Monday, December 12, 2011

Michael Broyles's "Beethoven in America"

Michael Broyles is Professor of Music at Florida State University and former Distinguished Professor of Music and Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University. His book, Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices, written with Denise Von Glahn, won the Irving Lowens Prize in 2007.

He here shares some ideas about adapting--and casting the adaptation of-- his new book, Beethoven in America:
How do you make a movie about story that spans two-hundred years of American history, about an icon who was long dead, and when alive never set foot on America? It’s not easy, but Hollywood has always relished challenges. Some possibilities:
In a recent Broadway play, 33 Variations, Beethoven bridged time and space to appear to Jane Fonda. He also visited a dysfunctional twentieth-century family in Beethoven’s Tenth. Why not again? The Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller wrote passionate letters to Beethoven as if he were there. In the film he could actually respond. Think of the cinematic fantasies that could unleash, think what a director could do with that.

Theosophy, which made great use of Beethoven, grew out of the nineteenth-century Spiritualist movement, of the world of séances. Much more exciting than a few random ghostly raps on the kitchen table, Beethoven could announce himself, tap-tap-tap-taaaaaaaaaap.

Katherine Thomas, The Great Kat of the heavy metal world, claims to be Beethoven reincarnated. There could be a complete transformation here.

“Beethoven was black.” This could be a serious treatment of a hotly debated political and social issue in the 1960s and 70s or Beethoven himself could appear in a completely different guise. The possibilities are endless.

Beethoven could straighten out the musicologists who in the 1970s poured endlessly over all his sketches to glean his intentions. No amount of scholarship could beat a little channeling.
It would be a sprawling film, a postmodern agglomeration of vignettes held together by cascades of heady, powerful music.

We already have two Beethoven’s from recent films, Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved and Ed Harris in Copying Beethoven. For my money Ed Harris gets the nod. Natalie Portman could play Margaret Fuller, a brilliant, high-spirited feminist of the early nineteenth century who found Beethoven’s music to be, among other qualities, erotic. Katherine Thomas could play Katherine Thomas, although I’m not sure of the transformation. Jamie Foxx, who demonstrated that he could capture Ray Charles, could be the black Beethoven, or he could be Malcolm X, who argued the case for Beethoven’s ethnic identity.
Learn more about Beethoven in America at the Indiana University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue