Why are we being compelled to think about how male pianists speak? King Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945) exerted no such pressure. Nor did Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Yet, while Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) presented a woman incapable of speech, François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1994) presented a man who was abnormally articulate – one who in the 22nd film, for example, rehearses the revealing personal ad: ‘Friendly, companionably reclusive, socially unacceptable, alcoholically abstemious, tirelessly talkative, zealously unzealous, spiritually intense, minimally turquoise, maximally ecstatic loon seeks moth or moths with similar equalities for purposes of telephonic seduction, Tristan-esque trip-taking.’ Now comes Scott Hicks’s Shine, an equally arty but commercially viable biopic about a man – David Helfgott (played by Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz) – who is abnormally inarticulate. Helfgott’s very first words are: ‘Kissed them all, I kissed them all, always kissed cats, puss-cats, kissed them, always did; if a cat’d let me kiss it, I’d kiss it – Cat on a fence I’ll kiss it – always, always, I will – didn’t I?’ His nearly final word, self-directed, is: ‘Stupstraight’. Julia Kristeva might call Helfgott’s way with words ‘semiotic’. Richard Alleva, in Commonweal, calls him ‘a manic babbler whose logical skips and leaps, wisecracks, speed-freak stutterings and surreal wordplays compose a weirdly poetic discourse’: a description that would apply as well to Helfgott’s more obvious precursor – the Mozart (both pianist and composer) Peter Schaffer presented in Amadeus (1979). His first words, addressed to Constanze, were even cattier than Helfgott’s: ‘Miaouw! I’m going to pounce-bounce! I’m going to scrunch-munch! I’m going to chew-poo my little mouse-wouse!’ The Shine screenplay makes the connection for us. Gay piano teacher Ben Rosen (Nicholas Bell), in a scene cut from the film, describes David’s father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), as a ‘poor man’s Leopold Mozart’.
Pianospeak, we’re to believe, indicates mental illness. Mozart was insane, according to a playwright too invested in Salieri’s resentment to be more specific. Gould was autistic, according to loony ‘Gould’ himself. Helfgott is, well, ‘it’s a mystery, a mystery, a mystery’, according to ‘Helfgott’. Not schizophrenic, for that would imply an aetiology the film can’t endorse. Instead, it suggests that Helfgott is incapacitated by the concerto he performs prematurely in order to please his father: Rachmaninov’s Third. When one-armed piano teacher Cecil Parkes (John Gielgud) tells Helfgott that no one’s ever been ‘mad enough’ to attempt it in the Royal College of Music’s annual competition, the student replies: ‘Am I mad enough, Professor? Am I?’ Apparently so, because he has a nervous breakdown as soon as he wins the event. (Incidentally, the film forgets that it’s had Helfgott play the piece in competition before – unsuccessfully and hence without psychopathic incident.)
In other words, all three – Schaffer’s Mozart, Girard’s Gould and Hicks’s Helfgott – are ‘mad geniuses’. (Shine insists on both the ‘genius’ and the ‘madness’. The Book of David and Love You to Bits and Pieces insist on the genius but not the madness.) It’s an antiquated stereotype traceable to both awe and resentment, or pianist envy. (How could anyone in his right mind be that good? And how dare he?) But unlike Mozart and Gould, Helfgott isn’t, or is no longer, that good. After all, mental illness and years spent away from the keyboard do impinge on one’s musical intelligence and technique. Listen closely to his Un Sospiro, a Liszt concert étude: Liberace could have done a better job. Shine implies that even amateurs – or at least that even near virtuosi – are somewhat demented, an attitude that might encourage the more or less unconscious anti-intellectualism (or philistinism) of the film’s mass audience, if not that of its creators.
True, we’ve read something like this before – in Proust and Isherwood. In Cities of the Plain, Charlus’s talents – ‘an exquisite pianist, an amateur painter who was not devoid of taste, and an eloquent talker’ – are attributed to a ‘lack of equilibrium’ in his nervous system. In The Berlin Stories, lsherwood writes of an alter ego: Peter’s ‘teacher told him that he would never be more than a good second-rate amateur, but he only worked all the harder. He worked merely to avoid thinking, and had another nervous breakdown.’ But if Charlus and Peter are neurotic, Helfgott seems psychotic. And so the screw tightens. Pianists, like pianos, are increasingly high-strung, increasingly un-strung. Even if they’re amateur. Even if they’re female – a principle for which The Piano’s demented mute still stands. Especially if they’re gay, as both Charlus and Peter were. And especially if they’re altogether queer, as ‘Helfgott’ is. (He comes across as both bisexual and polymorphously perverse. Hugging and kissing men and women – and puss-cats – alike. In London, he has a fling with a transvestite named Ray: the screenplay includes the fling; the film all but eradicates it.) Especially if gay or queer because these ‘abnormal’ sexualities are viewed by homophobic discourse as pathological in and of themselves. Not that Shine is singlemindedly homophobic. The film treats Ben Rosen, if not Peter Helfgott, with considerable sympathy and it presents itself homoerotically – witness the poster, also found on Shine’s home page, of Geoffrey Rush nude, ecstatic and airborne. Very Versace. Very Beethoven’s Nephew (1988; Paul Morrissey). But while Shine isn’t one of those homoerotic-homophobic works, like Billy Budd or The Picture of Dorian Gray, that feels compelled to punish its pin-ups, it will only allow Helfgott to find redemption in the loving arms of women: (Catherine Susannah Prichard, a writer; Beryl Alcott, an organist; Sylvia, a wine bar owner; and Gillian (Lynn Redgrave), an astrologer. Cecil Parkes has just the one arm; Ray hasn’t even got a chance. Chalk it up to the compulsory heterosexuality of commercially viable cinema. (In reality, ‘Sylvia’ is a man.)
All these women, most of them older, mother Helfgott. This would explain, in part, why the very same speech the Los Angeles Times calls ‘deranged’ is described by the New York Times as ‘childishly volatile’. Like the Mozart of Amadeus, the Helfgott of Shine is a superannuated wunderkind. Like the Chopin of James Lapine’s Impromptu (1989), he’s someone female companions tell to ‘drink your milk’. A mamma’s boy, like Liberace. (‘Sock it to us, Liberace!’ says Sylvia’s partner, Sam.) A ‘Peter Pan’ of the piano, to quote Love You to Bits and Pieces. A 40-year-old ‘child prodigy’, to quote Sylvia just before introducing Gillian to David. ‘A very lucky boy’, to quote David himself just before his geriatric father, still called ‘Daddy’, walks out on him. Or to quote David just before he proposes to Gillian: ‘I never grew up, I grew down.’ No wonder Rush appears on the poster as an airborne ephebe. In fact, everything about Helfgott – his speech, of course, but also his body language in both sexual and non-sexual situations – is infantile (which is why the ostensible bisexuality should be read as polymorphous – or pre-Oedipal – perversion). Everything except his playing. According to Hicks, Helfgott ‘finds it hard to discern where he “ends” and other people “begin”. So he “flows” around others, a babbling river of words who only seems defined through his virtuosity.’
Shine, in other words, reinforces the Schroederisation of the male concert pianist, a process begun long before the Peanuts character first struck a chord. Many of the tales we tell about these virtuosi are about things that happened when they were children: Mozart proposing to Marie Antoinette, Peter Beckford abducting Clementi, Thalberg grieving the ‘King of Rome’, Beethoven kissing Liszt, Paderewski patting Liberace on the head. But whereas we used to let them grow up, allowing Liszt (if not Liberace) to become a lady-killer as well as a full-fledged artist, we no longer do. In fact, we see all men as infantile – all variations on a sitcom mentality (from Father Knows Best to Men Behaving Badly) that acknowledges feminist rage without questioning masculine privilege. We also belong to a youth culture in which many celebrities, skilled and unskilled, male and female, are astonishingly immature. Yet no ordinary man is as infantile as Helfgott, and no celebrity as immature. For as Shine would have it, he’s barely left the womb, which explains why he spends so much time in bathtubs, in swimming pools, and at the beach – oceanic comfort zones. And which explains why the wine bar in which he meets Sylvia, and then Gillian, is called Moby’s. (The real bar, in Perth, is called Riccardo’s.)
Despite this pre-Oedipal, or prenatal, positioning, Shine is more concerned with Helfgott’s Oedipal struggle – his father is a demanding, abusive and relentless Holocaust survivor. (In a way, the film also concerns Redgrave’s struggle with her father, Michael. Hicks writes that when he saw her in Shakespeare for My Father, ‘I knew immediately that she could play Gillian.’) But the struggle is also with the piano, the paternal grand piano in particular. (Love You to Bits and Pieces, unsurprisingly, figures Helfgott’s piano as maternal.) No other instrument, according to Hicks, is quite as castrating – or carnivorous: ‘This is about being eaten alive by a piano. A concert Steinway is a formidable thing. Just to look at it on a stage, you think, “My God, no wonder they go crazy.” ’ Or as Cecil Parkes, an unthreatening (because disarmed), father figure, tells Helfgott: ‘It’s a monster; tame it, or it’ll swallow you whole.’ Shine, of course, isn’t the only film to figure the piano this way. The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (1953; Roy Rowland), a surreal Oedipal drama, is another. So is The Competition (1980; Joel Oliansky), a battle of the sexes. And, to be fair, no other musical instrument lends itself to such figuration. Not the organ, which is larger and has more keyboards. Not the violin, which is harder to play and happens to be the instrument Peter’s own father smashed to bits, refusing to let him learn it. The unique androgyny of the piano – or pianoforte – may account for this disparity. While we want it to be feminine (a lyrical stringed instrument), it’s also massively, and maddeningly, masculine (a percussive instrument), something Prokofiev but not Rachmaninov understood. And something Helfgott understands a bit too late, when in the middle of performing the Rachmaninov all he can hear, to quote the screenplay, ‘is a thudding, clattering sound – the hammers inside the piano which is taking on a life of its own, like a mechanical beast he has to subdue before it swallows him up’.
And which, we’re to believe, he eventually does subdue: with the help of Gillian, if not of God, David finally gets his career back. So has the real Helfgott, with the help of Hicks. In the US he’s the pianist du jour, playing to concert halls filled with fans of Shine and selling more CDs than are pianists with their wits about them, much to the chagrin of music critics who recognise his limitations but sympathise with his condition. Who wouldn’t ‘wish him well’, as the critic Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times did? And who, if only in fantasy, couldn’t identify with him? Rain Man meets Rocky, to play with Juilliard parlance. (Conservatory pianists used to call Rachmaninov’s Third Rocky III. David, according to Gillian, calls it ‘Rach 3’.) Yet one wonders how Shine would be received if Helfgott weren’t real. We’d probably find it incredible. Even though the film underscores story lines and stereotypes others have fostered, Shine (as fiction) goes too far, presenting psychosis instead of neurosis, infancy instead of childhood, and ‘genius’ instead of talent. As non-fiction, however, Shine is all too credible. The reality of Helfgott naturalises the myth of ‘Helfgott’. (Roland Barthes might have called the man an ‘alibi’.) Only now that Helfgott and Shine are circulating co-extensively, ‘Helfgott’ is naturalising the mythic readings of Helfgott which the film itself established – such is the logic of the culture industry. Madonna as Evita as Madonna as Evita.
Or possibly Wilde as Bunthorne as Wilde as Bunthorne. For the co-extensive circulation of the two Helfgotts very nearly replicates Richard D’Oyly Carte’s American use of Wilde in a lecture tour meant to promote and contextualise Patience, the Gilbert and Sullivan opera in which Bunthorne, the aesthetic ‘sham’, appears. Unfortunately for Wilde, a bona fide genius, no one was sent ahead to contextualise – or mystify – him, leaving many Americans either troubled by or indifferent to his incomprehensible speech. (The Importance of Being Earnest begins with Algernon telling Lane: ‘I don’t play accurately – anyone can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte.’) If only D’Oyly Carte had used Patience to promote Wilde. He too might have found mystified fans and sympathetic critics who’d have wished him well and let him be – and long before it was much too late.
Is there a remedy for Helfgott? Is there one for either ‘Helfgott’ or Shine? Gillian Helfgott’s Love You to Bits and Pieces would indicate there isn’t. Beverley Eley’s The Book of David, however, offers a more accurate – and less objectionable – account of the man. (Eley does endorse a Christocentric mystification that doesn’t square with Helfgott’s Judaism, but it’s incidental to her analysis.) To have the woman speak for herself – at length and at last:
Anyone who encounters him would agree that the David we see is a conundrum. Is he a man with superior intellectual capacities who has unconsciously disposed of all that learned psychological dross which, for most of us, is fused into our personalities? Or is he ultimately a superb game player who deliberately maintains the unworldly ... stance which allows him to pursue his extraordinary musical talent unhindered, using it to avoid performing all those boring daily tasks which ordinary people are pleased to undertake for him? Or does he simply hide in confusing conversation and brilliant playing from a world which he knows he is still unable to cope with? Or is it possible to accept the conjecture that perhaps he is the end product of drugs and medical treatments which, by sheer accident, heightened and enhanced the brilliant intrinsic genius of this sometimes wilful child-man who appears to be the personification of Parsifal ...
Recently David was overheard saying to himself, ‘It’s alright to be different, it protects you.’ Protects him from what? Only David really knows and I suspect that he is now, in his own way, asking himself if he can come out of hiding and cope with facing the truth. Whether he does or not should be important only to him.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.