Film review: "A Late Quartet"

There is a scene of Christopher Walken, playing the older declining cellist Peter Mitchell recounting an audition with the great Pablo Casals, where he said his rendition of a known classic was "just awful, nothing but mistakes" but the Maestro praised it with evident sincerity. Mitchell had remained disturbed by the seeming lack of candor, until many decades later, when both were at the top of the pack, over a glass of wine he asked him about it. His response is a lesson for reviewing this film and beyond.

"I heard those mistakes, but I also felt your passion, your conveying it in strong sensitive lyrical phrases that others rarely achieve. Those critics who keep track of every wrong note are missing out on what music and life has to offer."

And so I will leave the defects of this film to others, and there are many elements that deviated from what I write about, a rare sensitive exploration of life, using a string quartet as exemplar and metaphor. I only went to the art house showing this expecting it to be, based on the reviews, a bad movie that happened to be shot in my old neighborhood of Lincoln Center area of New York. My wife is an amateur violinist, and always came home from her week long SummerTrios camp with the glow from playing in groups such as this film depicted.

After seeing this film I understand why. This depicted consummate musicians, who rather than the solo careers available to them chose to become a single instrument, one that required that most human ability of merging of individuality into something that can only be achieved by--the word for it is "symbiosis" different organisms uniting in a common goal. While the conflicts of ego, sexual attraction, fame and glory may seem hackneyed, it is because this is the universal challenge of making any such group-from a marriage to a nation-long endure.

In my old neighborhood, a young world famous violinist bought into our coop building. We lost touch when I moved to California a decade ago, and wondered why with unlimited solo bookings he had joined a chamber group. This film explained why, not only from a musicological level, but from the human desire to be part of something beyond our individuality. That is the element of this film that transcends music.

You see, I also play in quartets, but they are doubles tennis with two people on each side ostensibly playing against each other. Yet, for it to work, for it to give the same type of pleasure that my wife and soloist friend got out of chamber music all four have to work together, enjoying the virtuoso movement of any of the foursome, no matter which side of the net they are on. And like in this magnificent film, the ego that makes for the excitement, when taken too far, to the point of questionable line calls, leading to animosity, can destroy the entire experience.

And like a quartet playing off each other in an "allegro" passage, in tennis a flurry of volleys, with a running get that is returned for a winner, can bring joy to the performers and the audience. This perfect miniature of a film, like all great productions, is only achieved by such seamless excellence that no one can tell where one individual's contribution ends and the other's begins.

This is about the the most sublime entertaining lousy flick I've ever seen.

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