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Finally, A Non-Embarrassing Classical-Music Scene in a Blockbuster Movie

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When classical-music fans hear that a new Hollywood production has a scene set at the opera or the symphony, they reflexively prepare to cringe. Typically, such scenes give a klutzy picture of musical life and come loaded with corrosive clichés. Actors portraying violinists hold instruments in ways that would generate a toneless screech if they were actually playing. Pretend conductors flap their hands a beat or two behind the orchestra. Alleged geniuses compose N.F.L.-highlights music. Although classical listeners sometimes make a sympathetic impression—“Moonstruck” and “The Shawshank Redemption” come to mind—for the most part they present a creepy gallery of repressive parents (“Shine”), pompous gangsters (“The Untouchables”), sneering Bond villains (“Moonraker,” “The Spy Who Loved Me”), glum vampires (“Interview with the Vampire,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”), kinky lunatics (“A Clockwork Orange,” “The Killer Inside Me”), fastidious serial killers (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Hannibal”), and Nazis galore (“The Boys from Brazil,” “Schindler’s List”).

The tendency to associate classical music with murderous insanity is a curious neurosis of the American pop-cultural psyche. There is little evidence of such a predilection among real-life serial killers, who seem to prefer Black Sabbath, AC/DC, REO Speedwagon, and, of course, the Beatles. So where does the trope come from? In my book “The Rest Is Noise,” I argued that the “classical killer” image is rooted in the equation of Wagner and Hitler, but it undoubtedly goes deeper than that, down into murky old anxieties about masculine identity and the supposedly feminizing influence of what Theodore Roosevelt called “overcivilized” European culture. Psychological studies in the early twentieth century linked excessive musicality to nascent homosexuality. As Vito Russo showed in his classic book “The Celluloid Closet,” Hollywood contributed to the sissy-boy panic by inventing the stereotype of the Effete Killer, who consumes high culture with a vaguely Continental air. Homophobia is out of fashion in modern Hollywood, but xenophobia is not, as the enduring vogue for the Euro-villain testifies.

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