Bronx Boy – A Novel (Part Seven): Temper, Temper

Photo of Fordham Road at Grand Concourse, in the Bronx

“What in Hell was that?”

       Something banged on the ceiling above. The noise woke Sonny up. He thought, “Who’s the nut job banging on our ceiling at this hour?” It was 1:30 in the morning, a good four or more hours before the sun would show its shining face. What the hell was happening?

       Papi was at it again. This time, he was poking a broom up at the dining room ceiling, handle first. As he did this, little holes started to appear where the point of the broom had been. It was if the ceiling had come down with a bad case of acne, leaving pockmarks from one side to the other. Why the hell was he doing that, and at that ungodly hour? Sonny heard Papi yelling at somebody.

       “Stop that noise! Stop that, you bitch!”

       “What are you yelling about?” Sonny shouted from his bedroom.

       “It’s the bitch upstairs! She got her kids playing bowling! Over my head! Mierda!

       Startled awake by the banging noise and by Papi’s nonsensical explanation, Sonny paused to listen. He heard nothing, not a sound. Not even a bellow. But Papi had sonar for ears. He could hear a fly buzz past the dining room table from twelve feet away.

       In minutes, the ceiling was full of little holes. Sonny counted ten holes at a minimum, possibly more. Enough to house a swarm of swallows, no doubt. Without warning, Papi sprang into action. He grabbed the rotary phone from the wall and started dialing. What the heck?

       “Hello? Hello? Dis da police? Lemme talk to da desk sergeant… Dat’s you? Yeah, so, dis is Mr. Delacruz, on East 183 Street. I da block watcher. Yeah. There’s a crazy freaking bitch upstairs, she got her kids playing bowling over my head. You gotta get somebody over here now, an’ make her stop.”

       “Sorry, pal,” came the bored voice on the other line, “we got our hands full with a couple of murders at the moment. No can do.”

       This abrupt change in tone did not sit well with Papi.

       “Oh, yeah? You better get here quick, officer, ‘cause they’re gonna be couple more murders if you guys don’t come over!”

       “What’s the address?”

       “2320 East 183 Street, near the Grand Concourse.”

       Papi fell silent. Then, as abruptly as he dialed the police station’s number, he slammed the phone on the receiver with all his might. THWAP went the receiver. “Fucking cops! They here when you don’ need ‘em, an’ they not here when you need ‘em.”

       “Papi, what the hell happened?” Sonny asked. “Why’d you hang up?”

       “I didn’ hang up! The cop on the line, he hang up!”

       “Huh? How come?” Sonny added.

       “Who the hell knows? He didn’ want to come over. Said they got too many murders on their hands.”

       “Yeah, I heard you…”

       “Yeah, well, the fucker say they too busy, they’d get there when they can. Our tough luck!”

       “Did he say that? It’s our tough luck?”

       “No, I say that. What are you, a lawyer or something?”

       “You woke up the whole damn building, Papi. You expect people to be quiet? They’re gonna bust your chops for this.”

       “Nobody gonna bust nobody’s chops ‘cept me!”

       This line of dialogue went nowhere. Sonny shut the door to his room and went back to sleep. Or he tried to, anyway. The next day, Papi went to the super’s apartment and complained like hell about the upstairs neighbor’s night maneuvers with her little “bastard kids.” Complaining did little good. The super, a sullen Puerto Rican gent, had heard it all before.

       “As long as they pay the rent, we can’t do nothin’,” Mr. Super said. This business went on for a few more nights, until Papi got fed up enough to rollover with an extra pillow over his head. Night maneuvers can drive people to do strange things.

       Coincidentally, about a month later, one of those makeshift landlord-tenant meetings was being held in the lobby, near the building’s entrance. The landlord, a tall, gray-haired, perfectly coiffed Jewish fellow in his early sixties (wearing a hearing aid and wire-framed reading glasses) listened to the neighbors’ beefs – and there were plenty of them.

       The organizer, Mrs. Steinman, a kindly well-spoken woman of about middle age, talked politely and softly for the tenants. She was part of a tenants’ committee (Sonny had no idea that one even existed) that had come together recently for the sole purpose of raising awareness and resolving troublesome issues that needed to be addressed. So far, things were going well. Everyone was nice and polite.

       But then, it was Papi’s turn. His presence gave Sonny butterflies in the pit of his stomach. Sonny was intimately aware of Papi’s hair-trigger temper, especially in these types of neighborhood surroundings. All Sonny could think of was a tired old phrase Mami was fond of repeating: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” Oh, well, what the hell!  

       “Dang, what’s Papi got up his sleeve now?” Sonny wailed to himself. Nothing good, that’s what.

       Papi finally spoke up.

       “My son,” Papi said, clearing his throat. “He got somethin’ to say.” “Vamanos, Santiago.” A chill went down Sonny’s back. Papi did it again: he had pulled the old “switcheroo,” a move that blindsided his son before the entire assemblage. Papi told Sonny beforehand he needed his presence for “moral support,” that he was going to air his grievances along with giving them “a piece of my mind.” Whatever.

     That was typical of the old man: say one thing, do another.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2023 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Will Face My Fear’ — The Mind-Killing Little Deaths of ‘Dune’ (Part Nine): There’s Treachery Afoot

Alia Atreides (played by Laura Burton, a non-professional at the time)

The Fulcrum, At Last

Alia, Paul’s underage sister, sits and stares at a tiny little mouse (this rodent is the literal “Muad’Dib” from whom Paul derived his Fremen name). After a few seconds, Alia looks out into the vast distance. We cut to Chani and Reverend Mother Jessica. Chani tends to her baby boy. There is a difference of opinion, it seems, between her and Jessica over how to raise Paul’s infant child – i.e., more time with the sietch or more time with mother-in-law Jessica. Hmm, to learn the Weirding Way perhaps?

Jessica speaks of her son Paul’s many attributes; his “availability,” as it were, to align himself with one of the other great houses. Chani knows what she means and deigns to do her part, when the time arrives.

We switch to House Corrino, where the duplicitous Minister Fenring shows Baron Harkonnen and smug nephew Feyd around, hinting that “talks” will soon be underway. During their walk, Feyd spots Princess Irulan on the balcony. Noticing the young Adonis, Irulan turns away. Feyd smiles but does not get the message (which is, “Keep the hell away from me, you brainless oaf”).

In the next instant, the Baron floats behind the Spacing Guild envoy, who has obviously conveyed Muad’Dib’s message to the emperor. With his royal highness is the minister and Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, who stare down at Baron Harkonnen’s floating form as he tries to “explain away” the reasons why the spice has not flowed.

Babbling on about “this Muad’Dib character,” old B.H. (more like B.S.) insists that the agitator is obviously some sort of religious fanatic out to gum up the works. “Have you stared into the eyes of a religious fanatic?” the angry emperor queries him. “Suicide and martyrdom are often the same thing.” Reverend Mother Mohiam and the Spacing Guild agent call for immediate action. To combat the rebels, the emperor plans to move his forces into position, which, he hopes, will lure this fanatic out of hiding. What do they say about the best laid plans of mice and men? We will find out soon enough.

Princess Irulan, with Minister Fenring (center) and the evil Baron Harkonnen (right)

The scene changes to Reverend Mother Jessica’s arrival at Paul’s sietch. She brings her grandson with her. Jessica worries that Paul will challenge Stilgar’s leadership over his own sietch. She also confesses to him that she has purposely used the Fremen’s legends to ensure their survival. Not surprised in the least by this rather late-in-the-game admission, Paul counters with his belief that he has answered destiny’s call. So, in a way, events have been shaped far in advance. At the same time, everything is going as planned, whether they were foreseen or not – a curious and, to be clear, ultimately dangerous path they both have been treading.

Turning matters on their head, Jessica admits to Paul that her initial purpose in life was to produce a daughter who could be wed to the Harkonnen heir. At the same time, this marriage would end the centuries old feud between their two houses. In addition, this daughter was destined to become the long awaited Kwisatz Haderach. After centuries of selective inbreeding, planning and executing, the so-called “best laid plans” of the Bene Gesserit have failed. Who is Paul, then? Where did he come from? How did he get into the picture? Is he really Jessica’s son? Is he a god? A messiah? A myth? The one who will lead them down that primrose path?

But the path can also be changed, can it not? Things need not be as they were once foretold. With that in mind, Jessica charges Paul with finding a way to keep Stilgar as their ally (the old “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer” gambit), thus solidifying their hold on a trusted Fremen leader and, in a bold leap of faith, on the Fremen themselves.

After Paul has departed, Jessica suddenly finds herself in Gurney Halleck’s iron grip. He plans to kill her on the spot. His reasoning is to exact revenge for her betrayal of the assassinated Duke Leto. By a sheer stroke of luck, Paul interrupts the attack on his mother at the moment Gurney is about to cut Jessica’s throat. Remember, the Weirding Way is the way of speech, of turning one person against the other by the mere sound of one’s voice through the power of suggestion. This is why Gurney charges her with keeping her trap shut.

Thinking fast (which he must do in order to avoid a catastrophe), Paul maintains that it was Doctor Yueh who was the traitor, not his mother. Jessica confirms this. With that, Gurney is aghast and disgusted at his behavior. Imagine: a split second more and innocent blood would have been spilled. And Gurney would have met his end at Paul’s hand. Monstrous!

Besides, an even worse scenario has just taken shape: For all his powers of perception, Paul missed out on anticipating Gurney’s sneak attack on his mother. Why didn’t Paul see it coming? Perhaps his mind was clouded with other thoughts, namely those of revenge. The end result is that a broken Gurney Halleck falls to his knees in bitter remorse. In the director’s commentary, Harrison made note that P.H. Moriarty (Gurney) had recently lost a close friend, which lent his performance a bittersweet ring of truth.

Alone with Chani, Paul ruminates on his having missed Gurney’s attack. He asks that Chani take their only son to the Southern Sietch, far away from the danger they are facing, i.e., assassination attempts. Facing his worst fears, Paul goes out by himself to ride the giant sandworm. He travels swiftly to the Great Temple. While there, he communes with the planet Arrakis’ past, present and future.

Chani sits observing her husband Paul — or Muad’Dib as the Fremen know him

The winds hint that Paul has taken the Waters of Life, reserved strictly for the Bene Gesserit. Visions – dark, stormy visions at that – cloud his mind (hopefully, not his judgment). Pressing his temples with both hands and massaging his head, Paul finally sees the future that is about to unfold.

Otheym, one his followers, comes upon him. At the last, Otheym shouts out Paul’s sacred name: “Muad’Dib!” Paul topples over in a faint.

In a change of scene, Chani, now dressed as a high priestess, reappears. All the Fremen are gathered in prayer and chant. Both Jessica and Chani enter Paul’s bedchamber. They find him in a trance with eyes open. He has been this way for a week. Has his time come at last? Will he snap out of this coma, a coma that he himself has induced? And for what purpose? Even Reverend Mother Jessica is at a loss as to how to revive him. To cover her tracks, Jessica has let it be known that Paul is in a “sacred swoon.” Chani kisses Paul on the lips and immediately realizes that he has taken the Waters of Life.

After a long while, Paul finally revives. He thanks Chani for squeezing more water down his parched throat. For all her Weirding Way powers, Jessica had presumed that he was dead – another unexpected failure. Clasping both her hands into his, Paul shares his fateful vision with his mother. He sees the here and the now – “the future and the past” – all at once, all the same. Indeed, Paul is the long-awaited Kwisatz Haderach, the one who is many places at once. “I am the whirlwind,” he whispers calmly.

This last phrase may remind attentive viewers of General Allenby’s curt remark about the “gone native” Lawrence of Arabia: “He’s riding the whirlwind.” There are many similarities, no doubt, as both Sir David Lean’s film epic and Frank Herbert’s literary tome emerged, more or less, side by side or, at best, roughly simultaneously with one another, though apparently unrelated.

Jessica appears frightened by this situation. She voices her concerns about going where Paul has gone. She calls him by the sacred name, but Paul insists he is more than that. “I am the fulcrum, the giver and the taker.” He is the master of fate, the tool of fate. In a telling reversal, Jessica is now the one surrounded by lifeless bodies. The cries of the innocent, the dead and the dying, the children of Arrakis, appear to engulf and torment her. Placing her hands over her eyes, Jessica is unable to look death in the eye.

At that moment, Chani calls to her, saying the Reverend Mother has come out of her revelry. “I am fine,” Jessica states, while looking askance at her prostrate son. “Now you understand,” Paul intones. He lies back on his cot.

Saskia Reeves as the Reverend Mother Jessica

Director’s Commentary and More

Lady Jessica is now a Reverend Mother, a mother to her son, and a mother-in-law to his consort, the Fremen freedom fighter Chani. As well she is competitive with her daughter-in-law by default. Jessica has been placed in the position of supporting young Paul as the sole heir to House Atreides. Her hope, then, is that he will be reinstated with the title of Duke, to take his father’s rightful place.

For Chani, she too has a position of her own to maintain, her being the late Dr. Liet Kynes’ daughter. And, therefore, a person of high rank in the Fremen pecking order. Both parts, that of Jessica and Chani, have been perfectly cast as was mentioned earlier.

There is an art nouveau ambience attributed to Planet Kaitan (and, coincidentally enough, to Prague, Czech Republic as well, where the series was filmed), a wonderfully ornamented style for the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV’s gaudy palace.

Lady Jessica sees what Arrakis, and the spice, have done to her son. Hence, he is no longer a pouty teenaged boy but a full-grown adult who accepts the role that has been given to him, that is, the mantle of leadership. Director Harrison dismisses the clash of acting styles. For instance, Saskia Reeves, the more classically trained actor who prepares her lines in advance, knows where her character is going what and she will do. Advance preparation is her way of divulging character.

In comparison, Alec Newman is the more intuitive of the two. He’s the one who goes with his gut. He lives in the moment and depends more on spontaneity – very much in the Method mode of acting but modern in approach. Their clash of styles lent spark to their scenes, and made for excellent contrast in true mother-and-son fashion. It will remind viewers of the Gertrude and Hamlet dynamic from Shakespeare, both with competing interests and varying viewpoints.

“Herbert was writing about the relationship of the individual in a mass culture,” Harrison notes, “which is where our world is evolving. Individual cultures do not want to be absorbed… It’s about those who rage against the modern age, where one’s identity was closely linked to a tribe or an intellectual idea. We are creating a mass global culture. It’s unstoppable at this point.”

Director and writer John Harrison

Certainly, social media (with respect to Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and their like) have been at the forefront of this cultural change which, in the time that Dune was staged, filmed and released (the year 2000), has perfectly captured the angst of that era and ours.

The trajectory, then, is from the following story sequence: First, there is exposition, followed by an inciting incident. Next, a rising action that reaches a midpoint. After the midpoint, we have a falling action, followed in turn by a crisis that will lead to a resolution.

In other words, the classic five-act-play approach that William Shakespeare made popular in his day. Or today’s two or three act structure, if your mind cannot grasp the five-act pattern. The rising action should but does not always segue into the falling action. It’s something to keep in mind when considering a work of such enormously epic and complex proportions as Herbert’s Dune world.

“The saga of Dune is far from over…”

(To be continued…) 

Copyright © 2023 by Josmar F. Lopes

Bronx Boy — A Novel (Part Six): The Names People Play

Saint John of the Cross

Sonny’s surname was De Le Cruz. That is to say, his “official” last name, as it appeared in the local Puerto Rican Civil Registry. About twenty or more years ago (the exact time remained a mystery to all but the deceased), Papi was told that someone in the family had the bright idea of combining the three syllables of their family’s surname into one name, resulting in a completely “new” surname, that of Delacruz. To Sonny, it sounded reasonable, the proper thing to do. Too many names to remember, you know? And too many spaces to worry about.

       Good thing, too. A name with so many spaces can take up a lot of room on job applications and forms for school, Sonny argued; and all that paperwork one had to fill out for taxes and such. Of course, Sonny was too young at the time to have known anything about this, but that’s how it was. And that’s how it was going to be.

       What did all this mean for Sonny personally? And what was the difference between De La Cruz and Delacruz? They were still the same family, still the same people, the same bodies, the same minds and faces. Materially for them, nothing had changed. The same old arguments abounded, no matter who was doing the arguing. And to tell you the truth, it made no difference at all what the spelling of their surnames were. Not to Sonny, at any rate. The same name, the same person, only less space. The result: Time saved.

       The one thing he could not vouch for was his first name: Santiago. God, how he hated that name! And how he wished it were something else, something simpler, something easier maybe on American ears. Everywhere he studied or worked, and nearly everyone he talked to, all wanted to know how to spell it, or what it’s origin was.

       “S-A-N-T-I-A-G-O. San-tee-a-go. Santiago. You got that?”

       He always added that last part. Sonny wanted to let people know it annoyed the hell out of him to have to accommodate these ignorant fools who had never heard of his or his family’s name.

       “Christ Jesus! Talk about too many syllables!”

       It was always a mouthful, of that Sonny was certain – no matter how many times he spelled it out for folks. “Why couldn’t my parents have named me something else? What’s wrong with Sonny? Sonny Cruz? That sounds way better, right? Much better! Yeah! Strong, short, no spelling involved, no need for stupid explanations. A real American-sounding name. Straight up, to the point. No fancy twists, no freaking turns. ‘Hi, there. Sonny Cruz. Nice to meet you.’”

       What possessed his parents to have burdened him with such a miserable moniker as Santiago? When he was younger, Sonny had finally gotten up the nerve to inquire about it. He didn’t dare go to Papi. No way, José! Papi would only complicate matters. He decided instead to go straight to Mami. She would know. Yeah, Mami! The most logical person in the whole world to ask. Papi, as head of the household, would need to get her permission to name one of their kids. Actually, in point of fact, it was the women elders in their family, by local tradition, who were the ones responsible for approving a family member’s name. From as far back as Sonny could remember, that was how it was. And that’s how it would be.

       On this day, Sonny finally got up the courage to ask her.

       “Mami, why did you name me Santiago?” Surprised yet pleased by her son’s question, Mami gave her oldest born a mile-wide grin.

       “Ah, well, if you must know, Santiago is a very old and respected name,” Mami responded to him in Spanish. “It comes from Saint James, chico. Saint James or Santiago de Compostela. That goes with our family’s last name, De La Cruz.”

        Sonny was nothing if not confused. He wasn’t prepared for such an elaborate response as this. “How do you mean,” he asked blankly, “our family’s last name?”

       “It’s that Santiago is a very traditional way of saying Saint James, the brother of Saint John the Apostle, the one in the Bible. The disciple of Jesucristo, Nuestro Señor.” Mami crossed herself as she spoke these words. Sonny scratched his head in wonder. Or was it confusion? Knowing Sonny, probably both.

The Apostle Saint James the Greater – or Santiago of Compostela

       “What’s wrong with you calling me James?” he countered. “Or Juan, like my brother Juanito? You call him Juanito, why not me? I like Juan. Can you call me Juan?”

       At that, Mami grew sullen. She listened to his childish prattle, calmly at first. She had to remind herself that he was still so young, so “wet behind the ears,” whatever that meant. Of course, taking his brother Juan’s name made perfect sense to him, but would not win any arguments with the family’s elders – in particular, las abuelas. Mami knew her eldest son well, a bright and playful boy but nowhere near his younger brother’s intelligence. Sonny was of a curious but fairly argumentative nature, too much like her own personality.  After giving what Sonny had asked some thought, Mami continued.

       “Your brother’s name fits in with the rest of our family’s name, ‘De La Cruz,’ which means ‘Of the Cross.’ Think about that, hijo. Juanito De La Cruz is ‘Little John of the Cross.’ ”

       “Little John of the Cross? Is John the one who was… cru-ci-fied? You know, the one on the cross, the one we have Christmas for? I thought that was Baby Jesus. Wasn’t that Baby Jesus?”

       “You’re confusing things, Santiago. I wasn’t talking about Baby Jesus. This is Saint John of the Cross. He was a Catholic priest, a… a Doctor of the Church. Many, many years ago, long before you were born, before I was born, before any of us were born. John lived in España, the mother country of our ancestors. John was a very wise and learned man, a scholar and a very spiritual being…”

       “Spiritual? Oh, you mean, like the Holy Spirit, like the soul?”

       “Si, mijo. San Juan De La Cruz. Like San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico, the old capital, the symbol of who we are.”

       “San Juan, that’s the same as Saint John, right? Of the Bible?”

       “No, mijo. Saint John of the Bible, that’s another Saint John. This Saint John was a priest. The one from the Bible was Jesus’ disciple. Two different people, okay? But the same name.”

       “Oh, but what about Santiago? Why that name?”

       Exasperated, Mami went on to explain it all again. But the more she explained, the more confused Santiago became. Mami finally threw up her hands and gave up, especially after she insisted that Santiago was a combination of two names, Saint and James. And that Iago, the second half of “Santiago,” was an ancient way of spelling James. She claimed that Iago, James and Santiago were all the same, which Sonny likened to the Holy Trinity: “I get it! Three persons in one!” Make sense? Mami grew more and more irritated at his obstinacy.

       “No, no, not exactly, mijo. Just one person, but three names. It’s not the same, it’s different.”

       “Oh, okay.” Sonny still wasn’t convinced. He felt there was more to this name business than what Mami was telling him. And why did she get so angry and flustered every time he asked her a question? Nevertheless, Sonny kissed Mami on her cheek and went off to bed.

       But little Sonny couldn’t sleep. His thoughts lingered over their earlier conversation, what Mami had expressed to him about Iago, James, Juan, John, and Jesus. It was all so damned confusing. Obviously, clarity was not one of his mother’s strong points.

       “Too many ‘J’s,” Sonny whispered to himself. Saint James, then Iago, shortened to Santiago. John became Juan, then Juan of the Cross became De La Cruz, which got shortened to Delacruz. That part overwhelmed him. Still, he reflected for more than an hour. “I got to look this up one day,” Sonny thought to myself. “Maybe, when I get older, I can figure it all out. It’s much too simple an answer, what Mami said. It doesn’t make any sense…” Exhausted, Santiago finally closed his eyes and fell asleep.

       For many years, Sonny took what Mami had told him about his and Juanito’s names as gospel. All boys do. They believe what their mothers tell them about where their origins were. Sonny went on to explain, to anybody who was willing to listen (but mostly to himself), the source of his name. Many more years would pass before Sonny began to do his own research into the matter.

Copyright © 2023 by Josmar F. Lopes

In Flight – A ‘Dream Zine’ Poem

(Today’s piece is a short poem by guest contributor Thais Angelica Tavares Lopes. Thais Angelica is my oldest daughter. Her varied background encompasses a range of subjects, including art instruction, drawing, sewing, dress designing, convention-hopping, and creative writing.)

Massive wings like  

thick umbrellas, 



lit by dusk. 

Muscles dance rhythmically  

under sleek, scarlet scales, 

as if listening to a barely  

audible beat by the Muses.  

  Mysterious, hulking power  

 pulsates opulent pleasures  

through the air.  

Morose, clear eyes track every motion, 

foreseeing all and 

welcoming their fate. 

Majestic ivories gleam and glint 

like royal gems, 

unchanged by centuries 

 of constant use. 

Monsters of firmament; 

 such are dragons.  

Making their way through the mundane, 

like a stealthy caravan of kings, 

basking in the glory of their ways. 

Magnificent in their flight, 

all beware their might! 

Copyright © 2023 by Thais A. Lopes 

Bronx Boy — A Novel (Part Five): ‘Las Chicas’ and Soundview

Puerto Rican boy meets girl in the South Bronx (Photo credit: Stephen Shames)

“Dang, bro, what’s wrong wid you? Do you or do you not like Puerto Rican girls?”

       Sonny was miffed at his friend Pablo’s question. “Ain’t nothin’s wrong wid me, man. They’re hot, alright? Too damn hot. Sizzling, burning flesh! I can barely lay my hands on them.” Sonny was not ready to talk about Puerto Rican girls. Not yet, he wasn’t. He was more interested in baseball. With bats, balls and strikes on his mind, he tried to change the subject. “What’s wid dem Yankees, anyway?”

       There was this boy, Angel (“Cool name, huh?” Sonny whispered to himself), who must have been all of eleven or twelve. When you stop to think about it, he wasn’t that much older than Sonny. Still, the guy looked about eighteen, maybe more. Angel sported a tiny little mustache – a barely noticeable whisp of stubble above his upper lip – and some stringy chin hairs, too. Angel was slender and broad-shouldered. With black curly locks, and dimples on his tanned cheeks. A broad smile, brown eyes, slim waist. Shoot, the guy was a walking, talking Greek god or statue, or something. The girls thought he was “dreamy,” and he had good manners. Girls loved that last part. Manners, that’s what counts, that’s what made all the difference. They like to be treated like ladies – even if they weren’t.

       “Like the freaking queen of England, bro,” Angel would add, as if girls were the most important thing in a young person’s life. Which they were, of course. Only, Sonny didn’t know it.

       The guys who got the girls knew all about treating them well. And they did, you know. Like Latin royalty. That is, until the rubber met the road. That’s an old cliché, of course, but in this case it served the intended purpose.

       Angel went out with Miriam, a cute chick from Sonny’s class. Sonny couldn’t remember her last name, not that it mattered much. Angel, for his part, was just another classmate. Sonny hadn’t seen him since school ended in mid-June. When classes started up again in September, after Labor Day, Sonny met up with Angel. Damn! He must have matured overnight. One week, he was just another scrawny kid in their class. The next week, he was Mr. Love God. And Miriam, “What a freaking hot dish!” She couldn’t have been more than twelve, or maybe less. Short, flat-chested, no curves at all, legs straight as arrows, two pencils in saddle shoes. She, too, had little hairs resting on her upper lip. Even when Miriam smiled, she looked serious.

       Sonny was baffled. “I didn’t know girls could grow mustaches?” They grew more than that.

       Just as with Angel, overnight Miriam sprouted like a late-blooming weed – but in her case, the sprout manifested into a pair of humongous breasts that would knock anybody’s head off their shoulders. From hell to heaven. Wow! She looked and acted as if she were twenty-one. Angel told Sonny, in secret, that she was really eleven. That her parents had lied about her age so she could be in a higher grade. Oh, man! Eleven years old! Imagine! Shit…

       “Eleven, going on thirty!” Angel whispered to Sonny.

       “Lucky bastard,” sighed Sonny.

       Here he was, Santiago “Sonny” Delacruz, all of twelve going on thirteen. Still playing stickball with the little runty kids from the neighborhood. Still keeping watch over his little brother Juanito. While this guy, this “Angel” fellow, more sinner than saint and not much older than Sonny was; Angel, a fellow classmate in the fifth grade, a Puerto Rican, South Bronx-raised teen from the “ ‘hood,” got the opportunity of a lifetime: to go steady with a hottie tamale that was younger than either of them.  

       “Man, oh, man, must’ve been something in the air,” Sonny surmised. “Or maybe in the tap water.” Whatever it was, Sonny wanted some of what Angel was having. And soon, too.

Street kids from the South Bronx hood, circa the 1960s

They say Soundview is a part of the South Bronx. Sonny heard it referred to as the South-Central Bronx. People described it the way they described it. But no matter how they felt about the subject, the Bronx was still the Bronx. East, West, North, or South. From any direction, from any angle, and from any vantage point, it was all the same shit hole to him. A dump on a bump of a lump off a rump.

       Soundview, the section of the Bronx that Sonny and his family resided in, was always Soundview. Papi told them it was named after the area’s closeness to the Long Island Sound inlet. “You can see Long Island Sound from the top of the Soundview subway station.”

       Sonny took this odd notion as gospel. Straining his little neck in the direction that Papi told him and his brother to look, all Sonny could see were faint misty clouds. A strip of land, fuzzy and formless, in the distance, gleamed dully in the morning sun. Sonny had no idea what the hell he was gazing at. Nobody bothered to tell him what an inlet was. And he never bothered to ask, either.  

       As a youth, Sonny remembered playing in filthy, empty lots around Stratford and Morrison Avenues. After the family moved to nearby Bronx River Avenue and the Bronx River Housing Projects, greedy real estate developers began to see plenty of dollar signs in their future. They decided, in a moment of inspiration, if that’s what you want to call it, to build a mass of high-rise apartment complexes where once there were empty spaces, the majority of them along a wide-open, marshy plain between Orchard Beach and City Island, in the northeast corner of the Bronx.

Co-op City in the Northeast corner of the Bronx – circa 1960s

       In the early 1960s, this same wide-open, marshy plain became the site of a short-lived amusement park area dubbed Freedomland U.S.A. – the East Bronx equivalent of a poor person’s Disneyland. It operated for a spell in the Baychester region. But the park went broke after only a few years of unprofitable operation. Not wanting to let good land go to waste, the real estate developers hit upon another bright idea: to build big, mammoth apartment structures. Housing hundreds upon hundreds of families, the gigantic Co-Op City housing development soon replaced the cheap rides and historical attractions of the now-defunct Freedomland. A city within a city within a city. You call that freedom?

       As a young working stiff in his late twenties, Sonny found his way back to the old neighborhood. Certainly not out of nostalgia or reminiscence. Not a chance. The truth was, he’d been dating a Puerto Rican girl whose family lived in one of those fancy new high-rise dwellings. The family’s apartment was nice, really nice. Richly furnished, too, with wall-to-wall carpeting and state-of-the-art bathroom facilities. It was nothing like what Sonny had been used to when they first arrived in the U.S., or from what he recalled of his own family’s residence: the tight, boxed-in look and feel of cubicle-sized rooms. The kind that reminded you of those claustrophobic jail cells in Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart crime pictures. Still, they were a hell of a lot more livable than those horrible “prison units” his family occupied at the old Bronx River Houses.

       Sonny’s anger rose up within him. He stopped thinking about apartment houses. “Too ‘complex,’ ” he joked to himself. “I got bigger shit to worry about.”

Copyright © 2023 by Josmar F. Lopes

Legs Open, Mouth Open: An Analysis of Alex Garland’s ‘Men’ (2022)

Harper (Jessica Buckley)

(Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her latest essay is an in-depth discussion and analysis of writer-director Alex Garland’s controversial 2022 film, MEN.)

*** NOTE: Spoiler Alerts: Contains major spoilers for the entire film and explicit language.

Reactions to Men, the new horror film by writer and director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, 28 Days Later), have been quite divisive among critics and audiences. Some have argued that the messages contained in the film are timely, but that ultimately those who would benefit from it are less likely to seek the film out ( Some have dismissed both the film and Garland for not taking a clear stance on the topics Men intends to tackle, unlike the position more clearly suggested by other horror films highlighting toxic masculinity that were also released this year, Barbarian (dir. Zach Cregger) and Watcher (dir. Chloe Okuno). The story of a woman looking to escape from her trauma by seeking refuge in the English countryside only to be thwarted at every turn by the men who inhabit it can be interpreted as Garland calling out the current dialogue surrounding gender inequality and the patriarchy.

If anything, Harper, the female lead (played most empathetically by Jessie Buckley), is the active female protagonist modern audiences keep hoping for. At any sign of bullshit or foul play, Harper is on it. When a naked man is caught wordlessly stalking her outside of the house, she calls the police immediately. When a vicar listens to her vulnerability with performative empathy only to victim-blame, or when a policeman refuses to validate her concerns about safety surrounding the naked stalker’s return, she leaves in a huff, but not without getting a verbal dig into them. Her actions provide a welcome relief in a cinematic landscape where many female protagonists do just the opposite and fail to escape their attackers.

Harper “alone” in the woods

It is perhaps all-too commonplace the amount of micro-aggression and gaslighting women face as they navigate everyday life (here women are defined by this writer as cis women, those assigned female at birth, trans women and/or people with uteruses). There is no shortage of the obvious in the many personifications of toxic masculinity performed with aplomb by Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful, Years and Years). But is it obvious enough to filmgoers that don’t share this daily experience? Garland suggests in an interview it might be so. He would rather audiences interpret his role in making the film as “a man writing about a sense of horror of what it’s like to be a man and not about a man writing from a woman’s point of view” ( Frustrated that some audiences create assumptions about [Garland’s] motivations for making the film, he believes the assumptions are more projections of “their own motivations and prejudices.” It is not a stretch to suggest that his experience as the father of a teenage daughter may account for the lived experience he contributes to the film’s discourse. In the same interview he shares that he has heard many accounts of his daughter’s interactions with people on public transport that were “staggering” and never cease to surprise him.

Writer-director Alex Garland

At the beginning of the film, when asked if Harper’s “hubby” is coming to stay (she booked the country house under her married name, Mrs. Marlowe, out of habit), Geoffrey the landlord is a little put off by the knowledge that she comes alone. We never learn what her original last name was before marriage, as such a union can at times feel like the loss of individual identity. Yet Harper reclaims her identity in the very next scene as she takes a walk out in the woods beside the country home. In this writer’s opinion it is one of the most emotionally bittersweet scenes put to film. We see her smile and absorb the rain as it starts to fall (a symbol of purification), laugh with joy as she hears her liberated voice make music as it echoes inside a long tunnel (a metaphorical canal she reclaims for her own), all while a graceful choir sings in Latin.

It appears that Harper summons The Green Man, or one of many incarnations of this mythical archetype, whenever she vocalizes her joy or sorrow. Her musical echoes draw the attention of a dark male figure at the other end of the tunnel who starts to run after her. As she recalls the actions that prompted the death of her husband James (played by Paapa Essiedu) she is seen screaming in agony in the church, and there she summons the vicar. There are further allusions to the theme of vocalization and the restriction of voices throughout the film, in moans of ecstasy, disembodied calls in the woods, and screams submerged by water. This theme is most prominently accompanied by a brilliantly beautiful and haunting score from Garland regulars Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. The musical duo are known for their intimately powerful scores that give life to the state of being of the characters and haunt the environment surrounding them, as evidenced in their incredible work on Ex Machina and Annihilation. Here the vocals ring like Gregorian chants soon to be followed by a seizure.

The Green Man (Rory Kinnear)

During the eve of the film’s conclusion, Harper is confronted in a deeply unsettling scene by the vicar. She finally asks what he is, and he simply replies, “a swan”. This reference to the famous Greek story of Zeus transforming himself into a swan to impregnate Leda is repeated in the final song of the film, “Brute Blood.” It is an eerie hymnal arrangement of the words from the poem “Leda and the Swan” by W. B. Yeats, which the vicar recites to Harper:

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower,

And Agamemnon dead.

The vicar’s second recital of poetry shortly after hails this time from “Ulysses and the Siren” by Samuel Daniel:

I must be won, that cannot win

Yet lost were I not won;

For beauty hath created been

T’ undo or be undone.

He makes incredibly accusatory and unfounded statements about Harper that, if one has been on the receiving end of these comments, will sound all too familiar. “I have decided that you are an expert in carnality.” Claiming his lust is actually a display of Harper’s “power” and “the control that [she] exerts,” “You are singing to me,” these are phrases that sound straight out of an incel’s book.

One incarnation of The Green Man, an uncanny and unstable young boy named Samuel, also digs passive-aggressively at Harper when he is refused a game of hide and seek, calling her a “stupid bitch”. When he breaks into the house later that night, he claims, “You really hurt me,” “You’re so mean.” The quasi-Marilyn Monroe mask he wears is a bitter reminder of the primitive way women are still regarded by men who wish to take away their liberties and autonomy. This reminder comes in a timely manner given the current women’s protests in Iran and the revoking of the right to abortion by the United States Supreme Court.

Boy in the Marilyn Monroe mask!

The way the Green Man’s arm reaches through the large mail slot at the front door in search of Harper is also a reminder that women’s bodies are constantly threatened even where they should feel the safest. One can see this as his attempt to violate, to assault, to feel entitled to entering her. But Harper bites back. She does her share of penetrating with her weapon, a kitchen knife, that to an extent matches the power of the male phallus. Harper also uses the knife to penetrate the vicar’s side when he makes an attempt to sexually assault her.

Despite what one might be led to believe about the film’s subjecting Harper to harsh treatment, she is never seen completely naked in the film. She is always modestly dressed, both in and outside of the home. The same cannot be said for The Green Man, who for all intents and purposes must have been “asking” to be arrested when he wordlessly stalks Harper stark naked in broad daylight outside the front garden, turning the typical assumption of assault victims on its head.

It has also been pointed out that Harper’s ex-husband James’ death results in Christlike puncture wounds. Even the way he lies on the ground, half-propped by his hand injury, lends itself to a sense of male martyrdom often felt by men who think doing the bare minimum of being polite and respectful is to be regarded as the exception and not the norm. ( When we witness the first look into the couple’s fight that led to tragedy, it is clear that James is more concerned with victimizing himself to emotionally manipulate Harper into not divorcing him. He demands, “you have to live with my death on your conscience”, a sentiment repeated by the other men in the town towards the film’s conclusion.

Harper has a conversation with her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu)

The vicar’s offering to help Harper by listening to her as she shares her vulnerability is short-lived. He begins by telling Harper what she wants to hear. “I think you need to be understood,” but immediately follows that up with “You must wonder why you drove him to it.” He questions her about whether she allowed him to apologize before throwing him out of the house. How often have women been told they are not allowed a moment of aggression or wrath because it is irrational? How often have men been told that they are entitled to aggression?

It has been brought up that the protagonist Harper doesn’t make note of the fact that all the men in the country town look the same, as if to imply that toxic construction is just as much in the woman’s perception of socialized safety and security in the voice of another woman. And though we do find other women in this film, not all of them are on the same page. When a policewoman takes down Harper’s report of the naked stalker, she confesses “I think he’s harmless” and convinces Harper not to worry about him coming around again. But when Harper speaks to her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) over video chat about the incident, Riley levels out any chance of Harper’s fears being diagnosed as a hysteria. She is just as quick-witted and incredulous about the lack of support her friend has while she wishes to enjoy her time in the country home.

Whether or not Harper is dreaming the events of the entire film or just the final act do not matter to this writer. Harper is forced to deal with her condition as a woman that just wants to be free of guilt and fear. Harper states to Riley during one video call, “I didn’t come here to be afraid.” The universality of her experience causes extreme anxiety to witness because it’s not exclusively her life we’re seeing in front of us. The fact that this happens to so many is what makes it all the more horrifying.

When the vicar makes his poisonous monologue that leads to his attempt at sexual assault he blames the victim for the lustful thoughts that plague men’s minds. The visual of Harper with “legs open, vagina open, mouth open” as somehow a spell she has put on him is reflected back at him later when he grows his own vagina when revealing his true nature at the film’s “climax.”

Harper and the vicar — an uncomfortable feeling

Though Harper is seen with her mouth open in screams, she is never with legs or vagina open. That is left to The Green Man to put himself on full display in front of Harper as he gives an orgasmic birth. He bears both penis and vagina in a desire to claim the womb fully for himself and to absorb it into the patriarchy. When Harper stabs the vicar during his assault, he moans as if in orgasm before dropping to the floor.

There is enough of a message sent to the audience during this first birthing scene. I say first because birth will occur three more times as the many forms Kinnear has played stumble and crawl their way toward Harper into the house. She has been trying to protect herself from memories of James and his overbearing emotional manipulation but is thwarted at every turn. In her attempt to maintain safety, even her car is taken away preventing her escape, and she lies prostrate on the ground in defeat. Instead of trying to escape it anymore, she finally lets The Green Man into the house. Harper and the audience can fully see how pathetic and sad it truly is that the man can do nothing but perpetuate himself and his belief systems, shaped by the world and enforced by the patriarchy. His penultimate birth is Geoffrey, arguably the one that had been the most level-headed and kind throughout the film, and he is seen sobbing bitterly before he is robbed of voice by his final form springing from his mouth, James himself.

The ultimate stance of the film is not made clear, which is the main source of confusion from critics and audiences. Must men be made aware of their toxic behavior by seeing it reflected back at them? Must women be mindful of projecting their fears and anxieties on all men and miss opportunities for growth and healing by remaining forever vigilant and protected? Is the universality of the power dynamics of gender and sex a mere construction that has the power to be rewritten if enough victims raise their voices? Will men cease to birth and propagate hateful and harmful behavior? Is seeing the mythological man attempting to claim ownership over the role of the womb – and failing at creating any being other than itself – an attempt at making men realize their powerlessness? Or will it just disgust and shock them upon seeing the act of birth on their bodies?

Men – The Green Man

Women and minorities are socialized in a nearly universal way to be a receptacle, one not just for reproduction but as a place where men can almost unanimously direct their hostility and superiority with little consequence. Until now. With every person that speaks up, shares their story, bites back and fights against repression in all its forms and in every society, the “men” in Garland’s film and by extension those that wish to enforce the patriarchy lose their receptacle.

At the bitter end, James still blames Harper for his own demise, stating, “this is what you did”. Upon being asked what he wants from her, he responds, “your love.” It is unclear what occurs before her friend Riley finally drives out to the country home to rescue Harper. We see that Riley is actually pregnant, representing a symbol of new life being reclaimed by a woman. Perhaps it is also hoped for a new myth to be born. Harper holding one of the leaves the Green Man adorned his face with is, in a sense, proof that the myth of the woman can be rewritten and reclaimed as no longer a receptacle, but a never-ending echo.

Copyright © 2023 by Natalia C. Lopes

“Women, Life, Freedom”

(Today’s piece is a timely poem by guest contributor Thais Angelica Tavares Lopes. Thais Angelica is my oldest daughter. Her varied background encompasses a range of subjects, including art instruction, drawing, sewing, dress designing, convention-hopping, and creative writing.)

“Women, Life, Freedom”

Jackals circle their prey,

mouths salivating, eyes penetrating, noses captivating.

They pounce and tear the flesh off the unassuming rabbit.

They leave her battered, shattered, and scattered.

We knew they were dangerous,

but to murder our sister…

No more dreams, only streams of tears, and screams.

Rabbits screech in confusion, in delusion, in exclusion.

Contorting themselves in their grief.

Why have the jackals come for them, for her?

The clever rabbits take to the streets and rally together.

And the masses shout

Women, Life, Freedom!

The jackals continue to pick them off,

burdening some, discouraging more, and murdering others.

Yet the rabbit’s do not cease.

Day and night they gather, they clamor, they yammer.

And the jackals run scared.

All the rabbits they unite, they fight, they ignite.

And the jackals run scared.

Never quitting, they hope, they grope, they smote.

And the jackals run scared.

Let the jackals run, dear rabbits,

for you have already won.

Thais Lopes

The View from the Chair — ‘Marty’ and the Triumph of Fat, Ugly Little Men  

Clara (Nancy Marchand) and Marty (Rod Steiger)

Mama’s Boy

Marty Pilletti is a butcher, a common enough profession in a common enough working-class world. His sisters and younger brother have all gotten married, but Marty’s the lone holdout. Imagine, a guy like him, with no prospects on the horizon.

“You should get married,” his customers tell him, a common enough expression from people who no doubt mean well – one they constantly repeat to themselves, but more often than not directed at good-hearted Marty. Why, he should be ashamed of himself.

“When are you going to get married?” they regularly inquire. It’s a question Marty is loath to respond. In all honesty and in view of his profession, it cuts him to the bone. Not a day goes by when he isn’t confronted with this dilemma.

Marty has a friend, Angie. About the same age, maybe younger. They commiserate together at the local drug store, or wherever they happen to meet up. He’s another one of Marty’s pals on the make. Two lonely guys from the Bronx, “losers” if you want to be cruel about it.

Angie (Joe Mantell) exchanges thoughts with Marty (Rod Steiger)

Marty is at a crossroads. He’s thirty-six, a butcher, and a fat ugly, little man that girls don’t want. He’s gotten that description into his head, and there’s nothing he can do about removing it. They have no interest in him, at least that’s what Marty believes.

His and Angie’s “old ladies” (their mothers, to be precise) ask the same question to them, over and over again: “When are you getting married? When are you getting married” It’s enough to drive a guy to drink. Thankfully, Marty’s not the type to booze it up. At least not yet, we hope.

The loneliness, the insecurity, the self-doubts, the lack of confidence, the looming despair, but most of all the fear of rejection – these are what Marty gets in return. Sure, he’s a caring guy. And more than able to hold his own. He’s also used to working hard, but is that enough? Because of this, he’s had to develop a coping mechanism, mainly excuses for not making himself available to go to the movies or the local dance hall.

The Waverly Ballroom on the Grand Concourse, that’s the place to be – it’s packed to the rafters on Saturday nights. “Loaded with tomatoes,” so states Marty’s mother, Mrs. Pilletti. Again, it’s always the same, his having to face that inevitable query, this time posed directly by Mama herself: “What you going to do tonight?”

Mama doesn’t want him hanging around the house. She’s a widow, this is true, but all her children are married – all except “poor” Marty, the oldest of the lot. Time for him to be out on his own, or so she believes. Mama has second thoughts about that too. She’s getting old, you see.

Mrs. Pilletti (Esther Minciotti)

In as matter-of-fact a manner as possible, Marty insists to his mother that she has a bachelor on her hands. “I ain’t ever going to get married,” he openly declares, as he plops another helping of food on the dinner plate. Whatever girls like he doesn’t have, so guys like him must face the facts. It’s the bachelor life for him. And that’s that.

“I’ve taken enough girls out to enough dance halls,” he contends, probably for the hundredth time. “I don’t want to get hurt no more. I called up a girl this afternoon and she gave me the brush off. Some ‘broad’ I didn’t even want to call up. I’m past the point of getting hurt.”       

He confesses his feelings to Mama, hoping against hope she will finally come around to his point of view. Why doesn’t he go to the dance hall? “The place makes me feel like a bug just standing around. I had enough pain, no thank you.”

Not taking the hint or, more correctly, not wanting her son to suffer as most loving mothers would react, Mama calls out to him. But Marty is quicker on the draw: “Please, I’m gonna stay home and I’m gonna watch Sid Caesar.” Mama does not get it. Instead, she fires back with a hurtful line she knows will get a rise out of her boy. “You gonna die without a son!”  

That does it. Marty repeats the line back to her. “I will die without a son!” But Mama will have none of it. Imagine! An American-born Italian descendant from the Bronx, and a hard-working butcher at that, unmarried, with no prospects for a decent family life on the horizon. That is anathema to Mama’s ears. She has to do something about it – now!

Mama tells him to wear the blue suit, but this only gets Marty more riled up. Rising abruptly from dinner table, he let’s it all out at once: “The blue suit, the gray suit, I’m a fat, ugly little man!” he shouts, while pounding the dinner table. If it’s drama Mama wants, drama she’ll get. And, brother, does her oldest son give it back to her. “I’m miserable enough as it is,” he cries out. “Whaddaya want from me? I’ll get heartache, that’s what I get. A great, big night of heartache.”

These are words and arguments he’s no doubt expressed countless times before, but never so heartfelt, never so achingly poignant as he’s doing so now. Spilling his guts out to Mama probably wasn’t in the cards either, as his poker pals might describe it. But he does so anyway. Shoot, what the heck? What’s a man got to lose?

Pulling back the pain and realizing he may have gone too far, Marty grasps the fact that he’s hurt his mother – and himself, to be honest. Surely, that was never his plan, never his intention. Gently and calmly, he bends down and kisses her on the hand. He’s at the point of breaking down but manages to control himself just enough to sit back down at the table and finish his meal.

“Oh boy,” Marty mumbles to no one in particular, then repeats the line his mother used on him at the start of their conversation: “Loaded with tomatoes… that’s rich, Mama.”

Heartache Tonight, Heartache Tonight      

Directed by Delbert Mann, written by Paddy Chayefsky, and produced by Fred Coe, along with assistant producer Gordon Duff, the teleplay Marty premiered live on May 24, 1953, on the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse show.

Writer and producer Sidney Aaron “Paddy” Chayefsky

The program, a made-for-television production, starred Rod Steiger as Marty, and Nancy Marchand as Clara, the girl at the dance hall. Two years later, the independent team of Harold Hecht and actor Burt Lancaster produced the Academy Award-winning film version of the teleplay, which starred Ernest Borgnine (an Oscar winner for Best Actor) as Marty, and Betsy Blair (then-wife to Gene Kelly) as Clara.

The movie version was partially filmed in the Bronx, near and around the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road areas, as well as Arthur Avenue and the Belmont neighborhood (across the street from Fordham University where this writer once attended and graduated from). This was a section of the Bronx known locally as “Little Italy” and made famous for its restaurants, and the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

In the original teleplay, a stocky Rod Steiger, as Marty, captures everyone’s hearts with his homespun portrayal. Steiger wears his feelings on his sleeve, so to speak. He can barely hold back the tears in the key scene, described above, with his mother (played by Esther Minciotti, who also appeared in the movie version). Joe Mantell played Angie, Lee Philips was Marty’s married cousin Tommy, and Betsy Palmer his wife Virginia (originally, Anne Bancroft, whose real name was Anne Italiano, proved too “ethnic looking,” so for contrast the producers went with Ms. Palmer).

As Chayefsky wrote the part (partly autobiographical), the butcher Marty is a broken man inside. And this is how Steiger plays him: as outwardly friendly, yet all-but-crying internally. It’s what can be called an “interior” performance, one that barely manages to bubble up to the surface; where Steiger tries mightily to hold back the floodgates as an alternative to releasing those pent up feelings of despair and sorrow with regard to the character’s failed romantic relationships.

In rehearsal, both director Mann and producer Coe tried in vain to prevent Steiger from letting it all hang out, but to no avail. According to Mann, each time he performed that scene Steiger cried his eyes out, as he was taught to do by way of his Method-actor training. Even at the dress rehearsal, Steiger welled up inside so much that the dam would literally break open, and tears would pour out in full force.

Mann and Coe could not let that happen. Their take on the matter was that actors make the audience weep, not the other way around. After all, this was live television. How could they go on with the show when their principal lead had given so much of himself so soon to the little screen? In their minds, the climax would come too soon.

When the time arrived for the dinner table talk with Minciotti, Steiger came almost to the point of weeping. But instead of breaking down (as he had done on prior occasions), he got hold of himself, so that his delivery was chopped up into tiny fragments, the most memorable of which was the now-immortal line, “I’m an ugly man, I’m a fat ugly, little man.” It’s absolutely devastating, as it was meant to be.

Marty willfully tries to cover up the pain. He’s embarrassed or ashamed – and a little of both. In the tiny, round television screens that were prevalent in the early 1950s, Steiger’s natural bulk appears to resize itself down to near gnome-like proportions, resulting in the large-framed Italian butcher’s reduction to a whimpering pile of human flesh. He’s comparable to a misbehaving child, left cringing alone in the corner for some minor infraction or other.

This timely bit of self-control no doubt saved the scene from over-playing its hand, which had the intended effect: audiences around the country cried their hearts out for the fat ugly, little man.

In Ernest Borgnine’s movie take, the scene is the same, the lines are the same, but the intimacy that the small screen allowed viewers to experience (specifically, via Steiger’s reductive approach) were, in the movie theater, broader and larger than life, in the sense that Borgnine was playing to a wider, more varied audience.

Clara (Betsy Blair) with Marty (Ernest Borgnine)

It’s as if he and director Mann had aimed their sites at the topmost gallery; as if the audience were seated in New York’s Yankee Stadium, specifically in the last row of the upper bleachers. Consequently, Borgnine comes off as, well, larger than life too, as were his emotional reactions. In this scenario, one has little doubt that Marty Pilletti is indeed a big, fat mama’s boy.

Ernest Borgnine as Marty smacking the Bus Stop sign

Borgnine, because of his natural size and heft, is more physical as well. And he uses his physicality to good effect – this actor is unafraid to let his gut hang out in full view of the audience. But then, we lose a little something in the interim, in the transfer from one medium (those round-screen television sets previously mentioned) to the larger and wider movie venue.

Still, that improvised action at the bus stop, where Marty instinctively punches the sign with his fist after a successful night out with the girl Clara, left audiences laughing and crying, both at the same time. That’s what good acting is about! A spontaneous, in-the-moment inspiration.

This Operatic Life

Both Borgnine and Steiger keep getting the brushoff. At the ballroom, a guy walks up to Marty and tries to unload a “dog” on him. This guy has found a “hot chick,” so he wants to dump his date on the next available chump. He even offers to pay Marty five bucks if he will take the so-called “dog” off his hands. Chivalrous to the end, Marty refuses. “You can’t just walk out on a girl like that.” Marty is indignant – and rightly so, after having been on the receiving end of rejections for as long as he can remember.

In the teleplay, the girl is tall and big boned, with a prominent proboscis. Disgusted and insulted at being treated like a bargaining chip, the poor girl heads for the nearest side exit to cry her eyes out – undoubtedly, a routine matter for her. Does this all sound familiar? It sure does! With Marty, however, the girl, Clara, gets up the courage to confess to him that this happens every time she comes to the dance hall. He knows exactly how she feels.

Understanding soul that he is, Marty decides to open up and make a confession of his own: “Big-hearted, you get to be a professor of pain.” What a masterful line! Two lonely people, out on the dance floor: he’s thirty-six, she’s twenty-nine, an old maid to most mother’s eyes. They dance and they talk, spilling their guts out to one another, commiserating in mutual bliss. Two “dogs,” together at last. Marty chats about his ugly father who was so kind to his mother and to each other. Still, they dance and talk some more, for what seems an eternity.

Lest the idea be lost on readers, writer Chayefsky, who in his own life experienced as much pain and rejection from girls due to his short, stocky build and unconventional nature, has captured on screen and at home the essence of Puccini’s La Bohème, with all its heartache and anguish. From their initial “meet-cute,” Marty embodies the poet Rodolfo, an old-fashioned romantic at heart, while Clara is the good-natured Mimì. No, she does not die of tuberculosis as her counterpart does, but then… who knows what life has in store for these lovebirds?  

As Clara, Marchand (in the teleplay) uses her imposing height to denote awkwardness, her big-boned features made prominent in comparison to Steiger’s softer-edged contours. She’s all arms and elbows and angularity, externalizing her manner and gawky bearing to accentuate the awkwardness, whereas Steiger internalizes his thoughts and actions.  

Clara (Nancy Marchand) seated at the kitchen table with Marty (Rod Steiger)

In their conversation, Steiger holds back the pain but feels no less deeply; Marchand represents the embodiment of his prior rejections, thereby giving “Marty” a sense of his own painful dismissal by others. Thus, two lonely hearts come together as one in spite of being cast aside as unworthy by the standards of the time. How they are able to come together, slowly but cautiously, is accomplished through conversation and getting to understand one another’s feelings. Wrong moves are made, but quickly forgiven. After all, they are so much alike. In fact, they seem to attract one another, their self-awareness binding them closer.

Both artists went on to further their careers, Steiger in films and Marchand in theater and television. Taking nothing away from either Borgnine or Blair, who was “prettier” conventionally with respect to her looks, I have always been moved by Steiger’s interpretation – credit, by the way, to Delbert Mann for insisting the actor hold back those tears. “You make the audience cry for you,” Mann has conveyed in numerous interviews and in print. By doing so, the performances truly hit home.

Curiously, Steiger and Borgnine enacted their share of movie heavies. They both played Italian mobsters: Rod as mobster Al Capone in Al Capone (1959), and Ernest as an opera-loving Italian policeman in Pay or Die (1960). Both joined the Navy in World War II, both studied acting upon their return from overseas duty, both excelled at villainous and/or sinister types, usually of an ethnic bent. And both won Oscars for Best Actor (Borgnine for Marty and Steiger for In the Heat of the Night).

Steiger was the younger of the two, born 1925 in Westhampton, New York. Borgnine was born in 1917, by way of Hamden, Connecticut. Nancy Marchand was born in 1928, in Buffalo, New York, and became a notable stage actor, while Betsy Blair (born 1923), made a handful of films in Hollywood, and later in Italy.

Both Steiger and Borgnine were (if you’ll pardon the expression) “fat ugly, little men.” Yet their triumph is our triumph. One could coin the phrase “they knew the type well” without the slightest exaggeration. That’s rich, all right!

Copyright © 2023 by Josmar F. Lopes

Pelé’s Last Goal: The Passing of a Legend

Photo taken on June 13, 1961. Brazilian striker Pelé, wearing his Santos jersey, smiles before playing a friendly soccer match (Photo by AFP)

It was the joy. The sheer, uninhibited joy. That was my takeaway from watching Pelé.

If it can be said that playing a sport – any sport – could prove difficult, trying, or exhausting in the extreme, then observing and learning from a competitor such as Pelé was its own reward. He made the difficult seem doable, the trying easy, and the exhaustion mere child’s play.

How many times have I witnessed this miraculously gifted athlete stumble, fall, and be set upon by the opposition? Yet, at nearly every interval, at every wrong turn or battle for dominance, Pelé would emerge triumphant – even if he did not score a goal.

He would pick himself up, dust off the dirt and grass, and flash that thousand watt smile. “You see?” he appeared to be telegraphing to the throng of worried spectators. “There’s nothing to it.” Ah, but there was!

His native team, Santos of Brazil, made him a star player. When my family and I first laid eyes upon his sleek form, it would be one of Pelé’s first appearances in the U.S.: an exhibition match with, of all people, Portugal’s Eusebio, the only other Black player at the time to have reached the dizzying heights of World Cup Soccer stardom.

Back then, I had little knowledge of how futebol, or football as the Europeans called it, was played (I must have been all of 10 or 11 years of age). But I could sense the excitement that was building, the expectation that something spectacular was about to take shape. That’s when I began to learn.

How I wish we had brought our camera. There were no iPhones or Androids back then. And the Polaroid was, financially speaking, still out of my reach. No amount of allowance money could have overcome that monetary deficit.

Still, the memory of seeing those tiny Black figures, from the bleachers at Downing Stadium in Manhattan’s Randall’s Island, was thrilling enough. Unmistakable in his white jersey and baggy shorts, the image of this five foot, eight or nine inch Brazilian celebrity remains imbedded in my brain.

Pele with the New York Cosmos at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Stadium

When next we watched Pelé perform, for that indeed was what he was noted for, it was during the 1970 World Cup games in Mexico. Brazil beat England 1-0. Jairzinho, the tall and agile right winger, scored a marvelous shot – with Pelé’s assistance, of course.

Knowing he could draw the opposition away from their stated positions, which would help Brazil to advance to the next round, Pelé pretended to be on the attack. Using his head, shoulders and hips to fool the defenders into thinking he was about to score, Pelé casually passed the ball to Jairzinho. He had no need to look over his shoulder. He just knew that Jairzinho would be there.

One could tell that instinct had played a large part in Pelé’s methodological bag of tricks. And it worked, too. Nearly every time he tried it. But when it didn’t, oh well. He would shrug it off and smile. There would be a next time.

He had mastered this and other techniques as a gangly child, back in his slum days of Tres Corações (“Three Hearts”) where he grew up. His birth name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, after his father, Edson Sr., himself a former soccer player whose career had been cut short by injuries. “Edinho,” or Little Edson as he was then called, vowed he would make up the shortfall by becoming a soccer player as well. Which he did.

How he got the nickname “Pelé” is still a cause for speculation. The name itself means absolutely nothing. Which, if you stop and think about it, is so like the individual it describes. Without the accent over the second “e,” the Brazilian-Portuguese word pele translates to “skin,” which places emphasis on the first syllable. And on his skin. Yes, his skin. It was Black, his hair was wiry and short, but the smile was big and broad. His face encompassed an entire world of gains and losses, and of ups and downs.     

His generosity on and off the field, his ability to see and sense where his teammates were at any given moment, was one of his most outstanding qualities. Sure, he could smack that ball in whenever he made up his mind to do so. And, like most scorers, he missed the goal mouth more times than he actually scored.

Did that upset him? Did he feel like hanging his head in shame? Of course, but he rarely showed it. “There’s always next time,” Pelé seemed to be saying. Shrugging his shoulders and showing off those pearly white eighty-eights to one and all, Pelé happily trotted off to try again. He never gave up trying.

His three seasons with the New York Cosmos gave me and many of his fans – Brazilian or otherwise – several more years of watching, learning and absorbing the master at work. How incredibly lithe he still seemed, how like a mini-computer his mind appeared to be as he invented new ways to stymie the opposition.

Sure, he had slowed down considerably from his youthful, carefree form. But the fans didn’t mind. They wanted to see him play, period. Friction with other team members, especially the brooding “rock star” Giorgio Chinaglia, only made Pelé more determined to do his part for the cause.

Pele (Edson Arantes do Nascimento) holding the Jules Rimet trophy

I was present, along with my Uncle Daniel and over seventy-plus thousand fans, at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, for his farewell game on October 1, 1977. It would be against his former team, Santos. The circle Pelé started back in 1958, at his first World Cup in Sweden, was about to close. A new chapter would begin for him as an icon, a symbol, a marketing tool, as Minister of Sports in Brazil, and as a spokesperson and radio/television commentator for soccer.

His failings as a parent, his questionable financial dealings and other, more personal issues – all vied for further press coverage and equal time with past successes on the soccer field of dreams. All in all, through illness and, inevitably, through his passing, Pelé never stopped smiling.

That smile, that joy of having lived and played and won the game, stayed with him till the end. There would be no more next times, no more trying. The final whistle had blown.

Pelé had scored his last goal and has passed into legend.

Copyright © 2023 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Will Face My Fear’ — The Mind-Killing Little Deaths of ‘Dune’ (Part Eight): The Prophet and the Prophecy Fulfilled

Paul, aka Muad’Dib, rides the worm in Sci-Fi Channel’s ‘Dune’ (2000)

Visions of the Future

Paul sees his and Chani’s children. Yes, they’re all grown up, all together at last. Moreover, his final vision is of dead bodies, swimming in a sea of blood, his hands covered in muck and filth. It’s a horrible sight, but necessary to the narrative, in that untold destruction and mayhem must take place before the new order can secure a foothold.

In the director’s commentary, much is made of the clash of accents, for example an Australian actor blended with his Czech Republic counterparts.

Getting back to the story itself, sabotage continues to be a major aspect of Paul and the Fremen’s game plan: to thwart the many Harkonnen attempts at tyranny by tossing as many wrenches into the works as possible.

With that, Part Three of the Dune saga starts off with a literal bang because of it. Otheym (Jakob Schwarz), one of the newly anointed, loyal followers of Muad’Dib (i.e., Paul in messianic mode), is at the forefront of these clandestine raids. In attempting to flee, Otheym is stopped by one of the Sardaukar guards. To the rescue comes a young boy – as it turns out, the son of one of the Fremen captured and butchered by a revenge-filled Rabban in the previous portion.

The focus comes back to Paul, overseeing the operation from his mountain hideaway. His eyes are as blue as the unclouded sky. The Fremen tell him they can take the city of Arrakeen at any time. Just say the word and it will be done. However, Paul counters their arguments, saying “Not yet.”

Muad’Dib speaks to Stilgar about summoning the worm for attach in ‘Dune’ (2000)

Two years have passed. And thanks to their guerrilla warfare tactics, the Fremen have succeeded in taking over areas once considered Harkonnen strongholds. Yet Paul remains overly cautious. He’s starting to act indecisively – at least, that is what his Fremen followers perceive. So did us viewers.

Still, there are reasons for his hesitancy. One of them is that Paul cannot as yet see the future, though he longs to do so by way of ingesting more and more spice. Resultantly, he’s become addicted to it, which breeds frustration among his minions who, let’s face it, are themselves tired of waiting around. Natural-born fighters want, quite naturally, to fight, not play cat and mouse games with their foe as they have been doing.

Murder, He Wrought

In the next scene, we are back on Giedi Prime. The burly Baron has troubles of his own. In fact, he too has been the target of an assassination attempt, this time by his beloved nephew Feyd-Rautha. How did lover boy succeed in getting so close to his (you’ll pardon the expression) “favorite uncle”? Through treachery, of course!

But the plot fails. Confronting Feyd with the dirty deed – he shows Feyd the poisoned dart implanted in the dead man’s wrist – the Baron smacks his devious nephew’s pretty visage, claiming that he’s good material. Ergo, Feyd is much too valuable a commodity to be wasted on petty murder attempts.

Pained at his relative’s obvious duplicity (one the Baron himself is more than capable of), he massages his temple in contemplation of what to do next. Feyd tries to come up with a reasonable explanation, a pretext of some kind, for the botched attempt. His best and only excuse is that it will be better for him, Feyd, to handle things than his maniacal older brother Rabban, a brute of unpredictable proportions. This greatly pleases the Baron, who brags of wanting to leave the wealth of Arrakis to his unworthy kin.

Feyd-Rautha (L.) in conversation with his uncle, The Baron Harkonnen

“What wealth?” the contemptuous Feyd-Rautha replies. To his feeble and self-serving mind, the place is a dung heap. Why, it’s nothing but a sand trap. Besides Feyd’s physical prowess as a killing machine, he’s not the swiftest of plotters. Oh, he’s leagues ahead of his brutish brother Rabban, especially in the ambition department, but nowhere near the Baron’s crafty long-range planning.

Vengeance is Mine Alone

In a change of venue, we see young Alia, Paul’s little sister, intruding on a Fremen woman giving birth. In the next instant, she complains to her mother, the Lady Jessica, how everyone avoids her. This hurts her feelings, poor thing. That is because they probably know (as viewers may or may not be aware, unless they have read the book) that she is a special child with unusual powers. Her story, such as it is, will be told in the sequel Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune. For now, make note that both Alia and Jessica’s eyes shine with the bluest of blue shades, more to give their increased intake of spice added emphasis.

Shifting the focus back to Maud’Dib, we see that Paul Atreides experiences a dream sequence. He sees the worms riding out onto the desert sands, which turn green with new growth, the moon shining brightly in the background.

This brings up a question: Why would our moon be there in the first place? Viewers may well wonder, as this writer no doubt has, what the real purpose of this shot is. And you thought the story took place in the far distant future! Well, perhaps you were mistaken. Is it possible this “space opera” epic, as it was being told and presented, in reality took place many millennia ago? That Arrakis is actually our little Earth? That all that racing about in ornithopters and folding space and such are representative of past events? This notion is well founded and within the realm of possibility.

Snapping out of his reverie, Paul resumes his role as Muad’Dib. His wife, Chani, attends to a dead Fremen, one that she herself has killed in order to prevent her husband’s demise by assassination. Curiously, Paul turns away from the crime and puts his hand to his temple. His finger mimics the Baron Harkonnen’s own rubbing of his noggin in mirror-like fashion. Hmm, how odd.

Nevertheless, it is time for Paul to ride the worm. He must do so in order to fulfill the prophecy of his being the anointed one, the expected Muad’Dib who will bring order to disorder, and bind the opposing forces together by taking ownership of the planet. In this and in subsequent events, Paul Atreides will be successful. But for how long can he continue the charade? Is he really endowed with powers beyond any mortal man? Or is it an act of supreme confidence? Of willful concentration, or mind over matter?

Meanwhile, Gurney Halleck (remember him?) has basically been on his own, dealing with a band of smugglers somewhere in the open desert. He, too, has employed hit-and-run tactics as a method for survival and slowly gaining acceptance from the locals. He’s even absconded with an ornithopter. Not bad for a former bodyguard! To Gurney’s surprise, a band of Fremen attack from under the sand. Again, there are more hit-and-run outlaws out there than you can shake a stick at (that is, if you can find one).

In this sequence, Gurney is about to carve a hole into the base of a captive Fremen’s neck, when Paul steps in to announce his presence. The “Gurney man” embraces his former protégé, dubbed “young pup,” that endearing phrase he once used to describe the late duke’s heir. Otheym looks on in awe. Gurney’s men combine with Paul’s forces against the Sardaukar and Baron Harkonnen’s vicious raiders.

Back at one of the many hidden caves, Gurney meets Chani and is impressed that Paul is married with a son of his own to care for. Paul asks about the former bodyguard’s men, most of whom are smugglers and riffraff. “Good men,” Gurney boasts, waiting to do their part. None, however, are Atreides loyalists. All were butchered by the Harkonnen. Others left Arrakis, thinking Paul had died. “Yet you stayed,” Paul counters. “Only to await my vengeance,” Gurney answers. Paul knew they would be reunited. “I saw it,” he insists. “My father once spoke about desert power. You just met it. The surface of this planet is ours. No storm, no worm, not even the emperor’s Sardaukar can stop us now.”

Paul urges his ex-guardian to enlist with him, to feed on revenge with them. “Enlist?” Gurney asks. “I never left your service.” Paul embraces him, warmly, his blue eyes firmly focused on Gurney.

We switch to the emperor tearing up another report of Paul’s raids. He is thoroughly disgusted at this Muad’Dib’s wanton pillaging of the spice trade. Writer-director John Harrison envisions the emperor not as a malevolent figure but as a tragic one, a once powerful ruler at the mercy of unfolding events. Events that have been spinning out of his control. “He’s made a fatal mistake,” Harrison tells us, by aligning himself with the merciless Baron Harkonnen who is a malign figure.

Princess Irulan listening in to the conversation between her father, the emperor, and Minister Fenring

On the opposite side of this battle of wills, we have the lovely but highly pensive Princess Irulan, who knows all this and tries to steer her father in the direction of knowledge as to what might happen in the near future. She is “coy” and subtle in her insinuations, but “dear ole dad” does not hear what she has to say. Or perhaps he pretends not to listen. Either way, the emperor storms out of the room, leaving Minister Fenring to praise Irulan for her perceptive mind.

Before he leaves, however, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV charges his minister with summoning the Baron to explain what plans he has to counter the rebel advance. In turn, the Princess confesses that she is most curious about this so-called Muad’Dib.

And with that, we transition again to an attack on Paul by a Sardaukar agent, an infiltrator if you will from among Gurney’s band of smugglers. This time, Paul insists on taking the assassin alive. True, the revenge-seeking Gurney man is ready to run this fellow through with his crysknife. But Paul stops him in time, the idea being this assassin will be sent back to Rabban with a message that Muad’Dib is alive and kicking.

In the next sequence, Paul asks the Fremen to a council. They will gather up their forces for the final assault. When Gurney hears that Lady Jessica is still alive, he narrows his eyebrows and looks away, muttering wordlessly to himself. We know, from a prior encounter in Part One, that Gurney suspects the Lady of plotting to murder his beloved Duke Leto. Was he that convinced that Paul’s mother, the late duke’s concubine, would risk exposure of her alleged crime? Is he that blind to the obvious?

The answer lies somewhere in his and Jessica’s backstories and some of what will be divulged in the later Children of Dune sequel.

Back on Planet Kaitain, the Princess is told of the legend of this Muad’Dib character. No one has ever seen this fellow, no one has gotten close to him. There are only rumors of his existence, bare hints of this mysterious desert dweller. Perhaps he’s only a ghost, a figment of the Fremen’s imagination. Princess Irulan is not convinced. “There are no such things as ghosts,” she repeats to herself.

In the very next scene, Paul is taken to greet their newest captive, the creepy representative of the Spacing Guild. Without his pointy hat, he’s as bald as a newborn babe – and lucky to be alive at that. While Paul is bathed in blue light, the Spacing Guild rep is shown in half-light/half-darkened shadows, signaling to viewers that he cannot be trusted. He’s playing both the good and bad sides, sometimes pitting one against the other for personal gain or, most likely, survival.

Paul (as Muad’Dib) speaks plainly to the Spacing Guild representative

Paul questions the representative as to whether the Spacing Guild is in league with the emperor and/or the Baron. Although the agent claims neutrality over their arguments, Paul thinks otherwise. The agent, however, repeats the words that are magic to Paul’s ears: “The spice must flow.” Indeed, it does. Paul nods in assent. He also spares the lives of the Spacing Guild agent and the surviving Sardaukar. Why is he being so magnanimous? What gives with that?

“Tell them your fight is hopeless,” Paul intones. “Tell them the forces of Muad’Dib cannot be defeated. Tell them the days are numbered.” Instead of relief, fear fills the face of the Spacing Guild agent. What will become of them if and when Muad’Dib takes charge?

“The saga of Dune is far from over…”

  (To be continued…) 

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes