Many people today consider classical music as a formal and stuffy genre full of dead, great composers and equally dead, great performers -- so director Aleksey Igudesman in his film asks a prominent musician, "Have you ever thought of dying as a career move?"
Last Friday, the third NYC Independent Film Festival screened a rare documentary about classical music, in which violinist and composer Aleksey Igudesman goes around taking unsuccessful interviews with famous classical musicians and a couple of Hollywood actors. With characteristic naiveté, he offends almost everyone in the film he talks to, from Sir Roger Moore, John Malkovich and cellist Misha Maisky to Julian Rachlin, the violinist, violist and conductor, whom the film is ostensibly about.
There is no plot as such -- only a flimsy excuse, that Igudesman is making a documentary about Rachlin and his 10 year-old music festival in Dubrovnik, Croatia. For Igudesman, that is just an opportunity to explore and drag into the glaring spotlight inappropriate questions such as "Do you have to sleep around with people in order to win a competition?" or "Do you have to be a Jew to have a career in classical music?" or "Do you have to be gay to succeed?" He brings up simple questions, such as what does an orchestra need a conductor for anyway, and goes into the repertoire of old viola jokes. (In classical music, viola players are supposedly the stupidest people in the orchestra.) The movie's title Noseland refers to Rachlin's (not very convincing) fetish for touching people's noses, but Igudesman does not seem to care too much about the title or the subject of his film; his aim is to show classical music in ways most people have never seen.
Almost all of Igudesman's interviewees walk away visibly upset after being asked ignorant and rude questions or after he goes too far with his jokes. (To American conductor Ryan McAdams, he said, "What do a conductor and a condom have in common? It's OK with, but better without.") There's plenty of slapstick in the film; an offended young violinist, Fumiaki Miura, pours water on Igudesman's head, while double bass player Stacey Watton slaps him in the face on camera.
The humor is not particularly new, the absurd is just absurd and questions are left without convincing answers, but the film is essentially held together by one thing -- Igudesman's persona. Fans of Igudesman and Joo, the duo in which the director tours the world throughout the year, will easily recognize the naïve inappropriateness and clumsiness of Igudesman that contrasts so well with pianist Hyung-Ki Joo's brash stage persona. Here too, Igudesman stumbles into awkward situations and gets abused. Artlessly tactless, slightly pudgy and expressive, he is a loveable character throughout. We even love it when he suddenly bursts into a rap song that seemingly has little to do with the rest of the film.
The movie is primarily located in picturesque Dubrovnik at the 2010 Julian Rachlin and Friends Music Festival. Scenic shots reminiscent of a travel program appear frequently, but the predictably pretty shots are saved from becoming too cliché by the music. Taken from performances at the festival, the music is given such prominence that it is as much a narrator and attraction as Igudesman is. The film was edited to the music and not the other way around; "more of musician's way of working on a movie," as he says. Despite being stitched together from dozens of interviews and various bits and pieces of (sometimes rather shaky) backstage footage by the "wanna-be" filmmaker, (this is his first feature-length film) Noseland does not feel like a chopped and tossed salad of the outrageous and the absurd. Held together by powerful music and Igudesman's charm, it proves his point that a film can be as abstract as a piece of music; something "to be enjoyed for the mere beauty of it."