The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959)

Post art for Ben-Hur (1959)

Poster art for William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959)

With the coming of the fall season and the expectation of cooler and (it is to be hoped) balmier days ahead, now would be an appropriate time as any to introduce a new series of posts — an artistic reawakening for yours truly: in this instance, an overview of some of my favorite scenes from movies past and present.

I’ll call this series “The View from the Chair.” Whose chair? That all depends! Admittedly, it would be a picture-perfect excuse to shape our discussion around a particular director’s point of view, or that of an actor or group of actors — or the audience’s, for what it’s worth, thus metaphorically killing two birds with one stone. By whatever means this topic can be approached, it would be great fun to simply get those cameras rolling — the motive behind it be damned!

So, without further ado, let’s jump-start this series with an analysis of two scenes from one of the all-time most watchable family features: the 1959 widescreen, Technicolor remake of Ben-Hur. At the time of the film’s release, this multi-award-winning epic cost Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a hefty $12.5 million, an immense sum even in those bygone times. Over 15,000 sketches were drawn prior to building the three hundred or more life-size sets on which the story would take place. These sets covered approximately 150 acres of territory in and around Cinecittà Studios in Rome.

None of these figures remotely begins to take into account the sheer number of extras involved in the project, to include technical and administrative staff, work crews, painters, architects, builders, camels, horses, props, costumes, food and drink, to say nothing of the tons of materials necessary in recreating the massive arena where the famous chariot race would be run. Months of preliminary planning and backbreaking labor went into this effort before the first feet of film was even shot.

With impressive location footage and a sturdy international cast, headed by Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur, Stephen Boyd as Messala, Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim, Finlay Currie as Balthazar, Martha Scott as Miriam, Cathy O’Donnell as Tirzah, Sam Jaffe as Simonides, and Haya Harareet as his daughter Esther, the picture went on to gross over $40 million at the box office, not to mention its record-setting eleven Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Robert L. Surtees), Best Actor (Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Griffith),and Best Score (Miklós Rózsa).

One of those coveted honors went to director William Wyler. A German-born immigrant to the U.S., Wyler studied music at Lausanne and Paris. His film career took off in earnest in 1922 at Universal Pictures’ New York headquarters, first as a messenger boy and then as a publicity writer. Moving to the West Coast, Wyler apprenticed as a prop man, grip, script clerk and cutter, rising in rank to become a casting director, then an assistant director on several prestige pictures, among them The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney (1923) and the silent version of Ben-Hur (1925) with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman.

Academy Award-winning director William Wyler

Academy Award-winning director William Wyler

A list of Wyler’s accomplishments must surely encompass such classics as Dodsworth (1936) with Walter Huston, Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis, Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, The Letter (1940) with Davis and Herbert Marshall, The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper, The Little Foxes (1941) with Davis and Marshall again, Mrs. Miniver (1942) with Greer Garson, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with Fredric March, The Heiress (1949) with Olivia de Havilland, Roman Holiday (1953) with Audrey Hepburn, The Desperate Hours (1953) with March and Humphrey Bogart, Friendly Persuasion (1956) with Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, and The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston in a supporting role.

That’s quite an impressive résumé by any standard. Still, the director had a reputation as a demanding taskmaster who often clashed with cast and crew. Known in the business as “90-Take Willie” for his copious retakes and excessively fastidious working methods, Wyler’s background in the cinema on a multitude of assignments, and his ability to get the best performances possible out of his stars, prepared him well for the rigors of helming Ben-Hur, one of Hollywood’s finest (and longest) Biblical spectaculars.

Ralph Winters, the Oscar-winning film editor on Ben-Hur, described him as “a damn good director, Wyler was. Damn good. But I didn’t care too much for him personally.”

Keeping all of the above in mind, let’s take our assigned seat in the reserved section and turn to the epic at hand.

Begin at the Beginning

“Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’”– Genesis 1:26

“The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” – Genesis 2:7

The act of creation, so movingly depicted in the first book of the Bible through these two powerful yet poetically-inspired passages, also frames the opening and closing credits of our feature film.

Notwithstanding the above, the movie proper begins with a brief prologue showing the birth of Christ — the New Adam, born without sin to Mary and Joseph, hitherto known as the Holy Family — in the picaresque town of Bethlehem. Three Wise Men from the East have come to pay homage to the child Jesus, who lies comfortably in a stable while cradled in his mother’s arms.

This gentle episode, whereby family unity and stability are stressed — a unity and stability that will soon be shattered by unfolding events — is immediately followed by a majestic brass fanfare (the score comes courtesy of veteran composer Rózsa) announcing the main title sequence. As the credits roll, in the background and completely filling the widescreen space is a detail of Renaissance poet and artist Michelangelo’s brilliant rendering of the “Creation of Adam” panel from the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

In H.W. Janson’s classic work, The History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day, the scholar offers the following commentary concerning Michelangelo’s monumental conception: “[The panel] shows not the physical molding of Adam’s body but the passage of the Divine spark — the soul — and thus achieves a dramatic juxtaposition of Man and God unrivaled by any other artist… the dynamism of Michelangelo’s design contrasts the earth-bound Adam and the figure of God rushing through the sky.”

"Creation of Adam" panel (Sistine Chapel)

Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” panel (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

It’s a captivating combination: on one side we have God (the Old Testament, gray-bearded father figure), caught in the very act of creating, with Man (His earthly offspring) receiving the “breath of life” from the creator. God appears to be admiring His creation, faintly nodding to him in pride and approbation; while on the other side, Man — helpless, alone, and adopting a childlike expression of awe and reverence — looks to God with hope and longing, little realizing that permanent expulsion from the Maker’s Paradise is just around the corner.

If we look further into this stately introduction, we make note of the fact that our title character, Judah Ben-Hur, will himself be expelled from his own paradise — that is, from his family’s ancestral estate. But of course, we do not know this going into the drama. We will learn about his fate soon enough.

Although the full title of Wyler’s epic, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, refers to a subplot that hardly seems fitting for the main course of action, the film turns often to the recurring Christ figure, who has his own musical motif from the start — followed swiftly by the four-note Ben-Hur theme, placed in direct succession to that of Christ’s in order to capitalize on the religious, political and ideological distinctions between the true protagonists of the drama: Judah and Messala.

Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of the Jewish people — a man at the height of his wealth and power, who, like Adam, experiences a precipitous fall from grace, only to regain a semblance of his former stature by film’s end; and Messala, his boyhood companion, now a hardened Roman tribune hell bent on bringing order to the unruly province of Judea, whose furthering of his own deep-seated career ambitions at the expense of his former friendship with Judah will have dire consequences.

Their past association — or what little of it that remains — is severely tested when Judah, refusing to aid Messala’s cause by revealing the names of the Jewish resistance leaders, is wrongly accused of threatening the life of the new Roman governor. As penalty for his “crime,” Messala sends him off to hard labor on board a Roman warship, while his mother and sister are held as prisoners in the Roman fortress’ dungeon. Condemned to a living death, Judah will spend the rest of his days chained to an oar.

Judah is arrested by Messala (Stephen Boyd)

Judah (Charlton Heston) is arrested by Messala (Stephen Boyd)

What Judah subsequently suffers through — his grueling ordeal in the galley, his rescue of Roman consul Quintus Arrius, his freedom from bondage and eventual redemption and reclamation of his family’s rights — is mirrored in a parallel story involving Christ’s suffering and Passion.

This setup happens to be bookended by two scenes that call to mind the opening “Creation of Adam” sequence. Throughout the story, various acts of kindness — represented by touching, giving and receiving — are reenacted by the film’s participants for the audience’s benefit as well as their own. Wyler references these acts at key moments so as to alert us to their deeper meaning within the context and framework of the plot.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

In the first scene under review, Judah is marched through the parched desert country as punishment for his alleged attack. Accompanying him are Roman guards and other criminals. They are on their way to the port city of Tyrus to serve out their harsh sentence. It’s blisteringly hot and dusty. Exhausted from the long trek through the sand and rock, one of the prisoners falls to the ground. Rather than minister to a condemned man, the guards untie his bonds and toss the body over the dunes to its death. This, then, is the sad fate for anyone who stands in the way of Rome.

The music in this sequence, both angular and sharp, is disconcerting in its dissonance. Calling to mind a similar set of circumstances from twenty years prior, it will remind attentive viewers of Rózsa’s powerful score for Zoltan and Alexander Korda’s desert saga, The Four Feathers, from 1939, in the scene where Ralph Richardson gets blinded by the sun.

Finally, the prisoners arrive at a village, where they pass the house of a certain carpenter, sawing away at his workbench. The line of prisoners moves from left to right. The soldiers call for a temporary respite from the march. “Water for the soldiers!” one of the guards shouts. “Soldiers first!” Some of the prisoners leave their formation and rush headlong to the well, but they are beaten back into line, where they await the hapless villagers who are forced to attend to their needs.

As each prisoner is handed a cup or a bowl, Judah waits his turn with hands outstretched. Again, the camera pans from left to right, surveying the ragged line of desperate men. The first to drink is a soldier on horseback, who takes a huge swig from a ladle. Just as another ladle reaches Judah’s lips, a pug-nosed foot soldier snatches the water from his hands and barks out an order: “No water for him!”

After quenching his thirst, the pug-nosed soldier arrogantly spits out the remainder. Judah attempts to gather what droplets he can salvage, but the soldier roughly pushes him back into line. Denied the water’s life-giving sustenance, Judah collapses to the ground in despair. Just as the previous prisoner was left to die an agonizing death in the sand dunes, Judah knows his fate is sealed.

Judah lies on the ground

In despair, Judah lies on the ground

Helpless, alone, and at the end of his rope, he cries out to in a choked voice, “God, help me.” He has been beaten into the ground from whence he came, and from whence God first made Man. “For dust you are, and unto dust shall you return” is the oft-quoted Biblical passage most closely related to the foregoing.

Judah’s body occupies the left and middle portions of the frame. His arms are extended (especially his left arm) in the same manner as that of Adam in the “Creation of Adam” panel at the start. Just then, a shadow crosses Judah’s face and form. We hear the soft theme-music associated with Christ — significantly, the same theme-music the trumpets and full orchestra had thundered forth during the opening credits.

Wyler had his award-winning cinematographer Robert L. Surtees shoot this crucial scene with his cameras low to the ground, forcing the viewer down to the characters’ eye-level for a closer and more intimate encounter.

Christ approaches Judah with ladle in hand and sprinkles water over his neck, head and face. Next, he touches Judah’s left hand with his right in replication of God’s bringing Adam to earthly life (“the breath of life”). Seemingly “baptized” in water and earth, Judah’s head is lifted upward from the ground and onto the ladle and its thirst-quenching contents. Judah drinks his fill of the water while Christ gently strokes his hair and forehead — a much-needed sign of comfort and affection where previously none existed.

Judah looks up at Christ

Judah looks up at Christ after taking a drink from the ladle

Judah stops to look up with hope and longing (just as Adam did to God) at the man who has favored him with libation. He then resumes the business of drinking. At that very moment, the pug-nosed soldier catches sight of Christ with Judah and calls out, “You! I said no water for him!

The soldier pulls out his whip and is ready to give the miscreant a thorough lashing, when Christ abruptly rises to his feet (occupying frame right), the low camera angle giving him the impression of towering over the guard. Backing off, the confused soldier looks down at the ground, then at Christ, then at the others to his right, and at the ground again before finally turning away. Not knowing what else to do, he takes one last look at Jesus and barks another command, “All right, on your feet, all of you!” before sauntering off.

Christ (right) looks on as Judah (left) is led away with the other prisoners

Christ (right) looks on as Judah (left) is led away with the other prisoners

Thoroughly sated, the reinvigorated Judah returns the ladle to Christ. In a spontaneous gesture of gratitude, Judah reaches out to touch his hand. They both rise simultaneously to their feet, with Judah occupying the center of the frame and Christ opposite him and to the side. The camera closes in on Judah, who is now in the exact center — reclaiming, as it were, his rightful spot as the focus of attention. A mounted guard comes over to lash him with a whip, shouting: “You there, back to your place! Back to your place!”

Getting back in line with the prisoners, who resume their lengthy walk to the port, Judah (with the noble Ben-Hur theme resounding prominently in the orchestra) cannot help but look back at the man who saved his life — the one who has given him a second chance and renewed his faith in the goodness of men.

As the sequence comes to a close, Christ, with his back to the audience (his face is never seen from the front), moves to the extreme right of the film frame, the ladle still dangling from his left hand — his gaze deliberately directed at Judah. They will meet again before film’s end. Meanwhile, Judah and the line of prisoners are at left, walking slowly away in the distance.

Judah goes off to meet his destiny

Judah goes off to meet his destiny

The camera shifts its focus to Judah’s face, which again happens to be in the middle of the frame. He stops briefly to give pause as to what has occurred. With his chin up and head held high, Judah takes one last look behind him (much as the pug-nosed soldier had moments before), at the place and person he’s left behind. They will be etched in his memory for later. Once again, he joins the other prisoners on their walk of life, little realizing where the road will take him next.

End of Scene One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Autumn Leaves’ — A Song for All Seasons

"The Autumn Leaves of Red and Gold"

“The Autumn Leaves of Red and Gold”

Whether it’s April in Paris, summer in the city, or winter in Red Square, it’s always fair weather in our house whenever we hear that lovely ballad, “Autumn Leaves.”

Composed in France around the year 1945, the music was the handiwork of a Hungarian émigré named Joseph Kosma (born József Kózma), with poetically inspired lyrics (en français, naturellement) by French author and screenwriter Jacques Prévert.

Primarily a classical and film composer, Kosma was credited with providing the scores for such cinematic classics as Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, La Bête Humaine and The Rules of the Game, in addition to Marcel Carne’s Gates of the Night (Les Portes de la Nuit) from 1946, where “Autumn Leaves,” or “Les feuilles mortes” (“The Dead Leaves”) in its original French title, was first introduced.

And the artist who introduced the theme to audiences was the Italian-born Ivo Livi, a.k.a. French pop idol and actor Yves Montand, followed soon after by sultry singer-actress Juliette Greco. Needless to say, this gorgeous piece, with its subtle strain of gypsy love-songs and nostalgic hint of l’amour passée (a possible precursor to bossa nova, but without the delicate Brazilian rhythm), went on to became a standard with performers as one of the most romantic numbers this side of Arles.

In this country, we know it simply as “Autumn Leaves,” one of songwriter and Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer’s best beloved works. His wonderful words, combined with Kosma’s sublime tune, make for a rewarding listening experience, as any romantically inclined couple can tell you:

The falling leaves drift by the window

The autumn leaves of red and gold

I see your lips, the summer’s kisses

The sunburned hands I used to hold


Since you went away the days grow long

And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song

But I miss you most of all, my darling

When autumn leaves begin to fall

American pop singer Jo Stafford is acknowledged as the first to perform and record the song using Mercer’s lyrics. In the wake, then, of its growing popularity in the States, “Autumn Leaves” entered into the repertory of a vast variety of outstanding musicians and entertainers, to include French chanteuse Edith Piaf (in both the English and French versions), pianists Roger Williams, Errol Garner and Bill Evans, crooner Bing Crosby, singer-actress Doris Day, bandleaders Stan Kenton, Artie Shaw and Paul Weston, instrumentalists Miles Davis and Stan Getz, and many others.

One of the best and most beautifully sung — and a viable candidate, I might add, for best all-around interpretation of “Autumn Leaves” — is the version recorded and released, in 1955, by Nat King Cole, from his Capitol album Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love. It was also featured in the opening credits to the movie of the same name, Autumn Leaves (Columbia, 1956), starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson, and directed by Robert Aldrich, with additional music by studio veteran Hans J. Salter.

Nat King Cole sings "Autumn Leaves" (sheet music)

Nat King Cole sings “Autumn Leaves” (sheet music)

Professor Luca Cerchiari, one of the editors of the anthology Eurojazzland: Jazz and European Sources, Dynamics and Contexts, in the chapter “Sacred, Country, Urban Tunes: The European Songbook,” praised Cole’s “typically immaculate diction” and his “trademark liquid, crooning vocal style.” He especially made note of Cole’s use of vowel sounds on the letters “o” and “e,” and on the consonants “d” and “t,” in the words “leaves” and “window” and “red and gold.”

Here’s a truly marvelous clip from Nat’s short-lived mid-Fifties television program, singing “Autumn Leaves” as arranged by Nelson Riddle:

He paints the song in light brushstrokes, caressing the phrase, “And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,” with a gentle, urbane assurance. In his hands, the tune takes on the theme of a fond remembrance of better times. Cole’s mellow tones, which fall on the ear like blossom honey, delivered with a relaxed and elegant air of utmost charm and sophistication mark his rendition as one of the classiest on record.

A completely different take on the number is Capitol Records label-mate Frank Sinatra’s 1957 version, as part of his thematic album, Where Are You? Masterfully arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins (along with Nelson Riddle on the flip side), Ole Blue Eyes takes his time with the piece, holding onto the high note of the phrase, “old wiiiiiiiinter’s song,” for as long as his lungs can manage — as if by doing so, he could hold back the inevitable sting of fate, as well as a failed love.

Frank Sinatra Where Are You? (Capitol, 1957)

Frank Sinatra, Where Are You? (Capitol, 1957)

This is unparalleled lyricism at its boldest, a heartrending glimpse into one man’s desolation and despair. But you’ll have to go to YouTube to hear it:

With its darkly portentous atmosphere of gloom and doom, and complementary orchestration, Sinatra accomplishes something no other singer has been able to do: he transforms the ballad into high drama, a Shakespearean tragedy of dire dimensions — a grim game of love’s labors lost and gone, forever.

Its stark contours clash markedly with Nat King Cole’s more modest and wistful yearnings. Regret and understanding are the primary thoughts on Cole’s mind, while bitterness and betrayal occupy Sinatra’s viewpoint and underscore his joyless reading of events.

So which version is better? There is no “better” here, only different. Both artists had jazz or pop music backgrounds, and used what they learned on the stage and in the studio to excellent effect. Depending on one’s mood or mind-set, I’d say both recordings are valid, first-rate interpretations. Of course, I simply adore Nat King Cole, hands down, no matter what he sings. No other artist affects me the way he does. Lately, however, I’ve been leaning towards Sinatra. In its own context and within its sphere of influence, Ole Blue Eyes’ open-hearted depiction can speak to so many of us who’ve gone through equally wearing times.

Nat King Cole and Ole Blue Eyes

Nat King Cole and Ole Blue Eyes

It’s a clear-cut case of the glass being half empty or half full. If Frankie’s canister can be seen as needing a refill, then surely Nat’s bottle must be well nursed by now. And if autumn leaves eventually give way to freezing winter, which then become the blossoming spring and summer, we know for sure that good times are just around the corner.

Accentuate the positive, as the old saying goes. A saying that also happens to be a song: a song by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by none other than Johnny Mercer!

Now that’s what I call coming full circle.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Sampa’ on My Mind — The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Following Your Dream

Sao Paulo Skyline

Sao Paulo Skyline

It’s been almost a dozen years since I read an article posted by a journalistic friend of mine, whose name is John Fitzpatrick, about looking for gainful employment in Brazil (“For Job Seekers Brazil Is No El Dorado”).

By sheer coincidence, I, too, had followed a similar career path as outlined in that piece, but with very different results. My experiences of living and working in a foreign land, which I wrote about extensively in a series of blog posts entitled “How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story,” have hopefully shed some needed light on this much neglected area, one that seems to be perpetually shrouded in mystery and misinformation.

Since so many people have asked me throughout the years how I got into the teaching profession, I decided to give readers a little background history — to fill in the blanks, so to speak — of what brought me to Brazil, and then back again to the USA.

Another reason for my doing this was to relive that eye-opening experience, not so much as a nostalgia trip down memory lane but more in the light of what I subsequently learned about the country and the teaching profession.

To begin with, I’m a naturalized American citizen, born in Brazil, who came to America as a small child back in 1959. I was raised in New York City, attended its public schools, graduated from a private university (several in fact), and worked there for most of my adult life. After many frustrating years in the financial sector, and certainly after the birth of my daughters, I was determined to leave the hustle and bustle of inner-city life to embark on a new career path. And after giving it a lot of thought, I immigrated with my wife and family back to the mother country.

In his original piece, John Fitzpatrick gave some excellent advice about learning Portuguese, which was absolutely essential back then and just as practical today. So let me repeat his sane advice: if you are planning to live anywhere in Brazil, do not expect to subsist on your high-school foreign language skills alone. You will not make yourself understood and, most emphatically, you will offend many Brazilians by attempting to converse in a language that does not pertain to their culture. It is imperative that you have a decent command of Portuguese, or you will be left in the competitive lurch. That means no Spanish, please! English will do, and you will find lots of friendly and curious Brazilians to chat with — but keep in mind that not everybody speaks English. Luckily, I still spoke enough Portuguese to get around, but that’s not always the case.

I left New York for São Paulo (or “Sampa”) in 1996, and spent the next four and a half years living and working in the southern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Big Apple. And believe me, it is a REALLY BIG APPLE! In fact, Sampa was, and continues to be, the largest urban center in all of Latin America! I happened to fit into the category of a professional who went to Brazil with no job prospects and with a spouse and two children in tow. We were luckier than most adventure seekers, because we had my wife’s family to help us during this transition period. In addition, we bought our apartment, out of which I gave lessons in English as a Foreign Language.

I obtained my carteira de trabalho (work permit), permanent residency, and CPF (a document used for financial transactions) without too much trouble — again, I have to underscore the fact that I was luckier than most immigrants in that respect, who, like the general population, are “treated like dirt” by most Brazilian agencies. It’s just an inescapable fact of life there (and in many places in the Third World) that one’s rights get constantly trampled on. So the quicker you get used to poor treatment, the better off you will be. Then again, maybe not…

Before my move, I prepared myself for the transition by spending two years in pursuit of a teaching certificate at the New School for Social Research (now called the New School University) in Manhattan. I was taught by some of the best teachers in the business, people with master’s degrees and PhD’s from such places as NYU, Columbia, Cambridge, and the like. I passed my course work and was highly commended for my efforts by all my teachers. Naturally, one would assume this kind of background, along with my Wall Street experience, would have entitled me to “streets paved with gold” in Sampa. Not so.

The hazards of job hunting and just plain surviving in the Big Abacaxi (“Pineapple”), as I sometimes refer to it, were many. For me, São Paulo was a merciless environment for a novice job seeker such as myself. At the beginning of my teaching career, I had only a few students at home. It was a start, but in no way did it cover our living expenses. So in order to supplement my meager earnings, and to pay for my ever increasing light, phone, gas, energy, food, school, and health insurance bills, I had to seek some type of full-time employment outside of my residence.

This was easier said than done. Although I interviewed for, and obtained entry into, Cultura Inglesa, one of the better-known (and better-run) English language schools in the country, imagine my surprise and dismay when I was told I would have to undergo a two-month training program (unremunerated, of course) — especially after having completed TWO YEARS of training in New York, and at my own personal expense!

Besides the humiliation of having to prove myself all over again, and despite my having a teaching certificate from an accredited North American university, I gamely plugged on. I was even admitted into another teacher training program at the Alumni School in the Morumbi neighborhood. My luck was starting to change for the better, or so I thought.

Teacher for Two Days

Cultura Inglesa banner

Cultura Inglesa banner

Unfortunately, I couldn’t handle the added stress and travel of “training” in two places at once, so I dropped out of Alumni (which was well nigh impossible to get to) and opted to teach at Cultura Inglesa instead. After completing their training program (an excellent one, I must say), I waited a month and a half before I was assigned to a local branch in my own neighborhood. Sounds great, right? No, not really. I was told the hourly wage at the time was a miserable $7 reais an hour (around $5.00 dollars, give or take), with an additional $2 reais for expenses. Now THAT was a shock to the system.

I quickly realized, to my horror, that I had wasted three and a half months of valuable job search time in a fruitless pursuit of permanent employment, and with an entity that was paying paltry starvation wages. I also learned, much to my chagrin, that teachers of English were a dime a dozen in São Paulo, many of them lacking even the most basic teaching skills. So much for advanced planning!

I abruptly left Cultura after only two days of teaching and went looking for other opportunities in the classified pages of the local newspapers. As has been pointed out on previous occasions, São Paulo is not North America (neither is Europe, for that matter) when it comes to finding work through want ads. Networking with relatives, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues is the preferred and more results-oriented method, by far.

Again, I lucked out, and through a want ad in the Estadão newspaper, I was able to secure a teaching/consulting position with a multinational accounting firm in downtown São Paulo. The salary was about $30 reais an hour (around $20 dollars) and I enjoyed the challenge of teaching adult learners rather than inattentive school-age kids. So far, so good!

However, I soon discovered that all good things come to a rapid end. When the Brazilian economy started to sputter and spin out of control in 1998, I lost more students than I had gained; ergo, I was forced to find additional work elsewhere. One soon learns that in Brazil an English teacher never just “teaches.” He or she must adapt to the ever-changing circumstances and seek out odd jobs (called bicos) wherever and whenever they can be found in order to survive.

After heavy word of mouth, I was able to provide translation work for several companies, in addition to doing work for a teaching colleague at Home Box Office (HBO) of Brazil. With that, I got into the subtitling/dubbing sideline, thanks to her, and had even urged my wife to get involved in the work. She took the HBO course, a course that despite numerous guarantees led nowhere because of the recession.

HBO Logo

HBO Logo

In point of fact, the HBO work was scattershot at best. Sometimes, I would get two or three films to work on, other times I would get nothing for weeks on end. When I did get work, I would spend my days, nights, and weekends at the computer terminal, away from family, friends, and relatives, while I was busily involved in the art of transcribing, a prolonged and fairly laborious process. The salary was decent enough, but I still needed to teach to pay the bills, plus I wanted a less ephemeral and time-consuming occupation to deal with.

This was not to be. When the HBO work eventually dried up due to the devaluation of the real and the still stagnant Brazilian economy, I hooked up in 1999 with another colleague who was a full-time lawyer and EFL teacher, and started teaching mini-courses for her students. I would serve as a substitute teacher for when my colleague traveled. I was even able to teach my own courses, which I had developed based on the American legal system — I had been a certified litigation paralegal in the U.S. for several years, which came in handy.

While these courses were reasonably successful as far as student satisfaction was concerned, there was no monetary profit to them. The continued bleak outlook for the economy, the rising crime and unemployment rates, and the loss of more and more of my students due to economic hardships, forced me to face the consequences and my own ever-mounting personal financial problems.

One good thing did come out of all this tribulation: I started to write to occupy my mind. First it was lesson planning — dozens upon dozens of them; next, it was movie reviews, followed by plans to use movies in English language lessons, and so on. Much of the work I did during those testing times were expanded into full-fledged teaching lessons, or better into articles and pieces that, until the present day, I continue to develop into blog posts such as the one you’re reading now.

Before I packed up my belongings and made the move to Brazil, I had already acquired an extensive video, CD, LP record, tape cassette, and movie collection. But it didn’t stop there, because during those long breaks between teaching sessions in Sampa I continued to scour the stores of whatever shopping mall I happened to run across in a constant and never-ending search for new additions to my collection. Again, it was a way of keeping my mind off money troubles.

I also learned more about Brazilian culture and music than I had ever known. When I came back to the U.S., I wanted to express this newfound knowledge in my writings. That’s one of the goals I had set for myself when the decision to return to America was ultimately made. I can say, too, with complete satisfaction, that I had met that goal.

Time to Go Back

Downtown Raleigh, NC

Downtown Raleigh, NC

My decision to return to the U.S., and start afresh in the State of North Carolina, was an extremely painful and heart-rending one, but one I resolutely made with my family in the hope of securing steadier employment and a more secure foothold than I could ever have in Brazil. Our relatives offered to help us through our difficulties, but I could no longer impose upon their generosity. Besides, I had my own children’s future to worry about.

Reluctantly, but with much optimism, we left São Paulo in January 2001. Since then, I have worked for three different companies here, some better and some worse than the ones I worked for in New York. I was even laid off from one of them due to downsizing (welcome to the U.S.A. reality!), but quickly found another position.

North Carolina, and especially the surrounding Research Triangle Park area, is a constantly expanding and vital center of business activity. It is well-known for its medical, pharmaceutical, research, and university facilities as well.

With this in mind, I think my family and I chose wisely. Without a doubt, we are better off today than we were in São Paulo. But as the saying goes, everything is a tradeoff. There is no gain without the pain. If most things are “better,” there is also much that is worse than either New York City or Sampa. It’s that fact of life again, intruding upon one’s dreams. You can’t have it all, no matter what the know-it-alls tell you. Life is difficult wherever you go — I say this not to dissuade anyone from the challenge, but to put things in perspective. I took a chance, and gave it my best shot. Unfortunately, my best was not good enough, but I learned from my mistakes and expect to do better in the long run.

All told, I tried hard to make a go at teaching English in Brazil. But no matter how many new students I found, I would inevitably be forced to look for new ones, or find new opportunities, new lines of work, just to make ends meet. This was the sad, hard, and unmentioned reality of teaching English in Brazil. I don’t mean to discourage aspirants or potential thrill seekers from doing what they love best, but I sure wish I had someone to point these things out to me BEFORE I made the decision to move to São Paulo.

Still, it was a most remarkable learning experience, and one I heartily recommend to young and single persons with the requisite courage, patience, flexibility, and stamina for the teaching lifestyle. If sometime in your life you decide to take the plunge, know that teaching English in Brazil has its own rewards, despite the many downsides of the profession. The work schedule is busy and lengthy enough to test the mettle of only the fittest of teaching souls. That’s part of the fun! But I’m sure you know that.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Who’s Afraid of Opera? — Composers and Their Silly Opera Plots (Part Two): Once More, With Feeling

“Oh, Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou, Romeo?”

Piotr Beczala as Romeo, and Nino Machaidze as Juliette (Photo: Robbie Jack)

Piotr Beczala as Romeo, and Nino Machaidze as Juliette (Photo: Robbie Jack)

One of the more diverting aspects of “silly opera plots” is how certain stories get constantly recycled, over and over and over again. We’ve already touched upon one of them, i.e., that of the musician Orpheus, in which composers from the dawn of opera have attempted to remake his fable for each succeeding generation of theatergoers.

The same can be said for the plays of William Shakespeare, in particular one featuring sweet Juliet and her dashing beau, Romeo. Some of the better-known examples of operas based on the Bard of Avon’s most romantic work include Frenchman Charles Gounod’s five-act Roméo et Juliette; an aborted one by the Russian-born Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which was turned into a concert-hall favorite, the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture; and a fabulous choral/symphonic showpiece, also titled Roméo et Juliette, by that French firebrand Hector Berlioz.

In addition to the ones noted above, there are two other versions, in Italian, based not on Shakespeare but on the original source material from the early Renaissance period: the first, called The Capulets and the Montagues, was written by bel canto specialist Vincenzo Bellini; the second, going by the name of Giulietta e Romeo, was the work of a twentieth century composer, Riccardo Zandonai, who seemed to have a thing for medieval subject matter: his operatic adaptation of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Francesca da Rimini, for example, comes from an obscure passage found in Dante’s Inferno.

And speaking of the Inferno, what about all those Faust operas we’ve heard so much about? Do you know Faust? He’s that old doctor, alchemist, mathematician or what-have-you from medieval times who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil — Mephistopheles, in this situation. His story was purportedly based on an actual historical figure, immortalized in English poet Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and later, in the gigantic, two-part epic poem, Faust, by German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, both of which form the basis for various operatic versions.

Wouldn’t you know it, but there also happens to be a French Faust — two of them, to be precise: one by Monsieur Gounod, the same fellow who brought you Roméo et Juliette; and the other by — you guessed it — Monsieur Berlioz, which he named The Damnation of Faust. It was staged a few years ago at the Met to great acclaim.

Moving right along, there’s even an Italian Faust. If you’ve been following my blog with any regularity, you know that I’ve written extensively about this next opera. Only this time, its composer, Arrigo Boito, one of Verdi’s finest librettists, decided on the name Mefistofele for its multi-syllabic title; and last, but certainly not least, there’s also a German Faust, called appropriately enough Doktor Faust, by the musically eclectic Ferruccio Busoni. Note to readers: despite his Italian moniker, Busoni studied and settled in Germany. So for all intents and purposes, he’s usually considered a Germanic composer — go figure!

Now the way I see it, with practice comes perfection: sooner or later, ONE of these fine gentlemen is going to get the Faust story right. That also holds true for the tale of Juliet and her Romeo. My own personal favorite, from among the wealth of operatic inspirations that are out there, happens to be an American setting: West Side Story from 1957.

Maria (Natalie Wood) kisses Tony (Richard Beymer) for the fist time in West Side Story

Maria (Natalie Wood) kisses Tony (Richard Beymer) for the fist time in West Side Story

With a superb score by the great Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by the equally talented Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by ballet master Jerome Robbins, this modern street-gang rendition is possibly the most popular version yet.

We’re going to hear the first-act solo number, “Maria,” sung by Tony, our upper-Manhattan substitute for Romeo, with Maria sitting in for his fair Juliet. As you listen, keep in mind the work’s origins as a Broadway theater piece.

Let no one tell you otherwise: this magical moment fulfills all the requirements of an operatic air at its finest. It has warmth, beauty of tone, lyricism to spare, sweeping high-lying phrases, and a uniquely identifiable — and highly enjoyable — hit tune to please the masses. “Maria” is a special favorite of operatic singers, as we will hear in this lovely sequence by the late American tenor Jerry Hadley:

Tenor Jerry Hadley

Tenor Jerry Hadley

In 1985, Bernstein himself recorded this wonderful work with legit opera singers José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa as the star-crossed leads, along with mezzo Tatiana Troyanos, baritone Kurt Ollmann and contralto Marilyn Horne — all of them bringing a sense of seriousness and purpose to the venture that made one sit up and take notice at how near to perfection Bernstein and Sondheim had come to achieving the “operatic ideal” of blending music and drama with words and story.

Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law

No doubt, Leonard Bernstein was one of the more formidable musical figures of the mid- to late twentieth century. Going back a bit, we can say the same thing about Richard Wagner, one of the mid- to late nineteenth century’s most controversial and influential musical figures of his or anybody else’s time.

Described by record producer John Culshaw as “a man possessed” (and with good reason), Wagner single-handedly changed the face of opera from a mildly passive form of entertainment to a politically charged spectator sport of earth-shattering proportions.

Within a span of about 40+ years (from about 1840 to his death in 1883), the Dresden-born titan managed to spread his far-flung theories of a “total artwork” of the future (or Gesamtkunstwerk in German) to the four corners of the globe.

You could say that the great Greek dramatists of the past — especially Aeschylus — in addition to the influences of his predecessors Gluck, Mozart, Carl Maria von Weber, Bellini and Giacomo Meyerbeer, all came together to find expression in one totally self-absorbed individual, one Herr Wagner.

The most representative of his body of work, which he termed “music dramas,” and the one that best illustrates our topic of “silly opera plots,” is his mighty epic The Ring of the Nibelung. Musicians, scholars, producers, fans and singers alike have spent a lifetime (if not a fortune) studying these complex scores.

But none of them came close to reveling in their “hidden truths,” as it were, as the late singer-actress Anna Russell did, in her comedic synopsis of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the operas that make up the four-part Ring of the Nibelung saga, as it is most commonly known to operaphiles.

Anna Russell -- singer, actor, comedian, raconteur

Anna Russell — singer, actor, comedian, raconteur

Ms. Russell, who was Canadian by birth, did to Wagner’s 16-hour opus what Gilbert and Sullivan had done to Verdi’s four-act Il Trovatore: she lampooned it to no end, taking the stuffiness out of its highfaluting, high-minded pretensions and bringing it down from the lofty heights of Valhalla to our own level of earthly silliness.

Anna Russell lived well into her 90’s before passing on in 2006. Fortuitously, in her absence we still have Ms. Russell’s lively text which we can read and enjoy to our heart’s content. Here is a reenactment of her classic analysis of The Ring of the Nibelung:

“Now, the first thing is that every person and event in the Ring cycle has what is grandly called a leitmotif. Now you don’t need to worry about that, it merely means a ‘signature tune.’ The scene opens in the River Rhine. IN IT! If it were in New York, it would be like the Hudson River. And swimming around there are the three Rhine Maidens… a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters.

“The Rhine Maidens are looking after a lump of magic gold. And the magic of this gold consists of the fact that anybody who will renounce love and make a ring out of it will become Master of the Universe. This is the gimmick!

“Now up from underneath the river — as it might be, let’s say, the Holland Tunnel — comes a little dwarf called Alberich. Well, he’s an excessively unattractive fellow. He makes a pass at the Rhine Maidens, who think he’s perfectly dreadful, and so they’re not very nice to him. So he thinks, ‘I’m not going to get any love anyhow, so I may as well renounce it, and take this lump of gold, make the Ring, and become Master of the Universe.’

“Well, now, up here, as it might be on top of the Empire State Building, we find Wotan, the head god. And he’s a crashing bore, too. He and his wife, Mrs. Fricka Wotan, have had a castle built for them, called Valhalla, by a couple of giants named Fasolt and Fafner.

“Of course, the giants want to be paid for building this castle, and part of the giant-builders union scale consists of this magic ring that Alberich’s made. So Wotan goes all the way down from where he is to Alberich and takes the Ring away from him. Well, of course, Alberich is simply FURIOUS. So he puts a terrible curse on the Ring.

“But Wotan takes no notice. He takes the Ring up and gives it to Fasolt. Right away Fafner kills Fasolt to get the Ring himself. So Wotan knows that the curse is working. And this worries him, so he goes down to ground level to consult an old fortune-teller friend of his, Erda; she’s a green-faced torso that pops up out of the ground — at least we THINK she’s a torso, since that’s all anyone’s ever seen of her. And she says to Wotan, ‘Be careful, Wotan! Be careful!’ She then bears him eight daughters.

“These daughters are the Valkyries, headed by Brünnhilde… and they are the NOISIEST women. ‘Heiaha! Heiaha! Hojotoho! Hojotoho!’ Well, that’s the end of Part One.”

Met Opera "Ride of the Valkyries"

Met Opera “Ride of the Valkyries”

After that rendition, we just have to wrap this session up with a BANG, so put on your earmuffs, gang, and let’s give it up for the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” from Act Three of the opera Die Walküre:

Wow! That was a BANG, all right! Everybody from Bugs Bunny, in the Warner Bros. cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” to director Francis Ford Coppola, in his Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now, has used this musical interlude as foreground and background music. It’s a surefire audience pleaser!

There’s a lot more to Wagner’s Ring cycle, I assure you. So let’s pick it up at our next session, shall we? Until then, do your homework and listen to a few choice selections from some of the other works in The Ring of the Nibelung.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Her Eyes Were Fixed on Bette Davis — ‘Now, Voyager’ and a Movie Life That Mattered (Part One)


Bette Davis (

Bette Davis (

“What’s on TV tonight?” I asked my father.

“A movie,” he answered.

Dad thumbed through the program listings in TV Guide, that old weekly magazine my mother used to pick up at the local A&P supermarket. After a few more minutes of rummaging, he eventually came up with a winner.

“It’s Now, Voyager,” he announced, “with Bette Davis and Paul Henreid.”

That name, “Henreid,” would constantly give dad trouble, and stick in the back of his throat every time he tried to articulate it. Because of his thick Brazilian accent, it usually came out sounding like “Ang-reed,” “Enn-ree,” or something along those lines.

“You mean HEN-REED!” I corrected him, much to dad’s displeasure.

“Oh, I love Bette Davis,” mom chimed in, trying to defuse the situation.

I had never seen Now, Voyager, didn’t know the plot, and never cared to find out, either — until the night I saw it with my parents. All I heard was that it was a woman’s picture, what they used to call a “weepie” — you know, one of those four-handkerchief jobs, a “chick flick” that older folks once flocked to in droves. In my view, it was second-rate escapist fare and not worth the time and effort. Still, I had nothing better to do that evening, so I decided to give it a shot.

Dad switched the channel on his remote to home in on the movie. Just in time, too, for there was the celebrated Warner Bros. logo, in all its black-and-white glory. Next, the credits started to roll, with Max Steiner’s lush music sounding a main theme I swore I’d heard before. Why was it so familiar…?

Hey, now I remember: it was in one of those old Bugs Bunny cartoons, where that “wascawy wabbit” was hell bent on singing this silly song: “Wrong, would it be wrong to kiss?” Well, how about that? I knew something my dad, the amateur critic, didn’t know! And I had to let him know about it, but fast!

“Hey dad,” I shouted eagerly, “I…”

“Shush,” he snapped back. “It’s starting!” He turned up the TV’s volume by a couple of notches and settled back into his easy-chair.

Oh! I forgot you couldn’t interrupt the master of the house with details, not while he ruled the roost. There’d be time later, during the commercial break most likely, to talk about trivia. For now, it was watch and wait. In the meantime, dad would fill us in on the key players (of course, it was okay for him to talk!), all of whom he recognized from the countless hours he spent in those flea-infested movie theaters of his youth.

Well, now, there’s our star attraction. It’s about time! But, oh, my goodness, she’s as ugly as sin! Whatever happened to Bette Davis? Man, she looked terrible! I couldn’t resist a swipe at my mom’s favorite actress.

“What’s with the two-inch eyebrows,” I grumbled under my breath, “and where’d she get those granny glasses? Yuck! How about that dress and that hair? They’re god-awful!”

Davis as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (

Davis as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (

Unfortunately, I had to keep these thoughts to myself. You see, dad had already warned me to keep my trap shut. And I wasn’t about to tempt fate or risk another tongue-lashing, not after what happened last time!

So where did mom fit into the picture? She was in her element. She loved to sit down and watch old movies with her “boys.” As the film started, her eyes were fixed on the TV screen and on Ms. Davis’ visage.

“I love her eyes,” she would murmur quietly.

My mind began to wander at her comment. I kept thinking: besides Davis’ huge, bulbous orbs, what else did mom see in this lady? She was playing a neurotic named Charlotte Vale, a dowdy spinster if ever there was one! Heck, mom was nothing like this individual. I knew dad had an older sister who married late in life, but any semblance of spinsterhood on her part had long since vanished.

Normally, Bette Davis could be lively and perky in her parts — even to the point of bitchiness — and oh-so-impeccably dressed, too, with that Bostonian air of superiority. But not here! As a matter of fact, she looked positively frumpy. That’s NOT the Bette Davis I knew! None of this made any difference to mom. She simply adored her, no matter how she was dressed.

Mom was particularly enamored of her appearances in the late thirties and early forties — Bette’s peak period of popularity — in such classics as Now, Voyager, as well as a few others, among them Juarez with Paul Muni and Brian Aherne, where she played the Empress Carlotta; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, featuring my own personal favorite, the swashbuckling Errol Flynn, as the handsome Earl of Essex to her fussy Queen Bess; and Jezebel, one of Davis’ best efforts, with her frequent co-star, George Brent, and the fresh-faced Henry Fonda.

Geez Louise, how could you miss with such chefs-d’oeuvre as these? Be that as it may, I still hadn’t gotten to the essence of why the Queen Bitch of Hollywood, the formidable Ms. Davis, had made such an impression on my mother.

Perhaps the clues lay in the films themselves, a secret passageway into a parent’s heart, to be revealed and examined at length, and at one’s leisure — but only at the proper time.

The time, I gathered, had finally arrived.

Hail to the Queen!

To my knowledge, that bitchy, disdainful side of Bette Davis the majority of her fans were acquainted with came from a vintage outing, i.e., the 1934 film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, starring Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes of Gone with the Wind fame) as Philip Carey and directed by John Cromwell.

Davis as Mildred, w. Leslie Howard as Philip, in Of Human Bondage (

Davis as Mildred, with Leslie Howard as Philip, in Of Human Bondage (

I recall having to read the novel in high school. While most of my classmates dismissed it as dreary and trite, I had a strong affinity for the story, mainly because of Mildred Rogers, that ill-mannered tart of a waitress (played by Ms. Davis, naturally) who the main protagonist Philip (Mr. Howard), a club-footed medical student, falls head over heels in love with. (A better term would be “enslaved to,” hence the title’s reference to “bondage.”)

I must confess that, upon my initial viewing of this feature, I was put off by its sluggish pace. This first of several screen adaptations of Maugham’s book was, to put it plainly, fairly stagnant throughout its less than 90-minute running time. But there was one scene in particular that stood out from the rest and remains as impressionable today as when I first saw it more than 40 years ago: the one where Mildred tells Philip exactly what she thinks of him.

“You cad, you dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once! I was always makin’ a fool of ya! Ya bored me stiff; I hated ya!”

Wow! I never knew a person could be so deliberately spiteful or treat a fellow human being as viciously as Mildred treated her sometime lover. The bile and venom she leveled at poor, unsuspecting Philip was, by any measure of common decency, unbelievably cruel and harsh.

“And after you kissed me,” Mildred thunders forth, “I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!”

Bette as Mildred (

Mildred tells Philip off (

Her outburst is accompanied by a vigorous raking of her forearm across her face, a pitiless gesture that expressed all the revulsion and scorn she felt for his attempts at intimacy. The stunned look on Leslie Howard’s face said it all. This action reportedly mesmerized movie critics as well, who applauded Bette’s prowess in this part to the rafters.

Besides the character’s obvious ferocity, what got my attention was the fierce determination boiling just below the surface — and Davis’ extraordinary ability to convey that determination on the screen: her volatile temperament, her casual attitude and insolence toward the men in her life, and her bottomless capacity for self-destruction, without regard to the consequences.

I don’t suppose that mom ever witnessed this aspect of Davis’ art, but I can’t say for sure. She never mentioned this movie, but then again she may have had other matters occupying her mind. My father knew of it, so I guess that was enough.

But there’s one thing I can say: she had no doubt seen Now, Voyager — innumerable times. In fact, it was the one film she felt was closest to her own nature. It was left to me to find out why.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes