Month: August 2013

Soccer Field of Fractured Dreams: Brazil 2006 World Cup Debacle (Part One)

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Neymar and the Brazilian National Team
Neymar (center) and the Brazilian National Team

By now, everyone’s probably heard about the Brazilian national team’s lopsided 3-0 victory over Spain in the 2013 Confederations Cup, held this summer in Brazil between June 15 and June 30. Brazil’s players, among them such new faces as Neymar, Hulk, Dani Alves, Fred, Julio Cesar and others, came out on top for once, while the rest of their countrymen were up in arms over the high cost and lack of essential services provided not only for this Cup, but the World Cup Soccer Tournament to come in July 2014. We won’t even go into the headaches and logistical nightmares the 2016 Summer Olympic Games is expected to bring. Mamma mia!

After undergoing weeks of street protests and clashes with local police, resulting in brutal crackdowns, vandalism, violence, rubber bullets, pepper sprays, arson and all manner of offenses, things finally quieted down enough to enable viewers outside as well as inside the country to enjoy what was left of the games.

It seems that whenever Brazil’s national team does well in the stadium (thanks to the dual efforts of team coaches Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari and Carlos Alberto Parreira), the rest of the country goes to pot. Conversely, whenever the country finds itself humming along quite nicely – in economic terms, let’s say – the Brazilian national team limps dejectedly off the field.

Not wanting to pour cold beer over this latest victory, let me recall for readers a time not too long ago when Portugal, not Brazil, became the envy of soccer fans everywhere; when the biggest names in the sport were left powerless by the European style of play. Let me take you on a trip down World Cup Soccer’s memory lane: to summer 2006, a mere seven years ago – the seven lean years, one should add, when Brazil was poised to take on soccer’s best and brightest, only to see her aspirations flicker and fade, as a moth does when it flies too close to the flame; as Icarus did when he ventured too near to the sun.

In bringing her 3-0 win over Spain back down to earth, perhaps the Brazilians will have learned the bitter lessons the heartbreak and losses of the years between 2002 and 2014 have taught the team: that pride always, inevitably, and undeniably comes before the fall. Just ask Icarus!

The Lean Years Get Leaner

Zidane (right) whizzing past Brazilian defender
Zidane (right) whizzing past Brazilian defender Kaka

No doubt the headlines said it better than I ever could: “France Bids Brazil Adieu,” “2002 Champs Caught off Guard by Loss,” “Parreira Accepts Blame for Brazil Defeat.” But wait! Hold on a minute. Brazil lost? What’s wrong with this picture? Could this really have been happening?!? Yes, unfortunately, it’s all true, a dreary rehash of deja vu all over again, as both Orson Welles and Yogi Berra would say.

It was a rather unpleasant reminder of the 1998 World Cup Soccer finals in Paris, where France held Brazil off to a humiliating 3-0 defeat, only this time the quarterfinal match-up between the same two countries’ national teams took place at the Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany.

No matter, the result was still the same: an embarrassing 1-0 loss to France in regulation time, with Les Français coming off like vintage Chardonnay, and “Bye-Bye” Brazil smelling more like stale Limburger cheese. Every time the talented Brazilians have had to face the fleet-footed French, they forget all about jogo bonito (“the beautiful game”) they’re most adept at playing and, as a consequence, freeze-up in climactic European soccer clashes.

That calamitous 1998 confrontation was a primary example, one of the worst performances by a highly regarded national team I have ever witnessed… till now. It wasn’t so much the abysmal display put on by a spooked out Brazil squad, in particular the young and inexperienced, 21-year-old phenomenon Ronaldo — up to that point, untested in World Cup play — but the indecisiveness and inaction on the part of the entire group of players that were so feverishly called into question by subsequent Brazilian investigative hearings.

At the time, heavily favored Brazil was all but stymied by the superlative playmaking abilities of Algerian-born midfielder Zinédine Zidane, then 26, who scored two of the three game-winning goals that day to join France’s venerable Legion of Honor, alongside his fellow Les Bleus teammates. It all came back to haunt the Brazilians once more, on Saturday, July 1, 2006 — a date that will live in hall-of-shame infamy — when Monsieur Zidane, now the “grand old man” of French soccer, took immediate steps to control the flow of the game, out-hustling and out-dribbling star players ten years his junior, and firing off a fearsome free kick into the inside right foot of unmarked attacker Thierry Henry, who spent most of the match waiting for that golden opportunity, which finally arrived in the fifty-seventh minute of play.

That’s all it took, really, to stem the weak tide of the Brazilian counteroffensive, or what little of it there was, as an anticipated second wave of attack never came — and when it did, was ineffectual at best, in a sputter of last-minute activity that resulted in an over-the-top shot on goal by Ronaldinho Gaucho, the only decent one of the day from Brazil’s part.

Going back a bit historically, the first time the hearty Brazilians challenged the sullen French in World Cup competition (Sweden, 1958) a fast-rising comet named Pelé — then a gangly 17-year-old rookie starter — streaked across the Swedish playing field to kick the opposition into submission by trumping France 5-2. Their next fateful encounter, a 1986 quarterfinal match-up in Mexico, concluded in a 1-1 tie that was ultimately decided by nerve-wracking penalty shots (no one’s favorite form of ending scoreless regulation-time play) in which France came out the winner by a Gallic nose. Ironically, a more resilient German squad eliminated them in the semifinal round in another dramatic shootout attempt.

The memory of all these ill-fated soccer events must surely have left a bitter after-taste in the mouths of veteran national team players Cafu, Roberto Carlos, and especially former World Player of the Year, Ronaldo. At least, one would have hoped so. But heck, let’s face it, folks: this time Brazil deserved to lose, mainly because they did not deserve to win. “It’s a hard moment for us,” head coach Carlos Alberto Parreira offered to reporters. “It’s very hard when a Brazil squad is beaten in the quarterfinals. I wasn’t prepared — no one was prepared to leave. No one thought we’d leave before the finals.” Famous last words, indeed!

From the outset of that year’s FIFA World Cup Soccer championship, the Brazilians did next to nothing to merit entry into the record books, let alone earn a quarterfinal berth with the underrated French. Instead of trying to intimidate foes by staging a veritable Carnival parade of millionaire superegos before a massive TV audience — as pathetic a crop of would-be sports “heroes” as has ever been assembled for an international outing — Brazil could have spent the time wisely by watching videos of the opposing side’s tactics, or practicing those boring set pieces (free kicks, corners, and the like) that landed top-seeded England and its celebrity player, David Beckham,* a vaunted quarterfinal spot with the fiercely independent Portuguese.

Fat-Boy Slim, Where Were You When Brazil Needed You?

Brazil's Ronaldo on a roll
Brazil’s Ronaldo on a roll

But as far as world-class competitors were concerned, there were none to be had. Croatia, Australia, Japan, and Ghana: Brazil disposed of these toothless wannabes handily, without ever breaking a sweat — except for our dear friend, Senhor Ronaldo.

There he was, a bloated, out-of-shape remnant of his former athletically trim self, and not nearly as dangerous as he needed to be in Deutschland. Huffing and puffing away, like an elephant seal atop a melting polar icecap, Ronaldo was frequently caught on camera traipsing about the goalmouth, in constant search of an easy loose ball, and, I might add, an easy goal-scoring opportunity — a poor substitute for grit, determination, and plain old-fashioned teamwork. About the most this so-called “phenomenon” could muster up was a none-too-convincing spill in the penalty zone — it was amazing he could motivate himself to do even that.

Maybe I was imagining things, but I could have sworn Ronaldo looked old and tired before his time. But no, that couldn’t be. At 29, he was a mere babe in the soccer woods compared to such “senior citizens” as Beckham, at 31, and Zidane, at 34, not to mention the grandfatherly Cafu, at the ripe old age of 36 — but seeing is believing, and what I saw did not impress me one bit; neither did it impress the native-born journalists covering the noteworthy event, who, up in arms over Brazil’s piss-poor performance in toto, blasted anyone and everyone associated with the languid team effort for this newest fiasco. They even charged the star striker, as well as several other select offenders, with not showing enough passion and drive — that trademark desire for World Cup Soccer domination — in the very sport the dexterous Brazilians have purportedly mastered better than anyone else on the planet.

I hate to say it, but passion and drive were hardly at the top of Ronaldo’s or anybody else’s collective endorsement-revenue-minded lists of late. Oh yes, there were the occasional flashes of soccer “brilliance,” as limited as they were, in the easy romp against the relentlessly upbeat African nation of Ghana. The final tally: 3-0 Brazil (were you surprised?).

That opening run by Ronaldo, though, in which he faked-out Ghana’s otherwise expert goalie Richard Kingston, after being fed a perfectly placed pass by the 24-year-old Kaká, was masterfully executed by all. But don’t tell me it wasn’t a prearranged trick of the soccer trade! O Rei Pelé was notorious for pulling off such stunts in his day, including two famous ones from 1970: the first, in the Brazil versus England showdown, which very nearly resulted in a spectacular solo scoring opportunity by “The King” himself against Britain’s premier gatekeeper, the great Gordon Banks; the second over goalie Ivo Victor in the Brazil-Czechoslovakia match-up.

But these were too few and far between. The best of what Brazil once had to offer the soccer world was by now being echoed by those (wonder of wonders) insufferably stuffy French. ARRRGH!!! It’s enough to make a die-hard World Cup Soccer watcher, such as myself, tune in to “Breakfast at Wimbledon” instead; enough, but not quite.

Ronaldinho Gaucho, voted World Player of the Year two years in a row, simply did not live up to all the hype being touted about him. How could he, in that sweltering heat (and with so much added media pressure, to boot) perform to such unattainable standards? Demurely and quite nonchalantly, his toothy grin and cheery demeanor were the lone saving graces of a cheerless and unmotivated bunch of soccer mismatches.

Soldiering on despite the chaos surrounding him, team captain Cafu appeared to be on the brink of early retirement, a leaderless exhibition by the supposed leader of the Brazilian pack. Roberto Carlos’ deadly accurate cannon-shot of a kick was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he left it in the baggage claim area at Düsseldorf Airport, but wherever it was, it certainly wasn’t on the field of fractured dreams. The youngster Kaká tried valiantly to score, but got nowhere fast, as did Juninho Pernambucano, after colliding with the French Maginot line of defenders (impenetrable for once); they were both replaced in the second half by coach Parreira, along with their spent captain, Cafu.

Robinho and Cicinho were then brought in to lend a helping “hand,” so to speak, as was an overweight Adriano — too little, too late. They did their usual job of scrambling about town, to no particular effect. Parreira and his coaching staff, among them a drawn and haggard Mário Zagallo (the former coach of the luckless 1998 squad), came up empty-handed, with no discernible recovery plan of any kind. Indeed, no one on the bench got very excited at all about anything having to do with the match at hand — a rarity for such a crucial contest in which Brazil fell behind early in the second half. They were probably still in awe at the way the French had beaten them at their own “beautiful game.”

Truth be told, it was a national disgrace, but I wasn’t much surprised by the outcome. Some people, including my own Brazilian wife, claimed the players and coaches must have taken another infamous nosedive. “Just like they did in ‘98,” was the angry outcry. An understandable concern, but somehow I didn’t believe it. That’s just too pat an answer for what actually transpired on that dismal day. These guys were washed-up from the start, listless and unresponsive, as they had been all season long. They never came together as a group in any cohesive manner (unlike in Mexico, in 1970), as a national team should.

It’s time for them to put to pasture some of the literal “dead weight” that’s been dragging the team down for so long. It’s the least they could do to salvage whatever pride and self-respect they had left after their trouncing by the French before millions of viewers worldwide; and, even more important, give the next generation of newcomers a fitting chance to bask in their own self-made glory.

Only the blindest of Brazilian football fanatics, deliriously devoted to their embattled team, could not have foreseen what was coming. This latest chapter in Brazil’s failed pursuit of another World Cup title has finally put to bed the notion of the country’s invincibility on the soccer field. May it rest in shattered pieces… for now!

France's Zidane & Thierry embrace
France’s Zidane & Thierry embrace

On the other hand, Zidane, Henry, Barthez, Ribéry & Company were more than deserving of their total team victory: they ran Olympic-sized rings around a poor, helpless opponent. Like overactive, overage teenagers, they put on a fabulously entertaining display of soccer skill and stamina that completely overshadowed the laid-back Brazilian game to no end. If there’s any kind of lesson to be learned from this sorry set of circumstances, it’s this: the French were doing to Brazil what Brazil was once noted for doing to others — that is, mixing samba with soccer.

And yes, dear sports fans, “just like they did in ‘98,” it was indeed a magical, sleight-of-hand moment, a gallant all-out team effort by France, bar none — I only wish I hadn’t witnessed it all over again.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

*The British soccer star’s only goal in the 2006 tournament – with his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Adams, looking on approvingly from the stands – was on a marvelous free kick that sailed ever so gingerly over a wall of dumbfounded Ecuadorian defenders. It sneaked into the upper left-hand corner of their net, as England squeaked by to the quarterfinals with a score of 1-0. He really did Bend It Like Beckham, as the 2002 film-title suggested.

‘Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812’ – At ‘War’ with Tolstoy’s Master ‘Peace’

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Cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Loren Wohl)
Cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Loren Wohl)

Having spent the last several weeks immersed in Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s literary and cinematic world, I decided to devote much of this next post to his other great masterwork, the epic novel War and Peace.

First published in 1869, the story takes place a few years before, during and after Emperor Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Imperial Russia. Tolstoy’s two great works, War and Peace and the later Anna Karenina, indeed have much in common with each other: both stories include incidents and characters from the author’s personal experiences; both featured much semi-autobiographical data about Russian life in general, and peasant and aristocratic lives in particular; and both have been adapted for the screen in successful (and not-so-successful) versions, along with TV miniseries, opera, theater and such.

Although no major operatic version of Anna Karenina has enjoyed popularity or currency (will some enterprising composer please snatch up the Met Opera’s reigning diva, Anna Netrebko, and persuade her to participate in such an enticing endeavor?), there does exist a successfully produced War and Peace by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (he of the perennial Peter and the Wolf orchestral suite).

Mel Ferrer & Audrey Hepburn (flickr.com)
Mel Ferrer & Audrey Hepburn (flickr.com)

Of the extant film and television versions available, by far the most widely appreciated among movie buffs is director King Vidor’s 208 minute potboiler from 1956, starring the gamine-like Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova, perfectly realized and a delicate flower in full bloom; the dashing Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, handsome enough to have won Audrey’s hand even before production began; a totally miscast and uncomfortably bedecked Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezukhov, his famous line, “Damn you, Napoleon! Damn you ta Hell!” having been quoted far too often for its own good; and Herbert Lom as a suitably impressive Napoleon, who is rather mellow in the role, certainly better than the bizarrely interpreted Marlon Brando from 1954’s Desiree – although Brando definitely looked the part.

The former Soviet Union produced a mammoth four-part blockbuster between the years 1961 and 1967. It was released in this country in two parts, running approximately six hours in length (the original running time lasted closer to seven, which would have challenged the backsides of most American audiences, ergo the pain was spread out — tongue planted firmly in cheek — over two nights). Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk (Runaway Train), who also co-wrote the screenplay and starred as Pierre (no miscasting there), it was authentic in many details – right down to the uniforms and locations mentioned in Tolstoy’s story – but never attained either the epic status or lasting star power that the earlier production had in spades.

Next up is the 20-episode BBC television miniseries, which aired in 1972. The total running time for this production lasted a good 15 hours, but it was worth every minute of airtime. The cast included a young and vigorous — and totally dominant — Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, a slightly older Natasha by Scottish actress Morag Hood, and a dour, melancholy Prince Andrei performed by Alan Dobie. Produced by David Conroy, written by Jack Pullman, and directed by John Davies, the predominantly British cast convinced viewers of the earnestness of their efforts in this superior and virtually complete dramatization of the novel.

Lastly, a staged adaptation of a portion of War and Peace recently hit the New York stage – or to be more accurate, a musical version has appeared in a makeshift tent over in Manhattan’s meatpacking district near the West Village. For details about this unusual and – dare I say it – revolutionary cabaret-style production, here is a reprint of a review from The New Statesman:

A musical adaptation of War and Peace could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage.

By Tara Isabella Burton (Published August 6, 2013)

Brittain Ashford & Phillipa Soo
Brittain Ashford & Phillipa Soo

At first glance, the deliriously decadent, gleefully implausible concept of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 looks like something out of an unlikely-pitch handbook: a single strand of Tolstoy’s Napoleonic doorstopper, re-imagined as an interactive, dinner-theatre rock opera cabaret. Certainly Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 could be forgiven for resting on its conceptual laurels: the Siberian-bazaar décor (plenty of red velvet, intermittent icons) and itinerant, fur-clad musicians almost merit the ticket price. But, beneath (and at times in spite of) the production’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, Comet is one of the most gorgeously nuanced portrayals of passion running on either side of the Atlantic [Editor’s note: Which is more than one can say for Joe Wright’s passionless movie version of Anna Karenina from 2012].

A musical adaptation of War and Peace could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage, allowing us a richly textured glimpse into the love lives of a few of War and Peace‘s main characters that still manages to suggest their story’s cosmic significance. Focusing as it does on the love triangle between the vivacious Natasha (Phillipa Soo, heart-wrenchingly luminous, refusing to fall back on the emotional shorthand of the ingénue soprano), her absent fiancé Prince Andrei (Blake DeLong), and the rakish, honey-voiced Anatole (Lucas Steele, treading the fine line between heartthrob and comic fop), Comet‘s story line sidesteps the War half of Tolstoy’s novel. Yet it is a testament to the strength of the performances, as well as to the darkly haunting quality of Dave Malloy’s musical score, that Natasha’s doomed passion for Anatole feels no less vital, no less profound, than the fate of the world being destroyed around them.

The lyrics – often taken wholesale from Tolstoy’s novel – produce a curiously Brechtian, if at times dissonant, effect: in describing their own actions in such a seemingly detached manner – “Natasha crossed the room”, “Pierre looked up”, and so forth – our Moscow denizens become victims of emotional forces they cannot control, powerless witnesses to the downfall that no amount of “soothing irony,” as Natasha puts it, can prevent.

While a Tolstoy purist might complain about the number of side plots cut in the service of Natasha’s story (Mary and Sonia, in particular, suffer from adaptation decay), Comet‘s supporting characters are compelling enough to demand our attention even when given relatively little to do. As Helene, Pierre’s wife (as the helpful, patronymic-skirting lyrics frequently remind us), Anatole’s sister, and self-proclaimed “slut,” Amber Gray melds cabaret-style showmanship and searing sensuality; her standout number, “Charming,” with which she pushes the already-vulnerable Natasha into her brother’s arms is a masterpiece of feline manipulation. Grace Mclean, as Natasha’s “old school” godmother Marya, exudes brassy exuberance; her throaty outrage at Natasha’s betrayal is the closest we get to Weill-style cabaret. Blake Delong, too often offstage as Andrei, reappears as the marvelously vile Prince Bolkonsky, squaring off powerfully against his defiantly dutiful daughter Mary (Shaina Taub, a powerhouse of quiet emotion).

Yet the night’s best performance belongs to by Brittain Ashford, as Natasha’s stalwart cousin Sonya. Plainly dressed, simply coiffed, and given all the most painfully exposition-laden lines, Sonya has little to do for most of the play but watch from the sidelines as her cousin waltzes her way towards dishonor and disgrace. But Ashworth – her voice an uncanny, even unearthly, blend of folk melancholy and raw passion – makes her into Comet’s unsung heroine: the dull wallflower whose stoic love for her cousin proves far more powerful, and far more lasting, than Anatole’s hastily-flung affections.

Against the sheer power of the play itself, some of Comet‘s trendier trappings – the occasional interactive moment, the dinner served with the show, the post-performance musical acts – feel somewhat superfluous. Comet’s brilliance lies not in its flair for spectacle, but in its honest, haunting look at the vagaries of passion, and the dazzling capacities of the human heart.

And finally, here is the New Yorker review, from June 13, 2013:

Rocking Out to “War and Peace”

Posted by Michael Schulman

 

Natasha (Phillipa Soo) & Pierre (Dave Malloy) theeasy.com
Natasha (Phillipa Soo) & Pierre (Dave Malloy) theeasy.com

The prize for this summer’s most brazen literary adaptation goes not to Baz Luhrmann, for his Auto-Tuned Great Gatsby, but to Dave Malloy, a 37-year-old musician living in Park Slope. Malloy is the composer and star of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, an immersive electro-pop musical based on a 70-page sliver of War and Peace. (Volume II, Part Five: “After the engagement of Prince Andrei and Natasha, Pierre, without any obvious reason, suddenly felt the impossibility of going on with his former life…”) After a sold-out run in midtown last year, the show has moved to a white tent in the Meatpacking District, tricked out inside like a louche Russian supper club. Patrons dine on vodka and caviar, while the cast, as youthful and carousing as the surrounding club-goers, belts out the story around them. Malloy, perched at an upright piano, plays Pierre.

“Tolstoy did a lot of the heavy lifting for me, because this section is so tightly plotted,” he said recently, before a Tuesday-night show. In the novel, Pierre is described as “fat, unusually tall, broad, with enormous red hands.” Malloy is handsomely stocky and normal-handed, with rumpled blond hair and a bushy, barista-like beard. He sat at a table near the stage, as house music blared overhead. An unsmiling woman in a black miniskirt, who introduced herself as Anna Medvedeva (“Is Russian President”), of Yekaterinburg (“where Nikolai II was killed”), served pickled vegetables and borscht. (The waitresses were selected on the basis of their Slavic-ness.)

Malloy first read War and Peace six or seven years ago, while working as a pianist on a Celebrity Cruise to Bermuda. “My girlfriend at the time was living in San Francisco,” he recalled. “We thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to read a book at the same time?” As they read, they traded e-mails, using subject lines like “I’m on page 371” to avoid spoilers. Stuck at sea, Malloy found solace in Pierre’s spiritual questing. “He tries sleeping around, he tries drinking, he tries freemasonry. He tries killing Napoleon,” Malloy said. “He goes through such a tumultuous time. And I was in my twenties, sailing the world, trying to find myself. So it was very apropos.”

Back on land, the girlfriend didn’t last, but Malloy’s Russophilia persisted. In 2010, contemplating a theatre piece on Rasputin, he traveled to Russia for two weeks. In Moscow, he went to “this amazing seven-floor Russian techno club,” which inspired a head-banging rave scene in Natasha, Pierre, and Cafe Margarita, near Patriarch Ponds, which became the model for Kazino, the show’s ersatz cabaret venue. But it was Malloy’s life in Brooklyn that resonated with the novel. The plaintiveness of Natasha’s cousin Sonya, for example, reminded him of his friend Brittain Ashford, who fronts a chamber-folk collective called Prairie Empire. (“We actually met at a Sufjan-Stevens-secret-Christmas-song listening session.”) He wrote the part for her.

Medvedeva brought pierogis and shrimp, which Malloy washed down with a shot of vodka. “This food feels very much like my childhood,” he said. Malloy is half Latvian; his grandmother escaped Soviet-occupied Latvia on the back of a hay truck, pregnant with his mother. Malloy grew up in Cleveland and studied composition at Ohio University, where he played in a band called Harrison Fjord. After dropping out of grad school, he moved to San Francisco and worked at a used-record store. Being the only employee who knew how many symphonies Mozart had written, he was assigned to the Jazz and Classical division, but his co-workers schooled him in everything else. “I had never heard Radiohead somehow,” he continued. “Someone gave me ‘OK Computer,’ and I was like, what—the—fuck.” In New York, he put his musical education to use, welding contemporary sounds to classic texts. In 2009, his klezmer-rock adaptation of Beowulf was staged on the Lower East Side, with Malloy playing Hrothgar.

At Kazino, patrons were filling up the winding red banquettes. Over chicken and couscous, Malloy contemplated the finale, when Pierre gazes at the comet of 1812. Tolstoy describes the comet as “having flown with inexpressible speed through immeasurable space on its parabolic course, suddenly, like an arrow piercing the earth.” “It’s actually quite an ambiguous symbol,” Malloy said. “The comet is very much the foreshadowing of that guy”—he pointed to a portrait of Napoleon above the piano—“because he’s about to come and burn down Moscow. But, for Pierre, it’s this moment of realizing that he’s capable of change, he’s capable of not being this sad, desperate old man he’s becoming. That he can still love someone else and restart his life.” Then Malloy went backstage and emerged, an hour later, as Pierre Bezukhov.

From Verdi’s Violetta to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Part Three): Two Fallen Sisters under the Skin – A Vodka Tonic, with a Slice of Shepherd’s Pie

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Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina (moviehole.net)
Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina (moviehole.net)

Family Affairs

Becoming more than tolerant of clandestine affairs, but to a strictly limited degree (much like Hollywood itself at its peak), the Russian ruling class tended to overlook these romantic transgressions which, in spite of their nature (and the nature of their transgressors), were to be conducted at all times with the utmost decorum.

The various participants would go about their amorous activities delicately and discretely – a duplicitous situation, one might add, even hypocritical. Yet ironically, this arrangement granted both parties a certain freedom of movement. More significantly, it gave them the ability to save face while continuing to mingle in and out of polite society, as long as they played by that society’s “rules.”

There have been several film and television adaptations of Tolstoy’s classic story, with most of them playing by the cinema’s own well-established “rules.” Scenes of snowy winters, lavish ballrooms, gorgeous gowns, bustling railway stations, lush music scores (in the Doctor Zhivago mold, one presumes) and the like were the expected norm for such features.

Despite the potential for soap-opera antics, the story’s had widespread appeal for viewers. People want to know what happens to poor Anna, her youthful lover and their illicit relationship, not to mention what becomes of her husband and family.

Welcome to 2012, folks, and the latest, most elaborate, and least rule-bound movie version to date, which may or may not be a good thing for Tolstoy (or for us). The first line of his novel reads simply: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which says a lot about the state of familial unions in those times. The same applies to those so-called “happy” families, but the principal “unhappy” figure in the Karenin household – and in most screen adaptations – is the titular Anna.

A rich society woman, probably in her early-to-mid 30s, Anna is married to the humdrum and plainly dispassionate government official Alexei Karenin. Karenin is generally taken by an older, established screen veteran – someone along the lines of South African-born Basil Rathbone in 1935, for example; wise, old Ralph Richardson in the Vivien Leigh version from 1948 (a dry run for his role as Olivia de Havilland’s father in The Heiress a year later); or the snooty James Fox in Sophie Marceau’s incredibly bland take from 1997.

Jude Law as Karenin (wordandfilm.com)
Jude Law as Karenin (wordandfilm.com)

Jude Law, at the youngish age of 40, is the “older, established screen veteran” in this, the most recent film variation of Anna Karenina’s themes by director Joe Wright, with a script by veteran screenwriter Tom Stoppard. For his part, Law brings a righteous indignation to the role. A paragon of virtue, the complacent Karenin exemplifies stodgy respectability in all its dull formality. Individuals in his class were expected to follow certain guidelines – and woe to the person who so much as attempted to deviate from them.

While visiting Moscow to help smooth over a serious situation that’s developed between her brother Stiva Oblonsky (another government official, congenially played by the boisterous Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Karenin’s wife Anna (Keira Knightley) meets and falls in love with a dashing cavalry officer, the womanizing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

At the same time, the forlorn Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a childhood buddy of Oblonsky’s and a genuine back-to-the-land type (Cineaste magazine, in its review of the film, refers to him as a “proto-hippie,” which is right on the mark), has idealistic notions of marrying the much younger Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who’s attracted by the dubious attentions of the fair-haired Vronsky. We even get to meet Levin’s dissipated older brother, Nicolai, and his prostitute spouse, Masha. That’s a hefty mouthful of vodka-flavored transgressors to absorb at one sitting.

Be that as it may, Anna’s tempestuous and ongoing association with the no-account Vronsky represents the “passionate, physical side of love,” at least according to Ms. Knightley, whose third collaboration (after Pride and Prejudice and Atonement) with director Wright this happens to be.

Wright notes that Anna Karenina is “an epic story, a story of love in its many forms.” His statement is confirmed by Stoppard (Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Shakespeare in Love), in his observation that “love is always a topic… There’s Levin’s love for Kitty, the love between siblings, love between Kitty and Dolly, love of Russia.” Mr. Stoppard has reduced the novel, in which Anna and Vronsky are but one of several couples in crisis mode, to “the essence of what Tolstoy was really on about, and that is the exploration of different aspects of love.”

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky (wehearit.com)
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky (wehearit.com)

In both the novel and the movie, Anna and her lover Vronsky (an unimpressive, and ergo out-of-his-depth Taylor-Johnson, in a role normally played by such gallants as John Gilbert, Fredric March, Kieron Moore, and Sean Bean) carry on their torrid affair under everyone’s watchful but knowing eye. Yet, as Ms. Knightley tellingly discerns for us, “When love gets purely carnal” (as it most evidently does here), “you can get punished.” Oh, how right she is!

We are alerted to that possibility early on, as Karenin (balding, bearded and bespectacled Mr. Law) expresses his doubts to Anna about her mission to Moscow, which concerns getting sister-in-law Dolly to forgive her reprobate brother’s indiscretion with a lovely young governess.

Karenin reluctantly agrees to let Anna go, but not without wagging his accusatory finger at the issue: “I’m to be deprived of my wife so that adultery may be forgiven? I can’t excuse him just because he’s your brother.”

“Do you think nine years of marriage and children should count for nothing against a… an infatuation?” counters Anna.

“No,” Karenin replies. “Very well. But sin has a price, you may be sure of that,” he offers in response (and how right he is, too!). Anna gives him the barest hint of a smile, in her mind dismissing his remark as more of her husband’s stuffy pontificating.

She succeeds in getting Dolly to take Stiva back into her good graces, never realizing that her own situation later on cannot possibly be forgiven, or that she could never be taken back in the same way her brother had been, by a spouse who puts morality and propriety (along with his political career) above marital bliss. “The married fallen woman receives even less sympathy, for no one will grant forgiveness to the wife and mother who betrays her family,” as was noted in Part Two.

As the story develops, Anna and Vronsky are given the “freedom” to co-habitate together. However, Anna is subtly and deliberately ostracized by society. She cannot be received by anyone who is anyone, either in Italy, in St. Petersburg (where Karenin and her son Seryozha reside), or in Moscow proper. Vronsky, on the other hand, is free to come and go as he pleases, which spells doom for their volatile relationship, as Anna’s state of mind starts to unravel.

Amid the emotional turmoil, she begins to have doubts about Vronsky’s fidelity. She eventually gives in to suspicion and despair, imagining all sorts of secret trysts he may or may not be having with the latest society conquest to arrive in town. Despondent, alone, and unable to stay with Vronsky, or to return to her husband – or even be with her son – Anna puts an end to her miserable life by throwing herself under the carriage of a passing train.

“Forgive me,” she cries as the train tramples her body. Did we say “soap-opera antics”?

The Lavish Look of Love

Matthew Macfadyen (artsjournal.com)
Matthew Macfadyen (artsjournal.com)

This latest film adaptation of Anna Karenina, quite unlike any other, is a highly stylized affair. From its opening scene in a makeshift theater, where an unseen orchestra tunes up and the solitary figure of Oblonsky receives an impossibly close shave and vigorous facial massage, one gets the feeling this tale would “play” better as a stage vehicle rather than as an all-out motion picture production.

Most of the plot takes place inside this theater, built specifically by the set designers and supervised by production designer Sarah Greenwood, for that purpose. “Framing it in this derelict theater was a fantastic concept,” claimed Greenwood for the U.K. paper The Guardian, “given the theatricality of high society in St. Petersburg and Moscow at the time.”

Keira Knightley, who has the dark looks, pent-up passion, physique du rôle, and forthright manner of the tragic heroine, possesses the unique ability to wear her elegant costumes as if to the manner born.

“Since she was young, Keira has always understood the importance of costume as part of character,” said Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran. “This is rare in an actress, believe me. She’s even got the gumption to turn the costume department’s ideas down and come up with sketches of her own.

“We’ve loved researching this together,” Durran continued. “As the Russian aristocrats were obsessed with French culture in the nineteenth century, we just came up with the idea of tweaking it a bit and using the heyday of couture from the 1950s to emphasize Anna’s modern streak. Some people will notice, others won’t. But it really helped Keira understand Anna.”

With perfect alabaster skin and well-developed back muscles (evident in the masterfully directed and choreographed waltz sequence, discussed below), Ms. Knightley stood poised to become a truly great Anna. If only the above combination of costumes, staging, dancing and acting led to a more memorable performance; and if only the finished film product didn’t let its lead actress down.

Keira flirts, Keira pouts; Keira furrows her brow and wrinkles her nose at the slightest provocation, all to no avail. Ultimately overwhelmed by the overly stylized, theatrically-based conception of late nineteenth-century Russian social mores, Knightley’s Anna gets lost in director Wright’s vision of Stoppard’s compact screenplay.

Keira Knightley & Joe Wright (salon.com)
Keira Knightley & Joe Wright (salon.com)

“She’s developed incredibly as an actress and human being and she’s really strong now,” marvels Wright. “It would have been so easy [for her] to bugger off to Hollywood where they’re all nice to her. But she dug her heels in and worked really, really hard.”

And it shows, but was the extra effort Knightley put in really, really worth the trouble? That’s for audiences to decide, but this audience member remains unconvinced. Not that Keira herself lacked passion or commitment; it’s that this kind of venture lacked spontaneity, what with the actors being rehearsed to death over a three-week period prior to actual shooting.

That’s the impression I got, and it’s a difficult one to shake. We immediately cease caring about Keira’s plight since the character she portrays shows so little concern for her own son’s welfare – which is the exact opposite of Greta Garbo’s tormented depiction back in 1935 (her scenes with young Freddie Bartholomew as Seryozha are tender and heartbreaking, and beautifully rendered by both actors). Wright’s picture loses steam (no pun intended) long before that railroad train runs Anna over.

As Vronksy, Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems much too young and inexperienced for the role of Anna’s worldly playboy lover and object of her passion. The sense one gets is of a boy being sent out to do a man’s job. My criticism is not leveled at Aaron’s relative youth, only his inability at this point in his career to suggest the ulterior motives of a young roué behind the handsome façade.

Matthew Macfadyen, who played Mr. Darcy to Keira’s Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, is a jolly Stiva indeed, the life of any party, an oversized Russian-bear of a fellow, which complements the character’s actions so completely. Oblonsky lives by the credo “paperwork is the soul of Russia,” which is the best line in the movie. But he’s not a major player nor is he the one to carry the burden of this production’s faults.

Only Jude Law – sensitive, aristocratic, yet at the same time aloof to the emotional needs of his wife – survives the mannered treatment in a skillfully judged portrait of Anna’s sinned-upon husband. He’s in love with the idea of marriage, and the political benefits of a “good” marriage to the “right” woman.

Domnhall Gleeson’s Levin, who we are told in one of the many superficially short and frustratingly uninformative “making-of” features, is the heart and soul of the novel. He’s played here as a distant, philosophically minded dreamer. While the character is supposed to be a stand-in for the aristocratic Tolstoy himself, who in real life freed his serfs and gave up his riches so that he could live off the land, in actuality his Levin is a socially awkward clod.

Alicia Vikander’s Kitty is bubbly and charming and has more smarts than she’s given credit for. Her feelings for Levin are genuine and true, as are Dolly’s pain and hurt for Oblonsky’s ill treatment of her. Kelly Macdonald brings sensitivity and understanding to Dolly, but both characters have been given so little screen time that their presence along the periphery of the film’s multiple story lines begs the question as to whether this is more of a Reader’s Digest distillation of the novel or an imaginative retelling of it.

Dance and the World Dances with You

The film’s choreography, which is the stellar work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – a Belgian choreographer of Moroccan descent who was inexplicably snubbed by not appearing, or even being mentioned, on the deluxe Blu-ray Disc edition – reminds me of the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, presumably The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. Both were highly stylized visions in and of themselves, but stemming from purely cinematic aspects and stressing the fantasy elements over the more realistic ones.

In Anna Karenina, we have the opposite occurring. The co-called “dance concept” favored by director Wright short-changes the film, as if the filmmaker had trouble making up his mind as to whether he wanted a play with music or “a ballet with words,” as Wright told the New York Times.

From the spectator’s vantage point, this concept can be frustrating in the extreme. In fact, it defeats the purpose of the film-going experience. Why not make it a filmed play and dispense with all those “theatrical” trappings, thus avoiding pretentiousness altogether? This was the feeling I had when watching Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010). It was a marvelous production and a superb acting tour de force for both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. But how much better they would be if they could do it on the stage, for which the script was originally intended!

In this version of Anna Karenina, the suspension of disbelief so necessary to making these ideas pass muster on the screen almost always works best in the theater, and under precisely calibrated theater conditions – not on sound stages built up to look like a theater. Ultimately, some sequences end up looking rather silly and (there goes that dreaded word again) slightly pretentious.

Here, a waltz is not a waltz, although it may look like a waltz. The costumes may dress the drama in a way the other elements – sets, props, physical layout, mise-en-scène – do not. Still, there’s almost too much story in Anna Karenina but not enough exposition to warrant it. The barest kernel of Tolstoy’s ethos is present, but not nearly enough of it, not when we compare the earlier and better screen embodiments, 1927’s Love and the 1935 MGM version, both with Greta Garbo, to this one.

Some scenes work remarkably well in Wright’s version, while others fall flat. Sets are pushed in and pushed out, much as they would be in a live production. But gimmicky scene changes that in the theater would be more than acceptable, on film break the fourth wall and are unnecessary as well as distracting. It’s like being backstage at the Metropolitan Opera while the opera is being performed out in front. Except here, the opera is all around us; entrances and exits, comings and goings, what a nuisance! And it’s all for the express purpose of telling the story. Just don’t run into the performers, please (Ingmar Bergman executed this same stunt, but oh-so-much better, in his cinematic take on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in 1974).

Vronsky & Kitty (Alicia Vikander) tapuz.co.il
Vronsky & Kitty (Alicia Vikander) tapuz.co.il

Getting back to the dance portions of the program, the waltz (as interpreted in this instance) is a physical manifestation of the characters’ evolving emotions. Heavy breathing and gasping for breath are prominent on the soundtrack. Anna, in a stunning black outfit, decides to dance with Vronsky, who is in a white cavalry officer’s uniform. The other couples, frozen in time and space, are cutouts, mere puppets to be manipulated at the filmmaker’s whim (Wright acknowledges the handiwork and influence of his parents, who owned and operated a puppet theater in his youth).

Individualized and highly ornate hand gestures play an important role, with more breathing, dizzying camerawork, and rapid cutting adding to the emotional content. Vronsky and Anna’s newfound passion are juxtaposed against Kitty’s disappointment and resentment of Anna’s intervention in her waltz with the Count. Soon, the focus is entirely on Anna and her lover, as the other couples leave the dance floor. The sequence ends with a foreshadowing of Anna’s suicide under the train tracks, both at the beginning of the film (with the accidental death of a railway worker) and at this point, with the ominous appearance of the steam engine directly behind her (done with mirrors, I’m told).

One of the things I tried to do while viewing this feature was to have a sense of which scenes helped the story along and which scenes hindered the telling of it. In theory, Wright’s decision to go the theatrical route was well founded and well played out — after all, there had been numerous productions of the work, all of them done the old-fashioned way. In practice, however, the result was far from convincing.

Ah, but that waltz sequence – it’s an absolutely stunning piece of choreography and a bravura piece of film-making where Wright’s ideas finally clicked into place. I kept thinking of a similar scene, one in William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938), where Bette Davis and Henry Fonda are on the dance floor at a “coming out” party for Davis and the other antebellum beauties. Davis flaunts convention, too, by wearing a scandalous red dress instead of the traditional white ballgown. No sooner do they begin to dance when Davis has second thoughts about her actions and asks to sit this one out.

Bette Davis & Henry Fonda (examiner.com)
Bette Davis & Henry Fonda (examiner.com)

Fonda refuses to comply. He forces her to dance against her will and, in one of the cinema’s classic screen confrontations, disgraces himself and thoroughly humiliates Davis, who is ashamed of her bold behavior. One couple after another drops out of the ball, refusing to be seen on the same floor with them. Soon, Fonda and Davis are left to fend for themselves — it’s pure torture all around. When the music comes to an abrupt halt, Fonda twice insists with the conductor to “Go on and play.” The scene is helped immeasurably by Max Steiner’s expertly timed score and dramatic sensibilities.

Speaking of which, the music for Anna Karenina is in the hands of Italian-born Dario Marianelli, a composer whose work I’ve been hearing a lot of lately. Not only has he done scores for both Wright and Knightley’s previous efforts, but he’s also provided the music for Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm along with Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre – a film I very much enjoyed and admired.

The score is effective and workmanlike, employing a variety of Russian folk themes, in particular one by Tchaikovsky for his Fourth Symphony (which formed the basis for the bogus opera, “The Masked Prince of the Caucasus,” in one of the sequences from Universal’s Phantom of the Opera from 1943). Otherwise, it’s too pretty by half and adds little to the film’s dramatic impact, despite being lovely to listen to.

To be able to tell a story clearly and methodically, whether linearly or not, is the least a film can do to help audiences grasp its inner meaning. Much like Imperial Russian society, rare indeed are the films that can flaunt conventions and give us true insight into their story line via non-conventional means. We must keep in mind, too, that the standards of modern cinema are today in constant flux, and will be for years to come.

I praise Wright’s attempt at something different and the courage it took for him to execute it. With the exception of that lone waltz sequence, however, the effort put into Anna Karenina pays off only intermittently and in kopeks, not in dollars — which is punishment enough for his transgressions.

In the end, like Anna herself, a fallen woman who literally falls onto the train tracks to end her short but trouble-filled life, we commit this latest movie version to a short shelf life of its own. To that I can only add: Do cvidanya!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars’ – The Original Series (Part Three): A Film Saga by Any Other Name…

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Obi-Wan Benobi (Alec Guinness) businessinsider.com
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) businessinsider.com

What’s in a Name?

The characters of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda represent the positive mystical aspects of the Star Wars films. More precisely, they are two exalted high priests (one hooded, one hairy and a little green around the gills) of the old Jedi order. The negative aspects of this decidedly unglamorous duo (the Yang to their Yin) fall to the evil Emperor (the former Senator Palpatine) and his intimidating protegé, Lord Vader.

With the years, our perception of the three original films in the trilogy has indeed changed. To be clear, it’s been colored significantly by the fluctuating political scene, as discussed in our previous posts. We, the good ole U.S. of A., are now the Empire (or, if you so choose, the equivalent of a modern-day Roman Empire), a concept that producer, director, and writer George Lucas was in favor of challenging in the late seventies to early eighties.

We have become our own worst enemy, in the sense of the classic cartoon-strip character, Pogo Possum, who used to say as a running refrain: “We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.”

To recap, the first film in the series was shot on location in the desert of Tunisia in North Africa — Tatouine, to be exact (which also happens to be the name of the planet where Luke Skywalker lives), and along the Arizona desert near Yuma. Desert sagas from Lawrence of Arabia to Khartoum influenced the look and clothing worn by the characters. The saber wielding Jedi Knights of yore were modeled on samurai warriors and Akira Kurosawa movies, purportedly the Japanese master’s The Hidden Fortress.

Both the timeliness and timelessness of the films are what strike the viewer as unique, and that also makes them essential classics of the science fiction-war picture genre. They can mean many things to many people, at different times and in different places.

Luke confers with Yoda
Luke Skywalker confers with Master Yoda

For example, let’s take our young hero Luke (Lucas) Skywalker, the naïve, innocent, geeky, short of stature, but big of heart teenaged adventure seeker. Full of boyish enthusiasm and an overabundance of bravado, Luke is itching to break out of the boring, hum-drum life on his Uncle Owen’s “farm.”

Mark Hamill, the actor who played Luke, fit the profile of the gung-ho future fighter pilot to perfection. It’s been noted that his character’s name is derived from the ancient Greek word leukos, which means “light.” Somehow, I can’t quite picture Luke or any Jedi Knight’s apprentice wielding a leukos-saber against his or her foe, can you?

To get back to a more “biblical” connotation, there’s always the Evangelist Saint Luke of the Gospels, who, according to accepted knowledge, was a physician before he converted to Christianity. He was also a follower of Saint Paul, another well-known Evangelist and a prolific letter writer, at that.

So where does all this leave our friend, Young Skywalker (whose original name happened to be Starkiller)? Among the immortals, one hopes …

Here are a few more examples:

Han Solo (“solo” = by himself, alone, acting on his own), played by Harrison Ford and always acting unilaterally in his own self-interest, is a “scoundrel,” according to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). His name may have been derived from Han, a variation of the German form of John, as in Johan or Johann. Maybe even Johannes, as in Johannes Brahms (“Check out Brahms … He’s good too,” hinted Gary Oldman in Luc Besson’s Leon, the Professional).

Han Solo & Chewbacca (glamorama.cl)
Han Solo (Harrison Ford) & Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) (glamorama.cl)

Solo’s close friend, colleague, and partner in intergalactic crime, is a creature called Chewbacca, or Chewie for short. He (it?) belongs to a race of towering fuzzballs known as Wookiees, whose name may have come from a possible ad lib found in Lucas’ earlier sci-fi actioner THX 1138 (“I think I ran over a Wookiee back there”).

Now, the “Chewie” part probably refers to his carnivorous diet and razor sharp teeth. Incidentally, Wookiees are the best star pilots in the galaxy (but don’t tell them that, or they’ll get a swelled head). GGGRRRRRRHHHHHH!

Princess Leia Organa (aka Fata Morgana, or Morgan Le Fay of fabled times), spunky, feisty, self-sufficient, and, of course, lovely to look at. She sports dual side braids that make her look as if she’s wearing cinnamon rolls over her ears (thank the New York Times for that description). She may even evoke fondly remembered memories of Lady Galadriel from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (another excellent film series, I would add), although Leia happens to be about a foot shorter.

Princess Leia
Princess Leia

The Organa portion of her surname could be a hint of her “organic nature,” or that “back to the land aesthetic” so favored in the 1970s. I like to think it came from her adopted dad, the late Senator Organa (he and his planet were blown to smithereens, you will recall, in the first Star Wars feature). He’s played by the tall and handsome Jimmy Smits. But of course, we won’t know that until we arrive at Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. “Patience, young padawan, patience …”

Darth Vader (Dark Father, or even Der Fuehrer), voiced in sepulchral tones by James Earl Jones and portrayed under the mask and cloak by British bodybuilder and physical fitness trainer Dave Prowse, was originally named Anakin Skywalker. Now, Anakin is a variation on the name of a race of giants found in the book of Genesis (there’s that biblical reference again). Someone had the nerve to suggest that Lord Vader’s face mask, or breathing apparatus, was “inspired” by the front grille of a ’56 Chevy. “I hope so, for your sake!”

Ben Kenobi (Uncle Ben) or Obi-Wan Kenobi (the one and only), played by the redoubtable Sir Alec Guinness, has the most impressive sounding lineage of the lot. We know that “obi” is the Japanese word for sash, which is used to tie one’s kimono. Along those same lines, the “wan” part may imply the honorific term “san” attached to most Japanese names (as in “Joe-san,” for example). Hah, and “OB” could also be a shortened form of Old Ben, which Luke likes to call the wizened geyser at various points in the story.

Finally, there’s our metallic buddies, the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy of droid-dom, R2-D2 (or is it Artoo Deetoo?) and C-3PO (Threepio, if you don’t mind). R2 sounds more like a “whistling Hoover vacuum cleaner,” as one wag described him. Supposedly (now I haven’t been able to verify this, so don’t quote me) the little droid got his name from some sound editor’s shorthand for “Reel Two, Dialogue Two,” from Lucas’ American Graffiti. That may well be, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch … Skywalker Ranch, that is.

As for Threepio, well … he’s more of a butler than a robot, and a prissy little snit at that. For a protocol droid, he certainly has a lot of ennui. He’s good at math, of that we are more than certain. But he’s been known to be wrong … from time to time … Oh, dear, dear, dear …

And there we have it. These play-on-words and fancy put-ons on top of put-ons are both fascinating and delightful, but do not necessarily add to or detract from our enjoyment of the trilogy as a whole. The best one can say about them is that they’re plain old fun!

(End of Part Three)

Source and Suggested Reading:

• “The Names Came from Earth” – Eric P. Nash, The New York Times, January 26, 1997

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

From Verdi’s Violetta to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Part Two): Two Fallen Sisters under the Skin – Imitation of Life, Such as It Is

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Livin’ la Vida Loca

Greta Garbo in Camille (1936)
Greta Garbo in Camille (1936)

As stated in Part One of this post, La Traviata had as its main source the novel and play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. Memorably set to music by Verdi, with words and text by his librettist Francesco Maria Piave – and incorporating several name changes to its lead protagonists (to protect the innocent, one presumes) – Traviata was an ignominious failure at its 1853 premiere.

The work may have hit too close to home for some moralists, but its truths about passion and loss, along with sin and sacrifice, have stood the test of time and held firm to this day. It went on to attain a permanent foothold in the standard repertoire, with most productions stressing society’s duplicitous treatment of the courtesan Violetta Valery – that is, the inability to admit to certain types of “behavior” from a lady that could be readily endured in a gentleman.

Thus the description “fallen woman” came into being. This somewhat hackneyed term derived from nineteenth-century attitudes toward those women “who had given in to seduction, living a life in sin,” and heretofore “received the name ‘fallen women’ during the Victorian period. Though both a recognizable and sizable segment of the female population, it took some time before the fallen woman could be acceptable as an allowable subject in art.”[1]

Married female members of society who engaged in such activities were treated no better, if not a good deal worse: “The married fallen woman receives even less sympathy, for no one will grant forgiveness to the wife and mother who betrays her family.”[2]

In the literature of the time, we have untold examples of the breed, beginning with the Old Testament account of Eve, who gave in to temptation in the Garden of Eden, followed by those of Victorian-era writers Charles Dickens (Little Em’ly from David Copperfield, Nancy from Oliver Twist) and Thomas Hardy (Tess from Tess of the d’Urbervilles); the American-born Nathaniel Hawthorne (Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter); or the French authors Victor Hugo (Fantine in Les Misérables) and Gustave Flaubert (Emma in Madame Bovary), along with La Belle Époque’s Émile Zola (Nana) and Guy de Maupassant (Bel Ami) and the Italian nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play Francesca da Rimini.

Garbo Walks and Talks – And Gets the Last Laugh!

Garbo with John Gilbert
Garbo with John Gilbert

When the silent and early sound-era cinema eventually grabbed hold of Tinsel Town, the art and literature devoted to depicting these fallen women were finally put into practice in many screen adaptations of the above named works, in addition to various others.

Among the most prevalent were the films starring Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo, whose Anna Christie (1930), Grand Hotel (1932), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Ninotchka (1939) not only proved particularly appealing at the box office, but have subsequently gone on to become prime-time fixtures on the Turner Classic Movies network.

Much of their success came from the glamorous personality of the shy and reclusive Garbo herself. A woman of undeniable charm and inscrutable mystique, Garbo “communicated her characters’ innermost feelings through her movement, gestures, and most importantly, her eyes. With the slightest movement of them,” film historian Jeffrey Vance once noted, “she subtly conveyed complex attitudes and feelings toward other characters and the truth of the situation.”

Clarence Brown, who directed the star in Anna Karenina and six other pictures besides, told the Chicago Tribune that “Garbo [had] something behind the eyes that you couldn’t see until you photographed it in close-up. You could see thought. If she had to look at one person with jealousy, and another with love, she didn’t have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other. And nobody else has been able to do that on screen.”

Garbo’s well-publicized affair with real-life paramour John Gilbert may have had a lot to do with her allure. Still, there’s no denying their on-screen chemistry, in such crowd-pleasing opuses as Flesh and the Devil (1926), where the couple’s steamy love scenes spilled over into moviegoers’ laps; Love (1927), a silent version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in which the title heroine and her lover, Count Vronsky, are happily (!) reunited in the end; A Woman of Affairs (1928); and Queen Christina (1933). All had contributed mightily to her fame and popularity. She and Gilbert provided additional fan-fodder for gossip columnists and their ilk until their relationship ultimately soured; it was irreversibly broken off around the fateful year of 1929.

Garbo & Fredric March in Anna Karenina
Garbo & Fredric March in Anna Karenina

While Garbo famously survived the transition to sound, Gilbert wallowed in alcoholism and self-pity, which reflected the parlous state of his own floundering film career (the MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain, from 1952, covers much of this territory, but in more humorous fashion). His declining health was such that actor Fredric March, at age 38, was recruited to play the much younger Count Vronsky alongside Garbo in the 1935 sound remake of Anna Karenina. Curiously, Gilbert died a year later of a heart attack and related alcohol-induced ailments. He was 41 at the time, a victim of his own excesses.

That Garbo, who never married or had children, but who was rumored to have had sexual dealings not only with men but with women as well, played both Marguerite in Camille (based on Dumas’ play and Verdi’s opera) and Anna in Anna Karenina has proven most enlightening, and indeed instructive, for film fans and anyone else attempting to assume these dramatically challenging parts.

We noted with equal fascination and delight how adroit French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay was in portraying the tubercular Violetta’s fall from grace and subsequent redemption in the Met Opera’s 2012 revival of Willy Decker’s deconstructed version of Traviata.

In that production, Violetta was the so-called fallen woman, whose only crime (or sin, if you prefer) was falling in love with an innocent society type, only to have that love taken away from her by the youth’s father. Her sacrifice, and the raison d’être for the entire piece, was to give up her love forever so that the youth’s sister could safely marry without benefit of scandal or other encumbrances – as if the misconduct of one’s siblings, be they the Kardashians or what have you, could spoil the pending nuptials of any individual bride or groom. But that’s strictly by today’s standards, not yesterday’s.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
________________________________________


[1] “Fallen Women in Victorian Art,” Elizabeth Lee, 1997, Brown University, The Victorian Web

[2] Ibid, above

The Real Carmen Miranda Under the Crown of Fruit

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Carmen Miranda - South American Way
Carmen Miranda – South American Way

By Larry Rohter

THE NEW YORK TIMES: ARTS ABROAD

Published: December 13, 2001

(Editor’s note: Here is another timely article. Although published more than a decade ago, Larry Rohter, who was The New York Times’ South American bureau chief from 1999 to 2007, wrote about the entertainer Carmen Miranda, Brazil’s most famous cultural export, and the musical show, South American Way, which premiered in Rio in 2001. At the time, Carmen was ripe for reevaluation, with most Brazilians expressing curiosity about her image and style. With the 2005 release of journalist Ruy Castro’s masterful book, Carmen – Uma biografia, the real story behind the tutti-frutti façade could now be told about Miranda’s North American exploits. Perhaps in the near future, the Brazilian Bombshell may once again establish a presence on the stage of the Great White Way.)  

RIO DE JANEIRO — She may be the most famous person their country has ever produced, but Brazilians have always had mixed feelings about Carmen Miranda. Yes, she made Brazil better known all around the world, but did so by playing scatterbrains and reinforcing every condescending stereotype the Anglo-Saxon world has ever had about Latin Americans.

Her detractors here have always complained that she wasn’t even a “true” Brazilian, having been born in Portugal, and that a white woman living in a Hollywood mansion had no right to sing a style of music born in black slums.

That deep-seated ambivalence is the focus of South American Way: The Carmen Miranda Musical, a hit play here that deliberately reopens those old wounds. While acknowledging all the criticisms Brazilians have traditionally leveled at Miranda, the play takes an ultimately sympathetic view of the life and career of modern Brazil’s first entertainment export.

“We wanted a piece that would entertain, but at the same time be provocative and authentic,” said Maria Carmen Barbosa, who wrote the play with Miguel Falabella. “We wanted to talk about image and self-image and call attention to the confusion of culture and language that Carmen personified, so that she wouldn’t be seen just as that crazy woman who has inspired a million transvestites.”

South American Way is the most visible manifestation of what can only be called a reassessment of Miranda under way in Brazil. She was a subject of Brazil’s pavilion at the recent Venice Biennial, the singer Ney Matogrosso recently released an album of songs associated with her and her relevance has been the subject of a comic revue.

“Carmen hasn’t been forgotten, but she’s been kind of ignored or neglected in recent years,” said Mr. Falabella, who is also the play’s director. “But now there’s a whole new generation of people who are curious about her, who have an open mind and want to know who she really was and what she represented.”

Miguel Falabella
Miguel Falabella

South American Way elaborates on the revisionist image first presented in the Brazilian director Helena Solberg’s Bananas Is My Business, a “fictional documentary” released in the United States in 1995. That film offered a politicized vision of Miranda as a martyr sacrificed on the altar of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, which sought to inspire amity in Latin America to help the Allies win World War II.

As many Brazilians see it, Miranda was a willing accomplice, denying her Brazilian identity in favor of some nebulous Pan-American composite. In more than a dozen movies that she made in Hollywood, she played characters with names like Rosita, Paquita, Dorita and Chiquita, often speaking a mangled English that wounded Brazil’s image of itself as a rising power different from the rest of Latin America.

“Lots of people here still think she was nothing but a caricature,” Mr. Falabella said. ”She obviously colluded in that, but who wouldn’t have? Who would have said no to Hollywood at that time?”

Starting with its title, South American Way [an ersatz rumba written by Al Dubin and Jimmy McHugh] gently mocks the inability of North Americans to tell Brazil from Argentina from Mexico from Cuba — a sensitive topic here even today.

“For all the talk about a globalized world, this continues to be a real problem for us,” Mr. Falabella said in an interview. “I’ll go online to a chat room and be talking with someone from Iowa who asks me where I’m from, and when I say Rio de Janeiro the answer that comes back is, ‘Where is that?’ ”

The play also addresses the contentious issue of Miranda’s place within Brazilian culture and the authenticity of her music. Though she came to be known abroad as the Brazilian Bombshell, Miranda never became a Brazilian citizen, for reasons that are still the subject of debate and some resentment here.

“Even though Carmen was Portuguese, she assimilated all of Brazil and had a Brazilianess that few Brazilians have,” Ms. Barbosa said. “She was irreverent, had street smarts, wit, daring and an impressive innate musicality.”

Over the years, Miranda has also been criticized on racial grounds, first by those who thought it déclassé for her to embrace the samba, black Brazil’s main form of expression, and more recently by black militants who accuse her of expropriating their culture. The famously elaborate headdresses she wore, for example, can be seen either as homage to or a camp parody of those worn by black women in Bahia, Brazil’s most Africanized state.

Carmen Miranda imitator Ney Matogrosso
Carmen Miranda imitator Ney Matogrosso

Her admirers today prefer to see Miranda as the Brazilian equivalent of Elvis Presley, “a white man who sings black music and takes it to a larger audience,” Ms. Solberg said, adding: “Yes, she was a European with green eyes who sang black music, but that is one of the reasons the upper classes attacked her. We had a very colonialized mentality at that time, and samba was seen as being a thing from the slums, for and by blacks and not proper.”

Miranda’s friendships with black and mulatto songwriters, which is portrayed in “South American Way,” was so unusual that when she arrived in Hollywood, “the darker members of the Bando da Lua were gradually eliminated,” Ms. Solberg noted. She said studio executives preferred that Miranda appear with “a group that had what they considered to be a typical Latin appearance, sort of Mexican-looking.”

This being Brazil, the land of carnival, serious subject matter is wrapped in seductive music, including most of the songs associated with Miranda, as well as lavish spectacle – “delirious kitsch,” to use Mr. Falabella’s phrase.

South American Way features a cast of nineteen, innumerable costume changes and stars Soraya Ravenle as the buoyant, striving young Carmen, and Stella Miranda, no relation, as the depressed and isolated older Carmen.

Stella Miranda (no relation) as Carmen
Stella Miranda (no relation) as Carmen

The debate over cultural confusion that is central to the play extends even to its structure. Depending on which critic you read here, it is either odd or only fitting that Miranda’s story be told in musical theater, typically a North American genre.

“But the content is totally Brazilian,” Ms. Barbosa said.

Indeed, South American Way includes some cultural references that may need to be explained to outsiders. The theater where the play is being performed, for instance, has been redecorated to evoke the Urca Casino, a Rio nightclub where in 1940 she was met with stony silence when she took the stage in what she had hoped would be a triumphant performance for a hometown crowd after returning from Hollywood.

The incident was so painful that she fled back to the United States and did not return to Brazil for fifteen years, until shortly before her death at age 46. Her funeral was “the best attended in the history of Rio,” noted Cássio Barsante, her biographer, but she soon became almost irrelevant.

To the generation that came of age in the 1960’s and now dominates Brazilian culture, “Carmen was more an absence than a reference in conversations about popular music in post-Bossa Nova Brazil,” the composer Caetano Veloso wrote in his autobiography. Her Hollywood success, he added, “made her into a figure of caricature that we grew up feeling somewhat ashamed of” because she projected the image of “a sexually exposed, exaggeratedly colorful and fruity Brazil.”

But that is precisely one of the images that the new play embraces.

“Brazil will only be able to truly be Brazil and achieve greatness when it accepts its tropical exuberance,” Mr. Falabella said. “It’s time we stopped having an inferiority complex about that and regained our self-esteem.”

Copyright © 2001 by The New York Times

The Fab Four of Opera: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner & Puccini (Part Three)

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Viva Verdi!

Verdi (center) at his villa in Sant'Agata
Verdi (center) at his villa in Sant’Agata

For an artist who lived as long and fruitful a life as Giuseppe Verdi had, who traveled to as many towns, cities, and foreign venues as only he could have done, given the difficulties of travel at that time, the Italian master preferred the simple life of a country squire.

Despite having visited such hotspots as Paris, St. Petersburg, and most points in between; despite having been received by the crowned heads of Europe, along with the cream of upper crust society, Verdi felt most at home in Sant’Agata, a sleepy little village not far from Le Roncole, the place of his birth.

Acclaimed throughout the land as one of the most successful and beloved opera composers who ever lived, Verdi considered himself, first and foremost, as a man of the earth. A farmer, gardener, and productive landowner and landlord, he dabbled in all sorts of unrelated undertakings, including the field of politics.

The most rabid of Italian partisans (and “as proud as Lucifer,” or so it was said), Verdi turned down countless offers to seek elected office. “I am an artist,” he would effectively argue. “I have no knowledge of politics” – and since when did that obstacle ever stop anyone from running?

Nevertheless, the composer eventually relented, and, in 1861, won a seat for himself in the very first Italian parliament, which he suddenly gave up after hearing of the death of Count Camillo Cavour, one of the architects of the newly unified nation.

Another area in which Verdi was far from proficient, but who many later conceded he truly made his own, was religious music. Like Mozart before him, Verdi wrote assorted organ and instrumental pieces for the church, especially in his youth. However, one of his most inspiring compositions came late in life – just as it did for Mozart. And again, like Mozart, that work turned out to be a mass for the dead. Only Verdi had no nocturnal visitors come knocking at his door. Oh, no, Verdi would dedicate his Requiem to a once-living, once-breathing hero of his adulthood.

Verdi leading the orchestra at the premiere of his Requiem
Verdi leading the orchestra at the premiere of his Requiem

The idea for a Requiem Mass arose after the May 1873 passing of poet and author Alessandro Manzoni, long credited as one of the country’s most respected modern writers (his novel, The Betrothed, or I promessi sposi in Florentine dialect, was required reading in Italian academies of higher learning). Verdi’s original conceit, which he gave voice to upon composer Gioachino Rossini’s demise in 1868, was to have Italy’s most renowned composers write a section each of the mass – thirteen sections in all.

Unable to gather sufficient fervor for the scheme, Verdi completed his portion, the Libera me (“Deliver me, oh Lord”), and promptly went about his business. Apparently, the time was now ripe for the mass idea to be resurrected, in a manner of speaking, along with the previously completed Libera me.

In May 1874, exactly one year after Manzoni’s death, the Requiem was performed at the Church of San Marco, in Milan. Verdi himself conducted the work, and went on to conduct it “fifteen times in Paris, four in Vienna, and three in London.” That’s quite an impressive achievement for a supposedly non-theatrical production – and for an avowed anti-cleric such as Verdi!

Here is a snippet of this moving work, the opening Requiem aeternam (“Grant them eternal rest”) and Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”), from a live 1998 recording made in Montreux. Quite a number of well-informed music experts have felt this piece rivals Verdi’s finest works for the stage, not only in power and force, but in emotional impact and intensity – most uncommon for a religious composition. To be blunt, many consider the Requiem to be Verdi’s greatest non-operatic opera! You be the judge:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dERBj-3zFI.

And a Child Shall Lead Them

There was another little baby born around the same year of 1813, just a few short months before Verdi – on May 22, to be exact. Only this baby’s birth took place in Dresden, Germany, many miles from the Italian border. The baby’s name was Richard Wagner.

Young Richard Wagner (Photo: Trinquart)
Young Richard Wagner (Photo: Trinquart)

Short of stature, with a huge, bulbous head and piercing blue eyes, the young Wagner fancied himself a playwright, in the Shakespearean or Goethe mold of all things – we should be so lucky. His ambitions (and his enormous ego) knew no bounds, and grew larger with self-importance the older he got.

As an example, Wagner wrote his first symphony in 1832 (he had just turned 19), his first opera, The Fairies (Die Feen in German) a year later at age 20. At first glance it would appear that Herr Wagner had a huge head start over Signor Verdi, but unfortunately that was not to be the case. Verdi would outlive – and out-produce – his German rival by almost two decades.

Indeed, the most fascinating thing about the egomaniacal Wagner was that in all his writings and correspondence, as well as in his voluminous essays on anything and everything connected to music, art, politics, religion, philosophy and the like, never once did he mention Verdi by name, an astounding omission!

Keep in mind, of course, there was no Internet or cell-phone service in Wagner’s day; and due to the many outbreaks of pestilence that Europe was routinely prone to, along with protracted wars and skirmishes and such, the majority of the region’s population was kept ill-informed of the major happenings in the world at large.

Still, one couldn’t help getting the feeling that Wagner had deliberately snubbed his Italian-born colleague, but no matter. Although he never recognized Verdi’s true worth, Verdi was intimately aware of Wagner’s merits, especially after the volatile German master started publishing his music dramas The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde. Staging them was another matter entirely.

Never the easiest person to get along with in the best of times, Wagner had the greatest difficulty arranging for his works to be performed. For you see, most theaters of the time were simply incapable of marshaling the huge orchestral forces his operas demanded, not to mention the fiendishly difficult vocal writing and massively elaborate instrumentation, to include the most extraordinary scenic requirements imaginable.

Undeterred, Wagner persevered. Of course, he had his moral and financial backers, among them the famous composer Franz Liszt, whose daughter, Cosima, Wagner eventually married – a convenient little side benefit. The homely but utterly charming Cosima became his steadiest companion and fiercest defender (and purveyor) of his legacy in the years after his death.

He also had numerous detractors (too numerous, to be perfectly honest), and was constantly in debt to one or the other of them throughout his life (ah, Mozart!), so much so that he was run out of Germany on several occasions.

But turbulence was Wagner’s middle name. As opinionated and outspoken an individual as they come, he frequently meddled in local affairs, especially domestic politics (here we go again!), which got him into endless trouble with the authorities. He was also an inveterate womanizer (quite unlike Verdi in that respect), being particularly attracted to other men’s wives (Cosima was no exception, either) – a nasty little habit he formed early in life, one that he flirted with far too often for his own good.

Cosima Wagner
Cosima Wagner

By now, you must be wondering what everyone else must have wondered at the time: given all these extracurricular activities, when did this fellow find the time to write such long and complicated works? Certainly, an epic of the proportions of The Ring of the Nibelung, which is divided into four parts and lasts all of 16 hours on the stage, must have taken him a lifetime to complete.

Well, not exactly a lifetime, but close enough. It took a total of 25 years out of Wagner’s professional life to finish the tetralogy. John Culshaw, producer of the first complete Ring recording in stereo, quite matter-of-factly described him as “a man possessed.” That was an understatement!

Toward the end of his life, the “man possessed” got the chance to see his Ring cycle performed only once in a theater built to his exacting specifications. With the help of his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner was able to finish work on a wooden structure in the town of Bayreuth, high up in the Bavarian Alps.

Inaugurated in August of 1876, the theater featured a sunken orchestra pit and hooded outcropping where only the conductor’s head emerged. There were no private boxes and no interrupted sight lines: everyone had a perfect view of the stage. There were no windows or air conditioning either. One experiences a total immersion in Wagner’s world – that is, if you could survive the summer heat.

To this day, the annual Bayreuth Music Festival – held every July and August – is one of the world’s most sought-after theatrical events. Most people wait years for tickets. Since its opening nothing but Wagner’s operas have been performed there, usually to exceptionally high musical standards, just as the composer had intended.

Curiously, Richard Wagner, that hater of all things Italian, died in Venice, Italy, in 1883, of heart failure. He was 70 years old. Verdi was one of the first to openly mourn his death. I wonder if Wagner would have done the same for Verdi had the situation been reversed… It’s worth pondering.

As horrid a person as he was in life, though, Wagner did write some truly memorable music. Here’s an outstanding example of his musical abilities in a sonorous vein: the heavenly Pilgrim’s Chorus from the first act of his early opera, Tannhäuser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfoCvCxNAw4.

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes