One could argue that a feature of great art is that it can be hugely divisive: some think it’s great and others think it’s not. An example would be the music of Richard Wagner. And I chose it because to my ears it is excruciating bombastic nonsense verging on complete tosh. Sure, he has some nice tunes, but if you whistle the particular melody you like - try The Flying Dutchman - you’ve finished the relevant bit in about five seconds. Then you have to put up with another 20
minutes of supercharged bollocks. (Thomas Beecham once observed that Wagner ‘had his moments - about one every 15 minutes’. Someone else said that you can listen to an hour of Wagner, look at your watch and find only five minutes have passed.) I would prefer to have my fingernails torn out one by one than be obliged to sit through one of his interminable operas, and I am not alone in that view (I heard a novelist called Susan Hill saw more or less the same thing on the radio just two days ago). What is supposedly great about Wagner’s music eludes me utterly. Perhaps I have cloth ears. Perhaps I don’t. As a rule I am more attracted to baroque music than all that Sturm und Drang Romantic stuff, and Wagner is that to a bloody T.
Yet I am also bound to admit that there are many who do feel he is great and that his music is great, and they flock along to a performance of one of his operas in their thousands and - very odd - enjoy the experience. Then, of course, there is the man himself, an appalling anti-semite, a parasite who until he finally began earning money when he became famous, was happy to live off others and have them pay his bills, a man who would often seduce the wives of those friends and colleagues, and a man who was insufferably vain and conceited who, literally, believed the world owed him a living. Unfortunately, none of that has any bearing on his music either way.
I mention this because I recently saw on DVD a film which I regard as great art, but which has divided critics and the public alike. The Daily Telegraph’s reviewer, Sukhdev Sandhu, wasn’t at all impressed and gives it just two stars. The Daily Mail’s film critic, Christopher Tookey, on the other hand, gives it an almost unprecedented five stars and cannot praise it enough. And I am firmly with Tookey. The film is Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese, and I would urge everyone to see it. What I think is so great about it is that it pulls off a trick which is fiendishly difficult to pull off. A clue: the very last line spoken in the film pulls the rug from under your feet and throws you right back where you started. And the line is spoken just after another line which is highly ambiguous, pointing the film both in one direction and its opposite.
Shutter Island has been criticised for being obvious, with many claiming they spotted ‘the twist’ after a mere ten minutes. Well, if they did, they weren’t paying as much attention as they thought they were. What I feel is unique about Shutter Island is that there simply is no conclusion, no resolution. And to produce a film which has none, but which still leaves the viewer - well, this viewer at least - feeling that he has not been cheated is a remarkable achievement.
. . .
OK, I will admit that I’ve heard - on the grapevine, that kind of thing - that musically, Wagner was in some ways innovative and that there is some ‘magic chord’ which he came up with which - well, according to some, music was never the same again. (I bet it wasn’t). The point is that despite my crude, opinionated, ever-so-right-of-centre outlook (see entries passim), deep inside me beats a tiny liberal heart which quite often persuades me to be just a tiny bit more open-minded than I care to be. And at this moment, that liberal heart has persuaded me to concede that in musical history - I’ll put it no stronger than that - Wagner is said to have been something of a milestone. There, I’ve said it. However, that doesn’t in the slightest alter my view that his music is nothing but a god-damn awful racket and if a never again heard a single note written by him, that would still be too soon.