Gesualdo, Death for Five Voices (1995): F is for Fabrication
7 September 2012
We really do change a lot. Two years ago this was another Herzog-story on creative madness to me, one of many small ones he has done.
I saw it this time with insights from a classically trained musician friend, and myself steeped in observation of storybased limits in Wagner as well as Italian Futurist writings from the 1910’s about chromatic harmony, among other things I have been looking into.
The piece is deceptively simple: disguised as documentary truth, we have, pieced together from several narrators, a short story on madness, tormented love, and musical genius that transcends the holy (from the time before Bach). And if the musings of the rough-hewn caretaker of the ruined estate can be safely waven off as tall folk legend, the by all means respectable director of the Gesualdo institute projects confidence, as he looks up from his stack of papers, that he is recounting an account of actual history of things as they happened.
We go on to visit places central in events of that story, as well as closely examine some of the trinkets of drama: the actual bed where murders took place, the gruesomely displayed skeletons “most likely” those of illicit lovers.
Other narrators are much more obviously unreliable than would satisfy truly fine limits between reality and fiction, but even so, many viewers have come out of this confused. It seems, from the perspective that this is really an account, a gross miscalculation on Herzog’s part to include the obviously set-up bit with the supposed mad opera singer, interjecting staged eccentricity in the midst of truth. Not at all.
The point is that down to the original — judicial — account, we only have testimonies and conjecture, and we can plainly see from testimonies Herzog has gathered in the course of the film, how difficult it is to surmise the real thing from stories about it. We come out of this with slight variations on the portrait of a man, with dissonance between the voices telling the story. The only truth left is in the music, excerpts of which are marvellously conducted for us.
And how stupendous, that music — offered to god — is about slight dissonance between different voices, each one harmonical within itself, but the whole has subtle disharmony that is its own truth in the face of the harmony of logic, and that truth is we are dissonant beings.
If you thought Herzog’s recent Cave of Dreams was too ordinary, look again. It’s about the same dissonance in our narrative devices.