• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Saturday, May 23, 2015

    Bible Films and the Roots of Cinema


    I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which cinema is like other art forms and how that leads to such a variety of different types of film. Indeed even in writing “film” in that last sentence made me think about how differently it would have sounded were I to have used “cinema” or “movie” instead.

    Much of this is down to cinema’s roots. Film grew out of the fertile ground of various established, and indeed emerging, art forms in the 19th century and as they have developed in throughout the 20th and 21st centuries they have influenced each other. Furthermore, those who see computer games as a new art form can point to the way in which it has grown out of film and continued to interact with it in ways that would have been hard to imagine 50 years ago.

    For me, I suppose, I grew up thinking of film as a variation on theatre. You might go and see a play, or you might film that play for a wider audience. Movies were about actors acting out a story. Perhaps related to that was film being an acted out version of literature. Indeed a friend of mine says for him, he had grown up thinking that way. Of ‘film’ as acted-out novels.

    However, from a technical angle, film is an extension of photography. Essentially it is a series of photographic images played in such quick succession that those images appear to be one moving image. And many of the concerns of photographers, and by extension cinematographers – thins such as composition and mise en scène are shared by painters.

    Regular readers of this blog will know I am a fan of silent cinema and looking at this over the last few years has made me realise one link I had not previously appreciated. Whilst we like to think of the great artists of cinema – including many in the silent period – film’s roots were, in reality far more low-brow. As much as we may like to think of film as being born out of a marriage between theatre and painting, it is indisputably the case that film’s midwife was the tacky penny attractions of back street fairs and Victorian “freak shows”. Indeed in an age where midwifes can be men as well as women, I tempted to argue that cinema is also the illegitimate child of those low-brow forms of entertainment. And it’s not hard to trace how those roots have also continued into the cinema of today. There has consistently been a stream of cinema that has an emphasis on “spectacle”, things that are “new” or not seen before (e.g. technologically) and that are more about entertainment (and the needs of the consumer) rather than something purer more akin to art.

    And then of course there is propaganda, which can be defined as a creative work driven primarily by the needs of the producer. Film has often been adopted in support of one cause or another from that produced by dictatorships, through to advertising. And whilst many Bible film producers may baulk at the term, many films about the Bible have far more in common with religious tracts. Indeed many of the early silent films were produced by evangelists seeking novel ways to reach people, and the last decade has seen numerous films marketed as “evangelistic tools”

    The result is that cinema is, and has long been, very diverse. Some films are more arty and abstract others more entertaining, but in some ways I thought it might be interesting to look at how some of the key Bible films map to these 6 different roots – theatre, literature, photography, painting, entertainment and propaganda. And I thought some brief form of categorisation might be interesting.

    However, in listing these as follows I am not saying that these streams are distinct or that films fit solelyinto one category or the other: clearly they overlap. In fact, I’ve deliberately listed some in more than one category and fully recognise that films are complex works influenced by numerous people with a variety of aims and motivations (and I’m reminded of Robin Wood’s analysis of Hitchcock’s five basic plot formations and the accompanying disclaimers). That said it is interesting how some films fall fairly comfortably into one category or the other, and so, despite those disclaimers, I thought this might be an interesting exercise.

    Theatrical
    Green Pastures (1936), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Godspell (1973), Jesus of Montreal (1989)

    Literature
    The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), Last Temptationof Christ (1988), Gospel of John (2003), Visual Bible: Gospel of Matthew (1994)

    Photography
    Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Birdsong (2008) and for a rather differnt reason The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902)

    Painting
    Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Passion of the Christ(2004)

    Spectacle
    The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), Noah’s Ark (1928), The Ten Commandments (1956) King of Kings (1961), Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

    Evangelistic Tracts
    Day of Triumph (1954), Jesus (1979),Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002), Passion of the Christ (2004), The Bible/Son of God (2013/2014)

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