There is an old adage my mother once taught me about the neighborhood weirdo — commonly referred to in literature as the “village idiot.” It goes something like this: “Poor people are crazy, rich people are eccentric.” For the purposes of this discussion, we should add the following caveat: “Local people have good ideas they never seem to act on, while outsiders have crazy ideas they always seem to act on.”
Remarkably, most times we remember the crazy ideas best — and, equally remarkable, they’re usually the ones that “work out” in the end. One of many such ideas is the focus of German director, writer, producer Werner Herzog’s fantastic jungle epic, Fitzcarraldo (1982). Fantastic, that is, in the dictionary sense of the word: “strange,” “freakish,” “odd,” and totally “farfetched.” Webster’s New World Thesaurus even lists “foreign” as a plausible substitute. We also have “absurd” and “futile,” both synonymous with the writings of French philosopher Albert Camus, in particular the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” based on his analysis of the tragic Greek figure, condemned in the afterlife to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to see it slide back towards the ground upon reaching the summit.
Yes, all these descriptions are fine and accurate and certainly help to convey the surreal atmosphere that surrounds this mesmerizing adventure flick. Yet none of them truly suffice as much as the term “madness” does. Madness in the way the director eschewed special effects for larger-than-life realism, in his grueling account of Irish entrepreneur Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, transformed by the natives into the more euphemistic sounding “Fitzcarraldo,” and his cockeyed scheme to provide opera to the isolated village of Iquitos. Madness in Herzog’s use of authentic Amazonian locales, despite the inherent difficulties and insurmountable obstacles that shooting in that part of the world entailed for him and his crew.
Madness in his insistence on a real 340-ton steam vessel, to be hauled, by real Indians, first up, then down a real mountain slope — never mind that the real Fitzcarraldo, a nineteenth-century devil-may-care adventurer, had chosen to dismantle his vessel before transporting it. And madness in his deployment of unruly screen veteran Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, The Wrath of God, 1972; Nosferatu, The Vampyre, 1978) — the epitome of erratic behavior both on and off the set — in place of the previously announced Jason Robards (who came down with amoebic dysentery four months into the shoot) and rock star Mick Jagger (who left soon after to join a Rolling Stones concert tour). They both got off easy as a result.
That the film was completed at all, after having suffered through these and countless other mishaps — and went on to become a hallmark of the epic-movie genre as well — is the maddest concept of all. Still, the sheer thought of bringing grand opera to the rain-forest region was not as improbable as it might first have appeared, even for a work of pure fiction. Indeed, for all its vaunted inaccessibility, the Amazon has historically been the site of not one but several elaborately furnished opera houses bankrolled by the rich and powerful rubber barons of the period — the most famous of which, the pink-marbled Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, makes an eerie nocturnal appearance early on in Herzog’s accident-prone production.
Opera à la Carte (And in Your Face)
Relative to this is Fitzcarraldo’s openly mad obsession with the operatic art (shared fully by the movie’s obsessive-minded director), made apparent by his constant playing of scratchy old 78’s on a dilapidated Victrola — a lifesaver, it turns out, for him and his steamboat’s motley crew; and in the fantasy-like opening sequence, a harbinger of greater “eccentricity” to come. In it, we glimpse the disheveled Irishman, in his trademark white planter’s suit and wide-brimmed hat, alongside his bordello-owner mistress Molly (Italian actress Claudia Cardinale), exhausted after a twelve-hundred-mile trek down the Amazon River, feverishly paddling away in an open-air motorboat, as he tries to catch what remains of Verdi’s Ernani, starring his favorite singer, the fabled Enrico Caruso (real-life tenor Veriano Luchetti).
At first blocked from crashing the black-tie event by the persistent black doorman (an uncomfortably bedecked Milton Nascimento, in his foreign-picture debut), the mismatched pair nonetheless manages to sweet-talk their way into the auditorium, as the frazzled doorman looks on with a good deal of skepticism if not outright concern for the patrons still inside. No sooner has the couple taken up its position at the back of the theater, than the soprano begins the final trio, with the great Caruso, at one point, extending his hand into the audience in a spontaneous gesture the manic adventurer conveniently mistakes as a sign of his impending good fortune:
“He pointed to you,” Molly excitedly tells him.
“Yes,” cries Fitzcarraldo in astonishment. “He pointed to me. You see… he means me.” (Of course he does — in his mind’s eye, that is.)
With this gratuitous bit of self-justification, our accidental tourist hits upon his life’s purpose: he vows, then and there, to replicate his thrilling experience in Manaus in his own backwater’s main square, as evidenced by the rollicking scene in which he plants himself atop the local parish, ringing its bells and shouting to the populace below, “This church remains closed until this town has an opera house! I will build my opera house! I want to have my opera!”
This begs the question, then, of whether the deliberate actions of a desperate, turn-of-the-century music buff are, in reality, the ravings of a misguided lunatic (see Hector Babenco’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, from 1991, for another view of this subject). For non-lovers of the form, however, it can prove exceedingly difficult to grasp, let alone appreciate, where enthusiasm for opera ends and madness begins. Having myself been a lifelong member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, I can readily attest to that misconception. On a more positive note, not since the premiere of French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beneix’s wickedly creative Diva (1981), with its stylish decor, smart-ass urban attitude, and post-Nouvelle Vague production values, has there been a protagonist as enthralled with the lyric art, or as enamored of its infinite possibilities, as the one embodied in Herzog’s pet project.
Even still, such unbridled passion (for what it’s worth) can be off-putting to those insensitive to the title character’s needs or to his peculiar brand of exuberance — his modus operandi, if you will. Even time spent in jail does not thwart him from his self-appointed task of harvesting latex in a remote region of the Amazon too impractical for rubber-tapping, hence his use of a steamboat over that precipitous hill; then, once on the other side, shipping the raw material out and selling it for a quick profit, thus providing him with enough of a return to construct his longed-for opera house.
But where would he find the outlay for such an outrageous endeavor? Fortunately for Fitzcarraldo, aid comes in the aesthetically pleasing shape of the sympathetic Molly, who decides to part with her brothel’s hard-earned cash — in a comic episode that features her and her “girls” attempting to fleece the required funds from the all-too accommodating rubber barons — for the sake of her lover’s bold plan. For her efforts, Fitzcarraldo christens his steamer, the Molly Aida, after her — and well he should, for it was her belief in his questionable abilities that helped finance the dubious venture in the first place — and in deference to his all-consuming interest in opera.
Whistle While You Work
This brings the main section of the story into play, wherein Fitzcarraldo’s doggedly determined vision for making his impossible dream come true — the long and agonizing climb up the treacherous hill, with a thousand-and-one native extras pulling, tugging and coaxing the huge vessel along — takes on the quixotic proportions of an old Cecil B. DeMille epic.
“This is a film that challenges the most basic laws of nature,” Herzog explained at the outset. “Boats are just not meant to fly over mountains.” No, they’re not. Nor were they meant to be hurled down the raging Pongo das Mortes (“Rapids of Death”), either — which is exactly what happens next: loosening the ship from its moorings, the inscrutable tribesmen (called the “bare-asses” in the script) offer the Molly Aida up as a symbolic gesture to their river god.
Miraculously, the tempest-tossed steamer, with Fitzcarraldo and his waterlogged crewmen still on board, withstands the rocky onslaught, but with his hopes for bringing opera to his village seemingly shattered by this harrowing experience, in the manner of his mythological counterpart Sisyphus and that backsliding rock of his. Waxing philosophical for the moment, let us turn now to Camus’ musings on the nature of the absurd, for a more discerning look into Sisyphus’ fate and, by association, Fitzcarraldo’s own future:
“From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all… [Sisyphus’] passion for life won that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of the earth… Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness… [T]he absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols… There is no sun without the shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says ‘yes’ and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny… but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable… I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile… The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
That last line is worthy of note, to be sure, since it will remind attentive viewers of a similar piece of dialogue, delivered by the sadistic Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) to the brutalized British prisoners of war, in the WWII action-adventure yarn, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): “Be happy in your work,” he grudgingly informs them, as they prepare to take part in the back-breaking building of that fatal span.
Noteworthy, too, is the last line of the picture (“Madness, madness…”) uttered by the uncomprehending Major Clipton (James Donald), upon witnessing the destruction of the self-same Kwai Bridge that by-the-book British commander, Colonel Nicholson (Oscar-winner Alec Guinness), had ordered put up to boost his men’s sagging morale. Ah, the abounding absurdities of life!
So where did we leave off, and how does Fitzcarraldo fit into all this? For one, the two films share many cinematic elements in common, among them impressive location footage and realistic props and sets (a real bridge and train, for instance, in Bridge on the River Kwai); and for another, they’re both one-of-a-kind classics of their respective movie types. Need we say more?
Having His Cake — And Eating It, Too
Though none the worse for wear, Fitzcarraldo finally returns to his town’s home port, but immediately experiences another of those blinding flashes of “inspiration.” This time, however, it pays off handsomely for all concerned: he sells the Molly Aida in exchange for sufficient earnings to rent out the entire opera company for a day. We next see the makeshift ensemble, floating down the river on small barges, with all the participants therein clothed, in seventeenth-century English garb, as pilgrims in Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani, singing their hearts out in the bel canto number, “A te, o cara” (“To you, my beloved”), accompanied by several more barges replete with the remaining orchestra members. But where is Fitzcarraldo?
There he is, floating right beside the others — smoking an absurdly fat cigar, it would seem — as happy and contented in his work, and in his achievement, as the Grinch bringing Christmas back to Whoville. And speaking of cartoon creations, it all seems rather silly, when one stops to think about it, how much consternation our hero has caused for the folks around him, and for something so alien as opera. Yet there is (you’ll pardon the expression) method to Fitzcarraldo’s madness: after all, he did do exactly what he set out to do — he brought opera to the town of Iquitos. It’s only his bizarre execution of that incredible feat that left everyone slack-jawed and bewildered, that’s all.
Nevertheless, he really showed them, all right. And things did “work out” in the end, though, didn’t they? No longer the brunt of cruel jokes, nor the laughingstock of his community, this “village idiot,” at least, has succeeded in his primary objective, while enjoying the fruits of his labors — as well as his flotilla’s victory display.
We realize now, of course, that he’s not really mad at all, nor even crazy. He’s just a little bit… well, you know… eccentric…
Produced by Werner Herzog and Lucki Stipetic; written and directed by Werner Herzog; Editing by Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus; cinematography by Thomas Mauch; music by Popol Vuh; starring Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Paul Hittscher, Jose Lewgoy, Miguel Angel Fuentes, Peter Berling, and Milton Nascimento; 157 min.
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
TV’S FUNNIEST MEN WERE ALIKE IN MANY WAYS, YET UTTERLY DIFFERENT AS HUMAN BEINGS
When things don’t go your way and the challenges of modern life overwhelm you at every turn, take a lesson from The Great One, Jackie Gleason, and do what he and his most beloved character, Ralph Kramden, would do: screw up royally.
With just 39 filmed episodes of the classic fifties television series The Honeymooners preserved for posterity, the comic antics of the Brooklyn-born bus driver long ago entered the mainstream of American cultural life — and endeared himself to millions of sitcom fans through his scatter-brained schemes and spur-of-the-moment solutions to life’s most daunting problems.
The similarities in origin, personality, temperament, and physique between the series’ creator and his creation, however, were more than mere coincidence. In life, Gleason enjoyed fame, fortune and a flamboyant lifestyle few people could ever hope to achieve, but could never completely overcome the dark demons of his poverty-stricken past; whereas Kramden constantly tried and failed yet never gave up hope that one day he, too, would hit that elusive high note of life.
A Hard Knocks Life
Everybody’s favorite funnyman made his first appearance in 1951, and was played by one of television’s most celebrated comedians, Jackie Gleason.
Herbert John “Jackie” Gleason was born in 1916, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. The son of Irish immigrants and a first generation Irish-American, Gleason suffered through grinding poverty, the death of a younger sibling, an alcoholic runaway father, and a sick mother who he lost early in life, all before the age of 19. He dropped out of public school and never went back. The classes he most often attended were located on the street of hard knocks, around the corner from his favorite hangout, the local billiard parlor.
Gleason worked at becoming a decent pool player and a hard liver, a heavy smoker and an even heavier drinker. He held down a variety of odd jobs in his youth (i.e., carnival barker, radio announcer, disc jockey, emcee, daredevil stunt diver) long before he ever got to Hollywood.
After brief stints on Broadway and in several New York nightspots, he caught the eye of studio boss Jack Warner, who immediately signed him to a five-picture deal with Warner Brothers. Despite secondary roles in a number of assembly-line productions, Gleason grew unhappy with his minor status and the studio methodology. He left Hollywood to return to the East Coast, where he started to make his first television appearances around 1949, initially in the show The Life of Riley, and later at the fledgling Dumont Network in the program Cavalcade of Stars.
In 1952, CBS-TV brought him and the show over to their side, thus launching Gleason on a long and fruitful career with the station. He had already developed many of his famous characterizations while still at Dumont, further refining them on the air at CBS. Some of the characters he created were Reginald Van Gleason III, Joe the Bartender, Charlie the Loudmouth, the Poor Soul, and, of course, Ralph Kramden. Critics and fans all agreed that these characters were simply extensions of the comedian himself, or perhaps different sides of his own multifaceted persona. Indeed, a case can be made that they were all aspects of the same highly complex individual.
Always a visual comic — and a handsome one, to boot — Gleason exploited his good looks to their fullest: he had a thick mop of dark, wavy hair, a pair of wandering blue eyes, a flashy smile, and gobs of personal charm, which he used often and to good purpose (especially around the ladies). He had a wonderful way with words, was a marvelous raconteur and a hilarious joke teller.
Gleason wore dapper suits, expensive shoes, fancy ties with matching kerchiefs, and colorful carnations in his lapel, quite apart from Kramden’s salt-of-the-earth drabness. He was always sensitive about his appearance; in fact, his obsession would often verge on the narcissistic. He dieted on and off so many times he nearly toppled tenor Mario Lanza from the throne of the temperamental star who had gained and lost the most poundage throughout his TV and movie life. As a result, Gleason had his wardrobe tailored to fit three different sizes (big, bigger and biggest) to cover every conceivable fluctuation in his measurements. In line with that, he frequently berated his scriptwriters for introducing too many fat jokes into the story lines of his show.
He was blessed with a remarkable memory, and consequently had an absolute abhorrence of rehearsals because of it. He would often come to the taping of his shows totally plastered but still able to hit his marks — with the aid of his fellow actors, of course. To initiate a rookie cast member into the ensemble, he would often spout dubious directions, such as “Now in this scene you say BLA, BLA, BLA, BLA, and then I’ll say BLO, BLO, BLO, BLO,” and so forth; this did wonders for the nervous newcomer’s confidence level come airtime. He would frequently flub a line, only to quickly recover with some snappy comeback or a well-placed one-liner, a welcome holdover from his nightclub days. In that respect, Gleason was a thorough professional.
During his almost 30 years on the tube, Gleason became the Orson Welles of television, a regular Renaissance man and general factotum. His talents extended to acting, writing, producing, directing — even composing, conducting and arranging music, although he couldn’t read a note. And, like the corpulent Welles (who was credited with dubbing him with the title of “The Great One”), Gleason peaked early on in his career and never completely stretched himself thereafter, even if he had sufficient cause to coast on his success.
He did try some atypical dramatic roles as a change of pace, but except for a few movie sojourns in the early to mid-sixties, including a critically-acclaimed appearance in The Hustler as Minnesota Fats in 1961 (earning him an Oscar nomination), and several return forays onto the Broadway stage — one of which, the musical Take Me Along, led to a Tony Award — Gleason’s trips away from his comedic home-world were not met with public favor.
Gleason had a problematic personal life as well. He went through two failed marriages that ended in rocky divorce proceedings, and, like his father before him, was an incurable drunk and an absentee parent. His relationship with his children suffered as a result.
He put many of these situations into two of his most underrated film performances: the first, in the wonderful turn-of-the-century comedy Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963), in which the main character’s constant tipsiness accurately reflects Gleason’s own state of being; and the second, in the serio-comic Nothing in Common (1986), with the young Tom Hanks.
In both, Gleason plays a man whose family walks out on him, but in Nothing in Common, he was a terminally ill salesman, unfulfilled in his chosen career and sadly lacking in any sort of family life or emotional outlet for his troubles. The only person he confides in is his estranged son, Hanks, who learns to love the bitter, resentful old man and eventually helps him come to terms with his impending death. It seemed the real-life Gleason had somehow morphed into this sad, celluloid wreck, exposing his inner turmoil for all to see. It was a marvelously truthful turn.
In 1987, Jackie Gleason passed away from complications due to cancer of the colon and liver. It’s a shame he never learned the life-lessons taught to his own greatest creation, Ralph Kramden: to love the things you have, accept life as it is, and deal with it on its own terms.
The Common Touch
Ralph is the downtrodden Bensonhurst native, perpetually disappointed with his lowly station in life, always wanting to better himself via frivolous get-rich-quick schemes, yet driven to insane fits of anger when those same schemes backfire, as they invariably did. His lashing out at his plight, moreover, illustrates his continued refusal to accept the card deck that life has handed him. In addition, his personification of the Common Man’s impotence in the face of his squalid surroundings points up the tenacity, the fallibility — and yes, the total humanity — of Gleason’s most famous creation.
Ralph Kramden is a veritable volcano of blustering bellicosity, whose eruptions and physical form take on the shape and rumblings of a benign Kilauea: all smoke and noise, but little substance. His formidable bulk and easy affability remind one of a young Oliver Hardy, harrumphing his way through life, trying ever so valiantly to cope with its myriad complexities while seemingly unable to extricate himself from the many ill-chosen paths of his own making.
His loyal and loving wife, the beautiful and dutiful Alice, tries to steer him back to reality at each turn. She is every bit his vocal match, and no slouch when it comes to defending her own turf. Alice puts up with his verbal abuses only because she knows that beneath his many layers of belligerence there beats the heart of a true romantic — and a sentimental one, at that.
His best friend and upstairs neighbor, sewer worker Ed Norton, is an incompatible combination of Stan Laurel with Lou Costello, who serves as both whimsical punching bag and adulating yes-man to Kramden’s delusions of grandeur. He whole-heartily agrees to every one of Ralph’s ridiculous ideas for enrichment, for the simple reason that he’s his friend, and that’s what friends do to help their buddies in distress.
Norton has everything in his Chauncey Street flat that Ralph and Alice lack — frilly curtains, beautiful fixtures, fine furniture, the latest appliances, and so forth; and he’s in hock up to his ears because of them. But at least he and his wife, former chorus girl Trixie, are content. Ralph, on the other hand, complains about everything he doesn’t have, and is almost never satisfied with the things he does have, even after he struggles so hard to obtain them. “Easy come, easy go,” is his existential philosophy.
Ralph makes many unwise decisions about his life. Take, for example, the time he discovers a suitcase full of money. What would any normal, honest citizen do with such a find? Report it to the police? Not Ralph. He decides to splurge, and pretty much spends the bulk of the funds on a fancy car, a big boat, spiffy outfits, and some new furniture, with just enough hundred-dollar bills left over to hand out to any and all comers. He even goes so far as to call his boss a “bum” on the phone. When he discovers, to his horror, that the money is counterfeit, he confronts his spendthrift ways by ordering Norton to “Fill up the car and point it towards Mex-ee-co,” as if running away from the problem would somehow mollify it.
We remember another time, when Ralph decides to take Alice to a Broadway murder mystery, which just so happens to fall on the same night that her mother stops by for a visit. Within minutes of her arrival, she spills the beans about the surprise ending to the play. This infuriates Ralph, who, when forced to deal with his mother-in-law’s tactless comment, belches forth a formidable tirade, beginning with the words, “You are a blabber mouth. Blab-ber-mouth! Get out! OUT! OUT! OUT!” His bloated vitriol becomes a cathartic primal scream, a cleansing balsam to his wounded pride — even if he almost loses his beloved spouse in the process. Regardless, it’s a hilarious scene, and masterfully delivered in one fell swoop. It also serves to set up the sweetly sentimental husband and wife reunion later on.
Still, Ralph manages to persevere to an admirable extent without regard to the many setbacks he seems to encounter; to blindly go forth, despite the numerous times he has tried to find his proverbial pot of gold. How many contests has he entered, how many box tops has he sent in, and how many prayers has he offered up for his ship to come in? Only to learn that the contest was rigged from the start, that the box-top company went out of business, and that the ship that never came in was in reality the Titanic! You have to give the guy credit for trying, though, even when he finds himself completely out of his element.
For instance, what would you do if you were a contestant on one of those big money quiz shows, and were asked the question: Who was the composer of “Swanee River”? Who would you say wrote it? Ed Norton? WRONG! It was Stephen Foster (original title: “The Old Folks at Home”). Well, anyone can make that mistake, right? Yes, but if you were supposed to be the resident expert on popular songs and your best friend kept playing the first few bars of that same song constantly, day in and day out, for a week or more, don’t you think you would have asked him what he was playing? No, not Ralph. His only question to his pal is, “Why do you always have to play ‘DA da da-DA da-da DA da-DA’ every time you start to play the piano?” To which Norton replies, “A pitcher has to warm up in the bullpen before he pitches.”
Ralph’s mistaken assumption that Norton fostered the piece which forever thwarts his chances of winning the $99,000 prize costs him the sole shot he will ever have at getting out of the rut he thinks he’s been in. In reality, it only serves to humble him before his wife and friends, and to thoroughly humanize him in our eyes as well.
Now take this perplexing problem. Your wife has just purchased an adorable little puppy, but she doesn’t want you to know about it because you don’t want any pets in the house. So she hides it in a neighbor’s apartment instead. You then come home from a hard day on Gotham’s streets to get ready for another “emergency” meeting at the lodge, when your best friend enters and instinctively reaches into the fridge to pull out a tasty snack. He just so happens to stumble upon a plate of what seems like the most appetizing concoction since Velveeta. What do you do? If you’re Ralph, you immediately hatch a plan to get your boss to invest in the tantalizing treat and make a mint with it.
When later Ralph humiliatingly learns that the “delicious mystery appetizer” he’s been peddling turns out to be dog food, he rushes home to strangle his wife, only to find the real culprit is the puppy. He impulsively grabs the beast and takes it back to the pound where it came from. Alice follows Ralph to the pound to rescue her pet, only to see him emerge with three mutts instead of one. You see, the little fellow was going to be destroyed if nobody claimed him, so the softhearted Mr. Kramden — who just minutes before was ready to grind the mongrel into frankfurter meat — eventually finds it in his heart to forgive the poor pooch, accept the outcome as it is, and make the best of an otherwise embarrassing situation by bringing home all three animals.
Sunday School Lessons
The act of forgiveness, then, is at the core of Ralph and Alice’s relationship, and can best be attributed to Gleason’s own personal makeup.
As the son of Irish-Catholics, Gleason would have been familiar with the liturgy of the Church, including the Catechism, the Mass, and its associated rituals. Since he had final approval on all of the scripts for The Honeymooners, it’s quite conceivable that the series would have benefited from his firsthand knowledge of these practices, not to mention the Christian notion of original sin.
He would also have been familiar with the confessional, the act of contrition, and the rite of absolution. Whether or not Gleason was himself a firm believer in organized religion is of little consequence, for the form and substance of a practicing Catholic was subliminally omnipresent in many of the classic 39.
When faced with having to fess up to some feverish endeavor that inevitably fails, Ralph goes into a patented routine that almost resembles an ancient holy rite. His first reaction is to slowly go into a wordless, mealy-mouthed mumble, accompanied by several well-placed tosses of his St. Bernard-like head, a forlorn hangdog expression etched on his brow, all the while stirring in a couple of “homina, homina, hominas” into the pot in a sort of pre-New Age mantra, chanted in sequence to help him through the rough spots.
Finally, as he punctuates the air with a mighty wave of his arm — as if by that gesture he could miraculously make straight whatever dire deed he had done — he resolutely pronounces the final benediction on his predicament with a thoroughly anguished and drawn-out “AAAAAAHHHH,” which segues into his contrite confession that he’s a mope with a BIG MOUTH.
Yet, at each show’s conclusion, Alice would patiently make him see the error of his ways, and very plainly tell him what he most needed to hear: that despite the troubles he has brought upon himself — and he only has himself to blame — she will always be there for him. She will love him as dearly as she does now, and will forever forgive him his many (and obvious) faults.
She would then be greeted by Ralph’s own emphatic declaration of love (“Baby, you’re the greatest!”) and be enveloped in his prodigious embrace — a warm, all-encompassing abrazo, which becomes, for him, a religious act of acknowledgement and acceptance of his sins, rendered not just for his own benefit but for the whole of humanity — to be followed by that endless, passionate buss on the lips, the ultimate seal of approval.
We should not be too hard on Ralph for the extremes that he goes to in order to better his dreary existence, or be exceedingly judgmental of him because of them. For life has a way of naturally balancing things out in the long run and of humbling us before our past misdeeds, even as we strive to overcome our present embarrassment over them. How do we know we can do any better than this poor soul? Certainly Jackie Gleason, the actor who played him on television, never could. Not only were he and Ralph Kramden two utterly different human beings, they were on opposite sides of the same well-worn coin.
Where Gleason was lucky enough to have made it yet somehow squandered his gains on a pathetic personal life, Ralph still kept at the daily grind, always looking for a way out of his crumbling Chauncey Street abode, all the while enjoying the thrill of the chase and bringing his wife and friends along for the ride.
It’s a most welcome thought to know that, after all these years, one can still speculate about Kramden’s future: that one day, he might really have a chance to be elected Raccoon of the Year, that he might be able to toot that horn as he passes Raccoon Point, or that he might open that first clam at the annual Clam Bake; of Gleason, there can be no further speculation, for we know he never made it to the Raccoon Cemetery at Bismarck, North Dakota.
So remember this sane advice, dear reader: whenever life’s problems conspire to get you down, just think about Ralph, Norton, Alice, and Trixie. They’re all still struggling — and very much alive and well — in the pantheon of great television sitcoms in the sky. One can learn a lot from them about avoiding the pitfalls of life, and especially from witnessing the frequent foibles of so fallible yet lovable a character as Ralph Kramden. And if not — BANG, ZOOM — take a trip to the MOON!!! ◙
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
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• Crescenti, Peter, and Bob Columbe, The Official Honeymooners Treasury: To The Moon and Back With Ralph, Norton, Alice and Trixie, Perigee Books, published by Putnam Publishing Group, New York, 1985.
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• Tracey, Grant, “3 of 39: Three Classic Episodes of The Honeymooners,” Images Journal, http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/features/3of39.htm, no date.
• Weatherby, W.J., Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of the Great One, Pharos Books, A Scripps Howard Company, New York, 1992.
Four men are seen at a Paris railway station, heading towards a waiting train. They are special agents, recruited by the Israeli government, and intent on going to Amsterdam to “take care” of a serious problem involving a killing of their own. Abruptly, one of the agents, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the group’s designated bomb expert, has second thoughts about the assignment and decides to pull back from the trip. The team leader, Avner (Eric Bana), walks over to him to find out what’s wrong.
“So you’re really going to kill her?” asks Robert, referring to their latest target, a beautiful Dutch assassin who has just murdered their clean-up man, the straight-laced Carl (Ciaran Hinds). Avner nods in ascent. “All this blood comes back to us,” Robert confides.
“Eventually it will work,” replies Avner in the calm, reassuring manner reminiscent of Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler. “Even if it takes years, we’ll beat them.”
“We’re Jews, Avner. Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong.”
“We can’t afford to be that decent anymore,” he counters.
“I don’t know that we ever were that decent. Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn’t make you decent. But we’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish. That’s what I knew, that’s what I was taught. And now I’m losing it, and I lose that, that’s… that’s everything. That’s my soul.”
He loses that, and much more, in Steven Spielberg’s thought-provoking suspense thriller Munich (2005), about the aftermath of the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by the militant Black September outfit during the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Germany. It’s just one of many scenes in a film that portrays the modern Jewish conscience in an entirely new light, along with displaying a new level of maturity and freedom by one of Hollywood’s most secure filmmakers.
Gone are the warm-and-fuzzy feelings generated by Spielberg’s family friendly alien E.T., as are the deliriously madcap adventures of freewheeling archeologist Indiana Jones. In their place are a sobriety and seriousness of purpose that raise Spielberg’s latest celluloid masterwork to a level far and above the general run-of-the-mill movie fare we’ve come to expect from Tinsel Town.
That he’s able to tackle such a controversial subject as revenge killings in the politically charged climate of the then-current Iraq War is a testament to his ability (and will) in the complacent world of Hollywood cinema. With its provocative theme, the movie also raised more than a few eyebrows abroad, to include past witnesses to the terrible event as well as the widows of several of the deceased team members. Still, it’s a nonetheless disturbing look at what transpires when overzealous governments forgo logic and reason — no matter how noble the cause — to take up the iron rod of justice; the result being that suspicion is heaped on top of suspicion, paranoia piled on top of paranoia, until all we are left with is the uneasy sense that blind revenge is not the answer.
Scenes reenacting, and leading up to, the murders themselves are interspersed with those of the special-agent hit squad, hell-bent on exacting an eye-for-an-eye exchange with the Palestinians — or at least, that’s what their government hints at. As if imprisoned by some never-ending nightmare, lead agent Avner relives these same events over and over again, as he tries in vain to rest up after wrestling with his own personal conscience. In the penultimate scene, the selfless act of love (the giving of life) is juxtaposed with senseless acts of unspeakable violence (the taking away of life).
With that in mind, Avner is shown twice performing in bed: once near the beginning of the film, with his pregnant wife Daphna (Avelet Zurer), just after he accepts his initial assignment; and once more, near the end, before his final confrontation with Israeli government contact Ephraim (the excellent Geoffrey Rush), as he’s about to renounce it. By doing this, the message is made abundantly clear: there is a fine line — a very fine line, it turns out — between love and hate, good and evil, justice and injustice; it all depends on how one chooses to cross it — if one dares to do so.
The last shot in the film (and a most controversial one it is, too) is of the newly constructed World Trade Center, taken from the Brooklyn side of town — an ominous portent of things to come for us Americans in our own “Black September” incident that took place, ironically enough, in the same month (9/11) as the Munich massacres, albeit with almost 30 years of hindsight between them.
We’ve heard Robert’s bold assertion, in the opening section, that he and Avner, if not the whole of Israel, may have strayed too far from their roots in their “righteous” pursuit of their cause, to ever cross back over the line of decency. Ambiguity, then, shares a front seat with uncertainty; their task is no longer fueled by irrefutable moral rectitude as doubts begin to creep in almost from the start — even as the agents are being provided the names, dates and places of their next victims, but without ever confirming their accuracy or their connection to the original event.
This becomes the movie’s self-fulfilling prophecy: do we not turn into the very thing we ourselves despise if we partake of the same heinous crimes as those of our foes? Only a director of Spielberg’s clout, stature and vision — added to this, his new-found flexing of directorial muscle — could have posed such an intriguing question at this point in our time.
Another, even finer example of Spielberg’s newly-acquired freedom behind the lens occurs in the next scene, a superbly choreographed sequence wherein the three remaining agents, after having learned the whereabouts of the treacherous femme fatale, travel by bicycle to her Amsterdam boathouse to permanently dispose of her. Dressed in a silk bathrobe, the Dutch assassin (Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze) is poised casually on the bed, reading to herself, completely unaware of their presence. Suddenly, the blond Adonis, Steve (Daniel Craig), bursts in, yet she is only mildly taken aback by his audacity.
“Excuse me. Who are you?” she smiles. In the next instant, she spies Avner entering from the side. Her face momentarily contorts to reveal both recognition and horror of the man she originally tried to entice to bed.
“Do you know why we’re here?” Avner quizzes her, spouting the same line he used at his own nearly bungled first assassination attempt early on, in Rome, of one of the alleged masterminds behind the Arab raid on the Olympic Village.
“I want to get dressed, okay?” she asks demurely, but her request has no effect. Avner and Steve coldly go about their business, preparing their weapons for discharge, while the girl opens the dresser drawer behind her, desperately groping for her own firearm. Unable to reach it in time, she decides on another tactic.
“Maybe you want to hire me. You know how good I am.” When this too fails, she is forced into utilizing the only weapon she has left at her disposal: herself.
“No, don’t,” she shudders, lowering her robe to reveal an ample breast. “It’s such a fucking waste of talent.” It is here that the screenwriters, Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (The Insider, Forrest Gump), hit pay dirt: offhandedly suggesting the “F” word to mean more than just a strategically placed expletive, it’s the assassin’s last-ditch effort to her foes to forget all about eliminating her. Too late, for Steve and Avner fire their guns, hitting the assassin point-blank in the chest and throat. Emerging dazed from her bedroom, the girl makes for the kitchen area and unsuccessfully tries to pick up her cat, an involuntary act of seeking comfort from a favorite pet amid so much tension and chaos.
“Shell, shell,” orders Avner. The girl plants herself on a chaise lounge, while the two men resume the methodical process of reloading. Gasping for breath, the dark blood oozing from her wounded windpipe, the girl visibly struggles. Finally, the third agent, Hans (Hanns Zischler), comes in to deliver the deathblow to her forehead. Perhaps out of respect for the deceased, or some misplaced sense of modesty for a fellow covert operative, Avner attempts to cover up her bloodstained private parts.
“Leave it,” Hans tells him. He then proceeds to unveil her limp body for all the world to see, a twentieth-century Whore of Babylon, as it were. Later, Hans acknowledges his lack of compassion for the girl by admitting to both Avner and Steve that he can’t help thinking about the unclothed creature he left behind.
“But you weren’t yourself,” offers Steve by way of explanation. Hans is not convinced. When we next see him, however, he too is found dead, stabbed in the heart by another assassin. The hunter-agents have now become the hunted.
While incidental to the main plot, this innocuous little episode is crucial to a better understanding of the conflict Spielberg has set up within the minds of his main characters. The Dutch assassin interlude, although brief and unfettered, takes place at just beyond the halfway mark — indeed, past the agents’ point of no return. The assassin herself, a tall and gorgeous brunette, stands in sharp contrast to the squat and motherly Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), who appears briefly in the movie’s opening scenes. Golda represents our Old Testament notion of Israel (or, for the purposes of Spielberg’s film project, the Israel of 1972) — strong, resolute, determined — in the face of such horrible adversity, while the Dutch assassin is our modern-day equivalent.
When we first encounter the Dutch assassin, she is at a hotel bar, eying the darkly handsome Avner’s features. She’s dressed in a red dress, the stereotypical color of a street-walker. He obediently sits next to her, clearly interested in what she has to sell. She, for her part, doesn’t waste his time with pleasantries, but rather lets it slip that she’s about to go up to her hotel room, alone. She then rubs some of her intoxicating perfume onto his bare forearm. Who could resist such a ploy?
But Avner does resist, and furtively leaves the bar. In the lobby, he runs into Carl, the clean-up agent — the one he will eventually seek retribution for — who does not heed his advice to watch out for the “local honey trap.” Avner retires to his room, but cannot get to sleep, especially after hearing his baby daughter’s voice on the telephone. He again goes down to the bar. Finding it empty, he decides to go back and turn in. Just as he’s about to put his key in the door, he notices the assassin’s alluring perfume in the air and follows the scent to Carl’s room across the hall.
“You asshole. I saw her first,” he mutters to himself. But then, his special agent’s sense gets the better of him. As he slowly opens the door, he spots Carl’s naked body sprawled out on the bed. Lifting Carl’s head, he finds a bloody mess on the pillow. We now understand why special agent Hans left the Dutch assassin dressed in nothing but her birthday suit. Having escaped seduction and his own probable demise, Avner comes to the realization that others have been alerted to their game and are, at that moment, tracking them down.
When later he hears the news that the bomb expert Robert has also perished in a freak “accident,” he informs Ephraim that he cannot go on with the mission.
We, too, come to realize that Prime Minister Golda had earlier seduced the fresh-faced Avner (in quite a different manner, of course) into taking on this dangerous assignment, with overly excessive praise not only for his having been her bodyguard in a previous career with Mossad, but for how truly great a war hero, and loyal friend to Israel, his father had been; and so forth.
It’s plain to see that if one gets into “bed” with the nation, whether in the guise of an experienced elder stateswoman or a beautiful young assassin, one could still wind up a corpse, no matter what the outcome of Israel’s struggles with her enemies might be — a struggle the embittered state is still confronting a generation or more later.
In the same spirit as his Oscar-winning Schindler’s List (1991), and in the post-9/11 productions of Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005), Spielberg deserves full credit for having convinced mainstream Hollywood of the necessity in making such a powerful film statement as Munich, considering the cerebral way he has gone about presenting his case to an America seemingly oblivious to world opinion, in regard to her own righteous pursuit of terrorists in war-torn Iraq; the abuse of prisoners at Abu Gharaib; the secret CIA prison camps in Eastern Europe; the unresolved issue of detainees in Guantánamo Bay; or the lost opportunities in tracking down those actually responsible for the attacks on 9/11.
We are left wondering at the end if the U.S. has not already fallen victim to the same kind of consequences that befell the modern state of Israel in the wake of the tragedy of Munich. Perhaps she’s even lost her soul. But, as Steven Spielberg has so wisely suggested, if she loses that, that’s everything… Isn’t it? ¤
Produced and directed by Steven Spielberg; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, and Colin Wilson; screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth; based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas; cinematography by Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Kinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Marie-Josee Croze, Geoffrey Rush, Ayelet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale, and Lynn Cohen. Color, 163 min. Amblin Entertainment, distributed by Universal Studios.
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
What is it that we humans want out of life? Is it a nice job with a big, fat raise? A new car, a new home? Gold? Jewelry? Home theater? Do we only want material things, or is there a hint of the spiritual in what we’re seeking, something to quench our never-ending thirst for knowledge? Don’t we all want to be happy in the long run, to lead healthy, productive lives? To have everything our hearts desire?
Of course we do. It’s only natural and human to want those things. But have we ever stopped long enough to think about what’s really important in our lives, and then — acting on those thoughts — stopped whatever we were doing and gone full-steam ahead in pursuit of exactly the things we most wanted?
To be honest, not many of us could — or would — stop long enough to do what we dream of doing, not even for a moment. We’re all too busy with our own lives to give these matters much thought. Unless, of course, we find ourselves lying on a hospital bed, or incapacitated by ill-health or an impending operation.
One man, however, did pause long enough to think about his life. Lieutenant John J. Dunbar thought his existence was meaningless. Born and raised in the Northeast, at a time when the United States were anything but united, life for him had lost its purpose. He was a Union soldier, fighting an incomprehensible war against his peers. His commanding officers were incompetent fools who couldn’t make a reliable decision if their lives depended on it.
Alone and frustrated around these men, he felt powerless to change them or his own life. Until, finding himself in a field hospital among the dead and dying, Dunbar decided, by sheer force of will (if not desperation), to save what little remained of his self-esteem, his military career – and his wounded leg – and take a chance at life. He risked it all in what he knew was a suicide attempt to rally his troops into battle with Southern Confederates.
That he succeeded and lived is remarkable enough. What is even more remarkable was how successful Dunbar became at finding exactly that which he had been looking for all his life: a reason and a purpose to his meaningless existence.
Directed by, and starring, Kevin Costner as Lieutenant Dunbar, and based on the novel by Michael Blake, who also wrote the screenplay, Dances With Wolves (1990) takes the viewer on a trip to self-discovery we can only dream of doing, but rarely have the courage to make. Like most such adventurers, Dunbar is brave, independent, self-sufficient, and not afraid to be alone. There are many scenes in this unforgettable film that highlight these key attributes, but the most fascinating involve his quest for meaning in his life. This pursuit takes him, at his own request and as a reward for his having helped his troops to victory, to the outermost part of South Dakota, to an abandoned post named Fort Sedgewick, deep within Indian territory and far enough away from any white man.
White men are the villains here. For years, filmmakers have portrayed Native Americans as bad guys in countless sagebrush sagas. Dances With Wolves is one of the few modern Westerns that attempts to show Native Americans from their vantage point. And the character of Dunbar appears to be one of the few white men in movies with the heart, the foresight, and the courage to face down decades of prejudice and hate, by approaching the Indians on their own terms – more out of amity than enmity.
A few years later, the Disney studios copied the same formula in Pocahontas (1995), another attempt to humanize the early Native American. In that animated opus one of the lead characters, John Smith, also approaches the Indians out of friendship, but his motives had more to do with his getting to know the lovely young princess Pocahontas than out of pure altruism on his part.
In order to get to know and understand the Indians better in Dances With Wolves, Dunbar arms himself not with weapons of war but with an enormous amount of curiosity and empathy: curiosity about his nearest neighbors, the Lakota Sioux, and their cooperative way of life; curiosity about his empty outpost and the mystery surrounding its abandonment; empathy towards his unfamiliar terrain, the majestic Northern plains of the Dakotas; and empathy towards his animal companions, i.e., his faithful horse Cisco and a scrawny wolf he names Two Socks.
Empathy is what saves, and ultimately destroys, Dunbar and the Indians. At one point in the story, after the Sioux have taunted him by attempting to steal his horse, Dunbar rides off to confront them in true military fashion: with buttons shined, boots polished, and flag held high. On the way to their village, he stops to give aid to an Indian woman who sits under a tree, bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. In helping this woman, Dunbar brings himself into closer contact with his Indian neighbors. In reality, he is paving the way for their eventual extinction.
The woman turns out to be an orphaned white girl, played by Mary McDonnell (Independence Day), who as a child lost her entire family after some renegade Pawnee raided her home. Brought up by the holy man, Kicking Bird (poker-faced Graham Greene), the woman is now more Lakota Sioux than white. Later on, she serves as a reluctant interpreter to both Dunbar and Kicking Bird, who struggle to have their first in-depth conversation: “No, not Dumb Bear. Dunbar,” Costner insists, as Kicking Bird continues to mangle his surname.
The white woman, who calls herself Stands With A Fist, is filled with an overpowering emotion as she tries to find the correct English words that will help bring these two curious men closer together — and, in the process, reassert her identity, which had long been dormant inside her. It’s an extraordinarily moving moment, helped in large measure by the superbly restrained music of composer John Barry (Somewhere in Time, Out of Africa) and the subtle acting lessons given by the three leads.
In most classic Westerns where white settlers encountered Native Americans, curiosity was not uppermost on their minds – witness such staples of the genre as Drums Along the Mohawk, They Died With Their Boots On, Fort Apache, and especially The Searchers. Although treating the Indians with a modicum of respect, these films rarely went beyond portraying them as ungovernable, unruly, wild, and warlike. Dances With Wolves reverses those notions: it is the white man who is ungovernable, unruly, wild, and warlike. The Indians of the Great Plains are depicted as a wise and wonderful, easygoing and playful people, warlike only when provoked, and in general displaying a harmony with each other quite unlike anything ever seen on the screen.
Some revisionist Westerns have even gone out of their way to explain the Indian philosophy (Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo: An American Legend), but only succeeded in alienating part of the audience with their excessively romantic ideas of Indian life. Like the fictional Tarzan, the Native American has been depicted as an idealized noble savage, unaffected and uncorrupted by so-called “progress.” Progress can be read here as the taming of the land and those who lived on it. Historically, this progress led to the systematic destruction of the buffalo, the subjugation of the Plains Indians and their horse culture, the bringing of civilization to these remote areas, and the settling of the frontier territories. All too soon, these were to become the dominant themes of the next wave of pioneers after the end of the Civil War.
As the story takes place at around this time, it is Dunbar’s wish to see the frontier before it disappears. His unconscious desire is to be in control of his life and environment. But even more than that, he wants to meet fellow human beings who can be as decent to him as he believes he can be to them. He only wants to be part of a family, but not just any family. Dunbar wants to be an active community member, a full participant in the daily activities of this community and its life-and-death struggles for survival.
In one of the film’s most revealing episodes, Dunbar helps his Sioux neighbors repel an attack by the vicious Pawnee. As he says in the voiceover afterwards, “This was not a battle with a dark political agenda nor was it a battle over territory; it was a battle to save the winter food supplies and the lives of women, children and old people.”
When he was a soldier, Dunbar’s only purpose was to obey his commanding officers’ orders, even if those orders made little sense. But now, he was obeying Kicking Bird’s orders to stay in the village and defend it against approaching invaders. The Pawnee do invade and kill, but lose the one-sided battle only because Dunbar has supplied his Indian allies with firearms to fight with. Civilization in the form of advanced weaponry can be used for good purposes it seems, if indeed those purposes were to defend one’s home and food supply from marauding raiders.
From this moment on, he realizes he is no longer John Dunbar but Dances With Wolves, the name the Sioux gave him when he was found one day playing with Two Socks. He is, as one of the Sioux elders explains, a special white man, someone they had never known before.
Dances With Wolves had finally found his purpose in life and the community he had so long wanted to participate in. He eventually “marries” Stands With A Fist and completes the cycle. He now has a family of his own to feed and care for. But does he find true peace and contentment at the end of his journey?
In a way, he does. But in an ironic twist of fate he must abandon his Sioux friends to return to the white man’s world and face charges of desertion and murder in the brutal slaying of Union soldiers. He must stand trial in the white man’s court for his crimes. If he does not, he will show disrespect for the very institutions he once believed in and abandoned, in favor of living with the Sioux. His choices are limited, however, and he is once again powerless to control his life. If he does not return, he will be hunted down and killed along with any Sioux who try to protect him; if he does return, he will most likely be confronted with hardened hearts over his arguable actions.
A dejected Dances With Wolves must now leave the Indians he has grown to love and respect. He reluctantly goes back with his bride to civilization. In a poignant sendoff, a message scrolls across the screen indicating that within 30 years the Sioux way of life would all but fade from the Great Plains. It’s a sad epitaph to the tale, but Dances With Wolves’ vision was correct from the start: he only wanted to see the frontier before it vanished. He not only saw it, he actually lived the life of a respected Lakota Sioux as a member in full standing, with all the rights and privileges of membership thereunto, in a harmonious and well-run society. In returning to the “civilized” world, he reaffirms his rights and privileges as a member of civilized white society, with the hope, in turn, that those rights and privileges would continue to be respected and affirmed.
What will happen now to Dances With Wolves’ quest for meaning in his life? Perhaps he has already found it. Late in the film, Kicking Bird remarks to him that of all the trails in this life the one that matters most is the trail of a true human being — and that Dances With Wolves was on it. It is often the most difficult road to take, but Dances With Wolves took it and found himself in the process.
The search for his true self had ended — and we are all the more enriched by it. ¤
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Produced by Jim Wilson; directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Michael Blake, from his book Dances With Wolves; cinematography by Dean Semler; production design by Jeffrey Beecroft; art direction by William Ladd Skinner; edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Stephen Potter, and Neil Travis; music by John Barry; starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Robert Pastorelli, Jimmy Herman, Doris Leader Charge, and Wes Studi. Color, 236 min. (Director’s cut) Tig Productions, distributed by Orion Pictures.
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes