Street Life: The Politically Incorrect World of Animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoonist, artist, writer and animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoon Caricatures

For those who grew up in the inner cities — and by that, I mean the worst parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, to encompass the streets of Philadelphia, the segregated neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and the over-crowded tenements of Boston, Chicago, and East Los Angeles — the pervasive violence, the lack of upward mobility, the profanity and discrimination, the sexist treatment of women, the drugs, prostitution, and out-and-out squalor and despair were an inescapable way of life. (If you don’t believe me, check out the HBO series The Deuce.)

Add to these an irreverent outlook, a comically skewed yet perceptive observation of humanity with all its failings and faults; of basic “survival mode” amid the stench of decay and neglect, and you begin to understand what drove the art of a young Jewish immigrant growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the 1940s and 50s.

For artist and animator Ralph Bakshi, irreverence toward the status quo (with his middle finger prominently raised in direct response to it) was a natural form of self-expression, a method for combating the boredom and loneliness of line-drawing or cell-painting — and of perfecting his own off-kilter attitude to what nowadays is known as the politically incorrect.

The young Ralph Bakshi, drawing away in his studio

Nothing in Bakshi’s background, which manifested itself in his copious artwork, was commonplace or mundane. Quite the opposite: whether his characters were anthropomorphized animal figures or highly-caricatured examples of the human kind, for better or worse they lived and breathed the urban street life, something the young Bakshi was intimately acquainted with. They throbbed with vibrancy and authenticity — even if that so-termed authenticity verged on the exaggerated or the extreme.

In today’s contentious political atmosphere, an artist of Bakshi’s ilk, and intensely polemical output and worldview, would be hailed as a visionary. His work would be broadcast on primetime cable (or pay-per-view) with the same loyalty and dedication that have made such programs as the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, HBO’s Westworld, or the award-winning Netflix series The Handmaid’s Tale the critical bonanzas they’ve become.

But back in the 1970s and 80s, when Bakshi first gained notoriety by depicting outright lust, loose morals, avarice, corruption, intolerance, violence, and racial bigotry in full-length cartoon fashion (Fritz the Cat, 1972; Heavy Traffic, 1973), he was looked upon with disdain if not outright revulsion as the architect of animated subversion. By capturing the stereotypical behavior of the racially mixed minorities he had grown up with, and by imposing his own personal (some would say “offensive”) stamp and pulp style to animation, Bakshi revealed the true “colors,” such as they were, of big-city life and the people who populate it.

“Fritz the Cat” (1972), based on Robert Crumb’s underground comic

Rotoscopy, or the process of tracing live-action models and settings from real-life individuals or photographs, became a workable (albeit crudely stylized) means of translating Bakshi’s vision into actuality. The later introduction of computer graphics and CGI-animated features, however, only emphasized the fact that what Bakshi was doing at the time clearly pointed in that direction. He once complained, in an online interview, that he was heavily criticized for having used the rotoscopy method once employed by such animation pioneers as Max and Dave Fleischer and Walt Disney, which modern computer animation has taken full advantage of. His reaction: he expressed excitement at the knowledge that he, a simple cartoonist and writer, was the path-breaker.

In the early days of his career, Bakshi toiled at Terrytoons and Hanna-Barbera, while later branching out with his own makeshift studio. He worked, when work was indeed available, for such big-name outfits as Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Twentieth Century-Fox, but never with lavish budgets and always on the brink of ruination. If the results remained stillborn or obviously rushed, their very crudity and inconclusiveness lent his features a degree of quaintness and immediacy — that is to say, of living in the moment.

Not a Second to Spare

The sultry Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) from the live action-animated feature “Cool World” (1992)

This feeling of living in the moment was unlike anything one got from earlier animated productions. The influence of New Hollywood, and the newfound freedom of expression and permissiveness that came with it (“sex, love and dope” were some of the themes), served as both a godsend and a curse to Sixties and Seventies filmmakers such as Bakshi.

Along with the animator, a new generation of cinematic entrepreneurs (i.e., Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, John Cassavetes, John Carpenter, Paul Schrader, and others) had come of age in the wake of this new open-mindedness. As a group, they succeeded in tearing open the motion-picture envelope of what could be seen and heard on the big screen.

Bakshi, as the only animator, was a key contributor to this idea of a more open cinematic experience, the literal exposure of urban myths regarding our beloved American society — a cruel, dishonest, and demeaning one, from the point of view of the oppressed, which included such insalubrious characterizations as street hustlers, hookers, bums, vagrants, drug dealers, low-life types, pot-smokers, police officials, innocent bystanders, the mob, high school dropouts and college kids, and so on (see Fritz the Cat; Hey Good Lookin’, 1982).

“Hey Good Lookin” (1982), Bakshi’s semi-autobiographical feature

Ralph Bakshi’s so-called genius, then, was in taking the side of the not-so-casual observer. His “camera lens” focused primarily on subject matter and theme, along with their accompanying surroundings — aspects that, in today’s mixed-up crazy world, have endeared him to a whole new generation of film fans.

His overall film work (yes, even the less characteristic sci-fi/fantasy features) are a symbiotic blend of actual street sounds and competing voices, mixed together with whatever-was-available background footage, still images, and period music. The stunning visuals, many if not all of them individually and painstakingly traced from life, attest to the director, screenwriter, and animator’s innate ability to make use of existing material.

He is not to be confused with the likes of an Ed Wood, who despite whatever outward enthusiasm he might have demonstrated in his amateurish film productions, could never be considered an artist. Bakshi was, and remains, an artist through and through.

The interracial relationship depicted in “Heavy Traffic” (1973), with its mixture of live-action (background) with animated foreground figures

Not that his on-the-fly working methods would be mistaken for professionally-finished “quality” product. In stretching the limits between the real and the imaginary, Bakshi frequently struggled with budgets and lack of funding. More often than not, he failed, to a large extent, to bring his vision to completion. Although less polished than the majority of his contemporaries’ work, to this writer the less polished and “finished” Bakshi’s animated product seemed the more revelatory and genuine they turned out to be. Indeed, their very imperfections proved more artful, more thrilling, and, yes, more true to life, for lack of a better word, than anything introduced by the Disney Studios.

Certainly the textures were all there: the sense of an incomplete masterpiece-in-the-making; of further insights to come (then again, maybe not); the inescapable feeling of imbalance, of rawness and raunchiness, of disproportion and sketchiness, of living on the edge, or whatever else tickled his fancy.

The copious bloodletting and perpetuation of ethnic and cultural stereotypes were there in spades (no pun intended). Add to them the clash of varying styles and formats within the same picture frame, and the incompatible combination of realistic drawings with cartoony creations — again, the intervention of real life into that of the make-believe film world.

This clash of styles would continue to be a hallmark of many of his productions, in particular that of Coonskin (1975) and the later Cool World (1992). Adult-oriented plots, defiantly for (and about) mature audiences, and the all-too-serious situations that abound in his films, along with their ribald humor — these were the qualities that set Bakshi apart from every other animator of his period.

The controversial and racially charged “Coonskin” (1975)

We need only mention the extraordinary use of Nazi propaganda footage from pre-World War II Germany to entice rebellion (Wizards, 1977); the medieval storming of a rotoscoped castle, taken wholly from MGM’s Ivanhoe (The Lord of the Rings, 1978); and entire scenes lifted from director Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (Wizards again), or the tracing of Saruman from Charlton Heston’s Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (The Lord of the Rings). Were these blatant infringements of copyrighted material, or were they Bakshi’s homage to classic films and the filmmakers who made them?

Pot smoking, sexual promiscuity, philandering, fornication, drug addiction, hustling: indeed, all levels of documented human behavior were explored and exploited, as unsavory and disrespectful as they appeared to some. All of these facets simply emboldened Bakshi, who conveyed the deeply flawed personalities of his creations as they were. But the empathy he displayed for them nonetheless shines through the muck. No one is perfect, in his assessment, and no one is less flawed than anyone else. We are all human, or inhuman if you prefer. That is the lesson one learns when watching one of his pictures.

A true original and an independent hero to writers and art directors alike, Bakshi’s films are fascinating from the point of view of their uniqueness. His characters float in a surrealistic environment of their own formation, a hallucinatory topsy-turvy world as unseemly and disjointed as an LSD trip. Yet, there is something poetic to his work, the dialogue (as coarse and vulgar as it often gets) is no more shocking than, say, the harshest of David Mamet or the gutter language employed on cable network shows.

His influences extend from the cartoonist brothers Max and Dave Fleischer to Walt Disney, from Walter Lantz, Bob Clampett, and Ollie Johnston to Tex Avery, Ub Iwerks, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Paul Terry, and the underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, among others.

Robert Crumb (self-portrait), underground comic book artist, writer, musician, and creator of “Fritz the Cat”

Bakshi’s films remain as relevant in today’s society as they ever were. For reasons already noted, we continue to face the same age-old problems of race, sexism, drug addiction, corruption, organized crime, gun violence, inequality, and such as many of his characters have experienced — with an ever-increasing lack of faith in our institutions to control or combat them.

His films have proven especially popular with young adults, now coming of age at a perilous point in our history (and who, ironically, happen to see themselves depicted on the screen); teenagers in love, interracial relationships, kids in trouble leading aimless lives, bigoted mind-sets, and families squabbling and arguing over who-knows-what.

Bakshi once stated that he came to the animation business at a time when animation was in its death throes. The art was dying, he claimed, and he was right. He may also have been the catalyst who led the charge in reviving it in the modern era.

Always a voracious reader, Bakshi wrote about the people he knew: the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, the Italians, the Jews, and the other ethnicities in his vicinity. He had a fondness for their culture, and how different or alike they were from one another. Above all, he reveled in their individuality and distinctiveness, their abundant love of life, and most characteristically their music. He felt a responsibility to discuss these folks in his work, to talk about their lives, to capture their complexities in timeless of-the-era fashion that still resonates with fans to this day.

In future installments of this series, we will be looking at each of his films individually, and discuss their merits and deficits, as well as their continued significance in and application for our troubled times.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

“Lust for Life,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, with Kirk Douglas as van Gogh

The troubled artist and the work he or she produces, or attempts to produce, are favorite themes of motion pictures devoted to their lives and loves, and to the sacrifices they’ve made for their art.

Those who are not blessed with the God-given talent for creating art are frequently puzzled as to what drives these artists to dig so deep down into their souls that they damage their physical health — or what little of it they had to begin with. Hand in hand with these ailments, their mental faculties are oftentimes disturbed, much to their detriment and to irreversible effect.

When these ailments are transferred to the silver screen, viewers can’t help but feel as though they are voyeurs partaking of these cinematic re-enactments. This brings us to the next batch of features about the artistic life and its consequences.

Lust for Life (1956)

One of the prime examples of the artist who suffered, deliberately and repeatedly, in order to produce great art (or any art, for that matter) involves the Post-Impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (pronounced “Hawh” in the original Dutch, with an emphasis on the guttural, hard “H” sound).

We are all familiar with van Gogh and the stories of his obsessive-compulsive behavior and explosive temper. The well-told tale of how, unable to sell his work or make a living from his paintings, the harried Vincent ended up committing suicide after countless bouts of depression, psychosis, lead poisoning, alcohol, and such. How he sliced off an earlobe after arguing with the equally intractable Paul Gauguin. And how, after his death, his works were eventually “discovered” and made famous the world over.

From such a story, more stories arose and took hold of the reader-listener. One of them, writer Irving Stone’s 1934 biographic book Lust for Life, formed the basis for a motion picture of the same name. MGM’s widescreen Metrocolor® production of Lust for Life (1956) featured a talented lineup headed by the scorching Kirk Douglas as van Gogh, Anthony Quinn as fellow firebrand Paul Gauguin, James Donald as Vincent’s art dealer brother Theo, Henry Daniell as their rigid father Theodorus van Gogh, Everett Sloane as Dr. Gachet, Noel Purcell as Anton Mauve, and Pamela Brown as Christine, with Niall MacGinnis, Madge Kennedy, Jill Bennett, Lionel Jeffries, and Laurence Naismith in other roles.

Vincent (Kirk Douglas) paints furiously while Gauguin (Anthony Quinn), standing over him, fumes at his efforts

Stylishly directed by Vincente Minnelli, with a jarringly powerful film score by Miklós Rózsa, the movie follows a familiar trajectory of events leading up to Vincent’s premature passing. (Stone also authored the 1961 historical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the High-Renaissance sculptor and artist Michelangelo’s struggles with Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the subject of our previous post.) The outstanding cinematography was provided by Russell Harlan and Freddie Young, with superb recreations of many of van Gogh’s magnificent portraits, still-lives, and landscapes.

The screenplay, by former radio broadcaster and writer Norman Corwin, emphasized van Gogh’s growing mental instability and mounting frustrations with his lot in life, sometimes in straight dramatic displays, other times coupled with over-the-top histrionics. Take, for instance, the notorious “hand-over-the-lit-candle” incident, a legendary trope among movie buffs that has been savagely mocked ever since its initial introduction (especially by impressionist Frank Gorshin, who perfected Douglas’ clenched-jaw, gritting-of-teeth acting style).

Vincent (Kirk Douglas) with Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) in Arles, France

Starting out as an itinerant minister, the film portrays van Gogh as an abject “failure” in this regard, but as an individual with a social conscience and an immense capacity for work and personal sacrifice. He was also an extremely lonely, boorish human being. Rejected outright by one of his female cousins, van Gogh runs off to Gay Paree (at his brother Theo’s suggestion) where he takes up painting. By the way, his art-dealer sibling, as compassionate and accommodating a soul as one would ever hope for, provides Vincent with monetary assistance whenever possible.

Unfortunately, van Gogh is rejected as well by the academic art world for his undisciplined working methods, primitive painting skills, and skewed proportions (ironically, the very things he would be most known for). Vincent’s dependency on his brother only aggravates an already explosive situation.

Consequently, both Vincent and his newfound friend, the self-absorbed, bullying painter Gauguin, retreat to Arles in the south of France (again, the idea was Theo’s) where, for a time, they bolster each other’s work (and ego). Soon, Gauguin realizes that Vincent is unstable, while the impatient, restless van Gogh — as much of a control freak as he is an obsessive-compulsive — nags Gauguin to drink. The two men argue incessantly, which ends badly for van Gogh. The scene of the slicing off of Vincent’s ear, shot off-camera but within an excruciatingly descriptive sound design (bolstered by Rózsa’s sharp-edged music), is memorable more for the self-loathing it suggests rather than what is actually shown of the self-mutilation.

The performances throughout are commendable, however, with Kirk taking the acting (or, rather, OVER-acting) honors, although Quinn as Gauguin copped a Best Supporting Actor Award at the Oscars. Still, this is Douglas’ show all the way. The fact that he spoke fluent French (the film was shot on location, as depicted in the copious exteriors) and bore an impressive likeness to the real van Gogh (with red beard and straw hat intact) only added to its so-called “authenticity.” Douglas played on the audience’s sympathy, which works for a time but can get downright cloying when he (in character) constantly grasps his head and runs his hands through his cropped hair for the hundredth time. Sadly, this is what 1950s Hollywood took for its depiction of mental illness.

Publicity shot for “Lust for Life” of Vincent van Gogh and Kirk Douglas, side by side

Not quite as authentic as well was Scotsman James Donald as Theo. Donald is a tad too rigid and refined, with a typical Anglican reserve to his bearing that was not out of place in such later military fare as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). But here, one longed for him to open up the floodgates, to show some fire and spirit. Historically, under the upstanding, above-board exterior Theo was just as volatile and driven as his older brother. This is hardly explored at all; what we get instead is sympathy, sympathy, and, oh, yes, more sympathy.

Vincent’s controversial suicide and bedside death are also shown, albeit to suit the dramatic purposes of the story. (And there is no mention of Theo’s own passing six months later from dementia and paralysis, an inexcusable oversight.) Modern research has shown, however, that Vincent may not have taken his own life after all, as previously thought, but could have been shot quite by accident by some mischievous teenagers in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise where he lived and worked.

Besides the aforementioned gorgeous photography, the best thing about Lust for Life is Douglas’ uncanny, spot-on portrait of the artist, the quintessential case study of bipolar affliction.

The Moon and Sixpence (1946)

Herbert Marshall (l.) speaking with George Sanders as Charles Strickland, a stand-in for Gauguin, in “The Moon and Sixpence”

We move on from Vincent’s emotional foibles to a movie about Paul — Paul Gauguin, that is, the Parisian-born Post-Impressionist and purveyor of primitivism. Did you know that Gauguin’s life was dramatized long before van Gogh’s (in a highly romanticized manner, of course) and by another actor? Yes, the Russian-born British citizen George Sanders portrayed Monsieur Gauguin — or rather, an artificial version of the same.

The film was entitled The Moon and Sixpence (1946). Released independently by United Artists and directed by Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray), the movie was based on a novel by William Somerset Maugham, first published in 1919.  Both the novel and the movie are fictionalized accounts of the author’s friendship and acquaintance with the reclusive, egomaniacal yet world-renowned artist, painter, and sculptor Gauguin.

In this black-and-white feature (the restored print has some amber-tinted Tahitian scenes, along with a brilliantly lit Technicolor finale), Gauguin is renamed Charles Strickland, a bored London stockbroker who longs to leave the dull confines of British domesticity and bourgeois respectability in order to paint his innermost desires. Sanders gave the artist in question a cautiously hulking, brooding quality. He also dies of leprosy, another fictional slant to the story (by way of punishment for his sins?). The real Gauguin was suspected of having (and spreading) syphilis. As Strickland nears his own end, he orders the natives to burn his final masterpiece, so that little to nothing of his life’s work is left behind. What was all that about suffering for one’s art?

George Sanders as the fictional artist Charles Strickland

The real-life Gauguin was a staid, middle-class financier (if at a lower hierarchic level) who, when the bottom fell out of the market of his life, turned to painting as a full-time livelihood. He left his solidly middle-class wife and family to eventually make his way to Paris, then to Martinique and eventually to faraway French Polynesia, where he doted on the local flora and fauna, to include the lovely young Tahitian lasses who figured so prominently in his work.

In the movie, the author Somerset Maugham is called Geoffrey Wolfe and was portrayed by London native Herbert Marshall, who appeared in the same role, and in the same year (but under the author’s real name), in a Tyrone Power-Anne Baxter vehicle for Twentieth Century-Fox called The Razor’s Edge — a later Somerset Maugham narrative about a soul- searching angry young man looking for meaning in his life, and in the lives of his filthy rich society friends.

Vincent & Theo (1990)

Tim Roth as van Gogh in Robert Altman’s more faithful “Vincent & Theo”

Directed by the independent-minded auteur Robert Altman (M*A*S*H*, Nashville, The Player), this two-hour feature starred the versatile Tim Roth as van Gogh and Paul Rhys as his brother Theo.

It’s basically a Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau re-evaluation of Vincent and Theo’s perpetually intertwined relationship to each other, documented (or not) in those hundreds upon hundreds of letters they wrote. Many, if not most, of Theo’s correspondence to Vincent were destroyed by Vincent himself. Although art historians and the public in general have access only to Vincent’s side of the exchange, one can still get a more than complete picture of their association via the circumstances in which the brothers addressed their thoughts and related to one another.

In a word, they were inseparable. Director Altman, in a making-of mini-documentary, mentions that they were very much like the Corsican Brothers, i.e. if one got sick, the other threw up. When Vincent died, Theo died, too. They shared a commonality of interest in art, due to two uncles who worked in the art field. Consequently, Theo became an art dealer and, as noted in many accounts, introduced his brother to the leading art figures of the day, among them Cézanne, Rousseau, Pissaro, Seurat, and, of course, Gauguin.

Equal time is given to both brothers’ predicaments and to the respective, symbiotic parts they played in one another’s lives. The closeness, fierceness, mutual admiration, rivalry, and out-and-out disgust they displayed are more fully explored in Altman’s film than in Minnelli’s standard Hollywood biopic.

Vincent’s coarseness and slovenliness are emphasized as well, sometimes for contrast against the clean-shaven and dignified Theo’s appearance, but more often to place the artist within the context of his art (which, we are told pictorially, served as a projection of his inner torment). Vincent lived as he wanted, and his dirty, disheveled, dissipated lifestyle, stained clothing and teeth, abrasive behavior, and poverty-stricken habitation became the manifestation of what viewers generally suspected an unappreciated artist’s life to be.

Theo (Paul Rhys) is approached by brother Vincent (Tim Roth) in “Vincent & Theo”

Credit for this outstanding personification goes to Tim Roth, who literally becomes the suffering artist Vincent. There’s nothing likable about this individual at all. We see Roth eat his paints; he even drinks the turpentine he uses to thin out those paints — heck, right out of the canister, mind you! If obsession is the key to this character’s turmoil, then Roth has earned his keep. This is as close to the way the real van Gogh may have behaved as one is likely to get — maybe too close for the audience’s comfort.

In contrast, Paul Rhys as Theo is the exact opposite of his brother. Tall, slim, and oh-so-proper and prim, Rhys wears his respectability on his sleeve. He also loves his older brother to death with an unending verve and passion, and will do anything to help him. Theo tries, mostly in vain, to find a buyer for Vincent’s work, yet Vincent accuses him (rather unfairly) of not doing enough to aid him in that respect. Is Theo his brother’s keeper? No matter how much Theo tries to prop his brother up and get him to stand on his own two feet, Vincent plops back down to wallow in self-pity and self-hate.

Neither brother comes off well in this showcase. After two hours of this (the feature was originally intended as a four-hour-long miniseries for television), viewers are ready to throw up their hands and yell, “Enough, already! We get it, we get it! Artists suffer for their art!”

Theo (second from right) gazes at an art work, while Gauguin (second from left) watches at back

In sharp contrast to the above, the mincing portrait we get of Gauguin (French-Bulgarian actor Wladimir Yordanoff) is an unfortunate misstep. Unlike the lustful, violent, boastful, larger-than-life Anthony Quinn figure, here, Gauguin is played as more of a wimp, as personality-less putty in Vincent’s manipulative hands and utterly lacking in energy and vibrancy. No “lust for life” in this guy? Hmm…. I guess not.

The score by Gabriel Yared is another huge letdown. While it’s true that Rózsa’s very film-noir influenced themes tend to spotlight the painter’s intensity a bit too obviously, they do serve the underlying emotional purposes quite appropriately. Yared’s music, however, goes nowhere. It fails to do what film scores were intended to do: which is, to sonically add to the general understanding of a picture’s aims. Something by Erik Satie, or Claude Debussy, would have been a better way to capture the moodiness and melancholy of the era, as well as the essence of van Gogh’s fabulous output.

In general, Altman’s Vincent & Theo is a warts-and-all (and then some) study of two brothers — a much closer real-life assessment of their star-crossed lives — while Minnelli’s Lust for Life is your standard Fifties grin-and-bear-it struggle for fame and fortune, a one-sided essay on one artist’s failure to make good.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Five): The Olympic Light Burns Twice as Bright

Oscar Schmidt waves to the crowd at the Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016

Oh, but wait! Who’s that big guy carrying the Olympic flag? That’s Sestão! Sestão? Who the hell is Sestão? Why, it’s Oscar! Oscar Schmidt. No doubt he’s filled out some, but the form was still the same, and so was that unmistakable grin. Schmidt’s imposing six-foot-nine-inch frame towered over everyone else. Yes, Oscar Schmidt, Brazil’s all-time leading scorer in Olympic and professional basketball, if not in ALL of basketball, on hand for the opening ceremony.

After undergoing surgery for brain cancer in both 2011 and 2013, Oscar looked healthy and fit as he stood proud and tall in his all-white suit. Waving to the thousands of cheering fans in attendance, he held the Olympic banner aloft, alongside seven other Brazilian athletes and former Olympic medal winners, to include women’s soccer champion Marta.

Many moments later, the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony resumed with the presence of retired tennis player Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten. At about the middle of the runway, Guga paused and kissed the next torchbearer’s hand. Upon receiving the flame, the torchbearer raised it high overhead. Guga held on to the torchbearer’s hips and bowed, gallantly, to former basketball sensation Hortência Marcari. Strolling sideways down the runway, the still elegant Hortência reached the long-awaited individual who would take hold of the flame and light the Olympic cauldron.

“Guga” Kuerten & Hortencia holding the Olympic flame at Rio 2016

For the next two weeks, the cauldron would burn bright, a symbol of the unquenchable light that illuminates the inner flame of every Olympian; the light that coaxes the ancient spirits of Mount Olympus down from the clouds and back down to Mother Earth. Entrusted with this sacred duty, the bearer of the Olympic flame must be an athlete of unrivaled ability; a sportsperson of the highest order as well as unquestioned integrity and esteem.

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima came from the small town of Cruzeiro do Oeste (Western Cross) in the southern State of Paraná. He was raised in Tapira, an even smaller town in the same state. Like many young Brazilians before and after him, Vanderlei had childhood dreams of becoming a stellar soccer player. Instead, he turned to running.

The aim of most runners is to go the distance, to extend themeselves beyond the norm. This became Vanderlei’s mantra as well, his reason for doing what he did. Through the inspiration of his coach, Ricardo D’Angelo, Vanderlei went from half-marathons to running “the whole nine yards” (actually, 42.2 kilometers, or 26.2 miles for a full marathon).

“We have a great relationship,” Vanderlei said of Coach Ricardo, “and when I started running, he was starting his coaching career. We both learned a lot together.”

He qualified for the Atlanta Games in 1996, and went on to finish the Tokyo Marathon in 1998, taking second place. In that same year, he placed fifth in the New York Marathon with a near-personal best of two hours, ten minutes, and forty-two seconds. While training for the 2000 Sydney Games, Vanderlei hurt his foot, leading to a seventy-fifth place finish with one of his slowest times ever (two hours, thirty-seven minutes, and eight seconds).

“I had to stop three times and walk,” Vanderlei reported. “Nobody knows what I had to go through to finish there. I got injured while preparing in Mexico, and I was never able to recover fully.”

He did recover fully, however, nearly matching his personal best, in 2001, in Japan, and winning in São Paulo in 2002. Previously, he had taken the gold at the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and struck gold again, in hot and humid Santo Domingo, at the 2003 Pan-American Games.

“I don’t know how I managed to finish that race. The race was the toughest of my life. I don’t remember ever having that many thoughts of abandoning a race. I believe all those who were able to finish were heroes. I remember having no strength to complete the final lap at the track, and people told me I passed out for a few minutes at the end.”

His greatest ambition — and, indeed, the ambition of all marathoners — would be to run in the 2004 Athens Games, where Vanderlei could trace the steps of the legendary messenger, Philippides (or Pheidippides in some accounts), from the ancient city of Marathon to the Greek capital of Atenas, or Athens.

“That was a singular moment in my career,” he remembered. “It took twelve years of preparation for me to reach that point. Considering what happened, I look at it positively that I won an Olympic medal.”

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima with the Brazilian flag at Athens 2004

He was going all the way. Not for silver, mind you, not even for bronze. Vanderlei had his heart set on winning the gold. He had trained for years for this moment. At the 35 kilometer mark, he found himself in the lead at Athens 2004, a mere half-a-minute ahead of his nearest challenger. Buoyed by an inspirational letter he received from Coach Ricardo (sent through another coach), Vanderlei appeared on the verge of victory.

The letter, in part, read as follows: “Remember the tough hill at 35km. If you are feeling well, take your risks, because if you don’t risk, you will never win.”

“I thought a lot about that letter,” Vanderlei reflected afterwards. “Especially once I started feeling well in the race … Perhaps some athletes thought I wasn’t going to lead for a long time, but that didn’t bother me at all.”

What never entered his mind was the fate of that fabled Philippides run. Charged with announcing the news of the Greek victory over the invading Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.), Philippides ran the nearly 40 kilometer route (or 25 miles) to Athens. Upon reaching the city’s gates, the exhausted herald approached the ruling body and declared, “Hail to you! We’ve won!” Immediately after, the messenger collapsed and died.

To Vanderlei’s surprise — and to the surprise of spectators and journalists who lined the busy streets of modern-day Athens — he was rushed upon by a man dressed in an orange kilt, a green beret, and green socks. The man shoved Vanderlei off the course and onto the sidewalk, preventing him from going on with the race. But thanks to a burly, bearded Greek onlooker named Polyvios Kossivas, who pushed the assailant away and helped the runner to his feet, Vanderlei continued the race. Losing his rhythm as well as his focus, it took all of Vanderlei’s skill as an experienced marathoner to recover his momentum.

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima is accosted by an assailant at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games

“The attack was a surprise for me. I couldn’t defend myself because I was concentrating on my race. I don’t know what would have happened if the Greek man who helped me so quickly hadn’t reacted the way he did. I give him a lot of credit for his courage.”

The assailant turned out to be a fanatical Irish priest named Cornelius “Neil” Horan, a man with a history of interfering in races and competitions. He was arrested (though given a suspended sentence) and fined a large sum. A year later, Horan was defrocked by the Catholic Church in Ireland.

“It was very difficult for me to finish,” Vanderlei summarized later. “With my sense of Olympic spirit I showed my determination and won a medal” — a bronze medal for third place.

Toward the end of the race, Vanderlei glided into the Panathinaikos Stadium with arms splayed in an airplane-like spread. Smiling broadly and blowing a kiss to the cheering stands, he wound his way over the finish line, physically drained and emotionally overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, his resolve to push on despite the mishap earned him a consolation prize: the prestigious Baron Pierre de Coubertin Award, given by the International Olympic Committee for those athletes who exemplified “the true spirit of sportsmanship.”

“When I entered the stadium, I was so happy that I had already forgotten the episode. It’s bronze but it means gold.”

This brought to mind the hallowed words of the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, who traveled to such far-flung places as Rome and Jerusalem, and, in between, the length and breadth of ancient Greece: “He fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith.”

For his having finished the race, Vanderlei was called upon once more, this time as one of the torchbearers charged with bringing the Olympic torch to Maracanã. But unlike his predecessor, the Greek Philippides, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima survived the ordeal and was accorded the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron.

In an odd turn of events, Pelé, who was originally scheduled to perform the deed, decided on short notice, and within hours of the occurrence, to bow out of the ceremony, citing “poor health.” Could the former soccer great have been suffering the ill effects of prostate surgery? No, not possible. The surgery had taken place a year earlier, in May 2015. Cold feet, perhaps? Not likely. Whatever his reasons were, Pelé, unlike his fellow athlete Oscar Schmidt, had failed to show up.

The next in line would be Gustavo Kuerten, but Guga would have none of it. He graciously stepped aside to allow Vanderlei to take his proper place at the top of the steps leading to the cauldron.

Olympic marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lights the Olympic cauldron at Rio 2016

When Cornelius “Neil” Horan, the fellow who pushed the runner off course in Athens, got wind of the news, his reaction confirmed the delusional state he’d been in for some time.

“When I actually saw him with my own eyes, I really got angry,” the former Catholic priest confessed to the New York Times. “I look[ed] at Vanderlei and I [thought], ‘You would be nowhere the star if not for me.’ ” We trust that Mr. Horan enjoyed his plate of sour grapes that evening.

Horan achieved a degree of notoriety when he danced an Irish jig for talent judge Simon Cowell on a 2009 episode of Britain’s Got Talent. In October 2004, Horan was charged by an Irish court with indecency involving a seven-year-old girl, an unsavory act that allegedly took place ten years prior. He was acquitted of all charges. However, the real-life judge in that case reminded the jury that one of Horan’s “character” witnesses, a clergyman, referred to the ex-priest as “a bit of a nutcase.”

(End of Part Five)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes