An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part One)

“The Agony and the Ecstasy” poster art

Artists and their works …. These have been much on our mind of late. In fact, how often have we heard the phrase “Artists are such temperamental creatures?” Perhaps you may have said it yourself — at one time or another — to a friend, to a colleague, or to no one in particular. To me, the natural follow-up question would be: How true is this statement? With the next logical query being: Do all artists suffer that much for their art?

There’s only one way to find out, though, and that’s by looking at various film depictions of artists and the artistic life — mostly painters in general, but a few other dedicated “craftsmen” set aside for this purpose.

Let’s try to establish, once and for all, if their suffering has impacted their work to any noticeable degree — noticeable, that is, to us film buffs. Maybe then, and only then, can the above questions be answered.

So let’s proceed chronologically, if that’s all right with you?

 The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Bramante (Harry Andrews), Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) & the artist Michelangelo (Charlton Heston)

Based on the 1961 novel by Irving Stone, who wrote the earlier Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy is the story of Michelangelo Buonarrotti, the high-minded High-Renaissance artist, poet, and sculptor par excellence; his lively battles with the obstinate Pope Julius II; and his long-term commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The novel was turned into a dryly verbose, dramatically inert but effective enough motion picture.

With a sonorous film score by Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith, and superb wide-screen photography by Leon Shamroy (it was shot simultaneously in Todd-AO and CinemaScope), the film version, released in 1965, starred the finely-chiseled American Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments, El Cid) as Michelangelo and a veddy British Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, Dr. Doolittle) as the so-called “Warrior” Pope Julius, with Diane Cilento as the Countess de’ Medici, Harry Andrews as Bramante, Alberto Lupo as the Duke of Urbino, and Adolfo Celi as Giovanni de’ Medici.

The movie’s pace is somewhat static. And the main argument, based on the artistic principle that an artist — even one of Michelangelo’s rarefied caliber — may not show Adam and Eve without their clothes, may go over the heads of most of laypeople. Another, equally telling aspect was Michelangelo’s unwillingness to dabble in paint. He insisted, quite rightly, that sculpture was his true calling, and struggled valiantly to come to terms with his desire to do justice to the Sistine Chapel assignment.

Michelangelo chisels away at one of his sculptures

As the actor personifying the artist, Heston was known for his voracious reading habits and assiduous background research into the lives of the historical individuals he was portraying. Not only did he study the methods used by Michelangelo to achieve his main purpose (i.e. the wielding of a hammer and chisel), but he practiced lying on his back for hours in order to master the art of fresco painting. All of which, it must be said, amounted to a believable if somewhat trite representation of the all-suffering artist.

However, one of the key scenes, if not THE key scene, in the picture is the moment when Heston’s quest for a viable theme for the project manifests itself atop a mountain overlooking the marble quarry where Michelangelo is at work. According to author Jeff Rovin, in The Films of Charlton Heston, “It is sunset, and as day wanes the sky becomes the ceiling and the clouds form God, Adam, and the other focal points of the mural while Heston recites [the Creation of Adam section from] Genesis.” Corny, yes, but quite inspiring! The music provides just the right emotional counterpoint to this episode.

The Creation of Adam sequence from “The Agony and the Ecstasy”

Produced and directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), the film does have its moments — especially when Heston and Harrison go at it tooth and nail (they feuded in real life on and off the movie set). Still, there’s that excellent score by North and picturesque location scenery (it was filmed in and around Italy, but not in the actual Sistine Chapel, which was recreated at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome).

An ersatz feminine “love interest” (the Diane Cilento character) is pure fiction. As history has recorded for us, the unpredictable Michelangelo (much like his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, as well as several other artists around that time) was homosexually inclined.

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Written and directed by the Russian-born Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev (pronounced “Roo-blyov”) concerns the ambiguous fifteenth-century icon painter and the mysterious workings of the Middle Ages and the Russian Orthodox Church, among other matters.

A scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” (1966)

Filmed in glorious back and white — except for the epilogue, which was photographed in stunningly vivid color — and divided into seven parts, this is a ponderously labored, winding and winnowing, difficult to grasp feature. In general, Tarkovsky’s films are a hard slog to wade through. Irrespective of standard movie lengths or plot lines, the writer-director’s body of work relies more on mood and tone; sounds are employed and magnified not so much for aesthetic merit but for their narrative value.

Tarkovksy also eschews his compatriot Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory of cinema. Instead, he provides the viewer with a multiplicity of images, many of them painstakingly staged and lasting many minutes of screen time. The term “texture” has often been cited to describe his unique visual style.

“Andrei Rublev” courtesy of Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel

A true original, Tarkovsky took great pains to avoid emulating any of his predecessors. If anything, he would modify his carefully constructed scenes so as not to call attention to the work of others. (Note: Tarkovsky DID learn the value of silence and extended takes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the release of his sci-fi drama Solaris in 1972; incidentally, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki used many of Tarkovsky’s continuous-motion techniques in both Birdman and The Revenant).

With Andrei Rublev (only his second picture), Tarkovsky reached what might be termed his full maturity. This close to four-hour production, then, is an unmatched introduction to his cinematic universe. It is technically proficient, as are all his films, and visually compelling as well. The lead character (played by a morose Anatoly Solonitsyn) is moodiness personified. Rublev goes through as much inner turmoil as mental and physical deprivations. As a matter of fact, so do all of the individuals in the story.

Actor Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev

The theme of the artist as both participant and observer in the drama of life is carried through from beginning to ending. It starts off with a seemingly unrelated prologue of a man flying in hot-air balloon fashion over a church and open field — symbolic, of course, of the artist trying to take flight but crash-landing moments later despite his efforts. Episodic and sadistic, gritty and grim, with scenes of mayhem, rape and animal torture, along with eye-gouging and similar wartime atrocities, the violence quotient in Rublev’s world remains high, as one would expect from a tale that takes place in medieval times.

Curiously, for a film about a painter of religious icons, the artist Rublev is rarely caught in the act of painting. There’s a point, too, in the drama where he ceases talking altogether (a vow of silence in penance for murdering a man), which only infuriates his friend Kirill (Ivan Lapikov). Another remarkable incident occurs near the end with the casting of a church bell by the novice bell-maker Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev). Will the bell ring out or not? If it doesn’t, then the Grand Prince (Yuriy Nazarov) who commissioned the casting will kill them all. Although he later admits that he knew nothing about casting bells, Boriska represents the artisan who lacks confidence in his own abilities, yet nevertheless manages to complete a given task — either by his mastery of the field or by sheer dumb luck!

End of Part One

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Welcome to Cosmos Country: Soccer Memories from Derek McLean

The great Pele & a young Derek McLean in 1982

Today’s guest contributor is former footballer Derek McLean. A native of Liverpool, England, Derek began his “football” (or, as we know it, “soccer”) career at his Primary School team, Corinthian Avenue. He went on to play in the B.B. League as a teenager, winning the league and cup double in one season and the cup winners the following season. His first adult team was Bemrose Printers as a left winger in the Liverpool Sunday League (from age 18 to 23) in “a very average team which won nothing.”

Derek moved on to Bellefield in the Liverpool Business House League in the early 1980s, where he switched from left wing to striker. In their second season, the team went on to win the league and the L.C.F.A. Sunday Junior Cup. Derek scored the winning goal in a 1-0 victory, for a total of 24 goals in that season. He also played in Yorkshire for a couple of seasons with LDS, playing as a central midfielder. Due to work and travel, Derek was unable to play for a team for a few years.

Coming out of retirement to play for Liverpool International Supporters Club in the Formers League in 1998, Derek switched to center back and went on to receive the “Player of the Season” award in his second season at 38 years of age.

Derek’s footballing highlight came by playing in America in a one-off match at Pelé Soccer Camp at age 17 — the background of which he relates in the following series of e-mails:

September 17, 2017

 

Hi Josmar,

I just wanted to say thank you for a very interesting and worthy piece of literature I found online about Professor Julio Mazzei that you wrote.

I am from Liverpool in England and I had my most memorable time in football (soccer as it is known in America), thanks to the Professor.

I had visited America on holiday as a 17 year old with my family in 1979. My Uncle was a soccer coach at the Pelé Soccer Camp in New Jersey at the time. We visited for the day and my Uncle asked if I wanted to play in one of the matches. I never turned down a game of soccer.

Each coach was assigned a group of about 16 players to coach for the week and they played matches against each other through the week. My Uncle asked all the coaches did they want an extra player for their match on the day I visited. They all said no, so my Uncle played me in his team with the agreement of the opposition coach.

I scored one and made the second goal as we led 2-0 at half time. The opposition coach then asked my Uncle could I play for his team in the second half as it was unfair!

I switched sides at half time and managed to set up the goal that earned me a win of both halves and my Uncle’s team a 2-1 win. The lads in my Uncle’s squad asked if I could stay for the week but unfortunately I had to say no.

I was totally unaware but sitting in the little stand for friends and families was Professor Julio Mazzei. I never knew of him at the time and I never saw him that day.

I returned to America on holiday again three years later in 1992. By this time the Professor was manager of the New York Cosmos. My Uncle took me down to the Meadowlands Stadium and we went into the Manager’s office and there was the Professor, still unknown to me. [Mazzei] said, “So, Derek, you have grown a bit since I last saw you, are you still scoring the goals?”

I was confused as to how he knew me. He then went on to explain how he had watched me play in one match, at Pelé Soccer Camp three years ago, and did I want to train with the New York Cosmos on Friday of this week?

I could not believe what I was hearing. “Of course, I would love the opportunity.” Was this really happening to me?!?

Well, I did train with the New York Cosmos. I was next to Johan Neeskens as we did six sprints of the length of the pitch in the Meadowlands Stadium. I beat him in the first one, I later realized he was running at the same speed each time, whereas I had got slower with each sprint!!

Derek McLean training with Johan Neeskens in Cosmos Country

I jogged around the pitch doing stretches in the close proximity of Carlos Alberto. I have never tired of telling this story to people who come into my life at different stages, it [was] all down to Professor Julio Mazzei. I can never thank him enough.

As I was only 20 at the time (and I was young and naïve), I never used the opportunity to see if the Professor could help launch a career in soccer for me in either America or back in England. I never asked if he was just being nice by letting me train or did he think I was a talented footballer?

Sadly he has gone, but I recently made contact with his daughter on Facebook and told her my story. Marjorie Mazzei told me that her Father would never have allowed me to train with New York Cosmos if I was not good enough. She said that around that time she had a boyfriend who was a very good goalkeeper and she had tried to get him the same opportunity but he said no chance. She was adamant that I was obviously good enough in her Dad’s eyes.

That was good enough for me, it has really made me happy, but very grateful to the man you have written such a great article about.

I have attached a couple of photographs of me training with these legends and the Professor also allowed me to keep the Cosmos shirt I trained in, I still have it along with a coaching manual by Pelé, which is signed by both Pelé and the Professor to myself. Great treasures!

Thank you for your great insight into the man and what a vital role he played in not just looking after Pelé but also growing the game of Soccer in America. Thank you for your great piece of work and I hope you enjoy reading about my greatest memory in Soccer.

Kind Regards,

Derek McLean

 

September 24, 2017

Dear Derek,

Good morning. I’ve known Marjorie for quite some time. We corresponded for several years before I finally got to meet her in person. Our respective fathers had met, too, over 35 years ago, for lunch. I have often wondered how that encounter came about, but since both my father and the Professor never knew each other personally and, sadly, have passed on, we may never know for certain.

In any case, I appreciate your detailed description of having played with the Great Ones during the heyday of the Cosmos. I saw an exhibition game at the decrepit Downing Stadium Field on Randall’s Island (it really was dilapidated, a veritable nightmare!). I saw many Cosmos home games at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. I was even privy to Pelé’s final game there on October 1, 1977, against his old team Santos.

According to the Professor’s account, Carlos Alberto had quite a temper! In one of their games, Carlos Alberto spat at the referee, which got him suspended from the playoffs. That was the main reason for their having lost the championship that year (it must have been around the early 1980s or so – Pelé had already retired). It was the game that Nelsi Morais (another Brazilian) had scored in the infamous shootout phase, but the ball went inside the net just seconds after the whistle blew. A real heartbreaker!

Derek in training with Carlos Alberto at the Meadowlands

In any case, I appreciate the photographs. What a treasure trove of memories! I would like your permission, if you can, to use your e-mail and photos on my blog. I’m sure the many Cosmos and soccer fans out there would be thrilled to read your personal account of these events.

Thank you again for writing, Derek. Stay well and keep in touch. I’m curious to know your thoughts regarding the upcoming World Cup in Moscow. That should be an entertaining event, more so now because of the politics!

 

September 24, 2017

Hi Joe,

It was great to get a reply from you and I am glad you liked my greatest time in football (soccer). I would have no problem with you telling my story in a future blog. I would be honored to have you write about me.

I am currently in the process of writing the whole story myself and that was how I came across your articles, through my research on the Professor. My son had said I should get my memories down in writing, as I had said how many stories from my parents and grandparents have now been lost, since they have all passed away.

My Uncle went to the final game for Pelé against Santos. He gave me the match program. I love soccer memorabilia and I have lots of items from my trips following Liverpool FC during their great years of the 1970s and 1980s. I also have some match programs from Cosmos games, which have a number of the players’ autographs on [them]. Great keepsakes!

I was really fascinated about your stories about Pelé v Eusebio, Carlos Alberto and Nelsi Morais. I love to know more insight into these players and their personalities.

The World Cup in Russia is a political hot potato and FIFA have not done themselves any favors with the way they have been behaving in recent years. Clearly money is talking when it comes to deciding on the countries hosting the next two World Cups.

It also worries me how the Russian fans behaved in the last European Championships in France; they had a clear plan to attack the British fans from Wales, England and Ireland. It will be interesting to see if they don’t want it to happen in their own backyard or if it gets even worse.

As far as who is going to win it, I can definitely say it will not be England [Note: Derek was spot-on with that one]. Possibly Germany, if I had to make a guess at this stage [Note: No, not really]. Who do you think will win it at this stage?

Well, thanks again for replying. Let me know if you want any more photographs and hopefully keep in touch. It is interesting to get an insight from someone from another part of the world.

As we say at Anfield,

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Derek

 

October 7, 2017

Hi Derek,

In answer to your question: Yes, Derek, please send me some more photographs — something along the lines of “then and now” photos, i.e., what you looked like when you were a young soccer player vs. what you look like now.

I would be using your e-mail recollections below, if that’s OK, which I have done with several people I have corresponded with over the years (including Marjorie herself).

Professor Mazzei was a fascinating individual to write and learn about, and an incredibly cosmopolitan gentleman. He had the foresight to encourage Pelé (who was unwilling to leave Brazil and his family) for stardom in the U.S. I firmly believe that Professor, Pelé, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Shep Messing, and the other players on the Cosmos roster and other NASL teams in the 70s and 80s paved the way for soccer (football, futebol, calcio) in America. Although the league eventually failed, soccer itself was a success. It is now a permanent fixture on the North American sports frontier. That’s a huge difference from where it was four decades ago!

And again, Derek, thank you so much for writing!

Enjoy the weekend,

Joe