‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Three): ‘JFK’ and the Gospel According to Oliver Stone
So Let It Be Rewritten
Returning to the topic of history on film — and specifically to the three-hour+ director’s cut of JFK (1991), written and directed by filmmaker, author and lecturer Oliver Stone — let’s look at several scenes from the movie that highlight a particular point I have lately uncovered.
That point happens to be the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent investigation into his untimely death not only by the Warren Commission, which issued their findings in a detailed and largely discredited report (in the film that is, not in real life), but also by the sham conspiracy trial of a shifty New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw.
In the movie, this forlorn, effeminate soul (portrayed on screen by Tommy Lee Jones in a short curly-blond wig) is the central figure in an elaborately conceived, highly convoluted plot to kill the president for an untold and ever-expanding number of reasons. It juxtaposes the slippery personality of Shaw with the upright, upstanding district attorney Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison (Kevin Costner), also of New Orleans — a classic Hollywood setup, the confrontation of “good” versus “evil”: the advocate for “truth, justice and the American way” against the perpetrator of sinister plots.
What struck me, while watching the film again after so many years removed from its original viewing date, was Stone’s allegorical representation of the dedicated D.A. Garrison as a firebrand, a modern-day St. Peter or St. Paul (he could go either way , really), working alongside his “crack” team of investigators embodying the eleven remaining Apostles.
The same could be said of the other participants in the drama, including the secretive “X” (Donald Sutherland), a character based, according to Stone, on several real-life military figures, specifically Col. L. Fletcher Prouty or a composite of the same. There’s New Orleans Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) who slowly but surely loses faith in what Garrison is preaching. And Garrison’s long-suffering wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek), who basically whines about her husband’s neglect of her and their children throughout the entirety of the picture.
The real Jim Garrison — stoic, cold and tall of stature — makes for a ghostly cameo as Chief Justice Earl Warren when he interviews a sweaty, tension-filled Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray), in prison for the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). In the film, and in real life, Ruby died of complications shortly after being granted a retrial for the assassin’s murder.
In the extended scenes tacked on to the film, Stone allows for fearful interpretations by Jack Lemmon as gumshoe Jack Martin and a vicious Ed Asner as Guy Bannister, a key member of the team that conspiracy theorists claim included government officials at the highest conceivable level (all the way up to then-Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, if my reading of their theory is correct). This, along with numerous unexplained deaths of various and sundry participants, discredited witnesses, muddled motivations, etc., and so forth, form the backbone of what turns out to be a paranoid’s worst nightmare.
Indeed, there is a veritable narrative mess at Garrison’s summation. The conclusions he draws at trial have no basis in verifiable fact and are hinged purely on conjecture. The case against Shaw and the deceased David Ferrie (a super-hyper Joe Pesci), who died under “suspicious” circumstances, we are shown, is dismissed and a mistrial is declared. The real villains are set free, to be let loose on unsuspecting and freedom-loving citizens, their “crimes” against the public trust going unpunished.
The Christ Connection
As strange as it may seem, Stone took as his model not so much history as hagiography. His main sources for JFK remain Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, as well as Crossfire: The Plot that Killed President Kennedy by Jim Marrs. But the source that has gone unmentioned in most movie reviews is the Holy Bible. Stone based his fictional account of the investigation into Kennedy’s death on the Acts of the Apostles, notably the follow-up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the subsequent fate of His Disciples as seen through Garrison’s eyes.
Indeed, all the characters have their corresponding associations with personages from the New Testament, i.e. the various gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. In addition to which, the movie asks audiences to take a giant leap of faith as the crusading lawyer and champion of righteous causes, Jim Garrison, confronts the villainous cretins in court.
One of the prosecutors, Broussard, is called “Judas” for his desertion to the other side. It’s every man for himself in the end, with Kennedy (the Christ-like figure par excellence) dying so that others might believe that he was pursuing the “good work” in preventing the military-industrial complex from taking over the U.S. government.
President Kennedy is treated as the elusive Messiah — and despite his reputation with the ladies, a basically good and decent man undone by his political adversaries whose agenda ran counter to his own. That agenda, in the screenplay according to Mr. Stone, involved Kennedy’s plan to scale back the American military’s commitment to wage war wherever and whenever it felt the need. In the movie, the commitment was to Vietnam.
In today’s world, what with all the turbulence the Trump Administration has been experiencing of late and with ever-escalating theories about collusion with the Russians and such, perhaps Stone’s crackpot viewpoint is not so farfetched after all.
Still, the very notions JFK interjected into the conversation and espoused when the film was originally released — and onto which historians have poured their most extensive research into debunking — practically beg to be reconsidered anew in light of current situations. The very thought of a mass conspiracy on an unprecedented scale was unthinkable then, and remains so to this day. Yet, the idea that LBJ, the FBI, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in cahoots in a plot to assassinate the president of the United States can only be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.
To reiterate, District Attorney Garrison, by default, was either Peter or Paul, depending on the filmmaker’s whim and as dictated by the needs of the screenplay. He is a defender of the faith as well as a detractor of the faithless (down to his own wife), an apologist and an instigator, but ultimately a true believer. However, Garrison and his team must operate behind closed doors, much as the Apostles did when they went into hiding after Christ’s demise. Their mission: to prove that Kennedy/Christ was killed for the wrong reasons; that his memory will be preserved in their work and in the work of others; and that the Kennedy/Christ legacy can live on in the “retelling” of the story — that is, in the newly formed Gospel of JFK, as told by Oliver Stone — for generations to come.
One thing the movie got right was its use of the complete 8mm Zapruder film, which was shown for the first time at Clay Shaw’s 1969 trial for conspiracy and murder (with LBJ and company cited as “accessories after the fact”). The film all-but embraces, with good reason, what critic David Thomson emphasized as “rampant paranoia.” It attempts to connect Dwight D. Eisenhower’s historic warning about the “military-industrial complex” with Kennedy’s death, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the rising Communist threat in Southeast Asia, along with JFK’s arrival in Dallas (an allegorical allusion to Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).
Actual newsreel footage is shown of the young president in his prime with his alluring First Lady Jackie, who carries a bouquet of red roses (flowers associated with the Virgin Mary) on that fateful November 22nd day in 1963; this is juxtaposed with black-and-white recreations of alleged incidents in the JFK narrative, credited to director Stone and journalist and teacher Zachary Sklar. We then see a brief portion of the Zapruder film and hear broadcaster Walter Cronkite’s breathless reporting of the assassination.
Cut to Garrison in his office and Cronkite’s teary-eyed pronouncement of Kennedy’s passing. Flashes of Lee Harvey Oswald’s face attach him to the murder. Garrison and his staff are gathered in the office, surrounded by law books — i.e., the Apostles, none of whom were present at Christ’s crucifixion, at the first gathering after His death, among the books of the Old Testament which attest to their authority on the matter.
The law library stands as an equivalent monument to the rule of law, the symbol of our government, of the courageous men and women dedicated to the unvarnished truth and the ways of attaining that truth, no matter the cost to their reputation or personal integrity. They are “witnesses” after the fact of Kennedy’s death; they see Oswald’s execution by Jack Ruby, as Kennedy’s funeral procession flashes by before them (and us).
Next, there is the announcement of the Warren Commission. Three years later, in November 1966, we flash forward to where LBJ “seeks $9 billion in extra war funds,” as seen in the headlines of the Washington Post. Little tidbits of information are intercut into the narrative, raising suspicions about minor events, those so-called “unusual occurrences” that “don’t add up,” such as the clean-cut, clean-shaven vagrants arrested the day of the assassination.
The three lawyers, Garrison, Broussard and Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders), meet in Lafayette Square in New Orleans. They remark on the proximity to one another of several government office buildings: the Office of Naval Affairs (which is now the U.S.P.O.), the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service — all in one plaza and inviting comparisons to Biblical claims of propinquity with regard to Pontius Pilate’s palace, King Herod’s abode, the Council of the San Hedrin, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Calvary.
The Greatest Story Never Told
During the first third of Stone’s Passion Play, people come forward and state their case — they give testimony, to put it plainly, about what they saw and heard, adding to the available source material as hearsay evidence, or supposed “eyewitness testimony.” The sweaty, porcine physiognomy of shady lawyer Dean Andrews Jr. (comic John Candy in dark shades, naturally) discusses his refusal to act as Oswald’s defense counsel over dinner with a skeptical Garrison.
After further inquiries, Garrison and his group unite with two or three other colleagues over a noontime meal to talk among themselves about the hoboes that were arrested. Assistant D.A. Susie Cox (Laura Metcalf) joins the boys. She is the official record keeper of events, the Mary Magdalene model and transcriber of the spoken word. It is here that Oswald is talked about as the prime suspect by default due to the plethora of contradictory information swirling about him.
This extended restaurant sequence serves the purpose of questioning whether Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in carrying out his crime (the notorious “Lone Gunman” theory) or in conjunction with other co-conspirators.
In the next scene, we are privy to a recreation of eyewitness accounts of what several individuals claim to have seen at Dealy Plaza — i.e., Calgary, or Golgotha (“the place of the Skull”), where our Kennedy/Christ personage died. Smoke rises from the grassy knoll; a man with an umbrella is spotted; there are shadowy figures behind a fence; a pickup truck is mysteriously provided by the Secret Service; and the man behind the wheel of that truck is none other than low-level mobster Jack Ruby before he killed Oswald.
Four to six shots ring out from behind a picket fence. It is here, after these tragic events take place, that a grim-faced Chief Justice Warren (ironically, the real-life Jim Garrison) interrogates jailbird Jack Ruby behind bars, a soon-to-be-martyred victim to the “cause.”
All these pop culture references have been interspersed throughout the picture in order to plant myriad seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what actually transpired before, during and after Kennedy’s death. These and similar scenes will recur at preordained junctures.
We are then taken to the Texas Book Depository building that overlooks Dealy Plaza (the proverbial “scene of the crime”). Ivon and Garrison will attempt to recreate Oswald’s dastardly deed with the use of a replica of the infamous 6.5mm caliber Carcano Model 91/38 rifle. Their conclusion: it would be impossible, even for an experienced marksman, to accurately fire off three consecutive shots in the 5.3 seconds it took to kill Kennedy. And the manual loading Carcano had a defective scope at that! But the plain fact remains that Kennedy was killed. There is speculation as well as to the actual number of teams (three, to be exact) it would take to be able to execute the crime at strategic vantage points.
After another meeting of the faithful, this time in D.A. Garrison’s spacious living room, Susie Cox/Mary Magdalene reports the news of a bogus “Oswald” pretending to test drive an automobile, when his wife, the Russian-born Marina Nikolayevna, had previously testified to the Warren Commission that her husband did not have a driver’s license. During Susie’s account, another “Oswald” is caught practicing at a firing range, while a third “Oswald” happens to be spotted in Mexico. What are we to make of these sightings?
Next, the viewer is treated to the LIFE magazine cover which highlights the purportedly doctored photograph of Oswald holding aloft his Carcano rifle. The real (or “reel”) Oswald complains that the man in the photograph isn’t him at all, but an imposter. Deceit piles upon deceit. Garrison begins to believe that Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) created “Oswald” for the sole purpose of using him as a patsy to cover up their real intentions: the planned execution of JFK. This is the second meeting of the group (the Apostles) before the Via Dolorosa, leading up to the Via Crucis or the Way of the Cross.
To further the religious connotations, Garrison goes to interview the mysterious “Clay Bertrand,” in actuality local businessman Clay Shaw. The interview takes place in Garrison’s office on Easter Sunday — resurrection day in Christian theology, telegraphing the death and eventual resurrection of the Kennedy case. Clay denies any and all knowledge of the event and the “sordid cast of characters” Garrison associates him with, to include the oddball David Ferrie, the gay hustler Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), the Cuban ex-military types, et al.
Garrison confronts Shaw and accuses him of having gotten away with Kennedy’s murder, a statement that profoundly offends the businessman. Garrison’s assistant Broussard gets between the combatants before either man comes to blows.
Bemused yet nonplussed, Shaw wishes everyone a Happy Easter and departs in a characteristically lighthearted mood. In response, Garrison quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” The next move is Garrison’s.
(End of Part Three)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
It’s the Time of the Season!
The Easter-Passover season has drawn upon us. And, as such, we make note of this moment as a time for reflection.
Whether at a church or a temple, a synagogue or a mosque, or wherever one goes in order to be alone with one’s thoughts; to pray for a loved one or to ask forgiveness for one’s transgressions; whether you’re attending a wedding ceremony, a funeral for a friend, or a baptism for a newborn babe — all these activities are a requisite part of the daily cycles of life we humans are regularly asked to participate in. And most of them tend to follow a religious practice of some sort.
That being the case, obtaining spiritual sustenance is something we’re all called upon to do in one form or another. In point of fact, religion comprises a large portion of who we are as individuals, which also reflects how we were raised as children. Henceforth, it becomes difficult to separate our faith (or its lack) from our inner selves, whether we’re fervent practitioners or doubting Thomases.
Whatever name one chooses to call these beliefs, or whatever faith we decide to adhere to and follow, in the movies religion is most often characterized by a fascinating mix of the familiar with the foreboding, and the ridiculous with the sublime.
We know there is good in the world. But oftentimes the good cannot co-exist without the presence of its opposite number, evil, as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan forthrightly pointed out in his film Unbreakable (2000), a cinematic ode to comic-book lore. Here, the presence of evil is portrayed by the least likeliest character, an individual so fragile and accident prone it’s amazing he can get out of bed without crushing himself to death. He is pitted against the forces of good by a clueless stadium guard in a green hoodie and baseball cap.
This singular battle for the soul — for either the dark or the light side of life to prevail — is the basis for most films about religious faith or that use religion in some way, shape or form, as their underlying theme or tone.
Let it be known, however, that “evil” as such is not always depicted in so-called traditional forms, nor is it nearly so obvious to the untrained eye as the presence of a pointy-tailed, horned-and-hoofed fiend would tend to be. Nevertheless, the Evil One’s multiple manifestations and head-on clashes with the Almighty and His followers are what make up the stuff of movie legend.
Considering the importance of religion in people’s lives, let me offer this brief overview of scenes and descriptions from a variety of motion-picture appearances of gods, devils, sinners and saints, in addition to cinematic treatments of Jesus and our old pal Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, or whatever moniker may strike your fancy, and his celluloid cohorts, as they’ve been portrayed on the silver screen throughout the years.
Physical and Not-So-Physical Manifestations
All right, then, we know who or what Satan is. He’s so easy to spot, isn’t he? Why, he’s the guy with that evil glint in his eye, right? But beyond that, he tends to sport those ignominious horns atop his shiny forehead as well as that prominently spiked tail. Correct?
Oh, how wrong we are!
Sometimes the Devil is shown as an innocent six-year old child. He’s called Damien in Richard Donner’s creepy The Omen from 1976 (and in John Moore’s 2005 remake), a serious little boy not even his mother could love. There’s mischief afoot (and that portentous-sounding soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith) whenever the tiny tyke is caught traipsing about the household. The simplest of childhood toys — a tricycle, for instance — can become a deadly weapon in Damien’s hands.
In the sequel, Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges), he’s just turned thirteen and attends a military academy. Nothing so ominous about that. It’s the actions that swirl around and about him that make this moody teenager a powerful antagonist in the long run. The boy’s agents can be a Rottweiler dog or a surly maidservant, at other times an innocuous black crow.
He can change shape and transform himself into a bat, mist, or fog, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, with the vampire as a main stand-in for Satan; or even as a deviled-ham icon of himself.
In Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), he’s a big, badass dude, aptly named Darkness, with stereotypically long black nails, along with standard-issue hooves, horns, and tail to match, topped off with a huge cleft in his pointy chin and that blood-red body suit, under makeup artist Rob Bottin’s layers upon layers of latex. Played to the robust hilt by the ever-so-charming Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) on two-foot-high stilts, this “devil of a fellow” is far livelier (and far, far sexier) than the wet-behind-the-ears Tom Cruise, a goody-two-shoes groundskeeper with the garden-hose appellation of Jack Sprout (or shall we say “the little green giant”?).
On the positive side of the ledger, Jesus Christ, the saints, and other lesser mortals are viewed in slightly more humdrum fashion, which is befitting of their, shall we say, more human aspirations.
Whether they’re played by a young Jeffrey Hunter who is tempted for forty days and forty nights by an unseen voice in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), or the more gaunt-looking Max von Sydow in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) who converses with a beady-eyed and nervously twitchy Donald Pleasence in the vast, open plains of Monument Valley, Utah, the Messiah has traditionally been envisioned as having Westernized European features, i.e. tall, blond and blue-eyed looks — in other words, your above-average, all-American kind of guy.
Where did this representation come from, if the historical Jesus himself was purported to have been a denizen of the Middle East? Chalk it up to the middle-aged H.B. Warner in movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The King of Kings (1927). Although the first recognizable images of Christ appeared in ancient artifacts as far back as the Byzantine period, producer-director DeMille has been credited, for good or for bad, as having laid his hands on a project where his leading man was forbidden from reaching out for the sauce (Warner was a confirmed alcoholic) under threat of expulsion from Hollywood Paradise.
In one of the most extraordinary sequences of all religious films, DeMille combines the Devil’s temptation of Christ with the age-old story of the woman caught in adultery, followed closely by the expulsion of the moneychangers from the Jewish temple. It’s a masterly episode, told in purely visual terms, with Jesus bending down and writing in the spilled temple salt (salt of the earth?) words that implicate the woman’s accusers with their own sins. No casting of stones here!
Later the Devil, dressed in black to Jesus’ all-white robe, offers him the kingdoms of the world if he would only fall down and worship him. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Christ intones, after repeatedly striking his chest. “It is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God — and Him only shalt thou serve’.” The Devil beats a hasty retreat. The iconographic image that DeMille has conjured up recalls his early upbringing in the Presbyterian church, as well as the influence of art history (with reference to such figures as William Blake and Henry Fuseli). Note the Devil’s positioning vis-à-vis Christ, similar in many respects to painterly representations of Virgil guiding the poet Dante to the Inferno.
Sometimes Christ is not really seen at all (at least, not in full frontal view) but merely hinted at, as in Twentieth Century-Fox’s overly reverential The Robe (1953) or in M-G-M’s Ben-Hur (1959). In the former, the Messiah is voiced by actor Cameron Mitchell who forgives the populace for crucifying him, while the heavy-lidded Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius looks on in anguish; in the latter opus he’s performed by opera tenor Claude Heater. No singing was involved, although we do get a good look at Heater’s backside, along with his broken body during the dolorous Crucifixion sequence, thus giving credence to the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ.
Switching to the top dog, God as the Burning Bush speaks to Moses (Charlton Heston) in respectfully hushed tones in DeMille’s spectacular Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). At the giving of said Commandments, His portentous voice booms forth loudly after reciting each of the ten rules for life and good. In the Burning Bush sequence, Heston provided the reverent voice of the Lord — slowed down, of course, to a somber snail’s pace. But in the later Commandments scene, the task of uttering God’s lines was handed over (so rumor tells us) to DeMille’s publicist and biographer, actor Donald Hayne.
While never fully substantiated or revealed at the time of the film’s release, DeMille felt he had plenty of justification for his use of Heston’s baritonal timbre by citing the Biblical passage where Moses insisted the Lord spoke to his mind. It would have scared Moses out of his headgear if he had been forced to listen to someone else’s voice (we now quote the classic Bill Cosby routine where Noah is called on by the Lord to build Him an ark: “Riiiiiiiight …. Who is this, really?”).
A Matter of Life and Death
In Terry Jones’ monstrously irreverent, politically incorrect feature Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Death and its finality are represented by a rather fearsome, sickle-carrying Grim Reaper, interrupting a happy gathering of typically jolly British country types (“Hello Grim!”) as they become privy to the startling news that they will succumb to food poisoning that very night, and that this will be their last supper together.
The Swedish-born Max von Sydow reappears as a disillusioned medieval knight returned from the shock of the Crusades, playing chess opposite a black-cowled Bengt Ekerot as Death (the Devil, you say!) in the Oscar-winning drama The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. The game is over at last when the knight deliberately knocks down one of the pieces, to which Death takes full advantage of. He comes to claim his prize as the knight is about to enjoy his own “last meal,” in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python.
Fifteen years later, Von Sydow stopped by the doorstep again to play the aged Catholic priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s 1972 supernatural classic The Exorcist, with Jason Miller as the sympathetic and troubled Father Damien (there’s that name again) Karras. Both are tempted by the demon (or devil or spirit, or what-have-you) that has buried itself deep inside the possessed twelve-year-old body of the girl Regan (Linda Blair).
In the exhausting exorcism scene towards the end, Father Merrin suffers a fatal heart attack. Taking over for the dead priest, Father Damien makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering himself to the demon, thereby rescuing Regan from the Evil One’s clutches.
Expanding his range of colorful film characters, Von Sydow was also the avuncular ferryman known as the Tracker in Vincent Ward’s surrealistic What Dreams May Come (1998). A New Age Charon for the Nineties, the Tracker paddles borderline delusional Robin Williams and charismatic Cuba Gooding Jr. (as his reincarnated son) over the gruesomely grisly Faces of the Damned (in other words, the River Styx in Greek mythology) in order to rescue Williams’ wife from perpetual purgatory.
(End of Part One – To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Have you ever been bullied at school? At the playground? At work, or in your own home? We all have at one time or another. How did it feel afterward? Like crap, right?
Carrie White is a lonely, awkward teenager. She doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd, especially the girls. She can’t even play a decent game of volleyball. That’s made clear from the beginning. Her hateful classmates at Bates High School taunt her relentlessly for her failings. In this case, they badmouth and ridicule Carrie for her clumsiness in losing the game. Bullying is an everyday aspect of this high schooler’s lifestyle.
“Carrie White eats shit!” is their rallying cry. They write these words on the inside doors of the gymnasium, which a maintenance worker tries diligently to wipe off.
After the volleyball game has ended, the scene changes to the high school’s locker room and shower facilities. Most of the girls are in the nude, their femininity exposed to each other as the most natural, lighthearted thing in the world. But not for Carrie, who is out of their line of sight. She’s alone in the shower — an impossibly huge shower stall for the real world, exaggerated beyond all normal boundaries to accentuate the distance between her and the other girls.
Carrie (played by 24-year-old Sissy Spacek) is enjoying some down time, something she’s rarely been allowed to experience over the course of her young life. The slow-motion camera work focuses primarily on her hand as it reaches out for a bar of soap. She uses the soap bar to massage her body in a most pleasant, intimate manner. The music surges as Carrie cups her breasts in her hands. She likes the feeling it gives her, as she throws her head back in ecstasy. The water from the shower head splashes over her face and shoulders, soothing her bruised ego as much as it washes the sweat out of her hair.
Reaching down to her private parts, the viewer is made aware that Carrie takes pleasure in her own body, an all-too brief exercise in self-discovery. Naturally, this bit of business leads to what may be her very first orgasm. We see her hand brushing up and down her inner thigh, which borders on the voyeuristic but does not invite a puerile interest from the viewing audience. Still, it leaves no doubt as to what is happening. Minutes later, blood gushes forth onto Carrie’s hand and down her leg. Carrie takes immediate notice of the situation and reacts in horror at the sight. She has no idea what is happening to her.
In a panic, she rushes from the shower seeking help from her fellow seniors. But instead of aid and comfort, the girls in the locker laugh at and tease Carrie for her cluelessness. They corner Carrie in one of the stalls and throw white towels and tampons at her crouching form. Hearing the commotion, the fitness teacher Ms. Collins (Betty Buckley) pushes her way into the crowd and bends down to calm the hysterical girl. Ms. Collins slaps her hard across the face (there is a lot of slapping throughout the movie by both boys and girls, but mostly female to female — an early example of self-misogyny?) until Carrie gets a hold of herself.
What really gets their attention is when the overhead light suddenly bursts apart. Collins, along with the other girls — and especially the heartless school principal, Mr. Morton (who keeps calling her “Cassie” by mistake) — cannot comprehend why Carrie’s had no knowledge of basic female bodily functions. She’s given an early dismissal slip, which is tantamount to having her emotional and physical trauma dismissed as minor distractions.
Carrie’s body language reveals more about her predicament than anything else. Shy and reserved, her long reddish-blonde hair combed straight down the sides, which hide her raw-boned features, Carrie wears a shapeless, dull-gray outfit. She does this partly out of her mother’s puritanical dress code and Carrie’s own desire not to attract attention to herself.
Her dress is as formless and drab as her life has been up to this point. Her home, a rundown two-storey shack that’s up for sale, is in desperate want of a paint job. The chips and splits in the house’s framework signify a life that’s not at all what it’s “cracked up” to be.
Seeking the shelter of a mother’s arms, Carrie receives nothing but physical abuse and more holy-roller zealotry from her religious fanatic of a single parent, Margaret White (actress Piper Laurie, in a frizzy fright wig). Mom spouts pseudo-Biblical passages as a way of keeping Carrie in line. And Margaret’s solution to her daughter’s queries as to why she never told her about her monthly menstrual cycle is to lock her in a hall closet and demand that she ask forgiveness for her “sins.” Poor child.
As for the offenders, i.e., those nasty girls in the locker room, they are threatened with suspension and refusal to participate in the senior prom. However, one of the girls, Sue Snell (played by a young Amy Irving), has a change of heart and honestly tries to make amends. She asks her sometime boyfriend, a local jock named Tommy Ross (William Katt, in thick blonde tresses), to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. The suspicious Ms. Collins questions the couple when she learns from Carrie of Tommy’s plans. They insist it’s all on the level, but Collins remains unconvinced.
Earlier, in Carrie’s English class, the teacher Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick) reads a love poem purportedly written by Tommy. This scene, which one can tell had a huge influence on the work of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (see The Sixth Sense, in particular the episode with Cole Sear and his teacher, “Stuttering Stanley”), is shot in such a way as to frame an extreme close-up of Tommy’s face at far left, placed directly in front of another student, followed by Carrie’s sad, downturned features at back and to the right. All three are in deep focus.
Mr. Fromm seeks the class’s opinion about the poem, which, to the surprise of everyone (especially Tommy) Carrie volunteers a demure response: “It’s beautiful.” This has a positive effect on the jock, although at the prom he admits he did not write the poem. Nevertheless, Tommy thanks Carrie for praising his piece. In fact, she was the only one who did.
Meanwhile, another troublemaker, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen), has ideas of her own. Chris refuses to accept her punishment, so she hatches a plot with her none-too-bright beau, Billy Nolan (John Travolta, before donning the white suit in Saturday Night Fever), to get even with Carrie and Ms. Collins for being denied access to the prom.
That high school prom, however, will turn out to be the most “memorable” gathering in the sleepy town’s history. The flashing lights, the red-on-blue color scheme, the set design, and even the music (by Italian composer Pino Donaggio in the best tradition of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho) foreshadow a series of supernatural events that will be the downfall of practically everyone associated with them, including Carrie herself and the meddlesome Margaret and Ms. Collins. The tension is stretched almost to the breaking point as the slow-motion walk to the podium (calling to mind the music and mood of the shower scene at the start) drags out the inevitable climax ad absurdum.
Director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen’s 1976 film adaptation of horror-writer Stephen King’s fourth novel Carrie, from 1973, while deviating partially from its original conception, actually enhances this coming-of-age tale by concentrating on Carrie and her obsessively-minded mother, Margaret. We learn, during the course of the picture, that Carrie was conceived by a drunken ex-father, in a violent rape of her mother that permanently turned Margaret off to the sexual act (in particular, to penetration). That led directly to mom’s preoccupation with religion and her use and abuse of the first woman, Eve, as the architect of original sin (a favorite theme of director Alfred Hitchcock’s).
Sissy Spacek, near the start of a 40-year film career, is flawlessly cast as the wimpy but telekinetic Carrie. With her gaunt visage and lissome body shape, Spacek is introspective and vulnerable in the movie’s first half, who is then magically transformed into a swan by the second. It’s a reversal of the Cinderella story where, instead of a glass slipper, Carrie is regaled with laughter (in her mind’s eye, we presume) for which she exacts a swift and terrifying revenge.
As her mother, Piper Laurie is utterly frightening. Her demise is a classic comeuppance: with her arms held up between an archway by kitchen utensils, her body is pierced (thanks to Carrie’s mind-bending abilities) with knives and other sharp instruments in a Saint Sebastian-like pose. Martyrdom comes to Margaret in a most convincing fashion. Bookending Carrie’s first orgasm from earlier in the picture, we see Margaret getting her jollies out of finally being “penetrated” for keeps. Her writhing death rattle, which sounds like extended moaning and groaning in orgasmic pleasure, is pure camp but nevertheless effective.
Although the story takes place in New England, she and Spacek speak in a perceptible Southern twang. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were once expelled from their place of origin for their antisocial habits. For a horror flick, the film is laden with nuances more subtle than one would expect in your average “horny teenager movie,” as the late critic Roger Ebert once coined these pictures.
I first saw Carrie in the theater when it came out back in 1976-77. I was impressed by the tautness and compact quality of its screenplay that emphasized character development and plot over special FX. Yes, there’s gore in that elaborate prom sequence, but again it’s not what one would expect. Carrie gets a bucket of pig’s blood spilled on her (telegraphed beforehand, we should point out, by that initial scene in the girl’s shower!), as well as on her revealing, self-made party dress. And the tuxedoed Tommy Ross gets knocked unconscious by that same bucket (in the novel, he too is bathed in the blood and instantly killed).
Seeing the movie again after, oh, 40 years or so, I continue to praise Carrie as an exemplary horror flick, one of the best screen versions of a Stephen King novel anywhere. More than that, this is an exceptionally well made feature. Director De Palma, who came from the same generation that spawned such rising stars as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Joe Dante, and John Milius, has been unfairly neglected for his past efforts not only in the horror and psychological thriller categories (Sisters, Body Double, Blow-Out, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Raising Cain) but for his financially lucrative ventures (Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible). Though not as highly touted as some of the above-named artisans, De Palma nonetheless has been widely acknowledged as a master of his craft.
While it’s true his earlier features were often considered bastardizations of better work by others (some say his “admiration” for Hitchcock led him to outright imitation, the so-termed “sincerest form of flattery”), in the case of Carrie De Palma’s genuine ability for getting the audience to identify quickly with the protagonist literally carried the film through to its unexpectedly shocking end — a conclusion that today has become a standard horror cliché. Back then, in 1976, it was a bold and fresh move.
Few directors from his perspective, working in any genre, have so successfully captured on screen the awkwardness and alienation that teenagers feel when faced with unsettling changes to their bodies. Indeed, body horror as a movie genre has long been the province of Canadian filmmaker, actor, and author David Cronenberg, whose own series of nightmarish variations on this theme (The Brood, Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, et al.) have outflanked De Palma’s output by a factor of ten.
In that sense, and in many others, I’ve gained renewed respect and tolerance for De Palma’s brand of filmmaking than I have ever had for Mr. Cronenberg’s. Mind you, it’s a personal thing with me, and not meant to undermine the talents of either of these fine artists who continue to work at the absolute peak of their form. Along with Roman Polanski’s atmospheric Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), De Palma’s Carrie is a welcome addition to any horror buff’s expanding library shelf of shockers.
Experience these classics for their superb visual style and inventive casting and craftsmanship, say, around the end of October. During Halloween, or anytime, for that matter. You’ll be pleased and surprised at how well they have held up over time.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Here’s What We Missed
We’re back with more tales of operatic woes. One of them being the record number of missed Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts this author has experienced during the course of the past year.
For a die-hard fan, that may be considered anathema. However life — and not just operatic life — has a way of interfering with the normal course of events. I’ve mentioned this truism on various occasions in the past, but lately it has become the rule rather than the exception. If the current U.S. administration’s mania for cutbacks to funding for the arts continues on the path it’s been threatening to go down, will we even have an operatic life to talk about?
Whatever the future holds, let us deal with the here and now. Looking back at the current season, I can’t breed much enthusiasm for the casting in many of the recent Met Opera radio broadcasts. But before we get into that, let me go over old terrain by playing “catch-up,” as I call it, with what I have heard but failed to report.
Starting with the broadcast of February 20, 2016 of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, I could tell that bel canto, which Maria Stuarda is a prime example of, was much on the minds of listeners. What transpired over the airwaves was a very fine performance indeed of this rarely heard (at the Metropolitan, at last count) cornerstone of the bel canto repertoire.
Donizetti’s so-called Tudor Trilogy, comprised of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, has been a showcase for dramatic coloratura sopranos for nearly two centuries. Some of our modern interpreters include Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballe, and Mariella Devia. And the stories (greatly embellished, I might add) of the Elizabethan period, involving King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, and Robert Earl of Essex, have been widely depicted in a multiplicity of forms, especially in books and motion pictures (for example, that old 1939 Warner Bros. vehicle The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and the more recent The Other Boleyn Girl from 2008).
Sir David McVicar’s production of Maria Stuarda was staged along the same lines as the previous Anna Bolena, i.e., with drab gray sets offset by stunningly vibrant costumes. In the second part of the trilogy, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky took on the title character, the one who confronts the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, sung by the fiery South African soprano Elza van den Heever in her best Bette Davis mold, and ends up calling her a “vile bastard.” Historically, neither character met, but then there would be no opera as we know it!
Both artists acquitted themselves admirably, but all ears were focused on a remarkable new tenor named Celso Albelo as Leicester. A native of the Canary Islands, where his compatriot, tenor Alfredo Kraus, once hailed from, Albelo scaled the vocal heights in daring if somewhat cautious fashion. Nevertheless, his was the voice that caught the audience’s notice.
At the time, Albelo remarked, to the Latin Post, that he had sung Leicester “at La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and all I was missing was the Met. So to do Maria Stuarda with a composer to whom I owe it all. For me it is a dream.” He went on to indicate that Leicester “is one of those roles that I have found some hidden difficulty. This one has a lot to sing in very little time and the tessitura is high. You need a lot of lyricism in the voice. Sometimes you tend to overdo it and end up going down the wrong path.”
Not likely, for such a budding talent. Albelo managed to tread lightly but securely. His colleagues all put on a commendable showing as well, to include the charismatic baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil and the rumbling bass tones of Kwangchul Youn. While Radvanovsky was the obvious attraction (she looked ravishing and sounded more and more like Callas than ever, minus the wobbles), the other participants showed their mettle, too.
Another demonstrable vocal showcase was put on with the April 16, 2016 broadcast of the third and final work in the series, Roberto Devereux, starring the incredibly pliable tenor of Matthew Polenzani in the lead, along with his frequent stage partner, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (known as The Pearl Fishers duo), as the Duke of Nottingham. We were also treated to the gloriously sung Sara of Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča, in addition to the tempestuously acted Elizabeth of the Met’s reigning queen Sondra Radvanovsky, who mitigated her opulent tones somewhat to deliver a fiercely competitive sovereign in the twilight of her reign.
What a Lulu!
I started this post off by mentioning that I had missed several Met broadcasts, one of them being the difficult to appreciate Lulu by Alban Berg. Scheduled for February 27, 2016, this was to be the last time that German soprano Marlis Petersen would be assuming the title role in a new production designed by South African artist and director William Kentridge. Kentridge had earlier brought his highly stylized vision for Shostakovich’s satirical The Nose to the Met’s Russian wing. That production featured the versatile Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, whose ancestry is Polish.
Kentridge is the type of artist who loves to push the outside of the envelope. Both The Nose and Lulu share a similar theatrical basis, but the music is what differentiates them. Berg’s final stage work was left unfinished at his untimely passing in 1935. A tawdry tale from the pen of playwright Frank Wedekind (whose coming-of-age play, Spring Awakening, was transformed into a hit Broadway musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), Lulu was derived from two of his works, Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit. Shorn of its third act (a situation shared with another unfinished 12-tone masterpiece, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron), the opera was completed in the late 1970s by Austrian composer-producer Friedrich Cerha.
Personally, I have a tough time listening to Lulu. I can’t put my finger on it, but this opera leaves me cold, sad and depressed. There is no joy anywhere — indeed the joy of living has been drained from its very essence. It’s a Lulu, all right; one of the most viciously scandalous and thought-provoking pieces ever to enter the modern repertory. And if you think this one is rough going, try lending an ear to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s immensely orchestrated and gigantically conceived Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”), which is even MORE daring and disheartening. But I do digress.
Although I’ve grown accustomed to the defects and virtues of Wozzeck, Berg’s previous output for the stage, I greatly value its harshness and drab realism (one can have actual sympathy for the protagonists and empathize with their plight). It’s the character of Lulu herself that I find most detestable. Sorry, but she’s not my cup of tea.
Lulu meets her end at the hands (or blade, if you will) of the infamous Jack the Ripper. Yikes! Maybe Berg was right to have died prior to completing act three. Some things are better left undone.
Believe it or not, I missed two other bel canto broadcasts: the March 12 performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with the immensely enjoyable Ambrogio Maestri in the title role and the impressive Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as his nephew Ernesto; and the March 19 transmission of Donizetti’s other comic jewel, L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), with the artist of the moment, hunky tenor Vittorio Grigolo, as the country bumpkin Nemorino.
I did catch a moment or two of the March 26 Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) by Mozart, marvelously conducted by Fabio Luisi. However, the sameness in voice and timbre of the two male leads, Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko as Figaro and Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as the Count (“One, two, three, ha-ha-ha!”), made for a bit of bewilderment as to who was singing whose lines. Figaro’s two arias, “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino” and “Non più andrai,” were undistinguishable from one another. More solidity in the low register and a more pointed tone on top — and, especially, a finer sharpening of the words — were called for.
The Joke’s on Us
The final May 7, 2016 broadcast of the 2015-2016 season, Mozart’s delightful The Abduction from the Seraglio (or, in the unpronounceable German translation, Die Entführung aus dem Serail), under the leadership of the ever-resilient maestro James Levine, was a decided disappointment. In the right hands and with the right artists, this opera can make audiences squeal with glee at its comic antics and ever-so-timely statement about the rights of women in a male dominated world.
The Met Opera’s cast featured soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze (trivia note: she was named after Mozart’s spouse), chirpy coloratura Kathleen Kim as the perky maidservant Blondchen, tenor Paul Appleby as Belmonte, Konstanze’s rescuer, and actor Matthias von Stegmann as the Pasha Selim (the fellow whose harem Konstanze needs to be rescued from).
This always charming, always beguiling work, with its madcap plot and extremes of both comic and dramatic devices — along with its humorous and irrepressible characterizations — lacked spontaneity, even in the gorgeously bedecked production by the late John Dexter. Especially revealing was the slack conducting by Maestro Levine. We were told he had been suffering from the ill effects of recent back surgery, which has been the bane of his conducting assignments at the Met for more than a decade. Take a long and welcome rest, Maestro!
The premise of this piece, something that many viewers and music critics miss, is that The Abduction from the Seraglio, at its core, is a spoof of opera buffa (or “comic opera”). Imagine a huge basso profundo named Osmin — in this case, embodied (literally) by the large economy-sized voice and figure of Hans-Peter König, in a capacious turban and baggy pantaloons — put in charge as the overseer of the Pasha Selim’s harem.
Now here’s the gimmick: this gargantuan guardian of feminine pulchritude was supposed to be neutered! Most such individuals, in actuality, were of African descent and likely castrated upon being given the job, resulting in their massive forms and high, squeaky voices (castration, naturally, would have had an effect on their vocal chords by stunting them). They’re supposed to be eunuchs, people; the reasoning being that eunuchs would be more trustworthy as they were incapable of molesting the “flock,” as it were. Yet here we have a big, booming bass pushing his volume up and down the scale, right into a cavernous low D.
Was this Mozart’s little inside joke, another outstanding example of the Austrian master’s wry sense of humor, and of his going against the accepted grain?
Ah, Wolfie! You are STILL the undisputed master of your musical universe!
(End of Part One … To be continued…)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
An imaginary Arizona locale and desert town is the eerie setting for science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s story of alien visitors from another world who, on their mission to a different part of the galaxy, accidentally crash land on planet Earth.
Writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson), a recent resident of the aptly named Sand Rock, is sharing a cozy, romantic evening with local girl Ellen Fields (beautiful Barbara Rush), a grade-school teacher by profession. Suddenly, the couple witnesses a fiery meteor (or something close to it) streak across the nighttime sky.
Wasting no time, the curious pair drives out to the nearby crash site. As Putnam approaches what he believes to be a spacecraft of some kind, an unexpected landslide buries the contents within — but not before he (and the viewer, ostensibly) get a glimpse of what lies inside.
Hideous and horrible, the aliens are not your garden variety space invaders, but are instead intelligent and, it is later learned, benign beings with expansive minds and souls of their own. Unfortunately, they also have single bulbous eyes, amorphous, gelatinous bodies and the ability to assume the identity and appearance of the local populace.
Even worse, not everyone shares Putnam’s interest and curiosity about the alien visitors, especially after several of the town’s citizens mysteriously disappear and the only hardware store in sight is robbed of its electrical supplies. Hmm… what could those pesky aliens want with electrical supplies? Maybe, repair their damaged ship? Or get going with their interrupted mission?
Fear and paranoia soon grip the dusty abode, which is patrolled by chain-smoking Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake). An old boyfriend of Ellen’s, Matt is overly protective of her and skeptical of Putnam’s crackpot theories about aliens. He’s not too keen on strangers either, benign or otherwise.
“Why don’t they come out into the open? Matt asks Putnam.
“Because they don’t trust us,” Putnam replies. “Because what we don’t understand we want to destroy.”
“I kill only what tries to kill me,” Matt fires back.
Putnam tries to talk some sense into the highly strung lawman. He points to an approaching arachnid.
“That spider. Why are you afraid of it? Because it has eight legs? Because its mouth moves from side to side instead of up and down? If it came at you, what would you do?”
“This,” as the sheriff crushes the spider under his boot. Point taken, point made!
Despite this seeming setback, Putnam is able to convince Matt to give him and the alien visitors more time to repair their ship. The aliens eventually release their captives and, returning to their original disgusting forms, leave the Earth in the same manner in which they approached, spewing forth a fiery trail in the sky.
A true classic of the genre, It Came from Outer Space tries to live down that egregious title and live up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the few soberly-minded and intelligently conceived sci-fi flicks of the 1950s.
Originally filmed in the 3-D process (though always shown flat in its television screenings), It Came from Outer Space was Universal-International’s first foray into the science-fiction field. In fact, the 3-D effects are rather subdued and less “in-your-face” than other examples from the period. For pure shock value, a creepy film score (credited to Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, and Herman Stein) penetrates the soundtrack whenever the aliens are caught looming about. You may remember this theme from the old Saturday night Creature Features showcase from the 1960s and ’70s.
One of the unfortunate aspects of this and other similar releases was the studio’s bowing to Fifties convention, whereby the men are given the decisive, upright role as defenders of the realm — true movers and shakers, for good or for bad (see Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World).
This attitude relegated most of the women’s parts to pure window dressing or easily excitable observers. The scene in which Barbara Rush, as Ellen, answers the doorbell and screams her fool head off as she spots a boy decked out in a space invader’s outfit (with toy ray-gun in hand), is a good example of old-fashioned female hysterics.
Curiously, in another scene, the behavior of a sobbing Mrs. Frank Daylon (Virginia Mullen), the wife of one of the missing telephone linemen, contrasts sharply with that of the other missing lineman’s floozy girlfriend, Jane Dean (Kathleen Hughes). While Mrs. Daylon expresses spousal concern that Frank (Joe Sawyer) had skipped his meal and hasn’t been “himself” of late, Jane is more flippant about Frank’s partner, George (Russell Johnson):
“His landlady told me he skipped dinner. That ain’t like George, not with his appetite.” I’ll bet!
At 81 minutes, the film is compact and concise. The special effects (done via mirrors, split-screens, double exposures, swirling mists, and such) are state-of-the-art, for its time. And despite the description of the scene with Ellen, the acting is relatively low key. Subtlety and nuance, an inescapable feeling of being watched and an atmosphere of impending dread are underscored in the thoughtfully developed dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Harry Essex. The black-and-white cinematography (by Clifford Stine) stresses the silvery noir elements. The picture was partially filmed on location in the surrounding Mojave Desert area of California, which lent a good deal of authenticity.
The movie also boosted the career of veteran documentary-maker and director Jack Arnold. Arnold went on to lend credibility to the burgeoning sci-fi arena with his subsequent outings, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), with Carlson again in the lead, Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula (both from 1955 and both starring John Agar), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a classic of classics, and the underrated The Space Children (1958).
In many ways, It Came from Outer Space is as rich and timely today as it ever was. Its lessons about reaching out to those in need, who may be as different from us as night is from day; to extend a helping hand and grasp the thing we’re most repelled by — by learning to overcome our basest fears and extinct for survival, while trying to understand the abnormal ways of others — continue to fascinate as well as entertain.
As the bulbous creatures fly off into the night, Putnam looks back at them in wonder and awe:
“It wasn’t the right time for us to meet,” he contemplates solemnly. “But there’ll be other nights, other stars to watch. They’ll be back.”
Indeed they will — and quite a different message from the earlier The Thing, where audiences were issued a dire warning to keep watching the skies for trouble, or the one delivered by the cultivated Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, about our bringing violence to other planets.
We need only examine another “alien invasion” feature in French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Arrival (2016), which starred Amy Adams in a glowing performance as a linguist charged with translating an indecipherable alien language that could save the world from unintended destruction.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Don’t Lose Your Head, John!
While Elektra was without hesitation Richard Strauss’ most concentrated effort in a theatrical vein, his fame, as it were, in the operatic realm rested on his previous opera, Salome.
As a young musician, Strauss gave the world a series of tone poems that quite literally expanded the range and repertoire for orchestral works: Aus Italien, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — see the following link to my review of this sci-fi classic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-man-losing-his-humanity/), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) — all written before Salome’s 1905 debut in the decade between 1888 and 1898.
There was also Sinfonia Domestica, a blissful elegy to middle-class married life, composed in 1903 and immediately preceding the strident Salome. Twelve years later, in 1915, as war erupted all around Europe and along the Turkish frontier, Strauss gave his public An Alpine Symphony, a musical depiction in 22 individual episodes of a hike up the hills (alive with danger if not music), which had taken place years earlier when the composer was a strapping young lad. He made note at the time of possible sketches and themes, but was never able to complete the project until word came in May 1911 that his longtime ally and rival, Gustav Mahler, had passed away.
It was so like the composer to have used the impetus of a friend’s death to recall a long-ago trek in which he and a hearty band of mountain climbers go up and down the Alpine trail to face frightful weather conditions that culminated in a picturesque, Technicolor sunset. Um, right….
The exuberance and daring of youth was not wasted on the budding talent. Having met Hugo von Hofmannsthal circa 1900, Strauss went about turning Oscar Wilde’s scandalous French-language play Salomé into a viable operatic vehicle. He would follow a pattern of taking and using a poet’s words verbatim. Without benefit of editing or trimming, he would set the text whole-scale to his music. This would account for some of Strauss’ unrelieved wordiness in such oeuvres as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Arabella (all written to Hofmannsthal’s texts). He did base his Salome, however, on a German translation provided by poet and author Hedwig Lachmann (who was also responsible for translating Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, into German).
To be fair, Strauss abridged much of Wilde’s verbal imagery (mostly to speed up the narrative) by lacing his opera with music of a most peculiar brand of exoticism and bitonality (peculiar, mind you, for turn-of-the-century tastes). Two years after the Dresden premiere, Strauss arranged his score for a French version of Salome which made the rounds of France and other locales. Some musicologists insist that the Gallic language fit the sensual nature of the piece better than the guttural Deutsch. I happen to believe the opposite: that the German text emphasized greater “shock” value, if that’s what it required, in order to pull the work off.
Dance to the Music
No matter which language was employed, the title character remains one of the most elusive and challenging to cast of any in the standard repertory. As in his next project, Elektra (equally ponderous to cast), Salome is onstage throughout, either singing or reacting to what is being sung from the moment she struts forth. The performer taking up this role must display the physical attributes and over-eager impetuousness of a sixteen-year-old, yet sing with the voice of an Isolde so as to penetrate the thick orchestration.
Decadence, eroticism, and sacrilegious attraction to parts of the human anatomy, known as “objectification” in psychosexual terms, are essential elements in the overall plot and stifling ambience that pervade both the opera and the play. French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who had a profound influence on the so-called “decadent” movement of the late nineteenth-century (of which Wilde was a part), described Salome as “the symbolic incarnation of undying lust … the accursed beauty exalted above all beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of ancient myth, everything she touches.”
In addition to this overripe explanation, the singer must be a convincing actress as well as a lithe dancer. In many, if not most, productions the soprano is replaced by a member of the corps de ballet for the exhausting “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Not at the Met, though. This thumpety-thump, bump-and-grind episode seems like something straight out of vaudeville burlesque. A concert hall favorite for many generations, it is highly anticipated by audiences.
Mahler had discussions with Strauss about where in the opera the dance should be placed. Nevertheless, it was Strauss’ intention to “isolate the piece in all its enigmatic grandiosity and psychological depth.” To wit, he located the number at the point where Herod gazes in lust at the voluptuous figure of the princess Salome. She, in turn, manipulates the lascivious Tetrarch of Galilee into granting her wish of placing John the Baptist’s severed head (he is called by his Hebrew name, Jokanaan) on a silver platter. So be it!
The Metropolitan Opera’s production, directed by Jürgen Flimm, with sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto and choreography by Doug Varone, dates from 2004. Another of those “modern” stagings (ha-ha, with “Danish” modern furniture?), the set is divided into two separate halves, part of which resembles a swanky bar and cocktail lounge that spirals off into a staircase above and below the stage; the other is a somewhat stylized depiction of a Middle Eastern desert where Jokanaan’s cistern lies as he hurls his imprecations at Herod, his wife Herodias and their tipsy court. The cistern resembles a makeshift lift (in the old British tradition of “lifts”) where the Baptist preacher is raised and lowered. Access to this portion of the set is made by walking across a plank — treacherous footing, it’s true, but effective nonetheless.
The portly King Herod, as portrayed here by the phenomenally accomplished German tenor Gerhard Siegel (Mime in the Met’s Ring cycle production of Siegfried), was dressed up to resemble comic Zero Mostel in a top hat and pink flowered shawl. Siegel spat his words out with bite and relish. From his initial utterances (“Wo ist Salome? Wo ist die Prinzessin?” – “Where is Salome? Where is the Princess?”), to his pained and drawn out cry at the end of “Man töte dieses Weib!” (“Kill that woman!”), Siegel took the vocal and acting honors for his skillful realization of the depraved and lustful Tetrarch.
Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Herodias, Salome’s mother, had a beautiful voice (too beautiful for such an iniquitous creature), but she stayed within the role’s confines. Possessor of a gorgeous instrument and pliant, ardent tone, debuting tenor Kang Wang’s voice rang out vibrantly as the smitten young Captain Narraboth. “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute abend,” with its exposed high note, held no terrors for the native from China, who grew up in Australia. Another debuting artist, bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, lent solid heft to the First Soldier’s lines. He was seconded by veteran bass Richard Bernstein, along with a sympathetic Page by the sprightly mezzo Carolyn Sproule.
As Jokanaan, or John the Baptist (Strauss expunged all mention of his Biblical title), baritone Željko Lučić seemed like an odd, left-field choice for this assignment. I have not been the most enthusiastic supporter of the Serbian-born singer, but I admired his past efforts as Rigoletto and Macbeth, to say nothing of his recent Iago. As an interpreter of Verdi, Lučić may be limited in expression but his choice of roles always makes sense from an interpreter’s point of view. He has the artistry and the range to carry them through.
Here, however, I felt his strong tones were nothing more than a blob of amorphous sound, with little to no differentiation between notes. It came at you unleashed, as one solid, massive force — impressive but lacking in the finer details. The words were often opaque and without form. His departing curse at the debauched princess’ entreaties to kiss his mouth, “Du bist verflucht,” fell flat when it should have shaken the rafters. Željko may have been having an off-day (this was a Saturday matinee), since many of the subsequent reviews praised his performance, so I will reserve judgment until proven otherwise.
Sex in the City
Substituting for the ailing Catherine Naglestad, the surprise performer of the afternoon was none other than soprano Patricia Racette. Labeled a “veteran” by some reviewers (she has been a Met mainstay for over a quarter century) Racette would be filling some pretty hefty shoes. After all, the original Salome when this production was new, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, was much slimmer of build, blonde and blue-eyed, and the possessor of an uniquely Nordic temperament (with innate acting skills to match). Mattila’s striptease version of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she unveiled herself in the raw for a few precious moments of titillation, was censored in theaters and on public television when the Live in HD series broadcast the 2008 revival (it was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in 2011). The Met got cold feet where nudity was concerned (although no sex acts were present in Flimm’s gaudy and bawdy roadshow).
What the buxom 50+-year-old Racette brought was a commanding upper voice that gained strength as the opera progressed, albeit with less focus and pitch, but with limitless reserves and staying power. Racette easily rode the orchestral crests in the long closing scene where Salome, in possession of Jokanaan’s severed head, fondles and kisses its lips. She bared her breasts (Racette prides herself on her authenticity as a person and as a performer) and even unveiled herself in the altogether — all within the parameters of depicting the reckless princess’ baseness and moral abandon.
“There’s nothing quite as fun and interesting to portray onstage as a really poorly behaved person,” she told Los Angeles Times reporter Catherine Womack. “And Salome is that, if nothing else. This, for me, is truly a theatrical feast.”
On the debit side, Racette’s lowest notes were lost in the upper reaches of the Met’s auditorium. Still, she was ably partnered by the young German conductor Johannes Debus (another debutant), who kept a tight rein on the Met Opera Orchestra, never allowing the superior forces at his beck and call to overwhelm the artist. A few stray notes and wobbly flutters aside, this was a major comeback for a singer whose obvious pluses outweighed the relatively few minuses.
Well done, Patricia! And keep up the great work. Your authenticity is sorely needed (and missed!).
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
It’s Greek to Me!
Every generation feels it has the answers to life’s problems — and ours is no exception. When I was growing up in the Sixties, it was easy to blame the prior generation for the many ills we saw around us; to hold those in high office accountable for the endless, unresolved conflicts strewn about the land.
It’s during those trying times that many find comfort in family and friends. While some leave home and hearth to set off on their own volition, others stay put so as to deal with or fend off the difficulties as best they can.
The effect of unending conflicts, with frazzled nerves constantly on the edge of collapse, can only lead to all-out tragedy. And who better to depict those tragedies than the ancient Greeks — or, in their stead, the generation that gave rise to the First World War (or the Great War, as it was once known).
German composer Richard Strauss and his favorite poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were part of that generation. In fact, their supreme collaboration, vide the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”), paid supportive deference to the family unit as the central focus of a happy home life. In contrast, however, their preceding work, Der Rosenkavalier (or “The Cavalier of the Rose”), seemed to mock those sentiments entirely, with humorous jabs at familial relations (for example, the boorish cousin Baron Ochs) amid the amorous exploits and extramarital trysts of the petulant Octavian and the Field Marshal’s wife.
While that may well be, most historians and musicologists would argue that the team’s most forceful achievement in the operatic realm were its two earlier efforts: the one-acters Salome (1905), adapted by Strauss from Oscar Wilde’s scandalous 1893 play Salomé; and Elektra (1909), based on Hofmannsthal’s drama of the same name and on the original treatment given by Greek playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus.
In an unusual juxtaposition of musical events, the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcast of Elektra came on April 30, 2016, near the tail end of the 2015-2016 radio season; while the later transmission of Salome occurred on December 17, 2016, at the start of the 2016-2017 season.
Both operas featured all-star casts, among them Nina Stemme, Adrianne Pieczonka, Susan Neves, Roberta Alexander, Waltraud Meier, Eric Owens, James Courtney, Burkhard Ulrich, and Kevin Short in Elektra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and Patricia Racette substituting for the previously announced Catherine Naglestad, Željko Lučić, Gerhard Siegel, Kang Wang, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, and Carolyn Sproule for Salome, presided over by Johannes Debus.
At their respective premieres, both Strauss works came in for heavy criticism for their brutally raw sexuality and exceedingly perverse characterizations (in the Princess Salome and Queen Klytämnestra) as well as the matricidal tendencies of that deadly brother-sister combo of Orest and Elektra.
Greek legends being what they are, the story of Elektra, derived from classical mythology and known as the Mycenaen saga (or Oresteia), was not the first treatment of this daring subject. Gluck’s two back-to-back works in this vein, Iphigénie en Aulis (1774) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), both predate and elaborate upon the circumstances involving King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, and Orestes’ slaying of the treacherous pair and subsequent imprisonment. His sister Electra is only mentioned by name.
Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo, which premiered in Strauss’ hometown of Munich in 1791, included the antagonist Elettra (in the original Italian libretto). As the revenge-filled daughter of Agamemnon, who was the same fellow who fought in the Trojan Wars, Elettra was performed by a coloratura soprano. She is one of the earliest surviving embodiments of this character to appear in a standard repertory piece. Prophetically, Strauss rearranged and re-orchestrated Idomeneo (along with introducing newly composed music of his own) for a 1931 Vienna State Opera production.
Strauss’ lifetime fascination with Greek myth pervaded his musical compositions from their earliest days. We need only mention such examples as the pastiche Ariadne auf Naxos (1912; revised 1916) and its wittily realized clash between the modern and ancient worlds; the dreamlike Die ägyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen,” 1928), based on a conceit that the fabled Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked away to the Land of the Pharaohs; and the operas Daphne (1938) and Der Liebe der Danae (“The Loves of Danae,” 1944), both depicting mythological figures Apollo, Jupiter, Mercury, Midas, and others.
As a representative of the German bourgeoisie, whose smug contentment with the status quo oftentimes clashed with the harsh realities of pre- and post-World War I existence, Strauss realized themes in his two-hour, powered-packed oeuvre Salome and Elektra that would, in due course, lay the groundwork for the coming decadence of Nazism. The deterioration of morals so outlandishly brought to the fore by Herod’s court and in the Princess Salome’s sultry Dance of the Seven Veils, not to mention her erotic attraction to Jokanaan’s severed head, were but harbingers of the horrors to come.
Topping even this, the depravity that poisoned the atmosphere that Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis, were forced to survive in — while begging for scraps from the servants and bearing witness to the treachery that led to Agamemnon’s brutal slaying at their own mother’s hand — accurately, if not presciently, conveyed the notion that corruption and wickedness began in the home.
The Jagged Edge
The late and much lamented French director Patrice Chéreau, whose 1976 Bayreuth centennial production of Wagner’s Ring has achieved an almost legendary standing, unveiled his vision for Elektra back in 2013 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. Reviewed in Opera News and in other similarly themed publications, this production made its initial Met Opera impact in April of 2016, a few short years after the director’s untimely passing from lung cancer. It won overwhelmingly positive notices for its emotional content and psychological insight into the souls of its protagonists.
Celebrated for his outstanding work with singers and for his theatrical finesse and acumen, Chéreau was feted for another depiction of tortured, imprisoned souls in the Met’s premier presentation of Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, in November 2009. Using the same creative team that he did for Elektra (set designer Richard Peduzzi, who worked with the director on the Ring cycle, and costume designer Caroline de Vivaise), Chéreau set the opera in a “bleak, monumental palace” courtyard — similar in shape and scope to the single set found in From the House of the Dead (with that evocative title seeming to cast a subliminal pall over the machinations of the lead characters’ plight).
The opera was staged in New York by Vincent Huguet, Chéreau’s assistant at Aix-en-Provence. Meticulous attention to detail and to the interpersonal dynamic between characters were the most obvious signs of a well-planned and well-executed affair. Strauss provided this intensely mesmerizing work with music of elemental force. Gripping dissonance and raucous cacophony, from the lowest bass notes to the highest cries in the strings, were the norm. But there are also melodies of such overpowering tenderness that to hear them, as played by the excellent Met Opera Orchestra under the impeccable maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, was absolutely startling.
Beginning with the opening chords, the full orchestra blasts forth the name of Agamemnon to wild abandon (a trick Strauss used again at the start of Die Frau ohne Schatten, with the Spirit King Keikobad), then dies down to a barely audible rumble in the Wagner tubas and bass clarinet. Jagged leaps up and down the scale, two and three octave jumps, sliding trombones, violins screeching and whining like the howling of the wind, bold bursts of sound coming from the brass section: all these, and singing, too! The opera ends as it began, with a repeat of the D minor intonation of Agamemnon’s name, followed by deathly silence.
It took the Metropolitan an entire generation to present this piece. At the time, Elektra’s so-called immorality and overt hints of incestuous bisexuality were deemed “too sensational” for Met audiences. The opera’s debut finally came in 1932, with Artur Bodanzky conducting and Gertrude Kappel in the title role. Fritz Reiner led the Swedish-born Astrid Varnay in the 1950s, while Inge Borkh essayed the part in the early 1960s. Hailed as a conductor’s showpiece, the opera has been presided over by the likes of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Arthur Rodzinsky, Thomas Beecham, Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Georg Solti, and James Levine.
Elektra is also one of the most demanding roles in all opera, with a range of two octaves (and then some) going from middle C to high C. And few singers could match the high-voltage decibel levels of the inimitable Birgit Nilsson, although German soprano Hildegard Behrens’ dramatic sensibilities were not lost on Met Opera audiences. Other great interpreters of the part included sopranos Rose Pauly, Erna Schlüter, Anny Konetzni, Gwyneth Jones, and now Nina Stemme.
Initially, director Chéreau had chosen Evelyn Herlitzius as his Elektra at Aix. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka repeated her assignment as Chrysothemis at both Aix and the Met. As mentioned above, the spacious setting was more in line with that of a madhouse than a royal palace at Mycenae. The curtain rises before any music is heard. Serving women come out on stage and begin their daily tasks. It’s only at this point that Elektra is let out from her cell that the opera proper begins. She has the wild look of a caged animal, of someone who has spent her formative years in solitary confinement.
Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, with her large, soul-searching eyes and searing intensity, penetrated the massive orchestration with an emotionally charged, devastatingly credible interpretation of Elektra. From the big moments in her opening monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein!” to her frozen, immobile form at the opera’s conclusion, Stemme conveyed the character’s inability to act out her revenge with a wrenching poignancy only a handful of artists could begin to suggest. In this, and in many other senses, Elektra is Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the vengeance ploy is itself the very be-all and end-all of both tales. And Stemme was the right singer in the right spot to do full justice to the role.
As Chrysothemis (the sisters’ other sibling, Iphigenia, you’ll recall, was sacrificed to the gods in order that their father Agamemnon’s ships could have favorable wind in their sails), Pieczonka exemplified the caring yet pleading aspects of a family member who knows that Elektra needs much more aid and comfort (and a large dollop of TLC) than she alone can provide. Their scenes of sisterly “affection,” for lack of a better term, were sung with a clear line and easily distinguishable timbre by the two female leads. Desperation kicked in as Chrysothemis was loath to assist her sister in carrying out their mother’s murder.
Speaking of which, the one inventive element of this production was the manner in which Klytämnestra was portrayed. Normally, one would expect a cackling, over-stimulated, hysterical harpy, an individual wracked with pain and guilt and overburdened with having to deal with the intractable Elektra. Heck, this is one dysfunctional family member! Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, who in the past has undertaken such varied assignments as Wagner’s Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Kundry, Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck, as well as Verdi’s Princess Eboli in Don Carlo, was definitely NOT your grandfather’s Klytämnestra. Hers was a more (how shall one put it?) “humane” reading of this ignoble creature, and a valid one to say the least.
Past adherents of the part — I’m thinking of Met stalwart Regina Resnik, a superb singing actress and fellow James Monroe High School alumnus, along with Martha Mödl, another valuable exponent of Brünnhilde and Isolde who turned to mezzo roles late in her career — have uniformly depicted Elektra’s mom as an incorrigible virago. What Meier provided was meltingly beautiful tone and an unmistakable air of murky eventuality, along with justification for her and her paramour’s violent actions against the paterfamilias.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens as the avenging Orest (the German form of Orestes), whose own distinctive timbre and careful enunciation of the text (via permanently clenched teeth) has made him a frequently called-upon Alberich and Porgy, gave a more subdued portrait. Again, in Chéreau’s carefully wrought analysis, Orest is an even more reluctant participant than the norm. Don’t forget: his principle modus operandi is to seek retribution for his mother’s heinous act. Owens’ silence and stillness, in this instance, spoke wordless volumes.
The drama’s apex occurs past the midway point, in the duly famous “Recognition Scene,” where, moments before, Klytämnestra is told that a messenger has arrived bearing news of Orest’s death. That “messenger” is Orest in disguise. In this production, the Old Servant (wonderfully enacted by veteran James Courtney) and Orest’s guardian (bass Kevin Short) are given added prominence. Just as Elektra has realized that the stranger before her is indeed her beloved Brüder (with a brilliant shout of “Orest!” above another of those thunderous orchestral interludes), the two men come together in a warm embrace. Interestingly, at the Aix-en-Provence performance, these minor characters were enacted by Donald McIntyre and Franz Mazura, two war-weary veterans of Chéreau’s Bayreuth Ring — a delightful happenstance.
We must put in a plug as well for another veteran artist, soprano Roberta Alexander, as the Fifth Maidservant, whose lustrous vocal display at the beginning of the piece was praised and commented upon in both the Aix-en-Provence and Met Opera productions.
On an historical side note, the monumental irony of Strauss’ later years has been documented in Alex Ross’ richly researched tome, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Ross relates how the once renowned composer, who publicly supported Hitler and his Nazi Party, yet privately railed against them, was found by occupation forces at his villa in Garmisch; how a sign just outside the entranceway pointing to the house where the famous composer Richard Strauss lived, had declared it to be “Off Limits”; how, like Orest, Strauss’ visage was almost unrecognizable, until a music-loving American officer was able to vouch for the composer and rescue him from possible imprisonment (or worse).
A punishment for past misdeeds? Divine intervention? A Greek tragedy come to life? Who can say? Strauss had managed to stay in Germany when all the signs pointed to his getting out. In Ross’ factual account, “if he had left by himself, his extended family [and his Jewish daughter-in-law] would presumably have been sent to the concentration camps. Strauss had little choice but to undergo a humiliating process of self-rehabilitation” (Ross, p. 325).
If only others had been as fortunate!
(End of Part One)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes