is going on here, directorially, to keep it mediocre?" And I'm not sure. It's really rather a well-made film. It just can't get out from under its own Mirimax-ness, its own late-November-Oscar-Movie-ness. Which is a pity because Ed Harris embodies Beethoven better than I thought he would, bringing coarse vulgarity, brute physicality, and childlike enthusiasm to the role. He is a better, more rounded Beethoven than Immortal Beloved's Gary Oldman, though the latter more precisely resembles the famous stormy portraits. The shaggy middle-aged uncouth artist is hardly a new trope (think Nick Nolte in New York Stories), but here and there I saw moments where I imagined, yes, that is probably just what Beethoven looked like walking down the street or crouching over his piano with a weird ear-horn on his head. So I cherish that. Because, as I said, I'm a Beethoven fiend.
But on the blu-ray player to my left, on the bigscreen, simultaneously, was John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And I swiveled back and forth between these two movies, thinking 'cinema - not cinema' and then questioning that thought. Do I respect the Huston more simply because I was told, growing up, that I ought to? But here's the thing about it: it's written visually in a way that Copying Beethoven, for all its staid competence, is not. The shots in Sierra Madre hardly ever require the assistance of audio to make narrative sense -- it works as a silent almost as well as it works as a talkie. And there's a rough-hewn, engraven quality to that imagery; certain stills might have been pulled out of a Durer sketchbook, if Durer had ever gone to Mexico. Look at the shot in which Bogart, having gone mad with lust of wealth, tries to fall asleep all alone in camp and is overtaken by foregrounded flames that with supreme obviousness signify Hell. The bright paranoiac gleam in Bogie's eyes, set against the dark grime of his face, burns itself into your consciousness by its very unreality. Fred C. Dobbs is a caricature, but a supreme caricature; we ridicule that dialogue, that tone of voice, to this day, because we can't divest ourselves of it. Yes, the flames are incredibly on-the-nose, but what of it? You remember them; and, as Harold Blum once praised Tolstoy's 'Hadji Murad' for its 'finely obvious' quality, I feel justified in doing the same for Sierra Madre.
Copying Beethoven ends with a shot of heroine Diane Kruger -- Beethoven's copyist, natch -- walking into a magic-hour meadow in a shot that might have been taken in 1978 and directed by Terence Malick. So there's that. For the rest, it's not really a movie you need to see unless you're a Beethoven fiend or an Ed Harris fiend. Being both myself, I don't regret the ninety minutes spent.