In this week’s piece, Max DeCurtins reveals the unbearable heaviness of being a classical musician in his re-view of 2002’s Food of Love.
“The real trouble is that even if you have heard it, it’s still difficult music to know. And knowing Bach doesn’t mean knowing that he died in Leipzig in 1750 and that he had two wives and twenty-one children. It means knowing the music.” –Leonard Bernstein, Omnibus telecast, March 31, 1957
I think I realized fairly early in college that I would probably not make my living as a performing musician. For one thing, I don’t like music performance competitions, a staple of a successful performance career. And, for another, however much I wanted (and still want) to gain conservatory-level musical technique, I simply couldn’t make that my life at that point in my life. Something told me I needed to learn other things in college, like social skills and how to contribute to a community. This realization crystallized just a little bit more in 2005, when I read Mozart in the Jungle, an account by ex-oboist Blair Tindall of her struggles, sundry and sordid, to attain that holy grail of instrumental musicians: a tenured position with a symphony orchestra (and not just any orchestra—the New York Philharmonic, no less).
In retrospect this account, I think, tried much too hard to aspire (stoop?) to the level of exposé, a cautionary tale of sex and waste for anyone considering making a career out of classical music performance. Let’s also not forget that oboists, like all woodwind players, have it a bit tougher: a major orchestra will only require two, maybe three players for each wind instrument—the third player taking the “doubling” role on other, lesser-employed instruments of the same family: piccolo, alto and bass flutes, English Horn, bass and contrabass clarinets, and contrabassoon. Contrast this with the twenty to twenty-eight violinists a major orchestra requires, and you begin to understand the roots of the frustration that led Tindall to write her tell-all.
I can remember feeling initially excited that classical music had a large role to play in a contemporary film—it’s what prompted me to watch it in the first place—but I also remember this film leaving me rather depressed. Like Mozart in the Jungle several years later, it seemed to whisper the inescapable failure and misery that would surely haunt any aspirations to a career as a performer. Ten years ago, I thought that this depression stemmed from the stark picture the movie painted of the world of classical music which, for whatever reason, I seemed to think reasonably accurate at the time. It turns out that Food of Love makes one feel shitty for other reasons, ones that resonate with a much broader audience, and that only begin to make sense in the post-college, career-path-commencing stage of life. It also turns out that, despite the Shakespearean title, the music in the movie itself plays the same subservient role it always has.
Western art music is, even for those who rightly ignore the sociocultural narratives that have become parasitically attached to it, not the most approachable of things. We speak a language of exotic terminology, with forbidding items such as “countersubject,” “enharmonic modulation,” and “half-diminished seventh chord in third inversion.” Of course, every field has its argot, so we can’t exactly blame the jargon. The average age of a concert attendee hews slightly to the north of Social Security collection age, and both we as musicians as well as our audience tend to take the amazing quality of the music as obviously self-evident, which, as Ambrose Bierce reminds us, means “evident to one’s self and to nobody else.” OK, so we could do a better job here.
And we have, for better or worse, the kind of nerd who—Trekkie-like—owns shelves full of multiple recordings of various works, complete recordings of this or that opus by this or that ensemble, DVDs of conductors in rehearsal or in concert, and can generally point out minutiae even most musicians don’t (or wouldn’t care to) know. I know these people; they really do exist. Josh Lyman, of The West Wing, eloquently (well, eloquently for Josh) points out that this is fetishism masquerading as fandom. Generally speaking, at this level one can easily lose sight of the larger picture. As Leonard Bernstein noted, it remains—in the end—all about the music, and this kind of nerd-like approach to classical music can frequently turn people off because it makes the music about what you know, not what you hear. And that, more than the argot and the geriatric concertgoer, is a problem.
Paul Porterfield (the baby-faced Kevin Bishop), aspiring concert pianist, exemplifies this kind of nerd. Paul worships at once the artist and the recording as an embodiment of the artist (or worse, the recording as “the piece”), naïvely and conveniently forgetting that the CD no more represents a single, perfect performance than a film does a continuous temporal span. Both have passed beneath the finger-controlled dials of many an editor, assembled and spliced together from a multitude of sources, to the point where we must ask exactly who the performer is and what the performance. And in his worship, Paul fails to internalize the music.
Paul wouldn’t know, for example, how to engage with Bach’s Art of Fugue, a work totally without pretensions to showy performance (or even, possibly, to being performed). Even to use the word “how” suggests a correct way and an incorrect way to approach the music, itself a fallacy. Paul lacks a raw, physiological response to the music; he wouldn’t understand why a short, “simple” harmonized Bach chorale with an obbligato instrumental part can reduce me to a blubbering, incoherent, blissful mess. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that anyone else would understand—Bierce tells the truth, after all—but the point stands that Paul, caught up in his fetishism, clearly has not done the one and only thing that Western art music asks its listeners to do: to listen with a minimum of distraction so that one may meet the music on its own ground and hear what it has to say.
If Paul Porterfield does succeed at anything, prattling on like a clueless teenager certainly tops the list. This exaggerated naïveté seems to function as an important defense mechanism for the baby-faced teenager who feels, for the first time, the intense pressure of being purposefully, aggressively hit on by an adult. An astute observer will note that the storied show Queer as Folk did the same thing (far more effectively, in this reviewer’s opinion) in its first episodes with Justin and Brian. Combine this with Paul’s Trekkie-like musical nerd-dom and you get some pretty excruciating stuff, such as the scene in the music store, which finds Richard desperate for nonmusical interaction (among other things) and Paul nattering away, unable to tether his iconic adulation of Kennington to the flesh and blood human standing right in front of him.
While tempting to dismiss Paul as especially deluded, I think the discomfort we feel in watching this stems from the fact that Paul is, in fact, not crazy. History amply demonstrates that humans have a natural ability to idolize other people when properly motivated. How else do we explain American Idol? And what about exceptionally famous movie stars? How many fans, chancing to meet Daniel Radcliffe on the street, do you think would behave toward him in a manner that suggests they really do believe he can point his wand, spout off some pseudo-Latin, and do magic? How many would not treat him as the relatively short, but otherwise ordinary, guy from London’s West End that he is?
Try as I might, I can’t seem to find a satisfactory raison d’être for Food of Love within the world of music. When Paul and Richard first begin their affair in Barcelona, one thinks the movie might tell the story of a passionate and clandestine affair between a professional musician and his protégé, which would, I suppose, make for a compelling tale. The classical music world has, of course, long had drama of the romantic type between master and student. It has even seen same-sex instances of this (Leonard Bernstein a notable example). Generally, the students have gone on to highly successful careers (see: Michael Tilson Thomas). But that era increasingly looks well and truly past; our social mores (not to mention our laws), and most especially our loose relationship to tools of mass communication hardly tolerate teachers who get involved with students. This potential master-student affair aspect of, or lens for, the story would therefore seem more than a little dead on arrival.
And yet the movie can’t quite let go of this story that might have been; indeed, it resurrects the idea at the very end, when Pamela relates the myth of Zeus and Ganymede. Not usually included among the Greek mythology taught in American classrooms, the myth tells of Zeus becoming enamored of the youth Ganymede, most beautiful of all mortals, and the former’s promise to make the latter immortal as cup-bearer to the gods of Olympus.
While tempting to map this to a scenario in which Richard makes Paul “immortal” by catapulting him to fame as a concert pianist, we would do well to remember that paintings depicting Ganymede by masters such as Rembrandt and Rubens often bear the title The Rape of Ganymede. Representations of Ganymede in Grecian art show him as a strong, supple youth, while the aforementioned European artists make Ganymede more or less your standard-issue plump naked male infant, often positioned in such a way as to suggest submissiveness—or haplessness. On the one hand it seems clear that the Europeans tried to suppress Ganymede’s longstanding associations with homoeroticism, while on the other the implication seems to say that if indeed the relationship with Zeus did not remain platonic, at least the two are not equals.
Pamela seems to forget in the course of her deus ex machina bonding with Paul in the closing moments of the movie that the myth also tells of an exceedingly jealous Hera, who believes Ganymede has replaced her in Zeus’ affections. So while the myth provides a more or less useful framework for understanding the relationship of the principal characters, Food of Love still struggles to find its tale.
Food of Love particularly exasperates me because it perpetuates outdated stereotypes of classical music, its study, and its performance. Out of the great conservatories of central and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century came fiercely virtuosic soloists and a public reception that pinned prodigal performance abilities to those areas of Europe. Though we generally consider it impolitic to acknowledge, many of the virtuosos that emigrated to the U.S. did so largely thanks to European political instability and not one but two World Wars, and when they began teaching here they quickly formed schools of performance practice. In some cases, they did not teach students so much as gain disciples, often enough by force of personality.
This generation of musicians has largely passed on. Those teaching now hail from China, South Korea, Japan, even Israel, as well as, of course, the U.S. Food of Love, meanwhile, stays hopelessly stuck on the crusty, outdated European model of music education and so gives Paul a little old Russian lady for a piano teacher. She says things to Paul that few, if any, piano teachers of today would dare say to their students in this, the Age of the Helicopter Parent. She utters, moreover, one of the most unforgivably hackneyed lines ever to disgrace the lips of man: “It’s called the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier,’ not the ‘Ill-Tempered Clavier.’” And just like that, Bach’s towering achievement, one of the pillars of the Western canon—a collection of not one but two books of preludes and fugues in each and every key, astonishing in its depth and variety, technically formidable, so powerfully influential that it conspicuously transformed the late-career works of Mozart and Beethoven—gets stripped of its dignity.
It presents classical music with all the negativity of the fatalistic, twentieth-century view that many critics have taken of the music’s “worth,” which is to say that the music is only worth what the consumer-driven application of “market values” judges it to be. Never do we see any kind of suggestion that the engagement with the music, and not the “talent” of the performer, makes the classical repertoire so compelling and rewarding. Never do the characters express their wonderment about the musical works themselves. And for a film trying to position itself in the world of Western music, it quite freely butchers Bach and Brahms alike. Chopin also figures prominently in the film, but the glimpses we get of his music all follow the six-cylinder engine school of Romantic piano performance: a performance full of frenetic tempos and wholly unmusical phrasing (where phrases even emerge from the sonic texture).
A particularly wince-inducing example of this comes in the scene of the studio class at Juilliard with Zenon (I’m sorry, what kind of half-baked parent gives their child that name?), who “plays” the Chopin B-minor prelude as if the piano keys burned his fingers at every touch. He seems, in fact, downrightangry with the piece—a not unfair reaction to Chopin, I must say; the bastard wrote damnably difficult music to play (and even more difficult to perform convincingly). But Romantic music has always walked a delicate line between slightly unfeeling, technique-oriented performance and trite, over-indulgent performance that heaves every rubato like someone with chest congestion gasping to fill his lungs with air, and drops just a little too much drama on each harmonic change in Chopin’s E-minor prelude.
Even at the very beginning, Food of Love shows signs of falling victim to this “all about the performer” trap that classical music too often sets for itself thanks to the “cult of the virtuoso” that the nineteenth century bequeathed us. In the performance in San Francisco, Richard Kennington flops his hair in a way that says: “I’m important. I’m the reason you came to this concert. Pay attention to me.” Contemporary virtuoso pianists have even adopted the pop artist practice of going by one name: several years ago, Yundi Li became simply “Yundi.” In this situation, it doesn’t really matter whether one performs Chopin or Liszt, sentimentally or mechanically. Music? What music?
By now we’ve seen how the movie offers a quasi-framework for the main characters but actually lacks a story, and how it buys wholeheartedly into the narrative of the “cult of the virtuoso” that has both benefited and plagued classical music since the nineteenth century. While the virtuoso remains alive and well, the narrative has been dying out. So what, then, is this movie actually about, and why does it make me feel so shitty?
Food of Love tells a number of small stories about how people lie, self-deceive, and use each other. Paul wants to use Richard and/or Joseph as a means of entry into a career as a concert pianist. Using his physical beauty as an asset, a means to an end, Paul miscalculates and becomes a victim of that same physical beauty, evidenced by his boy toy-sugar daddy relationship with Alden and his reduction to rent boy by Joseph. I suppose this question can remain open to interpretation; it depends on whether one views Paul as a victim or as a full participant. Pamela uses Paul and everyone else in her life for emotional stability. Richard tries to use Paul and Pamela to escape the pressures of his professional life, his celebrity, and—we can assume—a moribund relationship. Richard uses Paul, quite simply, for sex. Joseph lies to Richard about Paul’s actions, obfuscating his own active infidelity. Paul deceives himself for a while about his career prospects, and Pamela spends the entire movie deceiving herself that her husband has not left her and that her son is not gay.
Perhaps because the movie centers so heavily on the superficiality of people using each other and deceiving themselves, the straitjackets that the writers have imposed on the characters become especially apparent. Like the movie’s outdated model of classical music, the character’s profiles bear an equally early-twentieth-century stamp. How, for example, can we possibly take seriously the blunt charge of “hysteria” that Paul levels at Pamela? Did Freud coach the scriptwriters?
I realize now that the movie illustrates, with varying degrees of accuracy, what I hate about “networking.” Perhaps no other euphemism of our current zeitgeist inspires in me the raw revulsion that the bandying about of the gerund “networking” does. While I acknowledge on a purely technical level the validity of applying this word to the perfectly legitimate need to advance one’s business interests, “networking” nevertheless feels saturated in the worst kind of bald-faced falsehood. Let’s be honest here: to “network” means to find ways of using people to get access to other people, people of—so the implication goes—real value to you or to your business. The drive to “network” teaches us to approach new acquaintances, potential friends in waiting, with the question: “What can this relationship do for me?” Seeing this kind of modus operandi so thoroughly on display in the movie, and knowing that it is not all that far-fetched is, finally, why Food of Love makes me feel so depressed.
Watching this movie became almost unbearable. The script itself, while not atrocious, lacks fluidity and becomes mired every so often in clichés. None of the actors prove convincing, nor do they really own their roles. One might offer in particular the example of Paul’s sudden, stark, and startlingly sangfroid-backed decision to abandon his musical activities altogether. I don’t know about you, but at eighteen I certainly didn’t know anyone as coldly self-analytical as that.
And the music: well, let’s just say that, in an ironic twist, the film that throws a spotlight on classical music also subjugates and brutalizes it. One could hardly ask for a more elementary illustration of the deep paradox classical music faces, one that we as musicologists must grapple with at every turn: does an examination of music through a non-performative mediating lens (i.e., writing, or film) in fact diminish the very thing it seeks to elevate? In the end, can we really say anything that the music doesn’t already say, in some way and on some level?
Now comes perhaps the most difficult section of this review to write, as it contains a rather surprising admission, namely, that I can’t really begin to fathom why Food of Love incorporates gay characters, other than to follow The Page Turner, the David Leavitt novel that inspired the movie. Nobody here seems to have any questions as to their sexual identity: not Richard, not Joseph, and not even Paul. Their identities as gay men do not exert any influence over their daily lives or their careers, by which I mean to say that they certainly seem to suffer no stigma or hardship on account of their sexuality—in the scenes set in New York, we even glimpse the suggestion that to be wealthy, cultured, and gay represents a desirable state.
Strangely, the movie steadfastly avoids developing a coming-out storyline for Paul. Coming-out stories form, perhaps, the backbone of most gay-themed storytelling in movies and on TV; only relatively recently has our culture begun to validate stories that start with the sexuality of the characters established as a matter of course. Here I attribute Paul’s lack of coming-out not to the shifting winds of culture that have brought us such G-rated shows as Modern Family and now The New Normal, but to the fact that being gay doesn’t in fact seem all that important to Paul’s character.
Pamela’s relationship, if indeed it qualifies as such, to her son’s homosexuality—and really to male homosexuality in general—never leaves the land of fear and stereotype. That we see Pamela learn almost nothing about parenting a gay child only makes Food of Love even more disappointing. When the clash between Pamela and Paul finally comes, Paul doesn’t explicitly out himself with a declarative statement (“Mom, I’m gay”); instead he goes for something cruder yet more oblique (“What did you want him to say? ‘I’m sorry, I’m having an affair with your son; I hope you don’t mind.’”).
The movie seems, irritatingly, to make every male character of consequence ipso facto gay; even Paul’s roommate, whom we see only briefly, gets painted with this brush: a small passing scene reveals that he recommended, and loaned, E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice to Paul. Maurice describes the awakening (for want of a less trite term) of Maurice Hall to his true passions, as he falls in love first with his best friend Clive Durham (reciprocating Clive’s advances) and then with under-gamekeeper Alec Scudder, of whose lower social class the novel never loses track. Certainly in the 1987 film adaptation, one can argue that the real story belongs as much to Clive as it does to Maurice; unhappily wedded to a hapless young woman, Clive ends up realizing that the joke’s on him—though to have embraced his sexuality would have courted danger, he might just have ended up with the man he loves. Maurice took that risk and was rewarded handsomely for it. I wanted very badly to see something of the same boldness in Food of Love, that to help (or make music) for others you must first help (or make music) for yourself, and that the reward—while perhaps not what you expected—merits the effort. I needed to feel that Paul being gay had some key connection with his music-making, or even with his failure to tap into his real inner musician, but I never did.
These things lead to one inevitable, perhaps impolitic, question: does the gayness really contribute anything? If so, what does it say about us? Do we find the entity of the film more compelling, or more provocative, with gay characters? Does the director intend us to? Especially given recent progress for gay rights in the U.S., watching this movie pissed me off quite a bit. I feel angry not because of the poor quality of the film, not because it does classical music a monstrous disservice, but because it wastes a rather large opportunity actually to tell a compelling story, to make a broader point. For this the film’s producers should have gone straight to Dan Savage. Food of Love needed to make a case for everyone labeled as Other, whether because of a passion for classical music rather than—or in addition to—football, or because of perceived, or actual, gayness. As President Bartlet famously said: “No, I don’t understand that. The center fielder for the Yankees is an accomplished classical guitarist. People who like baseball can’t like books?”
And as easily as I can dismiss it as just another bad movie, I cannot help but want more from Food of Love. Perhaps if it had truly embraced—or at least understood—the music it portrays, it might have succeeded, for classical music aspires to transcend the “cage of those meticulous ink strokes,” as F. Murray Abrams doing a mad Antonio Salieri might have put it, and become something more.
Most people, I think, would feel flattered to have their appearance compared to that of a particular celebrity. Me, I find it quite creepy to realize that an actor resembles one of my real friends. That Richard Kennington bears a striking likeness to a female friend of mine adds a gender-bending element to the mix whenever I see the character on screen.
In a Henry Higgins moment, I feel compelled to say that my urge to smack Paul stems in no small part from his particular phonology, especially his use of the alveolar tap/flap [ɾ] where most English speakers expect a fully- or partially-aspirated stop [tʰ]. And though I suppose I must attribute it to Bishop’s British origins, for a purported Californian he speaks laughably poor Spanish.
One of the major bones I have to pick comes at the beginning of the movie, one that I do not forgive easily. All directors should have a motto taped to their trailer mirrors that goes something like this: Do Not Do a Scene Depicting Live Music Unless You Plan to Hire Real Musicians. You have to understand; we get so excited at the prospect of seeing classical music performance depicted on the silver screen. There’s a reason why composers loved setting music to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: Orpheus represents one of the few mythical heroes renowned especially for his musical abilities; his playing gets him past Charon and manipulates even Hades himself. Musician Power, yeah! (Insert fist bump here.) Nothing, and I do mean nothing, pisses us off quite like seeing you, the director, cheap out by hiring ignoramus extras to masquerade as musicians when you need to show live musical performance on screen. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the talent pool out there certainly doesn’t lack for real musicians in need of a gig or two.