#328. The Music Room (1958)

I’m gonna spoil this whole movie, so don’t read on if you wanna preserve the story.

            When I first saw The Music Room I liked it well enough but, as with certain other foreign movies, felt that there were cultural cues about class that were going over my heads (subsequent reading has shown I wasn’t picking up on a third of what was there to be seen); but the movie was still effective, and still got me thinking, because what most effected me emotionally, and hooked me intellectually, are the deaths of the protagonist’s wife and son, which are conveyed via flashback at about the halfway point of the film, after we’ve already gotten a sense for how lonely he is, living by himself in a huge but ill-kept house, tended by a meek servant, famously asking, in the opening scene, “What month is it?”

            The reason I got so snagged on their deaths is because all of the Inidan films that the List features for this decade (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Mother India and now this) take as their dramatic turning points the loss of a loved one; more specifically, a member of the household. Those first two movies, of the Apu Trilogy, and this one are all directed by Satyajit Ray, so maybe subjecting his characters to that kind of intimate loss is just a dramatic inclinaiton of his—in the same way that Jonathan Franzen says he likes to explore parent-child relationships in his fiction because the audience already takes for granted that the connection will be deep and complicated. It isn’t laziness, it just expedites the deepening of emotional exploration. To explore grief by showing a man who’s lost his best friend, for instance, would require a little more build-up, a little more explanation, than telling us that his child or spouse or parent has died.

            But Mother India, directed by Mehboob, also pivots when the patriarch of the home has his arms crushed by a boulder and then walks away from the family in shame.

            So I’m wondering if there’s something culturally significant about the family unit in 1950s India in the same way that the idea of the Nuclear Family, in America at the same time, was regarded as like…every person’s emotional and existential axis.

            Because I think a typical American treatment of this same material would focus on how the protagonist is broken by the trauma of the loss, and by grief, but ultimately finds solace and uplift by going out and discovering themselves, whether through travel (like for instance with Dodsworth) or romance (also Dodsworth) or medical treatment (Bigger Than Life) or work (same).

            So that’s what my own brain got snagged on with Music Room.

            What I learned from Roger Ebert’s review, and even more so by a Criterion Channel interview with filmmaker Mira Nair, is that The Music Room is th story of a man who’s been broken by grief, yes, but who also belongs to a kind of old-school wealth that, apart from having dried up, is being left behind by history.

            The movie’s set in the 1920s and, if you look at the sort of wealth that existed in 1920s America as well, you can imagine how the 20th century is kicking itself into gear and certain people, certain lifestyles, are falling into obsolescence. The societal conventions on which they stood are just dissolving.

            Anchored in place by a wealth that’s endemic of the past (he was even going broke when his family was still alive), as well as by grief and loneliness, he digs himself deeper into his love of classical music, blowing the last of his money on a beautiful concert in his music room.

            I interpreted the concert as being a kind of uplift, some solace in his grief, a return to life.

            Which is a very western interpretation.

            What Nair and Ebert helped me realize is that this concert he hosts at the end of the movie is a final fleeing from reality. He’s putting it on as a show for his guests to preserve the illusion of his wealth—which I saw was obviously part of the equation, but it didn’t strike me as the meat of the issue.

            But now I can’t see it any other way.

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