‘They’re BAAAACK!’ — The Return of the Met Opera Saturday Broadcasts

Boito’s “Mefistofele” starts the radio season off on December 1

It’s the 2018-2019 Radio Season

Yes, they’re back. And it’s about time, too! So what does the Met Opera radio and/or Live in HD series have in store for us fans? Anything in the way of bold innovations, newly commissioned works, or plain old favorites?

Looking over the recently received The Metropolitan Opera 2018-2019 Live in HD and Radio Program Guide, I found a lot to admire, but also much to be desired. That’s about par for the course. Since last season’s broadcasts got off to a scandalous start with the revelations concerning former Met Opera music director James Levine, this season the company decided to put a new spin on the series — or, rather, in the orchestra pit.

Taking the podium (and some of the luster) away from maestro Levine will be Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Canadian-born conductor will be presiding over three broadcast works: a new Michael Mayer production of Verdi’s La Traviata on December 15, with Diana Damrau as Violetta, Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo, and Quinn Kelsey as the elder Germont; a revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande a month later, on January 19, 2019, with Isabel Leonard and Paul Appleby in the title roles, along with Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud, and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Arkel; and the final radio broadcast of the season (on May 11) of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, in the classic John Dexter production from the 1970s, also starring Isabel Leonard as Blanche, Adrianne Pieczonka as Mme. Lidoine, Erin Morley as Constance, Karen Cargill as Mère Marie, and Karita Mattila as Mme. De Croissy.

Although there’s nothing really earth-shaking to this lineup, I am curious to hear Mayer’s take on Traviata. He made quit a splash a few years ago with that glitzy Las Vegas-style Rat Pack Rigoletto. We may get a surprise or two out of this next Verdi work yet! Pelléas is another tantalizing offering. Despite its strictly Symbolist roots, the only completed opera by Claude Debussy is an orchestral tour de force. I am especially eager to hear Signor Furlanetto’s sepulchral tones as old King Arkel, a surprising character role for the celebrated Italian basso. The work of another Frenchman, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues had a brief resurgence a few years back in a lone run that many listeners (and live audiences) protested was NOT shown in theaters — a bad mark against the Met’s mismanagement of its schedule.

With that out of the way, the actual broadcast season officially kicks off on December 1st with a revival of Robert Carsen’s “out there” production of Boito’s Mefistofele. Frequent readers of my blog know that I am quite fond of this pre-verismo work and have written about it extensively. The opera is one I’ve heard on countless complete recordings as well as seen in a plethora of live and/or YouTube performances featuring Samuel Ramey, Justino Diaz, Ildar Abdrazakov, Giulio Neri, Cesare Siepi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Erwin Schrott, and others. Angela Meade is scheduled to sing Margherita, with Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy, Michael Fabiano as Faust, and relative newcomer Christian Van Horn (now THERE’S a Devil of a name for you) in the title role. Joseph Colaneri conducts.

“Suor Angelica,” the second panel from Puccini’s “Il Trittico”

December 8 promises the long-awaited revival of Puccini’s Il Trittico. This triptych panel of one-act operas, each lasting about an hour in length, remains (for me) the Italian master’s unquestioned masterwork. Chromatics and late-verismo fireworks abound. The three pieces in question are Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comedy. There are humorous asides and sly takes on greedy family members in Schicchi which have made it the odds-on favorite. However, in my view both Tabarro and Angelica take top honors as perceptive studies into the human condition. A mixed cast features the well-proportioned Amber Wagner and Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Álvarez, and George Gagnidze in Tabarro; the stunning Kristine Opolais, Maureen McKay, and Ms. Blythe in Suor Angelica; and veteran tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Gianni Schicchi, with Blythe again, and newcomers Kristina Mkhitaryan and Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the lovers. The conductor is Bertrand de Billy and the production is by Jack O’Brien.

Puccini’s ersatz spaghetti Western, La Fanciulla de West, is on tap for December 22 in Giancarlo Del Monaco’s lavish production. If the name Del Monaco is a familiar one to readers, well, that’s because Giancarlo is the dramatic tenor’s son. This revival boasts a powerhouse cast of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, the return of Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson, alias Ramerrez the Mexican bandit, and the versatile Željko Lučić as Sherriff Rance. Marco Armiliato conducts.

This Tosca retread has never been as popular as Puccini’s earlier trio of works, to wit La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and the aforementioned Tosca. Jointly with Il Trittico, Fanciulla is Puccini’s most ambitious theatrical realization, an Italian variation on an American theme based on David Belasco’s barnstormer of a play, The Girl of the Golden West. Puccini previously used Belasco and John Luther Long’s one-act Madam Butterfly as the basis for his popular opera of the same name. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice with The Girl.

Step up to the bar for “La Fanciulla del West”

An abridged version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in J.D. McClatchy’s English adaptation, is the featured work on December 29. The by-now overplayed Julie Taymor production stars Erin Morley as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Ben Bliss as Tamino, Nathan Gunn (an audience favorite) as Papageno, Alfred Walker (who I remember as Wotan in North Carolina Opera’s semi-staged production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold) as the Speaker, and Morris Robinson as Sarastro. Harry Bicket leads the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

There are two more Mozart works on the agenda: Don Giovanni on February 16, starring Luca Pisaroni as the Don, Ildar Abdrazakov as Leporello (I believe they might even be alternating their respective parts during the opera’s run), Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Federica Lombardi as Donna Elvira, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, and Štefan Kocán as the Commendatore, with Cornelius Meister conducting; and La Clemenza di Tito on April 20, with Ying Fang as Servilia, Matthew Polenzani as Tito, Elza van den Heever as Vitellia, Joyce DiDonato as Sesto, and Christian Van Horn as Publio, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s elaborate production. Maestro Lothar Koenigs is in charge of the orchestra.

The New Year brings forth a revival of Bartlett Sher’s production of Verdi’s Otello (Hint: It’s done with lots and lots of mirrors!). Verdi poured every ounce of skill and passion into this penultimate piece, lauded by critics and musicologists as the epitome of Italian operatic art. Taking over as the Moor will be tenor Stuart Skelton, who made a sensational showing two seasons ago in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Desdemona will be taken by Sonya Yoncheva, the only bright spot in this tenor-baritone showcase, along with Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Željko Lučić as the oleaginous Iago, and James Morris as Lodovico. Gustavo Dudamel will make his Met Opera podium bow leading the combined forces of chorus and orchestra.

Bartlett Sher’s production of “Otello”

Listeners on January 12 will be treated to a rarely performed verismo warhorse in Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Not as popular as it once was, the starring role has attracted high-voltage prima donnas from the moment of its 1898 debut — a partial listing of which must include Lina Cavalieri, Claudia Muzio, Magda Olivero, Leyla Gencer, Renata Tebaldi, Raina Kabaivanska, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, and Angela Gheorghiu. But it’s not just a soprano outing! There are juicy morsels for mezzo, tenor and baritone as well. Sparks will surely fly when the scheduled Adriana of Anna Netrebko meets up with Anita Rachvelishvili as the jealous Princess de Bouillon, both of whom are romanced by Piotr Beczala as Count Maurizio, alongside the smitten Michonnet of Ambrogio Maestri. It takes an Italian conductor to pull this piece off to even a modicum of satisfaction. And waiting in the wings is Gianandrea Noseda.

A most offbeat work pops up next on the Met Opera parade of hits, and that work is the January 26 radio premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie, based on the Winston Graham novel that also attracted filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Marnie was not Hitch’s most-watched film venture, not even with Piper Laurie and Sean Connery as the leads.

I’m not much into our modern-day penchant for bringing motion pictures to the operatic stage. Usually, it’s the other way around, with the order being from stage to film. Film to stage rarely works, but who can tell? Considering how shabbily Mulhy’s previous Met Opera effort, the controversial Two Boys, was treated by the company there might be some hope that Marnie will come off better this time around. Certainly the cast is promising enough, with the ubiquitous Isabel Leonard as Marnie, the dashing Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland, Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland, Denyce Graves as Marnie’s Mother, and Iestyn Davies as Terry Rutland, with Robert Spano presiding. This is another Michael Mayer production, which might give the opera that all-important lift it surely needs to succeed.

Parlez-vous français? Oui, oui, Monsieur!

Bizet’s “Carmen” being wooed by the toreador Escamillo

We then hear Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen on February 2. Starring Clémentine Margaine as Carmen, Roberto Alagna as Don José, Aleksandra Kurzak (Mrs. Alagna) as Micaela, and Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo, Richard Eyre’s Franco-era production will be conducted by Louis Langrée. With so many French-speaking natives in key roles, one would think the Met management capable of presenting the original opéra-comique production of the work instead of the bowdlerized version (the one with those excruciatingly inappropriate Ernest Guiraud recitatives) currently in use at the house. Not a chance! Not only did Bizet not write this music, but Guiraud eliminated the spoken dialogue after the composer’s untimely death, supplanting them with his own “score.” Guiraud also assisted with the completion of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. It’s an intriguing premise: which version to present? Perhaps it’s time for the Met to get back to basics and bring about a change in their perspective.

A double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle appears on February 9. This hit production, directed by the Polish-born Marius Treliński, is thought-provoking and challenging. It paid off handsomely at the box office, mostly due to the pairing of the Russian Anna Netrebko with Polish tenor Piotr Beczala (see Adriana Lecouvreur above). This revival will see the Met’s newest diva, the Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva, as the blind Princess Iolanta, to include Matthew Polenzani in the high-lying part of Vaudémont, Alexey Markov as Robert, and Vitalij Kowaljow as King René. In place of the star-power that Russian maestro Valery Gergiev generated when he last performed the piece in 2015, we have the less flamboyant but equally capable Henrik Nánási in charge of the Met Opera Orchestra, which in the brooding Bartók work acts as a principal character in conveying the drama inherent in this intensely probing score.

We’ve already mentioned Mr. Mayer’s production of Rigoletto. And on February 23, it will be heard live, with the stratospheric Nadine Sierra as Gilda, Roberto Frontali as Rigoletto, matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke of Mantua, Ramona Zaharia as Maddalena, and Štefan Kocán as the assassin Sparafucile (the one with the bottomless low E). Nicola Luisotti is the conductor. On the heels of Verdi’s middle-period gloom we plunge into the comedic world of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment on March 2. This Laurent Pelly production (he also designed last season’s delightful rendering of Massenet’s Cendrillon) will feature Pretty Yende as Marie, Stephanie Blythe as the Marquise of Berkenfield, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as Tonio (the fellow with the nine, count ‘em, nine high Cs!), and Maurizio Muraro as Sulpice.

Javier Camarena belts those high C’s to the rafters in “La Fille du Regiment”

Two weeks later, more comedy pours forth in the revival of Robert Carsen’s English countryside production of Falstaff, Verdi’s final comment on the state of Italian opera, and on comic opera in general. The all-star lineup includes the gigantic-framed Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Ailyn Pérez as Alice Ford, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly, Golda Schultz as Nannetta, Juan Jesus Rodriguez (who subbed for the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore) as Master Ford, and Francesco Demuro as Fenton. Trying to keep the orchestral forces in check will be Richard Farnes.

It took Falstaff an inordinate amount of time to be considered an integral part of the standard repertoire. For a late period work from the pen of an acknowledged master such as Verdi, that’s a huge surprise. Such was not the case with Puccini’s Tosca, to be heard on April 6. From the moment of its debut, this once-maligned work has gained in number and variety of performances throughout the years, especially at the Met. This revival, then, of last season’s new David McVicar production stars the up-and-coming Jennifer Rowley as Tosca, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, German baritone Wolfgang Koch as Scarpia (an odd choice for this part), and Philip Cokorinos as the Sacristan. Carlo Rizzi will be on the podium. Rowley, you may recall, subbed for an indisposed Patricia Racette in the broadcast of Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac. She also sang (again, as a last-minute choice) the part of Leonora in Il Trovatore. This promotion to Floria Tosca is a major career step for the budding prima donna. Let’s hope she takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Saint-Saëns’ biblical French pageant Samson et Dalila will debut in a new production by Darko Tresnjak. This version brings back mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila seducing the muscular strongman Samson, sung by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. Laurent Naori, so effective last season as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, interprets the High Priest of Dagon, with Tomasz Konieczny as Abimelech (well, it looks and “sounds” like Alberich), and another Wagnerian, Günther Groissböck, portraying the Old Hebrew. Sir Mark Elder presides. Can you say kitsch?

The Met’s flashy new production of “Samson et Dalila”

At the tail end of the season, on May 4, the Met revives the highly successful Penny Woodcock production of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (or The Pearl Fishers) by Bizet. The rematch between Pretty Yende as Leila and Javier Camarena as Nadir is guaranteed to win audiences over to their high-wire act above the staff. They’ll be joined by the retuning Marius Kwiecien as Zurga, the third wheel of the plot. Nicolas Testé also puts in a return appearance as Nourabad. Emmanuel Villaume mounts the podium for this one. While not as well known or as perennially popular as Carmen, The Pearl Fishers draws audiences into its exotic world of tropical palm trees with its captivating vocal airs and that famous duet for tenor and baritone.

Of course, I’ve left the best for last: a compete run, on alternate Saturday afternoons, of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is only the second re-mounting of Robert Lepage’s critically bashed all-digital, all-mechanical Ring. My biggest complaint with the production is the reduced playing area, which also reduced the span and scope of Wagner’s epic drama of greed and lust for power. The tetralogy, as it is known to fans, begins on March 9 with Das Rheingold, with an impressive roster boasting the powerful bass-baritone of Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Jamie Barton as a womanly Fricka, Norbert Ernst as Loge, Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, Gerhard Siegel as the sniveling Mime, Günther Groissböck as Fasolt, and Dmitry Belosselsky as Fafner. Two weeks later, on March 30, we’ll hear the most popular portion of the Ring dramas, Die Walküre, starring Christine Goerke in her Met role debut as Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jamie Barton reprising her Fricka, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund (a nice segue from Otello), Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and Günther Groissböck as Hunding.

April 13th brings the third work in the cycle, Siegfried, starring Stefan Vinke as the titular man-child, Christine Goerke returning as the sleeping Brünnhilde, Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Michael Volle taking over for Greer Grimsley as the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise), Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, and Dmitry Belosselsky bellowing smoke and fire as Fafner. The Wood Bird will be taken by coloratura Erin Morley. And ending on a high note, Götterdämmerung brings the cycle to a close on April 27. Christine Goerke gets to sing one of the greatest soprano sequences ever composed, the Immolation Scene. Others in the cast include Andreas Schager as Siegfried, Edith Haller as Gutrune, Michaela Schuster as Waltraute, and Evgeny Nikitin as Gunther. A former Alberich, bass-baritone Eric Owens has been promoted to Hagen, while Tomasz Konieczny wraps things up as Alberich. Keeping it all together will be conductor Philippe Jordan.

The “Ring” cycle returns in Robert Lepage’s hi-tech outing

And now, a final word about the passing of a legend: the one and only Montserrat Caballé. I first heard that unmistakable, meltingly beautiful voice in the late 1960s, with the first complete stereo recording of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Madame Caballé could be politely termed a “full-figure” girl; in fact, her huge frame was a hindrance to swift movements on the stage. She may have been criticized for being too static in her parts, but once she started to sing that golden throat could move mountains.

In her prime, she was at the very pinnacle of coloratura singing. Not only was she a charming presence, she was most generous to her fans and to her colleagues. She sang all the major soprano parts, including Aida, Tosca, Mimi (a memorable Met radio performance with superstar Franco Corelli as Rodolfo), Liu, Luisa Miller, and Marguerite in Faust (her Met debut in 1965, along with that of baritone Sherrill Milnes as Valentin). Later in life, she experienced poor health and had several life-threatening crises during her career. Many fans will remember her duets with rock star Freddy Mercury of Queen — himself, a former student of opera (vide Bohemian Rhapsody). May this real-life “Fat Lady” rest in peace.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Four): The Changing of the Avant-Garde

Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games: Opening Ceremony

We Love a Parade

Brazil came out last. Not last in the competition, mind you, but as the last nation to present its eager group of athletes.

In all, the city of Rio had put on a spectacular showcase, an opening ceremony to end all opening ceremonies. Impressive and exhilarating, nationalistic and fervent, the coordinators did it the Brazilian way: in the biggest Carnival pageant on Earth, as they had envisioned. The mood was joyous, the celebration spontaneous. Brazil, perpetually on the cusp of greatness but never actually achieving it — to repeat an old dictum, always the bridesmaid but never the bride — had reached the summit of its abilities. Would that joyous mood last?

After the parade of athletes, there followed dull, interminable speeches by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee President Carlos Arthur Nuzman, by the International Olympic Committee’s President Thomas Bach, and by two-time Olympic marathon champion, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino. Although he was neither acknowledged nor introduced, Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer rose from his spot in the stands and curtly declared the Rio 2016 games to be officially open. It was an astonishing lapse in Olympic protocol. A moment to remember, one to relish for what remained of one’s active life, had whizzed by in a twinkling of an eye. For his effort, Temer was greeted with a round of boos.

Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer announces the official opening of the games

Next, the solemn procession and physical raising of the Olympic flag took place, followed immediately by the singing of that banal Olympic Anthem and the taking of the Olympic Oath.

The ceremony closed with a tribute to Brazilian composer Ary Barroso, a prolific purveyor of Carnival dance tunes and sambas from the first half of the twentieth century. His song, “Sandália de Prata” (“Silver Sandal”) from 1942, was introduced by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. The two old-timers were joined atop another of those circular platforms by carioca singer-songwriter Anitta.

Amid the goings-on, viewers caught a glimpse of Rio’s twelve samba schools (the lost tribes of native Brazil?) decked out, in their “official” regalia, in costumes of red, yellow, gold, blue, violet, and black. Their rhythmic back-and-forth beating of pandeiros and cuícas, the tireless blowing of ear-shattering whistles, and the ceaseless smacking of snare and bass drums culminated in a shower of colorful confetti, a parade of scantily-clad dancers, and a brilliant burst of fireworks.

Parade of Rio’s Twelve Samba Schools at Rio 2016

At the conclusion of the number, Caetano and Gil ceremoniously kissed Anitta on the cheek. The two male artists then gingerly departed the stage with their arms wrapped around each other’s wastes. I imagined that audiences around the world let out collective sighs of nostalgia and relief. I know I did, but more for how Caetano and Gil have aged, especially Gil. Whether knowingly or not, we were witnesses to the changing of the avant-garde: old song warriors, near the end of their respective careers, giving it their all, that final “hurrah” for old times’ sake. They have been close companions and musical partners for well over half a century, and for most of their adult lives.

With a degree of wistfulness for a lifetime of creative and personal achievement, and with the words as valid today as when he first wrote them, Caetano called to mind, in his autobiographical Tropical Truth (first published, in Portuguese, in 1997), his initial encounter with the Bahian-born Gil between the years 1962 and 1963:

“Gil seemed as happy to meet me as I was to meet him. One could have said that he had been seeing me on some transcendental television and was expecting that meeting as much as I was …. At times, through the years, I have heard Gil say, and been deeply moved by it, that when he met me he felt as though he were leaving behind a great loneliness: when he saw me he was sure that he had found a true companion. I think that to prize in me a vision of the world that encompassed music, in which he was so gifted, […] a vision that seemed like an enlargement of his own, he created an image of me as the master and, much as the great see greatness in those they admire, he dismissed my shortcomings. Better yet: he interpreted them in such a way as to give them a finer meaning. He therefore saw qualities in my music then that no other musician of equal talent would have seen, and in this way he not only encouraged me, he also taught me everything that I could possibly learn, becoming himself truly my master.” [i]

Caetano Veloso, Anitta & Gilberto Gil at the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics

What a pleasant surprise it was to have seen two such old friends — the master and the pupil — back together on the world stage, performing and sharing the stadium lights with younger aspirants, in recognition of their past accomplishments. The promise of youth fulfilled at last, their careers have spanned two generations. Gil and Caetano have jointly shared the good and bad times, as colleagues and performers, and as respective cellmates. Their ups and downs, both politically and artistically, have risen and fallen, and have risen again, with the times — so much like the country itself.

Obviously, they are more weather-beaten today than they were in their glorious youth. Who wouldn’t be, given what they went through? But, to paraphrase a line from that old stadium rocker, Elton John, “They’re still standin’.” A might shakily, if “tropical truth” be told, with a puffy-eyed Gil tottering a bit on the edge of the stage platform, his voice frail and thin, his gait slow and measured, yet still game and willing; and still capturing the imagination of that younger generation of performers, as he and Caetano had done in their earlier excursions.

Not bad for two septuagenarians!

(End of Part Four)

To be continued…..

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

[I]  Veloso, Caetano. “Tropical Truth,” Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, 1997, p. 178