‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ (2013) — A Parable of Class Consciousness

They are the beautiful people: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) with Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Fangs for the Memories

They are highly-educated, obviously literate, poetry-spouting, music-loving British subjects (well, at least we think they’re British), and they have the accents to prove it. They seem to suck the very life out of others, but who are they, really? They are the indolent rich, the upper-class city dwellers who snobbishly look down on everyone else, the essence of entitlement. Oh, and one more thing: They’re vampires.

Independent writer, director, producer, and part-time musician Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive from 2013 is a knowing stab at vampire legends old and new. More likely, the film is a repository of modern-day notions about vampirism and their relationship to the dominant ruling class.

For what they are worth, vampires are elegant creatures: slim and handsome, the so-named “beautiful people.” To behold them is to be in thrall to them. Their manners are cultivated and urbane, their command of language and culture without question. Yet they scrupulously avoid encounters with the locals, the oblivious riff-raff they often disparage as “zombies” or the walking dead, the ones who lack the soul and wit of their fellow brethren (how ironic).

Cruising around the neighborhood in a vintage automobile, our vampire popstars radiate a wealthy person’s curiosity (more like disdain) for how the “other half” lives. In this case, the neighborhood the couple drives through happens to be a hollowed-out Detroit, the very symbol of a once thriving metropolis whose innards have been gutted bare by riots, mayhem, and firebombs.

Author and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, described Jarmusch’s films as “gentle, offbeat, and poignant,” and as having “a rare feeling for urban desolation, for loneliness, and the sweet, whimsical overlap of chance and companionship” (p. 439). This latest offering is no exception and a complete fulfillment of that assessment.

Frustrated with their mortal counterparts and saddened by what humans have done to the environment and to their beloved Motown — a metaphor for the hollowness of human existence and the emptiness of their lives — the vampire lovers travel the world on red-eye specials, first-class all the way. Where they got their financial windfall is anybody’s guess.

As is their nature, vampires have the power to take a life or preserve it indefinitely. When they use the expression “to turn,” they mean to transform someone into one of their own. Yet they do so cautiously, never in haste and never indiscriminately. They are intimately aware of their surroundings, an inborn sixth sense guides their thoughts. Indeed, they are forever mindful of whatever environment they happen to inhabit.

Basically, Only Lovers Left Alive is concerned with four British vampires (Mia Wasikowska, the actress who plays Ava, is Australian by birth and of Polish descent; the others are UK natives). They speak from a multiplicity of opposing viewpoints. By the way, they are older (oh, so much older!) than their looks betray. One of them, the brooding Adam (Tom Hiddleston), is the rock-star recluse, a weary guitar freak who adores his original instrument collection. He’s also a songwriter and trained musician, someone who has invested his time and energy (in the manner of a Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the ne plus ultra of pathological purgatory) in strictly artistic pursuits.

(Author’s Note: Spoilers ahead!) The doctor at the hospital where Adam obtains his regular supply of O negative blood, whose name tag reads “Dr. Watson” (played by a glum and solemn Jeffrey Wright), is overly inquisitive about his motives. Coincidentally, the vampire has a name tag of his own: “Dr. Faust” (later, “Dr. Caligari”), a tribute to Adam’s closeness to poet Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), the (ahem) true author of Hamlet and other Shakespearean delights (we kid you not), or so the movie wants us to believe. Adam also sports an out-of-date stethoscope, which almost gives him away.

Adam (disguised as “Dr. Faust”) meets up with the inquisitive Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at the local hospital

His opposite number, Eve (Tilda Swinton), Adam’s soul-mate and steadfast supporter, never goes anywhere without her precious book collection. Her suitcases are packed with literary classics of international repute (Beckett, Cervantes, Kafka, Mishima, Verne, et al.), no doubt to remind her of a passion deeper than any living creature can provide. Personality-wise, she exudes curiosity and appears receptive to new ideas and experiences.

Her little sister Ava (definitely not your “Gardner” variety sibling) is a nonstop party hound, the epitome of teenage impulsiveness, a grasping, needy twenty-something or other (but who can really tell, right?). She is cold and calculating, feigning admiration for but demanding constant attention from everyone she meets. Ava invents every excuse there is for overindulgence. Unnerving yet unrelenting, she is heedless of the advice given to her: that is, to tone down her act lest she betray their presence among the living.

Although Adam, Eve, and Ava come across as languid, even lethargic, they are far from it. We soon learn that vampires can turn in a flash with lightning-quick velocity: a thrust of a hand in the blink of an eye. Ava, the petulant third wheel, is a constant sore in Adam’s side. She’s high maintenance and quite the cross to bear. On a double date with both Adam and Eve, Ava makes a play for the gullible Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is either too dumb to notice the threat to his person or too eager to hit it off with this brattish woman-child.

Ava (Mia Wasikowska) on a double-date with the clueless Ian (Anton Yelchin)

Taking delight in his receptiveness, she draws attention to herself which, as we have stated, goes against the grain of a vampire’s basic instinct to be inconspicuous. Later, Adam displays a controlled rage when he and Eve discover Ava has trashed his prized LP collection. Worse, she has (oh dear!) sucked the life out of poor Ian, Adam’s human go-between, a scrounger to end all scroungers, a fellow dedicated to serving the would-be rocker. (Note how Adam greases Ian’s palm with a thick wad of bills whenever he needs a “favor.”) Every vampire has his Renfield, that Guy Friday between the daylight hours, to run errands the night creatures are incapable of performing, given their susceptibility to the sun’s rays.

Contrast Ian’s behavior, which can be deceptive and secretive, to that of the submissive yet amiable Moroccan manservant Bilal (Slimane Dazi), who caters to Eve and Marlowe’s every whim. In the end, Bilal is rewarded for his loyalty and friendship, especially where the elderly and infirm Marlowe’s health is concerned. Subservience, it seems, all-but confirms the leisure-class notion of blind loyalty and paying obeisance to one’s betters. Ian, on the other hand, is held in suspicion (and rightly so) for his underhanded bootlegging of Adam’s music without his knowledge or consent.

Another point of contention is Adam’s shunning of the rock-star limelight, as it were, which Ian cannot comprehend. Adam’s music is absolutely fabulous, so Ian claims, openly broadcasting his naiveté regarding his mentor’s vulnerabilities. But Adam does not buy it. Having personally befriended many of the world’s most stimulating minds (his wall is covered with their portraits, among them Johann Sebastian Bach, Henry Purcell, Gustav Mahler, Billie Holiday, Oscar Wilde, and Nicola Tesla), the ageless Adam remains what he is: an enlightened yet elusive recluse. Ian fails to recognize, too, that Adam seeks not fame and fortune but personal satisfaction (a young Bob Dylan or Neil Young would be the ideal role model) — a highly unusual aim for such a talented individual, but understandable under the circumstances.

Adam (left) admires a vintage guitar, while Ian (right) queries him about it

The illogical nature of British intellectualism, then, and the feeling of superiority they engender over lesser mortals — these are but a few of the themes offered up and developed in Jarmusch’s picture. But don’t be fooled by the shiny exterior or highfaluting veneer. Jarmusch’s little in-joke is that we are ALL British subjects, in one way or another, under the skin. And we’re all hungry vampires to some extent — but in our own way, of course; that over-exposure — those fleeting fifteen minutes of fame that pop artist Andy Warhol once warned about — will, in the end, no doubt do us all in. In other words, enjoy your life while it lasts. It may soon be taken from you.

Regardless of the foregoing, we are in the presence of vampire royalty. The décor, the furniture, indeed the basic layout itself tend to (you’ll pardon the expression) “reflect” (snicker, snicker) a self-absorbed lifestyle tailored to exalted pursuits. In reality, Adam’s unkempt abode is that of someone who has spent too many late nights pondering the meaning of it all, which has left his residence in near ruin. The plumbing doesn’t work, the toilet doesn’t flush — but what do vampires need a functioning toilet for, anyway? They don’t eat or defecate, not as we know it. What they drink only goes in and never comes out, unless someone pierces their sides with a wooden stake, or a wooden bullet through the heart.

Speaking of which, early on a despondent Adam contemplates suicide in exactly that manner. Why not end it all, he muses fitfully? This maddening nighttime existence can be soooo trying at times! Fortunately for all concerned, he thinks the better of it, thanks to Eve’s timely intervention. Best to stimulate the senses with a shot of iron-rich blood, or slurping a frozen-blood popsicle. Is that what they call “living”?

The sight of a 45-rpm single spinning round and round propels the story into motion. One reviewer employed the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” to define the vampires’ sickly skin tones. How utterly apropos! Let us consider the fact that sixties progressive-rock band Procol Harum once re-appropriated Bach’s “Air for the G String” (from his Orchestral Suite No. 3), to the same “A Whiter Shade of Pale” title, in an effort to evoke the song’s classical construct. The organ riff at the start and throughout that number completes the sonic picture of classicism in a contemporary pop setting.

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ — This is Vinyl Tap and the 45-rpm record spinning

Which also describes Jarmusch’s film, his first in the digital realm: It’s a bit of classical pop, you see, with a cinematic twist of lemon on the side. Music plays an integral part in numerous sequences, as do the soundtrack’s ambient night noises (howls, barks, screeches, that sort of thing). What sweet sounds they make, yes?

The late David Bowie and former singer-actress Marianne Faithfull have also been cited in several reviews as major influences, associated mostly with Tilda Swinton’s looks, voice, and attitude, albeit with stringy, tousled coiffure. Adam’s equally wiry bird’s nest of a mane reminds one of a wigged-out Tiny Tim (the quavery-pitched ukulele player, not the Charles Dickens character). But the Swinton/Bowie connection is the most promising, androgyny and gender-based polemics to the side.

Those Enlightening Times

The Age of Enlightenment and how individuals of learning — people such as Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Newton, Darwin, and others — dealt with the nature of things, as well as the importance of science, politics, education, and the observation of the world around them, serve as the backdrop to higher thought that is prominent throughout Only Lovers Left Alive.

As an example, vampirism was taken up and discussed by the most illustrious heads, even discoursed and commented upon at length, but in the context of the times. In the book Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection from Count Dracula to Vampirella, author, biographer, and cultural historian Christopher Frayling quotes a passage from the philosopher Voltaire referring to the idea that vampires “exist” in fact:

“What! Vampires in our Eighteenth Century? Yes … in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia … in London, even in Paris. I admit that in these two cities there were speculators, tax officials and businessmen who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight, but they were not dead (although they were corrupted enough). These true bloodsuckers did not live in cemeteries: they preferred beautiful places … Kings are not, properly speaking, vampires. The true vampires are the churchmen who eat at the expense of both the king and the people” (p. 56).

Portrait of French philosopher Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet dit, 1694-1778) by painter Jacques-Augustin-Catherine Pajou (1766-1828), (Photo: Paris, Comedie Francaise)

And there you have it: The real bloodsuckers are those in positions of power who abuse their office by depriving others of their means and livelihood.

When one is afflicted with the disease of vampirism (either a curse or a blessing, depending on your point of view), it is our reaction to the affliction that predetermines our path. Some, such as the ennobled Eve, look at it as an advantage, an opportunity to better oneself, to perfect one’s understanding of language, art, music, and the like; and of what can be consumed over the course of many centuries. Others, such as Adam, fret over the unnatural extension of their lives and such trivial matters as the true purpose of life versus the bleakness of death.

Knowing they can never age, all vampires must deal with the fact that boredom will inevitably set in. This situation tends to deprive them of motivation and ambition. To strive for personal betterment is a good thing, true enough, but to what purpose? If longevity is the vampire’s lot, how are they to be judged by its length? And how does one retain that spark of inspiration over the course of those hundreds of years of living? Sooner or later, an existential crisis will occur.

Still others, such as Ava, use their time carelessly and in pursuit of carnal desires, of lust and indolent behavior, yet again to what end? Towards enlightenment (small “e”) or plain old self-satisfaction? In Kit Marlowe’s situation, weathered and relegated to hobbling about on crutches, what does permanence mean? Is he to accept the hand that fate has dealt him? That Marlowe “accidentally” swallowed a glass of bad blood? Or, like Hamlet, did he reach a point in life when instead of suffering those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he decided to oppose them by ending his sea of troubles in blissful repose? That, indeed, is the question!

You will note that, earlier, Adam had contemplated just such an end to his existence. It was Eve who, upon sensing that her mate was about to terminate his life (and upon her being asked), took it upon herself to rescue him from oblivion. Such is the vampire’s lot in a prolonged lifetime of suffering. This noble act came naturally to Eve, a most sympathetic and loving one, to be clear. It accomplished the intended result: to gain the audience’s sympathy for the vampire’s lot. After an absence of many years, Eve has reasserted herself into Adam’s life by giving him a reason for living; what’s more, her presence has forced him to reinvest himself with renewed vigor toward a life of purpose and meaning.

As David Thomson recounted above, in this, Jim Jarmusch’s so-called “mission accomplished” moment, the self-described “night owl” director-screenwriter has put into cinematic terms the essence of his core beliefs, along with his own peculiar tastes and eclectic personality.

Director, producer, screenwriter, and musician Jim Jarmusch

What a Drag It is Getting Old

Having drained Ian’s essence, Ava gets sick to her stomach (again, the disease of bad blood that infects the vampire’s system, as much as it destroys their helpless victims). Consequently, she is banished from the household. How dare she defile the roost with this manifestly selfish act? But what to do with the body? We have no compulsion to reveal to readers what became of Ian’s corpse. Only, that evidence of Adam and Eve’s disposal of it will inevitably bring about the local authorities to snoop at the pair’s expense. Already, Adam has had to put up with curious onlookers, convinced he’s some famous-name rock-n-roller in disguise.

When, concurrently, the couple’s blood supply has dwindled to a few precious gulps, they flee to Tangier in Morocco with whatever is left of their resources — to a foreign, less developed region (a Middle-Eastern Detroit, if you will) where they can feel at home and their hold on the populace is secure and readily accepted. (This, too, is mildly reminiscent of the former British Raj in India.) Sticking out like sore thumbs, Adam and Eve are the essence of cool in a world too sour to accept them as they are — and too undeserving of their gifts.

Their reunion with the sickly Kit Marlowe (the result, as indicated above, of his accidently imbibing some bad blood) is cut short by the playwright’s unfortunate demise. His death sends the pair into a funk. Let’s end it all now, they consider, one last hurrah before the fall. Lucifer and his bride will take a final leap into the abyss. Oh, it’s not as bad as all that. What the heck, the world is doomed anyway. Go ahead, give it a shot!

An elderly Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt) on crutches

But before they can breathe their last, Adam and Eve are drawn to a fabulous Lebanese singer, Yasmine Hamdan, and her band performing at a local café establishment. Adam hopes like hell that Yasmine does not become famous. She’s “too good” for that, he muses — and he should know. “Fame,” he gives notice, should not be what artists of talent should strive for.

For a fitting conclusion, Eve spends the remainder of their fortune on an ancient oud, a lute-like instrument that becomes a parting gift from her to Adam. It’s at this point that they spot a young couple smooching on a bench. They suddenly decide to turn the lovers into one of their own, a sensible solution to their predicament and similar, in its way, to what the detestable Lestat did to Louis de Pointe du Lac from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (very much to Louis’s regret, unfortunately).

To preserve what is left of their dying universe, Adam and Eve will give birth to a new generation of “upper-class” folks who will lord it over the rest (the “new” Adam and Eve, their Biblical namesakes). Make the world English, ay wot? Since vampires are incapable of reproducing in the, er, usual manner, their decision to turn the native couple is clearly the logical one.

Alluding to the film’s title, if and when Eve and Adam eventually “die” of whatever causes overcome them, only the Moroccan lovers will be left alive.

“The better to eat you with, my dears!” Eve and Adam take a bite out of life

As far as we know, the cinema world’s last romantic couple, Gomez and Morticia Addams, from the tongue-in-cheek pen of American cartoonist Charles Addams, was made manifest and turned, in 1993, into an adorably macabre, dark-humored film feature (with American actors Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston in the leads) by director and ex-cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld.

In Jarmusch’s picture, however, the couple in question happens to be British — hundreds-of-years-old Brits at that, with several lifetimes of baggage to their sum and credit. Sophistication with pointy teeth. And how they love to talk, one of the few film couples in recent years who actually enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company. Their highly elevated conversation encompasses just about everything under the sun (or moon, as the case may be), the hope of a civilization bled dry of life-affirming culture.

As they say in Merry Olde England, may their suns never set on the empire of their making. And may they never experience a cinematic death. We’ll “stake” our life on that. (Ouch!)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

[Trivia Note: Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston were reunited two years later in Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015), a mildly curious ode to those gory Hammer Horror flicks of the late 1950s to 1960s. Alas, Crimson Peak is more moody than shocking, and ergo less impressive than the British studio’s classic output. Interesting, too, in that Del Toro’s film re-purposes Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in surprisingly obvious ways.]

 

Plague on Humanity or Manna for Modern Times? — A Review of the Available Film Versions of the Story of Moses

The giving of the Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses

Today is Good Friday, a day commemorated across the globe as one of tragedy and misfortune that, leading to eventual triumph and hope, culminates Sunday on a glorious Easter morning. Earlier in the week, Jews from around the world observed the solemnity of Passover, a time when Death passed over their households.

Knowledgeable readers, too, may recall the 2003 protests for and against a controversial ruling involving the imposition of a Ten Commandments monument at the state judicial building in Montgomery, Alabama — a veritable clash between the sacred and the secular.

Concurrent with that story, the 2003 commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington brought to mind how much people of faith have taken this unique and inspiring symbol of God’s ancient law for granted.

Flash forward to 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, a scurrilous plague of Biblical proportions if ever there was one. Oh, how humanity needs its “manna from heaven” moment!

To echo a well-worn phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt.” You may be under the assumption that everyone has advance knowledge of what Passover, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments came to symbolize, what ostensibly led to their evolution, and what they entail for us TODAY as far as a spiritual guidepost for these fearful, stress-filled times.

Politics aside, most God-fearing citizens have forgotten the sacrifices that went into the shaping of this gift of His promise for a happier earthly existence. We tend to overlook how God’s chosen people, the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, long sought to put an end to their suffering under the yolk of pharaonic vanity and abuse; how they yearned for freedom, and waited in vain for deliverance to the Promised Land, as prophesied in those same Old Testament passages.

Over the years, we’ve allowed ourselves to overlook the obvious modern parallels to African-American struggles for dignity, respect, and racial equality in other, more socially intolerant times. The same holds true for our growing Latino population, for the millions of poor and homeless people, and for those less fortunate than ourselves.

If only we could make real what was conveyed so wondrously in the pages of Holy Scripture. Similarly, if only we could empathize with the historical, social, and religious contexts that helped shape the thoughts, lives, and social patterns of these same individuals, who so valiantly fought — and died — for their beliefs, so that we, today, might enjoy the blessings of freedom under a merciful, loving, and protective godhead.     

For home-bound viewers, there exists a number of cinematic recreations of the Old Testament story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, preserved as a makeshift “visual record” of these events. In lieu of physical Sunday-school lessons (due to social distancing constraints), these films have been made available to one and all via Blu-ray, DVD, YouTube, and/or various streaming devices.

All serve to inspire and enlighten us. But most importantly of all, they can be viewed, singly or as a whole, as filmed reminders of Moses’ symbolic significance to all faiths as the harbinger of Christ’s mission on Earth; and as a powerful lesson to world leaders to humble themselves before nature and the environment.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923): 146 minutes

 

One of the earliest motion picture representations of the story of Moses and the Exodus that remains widely accessible to movie audiences comes from famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille.

A former stage actor and Hollywood co-founder, DeMille, even in the silent-film era, was known for his lavish historical pageants and superb handling of mass movement in crowd scenes.

His first crack at the Biblical genre came with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, starring veteran stage and film actor Theodore Roberts as Moses, Estelle Taylor as Miriam, Charles De Roche as Pharaoh, Julia Faye as Nefertari (sic), and James Neill as Aaron. Released by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation and distributed by Paramount Studios, the production was partially filmed in the desert country of Guadalupe, Mexico.

The sets and costumes are impressive, as is the flamboyant acting by the principals. The mighty Exodus sequence and the handing down of the Commandments are dealt with in expert fashion, while the plagues are given short shrift (only the last and deadliest plague is depicted). Still, the rudimentary effects, particularly the pillar of fire and the parting of the Red Sea, are indeed remarkable for the time.

The second (and longer) portion of the film is devoted to a more “contemporary” interpretation of what happens to one of two siblings who continuously breaks God’s laws. Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque play the battling brothers (one good, one bad) in traditional clutch-and-stagger style. Silent movie queen Nita Naldi vamps it up as the tragic temptress who comes between them.

In the prologue, the haughty Pharaoh Rameses (De Roche) is brought to his knees upon the demise of his firstborn son (Terrence Moore). Alert viewers will notice some startling similarities between the way DeMille captured this and other sequences when juxtaposed with his 1956 remake (see below).

Having doubled Paramount Studios’ initial outlay from US $600,000 to over $1.2 million (and giving nervous backers a mild coronary in the process), DeMille’s gambit paid off handsomely at the box office.

Despite the soap-opera trappings — there are more than enough melodramatic subplots, including a preposterous episode about a lover infected with leprosy — the movie proved a hit with the Roaring Twenties crowd, raking in an incredible four million dollars in its day.

The first part, running about 50 minutes in length, is the more gripping section, and is recommended for joint family viewing. You will want to fast-forward through the stagy second sequence, however, which tends to drag a bit and may prove too mature for young children to fully grasp.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956): 245 minutes (with overture, intermission and exit music)

DeMille’s next attempt at the story was the widescreen Technicolor extravaganza The Ten Commandments, released by Paramount in 1956. It is quite possibly the most well-known and widely viewed religious film ever made. DeMille made the wise decision to drop the modern parallel and stick to the tried and true, especially after the runaway success of the earlier Samson and Delilah from 1949.

The wily director-producer spared no expense in the crafting of his greatest work, which stars the then-relatively unknown Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner (fresh from his Broadway triumph in The King and I) as Rameses II, Anne Baxter as his voluptuous wife Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as the overseer Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, John Derek as Joshua, Debra Paget as Lilia, John Carradine as Aaron, and a literal cast of thousands.

DeMille went on location to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula for the Exodus and other desert sequences. Returning to the U.S., the production team resumed shooting on eighteen Hollywood sound stages, with another twelve waiting for them in Paris, France.

While this version is considered pure camp — with such ludicrous plot devices as the bogus romance between Moses and the future Queen of Egypt, and an absurd love triangle between Baka the Master Builder (Vincent Price), Lilia the water carrier, and Joshua the stonecutter — the gargantuan sets, fabulous costumes, gorgeous production values, and memorable music score by novice composer Elmer Bernstein, are all worthy of attention.

As Ole Man Mose himself, Heston steadfastly maintained that his casting as the fiery prophet made him a household name in the movie industry. It was his first successful foray in a long line of religious and historical figures to be interpreted by him on the big screen. His looks and voice, and moving portrayal (plus the apparent sincerity Heston gave to the part) lift this film out of the usual dull run of Biblical epics.

Several of the scenes, including the Burning Bush sequence, the plagues of Egypt, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Commandments have gone down in movie history as among the most memorable ever filmed (see the following link for a fuller in-depth analysis of DeMille’s biblical epic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/the-ten-commandments-american-society-in-the-fifties/).  

The last of those nasty plagues, the one that brings the Destroyer into the heart of Pharaoh’s household, will send shivers down your spine (it was quite effective in the movie theater, of that I can personally vouch for). It’s one of the few sequences in the three hour and thirty-nine minute epic that is not over the top.

Highly recommended for all family members, the movie is best appreciated in its letterbox format.

MOSES – THE LAWGIVER (1975): 150 minutes; mini-series 360 minutes

Burt Lancaster as Moses, the Lawgiver

A British-Italian-Israeli co-production based on the book of Exodus, the title, Moses – The Lawgiver, did not bear the hallmarks of a primetime ratings grabber, not by any means. Nevertheless, this 1975 foreign-made version was first broadcast on the small screen as a six-hour television mini-series.

It features American actor Burt Lancaster as Moses, his son William Lancaster as the young Moses, veteran English character player Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Ingrid Thulin as their sister Miriam, Marina Berti as Elisheba, and Greek film star Irene Pappas as Moses’ wife. Curiously, it was partially filmed in Rome, Morocco, and the Holy Land during the height of the Yom Kippur war. The script is by Anthony Burgess, author of the futuristic novel A Clockwork Orange.

The story is presented in fairly reverent, straight-forward fashion, the dialogue highly literate, and a low-key Lancaster surprisingly good in the title role. Just don’t expect the usual Hollywood-style histrionics to spice up the proceedings, though, as this version is more dialogue-heavy than most.

Too, it takes a more intellectual approach to the saga. As for the special effects, they are modest in comparison — I’d say pedestrian, to be frank, and not even close to big budget standards.

The mini-series was subsequently released to theaters as a feature-length film, but the extremely mundane atmosphere, dusty sets, and colorless wardrobe did not provide much in the way of competition for the two earlier DeMille flicks. On a side note, many of the crew members, including producer Sir Lew Grade, worked on the subsequent Jesus of Nazareth mini-series from 1977, directed by the late Franco Zeffirelli, a much more ambitious and noteworthy assignment.

Recommended for older audiences but with the above reservations. Younger viewers might find it too talky and the performances lackluster.

THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998): 97 minutes

For a change of pace, kids of all ages may want to tune in, along with their parents and friends, to this animated musical account of the Exodus story. The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 production by DreamWorks Pictures, was a joint Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg studio venture.

It incorporates state-of-the-art digital animation effects, and utilizes the services of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Pharaoh, Patrick Stewart as his father Sethi, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Danny Glover as Jethro, and Ofra Haza as Yochaved, with Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Broadway’s Brian Stokes Mitchell, in other key roles, to tell the tale of Moses, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of God’s Laws.

Despite the clash of accents among the talented international cast, the story is clearly and succinctly told. The voice acting, especially by Kilmer and Fiennes as equally-matched combatants, is well done. Much care was taken with the script as well, so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. If anything, this treatment is almost too mild by comparison to DeMille’s gaudier excesses.  

Nevertheless, this visually-stunning animated version, which is vastly superior to most Saturday morning children’s fare (if not quite up to the advanced level of the best of the Disney/Pixar Studios’ efforts), is entertaining and worthwhile.

The visual rendering of the characters favors an elongated look reminiscent of the Mannerist school of portraiture (think El Greco, or possibly Modigliani) that gives the finished product a uniquely original stamp of its own.

Interestingly, the rivalry between the young prince Moses and the future pharaoh Rameses is a thinly-veiled reworking of the Judah/Messala conflict found in MGM’s 1959 widescreen remake of Ben-Hur, another superior religious picture. Thankfully, the script for this outing, written by veteran screenwriter Philip LaZebnick (Pocahontas, Mulan, The Road to El Dorado), is on the same high level as that William Wyler-directed opus.

There’s even a hit song, i.e., “When You Believe,” to thrill to (written by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz), beautifully sung in the movie by Ms. Pfeiffer and repeated, in the end credits, as a power duet between then-reigning pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The score itself is by Hans Zimmer.

This is highly recommended for all family members.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014): 150 minutes

Finally, there’s director-producer Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings from 2014, with the likes of Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh, John Turturro as Sethi, and Aaron Paul as Joshua, with Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Ben Mendelsohn.

This version has not yet been viewed by yours truly. But with a cast such as this, it would be unfair of me to pass judgment on its merits. About the best I could say for it, though, is: Buyer beware!

Still, this and the above entries serve to perpetuate the Idea that haughtiness and vanity will only get you so far. The high and mighty will be brought down and laid low before forces too powerful to control.  

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar L. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Seven): The Law is On His Side

Male cast members of Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1993)

‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’

Americans love lawyers.

Now, before you throw a fit or have me committed to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward, let me elaborate.

We enjoy watching television shows (and movies, if you want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) about lawyers because we’re fascinated by the concept of the law and its defenders. Whether we like them personally or not, issues related to lawyers and the law are hammered out in trials, thus giving rise to the ubiquitous courtroom drama.

Courtroom dramas are the very essence, if not the bane, of our existence. They’re part of everyday life, based on the incontrovertible view that people tend to commit crimes. Along with their criminal activities come the post-criminal investigations. Witnesses emerge, evidence starts to pile up. Soon, these assorted elements get introduced (or not) in a forum deemed appropriate to the circumstances. That forum happens to be the courtroom.

And where there are courtrooms, there are judges. Judges, as anyone who’s ever been confronted by one will tell you, are the no-nonsense arbiters of the law; they are the experts, the so-called professionals in matters of jurisprudence.

So who are the arbiters of the facts? Why, the jury, of course. And juries are made up of ordinary citizens — with all our biases and prejudices and accumulated knowledge, both pro and con, of the facts. For, indeed, we, the people, are the ultimate judges of what can be deemed factual.

Okay, but who are the individuals who bring these criminal cases to court, to be heard by a jury of one’s peers, to be adjudicated by a judge? Those individuals are the lawyers, the people trained in presenting a case and arguing the merits before a court of law. This is also where the heart of the “drama” takes place. You might call it a ringside seat, where the “ring,” in this instance, takes the form of a large rectangular room.

As obsessed as we are with high-voltage courtroom dramas — and we can cite numerous examples that fit that description — there is one actor I know of who, at one time or another, appeared to have cornered the market in his association with the law, both on the side of what’s “right” and on the side of what’s “wrong.” And that actor is Denzel Washington.

Not only does Denzel make the perfect attorney at law (in looks, manner, and speech), but his recurrent forays into such related subgenres as crime capers, police procedurals, investigative journalism, and criminal behavior — to include his participation in the crimes themselves (via his earlier ghostly “embodiment” in Heart Condition) — have given him a unique perspective quite apart from his fellow actors.

Certainly his stature as a figure of authority has had something to do with it. Writer and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, referred to Denzel’s “extra confidence” and the authentic “command” he brings to his parts, even to the “silly films along the way.”

We’ll be exploring his commanding presence (and, along the way, some of those “silly films”) in this next installment, which we have subtitled “The Law is on His Side.”

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Beatrice (Emma Thompson) hears the proposal by Don Pedro (Denzel Washington)

We begin, of all things, with a star-studded production of Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed on location in Italy — specifically in the province of Tuscany, at a real Italian villa blessed with sunny skies, verdant pastures, authentic locales, and moonlit nights — this is your standard-grade period piece.

As straight a screen adaptation of the English poet’s opus as you can get, much ado is made of the fact that good-ole reliable Denzel plays a supporting role, i.e., that of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, instead of his usual male lead. It’s back to ensemble work for the workaholic Mr. Washington!

Heading up this ribald dramedy, then, is Irish-born actor, director, and producer Kenneth Branagh, the closest Hollywood has come to that unrivaled thespian and multi-talented performer, director, and theater manager Sir Laurence Olivier.

An Olivier wannabe in everything but name only, the self-directed Sir Kenneth stars as Benedick, a member of Don Pedro’s court. Arrogant, boastful, and self-assured to a fault, the handsome nobleman has a “thing” for the equally brash yet beauteous and witty Beatrice (Emma Thompson, Branagh’s wife at the time). It’s that age-old gag where the one, Benedick, insists that the other, Beatrice, is beneath his contempt, and vice versa; where “I hate your guts” means “I love you truly.” You get the drift.

The main conflict (besides the obvious one twixt Beatrice and Benedick) takes place when Benedick’s companion, the young count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), expresses his heartfelt passion for Beatrice’s comely cousin, Hero (the charmingly attractive Kate Beckinsale). Don Pedro is pleased with the match and forthwith blesses the union to everyone’s satisfaction — everyone, that is, except his rebellious half-brother, the jealous Don John (a brooding and bearded Keanu Reeves, who mugs his way through the picture). Don John has designs of his own where the bride is concerned; consequently, he hatches a side-plot to discredit the virtuous Hero before her betrothed. Zounds, the scoundrel (boo, hiss!).

Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) is tricked into accepting Beatrice (Emma Thompson) as wife

Mixed into this exhilarating brew is the cretinous Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton, who acts as if he had accidently stumbled onto the set of Beetlejuice), accompanied by comparably inept associates. In addition to Branagh, Thompson, and Beckinsale (they sound like partners in a British law firm, don’t they?), the other cast members — among them, Richard Briers as Hero’s father Leonato (and the owner of the villa), Gerard Horan as Borachio (his name, in Spanish, translates to “constantly drunk,” which he is), Imelda Staunton as Margaret, and Brian Blessed as Antonio, Leonato’s brother — bring their proficiency in iambic pentameter to Shakespeare’s words with enthusiasm and zeal.

As the only African American member of the group (and one of a handful of American English speakers), Denzel’s Don Pedro comes off well enough physically. He certainly looks the part of a potentate, who here epitomizes the literal law of the land; and he performs it with the utmost taste and command (there goes that word again) born of self-confidence. It’s evident the actor’s earliest stage encounters with the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon (in Othello and Julius Caesar) make all the difference.

Yet, there is something not quite right. To these ears, Denzel’s dialogue sounds mannered and leaden. His speech does not “roll trippingly on the tongue.” There’s a clash of American English with its British variant in the enunciation department, which is to be expected. However, an absence of spontaneity creeps into passages that demand a less measured approach. Taking nothing away from his delivery per se, one notices an overly cautious reading of Don Pedro’s lines than there needs to be — an over-compensation, if that clarifies things, as if the speaker had placed the emphasis on every word of text so as to make his meaning clear.

There are several examples of this occurring, the first in the scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio discussing Beatrice’s true feelings for him; the second, in the quieter moments between Don Pedro and Beatrice, where he gazes intently into her eyes and proposes a marital union between them. Thompson, as Beatrice, rattles off her riposte with a gentle but casual air of indifference, accompanied by a toss of the head. Whereas Washington, on the receiving end, ever-so-cautiously articulates every vowel and syllable, along with the appropriate punctuation.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m being excessively picky in my assessment. This is still a marvelously photographed and gorgeously costumed realization, if I can be blunt about it. For instance, those opening slow-motion shots with a lusty male contingent bobbing up and down on their mounts, along with those of buxom young ladies in various forms of undress, are notable for their sex appeal and air of anticipation — a balm to Shakespeare addicts.

More likely, I’m making … well, much ado about nothing!

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) joins forces with Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts)

On a more serious note, the initial pairing of Denzel Washington with everyone’s favorite screen sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in The Pelican Brief was cause for jubilation among their millions of dedicated fans. The onscreen chemistry this oddly-matched couple generate lifted the film adaptation of another of ex-lawyer John Grisham’s windingly dense legal thrillers to near-Olympian heights at the box office.

If magnetism and “star power” can be manufactured, bottled, and sold over the counter, then these two brightest of movie lights might have cornered the world market. Call them the twin “flavors of the month,” which, where their followers were concerned, had placed them at cross-purposes to one another. Despite that handicap, both Washington and Roberts shined at playing protagonists who win the audience’s favor. One couldn’t help but root for their success, no matter what project they took part in.

Warner Bros. Studios’ belief in their staying power as box-office draws led to this faithful if needlessly drawn-out conspiracy yarn about the murder of two Supreme Court justices. The book, published in 1992, was Grisham’s third novel and second literary effort to top the New York Times bestseller list (after The Firm).

In the movie, Julia plays law school student Darby Shaw who unwittingly stumbles across an elaborate plot by a ruthless oil tycoon to exploit some oil-rich Louisiana marshland inhabited by an endangered species of pelican — to wit the raison d’être for the avian title. Her subsequent legal brief on the incipient nature of this scheme spells out the particulars in detail.

Before you can say, “What the hell does all that have to do with the death of two Supreme Court justices?”, the next layer to be revealed connects Darby to the assassin Khamel (Stanley Tucci), the person responsible for those murders. Although the late justices were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they were both staunch environmentalists. The idea is for the tycoon to profit handsomely from this oil venture by getting the clueless U.S. President (Robert Culp), whose campaign for reelection has been financed by this same tycoon, to appoint two new justices favorable to the scheme. Thus everybody “wins,” except for the defenseless pelicans.

Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), investigative reporter turned action hero

We warned you this was a needlessly complicated story line. Having read several of author Grisham’s books, however, I can report that this 1993 screen edition is true to the original tome, a rarity among films of this nature.

Readers may be wondering, too, where Denzel might fit into the action. Is he a cop or is he a lawyer? Actually, he’s neither. On a seemingly unrelated note, Dee plays Washington Herald investigative reporter Gray Grantham, who receives a tip from an informant named Garcia about those two assassinations. One thing leads to another, and soon Darby Shaw links up with Grantham, as the two curious individuals — the rookie law student and the veteran journalist — join forces to begin the laborious task of unraveling the maze of deceptions.

I would be remiss in my sworn duty to keep the dénouement a secret. I will say this: the very antithesis of the usual slam-bang, shoot-‘em-up police/crime thriller, The Pelican Brief, written and directed by veteran filmmaker Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent), is a more thoughtful case in point. In view of our stated theme (vide the guardians of law and order and their being on the right side of justice), Denzel occupies an integral secondary spot.

Some critics complained that there were no love scenes between him and Ms. Roberts — and why should there be? As a matter of fact, they don’t fall in love at all, which is how the novel played it. “Any romance would have been rather tactless,” wrote Roger Ebert in his December 17, 1993 review, “considering that the story takes place in the week or two immediately after her [law professor] lover has been blown to pieces.”

How about that! A logical, well-thought-out screenplay for once that makes perfect sense. Consequently, audiences ate this feature up, which only goes to show that Hollywood can still shock and awe you when it wants to. On the other hand, in one of the myriad subplots to director Robert Altman’s labyrinthine The Player, released in May 1992 (a year and a half before The Pelican Brief hit the big screen), the little film-within-a-film Habeas Corpus (with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, of all people!) subverts the whole idea of staying faithful to one’s original work.

You’re probably wondering: “What the hell is he talking about?” I’m glad you asked! Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to watch both The Pelican Brief AND The Player, in that order. To test your knowledge of each, there’ll be a pop quiz on Wednesday. The best of luck to you!

Philadelphia (1993)

Lawyer Joe Miller (Washington) refuses to take Andy Beckett’s case

From our current crisis relating to the mounting coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we harken back to a time when HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and the AIDS epidemic (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) were placed front and center in the debate about how to treat those afflicted with the sexually transmitted disease.

With an all-star assemblage of top-shelf acting talent (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward, Charles Napier, Ann Dowd, Roberta Maxwell, Roger Corman, et al.); an Oscar-winning music score by Howard Shore; and a similarly feted Best Original Song (“The Streets of Philadelphia”) by Bruce Springsteen, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was the first mainstream Hollywood production that directly addressed the issue of AIDS in the workplace.

Released in December 1993 — in the same month and year as The Pelican Brief — TriStar Pictures’ Philadelphia also took on the related topic of homosexuality. Unfounded fears of being infected with the HIV/AIDS virus through touching and non-sexual transmission were an indispensable subtext in the script’s depiction of associate attorney Andy Beckett (Hanks), a rising star in one of those typical “white-shoe” Philadelphia law firms. With his worsening condition becoming more and more apparent, the firm’s partners contrive of a scheme to dismiss Andy on the grounds of incompetence.

The bulk of the drama follows Andy’s pursuit of justice in a court of law — not only for himself but for others fighting for their choice of lifestyle and/or sexual orientation. This is where Denzel’s participation as ambulance chaser Joe Miller becomes a lifeline for the terminally ill attorney.

Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) asks lawyer Joe Miller to defend him

Andy wears the marks of his affliction not so much as a badge of honor but as a constant reminder of the life and death struggle that he, and others like him, face on a daily basis.

Combining many of the elements discussed above — that is, the law and its authority in Much Ado About Nothing and the criminal investigation intrinsic to The Pelican BriefPhiladelphia is a film both utterly absorbing and periodically cloying, itself tinged with what used to be termed the “Disease of the Week” syndrome. That it overcomes the worst tendencies of this genre of movies can be traced directly to its screenplay and to its lead actors.

It’s been pointed out that Andy’s parents are depicted as almost too nice to be true. Too, Andy and his gay lover, Miguel Álvarez (Banderas), are loving, caring individuals openly accepted by family and friends (a hell of a stretch at the time), but their emotional relationship to one another is stillborn, as is their steadfast commitment to stay together come what may. (A scene of the two men in bed was cut from the finished product; it’s been restored for the home edition on Blu-ray and DVD).

Joe Miller (Washington) now represents the interests of ex-lawyer and HIV/AIDS victim Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks)

Despite these deferential nods to outward civility, the movie’s best moments look inward at the surrounding characters, most notably at Andy’s legal representative, Joe Miller. Miller, a straight-arrow African American male, is frightened out of his wits with representing a gay man in court. He can’t even bring himself to properly shake Andy’s hand he’s so biased. His hatred of gays spills out in a potent scene with his wife, where his use of the word “faggot” colors his negative view of his client.

Interestingly, the film’s screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, recalled, in a December 2018 BuzzFeed News interview with reporter Adam B. Vary, how “Some people thought that [Denzel],” during a radio talk-show program, “was going to play the gay character. People called in [to the station] and said the most vile things about him. He was stopped on the streets by fans. People were pretty blunt about how they felt about gay people who were carriers of this fatal disease.”

The misunderstanding was eventually cleared up, but it proved the point that Americans at the time had a long way to go in their grasp and understanding of the problems affecting recipients of the HIV/AIDS virus.

How Denzel’s character begins to overcome his prejudices occurs in several of Philadelphia’s key scenes. Reluctant at first to take on Andy’s case for “personal reasons,” Miller reverses his initial thoughts when he observes Beckett at a library doing research for his case. When one of the librarians asks Andy if he’d be more comfortable in a room by himself — where he’d be away from others who are uncomfortable with his presence (including the librarian) — Miller walks over to where Andy is seated and greets him cordially. Miller’s steady gaze at Andy (and at the librarian) forces the librarian to depart, as does another researcher.

We can infer from this confrontation that Miller, an African American, had undoubtedly experienced the same kind of intolerance as a struggling law student, but for racially motivated reasons. After Miller sits down at the table, Andy hands him an extract from a 1973 law equating the carriers of HIV/AIDS with victims of discrimination, which perfectly underscores the dilemma they face: how to overcome the built-in prejudices inherent in their case by citing the applicable law, along with its precedents.

Other moments in the picture either reinforce or obscure the argument, including one where an African American law student, thinking Miller is also gay, tries to pick him up at a pharmacy. The attempt does not end well as Miller erupts with a volley of verbal invectives against the law student.

Andy (Hanks) listens as his attorney Miller (Washington) cross-examines a witness

Once the case is presented in court, the gist of the drama begins to take hold. Thankfully, the trial scenes are handled in non-sensationalist fashion by director Demme. Outside of the occasional objections, they’re almost matter of fact, a respite from the torpor of real-life court trials or the heavy-handedness allotted to TV courtroom dramas (I’m thinking of the worst of Law & Order).

But the most moving episode of all (for opera buffs such as yours truly) is the well-known example of Andy expounding to Miller on the essence of Maria Callas’ art in a recording of the aria, “La mamma morta,” from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Without going into specifics, both Washington and Hanks’ handling of this sequence is a case study in how to convey emotional intensity with only their eyes and bodies as props. Miller is touched by Andy’s love for the art form, which symbolizes his love of life.

In the film’s final sequence, a terminally ill Andy is greeted by family, friends, and well wishers at home. But his most welcome visitor is Joe Miller, who caringly places Andy’s oxygen mask over his mouth so the ailing attorney can take one last breath before expiring. Upon seeing Andy’s pitiful condition, Miller extends his two hands on either side of Andy’s face. He is no longer afraid to touch Andy or of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. His only sentiment is sympathy for the man. Where fear once dominated his relationship to his client, empathy and love have taken over. Miller has finally come to terms with his prejudices: He gives back to Andy that which Andy had given him — his humanity.

While Philadelphia proved to be a feather in Hanks’ cap (he won the first of two back-to-back Best Actor Awards for this and the following year’s Forrest Gump), Denzel reconfirmed his own status as a co-equal contributor  — both for the subtlety of his performance and the camaraderie he shared with fellow actor Hanks. Their dual roles as lawyers, one the defendant and the other the defendant’s counsel, secured Tom and Denzel’s positions as two of this country’s hottest screen properties.

End of Part Seven

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘We Talk About Cinema to Talk About Everything Else’: A Look at the Future of Brazilian Cinema

The Brazilian documentary film ‘Indianara’

(Today’s guest contributor is Quebec-born freelance writer Justine Smith. Justine has been writing professionally since 2014 as a film and cultural critic. She has contributed to a wide variety of publications in Canada, the USA and the UK in both English and French. Some of her regular outlets include The National Post, The Globe and Mail, the Roger Ebert website, Cult MTL and Hyperallergic. In 2015, she was selected to be a member of the Locarno Film Festival’s Critic’s Academy. Since 2018, she has collaborated on the Fantasia Talk Show, affiliated with the Fantasia International Film Festival, as a host and correspondent. In early 2019, she began working on the Fantasia programming team, and has also appeared on CBC radio and television as an expert on movies and culture.)

By Justine Smith

October 21, 2019

Indianara, a Brazilian documentary about [a] transgender activist, ends in tears. After tireless work trying to initiate social change and help improve the conditions of LGBTQ+ citizens of Brazil, the country elected a far-right government led by populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Indianara is one of the four Brazilian movies that recently played at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma [FNC] in Montreal.

It is also representative of the kind of film that might be under threat under the new government of Brazil. As the country shifts to the right politically, the film industry finds itself in a vulnerable situation. Films that subvert the regime’s ideology are already running into roadblocks. While the film industry has been thriving internationally, garnering awards and acclaim, its future is uncertain.

Bolsonaro was elected in October 2018, but his nationalist rhetoric has been on the rise for years now. With little information available in English language sources, the question of Brazil’s cinematic future is a mystery outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. Yet, the ramifications of Bolsonaro’s actions are of international importance.

A glance at the most critically acclaimed films, playing at the Nouveau Cinéma, reveals a Brazil in upheaval:

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, Brazil’s entry for the Best International Feature Film, is based on a novel that begins in 1950. It’s the lush story of two sisters, separated by their father’s conservative values, who yearn to reconnect but are unable to. With mythic invocations of Euridice and Orpheus, the film is a melancholic examination of the Fourth Brazilian Republic, leading up to the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état. The political situation remains in the background, unveiled through radio programs and insinuated changes, but the values of the society having profound and often disastrous effects on the two sister’s ability to live their lives. Rather than be rich in nostalgia, the film laments the characters’ failed promise as repressive social conditions hamper them.

Scene from ‘The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao’

Divino Amor, set in the not-so-distant future, represents Brazil in a world where Carnival has been replaced by The Festival of Supreme Love. In this dystopian future, the Brazilian government puts on a front of being a secular bureaucratic system, but it just barely conceals its real values and influences, as the country has transformed into a barely-veiled theocracy. It’s hard not to think of Bolsonaro’s political slogan (his version of “Make America Great Again”), “Brazil above everything, God above all.”

Centered on a profoundly religious civil servant, Joana, the film is a desperate and sometimes wickedly funny portrait of divine providence. As the film hits on its surprising climax, [it] takes a shift as Joana becomes increasingly aware that the religiosity of her community is not rooted in strong belief, as much as it has become a way to control and surveil people. While potentially touched by a divine miracle, Joana is ostracized and humiliated, abandoned by the religion she loved so dearly.

The movie ‘Divino Amor’

The critically acclaimed Bacurau is a violent and subversive film about a small village in Northern Brazil that suddenly finds itself wiped off the map. Cut off from the rest of the world; outsiders invade the village; an unpopular campaigning governor, southern tourists and the animal [trophy hunters] after the Greatest Game of all. Of the moment, the film derives tensions between the rural and isolated communities and the outside forces that view them as disposable.

With echoes of Brazil’s violent past, within the film, it becomes clear that the more powerful hierarchical forces have underestimated the revolutionary spirit of their targets. Bacurau is about resistance as much as it is a portrayal of the cyclical intergenerational trauma of Brazil’s violent history. Bacurau feels like a movie on the precipice of gearing up for a new fight, as vulnerable communities find themselves (once again) forced to take up arms to defend their lives and their land.

The critically acclaimed feature ‘Bacurau’

Among the best films of the year, they represent a fraction of the groundbreaking films coming out of the country. Zoé Protat, director of programming at the FNC, said that the programming team was drawn to the strength of the film’s artistry but also their political integrity. They are films that represent [and] that display a love-hate relationship with their country.

These three films are financed by Ancine, the Brazilian agency that funds and promotes the Brazilian film industry. In the lead up to more significant changes, the agency has been publicly attacked by the government. The director and president of the organization, Christian de Castro, was removed by court order in August, part of a more significant trend of changes happening since March. Brazil’s Minister of Citizenship Osmar Terra said that the new Ancine director would have a conservative profile, “just like the current government.” As bureaucrats investigate the inner-workings of the agency, the money is frozen, not just for production but travel as well.

At the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, they say they did try to invite guests from Brazil but struggled in their dealings with Ancine. Protat suggested this isn’t a new problem, but an ongoing frustration. Even under former leadership, the inner-workings of Ancine were opaque and complex, she says. But the situation only seems to be getting worse.

In Lisbon, one of the biggest and political documentary festivals starts this week. Since 2002, DocLisboa has been a boundary-pushing festival. Three weeks ago, it received news that the guests they invited from Brazil will no longer be able to attend because of Ancine. Earlier in the year, festivals like Indie Lisboa and Queer Lisboa made a point of featuring and highlighting Brazilian cinema in solidarity, but the situation has escalated. The team from DocLisboa decided, three weeks before the opening of their Festival, to restructure their programming.

“We will never be a neutral film festival,” explained one of the Festival’s programmers, Miguel Ribeiro, over Skype. They could not bring over the filmmakers on such short notice, but the Festival responded on September 23rd, by releasing an official statement about the situation:

“It’s clear that there is an agenda for the elimination of diversity and freedom, aiming at a form of art that is, at its core, popular and democratic: cinema. In Brazil, a dictatorship is being installed — several principals of the rule of law are being explicitly violated. Given this, it’s impossible to remain neutral.”

In program changes, they included a showcase of the films of Eduardo Coutinho, a political documentary filmmaker well-known in Brazil. They will present Chico: Artista Brasileiro, directed by Miguel Faria Jr., a film suppressed in Uruguay, and Portraits of Identification, by Anita Leandro, a portrait of the political prisoners taken during Brazil’s military dictatorship with the testimony of survivors. There are also public debates on topics like “Can one be neutral?” addressing media neutrality. Several other Brazilian films are also featured in the programming, treating a variety of important social questions and movements.

Ribeiro had been following the developing story of Brazil’s cinematic future since the election of Bolsonaro last fall. He helped outline the variety of changes and conditions in Brazil, most of which rarely make it to the English language media. Under the shroud of mere bureaucratic changes and language, it becomes clear that artists are under threat of restriction and silence, while government-sanctioned art will increasingly be in service of propaganda for the current leadership.

Understanding the situation in Brazil is only further complicated by its complex and contradictory media empire. Ribeiro suggests a documentary film by Pablo López Guelli, Our Flag Will Never Be Red [A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Será Vermelha], that is playing at the festival. A harsh indictment of a media controlled by oligarchs, the film makes a passionate case against the dominant fraudulent bent of the mainstream Brazilian media cycle.

‘A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Sera Vemelha’ (‘Our Flag Will Never Be Red’)

Bolsonaro has come out and said that he wants to impose “cultural filters” on film production; in other words, censorship. The choice is absolute; follow newly imposed filters or the government “will privatize or extinguish [Ancine],” he said. Specific films like the 2011 movie about a sex worker, Bruna Surfistinha, were singled out as the types of films that would no longer receive government support. Many of the other targets, in line with Bolsonaro’s political platform, include drug-use, feminism, LGBTQ+ communities and indigenous people.

In late July, The Brazilian Cinematheque, located in São Paulo, was placed under military and political control. Brazil’s audiovisual history is in the hands of bureaucrats who plan to use the archives as a platform to promote Brazilian values. One of the first projects set by the new leadership is a showcase of Brazil’s military achievements. The new direction, however, denies that the institution has taken a more conservative perspective.

One of the films playing at DocLisboa, Chico: Artista Brasileiro, was meant to open a festival in Uruguay. The film, which depicts the life of singer Chico Buarque, who was a revolutionary voice against the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-1985. The film, initially released in 2015, was pulled from the Festival after pressure from the Brazilian Embassy in Uruguay.

‘Chico: Artista Brasileiro,’ a film about singer, composer, songwriter and author Chico Buarque de Hollanda

Buarque, who is still alive, was also recently awarded the Camões Prize for Literature, the highest award for the written arts in the Portuguese world. Bolsonaro has expressed his displeasure with the choice and refuses to sign the award. While Buarque has received his prize money from Brazil, the symbolic gesture of Bolsonaro’s opposition still resonates. “Bolsonaro refusing to sign is like a second Camões Prize for me,” Buarque responded in O Globo.

Other filmmakers have come forward saying they’ve been facing problems with the new Ancine leadership. Last month, the producers of the film Marighella, directed by Wagner Moura and starring Seu Jorge, announced that the film’s premiere, scheduled for November 20th, had to be cancelled as they were unable to fulfill new demands by Ancine.

The film, which depicts the life of Carlos Marighella, a politician and guerrilla fighter who resisted against the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1960s, also faced violence during its production. Some believe that the film is being censored by “obstructionism.”

Seu Jorge in the biographical film, ‘Marighella’

This is just the tip of the iceberg and as these changes are rarely direct, it’s difficult to assume intent. But, taking those incidents in the context of other actions against the arts, it becomes [worrisome]. Step by step, the industry is being dismantled and rebuilt in service of the propagandistic forces of the government. The message, though often weighed down in bureaucratic language, is clear: Ancine needs to bend to the will of the government or be eliminated.

For their September issue, the Cahiers du Cinéma featured Bacurau as their cover story with the headline, “Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” and three articles devoted to the cinema in Brazil. In an interview from Cannes earlier this year, one of Bacurau‘s co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho spoke on the conditions of working in Brazil under Bolsonaro and the importance of using art as a tool of resistance. He said:

“Today, under the extreme right-wing politics of Bolsonaro, the situation has become so absurd that we need to reaffirm things like ‘Education is important,’ and ‘all people need to be treated equally.’ Conversations have become so extreme, absurd and explicit. Cinema, music, literature need to listen to what’s happening, or else it gives the impression that it’s deaf.”

Later in the same issue, in the article “Le cinéma Brésilien à l’ère de Bolsonaro” (“Brazilian Cinema in the Age of Bolsonaro”), the author Ariel Schweitzer discusses with a Brazilian critic the state of cinema. “Is it possible,” writes Schweitzer, “that when a country is suffering, it’s cinema can thrive?” To which Brazilian critic for Folha de S. Paulo, the country’s largest daily newspaper, Inácio Araújo answers, “That’s perhaps true in some cases, but when a country goes bad, its cinema risks [going] very badly as well.”

The article in Cahiers suggests more censorship and budgetary cuts are to come. It’s not just films and filmmakers under threats, but festivals as well: this will only further close off the industry from outside involvement and discussion. While there are privatized industries that can continue to fund films within Brazil, without government support productions will face increased pressures from the point of financing to distribution.

While right now the Brazilian cinema seems to be thriving, that might not be the case for much longer. The situation is changing from one day to the next, and the prognosis looks worse and worse.

Ribeiro notes that the situation in cinema in Brazil is part of a small part of a worrying trend in the country, one that targets vulnerable members of society. “We talk about cinema to talk about everything else,” he says. By limiting the movement of filmmakers, it prevents their ability to criticize conditions and changes within Brazilian society publicly. Restricting films, in most cases, works to restrict speech as well.

When we talk about cinema, we are talking about everything. We are talking about a government that restricts the arts, movement and freedom of expression. As we see, the Brazilian government violently acting against its people, cinema, as a tool for empathy and resistance, is being restricted.

As citizens of the world, we have a responsibility. Bringing awareness, but also understanding that what is happening in Brazil is happening elsewhere. Far-right parties are gaining power across the globe, and film industries dependent on government funding and support are being threatened by campaigns and movements that seek to silence them. These policies that seek to repress the arts are interconnected [within] systems that seek to restrict dissonant voices that are critical of the government’s dangerous and dehumanizing policies.

What is happening in Brazil is not a unique case; in different forms, it can happen anywhere.

(All translations from the French were done by Justine Smith. Special assistance in translating the Portuguese language by Francisco Peres.)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Six): Much Ado About Malcolm

Brother Malcolm (Denzel Washington) sings the praises of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (photo in background) in Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

‘X’ Marks the Spot

When you’ve scaled the highest mountain and sailed the deepest sea, where do you go from there? And when actors reach the absolute peak of their profession, what do they do for an encore?

Every performer must ask these age-old questions, but not everyone is prepared to face the challenges. If they do confront them, not all of them can succeed. Some reach the summit only to fall flat on their faces; others manage to stay on top (but barely). Still others crest too soon, while some take years to reach their potential.

Clawing your way to success can become an all-consuming passion. Once there, however, the struggle continues for those whose needs are many — come what way. So who, in their right mind, would risk it all on a project deemed too risky and controversial to win over the hearts and minds of skeptics?

For film star Denzel Washington and producer, director, screenwriter, and part-time actor Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), risk and controversy were an integral part of their game plan. The work they put into their next venture, Malcolm X — a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for some time — was almost too good to be true. In the words of the garrulous Mr. Lee, the film speaks for itself. “It just grows in stature,” he insisted. “That performance … ”

Ah, yes, THAT performance! Spike went into detail about Denzel’s preparation for the difficult part of Malcolm X in an online conversation with singer-performer Pharrell Williams for the Reserve Channel.

“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches,” Lee claimed. “I’m reading the script. Well, the speech is over, I’m going to call ‘cut.’ But [Denzel] keeps going. He kept going another five minutes until finally the film ran out in the magazine. And the stuff that he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So, I finally called ‘cut.’ I go to Denzel. I said, ‘Denzel, that was great. But where did that come from? You went on five minutes after what was scripted!’ He said, ‘Spike, I don’t know.’ So that’s the type of … he was bringin’ it in.”

Malcolm (Denzel Washington) preaching in Harlem in ‘Malcolm X’

“Did that moment go in?” Pharrell inquired.

“Oh, it’s in the movie,” replied Lee. “But here’s the thing that people don’t understand. Denzel worked a year before we started shooting. He told his agent, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ He prepared a year for that role. What did he do? ‘I’m playing a Muslim. OK, I can’t eat pork anymore. I’m playing a Muslim, I can’t drink. I have to learn how to speak Arabic, I have to learn to read the Quran.’ He became a student of Malcolm. It’s more than just the impersonation. It’s more than just dyeing his hair red or putting on the glasses or the voice. Because all that is superficial.

“Denzel knew he had to be in a space spiritually where Malcolm comes into his vessel. So that’s why he was able to do that five-minute thing after the scripted pages ended. That was Malcolm in him, Malcolm came into his soul right there. I said [that] to Denzel, he could not remember what he said.

“You got to put the work in,” Lee concluded. “Otherwise, you’re bullshitting. You’re shuckin’ and jivin’ … If you’re bullshitting, your stuff is not going to stand the test of time.”

And what a time that was! The name part in Malcolm X, released in November 1992, was the longest and most elaborate of Denzel’s decade-long film career to that point and beyond. Next to Inside Man (2006), the Malcolm X project was Lee’s most “mainstream” picture. Denzel had earlier appeared as Malcolm in Laurence Holder’s 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Obviously, the star was familiar with the character’s background and had put forth the effort into becoming the former Malcolm Little, aka “Detroit Red.”

‘Malcolm’ in the Middle, Beginning and End

Denzel was close to the real Malcolm X’s age when he completed Spike’s massive three-hour epic. As a matter of fact, the ex-Nation of Islam minister and one-time follower of the (once) Honorable Elijah Muhammad was 39 years old at his death (on February 21, 1965), compared to Denzel’s 38. In the height department, Denzel stood six-foot one-inch tall, compared to Malcolm’s six-foot-three or -four, a slight if perceptible difference; and they both had slim builds.

Dee’s refined facial features, while elongated and thin, did not exactly resemble that of Mr. X’s. In critic and writer David Thomson’s judgment, Malcolm was “gaunter” and “had a hardened carapace — to life and the camera — that no actor could conceive of.” This was spot-on accurate. And as dynamic and flashy a presence as Denzel could bring to the screen, he had not yet gone through the vagaries of life nor had he experienced the poverty, the misery, the bitter struggles and severe hardships that Malcolm and the Little family had to contend with on a daily basis.

Interestingly, the two men had more in common than originally thought: both their fathers were ministers, both came from large families, and both were raised by their mothers.

Side-by-side comparison: Malcolm X and Denzel Washington

Looking at it from another angle, Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the eccentric Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), faced a similar handicap. Since he neither resembled nor spoke anything like the mysterious billionaire recluse, he was at a disadvantage. However, Leo did maintain a furrowed brow throughout the length of the picture. Perhaps he learned from Denzel that to assume the visage of a known historical figure, one must mentally realign one’s features (either by sheer concentration or force of will). There was also a huge age disparity between Hughes and the actor playing him. Basically, viewers had to take Leo’s assumption of the part more on “faith” than on actual likeness.

In contrast, Denzel’s smoother, unlined countenance captured, “in spirit” (as was claimed in the above discussions), the corporeal and emotional as well as the vital psychological characteristics of Malcolm in the assorted phases of his life: from kitchen worker to Pullman porter; from street hustler, pimp, and drug pusher to convicted felon; from ex-con to eager acolyte; from faithful minister to disillusioned devotee; and, finally, from an African-American seeking clarity and wisdom to that of a reinvigorated human being.

That was quite the trajectory for one man to have undergone. In that, Denzel would need all the help and support he could get from Lee and his large cast and crew. If, as they say, timing is everything, then both Lee and Dee were blessed and guided by it. The time, 1992, more than a year after the Rodney King beating, was indeed right for Malcolm’s story to be told. Much more than your normal biopic — their models would be Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi from ten years prior and the same director’s Cry Freedom (1987) about South African activist Stephen Biko, played by Denzel himself — Malcolm X traces the ups and downs and the ultimately tragic course of the main protagonist’s life-cycle.

The physical aspects of the production would, by necessity, encompass the changing hair and fashion trends of the various time periods in question, along with the settings, locales, events, personalities, and individuals involved. Some biographical matters would be rendered in flashback, whereas others moved the drama along in strict chronological order.

Each of the periods had its own specific look: for example, the zoot-suited weirdness of the thirties and forties (set in brightly-colored hues) and the darkly portentous sixties (told in earth-toned severity). As he did with Do the Right Thing, director Lee’s color palette (courtesy of cinematographer and fellow New York University Film School graduate Ernest Dickerson) varied from the bold and outlandish to the dowdy and stern. Historical accuracy would be stressed, but not slavishly so. More significantly, given Lee’s penchant for over-the-top, in-your-face brashness, Malcolm’s milieu would be recreated, as close as humanly possible, to what was known and documented about it.

Malcolm as “Detroit Red” (Denzel Washington) with his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) in their zoot suits

Beginning with Malcolm’s “Detroit Red” period, Denzel would first personify the handsome dandy who could win over women and befriend the likes of gangster West Indian Archie (a distinctive Delroy Lindo). Malcolm’s escapades with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee, in a riotously comedic tour de “farce” part), his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and his later conversion to Islam by the insistent Brother Baines (a stern Albert Hall) would take some liberties with the facts, but adhere closely (for the most part) to such sources as The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (first published in 1965) and the original screenplay by Arnold Perl (revised by scriptwriter Lee).

At the epicenter of activity would be Denzel’s pivotal interpretation. Similar to that of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — another epic depiction of a flawed historical character surrounded by events spiraling out of his control — Dee would be present and accounted for in virtually every scene. Film critic Julian Roman had hitherto noted that Denzel’s Private Trip in Glory was “a transcendent performance.” If that was the case, then the actor’s active participation in Malcolm X transcended even that milestone effort.

Both he and Lee could have fallen on their faces had they failed to stir the masses. The famously motor-mouthed director was known to talk his head off about racial, economic, political, and socially relevant matters — topics designed to focus primarily on whatever theme or issue his latest project happened to touch upon. Success, in the eyes of some, would be fleeting if at all attainable.

They each proved their critics wrong. With his compelling screen presence, Denzel had successfully portrayed one man’s momentous journey despite the short, turbulent life he left behind; how that man changed his outlook, at key intervals, because of his reawakening: first to religion, then to active militancy; next, to polemics; and, finally, back to religion — more precisely, to the universal brotherhood of man.

Cinematic Moments to Remember

The beauty of Washington’s performance, then, was his complete and utter devotion to Malcolm’s mission. You could sense the passion in every word and movement. For anyone watching the film, Denzel shines a beacon on what is, at first, a rather devious individual — called “the devil” in the scene where a Catholic priest (snidely played by Christopher Plummer) uses that exact term.

That this individual had a soul and a unique ability to move people to action is hinted at in the “indoctrination” process he underwent via the Nation of Islam’s efforts. Malcolm’s teary-eyed meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (humbly if calculatedly portrayed by soft-spoken Al Freeman Jr.) is one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the entire picture. Their solemn encounter had to be emphasized, for later, when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has been less than “honorable” in associating himself with under-aged girls, he experiences a change of heart.

In between, curious bystanders (few at first) both see and hear Malcolm giving street-corner lectures and preaching to anyone who will listen that blacks have been oppressed by whites for centuries (“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”). He begins to draw more and more crowds. Soon, he becomes more popular than the man whose so-called “virtues” he’s been extolling. This does not curry favor with the Muslim brotherhood.

The journey climaxes in the startlingly violent blood-bath near the end where Malcolm is gunned down before a gathering that includes his wife Betty Shabazz (a sympathetic Angela Bassett) and their young children. The scene is shocking in its brutality.

Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) in ‘Malcolm X’

Despite the lurid quality of his death, there are moments where Malcolm makes a point of demonstrating the power of the spoken word (and mesmerizingly so). In others, specifically the scenes at the police station where Malcolm confronts a surly white desk sergeant, which is also the place where a battered and bloodied Brother Johnson (Steve White) is visited by him and his band of “Brothers,” Malcolm is calm and deliberate. Here, moderation and steadfastness prevail.

In a related sequence, silence and hand gestures lead the way. When a mob of protesters is seen standing and shouting “We want Johnson!” outside Harlem Hospital, an enormous police captain (Peter Boyle) comes over to accost Malcolm. He orders him and his followers to disperse. After a doctor assures Malcolm that Brother Johnson will survive his wounds, Malcolm flashes a smile at the captain and, turning his back to the lawman, raises a gloved hand, which immediately quiets the crowd. Pointing his finger and hand in the opposite direction, the crowd calmly files out military style (to a “rum-tiddy-tum-tum” drum roll accompaniment). The startled captain remarks, under his breath, “That’s too much power for one man to have.”

Director Lee, whose knowledge of the movies was honed by his attendance at both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, along with a Master of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, had clearly referenced a similar situation from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) where the gigantic Captain McCloskey (Sterling Hayden) tells Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to clear out from guarding his dad, the wounded Vito Corleone, before bashing him on the jaw.

Police Captain (Peter Boyle) tells Malcolm to disperse the crowd

Prior to Malcolm’s untimely end, he experiences another epiphany. His life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine, and his collective worship with others of the faith — many of whom came from differing backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds — forces Malcolm to accept the fact that Islam, and indeed every religion, is meant for everyone and not just a select few.

In that wide-ranging conversation both he and Spike Lee had for the 2006 DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of Inside Man, Denzel claimed that Malcolm X wasn’t his hardest role; that he had previously done the play and was familiar with the contentious black activist’s life. So he felt comfortable enough to do it. Possessing the “gift of gab,” as he phrased it, Denzel had Malcolm’s speeches pasted to his dressing room wall. When it came time to shooting the actual footage, Lee kept loading the camera with film.

“I was trying to capture the spirit,” Denzel confirmed for the cameras.

“The spirit,” Lee repeated and continued. “Just acting, ‘Well, I’m going to look like him,’ that’s just surface stuff.”

There was nothing “surface” about Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn, one of the finest screen portraits in many a year. He was able to penetrate deep inside, in between, over and above Malcolm’s surface and into the person himself. That the veteran Al Pacino beat him out for Best Actor honors in Scent of a Woman was an injustice and a dereliction of duty by the members of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy.

Nevertheless, when he worked on Malcolm X, Denzel would pray every morning, “before I came to that trailer,” to be filled with the man’s spirit. “I’m like, ‘All right, Malcolm, come on.’ And it’s not for me. It’s for him and for those hopefully that he affected.”

Those prayers were not in vain.

End of Part Six

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Five): ‘Together We Stand, Divided We Fall’

Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) chews over Napoleon Stone’s advice (Denzel Washington) in ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

‘Reel’ Life and Real Life

Whether it be on the big or small screen, or in the intimacy of the legitimate theater, to bring their characters to life actors must be able to draw from personal experience. One of Denzel Washington’s chief assets as a film star and stage performer is his ability to capture, so vividly and earnestly, the essence of what makes his protagonists tick.

As a for instance, in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), where the youngster Bleek would rather go outside and play with his friends than practice his scales, the mother (represented by legendary African American artist Abbey Lincoln), is, at her core, a figure taken from real life. Denzel’s own mother, “Lynne” (a nickname for Lennis), was cited by him as a probable inspiration for that portrayal, as well as the actor’s driving force behind his success.

Near the end of the film, when Bleek finds himself teaching his young son Miles the finer points of trumpet playing, the boy gets distracted by friends calling out to him to come and play. Bleek’s wife, Indigo, takes Miles to task by insisting he practice his scales. Instead of a reprimand, Bleek, recalling his earlier encounter with mom and how she and his father ended up arguing about what to do, relents and allows Miles to go and join his pals.

Denzel revealed similar facets of his Mount Vernon upbringing in a 1992 television interview with Barbara Walters. “I thought [my mother’s] purpose in life was just to embarrass me,” he let on. “She’d come get me on the street, at any time, in front of anybody.”

He recalled an incident where his mother once smacked him across the cheek when young Denzel started to make faces at friends about his predicament. “I know that she never gave up on me. She had a lot of reason to. You know, I got kicked out of college and she did the same thing.”

Walters asked Denzel how he managed to overcome that setback. His response was that he took a semester off to read acting books, which then led to his finding work in summer stock. That’s how he got interested in the profession. Walters mentioned his private life, which remained private as far as the actor was concerned. She also brought up his family and the fact that he had four children, two of whom were twins.

Denzel Washington with his wife Pauletta

“One named Malcolm. After Malcolm X?” she queried. And who could blame Barbara for trying to make the obvious connection.

“No,” was Denzel’s immediate response.

“No?” she asked back, puzzled.

“No,” he added coolly.  “After my wife’s cousin Malcolm.” Apparently, Ms. Walters, the seasoned reporter and interviewer, and possibly her staff had failed to do their homework. Maybe they were out in the street playing ball.

Denzel switched the topic to his spouse Pauletta. “My wife, you know, is the backbone of our family. And I’m wise enough to admit that … We’ve known each other too long, we’ve been through too much … And being a star and all of that, temptations all around, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about that. We’ve gone through ups and downs and we’re still together. And we’re best friends.”

This self-revelation about his past — and his acceptance of the conjugal life as a serious contract between two consenting adults — smacks of the understanding Denzel has had not only about his own life’s purpose and his reliance on strong women, but of what he could bring to his onscreen portrayals.

Getting to the “Heart” of the Matter

Two minor efforts and one reasonably competent release comprised the next phase of Denzel Washington’s cinematic output.

Advertising poster for ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

The first film, titled Heart Condition, a drama-fantasy-comedy-police thriller, was released in February 1990 to mixed (code word for “middling”) reviews and less-than-decent box office returns. Starring the versatile English actor Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil, Hook) as police officer Jack Moony, the dashing Denzel as ambulance-chasing lawyer Napoleon Stone, Chloe Webb as the hooker with a heart of gold Crystal Gerrity, Roger E. Mosley as Captain Wendt, and Ja’net Dubois as Stone’s mother, the film has a reputation for having been a “career killer.” Surprisingly, neither Hoskins nor Denzel suffered any lasting repercussions because of it.

In Roger Ebert’s review, the late movie critic blasted the picture for being “all over the map,” one that “tries to be all things to all people” with multiple points of view, subplots galore, major and minor mishaps (including but not limited to endless car chases, shootouts, mistaken identities, etc.), and an over-abundance of double entendres and dumb sight gags, some in excruciatingly poor taste. And we thought Carbon Copy was bad! This flick tops even that early entry in the “comedy without substance” category.

The premise concerns a racist cop, Jack Moony, whose clashes with lawyer Stone come about through the shifty advocate’s spirited defense of his clients — namely, a pimp named Graham (Jeffrey Meek) and his stable of whores. One of the prostitutes, the aforementioned Crystal, is Moony’s ex-girlfriend. Things get “complicated” when (a) Stone starts to date the lovely Crystal; (b) Moony suffers a near fatal heart attack from over-indulgence; and (c) Stone gets shot and killed at around the same time. What, too many hitches for you? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

While Moony is in the hospital, he undergoes an emergency heart transplant. Guess whose heart he gets? No, really! One of the flick’s (um) “funnier” moments comes when somebody plants an over-sized black rubber penis between the recovering officer’s legs as he lies in bed. His reaction? The aptly named Moony dashes out to the nurses’ station and plants the fake penis on the counter.

“You put it in, now you take it out,” he demands. The nurse looks over at the doctor and asks, “You wanna tell me where he had it?” Hardy, harr, harr. Of course, what Moony meant was to take the heart out. You see, he’s a bigot, a regular Archie Bunker-type. And being a bigot, he can’t stand the thought of a black man’s heart beating inside his white man’s chest — specifically, that of his worst adversary Stone. Imagine Archie Bunker getting, say, George Jefferson’s heart! Or worse, Fred Sanford’s from Sanford and Son! That’s the basic setup.

The ghost of Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington) stares down at Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) in ‘Heart Condition’

And there’s another gimmick to contend with: the lawyer reappears to Moony as a ghost (in expensive suit and tie, no less), not just to haunt him but to make his life a living Hell. How miserable does he make it? Well, Stone keeps after him about eating healthier (“Keep away from them cheeseburgers! They clog your arteries and make your breath stink!”); and he snatches his cigarettes to prevent Moony from getting cancer. But what Stone really wants from Moony is to solve the mystery of who killed him.

Oh, and one more point: the ghost tries to hook Moony up with the hooker, who’s really a nice girl underneath the glamorous lipstick and wardrobe. As I said, it gets complicated. I promise not to reveal any more of the plot. So you’ll have to take my word for it: this is one convoluted crime caper. Still, Hoskins and Washington make a rambunctious pair — each with his own acting style. These two “bosom buddies” go at it tooth and nail, and then some. They’re about as compatible as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Just don’t expect anything in the way of intelligent conversations about race. It’s all for laughs, until it isn’t.

On a side note, neither actor would work together on any subsequent film projects.

Along similar but more violent lines, Denzel’s next picture, Ricochet (1991) — released in October 1991 and co-starring John Lithgow, Ice-T, Lindsay Wagner, Kevin Pollak, Josh Evans, and John Amos — was a police crime caper helmed by Australian action director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow).

Poster art for Russell Mulcahy’s ‘Ricochet’ (1991)

In this one (unseen by your truly), Denzel plays both a cop and a lawyer, occupations he will assume in many an upcoming feature. Lithgow is a vicious killer (talk about casting to type) who swears vengeance on Denzel, especially after the ex-cop becomes an assistant district attorney. And, like the ghost in Heart Condition, the Lithgow character succeeds in making Washington’s life miserable — a purer Hell, to put it plainly, but without the cornball antics.

This picture boasts so many twists and turns and hard-to-believe story angles that the characters gets lost in a maze of double- and triple-crosses.

Man Without a Country

On a slightly more believable note, the underrated Mississippi Masala (1991) held promise as a “date flick” with serious overtones. First released in France in September 1991, later in the U.K. in January 1992 and in the States a month later, Mississippi Masala blends a clash of ethnicities (one Indian American, the other African American) with a story about two everyday people who fall in love. Call it a romantic brew laced with social awareness.

Denzel plays Demetrius Williams, a self-employed carpet cleaner in Greenwood, Mississippi, about as far from the Mason-Dixon line of demarcation as you can get. Sarita Choudhury is Mina, a young Ugandan-born Indian woman who falls for the smooth-talking Demetrius. True to his gladiatorial namesake, the carpet cleaner engages in verbal combat with Mina’s father, Jay, played by Indian-born British actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) walks beside her main crush, Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in Mira Nair’s ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

Indian-American director, writer, and producer Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding), along with Indian-born screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake), fashioned an intelligently conceived account of racial conflict and reverse discrimination among working-class folk. Although there were problems at the outset with casting (for example, Ben Kingsley, a British subject with Indian ancestry, was originally slated to take on the part of the father) and the film barely broke even at the box office, Mississippi Masala can be seen as a precursor to Denzel’s next outing, the controversial Spike Lee-directed biopic Malcolm X.

Director Nair and her screenwriter completed the story in Brooklyn, after considerable research into the various cultures and locales involved. Filmed on location in and around Mississippi and Kampala, Uganda, the film has the ring of authenticity about it, as do the main characters and their hot-headed temperaments.

One of the movie’s prime attractions is the rapport shared by a charismatic Denzel with his attractive co-star, the engaging Sarita Choudhury. Their on-again, off-again, then on-again relationship is more than credible and firmly rooted in their respective character’s familial dilemmas. As critic Ebert observed, it’s “more than a transplanted Romeo and Juliet,” or an updated version of West Side Story. If anything, the lead characters’ issues are comparable to those of Tony and Maria.

Actress Sarita Choudhury as Mina, the love interest in ‘Mississippi Masala’

In Mina’s case, her father Jay, as head of the family, has suffered humiliation and expulsion from his home in Uganda due to ex-dictator Idi Amin’s edict that all “Asians” must leave the country forthwith. (This narrative corresponds, to some extent, to several of Denzel’s earlier forays Cry Freedom and For Queen and Country). Jay’s distrust of people of color and the motives behind their actions are the guiding forces of his and his wife’s objections to their only daughter dating an African American, albeit a successful sole proprietor. The situation is a difficult one for actors as well, in that they must convey bias towards one another in ways that audiences can relate to and sympathize without seeming obvious or cloying.

Much of the success of this production comes from Roshan Seth’s truthful yet poignant depiction of Jay as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Both cultures, Indian and African American, are given equal time to make their case, both pro and con. Even the sharp-witted and keenly discerning Demetrius must contend with mindless preconceptions of so-called “family values” where his own relatives are concerned.

Jay (Roshan Seth) has a heart-to-heart with Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

We, the viewers, can make up our own minds based on our background and experiences. Whether you agree with Jay and his wife’s viewpoints (who appear to discriminate among others of their own kind), or whether you take Demetrius and Mina’s side of the argument (one that shines a light on the struggles of all people of color in the segregated South), there will be lots to discuss after the houselights come on. The closing footage, wherein a young Ugandan child stretches forth his hand to touch Jay’s cheek, will touch your heart as well.

Indeed, this highly recommended flick has topical resonance for today’s displaced migrants and for all individuals who identify with country and culture — the essence of what makes us tick.

End of Part Five

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Five) — The British Period and Thereabouts

Actor-musician Johnny Depp at the turn of the half century

Nice Work (If You Can Get It)

That old proverb about “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” could never be attributed to our eponymously titled, middle-aged thespian, i.e., the remarkably adept Mr. John Christopher Depp II, aka Johnny Depp.

With a rich bevy of diverse acting assignments before him, many as varied and sundry as stars half his age would absolutely die for, Depp remained at the forefront of the most-sought-after-screen-personalities category from the New Millennium onward.

Not all of Johnny’s cinematic endeavors were paved with gold, mind you. In spite of ever increasing budgets, exhaustive work schedules, stratospheric salary demands and critical brickbats, the still-popular film actor continued to impress reviewers and fans alike with his versatility and wide-ranging choice of projects.

Indeed, the time he spent in Western Europe, directly (and indirectly) correlated to his live-in relationship with the French-born Vanessa Paradis, certainly had a pervasive effect on how, where and when Depp would put in his next big-screen appearance.

Many of his choices were, for lack of a better word, “odd” or bordering on cameo and/or “supporting player” status. Still, nothing could stop the ever-striving JD from seeking out more satisfying challenges — something that would continue to occupy his hyperactive imagination for years to come and ensure a prominent spot on his expanding curriculum vitae.

‘Lasse, Come Home!’ — Chocolat (2000)

Johnny Depp (l.) helping himself to a treat from Juliette Binoche’s hands in Lasse Hallstrom’s ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

One of Depp’s better-than-average characterizations occurred in his next international film foray. Swedish movie director Lars Sven Hallström, more commonly known as Lasse Hallström, tapped Johnny Depp to appear in the whimsically themed Chocolat (2000), based on the novel by English author Joanne Harris. Lasse and Johnny had formerly worked together on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, which had also placed an ensemble cast in quirky yet tantalizing situations.

Filmed on location in both France and England, Chocolat stars the amiable French actress Juliette Binoche as chocolatier Vianne Rocher, a sort of modern-day fairy godmother but without the magic wand and pixie dust. Instead of those standard accoutrements, Vianne uses sweets to charm her customers. In Binoche’s words, “Vianne sells small dreams and little comforts through chocolates.”

Featured as well are some familiar names as repressed village types, among them a dour-faced Alfred Molina as the killjoy mayor Comte de Reynaud, fabulous Judi Dench as the resentful landlady Armande, and Matrix alumnus Carrie-Anne Moss as her straight-arrow daughter Catherine. Rachel Portman (The Cider House Rules), one of the few female film composers under-utilized by Hollywood at the time, wrote the starry-eyed music score.

Others in the cast include Lena Olin (reuniting with Ms. Binoche since their joint appearance in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being) as the abused wife Josephine, hulking Peter Stormare as her menacing husband Serge, veteran actress Leslie Caron as a lonely widow, John Wood as the old geezer secretly infatuated with her, and America’s own charmer, Johnny Depp, as an accommodating barge owner named Roux with a faux Irish brogue.

Despite a misleading ad campaign showing Binoche feeding Johnny a bite-sized morsel (which implied a much larger part in the picture than he actually had), Depp’s short-lived contribution as Juliette’s gypsy lover is fleeting but significant enough to merit our consideration.

Blues Brother: Juliette Binoche listens to Johnny Depp as he tunes his resonator guitar in ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

By the way, Johnny’s guitar playing is for real and, according to director Hallström, it was the first time he played the instrument on screen. In addition, his little dance with Dame Judi is an absolute delight and rekindles fond memories of the Brando-Dunaway partnership in Depp’s Don Juan DeMarco.

In a 2015 interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Binoche admitted that neither Johnny Depp nor Alfred Molina liked the dark, tasty treat very much. In fact, Depp spat out his portion of chocolates after each of their takes, which goes against the spirit of the script’s premise. Ah, but that’s real life for you.

Indeed, this fanciful tale, billed as a “sinfully delicious comedy” (wink, wink) of a stagnant French village frozen in time, abounds in intimate side-stories. But over the “main course” of the feature, Binoche manages to change even the humorless mayor’s mind through her delectable confections. Which goes to show that sweetness and light make everything right.

Since the story takes place at Easter (as close to Christmas time as you’re liable to get), Vianne can be seen as the angel third-class Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, or at best one of Charles Dickens’ three ghosts. Which ghost would that be? Take your pick! Then ask yourself this question: Who can know the mysterious ways of whimsy?

From Hell (2001)

A deadly serious Depp as Inspector Abberline in ‘From Hell’ (2001)

From the unbearable lightness of dark chocolate, we plunge into the darkest recesses of the human mind. From Hell, a thriller loosely based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic-novel take on the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, was Johnny’s next venture.

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, collectively known as the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), From Hell stands as the official start of what we like to refer to as Johnny’s “British period,” wherein the actor displayed an ersatz (yet perfectly respectable) English affectation in several big-budget pictures.

Prior to From Hell, Johnny participated in two minor features, specifically The Man Who Cried (directed by Sally Potter) and Before Night Falls (under Julian Schnabel’s direction, the fellow who befriended street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and who made a motion picture about him — see my review of that film: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/an-artists-life-for-me-ten-motion-pictures-that-ask-the-question-does-life-imitate-art-part-three/).

Another Anglo-French flick, The Man Who Cried is an operatically-themed work that re-teamed Johnny (fourth-billed from the top) with Christina Ricci, his co-star in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Sleepy Hollow. For yours truly (opera lover that I am), to hear actor John Turturro emoting as Italian tenor Dante and singing Nadir’s aria from The Pearl Fishers (voiced by true-life tenor Salvatore Licitra) is a bit hard to swallow.

In the biopic Before Night Falls, Johnny forgoes his heartthrob status to take on dual character parts: that of the transvestite Bon Bon (an unintended reference to Chocolat, no doubt) with that of Lt. Victor; opposite the Spanish Javier Bardem, who portrays gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Viewers may be reminded of Depp’s wacky assumption of famed Golden Turkey Award winner Ed Wood (if you see the movie, you’ll know what we mean).

Javier Bardem (l.) has a falling out with “Bon Bon” (Johnny Depp) in Julian Schnabel’s ‘Before Night Falls’ (2000)

Depp’s skill at vocal mimicry came in handy in the above features, in that he successfully undertook a Romanian accent in The Man Who Cried, as well as a Cuban one in Before Night Falls. Beyond that, both films slipped off the radar as far as box-office was concerned. But the one that got them all talking again came direct From Hell (quite literally in fact).

You might call this a “slasher fest” or body horror-cum-murder mystery. However you see it, From Hell will curdle your hair. Depp takes the part of Police Inspector Frederick Abberline, an opium addict who spends his off hours in a den of haze and smoke, with horrid “visions” of killings dancing in his head. He takes a personal interest (a little too personal, it turns out) in investigating what became known as “the Ripper murders,” due mostly to the brutal way the homicides of Whitechapel prostitutes were committed.

Poster art for ‘From Hell’ starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham

True to form, the inspector falls in love with, and tries to protect, one of the targeted streetwalkers, Mary Kelly (played by a much-too-wholesome Heather Graham). And why were the Whitechapel hookers being targeted for execution? Well, if you believe the cockamamie theories put forth, they were all unwitting participants in a coverup perpetrated by Freemasons (what, those guys again?) to protect the libidinous Prince Albert, heir to the English throne and Queen Victoria’s randy grandson, from being caught with his breeches down. Shame, shame, shame, Uncle Bertie!

Robbie Coltrane (the giant groundskeeper Hagrid from the Harry Potter series) plays Abberline’s assistant, Sergeant Peter Godley, in good-natured, friendly-banter fashion. Mr. Coltrane uses his large frame to buttress Johnny’s slenderer figure. They come across as squabbling combatants à la Laurel and Hardy. Ian Holm (The Fifth Element, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) invests the role of Dr. William Gull, a former surgeon and physician to Her Royal Highness, with just the right amount of highborn reserve; while Ian Richardson (Dark City) as Abberline’s superior officer is impatience personified, and perfectly capable of cutting anyone down to size with a mere look.

Much of the thunder was taken out of this newest screen version of old Jack’s tawdry tale — mostly, in our view, due to a previous trip down this same rabbit hole via the much better Murder by Decree from 1979. In that earlier incarnation, Sherlock Holmes (a perfectly cast Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (a fumbling yet pensive James Mason) are assigned to investigate the Ripper murders and wind up implicating the usual suspects (Freemasons, Royal Family hijinks, etc.). We can take the comparison further with the recent Sherlock Holmes (2009), directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as master detective and loyal cohort, respectively, where the recycled Freemasons plot gets skewered with an absurd sleight-of-hand angle.

In the Hughes Brothers’ grislier adaptation, which author Moore vehemently distanced himself from (with claims of their having turned the inspector into an “absinthe-swilling dandy”), the blood and gore quotient was turned up to 11. Somehow and despite the distasteful aspects to the story, both Depp and Ms. Graham managed to avoid the temptation of a tagged-on “happy ending” by a parting of the ways (oh, what sweet sorrow). Sadly, a disillusioned Inspector Abberline closes out his police career with one last shot of dope in a public bath house.

Any resemblance to Johnny’s deadly serious Inspector Abberline with his deft comic portrayal of the bumbling Constable Ichabod Crane is sheer coincidence. The two detectives are worlds apart in temperament and tone, as are Depp’s love interests in each. Incidentally, Depp uses a mild Cockney accent to underscore Abberline’s humbler background to that of the supercilious blue-blooded twits populating the upper-echelons of British society.

Blow (2001)

Johnny Depp as drug dealer George Jung in ‘Blow’ (2001)

What came out From Hell, and what many critics and reviewers drew from Johnny Depp’s performance, was his affinity for and attraction to ensemble work. Similar to fellow actor Denzel Washington (an older star whom we’ve also written about), but unlike his contemporary Tom Cruise, Depp much preferred to share the limelight with his fellow practitioners.

You can interpret that decision as either claiming the glory or spreading the blame, but Johnny was serious about taking a backseat to fame and fortune. He already had it, to put it plainly; let others have their turn.

This led to his next assignment, one most leading men would either give their right arm for or refuse to touch with a ten-foot pole. Directed by Ted Demme (filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s nephew), the movie Blow (also from 2001) sported an unusually unlikeable and unglamorized central figure for Johnny (in blond tresses, no less); that is, of 1970s cocaine dealer and drug smuggler George Jung.

One thing about this production that stood front-and-center from the rest was that Johnny would no longer need to hide his American speech patterns underneath a foreign accent. That would be left to the Latin participants, namely Penélope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Gimenez, and others. Cruz, however, proved especially egregious in the part of Jung’s Colombian wife Mirtha, a shrill-toned shrew that, as the story progressed, became impossible to tame.

Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp & Jordi Molla party hearty in ‘Blow’ (2001)

On the other hand, reliable and complimentary support would come from the likes of the excellent Paul Reubens (the former Peewee Herman) as Derek Foreal (no, really, for real!), Jung’s middleman in La-La-Land; Cliff Curtis as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel; a sullen Ray Liotta (GoodFellas) as Jung’s old man; and young Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts’ niece) as Jung’s daughter Kristina Sunshine. This was a “reel” family affair (no pun intended).

Another, more important discovery was Johnny’s apparent concern for the downtrodden, i.e., the lowlifes, the miscreants, the so-called “scum of the earth” — people best left to wallow in their own misdeeds. This “empathy” for the down and out, for lack of a better word, would manifest itself on-and-off the screen in future portrayals that would bring the restless actor low box-office receipts but much professional satisfaction.

(End of Part Five)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

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

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

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

Basquiat (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Basquiat’ poster art

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

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

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

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

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

Pollock (2000)

Marcia Gay Harden & Ed Harris in ‘Pollock’

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

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

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

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

Ed Harris as lookalike painter Jackson Pollock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frida (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting from life: Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Street Life: The Politically Incorrect World of Animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoonist, artist, writer, producer and animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoon Caricatures

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

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

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

The young Ralph Bakshi, drawing away in his studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a Second to Spare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The controversial and racially charged “Coonskin” (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

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

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

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

Lust for Life (1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon and Sixpence (1946)

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

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

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

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

George Sanders as the fictional artist Charles Strickland

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

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

Vincent & Theo (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes