• 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.

    Friday, November 09, 2018

    Solomon and Sheba (1959) - part 3 - Conflicting Theology

    This is the second in a series of posts looking at the 1959 epic Solomon and Sheba. You can read them all here.

    The last post in this series ended with me talking about the gulf in Solomon and Sheba between the god that Israel believes itself to be following and the god that is depicted by the film itself, so I want to explore this now. I should start by pointing out that these observations are based on the portrayal in the film itself, rather than how things may or may not be in the Bible. The film takes a very limited amount of text and makes up a almost three hours' worth of story from it, so most of what we find is invention.

    In his book on the film's director, King Vidor, Durgnat proposes that
    As with others in the cycle [of biblical epics], the film's theology splices an Old Testament God (who speaks softly but carries a big lightning bolt and is open to a harsh bargain) onto a democratic God ("who teaches that all men are equal and none are slaves").6
    Whilst Durgnat's analysis is correct as far as it goes, it does not quite get to the heart of the issue because the two 'gods' are not so much spliced together as in conflict. The god revealed through the subjective beliefs of the Israelites and others in the film, is markedly different from the film's more objective portrayals of God through his words and actions.

    As noted last time, Israel is portrayed as a progressive nation. It believes in some form of democracy, the rule of law, that "all men are equal and none are slaves" and is strongly in favour of peace. And it believes these things are based on the "wisdom of God" and that Israel is sustained by "the grace of God", a god who is "called the all-knowing, the compassionate".

    Of course these are subjective beliefs, even including those of David who has received a "vision from God". In common with many biblical epics however the viewer is given more objective evidence as to the character of God.

    The first comes immediately following the "yearly feast of Rha-Gon" (orgy). Abishag recognises that Solomon has incurred the wrath of God goes to the temple to intercede for Solomon, ultimately offering that "if it be thy will to punish him, visit it upon me in his stead." This is immediately followed by lightning striking both the site of the Sheban celebration and the Hebrew temple, so fiercely that Abishag is killed by falling masonry. Sheba's adviser implies "it was nothing more than a coincidence", ("It was nothing more than a sudden storm. It is not the first time lightning has dealt death, nor will it be the last"), but the clear implication is that the storm is an act of God. Solomon's angry questioning "why did you not strike me?" summarises not just the audience's reaction, but also perhaps exposes Solomon's realisation that the God he follows does not tally with the benevolent deity he previously imagined he worshipped.

    Shortly after the death of Abishag we are given a second, more objective and direct, insight into the real God of Israel, only this time by his spoken word, rather than his actions. The leaders of the twelve tribes come and confront Solomon about the dangerous path he is taking and reject him. The viewer is primed to side with their opinion and interpret Solomon's path and diverging from God's will. When they leave, Solomon is left alone to reflect and he mutters to himself assorted verses from the book of Ecclesiastes (10:6, 1:9, 6:12, 1:2; circa 99 mins). When the scene ends, the mood changes abruptly, as the calm of night is replaced with the harsh reality of day and a montage of images signifying God's judgement. There's a series of shots of parched ground, barren trees, tumbleweeds, broken buildings and vultures which pairs with a similar but opposite sequence earlier in the film celebrating Israel's prosperity under Solomon in the period before he met Sheba.

    This time however the images are accompanied by the voice of God saying:
    "But if ye turn away and forsake my statutes, then I will pluck them up by the roots out of my land which I have given them, and this house which is high shall be an astonishment to everyone that passeth by it..."
    These words are taken from 2 Chron. 7:19-22 – the passage where God speaks to Solomon immediately after the dedication of the temple – and are intended as a warning rather than the confirmation of a judgement. Yet whilst these words are those of the God of the Bible, there are two significant differences between their use in Chronicles and how they function in this film.

    Firstly, whilst the Solomon of the film's love for Sheba and involvement with her religion are not based directly on the Bible's account of their time together (1 Kings 10), it is consistent with the biblical Solomon's behaviour with other royal women at his court (1 Kings 11). Yet despite such a clear violation of God's warning the God of the Bible does not directly punish Solomon for his many marriages and dalliance with other gods, but delays his punishment until the rule of his son (1 Kings 11:12).

    This variation alone would be harsh enough, but, of course, in the film propitiation has already been paid for Solomon's sin. Recognising the judgement that Solomon is bringing on himself, Abishag offers God a deal that he punish her and not him. When God takes the life of Abishag it is a tacit agreement to her terms. The deal that Abishag offered has been refused and both her, the one she loved and her entire nation have paid the price. Not only has Abishag paid with her life but Solomon will also be punished.

    The final occasion when God is revealed more objectively occurs at the very end of the film when he speaks out loud to a now converted, repentant and reformed Sheba. On the eve of battle, and in the knowledge that she has played a pivotal role in his suspected downfall, Sheba heads to the temple to intercede for him and his army. There, suspecting that God still wishes to harm Solomon (despite Abishag's sacrifice and his subsequent additional punishment of the entire nation) she attempts to broker a new deal.
    God of Israel, thou who art called the all-knowing, the compassionate, look into my heart and hear my prayer. Forgive my sin against thee and thy people. Grant me the life of Solomon and preserve him against his enemies. Do this, and I will return to the land of Sheba and cast down the false gods. And I will build a tabernacle to the glory of thy name, and there shall be no other gods before thee.
    Immediately following this scene Solomon is inspired with an idea of how to defeat the Egyptians in the battle and the return of his troops who "rally" to them "by their hundreds", but the film is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this is God's action or mere coincidence. Even Solomon only says "It is as though God had come to me and showed me the way" (emphasis mine) - a simile rather than directly attributing the source of his inspiration to God as his father did at the start of the film. The battle ensues with the Israelite troops reinvigorated. "Solomon's small force dooms the larger army by burnishing its shields until the sun's dazzle lures the charging cavalry into a canyon. The genre's de rigueur miracle thus comes down to human ingenuity and effort. Solomon's cleverly orchestrated idea remains...ambiguous."7

    Rather than being a revelation in itself, then, Solomon's ambiguous 'miracle' merely only paves the way for a more objective revelation. As the battle draws to a close, Sheba heads to the temple where she is intercepted by a large mob who begin to stone her. In the nick of time a triumphant Solomon arrives with the news of his victory. Several of those present, including Sheba, go into the temple. There Sheba kneels again before the altar – and the architecture of the temple is far more that of a church than that described in detail in the pages of Kings and Chronicles – where she hears God speak out loud his response to her.
    Because thou didst call upon my name in thy dark hour, I have heard thee. Return therefore until thine own land and keep the covenant thou didst make with me.
    In order to underline his acceptance of this agreement God also performs a miracle, healing Sheba's battered face whilst the Ark of the Covenant glows with his approval. Thus "the film ends with democratic Israel triumphing over absolutist Egypt, monotheism over paganism and duty over the desires of the flesh".8 Whilst this is certainly the most benevolent of the three direct revelations it still suggests a certain amount of double dealing on God's part. Moreover it, in effect, portrays God as one who is suppressing female leadership of the Sheban hierarchy and replacing it with a patriarchal model.

    The portrayal of gender in this film is significant enough to warrant a post in itself, but for now it's sufficient to note that not only is this film's God not challenging the male-dominated world of the time, he is actively trying to extend its influence. Again, this is a significant development of the Bible which suggest no such modification back in Sheba.

    In these three examples we see the way the film portrays God as the dark malevolent force I mentioned in the first post. The Israelites seem unaware of this - Israel has to stand in for the USA after all - but it creates a significant conflict at the heart of the film.

    6 - Durgnat, Raymond and Simmon, Scott. "King Vidor, American", (Berkley, University of California Press) 1988, p.311

    7 - Durgnat, Raymond and Simmon, Scott. "King Vidor, American", (Berkley, University of California Press) 1988 p.314
    8 - Richards, Jeffrey. "Hollywood Ancient Worlds" (London, Continuum: 2008), p.116

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    Sunday, October 28, 2018

    Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

    I wanted to jot a few notes down on Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) while they were still fresh in my mind as I think I may want to reference them at some point. Obviously Hedy has long been someone I've been interested in due to her role as Delilah in DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), so I've known for quite a while about her role in the invention of channel hopping - the pivotal technology behind secure communications technology such as wi-fi, bluetooth and a host of military technology.

    Lamarr's invention came about during the early 1940s. Born in Austria to a Jewish family the documentary tells us that her father died from a heart attack due to the stress of the way Hitler was treating Jewish people. Lamarr herself was married to a munitions magnate at this point and whilst Hitler was apparently never a guest at her and her husband's Austrian mansion - supposedly due to Lamarr's race - they did host Mussolini. However, the marriage was loveless and Lamarr, sensing the change in the air hatched a plot where she hired a look-a-like maid, sewed her best jewels into her overcoat and one evening disappeared into the night in order to flee to London. This almost sounds like a movie plot in and of itself.

    At that point in time Louis B. Meyer was securing potential actor talent and just so happened to be in London. Lamarr already had acting experience - having already gained notoriety for her performed in Ekstase (1933) which featured both nude scenes and an implied orgasm scene. Lamarr turned down his initial offer, but quickly booked herself on the same boat to New York as Meyer and made sure she caught his eye. He signed her up for £500 per week.

    However, despite having signed her up he then refused to give her any decent parts, supposedly because he still judged her for her role in Ekstase despite he protestations that he had been duped. Eventually though she begged her way into a relatively small role in Boom Town (1940) and her career suddenly took off. Not only was she working crazily hard as an actress she was causing a revolution over partings which saw a number of other prominent movie stars adopting a Hedy-style centre parting.

    At this stage America had still not joined the Second World War, but Hedy's mum was desperately trying to escape from the growing Holocaust back in Austria. A combination of her mother's plight, and the sinking of ship carrying numerous allied children, made her decide to do something about it. Her father had already encouraged her mental skills development, by explaining to her how various devices worked. Lamarr had her greatest success after she met composer George Antheil and the two of them formed a strong, and indeed productive, friendship. Around this time she was also friendly with Howard Hughes and claimed to have helped with his inventions too.

    The documentary suggests that Lamarr and Antheil's breakthrough with channel hopping (wifi had two sources of inspiration. The first was the invention (by someone else) of a new remote control that enabled people to skip from one channel to another. The other was the player piano which played music by recognising the holes in a piece of paper. Lamar realised that if both the emitter and the receiver of the radio signal had a pre-determined pattern of when to switch channel then they could use radio signals to remote control the missile right up to the point of contact. Whilst the invention was patented and adopted by the Inventor's Council, the navy rejected the technology and it sat unloved in a drawer for several years. Instead Hedy was recruited to entertain the troops and to sell Bonds. There was a strong sense in the documentary that Lamarr wanted to be judged based on her ability and intellect, but she found that people (men mainly) could not get past people judging her solely for her good looks.

    Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the documentary was the way it largely skipped over his success with DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), The film was the second highest grossing film of the entire 1940s, only losing out to Gone With the Wind (1939). Today it's the film that Lamarr is best remembered for. Perhaps her children and other relatives, whose contributions make a significant to the documentary in question, did not recall anything about it. Nevertheless it seems a little odd that it was largely overlooked.

    The success of Samson and Delilah enabled Lamarr to produce her own independent film. This was certainly not something her studio was happy with, and the box-office failure of the epic film she made gave her significant financial problems. She married again (it's implied it was for the money) and moved to Texas and then to Colorado where she also designed a ski resort. (Aspen) in line with those she knew from Austria. Her final claim to innovation came in the field of plastic surgery. She first had surgery in her 40s and made numerous suggestions to her surgeons, some of which had not been done in quite the same way before, yet went on to become popular. Sadly later facial surgeries left her (relatively) disfigured and she became something of a recluse. Fortunately she did give an interview late in life with reporter Fleming Meeks, who did nothing with the tapes for a long time. Both the tapes and Meeks' comments comprise a significant chunk of the film which ends by talking about how she began to get a small amount of recognition for her frequency hopping invention in the 1990s - the decade leading leading to her death in 2000. The film more or less ends with Lamaar reading out the words of Kent M. Keith's Paradoxical Commandments.

    Overall the documentary was pretty good, with plenty for those who have only a brief understanding of Lamarr's even if it's a shame it doesn't given more time to Samson and Delilah.

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    Sunday, October 14, 2018

    Jésus de Nazareth (1942)

    Having posted a week or two ago about the earliest remaining Jesus film I thought this would be as good a time as any to review a film I've been wanting to cover for some time, the earliest Mexican Jesus film Jésus de Nazareth (1942)

    The film was made in the aftermath of Mexico's Cristerio War - a Catholic uprising against the anti-Catholic restrictions brought in President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928). Whilst the war ended in 1929, the year after Calles left office, the restrictions on public expressions of faith were not really relaxed until the late 1930s. In 1940 a professed Catholic President Manuel Ávila Camacho came to power and called for filmmakers to deal with religious subjects in their work (Bermea). The film's director José Díaz Morales had worked as screenwriter and director in Spain before fleeing the civil war and emigrating to Mexico (Perez).

    Read through this lens, the film's selection of material and portrayal of the religious and political establishments Jesus faces is fascinating. For a start the film omits the stories of Jesus' birth and resurrection. The film both starts and ends accompanied by the tune of the Hallelujah chorus, which supplies a religiosity when the script does not dare. Jesus arrives as a man - initially seen only as a poor reflection on the water rather than a sold figure - in the presence of John the Baptist and when the "voice from Heaven" is heard affirming Jesus after his baptism the camera is in close up such that it's impossible to judge if this is a public pronouncement heard by everyone, or just a voice in Jesus' head. Similarly the film's final shot, following straight after the crucifixion is a medium shot of Jesus. Whilst this Jesus is alive and certainly not the dust-covered peasant who has been wandering round the countryside, it's unclear if this more pristine Jesus is a resurrected Jesus, an ascended Jesus, or just Jesus as portrayed by the church.

    Equally ambiguous is the portrayal of the miracles. There are but two, but then this is a relatively short film. It's 85 minutes include several minutes of introduction by an official church figure leaving just 80 minutes for Jesus birth, ministry and death. These two, the healing of a blind man and the raising of Lazarus reflect the film's preference for John's gospel (which is the only one to include the raising of Lazarus and also contains healing of a blind man amongst its few signs). Even more significant, perhaps, is a moment when Jesus, surrounded by the lame and the blind turns his attention instead to the woman caught in adultery. As he does so the disciples move in so that Jesus is physically separated from the sick in order to deal with the issue of injustice before him.

    The films portrayal of the political and religious figures is also interesting. Initially Jesus' ministry is not particularly public  there are lots of interiors or scenes in quiet village squares, but only when Jesus moves to Jerusalem and his polemics become more large scale do the authorities become uncomfortable. Even today in Mexico outdoor worship is only permitted in exceptional circumstances and with governmental permission. At first it is the Jewish religious authorities that are concerned by him - and there is a certain anti-clericalism about them. Only when they have already tried Jesus and found him guilty do the secular Roman authorities get involved.

    The portrayal of the Jewish leaders is, sadly, fairly anti-Semitic. In addition to them being blamed for Jesus' death, Caiaphas the chief priest is also depicted with a hat resembling a devil-like pair of horns. This matches the similarly troubling portrayal of Judas, visually resembling stereotypical negative images of Jewish people than any of Jesus' other disciples, most notably as he rubs his hands in glee at the prospect of selling his master off for 30 pieces of silver. The scene where he objects to a woman anointing Jesus also shows him voicing his objection not publicly as in the text, but in a whisper to a Pharisee - again linking his betrayal with his greed.

    However, that scene is one of a number that have a positive role for women. Indeed whilst the film only contains three miracles, it does display a strong preference for the episodes from the gospels that involving female characters. This is notable even from the credits where Adriana Lamar gets top billing as Mary Magdalene, even ahead of the Argentine actor José Cibrián who was playing the role of Jesus. Lamar's Magdalene does not feature particularly prominently, but it is notable that she is a wealthy woman and significantly not the woman caught in adultery. When she witnesses Jesus letting the little children come to him she is converted and, as with DeMille's film fifteen years earlier Mary's conversion results in her immediately covering herself up.

    In addition to the scenes involving Magdalene, there is a lengthy scene of the woman at the Samaritan well, as well as separate roles for Mary and Martha, Veronica, an unnamed courtesan, and the woman caught in adultery. Furthermore, whilst most of the stations on the road to the cross are omitted, Jesus does stop to deliver the warning to the woman of Jerusalem from Luke 23 and his mother and Magdalene are shown prominently at his crucifixion.

    What none of this captures is the beauty of the compositions, the startling black and white imagery and the film's quietly stripped down sincerity. The woman at the well scene is particularly striking with its graceful establishing shot and its combination of close-ups and a variety of shots as the conversation develops. And the film's numerous close-ups are all the more engaging thanks to  Cibrián sensitive but restrained performance. He is not the classically good looking hero that has typified in so many of the American Jesus' that have followed. Instead there's compassion and a deep mournfulness in the eyes of this introverted Jesus. The clearing of the temple scene is another gem: an opening tracking shot that captures four or five brief stories in a wordless thirty seconds; a patient pacing that focuses on the sounds of the animals rather than the human activity; and the moment that Cibrián's Jesus goes from tenderly stroking a tethered lamb to transforming the rope that bound him into a whip to scatter its abusers.

    In a way much of Morales' film draws on DeMille but it also points the way towards Pasolini. And whilst the revolutionary edge of that film is a little more restrained here it's quietness and restraint make for a more thoughtful approach to the subject than so many that would follow in its wake.
    Peréz, Aurelio (2012) "El Evangelio según el cine" at zocalo.com.mx. Available online


    Friday, October 05, 2018

    Solomon and Sheba (1959) - part 2 - Parallels and Politics

    This is the second in a series of posts looking at the 1959 epic Solomon and Sheba. You can read them all here.

    In the last post in this series I touched on the way Israel is depicted as believing her God to be far more upright, moral and decent than the way the film actually portrays him. In order to understand this contrast more fully it is necessary to undertake a fuller exploration of the portrayal of Israel in the film. As with many epics of the era the filmmakers attempt to draw parallels between the Hebrew nation and 1950s America.

     This is particularly notable at the start of the film as Adonijah (George Sanders) presumptively declares himself David's successor, only for the king to emerge from his coma just long enough to recommend that Solomon should succeed him instead. As David (Finlay Currie) explains to his, now seething, eldest son, "Above all others, the King must respect and obey the law. In proclaiming yourself, you have violated the law of God and of man". As Forshey observes
    "This is more an American ideal than a Hebrew one, and reflects the opinion that the rule of law should not be hereditary. According to this point of view, the will of God requires that the most qualified should rule." 4
    Yet even this intervention wasn't sufficiently American to satisfy the screenwriters, so Solomon's claim to the throne is boosted by a democratic election, of sorts, by the elders of the twelve tribes. It is they who consent to David's choice of successor, Solomon, in preference to his older brother Adonijah. Whilst Solomon is technically a monarch, his position is very much dependent on the votes from these representatives, thus resolving the inherent tension in portraying a firmly monarchic nation as a forerunner of modern (democratic) United States. Furthermore
    "King David's federalistic, melting-pot deathbed speech" has the outgoing monarch insisting "on a 'union' of the tribes 'welded together in an indestructible oneness'. The first equivalence sees two God-inspired democratic nations fighting to free the world from slavery. The second parallels two 'chosen' people formed out of frontier, both loking (sic.) nostalgically back to those origins from present urban corruptions."5
    Having squeezed ancient Israel into the mould of twentieth century America sufficiently well, the film can then dwell on the most important moral values the two nations supposedly have in common. Thus Israel is frequently portrayed as a champion of progressive values. Their enemies in the surrounding nations deride them for it ("Peace is for women and children") and see their championing of freedom from slavery for all is seen as a critical weakness.

    When one of Sheba's advisers tells her about the Israelite's "one god who teaches that all men are equal and none are slaves" she initially dismisses it as "a foolish idea" but then reflects that perhaps she ought not to dismiss this threat so lightly adding "yet... if that idea were to take hold of the people, the Queen of Sheba would soon come crashing down from her throne". "As would all other absolute monarchs" her aide suggests.

    For a film that tries so hard to milk the success of 1956's The Ten Commandments (even recruiting one of its leading stars) this conversation seems curiously contradictory. Superficially it almost appears like it is the idea of democracy/freedom for all that is being attacked. However, the word "absolute" is no doubt intended to be pivotal. It acts as a way of highlighting the 'superiority' of the proto-American Israelites over the never-really-depicted Shebans. The Israel of this film is a quasi-democratic theocracy (or at least 'one nation under God') and so, by implication, is not running the risk that everything will "come crashing down" by banishing slavery.

    However, this idea of Israel being a place free from slavery is not historically accurate. Far from ending slavery, the Law of Moses legislates for it. Furthermore, it is difficult to find an Israelite monarch whose actions did more to increase and promote slavery - even at the cost of dividing his kingdom after his death - than Solomon. Whilst Solomon's father became king partly because God chose him and anointed him, but also because, eventually, the 12 tribes in some way consented to
    him being their leader. In contrast, the reign of Solomon himself seems to have been far more authoritarian.

    Nevertheless the Israel of the film is portrayed as anti-slavery which ultimately only serves to highlight the gulf between the god that Israel believes itself to be following and the god that is depicted by the film itself. I will expand on that gulf in the next post in this series in a few weeks.

    4 - Forshey, Gerald  E.,  "American  Religious  and  Biblical  Spectaculars"  (Westport,  CT.  Praeger  Press:  1992),  p.78.

    5 - Babbington,  Bruce  and  Evans,  Peter  William.  "Biblical  Epics:  Sacred  Narrative  in  the  Hollywood  Cinema",  (Manchester:  Manchester  University  Press)  1993,  p.55.

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    Sunday, September 30, 2018

    La vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (1898)

    The first biblical films date all the way back to 1897. Albert "Léar" Kirchner's La Passion du Christ and The Horitz Passion Play by Mark Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, are now, sadly, considered lost, as is Siegmund Lubin's The Passion Play from the following year.1 In a similar manner almost all of the 1898 silent The Passion Play of Oberammergau, which was famously shot on a New York rooftop rather than in Bavaria, has been lost, though a fragment has survived.2

    The earliest remaining Bible film, then, is La vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, available online here) by George Hatot and Louis Lumière. Shot in France 1898 when most moving pictures were little more than short slices of real life (les actualités) it retains something of that documentary feel - is this a film about Jesus or the filming of a real-life play about Jesus? Any audience is kept off screen, but the sets retain the feel of an amateur stage production. Furthermore, the placing of the camera in several scenes feels as if it is placed at the side of an audience. These aspects are perhaps most obvious in the crucifixion scene where the shadow of the cross falls not across the ground, but against the back wall. Strangely the scene that feels most like it has been made with the camera in mind - the Garden of Gethsemane - is the one shot outdoors in the most natural setting. At the time documentary footage was commonly shot outside. Drama tended to be set indoors.

    Louis Lumière, of course, was the man who, along with his brother Auguste, "invented" cinema, by being the first to display moving pictures to a paying audience. The company the two founded for a while specialised in these actualités but also made comedies and the occasional reconstruction of historical events. Hatot was one of their key early collaborators, first on early documentary footage, but around this time also began to specialise in reconstructions of famous deaths including Mort de Robespierre (1897) and the execution of another religious martyr in Exécution de Jeanne d'Arc (1897).3

    Whilst the title of this film is The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, very little of Jesus' ministry is actually shown. The film starts with the Magi and the Shepherds worshipping Jesus as a baby in a manger, and is followed by a flight to Egypt scene where Mary, Joseph and Jesus stop to rest between the paws of a/the Sphinx. It's a scene that would be reproduced almost fifteen years later in From the Manger to the Cross, only that time shot on location in Egypt.

    All that lies between that and Jesus' Passion is a solitary miracle - the raising of the Widow of Nain's son. This scene is rare in Jesus movies, providing neither the human interest of the raising of Jairus' daughter, nor the prophetic resonance of Lazarus breaking out of his tomb. Here though is is handled in a relatively low key manner. The adult son is brought out to Jesus on a stretcher. Jesus (Gaston Bretteau) simply raises his arm and the man sits up, his sheet falling away as he does so.

    The lack of spectacle at this point is made all the more interesting by the inclusion of an invented miracle slightly later on. The Last Super scene, shot statically, from slightly close up, starts focused on Jesus' empty chair whilst various preparations are made. Suddenly there's a cut and Jesus appears in their midst. The disciples react with astonishment.

    Such jump-cut reappearances were relatively common at the time. Georges Méliès was in his prime and produced numerous short films making use of the technique that same year. These included the religious picture  La tentation de Saint-Antoine (The Temptation of St. Anthony) which featured the titular saint desperately trying to keep his mind on his prayers whilst young women keep materialising to tempt him, including including a moment when a statue of Jesus comes to life. Not only did this make him a forerunner of all those directors who entertained their audiences with a potent mixture of sex and religion, but when the following year he used his camera tricks to portray one of Jesus' miracles in Le Christ marchant sur les flots (Christ Walking on the Water, 1899), he became the first filmmaker to create both a reverent film about Jesus and an irreverent comic depiction of the crucifixion.

    More to the point, Georges Hatot himself, having started his career making actualité films of every life such as street scenes and military parades, began elaborating on the jump-cut technique. Whereas it is absent from his 1897 film Mort de Marat, and only used once in Métamorphose de Faust (1897). Having made La vie et la passion the following year, he then moved to Gaumont with Bretteau (who had played Jesus) to remake the Faust story. The resulting Les métamorphoses de Satan (1898), which Bretteau both starred in and co-directed made repeated use of the tec"hnique to portray as Mephistoles, Satan and a young woman continuously appear and disappear.

    It's more than possible, of course, that the jump-cut scene in La vie et la passion was at one stage intended as the episode in Luke where the resurrected Jesus miraculously appears amongst the disciples, but the resulting scene here is quite clearly The Last Supper: not only are their echoes of Leonardo's painting, but Jesus distributes the bread and wine and Judas kisses him on the cheek.

    The success of this film did little to dissuade other filmmakers from producing their own versions of Jesus' life and death. In particular, Pathé brought out their own tableaux-style Jesus film called La vie et la Passion de Christ in 1899 which gradually expanded (in both number of scenes and title length) through three new versions around up to 1913. There are a few posts on these films (now including this one) on this thread. The relationship between them itself is fairly complex. Hopefully I will be able to expand on it some point, but if you can't wait until then I encourage you to look up Boillat and Robert's article as detailed below.

    1 - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. (2016) "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)" in The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927); ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27

    2 - According to Kinnard and Davis, a 35mm fragment of the film remains in the George Eastman House archives. The film was produced by Rich G. Hollaman despite the fact he had never actually seen a movie before. He proved so inept at the task that the rest of the cast and crew teamed up to shoot it in the early evening once he had left for the day. These days Henry C. Vincent is credited with being the director, but this marked the first time the roles of producer and director had been separated (The Guinness Book of Film Facts and Feats).

    3 - Abel, Richard (1994) The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, Berkeley: University of California Press. p.91 The observation about famous deaths is thanks to Luke McKernan.

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    Sunday, September 23, 2018

    The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)

    The Bible (John Huston, 1966) has come to be known, somewhat unfairly, as the film that killed the biblical epic. It's a charge that somehow persists despite three major objections. Firstly, it hardly makes sense to blame a single film for destroying a genre, and even if did, that accusation should surely be pointed at The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) which blew £25 million for very little return, rather than at this. Secondly because rather than being an example of the worst of the genre it is surely one of it's best. Indeed, in concluding his masterful survey of the films of the Hebrew Bible, Jon Solomon cites it as one of the three "most representative and iconographical Old Testament depictions of the twentieth century" (175).

    More significantly, of course is the fact that rumours of the genre's demise turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Whilst Jesus Christ, Superstar, released just seven short years later, is not exactly an epic, it would have seemed hard to argue in 1973, that the Hollywood Bible film was enjoying anything other than reasonable health.

    Huston himself was one of the greatest figures in Hollywood. He burst onto the scene in 1941 with the brilliant PI flick The Maltese Falcon before heading to the front line of World War II and creating a series of documentaries for the army. Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both 1948) reunited him with Bogart, as did The African Queen (1951) and the spoof, Beat the Devil (1953) and his catalogue of famous films extended all the way beyond Prizzi's Honor in 1985. In between times he found time to continue the Hollywood dynasty founded by his father Walter, with three of his five children (Anjelica, Tony and Danny) going on to have prominent roles in Hollywood, as well as his grandson Jack, who had the lead role in the 2016 version of Ben-Hur.

    Houston acted too., Most famously in Polanski's Chinatown (1974), but also here as an amiable Noah. Both Alec Guinness and Charlie Chaplin had initially been considered for the role, but Huston brings a cheerful sense of purpose to the impending destruction of humankind.  All this however is only after a masterful creation sequence and the sight of Michael Parks and Ulla Bergryd cavorting in the altogether behind a series of strategically-placed plants.

    For the opening sequences, Huston narrates the opening chapter of Genesis over a series of stunning collection of images of the natural world: molten lava bubbles and flows as the land is separated from the sea; a gigantic sun rises, and moves across the skies, as the greater light is brought forth; and swarms of fish burst through the waters of the deep, as the creatures of the seas are created.

    What is impressive about the creation sequence, in addition to the jaw dropping beauty of the images, is the way they so skilfully plot a course between a seven-day type literalist interpretation on the one hand, and more metaphorical readings on the other. Just like the written text, the viewer looks at the raw material and is able to apply their own interpretation. Furthermore, even after numerous nature documentaries and a number of cheap rip-offs the sequence still creates a sense of awe, even if Huston's use of the archaic King James Version and one of the more conventional parts of the soundtrack date things a little.

    The soundtrack excels elsewhere however. Following the creation of Adam, and then Eve the fall and the scenes where Cain (Richard Harris) kills his brother are accompanied by more atonal music. This combined with the bizarre poses Harris strikes, and the low and then high camera angles make this whole sequence strange and disorientating. Whilst the narration is rigidly literal to the text, the film uses the more cinematic elements of image and sound to suggest this more mythical reading.

    The one exception to this is Huston's Noah segment, which goes for more of a light-hearted family comedy feel. Gone is the slavish dependence (or at least the appearance of it) on the biblical text. Instead get other characters get to speak, such as Noah's wife who doesn't quite understand what is happening and Noah's disbelieving compatriots insulting him and calling him "stupid".Noah himself gets to use words and phrases not found in the text of Genesis such as when he suggests that the tigers are "only great cats" who can survive on milk from the other animals. Interspersed with this we get Huston mugging for the camera, visual jokes about the tortoises being last on to the arc and the slapstick spectacle of Noah sticking his foot in a bucket of pitch and sliding down the top deck. It's not that these homely touches are necessarily that bad, just that they feel somewhat out of place with the broody, otherworldly tone struck by the rest of the film. Huston rarely appeared in his own pictures, and perhaps this misstep gives a suggestion as to why. With that on top of having to manage an on-set zoo, it's hardly surprising he was repeatedly heard to quip "I don't know how God managed, I'm having a terrible time" (Huston 320).

    In some ways, however, the film's episodic and inconsistent nature does mark it as a film of transition. Following the poor box office performance by both The Bible and The Greatest Story Ever Told, big studios seemed more reluctant to outlay immense budgets for biblical epics. Instead the 70s were featured the broadcast of numerous made-for-TV series marking the "migration of biblical narratives into the medium of television" (Meyer 232).

    The rest of the film returns to this more pre-historic feel, aided by some fantastic high contrast lighting with gives so much of the film this eerie aura. Stephen Boyd's Nimrod, complete with a painted on mono-brow, shots his arrow to the sky and quickly finds there is no longer anyone who can understand his orders and then we swiftly move on to the sight of George C. Scott's Abraham leaving Ur.

    Again the film does well presenting the main stories here (birth of Ishmael, visitation of the angels, the fall of Sodom and the aborted sacrifice of Isaac) in biblically faithful fashion whilst also questioning the legitimacy of that presentation. Particularly strange is the sight of Abraham's three ethereal visitors interchangeably using Peter O'Toole's head and an orgy scene dreamed up for Sodom that is more creepy than it is titillating.

    The way these scenes pan out leaves Abraham's story, which comprises almost the film's entire second act, as some sort of hope for humanity, even as it hints of the rocky, even traumatic road ahead. The jump from a scene of he and Isaac walking stealthily through the chillingly charred remains of Sodom, to preparing for Abraham to kill his child, provokes anger rather than reverence. Abraham is troubled, but also haunted by the temperamental God who commands him. His willingness to sacrifice his son is more an act of fear of what might happen if he refuses than one of faithful service.

    It's a fitting end to what is - in contrast to the majority of epics that went before it - "a personal film on a gigantic scale (Forshey 146). In some ways that is far more reflective of Genesis itself. Whilst chapter one paints of a broad scale, from there on in it's the story of God with a string of individuals - Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Huston's film not only gets this, but its highly literal narration, in tandem with its dark and primitive feel, underlines the mythological nature of the texts giving much of the film a strange sense of the dawn of time, and the primitive nature of the cultures involved. Whilst the change of tone in the Noah section is a little misplaced, it's hard to deny to boldness of Huston's artistic vision.
    - Forshey, Gerald E. (1992) American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars Westport CT: Praeger.
    - Huston, John (1981) An Open Book. London: Macmillian.
    - Meyer, Stephen C. (2015) Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
    - Solomon, Jon. (2001) The Ancient World in the Cinema, (Revised and expanded edition). New Haven: Yale University Press.

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    Thursday, September 20, 2018

    Giuda (Judas, 1911)

    Earlier in the year South West Silents organised an event called Treasures from the Turin Film Museum at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol which featured five silent Italian films with an ancient world theme including Pastrone’s Fall of Troy (1911) and two films produced by Arturo Ambrosio, The Last Days of Pompeii (1910) and Giuda (Judas, 1911)

    None of the main texts from which I would expect to find something about the film even mentioned it. Neither David Shepherd's "The Bible on Silent Film", nor Campbell and Pitts' "The Bible on Film", nor Giorgio Bertellini's "Italian Silent Cinema" even mention it. Thankfully Carol O'Sullivan was kind enough to provide the summary she wrote for the screening notes for the afternoon in Bristol:
    Giuda (1911), 10’
    The courtesan Priscilla is fascinated by the preachings of Jesus of Nazareth. She tries to seduce him but he resists and invites her to abandon her sinful ways. In revenge, she prompts Judas to betray him, only to repent at the last minute when it is already too late.
    The repentance is missing from the surviving copy of the film.
    Despite the paucity of information about the film it seems likely that it was directed by Luigi Maggi. Maggi began as an actor but had been directing for several years by the time Giuda was produced. His most notable credit is probably Last Days of Pompeii (1908) which I watched last year. Whilst I didn't find the time to review it, I did post a couple of tweets at the time on that film's use of the depth of field in two particular shots, one of a discernible object in the background and another of a character staggering past the camera.

    Interestingly the depth of field used in Giuda is even more striking, and once again we get another character, in this case Judas, who starts the centre of the frame in a typical (for the time) intermediate shot before staggering towards the camera and then past it. Whereas the character in Pompeii was drunk, here is is driven crazy by his love for Priscilla.

    As interesting as that shot is on it's own, it's the camera's use of depth elsewhere that is of most interest. Whilst the first Jesus as a cameo film is probably 1909's L’aveugle de Jérusalem, this film is surely the first to deploy the strategy, which would become so prominent in later Roman-Christian epics, of keeping Jesus in the scene but minimising his presence in the shot.

    Of the eight surviving scenes Jesus is in five of them, but in each he is placed in the distance towards the top of the scene. Whilst these shots are clearly only portraying the human side of Jesus, this positioning of a slightly detached skyward figure also conveys something of the divine Christ in heaven whilst life continues on Earth below.

    What is striking though is how little reverence the camera treats him with. In the opening shot (above) Jesus preaches in the background, but the focus is on Judas and Priscilla the woman whose very presence has captured his attention (and ours). This dynamic is extended even further in the next scene, the Triumphal Entry. Normally this is one of the emotional high points of any Jesus film but here it's almost a sideshow. Jesus passes through in the background, the crowd cheers, but the camera moves from tracking him to focusing on Judas and Priscilla's second meeting. Jesus passes off to the side of the shot. Judas and Priscilla remain front and centre.

    The next scene is shot in Priscilla's house where Judas has followed her. He suggests he will be able to get Jesus to come to Priscilla's house and goes off in search of him. When he arrives (in scene 4) Jesus is already preaching, but almost immediately the view of him is obscured by Judas talking with one of the other disciples. Even more remarkably Jesus begins to move forward and performs two miracles in slightly different locations, but both times the miracle is obscured by characters between him and the camera (above). Whilst this undoubtedly made life easier for the special effects department, its significance lies in the way it again keeps Jesus out of the picture.

    When Jesus does arrive at Priscilla's villa (scene 5) he arrives at the back of the stage and does not descend down inside (like everyone else) and so remains at the centre, once again 'over' everyone. There's a hint of the ascension here, not least because there's a great use of a matte screen here with a painting of the countryside with a mountain in the background. His final appearance (in the surviving footage) is in the Garden of Gethsemane (scene 6, above). Again he remain top centre, this time he is eventually obscured by the stumbling Judas as described above.

    From a technical angle, it is perhaps the penultimate scene (of the existing footage) which is the most interesting. One of the reasons the matte paintings work better here than they do in Last Days of Pompeii, is that they are used more sparingly, relying for the majority of the film on outdoor, location shooting. The scene, briefly introduced by the intertitle "The agreement", takes place alongside a pond, with the water itself forming the right of the picture towards a vanishing point on the horizon. Judas appears on the bank on the left hand side of the screen, but his attention is focused on someone behind the camera and to the right. At first he just glances in that direction, then he looks with more earnest, before ultimately gesturing and shouting. Eventually the character with whom he has been communicating (Priscilla) comes onto the screen from behind the camera on the right hand side of the screen. Far later films have been credited with creatively breaking the fourth wall, here we see almost the reverse. Compared to the relatively static and limited presence of the camera in most films up to this age, here the intention is to give the world that is being presented an extra dimension, (perhaps this could be called making the fourth wall).

    The final scene (cropped at the very top of this post) shows a furtive looking Judas looking around and then ascending the steps to the temple. It's notable that the costumes of the various groups of soldiers are quite distinctively Roman in character, not Jewish (as if temple guards), which may reflect the films Italian origins, but in any case is less problematic for an angle on the story which could so easily lead to anti-Semitism. It's also notable that the scene where Judas has agreed to betray his master occurs after (or rather during) Jesus' prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane.

    I've discussed the film's formal links to Last Days of Pompeii above, but there's more there in terms of plot summary etc. Both films are, on the surface, stories about an historical phenomenon (Jesus/Eruption of Mount Vesuvius), but instead of focusing on that directly they take a more oblique angle, foregrounding the historical referent with an invented love melodrama. As a result both films feel a little bit flabby, though Giuda is tighter than Last Days which even at under 17 minutes feels a little bit bloated.

    What this love subplot does do is present a more human Judas and refuse to demonise him. Yes, his motivation is horrifyingly mundane, but he is a more rounded character and there's no indication that the devil has entered him, or that he is driven by greed. It could be argued, I suppose, that this makes things worse, but somehow lovestruck fool kills for his lover seems better to me. But then I've always loved Noir.

    I have been able to assemble some information about the film from various other sources so should anyone be researching it in the future it might their lives easier. Firstly, whilst IMDb doesn't contain a great deal about this film only the name of its three main stars (Oreste Grandi, Gigetta Morano, Mario Voller-Buzzi) and to report various dates of release including the UK on the 22nd October 1911 and the 1st November 1911 in the US, it does, include the following synopsis from Moving Picture World:
    The picture opens with Christ preaching to the multitudes. Priscilla, a wealthy woman of great beauty, tells Judas to request the Messiah to rest at her house. Christ rebukes her with the words: "Woman, your thought is sinful: the Son of God will not stay beneath your roof." With his disciples, he then proceeds on his way, working miracles, healing the sick, etc. Priscilla, full of hatred, persuades Judas, who loves her, to go to the Romans and betray the whereabouts of Christ for a sum of money. Christ is taken by the soldiers, and Priscilla, from her balcony sees him pass to Calvary bearing the cross upon which he is to suffer. Remorse seizes her, and when Judas comes to claim the reward of his treachery a sensational scene takes place in which Judas is spurned. Rushing to the place of execution, Priscilla casts herself before the cross and begs forgiveness of the suffering Christ. Judas sees her, and filled with horror at the terrible act he has committed, he is so overcome by his accusing conscience that he ends his life by hanging himself to a tree.
    The best source of information on this film is Museo Nazionale del cinema in Turin. It was Stella Dagna of MNC who brought the films to the Bristol showing and talked a little about them and their database contains the following synopsis.
    Judas (1911)

    Production: Società Anonima Ambrosio, Torino. Original length: 390m – Length: 197m – Intertitles: English – Availability date: 09/1911

    Cast: Oreste Grandi (Judas), Gigetta Morano (Priscilla, the courtesan), Mario Voller Buzzi (Jesus Christ)
    The film preservation:
    The preservation of Giuda was carried out by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema di Torino and the Cineteca del Friuli of Gemona in collaboration with George Eastman House and the National Film and Sound Archive of Canberra, based on an incomplete nitrate print which was donated by the Archive of Canberra to the Cineteca of Friuli. From the nitrate print, a dupe negative and positive color prints were printed on safety film, using the Desmet method.
    The restoration was conducted at the L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna in 1997.
    You can also scan through the Museum's scans of related film materials. You have to search for the film by name, but there are a few pieces related to this film which you can view online including a number of fascinating stills from the set including the one below takes from a scene in Priscilla's house.

    The archive apparently also contains a "sceneggiatura" for the film which might be a script, but may just be a description of the scenario. That and a piece from the magazine “La vita cinematografica”, (vol. II, n. 15, 10 Sept. 1911, p. 7) though neither is available to view online. What can be viewed online, however, is a brochure publicising the film which contains it's own more colourful summary which I've written out in full below and translated (with more than a little help from Google Translate)
    Come il Messia predica alla turbele parole di fratellanza e d'amore, Priscilla, la cortigiana, sente d'improvviso una fiamma arderle le vene e i polsi. Ordina ai lettigheri di portarla a casa e manda Omar a offrire ospitalita al profeta e ai suoi apostoli. Omar va, trova il Messia sulla piazza del Mercato tra gli sciancati e i lebbrosi e fa l'ambasciata. E il Messia viene, al tramonto. Ma non mette piede nella casa della cortigiana. S'arresta oltre la soglia e dice: Donna il tuo pensicro è peccato. Il figliuol di Dio non puo restare sotto il tuo tetto.

    Priscilla impietrisce. Questa parole sono risuonate al sup orecchio come scoppi di folgore e hanno percosso l'anima sua come colp di verghe. Poi a poco il cuore le si gonfia e le lacrime le riempiono gli occhi.

    Priscilla nella notte va all'uliveto.

    Il Messia e in orazione nell'ombra. Dintorno a lui gli apostoli dormono distesi sull'erba. E Priscilla sente un alito sfiorarle la faccia e una voce mormorare piano: Ti amo! - Chi sei? chiede Priscilla. E risponde la voce: mi chiamo Giuda. L'apostolo e la cortigiana parlano nella notte e il suono delle loro voci si confonde collo stormire degli ulivi.

    Il giorno dopo Giuda vende il Messia al principe dei Sacerdoti e guida i soldati a compiere l'arresto.

    Ora Priscilla é vendicata. Guarda dalla bianca terrazza, ghirlandata di grappoli. Com'e pallido il Messia, com'è cosparso di sangue! E nell'anima della cortigiana, invece del piacere della vendetta, nasce a poco a poco un senso di pieta infinita e un cercare il premio del suo tradimento, Priscilla gli grida in un riso: Maledetto! Maledetto! e corre a piangere ai piedi della croce.

    Respinto, avvilito, in preda alla disperazione Giuda sparisce nella notte a cercare la morte del traditore...

    "As the Messiah preaches with a torrent of words about brotherhood and love, Priscilla, the courtesan, suddenly feels a flame burning in her veins and wrists. She orders the lawyers to take her home and sends Omar to offer hospitality to the prophet and his apostles. Omar goes, finds the Messiah on the market square among the crippled and lepers and makes the embassy. And the Messiah comes at sunset. But he does not set foot in the courtesan's house. He stops over the threshold and says: "Your thoughts are sinful. The son of God cannot remain under your roof.

    Priscilla is petrified. These words resound in the air like bursts of lightning and strike her soul like lightning rods. Then her heart swells up a little and the tears fill her eyes.

    Priscilla in the night goes to the olive grove.

    The Messiah is in prayer in the shadow. Around him the apostles sleep lying on the grass. And Priscilla feels a breath touching her face and a voice murmuring softly: I love you! - Who are you? asks Priscilla. And the voice answers: my name is Giuda. The apostle and the courtesan speak in the night and the sound of their voices gets confused with the rustling of the olive trees.

    The day after, Judah sells the Messiah to the Chief Priest and leads the soldiers to make the arrest.

    Now Priscilla is avenged. She looks from the white terrace, wreathed in grapes. How pale is the Messiah, how he is sprinkled with blood! And in the soul of the courtesan, instead of the pleasure of revenge, little by little a sense of infinite pity arises and a search for the prize of her betrayal, Priscilla shouts at him in a laugh: Cursed! Cursed! and she runs to cry at the foot of the cross.

    Rejected, dejected, in despair Judah disappears in the night to seek the traitor's death ..."

    Whilst the BFI Archive does not hold a print of this film, it does contain three articles about it from The Bioscope as follows: vol.13 n261 (12 Oct 1911); vol.12 n257 14 Sep 1911; and vol. 12 n257 (14 Sep 1911).

    Lastly, the ever reliable Hervé Dumont's "L'antiquité au cinéma" is practically the only published volume which actually mentions the piece, though it's unclear whether he has seen it or is just paraphrasing an existing summary.
    1911 Giuda (Judas)(IT) Arrigo Frusta ; S.A. Ambrosio, To-rino (« Série d’Or »), 390 m. / 8 min. – av. Oreste Grandi(Judas), Gigetta Morano (Priscilla, la courtisane), Ma-rio Voller Buzzi (Jésus-Christ). –

    Priscilla, une courtisane de Jérusalem, est émue par les paroles du Christ et l'invite chez elle. Jésus refuse de pénétrer dans la maison de la pécheresse et cette dernière, humiliée, cherche à se venger. La uit, sur le mont des Oliviers où Jésus prie, elle se donne à Judas. Au petit matin, poussé par Priscilla, Judas trahit son maître. La courtisane repentante se jette au pied de lacroix tandis que son amant se suicide. Un Judas égaré parl’amour.

    (Priscilla, a courtesan of Jerusalem, is moved by the words of Christ and invites her to her home. Jesus refuses to enter the house of the sinner and the latter, humiliated, seeks revenge. On the Mount of Olives where Jesus prays, she gives herself to Judas. In the early morning, pushed by Priscilla, Judas betrays his master. The repentant courtesan throws herself at the foot of the cross while her lover commits suicide. A Judas lost by love.)

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    Thursday, September 06, 2018

    History Lessons (1972)

    Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972) was the second of three films Huillet and Straub released in the early seventies that blended elements of the ancient and contemporary worlds together. It was seemingly produced with such relative speed that whilst Richard Roud in his 1972 book on Straub (and Huillet) includes a brief statement of intent from Straub about Moses und Aron, it fails to mention Geschichtsunterricht, despite the filmmakers' obvious involvement with Roud's book.

    As is typical with Huillet/Straub films, Geschichtsunterricht is an adaptation, this time of Bertholt Brecht's "The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar" (Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julis Caesar).(1) So, as with their previous project, Othon (1969), the film is set, in a fashion, in ancient Rome and in similar fashion it also not only refuses to hide the fact it is filmed in the modern day city, but uses that fact as a key feature of the film itself. Indeed Geschichtsunterricht goes even further than Othon by not only including an interviewer in modern dress, but also having his various interviews interspersed with footage of him driving round the backstreets of twentieth century Rome.

    There are three such sequences throughout the film, which last for around ten minutes each and resulted in critical derision when the film first played to festival critics. Each is a single shot, taken from the back seat of the man's car, looking over his shoulder through the windscreen. The effect is rather curious providing three "screens" at once: a tracking shot of the action that is taking place outside of the car, as seen through the windscreen, sun roof and the side windows; a static shot of the inside of the car, including the man himself; and a reverse shot of part of his face in the rear view mirror.(2) This visual 'triptych' is similarly accompanied by three distinct sources of sound: the fleeting sounds of the action on the street that drift in through the car's open window; ever present drone of the car's engine; and the occasional sounds made by the interviewer and his contact with the controls of his car.

    As is usual Straub and Huillet's reliance on natural sound give these sequences a very distinctive sound and heighten the film's sense of the interviewer as one who is moving among the people, but not quite part of them. He is distinct from them but they continue their lives on the 'screen' almost entirely unaware of his presence. In the interviews themselves, the camera creates a similar dynamic, primarily using one-shots of the interviewee. The shot above is the only one in the film to show the faces of both interviewer and interviewee together. On a couple of occasions we see the back of the man's head, or his hand, but the majority of the interview footage is primarily a close up of his subject's face. In contrast, in one part of the film the interviewer recants a story of his own, but the man he is speaking too resolutely remains off screen.

    This is a fairly familiar technique in Huillet and Straub's films, deliberately keeping one or more of the primary characters in a scene off camera for a considerable amount of time. In their 1982 short film En Rachachant, for example, a schoolboy's behaviour is being discussed by his teacher and his mother. The scene continues for many minutes before a cut reveals, somewhat shockingly, the the boy's father is also present. Here the interviewer's presence is not in doubt, but his is similarly excluded. Indeed, the filmmakers compose these shots somewhat awkwardly, deliberately drawing attention to the interviewers absence from the frame, but presence in the scene.

    Brecht's incomplete novel concerns a young Roman intent on writing a biography about Caesar a few decades after his death. His quest takes him to the estate of Caesar's banker, Mummlius Spicer in attempt to access the diary written by Caesar's secretary, Rarus. Two of the four parts of the book that Brecht's work consist solely of long sections of these diaries, and excerpts appear also appear elsewhere. Spicer is more than happy to share his own opinions on Caesar, as are his acquaintance the lawyer Afrainius Carbo and the poet Vastius Alder. The man also meets an unnamed former soldier that had served under Caesar.

    In contrast to the more straightforward adaption of Moses und Aron, Straub/Huillet make significant cuts to Brecht's novel and rework the material in a similar fashion to their treatment of Böll's Machorka Muff. All of Brecht's narrative is cut such that the film is essentially a series of interviews interspersed with the 'driving' sections described above.

    It is the sound of one of these driving sections with which the film starts. The noises accompanying the opening credits. Then, as the sounds continue there is a short shot of each of series of three bronze maps showing the Roman Empire progressively retracting. Huillet/Straub often start their films with a shot, which is usually static. which gives a major clue as to their focus for the rest of the material. Here is no exception. The maps are products of Mussolini's Fascists which can still be seen today on the walls outside the 4th century AD Basilica of Maxentius.(3) However they are shown in reverse chronological order with the most recent of the three images first. Whilst on a gut level this gives the sense of the collapse of the Empire following what many think of as its high point under Caesar, this is more like the winding back of a clock, peeling away the layers of history back to the third century under Trajan, through Augustus' Empire circa 14 CE. back to the shape of the territory at the end of the Punic Wars in 146 BCE.

    In a sense then the stage is set for Caesar, yet he and his achievements are also absent from this historical overview. his ties in with the way both the book and the film, concern the history of Julius Caesar, but also never really feature the man himself. Brecht's biographer sets off to track down the truth about Caesar but ends up unable to find a coherent picture that corresponds to the ideas he started with. Straub/Huillet go a step further, the only image of Caesar that appears is in another static shot, this time of the statue in Rimini (around 200 miles directly north of Rome). Again we find layers of meaning here. Not only is this another Fascist monument, but the one depicted is actually a reproduction of the original which remains secured away, somewhat appropriately, in Giulio Cesare barrack. The image is recognisably Caesar but it is a long way from the real Caesar.

    In a nutshell these opening four shots encapsulate so much of what both book and film are about, namely "subverting the narrative form given to history" as a way of undermining the concept of the "great personality" (Byg 119). Clearly a central concern to Brecht was the rise of Nazism and so whilst the novel is not, on the surface, about Hitler, it is very much in the subtext. Given Huillet and Straub's previous work re-examining Nazism in Machorka Muff (1962) and Not Reconciled (1965) this seems like a natural extension. Brecht's broader intention however was not "merely to tarnish Caesar's image, but to expose the process of creating such an image" (Byg 119). Rather than seeing Caesar's (and by extension Hitler's) rise as an inevitability, he sought to bring to prominence factors in the background which contributed to Caesar's rise and other routes that might have been taken with better results.

    Following the first of the driving scenes (a nod to the biographer's journey to Spicer's home) we then see the Spicer character (in full Roman dress) speaking to the interviewer (in modern dress). Straub and Huillet's use of a modern character to conduct the interviews, rather than an ancient biographer as in Brecht's novel, is not the first time such a device has been used, but it has subsequently become far more popular subsequently, not least in sketch comedy where it's been used in everything from Monty Python to Horrible Histories. Whilst Python is absurdist, much of the message of Horrible Histories and the series of book that inspired it, is similarly Brechtian with its undermining of the traditional presentation of history.

    This initial conversation lasts for around 25 minutes and consists primarily of shots of Spicer. As an expert in commerce, Spicer is critical of the path that the Roman armies had taken during the Punic Wars,
    They didn't fetch the corn, they fetched the plough. Our generals said proudly, 'Where my legions set foot, grass grows no more'. But what we'd wanted was exactly that grass. From one of those grasses bread is made. What was conquered in the Punic War, at immense cost, was wastelands. These territories could well have fed our entire peninsula."
    He also talks at length about legal wranglings in the senate only really mentioning "C" (as he is mainly referred to here) to highlight his failed lawsuits. The focus on Spicer shifts for a few minutes when he asks his interrogator to recount the famous story about Caesar and the Cicilian Pirates.(4) The interviewer obliges, only for Spicer to turn the story on its head. "C" was illegally smuggling slaves into the area run by the Cicilians in the middle of a trade dispute. They captured him, but treated him civilly onto be butchered when he returned to pay his (relatively small fine). Spicer notes how Caesar had somehow transformed his brutal threats of crucifixion into a "reputation for humour with the historians" tersely adding how that was "(t)otally unwarranted. He didn't have a grain of humour".

    In the novel the young man is frustrated and disturbed by the way that the stories he is encountering contradict not only his own views, but also each others. However, one of the problems with the novel is that by making the young biographer the narrator, the novel still maintains an authorial point of view. The establish truth about Caesar might be challenged, but the novel still retains a degree of primacy.

    Huillet/Straub's adaptation of this progresses beyond where Brecht was able to take things. The initial driving scene not only places the viewer effectively in "the driving seat", but by running this shot for so long, it strongly encourages viewers to realise that they need to be active in their interpretation of the images on screen, rather than passively accept those images as is typical in much consumption of cinema. Furthermore, as the accounts begin, and conflict both with each other and perhaps with what the viewer has been told before, the interviewer's lack of emotional response means that we have to think for him/ourselves instead. In his recounting of the accepted version of the pirate story he is voicing the most popular account of that story, only to have his/our view of what happened immediately challenged.

    Of course there is an inherent contradiction in all of this, namely that whilst presenting our stand in as non-responding neutral does not force an opinion on us, it does mean the viewer is adopting an essentially passive persona, the opposite of what Brecht, Straub and Huillet are intending, and whilst their attempt to minimise their authorial influence is admirable and important, it is still nevertheless present to a small degree.

    The interviewer speaks next with a former Roman Legionary. In the novel the biographer is hoping for something more inspiring than the account he received from Spicer, but again he is disappointed: instead of talking about fighting and glory the soldier gives a more mundane account about provisions, indemnities and the price of wheat. He never really got that close to Caesar and his motives for joining up were primarily financial. Again the film does not allow the interviewer any responses, we have to sift the 'facts' for ourselves. More driving ensues, as do more interviews, but the rooftop discussions with the lawyer Afranius Carbo and his talk with the deckchair-bound writer Vastius Alder yet again come down to discussions about politics and trade and the ways in which they can be just as bloody as war.

    Alder in particular articulates this perspective. As the summary for the recent English translation of Brecht's novel puts it, "Was Caesar an opportunist, a permanently bankrupt businessman who became too big for the banks to allow him to fail – as his former banker claims? Did he stumble into power while trying to make money?"

    Indeed for Marxists such as Brecht, Straub and Huillet such perspectives lie close to the heart of the ideas that they are exploring. One of the most telling lines in the film is Carbo's statement that "when Caius Julius again raised the Democratic banners, every paving stone of Rome was drenched with the blood of the people." Again Huillet and Straub's interest in the history of the land - in this case Caesar's blood-soaked paving stones which have become the tarmacked streets over which the interviewer drives - comes to the fore. Again we are confronted with questions that eat away at the myth of Julius Caesar. Rather than being a great, but tyrannical man rising to the top on the force of his personality, he is presented as more of an opportunist, who was driven more by his desire for personal wealth than the for the glory of Rome.

    So for a film about the process of history, rather than simply its events, it is a very interesting piece of work. If Brecht's piece is about the importance of critical suspicion in looking at history, particularly that surrounding "the great personality", then Huillet and Straub take this a step further, wrenching their characters almost entirely out of their original contexts and using a modern character to interrogate them in such a way that he himself does not obscure the picture, to any significant extent, at least. The driving scenes not only emphasise that sense of the continuity of the "blood-soaked" land, but also encourage the viewer to take a critical and discerning look at the history that they think they know. Those taking such an approach, however, should beware. They may find that, like the film's driver / interviewer, challenging new perspectives may lie just around the corner.

    1 - The novel is incomplete comprising of only four of the six sections Brecht originally envisaged. He started writing in 1937, but little further progress was made after the start of the Second World War in 1939.
    2 - The observation that these shots create "a series of frames...on the screen" originates with Walsh (65) though he considers the sunroof to be a different frame from the windows. Byg expands this further by considering the side window to also be distinct from the front window resulting in five frames (128).
    3 - You can read more about these images as well as see a photo of them together at Jonathan Rome and Gretchen Van Horne's "Rome on Rome" blog.
    4 - You'd be disappointed if I didn't mention that there is a 1962 Italian peplum about this incident called Giulio Cesare contro i pirati (Julius Caesar Against the Pirates).

    - Brecht, Bertholt (1957) Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julis Caesar (The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar). Trans. by Charles Osborne, ed. by Tom Kuhn (2016). London: Bloomsbury-Methuen.

    - Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    - Roud, Richard (1972) Jean-Marie Straub. New York: The Viking Press.

    - Walsh, Martin (1981) The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema. London: British Film Institute.

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    Monday, August 27, 2018

    Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament, 1962)

    One and Two Maccabees are an unusual pair of books. The two 'deuterocanonical' books appear in what is commonly known as the Apocrypha - a group of texts which Catholic and some Orthodox Christians consider inspired, but which Protestants class as merely 'useful'.1 Accordingly, precious few filmmakers have considered it worthy of adaptation, a 1911 Italian film I Maccabei and the oddly named Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament, 1962) directed by Gianfranco Parolini.

    The first Book of Maccabees tells the story of Mattathias and his five sons John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan, but the second zooms in to focus on the life of Judas. It's clear that the author of 2 Maccabees, at least, considered Judas  to be the most important member of his family. Parolini's version of the story, however, chooses a different path. Instead of making Judas the main hero, it opts for his brother Simon, casting Brad Harris in the role. By this point in his career Harris had already played Samson, Goliath and Hercules and was rapidly becoming an established peplum star.

    Perhaps with a nod to the biblical pecking order it's Judas (Djordje 'George' Nenadovic) we encounter first. Already the conquering Syrians2 see him as a threat so he has slipped into Jerusalem disguised as one of their soldiers. This is not merely a convenient disguise, however, it's also an indicator of the way the film will portray Judas from here on in. Judas is seen as something of an extremist, a man of violence. Whilst he is undoubtedly one of the sheep of Israel he is very much dressed in Syrian wolf's clothing, both literally and figuratively.

    It may be that, just like Ray's King of Kings the previous year, the filmmakers decided they needed a violent rebel to contrast with their more peaceable hero, but it's also possible they worried that Christian majority audiences in both Italy and America might not accept a hero called Judas. In any case, Judas' violent approach leaves a certain inevitability to his untimely death, and by its end, the film will have shown just how antithetical to true faith it considers this overly violent 'Syrian' approach to be.

    Yet at some point, the producers of the film seem to have abandoned the idea of contrasting the two brothers quite so strongly. The only English language version of the film available at the moment is cut down from 115 minutes down to a mere 88. Not only does that version's 4:3 cropped screen ration and poor quality transfer ruin a lot of the fine sets, but the cuts to the running length ruin the story arc leaving a confusing mess.

    Gone, for example, is Simon's critical first scene. Whereas his brother Judas had already been fighting the Syrians, Simon has been becoming friends with them. We first meet him dressed in Greek-style dress socialising with his soon to be wife Diotima and his best friend Antenone. As the conflict between the Syrians and the Jews intensifies the dynamics between these three become all the more interesting. All three represent the more peaceable, moderate side of their people and are angered when their own countrymen inflict suffering on their friends. Early on in the film Simon is shot by an arrow and Antenone nurses him to recover.

    Later on, (in another scene cut from the English language DVD release), Antenone is executed by Jewish forces much to Simon's dismay. This scene is itself particularly striking. Firstly, it represents one of a number of explicit miracles in the film. Whereas most Bible films from this point on have given their miracles a certain degree of ambiguity, in order to avoid alienating sceptics, by this point in the film there has already been a ghostly image of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Later on a lightning strikes and destroys the gates of Joppa in response to Simon's prayer allowing his men to capture the city.

    In this case whilst Antenone is killed his spirit is shown to rise up in bodily form. This not only reflects the theological development we find in 2 Maccabees of belief in some kind of afterlife3, but also hands it to Antenone, a peaceable Gentile, rather than to the Jewish Mattathias, Judas or Jonathan. Whilst the absence of a resurrection for any of the Jewish heroes was not necessarily intended as a slight, certainly it re-affirms the film attempts to idealise a more compromising, peaceable approach over a specific religious conviction.

    Alternatively the point could be made that this longer cut attempts to de-Judaise these quintessentially Jewish heroes in order to portray their story as part of the journey towards a more "superior", "tolerant", Americanised Christianity. Of Mattathias and his five sons it is the one who is least Jewish and most au fait with the dominant cultural empire who is promoted to become the hero, and it is a non-Jew who is resurrected and later portrayed as something of a Christ figure in the film's closing moments.

    Yet whilst the cuts made to the longer version do remedy some of these problems, they are disastrous in terms of narrative. Simon, Antenone and Diotima's friendships are the glue that hold the narrative together. Taken as a whole the first Book of Maccabees is not particularly easy to translate into a screenplay, not least because of the regularity with which the leading Maccabee is killed and replaced by one of his relations. Whilst choosing Simon as the lead representative of the family is unconventional, it does enable the script to develop the characters in interesting ways. Without these moments the story resorts to little more than that of a series of battles.

    It's been reported numerous times over the years that Mel Gibson is interested in filming a version of this story. It's not hard to see why it appeals to him. Given the source's guerrilla violence, extreme determination in the fave of persecution, factional backstabbing, and unlikely victories, it's plain enough that the story could easily be fashioned into a B.C.E. version of Braveheart. Whether that will result in a film any closer to the source material remains to be seen.

    1 - The original texts go back to the Greek Septuagint and were rejected in the formation of the Jewish Canon. They were however chosen to be part of the Christian Canon and remained so until the Reformation. Some parts of the Orthodox church, notably the Ethiopian Orthodox church, does not include the Books of Maccabees in their canon.
    2 - Whilst the film calls them Syrians and the text calls them ethnon (nations/gentiles) as the opening prologue to 1 Maccabees makes clear they were those from the Northern Greek/Syrian part of Alexander the Great's former empire known as the Seleucids.
    3 - See for example 2 Maccabees 6:23; 7:14; 7:23; 11: 23; 12:40-46. These ideas are far more developed in terms of some form of afterlife than any in the agreed canon.


    Saturday, August 18, 2018

    Solomon and Sheba (1959) - part 1

    This is the first in a series of posts looking at the 1959 epic Solomon and Sheba

    "At times, a man feels drawn toward the dangers that 
    confront him, even at the risk of his own -destruction". 

    Strip away all the glitz and glamour of King Vidor's magnificent looking epic and at its heart it's pure film noir - Gilda in gold-sequinned pants starring the Queen of Sheba as the femme fatale. She turns up one day on Solomon's doorstep playing the innocent, but everyone, including Solomon himself, knows she's trouble.

    Away from Solomon's lavishly rendered court she conspires with his enemies - the Egyptian Pharaoh and Solomon's waspish half brother Adonijah. Solomon attempts to keep her at arm's length, and when that fails he tries to impress her into thinking he's invulnerable to her charms, but he's drawn towards her "like a moth approaches a flame" and once he falls, he falls hard leaving his whole kingdom exposed.

    But then, like a low-grade Vertigo, there's the twist: Sheba falls for her mark and realises that the enemy she was trying to deceive, seduce and destroy means more to her than the traditions she has been raised with and has fought to protect. Now there's going to be trouble for both of them.

    Yul Brynner's performance as Solomon is often criticised for being too one-dimensional, but he was never going to simply repeat his performance from The King and I. Instead his passive, subdued portrayal is a classic leaf out of the noir handbook. It's always the female characters who are the more interesting in noir anyway. This is very much the case here as Gina Lollobridgida's Sheba steals every scene she features in. She smoulders, plots and purrs so well that you can easily forget her biblical role was supposed to be almost-intellectual - a head of state of an upwardly mobile country posing tough administrative questions which only the wisdom of Solomon could possibly answer.

    Of course Noir's finest films are all built around the stellar female performances. It's why names like Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner still hold some cultural resonance whilst Dana Andrews and whatever the bloke from Double Indemnity was called have faded into obscurity. Great as Bogart was he is forever linked with the super-smart Bacall, and whilst Mitchum, Stewart and Alan Ladd all graced the genre, the reason they are more fondly remembered is for their work elsewhere.

    With Lollobrigida giving it her all - except the orgy scene where she, rather understandably, seems bored by its banality ("but, Gina dah-ling", you can almost hear the studio rep saying, "it'll draw in the crowds") - it's no surprise that the audience sides with her far more than the stoical Brynner1. "Wherever she moves Sheba colonises her space, dominating her interlocuters, for instance in the pastoral scene with Solomon, where her positioning in the frame often prioritises her spatially".2 Whilst we see both monarchs consulting with their advisors, we are given far more insight into the goings on in her inner circle than we ever are in his, even if we sense he has more to lose.

    One of the things that is surprising about Solomon and Sheba is its depiction of the Israelites' god who rather unexpectedly steps up to claim the noirish role of the dark malevolent force conspiring to keep the two lovers apart. In contrast to other Old Testament films it's neither the Sheban religion (with its highly-choreographed, but curiously unerotic, orgies3) nor the Egyptian army (who - in a sequence combining stunning visuals with a total lack of realism - fall, quite literally, for Solomon's battlefield "genius") that are the real problem, but the deity who the Israelites worship, yet fail to understand. Israel believes her God to be far more upright, moral and decent than he is actually shown to be.

    In order to understand this contrast more fully it is necessary to undertake a fuller exploration of the portrayal of Israel in the film. So in the next instalment I'll be looking at how, along with many epics of the era, the filmmakers attempt to draw parallels between the Hebrew nation and 1950s America.

    1 - One of the more modern skewering I've enjoyed is Alex von Tunzelmann's "The ludicrous Solomon and Sheba (1959) tempted in audiences with the promise of an Old Testament orgy scene, though being 1959 this merely consisted of the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) doing the funky chicken in a gold bikini while her acolytes formed a conga line and then ran off giggling into the undergrowth" - "Reel History: The World According to the Movies" (London, Atlantic: 2015), p.22.
    2 - Babbington, Bruce and Evans, Peter William. "Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema", (Manchester: Manchester University Press) 1993, p.67
    3 - Fraser employs the phrase "curious balletic orgy" which sums up the use of movement and space and the ineffectiveness of the eroticism nicely. "The Hollywood History of the World", MacDonald Fraser, George, (London, Harvill Press: 1996), p.26

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