Bronx Boy – A Novel (A Slice of A Life) – Part One

Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx (circa the 1960s)

“Sir? Sir! Are you the father?” asked Dr. Duane Johnson, one of the attending physicians in residence.

       “Huh?” Papi grunted.

       “Are you the boy’s father?” Dr. Johnson repeated. “His father?” He pointed to little Sonny.

       “Uh-huh, I da father,” Papi replied in his broken English. “You doctor he?”

       “Yes, I’m one of them.” Dr. Johnson turned swiftly to his colleague, Dr. Vasquez. “Hey, Danny, how do you say, ‘How old is your son,’ in Spanish?”

       “How should I know?” Danny replied, crouching low over the hospital bed next to them. “That’s out of my regular line. I’m Filipino, remember?”

       “Don’t all you Filipinos speak Spanish? You people have those Spanish-sounding names and all.”

       “Only the names, my brown-skinned friend, only the names. Not the lingo.”

       “Jesus H. Christ!”

       Papi interjected. “Okay?” He pointed his finger back down towards little Sonny.

       “Your son?” Dr. Johnson replied. “Yes, he’ll be fine. Just fine. He, uh, had a touch of peritonitis. Per-i-to-ni-tis. Do you understand? Um, comprende?”

       “Ah, peritonite! Si, si, comprendo,” Papi repeated, his face lighting up for an instant. “You, ah, speakee Spanish?”

       “A few words, here and there.”

       “Hey,” Danny smiled, “you’re getting through to him!”

       “I hope so! But, man, his kid looks beaten up,” Dr. Johnson indicated. “Went through hell and back.”

       Danny gave Dr. Johnson a sharp glance, which made Johnson wince. Oh, he got the message all right. Johnson clammed up tighter than a stingy oyster about to lose its pearl. Danny drew closer and whispered something into Dr. Johnson’s ear. “Duane, you’re not supposed to spill the beans, not in front of the parents.”

       “Sorry, man, I forgot.” Johnson was a new resident at Lincoln Hospital’s Children’s Ward. If that was his excuse, then Johnson had a short memory. Twice, in the past two weeks, he had been formally reprimanded about his overly-intimate bedside manner – and especially those loose lips of his. They were interrupted by the hospital’s loudspeaker system, blasting a message.

       “Dr. Danilo Vasquez! Danilo Vasquez, you’re wanted in the adult infirmary.”

       “Gotta go, man,” Danny said. “You fine here by yourself?” he asked, turning to Dr. Johnson.

       “Yeah, I’m good.”   

       “He gonna be okay?” Papi repeated to Dr. Johnson, this time more assertively. “How long he here?”

       “That depends on how quickly he recovers.”

       “Huh, what?” Papi was puzzled more than he was angry. Earlier that day he had confronted another of the many native-born Filipinos in attendance, a touchy middle-aged attendant named Pacita who spoke with a thick, impenetrable accent. They had gotten into a heated exchange over what happened to little Sonny.

       “Why you no speakee Spanish?” Papi shouted.

       Nurse Pacita did not respond. She knew better than to confront an angry parent. Especially a Puerto Rican parent.

        Papi was under the impression his son’s operation would be routine; that he would be back on his feet in two, maybe three days at most. That was before Sonny’s appendix burst. If not addressed in time, a ruptured appendix, Nurse Pacita recalled, could lead to general peritonitis and ultimately to death if left untreated.

       Peeved at Papi’s behavior (“Insolent Hispanic!” she swore under her breath, in her native language), Nurse Pacita had neglected to inform him about this crucial bit of information. Like most workers, residents and staff who labored at Lincoln Hospital, on East 149th Street and Grand Concourse in the South Bronx, Pacita balked at asking too many questions or providing too many answers to patients and loved ones who, through no fault of their own, happened to find themselves in challenging circumstances.

Third Avenue El that once ran from 149 St and Grand Concourse to Fordham Road, in the Bronx

Juan José Delacruz was used to challenging circumstances. He had lived and grown up in a rural portion of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. His childhood friends gave him the nickname “Papi” when he was still a teenager. “Dat’s ‘cause I looked old for my age,” he told Sonny and little brother Juanito, by way of justification. He was also taller than most other kids. “They looked up to me,” he would add. It was supposed to be joke.

       A country boy at heart, Papi was unaware of the historical implications that moving to the Bronx meant for his growing brood. He had little reason to believe that, over the course of a few decades, Lincoln Hospital would suffer an irreversible “brain drain”; a drastic loss of dedicated, civic-minded public servants willing to work for starvation wages, so as to attend to the health needs of a growing immigrant community in the neediest of regions.

       One of those regions, the Morrisania Section, happened to be where the Delacruz family had settled down. Looking for richer pastures, the family left Puerto Rico behind in the early fall of 1957. They took a liking, at first, to an older but charming apartment building at the southernmost tip of Morris Park Avenue. This was where their Uncle Daví, who paved the way a year or two beforehand, had suggested they consider renting. Uncle Daví was a master at self-aggrandizing. It might have profited him more if he had learned to be a student of human nature.  

———————————

The children’s ward at Lincoln Hospital was notorious for its poor treatment and lack of care. The predominantly youthful patients who were admitted there, many hardly past their fourth or fifth year of life, were neglected en masse by the busy staffers, especially by some of the nurses.

       Still, little Sonny appeared to be in good spirits. He had no trouble sleeping at night, none at all. As soon as his head hit that fluffy pillow he was given – much fluffier than the ones Mami had gotten, at John’s Bargain Store, for him and brother Juanito – he was off to Dream Land. No late night surprises or visitations from the neighboring rat population. Better yet, Sonny forced himself to get up from his hospital bed to stroll around the children’s ward, even though his lower abdomen kept hurting. The nurses said it would be good for his recovery, whatever that meant.

       About his lower abdomen: It was starting to heal up quickly. Not knowing why, little Sonny continued to be probed and poked about every which way, usually by some doctor or orderly or other, but sometimes by the nursing staff. There he was, strolling about aimlessly in his cutaway pajamas, with an open wound the size of his tiny hand. Maybe larger. Little Sonny couldn’t tell. All he knew was that the cut was covered with bandages. The nurses changed bandages several times a day. They also administered shots of penicillin, usually twice a day, to ward off infection. It never occurred to little Sonny that, by walking around with an open sore, it might lead to further infection, or problems of some kind. What did he know? He was only a kid, barely six years of age.

       All told, this was little Sonny’s third week at Lincoln Hospital’s children’s ward. He had gotten used to the ward’s daily routine of a six o’clock breakfast, usually corn flakes with whole-wheat toast, or oatmeal in hot milk or some other type of cereal, washed down with orange or grapefruit juice, followed by zesty saltines. Lunch at eleven consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which little Sonny took a mild dislike to, or the occasional Swiss cheese on white bread (better tasting); dinner at five, or what passed for dinner, consisting of soggy mashed potatoes, white rice, pinto or green beans, or steaming chicken soup with rice, washed down with whole milk or grape juice.

       Visiting hours were liberal. Parents, friends and relatives of patients could stay for as long as they wanted, except during examination time or when x-rays were being performed. Mami and Papi visited little Sonny practically every day. When Papi finished his shift at the lamp factory in downtown Manhattan, he would rush out the door and grab the IRT Number 6 Line subway train to Third Avenue and East 149th Street. From there, he walked the five or six blocks to the hospital, dodging car and bus traffic, to get there in time for the five o’clock visiting hour.

       Mami had taken time off from her sewing job to be with little Sonny. So as not to leave his little brother Juanito to his own devices, Mami asked Aunt Dinorah to watch over him. Dinorah did not object, but she had two older sons of her own to worry about. They did not like to play with little Sonny or Juanito. Why should they? You can’t do much with tiny, little brats. Can’t even play stickball with them. What a pain! Why can’t they get a babysitter?

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

Beautiful Dreamers: Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ Comes to Life on Netflix

Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ comes to NetflixMorpheus is played by Tom Sturridge

“To Die – To Sleep, No More”

A voice — a man’s voice – starts the narration. His tone is solemn, slow, aloof, full of portent. And cold, calculatedly cold. Emotion has been drained from his delivery, with the exception of the words “your loves,” spoken with barely concealed contempt:

“We begin… in the waking world, which humanity insists on calling the real world… as if your dreams have no effect upon the choices you make. You mortals go about your work, your loves, your wars, as if your waking lives are all that matter.”

In the next section, an imperceptible change has taken place. The coldness is still present, as is the solemnity. Yet, subtle hints of an obligation arise, and a mounting commitment – call it an anticipation – over what is to come:

“But there is another life which awaits you when you close your eyes… and enter my realm. For I am the King of Dreams… and Nightmares. When the waking world leaves you wanting and weary, sleep brings you here to find freedom and adventure. To face your fears and fantasies in Dreams and Nightmares that I create… and which I must control, lest they consume and destroy you. That is my purpose and my function.” – Morpheus

In a relative sense, the above passage mirrors (and sounds comparable to) the voiceover alert from the classic 1960s science-fiction anthology, The Outer Limits:

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. We are controlling transmission. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.”

A trailblazer in many respects, The Outer Limits broke new ground for intelligent science-fiction programming on television. From the limitations set forth by one’s inner mind, as finite and tangible a substance as that might appear, to the infinite realms of mystery and the unknown, or the great beyond – truly, wherever they may lead.

Either way, it’s the voice that instantly grabs hold of your attention. The voice is firmly in control. The voice tells you what to do, where to go, what to think. Right from the start. Straight on to the end. And it never loosens its grip, never letting up.

In Netflix’s fantasy-horror series The Sandman, adapted from British writer Neil Gaiman’s graphic comic-books from the late eighties to the mid-nineties, the voice belongs to that of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. Not only does the voice make one sit up and take notice (as it should), but also the look and the style, if not the overall presentation. Oh, and the eyes.

Ah, yes, the eyes! And what eyes! Those twin orbs from which you, the viewer, are accorded a momentary peek into the very depths of the soul itself.

Whose soul, you may ask? Yours? Mine?

From this premise, more questions will arise: Can one truly see inside a person’s soul? Can one perceive the thing that makes an individual tick? That nebulous, indefinable substance that both appeals to and repulses the curious viewer?

This brings to mind that oft-quoted phrase: “Curiosity killed the cat.” Yes, cats figure prominently in ancient cultures, particularly the Egyptian. (For feline lovers, Netflix provides plenty of catnip in Bonus Episode 11). They are certainly curious creatures and, in our humble estimation, the closest in mood and behavior to us humans.

We mortals, too, are curious by our natures. And curiosity is what fascinates and takes hold of the characters in The Sandman. Some even get killed because of it. But here’s the most intriguing aspect of all: What is it that makes everyone so curious in the first place, and so obsessed with their past? Their present? Their… future?

Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ – Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) walks with Morpheus (Tom Sturridge)

“Perchance to Dream”

Simply stated, we live a third of our lives in a dream state called “sleep.” Psychologically speaking, sleep is nothing more than a natural outlet for our unconscious and/or subconscious thoughts; an escape valve from reality, such as it is, and a remedy from earthly deprivation.

It’s all a fantasy world, concocted by ourselves in the act of sleeping; an involuntary making-of tale, if you so prefer. And more often than not, dreams are entirely out of our control. When dreams begin to deteriorate by taking a darker, more terrifying turn, they evolve into what we call nightmares.  

In the waking world, we fancy ourselves distinct from what others perceive. The tendency, then, is for appearances to take precedence over substance. We want others to view ourselves as better or more beautiful or more loving than we fundamentally are.

Of course, it’s only natural to be liked and admired by those around you. But if we were to see ourselves as we really ARE, instead of what we pretend to BE… Why, that would destroy the illusion those dreams have so carefully built up, would it not? So, then, what would the end result of this situation lead to? Our disillusionment? Our descent into madness and despair, or perhaps into chaos, into suffering? Which would then lead to our ultimate destruction and demise?

In turn, this shattering of illusions is what makes Netflix’s The Sandman so endlessly fascinating, so watchable, and (dare we say) so forthright in the extreme. Author Gaiman’s elaboration on those ancient Greek myths, to include names and characters from the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, as well as familiar themes from past literary figures Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and others, along with those of his friend and contemporary, Alan Moore, have been incapsulated into the Eleven Episodes of Season One. (Hopefully, there will be more.)

While varied and wide-ranging, these episodes resist being carbon copies of the books; nor are they facsimiles of Mr. Gaiman’s writing in general, which featured the wonderfully dark children’s fantasy Coraline (2002), among others. Instead, series’ developers Gaiman, David S. Goyer, and Allan Heinberg have retained the essence and scope of the stories, in keeping to their flavorful and erudite language, modifying and/or expanding upon them at will, while reassigning the gender and/or racial components in several of the protagonists.

For the most part, the above variations on Gaiman’s themes tend to hold up reasonably well, as their impact continues to reflect vividly on the lives of the participants. Take the Librarian, Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), whose wise-beyond-her-years appearance and world-weariness are exemplified by the way she constantly keeps her head tilted (and pointy ears cocked) at a precise 45-degree angle (so marvelous!); or by Dream’s older sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and the extraordinarily empathetic feelings she extends toward those who fear her chilling presence, yet who learn to accept their passing — either inevitable or accidental — with grace and resignation.       

Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) broods as he speaks with Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste)

“Ay, There’s the Rub”

As Morpheus, our titular Sandman (also known by various other names and titles), London-born actor Tom Sturridge stands out. In fact, he comes off best as a cross between Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape and the Heathcliff of Sir Laurence Olivier from Wuthering Heights (1939).

Could Sturridge be the new Tom Hiddleston? Well, there’s more than a passing resemblance to his predecessor’s work as the gloomy vampire Adam in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (see my review of the film: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2020/06/15/only-lovers-left-alive-2013-a-parable-of-class-consciousness/). But of Hiddleston’s enigmatic and ever-changing Loki, there is no comparison.

What is more, it’s our opinion that Sturridge, with his imposing height and brooding mien, may have taken a lesson or two from repeat viewings of Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands, to say nothing of his “partial” embodiment of Gary Oldman’s temperamental Sid Vicious (in Alex Cox’s biopic, Sid and Nancy) – the quieter aspects, at any rate. There are hints as well of Christopher Lee’s towering Count Dracula, but we do digress.

Be that as it may, the Shakespearean air and spirit alluded to in Gaiman’s writing are alive and all-but ends well for Sturridge’s artfully enunciated Morpheus, aka The Dream (or “Dreamboat,” in our view), which survives intact and bears comparison to Olivier’s Hamlet. If you don’t believe us, please revisit Episode 10, “Lost Hearts,” where towards the end Morpheus holds a shrunken skull in the palm of his hand. You may hear yourself speaking those immortal words: “Alas, poor Yorick!” Oh, yes, we knew him only too well.

As a none-too-subtle appetizer of sorts, there’s the heady “inside joke” of Episode 6, “The Sound of Her Wings.” Here, our stand-in for the Common Man, the glib Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley), meets up with the dark-visage of Morpheus, in hundred-year intervals, at a tavern patronized by none other than Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (“a very good poet,” according to Hob), and a shabby individual Morpheus calls “Will Shaxberd,” a playwright of little consequence – that is, until he strikes a Mephistophelean bargain with a devilishly clever Dream. We find this tantalizing bit of name-dropping to be positively infectious.  

The mystery of who Morpheus is and what he’s about are registered through voice, tone and visage; through body language and carriage; and (as pointed out earlier) by way of his eyes. He’ll need those eyes as a means of conveying his vexation at being captured by a selfish, wannabe necromancer. And how expressive the Dream’s eyes are, too; how emotive and transparent.

Despite Morpheus’ outward display of calm, he is in fact bursting with emotion inside his own shell. In the graphic novels, the Sandman’s eyeballs sparkle with a star-like gleam in each pupil: two radiant gemstones, guiding the unwary observer to unimaginable adventures. His ghostly pallor and post-punk hairstyle provide contrast and high drama, while matching his dour physical attributes to distraction. Does the term “beautiful dreamer” suffice in these surroundings?  

John Dee (David Thewlis) in the diner/restaurant sequence, Episode 5, “24/7”

“Good Night, Sweet Prince!”

The series’ depiction of a televised graphic novel is an oft-recurring motif. Truth be told, this approach not only encompasses the visually focused, comic-book realm to a verifiable “T” but, most luridly, to the adult-world context and vulgar street language inherent therein – think Fritz the Cat meets Taxi Driver.

Not for nothing did Gaiman, a British citizen by birth, come along at nearly the same moment as another fellow Brit: Northampton native Alan Moore and his adult re-examinations of the superhero ethos in such works as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, about vigilante warriors out for blood; a modern-day monster story in Swamp Thing; the hunt for serial killer Jack the Ripper in From Hell; and the convergence of classic literary figures-turned-super sleuths in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – which, in part, may have indirectly influenced the misfit miscreants of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s Dark Horse Comic, The Umbrella Academy.

By way of affirming whatever virtues these comic-book heroes share or might claim to have shared, in cold, hard truth there is little that can be deemed “super” about any of them. All are flawed, in one way or another, if not downright incapacitated, and as intellectually disturbed or mentally unfit as the villains they pursue.

One extraordinary example occurs in a non-stop sequence from Episode 5, entitled “24/7.” In what appears to be one long continuous take, buoyed by an absolutely astounding performance by David Thewlis (Professor Lupin of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the camera follows the psychopathic John Dee, the illegitimate son of the horrible Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) from Episode 1, as he injects his verbal venom into one broken soul after another; flirting with their innermost feelings, thoughts, and emotions, and the hidden depths of misery behind them all.

Bit by bit, layer by layer, the “truth” is peeled back and bandied about as if it were the constant drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet. Perhaps, in this instance, a better analogy would be to a broken toilet, where the handle of said toilet prevents the “business” of disposing of one’s personal waste from being flushed down the pipes; what analysts will tell you is the detritus of our innermost wants and desires.

A masterful sequence to be certain (Spoiler Alert ahead!), one that, while we find difficult to watch, has been stretched almost to the breaking point of resistance; or maybe it did break and we, the viewers, are only made aware of it at the conclusion: a pile of dead corpses and mangled bodies – lost, broken souls, unable to “handle the truth,” to quote a line from A Few Good Men, of who these unfortunates were and what they symbolized.

In other episodes, one of our favorite recurring villains, the slickly sinister Corinthian (what a name!) leaves his indelible “mark,” in a manner of speaking, as he purposely wanders about the real world, searching for mischief and committing acts of unspeakable violence against his unsuspecting victims.

The smooth as butter Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) has a better idea at the Cereal Convention

It’s up to Morpheus, as stated at the outset, to capture him and the other escaped denizens of the dream world; to bring them back to where they naturally belong (much against their will). He must also search for three stolen accoutrements, i.e., the sigils of his power: his pouch of dream sand, his helm (which resembles a World War I gas mask with whalebone extension), and his dreamstone ruby.

His nemesis, the Corinthian, is an offshoot. Certainly not one of the Endless, that cluster of seven metaphysical beings in anthropomorphic disguise representing different states of being: Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Destruction, and Dream (aka Morpheus – in Greek mythology, the god of sleep), or “Dream of the Endless” as he’s referred to by Roderick Burgess (our Spidey sense tells us there’s a double meaning in that description). There’s also the enigmatic manifestation of the Fates (Nina Wadia, Souad Faress, Dinita Gohil) who speak in misleading riddles regarding events in the past, present, and future.

Played by Kentucky-born actor Boyd Holbrook with an insinuating air of being above it all, and with faux Southern charm, the slimy Corinthian deftly maneuvers his way about — in the real world and beyond — in perversely laidback languor. He dresses in superbly tailored men’s wear, if that’s any consolation. Why, this fellow reeks of “class,” but it’s all spit polish and surface noise.

And, no, the Corinthian does not sport leather outfits, but he does have little, tiny teeth where his eyes should be (shudders!). “The better to eat you with, my dears?” Talk about a wolf in grandma’s clothing, this bad guy’s a nightmare come alive, but not before Christmas, thank you. He’s more in league with A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, an avaricious, incorrigible fiend. So be it.

A smoothie in all but name only, in Episode 9, “Collectors,” the Corinthian is the guest of honor at a Cereal Convention. Yes, you read that right. No, not the Kellogg’s of Battle Creek, Michigan brand – far from it! This rogues’ gathering of the faithful (More Spoilers Ahead!) happens to be a front for vicious serial killers who hide behind a façade of respectability. But the horror of their get-together climaxes in (are you ready for it?) an unanticipated ritual slaughter of a too-curious gate crasher – hah, more fool him! Leave it to The Dream of the Endless to restore order onto a disordered universe.

As punishment, Morpheus condemns the serial killers to acknowledge their horrific crimes: either by turning themselves in to the authorities or by taking their own lives. This sequence gives new meaning to the term “Dance with Death.”  

Battle Royale – Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) meets Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) in Hell

“And Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest”

Another absolutely delightful entry in the series, one that took many viewers by surprise, lies within Episode 4, “A Hope in Hell,” where a remarkable clash of the titans – more a battle of wits and words than of warriors – takes place; a cascade of dueling verbiage between the mighty Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie, of Game of Thrones fame) and the quick-witted Morpheus.

These two combatants hurl their “bons mots” (tongue planted firmly in cheek) at each other with ferocious yet understated bite and determination, poetically speaking. The series’ writers and developers worked miracles in this department, so unlike those myriad Marvel and/or Avengers onscreen bouts – endless, protracted, mindless destruction, “full of sound and fury, signifying…” Well, you know the rest. Or you should know!

As mentioned before, Shakespeare’s poetic presence is felt everywhere and nowhere at once. Some knowledge aforethought of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon’s verses would be a prerequisite for viewing this series. That would greatly enhance one’s enjoyment overall, but without seeming to feel like a homework assignment for English Literature 101.

It might also assist with scrutinizing his lordship Morpheus’ motives with respect to his handling (or mishandling) of humankind, or the dearth of common decency he appears to harbor in relating to these mortals which, by the way, bespeaks of his inability at understanding their motives.

Sturridge, to his credit, gets the post-punk demeanor down pat. His ample coif, his high-riser slacks, his black boots, matching dark overcoat, and pasty-faced skin tone complement the Sandman’s otherworldly aspects. By virtue of his lofty position as the King of Dreams, Morpheus is a true creature of the night. And the night, pray tell, is where we live out our dreams. Daydreams are for slackers, drifters. They take you nowhere fast. But night dreams… “Ay, there’s the rub!”  

It’s still the look, the sound (did we not mention the excellent music score by composer David Buckley?), the many contributions from a plethora of solid British and American supporting players Joely Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Jenna Coleman, Stephen Fry, Kyo Ra (including voiceover work by Patton Oswalt, Mark Hamill, Sandra Oh, James McAvoy, et al.), and that eerie Morpheus stare that stands out from the rest.

Ah, but that voice! That voice…! Keep up the good work, Mr. Sturridge! To quote from the duplicitous Senator Palpatine, before the climax of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, “We will watch your career with great interest.”  

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ – Hollywood and the Historical Film: Finale and Addendum

‘We the People’ – Preamble to the United States Constitution

After railing on about how science fiction, horror, fantasy and dystopian features have occupied the thoughts and minds of moviegoers, producers and directors of late, it’s refreshing to note that, at times, history can be an even more fascinating subject for cinematic depiction.

To be specific, we mean “history” as viewed and interpreted by the movies. While not always authentic or accurate, nor even representational of actual historical events, they can certainly be entertaining. This is reason enough for students and teachers to spend quality time with the output.

Here, then, is an addendum to my series, “When the Legend Becomes Fact.” Albeit a far from complete list, this section surveys the vastness, breadth and scope of American and World History in massively distinctive ways. Looked at from their creators’ vantage point, these films offer a wider range of topics than the norm: from discovery and expansion to the colonial period; from Independence and Civil War, straight on through two World Wars, up to and including the cultural changes that took place in American society, and well beyond.

Where indicated, subject sections include both earlier and later screen versions, either a scene-by-scene recreation or an updated edition for modern tastes. Whether one agrees with their particular point of view or not, and whether these filmed portrayals of real-life events can be deemed faithful to the subject matter at hand, all were chosen for their specifically controversial and/or comparative properties.

The main thrust of this list is to spur conversation; to get students and teachers talking, and to engage with the particulars about our country’s past, both the good aspects and the bad:

‘Hamilton’ – Musical about Founding Father and U.S. Treasurer Alexander Hamilton

Exploration and Colonization

  • The Arrival of the Europeans:
    • 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – Ridley Scott (dir.)
    • Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992) – John Glen (dir.)
    • Pocahontas (1995) – Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg (dirs.)
    • The New World (2005) – Terence Malick (dir.)
  • Puritan New England: The Seeds of Suspicion:
    • The Crucible (1997) – Nicholas Hytner (dir.)
  •  Colonial Life in Early America:
    • Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) – John Ford (dir.)
    • Unconquered (1947) – Cecil B. DeMille (dir./prod.)
    • The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – Michael Mann (dir.)
  • The Fight for Independence:
    • 1776 (1972) – Peter H. Hunt (dir.)
    • Revolution (1985) – Hugh Hudson (dir.)
    • Hamilton (2020) – Thomas Kail (dir.)
’12 Years a Slave’ – Harrowing film about the evils of slavery in the South

Expansion and Civil War

  • Missionaries:
    • Hawaii (1966) – George Roy Hill (dir.)
    • Black Robe (1991) – Bruce Beresford (dir.)
  • Manifest Destiny:
    • The Alamo (1960) – John Wayne (dir./star)
    • The Alamo (2004) – John Lee Hancock (dir.)
  • The Roots of Slavery:
    • Amistad (1996) – Steven Spielberg (dir.)
    • 12 Years a Slave (2013) – Steve McQueen (dir.)
  • Civil War and Reconstruction:
    • The Birth of the Nation (1915) – D.W. Griffith (dir.)
    • Gone with the Wind (1939) – Victor Fleming (dir.), David O. Selznick (prod.)
    • Glory (1989) – Edward Zwick (dir.)
    • Lincoln (2012)Steven Spielberg (dir.)
‘Geronimo: An American Legend’ – The capture of Apache Chief Geronimo

The Far West and Eastern Expansion

  • Conquest of the West:
    • How the West Was Won (1962) – John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall (dirs.)
  • The Native Americans and a Final Solution:
    • They Died with Their Boots On (1941) – Raoul Walsh (dir.)
    • Little Big Man (1970) Arthur Penn (dir.)
    • Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) – Walter Hill (dir.)
  •  Immigration and Industrialization:
    • Hester Street (1975) – Joan Micklin Silver (dir.)
    • Ragtime (1981)Milos Forman (dir.)
    • Titanic (1998) – James Cameron (dir.)
  • War and the American Empire:
    • The Big Parade (1925)King Vidor (dir.)
    • Wings (1927) –William A. Wellman (dir.)
    • Citizen Kane (1941) – Orson Welles (dir./star), Herman Mankiewicz (writer)
‘The Grapes of Wrath’ – Classic film about the Great Depression

America From the Twenties to World War Two

  • The Roaring Twenties:
    • The Roaring Twenties (1939) – Raoul Walsh (dir.)
    • The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) Billy Wilder (dir.)
    • The Untouchables (1987) – Brian De Palma (dir.)
    • The Aviator (2004) – Martin Scorsese (dir.)
  • The Movies Talk:
    • The Jazz Singer (1927) – Alan Crosland (dir.)
    • Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly (dirs.)
    • The Artist (2011) – Michel Hazanavicius (dir.)
  • The Great Depression:
    • The Grapes of Wrath (1940) – John Ford (dir.)
    • Sullivan’s Travels (1941) – Preston Sturges (dir.)
    • Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – Arthur Penn (dir.), Warren Beatty (prod./star)
    • Public Enemies (2009) – Michael Mann (dir.)
  • America in the Second World War:
    • From Here to Eternity (1953) – Fred Zinnemann (dir.)
    • The Longest Day (1962) – Andrew Marton, Ken Annakin, Bernard Wicki (dirs.)
    • Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) – Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda, Kinji Fukasaku (dirs.)
    • Saving Private Ryan (1998) – Steven Spielberg (dir.)
‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ – Soldiers returning home from war

Post-War America and the Cold War

  • Prosperity:
    • The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – William Wyler (dir.)
  • Paranoia:
    • The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer (dir.)
  • The Nuclear Threat:
    • Fail-Safe (1964) – Sidney Lumet (dir.)
    • Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – Stanley Kubrick (dir.)
  • The Space Race:
    • The Right Stuff (1983) – Philip Kaufman (dir.)
‘Woodstock’ – Jimi Hendrix wakes up the crowd at Woodstock Music Festival

The Sixties, the Seventies and Vietnam

  • The Civil Rights Movement:
    • In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Norman Jewison (dir.)
    • Mississippi Burning (1988) – Alan Parker (dir.)
    • The Long Walk Home (1990) – Richard Pearce (dir.)
  • A Tale of Two Presidents:
    • All the President’s Men (1976) – Alan J. Pakula (dir.)
    • JFK (1991) – Oliver Stone (dir.)
    • Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone (dir.)
    • Parkland (2013) – Peter Landesman (dir.)
  • The Vietnam Experience:
    • The Deer Hunter (1978) – Michael Cimino (dir.)
    • Apocalypse Now (1979) – Francis Ford Coppola (dir.)
    • Platoon (1986) – Oliver Stone (dir.)
    • Full Metal Jacket (1987) – Stanley Kubrick (dir.)
  • Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll:
    • Woodstock (1970) – Michael Wadleigh (dir.)
    • The French Connection (1971) – William Friedkin (dir.)
    • Nashville (1975) – Robert Altman (dir.)
    • Shampoo (1975) – Hal Ashby (dir.)
‘Primary Colors’ – The best and the worst of U.S. politics in action

Contemporary American Society

  • America’s Back Yard:
    • Missing (1982) – Costa-Gavras (dir.)
    • Red Dawn (1984) – John Milius (dir.)
    • Clear and Present Danger (1994) – Philip Noyce (dir.)
  • The Fall of Communism:
    • Top Gun (1986) – Tony Scott (dir.)
  • The American Presidential Campaign:
    • Primary Colors (1998) – Mike Nichols (dir.)
  • Politics as Usual:
    • Wag the Dog (1997) – Barry Levinson (dir.)
‘Gattaca’ – The benefits and drawbacks of genetically engineered workers

The Future of Speculative America and the World

  • A New Kind of Holocaust:
    • Blade Runner (1982) – Ridley Scott (dir.)
    • Gattaca (1997) – Andrew Niccol (dir.)
    • Children of Men (2006) – Alfonso Cuarón (dir.)
  • Hope and Horror for a Modern America:
    • Contact (1997) – Robert Zemeckis (dir.)
    • The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) – Rob Bowman (dir.)
    • Her (2013) – Spike Jonze (dir.)
    • Ex Machina (2015) – Alex Garland
    • Arrival (2016) – Denis Villeneuve (dir.)

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

Dialogues with Marjorie Mazzei Raggo: The Daughter Behind the Man Behind the Glasses

Marjorie Mazzei Raggo (left), daughter of Professor Julio Mazzei, with your truly (Sep 2016)

The following transcription encompasses an ongoing dialogue between me and senior producer, editor and creative director in AV Marketing, Marjorie Mazzei Raggo, the daughter of the late, great soccer trainer and New York Cosmos coach, Professor Julio Mazzei. Marjorie and I corresponded for several years about her father’s book, which I translated into English and titled “Your Friend in Soccer: Julio Mazzei.” Below is the gist of our back-and-forth conversations, most of which took place between October 2012 and January 2021. However, our friendship and enthusiasm for World Cup Soccer continues to this day!

Josmar Lopes – I’m so glad that your family gave the go-ahead for me to start the translation. I agree with your mom about the original title. Professor did go into some detail about The Magic of Soccer towards the beginning of his book; but, as I read further into the later chapters, it occurred to me that he wrote more of an autobiography as well as a brief bio of his life and career as Pelé’s mentor and interpreter. So how about this for a title: Your Friend in Soccer: The Life and Career of Professor Julio Mazzei? I like the sound of that better. Besides, it captures exactly who Professor was, along with using one of his favorite signoffs. You let me know if that fits his story better (I think it does).

Marjorie Mazzei Raggo – Love that title! Let’s go with that for now. 

Josmar Lopes – Marjorie, I received a very interesting e-mail from my producer friend, Claudio Botelho, in Brazil. He would like very much to read your dad’s manuscript. I think I told you that a possible musical about Pelé is in the works in Rio. It happens that Claudio and his partner, Charles Möeller, are doing research about the project, specifically the parts that pertain to your dad’s relationship to Pelé. Right now, Claudio’s in rehearsal for a play, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Isn’t that title a scream? Wish I knew the secret to that!
Do let me know soon if your mom agrees to this proposal. In my humble opinion, it’s an excellent way to get the news out about your wonderful dad and the great sport of soccer. (Oh, pardon me. I meant
futebol.)

Marjorie – I don’t know how my mom will feel about handing a copy of Professor’s manuscript to a stranger. The other thing is that Pelé would have to approve this before anything. Is he on board with this musical? I don’t want him to think we’re trying to make money off of this so we need to proceed with caution. Needless to say I’m torn as to how to proceed. I would like nothing better than to share these stories with anyone that might be interested but there are steps that need to be taken so as not to ruffle any feathers. Any suggestions?

Josmar – My apologies for being overly enthusiastic where my friend Claudio is concerned. I get carried away sometimes with his energy and feedback about musical matters.
                Before you wrote me, I received a follow-up e-mail from him, saying, in essence, “Don’t worry about the manuscript. It’s not necessary at this point.” He told me that he would rather do a musical about Carmen Miranda a thousand times more than one about Pelé. He doesn’t see much conflict in Pelé’s life, but it’s what these big New York production companies want, so he’s looking at the possibilities. It doesn’t mean anything will come of it, though, so I wouldn’t hold my breath over it. 
                Don’t worry about providing him with a copy of the manuscript. And since you’ve voiced your concerns about the project, you can rest assured that I will keep our business arrangement between us. I agree with you: We don’t want to ruffle any feathers. My suggestion is that I do the best translation job that I can for you. That way, your mom will see that I’m being sincere in my efforts to bring Professor’s story to light. I understand how she feels, since my own wife is wary of such ventures (especially my connection with the Black Orpheus project).  
               Yes, what you’re doing is right! I would do the same thing were I in your shoes, so we are on the same page! As I mentioned to you before, the translation will take take some time — over a year and a half, if not longer. There’s plenty of time to do a good job and get it right. At this point, I’m working from the beginning, doing the “easier” chapters first, the ones that are more readily translatable; then, leaving the most difficult parts (the ones with Professor’s training methods) for last. Those will definitely require more time.

Marjorie – Poor Pelé, he gets dumped on again for not creating major drama in his life. Oy! Makes you think about how you want [your life] to be remembered, doesn’t it? What “clean” drama can I create in my life to make my life story more interesting? … LOL!

Josmar – I was curious about what your mom (and anyone else) thought of my translation of Professor’s book, so far.
I [also] have some additional news for you about that proposed Pelé musical: it seems that Pelé has decided to go with another bunch of producers in Brazil, instead of Claudio and Charles. Anyway, this has freed up my friends to suggest other projects to replace the aborted Pelé one, and guess whose play they decided to do next? If you said, “Joe’s play about Carmen Miranda,” then you guessed right! Claudio asked me to send him the latest version so the New York producers could read it and see if they wanted to go forward with it. What a turn of events, huh? This is not exactly a “rags to riches” story — not yet anyway — but there’s a chance this thing could take off. Both my friends have voiced their support for Carmen; they’d much rather do a musical about Carmen anyway… Well, that’s what they tell me.
I’m keeping my hands, arms, fingers and eyes crossed that the Musical Gods above will take pity on poor little me and grant my wish to see Carmen Miranda place her little feet back on the Great White Way. After all, it was back in 1939 that Carmen first set foot on Broadway and became an overnight sensation. Time to be great again!

Marjorie – To be honest we hardly spoke about the book because it is such a sensitive subject that I didn’t want to aggravate things. Mom did give me the “revised notes” version and I now have it with me. Let me know the best way we can go over them. Since they don’t show up in the photocopy, maybe I can just read them to you? They are not that many.

By the way, while I was searching for items about the Cosmos to give to the Cosmos historian, I found my father’s “binder” with a bunch of quotes about him in English, along with an English translation of his curriculum vitae. I know you mentioned about translating that part of the manuscript, that’s why I hope it’s not too late. I made a copy and will send it to you.
We also need to go over my mom’s notes at some point. I keep forgetting about that. I’m sorry I haven’t been any help to you on this project. Thankfully, I know you are doing a great job all on your own.

Josmar – Yes, I’ve been following your adventures in Cosmos territory and was amazed as well as pleased by your discovery of Professor’s “long lost” Cosmos binder. That is a true historical artifact, worth its weight in gold!
                I welcome whatever information you can send me. It will only help my translation. Just this week I finished Professor’s autobiographical data which comes at the tail end of his manuscript. That includes all of his many titles, books, lectures, participation in championship tournaments, exhibition games, videos, films, soccer clinics, you name it — a veritable treasure trove of detail. But anything additional you can send me will only help to give a more rounded portrait of this incredible man.
                Your mom’s notes would definitely assist me in deciphering what she wrote in the margins, very little of which I am able to read. Did you want to discuss them over the phone or photocopy them? Maybe we can talk tonight or tomorrow night, whichever is convenient.
                 I know you are aware of all that is happening in Brazil lately. Personally, I welcome the many demonstrations if only to call attention to the abuses and corruption that have gone unchecked there [for] decades. Whether anything positive will come of them is anybody’s guess, but let’s see what the future brings. Your brother is quite a passionate follower of what’s been going on, as is my niece (who demonstrated on Monday along Avenida Paulista).
 
The sleeping giant has finally awakened from her slumber.

Marjorie – I’m super excited about what’s happening in Brazil, even though I’m so not political. But you don’t need to know politics to see what is going on there. I feel this is more about the World Cup than those “20 centavos” increase in the bus fare. It’s funny to think that soccer might just be the thing that saves Brazil. It’s kind of poetic, don’t you think?

Josmar – Oh, yes, poetic justice — indeed! It’s not just the Confederations Cup or the World Cup; it’s the Olympic Games as well! Those costly and over-budget stadiums are only the outward symbols of the decadence and waste that’s taken hold of the country for years. Add to the rampant corruption, poor quality and services, yikes! Time to put an end to it all — although I’m not so sure these protests will succeed in bringing about real change. At least the bus and subway fares have gone down. In fact, I read they’ve gone down in some of the Northeastern cities. Sampa and Rio are next!

On a related note, in less than nine days, the Cosmos and Pelé will come back to thrill us once again. With that in mind, I am preparing a special translation of three of Professor’s chapters specifically relating to Pelé and to the Cosmos, in honor of the upcoming event. As soon as I have completed the chapters, I will send them to you. If you wish to publish them on Facebook or show your family and friends, by all means do so! I think it would be a great gift coming from you, to show solidarity with soccer and how much the sport has given to you and your family.

Marjorie – Those chapters would be awesome to share. Thank you for thinking of it. As you know we are in Texas and will return home tomorrow. 

Marjorie – These are great, Joe! Thanks so much for sending them.

As much as I would like to share them, and I agree we need a tease, I’m not sure it’s the best idea right now. These chapters go a little deeper than I thought they would and contain some personal information that I don’t feel is appropriate to put out there without Pelé’s consent. I also don’t want to step on the Cosmos’s toes by putting out my dad’s version of the team’s history on Facebook. I don’t want to make waves, plus I’m sure my mom would be upset at me for posting these before sharing it with her first. 

I’m sure you can relate to my concerns. That being said, please keep up the wonderful work you’re doing. I hope to run into some of my dad’s old soccer friends at the Cosmos opener and I will be mentioning the manuscript for sure.

Josmar – That’s more than fair! I share your concerns; that’s why I forwarded the chapters to you first. And yes, you’re right about the “personal” stuff. I didn’t realize how deep Professor got into Pelé’s business affairs until I re-read the early chapters about how Pelé got into financial difficulties — ouch! Those were real eye-openers.
                Perhaps the “teaser” we are looking for will come from your talking to your dad’s old soccer chums. Wow, so you’ll be at the Cosmos opener! I’m envious! Wish I was there to see it, but I’m sure you will take lots of photos, which I’m dying to see.

Marjorie – [My son] Frankie decided to write his college essay on the Professor, so your work could not have come at a better time. I knew I was doing the right thing by having it translated and now I have proof that I did the right thing. I always counted on my dad getting Frankie into college because he did that for so many other young athletes. It amazes me that he might be able to do that after all. Incredible, right?

Josmar – I am sure that Professor is looking out for his grandson from above. That is why he left his manuscript as his last legacy to you, knowing that one day someone (me, in this case) would translate it for Frankie to read and make use of. The stats about Professor’s birthplace and all I’m sure you and your mom can fill in. But those great stories about Steve Ross, Pelé, Idi Amin and the Cosmos … well, it’s all there now!

Marjorie – I had mentioned “our” book to [former Cosmos goalie] Shep Messing when I saw him, and he referred me to his co-writer David Hirshey. They wrote a book called The Education of an American Soccer Player, Shep’s autobiography. I just finished reading it and I loved it! It was funny, sad, educational and shocking. The writing is great. David contacted me today and we are meeting sometime soon to discuss the possibilities of taking your hard work to the next level. Fingers crossed!

Josmar – Well, as they say in the movie business, “Timing is everything!” I’m thrilled about what Shep and David told you. It will make Professor’s heart glow. I remember Hirshey as a sportswriter for the New York Daily News. He was (and is) a big soccer buff, which is great for a native-born American of his day.
There is so much I have to tell you that it would probably be better if we talk on the phone rather than writing it all down. That would be a book in itself! The long and the short of it is this: I’m halfway through with Professor’s manuscript. So far, I have translated or transcribed a total of seventeen chapters. There are thirty-five chapters all together, which means I have eighteen more to go, including three extremely long chapters: II – “A formação,” (The Formative Years); X – “O método” (The Method) which is very technical; and XXXIII – “A entrevista” (The Interview). My intention is to save these for last.

Marjorie – Yes, I’m super excited about David taking a look at what we got so far … he also had me send a copy to Lawrie Mifflin, who was a soccer journalist during the Cosmos years. I remember her as the only woman who could get into the men’s locker room after the game. That lucky, lucky woman! LOL!!! Anyway, David thought she could give us a different perspective. I will probably be meeting with them soon, so I’ll let you know what they say.

Josmar – Oh sure, I remember Lawrie! In fact, from my research I learned she used to play field hockey at Yale University. After getting her master’s in journalism, she worked for The Daily News and then the New York Times, so yes, I recall reading her stuff in the 70s and 80s. (Boy, that was a while ago!) I’m happy for you, Marjorie! I think that Lawrie is more involved in producing videos and films for the Times, so in that respect you two should have a lot in common! I’m excited — let me know what Lawrie thinks of the book so far, keeping in mind, of course, that it still needs to have that final “polish” before it’s ready for print. Let’s see what Lawrie says — I hope she gets as excited as we are about it.

I was exceedingly happy to learn that Professor’s manuscript may actually become a reality after all! It’s great to know that so many people are showing interest in its potential as a book, maybe even a bestseller. As we both are aware, there is little if any material available in English about your dad or his outstanding contributions to soccer in America.
           My own view is that his total commitment to not only bringing Pelé to the Cosmos, but the countless soccer clinics he put on, the hours upon hours he devoted to tours, the talks and live demonstrations he gave in support of the sport, would all be in vain if they hadn’t resulted in the unprecedented explosion of soccer in the U.S. during the past thirty or so years. You and I, along with the rest of the country, are eyewitnesses to this incredible event: there isn’t a college, high school or middle school around — especially here in the Southeast where I live, and elsewhere for that matter — that doesn’t have a soccer team to add to their luster. The Professor and my dad, too, would be absolutely thrilled to have been a part of it. Unfortunately, since neither of them is around today to have seen it, it is up to us, their offspring, to perpetuate their legacy and bring their vision for soccer to ultimate fruition.         

It’s great that young people like your son Frankie, and an untold number of fans, have embraced soccer as their sport of choice. I’ve written about this phenomenon on many occasions and will continue to do so once the 2014 World Cup gets under way. It’s a legacy that all Brazilians, by birthright, can share freely with the world. It may be one of the few things (outside of samba, bossa nova and Carnival) that we children of Brazil can call “our own.”

By the way, I went to our local bookstore the other day and leafed through Pelé’s book, Why Soccer Matters. For the sections that I read, I thought they were well translated, but outside of the photos (two of which were with Professor), I was disappointed in the layout. For one, there was no index, a real bummer; and for another, no bibliography or recommended reading. Not that I expected a doctoral dissertation from “the King,” but he should’ve given fans something more to chew on than just his side of events (that may have been the publisher’s choice). It was very different from Professor’s book, which is full of citations and additional reading material.

Marjorie – I did notice Pelé’s book was missing some information. I haven’t read it yet and I will send you a copy. I heard he spoke highly of my dad in the book … as he should. Can’t wait to read it!

And about our “book,” I met with David and Lawrie for some caipirinhas and they were honest to say that they don’t see an American market for it, mainly because it’s technical and was written for the Brazilian market … but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve on it. I said I’m going forward with the translation no matter what and they said they will be there to guide me once it’s finished, etc. They were really nice and Shep Messing also told me he spoke to a friend who showed a lot of interest and will put me in touch with him. So, keep doing what you’re doing, Joe, and we will revisit our situation when it’s completed.

Josmar – Re: what David and Lawrie had to say about Professor’s book: Yes, I agree, of course it was aimed at and written for the Brazilian market. The way Professor tries to explain and describe the American mind-set in contrast to the Brazilian way of doing things (o jeitinho brasileiro) makes it fascinating (to me, anyway) as an insight into two distinct cultures: How they do business, how the two countries treat their fans, the differences in treating legal issues (for example, that plane trip to Bermuda to sign Pelé’s contract — that was something!).
               With that said, I am pleased to hear that Shep Messing and the others are willing to help out with advice and so forth. You know what, Marjorie? I have a feeling that they, and possibly quite a few others, are more than willing to do this (much as I am) as a favor to you and the Professor’s legacy, considering what he brought to the sport, so that it could thrive in this country. Whatever their reasons, the fact they are showing continued interest tells me the book can be shaped to meet a certain demand. We can talk more about this later.

Marjorie – I totally agree with what you said because they only got a little taste of the book … they have no idea about the rest.

Josmar – During my lunch break I was watching an ESPN video where you were interviewed. You were great! Very funny anecdotes, especially the one about Pelé having green fungus on his feet! Well, duh, that’s because they spray-painted the grass!
              It couldn’t have been timelier, since I just finished translating the chapter, “Buckets of Ice Water,” about how the Cosmos players had to soak their feet in ice water due to the soaring temperatures on the field (the use of artificial turf was to blame). Hah! From green to mean! That’s just how it was.
  I [also] remember that God-awful Downing Stadium at Randall’s Island. Geez, what a horror! It was a dump. I had seen Pelé play there in 1966, when Santos visited. It was the only match-up of Pelé with Eusébio, who was visiting from Portugal. I don’t remember the game very well since I was, what, maybe eleven or twelve years old. But I do remember that pitiful playing field and the crappy stadium. And they did NOT spray paint anything. It was as brown and dusty as the Sahara Desert!

Marjorie – I so enjoyed the last chapter you sent. I really didn’t know any of that and the timing was perfect because the subject came up of how my dad met Pelé. I was able to see the King during my Brazil visit but it was by chance. I went to visit the Pelé Museum which is AMAZING! You must go. After that, my mom suggested we go to his office which is nearby and I was like, he’s not going to be there …. But, lo and behold, he WAS and gave me the biggest kiss on the lips!!! Wow!! So great to see him!

Josmar – I just wanted to surprise you with a translation of the chapter “Marjorie,” from your father’s book. I remember you telling me how fond of this chapter you were. It’s my little “Easter egg gift” to you for being such a warm, caring and appreciative person. Let me know your thoughts on it. I hope it pleases you!
                 I had one question about another chapter: The one where Professor did a soccer film that you were producing. He mentioned the title
Hot Shot, and the lead actor as a guy named Jimmy Young. For the life of me, I can’t find anything about this film or the actor. If you could enlighten me about it or give me some more details (for example, the exact title, year it was released, name of the director, etc.), that would be most helpful.

Marjorie – Sorry I haven’t been in touch, there’s a lot going on. I’ve been thinking of you because I am being interviewed about my dad’s life and his contribution to soccer in America by a group of guys from Texas who are associated with the San Antonio Scorpions. They want to put a video together in honor of my dad, a mini-documentary I would say. One of the guys involved was part of a group of kids in their teens who my dad took to Brazil as part of an elite team from Texas to play soccer and attend an elite camp conducted by none other than the Professor himself. This guy says my dad changed his life back then and has held him in his heart ever since. I was very touched by his story and willingness to do this for my dad since as you know it has also been a dream for me to be able to do something like this for my father.                     
Because of this I have been gathering everything I have that might help them to get to know the Professor better. I realized I have many versions of your translated PDF but can’t tell which one is the latest version. If I recall, the last chapter you sent was the “Marjorie” chapter, but I think you sent it on its own and not as part of the PDF. Can you please do me the favor of sending whatever final version you have with all of the chapters you have completed? I will need to brush up on the subject, and I much rather it be in English. I can always refer to the original manuscript for the chapters you have yet to complete.

Josmar – I read with great interest some of your posts about your beloved dad. It’s amazing to me, even after so many years that have passed since your dad was active in soccer, how many people have such fond memories of him. He had quite a personality, I have to say, and charisma to burn. How much a man of his caliber is needed today in soccer, or in any sport!  No wonder he is missed by so many. 

I am so happy to hear that a video is being put together honoring his work. You’ll be glad to learn that progress is proceeding on the translation of Professor’s book. In fact, I’ve been working on parts of it for the past few weeks, in particular the Interview section towards the end, which is most informative. Speaking of the book, I am attaching the latest PDF version which has been thoroughly revised by yours truly. This is something I do at select intervals in order to make each chapter conform to your father’s writing and speaking style.  

And you’ll be glad to learn that I will be writing a chapter in my own book concerning the documentary, Once in a Lifetime, about the New York Cosmos. But more importantly, it will focus on the one person who was not interviewed in that film, but who appears in various parts of the documentary. And that person is your dad. I saw his photograph at several points in the film and resolved to have his story told. One interesting side note: I have never been able to unravel the details as to how my dad got to have lunch with your dad at one of the Brazilian restaurants in Manhattan. That encounter remains a mystery that my dad took with him when he passed on.  Nearest as I can recall, the luncheon must have been through the auspices of the BACC (Brazilian-American Cultural Center), either through Jota Alves (one of the founders of the organization) or João de Matos, the current owner. I believe we met him and his brother in NYC when my daughter Natalia and I went to visit. I’m sorry I didn’t get to speak with the de Matos brothers, but we were really pressed for time (what a whirlwind trip that was!). By the way, Natalia speaks fondly of you, saying that you were the nicest person she met in New York. “Of course,” I told her — “She is Brazilian!” What did she expect?  Haha!

Anyway, please let me know how your interview goes and, if you need assistance with anything from my part, I will be glad to help you.

Marjorie – Thanks so much! I’m honored that you want to tell the Professor’s story in your own book. Just don’t plagiarize your own words from his book … LOL! I can’t wait to read it!

Josmar – You’re welcome! I thought you’d like that! And don’t worry about plagiarizing: I’ll put into my own words what I know about his relationship to Pelé and the Cosmos and such. Besides, the documentary covers a lot of the same ground, so that will be useful. I think Professor would be thrilled at the rise of Women’s Soccer in the USA. He envisioned it! And, as he himself said, he always got a big “kick” out of watching kids play. It was as if he saw the future even before it happened — uncanny! Your dad knew more than we did about how much influence soccer would have on young people in this country. What a fabulous guy! He was one of a kind.

Marjorie – If I get stumped on the interview I might need to “call a friend”… You!! 🙂

First meeting in Sep 2012 at Brasil Emporium Restaurant. We’re holding the draft of her father’s book

Marjorie – I just wanted to let you know I had a great visit in San Antonio and was treated like a VIP. I shared many of Professor’s stories with my generous hosts and their eyes would sparkle with every story. The interview went well, and I think I managed not to say anything stupid but you never know LOL. 

They asked if I could write a mini biography of my dad for his Wikipedia page since it’s so bare. I told them I would go ask my favorite writer and expert on the subject since I cannot put two sentences together. So, I’m asking if you would do me the honor of putting some words together about the Professor so we can add them to his Wikipedia page. They are going to try to go forward with the documentary about the Professor and I believe this would help to try and sell the idea. At this point it’s only on a wish list. They have so much to work on as far as getting funded and making sure they do this correctly from the beginning. The good news is that so many people have thrown in their hat to help us with the content. Everyone has something good they want to share about the Professor. So thankful for that!

Let me know if you can and have the time do write this mini-bio. There is really no rush, just something that should be done eventually.

Josmar – As promised, here is Professor’s biographical information. I basically took what Professor had already written and inserted some additional passages to make the transitions a tad smoother.

I kept the statistics of where he taught, where he worked, what he accomplished and all that. I think, and I’m sure you will agree, that your dad had one of the most impressive resumes, or curriculum vitae (as we Brazilians like to call it), that I have ever seen! He did so much to better himself, to make himself as technically proficient in the sport of soccer, and in the art of physical training and conditioning, than most people who worked in the area. And, more importantly, he did so much to help others, never thinking of himself but always seeking the betterment of his players. He also worked mightily for charitable organizations, as well as young children (boys and girls). In that, he was a true humanitarian and all-around “good guy.” That’s why he won the Good Guy Award back in 1982. I can’t help feeling that he would have been so proud of the US Women’s Soccer Team, along with Team USA in the Men’s Soccer Team, for their collective performances in the last World Cups. If only he were here to have seen them!

Well, Marjorie, let’s hope your friends can turn out a terrific documentary on the Prof. It is a long time coming.

Josmar – I’ve been working simultaneously on several chapters in Professor’s book, going back and forth. I am attaching the “Interview” portion, which turned out pretty well. It’s full of his uniquely “professorial” insights and knowledge of soccer, and his always fascinating take on the sport in Brazil.

As promised, I am currently writing that chapter I told you about devoted to your dad and his years with the Cosmos. It will become part of my book. I have a DVD copy of the documentary Once in a Lifetime, which has helped tremendously in providing background details and a different point of view. In viewing the film, I noticed that Professor appears frequently throughout the documentary, but that he is never identified. Would you know why the producers did not identify him? Was there a reason for that, or just an oversight? I am using that aspect as the motivation for my story: “Once in a Lifetime and the Untold Story of the Man Behind the Glasses,” will be the title.

Speaking of which, I was wondering why the Professor always wore dark glasses whenever his photo was taken or when he was being filmed. He didn’t “always” wear his trademark dark glasses, but I saw that in several scenes he did wear regular lenses. Was there a specific reason for the dark glasses? Did he have cataract surgery or eye problems that you knew of? I thought that readers might appreciate some additional personal insight about him.

Josmar – I have some great news for you: I finished the translation of Professor’s book! Hooray!!!

Yes, it has taken all of three years (to be exact) to get everything done, but I was able to do the last, big chapter on “The Method” (Circuit-Training and Interval-Training) over the past week and a half, including all of this weekend. I will be reviewing everything during the course of the week, checking for errors, tightening things up here and there, and giving it a last look before I send you the final draft.

It’s been a long time coming, Marjorie. I’m looking forward to your reaction, as well as the reactions of your son and husband. They will get a big thrill out of Professor’s stories, and his extensive interview about soccer in America and in Brazil.

Marjorie – Oh my goodness, Joe! I was just pulling up your e-mails to finally try to print out the “final” version of the manuscript and I find the below e-mail from you. I’m just reading this now and hope I’m not too late in answering your question.
My dad had poor vision but never any other problems with his eyes. He started wearing the dark glasses in the 80s and rarely took them off. They were designed by Porsche and became his trademark. He thought he was the cat’s meow wearing them. He was a trend setter that Prof!
Last time my mom came to visit she brought me two things, those glasses and my dad’s stopwatch which he wore around his neck throughout my entire childhood. As you can imagine these were the best gifts she could have given me. Each symbolized a part of my dad’s life. Priceless!!
As far as the movie is concerned, I know Pelé refused to participate because they would not pay the fee he wanted. At the time of the production my dad was already dealing with Alzheimer’s and was in no condition to be interviewed. It’s a shame because the theory the documentary portrays about the demise of the Cosmos is the same as my dad’s theory, which he talked about years before the documentary came out and he was always met with skepticism whenever he brought it up. My dad would have been a great addition to the lineup. Damn Alzheimer’s!!

Josmar – No problem! I figured you would get around to my e-mail sooner or later. Thank you so much for the information about the Professor’s trademark glasses. This is great stuff! I will definitely use it in my chapter. And thanks for the extra data on the documentary about Pelé and your dad. When we talked, you also mentioned an aborted movie project about Professor and the “King.” If I recall correctly, I think you told me that Anthony Quinn had been penciled in to portray your dad. That would have been an awesome choice! He had the mannerisms, the voice and the acting ability to do it justice. Quinn would have made a great Professor Mazzei! I wonder who they had in mind to play Pelé (probably, Pelé himself — that wouldn’t surprise me!). Too bad the movie went nowhere, again probably due to Pelé having led a clean life.

Speaking of the documentary, I did some research of my own. By watching the documentary over and over again, and then freezing the frame every time I caught a glimpse of the Professor’s form, I was able to determine that he appeared a grand total of (are you ready for this?) twenty-one times! Yes, that’s right. Some appearances, either via film footage or still photograph, lasted anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. I intend to incorporate this newly discovered data into my chapter. I also took extensive notes of every appearance, including timings (beginning and ending of scenes), the circumstances of his appearance, what he wore in each appearance, what he was doing, etc.

When I am done writing the chapter, I will forward this data to you. That way, you can watch the documentary again and see more of your father than you or your family had ever imagined. It’s my way of preserving your dad’s legacy in a way that was never thought of. Like my own dearly departed parents, Professor will always be with us.

Marjorie – That is awesome, Joe, I will have to watch it again once you send me the info but first I need to find my copy of the movie. Not sure if I lent it to someone but worst case scenario I’ll just buy another copy online.

Josmar, you dropped from the sky to help me and I’m sure it was my father who pushed you!

Josmar – Thank you for your gracious e-mail! I too am very thankful that we got together.

Don’t know if I mentioned this before, but one of the main reasons I am so devoted to perpetuating your dad’s legacy is that I recognize there is a huge gap in the story of soccer in this country. People need to know that Pelé’s coming to the U.S. was due to a variety of factors, many of which had a lot to do with your dad’s intervention and influence. In that respect, both the Professor and Pelé were pioneers. In another respect, my documenting of your dad’s experiences, and my translating of his book into English, will serve as lasting memoirs of his accomplishments in the sports world. By doing that, I am also perpetuating my own legacy by leaving something for my daughters. This is why I have been so preoccupied with my writings — about Brazilian culture, Brazilian pop music, Brazilian opera and musical theater, Brazilian movies and soccer, and such — for the last, oh, ten or more years.

Josmar – I wanted to see how you are coming along with reading the translation of Professor’s book. You know me: I get curious about what people think of my work. I’d like your feedback, especially if you feel that I am deserving of that bonus you mentioned (hee, hee!).

Anyway, get back to me when you can. Oh, and let me know the latest about that additional material you found in Brazil about the Professor. Those sound like a goldmine!

Marjorie – Great to hear from you as usual! I have good news and bad news. The bad news is I haven’t started reading the final translation yet. I’ve been so busy and I keep meaning to print it at work, but I keep forgetting to. But the good news is you will get your bonus! A promise is a promise.

I have been thinking about adding a preface written by me that introduces the book and explains how it came about, how I found out it even existed and also bring up the fact that my dad developed Alzheimer’s during the writing of it. If I decide to do it will you help me write it? I want it to be heartfelt and fit the subject. I think it would add a special touch, don’t you? Let me know what you think. I promise to start reading it ASAP!

Joe, I am so glad we did this and I can’t wait for Frankie to read it. Thank you so much for your dedication to this project and for sticking with it as you did. I am forever grateful.

Josmar – I would be thrilled and honored to help you write the dedication to your dad. And I am so happy you asked me. I am all for you doing this. I believe the Professor, if he were still with us, would be smiling that big Brazilian smile of his at the thought. And YES, I accept your terms about the bonus. Whatever is most convenient for you, dear friend!

Josmar – I wanted to discuss the Foreword to Professor’s book. I think you don’t do yourself enough credit as a writer. There was a post you shared a few months ago — it may have been on Professor’s birthday, but I could be mistaken — which I thought was very well written. It came from the heart, Marjorie, which is probably the best gauge of a person’s sincerity as any I know. 

My suggestion would be to use that post as a starting point for your Foreword. You can add bits and pieces of information to it. For example, how you learned about your dad’s unpublished manuscript, how it came into your possession, the trip you made recently to Brazil to speak with the fellow with the photographs (i.e., the input of the publishers), why you decided to have it translated now after so many years in limbo, how we met and how we collaborated on bringing the book to a successful conclusion.

If you stick to that line of thinking, I am certain you’ll be able to write something heartfelt and personal. It will be memorable from the standpoint of Professor’s daughter writing a lovely ode to his life and career — a life and career devoted to the sport he loved above all others. THAT, dear friend, will be your contribution to your dad’s legacy.

As far as my own book is concerned, there’s no rush to do that just yet. I just wanted to know if you were willing to contribute a Foreword or Dedication, which I believe you are. I’d rather not put the words on paper myself, since it will be a hundred times more meaningful to me and anyone who reads it if you wrote the words yourself. And I believe you are fully capable of doing that!

As you know, the Foreword is kind of standard issue with books. Usually, it’s written by a person who knows the author or has knowledge of the subject matter being discussed. It can be anything you want, as long as it involves Brazil in some way: soccer (naturally), popular music, bossa nova, culture, politics, food, anything and everything Brazilian. 

Josmar – Thank you again for a most enlightening and entertaining telephone call yesterday! I was so very pleased with our conversation, and especially thankful that you liked my work on Professor’s book. I did my utmost to make it sound as if Professor was in the room speaking, in his own inimitable fashion, of course!

Marjorie – Always so nice to hear from you and I can’t wait to read everything. Looks amazing!

All is well here, and we are getting ready for my mom’s visit in about two weeks. I’m anxious and praying that I was not crazy to bring her here. It’s something I just had to try. Fortunately, she is doing better now than she was last year when I brought her to Miami. My brother will come up to see us as well so it will be a nice treat for us to be together. I pray that she can make it to Frankie’s first game and I’m also hopeful that I can take her to a Cosmos game. I’m hoping the Cosmos organization can have some sort of homage to the Prof. It’s the least they can do. Fingers crossed!!

Josmar – Attached is the FINAL DRAFT of my piece about your dad and the Cosmos. This chapter will be part of my book (only two more chapters to go!) about Brazil’s Fat Lady

I was curious if Frankie has had a chance to read your dad’s book in translation. I’m sure that NOW would be the best time for him to get to know his granddad.

Marjorie – I simply loved your piece on the Prof. So well deserving. I must confess I need to watch the movie again because I only remember seeing him in it a couple of times. Yesterday I was interviewed by Univision. They are doing a piece on the life of the King and heard about how influential my dad was so they reached out. I have been brushing up on the subject by reading you know what for days! The Professor’s bible always comes in handy. I don’t know how I could have done any interviews without that. It’s also amazing how everything I question just drops into my lap out of nowhere. I know my dad is handing it to me, literally dropping stuff from the sky. It really is something incredible.

Josmar – Thank you so much for the compliments! You have the Professor’s blood and wisdom in your veins! I am happy to learn that Frankie is OK after his groin injury (those are excruciatingly painful — ARGH!!!). Glad to hear your mom is doing well, too — so much to be grateful for in this world. We can consider ourselves lucky. 

I am most pleased that my translation of Professor’s book has met with your approval. I’m only saddened that he was not able to be interviewed for that documentary. However, you should definitely see the film again and try to spot the many times your dad appears — I was ASTOUNDED at how he always popped up at the appropriate times! I wanted my piece to mention that (and to count the many instances he showed up). He truly was the man behind the glasses. 

It’s safe to say, dear friend, that without your dad’s foresight and his knowledge and wisdom of the sport (as well as his bubbling personality), neither Pelé nor many other occurrences in the soccer world would ever have taken place. You can be one hundred percent certain of that!  ⃝

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

Bronx Boy — A Novel

Artist’s conception of the Borough of the Bronx in New York City

Preface

There is something captivating, even disturbing about documenting a person’s life. Questions come up, one more obvious than the other: Where do you start? What events do you portray? Do you want to spill your guts in a proverbial “tell all”? Or do you save the juiciest parts for a later sequel? Do you spend time on those tiny snippets of information, insignificant yet enticing morsels to attract and maintain the reader’s interest? Or do you hope against hope that people won’t misunderstand your intentions by plowing ahead regardless, oblivious to the consequences and to others’ feelings? Do you seek retribution for past slights or absolution for your sins?

       Whatever the reasons, fiction is fiction. There are some incidents from a person’s past that can be embellished or exaggerated, situations that can forever be interpolated from the facts. The hardest part, as far as the author is concerned, is to distinguish fact from fantasy, and truth from fiction.

       In fiction, you are free to go wherever your imagination leads you. With facts, you are hemmed in by reality. Sure, you can stretch the facts to some judicious degree, but you can never reinvent them. Fishing for facts or proof for a given set of circumstances is the preferred method for justifying your actions. Ah, but with fiction, you can embroider the story to your heart’s content. Within reason, of course. Or maybe not.

       Whatever leads you to that ultimate realization is what counts: that one’s life can never follow a predetermined path. As the author, you strive for clarity and coherence; for meaning, for purpose, and ultimately for understanding.

       My aim, in this work of fiction, is to reach that level of understanding whereby events in the past, whether real or imagined, can be revisited, reviewed, and reassessed with a new and better glow. By uncovering their meaning, by shedding light on their purpose, clarity, so to speak, can be achieved.

       Help me, dear reader, to achieve that clarity.  

Bronx River Houses – New York City Housing Authority, located in the South Bronx

Introduction

“Are you alright?” the surgeons cried out in unison. “Are you in pain?” They poked and prodded little Sonny’s abdomen, trying without success to locate the source of his distress.

       But all little Sonny could do was cry. And cry. And cry. And cry. And kick and scream. And shout. Louder and louder. Wailing and bawling. But no amount of crying or screaming or kicking or shouting could make the hole disappear.

There it was: a gaping break in his lower abdomen, a nasty, bloody slash; a chasm wide enough for a man’s fist to poke through. Just below his beltline and to the right of his stomach. Above the groin area. A peek into Hell itself.

       “Oh, Lord! Now I see it,” one of the surgeons remarked. A big, red gash, an open sore to the touch. “Nurse! Nurse! Bring bandages!”

To little Sonny’s mind, it resembled the Grand Canyon. Not that he had ever been to the Grand Canyon before, just that he recalled seeing it in snapshots and photos on T.V. The gash could have looked a lot bigger, were it not for the half-dozen or so layers of gauze the hospital’s anxious nursing staff had placed on it. “Cover it up,” the surgeon shouted. “We’ll attend to it later, see how it heals first.”

       Lights. Bright, blinding beams above his head. Was he in Heaven? The other place? Where? How? Tears welled up in little Sonny’s eyes. My God, he could see his entrails! The bright redness of that gash allowed him a dreadful glimpse inside his innards. Little Sonny did not want to look; he was compelled to gaze. He had no choice. For there it was, in front of his eyes. The flesh, the puss, the redness, the blood. Now he knew how a gutted chicken felt as it was about to be baked whole and shoved into Mami’s preheated oven. 

       Not a good sign.  

————

Sonny’s eyes opened with a start. It took some time for him to recover his bearings. Was he still in bed? Was he alright? He looked around in the dark. It certainly appeared that all was well. Was he alone, by himself? No, his only brother, Juanito, was sleeping, just as he had been three hours earlier, in the single bed beside his. Whew, what a relief!

But where were the bedcovers? Were they on or were they off? They were on. Oh, good. Now, what about his breathing? Was it rapid, was it terse? Were there beads of sweat forming along his forehead? No, no. Nothing like that. All was calm. All was quiet.

       These were good signs.

       “Oh, man, what a fucking nightmare,” Sonny whispered to himself. The last time he awoke — by himself, in the middle of the night — he was covered in sweat. Ten towels were hardly enough for all the droplets that needed to be mopped off his brow. With a 102-degree fever, no less! This time, it was different. There wasn’t any fever at all. And there were no chills, no migraine headaches, no bedcovers out of place. He was – how did Juanito put it? – “high and dry.”

       Well, maybe not so high. Yeah, but mighty dry. His mouth tasted of raw cardboard. Sonny half expected to cough up a Kellogg’s of Battle Creek, Michigan cereal box of phlegm, it was so scorched.

       “What gives with that?” Sonny thought. Ah, radiator heat, that was the culprit! When those radiators begin to bang and clang, “Man, there’s no stoppin’ ’em,” Sonny said to no one in particular. The radiators sucked whatever moisture had been left in the atmosphere – and that included his bedroom.

To escape the dryness on cold, wintry nights, Mami, as dutiful as only a caring mother could be, would place Campbell’s soup cans filled with tap water on top of those noisy radiators. By morning, the cans would be bone dry. You would need a full-time water bearer, a Gunga Din, to keep those cans filled. As for the soup cans themselves, Andy Warhol couldn’t keep up with the demand.

      “Damn, what a shitty place,” Sonny mumbled, half to himself and half to Juanito who was still sound asleep. “Freaking Projects,” Sonny repeated. “Goddamn, freaking Projects.”

       Sonny rolled over to his side and tried to go back to sleep.

       It didn’t take him long.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

Another Opening, Another Show — Live It Up, People!

The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, in New York City

Close it up, call it a day, whatever term of art tickles your fancy. Yes, the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-2022 season – a difficult one, indeed, for the company and its roster of artisans – finally ended back in early June.

It seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it, that the pandemic forced the Met Opera, and practically all other opera houses and theaters in the US and the world, to shut their doors and close up shop. Hoping against hope they could keep the COVID-19 monster at bay, opera houses fell silent for a while – a long while, that is; two or more years in fact – in quiet contemplation and almost total isolation.

While everyone else worried over the fate of their loved ones, fans of the world’s most expensive theatrical art form found themselves huddled around their Ultra-HD TV sets. Wondering, waiting, hoping for a sign of life. A miracle of some sort.

Not to poo-poo the issue, exaggeration is a key element in trying to understand how and where opera can realign itself with our present-day realty. Or try to fit into a changing and ever-evolving music world.

Yes, pandemics have a way of forcing people to look at the world through different glasses. Windows of opportunity still exist, of course, and can appear without notice or prior warning. This can be both good and bad. One must take up the challenge and innovate, innovate, innovate to our heart’s content.

How does all this help opera along an utterly unpredictable path? Good point! I’ve often embraced the theory that to know where you are going, you must know where you have gone. You must look back at the past before you can plan ahead for the future. Try to see where things were before venturing out into the unknown. Then, and only then, can you see where you are.

Where does all that leave the present? That’s another good point. As the Beach Boys once warbled (I’m paraphrasing here), God only knows what we’d be without opera. Or without movies, or theater, or Broadway musicals.

For that matter, where would we be without our jobs? Our careers on hold? Our wages frozen? The possibilities for advancement closed for the duration? By contrast, rising fuel prices, food shortages and supply chain issues, along with new COVID variants, viruses and more viruses, protective gear, changing mask mandates, school shootings, out of control gun violence, all of the above and more have upset the status quo. No kidding?

In addition, the balance of nature has been upset. What do we do about rising carbon-fuel emissions? Stunning and sudden climate changes? Melting icebergs, collapsing glaciers? Intense heat waves? Unremitting weather fluctuations? A disaster waiting to happen and around every corner?

Climate changes around the world – a collage of events

With all these in mind, the question remains: why bother with opera at all? Why pay attention to classical music, its close cousin? Or to rock, to pop, to hip-hop, to rap? To folk music, to ballet, to classic films, to musical theater? Better to ask: Why pay attention to anything at all, period? And why bother with the world at large?           

Because they matter. They matter to us, as caring human beings. They matter to our families. Think of one’s family. The individual members of your expended family. Your spouse, your significant other. Your children, their children, your brothers and your sisters. Your cousins, second cousins, and their children. Your friends, their friends, their families, their siblings. Our relations with our neighbors. And their extended relations.

You get the drift. They all matter, in one form or another. That’s why we care. That’s why we mourn. That’s why we hope. And we pray. For better things to come our way. For a better world, too. Life is not just angry politics, nor is it comprised of irreconcilable differences. There’s no good without the bad, and no bad without the good.

Life is struggle, life is hard, life is for living. To ignore the good things that life can offer is to ignore the living part. It was Leo Tolstoy – the novelist, the thinker, the humanist – who said that life is the day to day living of it.

So let’s start living it, okay? Day to day, moment by moment, second by second. Enjoy your music, enjoy your movies, enjoy each other’s company. See your favorite show. Watch, hear, listen, learn, and finally love.

Gone on: Live it up! You’ll be glad you did.  

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Six, Conclusion): The Science-Fiction and Horror Connection

The original ‘Jurassic Park’ logo aligned with the original ‘Alien’: Monsters of a feather fight together

Is It ‘Real’ or Is It ‘Reel’?

Science fiction and horror happen to be two of my favorite movie genres, among the many varieties that are out there. Although most people — film critics primarily — tend to separate these two categories, there has always existed an interrelation and a correlation between these vast subjects.

But a problem exists in that one’s ability to use science fiction and horror in the classroom, in particular for a course based on history, American or otherwise, can be hampered by the intrinsic nature of both genres.

Personally speaking, I prefer not to separate them. In most technological respects, the science fiction film (shortened to sci-fi) occupies a category all by itself. Be that as it may, because most sci-fi and horror flicks deal with monsters or aliens of one form or another — either real or imagined — every so often the two genres are lumped together and treated interchangeably as a single unit. More specifically, there’s also the historicity aspect of sci-fi, that is an ever-developing set of parameters that has come down to us through past events.

It’s hard to say whether this end result is good or bad, or even viable as a means of cinematic representation. Basically, we will leave that up to the individual viewer to interpret. Or better yet, to the presenter.

Take, for example, the movies Jurassic Park (1993) and the Alien series. True, there be monsters here! But if we were to base our assumptions on director Sir Ridley Scott’s prequel forays into the Alien’s origins (Prometheus, 2012; Alien: Covenant, 2017), one can readily spot the scientific connections inherent in Alien pictures with those of the Jurassic Park-themed sequels of today (vis-à-vis “Dino DNA” and such). In view of this apparent affiliation, our inclination is to leave well enough alone and keep science fiction as it is, together with horror.

Mr. DNA, illustrating the process of “Dino DNA” being injected into frogs to create living dinosaurs

In the interest of specificity, true science fiction, as opposed to horror or fantasy films, can instruct as well as entertain. An official designation, straight out of The Film Studies Dictionary, defines how “science fiction works by extrapolation, hypothesizing possibilities based on the known laws of nature and science, whether in the near — tomorrow — or distant future or on other worlds” (p. 205).

Horror, on the other hand, typically entertains. Our Film Studies Dictionary correctly calls it a “film focusing on the supernatural, the mysterious or on graphic violence, aiming to frighten or horrify its audience” (p. 124). That’s an interesting term, “horrify,” where the subject under discussion is horror itself. One never thinks of horror as entertaining to any degree but believe you me it is!

Keep in mind, too, that horror’s main purpose is to scare the bejeezus out of viewers. Now THAT’S entertaining! It should also but often does not make audiences think long and hard about what is happening on screen and before our eyes. Ken Russell’s Altered States, from 1980, is a prime example of the thinking person’s horror flick doubling as sci-fi (and vice versa). In many instances, pondering over specific details as to whether a film fits comfortably or not into one category or another — or whether it’s this side of H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King — can lead to confusion and markedly less clarity over time.

There are other examples of subgenres within each group and type. To cite but a few, the following sci-fi subgenres contain (but are not limited to) aliens and alien invasion pictures, or so-called UFO sightings; space travel epics (that is, visits to or from other planets); galaxy wars; the mad or evil scientist; the good-bad robot dichotomy; man vs. machine; computer sentience and the resultant evil associated with it; the messiah complex or “the savior among us” syndrome, as in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and so forth.

Indeed, there are so many subgenres, themes, variations, plots, and counterplots to distract and inform curious viewers that it can become problematic in successfully categorizing each film or subject by a specific genre. Best to leave things as open-ended and as they are.

Even films that are not strictly horror-based, such as David Fincher’s crime drama/police procedural Se7en (1995), contain many horrific elements affixed to them; others boast of strictly film noir tendencies. Certainly, the 1950s sci-fi classics bore close relationships to, and outgrowths of, the film noir aspects that prevailed throughout the post-World War II period.

Part of the excellent title credit sequence from director David Fincher’s thriller ‘Se7en’ (1995)

This type of subgenre evolved from, and was likely due to, the advent of McCarthyism and the ensuing House Un-American Activities Committee (or H.U.A.A.C.) hearings, along with the concurrent Red Scare menace. “Red Scare” or “Red menace,” in this context, meant concern over alleged Communist infiltration of the U.S. government and/or the military, reinterpreted in numerous film productions of the period as fear of a Martian invasion of Earth. Major examples include The Thing from Another World (1951), The Man from Planet X (1951), Red Planet Mars (1952), The War of the Worlds (1953), and, more subtly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

An outgrowth of this theme were those Atomic Age pictures, the so-called “Bug-Eyed Monster” movies of an era where the emphasis went from fear of nuclear annihilation to experiments gone horribly wrong, thinly if not overtly hinted at in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Gojira, aka Godzilla (1954/1956), Them! (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Tarantula! (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and The Giant Behemoth (1959).   

The one and the only monster-on-the-loose epic: ‘Godzilla’ (1956), originally titled ‘Gojira’

To be fair, the original Gojira from Japan’s Toho Studios was the first of what went on to become known as Kaiju Eiga, or the Japanese monster movie. All were byproducts of the history-making bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended World War II. Subsequent follow-up pictures featured the likes of Rodan (1956), a giant pterodactyl, and Mothra (1961), an equally fantastic giant moth (played mostly for laughs). The Godzilla franchise continued to blanket the market; they were subsequently packaged and sold as kiddy matinee pictures.  

Fantasy films are but one more in the long line of offshoots. According to most reliable sources, a fantasy film “posits some violation of the real world in its narrative, whether imaginary creatures, the alteration of natural laws, alternate worlds, or the existence of superheroes” (The Film Studies Dictionary, p. 91). Among the innumerable varieties in this category are those Marvel and DC Comics spinoffs, to include the many Thors and Lokis and Batman retreads, as well as the majority of movies (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia) over-reliant on the ubiquitous J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis series of books.

In general, good science fiction, as opposed to the bad kind (though not always), tries to ask and, hopefully, answer the hard questions: “Will we be better off in the future? What does the future hold for us humans that will make our lives (or the world itself) a better place? Will our Earth be a more meaningful, more habitable planet? Or will the world be in worse condition than it is now?” 

In effect, science fiction is tantamount to predicting the future, phrased here as the unknowable. And you know how difficult, how dangerous, and how inaccurate one can be about predicting what hasn’t yet occurred! In most cases, it can be a hit or miss affair. Many people thought the world would come to an end back in the late 1990s. Some even asked themselves, “Hey, what happened? Why did those predictions not come to pass?” How’s that again? A better response to that query should have been: “Why would we want them to be true in the first place?” Be thankful for small favors!

Sure enough, the sun rose as it always does; and the world continued on its merry course as it has always done — for better or for worse. Putting it plainly, it was business as usual for most people on terra firma. Why should it be different for anyone else?

This dissatisfaction with the way things are, amid prospects or expectations for how things can or should be (but really can’t be), often reveal themselves as fodder for another science fiction-type subgenre, i.e., the increasingly popular dystopian future drama. As an extension of our shared experiences, an ancillary aspect can manifest itself in speculative fiction, which some writers prefer to employ in describing their overall work in this area.

What the future may hold for humans as a species and whether or not we give in to our basest instincts can be sampled and observed in such cinematic depictions as Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and its underestimated 2008 remake, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Jack Arnold and Joseph Newman’s This Island Earth (1955), Frank McLeod Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956), Ridely Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Michael Radford’s 1984 (1984), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek TV-series (1966-1969).     

In the area of speculative fiction, the likes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2005), from English writer P.D. James’ 1992 publication, or the equally chilling Hulu TV series The Handmaid’s Tale (from 2017 to current), based on Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book, have blurred the lines of what one normally identifies as pure, unadulterated science fiction. As the decades roll by, we are trending ever closer to the world depicted in both these titles.

The dystopian, futuristic thriller ‘Children of Men’ (2005), directed by Alfonso Cuaron

As you can see, science fiction and, yes, horror, fantasy, dystopian and speculative fiction films share living space in many peoples’ households. They will always be welcome, for the reason they have a tendency to guide and provide curious minds with some basic life lessons. Whether we, as a species, can learn from these lessons remains to be seen.

And while they may not be, strictly speaking, “historical” in nature, they remain viable and enjoyable as pure entertainment. Our hope, then, is that science itself and the findings inherent in the promise of a better future in the years ahead can satiate our curiosity about the world around us. More importantly, the message we can derive from watching these features would be their ability to foster renewed interest in and about the future as well as, in the wise words of Professor Henry Jones Sr., provide us with some “illumination.”

And THAT’S a fact!

 Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes    

‘Star Wars,’ The Original Series (Part Ten): ‘Episode VI, Return of the Jedi’ — A Recapitulation and the Challenge Fulfilled – FINAL THOUGHTS

Rebel forces battle Imperial TIE fighters and TIE interceptors near the Death Star in ‘Return of the Jedi’

Rage Against the Empire’s Machine

Revelations of character relationships can be tricky to pull off. That Lucas and his crew were able to keep a lid on so much information about the protagonists is admirable in itself. Now that so many cats have been let out of the Imperial bag, what next? Why, back to the new and improved Death Star, of course. Where else?

For many fans, this “back to the past” movement ruined the continuity of what had been so carefully built up over time. Expectations had risen that things were about to take off in earnest (literally!) with the release of Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi. At the movie’s midpoint, Vader sneaks his vessel onto the forest moon of Endor’s landing pad. As Lucas put it in his commentary, it’s time to settle accounts and concentrate on the battle between Vader and Luke Skywalker, the so-called “emotional core of the picture.”

Ben Burtt, the series’ sound FX engineer, expressed the difficulties inherent to trying to match voiceovers and dubs three years after the fact. Namely, with older-sounding actors, vis-à-vis the variable acoustic environments that separate the original edited voicework from their current redubs. Headaches, always headaches. Why not leave things as they were? Nah, too easy. Let’s make them harder for everybody.

Vader escorts the handcuffed Luke to face the pot-marked emperor. For his part, Luke tries to work those Jedi mind games into his dialogue with Papa Vader, a calmer and more subdued exchange than their last one. He reminds Vader of his former self by calling him by his given moniker, Anakin Skywalker. “That name no longer has any meaning for me,” Vader insists, pointing Luke’s own lightsaber into his son’s face. Be careful what you wish for, dad! Luke’s attempts at rekindling some feeling in the old boy fall flatter than the Tatooine landscape. Vader is too far gone in his twisted logic to be manipulated by one so young and so hopeful.   

Yet Vader acknowledges the truth of the matter: that Luke is indeed as powerful as the emperor has foreseen. That’s why Luke was brought to Endor in the first place, to bear witness to that time-tested changing of the old guard (Darth Vader) for the new (Master Luke). As he speaks, Vader physically has his back turned to Luke, a powerfully symbolic gesture indicating he’s far from ready to join his son in battle against a common foe. He reiterates that old Sith myth about the power of the dark side, yadda-yadda-yadda. That’s for certain. And it continues to exert a strong pull on its adherents. Too strong, in fact.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) with the Jedi’s green lightsaber in ‘Return of the Jedi

Producer-director Lucas exults in the knowledge that Luke refuses to comply with Vader’s command. He will not fight, he will not bend, nor will he join forces until the very end. All this, despite Vader’s insistence that Sonny Boy learn the “true nature of the Force” from that evil bogeyman, the equally twisted emperor. As Lucas pointed out, this is unlike the physically exhausting fight the two combatants had at the end of Empire Strikes Back. This encounter is more of an emotional conflict, a one-sided psychological ploy to influence the outcome through wordplay, not swordplay. Will this work? We shall see.

Let’s get back to the rebel forces. Lucas reiterated his belief that small fighting units could indeed make a difference, much as the Huns did against the Romans, or the colonists against the British in their struggle for independence. This is a not a new idea, he went on, but one that’s been around for centuries. Here, the thought that a mighty Galactic Empire might be brought down by those “cute little teddy bears” is what keeps that new hope alive.

We transition to the rebel fleet, about to jump into hyperspace to confront their foes. Just as quickly, we’re back on Endor with that small rebel detachment about to launch their concurrent “surprise assault” on the empire’s force field. This rapid jump-cutting, in itself, is “proof” of what modern cinematic techniques have accomplished through the intervening years. A physical manifestation of what a visionary George Lucas had implied in his director’s commentary (remembering that not Lucas, but Richard Marquand did the actual directing duties here).

In author Jonathan Rinzler’s The Making of Return of the Jedi, he points out that Lucas’ initial rough draft for the picture placed Princess Leia on Endor as the sole instigator of the rebellion. Along with the cuddly Ewoks were these gigantic aliens, the Yuzzum, whom Leia convinced to join forces with their tiny partners in a battle to the death. Luke was still on Tatooine, trying to rescue poor Han Solo, now unfrozen from the carbonite, in time before his execution.

In addition, the final confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the emperor occurs in a lava pit somewhere below the planet’s surface. It’s supposed to be a three-way duel of sorts, with the Evil Emperor and the Dark Lord having much more than a difference of opinion as to who has the upper hand in the Galactic realm. That’s not all: other surprises await, including unexpected appearances by Obi-Wan Kenobi and the late and much-lamented Yoda. How’s that for an encore!

Ah, well, none of this was meant to be. As rough drafts go, this one was lightyears ahead of Hollywood and ILM’s ability to carry out those rough ideas and bring them to fruition. They belong to the “What if” school of lost opportunities.

Meanwhile, Princess Leia hears from Threepio that one of the Ewoks is about to make an unwise move: he’s going to steal a speeder, and right from under the Imperial guards’ noses. “Not bad for a little furball,” mouths Han to Leia. This maneuver supplies the element of surprise needed for the rebel force to temporarily storm the generator shield.

Threepio, Princess Leia, Chewie, and Han Solo look on admiring at the Ewoks’ handiwork

Back on the Imperial Star cruiser, Vader leads Luke up the steps to meet his fate. The color red predominates. “Evil, the red devil,” claimed Lucas. “The bad guys,” in the book according to George, “exist in a black and white world. The good guys live in an organic world, which is either browns, light browns, tans, or greens.” Earth tones, in other words, warm and approachable. Whereas the bad guys reside in a world of absolutes, a mechanical world where views are cold and rigid. Indeed, they are!

The emperor greets Young Skywalker with his usual false courtesy. “In time, you will call me master,” he boasts, in that bullfrog’s voice of his. Ugh, he’s as much of a badass, if not worse than, that slimy old toad, the late Jabba the Hutt. Fascinating how the emperor’s makeshift throne gives the appearance, through spokes that make up the window frames behind him, of a spider’s web. So that’s it! The Evil Emperor is a big, black hungry bug hunter, “luring the flies into his web,” Lucas remarked. Added to which, he’s so full of himself, so sure in his ability to foresee events as they are about to unfold. However, prescience and advance knowledge, in our view, have made the old bloke overconfident.

The man in black gives notice to Luke that, one: his friends on Endor are walking into a trap; and two, so is the rebel fleet (to be reinforced by Admiral Akbar’s oft-quoted line, “It’s a trap!”). Never one to overlook the obvious, the emperor senses that Luke wants his lightsaber to strike down the old fogey before his plan works its magic. No sooner has the evil one spilled the beans on what’s about to happen when we transition back to where the rebel force enter the area guarded by the force field. They’re thwarted in their mission by Stormtroopers and other guards. Look quickly for Ben Burtt’s cameo, as he speaks the word “Freeze,” prior to getting a toolkit thrown at his noggin.

We’re just in time for the next memorable line: “You rebel scum!” Eew, don’t you hate it when they say that? To compensate, Burtt tells listeners about a young Kenyan man who spoke the words of one of the rebel co-pilots in his native tongue. They dubbed in the lines, which when the film was shown in Kenya, drew raves from an appreciative audience. Just in time, too, to enjoy the marvelous FX of incoming TIE fighters, flying in and out of formation, battling it out with those X-wings, all courtesy of blue screen, scale models, and computer-aided programming. Lucas confessed that, originally, there was to be only one Death Star and one giant battle involving not the Ewoks (a reworking of the name “Wookiee”) but the Wookiees themselves. Still, as we all know, the best laid plans can often go awry.   

Back on the Imperial star cruiser, the emperor goads Luke on into reacting to his repugnant sayings — daring him to strike him down “with all his hatred,” thus letting slip the angry dogs of war that will turn him to the dark side of life. Flash forward to the rebel base, where things do not look well for our friends. Nice feel of the Imperial Walkers lurking about, which segues directly to the amassed Ewok attack. Finally, somebody’s doing something to stop the bad guys from winning.

The repugnant Evil Emperor of the Galactic Empire (Ian McDiarmid)

Again, it’s a sheer joy to hear our furry friends sound the battle cry of freedom, a tune straight out of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (if you’re into useless trivia). Against the combined might of Imperial forces, the Ewoks hurl their bows and arrows at the oncoming hordes. If you’re thinking Robin Hood and His Merry Men, battling the Sheriff of Nottingham in Sherwood Forest, you’re right on the money. They even used the same type of feathers that give the arrows that “swish” sound.

Believability is the key, as the seesawing confrontation goes back and forth. The Ewoks are up, the Ewoks are down. True, they’re no match for the Galactic Empire’s high-tech might. Still, to cast the Ewoks as the disruptive element that distracts and saps the strength of a superior foe made audiences root for their success all the more. In this, Lucas and company did not disappoint.

We return to the emperor’s throne room. He’s still trying to get Luke to work up a head of steam, in order to blow his top off at Papa. Words, words, and more words. A torrent of lies — all aimed at poor Luke, the venom unleashed in slow, steady strokes. The anger begins to well up in our hero. You can practically hear audiences whispering under their collective breath: “Don’t give in, Luke!” Though he wants Luke to strike him down with all his might, the emperor knows that his ultimate aim is to get Luke to kill his father, then take dad’s place beside the emperor.

It’s the age-old “point of succession” theory: you don’t REALLY want that person to take your place, now, do you? You want him or her to THINK that’s what they’re doing. This same illogic will reoccur in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), specifically in Rey’s make-or-break clash with Snoke, another pot-marked baddie. The truth is, you’re the next victim of the emperor’s whims. He’ll use and abuse you, until you’re spent and done. Then along comes another bright whippersnapper to take your place, and we’re back at it again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It’s Siegfried turning on Grandpa Wotan/Wanderer and marrying Aunt Brünnhilde; it’s Oedipus slaying his father Laius to marry his mother Jocasta. And BINGO! You’ve got a whale of a Greek and Norse tragedy, if not a helluva tale. Well, if it’s Luke murdering his dada, then taking up with a monster who’s got no blood relation to him at all, then you’ve got yourself an unresolved conflict — and a winning formula guaranteed to earn boffo box office returns as well as the audience’s sympathy.

In the meantime, the tide of battle begins to turn when Chewie, our eight-foot Wookiee wonder, joins in the frolic by volunteering his fair share of service to the rebel cause. The Ewoks, those little Vietnamese counterparts, inflict enough damage on the opposition that it allows our friends, the sidelined Leia and still-clueless Han, to hold the advantage.

Example: A wounded Leia lies on the ground. As Imperial Stormtroopers approach, Han, who’s bent down to assist Her Highness, covers up the fact that she’s pulled a laser weapon on the troopers. “I love you,” Han whispers. “I know,” Leia answers back, reversing the same snappy give-and-take quips they hurled at each other toward the end of The Empire Strikes Back. A nice, full-circle loop to their classic Tracy and Hepburn routine, a love-hate relationship for the space age.

It’s Over and Done With (For Now)

We approach the crux of the drama, which to most fans involves the best sequence of all: that of Luke and Vader’s final battle. This fabulous match-up spills over into the very bowels of the craft (in another nod to Warner Brothers’ classic The Adventures of Robin Hood). A dip into Hell itself, but not the physical lava-filled landscape that will take place in the as-yet-to-have-been-filmed Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith. No, that’s yet to come. This is a Hell of the protagonists’ making, placed before them by the machinations of a thoroughly malevolent being.

The climactic duel of the lightsabers between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in ‘Return of the Jedi’

According to George Lucas, the emperor’s primary objective is to make Luke angry. Knowing that anger has the affect of turning the Jedi to the dark side, Luke employs reverse psychology in his banter with Vader. “Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you, the conflict.” Vader replies smoothly: “There is no conflict.” But Luke does not budge. He presses on with the verbal onslaught, insisting he will not fight. To do so, will only lead Luke down the path to the dark side, a no-no in anybody’s book.

As the rebel forces seem to reverse their earlier losses, Vader seeks out Luke in the underbelly of the emperor’s throne room. We hear his slow and steady breathing, an ominous growl that telegraphs to audiences to beware the Big Bad Bear. If you poke him, he will respond. At this point, Vader tries a different tack, using Luke’s model of reverse logic but taking it to another realm entirely: that of the emotions. Vader senses Luke’s fondness for his friends, especially for one in particular: his sister Leia!

Instinct has informed the Dark Lord that sheer force of arms won’t turn his son into a Sith. This leaves him no choice: Vader must fight fire with fire. And, boy, does he unload the big one on our unsuspecting hero. “If you will not turn to the dark side… then perhaps she will.” That did it. Luke immediately goes into action mode: “Never!” he shouts, pointing his lightsaber directly at dear old dad.

Their duel to the death is the highlight of the series. And it’s here that this 1983 Star Wars entry finally approaches the grandeur it has so far lacked; where the clash of titans elevates the saga to the operatic, made all-the-more potent through John Williams’s use of underscoring and a wordless, mixed chorus of voices. The basic thrust of the action accompanying the “music” is the lightsaber duel that gives off plenty of sparks in themselves. They supply their own musical tones, along with appropriate CGI-effects. The dominant colors, then, are red and green: red (bad, evil), for the Sith; and green (good, virtuous), for the Jedi.     

The sequence climaxes with Luke’s hacking away at Vader’s weapon. Finally, the Dark Lord releases his lightsaber, perfectly timed to Luke’s slicing of his father’s right hand — the same right hand that Vader had sliced off in their earlier battle in The Empire Strikes Back. This brings out the gloating, bile-spilling emperor, wallowing in the carnage and exhorting Luke to fulfill his destiny by taking his father’s place at the old geezer’s side. Go on, dude, finish him off!

Not so fast! Luke takes a long, hard look at his black-gloved hand (appropriate, in this context) and compares it to what’s left of his father’s mechanical stump. “Never,” he finally responds, but in a much quieter, self-controlled mode than before. “I’ll never turn to the dark side.” Gasp, gulp! Luke finishes his speech by asserting his firm stance against further harm: “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” And how does the emperor react? In typically villainous fashion: “So be it, Jedi,” spilled out with all the relish that are in the evil fiend’s capacity.

Having accomplished what they set out to do, producer Lucas, director Marquand, and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wrap up what’s left over, story-wise, in a purportedly tight little bow. For one, the shield generator is destroyed, which brings down the force field; and for another, the rebels resume their nonstop attack on Death Star II. Go get ’em, boys!

British director Richard Marquand (left, pointing) and George Lucas (in beard and glasses)

Okay, that’s one plot element out of the way. Now, what about Luke and the Evil Emperor? An interesting juxtaposition between two opposing forces, but do you really need to know the outcome? I mean, isn’t it obvious that Luke will prevail, or that Vader will do an about-face by picking up and tossing that vile emperor into the Death Star II’s nuclear reactor pit, or whatever you call it? We need not go into specifics. The only genuine thrill is the ultimate revelation of what’s behind the dark helmet. Who’s underneath that evil exterior, anyway? Why, it’s a kindly old, worm-bitten English gent (Sebastian Shaw). Oh, gee, how nice! Just before the big reveal, as Vader drops the emperor into that nuclear frying pan (how the heck did he lift the fiend with only one usable limb?), a brief glimpse of a skeletal skull is flashed across his lordship’s dark visage. Whew! Talk about evil escaping!  

Of course, the Death Star II will be eliminated. And of course, the explosion will be mammoth sized in proportion to its surroundings, but patently anticlimactic. Down goes the Imperial trawler. Up comes Master Luke as he tries to rescue dad from the flaming wreck, but dad can’t make it. So, the kindly old British gent expires, breathing his last with what looks like Bob Dylan or Neil Young’s harmonica strapped to his kisser. Good, Lord! Didn’t anyone see the connection? I sure did. Another one bites the dust, making room for the new and improved. Time to play a happy tune, for once! Hit it, Darth!!!

Lord Vader (Sebastian Shaw) breathes his last in ‘Return of the Jedi’ (1983)

That final, massive Death Star II explosion unleashes a spontaneous celebration on Endor. Ah, but there’s one last plot point to be resolved: Han learns that Leia is related to Luke by birth. And, boy, is he clueless about it to the end. Man, what a sap! And a clear disappointment to Solo’s millions of fans: a slam-bang, much-admired hero turned into a simpleton with a whimper and a kiss. Speaking of which, Little Wicket emerges from the underbrush, spreading good cheer about their victory against the Empire.

The final wrap-up of events includes Luke’s burning of his dad’s remains. How he managed to heave Vader’s hefty carcass up the gangplank and into his fighter craft is anybody’s guess. (Hint: He used the Force.) This is followed by an extended glimpse into other planetary celebrations extolling the rebels’ victory. Whoopee!

My biggest and loudest complaint was, is, and will forever remain the replacement of that wonderful little Ewok song and dance number (so apropos in this context) with a totally unsatisfactory, minor, minor, and I do mean minor musical interlude. Hey, where’s the chorus? After they made their first “appearance” in the duel to end all duels, Lucas decided to drop them? Fans won’t hear another vocal display of this magnitude until Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in the climactic “Duel of the Fates” sequence. In the interim, shame on you, John Williams, for giving in to this charade! This must have been Lucas’ biggest faux pas; one I’ve learned to revile and despise from the minute I heard it.

The other egregious example of gratuitous, self-congratulatory exploitation is Lucas’ replacement of reliable old Sebastian Shaw, as Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, with (get ready for it….) the figure of young Hayden Christensen as an allegedly adult, whiny-voiced Anakin, in long-flowing priestly Jedi robes no less. AAARRGHH!!! Spare me from washed up producer-directors, please!!!

Before (below) and after (above): Two different endings for ‘Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi’

Beginning of the End, or End of the Beginning?

Throughout their struggles, the Star Wars characters have indeed changed. They have undergone immense transformations in how they think and how they act. They’ve evolved into areas one could never have possibly envisioned: from the series’ humble beginnings in 1977 to their blockbuster 1983 ending. This, then, is what has made Star Wars so beloved by fans.

The three earlier films can be looked at by each succeeding generation as a continuously evolving epic saga on the grandest of scales — a modern myth for Baby Boomers, millennials, Generation-Xers, -Yers, -Zers, and whichever part of the alphabet comes next; both nerds and geeks everywhere, and from sci-fi freaks, computer whizzes, and wimpy kids, to anything and everything in between.

We’ve all grown up, we’ve all grown old, matured, or become more infantile (if you prefer) with age. Similarly, the series has encompassed all phases of our lives. Indeed, for nearly two generations the Star Wars series has been such an integral part of our youth, and our movie-going experience, that as time passes it gets harder and harder to let go. Before our eyes, and in three back-to-back episodes, the struggles of the main protagonists — and numerous side characters — have meant many things to many people.

We see the father we never knew. We meet the sister we’ve come to love. We’ve made close contacts, lifelong companions, and hardened foes: the bonds that never break, and the ones that should have broken. We’ve welcomed furry little bear-like creatures into our homes, along with eight-foot-tall walking carpets. Other fantastic creations, such as robots, droids, rocket ships galore, blasters, and galaxies so far, far away; daring escapades, split-second space travel, incredible floating cities in the sky; the villains you love to hate, the characters you hate to lose — an infinite technological and emotional universe where wonders never cease to amaze.

The ‘Star Wars’ cast of universally beloved characters from 1977 to 1983

America, too, has changed. The country has evolved from the pure innocence of postwar prosperity to middle-aged anxiety, holding on to an ever-more unattainable cultural dominance and influence. On the debit side, we’ve become incapable of resolving the complex issues that were once so easily within our grasp. Indeed, the country has advanced into another sphere entirely, certainly apart from the vaunted vision the movies had formerly inspired.

In a scant thirty years, our military forces have, indeed, become powerful, as our leaders have foreseen. They are the envy of the planet; while our prestige and honor, at home and abroad, as the symbol of truth, justice, liberty, and fair play, have begun to erode. Only the old saying that “might makes right” appears to have been retained. Can we prevent, or at the least circumvent, our own downfall? Can the ultimate fate of our nation be stemmed by a reversal in policy, or will we be brought to our knees, as the errant Darth Vader was, by the pure faith, innocence, and belief of a young Luke Skywalker, before it is too late?

George Lucas and his film empire have evolved as well and grown to Babylonian proportions. His Lucasfilms, ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), THX certification (after Tomlinson Holman, a colleague of Lucas), and CGI-equipped workshops have labored over a number of projects: from Jurassic Park and Robocop to Titanic and well beyond. His special FX wizards Paul Tippett, Dennis Murren, Stan Winston, Jim Henson’s creature workshop, Frank Oz, and all the puppeteers and purveyors of movie magic, have outpaced the actual work done by Old Georgie, who’s always considered himself more of a visionary producer and merchandiser than a director. I’m inclined to agree.

The special FX created for the original Star Wars films, while big, bombastic, and superior to anything from the 1930s or ‘40s before it, were detailed and finely rendered; there was a tactile beauty, a brilliance and a sheen to the scale models of impressive battle cruisers and intergalactic freighters. Part of the beauty of the Millennium Falcon and other sturdy spacecraft was that they had a solidity to them, that “used and lived in” look so endearing to us fans.

But as the original Star Wars epics have concluded their second and third series of stories, the more technologically advanced digital realm of the cinema has superseded the model-based Millennium Falcon of old. The charm, daring, and over-arching idealism of a brash, cheeky techno-geek named George Lucas have given way to the stale, standard, and joyless digital exercises of today, those utterly devoid of character and appeal.

Lucas’ “revivification” of the Star Wars series, with Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, were box office hits, no doubt of that; but they were also emotionally barren, dramatically inert, and technically nullified duds, barely registering on the human scale, but gigantic on the technological meter and desktop front.

Similar to the pleas above, can the series itself survive its long-prophesied demise? The latter entries were promising at best, but ultimately failed to recapture the spirit of the originals. Can we stem the ultimate tide? And can we bring it to its knees, as previously described, in the way Darth Vader was forced to do by the strength and power of the Force and its followers — those purveyors of the pure faith, the keepers of the Jedi flame — with the same innocence, naïveté, and belief that an optimistic, incorruptible Luke Skywalker had experienced, before it is too late?

We cannot provide the answers, only more questions. However, let me leave readers with this final word, a message from the great beyond, received directly from the source: May the Force be with us … always! Φ

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

Of Princes and Potentates — The Met Opera Presents Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ and Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos’ (Part Two): It’s French to Me

Verdi’s French five-act, version of ‘Don Carlos’ at the Met Opera (Photo: Met Opera)

Boxed-In at the Opera

Verdi’s five-act opus maximus Don Carlos from 1867 is the veteran composer’s longest stage-work by far. It was written and conceived for the Paris Opéra in French and, according to the May 2022 issue of Opera News and other books, pamphlets, and journals, was revised, edited, and presented in the French language. Point taken, point made!

That being the case, this writer has always preferred the more familiar Italian version, one that Met Opera patrons, and U.S. audiences in general, have been hearing since the 1950s and beyond. Various attempts at reintroducing this massive work in its elaborate French-style musical setting have been met with the usual fanfare, touting its literary superiority over the standard Italian translation, and so forth. Yet, despite this ongoing effort, most opera companies continue to stress the Italianate version above all others.

Okay, I get it. I’m all for authenticity where original works are concerned. As an example, I’ve spent countless hours and reams of online pages in support of going back to a composer’s initial ideas about a subject. The better to elicit a clearer understanding of their work has been a practice of mine for as long as I can remember. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but that’s been my intention all along.

However, in the case of Don Carlos — also known as Don Carlo but without the “s” — and unlike my review of the Met’s Dmitri Tcherniakov production of Borodin’s Prince Igor (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2022/04/15/of-princes-and-potentates-the-met-opera-presents-borodins-prince-igor-and-verdis-don-carlos-part-one/), it all depends on a production team’s ultimate goals vis-à-vis the final outcome.

With this new production, David McVicar’s immobile direction and Charles Edwards’ impractical set designs (two massive column-like structures taking up both sides of the stage) and staircase to heaven-knows-where playing area severely limit the singers’ mobility. What these two towers do, in effect, is present an utterly static stage picture by making each scene resemble the other, with scarcely any variation in between. And for a work that lasts a good five-and-a-half hours — we’re talking Die Meistersinger lengths here — boredom and impatience quickly set in.

Not only that, but the lack of a true Latinate spark (let alone of the Gallic variety) was absent in an otherwise smart-looking cast, courtesy of costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Talk about your basic color scheme, this production gave new meaning to the phrase, “Paint it black.”

Carlos (Matthew Polenzani) and Rodrigue (Etienne Dupuis) swear loyalty

Another point to quibble over was the head-scratching plan to return this production to next season’s lineup, but reverting to the out-of-style, four-act version of Don Carlo — and in the Italian language of all things! How’s that for inconsistency? We’re at a loss to understand this retro-line of thinking. Why go to all the trouble and expense in coaching the cast in French vernacular and singing style? Why have them re-learn their roles en français, then go back to the past and unlearn everything that had been taught in the first place? Is this what they call circular logic? What are we missing here?

We’re just as puzzled as readers are with this warped reasoning. Or did the Met management think at all about what it was proposing? We have no clue. If McVicar’s production was worth the extra effort put into it — what’s been termed as “authenticity” — I’d be more than willing to stay the course. Wouldn’t you? But no! As they say, the past is prologue. And McVicar’s prior undertaking of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy (i.e., Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux) proved just that: this trio of works were as infuriatingly dull and opaque as this new Don Carlos, despite excellent singing all-around. Interestingly, the music that Verdi initially composed for this French version bore the unmistakable trademarks of the Donizettian style.

The Act IV quartet: Rodrigue (Dupuis), Elisabeth (Yoncheva), Eboli (Barton) and Philippe (Owens)

The proof in this Met Opera pudding, though, was that Don Carlos, in any language, is an incredibly enduring masterpiece; surely Verdi’s finest effort at out-doing Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grandest of grand operas, Les Huguenots, in scope and grandiosity, something that much-maligned composer had once cornered the market on.

One last point: If the Met’s advertisement of “completeness” is to be believed, then where was the opening chorus of downtrodden working folk, unearthed for John Dexter’s revised 1979 production (one that I was personally privy to, in fact)? Unless my research deceives me, this chorus comprises a key plot element, in that the young and impressionable Élisabeth de Valois (or Elisabetta in Italian) chooses to sacrifice her future happiness with the Infante, Don Carlos, for a marriage of convenience to his father, the Spanish King Philip II.

History, that merciless conveyor of undesirable truths, tells us the real Élisabeth was all of thirteen at the time of her engagement. Don Carlos, her intended, was a mentally unstable twelve-year-old, while the “elderly” Philip was in the prime of his early-thirties life. So much for historical accuracy! In theatrical terms, it’s known as artistic license. Whatever!

By that token, where was the music for La Peregrina, the lavish ballet that Verdi conceived for the opera’s Third Act? It’s a wonderfully melodic piece, so rich and harmonious, surely one of the Italian master’s most satisfying attempts at this type of fare. It tells a semi-related story of the magnificent gemstone by the same name, worn by the tempestuous Princess Eboli, an actual historical personage.

The gem, an enormous pearl, was once owned by another real-life Elisabeth, the British-born actress Elizabeth (with a “z”) Taylor — a gift from her on-again, off-again lover and hubby, Welsh actor Richard Burton. That’s a story in itself, and worthy of operatic treatment all its own!

The ‘Don’ is Out

Meyerbeer’s ‘Les Huguenots,’ revived at Opera Bastille in Paris in 2018

I was serious when mentioning Meyerbeer and his massive Les Huguenots. The similarities in plot, structure, characterizations, and such — five acts, seven principal singers, the religious conflict between French Protestants (called Huguenots) and Roman Catholics, the palace intrigues, and the historical St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 — all combine in a sumptuous vocal and scenic display bar none. No doubt Meyerbeer’s extravagant designs, infrequently performed today but revived on occasion, went on to heavily influence the likes of Verdi, Berlioz, Wagner, and others.  

With all that in mind, I’m still uncertain that Don Carlos’ central figures, i.e., the emotionally unstable Don (tenor), his fiancée-turned-stepmother Queen Élisabeth de Valois (soprano), her lady-in-waiting Princess Eboli (mezzo-soprano), the page Thibault (Tebaldo, coloratura), Rodrigue the Marquis de Posa (Rodrigo, baritone), Le Roi Philippe II (King Philip II or Filippo, bass), Le Grand Inquisiteur (The Grand Inquisitor, bass), and the mysterious Moine (or Monk, bass), can be compared directly to their counterparts in Les Huguenots.

In point of fact, they do come close: the Huguenot nobleman and firebrand Raoul de Nangis (tenor), his love interest Valentine de Saint-Bris (soprano), the haughty Queen Marguerite de Valois (soprano), Urbain the queen’s page (mezzo), the Count de Nevers (baritone), the Count de Saint-Bris and paterfamilias to Valentine (bass-baritone), and the fanatical Huguenot soldier/servant Marcel (bass). All have corresponding relationships to Verdi’s protagonists. In particular, the historical Élisabeth and Marguerite were both sisters as well as daughters to King Henri II of France. Their mother happened to be the infamous Catherine de Medici. How’s that for an extended family?

While the source for Les Huguenots lay with the prolific French dramatist Eugène Scribe (who also provided the libretto for Verdi’s other French-language effort, Les Vêpres siciliennes), the text for Don Carlos, the work of Joseph Méry and Camille Du Locle (whom we’ll meet again as the force behind Verdi’s Aida), was based primarily on German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s dramatic poem Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (“The Spanish Heir”). Neither opera nor source materials were historically accurate, not by any stretch.  

Where the two works differed was in the way that Meyerbeer shaped the individual vocal lines. In Les Huguenots, the singers were given extended cadenzas wherein whole phrases were repeated endlessly and seemingly at will. Artists were encouraged to interpolate as much as possible, which tended to blunt the dramatic aspects of the story. With Verdi, however, drama took precedence over embellishment, resulting in a more cohesive work overall, built mostly upon character development and through standard set pieces (solos, duets, trios, quartets, ensembles, and such). 

To summarize, there’s a lot going on here, and a lot to mull over. So, what was the final outcome? Judging from the March 26, 2022 Saturday matinee broadcast there was also a lot to be desired. Presided over by the Met’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who last conducted the work back in 2015 (in Nicholas Hytner’s stylized production), with Donald Palumbo in charge of the chorus, the Met Opera Orchestra achieved a high level of response. The strings soared and the trombones blared, with everything in between sounding perfectly timed and executed. So far, so good.

Still, the ultimate “oomph” factor, that spark of inspiration that can ignite the artistic flames on stage, went missing from this performance. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the problem might have had to do with the continuing COVID-19 restrictions. That is, mask-wearing, physical distancing, vaccine and/or booster requirements, whatever. Hmm, well maybe. Who knows? I’m not sure what the issue was, but the usual boisterous reaction to Verdi’s surefire score was muted, to say the least.  

Casting Calls: They’re Up, They’re Down

Don Carlos (Matthew Polenzani), Princess Eboli (Jamie Barton), and Rodrigue (Etienne Dupuis)

Perhaps the artists themselves had something to do with it. Or the fact that unfamiliarity with the French style and language may have prevented this performance from fully taking off. Let’s see…

To start, tenor Matthew Polenzani as the youthful Don has been dipping his foot into the French repertoire for several seasons. He made a perfectly suitable Nadir in the company’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). And his assumption of such high-lying roles as Hoffmann in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Werther in Jules Massenet’s eponymously titled opera, and Roméo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette have very much pleased his public, along with this author. Polenzani’s got the right touch, and enough musicianship in his bones to pull this assignment off. No problem there.

He’s put on a bit of weight since the pandemic began, but vocally that extra heft has added to his ability to husband his resources, and to float those top notes into the vast Met auditorium. What did not help was that ever-present staircase, curiously similar to one that Josef Svoboda designed for John Dexter’s drab 1974 staging of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani (in its Italian configuration). I should know since I was present in the audience for the 1982 revival.

As Élisabeth, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva floated her exquisite pianissimos to startling effect. At full throttle, Yoncheva proved a sensation. Earlier this season, she delivered the goods as a dynamic and sexy as hell Tosca, aided by tenor Brian Jagde (pronounced “Jade”), stentorian in his delivery but lacking the sensitivity required for the painter Cavaradossi. In Don Carlos, Yoncheva, too, became hampered by that awkward staircase. One wanted to shout at both her and Polenzani to stay put, people!

Queen Elisabeth (Sonya Yoncheva) cares for the epileptic Don Carlos (Polenzani)

Fine passage work, and vocal fireworks galore, were supplied in abundance, courtesy of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (a substitute for the previously announced Elīna Garanča), who threw off her eyepatch in Act Four to reveal Eboli’s missing eyeball, a nice touch many directors overlook. Barton stopped the show with “O don fatal,” hurled full throttle into the highest reaches. But she, too, was a frequent victim of the sets swallowing up her sound.

In her intermission interview with soprano Ailyn Perez, Barton mentioned the late, great Tatiana Troyanos, who similarly ripped off that eyepatch to terrific effect in the 1980 PBS broadcast of Don Carlo, as the inspiration for this dramatic gesture. Imitation, in this instance, was surely the sincerest form of flattery.

Princess Eboli (Jamie Barton) sans her trademark eyepatch

With his impressive physique du rôle, French-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis won the Legion d’Honneur award for his masculine portrayal of the virile Don Rodrigue. Such elegance and verbal panache have not been heard at the Met, nor in this part, for quite some time. Certainly not since the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky graced the stage. Dupuis was as near to perfection as anyone in this part. His was the lone authentically French-sounding portrayal among the cast members. Likewise, his Mohawk hairdo, shaved sideburns, and full-length beard may have had a hand in winning the crowd’s favor. Touché and away!

Our biggest disappointment, moreover, was with bass-baritone Eric Owens as a dull, placid, and seemingly out of sorts Roi Philippe. Can you say underpowered? What gives with Owens these days, anyway? Where was that massive outpouring Met audiences have come to expect, and be spoiled by; that darkly shaded timbre that made his Alberich and Hagen in Wagner’s Ring cycle so frighteningly potent? Ever since his listless delivery of Porgy’s lines in The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess production two seasons ago (due to a debilitating head cold), Owens has been, well, holding back. We pray he can overcome this vocal crisis, for indeed he’s in a crisis of sorts.    

King Philippe (Eric Owens) rails at the Grand Inquisitor (John Relyea) in Act IV of ‘Don Carlos’

Case in point: Owens’ “Elle ne m’aime pas,” the Francophile version of the bass aria, “Ella giammai m’amo” (“She never loved me”), went by the boards. Again, his clenched-teeth style of vocalizing can grate on one’s nerves, so often that he employs this technique to inconsistent levels. Open it up there, Eric! And let it ring! Audiences want to hear you shout — over and out. To be fair-minded in these surroundings, Owens was another last-minute replacement, this time for German basso Günther Groissböck.

His opposite number, Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea, portrayed the Grand Inquisiteur with relish and single-minded purpose. Perhaps a role reversal was called for? Just saying. To be honest, Relyea has been electrifying Met audiences for years. I can recall his villainous Gessler in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, along with his entertainingly sly Méphistophélès in Robert Lepage’s multimedia incarnation of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. Oh, and let’s factor in his unctuous interpretation of Don Basilio in that riotous Il Barbiere di Siviglia from a few years back. He’ll be making another “appearance” this season as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Australian composer Brett Dean’s startlingly modernistic take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As the page Thibault, Meigui Zhang warbled her lines pleasantly. This was one of Verdi’s few ventures into travesty parts, whereby a female singer portrays a dashing young man (in the mode of Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, or Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro). The black-robed Monk’s sepulchral bellowing (in reality, he’s Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in disguise — don’t ask!) were intoned by British basso Matthew Rose.

We certainly were more than delighted to have Don Carlos back, especially in its original conception. Well, as “original” as audiences are likely to get. But seeing snippets of Hytner’s earlier production on You Tube, the one this McVicar version replaced, headed by Roberto Alagna (ideally cast), Marina Poplavskaya, Simon Keenlyside, Anna Smirnova, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and James Morris, made one ponder the imponderable: Why, oh, why couldn’t the Met leave well enough alone and make better use of an existing production?

That is a shame. Verdi’s longest, most fascinating creation holds many lessons for our times. The struggle between public duty and private turmoil; the fight for what’s right; the freedom to think and shape one’s own destiny.

The most obvious — and, certainly, the most telling — lies in its depiction of a religious state that exploits and oppresses those who hold a contrary belief system. “Donnez la liberté,” shouts Rodrigue near the conclusion of Act II, in his bold speech to Le Roi Philippe. “Give them liberty!” The King muses on this strange dreamer. What can he be thinking? Liberty, you say? Why, no problem at all. The King has given peace to the known world. To that logic, Rodrigue has a disgusted response: “La paix du cimetière!” – “The peace of the grave!”   

Point taken, point made.

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

Of Princes and Potentates — The Met Opera Presents Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ and Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos’ (Part One)

Leather-clad Prince Igor (Ildar Abdrazakov) getting ready for battle (Photo: Met Opera)

The Russians are NOT Coming! The Russians are NOT Coming!

When artists of the highest caliber are called upon to make what amounts to career-killing choices by the companies that employ them, we, the listening and viewing public, are the ones who lose out.

This was the case when, because of one world leader’s spiteful, ill-conceived commitment to all-out combat against a smaller neighbor (i.e., the Russian Federation versus the Ukraine), the likes of star soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev — two so-called “Friends of Vlad,” aka Russian President Vladimir Putin — have been relegated to the sidelines as far as future performances are concerned.

In Ms. Netrebko’s case, the diva had been scheduled to sing in Puccini’s Turandot later this Met Opera season, as well as make concert appearances in Denmark and other venues. With maestro Gergiev, he too was forced to cancel planned recitals at Carnegie Hall with the Mariinsky Orchestra, among others. On the heels of which the Metropolitan Opera House issued a statement in early March whereby it was severing all ties with “Russian artists and institutions who are allied with President Putin.”      

The Met’s general manager, Mr. Peter Gelb, went further, in a video statement on Facebook, that, “as an international opera company, the Met can help ring the alarm and contribute to the fight against oppression… we can no longer engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him — not until the invasion and killing has stopped, order has been restored and restitutions have been made.”

Climbing aboard the bandwagon, the Met also cut ties with Gergiev, a conductor of note who has led the renowned Met Opera Orchestra, one of the finest ensembles of its kind, in several extraordinary premieres, including that of Prokofiev’s mammoth War and Peace (see the following link to my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2021/04/10/stream-for-your-supper-after-dinner-treats-with-met-opera-on-demand-part-four-opera-out-of-the-norm/). As for Ms. Netrebko, she won’t be appearing in opera for the next two years, at least — an incalculable loss to the art.

This reminds me of volatile times past, especially the wartime years of the 1930s and 40s. Back then, rumor had it that composer Richard Strauss had cooperated with the Nazi regime, although he never actually joined the party outright (Author’s Note: There was a great deal of ambivalence associated with Strauss, as noted in Alex Ross’ book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century). While others at the time, among them conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Karl Böhm, and Herbert von Karajan, may have had closer ties to the Third Reich than was generally known.

How ironic, then, that matters such as which artists were supported by this or that group could result in long-lasting interruptions to their careers, as if they were light switches that could be turned on or off at will, depending on which way the political winds were blowing.

I’m referring, of course, to what’s been labeled as “cancel culture” by the press. But are the above actions, taken not only by the Met Opera but in tandem with myriad other organizations, the politically correct way to go? And what does “political correctness” mean in this environment, anyway? It all boils down to personal responsibility and how much disruption individual artists are willing to put up with in order to satisfy (or not satisfy) their contractual obligations. What about their obligations to humanity as a whole?

Besides artists and performers, the ones who suffer the most are us, the paying public, and the very institutions that depend upon the public’s patronage. The arts, comprised of opera, the movies, musical theater, museums, art galleries, conservatories, institutions of higher learning, or what-have-you, can only thrive with our participation.

How can there be any live theater at all, in our opinion, if there are no artists to perform in them, or no live audiences to applaud an artist’s efforts? Or a singer’s high notes? Or a theater director’s intensions? In the general scheme of things, who cares what kind of stand an individual artist takes when it comes to their political, civic or religious beliefs? Is that really so important? Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t.    

This goes to continuing efforts to inoculate the public against not just the coronavirus and its variants, but patently false information (“alternative facts,” “fake news,” deceptive and/or misleading practices) that, by virtue of their very insidiousness, can turn individuals against one another. Class differences, cultural distinctions, religious practices, contrary belief systems: these are all interrelated and negatively affected in one way or another by the foregoing. It’s incredible how these and other forms of so-called “tribalism,” for lack of a better term, can lead to horrible acts performed by supposedly sane human beings. Surely, the aftermath of the Second World War will stand as a testament to that theory.     

But I’m not going to get into a debate over these volatile issues — that’s for saner heads than mine to decide. My aim is not to argue the above points but to encourage people to think independently about the nature of artistic endeavors; to look at both sides, and in the middle, of such arguments, so as to arrive at a fair and equitable solution.

Making informed decisions, ones that are reasoned out and debated through careful consideration, might help us to see clearer and act better; to know each other better; and to deal with one another as adults with an eye towards mutual respect. A degree of forbearance is what’s called for. Besides, what better way to understand another individual than through the artistic experience.

The red poppy field from Act I of Borodin’s opera ‘Prince Igor’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Consequently, we’ll be discussing two examples of the artistic experience, mainly the opera Prince Igor (or Knyaz Ygor) by Alexander Borodin and Giuseppe Verdi’s original French version of Don Carlos, both more or less contemporaneous with one another. These works, in as “complete” a form as listeners are likely to get nowadays, can serve to illustrate many of the arguments put forth above regarding people’s perceptions and/or opinions of characters much like themselves.

An Incomplete Masterpiece is “Completed”

Most often mischaracterized as faux-orientalism or a sensual Arabian Nights-style extravaganza, Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor finally reached the Met Opera’s stage in a new production, developed and designed by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov and Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda. The Met premiered the work in the 2013-2014 season. It was transmitted, via their Live in HD broadcast, on March 1, 2014.

Boasting some of the most recognizable tunes in all of Russian opera, Prince Igor is an intermediate work. It skirts the outer fringes of its predecessors Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, written and composed by fellow Russian Modest Mussorgsky (read about Boris Godunov’s background in the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2020/11/08/mussorgsky-in-the-raw-the-mets-boris-godunov-an-opera-for-our-time/), and the folk-like A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka, the so-called father of Russian opera.

As it happened, Borodin (1833-1887) chose chemistry as a profession, while working parttime as a composer — quite an unusual combination, wouldn’t you say? It’s a wonder he was able to devote time and energy toward his prime vocation while dabbling intermittently in opera. Despite frequent interruptions, Borodin managed to turn out a respectable handful of compositions that merit consideration, the best known being his symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880), the First (1875) and Second (1881) String Quartets, and a pair of symphonies.

He began work on Prince Igor sometime around 1869, when art critic and historian Vladimir Stasov (sometimes given as Stassov) forwarded a treatment to him of an alleged medieval epic poem from the 12th century. Impressed with the Prince Igor fable and its nationalist pro-Russian slant, Borodin worked sporadically on the project, in between spurts of distraction and inspiration.

Unfortunately, Borodin left his noble Prince incomplete at the composer’s 1887 passing. Some close friends, i.e., Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov, and Anatoly Liadov, all contributed to the orchestration and/or “completion,” in one form or another. At the very least, they each attempted to bring order to a somewhat sprawling and, let’s face it, disorderly creative process. Despite their labors, Prince Igor remained unfinished.         

The Prologue in Putivl from Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ with Ildar Abdrazakov (Photo: Met Opera)

Modern audiences may be familiar with Borodin’s themes through the frequently played Polovtsian Dances, a staple of orchestral concerts from time immemorial. Further, many of the opera’s tunes, and other snippets from the composer’s limited output, were reworked into the 1953 George Forrest/Robert Wright stage adaptation Kismet. Without a doubt, the standards “Stranger in Paradise,” “The Sands of Time,” “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” “And This is My Beloved” have enjoyed some regularity in the pop-music realm for any number of years.

While the opera itself has had a less than stellar reputation, the Met nevertheless decided upon a complete refurbishing. Was it worth the effort? After all, there hadn’t been a Met Opera production of Borodin’s stage piece in nearly a century (since 1917, to be exact, coincidentally the year of the fateful Russian Revolution). Having seen the Tcherniakov Live in HD transmission of Prince Igor via Met Opera on Demand and on a Deutsche Grammophon Blu-ray disc, we can vouch for its viability as theater.

The most noteworthy aspect of this performance was the introduction of undiscovered music into its framework, principally in Act Three. But for starters, the team of Tcherniakov and Noseda (who was principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theater for a decade) completely dropped the Overture, which was not by Borodin’s hand but the creation of Alexander Glazunov and based almost entirely on Igor’s Second Act aria.  

The decision to excise any and all music NOT by Borodin himself was maintained throughout the restoration process. So much so that Met audiences were privy to what can only be deemed a North American premiere of sorts. 

The plot concerns an impending war between the citizens of Putivl, Igor’s home city, situated in the northeast section of modern-day Ukraine (!), and the hostile Polovtsi. In Igor’s day, the city was under siege by these nomadic Turk-like tribesmen. The Prologue, modeled on a similar one in Boris Godunov, finds the Prince (bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov) readying his troops for battle. As he inspects his men, the citizens urge him on to glory. However, a sudden solar eclipse frightens the populace, including Igor’s second wife Yaroslavna (soprano Oksana Dyka), who pleads with him to abandon his mission. “This is a bad sign,” she sings, “an evil portent.”

The Prince tries to comfort his wife. He also embraces his son by his first marriage, Vladimir (tenor Sergey Semishkur), who will accompany him on his expedition. Entrusting the people and the governing of the city to his wife’s brother, the cunning Prince Galitsky (bass Mikhail Petrenko), a bawdy fellow with devious plans of his own, Igor asks the Boyars to bless the princes and their men as he embarks on his campaign.

A Mighty Epic Told in Flashback

This is where the venture took on real-life elements from the past, specifically the First World War and the “No Man’s Land” mentality of the Western Front. In this revised scenario, Tcherniakov reversed the usual order of acts: where formerly, in the traditional Act One, Galitsky and his followers have gone rogue in terrorizing the citizenry (and abducting one of Yaroslavna’s handmaids!), as well as making a general nuisance of themselves, the director has drawn audiences directly into the conflict itself.

While the curtain is lowered, black and white scenes, reminiscent of silent cinema, are projected onto a scrim. Igor’s troops are startled to see bombs exploding all around them. In a flash, a massive explosion becomes visible, giving the impression the Prince’s forces have been wiped out. Interspersed with these images are giant closeups of Igor himself, his face caked in dirt and grime as blood pours forth from his forehead. Other starker pictures evoke the pain of loss, with Igor thrusting his head into his hands or tearfully embracing a fallen comrade in arms.

Behind the scrim, the lovely sound of a Polovtsian maiden (mezzo Kiri Deonarine) intones a mournful song about a little flower that shrivels and sinks into the ground without its water — a reference, if only subliminally, to Igor and his men’s dire situation.

As the houselights come up behind the scrim, the audience delights in a vast field of red poppies, accompanied by lively arabesques in the orchestra. This image may arouse painful memories of antiwar poetry (for example, John McCrae’s “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow”) and, less obviously, the former Soviet Union. That is to say, an evocation of the 1927 ballet The Red Poppy by Soviet composer Reinhold Glière, a work that dealt specifically with a modern (at the time) revolutionary theme of Soviet sailors rescuing poor starving, overworked Chinese coolies from their harsh capitalist taskmasters.

The beautiful Konchakovna (Anita Rachvelishvili) with Igor in the lush red poppy field

The scene on the Met’s stage, however, is breathtaking to behold, quite the contrary to what one would expect. But it’s short lived: the houselights go dark again. In place of the poppy field, we see the injured Igor lying on a cot, his head bandaged, his body wrapped in a linen cloth. Is he dying, is he wounded? A little bit of both? He’s certainly immobilized. In the next instant, we see the huge figure of his nemesis, the Khan Konchak (bass Štefan Kocán), peering down at Igor’s lifeless form, mouthing instructions to an unseen servant or orderly. Who is this grim figure, and what does he want from our Prince?

Later, as Igor awakes in the middle of the poppy field, he is dazzled by the beauty, but continues to suffer from a painful head injury. Visions of the various personages in his life, including Konchakovna (mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili), the Khan’s ravishingly gorgeous, dark-haired daughter; his son Vladimir (who has fallen in love with the girl!); and Igor’s wife Yaroslavna, throw the tormented Prince into a tailspin of conflicting emotions. Which way does he turn? Where can he go?

It’s obvious, for one, that Igor has suffered from post-traumatic stress; for another, the entire scene might be playing out in Igor’s head, an imperceptible form of Chinese torture, or mind control, the kind that figured prominently in the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. This, then, is director and set designer Tcherniakov’s masterstroke, his ace in the hole: the subliminal appropriation of a minor figure, that of Dr. Yen Lo (played by American actor Khigh Dhiegh, known to viewers as Chinese agent Wo Fat in the long-running TV series Hawaii Five-O), who masterminded the brainwashing of Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) in that same Manchurian Candidate.

You might wonder if this analysis is a bit of a stretch, but think about it for a minute: when viewing Prince Igor at home, one’s mind tends to wander onto uncharted waters, as foreign and murky as the ones we’ve described above. Fittingly, the wounded Prince expresses his doubts in the aria, “No sleep, no rest for my tormented soul!” It’s a wonderful piece, full of critical self-analysis and expressions of love and longing for home and Mother Russia.

When the mysterious Khan Konchak finally makes his appearance, there can be no doubt in this author’s mind this character, this stand-in for Dr. Yen Lo, is toying with his prisoner. Deceptively, the Khan insists on treating Igor as a friend. Why, he’s the guest of honor! Igor refuses to concede, in fact he’s adamant about not cooperating. Ah, but the Khan wants only friendship, an alliance between two great powers. In fact, he admires Igor, and respects him for his bravery and fearlessness in battle. “No, I am not your enemy,” the crafty Khan repeats at length, “I am your host.” The Khan boasts of his deeds, his riches, his courage and skill in war. He even offers his prisoner a bride: “Choose one! She’s yours for the asking.”  

The wily Khan Konchak (Stefan Kocan) entices Prince Igor with strawberry fields

Who could resist such a clever ploy, brainwashing at its best? But Igor does resist and remains unconvinced by the Khan’s false sincerity. The Act ends with the most well-known portion of the program, the Polovtsian Dances (choreographed by Itzik Galili), a near-Bacchanalian assemblage of bodies and flimsy gowns in free-form balletic movements. There are no whirling dervishes, no Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves-like belly dancing, nor any of Scheherazade’s slinky gyrations. This is storytelling through pure dance, which leaves Igor twisting and turning — first this-way, then that-way — in his attempts at joining the celebration. In the end, they thoroughly exhaust him.      

At the last, Igor is alone on stage, panting and bewildered by the experience. This entire sequence, as bold, forthright and innovative as it seems, was nothing but an illusion, a figment of the Prince’s imagination. In times of stress, the mind can play powerful tricks on one’s subconscious.

The middle portions of Borodin’s opus take audiences back to Putivl and the regent Prince Galitsky’s philandering and eventual demise. On records, one can enjoy the vocal acrobatics of Fyodor Chaliapin, Boris Christoff, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, who sink their teeth into Galitsky’s jovial ditty, “I love a merry life,” whereas basso Petrenko barely passes muster. Two army deserters, Skula (Vladimir Ognovenko) and Yeroshka (Andrey Popov), offer their services. Sung by a bass and a tenor, these are standard stock characters in Russian opera.

Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka) is chastised by her brother, Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko)

In the final act, the city-state of Putivl has been demolished, in much the same manner as parts of the Ukraine are today, lying in dust and debris. How enduring works of art can inform viewers’ opinions of today’s bitter realities! Yaroslavna and the people have lost all hope, as she cries openly for her husband. Rumors of the Prince’s death have been greatly exaggerated, much to everyone’s dismay.

Against all odds, Prince Igor finally returns, broken and humbled, yet determined to make a difference. Despite the bitterness he has endured, a witness to his fallen comrades’ deaths and the near-loss of his homeland, the industrious Igor, alone at first, rises to the challenge as he attempts to rebuild the city. His efforts, spurned and looked down upon by some, at last bring the people together. Their joint rebuilding efforts will not be in vain.

This marks not the end of this thought-provoking adaptation of a classic Russian work, but the beginning of our understanding. Somewhere, among the scattered remnants of lives interrupted by war and savagery, we may find the strength and wisdom to rebuild our own lives and the lives of others, to form a lasting peace among peoples of all nations.   

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes