Scripps-Howard News Service 5.29.02
Last Friday, The New York Times carried an extensive review of
the new film "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing."
The reviewer, A. O. Scott, applies a rather all-embracing, cosmic
perspective to what he himself describes as a variation on any number
of previous films with very ordinary stories. Is then the headline,
"Tangled Up in the Laws of the Universe, if There Are Any,"
somewhat over the top perchance?
Be that as it may, my attention was drawn to the following: "[The
director's] conception of form is, ultimately, musical. Watching
'Thirteen Conversations'...is a bit like listening to a Schubert
piano concerto; you perceive, at the far boundary of consciousness,
echoes and foreshadowings, and you encounter, always by surprise
and always in retrospect, at exactly the right moment passages of
intense and ravishing emotions."
Now, I have been playing the piano since the age of five - beginning
at twelve, professionally. Never have such thoughts about Schubert's
piano concerto(s) occurred to me. This is serious stuff. I mean,
how many of us are actually aware of the far boundaries of consciousness?
How many of us can perceive echoes and foreshadowings?
And then the surprise of encountering - always in retrospect! -
passages of intense and ravishing emotions, not just any old time,
but at exactly the right moment?!
You have to wonder how Schubert was able to deliver stuff like
that. He was a modest man, short in stature, rather pathetic and
lonely. For sure, he was possessed of a heavenly gift about which
a teacher of his said when Franz was little - "there's nothing
I can teach this lad; he's got it straight from God himself."
But Schubert had no reason to think grandiose thoughts. When, toward
the end of his life, friends finally put together a concert of his
compositions, the Viennese press stayed away.
Still, by the time Schubert died at the age of thirty-one, he had
composed much music of exceptional beauty, not in the way of echoes
and foreshadowings, but right there upon first encounter.
Is there something different, though, about Schubert's piano concerto(s)?
I looked through all the Schubert literature we have on our bookshelves.
No one else seems to have encountered - either by surprise or by
retrospect - passages of intense and ravishing emotions in the piano
Does A. O. Scott hear something the rest of us do not?
Or is this a new fashion - comparisons between things that are
not the least bit comparable? Schubert was one of probably not more
than a dozen-or-so men in history who composed music of that magnitude.
The film being reviewed here, according to the reviewer, is one
of thirteen similar ones produced just during the last decade.
A piano concerto is a rather specific medium that sets one very
powerful instrument against a body of instruments, at times in a
competing, at times in a complementary fashion. There is practically
no way in which a film could be anything similar to a piano concerto
by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms or Bartok.
Would Schubert's piano concerto(s) be so different?
The sad truth is that we are inundated with inappropriate comparisons.
When Elton John came on the scene, people compared him to Liszt.
Please. When someone appears to know a thing or two about more than
his narrow profession, he is called "a renaissance man."
Barbara Walters compared Debra Winger to Ingrid Bergman.
And not only in the arts: The other day, President Bush called
the Islamic threat to the world "the new totalitarianism,"
and proposed to Germany's legislative body that the instigators
of terrorism are doing the same as "those who killed to purify
With all due respect to the president and his commitment to the
war thrust upon him, there is not the slightest resemblance. On
one side you have the Third Reich with its outstanding technology,
its successful occupation of country after country, its precisely
targeted extermination of specific human beings. On the other, we
see a large segment of humanity devoid of accomplishment for long
centuries, frustrated beyond endurance by a world passing them by,
lashing out in a blind rage.
Evil is evil, but comparisons must fit, or they just add to the
Take Schubert. True, he composed around one thousand works - symphonies,
sonatas, string quartets, hundreds of songs. But the expansive reference
to his piano concerto(s) in the film review is most confusing.
Because, you see, Schubert didn't write any.