• 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.

    Tuesday, February 20, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973): Schönberg's Techniques

    This is part 3 of a series of posts about Straub and Huillet's film adaptation of Schönberg's opera "Moses und Aron". You can read them all here. Still from the 1965 Covent Garden performance in London.
    Given the particular manner in which Schönberg selects, edits and adapts the biblical material it's temptingly simple to concentrate solely on the words of the opera's libretto and not consider what he is trying to achieve with his music. Yet clearly, particularly for an experimental and pioneering composer such as Schönberg, his unique approach to the opera's composition is hugely significant. Indeed, as Steiner puts it, "it is difficult to conceive of a work in which music and language interact more closely than in Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (40)." Indeed he even goes as far to suggest that it is "impertinent to write about the opera if one is unable to analyse its powerful, immensely original musical structure" (Steiner 40).

    Twelve Tone Atonal Serialism
    Much of this relates to Schönberg's use of twelve-tone atonal serialism. This broke away from the traditional method of composition where a piece of music prioritises a particular note as the "key". Instead it sought to give all 12 notes in an octave equal footing. Schönberg had been experimenting with atonality as early as the 1910s, long before "Moses und Aron", but this particular form of it developed in the early 1920s, and it rarely made such a key contribution as it does here.  Of course, there are various other techniques which he uses to impart meaning to the work. It is, therefore, well worth recalling Wörner's observation that “(I)t is not the text, but the score...which gives us the key to Aaron’s character”, applies to the work in general (83).

    There were a number of different factors that led Schönberg to develop twelve-tone serialism. On the one hand, his belief that tonal music had lost its capacity to produce the tension necessary for musical meaning" had driven him towards atonality in the first place (Batnitzky 2001: 10). However, he felt that what the existing forms of atonal music lacked was a "firmer structural basis" (Reti 62). A third problem was that "'atonal' music no longer led to the resolution that would create melodies as western music had come to recognize them" (Batnitzky 2001: 10). The tension that produced musical expression had been lost in early forms of tonality due to this lack of order.

    The result was Twelve Tone Atonal Serialism, an organised tonality which arranges all twelve notes into a strict order (or 'series') and then derives the melodies from that. As Reti explains "(t)o replace one structural force (tonality) with another (increased thematic oneness) is indeed the fundamental idea behind the twelve note technique" (63). "The series thus provides a coherent framework whose structural functions replace those of traditional tonality...By seeking to create melodies using serialism, Schoenberg aimed to reinstate the tension necessary for musical expression that tonality had lost.” (Batnitzky 2001: 10)

    The key ideas in all of this, then, the sense of order, the sense of unity and the sense of equality between differently pitched notes fitted well with the religious ideas Schönberg wished to explore. However, whilst these ideas could be embraced by a number of major religious philosophies, Schönberg also saw his work not only as of Judaism, but indeed advancing its cause. His experiences with anti-Semitism had convinced him of the need to embolden his people, who he realised would never be accepted by the German people, and ultimately to argue for their unique place in the world. Again this was as much about the music as it was about the libretto as Steiner makes clear:
    “By introducing into music, whose classical development and modes seemed to embody the very genius of the Christian and Germanic tradition, a new syntax, an uncompromisingly rational and apparently dissonant ideal, Schoenberg was performing an act of great psychological boldness and complexity. Going far beyond Mahler, he was asserting a revolutionary—to its enemies an alien, Jewish—presence in the world of Bach and Wagner. Thus the twelve-tone system is related, in point of sensibility and psychological context, to the imaginative radicalism, to the ‘subversiveness’ of Cantor’s mathematics or Wittgenstein’s epistemology.” (Steiner 42)
    The result is a work that "is technically more demanding than any other major opera" (Steiner 41). Performers from the 2014 Welsh National Opera production described it as "fiendish" noting how the "concentration levels required are immense, if you lose concentration for a second you can be gone for pages" (Opera on 3). For Steiner "the quality of the religious-philosophic conflict requires from the performers and producer an unusual range of insight and sympathy (Steiner 41). It is worth repeating an extensive quote from Louise Ratcliffe, a member of the chorus from the Welsh National Opera to give an insight into the difficulty in performing the piece:
    "There’s no melody and that makes it very difficult. The only thing I can compare it to, is if you’re an actor learning a script in English, but all of the lines have English words in them but they don’t make a proper sentence so you have to learn each word individually because you can’t just think of the sentence, and then you’ve got two acts like that, and then you’ve got six different lines all doing different things and then you’ve got to put it all together.” (Opera on 3)
    The complexity faced by performers is a result of “the vast creative opportunities inherent in serial composition” (Johnson 3). The absence of a key means that the absence of the kinds of melodies that are typical of western compositions and the need to vary the rhythm and octave of each note means that the next few notes are usually difficult to predict. As Wörner explains “Each single note may appear within the range of any octave... furthermore, the rhythmic combinations in which the notes may be grouped, are unlimited, the number of possibilities becomes well-nigh inexhaustible” (93).

    For Johnson, “twelve-tone serialism emerged as a method of bringing order and structure to the world of atonality. Schoenberg's new compositional technique is built on the systematic ordering of all twelve pitch classes of the chromatic scale rather than any sort of tonal hierarchy” (18). Each composition is based on an initial 'tone row', an specific ordering of the twelve chromatic notes where each is used only once. The tone row is then repeated throughout the opera, but rhythm, octave and the length of each note can be ordered. It is also possible to make other changes to the way that pattern appears, such as playing them in reverse order (called 'retrograde' transformation), or inverting them (so that going down two notes in the original tone row equals going up two notes in the inversion). Also because the central idea is to do with how the notes relate to the initial note, that initial note can be of any pitch, so long as those that follow it are shifted up or down by the corresponding number of notes.

    Perle summarises twelve-tone serialism as having four main characteristics:
    1. The row is a specific ordering of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (without regard to octave placement).
    2. No note is repeated within the row.
    3. The row may be subjected to interval-preserving transformation - that is, it may appear in inversion, retrograde, or retrograde-inversion, in addition to its "original" or prime form.
    4. The row in any of its four transformations may begin on any degree of the chromatic scale, in other words it may be freely transposed. Transpositions are indicated by an integer between a and 11 denoting the number of semitones: thus if the original form of the row is denoted P0,then P1 denotes its transposition upward by one semitone. (Perle 27)

    It is also worth pointing out that, in an orchestral situation such as with an opera, the different parts of any sequence can be performed by any of the instruments, so one instrument might begin the series of twelve notes, another might continue it and another might complete the row.

    The Tone Row
    However, whilst this is the musical basis for the opera, one of the techniques that Schönberg applies is for the initial row to become 'distorted' as the opera goes on. Deviations from the original tone row, aside from the variations outlined by Perle, are possible, and indeed allowable, particularly if making a point, but Schönberg reckoned this ought not to happen until “the later part of a work, when the set had already become familiar to the ear” (Schoenberg and Stein: 226)

    This is why the point at which Schönberg begins the narrative is particularly significant. By beginning just as God is about to speak to Moses for the first, and most decisive time, means that the opening notes - the twelve notes that define the tone row upon which the whole opera is written - come from the voice of God, expressing his desire to communicate to humanity. "Schoenberg utilizes the purest form of his twelve-tone system, the opening notes through which the entire Opera is developed, to represent God" (Batnitzky 2001: 11). As Johnson notes, “the tone row becomes a character in-and-of itself, transforming and shifting to mirror dramatic events and becoming a driving force throughout the opera” (Johnson 1).

    Whilst Batnitzky seems to include allowable variations within his use of the term 'distortion' he nevertheless summarises how Schönberg uses this technique to create meaning.
    "However, with God's communication of God's self to Moses, the notes begin to sound distorted. The distortion of the notes in 'Moses und Aron'...reaches its height in the character of Aron, to reflect the implicit tension that arises in the finite human's desire to know the infinite God. The distortion of the notes results from the notes representing God's self” (Batnitzky 2001: 11).
    "Aron's presence in the opera is marked by yet a further distortion of the original series that comes with God's communication. The difference between Aron's distortion and the distortion that comes from God's own speaking is that Aron's distortion actually verges on tonality. Aron's distortion involves chords with intervals of thirds and sevenths, intervals closely associated with traditional tonality" (Batnitzky 2001: 13).
    In other words, God's message, his self-communication if you will, is perfect and defines the basis for all that follows, but as Aron tries firstly to understand it, and then to communicate it to his people, before lastly attempting to get them to accept it, the music deviates more and more from the tone row that God's voice initially established. As Aron compromises God's message more and more, the more the music breaks the rules of twelve-tone serialism.

    Sprechstimme / Sprechgesang
    In contrast, to his treatment of Aaron, Schönberg uses another specific technique to bolster his characterisation of Moses. Taking seriously Moses' admission in Exodus 4:10 that far from being eloquent he was actually "slow of speech", Schönberg does not have Moses sing (except for one line).1 Instead he delivers his lines in a style that is neither spoken nor sung, but is somewhere in between. This 'in-between' style is known variously as either sprechstimme or sprechgesang, where the former is closer to speech and the latter to singing. On the score to "Moses and Aron" his notes have a pitch, that is a place on the stave, but instead of beginning round notes, they are marked by crosses.2

    According to Sir John Tomlinson, who has played the role of Moses numerous times since 1999, and will be reprising it in Dresden later this year, there "is a continual tension between how much this part should be sung and how much it should be spoken. Now if he [Moses] were completely normal and fluent on the opera stage, Moses would be singing the whole role, but he isn’t. He is disabled to some extent, psychologically and physically. He is not fluent in speech” (Opera on 3).

    This contrasts strongly with Aron who "has a gift of fluency, which is readily apparent in his agile bel canto singing style” (Goldstein 155). As Batnitzky puts it “Aron sings while Moses speaks. This has the obvious effect of associating Aron with beauty and Moses with thought” (2001: 13). It's an effective way of highlighting one of the key details we know about Moses that most dramatic portrayals leave out. It does however mean that the opera does not translate well into other languages and so is best appreciated in the original German. As Steiner observes “To alter the words— their cadence, stress, tonalities— as must be done in translation, is tantamount to altering the key relations or orchestration in a piece of classical music.” (Steiner 42)

    Schönberg's use of sprechgesang is also a good example of another key element of the piece: the interplay between opposites. In an opera where everybody else sings, Moses is only given “a speaking role; the proclaimer of the idea, significantly, is denied song” (Wörner 83). Tomlinson cites various examples of such "struggle and tension between opposites" including the "musical opposites of the twelve tone system versus tonality" and "the religious idea of the purity of God versus the profanity of the orgy scene in the second act" (Opera on 3). Clearly the characters of Moses and Aron are in some sense opposites, though, interestingly, some productions have tried to physically portray them as similarly as possible to make them appear like opposing forces within the same personality. At the same time, it is also important to note that by making the role of Moses “a speaking role; the proclaimer of the idea, significantly, is denied song” (Wörner 83).

    Sixes and Twelves
    For Wörner, it seems "that some mystical number-symbolism is at the back of Schoenberg’s music, as it is of Bach’s" (88). Indeed David Poutney has said, that for Schönberg, “music is maths plus mysticism” (Opera on 3).3

    This interest in numbers affects the work in a number of different ways. It is notable, for example, that the title of the piece "Moses und Aron" is twelve letters long, when the natural German title ("Moses und Aaron" would be thirteen. Whilst most scholars take the view that this is due more to Schönberg's superstitious beliefs about the number thirteen, it seems likely that the idea of a twelve lettered title for a work of twelve-tone serialism was also a factor.

    The atonal nature of the piece and its emphasis on the twelve notes, make the importance of the number twelve clear, but it also appears that the number six has a certain significance within the work. As Wörner observes "Six notes, twice three, are contained in the symbols of divine will. Six solo voices form the (sung) voice of God; a six-part speaking chorus forms the voice from the Burning Bush that conveys the biddings of the divine will” (89).

    But Wörner  sees additional significant uses of the number six. “Throughout the opera, the major sixth symbolizes the people of Israel;” (72). Furthermore, "(t)he major sixth is characteristic of God’s promise to the people, while the minor sixth a kind of inflection of it, and as such specially characteristic of Aaron, with his exuberance, his emphatic intensity and his thinking in images”. (74). For a while, “Aaron still tries to mediate (vacillation between major and minor sixth)" (72), but ultimately in "the songs of jubilation (‘Joyous Israel!’) which precede the worship of the Golden Calf, the sixth is no longer to be found;” (72).

    Ultimately, then, Schönberg uses a number of techniques to enhance the meanings inherent within his opera, most significantly the way he uses the twelve note atonal serialism and in particular the tone row, Moses' use of Sprechstimme / Sprechgesang and the use of the numbers six and twelve. But beyond these issues relating to his themes in this piece, the work has a broader significance. As Steiner concludes "Schoenberg has deliberately used a genre saturated with nineteenth-century values of unreality and modish display to express an ultimate seriousness. In so doing he reopened the entire question of opera.” (41). His opera was not so much an attempt to create a historically sound portrayal of its two protagonists, but an exploration of the tension inherent in the idea of an eternal, unique, and inconceivable God seeking to communicate with humanity.

    1 - The line Moses sings falls "at the conclusion of initial discussion with Aaron, in a plea to 'Purify your thinking'” (Goldstein 157).
    2 - It is important to note as Laurence Cole, one of the performers from the Welsh National Opera production, does, that “the rhythm is almost as important as the pitch”. They apparently worked for hours at a time just practising the rhythm (Opera on 3).
    3 - Poutney is the creative director at Welsh National Opera who performed this piece at various locations across the UK in 2014.

    - Batnitzky, Leora. (2001). Schoenberg's Moses Und Aron and the Judaic Ban on Images. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 25. 73-90.

    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.

    - Johnson, William E. (2015) Tone Row Partitions in Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" The Volk Partition and the Zwischenspiel Partition. Butler University Graduate Thesis Collection. 264. Available online at

    - Opera on 3: Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, (2014) - BBC Radio 3 programme featuring interviews with Christopher Cooke, 13 June 2014. Available online -http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020y7jq

    - Perle, George (1991) Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    - Reti,Rudolph. (1958) "Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality: A Study of Some Trends in Twentieth Century Music." Rockliff, California: University of California Press.

    - Schoenberg, Arnold and Stein, Leonard (1975) Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. New York: St. Martin's Press

    - Steiner, George (1965) 'Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”' Encounter (June), pp.40-46.

    - Wörner, Karl H. ([1963] 1959) Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ trans. Paul Hamburger, London: Faber and Faber.


    Saturday, February 10, 2018

    Samson (2018)

    Throughout the history of the Bible on film six stories have predominated: Jesus, Moses, David, Lot, Noah and Samson. In particular, during the two golden eras of biblical films, in the 1920s and the 1950s/1960s each of these stories received a major film release. Recently we've been seeing a bit of a revival in biblical films and, unsurprisingly, these same stories have again proved popular. The Passion of the Christ (2004), Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) are self explanatory. 2009's Year One, whilst not a serious reinterpretation, was nevertheless a big screen adaptation of the story of Lot. 1985's epic King David is perhaps a bit too far in the past and recent TV adaptations have not proved successful, but nonetheless the continuing interest in the story is palpable.

    It's not entirely unexpected, then to see a new version of the story of Samson returning to cinemas. It's not quite the Hollywood epic that Noah and Exodus were, but nevertheless it's opened at an impressive number of screens across the US.

    Samson, directed by Bruce MacDonald is the latest bible film from Pureflix, the faith-based producer and distributor who also run a Christian version of Netflix. Whilst five years ago they produced the more modest Book of Daniel they went on to have greater success with God's Not Dead and the subsequent sequels, and an inventive adaptation of Lee Strobel's book The Case For Christ.

    The latter films were criticised for being a little too heavy on the proselytism. The Times' Kevin Maher dismissed The Case for Christ as "profoundly silly Christian recruitment propaganda masquerading as newsroom drama" whilst The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber criticised the way God's Not Dead "stacks the deck shamelessly in defense of its credo".

    The story of Samson though is a different matter. Whereas the story behind both of the above films were essentially adversarial, being based on debate and controversy, this is a more conventional narrative. The religious element of the story is upfront and to some degree unavoidable (though numerous 60s Italian 'Samson' pepla managed it), but not necessarily evangelistic. I think most critics will find Samson, better in this regard, if only because the point it's trying to make is not quite so painfully obvious from even before the film starts.

    As a narrative, the film sticks fairly closely to the biblical narrative. Samson (Taylor James) has grown up knowing he has a calling from God. Before to his notorious affair with Delilah (Caitlin Leahy) he wrestles a lion to death, rips the city gates off the walls at Gaza, beats up the Philistines with a donkey's jawbone and gets married to a different Philistine woman. At the same time the film creates a couple of other side stories to bring the story more in line with modern storytelling.

    Firstly it portrays Samson as someone who is struggling to accept God's call. Whilst this is a fairly common device in biblical films, here instead of merely embellishing the biblical portrayal, it actually seems to run contrary to it. The biblical Samson is an impulsive hothead who is as likely to tie up foxes and set fire to their tails in anger as he is to give his big secret away to his untrustworthy girlfriend because he's feeling warm and fuzzy.

    In contrast this Samson resists the call to become a 'judge' because "we need peace". The violence in the story is not so much down to his unpredictable nature as God's will as his father Manoah (Rutger Hauer) reminds him. The film's Samson is "chosen by the living God to be his hand of vengeance." When told "it's his will", Samson retorts "but it is not mine."

    Given the film is most likely to prove successful with a conservative audience, it's not hard to read Samson as a kind of idealised NRA archetype of a responsible gun holder. He has all the means to kill at his disposal, but is extremely reluctant to use them. In contrast, the biblical Samson is more like the kind of irresponsible type that the left like to point to - constantly teetering on the edge of another violent outburst.

    The other major sub-plot revolves around father-son conflicts of a different kinds between the Philistine King (Billy Zane) and his slimy, usurping, son froPrince Rallah (Jackson Rathbone). Whilst Zane is Samson's adversary, he seems to have little idea how to defeat him. For all his son's conniving he seems to be the only man who is using his head, even if he is ultimately undone by his own self-satisfaction.

    Another major difference between this film and the God's Not Dead/Case for Christ films is the sheer scope of Samson. Both the costumes and the size of the cast are far grander than those previous films. echoing historical epics old and new. Some of the overhead shots are fairly impressive, certainly for a faith-based film. The film may have its flaws, but a lack of budget isn't one of them.

    Only time will tell if any of this proves popular enough with audiences to become something of a hit. One of the reason's DeMille's 1949 version of the story proved such a big hit was the way its display of human flesh so brazenly contrasted with the modern-day, fully-dressed dramas of its day. Not dissimilarly Samson is a decisive breakaway from Pureflix's previous offerings. Certainly they will be hoping that James's muscles, combined with a generous helping of action sequences will give Samson a broad appeal. Whether it can draw the kind of audience that Noah and Exodus: God's and Kings did so that it can round out my theory, remains to be seen.

    Please note, this article is not a review of the film. I will hopefully get around to writing that at some point in the future, but given the various other projects I have on at the moment, I imagine it could be some time.

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    Thursday, February 08, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973):The Narrative

    This is part 2 of a series of posts about Straub and Huillet's film adaptation of Schönberg's opera "Moses und Aron". You can read them all here. Still from the 1957 Zürich stage production.
    Schönberg's libretto for "Moses und Aron" takes a highly selective approach to the story of Moses. Many of the most iconic scenes are excluded in their entirety. Moses' birth and childhood is excluded, his conflict with Pharaoh is absent, even the parting of the red sea/sea of reeds is omitted. “The emphasis here...accounts for the absence of those aspects of the biblical story which have little to do with revelation and communication - for example, Moses’ birth, his confrontation with the Pharaoh, and Mosaic legislation (Goldstein 155).

    Instead the film starts fairly late in the story, with Moses facing the burning bush at the moment God speaks to him (Ex 3-4). There is no build up, nor even any setting of the scene, we're not even shown Moses spying the bush burning from afar (Ex 3:2-3). The first sounds we hear are the sound of God. This moment is crucial from a musical point of view however, as the 12-note tone row upon which Schönberg bases the opera's music all derives from God's voice as variation and distortion. As Batnitzky explains:
    “The opera begins with a series of notes that express God’s presence at the scene of the burning bush.  These opening notes are the only text-expressive idea or theme dominating the entire opera.  However, with God's communication of God's self to Moses, the notes begin to sound distorted.  Schoenberg utilizes the purest form of his twelve-tone system, the opening notes through which the entire Opera is developed, to represent God.  He uses the distortion of the notes, which, as we will see, reaches its height in the character of Aron, to reflect the implicit tension that arises in the finite human's desire to know the infinite God.  (Batnitzky 2004: 6)
    Moses perceives God as "Einziger, ewiger, allgegenwärtiger, unsichtbarer und unvorstellbarer" ("Unique, eternal, omnipresent, unperceived and inconceivable") and hears God tell him to free his people ("Du mußt dein Volk daraus befrein!"), though it is not entirely clear as to what this means. When Moses expresses his concern that he will not be believed, God promises him that he will perform miracles ("Vor ihren Ohren wirst du Wunder - ihre Augen werden sie anerkennen") and when he continues to raise concerns, God tells him that Aron will be his mouthpiece ("Aron will ich erleuchten, er soll dein Mund sein").

    Scene 2 finds Moses returning to the "wateland" and meeting Aron, the two discuss God's message before returning to their people in Egypt. It's clear however, that not only does Aron not fully understand what Moses is telling him, but that neither he, nor Moses have fully comprehended what God has said. Moses insists that God is inconceivable and unseen; Aron questions how it is even possible to "worship what you dare not even conceive" ("kannst du lieben, was du dir nicht vorstellen darfst?").

    The two men return to Egypt to tell their people of God's message, but before they even arrive the people are speculating about the God that Moses is about to unveil (Scene 3). Before Moses can even begin to explain his vision of God they press upon him their idea of what God will be like, a God to whom they can make offerings, even "Leben opfern" ("living offerings"). When Moses tells them that God does not want offerings but demands everything ("fordert das Ganze") they reject him and his message. Whilst Aron continues to attempt to persuade them, Moses withdraws and doesn’t speak to the people again until he comes down from the mountain towards the end of Act 2.

    As Scene 4 continues Aron gradually concedes ground to the people, subverting Moses’ message still further. He turns Moses' staff into a snake, Moses' hand leprous and the waters of the Nile into blood. Wörner argues that essentially “Aaron’s miracles are feats of sorcery” (59). Certainly it's no accident that here it's Aron that strikes the rock, rather than Moses. Ultimately Aron even ends up promising the people physical good fortune ("leiblichen Glücks"). Eventually Aron's efforts at modifying his message in order to win the people's support pay off. “Aaron’s success with the people is evident in the concluding chorus of the first act, when they sing of Aaron’s promise” (Goldstein 158)

    Somewhat surprisingly, the second act starts with Moses on Mount Sinai convening with God. An interlude before the start of the second act has the chorus inquiring as to Moses' whereabouts. In other words Schönberg's libretto skips out several of the major incidents that dramatisations of the Exodus story usually include. So aside from the water turning to blood, all of the Moses' confrontation with Pharaoh, including the other plagues, is omitted. The instigation of the Passover and the death of the firstborn are also absent, as is the exodus itself. Perhaps for a work originally envisioned for the stage, the absence of the parting of the Red Sea / sea of reeds is not surprising, but certainly when considering Straub / Huillet's film, given the enormity of DeMille's two depictions of the event, its omission is striking. Lastly a number of other, less significant stories are excluded, such as the victory over the Amalekites (Ex 17) are excluded, those these have proven far less popular with filmmakers.

    Act II proper begins with unrest starting to come to a head in the Israelite camp.Under pressure, Aron creates the golden calf at the start of scene 3 and an orgy ensues. It's the opera's longest scene and features animal and human sacrifice, four naked virgins, widespread drunkenness, and the murder of a youth who speaks out against what is happening. Suddenly Moses reappears and at his command the golden calf simply disappears (Scene 4).

    The act's final scene, then, is a confrontation between Moses and his brother. “Moses smashes the Tablets not out of anger but to prove a point” (Tugenhaft), but the point is lost on Aron who has gained more confidence in his ideas about the importance of image in communicating God's message to the people. Aron argues that Moses destruction of the golden calf, and various other symbols, are themselves, other words that “word banishing image is also merely a representation of spiritual power” (Goldstein 158). When, at the end of the scene, the pillars of fire and cloud appear - symbols that could only originate from God himself - Aron seizes on them as examples of a "Gottes Zeichen" ("God-sent signal") thus arguing that God himself uses images to communicate to the people. As Aron exits with the people and God goes silent, Moses (and particularly his final lines) imply that “Moses, may indeed be guilty of having created an image - albeit a false one - of God, and image of God as an ineffable idea.” (Goldstein 159). Struck by this revelation Moses "sinkt verzweifelt zu Boden" ("sinks to the ground in despair") and Act II comes to a sudden close.

    As noted in my previous post, many productions of the opera end at this point, with Moses in despair at his failure to get his message across. Schönberg completed the orchestration for Act II, but left little music for Act III. There is, however, a completed libretto and the third, unfinished, act produces a very different conclusion to the story to that from the end of Act II. For David Poutney, who was the artistic director for Welsh National Opera's 2014 production of the opera, ending a production at the end of the second act gives a "rather false impression of the work, because we’re left with this ending with this kind of cliché... of the tragic ruler overwhelmed by his task, ‘heavy is the head’ and all that. Whereas actually the end was meant to be Act III [which] begins with Moses now surrounded by soldiers, not the people (Opera on 3).

    Once again there has been a significant passage of time between acts. The tide has turned such that Moses has once again gained the upper hand and Aron is now a prisoner. According to Goldstein, in the third act “Moses reappraises his ideas, assumes direct control”and speaks to the people directly for the first time" (Goldstein 161). He begins to use more powerfully communicative imagery, such as putting Aron in chains, or conducting a show trial. Aron is “accused of neglecting the word and constructing images that were estranged from idea...it is not Aaron’s images, but his false images” that are the problem (Goldstein 162).

    Furthermore, the lack of a musical accompaniment to the act adds to this idea. "(I)n an environment without music and song, he [Aron] can fall back on neither the ornamentation of his images nor the seductive beauty and overpowering effect of the bel canto tenor. The victory of Moses is complete and fully apparent” (Goldstein 164). This is, as Poutney says “a very brutal political conclusion to the opera” (Opera on 3). Seeing the failure of his initial message, and challenged by God's apparent use of imagery, Moses changes his position. However, whilst his new position is closer to the view that his brother had been arguing for, he does not team up with him, but supplant him, reclaiming his position and leaving his brother as a political prisoner.

    The end of the opera is even more surprising and, once again, rather sudden. Having seen Aron imprisoned and accused, the soldiers ask Moses if they should kill him ("Sollen wir ihn töten?"). Moses appears to have mercy and cast him into the wasteland, but Aron - whether due to a prior beating, or, perhaps, God's judgement - falls down dead. Moses reaction is to pronounce what appears to be a political slogan "Aber in der Wüste seid ihr unüberwindlich werdet" ("But in the desert you shall be invincible").

    - Batnitzky, Leora. (2004). The Image of Judaism: German-Jewish Intellectuals and the Ban on Images. Jewish Studies Quarterly. 11. 259-281.
    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.
    - Opera on 3: Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, (2014) - BBC Radio 3 programme featuring interviews with Christopher Cooke, 13 June 2014. Available online -http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020y7jq
    - Tugenhaft, Aaron (1997) "Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron" in Sources: The Chicago Undergraduate Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume III. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20031013145056/

    - Wörner, Karl H. ([1963] 1959) Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ trans. Paul Hamburger, London: Faber and Faber.


    Saturday, February 03, 2018

    I grandi condottieri (Great Leaders of the Bible: Samson and Gideon, 1965)

    Of the handful of filmmakers who have made several biblical films, Marcello Baldi is perhaps the most underappreciated. I grandi condottieri, known in the English-speaking world as Samson and Gideon was the last of four films that Baldi made in the early to mid sixties along with I patriarchi (The Patriarchs, 1962) Giacobbe, l’uomo che lottò con dio (Jacob, the Man Who Fought with God, 1963) and Saul e David (1964).

    Here Baldi is only officially credited as the producer, but there's a good deal to suggest he shared at least some of the directing honours with the Spaniard Francisco Perez Dolz. Whilst the first part of the film - dealing with Gideon, was shot in Spain, the second half was shot at Cinecittà in Italy. There are also several moments which feel like Baldi's work elsewhere.

    The differences between the two halves of the film, however, extend far beyond filming style. The first stars an affable Ivo Garrani as Gideon (below), but also Fernando Rey as God's messenger. The two form an unlikely friendship. Having delivered his initial message, Rey's character stays on help Gideon slim down his burgeoning volunteer army, advise on strategy and give Gideon the some much needed encouragement. The film has moments of humour (having had to reduce his army still further Gideon quips "I wonder why we don't charge the Midianites, just the two of us") and sees and initially grumpy Gideon become a more relaxed and inspiring leader. As one of only a tiny number of films covering the story of Gideon it's surprising that it goes beyond his initial victory over the Midianites to show him pursuing their leaders until they are captured and killed as well as some of the incidents with his son.

    In contrast, the latter part of the film is more self-serious, even including moments of pathos. This section of the film is more typical of the Italian peplum films of this era, specifically the mythical muscleman movies that sprang up following the success of Pietro Francisci's 1958 film Le fatiche di Ercole (Hercules). These supernatural heroes pepla starred characters such as Hercules, Machiste and Goliath, tossed together with those from other historic myths in invented stories. In the ten years following Hercules at least 15 other such films were named after Samson (although on occasion the name of the lead character varied from country to country). The difference with this film however is that it is based on the established story, rather than one made up for the film.

    Whereas Gideon remains covered up for the entirety of his section of the film, Samson is frequently shirtless. Whereas God's messenger is present with Gideon almost throughout, in the Samson segment he is experienced only as wind blowing and, perhaps, a voice-over. God doesn't appear again until the end of the film, and, even then, Samson is unable to perceive his presence.

    As with the Gideon half of the film, the story sticks reasonably close to the original narratives, whilst still developing the characters a little. Samson (Anton Geesink) has been repeatedly defeating the Philistines's until one day he allows himself to be bound and carried into the Philistine camp, only to wreak victory with the jawbone of an ass. Samson then turns up at Gaza and destroys the gates before the Philistine leaders decide to enlist Delilah (Rosalba Neri) to trap him.

    The real strength of the film though is its host of memorable images. Midianites burn Israelite fields as early as scene two. The burning of the Midianite camp, and Garrani's face superimposed over a montage of Israelite victories. In the Gideon section there's a view from the bottom of a well, the moment of realisation when Samson spots the ass' jawbone, shot of the upper echelons of Dagon's temple. All of these testify to Baldi's eye for striking composition.

    Sadly though, the lack of a decent copy of the film - the main versions of it available for home viewing are cropped, dubbed and have a very poor quality image - make it hard to appreciate its strengths. Christopher Mulrooney gives it a good go, and makes some interesting observations about two of Baldi's other biblical films, but overall the film gets rather less attention than I think it merits. Perhaps one day Baldi's work (and indeed aht of Baldi/Francisco Perez Dolz) will become fashionable again and his contribution to both the sword and sandal genre and to the Bible on film will be re-evaluated and more widely appreciated.

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    Tuesday, January 30, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973): An Introduction

    Still from the 1959 Berlin performance
    Moses und Aron (1973) is arguably the most mentally challenging of all biblical films. The lack of discussion of it amongst scholars of the Bible on Film is not, to misquote G.K. Chesterton,  because it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and not tried. The film is directed by Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, two filmmakers who though born in France went on to make most of their films in Germany and who are renowned for their austere and inaccessible style. Furthermore it is based on a complex and difficult atonal opera by Arnold Schönberg / Schoenberg, one of the best known examples of twelve-tone serialism. The result is a dense and challenging work that "manages to combine biblical commentary with timely political propaganda" (Tugenhaft). It's a piece that will alienate the vast majority of audiences but still have much to say, reflecting a key dilemma when looking at biblical films: the more entertaining and accessible they become, the less spiritual and vice versa.

    Given Straub and Huillet's unique filmmaking style, and in particular the faithful yet innovative way they handle their source material, it makes sense to examine Schönberg's contribution first in some detail, so that Straub and Huillet's treatment of it becomes clearer in future posts.

    For Schönberg, "Moses und Aron" was the culmination of his work adapting biblical narratives. His "interest in the musical statement of religious thought" first came to fruition with his oratorio "Die Jakobsleiter", based on the story of Jacob's Ladder, in 1917 Steiner, 41). Around this time he began to experiment with twelve-tone technique that typified the third, and final, phase in his career. Ten years later he wrote a play "Der biblische Weg" (The Biblical Way) which, like Preminger's Exodus (1960), explored the idea of a modern Jewish state whilst drawing on the biblical narratives about Moses. Later works included "Psalm 130" (1950) and the also unfinished "Modern Psalms".

    Initially Schönberg developed "Der biblische Weg" into an oratorio before converting it into a full blown opera, "Moses und Aron", and by the end of 1932 he had finished the first two acts and written the libretto for the third. Sadly it was to remain largely in that form even though "Schoenberg’s letters leave no room for doubt that he was firmly resolved to complete the work’s composition” (Wörner 91). The transition between to two pieces also coincides with Schönberg's return to Judaism, which was sparked by an anti-Semitic incident in Mattsee, Austria in 1921 but did not become official until he had fled from Berlin to Paris in 1933.

    Schönberg died in 1951 with the third and final act still unfinished. It did not even receive a full concert performance until 1954 in Hamburg and the first proper performance of the opera did not come until Zurich in 1957 (Wörner 104). Following its German premiére in Berlin, 1959 (pictured above), it was performed on only a few more occasions before Straub and Huillet decided to adapt it for the screen in the early seventies.

    The unfinished nature of the final act has led to different approaches towards its performnace. Performances have tended to either end at the close of Act II, or perform the final section without music. Indeed the lack of agreement as to the best approach goes back to the first two performances. “In Zurich it had been decided to close the performance with the end of the second act; the text of the third act was reproduced in the programme-book. In Berlin, the text of the third act was spoken on the stage by Moses and Aaron, in the manner of spoken drama, while, as a very soft background, the music of the first scene was relayed through a loudspeaker.” (Wörner 105) More recently, Hungarian composer Zoltán Kocsis developed his own score for the missing section, which was performed in Budapest in 2010 (Jeffries). Goldstein summarises a range of theories as to why Schönberg failed to complete the opera (151), before concluding that it is best to "explore the aesthetic implications of the opera as one whose third act is spoken and to resist speculating about the philosophical implications" of that for opera (152).

    In future posts I'm going to explore in more detail the story, the techniques Schönberg uses and key elements of his portrayal, before going on to look at Straub and Huillet's film in more detail.
    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.
    - Jeffries, Stuart (2014) "Schoenberg's Moses und Aron: the opera that comes complete with an orgy". The Guardian 15th May. Available online at - https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/may/15/schoenberg-moses-und-aron-opera-orgy 
    - Steiner, George (1965) “Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” Encounter (June), pp.40-46.
    - Tugenhaft, Aaron (1997) "Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron" in Sources: The Chicago Undergraduate Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume III. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20031013145056/

    - Wörner, Karl H. ([1963] 1959) Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ trans. Paul Hamburger, London: Faber and Faber.


    Friday, January 26, 2018

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Samson and Delilah (1978)

    I have a few Samson movies on my list of key films that I still need to review, so with the release of a new Samson film next month, I thought now would be a good time to run a short Samson series. However I didn't have time to watch those films and review them, so I settled for the Samson and Delilah entry from the late 70s series The Greatest Heroes of the Bible.

    At the start of the film starts Samson is already an adult, aware of his powers and his God. When some Philistine soldiers threaten his parents and a girl from his village, he lashes out to defend them. He soon regrets being so hotheaded and retreats some distance to reflect and pray, only to have his prayers answered. A billowing cloud and echo-effect voice-over portray God affirming Samson and commissioning him using the words from Judges 13:3-8 that were actually spoken to his parents by an angel before Samson was born.

    The leading roles here are played by John Beck and Ann Turkel neither of whom are familiar names today, which is something of a departure from the other entries in this series (at least amongst those I have seen) where at least one of the cast had a decent TV role, a minor movie role, or went on to become more famous following their appearance. Beck is particularly unconvincing in the role here. He's fairly tall, I suppose, but not particularly muscular, which rather works against him. On the one hand if God was the source of Samson's power then there's no need for Samson to be big, but in contrast once Samson's hair is cut off, it seems inconceivable that he would not be able to put up more of a fight.

    The lack of a known name is not this film's only departure from the series formula, however. One real positive here is that the script avoids the spurious fictional sub-plot to spur things along. These tend to be one of the biggest weaknesses of the other films and Samson and Delilah does far better without it.

    The film does focus quite a bit on the role of leader and judge, something that is often rather skipped over, not least by the source text. Here however the film constantly shows Samson carrying round a large shepherds crook - which he uses to fight with in several scenes, portraying the protecting shepherd leader and prefiguring King David. But we also see Samson struggling with and gradually coming to terms with his responsibilities as leader. After the initial fight scene the Philistines wage a campaign against the Israelites which they promise to continue until Samson is brought to them. As with the rest of Judges 15:9-16 the people beg Samson to turn himself over, which he does only to break free, grab a convincing weapon-like ass's Jawbone and rout his captors.

    This leads to a sort of peace which lasts for a while until an unfortunate turn of events. The girl from Samson's village encounters a lion, runs off in panic, and falls and dies. Samson kills the lion - in a manner that seems far more realistic than in the DeMille's version, but instead of leading to riddle making sends Samson into a downward spiral of depression. Samson is seen out drinking in Gaza calling out "What good am I to God? Or he to us?". Thus whilst there's not much sub-plot, there is this invented motive for what happens next.

    In the words of the film's narrator, Samson has a crisis of faith and becomes "a man adrift" and whilst there's no sign of activity with a prostitute in Gaza he does end up in trapped in the city overnight with the authorities unwilling to open the gates. Here, though, the gates Samson rips off are rather small, made out of wrought iron (in the Bronze age?) and Samson doesn't so much carry them the 16 or so miles to Hebron, as turn and chuck them at some soldiers. Perhaps this was just down to the budget, or an attempt at presenting a more likely scenario that then got exaggerated through centuries of storytelling. Either way it doesn't really work as it seems neither realistic, nor the kind of particularly spectacular act of which one who was channelling God's strength might be capable.

    In the midst of this is the Philistine plot involving Delilah. She's seemingly aroused by what she hears of this strongman and thus keen to meet him and the two become attached. But after her initial attempt to trap him fails, he heads back to his people to resume his judging duties. It's clear though that both are torn between doing their duty for their respective countries, the financial difficulties of their circumstances and their feelings for one another. The film does a reasonably good job of portraying these varying tensions not least their national loyalties. Samson of course gets sucked back in, Delilah reluctantly strikes again and the Philistines have their man.

    The climatic scene, though, is a bit of a calamity, as the cheap 1970s special effects have aged particularly badly. God starts to speak to Samson - again more echo chamber and billowing clouds - but soon key members of the crowd hear him too. Then suddenly Samson goes white, and then, in the films most bizarre moment his (already shoulder-length) hair grows back to it's previous luscious length. Samson leans on the pillars, which structurally don't appear connected to much else, yet nevertheless the walls all tumble down like only large blocks of polystyrene can.

    For an episode that tried a few interesting things, the ending is a bit of a let down then. The script made a reasonably good attempt of fashioning a reasonably sturdy plot out of a series of episodes that cohere rather badly in the original. If only architecture in the finale had been assembled to the same standard.

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    Monday, January 22, 2018

    Highest visited posts of 2017

    In the real world I'm a bit of a stats geek so I thought some others might also be interested in seeing which of my posts of the last 12 months have been the most visited. as you can see from the graph above one post - my review of The Star was the run away winner, but the top fifteen new posts from 2017 are as follows:

    1. The Star (2017) [323 views]
    2. The Gospel of Mark (2016) [172 views]
    3. La Vie de Jesus (1997) [154 views]
    4. How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood [114 views]
    5. Using Ewan:Star Power in Last Days in the Desert [113 views]
    6. Joseph and Mary (2016) [108 views]
    7. Chasing the Star (2017) [106 views]
    8. Paul, Apostle of Christ set for 2018 release. [86 views]
    9. Le Fils de Joseph (2016)(The Son of Joseph) [82 views]
    10.The Resurrection on FilmPart 2 - Mark's Gospel [73 views]
    11.The Characteristics of the Biblical Epic: Part 1 - What the Experts Say [72 views]
    12.The Resurrection on FilmPart 1 - Matthew's Gospel [71 views]
    13.La Sacra Famiglia (2006)The Holy Family: Jesu, Mary and Joseph [71 views]
    14.Nativity Films Revisited [67 views]
    15.Last Days of Jesus (2017) [59 views]

    Not a great deal of activity really, and even where posts are popular it's rarely the posts that I've worked on the hardest that prove popular, even within a small niche within which this blog operates. But I suppose the good news is that occasionally one of my posts remains popular year after year. So here are the 11 posts which have registered over 1000 views in their lifetime, and some of these are fairly good I guess (though I'm a little disappointed in what my top visited post ever is, but still) :

    1. The Corpus Christi Film is a Hoax [29511 views]
    2. Full List of Adam and Eve Films [5784 views]
    3. The Christ Figure of Cool Hand Luke [3543 views]
    4. Dayasagar/Karunamayudu (1978) [3092 views]
    5. Finding Adam and Eve Films [2200 views]
    6. The Seventh Sign (1988) [2029 views]
    7. Top Ten Jesus Films [1963 views]
    8. Visual Bible's Gospel of Mark [1663 views]
    9. Ten Commandments (2006) - A review [1380 views]
    10. Films About Esther [1265 views]
    11. Godspell (1973) Scene Guide [1045 views]

    Wednesday, January 17, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 6

    This is part 5 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here
    After the focus on and death of Saul in the last episode, this episode picks up the start of the story of Saul. In comparison to the previous episodes, this one avoids a lot of the usual pitfalls. There are no big special effect moments and the violence is relatively minor compared to the rest of the series.

    Instead the episode rests heavily on the introduction of Saul and thanks to a great performance from The Fall's Emmett J Scanlan. Having watched various Acts films over the years Saul is often played as a relatively rational thoughtful man - he has to grow into the great Paul of Tarsus after all. Here, however, Scanaln is allowed to play it vert differently. Here Saul is the kind of privileged young hothead who has a bee in his bonnet about something but is so full of himself that he gets off on asserting himself violently. Saul is the kind of guy who writes angry aggressive tweets, or endlessly moans about feminists, or carries a torch in Charlottesville. He's unaware of the privilege of being a young white man in a culture where that cushions him from the reality of many people's lives. He has a massive sense of entitlement. When at first he isn't taken seriously he escalates his complaints and seeks an audience with the most powerful of his countrymen, Caiaphas. They should listen to him, right? After all he's confident and articulate, even if what he is raging about doesn't particularly form a strong argument.

    Having grown up in London during the troubles in Northern Ireland, Scanlan's Irish accent also evokes the violent religious zealotry that troubled the area at that time. There's no doubt it shouldn't - I know plenty of people from both North and South Ireland who are wonderful, compassionate, thoughtful people. But the media has given a platform to a steady stream of religious zealots with that accent in my lifetime. They're by no means representative, but nevertheless, my mind makes that shortcut even if it, too, is irrational. For me, at least, it gives an extra note to Scanlan's unhinged performance.

    I think what I most appreciate about this is that it makes me realise that the opening part of Saul's narrative has always felt a little iffy tome. The way he so quickly transitions from holding the coats during the stoning of Stephen to being the leader of a gang of thugs going round the country hunting down Christians seems disturbingly sudden. There doesn't seem to be a satisfactory reason why it is him doing this task rather than someone closer to Caiaphas or at least more prominent. The angry, yet privileged, young man driven by his irrational fears but critically left unchecked somehow makes sense of this to me. No wonder Peter and the others begin to flee.

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    Thursday, January 11, 2018

    2018's Coming Attractions

    Having reviewed 2017 last week, I thought it might be worth having a brief look ahead to what 2018 has in store for Bible Film fans. It looks like it's going to be a busy year.

    Firstly, this is because there are at least four Bible films lined up for release this year - indeed there are three that have already announced a Lent release date. The most prominent of these is likely to be Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara in the title role and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. Release dates in the US have been complicated by the Weinstein affair, but it's looking like it will get a release in the UK, Italy and Germany on the 15th March.

    Quite how widely it will be distributed is another matter. On the one hand biblical epics with more minor stars (e.g. Ben Hur (2016) and last year's The Star) have passed the "Loughborough Test" (if they play at my local that's usually a sign of a fairly wide distribution) but others with big names playing Jesus, such as Last Days in the Desert (2015) barely got a release anywhere in the country.

    Another film to pass the Loughborough test, somewhat to my surprise, was 2016's Risen. The makers of that film also have a release planned for Lent Paul Apostle of Christ. James Faulkner has the leading role, in that one, though his younger self - and it appears much of this film will be told in flashback - will be played by Yorgos Karamihos. Jim Caviezel will play Luke with Joanna Whalley and John Lynch as Priscilla and Aquilla. IMDB has release dates for only two countries, the USA and the UK, the 28th and 30th March respectively.

    The third film to be looking at a release in Lent is Pureflix's Samson this too has release dates on IMDB - the 16th February in North America. There's also a date of for the UK (2nd March), but it seems unlikely to play in many places, save perhaps some church screenings. The trailer for that film is now online and I'll write a quick piece on that one shortly. It does star Rutger Hauer though, albeit not in the lead role.

    Finally, there is the fourth instalment in The Quest Trilogy, called The Christ Slayer. As with the others it's written by DJ Perry and, like last year's Chasing the Star will feature a small part for the late Rance Howard. There are no released dates for this one on the film's IMDB page, but if the release of Chasing the Star is anything to go by there will be a few screenings (literally) around Michigan swiftly backed up with an early DVD / home release schedule.

    There are also a number of books to be released this year. The one I'm most excited by is the The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film - mainly because I'm an egotist and it will feature a chapter I've written for it on the Biblical Canon on Film. There are a bunch of great writers in it though. I'm honoured to have something included alongside such luminaries as Adele Reinhartz, James Crossley, Lloyd Baugh and Jon Solomon as well as editor Richard Walsh.

    T&T Clark have another Bible and film volume out this year, Biblical Reception, 4: A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of Exodus: Gods and Kings edited by David Tollerton. Again there's a great group of writers involved in that one, including Cheryl Exum and David Shepherd. Michelle Fletcher has a chapter in both of these works.

    Slightly on a tangent, but The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s, edited by Nicholas Diak also sounds interesting with chapters on TV series such as the recent Spartacus and Xena as well as films such as Ninth Legion. I think I will be reviewing that one.

    Lastly Helen Bond has edited a fascinating sounding volume called The Bible on Television looking at TV Bible documentaries. There are a range of good contributions in that one including filmmakers Jean Claude Braggard and David Batty, as well as scholars such as Mark Goodacre and Robert Beckford

    I also have a couple of resolutions for this year. The first is to watch more films directed by (or otherwise made by) women. If 2017 taught us anything it's that even though cinema is seen as a "liberal" industry it's still a place where the voice of 50% of the population is still not adequately heard. My other resolution is to finish the first draft of a book I've been working on. I'll be posting more on that in due course.

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    Sunday, January 07, 2018

    Trailer for Pureflix's Samson

    I try to space out my posts here rather than doing them in one go and, to be honest, time commitments usually enforce that anyway. In any case, the result is that I've been a little slower posting about this year's forthcoming PureFlix Samson, for which the above trailer has just been released.

    For those not in the know PureFlix are a faith-based producer, who run an online Christian film content subscription service in not dissimilar fashion to Netflix. This is not their first foray into the Bible film genre, back in 2013 they produced the adaptation The Book of Daniel. (I wrote a little about that here).

    It's been a while since I wrote anything about film portrayals of Samson. Indeed the last post, prior to this one, with a Samson tag is over 8 years old. Nevertheless I watched a few since then, most memorably the episode from the History Channel's The Bible series back in 2013. Three things struck me from this trailer in particular, then.

    Firstly, we see a shot of Samson lifting the gates of Gaza. This is quite rare as I recall. Certainly it's not a part of DeMille's famous version of the story. According to my scene guide for the Bible Collection's version of this story, the incident with the prostitute from Gaza is included, but I don't recall seeing Samson lift the gates. I'll check on The Bible's version and report back. I'm also due to review the 1922 silent version shortly. For some reason, I suspect it will feature in that one.

    Secondly, the weakest aspect of DeMille's 1949 version is the scene where Samson wrestles with a lion.Not unreasonably actor Victor Mature was reluctant to be too closely involved, the final sequence featured scenes of a stunt man (who seemed a little reluctant himself) wrestling with a live lion and Mature wrestling with a fake one. It's hard to tell in the latter scenes who turns in the better actor performance...

    Finally we also get to see a brief shot of , what I presume is, the climatic scene where (and I don't want to give too much away here) Samson destroys the temple. I guess most of Pureflix's audience will know the story, but still it's unusual to see a trailer give quite this much away, even if the story in question claims to be 3000 years old.

    My good friend Peter Chattaway has also made some interesting observations, including that the trailer suggests that this film's Samson "seems to fall into the 'reluctant hero' trope" adding that "he does fight back, but usually as a way of seeking personal revenge rather than to fulfil any sort of divine destiny." He has also posted a whole group of stills in this post.

    The film is due for release on February 16th  - the first Friday after Ash Wednesday - and stars James Taylor in the lead role, with Caitlin Leahy as Delilah and Bladerunner's Rutger Hauer as Samson's father.

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    Thursday, January 04, 2018

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2017

    Occasionally at the end of one year or the start of the next I like to do a little review of the previous year. Some years it happens, some years it doesn't. If nothing else though, this year I feel a little more on top of things so given that it's been a reasonably interesting year I thought I would revive the tradition.

    Perhaps the most significant thing this year was the release of Sony's The Star. Living in a small town in the UK, it's a reasonable measure of the significance/size of a film if it plays at my local cinema and as with Ben-Hur last year, The Star did. It was also the first animated Bible film to do so since 2000's The Miracle Maker. My review is here.

    Far less widely released was the similarly themed, but more thoughtful and serious, Chasing the Star, (my review) which had a limited release in a select part of the US before a planned early release on DVD. As things worked out it was released only a few weeks before one of its stars, Rance Howard, died.

    There were a number of other cinema releases as well that were of interest to readers of this blog, even if not quite matching my typical definition of a Bible film. Technically Le fils de Joseph - which told a modern day story but with heavy biblical imagery - debuted last year, but it's main cinema run was this year. Darren Aronofsky, director 2014's Noah, ploughed a similar furrow with mother! It gained a far wider release and became one of the year's most talked about films as critics tended to either love it or hate it. Audiences stayed away more than was expected. Lastly, Martin Scorsese's Silence is definitely not a Bible film, even though it's sure to rank on many most spiritual film lists for years to come.

    Releases to DVD/Bluray/downloads and streaming have become so complicated now that I'm not going to go into them all, just to pick out the two most significant of the year. Firstly, Day of Triumph (1954) is one of those films that has been on my radar for years - one of the first times I imported a film from the US around the turn of the millennium - and it was finally released for home viewing again this year. There are plans to remaster it, but no news on that yet.

    Secondly, came the release of Straub and Huillet's adaptation of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1973). At the time I heard of this I was under the impression it had never been released for home viewing, but it turns out there was a limited release a few years ago that I missed. With second hand copies of that currently going for over £200, it's good to see it get a re-release, particularly as two of Straub and Huillet's other films are included in the package. I wrote a few bits in preparation for this release last year, and I plan to write two or three more pieces on it this year, covering the opera itself, the film itself and perhaps a review of the set as a whole.

    I tend to be less interested in Bible documentaries though I make a point of seeing them if they crop up on terrestrial. I only managed to catch the PBS/Channel 5 documentary Last Days of Jesus this year. It lent rather too heavily on Simcha Jacobovici for my tastes. Next year might prove interesting in this respect as Helen Bond has edited a book about TV documentaries called "The Bible on Television", lined up for publication later this month.

    Lastly, books. The main news here was the publication of "Noah as Anithero: Darren Aronofsky's Cinematic Deluge", edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (who edited the book in which I had two chapters two years ago) and‎ Jon Morgan. It's the latest in a string of offerings from Routledge and included essays from Robert K Johnston, David Shepherd, Richard Walsh and David Tollerton. Many of the same authors will also feature in two more volumes being published this year, a similar volume on Exodus Gods and Kings edited by David Tollerton and "The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film" which will feature another chapter from me.

    Two other books - a little more tangential to the core of what I cover here did catch my eye. S. Brent Plate edited the four volume "Film and Religion" as part of Routledge's "Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies" series. Not dissimilarly, Wendy I. Zierler's "Movies and Midrash: Popular Film and Jewish Religious Conversation" looked at films such as Magnolia and Memento from a Jewish perspective.

    In terms of this blog I have covered a few mini-topics through out the year. The main one was a more thorough look at Nativity films (largely out of season). But I also wrote a few pieces on the epic genre, the Resurrection on Film, A.D. The Bible Continues, Daniel films and Moses und Aron. I also staked out my intentions regarding what I'm going to be covering moving forward, which is hopefully going to lead to finishing the first draft of a book this year. Well it's a New Year's Resolution, at least...


    Monday, January 01, 2018

    The Book of Life (1998)

    "It was the morning of December 31, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead. Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts". So ends Jesus' opening monologue in Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998). It's a moment that sums up so much about the film: the premise; actor Martin Donovan's deadpan delivery; the sharpness of the script; and it's irreverent, but not offensively so, approach to the subject matter.

    The Second Coming has been responsible for some dreadful movies, not least the original Left Behind film (2000) and The Omega Code (1999), not least because their attempts to portray the Book of Revelation's bizarre imagery in a pseudo-literal, yet modern, manner tends to make it all seem rather absurd. In contrast, Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998), takes a rather different approach, playfully toying with the imagery. 666 is just the number of a locker where Jesus stores The Book of Life, which, it turns out, is just a Macbook computer, albeit an "ancient" model made by a foreign manufacturer in Egypt.

    If that sounds like the film is about to turn into a trip to the near east to hunt out its secrets, you can rest easy. It doesn't. The film is set solely and firmly in New York. There are numerous indicators of this location, where almost all of Hartley's early work was filmed, as much for reasons of  convenience and expediency as anything else.

    Here, though, the location has a great significance. There are numerous clear indicators that the film is set in New York, even to those who have never been, the yellow cabs, the Twin Towers, the view from the Staten Island Ferry (above), the Empire State building, Subway signage, Flatiron building. As Sebastian Manley suggests "a focus on recognizable regional details and identities functions to ground the films in the familiar and particular" (Manley 103). Manley's analysis is good, particularly that "the image serves to underline the weight of responsibility borne by Jesus," and that "an image that describes the frame of mind of the protagonist" (105), but it does not go far enough. New York here has a specific role as a specific representative of Earth as a whole. Put it another way, were Jesus to return to Earth today, to a specific location, there are few other places that would seem as likely as New York - the kind of a cultural melting pot that is home to those from all nations. Where else could stake such a strong claim to be the capital of the world?

    The sense of place and location is just one of a number of characteristics that are typical in Hartley's films. Not unrelated to this is the absence of establishing shots in his films. Hartley also returns to the same actors again and again, in this case, Martin Donovan and Thomas J Ryan who had played the title role in Hartley's Henry Fool the previous year.

    For Manley, "one particularly strong mark of distinction, which has remained relatively constant across the director's filmography, is a preference for stylized performances: broadly, actors tend to adopt a 'flattened' style of line delivery, implementing few variations in either tone or facial expression." (7-8). The result of this is to shift the focus onto the characters internal emotions. Here, in particular, the film's Jesus is conflicted internally about his role in the Apocalypse, and Donovan's muted performance enables the audience to sympathise with his dilemma. This sense of sympathy is enhanced by Donovan's voiceover - another Hartley trait. Furthermore, whilst there is less focus on Magdalena (a beguiling performance from PJ Harvey) and the Devil (Thomas J Ryan), and neither of them has a typical voice over, they too deliver longer speeches in this flattened style, with a not dissimilar effect. The devil's three monologues are particularly significant, not only delivered whilst looking towards the camera, but also spoken into a visible microphone seemingly set up for that very purpose, drawing attention to the film's artificiality, whilst simultaneously making easier to understand his point of view.

    Another of Hartley's characteristics is the focus on relationships, particularly on forming what might be called alternate 'families', often in contrast to their actual families is retained here. Jesus is torn between his father, represented by the officious law firm Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat ("To him, the law is everything. Still, to this day, attorneys are his favourites.") and his fellow humans ("you're addicted to human beings" the Devil tells him at one point, something Jesus later concedes). The film ends with him relaxing in the company of the rest of the main characters in the film, his companion from the beginning of the film Magdalena; a dishevelled Satan; Dave and Edie, an unlikely couple from the bar; and Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat's former receptionist.

    That said, The Book of Life marked a departure from much of Hartley's earlier work. It was his first film shot on digital video and he uses it to draw attention to several formal elements of film. Most notable element of this is his use of slow motion blur and light distortion. Hartley reclaims "what might seem digital video's decidedly cinematic, even "ugly" limitations -- the jittery, blurry, not-quite-stable quality of the image's texture, the tendency to exaggerate or otherwise render somewhat "off" the properties of color and light -- as its own new, exciting palette, with its own potential for visual beauty." (McQuain). Hartley has spoken on various occasions as these distortion effects as being the "visual equivalent" of distortion effects for electric guitar, "there's much more freedom in music about using distortion. All that blurriness comes out of that aesthetic." (Eaves)

    This combines with various other visual techniques such as the repeated use of unusual camera angles - not simply by placing the camera above or below eye level, but also tilting the angle - and alternating between black and white. Many of these techniques are shared with Hartley's later The Girl From Monday (2005), very much a companion piece to this one with it's other-worldly lead character arriving, somewhat unannounced, on Earth. Indeed the result of the visual distortion, unusual camera angles and so on is to give the film a disorientating, somewhat surreal, other-worldly feel. Dubbed "a controversial retelling of the Apocalypse" the film's playful visual and comic elements enable more profound questions to be asked than would be possible with a retelling that were either more literal, or more closely resembling the world as we generally experience it.

    Stylistically the film is a pastiche of different styles and genres including science fiction, travelogue, the western, film noir and of course the Jesus film. The plot is essentially driven by the line quoted at the start of this discussion. Having returned to Earth to judge humanity, Jesus finds he has reservations. God's legal representatives try to pressure Jesus into getting on with the apocalypse. The Devil wants the book so that he can prevent it ("Revelation 12:12, Not my favourite passage."), whilst continuing to try and claim a few last souls. Encountering an atheist in a bar called Dave he offers him a Faustian pact his girlfriend Edie's soul in exchange for winning lottery tickets. Meanwhile Jesus delays his decision as long as he can. Seen twenty years later it's easy to forget that when The Book of Life was produced, real trepidation about the Y2K-induced computer collapse at the new millennium did exist" (Berrettini 58).

    The film's Jesus has a heavy emphasis on compassion. He was seemingly changed forever by becoming human, and his feelings only intensified on his return to Earth. It is noticeable, for example that the last line of his closing monologue shifts from 'they' to 'we' as if for the first time he is accepting his place as a human. His smart suit and white shirt contrast with the Devil's red shirt, scruffy overcoat, bruised face and sticking plaster. Jesus is portrayed as intellectual, rational and thoughtful in contrast to the grubby pragmatism of the Devil.

    Ultimately, the decisive moment comes when Jesus punches the devil in the stomach (in similar fashion to the way Donovan's character in Trust (1990) punches his father in the stomach at a similarly pivotal moment) [SPOILERS] and he decides to call off the end of the world. He tricks the Devil into releasing Edie's soul and finally the characters reassemble to see in the new millennium. The following morning, his mission abandoned, Jesus leaves the city at the end of the film on the Staten Island Ferry, with no indication as to where he is going. The film's focus on and location in a specific place, leaves this open. is he moving on to another place as when the hero moves on at the end of many westerns, or is this symbolizing his leaving Earth, where New York has functioned as a specific representative of Earth as a whole?[END OF SPOILERS] Either way he ends the film with a stunning monologue, reproduced below, about the potential possibilities awaiting the human race.

    Seen today what is striking about the film is how that final monologue - which talks about what the future, and of course for its original audience - what the new millennium would hold, is accompanied by a shot from the ferry of the Twin Towers. To them it was so emblematic of what humanity can achieve, of its promise. To us it summarises so jarringly, the awful possibilities of the destruction that humans can wreck, and what the awaited new millennium has thus far come to be defined by. The dashing of the very hopes the movie dares to imagine. "The possibility of disaster and the possibility of perfection". Even despite all that has happened in those twenty years these possibilities remain. We can only hope we can find the compassion we need.
    And the New Year arrived. The new millennium. Just another day in a lifetime of similar days, but each one of them crowded with possibilities. The possibility of disaster and the possibility of perfection. To be there amongst them again was good. The innocent and the guilty all equally helpless, all perfectly lost, and, as frightening as it was to admit, all deserving of forgiveness. What would become of them, I wondered. In another 100 years, would they all be born in test-tubes? Or perhaps evolve through computers to become groups of disembodied, digital intelligence machines? Would they remember who I was? Would they remember what I said? Would it matter? Maybe someone else will come along and say pretty much the same thing. Would anyone notice? In a hundred years, would they be living on other planets? Would the Earth still exist? Would they engineer themselves genetically so that disease was a thing of the past? Would they all just become one big multi-ethnic race? Would they discover the secret of the universe? God? Would they become gods themselves? What will they eat? What sort of houses will they live in? Cities - think about it. What will the weather be like? Will they still have to go to work everyday? What will they wear in the future? How smart will they get? And will being smarter make them happier? Will they all speak the same language in the future? Will they make love? Maybe there will be more than two sexes. Will they still believe life is sacred? Will it matter? Do we matter?

    Berrettini, Mark I. (2011) Hal Hartley - (Contemporary Film Directors). Champaign: University of Illinois Press. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/289391982/Mark-l-Berrettini-Hal-Hartley-Contemporary-Film-Directors

    Eaves, Hannah (2005) "Free to Investigate: Hal Hartley" at GreenCine, April 24. Formerly at http://www. greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=206 Now only available via the Internet Archive - https://web.archive.org/web/20150613061209/http://www.greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=206

    Manley, Sebastian (2013) The Cinema of Hal Hartley, Bloomsbury

    McQuain, Christopher (2013) "The Book of Life / The Girl from Monday" on DVD Talk 14th May. Available online - https://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/60528/book-of-life-girl-from-monday/

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    Saturday, December 23, 2017

    25 Things Revisited

    Back in August I declared my intentions for 25 Things to Look out for on the Blog. I've been cracking on with those, although a few other items have snuck onto the agenda and so, as Christmas is a time for end-of-term reports, I thought it was about time I reflected on the progress that's been made.

    18 films
    Joseph in the Land of Egypt (1914) [done]
    Salome (1922)
    Sodom and Gomorrah (1922)
    Samson and Delilah (1922)
    Lot in Sodom (1933) [done]
    The Great Commandment (1939) [done]
    Salome (1953)
    Barabbas (1961) [done]
    Il Vecchio Testamento (The Old Testament) (1962)
    I Grandi Condottieri (Samson and Gideon) (1965)
    Jesus, Nuestro Senor (1971)
    Moses und Aron (1973)
    Jacob and Joseph (1974)
    Wholly Moses (1981)
    St. John in Exile (1986)
    Book of Life (1998)
    Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001) [done]
    Noah (2014) [done]
    Chasing the Star (2017) [done]
    The Star (2017) [done]
    Mary Magdalene (2018)

    3 series
    The Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978-79)
    A.D. The Bible Continues(2015) [progressing]
    Pioneers of African-American Cinema

    3 books
    "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema" - David Shepherd et al. [done]
    "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day" - Richard A. Lindsay
    "Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed" - Carol A. Hebron

    ...and lastly...
    ...there's a piece on the Lion's Den in film. [done]

    I make that 9&1/2; out of 25. Not brilliant, but a good start. It's worth pointing out in defence of my slowish progress that Mary Magdalene has now been moved to 2018 and the research for a couple of these is well underway. Over those 4 months I've also managed to review the following (which probably should have been on the original list):

    Daniel dans la fosse aux lions (1905)
    La Sacra Bibbia (1920)
    Greaser's Palace (1972)
    The Nativity (1978)
    Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (1986)
    Moses und Aron (2010)
    Left Behind (2014)
    mother! (2017)

    My next target is to cover Hal Hartley's Book of Life (1998). I figure as it's a New Year's Eve film (for the ultimate New Year, I suppose) then I should try and get it done by then. Hopefully for these next few months - particularly now I've covered most of the films I should probably have included in the first place - I'll stick a bit better to the plan. That said, there's already the need to cover Paul, Apostle of the Christ when it's released in the spring.