The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959)
With the coming of the fall season and the expectation of cooler and (it is to be hoped) balmier days ahead, now would be an appropriate time as any to introduce a new series of posts — an artistic reawakening for yours truly: in this instance, an overview of some of my favorite scenes from movies past and present.
I’ll call this series “The View from the Chair.” Whose chair? That all depends! Admittedly, it would be a picture-perfect excuse to shape our discussion around a particular director’s point of view, or that of an actor or group of actors — or the audience’s, for what it’s worth, thus metaphorically killing two birds with one stone. By whatever means this topic can be approached, it would be great fun to simply get those cameras rolling — the motive behind it be damned!
So, without further ado, let’s jump-start this series with an analysis of two scenes from one of the all-time most watchable family features: the 1959 widescreen, Technicolor remake of Ben-Hur. At the time of the film’s release, this multi-award-winning epic cost Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a hefty $12.5 million, an immense sum even in those bygone times. Over 15,000 sketches were drawn prior to building the three hundred or more life-size sets on which the story would take place. These sets covered approximately 150 acres of territory in and around Cinecittà Studios in Rome.
None of these figures remotely begins to take into account the sheer number of extras involved in the project, to include technical and administrative staff, work crews, painters, architects, builders, camels, horses, props, costumes, food and drink, to say nothing of the tons of materials necessary in recreating the massive arena where the famous chariot race would be run. Months of preliminary planning and backbreaking labor went into this effort before the first feet of film was even shot.
With impressive location footage and a sturdy international cast, headed by Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur, Stephen Boyd as Messala, Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim, Finlay Currie as Balthazar, Martha Scott as Miriam, Cathy O’Donnell as Tirzah, Sam Jaffe as Simonides, and Haya Harareet as his daughter Esther, the picture went on to gross over $40 million at the box office, not to mention its record-setting eleven Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Robert L. Surtees), Best Actor (Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Griffith),and Best Score (Miklós Rózsa).
One of those coveted honors went to director William Wyler. A German-born immigrant to the U.S., Wyler studied music at Lausanne and Paris. His film career took off in earnest in 1922 at Universal Pictures’ New York headquarters, first as a messenger boy and then as a publicity writer. Moving to the West Coast, Wyler apprenticed as a prop man, grip, script clerk and cutter, rising in rank to become a casting director, then an assistant director on several prestige pictures, among them The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney (1923) and the silent version of Ben-Hur (1925) with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman.
A list of Wyler’s accomplishments must surely encompass such classics as Dodsworth (1936) with Walter Huston, Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis, Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, The Letter (1940) with Davis and Herbert Marshall, The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper, The Little Foxes (1941) with Davis and Marshall again, Mrs. Miniver (1942) with Greer Garson, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with Fredric March, The Heiress (1949) with Olivia de Havilland, Roman Holiday (1953) with Audrey Hepburn, The Desperate Hours (1953) with March and Humphrey Bogart, Friendly Persuasion (1956) with Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, and The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston in a supporting role.
That’s quite an impressive résumé by any standard. Still, the director had a reputation as a demanding taskmaster who often clashed with cast and crew. Known in the business as “90-Take Willie” for his copious retakes and excessively fastidious working methods, Wyler’s background in the cinema on a multitude of assignments, and his ability to get the best performances possible out of his stars, prepared him well for the rigors of helming Ben-Hur, one of Hollywood’s finest (and longest) Biblical spectaculars.
Ralph Winters, the Oscar-winning film editor on Ben-Hur, described him as “a damn good director, Wyler was. Damn good. But I didn’t care too much for him personally.”
Keeping all of the above in mind, let’s take our assigned seat in the reserved section and turn to the epic at hand.
Begin at the Beginning
“Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’”– Genesis 1:26
“The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” – Genesis 2:7
The act of creation, so movingly depicted in the first book of the Bible through these two powerful yet poetically-inspired passages, also frames the opening and closing credits of our feature film.
Notwithstanding the above, the movie proper begins with a brief prologue showing the birth of Christ — the New Adam, born without sin to Mary and Joseph, hitherto known as the Holy Family — in the picaresque town of Bethlehem. Three Wise Men from the East have come to pay homage to the child Jesus, who lies comfortably in a stable while cradled in his mother’s arms.
This gentle episode, whereby family unity and stability are stressed — a unity and stability that will soon be shattered by unfolding events — is immediately followed by a majestic brass fanfare (the score comes courtesy of veteran composer Rózsa) announcing the main title sequence. As the credits roll, in the background and completely filling the widescreen space is a detail of Renaissance poet and artist Michelangelo’s brilliant rendering of the “Creation of Adam” panel from the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
In H.W. Janson’s classic work, The History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day, the scholar offers the following commentary concerning Michelangelo’s monumental conception: “[The panel] shows not the physical molding of Adam’s body but the passage of the Divine spark — the soul — and thus achieves a dramatic juxtaposition of Man and God unrivaled by any other artist… the dynamism of Michelangelo’s design contrasts the earth-bound Adam and the figure of God rushing through the sky.”
It’s a captivating combination: on one side we have God (the Old Testament, gray-bearded father figure), caught in the very act of creating, with Man (His earthly offspring) receiving the “breath of life” from the creator. God appears to be admiring His creation, faintly nodding to him in pride and approbation; while on the other side, Man — helpless, alone, and adopting a childlike expression of awe and reverence — looks to God with hope and longing, little realizing that permanent expulsion from the Maker’s Paradise is just around the corner.
If we look further into this stately introduction, we make note of the fact that our title character, Judah Ben-Hur, will himself be expelled from his own paradise — that is, from his family’s ancestral estate. But of course, we do not know this going into the drama. We will learn about his fate soon enough.
Although the full title of Wyler’s epic, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, refers to a subplot that hardly seems fitting for the main course of action, the film turns often to the recurring Christ figure, who has his own musical motif from the start — followed swiftly by the four-note Ben-Hur theme, placed in direct succession to that of Christ’s in order to capitalize on the religious, political and ideological distinctions between the true protagonists of the drama: Judah and Messala.
Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of the Jewish people — a man at the height of his wealth and power, who, like Adam, experiences a precipitous fall from grace, only to regain a semblance of his former stature by film’s end; and Messala, his boyhood companion, now a hardened Roman tribune hell bent on bringing order to the unruly province of Judea, whose furthering of his own deep-seated career ambitions at the expense of his former friendship with Judah will have dire consequences.
Their past association — or what little of it that remains — is severely tested when Judah, refusing to aid Messala’s cause by revealing the names of the Jewish resistance leaders, is wrongly accused of threatening the life of the new Roman governor. As penalty for his “crime,” Messala sends him off to hard labor on board a Roman warship, while his mother and sister are held as prisoners in the Roman fortress’ dungeon. Condemned to a living death, Judah will spend the rest of his days chained to an oar.
What Judah subsequently suffers through — his grueling ordeal in the galley, his rescue of Roman consul Quintus Arrius, his freedom from bondage and eventual redemption and reclamation of his family’s rights — is mirrored in a parallel story involving Christ’s suffering and Passion.
This setup happens to be bookended by two scenes that call to mind the opening “Creation of Adam” sequence. Throughout the story, various acts of kindness — represented by touching, giving and receiving — are reenacted by the film’s participants for the audience’s benefit as well as their own. Wyler references these acts at key moments so as to alert us to their deeper meaning within the context and framework of the plot.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
In the first scene under review, Judah is marched through the parched desert country as punishment for his alleged attack. Accompanying him are Roman guards and other criminals. They are on their way to the port city of Tyrus to serve out their harsh sentence. It’s blisteringly hot and dusty. Exhausted from the long trek through the sand and rock, one of the prisoners falls to the ground. Rather than minister to a condemned man, the guards untie his bonds and toss the body over the dunes to its death. This, then, is the sad fate for anyone who stands in the way of Rome.
The music in this sequence, both angular and sharp, is disconcerting in its dissonance. Calling to mind a similar set of circumstances from twenty years prior, it will remind attentive viewers of Rózsa’s powerful score for Zoltan and Alexander Korda’s desert saga, The Four Feathers, from 1939, in the scene where Ralph Richardson gets blinded by the sun.
Finally, the prisoners arrive at a village, where they pass the house of a certain carpenter, sawing away at his workbench. The line of prisoners moves from left to right. The soldiers call for a temporary respite from the march. “Water for the soldiers!” one of the guards shouts. “Soldiers first!” Some of the prisoners leave their formation and rush headlong to the well, but they are beaten back into line, where they await the hapless villagers who are forced to attend to their needs.
As each prisoner is handed a cup or a bowl, Judah waits his turn with hands outstretched. Again, the camera pans from left to right, surveying the ragged line of desperate men. The first to drink is a soldier on horseback, who takes a huge swig from a ladle. Just as another ladle reaches Judah’s lips, a pug-nosed foot soldier snatches the water from his hands and barks out an order: “No water for him!”
After quenching his thirst, the pug-nosed soldier arrogantly spits out the remainder. Judah attempts to gather what droplets he can salvage, but the soldier roughly pushes him back into line. Denied the water’s life-giving sustenance, Judah collapses to the ground in despair. Just as the previous prisoner was left to die an agonizing death in the sand dunes, Judah knows his fate is sealed.
Helpless, alone, and at the end of his rope, he cries out to in a choked voice, “God, help me.” He has been beaten into the ground from whence he came, and from whence God first made Man. “For dust you are, and unto dust shall you return” is the oft-quoted Biblical passage most closely related to the foregoing.
Judah’s body occupies the left and middle portions of the frame. His arms are extended (especially his left arm) in the same manner as that of Adam in the “Creation of Adam” panel at the start. Just then, a shadow crosses Judah’s face and form. We hear the soft theme-music associated with Christ — significantly, the same theme-music the trumpets and full orchestra had thundered forth during the opening credits.
Wyler had his award-winning cinematographer Robert L. Surtees shoot this crucial scene with his cameras low to the ground, forcing the viewer down to the characters’ eye-level for a closer and more intimate encounter.
Christ approaches Judah with ladle in hand and sprinkles water over his neck, head and face. Next, he touches Judah’s left hand with his right in replication of God’s bringing Adam to earthly life (“the breath of life”). Seemingly “baptized” in water and earth, Judah’s head is lifted upward from the ground and onto the ladle and its thirst-quenching contents. Judah drinks his fill of the water while Christ gently strokes his hair and forehead — a much-needed sign of comfort and affection where previously none existed.
Judah stops to look up with hope and longing (just as Adam did to God) at the man who has favored him with libation. He then resumes the business of drinking. At that very moment, the pug-nosed soldier catches sight of Christ with Judah and calls out, “You! I said no water for him!”
The soldier pulls out his whip and is ready to give the miscreant a thorough lashing, when Christ abruptly rises to his feet (occupying frame right), the low camera angle giving him the impression of towering over the guard. Backing off, the confused soldier looks down at the ground, then at Christ, then at the others to his right, and at the ground again before finally turning away. Not knowing what else to do, he takes one last look at Jesus and barks another command, “All right, on your feet, all of you!” before sauntering off.
Thoroughly sated, the reinvigorated Judah returns the ladle to Christ. In a spontaneous gesture of gratitude, Judah reaches out to touch his hand. They both rise simultaneously to their feet, with Judah occupying the center of the frame and Christ opposite him and to the side. The camera closes in on Judah, who is now in the exact center — reclaiming, as it were, his rightful spot as the focus of attention. A mounted guard comes over to lash him with a whip, shouting: “You there, back to your place! Back to your place!”
Getting back in line with the prisoners, who resume their lengthy walk to the port, Judah (with the noble Ben-Hur theme resounding prominently in the orchestra) cannot help but look back at the man who saved his life — the one who has given him a second chance and renewed his faith in the goodness of men.
As the sequence comes to a close, Christ, with his back to the audience (his face is never seen from the front), moves to the extreme right of the film frame, the ladle still dangling from his left hand — his gaze deliberately directed at Judah. They will meet again before film’s end. Meanwhile, Judah and the line of prisoners are at left, walking slowly away in the distance.
The camera shifts its focus to Judah’s face, which again happens to be in the middle of the frame. He stops briefly to give pause as to what has occurred. With his chin up and head held high, Judah takes one last look behind him (much as the pug-nosed soldier had moments before), at the place and person he’s left behind. They will be etched in his memory for later. Once again, he joins the other prisoners on their walk of life, little realizing where the road will take him next.
End of Scene One
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
The conclusion to a proposed musical theater piece about the award-winning documentary ‘Waste Land’ (‘Lixo Extraordinário’)
In the first part of my tribute to the denizens of the Jardim Gramacho slum (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/waste-land-the-musical-we-suffer-we-die-and-were-buried/), one of the catadores was hurt by an unfriendly encounter with a garbage truck and its contents. Meanwhile, the office was looted by drug thieves who made off with the monthly payroll.
Act II: Resolution
Number 12. “Rescue Attempt” – The garbage pickers pull Zumbie out from under the crumbling rubbish heap. “The truck’s gate fell on him,” yells Big Carl, one of the slum’s inhabitants, “but he’s going to be okay.” With a huge sigh of relief, the garbage pickers take the stricken catador de lixo to the hospital. “Over 20 people will donate blood,” Zumbie announces proudly. “I’m surrounded by good fr-fr-friends.” He’s well on his way toward mending, both physically and emotionally.
Number 13. “Vik’s Visit” – The famous artist, Vik Muniz, now comes to call on Jardim Gramacho with a unique proposal for the pickers. He wants to take their pictures – i.e., photographs of the workers, in all sorts of weird poses. As Vik explains it, he intends to recreate the classic paintings of old. The garbage pickers look at him in alarm and amazement. “What’s this all about?” they wonder openly.
Vik tries to clarify his idea, but they still don’t get it. “Pictures? Pictures of what?” they inquire in unison. “Pictures of garbage,” Vik replies, rather matter-of-factly. They are even more astonished at this alleged clarification. They still can’t believe their ears. “Who in their right mind would want to do that?” they declare. “I would,” says Vik. “It’s what I do for a living.” “And people say we’re crazy!” is their response. This leads to an extended discussion (via an ensemble passage) where everyone chimes in with their own ideas about the project.
Eventually, the issues are resolved and the garbage pickers’ reluctance begins to fade. Vik is making headway in his appeals to their self-esteem: he wants them to think of his project as a possible “way out” from the dead-end lives they’ve been leading.
Number 14. “Death of Marat” – The first to take his turn at the canvas is boss-man Tião, who decides to pose for the painting of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat,” followed cautiously by the other participants. In a humorous episode, Tião starts to undress before the other participants, who shyly look away as he slips into Marat’s outfit. “Irmã’s Painting” is next in line. After posing for her picture, she is finally able to see herself as others do. “Artists have to suffer,” she offers, which leads into the next number.
Number 15. “Isis’ Suffering” – “They aren’t the only ones,” cries Isis, another of Jardim Gramacho’s put-upon residents. “I don’t see myself in this trash heap anymore. I don’t want to go back to the garbage. I don’t…” Isis then reminisces about her young son, who died in a nearby hospital of pneumonia. The scene shifts between her recollection of the recent past and the events at the landfill, which are taking place simultaneously – in parallel – but on two different levels. Some of the garbage pickers are transformed into doctors and nurses, keeping Isis informed of her son’s deteriorating condition.
This becomes the emotional crux of the drama, wherein Isis sings about the ant crawling on her deceased son’s face – the same ant that, if one pulls back far enough away from the landfill, everyone appears to resemble. “We’re just a bunch of tiny insects in this life,” Isis insists. “I saw my son die at three years old,” as she resumes her story. “He died of acute pneumonia. His name was Carlos Igor.” At the mention of his name, Isis breaks down in tears. In trying to comfort her, Vik tells her that no one can do anything more to her than has already been done. His mission, then, is to help the populace see what life is like on the outside, beyond the confines of the garbage dump. That is the most that he can do – the rest is up to them!
Number 16. “Lesson: How to Look at Art” – This is the scene where Vik instructs the residents of Jardim Gramacho how people who go to museums look at (and appreciate) the works of art they find there. First, they take a step up to the painting, and then they take a step back. This routine turns into an amusing vignette, with the onlookers contributing their own versions of “how to look at art.”
In the meantime, the lesson continues: back and forth, everybody leans in and everybody leans out; they move away, see the material, see the landscape, and then move out again. “Since we’re all garbage pickers,” they claim, “all we see are the recyclable materials.” “But that’s the thing,” Vik pipes in. “They’ll spend hours looking at your photographs. There is more to them than just garbage. Watch, you’ll see.” We know exactly what he means, which is: there’s more to the garbage pickers – much more, it turns out – than meets the eye. You just have to “get up close and personal” to simple folk, they retort, to learn “who we really are” – just like regular folk do with the paintings.
Number 17. “Madonna and Child” – A photo session involving Suelem and her two children takes place. In recreating the artwork, the garbage pickers themselves do the actual placing of the objects onto the photo – that is, they recreate the art from the trash heaps that they themselves have picked. In addition, each work is a commentary – a personal statement, if you will – on the personality and character of the individual who did the picking. For the “Madonna and Child,” this indeed is how Suelem sees herself and her brood.
This happens to be the real theme of the show: i.e., how others have perceived the garbage pickers to be, but, most importantly of all, how Vik, the artist, and especially the garbage pickers, see themselves and their roles in life. It goes beyond what anyone ever imagined at the start. How much they have changed in such a short time! Each finished photo is displayed in its glory. The garbage pickers are overcome with emotion by their wonderful portraits, especially Big Carl and his wife.
Number 18. “The Museum Visit” – In a change of scenery, reporters appear to gather around the garbage pickers doing makeshift interviews. At the museum, Vik and Tião stumble upon a bronze sculpture of a garbage bag. “What’s in it?” Vik asks. “Can you tell me? Can you venture a guess?” Tião pauses and ponders the contents. “Hmm, a cup of yogurt, hearts of palm, small boxes, a brand new cell phone, and the rest.” This scene is reflective of an earlier one, in Act I, in which the pickers made fun of people’s trash. It ends with Tião’s perceptive comment: “I feel like a pop star.”
We next revisit the skit, “How to Look at Art,” now called “Life Imitates Art,” but this time it is put into practice, with the garbage pickers seeing real people looking at their precious pieces of art, in exactly the way that Vik had taught them beforehand, the living embodiment of the phrase “life imitates art.” Both garbage pickers and museum visitors admire each other, first from afar and then from close up, a rather comical observation on how different groups of individuals behave and perceive the other to be – and a perfect illustration of the point that Vik Muniz was trying to make above.
Number 19. “The Auction” – It starts with the sale of an Andy Warhol original, beginning almost in staccato form, à la Mrs. Lovett from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Interspersed with the auctioneer pointing to various parties gathered at the auction, there are comments and asides from Vik and Tião interspersed throughout, as well as from the other participants, somewhat along the lines of: “Did you hear? Did you hear?” and “Did he say twenty, did he say twenty?” “Is it true? Is it true?” “It’s been sold for fifty thousand and two! Did he say fifty, did he say fifty? Sold today, sold today? Is it true what they say?”
At scene’s end, Tião’s picture is sold for $50,000 dollars. He is overcome with emotion and breaks down, weeping with joy – quite a different situation from the earlier one at the end of the first act, where we found him bawling his eyes out at the loss of the company payroll. He simply can’t believe his good fortune. “It’s all worth it. It really is,” he admits. Vik and Tião embrace warmly, in friendship and solidarity, as the onlookers break out into spontaneous applause.
Number 20. “Finale” – The musical ends with Tião and the garbage pickers’ appearance on a popular TV talk show (in Rio de Janeiro, it’s Jo Soares’ program; in America, it’s Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert). Here, the talk-show host introduces the group as “collectors of garbage.” Tião has the polite audacity to confront him: “If I may correct you, sir. Garbage can’t be reused, whereas recyclable materials can. We are not pickers of garbage, but pickers of recyclable material.” What he’s trying to say is that human life is never wasted; it’s always salvageable – recyclable, if you prefer – even if you’re a lowly garbage picker. “I stand corrected,” Soares states, as he looks out approvingly into the audience.
The show comes to a rousing close with the repeat of Valter’s number, “Here’s wisdom aplenty: Ninety-nine is not a hundred, and nineteen is not twenty,” after the elder statesman’s personal motto. The entire cast comes out in a stirring rendition of “The Waste Land Song”:
Seven thousand tons of trash
Work all day for little cash
Robbing Peter, paying Paul
Look, here comes another haul
It’s a Waste Land
The set reverts back one last time to the garbage dump overlooking Guanabara Bay. Only this time, Christ the Redeemer is facing the audience. His massive stone countenance is seen looking down on the inhabitants. It almost appears as if He’s given His blessing to the goings on.
Blackout and curtain
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
A proposed Musical Theater piece is based on the documentary Waste Land (Lixo Extraordinário)
Back in April of 2011, I became struck with the idea of turning the Academy Award-nominated documentary Waste Land (2010) into a musical. Don’t ask me why, it was one of those mad obsessions I get from time to time.
I had been trying for weeks to get in touch with Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, who was one of several driving forces behind the documentary, but without success. It was his penchant for taking discarded trash and turning them into extraordinary works of art that first captured my attention. Vik’s peculiar habit of photographing the end result led to unique objets d’arts involving, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper or a snapshot of Jackson Pollack outlined in chocolate syrup.
Other objects were comprised of such everyday household items as a strip of wire, a used light bulb, a roll of toilet paper, a spiral notebook, and similar materials. Muniz would arrange the objects in as artful a manner as possible and simply photograph them. For his series “Pictures of Garbage,” he photographed the residents of the Jardim Gramacho (Garden of Garbage) slum, in Rio de Janeiro, in poses reminiscent of famous paintings, i.e., Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, Gustave Courbet’s The Gleaners, a Renaissance Madonna with children, and various others.
To my mind, a Waste Land – The Musical project would be an extension of Vik’s creative vision. In a 2010 Art in America article, he explained to interviewer Michael Slenske that one is “always dealing with preconceived ideas… of the value of materials, so the point of departure is familiarity.” In the case of the film, Vik “departed from the [preconceived] image” of garbage as foul-smelling and useless rubbish, transforming what others had discarded into images of poignancy and dignity, as well as beauty.
I was so impressed and moved by Vik’s efforts, and by the documentary itself, that I simply had to approach him about my idea. Although I never got to speak with Vik, I did have a lengthy conversation with the film’s producer, Angus Aynsley, who is also the main copyright holder along with O2 Filmes in São Paulo, Brazil.
My thought was to create a musical presentation in the spirit of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, where the personal back stories of the inhabitants of Jardim Gramacho are spotlighted and emphasized. It would be a marvelous way to pay tribute to the wonderful work of Tião, Zumbi, Isis, Irmã, Magna, Suelem and the late and much-lamented Valter.
With Brazil being the focus in 2014, in which ACAMJG (Association of Garbage Pickers of Jardim Gramacho) are the official World Cup recyclers, and especially the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, this would be a great opportunity to bring the story of the catadores of Jardim Gramacho to the world stage.
As well, it would help to focus on their struggles by bringing aid and comfort to those less fortunate than ourselves. What better way to do this than through a musical adaptation that everyone could enjoy and participate in?
I began with a listing of the dramatis personae:
Tião (Sibby) – The leader of the garbage pickers
Irmã (Big Sister)
Carlão (Big Carl)
Suelem (Sue Ellen)
Jô Soares – Brazilian TV personality
Act I: Conflict
The setting is Rio de Janeiro, behind Guanabara Bay. In the background we see the mountains, with Corcovado looming in the distance, far to the right. One can make out the statue of Christ the Redeemer silhouetted from behind.
It is still dark; the time is just before daybreak. As the sun slowly rises, we begin to distinguish the outlines of ramshackle homes and makeshift shantytowns, their lights flickering in the dawn. With the sun’s appearance, the lights in the theater go up as well — slowly, methodically, in time to the music.
What the audience doesn’t realize, but eventually begins to notice, is that the mountains in the foreground are, in reality, huge garbage heaps piled high with refuse, reaching almost to the top of the proscenium. There is ample illumination, with the only shade provided by the massive piles, mounds of trash in the midst of filth and decay. The scene is reminiscent of Peter Brueghel the Elder’s 1563 painting of “The Tower of Babel,” with openings, archways, windows, etc. It is a unit set that serves a multipurpose function.
It becomes clear in the morning mist that Rio (read: Brazil) has turned its back on the impoverished, those downtrodden souls who labor for a living while providing “clean-up duty” to those residing in the lap of luxury, just beyond their reach. These poor folk are spurned, rejected, ostracized by society. Why, even Christ himself has turned away from the garbage pickers (symbolized by our view of His backside).
This is the horrid, sorry realm of people who live on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. “Garbage” equates to the type of persons picking it: that is, they are of no value, worthless, suitable only for tossing aside, once they are used up — a metaphor for the pickers themselves.
Number 1: “The Waste Land Song” – The catadores, or “garbage pickers,” who come out from behind the huge mounds, now appear, individually and collectively, in the opening number. They sing of their lot, each one in his or her fashion. This is “The Waste Land Song,” the first few lines of which are:
Seven thousand tons of trash
Work all day for little cash
Robbing Peter, paying Paul
Look, here comes another haul
It’s a Waste Land
We meet them, one by one, as they introduce themselves to us: there is Tião (Sibby), the president of ACAMJG, an acronym for the Association of Garbage Pickers Union; Zumbi (Zombie), Suelem (Sue Ellen), Isis, Irmã (Big Sister), Valter (Walter), the group’s philosopher-poet; Carlão (Big Carl) and his wife, and Magna — the main characters of our story and residents of the Jardim Gramacho (“Garden of Garbage”) neighborhood. They are denizens of this “Waste Land,” one of the world’s largest landfills.
Landfills, by necessity, are dead and lifeless places, akin to a cemetery or graveyard, in that there are dead and rotting things in them. All around, buzzards are seen circling overhead or swooping down onto the piles of refuse, constantly on the lookout in a never-ending search for sustenance.
The analogy of a graveyard is a crucial one, for it will determine the staging in many respects, as well as become instrumental in shaping the personalities of the play’s characters who, in many cases, have spent their entire lives there as pickers. Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a good comparison, in particular the late Patrice Chéreau’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2009.
Although, like the characters in the Janáček opera, their lives are bleak and the work is constant drudgery in the extreme, the catadores somehow manage to keep their sense of humor about it all. Most are a happy, contented lot — unlike the put-upon individuals of Les Misérables who are incapable of masking a lifetime of hurt and suffering. So the landfill is not entirely lifeless; in fact, it’s teeming with vitality.
Number 2: “Valter’s Verse” – Valter, the landfill’s elder statesman and resident philosopher-poet, is the first to come out. He sings a number about his credo in life:
It goes like this:
Here’s wisdom aplenty
Ninety-nine is not a hundred
And nineteen is not twenty
Meaning that if even one object is rescued from the garbage heap and recycled, that’s one less of the total mess. It’s his life’s mission to rescue “that single one” that “will make all the difference.” He might be referring to the garbage pickers, which is, rescuing even one of them from a life of drugs, crime and prostitution, is a life that is itself worth preserving and/or “recycling.” Valter knows what he is talking about, having spent 26 years as a garbage picker, as well as vice president of ACAMJG and representative to over 2,500 pickers. He wears his responsibility with seriousness of purpose along with dignity and pride.
Number 3: “Isis’ Lack of Luck” – She talks about her “boyfriend,” a truck driver, who happens to be married to someone else. They recently broke up, after she had already tattooed his name on her leg. “It’s over,” she blurts out sadly. Five years she’s been working in the landfill. “It’s disgusting,” she muses. “I make $20-25 dollars a day. This isn’t a future. Not for me, it isn’t.”
Number 4: “Tião’s Tale” – He is the president of the association of rag pickers, a natural-born leader, and a person that all the pickers look up to for counsel and advice. He has a different take on his role at the landfill. “I have nothing to complain about in my life,” he declares, “nothing, nothing at all.” Not yet, he doesn’t. Dead bodies are sometimes dumped there, he claims, especially during the drug wars. But for now, things are relatively quiet. He sings about finding a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince and, after reading it, comparing the story in the book to the reality of slum life in Rio: “l learned a lot from it.”
Number 5: Ballet Dream Sequence: “Delivery Truck” – A truck comes along and unloads more garbage onto the heap. The pickers climb all over it, like ants on an enormous mound. This begins a ballet dream sequence, as if the workers are wrapped in a trance, methodically going about their monotonous routine. The pickers find some unused hotel and restaurant food, as they toss it to Irmã (“Big Sister”) for her to work her magic on, which segues into the next number.
Number 6: “Irmã’s Ode” – Irmã, strong, steadfast, full of spunk and good humor, is the camp’s only cook. She recycles the food she finds in the heap, “beef stew,” “rib steak,” whatever she can get her hands on. She turns the unused portions into a gourmet meal for the pickers. “We feel good in here. I don’t let anyone go hungry. I feel very good.”
Number 7: “Magna’s Yarn: The Bus Ride” – Magna talks about being on the bus — again, illustrated, in parallel, almost as if the scene were taking place before our eyes. She is on the bus going home, smelling of garbage as usual, saying to the other passengers, “It’s because I work in the dump. Hey, it’s better than turning tricks on Copacabana Beach. I find it more interesting and more honest. More dignified, but it’s disgusting. Still, we have to pay the bills. And no one ever stops to think: where does all that garbage go? It goes here, my friend. Right here…”
Number 8: “Zumbie’s Story” – Responding to Magna’s complaint, Zumbie finally has his say. He has a stutter: “I don’t want my son to be no garbage pi-pi-picker,” he cries. “A la-la-lawyer, yes… but a pi-pi-picker…? No, no w-w-way!” Suddenly, he shouts to the other pickers. “Watch out for the tra-tra-tractor!” Books are his thing, as he is the landfill’s resident “librarian,” always finding new and used volumes in the heaps to recycle for his expanding collection. His father died, “when I was nine years old. Mom died too.” He tells a sad story of his life, up to that point.
Number 9: “Suelem’s Lot” – Suelem adds her own two cents: “I started at seven, now I’m eighteen. A baby was thrown away — we see some unpleasant things here, you know.” It’s even more unpleasant for her when she tells everyone she’s pregnant with another child. “If the rent is late, it goes up. I have to pay it on time.” She already has a little boy and a girl. Their father is a drug dealer; the rats run along their roof. Suelem dreams of opening a daycare center one day: “I love children.” She takes us on a tour of her house, which is located in the next slum where she and her extended family live — so many people in one tiny place.
Number 10: “Name That Trash” – Next, there is a comic scene wherein the garbage pickers discuss whose trash they find: “This is middle-class trash. Poor is the trash of the poor. It comes in little plastic bags.” They find some discarded Playboy magazines and marvel at its eye-popping contents. “Are there really such women in the world?” They begin to wonder aloud.
Number 11: “Finale” – The finale to Act One is a crisis of immense proportions. A robbery is in progress. A gang of thieves or drug addicts (nobody knows for sure) enters and holds up the office. The gang takes off with whatever money the pickers’ daily toil has gotten them. Left without any means to support and feed their families for the month, the catadores moan their loss. What can they do now? An ensemble closes the act, with the principal themes and melodies of the characters’ songs building, reappearing and intertwining, with each of their individual thoughts, hopes and dreams (as well as failures) restated, in essence converging in one massed chorus.
“Hey, watch out!” somebody screams. All of a sudden, one of the catadores is hurt as a garbage truck empties its contents on top of him, while the others come quickly to his rescue. One of the members announces, “It’s Zumbi.” He has broken his arm and leg, and cracked several ribs. What will happen to them, to their families, their friends, their livelihood?
Indeed, their very existence is threatened by these unforeseen incidents. Who will help them in their hour of need? Who will take them out of their misery? Tião is seen weeping: “I just feel like giving up on all of this. I don’t want to stay here anymore.” He buries his face in his hands and shakes his head from side to side.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes