Culture Magazine

Short Takes: Little Snippets, Or ‘Bits and Pieces’ of Things

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

I've been busy of late, working on a variety of projects on and off - and off and on. Some of which I started years ago, while others I had planned for only recently.

You know how that is: ideas pop into your head at odd hours or in sporadic intervals. As one who simply loves to write, I need to stop whatever I'm doing at the moment a thought comes to mind and jot down those ideas. Otherwise, they might fritter away into the ether, never to be heard from again.

God forbid that! I couldn't, for the life of me, allow such a thing to occur. Therefore, I've decided to put these thoughts and ideas into my blog post for the day. Most are incomplete, with many random observations about matters I may or may not take up at a later date.

The subjects range from movies and opera (my favorite topics) to fragments and tidbits of feelings and recollections of individuals or subjects that have made a lasting impression on me.

For the purposes of identification, there will be subtitles associated with each name or section. With that explanation out of the way, here we go:

Ralph Bakshi - Animator, Illustrator

To the young, impressionable minds from the Sixties and Seventies, Bakshi was a breath of fresh air - albeit, in the world of animation, the word "fresh" can be deemed a relative term. Oh, he was fresh all right, as well as bold and irreverent. Add potty-mouthed, too.

In other words, Bakshi was so very Sixties and Seventies, the embodiment of New Hollywood but in animated form and in films of extraordinary immediacy and "relevance." These were works with a pulse and a vigor, indeed the swagger and flippancy of an "I don't give a crap" mentality.

All the President's Men (1976)

A key scene in the picture - THE key scene, in our opinion - occurs when our two intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), go to the Library of Congress.

At first, the library's desk clerk denies them access to information about what intelligence officer E. Howard Hunt had been researching (i.e., information about Ted Kennedy).

Bernstein, who had only been working at the Washington Post for six months, walks ahead of Woodward, a nine-month "veteran" of the same newspaper. They were brought together on the Watergate Hotel break-in story in order to "punch it up."

There are none-too-subtle hints of resentment on both journalists' parts. But in a burst of energy, Bernstein decides to take it upon himself to polish up Woodward's prose by tweaking his paragraphs, which Woodward argues is better than Bernstein's drier style - he just didn't appreciate the way Bernstein went about doing it (by sneaking over to his desk and, without asking, pulling the sheet of paper from Woodward's typewriter).

Back at the Library of Congress, as the two reporters get the above rejection, they march off, side by side, united in their quest to get to the bottom of what will turn out to be the scoop of the century.

They go to the one person who could get them what they need: a lowly file clerk, who pulls out a year's worth of receipts. Together, the two curious reporters, allied with each other in their dual pursuit of the truth, look over every single receipt, at every request, item by item, one by one...

And so, the little hill of evidence begins to drip, drip, drip, like a leaky faucet. In time it becomes a mountain large enough to bring down a president.

Christopher Plummer (1929 - 2021)

Plummer had the "reputation of someone who is patrician and vaguely intimidating," claimed Egyptian-born Canadian director Atom Egoyan. That ennobled him, what with that beetle brow, that distinguished profile, and those chiseled features that seem to have jumped off an Indian-head gold piece. Added to which was his ability to dominate a scene, either on the stage or in a motion picture, without seeming to dominate - these were the signs of a true artist.

His daughter, Amanda Plummer, appeared to have inherited her father's profile and features, and, more importantly, his talent for grabbing one's attention and stealing the audience's focus away from the main actors, all by the simplest of means.

Her spare yet startling appearance in the Robin Williams debut vehicle The World According to Garp (based on John Irving's novel) took her character - the victim of a brutal rape and physical violation - to undreamed of heights. And it was done by the simplest of means: with her eyes and in pantomime. That's acting, people!

Billie Holiday (1915 - 1959)

What a sorry vocal shadow the great American blues-jazz singer Billie Holiday must have cast to her fans and followers.

Mixed up with all types of pathetic pimps, drunks, winos, drug addicts and barroom rowdies throughout much of her career, Holiday (a misnomer, in our view) experienced what must have been the lowest point of anyone's professional life when, on her deathbed in 1959, she was served with an arrest warrant for possession of narcotics.

"Diamond Life, City Boy"

When you think of cool or smooth jazz, you think of Sade, Michael Franks, and Al Jarreau. When you think of bossa nova, you think of Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim, João Gilberto, Astrud Gilberto, Elis Regina, Nara Leão, and Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66.

But it's all in the voice, all in the way the sound of the voice is shaped and turned, the way the vowels take precedent over consonants. Indeed, the voice itself barely rises above a whisper. In some cases, it feels as if it were enhanced speech rather than pure singing. No operatic outpourings here. Just straight from-the-gut emotion.

Although compared throughout her career to Billie Holiday, Sade absolutely conveys the sounds of a Brazilian bossa nova singer. Why, even the likes of James Taylor and Paul Simon were influenced, in their sound if not in the main body of their work, by the bossa nova style of singing, particularly that of João Gilberto.

But who started it? Was it Jobim? Was it Astrud? Joãozinho? And how did we get so many imitators of the style, not only in America, but elsewhere (France, Italy, Britain, even Japan)? In Italy we had the Neapolitan approach in the Sixties. In the art song ( lieder) we have operatic singing but not necessarily conveyed by voices of Wagnerian caliber. The intimacy of the chamber piano and the ambience of the drawing room supersede all else.

We can go as far back as the Camerata of Florence, or even further to the Greeks and their prolonged orations about Odysseus and Helen of Troy. We have no way of really knowing. But one thing is certain: the style remains as valid and popular today as it has been, with singers from all over and with the paying public.

Basia the Polish singing star, who is our latter-day Astrud, has a different approach. The style is more overtly pop, bolder, jazzier, her voice fuller and not as soft-spoken as of earlier. Basia, and Dido Armstrong, especially in her hit song "Thank You," revealed Class 1, triple-A, to-the-manner-born pop artists of the front ranks.

I had wanted to write about the Met Opera's production of Borodin's only opera for some time. Don't know why I kept putting off that assignment. Seems like other subjects got in the way.

I grew up under the shadow of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. Today, that shadow has grown longer. Indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (or "The Missiles of October") initiated a series of film features from the year 1964: Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.

In the year before, President John F. Kennedy's assassination by the lowbrow Lee Harvey Oswald set off a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theorists claiming he was a secret agent (of the KGB, if you can believe it, or the CIA - take your pick) who killed the young leader as retaliation for soldiers left stranded at the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Ah, yes, conspiracy theories! My, how they have multiplied and expanded in the era of social media. That's a conversation for another time and another place.

Roberto Alagna, Tenor

Alagna's Don Carlo (or Don Carlos, in the original French language version) achieved just the right mixture of dramatic intensity balanced against a high degree of lyricism.

Views About Wagner's Die Meistersinger

Wagner wrote a masterpiece, no doubt about it. Besides the music, it's the characters that make the drama come alive. Here's a partial listing:

  • Beckmesser = The reactionary, closed minded, obsequious and belligerent, arrogant
  • Hans Sachs = The level-headed one, open to new ideas, new experiences
  • Walther = The innovator, an amateur with the heart of an adventurer, plunging headlong into a song contest he's ill-prepared to take on. He's in over his head
  • Eva = Looking for her knight in shining armor (as Elsa in Lohengrin is) to carry her away
  • Pogner = Eva's father, champion of the fraternal order
  • David = An up-and-comer, wants to rid himself of the pesky novice Walther

In the end, traditions are thwarted. There's a Fiddler on the Roof aspect to the story and a sensibility at work, in that tradition and the old ways clash with the new. Hans Sachs is the challenger of an older order. He commands Walther to sing; mostly because he loves to rub innovation in the old men's faces. The old men being the Mastersingers. But does he go too far?

Similarly, Beckmesser is a fossil, a relic from the past unwilling to face the novelties that are part of the present and a pathway to the future. It's the Sixties' Counterculture Movement vs. the Establishment. This is one way of looking at Wagner' opus.

Surely, this is Wagner's one and only repertory work that depends on human characters to make its points. No gods or monsters or nasty giants or ferocious dragons present, nor are there any witches or fiends. Even Pogner, keeper of the Mastersinger flame, wants to do right by his only daughter. But he also wants and needs to preserve the old ways of doing things.

Tradition! TRADITION!!!

The Met Opera's "New" Lucia di Lammermoor

It's Baz Luhrmann meets West Side Story, combined with Brian De Palma's nightmarish Carrie. In this updated version, the Ashtons have come upon hard times. However, they choose the wrong side in a turf war with the losing faction between rival gang members.

In addition, the drug business is not going so well, what with police busts and snitches within their midst. So, big brother Henry wants to ensure his side's survival. What does he do? He makes his little sister Lucy an offer she can't refuse by matching her with a guy from the winning side.

Her former boyfriend Edgar, now a US Army inductee, still loves Lucy but, as we learn, he's persona non grata with the Ashton crowd. It's punk meets junk in this disastrous scenic catastrophe. One of the worst Met productions in recent memory, despite good singing from Mexican tenor Javier Camarena; a show-off, high note holding take by Polish baritone Artur Rucinski; and shockingly dull surroundings about town.

The sole exception was the tremendous vocal acrobatics of soprano Nadine Sierra who, despite horrendous costume choices amid ghastly sets and high-definition closeups, showed off some spectacular high notes and dramatic acting ability in her famous Mad Scene.

Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001)

He's King Kong all right! And Godzilla, too, a fire-breathing Tokyo-destroying monster. He's hate and he's lust, he's greed, and everything in between.

He's corruption writ large. He's so super-charged and wound up he could electrify you if he got near. Alone and avoided, he'll self-destruct. Leave him be. He'll growl and spout, but then he'll sputter out.

And when he does, that's when he'll get his. That's when they'll attack. And by then, he's no more. His flame will go out, permanently. What a sad, sorry sight.

Subtitled, My Three Idiot Sons. The film is both an homage to and a lampoon of the standard Hollywood "road trip" flick. Three brothers, three buddies, three enemies, friends, rivals, love/hate relationships intact. Target: Mother. Goal: Togetherness. Result: Chaos and laughs.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

It's the game of life. A life snuffed out in the end with a coin toss. Heads you win, tails you lose. "Call it."

Roger Ebert

"What makes a movie great? Better to ask, 'What makes a movie, a movie - great or otherwise?' " - Roger Ebert, in his series The Great Movies.

The Three Tenors Phenomenon

That wasn't opera. That was a turkey shoot. Whoever hit the most high notes and held them the longest won the trophy. Applause, acclaim, that was the name of the game. How has that improved opera's chances or given it a home court advantage against, say, Marvel or Avengers movies? Or live streaming services?

For the past few years, opera has been losing ground and met constant headwinds as never before, not even during the dark days of the Depression or two World Wars or 9/11. The COVID-19 pandemic picked away the scab, revealing old financial sores that have yet to heal.

Verdi's Rigoletto - Old and New

What was wrong with Michael Mayer's nearly-decade-old production? The one where the womanizing Duke of Mantua was reimagined as a smarmy, Sinatra-like Las Vegas lounge singer, with ties to the Mob (aka the Rat Pack) and other nefarious evildoers.

Where the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto had been recast as an acerbic Don Rickles, a washed-up comic with a comb-over? Where the courtiers played various roles as bodyguards, thugs, thieves, or drunken criminals? Where the assassin Sparafucile sported slick-backed hair and a handy switchblade?

It was fast, it was fun! It was scandalous and dangerous (sometimes both) and pushed the edges of decency at times. But it moved! It rocked! It made sense, in its calibrated way. Poor lovesick Gilda met an untimely end in the trunk of a '57 Chevy (or was it a Cadillac?). How could you lose with a slam-bang finale like that?

So why did the Met replace this "fun" production with a lumbering one by Bartlett Sher that was stagnant and deadly dull? A boring, mammoth set that PLOPPED onto the stage and sat there, large and hulking, boring and sans movement, crowding out the playing area?

Dark, dark, dark, with a prevailing checkerboard color scheme that harkened back to the post-World War I days of Weimar, Germany. Decadence personified! Rigoletto looked like a poor man's Rei Momo, who happened to wander in from the Rio Carnaval parade. The whole thing smacked of a miscalculation, a huge bump on a lump that took up needed space on the Met Opera rump.

Besides Rosa Feola as a girlish Gilda, there were no other singers to give these ears pleasure. Surely, tenor Piotr Beczala has seen better days as the ubiquitous Duke. His tone seemed constricted and pitch-shy, especially in the role's upper reaches. Those B's and C's (and one high D) squeaked out with nothing like the ease and power of his youth. Time to drop this fellow from his repertoire and stick to some lighter Wagner fare: Walther or Lohengrin (which Beczala is scheduled to sing this season).

That's more to our liking and a balm for his disappointed fans.

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

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