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

Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper in ‘Basquiat’ (1996)

The battle for self-expression and the yearning that artists have, within themselves, to place their thoughts, their feelings — indeed, their very soul and essence — onto sculpture or canvas can be an all-consuming endeavor. How does one convey that which is so deeply felt, that internal longing to break free of one’s physical confines, and perpetuate a moment in time?

That is what transforms the merely good artists into truly great ones. But the quest to achieve that end can only lead to personal sacrifice. Sometimes, the sacrifice can be to one’s mental state; at other times, it can mean giving up one’s corporal ability to create; and still others may have to forgo their very lives for their art.

That is the price, to put it plainly, for artistic immortality.

Basquiat (1996)

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to middle-class comfort. Upon quitting high school, he lived and worked on the Lower East Side — literally, in the streets — during the height and rediscovery of graffiti art and its equally viable cousins, street art and visual art.

His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He was fluent in several languages, including French and Spanish. He rose to fleeting fame and fortune among the glitterati, as his participation in a highly publicized 1980 “Times Square Show” would make known. Yet he experienced a precipitous fall, as well as an early death, at age 27, in 1988 of a drug overdose.

His all-too-limited but event-filled life and career became the subject of the biopic Basquiat (1996). Did you say, “Suffering for his art?” Indeed we did! And Basquiat was a walking, talking textbook example of the suffering artist in form, shape, substance, and style. But did he SUFFER for his art? That’s a good question! According to Art History: The View from the West, Volume Two, “Although he was untrained and wanted to make ‘paintings that look as if they were made by a child,’ Basquiat was a sophisticated artist. He carefully studied the Abstract Expressionists, the late paintings of Picasso, and [the work of] Dubuffet, among others.”

The film that was based on his art and life starred the equally young and charismatic Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America, The Hunger Games, Only Lovers Left Alive, and HBO’s Westworld), who gives a remarkable performance as the titular soft-spoken artiste. Wright is soooo good in the role that one quickly forgets that he is acting a part: we get to dislike, and almost hate, his self-destructive behavior as well as his imprudent lifestyle and damaging personal relationships.

A young Jeffrey Wright as the equally youthful Jean-Michel Basquiat in ‘Basquiat’

In fact, thirty years after Basquiat’s death an article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “The Enigma of the Man Behind the $110 Million Painting.” The subtitle of the piece posed the question: “Was Basquiat an artist, an art star, or just a celebrity?” We are still struggling with those labels to this day!

Since Basquiat’s untimely passing, the article goes on to state, the price for his works has “climbed steadily upward,” but that few of those “in the know” can explain its worth as art, or what exactly makes his art so valuable. The early fascination with his paintings and the undue praise heaped upon them has been deemed an over-exaggeration; that their childlike scribbling and so-called “primitivism” inaccurately (or unfairly) reflected the true substance and quality of the youth who created them.

Basquiat’s canvases, the author of the article Stephen Metcalf suggests, “were made by a young man, barely out of his teens, who never lost a teenager’s contempt for respectability. Trying to assert art-historical importance on the paintings’ behalf, a critic comes up against their obvious lack of self-importance. Next to their louche irreverence, the language surrounding them has felt clumsy and overwrought from the beginning. What little we know for sure about Basquiat can be said simply: An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work. We have had a hard time making these two go together easily. But so did he.”

Love it or loathe it, Metcalf’s harsh but earnest assessment of the artist’s work came many years after Basquiat’s East Village heyday. While providing some retrospective value, apart from this piece we must look closely at the film itself, which was made not eight years after Basquiat’s demise by one who knew him personally: director and co-writer Julian Schnabel. In doing so, we are faced with a decision: whether Basquiat was or was not “the real voice of the gutter,” as one of his many admirers declares; or simply a streetwise black youth who failed to develop his art beyond its nascent state.

Advertisements at the time of the movie’s release hinted that Jean-Michel Basquiat (according to a New Yorker press release) was “this generation’s James Dean.” I’m not so sure that’s an accurate depiction of the man. However, what this semi-fictionalized account seems to do is associate the artist’s fleeting connections to established pros, such as Andy Warhol and his crowd, with his abrupt success.

‘Basquiat’ poster art

In the film, when Warhol dies suddenly after a post-operative procedure to remove his gallbladder, Basquiat’s world starts to fall apart. In truth, let’s say that Basquiat had been doing drugs and freebasing cocaine more-or-less on a routine basis. While living on the edge, Warhol’s passing only pushed Basquiat further over the cliff.

To quote from Metcalf’s perceptive Atlantic article: “after he became famous, Basquiat went, in quick and ghastly succession, from sweet East Village magpie to café-society boor to dead.” The film follows this sad trajectory religiously and to the letter. What it fails to explore, in sum, was Basquiat’s effect on the overall art world; if his peculiar style of street art (one he rejected over time, and also tried to destroy) would result in a school of eager followers.

In real life, Basquiat could barely draw figures accurately. When he turned to fellow black performers (e.g., jazz artists Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) and black athletes as models, the poignancy of his creations could finally be discerned. To equate or contrast what he freely drew with modern masterpieces (for instance, those of Pablo Picasso) does him a disservice. If anything, Basquiat was a uniquely raw talent, albeit a poorly developed one. Perhaps this very poverty inherent in his abilities became the very thing that made his work so accessible to the average Joe.

Directed and co-written by fellow Brooklynite Mr. Schnabel, who was also a painter and innovator and no stranger to the artistic milieu (he, too, profited handsomely from his work), the movie is replete with familiar faces in supporting roles. Among the talents involved are such bona fide scene-stealers as Gary Oldman as Albert Milo (a Schnabel stand-in), Michael Wincott as René Ricard, a fresh-faced Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s friend Benny Dalmau, Claire Forlani as girlfriend Gina Cardinale, Dennis Hopper as art collector Bruno Bischofberger, Christopher Walken as the Interviewer, Courtney Love as “Big Pink,” Tatum O’Neal as Cynthia Kruger, and of course the enigmatic David Bowie (wearing an atrociously ill-fitting wig) in a very individualized, fey take on pop-art specialist Andy Warhol, one of Basquiat’s mentors.

On a personal note, I accidentally ran into Warhol himself many years ago, in Midtown Manhattan, during the early-1980s. I remember his hair as stringy and bleached pure white on top; underneath, it was jet black. And Warhol was very tall and thin, with a pasty visage and spindly legs that seemed never to end. That Bowie captured his other-worldly look and distant, faraway gaze is a tribute to the late multi-talented musician.

Pollock (2000)

Marcia Gay Harden & Ed Harris in ‘Pollock’

Similar in content to Basquiat (that is, the rise and fall of a notable, and perversely original, American artist), this warts-and-all portrait of avant-garde painter Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000) is a worthy film effort by first-time director and long-time screen actor Ed Harris.

The bald-pated Harris (The Right Stuff, The Abyss, Snowpiercer, HBO’s Westworld), who also starred as the volatile abstract expressionist, spared little in depicting the alcoholic rages of the gifted but deeply flawed, “clinically neurotic” artist.

Pollock developed a spontaneous style of painting known as “drip-technique,” which was variously described as “volcanic” and “full of fire.” He gained fame and a reasonable amount of notoriety in the 1940s for his brash, impulsive approach to modern art. That he took the art world by storm is an understatement. Today, Pollock is considered by many art historians to be an innovative but ultimately tragic figure.

His equally rocky relationships to family (he was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom abandoned him), and especially to the women in his life — among them, his long-suffering wife Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who copped a Best Supporting Actress Award for her role); and art collector and millionaire socialite Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, Harris’ real-life wife) — were fraught with ups and downs and fueled by his exhaustive drinking bouts and manic-depressive mood swings.

Ed Harris as lookalike painter Jackson Pollock

Too, Pollock’s love-hate relationship with friends and close relations is captured in a particularly raucous Thanksgiving Day gathering, where the artist literally explodes with rage as he overturns the dinner table (with turkey and all the trimmings intact). All of which are exclusively captured by Harris and screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller. Jennifer Connelly played one of his lovers, the artist Ruth Kligman.

Pollock was killed in 1956 in a car crash at age 44 near his Long Island home. The crash also took the life of Kligman’s friend, Edith Metzger (actress Sally Murphy).

The resultant Pollock project took up more than 10 years of Harris’ life, who immersed himself in the late artist’s painting style and milieu, even down to smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes much favored by Pollock. “Pollock said several times that he couldn’t separate himself from his art,” Harris indicated to Edward Hellmore of The Guardian. “Not knowing much about modern art when I began to read about him, it was much more his persona — his struggles as a human being — that was interesting to me.”

Significantly, Harris was urged by his own father to research the life of Jackson Pollock, who the elder Harris insisted bore a striking resemblance to his son Ed. Harris agreed wholeheartedly and to which we are all indebted. He devoured all the available material, especially the biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White. He even took up painting and mimicked Pollock’s drip technique in a studio he had built in his Malibu home.

Ed Harris (as Jackson Pollock) in ‘Pollock’ (2000, directed by Ed Harris) Photo: Photofest/Sony Pictures Classics

Discovering that he and Pollock had a lot in common — TOO much in common, it turned out, which included the imbibing of spirits — Harris made up his mind to not only act in the film but direct it as well. “It wasn’t intended to be my picture,” Harris mused at the time, “but I was so intimate with the material that I didn’t want to hand it over [to someone else].”

In the movie, Pollock’s “desperate need for approval” overwhelmed him at every point. When he finally achieved recognition, he felt even more isolated and desperate. “It wasn’t what he thought it would be,” Harris stressed. Fame is never what it’s cranked up to be!

 Overall, Harris’ film project is the closest we’ve come to fully capturing an artist’s actual working methods and technique. There’s a fascinating scene late in the movie that immortalizes the artist’s surly encounter with filmmaker Hans Namuth (Norbert Weisser), who tries to get Pollock to recreate his style for posterity. Pollock feels inhibited by his presence and is unable to “perform” before the cameras. It’s because of this encounter and Namuth’s resultant “action photo” of Pollock at work (reproduced by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, in 1997, as part of his series “Pictures of Chocolate”) that solidified Pollock’s reputation. 

In the same Art History: A View of the West, Volume Two tome (by University of Kansas Professor of Art History Emerita Marilyn Stokstad), we read that Pollock “experimented with spraying and dripping industrial paints during his studies with [the Mexican muralist David] Siquieros. He was also, according to his wife, a ‘jazz addict’ who would spend hours listening to the explosively improvised bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.” 

In their mutual love of jazz and all things avant-garde, Pollock and Basquiat, although they thrived about thirty years apart, were both very much  of like minds. Another fascinating and somewhat overlooked connection point is the fact that both lead actors, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, appeared together in HBO’s acclaimed sci-fi series Westworld, as the android Bernard Lowe and the mysterious Man in Black, respectively.

Frida (2002)

Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) places his weary head next to that of Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) in ‘Frida’

Here is another cinematic biopic (with an appropriate one-word title) in the modern-day trend of presenting celebrated personalities and/or artists from the past as (quote) real people with real-life hang-ups, issues, and other so-called “defects” — to include (among them) bisexuality, alcoholism, slovenliness, and infidelity, along with radically opposing political viewpoints.

Not that any of these defects prevented them from realizing their artistic aims. It’s just that coming as Frida did on the heels of Ed Harris’ Pollock, the life and naïve folk art of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — excellently portrayed on the screen by Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek (of Lebanese descent on her father’s side and a dead ringer for Kahlo); and helmed by veteran opera, theater, and film director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera) — refuses to take wing.

Frida Kahlo & actress Salma Hayek as ‘Frida’ (Photo: Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock)

Produced as well as slaved over by the maverick Ms. Hayek (another bold and fairly historic move on Hollywood’s part) and featuring another of those “all-star” lineup casts, to include the likes of Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, and Roger Rees, the film races along at a breakneck speed in an attempt to cover as much of Frida’s short yet significant artistic and personal life as it possibly can.

Certainly her on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with the womanizing, large-scale mural painter Diego Rivera (a particularly adept Alfred Molina, measurably more handsome than the real-life Rivera was reputed to be), her tryst with notorious Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky (a bespectacled Geoffrey Rush), and her debilitating bus accident and subsequent ill health, are given only as much detail as a two-hour flick can allow.

Meanwhile, Frida sits and paints with her back strapped to a wheelchair. Her paintings and efforts at completing them dissolve, during the course of the picture, into actual scenes depicting major and minor events in her “reel” life.

Painting from life: Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

If there is anything going for this fast-and-loose biopic is the fact that Hayek bears an impressive and uncanny resemblance to the real Frida Kahlo. And, yes, the real Frida was a headstrong and driven force of nature — especially where it concerned her art and those numerous self-portraits in differing states of repose and/or native dress. Kahlo created a hugely individual style with little to no connection to Western European ideas or to the prevailing (at the time) Modernist trend.

Of late, the movie has achieved a significant degree of controversy chiefly for its distributor, Miramax, and the man holding the cash bag, Mr. Harvey Weinstein. According to published reports and various accounts, Ms. Hayek had accused Mr. Weinstein of demanding sexual favors from her in order to put up the financing her picture required. One of those demands involved a full-frontal nude sex scene with another woman (the aforementioned Ms. Judd). For his part, Weinstein has denied the accusations, although he only came through with the theatrical release upon the scene being filmed.

Another sex scene, this time involving Ms. Hayek as Frida and Mr. Rush as the nervous Trotsky, was purportedly inserted posthaste into the drama, but as part of the initial screenplay. In this instance, Kahlo’s bisexuality has stood in direct contrast to the alleged facts as they were known to have occurred. That Frida’s art thrived, despite the fact she was a woman invading and partaking in a so-termed “male profession,” stands as a tribute to her tenacity and fierce determination.

In comparison to the mixed heritage of Jean-Michael Basquiat, Frida Kahlo was born “of a German father and a part-indigenous Mexican mother,” which gave her work a distinctive footprint in both cultures. To quote once more from the thoroughly exhaustive and well-documented Art History: A View from the West, Volume Two, “The value of Kahlo’s art, apart from its memorable self-expression, lies in how it investigates and lays bare larger issues of identity.”

Scored by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal (Ms. Taymor’s real-life husband), the concluding song, “Burn It Blue,” is performed by Brazilian songwriter and singer Caetano Veloso and Mexican-American singer-actress Lila Downs. Edward Norton, who plays a rather low-key Nelson Rockefeller, another art-loving financier who has the dubious honor of having destroyed Diego Rivera’s monumental Rockefeller Center-based mural, also contributed unofficially to the screenplay.

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Mythology of Change: Designing and Empowering Voices in Contemporary Science Fiction

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’

Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her essay, “The Mythology of Change: Designing and Empowering Voices in Contemporary Science Fiction,” was first published in the College of Design’s Student Publication magazine FLUX: Design in Transition.

Upon the first publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, the birth of the genre we know today to be science fiction was realized. Originally published anonymously, this tale of creation gone awry received favorable reviews from critics. Encouraged by this reception, Shelley claimed authorship of the work, resulting in subsequent critics immediately dismissing it.

The knowledge of the voice behind the work, being that of a woman barely in her twenties, suddenly made it more difficult for it to be validated and accepted. Yet if not for Shelley, we may possibly have never conceived of a genre, now beloved by many, that impacts us tremendously in its discussion of what humanity might face in our future.

The character of Victor Frankenstein is at first depicted as in control of his knowledge and of his creation. But as soon as it comes to life, his fear and neglect of it produces monstrous results, and for the remainder of the novel, he spends his time searching for the creature in order to destroy it, as its existence haunts him.

While the ephemeral nature of power, who has it, and who will inherit it, has long been a part of the discussion of science fiction narratives and what they mean for us, it is interesting to note that the first science fiction novel dealt with the consequences of letting technology and power have too much control.

The Creature (Jonny Lee Miller) wrestles with his maker, Victor Frankenstein (Benedict Cumberbatch), in Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production of ‘Frankenstein’

Today, the concept of power has new meaning as those who were once marginalized are slowly emerging as active voices in conversations enabled by accessible and portable technology. Among these voices, the most active should be that of the contemporary maker and storyteller. The primary role of designers and storytellers today should be to bring contemporary issues to the forefront of their work, and to assert their voice in unique ways by utilizing technology to contribute meaningful and accessible work. While in Shelley’s case the author’s voice was considered in her time to be as important as the ideas being expressed, this notion can be used as a positive in today’s design practice.

The nature of change is a topic that remains pervasive in science fiction narratives, since designers and problem-solvers have realized many of the solutions proposed in science fiction stories that were at one time or another impossible to imagine. We are also undergoing a period of great transition, not just in a global sense but also in the sense that the ultimate voice of authority — the voice of credibility — now takes many forms.

Because of our unprecedented access to technology, the everyday person can find and belong to a community of like-minded individuals that, when engaged in a proactive way, can become ultimate driving forces for change and action. What better way to engage and encourage people than with designing new tools that they can use for creation and conversation? Or better yet, for the aspiring storyteller to engage their audience in new ways using technology not only as part of the content, but in tandem with the form in which their story is told, the message and the medium becoming one and the same?

Oftentimes contemporary science fiction storytellers focus too much on the spectacular fear of it all: fear of space, of isolation, of the rising fascist dystopia, of the collapsing environment, of the other. While this is a necessary commentary and certainly a valid one, it is my belief that today’s world needs stories with a focus on how to combat this fear with accessible ingenuity.

Connecting our storytelling with the hybrid nature of media, therefore, allows designers to bring in new tools we have yet to use for the purpose of storytelling and engagement, and merging the form with the content of the story, creating new opportunities for design and for designers to see new problems to solve.

One typically sees design as a way of solving problems for the masses, or for a particular demographic or situation. In the case of storytelling and design, there is no need necessarily for a product to be invented, but rather the encouragement of experimentation and of trial and error, that eventually might lead us one day to place meaning and value to new concepts that empower all.

‘The Iron Giant,’ directed by Brad Bird (Photo: Warner Bros. Studio)

Just as in the film The Iron Giant, arguably an animated version of the Frankenstein story, the title robot helps to create art out of spare parts and garbage in the junkyard that he hides in, so we can potentially learn to utilize what has been disposed of or devalued by others to empower our narratives.

By speaking about technology while utilizing technology to tell new stories, audiences may grow to understand how to engage with the world and empower their own voices using what is around them. There are new needs and new voices in need of expression, and for tools to be designed for those voices.

What allows certain voices to remain in power and oppressive to other points of view, is the value that is placed in what those in power use to empower themselves. Put more simply, those who can’t have what those in power have don’t know what it’s like to value what they can’t have.

In the film Ex Machina, another more recent incarnation of Shelley’s novel, there is an almost wordless scene in which the robot Ava, who is trapped in a room for most of the film, repairs herself before making her escape into the human world.

After learning about humans and being embedded with a drive to become a part of them, she literally and figuratively completes herself by taking the skin from previous humanoid robots and placing flesh on parts of her body that were of synthetic material. In this way, she refashions herself in her own image, no longer functioning for or according to her creator.

Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robotic A.I., from Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’

The scene is poignant and beautiful, as it stands for the power of design and self-expression, as imperfect as it might be, perfectly flawed.

Regardless of the aesthetic, the function of design for new storytelling and empowerment rests in its message. The tools we need to empower our voices and those of others are not only around us, but also within us.

Copyright © 2016 by Natalia C. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Eight) — Conclusion: Living the Reality-TV Life

Painting of ‘The Fall of Icarus’ by Jacob Peter Gowy

One-Way Flight

Daedalus hit upon a bold scheme. While Icarus lounged lazily about the prison, Daedalus put himself to work on threading bird feathers together and binding them with wax. His plan was to fashion two pairs of wings, one for himself and one for his son, and escape through their prison’s window. From there, they would launch themselves from the island’s highest peak and fly away to freedom — a novel idea, but one that required patience and resolve.

When the wax had finally hardened, Daedalus explained to Icarus that they could wear their wings to freedom, but they had to steer clear of Apollo’s rays. “Follow me and do as I do. Do not go too near the sun or too close to the sea. Steer a middle course and our freedom will be assured.”

Icarus promised to obey. He followed his father’s advice to the letter, to a point. When the day finally came for them to flee, at dawn they jumped out of the window (there was no need for bars or guards, for there was no-where to run). Climbing the highest peak, Daedalus and Icarus took off and soared effortlessly above the island. They flew for many miles, staying as close to each other as possible.

Soon, the clouds began to part and a magnificently golden sphere appeared in the sky above. Icarus forgot everything his father had taught him and, feeling stronger than ever and free as an eagle after years of confinement, soared ever closer to disaster. On and on Icarus flew, paying little regard to his wings, whose wax binding began to melt away like lard from pig fat.

Distracted by the sights and sounds of gulls and terns, Daedalus looked to see if Icarus was beside him. Not seeing the boy, Daedalus cried out in alarm: “Icarus! Icarus! Where are you?” In desperation, he flew back to where his son had been, whereupon he spotted some loose feathers bobbing in the water. It was all that remained of the impetuous Icarus. Unaware of his surroundings, and caring not a whit for what his father had warned him about, young Icarus had plunged into the sea and perished.

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth

When the fatuousness of reality-TV life begins to dictate the course of one’s real-life experiences, you know you’re in big trouble. And, boy, did Ryan Lochte find himself in a heap of difficulties — up to his swimmer’s ears in them — when the truth of what occurred at that Rio de Janeiro filling station ultimately unfolded.

It did not trickle out in digestible dribs and drabs but rather gushed forth in continuous waves, a torrent of negative publicity and nonstop coverage that nearly drowned the eleven-time Olympic medal winner in a sea of recriminations.

“People wanted a reason to hate me,” Ryan griped to Allison Glock, a senior writer for ESPN Magazine, nearly a year from the time when the incident took place. “After Rio, I was probably the most hated person in the world. There were a couple of points where I was crying, thinking, ‘If I go to bed and never wake up, fine.’ I was about to hang up my entire life.” (You will excuse me for having to point out the obvious, but in this context Ryan’s poor choice of the words “hang up” may not have been ideal.)

Nevertheless, according to that same ESPN Magazine article (“Do You Really Still Hate Ryan Lochte?”), surveillance video from the scene in question revealed a different take on the matter as originally reported. The story went that Lochte and his swimming pals had asked the taxi driver to pull into the nearest filling station so they could make use of the station’s facilities. One report emphasized that there was no access to the men’s room; as an alternative, the drunken foursome urinated on the gas station’s walls, or, in ESPN’s account, they went about “[relieving] themselves in a filling station hedge.” In addition to which, his teammates later claimed to police that Lochte “also pulled a framed advertisement to the ground” and vandalized it.

To hear Lochte tell it, the filling station’s security guards arrived on the scene with guns drawn. The video, alluded to in Ms. Glock’s piece, “showed security guards demanding money in payment for the damage [the swimmers had caused] before letting them depart in their cab. The men paid [the money] and returned to the Olympic Village, where the incident would have been quickly forgotten had Lochte not exaggerated the retelling to his mom, who in turn shared with the media that her superstar son had been robbed at gunpoint.” Ryan repeated the allegations to the Today Show’s Billy Bush.

NBC’s Billy Bush (left) hearing Ryan Lochte’s description of the alleged ‘mugging’ in Rio

Incidentally, it was determined that the swimmers had paid $100 Brazilian reais (or approximately US $30) in damages and offered an additional US $20 to each of the security guards.

By Wednesday, August 17, when doubts began to surface over the initial robbery claims (which included an undisclosed altercation with one of the guards), the story started to unravel. By that time, Lochte had departed for the U.S., leaving his swimming buddies behind to wade, up to their necks, in the fallout.

Incensed by the objectionable nature of the allegations, the Brazilian police sought answers to their queries. They pulled Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger from their flight to face interrogation. Their passports were confiscated as well. The swimmers talked to police on Thursday, August 18, and, satisfied with what they had to say, were subsequently “whisked through airport security and [put] on a plane that night,” as reported by the Associated Press and corresponding news outlets. The fourth swimmer, Jimmy Feigen, followed them on Friday night, “but only after reaching a deal with a judge to make a US $10,800 payment,” a symbolic gesture intended as a charitable contribution.

“I definitely had too much to drink that night,” Ryan fessed up in a televised interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer that aired the following Saturday night, “and I was very intoxicated.” He admitted that paying for the damage was a way of “striking a deal” to avoid embarrassment over his “dumb behavior.” “We just wanted to get out of there,” Lochte persisted. “That’s why I’m taking full responsibility for it, because I over-exaggerated the story. If I had never done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

His late-in-the-game admission carried little weight with Rio’s humorless police officials, who charged the swimmer in late August 2016 with filing a false robbery report (punishable under Brazilian law by a maximum penalty of up to eighteen months in prison).

Action and Reaction

Brazilians’ reaction to the veracity (or not) of Ryan’s cause célèbre reflected a long-standing view that white-collar (or upper-class) crimes — the sort that involve public officials, TV and sports personalities, and/or the super-rich — are treated differently by the media than are blue-collar (or lower-class) crimes. Some Brazilians took the rolling disclosures in stride; many expressed dismay that four American athletes had been “mugged” on the mean streets of Rio, only to have lied about it in retrospect; while others sneered indignantly at the incident as typical of the favorable treatment accorded foreigners, as opposed to what their fellow citizens go through on a daily basis.

Brian Winter, Latin American expert at the Council of the Americas research center in Washington, D.C., in an interview with BBC Brazil, raised the issue that “in serious countries, you can’t lie to the police and get away with it.” Alternatively, columnist Nancy Armor of USA Today, while at first insisting that the “truthfulness of Lochte’s story was ‘irrelevant,’ ” took the Rio police to task “even after the swimmers [admitted] that they [had] lied and apologized … [The] Brazilian police missed the boat by treating the false report as a ‘capital offense.’ If only the police had cared as much about the evil done every day against their own citizens …” If only!

BBC News columnist Tim Vickery argued, too, that “real criminality” in Rio should be kept front and center. “It’s for this reason that exaggerated coverage of this subject is preferable to one that tends to minimize the dangers. The main victims of violence in Rio are its citizens. The rich are more likely to protect themselves in their closed condominiums and private living quarters. Those who suffer the most are everyday folks.”

“Here Come da Judge!”

A fascinating sidebar to the gas station goings-on came from the presiding magistrate involved in the proceedings, Judge Keyla Blank de Cnop, of the Juizado Especial do Torcedor e Grandes Eventos (Special Court of Fan Support and Major Events). Interviewed by Gerardo Lissardy for BBC World in Rio, Judge Keyla sensed that Lochte and his team members’ account of the “crime” did not hold up to scrutiny or to the logic of the situation.

Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop

“I started reading about the case out of curiosity,” Judge Keyla posited. “The way Lochte described the mugger caught my eye. Because it seemed very similar to what American screenwriters think of South American thugs: a tall, strongly built, bearded man, hair cut in the military style. And I thought, ‘This is a long way from our street robber, who often has other physical characteristics.

“The (supposed) robberies also caught my attention because in Rio, if you are mugged, the first thing the bad guys want is your cell phone. And I figured, ‘American swimmers have nothing less than state-of-the-art iPhones. Why would the burglars take only the money?’ It’s not real; no one would ever take the money and leave the cell phone, the watch, expensive clothes.

“Comparing Lochte and the (swimmer) James Feigen’s statements, I realized there were other contradictions: one said that there was only one bandit, another that there were several bandits and only one carried a weapon. I called the prosecutor, we examined the case, and he said, ‘I agree with you, there’s something fishy here.’

“Another thing that caught my attention was the fact that three of [the swimmers] had been lying on the ground but that Lochte had refused [to do so] and the thug put a gun to his head. In Rio, if a bandit tells you to lie down, you lie down, because if you don’t obey, he’ll open fire. It’s no joke. So I said, ‘It’s not possible, no one refuses to comply with an order [to lie down] with a gun pointed at your head.”

Judge Keyla continued to poke holes in Lochte and his teammates’ arguments. “When I saw the images from the Olympic Village, I noticed that one of [the swimmers] was wearing white pants, which had no dirt stains. Anyone who lies down on the asphalt with white pants will leave a mark.” Apropos of these findings, Her Honor ordered that the two swimmers, Conger and Bentz, be detained and their passports confiscated until the matter was cleared up. “There was never a question of demanding their arrest, just the withholding of their passports to prevent them from leaving the country. Considering the level of the athletes in question, it was advisable to alert the Federal Police who have jurisdiction over foreigners departing for the airport.”

At that, the magistrate grew reflective. “Well, then, the government has invested heavily in the Olympics, in the areas near the Olympic parks, but the reality that is Rio de Janeiro is not unknown, and the violence is grave and serious. Do not kid yourself. That’s why [their description] sounded to me like a script out of a Hollywood movie.”

Judge Keyla Blank de Cnop summarized her case in the methodical and measured tone to be expected from a magistrate responsible for maintaining order in the midst of constant chaos. “Brazilian justice is firm, solid, serious, one of the pillars of the nation,” she insisted unequivocally, “and it’s for treating everyone equally that all this has taken place.” (Within the context of this account, this last assertion is surely debatable.)

“Seizing Olympic medalists’ passports is no easy matter,” Keyla concluded. “These are heroes, but an athlete who comes to another country to participate in the Olympics serves as an example to the world and cannot play around that way. They’re not in their home. They must be subject to the rules. I think [the swimmers] thought they were in a country where they could do anything they want, and that’s not so. They thought they could play around with our institutions, with the police. If it’s not so in the United States, why would it be like that here? Now people are going to think seriously before they come here and do something wrong.”

Let’s Face Facts         

When faced with having done something wrong, what would Ryan Lochte do? He would lie, of course, which initiated a brief period of “fake news” before the term had come into regular use. Instead of accepting the consequences of his or his teammates’ actions, Lochte weaseled out of the situation by concocting a fanciful yarn about a robbery that never took place.

Some say it was to protect one of their own from staying out past their curfew. Perhaps Ryan lacked the courage to tell his mom what a naughty boy he had been. Perhaps he found it impossible to distinguish fact from fantasy (or farce, in this case). Or perhaps his mind was clogged with too much to drink, as he later disclosed. Whatever his reasons were, Lochte got caught with his swimming trunks down. He had flown too close to the carioca sun and crashed into Guanabara Bay. He climbed the highest peak in Rio, only to fall flat on his face on one of those mosaic-laden streets.

Within days of his arrival in the U.S., Ryan had lost most of his sponsors (to include Speedo USA and Ralph Lauren cosmetics). He was suspended for ten months following the incident and had to forfeit US $100,000 in Olympic bonus money; as further punishment, he was banned from participation in the 2017 national and world championships.

Ban or no ban, on August 21 the Rio 2016 closing ceremony went on as scheduled without Lochte, or any of the other participants involved in the incident, in attendance. Acting as if one were still on a reality-TV show is no way for a talented athlete to go through life, particularly the sporting life. In that June 2017 ESPN Magazine article, sports writer Glock learned that Ryan wasn’t exactly enamored of the reality show experience (now she tells us!). “They had me drinking nonstop. Eight in the morning, a drink in my hand. I’m like, my liver is about to fail. And anything I said, [the producers would] say, ‘All right, let’s do this scene over, and Ryan, say it like this.’ ” Say it ain’t so!

On July 14, 2017, a Brazilian Appellate Court dismissed the criminal case against him, concluding that Lochte had not broken the law in exaggerating the details of the filling station incident. The Appeals Court had reversed the original decision on a technicality, ruling that the law was not broken because the police in Rio had initiated the investigation, not Lochte. Since he wasn’t the one who reported the alleged crime, no harm had been done (except to someone’s self-worth). Whatever Lochte had said in those NBC interviews with Billy Bush and Matt Lauer did not constitute, in their eyes, a false report. Additionally, USA Today insisted they found no evidence of vandalism, as suspected by the police, with the exception of the poster being thrown to the ground.

“You learn from your mistakes,” Ryan Lochte divulged to Allison Glock. “Am I going to be perfect? No.”

Perfection, like nirvana, is an ideal, not a fact. To work toward perfection, to strive for it, to achieve it, is the goal of every Olympic athlete, be they American, Brazilian, or what have you. However you may look at it, Lochte’s so-called “crime” was committed not to the Brazilian people but to himself.

To compensate for the offense and his admittedly “dumb behavior,” on August 20, 2016, the day before the closing ceremony, Lochte taped (in Manhattan) a rambling and mildly impecunious interview with TV-Globo’s New York correspondent Felipe Santana. It was part of a purported “apology tour” and broadcast simultaneously in Brazil, on the nightly news program Jornal Nacional, and, in a separate interview, in the U.S. with Matt Lauer on NBC.

Matt Lauer (L.) interviewing Ryan Lochte on NBC-TV

“That was my fault. Brazil doesn’t deserve that. You guys put on [an] amazing Olympics. Everyone in Brazil, the people, the fans, everyone that put on the Brazil Olympics, it was amazing and you guys didn’t deserve that kind of publicity. And it was my immaturity that caused that. And that’s why I’m saying, that’s why I’m really sorry about that. It was my fault and I take full responsibility for it. I just want the people of Brazil to know how truly sorry I am, because I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed for myself, for my family, for my country. It was … I was highly intoxicated[1] … I’m human, I made a mistake, and one thing I did learn from it, that this will never happen again.”

Apology accepted.

Dance to the Music

On September 13, 2016, not a month after Rio 2016 had wrapped up and the Olympic flame had been doused, Ryan Lochte found himself mired in another controversy as a contestant on the popular ABC-TV program Dancing With the Stars, the hallowed platform for has-beens and makeover artists.

Seeking to repair his tarnished Olympian image, Ryan and his dance partner, Cheryl Burke, started the competition off with a foxtrot. Just as the pair was receiving talent judge Carrie Ann Inaba’s verdict, two intruders rushed up to the stage in protest over Lochte’s appearance. They each wore T-shirts emblazoned with a red circle and a slash across the swimmer’s name. One of the protesters shouted out that Ryan was “a liar.”

Host Tom Bergeron, Ryan Lochte and his partner, Cheryl Burke, on ‘Dancing With the Stars’

None of the ensuing brouhaha was broadcast to viewers, since the TV station had gone to a commercial break. However, cameras captured the incident whereby one of the protesters was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by security. When the show returned from the break, Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron addressed the incident indirectly. He thanked the security team for their quick action and asked Lochte how he was feeling.

“I’m a little hurt,” Ryan responded. “You know, at that moment, I was really heartbroken. My heart just sunk. It felt like somebody just ripped it apart. I had to brush it off … I came out here in front of millions. I did something that I did not know how to do — I don’t know how to dance. And I gave it my all and I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I’m here.”

Instead of a foxtrot, it would have been instructive for audiences to learn if Lochte could master the samba as well as he handled the freestyle.

In our opinion, the opportunity of a lifetime had been squandered. What BBC Worldwide Productions, the company that produced Dancing With the Stars, could have done instead was to pair Ryan Lochte off with another Olympic disrupter, the defrocked Irish priest Cornelius “Neil” Horan, the man who threw Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima off his course in Athens 2004. Together, Horan and Lochte could have wowed North American TV viewers with an Irish jig or two. What a striking couple they would have made.

Normally, the moral to this drawn-out Olympic story would be: “Honesty is the best policy.” As for myself, I’d prefer a more aptly worded one: “Birds of a feather flock and dance together.”

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

[1] A year and three months later, Lochte announced that he was seeking treatment for a “destructive pattern” of alcohol abuse, something that had been going on for years, in accordance with his attorney, Jeff Ostrow’s October 8, 2018 press release.

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Seven): Ryan Lochte Fakes a Dive

Sink or Swim

Banner for the E! Network reality show, ‘What Would Ryan Lochte Do?’

Most Olympic stories begin at the bottom and end at the top. As trite as that may sound, the vast majority of sports columnists love to record the exploits of individuals from humble beginnings whose struggles to reach the peak of their profession have inspired a nation. And sports fans — equally obsessed with star power and starved for a good story — love to read about them.

However, there are some stories that are beyond the pale. In effect, they go in the opposite direction, namely by starting at the top and working their way down. Defying logic, this specific Olympic story keeps to that premise: How an American gold-medalist, when confronted with a situation of his own doing, dealt with the consequences of his actions; how the host nation reacted to this alternate version of events; and how the whole dirty business got twisted out of proportion until what was heard no longer resembled the original event.

The Greeks cloaked their stories in life-lessons known as myths. For our purpose, then, let us recount the myth of Icarus. Vain from birth and pampered by wealth and privilege, young Icarus was uninterested in bettering himself. He could be found lounging about his quarters, endlessly admiring his looks and build. On the opposing side, his cousin Talos (called Perdix in some versions) believed in the value of hard work. Industrious to a fault, Talos was quick-witted and eager to learn, whereas Icarus was lazy and indolent.

It happened that Talos’ uncle Daedalus, the father of Icarus, was an extremely clever man. He was so intelligent that the citizens of Athens considered him to be the cleverest craftsman in all of Greece. Because of his nephew’s unique abilities, Daedalus was forced to take Talos on as an apprentice. Before long, word got out that Talos was a genius whose talent outshone that of his uncle: he was credited with the invention of the first saw, along with the first potter’s wheel and the first pair of compasses. Soon, Daedalus’ customers began to take their problems to Talos. Jealousy and spite eventually got the better of our master craftsman, who lured his unsuspecting nephew to the top of Athena’s temple and pushed him over the edge to his demise.

As punishment for his crime, Daedalus and Icarus were banished from Athens under penalty of death. The two fled to the island of Crete, where Daedalus’ engineering skills were employed by King Minos in constructing a labyrinth to house a monstrous beast known as the Minotaur. Unfortunately for Daedalus, an incredibly shrewd young man by the name of Theseus succeeded in killing the Minotaur and escaping the purportedly escape-proof maze.

Greek vase depicting Theseus and the Minotaur

The angry Minos took revenge on Daedalus and his son by throwing them into prison (in some accounts, they took the Minotaur’s place and were forced to wander aimlessly in the lair). Faced with certain death, Daedalus struggled to find a way off the island. What scheme could he possibly come up with that would lead him and young Icarus to freedom?

Ryan’s Story

Team USA swimmer Ryan Lochte at Rio 2016 Olympics

When sports-minded Ryan Steven Lochte was a boy, he did not take seriously to swimming. Born in Rochester, New York, on August 3, 1984, Ryan took his first dive long before he entered nursery school. Shortly after the family relocated to Gainesville, Florida, Ryan’s father Steve (as well as his mother Ileana) decided on coaching as a full-time profession. Local and/or family lore had it that Ryan enjoyed goofing off (and giving lip service to others) more than perfecting his backstroke.

“Ryan was all about racing,” his father admitted to ESPN Magazine. “He hated practice, but when I said ‘OK, we’re going to do a time trial,’ he’d be the first one on the starting blocks.”

In order to channel his son’s excess energy, as he called it, into more constructive pursuits, Steve would make a contest out of everyday activities such as who could swallow their milk the fastest or who could beat the other in fetching the mail or the newspaper. It wasn’t until Ryan reached high school that swimming became an obsession.

Finally getting his act together (for the moment, at least), Ryan was accepted into the exclusive University of Florida swimming program. Under head coach Gregg Troy’s tutelage from 2002 to 2013 (to include the three years he trained for his post-graduate work), Lochte was twice named NCAA swimmer of the year, which was quite a turnaround from his former lack of interest. He went on to qualify for his first Olympics in 2004 at the age of nineteen. It was at the Athens Olympics that he raced against his soon-to-be rival, Michael Phelps — a rivalry that challenged both athletes to perform at their best.

“I think it’s one of the greatest rivalries in sport, me and him, just for what we’ve both done in the sport of swimming,” Ryan argued. “He’s the toughest competitor out there.”

Michael Phelps, Townley Haas, RyanLochte, and Conor Dwyer – Gold Medal winners in the 4×200 meter relay

Phelps pled guilty to that claim. “Him and I together have had a pretty decent rivalry back and forth. We’ve been able to really push each other … During the big meets, we have great races. We’re right there with each other, in the middle of the pool, probably a couple of tenths [of a second] apart.” It was also at Athens 2004 that Lochte met and would become friends with another future Olympic champion, the eighteen-year-old Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira.

Ryan became the second most decorated male Olympian (after Phelps) in London 2012, where he picked up two gold medals and two silvers. Pereira fared well there, too, taking on both Phelps and Lochte in the 400 meter medley for a second-place finish. Despite Coach Troy’s displeasure at Ryan’s “lack of focus” before, during, and after the games, the talented Lochte outdid himself. He may not have slain the mighty Minotaur, but he was on his way to besting him.

With his newfound celebrity status assured, Ryan took a break from competition. He signed to star in a reality TV show for the E! Network, with the throwaway header of What Would Ryan Lochte Do? The show, which premiered on April 21, 2013, exploited his unfortunate reputation as an intellectual lightweight, a partygoer, and an eligible bachelor.

Ryan Lochte filming scenes for his reality TV show ‘What Would Ryan Lochte Do?’ in Miami Beach, Florida on March 18, 2013 (FameFlynet, Inc)

What the E! Network may have been hoping for was a combination of Jessica Simpson’s clueless naiveté with Big Brother voyeurism; what it got was frat-boy foolishness. For instance, the episodes boasted such empty-headed titles as “What Would Ryan Lochte Do With a TV Show,” or “If He Got Plastered?” or “On Spring Break?” Seeing as the general level of the series matched the suspected vapidity of its star, the answer to these queries was, “Who cares?” Not surprisingly, the show sunk in the ratings and was canceled after eight episodes.

A lengthy period of injuries and minor inconveniences followed, along with on-again, off-again, now on-again training and competing — pencil in a stab at creating his own clothing line (“Ralph Lauren, but with a little edge to it,” Lochte was fond of saying). While living and training in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ryan finally secured a spot with Team USA for his fourth Olympic Games in Rio 2016. He did it by inching ever closer to Michael Phelps.

If there was anyone on Team USA who could force Ryan Lochte to swim against the tide, that person would be Phelps. According to the online SwimSwam Website, this was the third Olympic trials in a row where Ryan wound up in second place behind Phelps. It would also be the fourth time that the 200 meter individual medley would be decided in favor of Phelps over Lochte.

In a self-deprecating mood, Ryan half-jokingly insisted, “I guess you would say I’d be like the Michael Phelps of swimming if he wasn’t there.” In that same 200 meter medley, local favorite Thiago Pereira was in the lead through the butterfly and backstroke, as reported in The Guardian, “but Phelps, as inexorable as the incoming tide, pulled so far ahead on the breaststroke that no one got close during the final freestyle.” Thiago finished seventh, with Lochte in fifth place.

On Tuesday, August 9, Ryan had won his first gold medal in Rio in the men’s 4×200 relay with the help of teammates Phelps, Townley Haas, and Conor Dwyer. With competition over for the men’s swimming team on Saturday, August 13, it was time for a little merrymaking.

Early Sunday morning, Ryan Lochte and three other members of Team USA, swimmers Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen, left a party at Club France, the hospitality house for the French Olympic and Sports Committee in Rio, a gathering that Thiago Pereira and his wife, Gabriela Pauletti, had also attended. It was a birthday party for a mutual friend, so claimed Thiago’s spokesperson Flavio Perez, who spoke to the Washington Post.

Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira (Photo: Julio Cesar Guimaraes / UOL)

“Lochte was also in the same place, commemorating the same birthday. Ryan and Thiago are friends. Thiago and his wife left earlier, they left alone, the two of them. Thiago and his wife went back to their hotel.”

After leaving the party, Ryan and the above-named team members took a taxi back to their rooms in the Olympic Village. Along the way, the taxi stopped at a filling station. What happened next became a matter of conjecture.

“We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge,” Lochte told NBC-TV Today Show commentator, Billy Bush, later that same day. “They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground — they got down on the ground. I refused and I was like we didn’t do anything wrong, so I’m not getting down on the ground. And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, ‘Get down,’ and I put my hands up, I was like ‘whatever.’ He took our money, he took my wallet, he left my cell phone, he left my credentials.”

The story began to flood the airwaves. Oh, it was believable enough as told. Anyone who has lived in or spent time in both Rio and São Paulo, or any large city in Brazil, has experienced some form of assault or robbery with or without a weapon, even kidnapping. There was nothing odd or improper about it, just another night out on the town, with the expected results.

When Lochte unveiled his story on Sunday, he was still in Brazil. Almost immediately, the civil police opened an investigation into the incident. Surely, any kind of reporting that seemed to bash host city Rio or spread so-called “bad press” about mounting crime in the country was grist for the news mill. Those wanting some form of validation that Brazil was incapable of governing itself, let alone controlling the rampant lawlessness of drug gangs and wrongdoers (“even with eighty-five thousand soldiers and police officers deployed throughout the city,” according to New Yorker columnist Alex Cuadros), had a field day.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) initially denied the report as “false.” They quickly reversed course and tacitly confirmed the incident — based on word of mouth, one had to assume, especially when independent corroboration came from Lochte’s mother. “I think they’re all shaken up,” she told USA Today upon speaking with her son. “There were a few of them. They just took their wallets and basically that was it.”

Naturally, this wasn’t the only crime to have been committed at Rio 2016. There were several high-profile robberies, thefts, and abduction cases reported in the weeks and months leading up to the games, many involving an Australian para-Olympics participant, three Spanish Olympic sailors, a shooting competitor, a judo wrestler, and a New Zealand jiu-jitsu martial arts expert. Who wouldn’t believe such incidents had taken place?  

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued…..

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Street Life: The Politically Incorrect World of Animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoonist, artist, writer, producer and animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoon Caricatures

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

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

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

The young Ralph Bakshi, drawing away in his studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a Second to Spare

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

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

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

Bakshi, as the only animator, was a key contributor to this idea of a more open cinematic experience, the literal exposure of urban myths regarding our beloved American society — a cruel, dishonest, and demeaning one, from the point of view of the oppressed, which included such insalubrious characterizations as street hustlers, hookers, bums, vagrants, drug dealers, low-life types, pot-smokers, corrupt police officials, innocent bystanders, the mob, high school dropouts and college kids, and so on (see Fritz the Cat; Coonskin, 1975; and Hey Good Lookin’, 1982).

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

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

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

He is never to be confused with the likes of Ed Wood, who despite whatever outward enthusiasm he might have demonstrated in his amateurish film productions, could never be considered an artist. Bakshi was, and remains, an artist through and through.

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

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

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

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

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

The controversial and racially charged “Coonskin” (1975)

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

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

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

His influences extend from the aforementioned brothers Max and Dave Fleischer to Walt Disney; from Walter Lantz, Bob Clampett, and Ollie Johnston to Tex Avery, Ub Iwerks, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Paul Terry, and the underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, among others. To such established cartoonists as Milt Caniff, Al Capp, Al Hirschfeld, and Chic Young; even to comic and pulp creators Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Lin Carter, and Jim Steranko.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

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

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

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

Lust for Life (1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon and Sixpence (1946)

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

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

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

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

George Sanders as the fictional artist Charles Strickland

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

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

Vincent & Theo (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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