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Doing Serious Things In an Un-Serious Way

Wasn't there a best-selling book of the 'self help' type, several years ago, with a title like "Everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten?" I never read it. Perhaps it referred to the fact that most people agree with many of the general principles and proverbs that are supposed to guide you in living your life. But the trouble is in the applications...

...or rather, putting the moral platitudes into practice. I don't think the main problem is intellectual; rather, it is the inability of a cliché to engage our imaginations and to motivate us to alter our behavior. That is why I was excited about the consequences of failing at reading Dostoevsky for the umpteenth time: for the first time in my life I became wildly appreciative of the principle of doing serious things in a not-so-serious way.

This is not a new idea of course. Essentially it is equivalent to Walt Disney's "whistle while you work" song in one of his animated classics. But what a difference it is to breathe life into an old principle, and to make it yours.

Usually it is 'suffering' or dire necessity that brings a platitude to life for me. I can't think of a better topic to write about on a personal blog. But what if the personal experience that brought the platitude to life for me is uninteresting and useless to the reader?

One possible solution is to move the general principle to a more universal context, such as a classic movie or book. Many readers have probably seen or heard about the award-winning movie "Amadeus", made back in the 1980s. Personally, I never appreciated Mozart's music until I saw this wonderful movie, despite being a classical music and opera fan for many years before the movie.

Apparently this happened to many people. To some, listening to Mozart is something you do only when it is homework. Imagine a BBC or NPR program on Mozart: a professor of Musicology or History of the Movies would talk at the camera. A bald, middle-aged, white guy with glasses, lecturing the camera. How exciting! He would bore you with a thousand-and-one historical facts about Mozart and his times, or the technicalities of music, etc. He would condescendingly tell you what the consensus of the experts is, about Mozart. The word 'genius' would be used 15 times. And you would change the channel.

But in the play and the movie, Mozart is presented less as a historical personage than as an object of envy to his rival, Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. (His old man/young Salieri performance is the best I have ever seen in the movies.) 

Before a musical performance there was food, drink, and talk. During this, Salieri tried to guess which young fellow actually was Mozart. The answer astonished Salieri. Salieri then acted out the music that Mozart conducted. I think that this performance (and the writing behind it) converted me to Mozart, once and for all.

Throughout the movie, the viewer is delighted with humor and wit, and visual scenes. The historical buildings in Prague were gorgeous and authentic. Or consider the late 18th century costumes: for male chauvinist pigs there was ample decolletage in the women's dresses, sometimes to the point of making the woman look like toothpaste squirting out the top of the dress. For fools like me, there is a scene between Mozart and dogs! Even the kiddies looked cute in their little 18th century costumes, and I am not prone to calling children cute.

The music was well chosen. Even better, it was made visual: Mozart's operas were featured so the viewer could see something. Just think how easy it would have been to let the camera rest on an orchestra of musicians sawing away on their instruments. Could anything have been more boring?

Thus, every trick of trade was used to delight the movie viewer with Mozart's music. He wasn't homework anymore! That is a significant and serious addition to a person's life, and yet it was accomplished in a delightful way.


XXXXX said…
Well, kind of. However, the problem often is that the truth is necessarily tweaked quite a bit in order to bring on this "non-serious" aspect, which is really better called "entertainment." Then the person leaves the scene believing they have learned a thing or two and it is inaccurate. Case in point..."Amadeus."
Ed said…
"...for the first time in my life I became wildly appreciative of the principle of doing serious things in a not-so-serious way."

Perhaps it is just me but I read the above to be the theme for this blog posting not how truthful the not-so-serious ways happen to be. Movies are entertainment, except for propaganda films which I don't think Amadeus was, but do offer serious issues in ways that are not serious (nor truthful). I think kaBLOOnie has used Amadeus as an example of a movie that presented a 'serious' issue, music appreciation, in an entertaining/not-so-serious way.

So what if the person watched the movie and came away with inaccurate facts if the intent was to instill music appreciation. The facts will be soon forgotten but perhaps the love for Mozart's music will remain.

Full disclosure: I never saw the movie and I when I had decent hearing I listened to Country & Western. Since my hearing has deteriorated I listen to nothing.

Wow Ed, your comment was knocking the ball out of the park, until it mentioned Country/Western music. (grin)
XXXXX said…
I understand that it is perhaps not so easy to naturally appreciate a genre of music that has gone out of style, so to speak. The danger I pointed out is something I observe with historical fiction as well. It's not a big deal really.
Just an observation. When I attend local opera here that is an HD transmission from the Met, the best of the best, the creme de la creme, it is always poorly attended. This includes the Mozart operas as well. Yet, when the local song and dance company puts on a performance, the place is packed, and the plots are pretty lame.
Obviously I think the music we are speaking of is beautiful in its own right and there's something about such a movie that gives me the impression that the music needs to be treated with "a little bit of sugar to help the medicine go down."
In defense of George's comment...

I think his problem with "Amadeus" was the same that I had with "Shakespeare in Love." I went in expecting historical biography, and was offended with condescending, crowd-pleasing entertainment.

It was only when I renounced my premise of history that I was able to see the script as a work of imaginative fiction. Once I played along with that, I noticed my appreciation for Shakespeare's ouvre going up drastically. (Notice that I said 'ouvre', not 'Shakespeare.')
XXXXX said…
Do disagree that the facts would be soon forgotten. Educators use this technique all the time with their students, presenting facts in an entertaining way simply because it is so effective in remembering them.
Of course, I suppose having accurate facts about Mozart doesn't really matter. He's dead but the music can still be played today.
Yes, that is a good way to say it: "a spoonful of sugar..."

But we agree that this old saying should not be degraded into: "let's get rid of the medicine, and replace it with a glaze of NOTHING BUT sugar."