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

Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’: A Fairy-Tale Wish Comes True at the Met

Cendrillon (Joyce DiDonato) goes to the ball in Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’

First Time’s the Charm

Yesterday, July 14, was the French holiday Bastille Day, or Le jour de la Bastille. In France, it is better known as la fête nationale, a national holiday. And in honor of said holiday, our topic today is French opera.

Jules Massenet’s charming Cendrillon, a rarely-heard late nineteenth-century work based on French author Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale rendering of Cinderella, was given its first Metropolitan Opera production nearly 120 years too late. Nevertheless, the opera worked its magic on Met audiences and on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of April 28, 2018.

Originally in four acts, this piece was presented in a lengthy two-act version with the first-night cast virtually intact. That cast featured, among others, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming, contralto Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière (the Wicked Stepmother), soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Maya Lahyani as the ditzy stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, and the stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, called La Fée.

The Fairy Godmother, or La Fee (soprano Kathleen Kim), prepares the magic spell that will send Cendrillon to the ball

The opera was conducted by a fellow Frenchman, maestro Bertrand de Billy, and staged by Parisian-born Laurent Pelly who also provided the fanciful costume designs (it originated at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera in 2006). The sets were the work of Barbara de Limburg, and the Met Opera’s own Donald Palumbo served as chorus master.

French opera, as far as history records for us, has been deemed a close cousin to the Italian variety. And there is much truth to that connection. For centuries, Italy and France shared like thoughts regarding the genre. This extends to their respective musical language. Unusual for such an expressly Mediterranean art form as opera, its development in France ran almost parallel to what was happening in the Italian peninsula. Where the two countries branched off was in their choice of subject and performance styles, specifically the formulaic approach taken by composers Jean-Baptiste Lully (Italian by birth), Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck (of German background and birth).

Classicism, in the main, was most favored at the court of “Sun King” Louis XIV, where mythological themes from classical antiquity aspired to “enlighten” the ruling classes (fat chance of that!). The resultant fervor of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte brought about many changes to French society and to opera as a whole: in other words, opera as pure entertainment but on a grand scale, where pageantry took precedence over the mundane. These changes had a profound effect on the likes of Luigi Cherubini, another transplanted Italian expatriate, and on his contemporaries, Gaspare Spontini and Antonio Salieri.

Interestingly, as the French style took hold and began to encompass repetitive performance practices — to include extended ballet sequences, leisurely pastorals, mighty choruses, florid solos, and other hackneyed elements — any connection to actual drama and perceived human emotions was secondary at best; they were given much less prominence in the overall structure than the meandering plots and clichéd interactions. Gluck’s innovations along this front were strategic in recapturing the essence of the story while refocusing the drama on the struggles of opera’s main protagonists. He was also a prime melodist, which lent his operas the primacy of originality.

It was a little after this time that opera, in Italy, started to capitalize on the bel canto advances developed by Messrs. Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. In due course, however, even the epicurean Rossini, accustomed to finery in all its richly embroidered form, relocated to Gay Paree where his final opera, the truly grandiose Guillaume Tell, made its rousing debut.

A return to classicism of a sort occurred with the advent of Hector Berlioz and his highly individual choice of subject matter (for example, The Damnation of Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict based on Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing). Many of these works followed the traditional path of elevated stories borrowed from classical mythology or other literary components. The most ambitious of which, the two-part Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), gave Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid a colossal stage treatment that influenced a host of admirers, among them one Richard Wagner and his equally momentous Ring of the Nibelung saga.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), acknowledged purveyor of French grand opera

Contemporaneously with  Berlioz, opera in France — in particular, at the artistic epicenter of the City of Light, the Paris Opéra — became the focal point for the career of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), one of the most wildly celebrated composers of that era. Born Jacob Liebmann Beer, the rechristened Meyerbeer, a Prussian-born Jewish descendant, began his studies in Berlin. While traveling to Italy, he developed his own brand of opera that emulated, for a brief time, the Rossinian model. Venturing forth to the neighboring France, Meyerbeer settled down in Paris where, with such oeuvres as Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, and L’Étoile du Nord (each of them incredibly elaborate five-act monstrosities), he set the operatic world on fire.

But Meyerbeer’s flame, which burned so bright for so long, soon began to fade from view. After the posthumous premiere of his final work, L’Africaine (originally titled Vasco de Gama) — a startlingly derivative piece reminiscent of Les Troyens — the way was cleared for a variety of artists to make their individual marks on the art form: Charles Gounod (Faust, Roméo et Juliette), Fromental Halévy (La Juive), Georges Bizet (The Pearl Fishers, Carmen), Ambroise Thomas (Mignon, Hamlet), Léo Delibes (Lakmé), Jacques Offenbach (Les contes d’Hoffmann), Édouard Lalo (Le roi d’Ys), Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Paul Dukas (Ariane et Barbe-bleu), Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole, L’enfant et les sortilèges), and Ernest Chausson (Le roi Arthus), were some of the more familiar names who thrived during the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.

Intricacy, delicacy and melody continued to be the hallmarks of mid-nineteenth century French opera, until Wagner’s music cast a different shadow over the European model. Although  French opera had staggered, both this way and that, from the sumptuously elaborate to the intensely personal, with the lighter-touched opéra-comique (known for an abundance of spoken dialog) serving as an intermediary between the two forms, relatively few composers had the wherewithal to artfully navigate between these forms.

Interspersed among the above-named masters of their craft, one must conclude that Jules Massenet (1842-1912), born near the Loire Valley of France, eventually emerged as one of his country’s finest proponents of opera. His major works traversed an immense range of subjects, styles, genres, and literary and poetic influences, from the heroic and the epic, to the biblical and pseudo-historical: Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Werther, Thaïs, La Navarraise, Sapho, Grisélidis, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin, Thérèse, and Don Quichotte.

French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

With so much creative output to his credit, one has to stop and wonder when Massenet found the time to relax from his labors. To many critics and musicologists, he became France’s answer to Italy’s Puccini. That’s not entirely fair or accurate; still, for our purposes we can cite his one-act La Navarraise as the Gallic equivalent of Italian verismo. For the most part, Massenet was his own “made man,” a fellow who marched to the tune of whatever suited him best: namely, the feminine mystique. Whether on an epic or less than grand scale, Massenet never lost touch with the unique qualities associated with his female subjects.

Performance Becomes Art

Cendrillon meets Prince Charming (Alice Coote) at the ball

So where did Cendrillon fit in? In between Sapho and Grisélidis, the delightful Cendrillon was conceived and composed between 1894 and 1896. The libretto by Henri Cain adheres closely to the Perrault story, including all the manufactured hocus-pocus. The later version of the tale, compiled by the Brothers Grimm, introduced the grittier, less pleasant side of storybook life. We make note, too, of Rossini’s earthier La Cenerentola, an opera buffa as popular at the time (if slightly less so today) as the same composer’s The Barber of Seville.

In Cenerentola, the title character Angelina is a scullery maid in her adopted family’s service. The fantastical aspects of the Fairy Godmother, for instance, or the magical transformation, and, of course, the proverbial “glass slipper” (which may or may not be a mistranslation of the original pantoufle de vair, or “fur slipper”) are non-existent in Rossini, in exchange for a more down-to-earth sensibility.

Whereas in Massenet’s construct, the characters are more broadly etched, even one-dimensional (as is the case of the stern Stepmother and her meddlesome daughters), their humanity has been preserved in music of a sweetly caressing nature, with pathos and tenderness taking bittersweet turns with the romance of Cendrillon and her lovesick Prince Charming. It is here that we begin to appreciate that Cendrillon is anything but a cardboard figure straight out of a Disney animated feature. And the incredibly tantalizing depiction of the Fairy Godmother, as luminously effervescent a musical realization as any in opera, rings true for our time. We could all use a little magical help from time to time.

The one major character left out of previous versions of the story is Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s doting parent, the paterfamilias — a rather foppish fellow, but a caring individual nonetheless. There are a few moody moments in their tender third-act father-daughter duet (Massenet was a master of melancholy), which Parisian-born Laurent Naouri delivered in deliciously natural-sounding French. His rich enunciation of the text (again, based on Perrault) was the equivalent of a fine French wine come to sparkling life, alongside his fuddy-duddy interpretation.

Cendrillon confesses her dream to her father Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri)

The singing throughout the broadcast performance was on a respectably high level. Curiously, the normally spectacular Joyce DiDonato was more subdued than usual for an artist of her repute. Perhaps this opera’s late season start or the harshness of New York’s winter weather prevented DiDonato from expanding her vibrant mezzo into the farthest reaches of the Met’s massive auditorium. It is my understanding that the staging by Laurent Pelly had placed the characters well to the back of the theater. And the lack of physical structures to bounce one’s voice from may also have inhibited more accurate displays of vocal fireworks. No matter, since Ms. DiDonato’s portrayal onstage was instantly believable from her first entrance onward. In softer, gentler passages, Joyce was untouchable. There are few singers of her caliber who could establish a character with her presence alone.

British mezzo Alice Coote, as Prince Charming (a “trouser” role, in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, or Mozart’s Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro), was also off her generally fine form. This wonderful singer, for whom this writer has often heard and long extolled the many virtues of, could have found, as DiDonato did, that Massenet’s music is a shade too high for either of them at this stage in their respective careers. DiDonato, who will be 50 next year, and Coote, who is already 50, may have approached the age when, vocally speaking, the effort at embodying youthful exuberance has given way to reality. That the voice tends to get less flexible with age; that tautness sets in when one least expects it; and that the requirements of agility and lightness of tone diminish, are all a given. Visually, both artists looked divine.

Physicality as a positive trait was the province of contralto Stephanie Blythe as the haughty Madame de la Haltière. This force of nature galvanized Met audiences with her patented Earth-Mother approach to the part of Cendrillon’s Wicked Stepmother. That she used her (ahem) natural endowment to the betterment of her characterization is one of the many reasons why Blythe remains a compelling artist. She, too, is fast approaching middle age; but in her case, there has been little diminution in vocal output. Too, Blythe has a natural talent for broad comedy and slapstick, which was used by director Pelly to exaggerate her character’s dubious nature.

Madame de la Haltiere (Stephanie Blythe, c.) with her two daughters, Dorothee (Maya Lahyani) & Noemie (Ying Fang)

The two stepsisters, sung by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang, profited from the overly lavish costumes they and Ms. Blythe were given to wear, clothing that accentuated their broad, over-the-top personalities. As an example, both Fang and Lahyani wore dresses that made them look like upside-down pomegranates. Their gowns were also ridiculously gaudy. Beside DiDonato, Coote and Blythe, the incredibly able warbling of soprano Kathleen Kim, in her assumption of the Fairy Godmother, was the shimmering candle atop this wedding cake. Thanks to Massenet, who provided music of the most delectable quality — one hesitates to use the term “gossamer,” but in this instance, the word fits — Kim outshone all the others.

The staging left something to be desired, what with its overuse of Perrault’s text (in French, mind you!) lining the walls of the sets throughout. Unless one is fluent in French, the words lose their connection to the stage action. But never mind. The finest aspects of this long-awaited production were the marvelous stage pictures, among them the magical horse-drawn carriage that swept Cendrillon to the Prince’s palace, and the carrying-on of the participants (especially, the parade of potential brides for the Prince’s hand — a veritable eighteenth-century reality show a la The Bachelor) at the ball itself. Holding it all together was Bertrand de Billy, who only sped up the orchestra slightly during the Cendrillon-Prince Charming encounter.

In the final analysis, the winner had to be Massenet. If I were to describe this piece, I’d say that if you are familiar with the opening segments to Werther or Manon — that is, the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the scrambling about that occurs when people are trying to get on with their business — then you would have no problem deciphering what Cendrillon sounds like to initiates, but only to a point. The opera may not have scaled the heights that either Manon or Werther, or even Thais, had reached, but there are memorable moments nonetheless. Many surprises are in store for those who wait, and that includes the lovely Cinderella herself.

This is one fairy tale that really came true!

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Delivered in Pain: The Birth of Nations — Operas, Musicals and Movies with Patriotic Themes (Part Two): History Blends with Drama

Battle of Wills and Wonts

Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) gives Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) an ultimatum in “The Buccaneer” (1958)

It is instructive, at this point, to compare two of producer-director Cecil B. DeMille’s historical epics, both dealing with the pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte under the title The Buccaneer. Taking place in and around New Orleans, and along the bayous and waterways of early 19th century Louisiana known as Barataria, the two films (the first, from 1938, in black-and-white; and the other from 1958, in glorious Technicolor and eye-catching VistaVision) feature, as a minor protagonist, the equally colorful and charismatic Major General Andrew Jackson.

Known to history as  “Old Hickory,” Jackson served as our seventh U.S. president from March 1829 to March 1837, but the films concentrated instead on the prior events of the War of 1812 as well as the lead-up to the Battle of New Orleans of 1814.

The War of 1812 was considered a “do-over” for the defeated British army of King George III. The forces of His Royal Majesty that came back to fight in America — that is, to pick up where their colleagues had left off during the Revolutionary War — were, in essence, battle-hardened veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns. No pushovers as far as trained combatants were concerned, the Red Coats were met by a raggedy bunch of volunteers, misfits, Native Americans, poorly equipped Creoles, and African American slaves.

Joining them were bands of desperados governed, to put it mildly, by French-born adventure seeker Jean Lafitte (his actual surname is spelled Laffite, with two “fs” and only one “t”). Fabulously wealthy due to their plundering of Spanish ships off the Caribbean Coast and near the Gulf of Mexico, Lafitte and his followers, to include his brothers Pierre and Alexandre (who is called, in both film versions, by the bogus moniker Dominique You), opted to fight for the American side.

History records that Lafitte’s brother, Pierre, had been captured and arrested for piracy by the Americans. Their idea was to use Pierre as a bargaining chip in order to obtain Lafitte’s loyalty to their cause. Yet, frère Pierre is neither mentioned nor found in either screen production. Logically, the screenwriters may have felt that one brigand named Lafitte was one too many for viewers to handle.

Franciska Gaal, Fredric March & Akim Tamiroff in the 1938 version of “The Buccaneer,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille

Nevertheless, both films capitalized on the involvement of Maj. Gen. Jackson, who took command of a seemingly hopeless situation by spearheading the defense of New Orleans. What Jackson found when he got there was a city without means, i.e., one lacking in even the basic necessities regarding supplies and munitions so as to put up a spirited resistance. Jackson was forced to contend with Lafitte and his cutthroats, whom he despised for their thieving ways (in the films, Lafitte offers his services in return for a pardon for his offenses).

The American Governor, William Claiborne, however, took a harder line. He had previously refused to deal with Lafitte. Instead, he ordered that his base be attacked by U.S. warships harbored nearby. This led to Lafitte’s retreat into the bayous and the capture of some of his followers, including Dominique You. Interestingly, “General” You and his compatriots had once served in Napoleon’s Grand Army as cannon and artillery men. Their expertise in that department would eventually prove useful to Jackson and his buckskinned squirrel shooters. He would need them, as well as their ample supply of arms and ammunition, for the coming confrontation with the British.

Born in the State of Kansas, actor Hugh Sothern, who played Maj. Gen. Jackson in the 1938 version of The Buccaneer, was a supporting player (usually uncredited) in flicks from the 1930s and 40s. A distant relative of Jackson’s (Sean Wilentz, Professor of History at Princeton University, labeled him a “collateral descendant”), Sothern conveys his kinsman’s volatile personality, hair-trigger temper, and the capricious, mercurial nature of a future U.S. president and Creek Indian War hero.

Be that as it may Jackson’s appearance in the picture is rather inconsequential. As was the norm with DeMille, there were a plethora of character vignettes by a who’s who of veteran scene stealers, each scrambling to top the other. Among the players were Akim Tamiroff as Dominique You, Walter Brennan as the cantankerous Ezra Peavey, Ian Keith as Senator Crawford, Franciska Gaal as Gretchen, Margot Graham as Annette de Rémy, Douglass Dumbrille as Governor Claiborne, Beulah Bondi as Aunt Charlotte, Robert Barrat as the duplicitous Captain Brown, Fred Kohler as Gramby, and Stanley Andrews, Paul Fix, Luana Walters, John Rodgers, and, in cameo roles, Spring Byington as Dolly Madison, Montagu Love as Admiral Cockburn, and literally dozens of familiar faces.

One of those faces belonged to that of DeMille’s son-in-law, the Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn, as Beluche. He’s the fellow with the faux Creole accent and thin black mustache. Oh, wait! They ALL had faux accents and thin black mustaches — in particular, the titular buccaneer himself, performed by Wisconsin-born Fredric March. DeMille had earlier cast him as Marcus Vinitius in The Sign of the Cross (1932), one of those Romans vs. Christians toga epics. March portrayed Lafitte in typically flamboyant fashion, what with the florid dialog he was forced to speak. Incredibly, March’s impersonation rang true to history. He even bore a resemblance to the real Lafitte, at least as far as the few surviving portraits of the scoundrel had showed.

Anthony Quinn (far left), with Fredric March as Jean Lafitte (far right)

Incidentally, one of the reasons for the capture of Lafitte’s brother Pierre was to thwart his illegal operation of converting the vast plunder they had acquired into hard cash. In shutting down Pierre’s operation, Lafitte was deprived of his livelihood and, consequently, whatever creature comforts his nefarious lifestyle had provided. Survival, then, not patriotic fervor, was central to Lafitte’s participation in the American effort to thwart the British invaders. Still, Professor Wilentz attests to Lafitte’s bravery under fire, not only earning a pardon for him and his men from then-President James Madison, but the “warm public thanks from an admiring Jackson.”

DeMille’s writers, Jeanie Macpherson, Edwin Justus Mayer, C. Gardner Sullivan, and historian and biographer Harold Lamb, took sufficient liberties with the story to provide a fairly decent box office return on Paramount Studios’ investment. Of course, they had to invent several romantic interests to hold the audiences’ attention (recalling the mantra of the period, in that you had to have a woman in there to soften the rough edges).

Two decades later, DeMille decided to revisit his earlier take on the matter, much as he had done with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments. With the worldwide success of The Ten Commandments remake in 1956, DeMille intended to make an even splashier musical version, believe it or not, of Lafitte’s participation in defeating the British. However, after suffering a heart attack while filming the strenuous Exodus sequence in the Sinai desert, DeMille was forced to curtail his activities. Taking the title of executive producer instead, C.B. assigned the directing chores to Anthony Quinn (his one and only effort behind the cameras), with DeMille’s production duties being taken over by longtime friend and associate, Henry Wilcoxon.

Sadly, the remake of The Buccaneer turned out to be “a disastrous flop,” according to John Douglas Eames in The Paramount Story, who blamed the lack of DeMille’s formidable “creative drive” and the “unexciting account of the pirate Lafitte” on the producer-director’s waning health.

To give the 1958 version its due, the picture is beautifully photographed by veteran cinematographer Loyal Griggs (The Ten Commandments, 1956), with the addition of three-strip Technicolor providing a feast for the eyes. The $5 million budget allocated toward it was well spent on period costumes, and suitable props and paraphernalia, a DeMille trademark. Unfortunately, the film is dead on arrival as drama, with the fabricated love triangle between Lafitte (an uncomfortably bewigged Yul Brynner), Gov. Claiborne’s nubile daughter Annette (the lovely Inger Stevens), and the roguish Bonnie Brown straining credibility to the breaking point.

Poster art for “The Buccaneer” (1958)

Much of the casting, too, was well below par for a purported DeMille epic. For instance, the newly invented character of Bonnie Brown (Claire Bloom), the Creole offspring of the renegade Capt. Brown (Robert F. Simon), struck few onscreen sparks. And the normally reassuring presence of such movie heavies as Ted de Corsia, Bruce Gordon, and John Dierkes (their familiar mugs hidden behind false beards and whiskers), along with E.G. Marshall as Gov. Claiborne, and Lorne Greene as the excitable Mercier, verged on egregious miscasting, especially in the flowery wardrobe, oversized pirate hats, and ersatz “period” dialog they were burdened with. Even the hulking Woody Strode made little impact.

At least the magnetic Charles Boyer was capable of bringing some authentic French flair, along with a decent accent, to Dominique You (in addition to his requisite Continental charm), while the querulous Henry Hull took over for Walter Brennan as an annoyingly persistent Mr. Ezra Peavey (“Don’t forget to drink your milk, Andy!”).

Birds of a Feather Rarely Flock Together

The whole studio-bound affair should have been scrapped from its inception. So why did DeMille (or rather, those who were laboring in his stead) insist on the remake being made at all? For one, the wily producer-director had a nose for box office receipts, despite the dreary results and poor reviews. For another, he likely wanted to capitalize on the crackling screen chemistry generated by Yul Brynner, the “sexy bald guy you love to hate,” and the latest hunky male attraction, Charlton Heston. Their initial teaming in The Ten Commandments (as Pharaoh Rameses and the Deliverer Moses, respectively) proved most lucrative for Paramount Studios’ coffers, offering viewers a fascinating glimpse of divergent acting styles.

In between these two assignments, both Heston and Brynner were kept busy with movie work. In Heston’s case, he appeared in three back-to-back productions for three different studios: Three Violent People (1956) for Paramount, which reunited him with Anne Baxter, another alumnus from The Ten Commandments; Touch of Evil (1958) for Universal, with maverick movie director Orson Welles and Janet Leigh; and The Big Country (1958) for United Artists, directed by William Wyler, and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, and Burl Ives. This was followed by his biggest part yet, in Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) for MGM, another widescreen remake of a silent classic.

Old Hickory (Heston) with Mr. Peavey (Henry Hull) in defense of New Orleans

As for Brynner, he fulfilled two contracts for Twentieth Century-Fox in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956) with Deborah Kerr, and Anastasia (1956) with Ingrid Bergman; and for MGM’s The Brothers Karamazov (1957), with Maria Schell and Claire Bloom, his costar in The Buccaneer.

In analyzing the two versions of The Buccaneer, we can determine that both films followed a similar scene-for-scene path. The latter feature included some slight alterations from the earlier flick, in that the refurbished script (by Jesse Lasky Jr., son of Jesse Lasky, one of DeMille’s fellow Hollywood pioneers; and Bernice Mosk) substituted the boy Miggs (Jerry Hartleben) as the lone survivor of the downed fictional ship, the Corinthian. In the original, the person confronted with the news of the Corinthian’s sinking was Gretchen (Franciska Gaal).

The climax and dénouement are along similar lines. One of the major differences, though, lies in the approach to Lafitte’s personality. Yul Brynner adopted a pensive, brooding mien, quite apart from Fredric March’s self-confident air and lack of diffidence. Brynner also took to sitting in an armchair, a makeshift “throne” (à la Rameses II) in his bayou stronghold — with one leg over the armchair’s side. Hardly regal behavior, but one more appropriate for a pirate. Brynner’s pose may remind audiences of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

In addition, there’s a 1950s allure to the two love interests: that is, the blonde and blue-eyed, playing hard-to-get New Orleans belle Annette, portrayed by a young Inger Stevens; contrasted with the bayou wildcat, an untamed, dark-haired, and purposely darker-skinned Bonnie, played by Claire Bloom, a tomboy in petticoats and fancy ball gowns. This is reflective of the general change in attitude towards women of the time, the gathering storm of the coming sexual revolution. Annette Claiborne is the highborn daughter of Lousiana’s governor, a trophy bride over-and-above Lafitte’s social station and class; whereas the plain-Jane Bonnie Brown (she apparently wears her name on her sleeve) represents the forbidden other-side-of-town gal, an easier mark for Lafitte, so he may think, but a huge step down in rank.

Inger Stevens as Annette Claiborne, speaking to Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner)

In both films, Lafitte accepts the blame for the sinking of the Corinthian and the death of all on board. And in both, he and his cohorts are run out of town, so to speak, with Maj. Gen. Jackson giving them an hour’s head start. The disparities, as they were, between these two features are in the setup and execution. The 1958 remake leans more toward the “dramatic” if heavy-handed side, and was obviously influenced by the theater (a remnant of DeMille’s silent movie days). Although DeMille remained on the sidelines for this one, his unseen hand is everywhere, most convincingly with the last-minute entrance of Heston’s Moses-like Andy Jackson, spouting fire and brimstone in an otherwise strained situation.

As Lafitte is about to be dragged bodily to his own hanging by the outraged citizens of New Orleans, Old Hickory fires a pistol into the air upon bursting into the salon, with Mr. Peavey by his side and trusty squirrel rifle in hand.

“By the Lord God,” Jackson thunders, “I’ll kill the next man who moves!” Immediately, all eyes are upon Heston’s towering six-foot, four-inch frame. Who writes scenes like this anymore? One has to experience this sequence to believe it.

“I think I admired Andrew Jackson more than any of the other men of that [historical] genre I’ve played,” Heston went on the record as saying. Curiously, Heston had his first opportunity at portraying Old Hickory in Twentieth Century- Fox’s production of The President’s Lady (1953), a film more preoccupied with soap-opera hysterics than actual facts. Still, it led to his approaching DeMille for background information.

“DeMille had let me see his 1938 version of The Buccaneer to study the character. He also let me look at some research material. He was very kind about it … Five years later DeMille was planning to remake The Buccaneer. At the time I don’t think it was settled to what extent he was planning to involve himself in the production. I still had one picture left on the contract that Paramount had purchased from Hal Wallis. I asked to play Jackson in a cameo role to use up the remaining commitment. [Wallis] thought it was a fine idea. The intended cameo role, however, blossomed into a considerable part as the script developed.”

Indeed, Heston’s eccentric if slightly offbeat assignment saves the picture from permanent ruin. His makeup job was certainly convincing. And, as Prof. Wilentz points out, Heston seemed to have “just stepped off a twenty-dollar bill.” Well, not exactly. His Jackson moves stiffly and decrepitly, seeming much older than he would have been, historically speaking (in fact, Jackson was in his mid-40s, while Heston was 34). His counterpart, Sothern, in the 1938 release, though missing Heston’s imposing height and build, moves more naturally.

Who made the better Andrew Jackson? The choice is strictly to taste, but my vote goes to Heston for his physical presence, and that unmistakable voice.

In yet another connection to The Ten Commandments, the choice of composer for the film’s score turned out to be Elmer Bernstein, whose music for the earlier feature was much admired. Bernstein wrote a similarly-themed score for The Buccaneer. Listen closely to the title music played over the opening credits, and you will hear hints of leading motifs reminiscent of the 1956 epic.

End of Part Two

(To be continued …..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova’ — Preface to Life

The Fat Lady Sings!

Life is not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it.

My soon-to-be-finished book, Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, and the stories within it were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever-fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in the country of my birth.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome (which I pray it has not become) but as a series of challenges in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet website. Why challenging? Because, as it became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would be spent on the task of researching, studying, and analyzing the subject beforehand. While this is a regular, everyday part of most professional writing assignments, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema. But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America, at any rate, movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — “and never the twain shall meet.” This has been the time-tested thought pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a healthy curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern for these same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — never had I felt that these seemingly independent activities should be divorced from one another, not by any means. This led directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnectedness with, and close identification of, individuals and groups with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had a vast and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these areas, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” entertainment should be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of class, color, and origin, or their economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was referred to at one point as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious sentiments off the map of our subconscious.

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

Jair Rodrigues, “Deixa Isso Para La”

  • listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, ever-joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso para lá” (“Leave that to the side”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music;

 

  • remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, knowing I was Brazilian, quite innocently inquired as to how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded warily); he went on to mention a former top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by someone called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the scenic virtues of the film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus might be;

 

  • seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known to the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

 

  • getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was present), at my first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculously lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

 

  • hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será” (from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), reached the top of the worldwide charts; this was also my initial exposure to the Brazilian martial art and dance form known as capoeira;

 

  • experiencing my first — and most likely last — Carnival dance party in February 1979, inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I have ever had the misfortune to obtain after four non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

 

  • finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the São Paulo back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, piping away in fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about this album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about;

Grande Otelo

  • catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished It’s All True epic;

 

  • having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population fifteen million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the start of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

 

  • making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

Susana Moraes

  • placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to the late filmmaker Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his favorite partner Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count through the years of the number of individuals I’ve come into close contact with as a result of my writings. These and other noteworthy episodes aside, I sincerely feel that this maiden literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture. Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout, and can be found on almost every page: from native-born artists studying opera abroad, to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores; from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces, to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters; from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors, to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants; and many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multi-faceted and multi-racial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately about and what I aspired to recreate with the writing of this book.

As a consequence, I have scrupulously tried to capture the flavor of these various events, hence the longwinded subtitle A Personal & Cultural History of Opera, Pop, Soccer, Cinema & Musical Theater in the Land of Carnival & Samba. As any writer will tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not present to experience it, is a supreme challenge to anyone’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multi-culturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous undertaking? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous significance to me in augmenting my sometimes myopic perception of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, and modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, shows, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office Network of Brazil; and my fifty+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, cultural, and/or cinematic events. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in this text.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, along with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first time any South American nation has been accorded that prestigious honor. A book covering this wide swath of Brazilian culture would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be. It is to be hoped that my efforts were not in vain. ☼

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Best’ of the Rest — Films I Enjoyed (or Not) in the Movie Theater (Part Two)

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” with Charlize Theron & Tom Hardy

Welcome back! Summer is fast approaching, and that means it’s time for movie-going season. Here’s the continuation of my truncated reviews of first-run movies that over the years yours truly has watched at our local multiplex cinema. The films are discussed in chronological order. Happy reading, everyone!

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Let’s start things off with a bang! This fabulous reboot of the old George Miller-directed Mad Max series (from 1979 to 1985), which featured the young Mel Gibson, makes the recent spate of American-made Marvel Universe and Justice League pictures look like finger painting by comparison. Starring British actor Tom Hardy as the laconic and psychologically-challenged ex-cop Max Rockatansky, the story takes place in a futuristic “society,” if that’s the correct verbiage; a blighted backdrop where some terrible form of global catastrophe has left the planet a barren waste land (or, at least, the section where Max and his cohorts dwell and fight in). Gas (or “guzzoline” as it is called here) is the currency that sets men free and enables them to lord it over their underlings. Women, who happen to be the community’s driving force and all-important keys to survival, are treated as breeders and/or nursemaids by the few who are able to procreate. The look, the feel, and the grime of this No Man’s Land have been recreated to a startling degree. Along with them, the power of the chase, and the use of makeshift automobiles and rough-and-ready trucks (such as the War Rig) of every size and description — which make up the bulk of the community’s transportation system — are part of several incredibly visceral scenes in this stunt-laden spectacular. There are a variety of set pieces, all of them plot driven. Gibson, the original Max, was initially tapped to give life to this sequel of sorts. Thankfully, however, director Miller made the decisive move to go with a younger actor. This is where Hardy’s grim visage and restrained thespian skills come in handy in depicting a character whose steely-eyed determination and spare gestures far outweigh his inability at conveying his profoundest thoughts. A man of action and instinct, Max is the “grin and bear it” type (more like grunt and grumble, as depicted in those early 1930s Popeye cartoons). Everything feels right about this continuation, which is light years removed from the Star Wars franchise, or any of those dreadful The Hobbit movies directed by Peter Jackson. Filmed on the desert terrain of Namibia in Africa, Mad Max: Fury Road is anchored by a seething, pitch-perfect performance from South-African born Charlize Theron as the one-armed Imperator Furiosa (a real spitfire), the real focus of this fire and brimstone road epic. Nicholas Hoult is the frenetic pumped-up Nux, with Hugh Keays-Byrne as the repulsive Immortan Joe, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as the Splendid Angharad, Nathan Jones as the hulking Rictus Erectus, and Riley Keough as Capable. Told in three parts (each with its own distinctive tinge), with brief flashbacks to prior incidents (more like electric-light sparks) that continue to pollute Max’s brain-wave patterns, the visual and coloristic elements in this latest entry in the apocalyptic realm are exhilarating, to say the least. Every aspect of this action-packed adventure flick is splendid and has been placed in more than capable hands (love those Pole Cats) by the visionary Dr. Miller, including the excellent soundtrack and the outstanding music score by Junkie XL. Our favorite weirdo characters: the actor and musician iOTA (real name: Sean Hape) as the fire spouting, electric guitar-playing The Doof Warrior; and the brief bit (accompanied by the “Dies irae” from Verdi’s Requiem) by the so-called Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter). Honorable Mention: The women who comprise the Vulvalini. Do see this in widescreen surround sound (or in a first-class home theater setting). The color range and amount of detail are positively astounding! You can turn the volume off and it would still make sense, it’s that good. Keep alert to the proposed sequel, Mad Max: Furiosa.

Kylo Ren (l.) threatens Finn & Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Ho-hum, another day, another lackluster science-fiction foray into the Star Wars universe! After creator, writer, director, and erstwhile producer George Lucas sold the rights to his money-making franchise to Disney, it seems that creativity and original content went out the door via the star-freighter’s garbage chute — and into the pockets of backers hoping to make a killing (or “chump change” in this instance) with this ponderous excuse for a continuation. This is one long and hopelessly hokey sequel, people. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have been a Star Wars fan since the first film appeared on the horizon (or in our solar system) back in 1977. I was present at every one of the premiere showings on the traditional Memorial Day weekend. I even stood on that endless line (which veered off into the stratosphere) for the initial run of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. You can imagine my disappointment, then, at this less than rousing epic, which is long (oh, soooo long) on special-FX and short on actual substance. A lot of sound and fury, as well as lightsabers and firepower, signifying …. Well, that’s a good point. What does this two-hour-and-fifteen-minute adventure-less thrill ride have to do with Lucas’ space fantasy? And where does one begin to relate the many problems we have with this film’s bogus story line? New characters abound throughout, which is all to the good. And familiar characters make spurious entrances, which is all to the bad. Some old favorites and friends (Han Solo, Chewbacca), and some overly recognizable wisecracks “help,” in a manner of speaking. There’s a little bit of everything for the geek in all of us, including a space-age kitchen sink to play in, and a new robotic android companion (BB-8) to squeak at. One thing I did like, and that was the elevated quality of the starships and cruisers, which have that solid, bulky, tactile-rendered, lived-in feeling from the originals. Indeed, the return of the Millennium Falcon intact was reason enough to cheer about. New cast members Daisy Ridley as Rey (game and lively), Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (brooding), John Boyega as Finn (clueless), Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron (wasted), Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata (dig those crazy goggles), Domhnall Gleeson as the spittle-spewing General Hux, and Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke (in motion-capture mode, just as Lupita was above) give it the old college try, along with a last-minute cameo from Mark Hamill as the bearded Luke Skywalker. Some mad dashing about by Harrison Ford as Han, as well as a badly aged Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and dozens more, provide some needed spunk. The brief bit by Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth in the Game of Throne series on HBO) as Captain Phasma promises more than it delivers. Truth be told, the old gang does add some flavor and spice but little else that’s nice to the circuitous plot. Ah, yes, the plot. The story takes place 30 years after the incidents that wrapped up Episode VI. It seems there’s another bunch of storm-trooping soldiers in charge, only this time they’re called the First Order (i.e., the bad guys) which rose from the remnants of the deposed Galactic Republic. On the opposite side of the tracks, there’s our correspondingly insignificant Rebellion, unconvincingly labeled the Resistance (the so-named good guys). The dark side of the Force makes a comeback, thanks to the badly damaged mask of the late Darth Vader, which holds a considerable grip on the impressionable Kylo Ren. Hmm, I wonder why ….. Yes, folks, the plot becomes oh-so predictable at this point that there’s no sense going into specifics. The more things change in that long ago and far, far away galaxy, the more they stay the same.

Beetle, Kubo & Monkey of “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Another gorgeously constructed, brilliantly realized stop-motion tale from Laika Studios, the company that brought you Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014). There is exemplary voiceover work by the ubiquitous Charlize Theron, in addition to Art Parkinson (excellent, by the way), Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey. A decent score by Dario Marianelli (Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina), who also composed the music for The Boxtrolls, sets the right Oriental tone throughout this extended road and buddy picture. And the novel use of ex-Beatle George Harrison’s song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” will surely bring a tear to one’s eye. Laika Studios, and especially its director, animator, and CEO Travis Knight, continue to mine the richly rewarding, frame-by-frame field that spotlights the struggles that young people face in life — in particular, the problems that kids encounter in convincing their elders, who should know better, to listen to their counsel and advice (a favorite topic of the above stop-motion features). In practically all of Laika’s movies, relatable characters such as Coraline, Norman, Eggs, and now Kubo continuously confront this challenge, sometimes head-on but most times by blindly stepping up to the challenge and taking charge of the situation. One such child, the 12-year-old Kubo, learns to live by his wits in the adult world and tries to cope with its troubling consequences — most of them not of his choosing and, in this unusual feature, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, origami, the Shinto religion, and the supernatural (in the form of two wicked aunts and a sinisterly clever grandfather). He meets along the way the representative characters manifested by Monkey (Theron) and Beetle (McConaughey), his steadfast companions on a mission to track down his deceased father’s weapons and armor (as you can tell, there’s a lot of story to glean through). The importance of family and respect for one’s ancestors are stressed, something that Pixar Animation Studios later attempted with the award-winning Coco (2017). Ambitious in the extreme and a little long and murky at times, Kubo and the Two Strings remains an admirable effort at understanding a foreign culture; one that is so different from our own that the film ends up more as an evocative experiment rather than an emotionally cathartic one (which it aims gamely to put over, but ultimately fails). Small children may have difficulty deciphering the finer points that are tossed at them. They are not alone! When the story plays second samisen to the visuals, and when the conversation turns to thoughts of death, family, and (gulp) individual sacrifice, it starts asking an underage audience more questions than they can handle. It may not be the best told fable in the expanding Laika library, but it certainly is their best-looking and best-sounding picture to date. The opening tidal wave sequence alone is worth the investment. In that, Laika is the lone path-breaker in this once-vanishing form of stop-motion entertainment.     

(Clockwise from left): Valerian, Bubble, Commander Filitt & Laureline in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Probably the most ambitious, sumptuously photographed, and seamlessly realized special FX feature of all the above and below entries. A bit lacking in dramatic impact, there is still that goofy kid’s eye-view feel (“Look, Ma, I-made-a-sci-fi-fantasy picture”) to this gargantuan production. At a cost of nearly US $200 million, director, writer, and co-producer Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the most expensive European co-production to date. It’s a bit more than just a Fifth Element retread, Besson’s earlier cult hit, which many critics have compared it to. Based on a French graphic publication from the 1960s, Valérian et Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, this literal comic-book come-to-life adventure film stars Dane DeHaan as Major Valerian, a hotshot space pilot in the Han Solo tradition of maverick gunfighters; and ex-model Cara Delevingne as his co-pilot Sergeant Laureline, a spry no-nonsense police woman and would-be girlfriend to the girl-crazy Valerian. This attractive couple spars in the age-old tradition of The Thin Man series (starring William Powell and Myrna Loy), with barely disguised intimations of the snappy repartee between Han Solo and Princess Leia. We know, from our extensive movie-going experience, that love-hate relationships such as these end up in only one way: the two young people will eventually fall into each other’s arms. Or will they? That’s but one of the many off-center “in jokes” that Besson’s film plays up. The others include state-of-the-art effects and brief star turns by an accomplished cast, which includes Clive Owen as the sullen Commander Filitt, Kris Wu as Sergeant Neza, jazzman Herbie Hancock as the holographic Defense Minister, Ethan Hawke doing his best Dennis Hopper imitation as Jolly the Pimp, Rutger Hauer in an all-too-brief-stint as President of the World State Federation, the voice of John Goodman as the formidable Jabba the Hutt lookalike and sound-alike Igon Siruss (with insinuations of a probable sequel afoot), and the remarkable if limited input of pop-star Rihanna as the shape-shifting alien Bubble. Her exotic dance number has to be seen to be believed! Surely viewers will be reminded of the opera diva Plavalaguna sequence in The Fifth Element. As a matter of fact, there are one-too-many references to that earlier feature, sometimes to the current one’s detriment. Nevertheless, here’s another instance where the opening episode highlighting the seven-foot tall bald-pated race known as Müls (who smack of the blue-skinned Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar) offers much promise, specifically when it deals with their planet’s annihilation and the fate of their race. A plethora of related complications and extraneous side characters (for example, the rollicking trio reminiscent of Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie) conflict with the main issue and leads to inevitable exhaustion on the part of the viewer. Likely, the film will play better on downloads and streaming devices, and in 4K or Blu-ray transmissions. Definitely a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, Valerian unfortunately veers off in too many directions at once. It can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be taken seriously (in the manner of Blade Runner 2049 below) or wallow in self-parody. A pity! As with Mad Max: Fury Road, I look forward to a sequel that will flesh out and expand upon the material.

Ryan Gosling as Officer K in one of many fabulous images from “Blade Runner 2049”

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

When I first saw this long anticipated follow-up to Ridley Scott’s visual masterpiece Blade Runner (1982), my initial reaction was, “Man, what a downer! How could the director and visionary of Arrival (see my previous review via the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/the-best-of-the-rest-films-i-enjoyed-or-not-in-the-movie-theater-part-one/) make such a depressingly bleak, snail’s-paced picture as this?” Yes, it’s impressive to look at, but God, does this movie crawl — sometimes on all fours. Looking back at that gut reaction, I realize that Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian filmmaker, had other things on his mind than a mere follow-up to an acknowledged cult classic. In that respect, I give Monsieur Denis the benefit of the doubt. What he and his committed cast and crew members have assembled here is a stand-alone project: their own fantastically sentient world; a visually stunning, intellectually stimulating science-fiction recreation of a future where Replicants (human lookalikes with limited life-spans) do the drudgework (much of it off-world), while Blade Runners (police officers charged with tracking down miscreant Replicants) bring “law and order” to a Hong Kong-like megalopolis populated by emotionless automatons. These are the human characters, mind you. There are multiple references to the earlier film (many of them quite subtle, while others are blatantly overt), as well as tributes to sci-fi sagas of decades past, including intermittent allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both of these genre classics figure prominently in the ethos of Blade Runner 2049. Call it the “new noir,” or a sci-fi crime drama. Actually, it’s a literal police procedural, as Officer K (a relentlessly morose Ryan Gosling) begins the story by terminating a rogue Replicant named Sapper Morton (hulking Dave Bautista). The Replicants harbor a deep, dark secret: that one of their kind has given birth, something no Replicant was thought to be capable of. From this scene-setting prologue, we venture forth into the unimaginable: a futuristic Los Angeles, the city of “angels” (or “devils,” if you will), home of the Wallace Corporation, the business entity that took over for Dr. Eldon Tyrell and the Tyrell Corporation, where the original Replicants were grown and fabricated. The blind eccentric, CEO Niander Wallace (a creepy Jared Leto), has picked up where Tyrell left off. Obsessed with finding the culprit who gave birth, Wallace sends out his private bodyguard Luv (the equally glum Sylvia Hoeks), a supposedly detached Replicant but bubbling with pent-up emotions she can barely keep under control, to find the mysterious offspring of said Replicant. Meanwhile, Officer K has identity issues of his own. In his sparsely-decorated “space-age bachelor pad,” K keeps a holographic companion, the aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), as sort of an artificially-intelligent girlfriend. Think Spike Jonze’s Her from 2013, but with a comelier shape and come-hither voice and eyes. Superbly photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, the murky screenplay is credited to original scenarist Hampton Francher, along with Michael Green. A bewhiskered Harrison Ford returns as former Blade Runner Rick Deckard, and Sean Young, the original Rachael (the one everybody believes has given birth) makes a cameo appearance via motion- and voice-capture technology. The remainder of the cast, to include Robin Wright as Lt. Joshi, Mackenzie Davis as Mariette (who shares a body meld with Joi in one of the film’s most memorable sequences), Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, Lennie James as Mr. Cotton (a makeshift Fagin to a bunch of urchin children), and Edward James Olmos in a neat little clip as Gaff, try to boldly go where no sequel has gone before. They succeed to some extent in delivering an original take on the plot, but that’s about it. Maybe they succeeded too well, for this film is extraordinarily dense, the story needlessly complex and meandering. Still, the sets, the costumes, the incredible holographic images, the soundtrack, and special FX are state-of-the-art miraculous. The overpoweringly loud and blaring music score, however (by veteran composer Hans Zimmer with contributions from Benjamin Wallfish), is much too self-indulgent to make an impact (except on your eardrums). Recommended but with hesitation, due to the high violence quotient and the disappointedly dragged-out-beyond-all-reasonable-limits story line.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) gawks at the “Asset” (Doug Jones) in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water (2017)

Made up for any deficiencies noted in Pacific Rim (see my earlier reviews of this and other movies: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/the-best-of-the-rest-films-i-enjoyed-or-not-in-the-movie-theater-part-one/), Mexican director, producer, and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro’s “comeback” picture The Shape of Water features some of the best emoting on screen this year. A modern-day Beauty and the Beast turned Creature from the Black Lagoon fairy tale, combined with fantastical elements from King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and other similarly themed productions, this film is what future generations may point to as the quintessential Del Toro picture. The color scheme, the use of water, shade and light, the enchanted and quixotic nature of the plot, and of course the “Asset” or Creature itself — played by the underrated mime and actor Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in the Hellboy series) — are too marvelous for words. The Shape of Water has all the essential ingredients of Del Toro’s high-concept mind-set, and can be favorably compared to his earlier output, especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (part of Del Toro’s Spanish trilogy which began with Cronos), and even Mimic and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. This one features a fish out of water story. To put it plainly, a highly romanticized account of 1960s Cold War struggles depicting downtrodden working-class stiffs — the unlikely trio of mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (sensitive Sally Hawkins), her African American co-worker Zelda Fuller (spunky Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s closeted gay neighbor Giles (Oscar-winner Richard Jenkins) — battling to spare the life of a poor misunderstood sea creature, the amphibious Gill-Man-like “Asset,” against the baser designs of vicious military colonel Strickland (a particularly manic Michael Shannon) and the combined forces of the U.S. Army. This being set during the height of Cold War tensions, the usual suspects are present, including a Russian operative posing as an upright American scientist (the always dependable Michael Stuhlbarg) interested in preserving the “Asset” for his own independent study. Both the scientist and Elisa share the same desire: to learn from this obviously intelligent and responsive creature, who when you get right down to it is more human than the humans who surround and abuse it. Their narratives are told in parallel and supplement the main plot line. As with all such stories, there are multiple viewpoints to ponder and a variety of takeaways to be discussed. For instance, Colonel Strickland is no cardboard cutout villain, but a complicated individual trying to come to terms with this discovery and stymied by the cleaning crew’s lack of cooperation. His own love life with his clueless bimbo-brained spouse Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) is contrasted with the burgeoning love affair between the obviously smitten Elisa and the much more approachable creature, which she and her friends have kidnapped and hidden in Elisa’s bathtub. Now this is where things get a might “weird” and “kinky,” if you know what I mean. But remember, this is a fantasy, with elements of magical realism thrown in that will both delight and infuriate you. In one astonishing episode, Elisa and the “Asset” partake of an elaborate Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routine. In another, Carmen Miranda is heard singing her trademark “Chica Chica Boom Chic” on the soundtrack. And speaking of the soundtrack, composer Alexandre Desplat has written a deceptively simple score which on first hearing may lull viewers into a state of blissful unawareness. As you can tell, this is both a film and a director enamored of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In combining his love of movies with his passion for the horror genre, Del Toro tries to do the impossible — which is, to make a picture that both die-hard romantics and confirmed horror and sci-fi buffs can look up to and enjoy on multiple levels. Not every critic was entranced by this production, but I can tell you that THIS horror, sci-fi and movie musical fan was thoroughly captivated by the director’s vision.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes