Mike Dorn Wiss

Better to blaze your own trail
Than to follow another's, unwinding
For in the slippery path of life
The search is greater than the finding

A Late Quartet



A Late Quartet – 2012   (10/10)


I love “sleepers” – those flicks you’ve either never heard of or perhaps are aware of the title but know nothing of the film itself, those ones you come upon totally by accident rather than design, the ones on the glass teat that you happen to flip a channel to just as they’re starting or those that happen to be in a theatre you’re walking past during a depressing and continuous drizzle so you decide to turn in and pass a couple of hours in hopes of later sunshine.

Then, lo and behold, the sunshine happens right before your eyes and right into your mind. The flick – of whatever genre it happens to be – for one reason or another turns out to be an absolute gem.

Such was my experience with ‘A Late Quartet’, but it turned out – to me – to be much more than a great film of its ilk. In my case it cut into my heart; it became personal, and more than meaningful. It became poignant. I’m sure that’s why I’m ‘tenning’ it. It’s really a nine point three that because of my personal relation to its content made my entire body tingle while it turned itself into perfection.

First, the stars, and they are that! All I knew of this film – and for a couple of years – was that three of its principal actors were all lifelong faves of mine. This was one of the few Philip Seymour Hoffman flicks I hadn’t seen, and – surprise – he was typically superb. Then there was Christopher Walken, whom I’ve long considered an acting genius, who tempered that corner of his abilities (similar to that of Pacino) which could sometimes lean toward caricature. Here he was more subtle, and was just as superb as Hoffman. Finally there was Catherine Keener, who was outstanding in Being John Malkovich, and was no less so here, where she had a memorable scene with Hoffman as they played a decades long-together couple who, with Walken, formed three-fourths of a professional and world class string quartet. 

This is a film for those who (among other things) Appreciate music. Yes, with a capital ‘A’. The main piece is one composed by Beethoven, but classical music – and beautiful classical music – is prevalent throughout the soundtrack. It is a film for those who appreciate impeccable acting, fine directing and cinematography, and damn fine writing. 

And here’s where it gets personal. Although I was totally unaware of it at the time, I grew up extremely privileged. I was raised by parents who tried – and for the most part succeeded – to instill in me an appreciation of the arts. They took me to the ballet, to the opera, to classical and jazz concerts, and to ballroom dances on Friday nights. My father – at the age of seventeen(!) – played violin for the Chicago Symphony. They tried to get me to become at least a knowledgable musician, but while both my younger sisters took many years of piano lessons I balked at the lessons offered by the somewhat stentorian teacher assigned to me by my parents. O, I still got into playing music. A bit. I took up guitar when I was in my thirties and became a self-taught Three Chord Tommy. I like to pen the odd song and even sing now and then at coffeehouses or around campfires, but next to my father…? Hell, I couldn’t even carry his case.

But I loved the few times I heard him play, those times when I would awaken in the wee hours of the night and sneak down the carpeted staircase and slide my tuchus onto the floor outside the living room where Dad would be playing, audible through the thin glass of the French doors.

He never knew I was there.

As I grew up, Dad retired his violin. He became a businessman. At one point he developed the first mall in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the city in which I grew up, and ironically – on the opening day when he was to cut the ceremonial ribbon – he was rushing from a here to a there and he tripped over one of the concrete ashtrays standing on the floor of the mall. He totally ruptured the ligaments of the middle finger of his left hand. Never again would he play the violin, or even be able to flip a meaningful bone with that hand.

One day during the last months of his life I came over to his home to pay him a visit. I noticed that his right hand had a tremor. “What the hell?” I asked. “Parkinson’s,” he answered, “but when you’ve got leukemia who gives a shit?”

Christopher Walken played the aging cellist, the father figure of the string quartet, who one day noticed a tremor in his hand and knew his career would soon be over. Of course in my mind I saw my own father, and with the soundtrack sliding into my soul at the same time I could not stay that tingle, nor did I want to. I’m glad I was alone, sitting on my small balcony overlooking the gulf of Thailand, watching this great film through its open doors. It was a place where I could let the tears flow unabated, because that’s what happened when Walken nailed his next to final scene. He, and my father, did it to me.

The modern tendency to trailers is anathema to sleepers; I detest them, for many reasons. By avoiding them as much as possible I’ve managed to see a number of sleepers in my time (remember that those are the ones of which I personally was ignorant before my virgin viewing). As a ‘duster’ The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is one of my faves. As Speculative Fiction Blade Runner is another, and as Romantic Comedy Notting Hill will always be at the top. As pure comedy nothing can touch Let It Ride. All of them I’ve watched numerous times, no matter their genre.

But I don’t think this is a film I want to see again. If I do I might view it less emotionally and more critically, and find some flaws. Then again, I might not view it critically at all; I might just let myself go and watch it totally with my heart. If I did that it would surely break.



Author: Mike Dorn Wiss

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