The Guilty Pleasures of Bug and Mozart

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Ashley Judd starts in Bug

You know what the best thing about movie reviewing is? It's the freedom to indulge any cockamamie interest that goes skittering through your brain and pretend that you're working, solemnly patrolling the cultural ramparts, looking for miscreants, saboteurs and other freebooters. Wait long enough and the movies will provide what some people like to call "guilty pleasures," but which are, for the critic, entirely guilt-free. Yes, sometimes it's a bummer — an Irish romance (Once) which looks as if the cameraman and the sound guy were both DUI, or the entire Wilson family (Luke, Owen and Andrew) seeking and finding near-total witlessness in The Wendell Baker Story. But still, there's something to be said for the infinite variety of the movies.

Take last week, for example. My onrushing dotage has, in recent years, been salved by sudden onset Mozart-mania. Obviously, I've always admired him — and well before Amadeus. But of late he's about all I want to listen to. I come home from a screening, weary and faboobled, pop a Mozart recording in the machine — you really must get Murray Perahia's boxed set of all the piano concertos and enter into bliss. I don't know a thing about music and don't understand my Mozartian passion, but the other night I decided to see as well as hear his sublimities, and so decided to play the DVD of a film called In Search of Mozart, which someone had sent me and which goes into very limited theatrical release Friday.

It is one of those documentaries that tells you everything you already know about its subject. It features many talking musicological heads, falling back in insight-free awe at the composer's apparently genial genius (a refreshing exception is the crankish Jonathan Miller, who has directed many a Mozart opera). Since Mozart traveled endlessly in search of gigs — 25,000 miles all told — the director, Phil Grabsky gives us many useless out-the-window shots of his own car chugging along modern European highways as he duplicates those journeys, many sequences of contemporary citizens wandering aimlessly and inelegantly in front of buildings Mozart visited.

OK, it's a pretty bad film. But I loved every minute of it. Why? Because Grabsky is generous with his performance footage; operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber works tumble forth, giving us a sense of the composer's fecundity, tireless ambition and quite modern need to make a living when the traditional patronage system was beginning to falter. "Genius leaks out the around the edges," says the conductor Roger Norrington, "while he's doing something totally practical." In other words there is a serenity, a wit, an economy in this work that belies the haste and occasional desperation of its composition.

It's much harder to explain my regard for Bug. I mean, eclectic as I pretend to be, I don't much care for horror movies, especially the currently endemic teen-slasher variety. But I saw William Friedkin's movie many months ago and it has haunted me ever since. For reasons best known to the addled-geniuses of movie marketing, it's being thrown against the Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut next weekend, which probably is a result of a lot of people going "yetch" when they saw it. I understand that response. Who wants to see a movie shot almost entirely in a wretched motel room, in which a downtrodden waitress (Ashley Judd, in a stunning performance) first fends off her sadistic former husband, newly paroled from jail, then takes up with an apparently agreeable drifter (Michael Shannon) who is well, er, a little more loony than he at first appears to be?

Make that a lot more loony. He begins to perceive an insect infestation in the motel. His lover at first doubts him, then with growing intensity succumbs to his madness with results you can perhaps imagine, though not, I think, with the creepiness that Friedkin, working from a script Tracy Letts adapted from his own play, enthusiastically realizes. He's a director used to working on a larger scale (The Exorcist, The French Connection) who has not had much luck in the movies lately. But, boy, he's good working on this miniscule scale. Those imaginary bugs quickly become more real than any paranoid nightmare. Better still, the movie becomes a kind of object lesson in how powerful, devoutly believed madness can take over weak and needy minds.

We're a long way from the rustling brocades of 18th Century Austria here, and I don't think I'll be sliding Bug into my DVD player on a regular basis in the future. But still, there is a conviction here that (a) transcends any attempt to categorize the film generically and (b) challenges the lax, we're-just-kidding-around spirit of most American movies (see, or rather don't see Grindhouse, for example). Like it or not, Bug takes you deep into the realm of abnormal psychology. Like it or not, it is a serious movie, very possibly Friedkin's best. In any case, it almost literally itched this reviewer back to consciousness of the movies' divine and utterly essential scuzziness. Mozart is great, and can survive the indifference of inept filmmakers. Bug probably won't survive the indifference of its distributor (and, since its not teen-friendly) its lack of a neatly targeted demographic. But it may survive in a few capacious cinefile memories — right there next to the Mozart sonatas.