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

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Five): ‘JFK’ and the Verdict of History

Movie poster for Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ (1991)

Prosecution vs. Persecution

We come now to the final phase of the movie JFK, which involves the trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (aka Clay Bertrand) vs. the State of Louisiana. The charge: the plotting and assassination of the United States of America’s 35th President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In this corner, representing the state of Louisiana, we have Parish of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

During the preceding two hours (in the director’s cut of the film), the stage has been set for a courtroom showdown between the very “good” (Garrison and his team of Kennedy loyalists) and the very “bad” (Shaw and his nefarious band of cross-dressers). The “ugly” side of the equation is represented by various participants missing from the proceedings, including the actual perpetrator of the crime, Lee Harvey Oswald; his murderer, nightclub owner Jack Ruby; and a diminishing cast of colorful characters, among them the overexcited David Ferrie, the nervous Jack Martin, the quarrelsome Guy Banister, the mysterious ex-military man known as X, and others.

Before we get into the particulars of the trial itself, let me say a few words about two of the terms used in association with court proceedings of this nature. The terms are “prosecution” and “persecution.” A district attorney such as Garrison, or any attorney who represents the state, county, or municipality, is known as a “prosecutor.” The person (or persons) accused of committing a crime is known as the “defendant” — that is, the individual who is defending him- or herself against an alleged charge. This individual, according to our system of jurisprudence, is allowed another individual to act as defense counsel before, during and after said proceedings.

Although the terms in question sound suspiciously alike — and some people may find them confusing — most individuals have no problem distinguishing prosecution from persecution. The ordinary citizen has a fairly clear idea when he or she is being persecuted. Similarly, and thanks to such television series as Law & Order, Boston Legal, LA Law, CSI and others, one can tell when one is being prosecuted for a crime.

The prosecutor, DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), with wife Lizzie (Sissy Spacek) being grilled by reporters in ‘JFK’

Still, it behooves us to differentiate between these two terms of art for purposes of clarity. Let’s begin with the word “prosecute.” To prosecute someone, in the argot of everyday usage, means “to continue with a course of action with a view to its completion.” Conversely, in legal terminology it can mean “to institute legal proceedings against a person or organization.” According to Black’s Law Dictionary, to prosecute means “To follow up; to carry on an action or other judicial proceeding; to proceed against a person criminally.”

From the verb form “to prosecute,” we move on to its noun configuration: a “prosecution,” then, is “a criminal action; a proceeding instituted and carried on by due course of law, before a competent tribunal, for the purpose of determining the guilt or innocence of a person charged with [a] crime.” Black’s Law Dictionary goes on to explain that “[b]y an easy extension of its meaning ‘prosecution’ is sometimes used to designate the state as the party proceeding in a criminal action, or the prosecutor, or counsel; as when we speak of the ‘the evidence adduced by the prosecution.’”

On the other hand, to “persecute” someone implies a state of mind, or (more sinisterly) the mind of the state. To “persecute” means “to treat someone extremely badly or to refuse them equal rights, especially because of race, religion, or political beliefs” (the Macmillan Dictionary meaning). Merriam-Webster defines the term as “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief.”

“Persecution,” or the act of persecuting a person, can be defined as “hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs.” In our time, the term has been extended to include one’s sexual orientation, place of origin, nationality, or any number of defamatory insinuations based solely on aspects of the individual (or individuals) or an entire race of individuals.

We, the viewer, will be privy to both persecution and prosecution during the remainder of Oliver Stone’s picture.

Mistrial of the Century

DA Garrison (Kevin Costner) demonstrates what occurred at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on the day of JFK’s assassination

Basically, the last 50 minutes or so of the 3 hour and 25 minute director’s cut of JFK devotes itself to the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald — done in absentia, of course, since Oswald was shot dead by Jack Ruby. Witnesses are called and give testimony, many of who are laughably disreputable (a heroin addict, for instance), and some are actual real-life eye-witnesses who were, according to Stone in his director’s commentary, “natural actors.”

One individual in particular, Charles Spiegel, an accountant from New York, is particularly outlandish. He claims to have attended a 1963 party where Ferrie, Shaw and Oswald discussed plans to assassinate a sitting president. Under cross-examination, Spiegel reveals that his shrink as well as the police conspired to interfere with his thought process, and that he fingerprinted his daughter every time she returned from school to determine if she was really his daughter. Hmm….. There are many such sloppy moments throughout the trial. DA Garrison delivers the opening statement and summation at the end, along with intermittent appearances off and on during the entirety of the proceedings.

There’s also that “dramatic” scene where Garrison’s wife Liz enters the courtroom with their eldest son at the moment when the prosecutor discusses Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film (“Locked away in a vault for the last five years,” he stresses). Garrison had to subpoena TIME-LIFE magazine to release the disturbing footage. Despite the subpoena, it was not the complete version that was shown, however (it was still missing the notorious frame 313, kept secret from the public’s view for twelve years after the assassination). TIME-LIFE had withheld the frame for all that time. Is this a clear case of artistic license? Absolutely!

Garrison explains that Kennedy’s head motion was a neurovascular reaction to the shot fired by Oswald from the Texas Book Depository Building across Dealey Plaza. He goes on to elaborate on the intricacies of the case and the “three bullets involved in the actual shooting.” It is here that the so-called “magic bullet” theory is divulged. Garrison challenges the viewer to follow the bullet’s trajectory, down and over to the right, then up and over to the left. “That’s some bullet!” he muses.

Director Stone inserts a scene between Garrison’s narrative (shot in black-and-white) wherein Jack Ruby places the “magic bullet” on a stretcher. However, no explanation is given for his presence since Ruby was nowhere near the Parkland Hospital in Dallas where Kennedy’s body was taken for analysis. This is pure speculation on the filmmaker’s part. The outcome is that there must have been a fourth shot fired by a second marksman — and, by definition, a veritable conspiracy afoot.

The “magic bullet” theory explained in ‘JFK’

Moving the narrative forward, people claim they heard shots from the infamous grassy knoll; others heard shots (highlighted by a puff of smoke) from behind a picket fence. Concurrently, there was much confusion over the autopsy of JFK’s corpse. Gruesome, shocking photos of the body are intercut with testimony from the doctors who attended or performed the autopsy. In fact, it’s hinted that another autopsy was done in Bethesda, Maryland, and that the CIA (or was it the FBI?) had purposely interfered. It’s been argued, too, for years whether JFK’s throat shot was an exit wound or an entrance wound. It may have been an incision made to allow Kennedy to breathe, but the president was already dead at the time. Garrison states that when they issued a court order to examine Kennedy’s brain in the National Archives, they were told that it had “disappeared”— another “WTF” moment.

Next, Garrison tries to recreate the scene of the crime — with people going about their business. One man went into an epileptic seizure. There was speculation about what was going on, admitted to by Stone himself, which weakens his, and by association, Garrison’s argument immeasurably for his case. If one is driven to speculate about what actually happened, then the facts are being ignored. Could these be “alternative facts”? In other words, one is going from the known variables to the unknown variables, with little to support them outside of those cockamamie ideas.

When It Rains, It Pours: The “Umbrella Man” Theory

We now move into the area of additional shooters and spotters. But this line of reasoning neglects the most basic assumption of the case, which is the press did not release Kennedy’s exact motorcade route until the day before his arrival in Dallas. Travel being what it was in the early 1960s, there was simply not enough time for ALL of the alleged participants (except for Oswald) to be in place to commit their dastardly deeds, as hypothesized by Stone. To further undermine his assertions, there’s a phony shot of the iniquitous “umbrella man,” debunked in its entirety by the documentarian Errol Morris’ six-minute Umbrella Man, with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, one of the earliest critics of the Warren Commission Report on the president’s assassination.

So what was a man in a business suit doing with an umbrella on a warm and sunny November day in Texas? A beloved emblem for conspiracy theorists, the belief is that Umbrella Man may have raised his parasol as a signal to fellow conspirators, or as a covert weapon, i.e., the much talked-about flechette or dart, a “little arrow” shot from the umbrella itself. Ridiculous you say? James Bond spy stuff? Not to those pesky conspiracy theorists. A cottage industry has sprouted as a result of this specious premise.

The mysterious Umbrella Man in Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’

Incidentally, the REAL Umbrella Man was eventually found. He even had a name (which happens to be Louie Steven Witt), when he appeared before the House Assassinations Committee. Witt brought his umbrella to Dealey Plaza, he insisted, in order to protest Kennedy’s visit. The object symbolized the umbrella-carrying British ex-prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, before the outbreak of World War II. Chamberlain was known for his policy of appeasement toward the Nazis in allowing Hitler to take whatever territory he pleased prior to the outbreak of hostilities. All this can be found in Smithsonian’s October 2013 article, “Seeing Zapruder,” by Ron Rosenbaum — enlightening reading, I might add, and a real eye-opener in its meticulous deconstruction of so many loony theories about the Kennedy assassination.

Back to the court: three teams, 10 to 12 men each, and a triangulation of shots from different vantage points. And you think Lee Harvey Oswald was one of these “lone gunmen”? Highly unlikely! So many participants — and they all kept their mouths’ shut for all these years? To the director’s credit, he destroys the theory that the Mob, i.e., the Mafia, had orchestrated a hit on Kennedy. “Nonsense,” Stone stressed in his commentary. “They had no known hits likes this.” It would take an organizational ability the Mob had no way of conducting to pull off a stunt such as a presidential assassination.

Finally, we come to the reconstruction of Kennedy’s killing, masterfully executed (please excuse the unintended pun) and a magnificent piece of cinematic story-telling. It’s totally bogus, of course, and useless as factual history. The juxtaposition of grainy black-and-white film stock (found footage?) with colorful shots of the motorcade are scrupulously edited but add next to nothing to our knowledge of what transpired on November 22, 1963, a date we commemorate today, Thanksgiving Day, with the publishing of this post.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie in the motorcade in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963

Garrison repeats the exact moment that Kennedy’s head is shattered: “Back and to the left, back and to the left.” This is where frame 313 comes in, which, as we stated above, was never shown in public, and certainly not at the Clay Shaw trial. If the frame was released twelve years after the fact, that would make it 1975. Shaw’s trial ended in acquittal: he was arrested on March 1, 1967, went to trial on January 21, 1969, which ended a month later with his “not guilty” verdict. So this spurious frame, while occupying a strategic spot in Stone’s visual conception, was never seen as part of the Zapruder film. Six years after Shaw’s trial, the TIME-LIFE company reluctantly released it. Nice try, Ollie!

But wait! It gets worse! Stone, through Garrison’s voice and figure, takes the audience through the aftermath of JFK’s murder. The various teams (or “hit squads”) quickly disassemble their weapons and flee the scene of the crime, leaving only strategic evidence to “implicate” their patsy Oswald. This left “a mess,” Stone admits, between the Dallas police , the undercover folks, the umbrella man, individuals taken into custody (a roundup of the “usual suspects,” one supposes), phony tramps and hobos, and so on. People at street level claim to have seen two men on the second floor of the Texas Book Depository Building. Inmates on the sixth floor of the Dallas County Jail were all hollering and yelling that they, too, had seen “something.” What that “something” was is never divulged.

Meanwhile, Oswald, according to Garrison, was “nonchalant” about where he was at the time of the shooting. The conjecture regarding Oswald is astounding. It’s tantamount to Stone exonerating the man because he — Stone — has a hard time accepting the fact that Oswald (a man in his early 30s) was capable of running down six flights of stairs, was accosted by a policeman on the first floor, went out the front exit and calmly walked down to the street and into broad daylight, a street teeming with bewildered bystanders at the horrific events of the day.

Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) is mobbed by press and the police

Oswald then goes back to the boarding house where he and his Russian wife Marina were staying. Next, Oswald walks a short distance to the movie theater, where he subsequently shoots Police Officer Tippett dead. Oswald enters the theater (with footage shot in the actual theater) and is arrested. The patsy is apprehended and booked for murder. A few days later, Jack Ruby is allowed access to the police station where during a routine prisoner transfer Ruby shoots Oswald dead in front of the Dallas police and shocked newspaper reporters.

When the Facts Become Legend

As Garrison begins to wrap up his findings, director Stone reveals that he took some of the District Attorney’s speech from the actual court transcripts and from the book, On the Trail of the Assassins, on which the film is based. “National security” is cited as the reason for refusing to release the records in the National Archives regarding the Kennedy assassination. Garrison submits that what took place that day in Dallas was a coup d’état. The warnings of the mysterious “X” have come back to haunt us. “War is the biggest business America has,” Garrison poses. It sure as hell is! And, as Hyman Roth admitted to Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, organized crime is “bigger than US Steel,” a dubious honor at best.

Now get ready for this, folks: here comes the conspiracy angle! Garrison blatantly accuses Clay Shaw of being the culprit behind it all. Cold-blooded ex-CIA types, military men, expert sharpshooters, disgruntled Cubans, etc., etc., and so on. They were all in on the plot. Garrison’s gaze is fixed on Shaw who looks forlornly at his accuser with a good deal of skepticism.

Garrison allows his emotions to run away with him. Compare this scene with that of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Except here, we’re not in Washington, D.C., but in “Big Easy” New Orleans. Garrison speaks a line from Tennyson: “Do not forget your king,” meaning “Let not your leader die in vain. Do something to avenge him.” With that, Garrison rests his case. He slumps into his prosecutor’s chair. The judge slams his gavel down on the bench, the verdict is rendered. The judge asks the defendant, Shaw, to rise and the clerk reads the jury’s verdict: “Not guilty.”

Was Clay Shaw prosecuted or persecuted? Was justice served or not by his trial? And was Garrison a hero or a goat for trying Shaw as a conspirator (along with President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as accessories after the fact)?

From behind, Lizzie Garrison places her right hand on hubby Garrison’s right shoulder (the hands of the “righteous” are extended to one another). Garrison takes it and kisses it. When asked if he will resign his position, Garrison quickly replies, “Hell no. I’m going to run again. And I’m gonna win,” which, in fact, he did.

Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek in a scene from the film ‘JFK’, 1991. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Garrison walks down the great hall of the court house. With briefcase in hand, his left arm around his loving wife and their eight-year-old son holding mom’s hand, the camera pulls back and the lights fade on an end scroll:

“In 1979, the director of Covert Operations Richard Helm admitted that Clay Shaw had worked for the CIA. Clay Shaw died in 1974 of lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker).

“In 1978, Garrison was elected Judge of the Louisiana State Court of Appeals in New Orleans. He was re-elected in 1988.

“Two million Asians and 58,000 Americans died in Southeast Asia; $220 billion spent, 10 million Americans air-lifted by commercial aircraft, more than 5,000 helicopters lost, six-and-a-half million tons of bombs dropped.”

Congressional investigations from 1976-77 found a “probable conspiracy” in the assassination of JFK. The files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations are locked away “until the year 2029.”

The film JFK ends with a final scroll:

WHAT IS PAST IS PROLOGUE

DEDICATED TO THE YOUNG IN WHOSE SPIRIT

THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH MARCHES ON

An additional blurb also appears (added for the director’s cut):

“As a result of this film, Congress in 1992 passed legislation to appoint a panel to review all files and determine which ones would be made available to the American public.”

The date was set to 25 years later. Finally, on October 26, 2017, the Trump Administration announced the release of classified and unclassified documents in the Kennedy assassination. Unfortunately, the timing was a wee bit premature. Some of the documents still needed to be redacted, so Americans had to wait another six months for the names of informants to be edited out, mostly for fear of reprisals after the fact.

“The Truth,” as we all know, “will set you free.” And, according to Oliver Stone’s JFK, it might even get you killed. On another cinematic occasion, “When the legend becomes fact,” as claimed by the newspaper journalist in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” But when the facts become legend, which of them do you print, the facts or the legend?

On this, the 55th anniversary of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death, Americans are still trying to figure that out.

(To be continued….)      

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

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

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

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

Lust for Life (1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon and Sixpence (1946)

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

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

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

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

George Sanders as the fictional artist Charles Strickland

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

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

Vincent & Theo (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

“The Agony and the Ecstasy” poster art

Artists and their works …. These have been much on our mind of late. In fact, how often have we heard the phrase “Artists are such temperamental creatures?” Perhaps you may have said it yourself — at one time or another — to a friend, to a colleague, or to no one in particular. To me, the natural follow-up question would be: How true is this statement? With the next logical query being: Do all artists suffer that much for their art?

There’s only one way to find out, though, and that’s by looking at various film depictions of artists and the artistic life — mostly painters in general, but a few other dedicated “craftsmen” set aside for this purpose.

Let’s try to establish, once and for all, if their suffering has impacted their work to any noticeable degree — noticeable, that is, to us film buffs. Maybe then, and only then, can the above questions be answered.

So let’s proceed chronologically, if that’s all right with you?

 The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

Bramante (Harry Andrews), Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) & the artist Michelangelo (Charlton Heston)

Based on the 1961 novel by Irving Stone, who wrote the earlier Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy is the story of Michelangelo Buonarrotti, the high-minded High-Renaissance artist, poet, and sculptor par excellence; his lively battles with the obstinate Pope Julius II; and his long-term commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The novel was turned into a dryly verbose, dramatically inert but effective enough motion picture.

With a sonorous film score by Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith, and superb wide-screen photography by Leon Shamroy (it was shot simultaneously in Todd-AO and CinemaScope), the film version, released in 1965, starred the finely-chiseled American Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments, El Cid) as Michelangelo and a veddy British Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, Dr. Doolittle) as the so-called “Warrior” Pope Julius, with Diane Cilento as the Countess de’ Medici, Harry Andrews as Bramante, Alberto Lupo as the Duke of Urbino, and Adolfo Celi as Giovanni de’ Medici.

The movie’s pace is somewhat static. And the main argument, based on the artistic principle that an artist — even one of Michelangelo’s rarefied caliber — may not show Adam and Eve without their clothes, may go over the heads of most of laypeople. Another, equally telling aspect was Michelangelo’s unwillingness to dabble in paint. He insisted, quite rightly, that sculpture was his true calling, and struggled valiantly to come to terms with his desire to do justice to the Sistine Chapel assignment.

Michelangelo chisels away at one of his sculptures

As the actor personifying the artist, Heston was known for his voracious reading habits and assiduous background research into the lives of the historical individuals he was portraying. Not only did he study the methods used by Michelangelo to achieve his main purpose (i.e. the wielding of a hammer and chisel), but he practiced lying on his back for hours in order to master the art of fresco painting. All of which, it must be said, amounted to a believable if somewhat trite representation of the all-suffering artist.

However, one of the key scenes, if not THE key scene, in the picture is the moment when Heston’s quest for a viable theme for the project manifests itself atop a mountain overlooking the marble quarry where Michelangelo is at work. According to author Jeff Rovin, in The Films of Charlton Heston, “It is sunset, and as day wanes the sky becomes the ceiling and the clouds form God, Adam, and the other focal points of the mural while Heston recites [the Creation of Adam section from] Genesis.” Corny, yes, but quite inspiring! The music provides just the right emotional counterpoint to this episode.

The Creation of Adam sequence from “The Agony and the Ecstasy”

Produced and directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), the film does have its moments — especially when Heston and Harrison go at it tooth and nail (they feuded in real life on and off the movie set). Still, there’s that excellent score by North and picturesque location scenery (it was filmed in and around Italy, but not in the actual Sistine Chapel, which was recreated at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome).

An ersatz feminine “love interest” (the Diane Cilento character) is pure fiction. As history has recorded for us, the unpredictable Michelangelo (much like his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, as well as several other artists around that time) was homosexually inclined.

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Written and directed by the Russian-born Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev (pronounced “Roo-blyov”) concerns the ambiguous fifteenth-century icon painter and the mysterious workings of the Middle Ages and the Russian Orthodox Church, among other matters.

A scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” (1966)

Filmed in glorious back and white — except for the epilogue, which was photographed in stunningly vivid color — and divided into seven parts, this is a ponderously labored, winding and winnowing, difficult to grasp feature. In general, Tarkovsky’s films are a hard slog to wade through. Irrespective of standard movie lengths or plot lines, the writer-director’s body of work relies more on mood and tone; sounds are employed and magnified not so much for aesthetic merit but for their narrative value.

Tarkovksy also eschews his compatriot Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory of cinema. Instead, he provides the viewer with a multiplicity of images, many of them painstakingly staged and lasting many minutes of screen time. The term “texture” has often been cited to describe his unique visual style.

“Andrei Rublev” courtesy of Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel

A true original, Tarkovsky took great pains to avoid emulating any of his predecessors. If anything, he would modify his carefully constructed scenes so as not to call attention to the work of others. (Note: Tarkovsky DID learn the value of silence and extended takes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the release of his sci-fi drama Solaris in 1972; incidentally, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki used many of Tarkovsky’s continuous-motion techniques in both Birdman and The Revenant).

With Andrei Rublev (only his second picture), Tarkovsky reached what might be termed his full maturity. This close to four-hour production, then, is an unmatched introduction to his cinematic universe. It is technically proficient, as are all his films, and visually compelling as well. The lead character (played by a morose Anatoly Solonitsyn) is moodiness personified. Rublev goes through as much inner turmoil as mental and physical deprivations. As a matter of fact, so do all of the individuals in the story.

Actor Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev

The theme of the artist as both participant and observer in the drama of life is carried through from beginning to ending. It starts off with a seemingly unrelated prologue of a man flying in hot-air balloon fashion over a church and open field — symbolic, of course, of the artist trying to take flight but crash-landing moments later despite his efforts. Episodic and sadistic, gritty and grim, with scenes of mayhem, rape and animal torture, along with eye-gouging and similar wartime atrocities, the violence quotient in Rublev’s world remains high, as one would expect from a tale that takes place in medieval times.

Curiously, for a film about a painter of religious icons, the artist Rublev is rarely caught in the act of painting. There’s a point, too, in the drama where he ceases talking altogether (a vow of silence in penance for murdering a man), which only infuriates his friend Kirill (Ivan Lapikov). Another remarkable incident occurs near the end with the casting of a church bell by the novice bell-maker Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev). Will the bell ring out or not? If it doesn’t, then the Grand Prince (Yuriy Nazarov) who commissioned the casting will kill them all. Although he later admits that he knew nothing about casting bells, Boriska represents the artisan who lacks confidence in his own abilities, yet nevertheless manages to complete a given task — either by his mastery of the field or by sheer dumb luck!

End of Part One

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

Battle of Wills and Wonts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster art for “The Buccaneer” (1958)

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

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

Birds of a Feather Rarely Flock Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part Two

(To be continued …..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

Ce-le-brate Good Times, Come On!

Poster art for Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered (1947)

A happy and belated July 4 to one and all!

Since that date marks the start of our country’s struggle for liberty and independence, the focus of today’s post (and future ones thereafter) will be the theme of patriotism and how it is represented in such varied forms as motion pictures, the Broadway stage and — believe it or not — the opera house.

Let’s begin with a few selected works from the days of silent and sound cinema.

In point of fact, silent films depicting the American Revolution and/or the Founding Fathers striving for independence against an opressive ruler were few and far between. Scarce is the word I would use to describe the relative lack of footage from the silent era that depicts the forging of our nation, or any other nation for that matter.

One of the main reasons for this shortage is the incontrovertible truth that many movies have simply deteriorated over time due to their having been made on nitrate or other perishable film stock. Film preservation, as an acknowledged and accepted practice, was practically non-existent.

Beyond that reality, there are several silent features that have depicted such prominent figures as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and various others. For starters, famed silent film director David Wark (D.W.) Griffith was noted for such gargantuan presentations as Intolerance (1916), Orphans of the Storm (1921), and especially The Birth of a Nation (1915).

D.W. Griffith (center) with his favorite photographer Billy Bitzer (left)

An early example of long-form storytelling and narrative build-up, the bulk of Birth of a Nation takes place during and after the Civil War, in the so-termed Reconstruction period. Against this backdrop, such historical personalities as President Lincoln (played by Joseph Henabery), his assassin John Wilkes Booth (future action director Raoul Walsh), and Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) are juxtaposed against fictional protagonists Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), Col. Benjamin Cameron (Henry B. Walthal), Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), and Gus (Walter Long) in a romantic tale of two families on opposite sides of the conflict.

In many respects, Griffith’s epic production is a forerunner of the no-less-compelling (and far lengthier) Gone with the Wind a full generation later, with GWTW  boasting a less overtly racist premise. Despite Birth of a Nation’s association with controversy vis-à-vis its questionably “heroic” portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan “riding to save the South from black rule,” as well as the outrageously stereotypical treatment of African Americans throughout (played by white actors in “blackface”), the film remains a landmark in the cinematic arts for its groundbreaking photography and its use of close-ups, crosscutting, editing and montage.

But as far as it can be connected to this article’s main theme, any mention of the role that “patriotism” had in the development of the screenplay and story line of Birth of a Nation can be deemed misguided.

Griffith was also responsible for America: or Love and Sacrifice (1924), a fictional tale involving colonial patriots (among them, a pre-Batman TV series Neil Hamilton as the coonskin hat-wearing Nathan Holden) battling their British red-coated occupiers near and around the sites of the Revolutionary War.

There are moments in the picture that recall James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (filmed as a silent in 1920, and remade with sound in 1936), particularly the Native American-Indian raid on Fort Sacrifice. Certainly, actor Lionel Barrymore’s over-the-top performance as corrupt British Captain Walter Butler (a historical personage) tended to skirt the limits of melodramatic villainy by using the Native Americans for his own mercenary purposes.

Still from D.W. Griffith’s America (1924)

In sum, more historical figures are present, pound for pound, in this picture than in The Birth of a Nation. Welcome appearances in the movie’s first half by the likes of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, William Pitt, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and King George III were only the tip of the iceberg. And why not? After all, the aim of the project, as stipulated in Cotton Seiler’s article “The American Revolution” for The Columbia Companion to American History on Film, was “to stir the patriotic hearts of the nation as … no other picture has ever done.” Too, it may have been done to make amends for Griffith’s blatantly biased take in the earlier film.

There is also a Romeo and Juliet love-story angle attached to America, best left explored to more literary-minded readers, but prevalent in the name of one of the feuding families, the Montagues. As a matter of fact, one of their member, Nancy Montague (played by Carol Dempster), is the daughter of Justice Montague (Erville Alderson), a Tory supporter and loyal follower of the British Crown. That Nancy and Nathan fall in and out of love, only to be reunited at the end, is indicative of Griffith’s tugging at the audience’s heartstrings.

Where the film is most impressive, however, is in its mythical interpretation of George Washington (Arthur Dewey) at Valley Forge. We all know the fable from our grade-school days: how the “harsh” winter of 1777-78 took an incalculable toll on the fledgling revolutionary forces; how Washington and his men withstood hunger and deprivation in order to maintain courage in the face of ever-mounting odds. Despite their “pain and suffering,” Washington and his men overcame the wintry blasts to fight again another day — and eventually win out over superior British forces. The end.

George Washington (Arthur Dewey) in Griffith’s “America”

Most historians have discounted this retelling of events. Indeed, according to Washington authority Willard Sterne Randall, “It was not an unusually cold winter: in fact, it was one of the warmest in memory.” So much for historical accuracy! True to form, Griffith went on to capture that self-same frigid ambience (now a warmed-over movie cliché) of the prayerful Father of Our Country at Valley Forge, PA, kneeling on sacred ground to ask the Lord for guidance in his hour of need — a surrogate Moses speaking to the Burning Bush (or icy frost, in this instance).

At the time of the film’s release, it was commented on by reviewers that Griffith had attempted to recycle the winning formula he invented for Birth of a Nation into this costly production; that the director had substituted Native Americans (i.e., the “Iroquois”) for African Americans as the so-called “enemy” that needed to be tamed and vanquished; that, in Griffith’s rationale, the colonists were not traitors to King George but rather “rebels” or Confederates (his deliberate choice of words was indeed revealing) with high ideals, fighting for a just cause. Whatever!

But never fear, all’s well that ends well. In the final scene, at his inaugural address, President Washington takes the oath of office on the steps of Federal Hall in New York City, where his life-sized statue still stands to this day.

Griffith turned once more to the Civil War period in his first talkie: the biopic Abraham Lincoln (1930), a creaky, late-career outing that starred Walter Huston as Young Abe and later as President Lincoln, with Una Merkel as Ann Rutledge, Kay Hammond as Mary Todd Lincoln, E. Alyn Warren as both Stephen Douglas and General Grant, Hobart Bosworth as General Lee, Oscar Apfel as Secretary of War Stanton, and Ian Keith as John Wilkes Booth.

Huston was praised for his understated portrayal of the titular sixteenth U.S. president. Lincoln is presented here as having been foreseen (by Divine Providence, no less, in the manner of his Old Testament namesake, the prophet Abraham) as the reluctant father of his country, a unifying figure at a time of great upheaval and division. The same can be said for Huston’s admirable performance: from beginning to end, Walter is the sole unifying factor in a somewhat stolid and stagey production.

It’s not what one would call a warts-and-all rendering of the Great Man, but a far more complicated and discerning one. Lincoln’s lingering depression and ever-present sadness over the burdens of high office are carried with him for much of the film’s 97-minute running time.

Walter Huston as our 16th president in Griffith’s biopic Abraham Lincoln 1930

You could say that this was D.W. Griffith’s final hurrah as far as future film work was concerned. He would direct one last feature, The Struggle, in 1931. Based in part on Émile Zola’s novel The Drunkard, the plot concerns a young alcoholic (played by Hal Skelly) hooked on bootleg liquor, an obvious criticism of the prevailing Prohibition law. The film mirrored Griffith’s own personal problems with alcoholism, which may have contributed to his death, at age 73, in 1948 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Ready When You Are, Mr. DeMille

One of the most popular and staggeringly successful writer-producer-directors of his time — one who had traversed both the silent and sound eras with equal skill and deftness — was the inexhaustible Cecil Blount DeMille. Considered one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, the Massachusetts-born DeMille was an early proponent of patriotically-themed and/or religiously-based screen epics.

Among the more noteworthy examples from the vast scope and breadth of his oeuvre are The Squaw Man (1914), one of the first films to be made in Hollywood proper and remade several times by DeMille himself; The Viriginian (also from 1914); The Girl of the Golden West (1915) after David Belasco’s play; Carmen (1915) with soprano Geraldine Farrar, based not on Bizet’s opera but on the original Prosper Mérimée novella; the silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923); The Volga Boatman (1926) with William Boyd; and the independently produced The King of Kings (1927), the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.

It was during the sound period, then, that DeMille came into his own as a purveyor of the Protestant work ethic as a means toward achieving the American dream. After watching one of his films, viewers, too, may come away with the same feeling, one that pervaded many of his historical productions: the idea that a busy, industrious America is a happy America (at least, according to C.B.).

Such rousing recreations of frontier life as The Plainsman (1937), with Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok, Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane, James Ellison as Buffalo Bill, and John Miljan as George Custer; the War of 1812 in The Buccaneer (1938), with Fredric March as privateer Jean Lafitte, Franciska Gaal as his ladylove Gretchen, Douglass Dumbrille as Governor Claiborne, and Hugh Sothern as a crotchety Andrew Jackson; and the building of the transcontinental railway in Union Pacific (1939), with Joel McCrea as Captain Jeff Butler, Barbara Stanwyck as the Irish-brogue spouting Mollie Monahan, Brian Donlevy as the villainous Sid Campeau, and Francis J. McDonald as General Dodge, all depict a young nation at work, keeping physically strong and mentally sharp by a division of labor between those who toil and those who govern.

Workers laying down track in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific (1939)

DeMille’s heady mixture of historical luminaries and nationalistic fervor, blended with hard-working fictional protagonists that audiences could seemingly relate to and identify with, reaped huge box-office rewards for Paramount Studios’ coffers.

Looking northward, DeMille turned out (in vividly stunning Technicolor) a nostalgic ode to our Canadian neighbors in Northwest Mounted Police (1940). His pièce de résistance in this regard, however, was the later Unconquered (1947), which revisited similar terrain as Griffith’s America and Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. Pure hokum and a potboiler supreme are one way to describe the picture; a “barnstormer rooted in Victorian theater,” as quoted by film critic David Thomson, and “shamelessly stereotyped and sentimental, but eagerly courting twentieth-century permissiveness, if only solemnly to condemn it.”

It was back to the frontier and the hearty folk who populated it. An all-star lineup of talent was assembled for Unconquered, headed by lanky Gary Cooper as Indian fighter Captain Christopher Holden, Paulette Goddard (who co-starred with him in Northwest Mounted Police) as indentured servant girl Abigail Hale, Howard Da Silva as illegal gunrunner Martin Garth, Boris Karloff as the Seneca Chief Guyasuta, Ward Bond as John Fraser, Victor Varconi (a DeMille stalwart) as Captain Ecuyer, Henry Wilcoxon (another DeMille favorite who appeared as Major Heyward in the 1936 version of Last of the Mohicans) as Captain Steele, Richard Gaines as a dark-haired Colonel George Washington, and a cast of thousands if not hundreds.

Abby (Paulette Goddard) & Chris (Gary Cooper) meet up with Bone (Mike Mazurki, left) in Unconquered

The impossible-to-follow plot is a ludicrous assemblage of old, discarded bits from The Last of the Mohicans (in the Indian attack on Fort Pitt), to include, but not limited to, Capt. Holden’s stupefying rescue of Abby to prevent her from being roasted alive by the warring tribesmen. Both he and Abby manage to elude the pursuing braves by going down a studio-bound river in a raft and over a poorly projected waterfall. Nor is the inane dialogue any better, a common complaint in DeMille’s pictures. C.B. wasn’t interested as much in what his actors were saying as he was with what they look liked in costume.

The film’s title could just as easily have referred to the unconquerable “Abby” Hale as to its wilderness setting. In an article about George Washington by John D. Thomas, found in The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past, there’s a scene early on in which Captain Holden and Col. Washington are both privy to “an auction of white indentured servants brought over from Britain,” to include the scrappy Ms. Hale. “Washington ventures this bit of personal information: ‘One of my teachers was an indentured convict, Chris, a fine man, but he never could teach me to spell.’”

Thomas points out that historically, the indentured convict belonged to Washington’s father, and that Washington himself had owned numerous slaves (as did the other Founding Fathers), as many as 350 or more after he married Martha. For DeMille, such a historically accurate revelation in Unconquered would have detracted from audiences’ enjoyment of his film, as well as clouded the issue of celebrating the fictionalized account of our freedom-loving ancestors.

Be that as it may, DeMille’s involvement with his 1956 Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments would address the slavery question head-on. Only this time, it would involve the tribulations of the put-upon Hebrew slaves of the Old Testament, intertwined with the rise of their Deliverer, Moses, and the eventual flight from Egypt, known as the Exodus (see the following link to my post about the background to The Ten Commandments: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/the-ten-commandments-american-society-in-the-fifties/).

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Four): ‘JFK’ and the Acts of His Apostles

Liz (Cissy Spacek) & Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in their living room, in JFK (1991)

“Quo Vadis, Domine?”

Liz Garrison (Cissy Spacek), District Attorney Jim Garrison’s devoted and long-suffering spouse, begins to feel the negative effects of the adverse publicity heaped on her husband’s investigation into Kennedy’s death.

“You care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she tearfully confides. With good reason, Liz knows that as the wife of a fact-finding D.A., she will be in for a grueling endurance test of missed family gatherings and empty chairs at Easter Sunday luncheons.

As a counter to Garrison’s accusations, Clay Shaw mounts a campaign against the ensuing investigation into his alleged involvement in JFK’s death. Almost immediately, scandal erupts over Garrison’s use of public funds to pay for his office’s inquiries.

In the meantime, David Ferrie (the fellow with the painted-on eyebrows and ill-fitting blond wig) freaks out in a paranoid screed, lashing out at the U.S. Government, the Mob, the Cubans, anybody and everybody he can think of.

“I’m a dead man!” Ferrie blurts out, in a steady, X-rated stream-of-consciousness rant directed at the D.A. and his two assistants Bill Broussard and Lou Ivon, in relation to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, among others — none of which make a bit of sense. They’re the rabid ravings of a lunatic.

David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) wigs out big time in JFK

The attorneys meet again, behind closed doors of course, where they size up Ferrie’s actions and “arguments” as untenable to their cause. Office assistant Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight) bursts in on the meeting to notify Garrison that they’ve been bugged. This explains how the press is always aware of their every move, what they say, where they go, and who they plan to use to mount their case. In a dramatic moment, the fatal phone call comes in that Ferrie is dead.

In a search of the deceased’s ransacked apartment, evidence of thyroid medication is found (too much of it, in fact, indicating foul play); and then, just as dramatically, Assistant D.A. Susie Cox enters to announce that Ferrie’s Cuban associate, Eladio del Valle, has also met with foul play: he’s been hacked to death. Suspicious deaths begin to pile up, more than you can shake a fist at. Outside the office, someone (perchance an FBI informant?) approaches another assistant, Bill Broussard, to get him to switch his allegiance to the other side. Bill is the previously mentioned Judas Iscariot figure, and he’s about to get plucked.

Amid all the turmoil, Garrison decides to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with “X” (Donald Sutherland), who tells him somewhat surreptitiously a lot more than the District Attorney (or anyone else, for that matter) should “know” about Oswald, Kennedy, and a whole host of other names; about “X” being reassigned to the North Pole to get him out of the way, while two weeks later the president was shot to death. Right on cue, we are shown a snippet of Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film, along with obviously fake archival footage.

The enigmatic “X” (Donald Sutherland) tells all to a disbelieving Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner, left) during his trip to D.C.

“X” makes his case, and then summarizes his findings by posing the following questions: Ruby, Oswald, Cuba and such were nothing more than red herrings, dupes and pawns of a much bigger, much more insidious plot. He counts them off one by one: “Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”

He answers his own queries: The generals, the so-called military-industrial complex that Eisenhower, in the beginning of the film and at the end of his two terms as president, warned against. “The call is made, the contract is put out. No one said, ‘He must die.’ No vote. Nothing’s on paper. There’s no one to blame. It’s as old as the crucifixion. Or the military firing squad …”

After JFK’s death, LBJ signs a document, National Security Action Memorandum No. 273. “Just get me elected,” comments an actor made up to look like President Johnson, “I’ll give you your damn war.” Crisis, betrayal, murder, retribution. Listening to this, Garrison is in shock and disbelief at these revelations. How can he find the will to go on? He’s St. Peter leaving Rome to the Romans (remember, he’s in D.C. at the moment, our modern-day Roma). “X” urges him on, and coaxes Garrison to do what’s right. He charges the D.A. to “Stir the shit storm.” The hope is to start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government will crack.

“The truth is on your side, bubba. I just hope you get a break.” With the Washington Monument and the symbolic dome of the Capitol Building in the background (a nice analogy to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City), the mysterious “X” walks off into the distance and in the direction of those very monuments.

At this crucial juncture, “X” becomes Christ returning to Rome. In one of the excluded books of the Apocrypha, known as the Acts of Peter, tradition dictates that Saint Peter had seen a vision of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, walking in the direction of the Eternal City, back to where Peter had just left to escape possible torture and death.

“Quo vadis, Domine?” Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way by Annibale Carracci (1601-2) Photo: Copyright © The National Gallery, London

“Quo vadis, Domine?” — “Whither thou goest, Lord?” Peter asked of Christ. And Christ answered him: “I am going to Rome to be crucified all over again.” At that, Peter turned swiftly around and, with his life in jeopardy, took up Christ’s challenge and returned to the city en route to becoming a martyr to the cause.

Garrison remains seated. He is alone on the bench. We next see him at President Kennedy’s gravesite, with the eternal flame burning in the foreground. He is deep in thought, pondering what his next move will be.

As he gazes wistfully at the flame, an older African American gentleman appears alongside him, with his young grandson in hand. All of a sudden, Garrison’s downcast expression changes into a newfound determination to arrest Clay Shaw for conspiracy and acting with others to commit the murder of President John F. Kennedy.

Dramatic music is cued up.

Logic is the Beginning of Wisdom

Switching gears, we find Chief Justice Earl Warren (shot from below so as to give his immense height its full quotient) as he speaks to a reporter. Warren dismisses the charge against Shaw as spurious, claiming it is not credible.

Back in “Big Easy” New Orleans (and back down to Earth), Garrison responds to journalists’ queries about Justice Warren’s comment. Garrison mounts the steps and overlooks the mob of newshounds. He has taken up Christ’s cause and, by default, His cross. And who should be by his side? Why, his Judas, of course, in the person of discredited Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard. He will betray Garrison and his team, just as Christ was, for their seeking out of the truth.

“And what is truth?” Garrison poses, as Pilate had done to Jesus — a more or less rhetorical query to which no answer is proffered or expected. “It’s become a dangerous country,” he continues, “when you cannot trust anyone, anymore; when you cannot tell the truth. I say let justice be done, though the heavens fall!”

Broussard (Michael Rooker), Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) & Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight, far right) in the press conference scene

He might as well have spoken Julius Caesar’s famous aside, “Let the die be cast,” as he crossed the Rubicon River with his army into Rome. For both men, there was no turning back.

There are angry recriminations from Garrison’s wife Liz. Domestic problems continue to resurface and intrude on matters going forward. The attorneys meet yet again to discuss the avenues they need to take with regard to Oswald. After throwing theories and suppositions hither and yon — in particular, one about the “missing” FBI telex, warning their office of a possible assassination attempt on November 22 — Judas rises to his feet in the FBI’s defense. This leads to the other assistant D.A., Lou, to resign on the spot.

Using unmistakable language that clearly identifies the group as Apostles, Broussard tosses out his personal credo: “How the hell you gonna keep a conspiracy going on between the Mob, CIA, FBI, Army Intelligence and who the hell knows what …. When you know for a fact [that] you can’t keep a secret in this room between 12 people? We got leaks everywhere!” The deadly germ of David Ferrie’s paranoia has infected one of their own.

Broussard can’t believe the government (or Church, or other established institution) can be responsible for such a heinous act. He’d rather believe the Mob is capable of carrying out the crime, but not our government. Garrison proceeds to tear his theory apart, even bringing up the idea of LBJ as a conspirator. As critic Gerardo Valero aptly put it, in a June 2012 article “Should JFK Have Even Been Made?” on the Roger Ebert website, “Perhaps it was hard for a man like [journalist and anchorman Walter] Cronkite [and, by implication, the average viewer] to consider the possibility that such nefarious acts (and their cover up) came from respectable sources.”

Garrison (Costner) presiding over the Kennedy “Apostles” late in JFK

“All it takes is one Judas. People on the inside.” The analogies are apparent. From here on, the Apostles will be faced with an insurmountable brick wall of a flimsy case. In history, Garrison’s theories collapsed like a house of cards. Much of what was presented in court turned out to be half-baked, crackpot theories that led nowhere. Basically, Garrison had his people running down bogus leads which made them run in ever-widening circles.

The remainder of the film tries to come together, to tie all of these disparate elements into a coherent bow — or as coherent as possible in a kangaroo court-like atmosphere.

(End of Part Four)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes