The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), Part Two
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
What adventures await Judah Ben-Hur! When last we left him, Judah had been condemned to a living death as a slave aboard a Roman warship. For three years he nursed his revenge, waiting for the day when he would mete out justice to former boyhood friend Messala, the man who falsely accused him of trying to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. What was it that kept Judah focused during those harsh times? Was it the life-giving water? Was it Christ’s tender touch? Was it Judah’s renewed faith in his fellow man? Hardly!
When the hardened Roman commander Quintus Arrius (steely-jawed Jack Hawkins) comes upon Judah for the first time, he decides to test his resolve. Flinging a flesh-ripping whip across Judah’s back, Arrius is impressed with his ability to restrain himself. “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it,” he observes. He also notices the angry flame that courses through Judah’s veins: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”
Hate is what will dominate Judah’s life for the remainder of the picture. However, it’s the degree to which he uses that hate that will allow him to overcome the challenges he still needs to face. Arrius perfectly summarizes Judah’s situation, and those of his fellow galley slaves, by imparting the following advice: “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well … and live.”
Through a strange quirk of fate (or act of God, if you prefer), Judah Ben-Hur saves the Roman commander’s life. As a reward for his action, Arrius takes him to Rome to train as a charioteer. Then, over the years, he adopts Judah as a son and legal heir to his wealth and property. But the grateful Judah has other plans. He returns to Judea to search for his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), as well as fulfill his oath to seek retribution against the detestable Messala.
Most viewers and critics agree that the fabled chariot race is the high point of this epic story. Taking nothing away from one of the all-time most thrilling action sequences ever filmed (staged by second unit director Andrew Marton), the chariot race climaxes with Judah’s victory in the Circus Maximus and Messala’s brutal demise.
But prior to the tribune’s passing, Messala makes him aware that his mother and sister did not perish, as Judah had previously imagined. In fact, they are very much alive, if that’s what you call it. “Look for them,” Messala viciously blurts out as he lies dying, “in the Valley of the Lepers … if you can recognize them. It goes on, Judah … it goes on … The race … is not over.”
If Judah had not been radicalized before this point, he most certainly would be by now — and more than willing to take up arms against his Roman oppressors.
The Way of the Cross
From the spectacle of the Circus Maximus we move on to the public trial and personal turmoil of Christ at the Crucifixion. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) is washing his hands of the matter. We see Jesus in long shot, moving from the center of the film frame to the right.
Similarly, we cut to Judah entering, also from mid-center. He carries his sister Tirzah, who along with his mother have contracted leprosy after their time in prison. Roman soldiers on horseback mount the steps which will take them to the scene of the Crucifixion. Next, Jesus is perceived, again in long shot, as he carries his cross. Cut back to Judah at left with Esther (Haya Harareet), the woman he has fallen in love with, and Judah’s mother and sister.
In the next scene, they are all gathered near the steps that lead to a public square. The shadow of Christ’s cross appears against a stone wall — the wall that separates man from God; from the Creator of all things (as He was pictured at the start of the drama) and from those who have turned their backs on His only begotten son, the Savior of the world. Christ has taken on man’s sins in this moving episode.
There is a quick cut to Judah at center frame, his chiseled features facing to his right and to our left. Judah’s words cut to the bone: “I know this man!” he confides in a voice wracked with astonishment. The camera moves over to the three women, Tirzah at left on the lowest level of the steps, Miriam in the center position (both with faces covered by their wraps), and Esther at middle right, her own face a study in disbelief at what is being done to this humble carpenter before them. Her arms are placed on the stone steps in support of her weight. Esther is powerless to help the poor wretch who carries his own cross. Christ’s shadow momentarily falls on her face as he staggers by.
In the next instant, Christ stumbles (the first of several falls). The soldiers respond by whipping him into submission. Judah moves in to assist the fallen Jesus. Interestingly, the cross’s beam intersects the film’s frame; it looms larger than any of the women present, or Ben-Hur for that matter. The soldiers also traverse the frame, larger than life and just as threatening. At the soldiers’ crack of the whip, Tirzah cries out, “Easy on him!” But her cry gets no response. Jesus continues the long trek up the steps to his eventual death.
The camera pans to the other bystanders bearing witness to this painful display, Christ’s Via Crucis. Some of the onlookers express remorse and dismay; others mock the forsaken victim; still others can only watch, emotionless and uncomprehending as to the momentous events taking shape before them.
The camera movement continues, panning to the right, following the crowd as they move forward, ever forward. The camera then cuts to Christ’s footsteps. They are heavy and beleaguered by the burden of carrying that enormous wooden cross. The object’s heaviest section scrapes against the stone masonry as he slowly inches his way upward and onward. The music intones a mournful theme.
At that moment, Jesus stumbles anew. His left arm, bloodied and battered from the beating he received from the scornful Roman soldiers, prevents him from falling altogether. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Judah takes off his robe and charges Esther with watching over his family. He resolves to follow the crowd up the steps in pursuit of the figure, the man he claimed to “know,” but from where? Under what circumstances could he have met such a pitiable creature as this?
Judah pushes his way through the armed guard, his movements going from left to center, and from center to right — just as it was in the desert sequence earlier on (see the following link to my description of this scene: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/the-view-from-the-chair-walk-of-life-an-analysis-of-two-scenes-from-william-wylers-ben-hur-1959-scene-one-the-water-of-life/). Here, in the “Procession to Calvary” sequence, that doleful theme music (by composer Miklós Rózsa) becomes, in actuality, a minor-key inversion of the manly four-note “Ben-Hur” motif heard at the beginning of and throughout the film. It implies that Jesus and Judah’s situations have been reversed.
The women depart towards the center of the frame. They can no longer be of any assistance, nor can they seek assistance for that matter. Esther berates herself for dragging Tirzah and Miriam to witness such a tragedy. But Miriam is more consoling. “You haven’t failed,” she informs her. It’s not Esther’s fault that men continue to treat each other so cruelly. Why, look at Judah and Messala. Once they were bosom companions, as close as brothers, sharing an unbroken bond of fealty and love. Then, they turned on one another: Messala for needing Judah’s help in fingering the Jewish resistance leaders; and Judah for refusing to betray his own people. Their clash was over politics and religion, ideology over practicality.
The Center of Attention
We come to the center of the square. One observer shouts, with his hand raised mockingly in the air, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Between the crosses of the other two prisoners we can spot Judah, still mingling with the crowd, looking for an opportunity to come to this man’s aid, but why? What does Judah owe this miserable human being? He keeps moving forward, as Christ, who is at the extreme left of the screen, also does.
It’s at this point that Jesus’ burden begins to take a toll on his broken body. He stumbles badly, with the cross falling directly on top of him. He is on the ground, his arms splayed in a posture that will be replicated at the Crucifixion, with Christ hanging from this same cross. Judah is finally able to break through the crowd. He’s about to reach the fallen victim when a foot soldier sideswipes him back into the crowd. Judah crashes into a well (which resembles an ancient water trough).
Meanwhile, one of the soldiers coaxes a passerby — Simon the Cyrene — into carrying Jesus’ cross so that the procession can continue on its dolorous way. As Christ struggles to get back to his feet, Judah quickly snatches a ladle and, filling it with fresh water, tries to deliver its contents. They are both in the exact center of the screen: Christ positioned at center-left and Judah at center-right; a complete turnaround from their previous encounter where Judah was in Christ’s position on the ground and Christ came to his rescue from the right.
As Judah bends down to offer him a thirst-quenching drink, he suddenly remembers their former meeting. The expression on Judah’s face changes from compassion to utter shock and recognition. The music also recalls their initial encounter, with the Christ theme gently stirring on the soundtrack. How their situations have changed; how their circumstances over the years have conspired to reverse their fortunes. Just as Jesus is about to drink, a soldier interrupts their reunion (without the need for the phrase, “No water for him!”) by kicking the ladle from Judah’s outstretched arms, thus spilling the refreshment onto the street.
Throughout this continuous sequence, director William Wyler has positioned both Judah and Jesus in long view, that is, until the camera crouches down to eye level, just as the two men confront each other in close up. Intruding on the pair, the soldiers manhandle Judah out of their way. Both men stumble to the ground, the symbolism here being unmistakable: each has stooped so low in life — Judah, a prince of his people, turned a slave aboard a Roman galley, now restored to his former station; Jesus, a simple carpenter’s son, hailed as the long-awaited Messiah, now about to be crucified between two criminals.
From this personal abyss, there comes a reaffirmation. In Christ’s case, his death and glorious resurrection; in Judah’s, a reassessment of his life’s work, one dedicated to family and charity toward others. Deprived of the merest hint of sustenance (the screenplay ignores Christ’s injunction to his disciples at the Last Supper: that he would not eat or drink until his task was complete), Jesus marches wearily to his fate.
Similarly, Judah stands at the center of the storm. As he did in the earlier sequence, Judah rises to his full height at far left — the opposite of where Christ Jesus had stood upon quenching Judah’s thirst. In Judah’s right hand we see that he holds the ladle, emblematic of the one that revived him the last time the two men had met. Their positions are mirror images of where they once stood so many years before. Only here, Jesus does not look back, as Judah had done. Christ has left his past behind. He can only march solemnly ahead to a future he knows he must confront.
The sequence ends with the shadow of a Roman soldier cast across Judah’s backside. Two soldiers enter the scene, each on opposite sides of the frame, wearing flowing red capes (the blood of Christ on their shoulders?). Judah is obstructed from view, whereas Jesus is dressed all in white; he remains visible at the center, the image getting progressively smaller and smaller with each step, trudging incessantly to his end.
The next scene takes us to Calvary; a short while later, Christ is no more. A terrible rainstorm breaks out, but in a cave nearby a miracle has occurred: Tirzah and Miriam are cured of their leprosy. Esther is overjoyed. As rain begins to fall, we switch back to the cross where Christ’s limp body hangs. His blood flows down from the cross to a stream below. The stream then becomes a raging torrent, as Christ’s blood, mixed with the water and rain, washes man’s sins away.
In the final scene, Judah returns to his ancestral home. He confesses to an expectant Esther that Jesus’ last words were of forgiveness for mankind. Those same words, a comfort in our own hard times, took the sword of vengeance from his hand. A lifetime of rage and hatred has been replaced with absolution and understanding.
Judah is reunited with his newfound family (he marvels at their smoothened complexions). They embrace. The bonds of love and faith have been reaffirmed. In the end, the Christ theme blazes forth, blending with Judah’s theme as well as his and Esther’s love music.
A heavenly choir proclaims the “Alleluia,” as a portion of the “Creation of Adam” panel reappears. Only Adam’s hand and God’s life-giving touch are visible, a reaffirmation in kind of the bond that exists between man and his maker.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Four): ‘JFK’ and the Acts of His Apostles
“Quo Vadis, Domine?”
Liz Garrison (Cissy Spacek), District Attorney Jim Garrison’s devoted and long-suffering spouse, begins to feel the negative effects of the adverse publicity heaped on her husband’s investigation into Kennedy’s death.
“You care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she tearfully confides. With good reason, Liz knows that as the wife of a fact-finding D.A., she will be in for a grueling endurance test of missed family gatherings and empty chairs at Easter Sunday luncheons.
As a counter to Garrison’s accusations, Clay Shaw mounts a campaign against the ensuing investigation into his alleged involvement in JFK’s death. Almost immediately, scandal erupts over Garrison’s use of public funds to pay for his office’s inquiries.
In the meantime, David Ferrie (the fellow with the painted-on eyebrows and ill-fitting blond wig) freaks out in a paranoid screed, lashing out at the U.S. Government, the Mob, the Cubans, anybody and everybody he can think of.
“I’m a dead man!” Ferrie blurts out, in a steady, X-rated stream-of-consciousness rant directed at the D.A. and his two assistants Bill Broussard and Lou Ivon, in relation to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, among others — none of which make a bit of sense. They’re the rabid ravings of a lunatic.
The attorneys meet again, behind closed doors of course, where they size up Ferrie’s actions and “arguments” as untenable to their cause. Office assistant Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight) bursts in on the meeting to notify Garrison that they’ve been bugged. This explains how the press is always aware of their every move, what they say, where they go, and who they plan to use to mount their case. In a dramatic moment, the fatal phone call comes in that Ferrie is dead.
In a search of the deceased’s ransacked apartment, evidence of thyroid medication is found (too much of it, in fact, indicating foul play); and then, just as dramatically, Assistant D.A. Susie Cox enters to announce that Ferrie’s Cuban associate, Eladio del Valle, has also met with foul play: he’s been hacked to death. Suspicious deaths begin to pile up, more than you can shake a fist at. Outside the office, someone (perchance an FBI informant?) approaches another assistant, Bill Broussard, to get him to switch his allegiance to the other side. Bill is the previously mentioned Judas Iscariot figure, and he’s about to get plucked.
Amid all the turmoil, Garrison decides to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with “X” (Donald Sutherland), who tells him somewhat surreptitiously a lot more than the District Attorney (or anyone else, for that matter) should “know” about Oswald, Kennedy, and a whole host of other names; about “X” being reassigned to the North Pole to get him out of the way, while two weeks later the president was shot to death. Right on cue, we are shown a snippet of Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film, along with obviously fake archival footage.
“X” makes his case, and then summarizes his findings by posing the following questions: Ruby, Oswald, Cuba and such were nothing more than red herrings, dupes and pawns of a much bigger, much more insidious plot. He counts them off one by one: “Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”
He answers his own queries: The generals, the so-called military-industrial complex that Eisenhower, in the beginning of the film and at the end of his two terms as president, warned against. “The call is made, the contract is put out. No one said, ‘He must die.’ No vote. Nothing’s on paper. There’s no one to blame. It’s as old as the crucifixion. Or the military firing squad …”
After JFK’s death, LBJ signs a document, National Security Action Memorandum No. 273. “Just get me elected,” comments an actor made up to look like President Johnson, “I’ll give you your damn war.” Crisis, betrayal, murder, retribution. Listening to this, Garrison is in shock and disbelief at these revelations. How can he find the will to go on? He’s St. Peter leaving Rome to the Romans (remember, he’s in D.C. at the moment, our modern-day Roma). “X” urges him on, and coaxes Garrison to do what’s right. He charges the D.A. to “Stir the shit storm.” The hope is to start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government will crack.
“The truth is on your side, bubba. I just hope you get a break.” With the Washington Monument and the symbolic dome of the Capitol Building in the background (a nice analogy to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City), the mysterious “X” walks off into the distance and in the direction of those very monuments.
At this crucial juncture, “X” becomes Christ returning to Rome. In one of the excluded books of the Apocrypha, known as the Acts of Peter, tradition dictates that Saint Peter had seen a vision of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, walking in the direction of the Eternal City, back to where Peter had just left to escape possible torture and death.
“Quo vadis, Domine?” — “Whither thou goest, Lord?” Peter asked of Christ. And Christ answered him: “I am going to Rome to be crucified all over again.” At that, Peter turned swiftly around and, with his life in jeopardy, took up Christ’s challenge and returned to the city en route to becoming a martyr to the cause.
Garrison remains seated. He is alone on the bench. We next see him at President Kennedy’s gravesite, with the eternal flame burning in the foreground. He is deep in thought, pondering what his next move will be.
As he gazes wistfully at the flame, an older African American gentleman appears alongside him, with his young grandson in hand. All of a sudden, Garrison’s downcast expression changes into a newfound determination to arrest Clay Shaw for conspiracy and acting with others to commit the murder of President John F. Kennedy.
Dramatic music is cued up.
Logic is the Beginning of Wisdom
Switching gears, we find Chief Justice Earl Warren (shot from below so as to give his immense height its full quotient) as he speaks to a reporter. Warren dismisses the charge against Shaw as spurious, claiming it is not credible.
Back in “Big Easy” New Orleans (and back down to Earth), Garrison responds to journalists’ queries about Justice Warren’s comment. Garrison mounts the steps and overlooks the mob of newshounds. He has taken up Christ’s cause and, by default, His cross. And who should be by his side? Why, his Judas, of course, in the person of discredited Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard. He will betray Garrison and his team, just as Christ was, for their seeking out of the truth.
“And what is truth?” Garrison poses, as Pilate had done to Jesus — a more or less rhetorical query to which no answer is proffered or expected. “It’s become a dangerous country,” he continues, “when you cannot trust anyone, anymore; when you cannot tell the truth. I say let justice be done, though the heavens fall!”
He might as well have spoken Julius Caesar’s famous aside, “Let the die be cast,” as he crossed the Rubicon River with his army into Rome. For both men, there was no turning back.
There are angry recriminations from Garrison’s wife Liz. Domestic problems continue to resurface and intrude on matters going forward. The attorneys meet yet again to discuss the avenues they need to take with regard to Oswald. After throwing theories and suppositions hither and yon — in particular, one about the “missing” FBI telex, warning their office of a possible assassination attempt on November 22 — Judas rises to his feet in the FBI’s defense. This leads to the other assistant D.A., Lou, to resign on the spot.
Using unmistakable language that clearly identifies the group as Apostles, Broussard tosses out his personal credo: “How the hell you gonna keep a conspiracy going on between the Mob, CIA, FBI, Army Intelligence and who the hell knows what …. When you know for a fact [that] you can’t keep a secret in this room between 12 people? We got leaks everywhere!” The deadly germ of David Ferrie’s paranoia has infected one of their own.
Broussard can’t believe the government (or Church, or other established institution) can be responsible for such a heinous act. He’d rather believe the Mob is capable of carrying out the crime, but not our government. Garrison proceeds to tear his theory apart, even bringing up the idea of LBJ as a conspirator. As critic Gerardo Valero aptly put it, in a June 2012 article “Should JFK Have Even Been Made?” on the Roger Ebert website, “Perhaps it was hard for a man like [journalist and anchorman Walter] Cronkite [and, by implication, the average viewer] to consider the possibility that such nefarious acts (and their cover up) came from respectable sources.”
“All it takes is one Judas. People on the inside.” The analogies are apparent. From here on, the Apostles will be faced with an insurmountable brick wall of a flimsy case. In history, Garrison’s theories collapsed like a house of cards. Much of what was presented in court turned out to be half-baked, crackpot theories that led nowhere. Basically, Garrison had his people running down bogus leads which made them run in ever-widening circles.
The remainder of the film tries to come together, to tie all of these disparate elements into a coherent bow — or as coherent as possible in a kangaroo court-like atmosphere.
(End of Part Four)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Gods, Devils, Sinners and Saints — Visions of Heaven and Hell in the Movies (Part Two): Battle for the Soul
The Wages of Sin
Selling one’s soul for material gain, of course, is an age-old and thrice familiar routine. Derived primarily from myths and legends, one can go back to medieval times to its roots — to the story of the real life Dr. Johannes Georg Faust selling his soul to Satan for fame, fortune and youth. (Let’s not forget sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, but not necessarily in that order.)
This so-called “Doktor” Faust lived and died in-and-around old Württemberg in Lutheran-era Germany. He was known variously and throughout the realm as a magus, an alchemist, a practical joker, and “a conjurer of cheap tricks” (as well as a bugger of young boys). These activities gave rise to the notion that Faust had made a blasphemous deal with the Devil in exchange for his “magical” abilities.
Indeed, the personage of Faust and his diabolical pact have been a recurring theme in literature and folklore long before it dawned on playwrights and poets to devote full-length stage treatments to the matter. Consequently, the film and opera worlds were no strangers to the tale, for Faust was the protagonist in any number of lyric and/or cinematic ventures almost as frequent as that of Orpheus and his myth.
In point of fact, we can trace the development of the Faust legend (and its resultant tragic consequences) to the Biblical Book of Genesis — specifically, to the cautionary example of Adam and Eve.
In this early telling, the first Man and Woman share a communal lifestyle in the bountiful Garden of Eden (or Paradise, to use the more descriptive term). Naked and unafraid, the couple roams the primeval forest, blissfully unaware of their nakedness yet profoundly cognizant of their pleasurable surroundings.
Tempted by the Serpent (the Devil in reptilian guise), they partake of the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the first recorded evidence of a quid pro quo: you do something for me, and I’ll do something for you (I’ll bet!).
As a result of her indulgence, Eve gets a tantalizing taste of the “good life” — not that it wasn’t good beforehand, mind you, but her act of defiance against God’s orders can be summed up in one apocryphal phrase: the Devil made her do it.
Eve shares the apple (or whatever fruit it happened to be) with her mate, Adam. Before long their eyes are opened to their own nude forms. They were ashamed, or so the Bible tells us, and thus sin came into the world.
One of the few motion-picture illustrations of this passage comes from the John Huston-directed, Dino De Laurentiis-produced three-hour extravaganza The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), with an athletically sculpted Michael Parks as Adam and Swedish actress Ulla Bergryd as Eve. The screenplay was credited to British author and playwright Christopher Fry, as if the poetry and high-mindedness of the King James Version needed further padding.
Blond, bland and bashful to a fault, both Parks (a dead ringer for Robert Redford) and Bergryd are oh-so-beautiful to look at, but were no match for the slimy, sinuous Serpent — voiced, to an insinuatingly deceitful degree, by that old ham Huston.
It should be noted that character and voiceover actor Sterling Holloway did similar vocal duties (to comparable if less successful effect) as Kaa the Snake in Disney’s animated feature Jungle Book from 1967. Only from Kaa’s part, it was mostly to engorge himself on the boy Mowgli’s flesh.
The sale of one’s soul for untold riches and indescribable pleasures is explored in several film adaptations, among them F.W. Murnau’s silent version of Faust: A German Folktale (1926), which featured an international array of artists headed by Swedish actor Gösta Ekman as Faust, American Camilla Horn as Gretchen (Marguerite in Charles Gounod’s opera), and Swiss-born thespian Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel) as the highly effective Mephistopheles.
Cineaste magazine described Jannings’ “glowing-eyed demon” as a “malevolent conniver with a touch of Benito Mussolini in his burly face.” Evviva Il Duce! To my eyes, he resembles a Teutonic version of Charles Laughton.
The film exists in many versions and in several foreign languages (uh, the intertitles, that is), as was the custom in the silent era and in the early days of sound cinema. A compilation of Goethe’s dramatic play in two parts, Faust also encapsulates portions of Gounod’s operatic treatment, which concentrates on the alleged love story between Faust and the beautiful country girl Gretchen (or Marguerite, in the opera).
In one derided ending to Murnau’s picture, Gretchen is burned alive at the stake for deliberately drowning her illegitimate daughter, fathered by the lustful Faust. Reverting to his actual old-man guise, Faust joins Gretchen in the hellish flames, only to be lifted upward, body and soul, to heaven in what has been termed “a visual effect of truly awesome tackiness.”
William Dieterle, who appeared as Gretchen’s warlike brother Valentin in Murnau’s flick, went on to direct a Faustian feature of his own. Known by various titles as The Devil and Daniel Webster, Daniel and the Devil, All That Money Can Buy, Mr. Scratch and Here Is a Man, this 1941 fantasy noir epic, adapted by poet and author Stephen Vincent Benét with screenwriter Dan Totheroh from Benét’s short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster, tells of a dirt poor New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig).
Down on his luck and faced with foreclosure on his farm’s mortgage, Stone, as most fellows in his shoes would do in such dramatic circumstances, swears to sell his soul to the devil for a mere two cents’ worth of aid. No sooner does he say this when who should appear but Beelzebub himself, who answers to the name of Mr. Scratch. He’s played by a lanky Walter Huston, father of director John Huston and a notable stage and screen actor in his own right (Thomas Mitchell was originally tapped to be the devil, but withdrew due to ill health).
With an impish twinkle in his eye and equally wicked grin, Scratch sports some bristly chin whiskers and a fine rustic cap that give him the appearance of an iniquitous Robin Hood on the wrong side of the law. Scratch lures the unsuspecting Stone into his snare with gold coins that mysteriously materialize from his basement. After seven years of good fortune and several instances of deteriorating behavior on the part of Stone’s character — helped, in large measure, by the feminine wiles of alluring servant girl Simone Simon — Scratch comes back to make good on his pact.
At the end of his rope, the desperate Stone turns to the renowned orator and politician, Daniel Webster (excellently portrayed by character actor Edward Arnold), to plead his case to an infernal jury of his peers. And what a jury it is, comprised of the worst traitors and evil-doers this side of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins: “Americans all,” according to the jocular Scratch. In order to defend Stone against this deliberately stacked deck, Webster is forced to put up his own soul in exchange for his client’s release.
In the grand finale, the great orator manages to sway the jury to Stone’s side, thus cementing Webster’s reputation as a literal man of his word. The picture concludes with a typically Brechtian twist worthy of Pirandello: Scratch looks straight into the camera (and out into the audience) for potential future candidates to corrupt. KER-CHING!
To counteract the feelings of déjà vu that either of these features may have engendered in viewers, we bring you 1967’s Bedazzled, a satiric Swinging Sixties twist on the Faustian fable that takes place in a very Merry Ole England.
Directed and produced by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain), the movie stars the hapless Dudley Moore (Arthur) as a British Mod-era Faust named Stanley Moon, Peter Cook as his tempter George Spiggott (a “dirty, rotten, double-crossing devil”), Eleanor Bron as airhead waitress Margaret Spencer, and shapely Raquel Welch as one of the Seven Deadly Sins (we’ll leave it to readers to figure out which one).
This pre-Monty Pythonesque exercise in raunchiness, sex, vulgarity and double and triple entendres was written by its two stars, Cook and Moore. It positively reeks of psychedelic pop art, Beatle haircuts and micro-miniskirts, along with granny glasses, Edwardian-style suits and a typical soundtrack of the period, also co-written by Cook and Moore.
In this one, George grants Stanley seven wishes before he comes to claim his prize. Henceforth, let it be known that the Devil drives a hard bargain indeed: woe befalls the individual who takes Satan — or George, in this case — at his word.
Evil intent and perfidious arrangements with satanic forces, or the Heavenly Host, are part and parcel of the genre. But never was a bargain more passionate (and, therefore, more battered and bloodied) than Prince Vlad’s renunciation of God after the premature death of his wife Elizabeta (Winona Ryder), in the prologue to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (whose Dracula movie was this, anyway?).
This powerful sequence, which got the otherwise plodding production off to a rollicking, riveting start, was actually filmed by Coppola’s son Roman, who was in charge of the in-camera special effects. It was narrated by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing in the main section, as well as one of the Eastern Orthodox priests in this tidbit.
Hopkins relates a back story concerning the Moslem Turks’ invasion of Vlad’s homeland in the Carpathian Mountains; how Prince Vlad (Gary Oldman) repelled the invaders through his own bloodthirsty methods (not for nothing did he become known to history as “Vlad the Impaler”); and who, upon his return to his fortress castle, was told of his beloved’s suicide through the spreading of false rumors of his demise.
Angry at what he perceived to be the Lord’s betrayal of his most steadfast defender, the devastated prince renounces God and vows to rise from the ashes of his death by feasting on the blood of his enemies. Vlad wields his huge broadsword aloft and stabs the Christian cross with it, out of which blood gushes forth into a cup. Vlad drinks the blood while intoning a mighty roar upon the words: “The blood is the life,” a sacrilegious reversal of the ceremony of the Holy Eucharist.
The religious symbolism and deliberate association with the crucified Christ return as the film draws to a bloody conclusion. With a large Bowie knife sticking out of his chest, Dracula makes his way back into the castle — to the exact spot where he made his original unholy vow.
Asking why God has forsaken him, Dracula begs Minna Harker (Ryder in a dual role), the wife of one of his victims, to put an end to his suffering and give him peace. Minna complies with his request by plunging the knife deeper into his chest, out his back and into the floor.
At the words, “It is finished,” Dracula draws his last breath, as an unseen heavenly choir intones a mournful sigh of relief. Cue end credits!
(End of Part Two – To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Three): ‘JFK’ and the Gospel According to Oliver Stone
So Let It Be Rewritten
Returning to the topic of history on film — and specifically to the three-hour+ director’s cut of JFK (1991), written and directed by filmmaker, author and lecturer Oliver Stone — let’s look at several scenes from the movie that highlight a particular point I have lately uncovered.
That point happens to be the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent investigation into his untimely death not only by the Warren Commission, which issued their findings in a detailed and largely discredited report (in the film that is, not in real life), but also by the sham conspiracy trial of a shifty New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw.
In the movie, this forlorn, effeminate soul (portrayed on screen by Tommy Lee Jones in a short curly-blond wig) is the central figure in an elaborately conceived, highly convoluted plot to kill the president for an untold and ever-expanding number of reasons. It juxtaposes the slippery personality of Shaw with the upright, upstanding district attorney Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison (Kevin Costner), also of New Orleans — a classic Hollywood setup, the confrontation of “good” versus “evil”: the advocate for “truth, justice and the American way” against the perpetrator of sinister plots.
What struck me, while watching the film again after so many years removed from its original viewing date, was Stone’s allegorical representation of the dedicated D.A. Garrison as a firebrand, a modern-day St. Peter or St. Paul (he could go either way , really), working alongside his “crack” team of investigators embodying the eleven remaining Apostles.
The same could be said of the other participants in the drama, including the secretive “X” (Donald Sutherland), a character based, according to Stone, on several real-life military figures, specifically Col. L. Fletcher Prouty or a composite of the same. There’s New Orleans Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) who slowly but surely loses faith in what Garrison is preaching. And Garrison’s long-suffering wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek), who basically whines about her husband’s neglect of her and their children throughout the entirety of the picture.
The real Jim Garrison — stoic, cold and tall of stature — makes for a ghostly cameo as Chief Justice Earl Warren when he interviews a sweaty, tension-filled Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray), in prison for the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). In the film, and in real life, Ruby died of complications shortly after being granted a retrial for the assassin’s murder.
In the extended scenes tacked on to the film, Stone allows for fearful interpretations by Jack Lemmon as gumshoe Jack Martin and a vicious Ed Asner as Guy Bannister, a key member of the team that conspiracy theorists claim included government officials at the highest conceivable level (all the way up to then-Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, if my reading of their theory is correct). This, along with numerous unexplained deaths of various and sundry participants, discredited witnesses, muddled motivations, etc., and so forth, form the backbone of what turns out to be a paranoid’s worst nightmare.
Indeed, there is a veritable narrative mess at Garrison’s summation. The conclusions he draws at trial have no basis in verifiable fact and are hinged purely on conjecture. The case against Shaw and the deceased David Ferrie (a super-hyper Joe Pesci), who died under “suspicious” circumstances, we are shown, is dismissed and a mistrial is declared. The real villains are set free, to be let loose on unsuspecting and freedom-loving citizens, their “crimes” against the public trust going unpunished.
The Christ Connection
As strange as it may seem, Stone took as his model not so much history as hagiography. His main sources for JFK remain Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, as well as Crossfire: The Plot that Killed President Kennedy by Jim Marrs. But the source that has gone unmentioned in most movie reviews is the Holy Bible. Stone based his fictional account of the investigation into Kennedy’s death on the Acts of the Apostles, notably the follow-up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the subsequent fate of His Disciples as seen through Garrison’s eyes.
Indeed, all the characters have their corresponding associations with personages from the New Testament, i.e. the various gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. In addition to which, the movie asks audiences to take a giant leap of faith as the crusading lawyer and champion of righteous causes, Jim Garrison, confronts the villainous cretins in court.
One of the prosecutors, Broussard, is called “Judas” for his desertion to the other side. It’s every man for himself in the end, with Kennedy (the Christ-like figure par excellence) dying so that others might believe that he was pursuing the “good work” in preventing the military-industrial complex from taking over the U.S. government.
President Kennedy is treated as the elusive Messiah — and despite his reputation with the ladies, a basically good and decent man undone by his political adversaries whose agenda ran counter to his own. That agenda, in the screenplay according to Mr. Stone, involved Kennedy’s plan to scale back the American military’s commitment to wage war wherever and whenever it felt the need. In the movie, the commitment was to Vietnam.
In today’s world, what with all the turbulence the Trump Administration has been experiencing of late and with ever-escalating theories about collusion with the Russians and such, perhaps Stone’s crackpot viewpoint is not so farfetched after all.
Still, the very notions JFK interjected into the conversation and espoused when the film was originally released — and onto which historians have poured their most extensive research into debunking — practically beg to be reconsidered anew in light of current situations. The very thought of a mass conspiracy on an unprecedented scale was unthinkable then, and remains so to this day. Yet, the idea that LBJ, the FBI, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in cahoots in a plot to assassinate the president of the United States can only be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.
To reiterate, District Attorney Garrison, by default, was either Peter or Paul, depending on the filmmaker’s whim and as dictated by the needs of the screenplay. He is a defender of the faith as well as a detractor of the faithless (down to his own wife), an apologist and an instigator, but ultimately a true believer. However, Garrison and his team must operate behind closed doors, much as the Apostles did when they went into hiding after Christ’s demise. Their mission: to prove that Kennedy/Christ was killed for the wrong reasons; that his memory will be preserved in their work and in the work of others; and that the Kennedy/Christ legacy can live on in the “retelling” of the story — that is, in the newly formed Gospel of JFK, as told by Oliver Stone — for generations to come.
One thing the movie got right was its use of the complete 8mm Zapruder film, which was shown for the first time at Clay Shaw’s 1969 trial for conspiracy and murder (with LBJ and company cited as “accessories after the fact”). The film all-but embraces, with good reason, what critic David Thomson emphasized as “rampant paranoia.” It attempts to connect Dwight D. Eisenhower’s historic warning about the “military-industrial complex” with Kennedy’s death, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the rising Communist threat in Southeast Asia, along with JFK’s arrival in Dallas (an allegorical allusion to Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).
Actual newsreel footage is shown of the young president in his prime with his alluring First Lady Jackie, who carries a bouquet of red roses (flowers associated with the Virgin Mary) on that fateful November 22nd day in 1963; this is juxtaposed with black-and-white recreations of alleged incidents in the JFK narrative, credited to director Stone and journalist and teacher Zachary Sklar. We then see a brief portion of the Zapruder film and hear broadcaster Walter Cronkite’s breathless reporting of the assassination.
Cut to Garrison in his office and Cronkite’s teary-eyed pronouncement of Kennedy’s passing. Flashes of Lee Harvey Oswald’s face attach him to the murder. Garrison and his staff are gathered in the office, surrounded by law books — i.e., the Apostles, none of whom were present at Christ’s crucifixion, at the first gathering after His death, among the books of the Old Testament which attest to their authority on the matter.
The law library stands as an equivalent monument to the rule of law, the symbol of our government, of the courageous men and women dedicated to the unvarnished truth and the ways of attaining that truth, no matter the cost to their reputation or personal integrity. They are “witnesses” after the fact of Kennedy’s death; they see Oswald’s execution by Jack Ruby, as Kennedy’s funeral procession flashes by before them (and us).
Next, there is the announcement of the Warren Commission. Three years later, in November 1966, we flash forward to where LBJ “seeks $9 billion in extra war funds,” as seen in the headlines of the Washington Post. Little tidbits of information are intercut into the narrative, raising suspicions about minor events, those so-called “unusual occurrences” that “don’t add up,” such as the clean-cut, clean-shaven vagrants arrested the day of the assassination.
The three lawyers, Garrison, Broussard and Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders), meet in Lafayette Square in New Orleans. They remark on the proximity to one another of several government office buildings: the Office of Naval Affairs (which is now the U.S.P.O.), the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service — all in one plaza and inviting comparisons to Biblical claims of propinquity with regard to Pontius Pilate’s palace, King Herod’s abode, the Council of the San Hedrin, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Calvary.
The Greatest Story Never Told
During the first third of Stone’s Passion Play, people come forward and state their case — they give testimony, to put it plainly, about what they saw and heard, adding to the available source material as hearsay evidence, or supposed “eyewitness testimony.” The sweaty, porcine physiognomy of shady lawyer Dean Andrews Jr. (comic John Candy in dark shades, naturally) discusses his refusal to act as Oswald’s defense counsel over dinner with a skeptical Garrison.
After further inquiries, Garrison and his group unite with two or three other colleagues over a noontime meal to talk among themselves about the hoboes that were arrested. Assistant D.A. Susie Cox (Laura Metcalf) joins the boys. She is the official record keeper of events, the Mary Magdalene model and transcriber of the spoken word. It is here that Oswald is talked about as the prime suspect by default due to the plethora of contradictory information swirling about him.
This extended restaurant sequence serves the purpose of questioning whether Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in carrying out his crime (the notorious “Lone Gunman” theory) or in conjunction with other co-conspirators.
In the next scene, we are privy to a recreation of eyewitness accounts of what several individuals claim to have seen at Dealy Plaza — i.e., Calgary, or Golgotha (“the place of the Skull”), where our Kennedy/Christ personage died. Smoke rises from the grassy knoll; a man with an umbrella is spotted; there are shadowy figures behind a fence; a pickup truck is mysteriously provided by the Secret Service; and the man behind the wheel of that truck is none other than low-level mobster Jack Ruby before he killed Oswald.
Four to six shots ring out from behind a picket fence. It is here, after these tragic events take place, that a grim-faced Chief Justice Warren (ironically, the real-life Jim Garrison) interrogates jailbird Jack Ruby behind bars, a soon-to-be-martyred victim to the “cause.”
All these pop culture references have been interspersed throughout the picture in order to plant myriad seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what actually transpired before, during and after Kennedy’s death. These and similar scenes will recur at preordained junctures.
We are then taken to the Texas Book Depository building that overlooks Dealy Plaza (the proverbial “scene of the crime”). Ivon and Garrison will attempt to recreate Oswald’s dastardly deed with the use of a replica of the infamous 6.5mm caliber Carcano Model 91/38 rifle. Their conclusion: it would be impossible, even for an experienced marksman, to accurately fire off three consecutive shots in the 5.3 seconds it took to kill Kennedy. And the manual loading Carcano had a defective scope at that! But the plain fact remains that Kennedy was killed. There is speculation as well as to the actual number of teams (three, to be exact) it would take to be able to execute the crime at strategic vantage points.
After another meeting of the faithful, this time in D.A. Garrison’s spacious living room, Susie Cox/Mary Magdalene reports the news of a bogus “Oswald” pretending to test drive an automobile, when his wife, the Russian-born Marina Nikolayevna, had previously testified to the Warren Commission that her husband did not have a driver’s license. During Susie’s account, another “Oswald” is caught practicing at a firing range, while a third “Oswald” happens to be spotted in Mexico. What are we to make of these sightings?
Next, the viewer is treated to the LIFE magazine cover which highlights the purportedly doctored photograph of Oswald holding aloft his Carcano rifle. The real (or “reel”) Oswald complains that the man in the photograph isn’t him at all, but an imposter. Deceit piles upon deceit. Garrison begins to believe that Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) created “Oswald” for the sole purpose of using him as a patsy to cover up their real intentions: the planned execution of JFK. This is the second meeting of the group (the Apostles) before the Via Dolorosa, leading up to the Via Crucis or the Way of the Cross.
To further the religious connotations, Garrison goes to interview the mysterious “Clay Bertrand,” in actuality local businessman Clay Shaw. The interview takes place in Garrison’s office on Easter Sunday — resurrection day in Christian theology, telegraphing the death and eventual resurrection of the Kennedy case. Clay denies any and all knowledge of the event and the “sordid cast of characters” Garrison associates him with, to include the oddball David Ferrie, the gay hustler Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), the Cuban ex-military types, et al.
Garrison confronts Shaw and accuses him of having gotten away with Kennedy’s murder, a statement that profoundly offends the businessman. Garrison’s assistant Broussard gets between the combatants before either man comes to blows.
Bemused yet nonplussed, Shaw wishes everyone a Happy Easter and departs in a characteristically lighthearted mood. In response, Garrison quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” The next move is Garrison’s.
(End of Part Three)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
It’s the Time of the Season!
The Easter-Passover season has drawn upon us. And, as such, we make note of this moment as a time for reflection.
Whether at a church or a temple, a synagogue or a mosque, or wherever one goes in order to be alone with one’s thoughts; to pray for a loved one or to ask forgiveness for one’s transgressions; whether you’re attending a wedding ceremony, a funeral for a friend, or a baptism for a newborn babe — all these activities are a requisite part of the daily cycles of life we humans are regularly asked to participate in. And most of them tend to follow a religious practice of some sort.
That being the case, obtaining spiritual sustenance is something we’re all called upon to do in one form or another. In point of fact, religion comprises a large portion of who we are as individuals, which also reflects how we were raised as children. Henceforth, it becomes difficult to separate our faith (or its lack) from our inner selves, whether we’re fervent practitioners or doubting Thomases.
Whatever name one chooses to call these beliefs, or whatever faith we decide to adhere to and follow, in the movies religion is most often characterized by a fascinating mix of the familiar with the foreboding, and the ridiculous with the sublime.
We know there is good in the world. But oftentimes the good cannot co-exist without the presence of its opposite number, evil, as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan forthrightly pointed out in his film Unbreakable (2000), a cinematic ode to comic-book lore. Here, the presence of evil is portrayed by the least likeliest character, an individual so fragile and accident prone it’s amazing he can get out of bed without crushing himself to death. He is pitted against the forces of good by a clueless stadium guard in a green hoodie and baseball cap.
This singular battle for the soul — for either the dark or the light side of life to prevail — is the basis for most films about religious faith or that use religion in some way, shape or form, as their underlying theme or tone.
Let it be known, however, that “evil” as such is not always depicted in so-called traditional forms, nor is it nearly so obvious to the untrained eye as the presence of a pointy-tailed, horned-and-hoofed fiend would tend to be. Nevertheless, the Evil One’s multiple manifestations and head-on clashes with the Almighty and His followers are what make up the stuff of movie legend.
Considering the importance of religion in people’s lives, let me offer this brief overview of scenes and descriptions from a variety of motion-picture appearances of gods, devils, sinners and saints, in addition to cinematic treatments of Jesus and our old pal Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, or whatever moniker may strike your fancy, and his celluloid cohorts, as they’ve been portrayed on the silver screen throughout the years.
Physical and Not-So-Physical Manifestations
All right, then, we know who or what Satan is. He’s so easy to spot, isn’t he? Why, he’s the guy with that evil glint in his eye, right? But beyond that, he tends to sport those ignominious horns atop his shiny forehead as well as that prominently spiked tail. Correct?
Oh, how wrong we are!
Sometimes the Devil is shown as an innocent six-year old child. He’s called Damien in Richard Donner’s creepy The Omen from 1976 (and in John Moore’s 2005 remake), a serious little boy not even his mother could love. There’s mischief afoot (and that portentous-sounding soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith) whenever the tiny tyke is caught traipsing about the household. The simplest of childhood toys — a tricycle, for instance — can become a deadly weapon in Damien’s hands.
In the sequel, Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges), he’s just turned thirteen and attends a military academy. Nothing so ominous about that. It’s the actions that swirl around and about him that make this moody teenager a powerful antagonist in the long run. The boy’s agents can be a Rottweiler dog or a surly maidservant, at other times an innocuous black crow.
He can change shape and transform himself into a bat, mist, or fog, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, with the vampire as a main stand-in for Satan; or even as a deviled-ham icon of himself.
In Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), he’s a big, badass dude, aptly named Darkness, with stereotypically long black nails, along with standard-issue hooves, horns, and tail to match, topped off with a huge cleft in his pointy chin and that blood-red body suit, under makeup artist Rob Bottin’s layers upon layers of latex. Played to the robust hilt by the ever-so-charming Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) on two-foot-high stilts, this “devil of a fellow” is far livelier (and far, far sexier) than the wet-behind-the-ears Tom Cruise, a goody-two-shoes groundskeeper with the garden-hose appellation of Jack Sprout (or shall we say “the little green giant”?).
On the positive side of the ledger, Jesus Christ, the saints, and other lesser mortals are viewed in slightly more humdrum fashion, which is befitting of their, shall we say, more human aspirations.
Whether they’re played by a young Jeffrey Hunter who is tempted for forty days and forty nights by an unseen voice in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), or the more gaunt-looking Max von Sydow in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) who converses with a beady-eyed and nervously twitchy Donald Pleasence in the vast, open plains of Monument Valley, Utah, the Messiah has traditionally been envisioned as having Westernized European features, i.e. tall, blond and blue-eyed looks — in other words, your above-average, all-American kind of guy.
Where did this representation come from, if the historical Jesus himself was purported to have been a denizen of the Middle East? Chalk it up to the middle-aged H.B. Warner in movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The King of Kings (1927). Although the first recognizable images of Christ appeared in ancient artifacts as far back as the Byzantine period, producer-director DeMille has been credited, for good or for bad, as having laid his hands on a project where his leading man was forbidden from reaching out for the sauce (Warner was a confirmed alcoholic) under threat of expulsion from Hollywood Paradise.
In one of the most extraordinary sequences of all religious films, DeMille combines the Devil’s temptation of Christ with the age-old story of the woman caught in adultery, followed closely by the expulsion of the moneychangers from the Jewish temple. It’s a masterly episode, told in purely visual terms, with Jesus bending down and writing in the spilled temple salt (salt of the earth?) words that implicate the woman’s accusers with their own sins. No casting of stones here!
Later the Devil, dressed in black to Jesus’ all-white robe, offers him the kingdoms of the world if he would only fall down and worship him. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Christ intones, after repeatedly striking his chest. “It is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God — and Him only shalt thou serve’.” The Devil beats a hasty retreat. The iconographic image that DeMille has conjured up recalls his early upbringing in the Presbyterian church, as well as the influence of art history (with reference to such figures as William Blake and Henry Fuseli). Note the Devil’s positioning vis-à-vis Christ, similar in many respects to painterly representations of Virgil guiding the poet Dante to the Inferno.
Sometimes Christ is not really seen at all (at least, not in full frontal view) but merely hinted at, as in Twentieth Century-Fox’s overly reverential The Robe (1953) or in M-G-M’s Ben-Hur (1959). In the former, the Messiah is voiced by actor Cameron Mitchell who forgives the populace for crucifying him, while the heavy-lidded Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius looks on in anguish; in the latter opus he’s performed by opera tenor Claude Heater. No singing was involved, although we do get a good look at Heater’s backside, along with his broken body during the dolorous Crucifixion sequence, thus giving credence to the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ.
Switching to the top dog, God as the Burning Bush speaks to Moses (Charlton Heston) in respectfully hushed tones in DeMille’s spectacular Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). At the giving of said Commandments, His portentous voice booms forth loudly after reciting each of the ten rules for life and good. In the Burning Bush sequence, Heston provided the reverent voice of the Lord — slowed down, of course, to a somber snail’s pace. But in the later Commandments scene, the task of uttering God’s lines was handed over (so rumor tells us) to DeMille’s publicist and biographer, actor Donald Hayne.
While never fully substantiated or revealed at the time of the film’s release, DeMille felt he had plenty of justification for his use of Heston’s baritonal timbre by citing the Biblical passage where Moses insisted the Lord spoke to his mind. It would have scared Moses out of his headgear if he had been forced to listen to someone else’s voice (we now quote the classic Bill Cosby routine where Noah is called on by the Lord to build Him an ark: “Riiiiiiiight …. Who is this, really?”).
A Matter of Life and Death
In Terry Jones’ monstrously irreverent, politically incorrect feature Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Death and its finality are represented by a rather fearsome, sickle-carrying Grim Reaper, interrupting a happy gathering of typically jolly British country types (“Hello Grim!”) as they become privy to the startling news that they will succumb to food poisoning that very night, and that this will be their last supper together.
The Swedish-born Max von Sydow reappears as a disillusioned medieval knight returned from the shock of the Crusades, playing chess opposite a black-cowled Bengt Ekerot as Death (the Devil, you say!) in the Oscar-winning drama The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. The game is over at last when the knight deliberately knocks down one of the pieces, to which Death takes full advantage of. He comes to claim his prize as the knight is about to enjoy his own “last meal,” in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python.
Fifteen years later, Von Sydow stopped by the doorstep again to play the aged Catholic priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s 1972 supernatural classic The Exorcist, with Jason Miller as the sympathetic and troubled Father Damien (there’s that name again) Karras. Both are tempted by the demon (or devil or spirit, or what-have-you) that has buried itself deep inside the possessed twelve-year-old body of the girl Regan (Linda Blair).
In the exhausting exorcism scene towards the end, Father Merrin suffers a fatal heart attack. Taking over for the dead priest, Father Damien makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering himself to the demon, thereby rescuing Regan from the Evil One’s clutches.
Expanding his range of colorful film characters, Von Sydow was also the avuncular ferryman known as the Tracker in Vincent Ward’s surrealistic What Dreams May Come (1998). A New Age Charon for the Nineties, the Tracker paddles borderline delusional Robin Williams and charismatic Cuba Gooding Jr. (as his reincarnated son) over the gruesomely grisly Faces of the Damned (in other words, the River Styx in Greek mythology) in order to rescue Williams’ wife from perpetual purgatory.
(End of Part One – To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Life is What You Make of It
Telling my parents’ life stories, and, at the same time, getting the facts of their courtship straight, haven’t been easy. The main problem is that they have long since departed: my mother died on December 16, 1985, at age sixty-one, from kidney disease; dad left us on October 23, 1993, of congestive heart failure at seventy-one — a mere eight years between deaths.
Even when residing and working in São Paulo as a teacher of English, I was barely able to communicate with relatives from either side of the family during the time I had spent there (September 1996 to January 2001). Hence, you will forgive me if the details of my account must depend primarily on anecdotal evidence.
It’s not enough to claim that Annibal Peres Lopes (or Lopes Peres, as recorded on the marriage certificate) and the former Lourdes Ferreira eventually wound up in each other’s arms. True, it wasn’t anywhere near the way Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durance’s romance blossomed in Now, Voyager.
If you recall, the enamored pair were stranded for days on end after their motorcar crashed near the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Still, I have to admit: in their unique way, mom and dad did have what, in Hollywood parlance, would come to be called a “meet cute.”
In the numerous documents my father left behind, he gave his São Paulo street address as Rua Rio Bonito No. 1293. This was close enough to, if not in the general vicinity of, where my mother had worked and lived (i.e., Rua Dr. Vergilio do Nascimento). Based on who did the actual telling, this is where their stories diverge.
In dad’s version, he had seen my mother several times before they actually met, but had no idea she was related to one his helpers, her adolescent brother Rubens. Dad would see her walking with a group of young women, one of whom, her sister Iracema, happened to be engaged to Agostinho Pires, another of my father’s partners. One day, dad playfully asked Rubens if he had a spare sister for him to date. Just then, mom rounded the corner with her siblings.
“There she is!” shouted Rubens.
“But, I know this lady!” dad answered back. And from that moment on, they hit it off.
As my mother would relate it, she and her sisters were on their way to a church social or similar get-together. They had come upon some friends who, quite by chance, happened to know so-and-so, and/or so-and-so’s brother or sister. That’s how young people in the neighborhood got to meet and greet one another, through mutual acquaintances.
All the same, mom was waiting with her sisters at the local bus stop, called o ponto de onibus — a literal wooden stake, or “point,” shaped like a giant pencil planted in the middle of the block or street corner.
In a reversal of mom’s narrative, it was dad who suddenly put in an appearance with his buddies. They were dressed to the nines in their immaculately pressed suits and silk ties. By force of habit, dad would never, ever venture forth from his mother’s residence in anything but a white long-sleeved shirt, starched to the hilt by one of his sisters. With him was his ever-present cigarette in hand.
Having admired my mother from afar and taken a liking to her calm, reticent manner (quite unlike that of most girls he’d been dating), dad started a conversation with her. When he learned she was going to church with her sisters, he asked if he could tag along. Mom nodded in agreement, and they all boarded the bus together as it approached. Dad accompanied my mother inside and waited for her to find a suitable spot. Once she sat down, he dutifully planted himself on the seat next to hers.
In the meantime, his buddies had followed the couple on board the bus, all the while snickering behind their back and cracking loud jokes at my father’s expense: “Hey, Annibal, you bum! Watch those hands! We can see your every move! Oh, will you look at that! He’s making goo-goo eyes at her! Behave yourself, you dog, or we’re calling her parents!”
Dad ignored their crude remarks. He was too busy focusing his gaze on the shy, young woman to his side. For her part, mom was enraptured. In what seemed like no time at all, the chubby, bespectacled second-oldest daughter of Francisco and Ana Ferreira (an early portrait of my mother struck me as a carbon copy of Jerry Durrance’s daughter Tina) was engaged to the handsomest, most charming bachelor of Alto do Pari. “Um pão de homem” (“A hunk of a man”) was how the locals described him, with dark, wavy hair, olive complexion, and chestnut-brown eyes. Not only was he fastidious about his looks and dress, but dad boasted a muscular build, a slender face, and a strong chin, topped with a neatly trimmed mustache.
Oh, he was quite the catch, all right — with one hell of a Latin temper to match. Notwithstanding mom’s Protestant fervor, as a concession to her future mother-in-law the religious ceremony took place in a Catholic parish ministered by the local priest. Mom also agreed to have her firstborn child baptized in the same parish, that of Igreja São João Batista. Wedding pictures from that period bore witness to her miraculous change from a self-professed ugly duckling to that of a gorgeous September bride. Mom looked smashing in her lace bridal gown with matching flower bouquet and crown. She and dad were beaming with delight.
And to think their storybook marriage almost failed to come off! About a week before the big day, dad’s partner “Noca,” who was known to take a nip (or more) between trips, crashed their truck into a ditch. There went dad’s sole means of livelihood. Before desperation began to sink in, our relatives came to my father’s aid: they were able to recover the vehicle and bring it back to its former working condition in time for the wedding ceremony.
Immediately after the reception, the couple honeymooned in nearby Santos, which for paulistanos was the seaside equivalent of Rio. When they returned from their trip, the newlyweds moved in with my father’s family. His father, Alfredo, had died years earlier when dad was only nineteen. Since then, his mother had taken up the challenge of running the Lopes household as she saw fit. Grandma Encarnación — La Abuela, as dad pejoratively referred to her — ruled with an iron rod. Charlotte Vale’s bully of a parent was child’s play compared to this formidable grande dame. Dressed all in black, my foreign-born grandmother would don the mantilla, which enveloped her long, gray-streaked hair, held tightly in a bun and comb. Her face was heavily lined, and her speech was spiced with a thick Spanish accent.
Mom suffered at the hands of her in-laws. Because of her total dedication to being a model wife and mother, with one or two exceptions (my aunts Marina and Herminia, for example) the others were uniformly resentful of her presence. Mom’s gentleness and timidity, along with the quiet, nondescript way she went about her business —and in particular, her good nature — were frowned upon in a home where clamor and name-calling were a common way of life.
They were jealous as well of mom’s daily visits to her mother, who lived only a few blocks away. Since Vovó Encarnación had been treated harshly by her alcoholic husband, she regarded everyone around her as worthy of being treated in like manner. In turn, Grandma was callously treated by her own children (including my dad). Now grown up, the harshest of the sisters felt it only fair to take their frustrations out on my mom.
On one of these visits, she expressed to her mother Ana the deep sorrow and profound distress she experienced while staying at her in-laws. Vovó Ana, who was well-schooled on the theme of rude relations, counseled her to carry on in the face of her difficulties; that the good Lord would provide an answer to her seemingly inescapable dilemma.
Shortly thereafter, mom became pregnant with her first child (yours truly). Because of this, my father resolved that mom should have a home of her own. For which he arranged a move to a new apartment above a local real estate office on Rua Pedroso da Silveira, a mere stone’s throw from her mother’s dwelling. Mom was overjoyed at the prospect. Since dad traveled so frequently, she would be better-off living close to her own kin than to her in-laws. They could care for her, too, in the event he was unable to be present for my birth.
It took years for Vovó Encarnación to recognize the precious jewel she had in her daughter-in-law: that hard-working, dedicated, and utterly selfless individual I grew to love and admire was forced to overcome her natural reserve in order to endure almost unrelieved anguish. During the time she spent with her in-laws, mom refused to argue back, but neither did she buckle under from dread. Moreover, she maintained her composure throughout the year-long ordeal, never once offending those who took it upon themselves to offend. Through her example, mom went on to earn their respect, if not their ardor. In time, dad’s relatives came around and softened their approach. There would always be someone that continued to harbor unmerited animosity towards her, but overall mom triumphed through kindness and resilience, and by never giving in to despair.
As for La Abuela, she continued to regard my mother warily, but with a noticeable degree of deference. After all, she was a full-blooded Spaniard. If anything, Vovó Encarnación applauded mom’s ability to care for her children (my brother, Anibal Jr., was born a year and three months after me) and, in all honesty, Grandma treated us kindly. Mom’s diligence in that department would serve her well in the biggest and farthest move of her life: to a home in the South Bronx, in the northeastern part of the United States, far from the familiar surroundings of Alto do Pari.
Dad paved the way for us in May 1959. With his inherent independent streak, he had wanted to get away from his relatives for some time, to live his own life free from their constant prying and whining. After securing employment at a lamp factory as well as putting a down payment on a three-story house at 942 Stebbens Avenue near Fort Apache in the Bronx, dad sent for his wife and two sons.
Mom had never left the State of São Paulo, nor had she set foot outside her native land, until the day she boarded a six-engine TWA transcontinental airline. It took twenty-four nonstop hours to reach Idlewild Airport in Queens. Mom traveled alone with her two boys, aged five and three-and-a-half. She spoke not a word of English. What courage she must have displayed! What strength and single-minded purpose! One can only imagine the thoughts that had gone through her head, or the hardships that would lie before her.
She once told me that leaving her mother behind was the hardest thing she ever had to do. She would have stayed in Brazil — willingly, at that — if only her mom had asked. The story goes that the wrinkled old woman took mom’s “little hands of gold” in hers. Staring gently but gravely into her searching eyes, Grandma Ana gave my mother this piece of advice: “Filha, seu lugar é com seu marido” (“Daughter, your place is with your husband”). And that settled that.
Mom learned to speak and understand a reasonable amount of English in the twenty-five years she lived and worked in New York. She braved the freezing cold winters and the blisteringly hot and humid summers as best she could. She even managed to get around with facility, taking the subway and the bus to wherever she needed to go. When neither was available, she made it under her own power.
She continued the daily grind almost up until the week she passed away. I had only seen my father cry twice beforehand, once at his mother-in-law Ana Joaquina’s demise, and again when my Aunt Marina’s husband, Uncle Frederico, died suddenly a week after New Year’s. When news reached him that his own mother had passed, I remember him sitting alone in the living room with the lights turned off. No tears were shed that night for Encarnación Peres Leimones, but they poured forth like a tropical rainstorm when our mother breathed her last, much as he had done for his mother-in-law when she had gone.
Dad lived another eight winters. He had suffered three heart attacks up to that point, the second of which, in the summer of ‘79, forced him into early retirement. His years were filled with frequent hospital visits — among them, for a triple bypass graft and carotid-artery endarterectomy — amid various nursing home stays. After experiencing multiple transcient ischemic attacks and strokes, aggravated by anxiety neurosis, a type-A personality, high blood pressure, an elevated cholesterol count, and hardening of the arteries, dad expired in the early morning hours of October 23, 1993.
Lourdes and Annibal Lopes were both cremated, their ashes preserved in solid brass urns that resided side-by-side, for a time, at the famed Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. They were finally buried together, along with their urns, in 1996, at the Cemitério do Tremembé, in the North Zone of São Paulo, Brazil, the city and country of their birth.
Their life together was never an easy one. They might have looked at it as the story of two dissimilar spirits, wandering the earth with a shared purpose: to survive by any means at their disposal, and at any cost — even to their own lives.
They never asked for the Moon. And they never quite got hold of the stars. But for thirty-two consecutive years they were content to have each other, and that’s all that mattered. ☼
Copyright (c) 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
THE QUEEN “B” OF HOLLYWOOD MADE HERSELF AT HOME IN OUR LIVING ROOM — AND IN MY MOTHER’S HEART
Obviously, my parents were not Boston natives but citizens of São Paulo. They were born in the same neighborhood — that of Alto do Pari, near Brás — and in the same month of September. They also shared the same astrological sign of Virgo. By tradition, those born under this sign are supposed to be exacting, nitpicking perfectionists. I can vouch for that conclusion where my father was concerned. My mother, however, followed the “gentler” attributes of Virgos: that of a loving, sincere, and caring human being.
Dad came first, on September 26, 1922,* with mom following two years later, on September 12. Her parents named her Lourdes, while he was christened Annibal. By sheer coincidence, the civil ceremony took place in September as well, on the first day of the month, in the year 1953, followed by nuptials at Igreja São João Batista on September 3, which remained the officially recognized date. And again, purely by accident, mom immigrated to the U.S. on September 3, 1959, the sixth anniversary of her church wedding.
She was the second of seven siblings, and the second daughter of Francisco Antonio Ferreira and the former Ana Joaquina, who were of Portuguese descent from the province of Trás-os-Montes (Behind the Mountains) in the northeastern corner of the country. My dad’s parents, Alfredo Estanislau Lopes Más and the much younger Encarnación Peres Leimones, came from Spain (Granada and Múrcia, respectively). They too had seven children: three sons and four daughters, with dad the second youngest of the lot.
In the movie Now, Voyager, Bette Davis’s character, Charlotte Vale, is the youngest (and only daughter) of an upper-class Boston family of four. She suffers from low self-esteem, brought on by her sharply critical, brow-beating mother (played by Gladys Cooper). This dowager matron treats Charlotte so harshly, keeping her life under wraps, telling her how to dress, what to eat, when to get up, where and when to go out, and with whom, that in time gives way to her daughter’s breakdown.
Realizing she needs professional help, Charlotte’s family members engage the services of a sympathetic shrink named Dr. Jaquith (the dependable Claude Rains), who successfully treats her at his sanitarium. He even arranges a little ocean voyage for Charlotte to romantic Rio de Janeiro, where the former ugly duckling, now transformed into a swanlike vision of loveliness and sophistication, meets the handsome and oh-so-charming Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) — an unhappily married man with a problem child of his own. I’d be giving nothing away if I said that, in due course, these two troubled souls wind up in each other’s arms.
As the story progresses, the lovers decide to part ways, until fate brings them back together. When Charlotte returns home to Boston after breaking off her engagement to another man, she has a bitter quarrel with her mother. Strengthened by her newfound independence (acquired through Jerry’s love, no less), Charlotte stands up to the old biddy, admitting to her that she never asked to be born; that she knew she was unwanted as a child, made to suffer needlessly for having appeared late in her mother’s life. Mrs. Vale is aghast at her behavior; so much so that, unable to accept this boldly assertive position, she has a fatal seizure and dies. Of course, this leads to a dramatic relapse, with the guilt-ridden Charlotte once again seeking Jaquith’s aid.
Upon re-entering the sanitarium, who should she meet but her ex-lover Jerry’s homely teenage daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson). Charlotte recognizes the equally unwanted girl’s situation as close to her own, ergo she allows her motherly instincts to take over. In an effort to bring Tina out of her shell, and with Jerry and Dr. Jaquith’s consent, she takes Tina under her wing, as one might say, and befriends the impressionable youth. Tina now becomes a conduit for the expression of her amorous inclinations, the means by which she and Jerry can maintain a semblance of their earlier relationship, while still keeping up appearances.
In the final scene, Charlotte and Jerry share a moment of repose. It’s another of those classic film sequences: Charlotte offers him a smoke. Jerry reaches into the box, takes out two cigarettes, and places them in his mouth. He then lights both cigarettes with his lighter, giving one of them to Charlotte. She takes the cigarette, gladly, and, with tears welling up in her eyes Charlotte responds to his query as to whether she will be happy with having just a part of him in Tina.
“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the Moon. We have the stars.”
In life, my mother was prone to low self-esteem, which had nothing to do with her parents’ treatment of her. In all likelihood, her poor self-image can be attributed to sibling rivalry, what with an older sister and three younger ones to contend with, including two younger-aged brothers. That, and the fact that mom wore glasses, was physically on the “chubby” side (which made her exceedingly self-conscious), and had a more compliant nature than her sisters, may have contributed to how she saw herself with respect to relationships inside and outside the family circle.
Raised as a Methodist in a community dominated by the Catholic Church, mom made up in religious fervor what faith she lacked in herself. No matter what troubles befell her, or her brood, my mother maintained an unwavering commitment to the Golden Rule. She would be forced to rely on that commitment once she had left her mother’s side.
There were few career choices back then for girls her age: either you learned to handle a Singer sewing machine or you mastered the Remington typewriter. Mom chose to sew as a profession. At age eight, she completed primary school; she then spent the next half-dozen years learning to be a seamstress. Mom completed the course and received her diploma in “Garment Making and Sewing” on December 12, 1938, from Escola Santa Clara, located at Rua Rio Bonito No. 26-A, in São Paulo. The document was signed by Elisa Amelia Affonso, the director of the school.
Not only was mom an outstanding dressmaker, but she also designed and sewed her own wedding gown, along with those of her sisters, cousins, and family friends. By virtue of these unique gifts, she was given the pet name mãozinhas de ouro, or “little hands of gold.” Much later in life, mom would be employed by the Calvin Klein Sportswear Company in Manhattan’s fabled Garment District. On occasion, fashion designer and founder Calvin Klein, a Bronx native, would journey down to the showroom (where mom’s “little hands of gold” were at their busiest) to mingle with the predominantly female labor force.
Growing up in a large working-class family, mom was used to self-sacrifice. She saw her sisters Alzira and Deolinda, and brother Manoel, marry and move out of her parents’ house long before she herself started dating. Always willing to lend a helping hand, mom picked up the slack by doing double duty at her father’s butcher shop, catering to customers and making change, plucking the chickens and learning the ropes of how to provide for her family in times of need. When oldest sister Alzira’s husband died prematurely from tuberculosis, mom helped raise her little niece, Martha, through her formative years while the widowed Alzira went out into the working world.
Her weekends were spent in mild recreation. A devoted member of Igreja Metodista do Brás (Methodist Church of Brás), mom praised the Lord in spirit and song as a contralto in her church’s choir. She took a good deal of pleasure, too, in going to the movies, visiting with friends, conversing with relatives, and attending picnic gatherings with her siblings. Because of her inherent modesty, mom rarely, if ever, participated in Carnival celebrations, except as an inquisitive bystander. It goes without saying that she neither drank nor smoked.
It is also no cliché to suggest that my Carnival-loving, opera-going father Annibal was the polar opposite of my mother in outlook and disposition. The drive and self-assurance he exhibited at home, and around others, came early in life. On an impulse, dad left school at a tender age to become a “surveyor” in the Mato Grosso region of south-central Brazil. All told, he spent six months in the jungle brush, where a lifelong smoking habit was acquired so as to ward off the nightly swarm of mosquitoes.
Doing odd jobs for a time, dad eventually landed a position as a stock clerk and correspondent, first with a textile company and later for a German-based paper mill. In spite of his only having a secondary school education, he became proficient in Portuguese and Spanish, reading, speaking, and writing both languages equally well, and would jabber away in Italian, too, when the spirit moved him.
After twelve years inside a stuffy, poorly lit office, dad decided to quit the paper mill to tough it out as a self-employed traveling salesperson — more out of frustration at being passed over for promotion than any latent entrepreneurial skills. He invested what money he had earned in a franchise with the Confiança Company (Indústria de Produtos Alimentícios Confiança), a growing concern that specialized in selling candies and sweets. The company later changed its name to Balas Kid’s (“Kid Candies”), to more accurately reflect the nature of the business.
With his partner “Noca,” my father would set off on extended road trips, first to the south of Brazil (Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Paranaguá) and an established customer base; then, up to Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte and its environs), and back down again to the interior of São Paulo State. He would be gone for weeks at a time, so mom was left to fend for herself. Upon his return, dad would sport the darkest suntan known to man, one that made him all-but unrecognizable to us kids.
When my parents and I visited dad’s family in Vila Maria, São Paulo, in July 1985, I happened to come across an old photo album that his youngest sister Marina had taken out of storage for our amusement. Leafing through the album’s pages, I spotted the snapshot of a runty-looking lad, aged twelve or thirteen, with spiky jet-black hair, darkly-colored skin, and strong, penetrating eyes. He was staring intently at the camera, his expression telegraphing his innermost thoughts: “Go ahead, start something,” the boy seemed to be saying to gawkers such as myself. “I dare you!”
I asked my aunt who that boy happened to be. Within seconds, dad came over to where I was sitting. He stared briefly at the photograph, and, with a broad grin and a snicker in his voice, blurted out, “Sou eu!” (“That’s me!”).
I was speechless. That unmistakable look of determination, of someone who knew exactly what he wanted out of life, and was willing to do whatever it took to obtain it, was plainly visible in the facial features of this puny child in short pants.
I thought to myself: How did two such disparate individuals as my mom and dad, with varying backgrounds, contrasting personalities, and entirely different priorities and perspectives, manage to come together and make a successful marriage out of so many incompatible elements?
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
* The September 26 date meant that dad was technically a Libra. However, for some inexplicable reason he always insisted that his actual birth date was September 18. Perhaps this dichotomy had something to do with his being born on one day and baptized on another. That may well be, but I have been unable to verify this claim or determine the whereabouts of his baptismal certificate – not that it would have mattered, since dad was far from a practicing Catholic.