Recent publicity to the effect that not one but even two films about Florence Foster Jenkins are in the pipeline sends us what I think is a very ambiguous alert.  Florence Foster Jenkins is an arresting subject, no question—but it is unlikely that the phenomenon she represents can be done justice in today’s environment—unlikely being my euphemism for nearly impossible.

FFJ, as I will call her, is remembered today, if at all, as one thing and for one thing only.  Though rarely cited, she is almost always pegged as “the worst singer who ever lived.”  Yes, but as soon as we bring up the story, the problems multiply—and that’s before the movies botch everything.  The first, Marguerite (2015), a French-Belgian production, is remotely derived and set in the wrong decade.  The second, Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), may be more focused and set in the correct period, but I think it will find a way to fail, going the way of several disappointing plays on the same subject.

The mishandling has already begun.  We have heard that FFJ is an “opera singer”—and that is a misnomer.  FFJ did butcher certain arias—she sang art songs wearing laughable dresses and hats.  Everything she did had an absurd air.  I once played just a few seconds of FFJ’s notorious recording of the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute, and a certain dignified and kind lady’s reaction was to laugh without restraint, losing her composure in hysteria, and weeping with chortles.  Significantly, this lady had never heard this example of Mozart’s music before.  FFJ was so appallingly off on every quality of singing simultaneously that no background whatsoever except good hearing was required to recognize completely and thoroughly the devastation of utter failure.  In other words, a 65 or a 60 gets an F, but this was a zero—a zero that made you want to return to it, somehow.  If a certain musical passage is “perfectly” rendered, we might well say, “Let’s hear that again.”  But in FFJ’s case, the stunned consciousness says to us, “Let’s hear that again,” in order to study—just to take in—the comprehensiveness of the disaster.  Or perhaps there is a hopeless wish to find just one little thing that isn’t ruined?

Well, that lady recovered her dignity from the giggles, and we discussed how we take musical competence for granted.  A recording is supposed to have something good about it, at least.  But in this case . . . Then there was another specimen of the opposite reaction.  A certain fellow laughed at the same particular provocation and asked me to obtain a copy for him, which I gladly did.  But when I asked him if he was enjoying it, he actually said, “No.”  He told me that it was cruel even to listen to such miserable stuff, and he would not do it again.  I think now more generously than I did then that he had a point.  It is difficult to deal with personal embarrassment in such a case.  The laughter takes on a superior, snide, and nasty quality only too easily.  As an acoustic or even musical experience, that is one thing—but as a human failure, well . . .

This brings us to the threshold of more and other confusion—so the confusion is getting confused!  How confused am I?  Let me count the ways!  The first confusion was that of Florence Foster Jenkins, who thought that she sounded good because it seemed to be so to her.  She was abetted in that illusion by her common-law husband and by her accompanist and coach, Cosmé McMoon, who was well paid for his dishonesty.  And as his name would indicate, and as she was treated, as for example at Carnegie Hall in 1944, FFJ became not a demented or pathetic blunderer, but rather something else altogether: a figure of camp.  And I emphasize the point because certain excesses of fandom have had much more legitimate bases for campy devotion than Florence Foster Jenkins.  Maria Callas comes to mind.  She was a great singer whose instrument was flawed, and she suffered for that and for other things.  Her demise showed that she never backed off from a life of destructive passion as well as imposing achievement—the one was related to the other.  But such an heroic story has not much to do with a mere figure of camp.  A diva is not a “diva”—she is the real thing, and no wannabe in drag.

So here we are.  How could the contemporary world of film relate to FFJ without succumbing to the temptation of camping it up?  And how could filmmakers, who would be out of business without their various affirmations and exploitations of bad music, resist the temptation to present opera or art music itself as camp altogether?

Now I want to put this point aside for a moment, in order to develop another angle.

I have noticed, not alone I hope, from various broadcasts and DVDs, that serious music doesn’t make for a very good show.  Artists who are busy concentrating on performing do not look so good.  The worst is singing, because what is meant to be absorbed from 70 feet away looks bad as you watch the palatine uvula dangle.  The excitement of the operatic scene is in the music, not in a close-up of the fat lady.  The desire to make music look good is understandable, but basically music doesn’t—except in real time and in real dimensions.

But to return.  Though the film world has tried for decades to deal with art music, it has usually failed to be effective, but in this case, the problems multiply exponentially.  And some of these problems have to do with the nature of performing and musical and physical realities.  And then there is the weighty matter of competence or even mastery, always slighted by the cinema, which uses the illusion of the real to project fantasy.  When Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney wanted to put on a show, we never saw any work—it was all wishful thinking followed by dream fulfillment.  And there are even worse collusions with the Zeitgeist.  I would point to the film Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994) as an analog.  Though this film has its merits, as do the sleazy, incompetent, and lovable films of Ed Wood, there is nevertheless an enveloping problem: the celebration of incompetence as a principle of our life today.

A technologically advanced world has no basis for celebrating incompetence, but a corrupt democracy does, and don’t we all want to be equal with the artist?  And if we want to be, shouldn’t we have the equality that we seek?  To think otherwise would be discriminatory.  Contemporary music is based on the desire of the dithyrambic spectator to get in on the act, and with various boosts, computerized keyboards, microphones, etc., it’s easier today than ever before.  After all, you already have the wardrobe, the sex life, the drugs, the slouch, the mumbling, and the attitude!  You are as good as the artist!  Yes!  And that is not all.  You are better than the dead artists, the silver-haired geezers, the fat white bitches, the opera singers, the snooty racists of the 1940’s who bought tickets to Carnegie Hall, and thank God they’re all gone.

So in that sense, we are now ready for Florence Foster Jenkins.  She is not an embarrassment or even a campy fool but a model for our day.  She embodies the principle of artistic equality, which is that everyone is equally gifted, even if she can’t perform, or rather especially so, in such a case.  FFJ was special, but in a new movie, FFJ is more special.

So then perhaps I have made my point not so much about the grand diva, but about the strange context of bringing her to our attention now.  As I see it, we would be better off without the attentions of Stephen Frears and Meryl Streep (with or without streepthroat) and Hugh Grant—we would be better off with Florence Foster Jenkins tout court, by herself, as she was, in the aria of the Queen of the Night and Adele’s “Laughing Song” from Die Fledermaus and the rest of them that you can access on YouTube.  It is for us as individuals to frame a reaction and an interpretation of FFJ, and I have given you four.  One is what we may call the achievement of the bizarre diva herself.  Another is the reaction of the lady who lost it, laughing at the song.  Yet another was the disturbed indignation of the embarrassed man.  And a fourth is my conventional enjoyment of all the fatuity resulting from the grande dame’s insistence on her nine vanity recordings, which she approved and vended—the evidence of the diva’s art.

Music is culture, and in the example of art music, it is the music of the European past and its American importation and adoption.  It is resented for reasons of class, race, and cognitive and performative challenges in contemporary America and Europe, but not in Japan and not in China, and not in discreet places like the Conservatoire de Paris and the Juilliard School.  But let’s whisper because the touchy bureaucrats of the government may be listening!  There is every reason to understand how contemporary politics relates to the subject of Florence Four-Star Jenkins, for her daft incompetence speaks to the needs of today’s deluded and incompetent politicians, to the musical illusions of youth, and to the resenting resentments of the resentful.  Spike Jones trashed respectable music because of its nature and his, and he did a good job of it.  Chuck Berry dismissed Beethoven, and it stuck.  The beat goes on, though Sonny Bono does not.  FFJ we may imagine listening to Her Master’s Voice, but in her case, Cave canem doesn’t mean “Beware of the dog” but something much worse—“Beware: I may sing.”