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Performance Performance
THE MISQUOTATION OF TS ELIOT’S FOUR QUARTETS THAT OPENS YARON ZILBERMAN’S FEATURE FILM, PERFORMANCE, IS INDICATIVE OF THE FILM’S HASTY TRANSPOSITION OF A STRING QUARTET INTO THE WORLD OF THE ‘COMING OF OLD AGE’ GENRE.

Peter (Christopher Walken), a cellist and teacher at a conservatorium, begins a chamber music class with the famous lines from Burnt Norton:

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”

He then tacks on two lines from elsewhere in the poem:

“Or say that the end precedes the beginning […]
And all is always now.”

Walken actually reads the last line as “And all is, always, now.” because the line finishes with the enjambment “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,” leaving a foot to fill up somehow. It is a shame that the poem was cut in this way because the added lines are taken from a wonderful stanza about music that could have been brought into the musical context of the film more meaningfully than the vagaries about time which feed, rather, the film’s representation of music as being made and taught through the forceful repetition of platitudes.

Performance Performance
As Peter tells his students, Eliot wrote the poems while listening to his favourite of Beethoven’s late string quartets: the String Quartet no14 in C-sharp Minor. The seven-movement String Quartet no14 is used as a metaphor for the 25 years of Peter’s quartet, The Fugue, as it must be played through without stopping and begins with a fugue. The ‘fugal’ theme of the film basically consists in each character having an abortive love affair: the first violinist with (yawn) his student who happens to be the daughter of the second violinist and the violist; the second violinist with (yaawn) a flamenco dancer; and the violist (yaaawn) with the first violinist.

It was, however, the String Quartet no15 in A Minor that Eliot singled out for special mention. The String Quartet no15 includes the sublime slow movement written on Beethoven’s sickbed, the “Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity,” which, in its canonical structure, would have fitted the anodyne ‘fugue’ motif of the film just as well as the C-sharp Minor, as well as providing an interesting musical connection to Peter’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s early in the film.

Peter’s story is the most interesting and is unfortunately greatly elided, reappearing in a series of cutaways to his various therapies between scenes of the other players yelling at each other to “unleash their passion” or commending each other’s “depth of sound” as “the voice of a wounded soul.”

Performance was made for people who gave up violin in primary school but perhaps had dreams of being yelled at for being ‘too talented’ by a stormy bachelor of a violin teacher. If you get the cultural references then you think the film is just wrong and if you don’t get them, then why are they there?


Performance, writers Seth Grossman, Yaron Zilberman, director Yaron Zilberman, performers Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir; Hopscotch Films, release March 14

This article first appeared in RT's online e-dition March 13, 2013

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 19

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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