What to do while watching: : Hum the song to yourself,
if you know it, and compare the narrative lyric with what you're
seeing on screen.
What to eat while watching:
Dear readers, I wish you the best of years in 2002. May peace come to you and yours, and to all the earth, and may we feel an increase in compassion and understanding.
I thank you for reading my column, and thank you for staying with me in spite of my lapse in updates during this season. To celebrate the New Year, I have a slight change of pace for this review, namely, a piece of reference material at its end (you may wish to scroll down to see it now). This piece is "Alma," a lyric by the one and only Tom Lehrer. The song, as you will see, depicts the romantic ventures of Alma Mahler(-Gropius-Werfel), "the loveliest girl in Vienna," who managed to woo and marry several of the prominent artists of the day. Like all of Lehrer's material, the styling and craft are impeccable.
As I've known Lehrer's work, and this song, for years, I was bound to feel a sense of familiarity when Alma's life finally made it to the silver screen--and it certainly was destined to do so. But what I wasn't prepared for by the song is the depth of character that Alma displays.
Whereas the song paints her to be somewhat of a floozy, or at least a "player," the film explores much more carefully the passion that drives her. Furthermore, it makes a point of acknowledging her talent as a composer. It becomes clear why so many lucid minds of her age would find her so compelling and want to be with her.
As you read in the song, Alma first marries Gustav Mahler, the great composer, played by the great Jonathan Pryce. He stifles her creativity, but she loves him and stays with him in spite of overtures from Walter Gropius, a young architect who she meets while staying at the sanitarium after a family tragedy. When Mahler dies, however, Alma meets artist Oscar something-or-other. (I can't remember his name because he isn't in the song.) Oscar is a highly passionate roisterer, but also an obsessive personality. Alma's love with him is fiery and dangerous. She never marries him (or the painter Gustav Climt, who is a steady presence in Alma's life).
Instead, she marries Gropius at last. The film creates two women friends of Alma's who are able to represent the grapevine of Vienna: it seems Mahler was a widely respected aristocrat while Oscar was diametrically opposite: a mongrel and a fierce iconoclast as an artist. Alma, bouncing between the two poles finds Walter Gropius to be the perfect middle ground: sturdy, steady, handsome, conservative.
She stays married to him until she meets writer Franz Werfel, and discovers, again, a passionate soul. He is a winning character who convinces her to go back to her composing. They court for years, finally marry, and move to Hollywood, where, the film tells us, she writes her autobiography and publishes several songs. And that's where she dies so that Tom Lehrer can read her obituary and composed his wonderful homage
The film ends happily. The thread of jealousy that links each lover up until Werfel is finally broken. Whereas Mahler was jealous of Alma's composing; and Oscar was jealous of Alma's bust of Mahler; and Gropius was jealous of the sketches Oscar made of Alma; Franz Werfel finally lets the innate passion of the woman have its own sway. The way Werfel is portrayed, Alma has finally met her peer, who treats her with all the respect and freedom she wants.
The characterizations are good, the acting is engaging, the settings are delightful, and the tale is romantic and untroubled. I recommend it as a mild evening's entertainment. And now...
"Alma" by Tom Lehrer
Prologue: "Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary that has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe, and, among these lovers--who were listed in the obituary, by the way, which was what made it so interesting--there were three whom she went so far as to marry: one of the leading composers of the day, Gustav Mahler, composer of Das Lied von der Erde and other light classics; one of the leading architects, Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus school of design; and one of the leading writers, Franz Werfel, author of the Song of Bernadette and other masterpieces. It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years. It seemed to me, in reading this obituary, that the story of Alma was the stuff of which ballads should be made so here is one.
The loveliest girl in Vienna
Her lovers were many and varied,
Alma, tell us!
The first one she married was Mahler,
Their marriage, however, was murder.
Alma, tell us!
While married to Gus, she met Gropius,
But he would work late at the Bauhaus,
Alma, tell us!
While married to Walt she'd met Werfel,
And that is the story of Alma,
Alma, tell us!
Epilogue: I know some people feel that marriage as
an institution is dying out, but I disagree and the point was
driven home to me rather forcefully not long ago by a letter
I received which said: "Darling, I love you and I cannot
live without you. Marry me, or I will kill myself." Well,
I was a little disturbed at that until I took another look at
the envelope and saw that it was addressed to "Occupant."
Speaking of love, one problem that recurs more and more frequently
these days in books, and plays, and movies and so on, is the
inability of people to communicate with the people they love.
Husbands and wives who can't communicate; children who can't
communicate with their parents, and so on. And the characters
in these books, and plays, and so on, and in real life, I might
add, spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can't communicate.
I feel that if a person can't communicate the very least he can
do is to shut up.