Zach Trenholm
Amadeus
dir. Milos Forman
Opens Fri April 19 at Guild 45th.

The Last Waltz
dir. Martin Scorsese
Open Fri April 19 at the Neptune.

Though artists have been talking about geniuses for as long as they've been talking, greats and pseuds alike have been confounded by the challenge of making interesting characters out of them. The works about genius that last are wise enough to admit that the more compelling figure is the near-miss.

J. D. Salinger's Glass family stories are haunted by the absent presence of suicidal poet/genius/holy fool Seymour, but they're really about the survivors and the degrees to which they struggle to live up to their late brother's legacy, to reconcile their admiration with their envy, and finally, to sound out the enveloping, unspeakable grief they all share. The stories pretend to examine the blessed curse of genius--what they really reveal is the exquisite torture of proximity to it. That's why geniuses are fascinating, after all: They're what we're not.

Two oldish films coincidentally being re-released this week, Milos Forman's Amadeus and Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, deal with proximity to genius, specifically musical genius, with radically differing approaches.

The "Director's Cut" of Amadeus, newly refurbished with 20 minutes of additional footage and tricked out with digital sound, is the more explicit of the two works--so much so that its fable-like portrait has become something of an archetype. The film portrays the bitter, tragic relationship between a genius composer and the successful mediocrity who is doomed to recognize not only Mozart's greatness, but his own shortfall. Nearly two decades on, Forman's film is still a resounding, theatrical event, distinguished by outré performances, stellar design, and a busload of Mozart symphony. But its real greatness lies in the character of Salieri, the greatest Not-Genius of all time, played with aching splendor by F. Murray Abraham.

Wizened, suicidal, and baroque, Salieri is damned with the understanding that he can't live up to the greatness only he is able to perceive. He's torn apart by innumerable blows to his dignity ("What can I say but 'Salieri'?"), and processes his artist envy by destroying his rival. We deplore Salieri for his mediocrity, but we secretly relish the way he brings Mozart down, because, I think, we resent the little pissant's genius almost as much as Salieri. The power of genius to land in seemingly unworthy hands is perhaps its greatest dramatic tool, and Amadeus is more or less the last word on the subject.

The Last Waltz, a 1978 documentary about the farewell concert of the Band, illustrates a different relationship, between genius and its less-glamorous counterpart, talent. Though the film is nominally about the greatness of the Band itself, it also portrays the ways in which that super-talented group only really come alive when backing other musicians.

This is a tricky area, because you can't really argue that the Band weren't great. Their significance to American rock is well chronicled, and their hits--"The Weight," "Cripple Creek," "This Wheel's on Fire," et al.--are stone classics. But their gesture and image were all about humility and anonymity; they were as plainspoken as their name. And most importantly, they only discovered themselves by backing one of the true geniuses of the 20th century, Bob Dylan, during his transformation from acoustic folk poster boy to fully electrified godhead. The Band were the muscle behind this transformation, and they were transformed by it, too, into a kind of Dylan colony.

By the time of their farewell, they were rock royalty; their onstage confidence, musical chemistry, and unstoppable proficiency--every last one of them is a motherfucker on his instrument--as they work through their originals is obvious. But when they invite guests, like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, and even gnomish little Van Morrison, to lead them, the band's true worth becomes known. They are masterful technicians, and in the company of great artists, they recede masterfully to a supporting role, playing even more confidently than before. Scorsese shrewdly catches the players' tiny interactions onstage to highlight the confidence; in the backstage interviews, they're self- conscious and posing (especially Robbie Robertson), an artifice which inadvertently sets the stage for the film's real revelation.

Because of what we know about the Band, The Last Waltz is haunted (not unlike Salinger's stories) by the specter of Bob Dylan. The power of his arrival is stunning. The band members become visibly perturbed; as he leads them through the transition from "Forever Young" into "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," you see their fear that the whole thing may fall apart. But they follow him down, and the performance achieves glory. There's no mistaking the genius in this scenario, and no mistaking the real star of the picture: the talent of the band that recognizes it.