• 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, May 26, 2020

    Cézanne: Dialogue with Joachim Gasquet (1990)

    Painters have been a popular subject for filmmakers, going as far back as Pathé's 1910 film about Murillo (L'Orgueil) and Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto's 1919 Leonardo da Vinci, not least because of the connections between the two art forms.1 It's hardly surprising, then, that Huillet and Straub - whose films revolve around adapting the work of artists from all kinds of art forms - would eventually create a film about a painter, and in their own idiosyncratic fashion.

    As their subject they chose Paul Cézanne, an artist who, at least in the eyes of Benoît Turquety, shares their passion for "objectivity" and "impersonality" 2. As with so many of their films Cézanne (1990) straddles the gap between adaptation and documentary. Whereas most 'films about painters' have tended to be either biopics or documentaries Straub and Huillet take a different approach, combining scraps of biographic material with images of his finished paintings as displayed in galleries. Throughout words from Gasquet's conversations with Cézanne are read out, with Huillet speaking Cézanne's words and Straub occasionally posing one of Gasquet's questions.

    The resulting film has the feel of a cinematic scrapbook. In terms of the rest of their body of work it perhaps bears closest resemblance to Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's 'Musical Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene' (1972). As with that film Cézanne features photographs, actors reading others words in lengthy excerpts as if standing-in for the original orator, seemingly unconnected film footage and shots of landscapes. Turquety divides the film into two.3 The first half overlaying photographs of the artist with words purportedly from his conversation with Joachim Gasquet; a shot of Cézanne's "La vieille au chaplet"; excerpts from their own Death of Empedocles (1986); and Renoir's Madame Bovary (1933) and long takes of country scenery including Mont Sainte-Victoire. The second features shots of nine more of Cézanne's paintings in their present locations, finished off by a shot of the gated area where his Paris studio was situated.

    Here is the full sequence of  the film's 75 shots:

    - Opening credits on white then on black.
    - Two distant panning shots of Aix-en-Provence. Quiet ambient noise.
    - Still photo of Cézanne accompanied by recollection of the conversation by Joachim Gasquet
    - Painting 1. "La vieille au chaplet" (1895-6)
    - Excerpt from Madame Bovary (Jean Renoir 1933) - 50 shots.
    - Static shot of Mont Sainte-Victoire
    - Excerpt from The Death of Empedocles (Straub/Huilllet, 1986) comprising five static shots taken on the slopes of Mount Etna - featuring Andreas von Rauch reading words from Hölderlin's play.
    - Static shot of Mont Sainte-Victoire, eventually panning right
    - Three still photos of Cézanne
    - Static shot of Mount Etna, from Death of Empedocles.
    - Painting 2. Still Life with Apples and Oranges (1895-1900)
    - Painting 3. Montagne Sainte-Victoire (1890)
    - Painting 4. Le Mont Sainte-Victoire vu des Lauves (1904-1906)
    - Painting 5. Rochers et branches à Bibémus (1895-1904)
    - Painting 6. La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, vue de Lauves (1905)
    - Painting 7. Apples, Bottles, Chair Back (1902-1906)
    - Painting 8. Les Grandes Baigneuses (1894-1905)
    - Painting 9. The Gardener Vallier (1906)
    - Painting 10 Femme nue debout (1895)
    -Gate to Cézanne's Paris studio . Quiet ambient noise.
    - End credits on black.

    Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg is one of my favourite Huillet-Straub films, in part because it manages to be so rhetorically passionate, despite rigorously striving for  objective neutrality. You have to know enough about how they handle the material to be struck by it, but once you do it's incredibly powerful. Here's the subject is clearly less emotive, but I do like films such as Cézanne, Introduction and their 1968 film The Bridgegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp which approach the same theme by collaging different types of visual and aural material. The artists featured in these two films, Schoenberg, Cézanne, Renoir, Hölderlin and Flaubert all shared a similar approach to their art - an 'objectivist' approach as Turquety would explain it.

    There are also obvious similarities with the pair's later A Visit to the Louvre (2003) which not only features numerous shots of paintings, but also includes dialogue which Joachim Gasquet noted down from his conversations with Cézanne. Thematically there are similarities too - Huillet's concern with how paintings are displayed in museums and galleries looms in visit to the Louvre and Cézanne seems to have been conceived, in part, from Straub and Huillet's experiences of visiting these paintings in galleries around the world as they toured with Moses und Aron (1975). Huillet railed against the "horrible...madness" of making them "invisible" by hiding them behind protective glass.4 Elsewhere Straub talked about paintings being "prisoners of a museum".5

    It is perhaps because of this that the film makes so much of framing. It is perhaps best known for the manner in which it displays the ten paintings by Cézanne. Whilst the majority of them are in landscape format, meaning it would have been easy for Huillet and Straub to crop out the galleries' frames, they not only include them, but also include a little of the museum's wall. This is partly out of a sense of objectivity and respect for Cézanne's original compositions and framing. Nonetheless, at times they do not even centre the canvas in the precise middle of the frame - clearly a deliberate act for such meticulous filmmakers. This presentation draws attention to the paintings imprisonment and how paintings created to capture and reflect light are now trapped inside under artificial lights. It also distorts perspective, "the film-frame makes every painting the same scale, their relative sizes are equalized, even if they are actually very different".6

    But by this point 'framing' has already been introduced as a theme in various different ways. Böser notes how in the excerpts of Renoir's film "a dominant stylistic feature of the film are secondary apertures, frames within frames which frequently establish shot compositions of a pronounced symmetry" noting also "double framing" and "prominent vertical or horizontal lines".7 Then there is the moment in their own film when Empedocles stands up with the result that his head is no longer in the frame as if he is breaking out of the frame.

    It's significant as well that before encountering these photographed paintings inside, the film starts and ends with exterior shots. The first of these are of the place of his birth; the last of where he lived, and worked, in the last days before his death. "The film is thus bookended by the two geographic locations central to the painter's life"8. Indeed he worked on painting 9, "The Gardener Vallier" (1906) on the day of his death. These shots are accompanied only by the natural ambient sounds which are so central to Straub and Huillet's broader body of work. As the film cycles through the paintings the frames begin to lose their hold, first paintings appear not in a visible frame (no's 6 and 7); then a framed painting appears but accompanied by natural sounds, the like of which cannot be heard from within the central London gallery where it resides; then the painting of "The Gardener Vallier" on an easel worked on the day before he died - as if capturing at the moment of his death; finally we have an unfinished painted over sketch, a painting where Cézanne is still attempting to capture the light on, and the fire below, the surface. These are two themes Cézanne/Huillet's "narration" touch on. Elsewhere, referring to Mont Sainte Victoire we hear "these hunks of rock were made from fire, and there is fire in them still."

    That penultimate shot of "The Gardener Vallier" gets increasingly meaningful the more you probe.  It is one of nine attempts at the character by Cézanne late in his life (six oil paintings and three water colours) and the film lends them, and itself, an air of melancholy by Cézanne/Huillet reflections which end with "c'est effrayante, la vie" (life is terrifying). Gasquet himself discusses these works - though not in one of the passages in the film - claiming that when the old gardener failed to show up for sittings, the artist modelled for himself, setting himself up in front of the mirror.9 This corresponds, in a way, to the relationship between the first painting displayed in the film - "La vieille au chaplet" (Old Maid with Rosary) - and the ensuing clip from Renoir's Madame Bovary. As the painting is displayed 'Cézanne' discusses how the inspiration for the painting - notably its colours - came from Flaubert's novel.

    In many of Straub and Huillet's films there's a fascination with texts and layers of history. Here things are simpler than with their works set in the ancient world, but the use of Gasquet's recollections is one way in which this surfaces. There is the original conversations between the two men; Gasquet's subsequent recording of them much later; and then Huillet/Straub's selection, abridgement and performance of them. Like anyone Gasquet's words are prone to the loss and distortion of the memory of these events, and the possibility of deliberate embellishment or fabrication. Gasquet's words 'frame' our impressions of Cézanne and their unreliability highlight the inaccessibility of the past. In a similar fashion, even our impression of Cézanne's art is limited and distorted by their being filmed, variations in colour, lighting, grain and perspective all change how the viewer sees the paintings.

    That this film was originally commissioned by a gallery to accompany an exhibition of a selection of the artists works, only adds a further interpretative layer.10 It reflects that is so central to Moses und Aron - the tension between a purity vision and the impossibility of communicating it more widely without reducing or distorting it. "As the institutional guardians of art, such institutions may be viewed to exert a tangible impact on our experience of the exhibits in their care and possession".11 Also as with Moses und Aron (as well as Class Relations (1983) and others) Huillet and Straub's interest in unfinished or incomplete works again resurfaces with inclusion of some paintings that Cézanne had not yet completed, testifying to the ragged edges and reality of artistic process and thought. Even the film itself exists in two versions the French version I have discussed here (and which is available on YouTube) and a German version which is twelve minutes longer.

    Sadly, the gallery that commissioned Cézanne, Musee d'Orsay, declined to show it in the end saying it was "not an educational film, but an auteur's film".12 Yet despite such a poor initial reception, Cézanne has gone on to become one of their most analysed latter works (at least among English language texts) given more serious consideration than their more popular films from the final third of their career. Thirteen years later Straub and Huillet would return to Cézanne, again through the recollections of Gasquet, in their 2003 film A Visit to the Louvre only this time the focus was the works of other artists such as Courbet, Tintoretto and Veronese with Julie Koltaï giving voice to Cézanne's thoughts on their work.

    1 - Rizzotto was an Italian actress who turned to directing after the First World War. There's a great write up on her here by Alessandro Faccioli, Marzia Maino. As well as tipping me off about this, Michelle Facey also mentioned two 1911 Italian documentaries on Leonardo. Thanks to Roland-François Lack for the tip-off about L'Orgueil.
    2 - Turquety, Benoît (2020) Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: "Objectivists" in Cinema, (Translated by Ted Fendt), Amsterdam:Amsterdam University Press.
    3 - Turquety. p.207
    4 - Huillet, Danièle (2016) "Quite a lot of Pent-Up Anger" in Straub, Jean-Marie and Danièle Huillet, Writings, translated and edited by Sally Shafto with Katherine Pickard. New York:  Sequence Press. p.229-231.
    5 - Chevrie, Marc (1989) 'Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele Huillet: Entre Deux Films', Cahiers du Cinema, (418) April. p.64. Cited in the catalogue for the 2019 BFI/Goethe Institute retrospective.
    6 - 
    Turquety. p.209.
    7 - Böser, Ursula (2004) The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening: The Politics of Representation in the Work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. p.173-4
    8 - Shafto, Sally (2012) "Artistic Encounters: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, and Cézanne" in Angela Dalle Vacche (ed.) Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls? London: Palgravce Macmillan. p.216.
    9 - Cited in Platzman, Steven (2001) Cézanne: The Self-portraits. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p.190.
    10 - Böser, p.188.
    11 - Böser, p.188.
    12 - Raymond, Jean-Louis (1995) 'Rencontres avec Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele Huillet, Le Mans' in Rencontres: Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele
    Huillet, in Bruno Tackels (ed.) Strasbourg: Limelight. p. 33.


    Sunday, May 10, 2020

    Os Dez Mandamentos: O Filme (2016)

    A few weeks ago I mentioned a series of biblical telenovelas from Brazil which typically ran for dozens of episodes for each biblical story. The Moses series - Os Dez Manadmentos ran from 2015 delivering an incredible 243 episodes by the time in ended in 20161 and was even covered in The Guardian. According to UOL the series had an audience of 144 million. At some point, the producers Rede Record decided to create a film version of the series that could play in cinemas. Then came reports of sold-out shows, but half-empty theatres,2 presumably due to over-enthusiastic church leaders buying up tickets to give them away - a strategy used widely with The Passion of the Christ (2004)?

    There's an extra layer of intrigue here as well. A significant majority of RecordTV is owned by billionaire Edir Macedo, the bishop/leader of Brasil's biggest church network Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Macedo has been charged with various crimes, but, importantly, has never been found guilty. At the time Brazil's largest TV news website Notícias da TV reported UCKG services heavily promoting the film and encouraging people to give money to buy tickets for others. If Macedo were to have used his pulpits to promote his own business interests then that would seem to be something of a conflict of interests. Either way, the film took 116 million Brazilian dollars at the Brazilian box office in the end, making it the highest grossing home-grown film for 2016, taking only a little less than the film which topped box office sales in Brazil overall that year, Captain America.3

    The film itself largely recycles material from the TV show, which is hardly surprising given that so much material was available. Having not seen the original series I don't know if any new footage was shot, or if the film's framing narrative - which has Joshua recall the events that have happened as the Hebrews prepare to conquer the Promised Land - was a new device for the film, or was carried over from the series. Either way the film soon flashes-back to the Egyptians murdering Israelite baby boys, and only rarely returns to the Joshua scene.

    However, this framing device fundamentally alters the message of the Moses story. Instead of being a story of gaining freedom from oppression and slavery, it becomes about God's "promise to our people that we would become a great nation". There's echoes here of Macedo's 2008 book "Plan for Power: God, Christians and Politics" where he describes God's "great national project" for Brazil. "To be an Evangelical in Brazil is like being a foreigner in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs...Moses’ mission was to liberate the people of Israel, recover their citizenship and guide them to possession of their own kingdom".4

    Moses' father Amram is shown as a slave, but one who can slip away to attend to Moses' mother Jochebed when she goes into labour - an interesting take on how we typically imagine slavery. Interestingly, the first shot of the Hebrew slaves is a "God shot" looking directly down on a team of slaves dragging a huge statue of the Pharaoh. When Moses' basket ends up in the arms of Pharaoh's daughter, Miriam's suggestion of a Hebrew wet nurse results in Moses being allowed to return to his parents, but then, when he is around five years old, we're showed him wrenched away from his mother and returned to the princess.

    And so Moses grows up in the palace, very much one of the royal household. He is aware he is adopted, but not that he is Hebrew. Indeed as with the three most famous Hollywood versions of the the story, Moses' young adulthood is closely connected to that of Pharaoh's future heir Ramesses.5 As with The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Exodus: God's and Kings (2014) the two men are close friends. There are plenty of nods to these films as well. In one scene Moses and Ramesses fight alongside one another in battle with strong echoes of the 2014 film. Moments later Moses unrolls a scroll bearing hieroglyphics that look like they were practically peeled off the walls of the set of Prince of Egypt.

    In contrast to those films, however, certain elements of the film's style are very different from the aesthetics of America and Europe. Some of these are questions of convention rather than a universal measure of quality that is, um, set in stone. There's frequent use of slow-motion, time-lapse sequences, and montage, often in combination. The film's colours will also not be to everyone's taste. Likewise the reliance on melodrama - for example, when Moses re-enters Pharaoh's throne room after a forty year absence his wife drops her goblet and a slow-motion shot captures the wine spilling all over the floor. But two faults in particular plague this production (sorry the puns will stop shortly). Firstly, the film's CGI backgrounds are often blended poorly with live-action footage of the actors. On a small screen it looks bad, so I can only imagine how it would seem in a cinema. Secondly, the lighting, particularly for the interiors, looks off.

    Much of this is because the film is an edited down version of a much longer show filmed in a typical soap-opera style. To record so much material in a short space of time (and cheaply) fixed, even, lighting is used for an entire scene rather than varying the key, fill and back lighting each time the camera moves. It also accounts for the overly melodramatic moments in the production. And, of course, the reduction of such a volume of material into a mere two hours goes partway to describing the heavy reliance on montage. At times a brief montage feels like highlights of entire episodes' worth of footage, such as the sequence of Moses' courtship of Zipporah. Likewise, towards the end of the film, the incidents between the Sea of Reeds and giving of the Ten Commandments - so often omitted entirely - are presented in a 90-second montage featuring the sweetening of Marah's bitter water, the provision of quails and manna, and the victory over the Amalekites. Similarly it occasionally feels like the cuts have been a little too abrupt.

    At times the filmmakers rely on the audiences familiarity with the text. Indeed, perhaps we should say 'texts', as viewers who either know the original telenovela, or who are familiar with The Ten Commandments (1956), The Prince of Egypt and Exodus: God's and Kings will have more idea than those who only know the first few chapters of the Book of Exodus. I kind of like the way the telenovela draws heavily on the three Hollywood films, but in being abridged in this fashion it also leaves fleeting traces of the fuller work. There's a whole subplot, I'm sure, around the palace servant who overhears Moses confessing his killing of the Egyptian to Ramesses and then informs the king, but all we see is a brief shot of her listening through a crack in the door.

    This hint of intertextuality contrasts with the film's attitude to the text of Exodus itself. Whereas scholars have long asserted that the "finished" form of Exodus was concocted several centuries after Moses using several pre-existing sources, here we see Moses writing Genesis and the start of Exodus. Aaron looks on admiringly and he is even more impressed when Moses' starts predicting what the finished text will say about the (still future) events of the Exodus. It's a strange inversion of the biblical angle on the teaming up of Moses and Aaron. In the Bible Aaron is brought in to compensate for Moses' poor vocal skills: here he is impressed by his brother's impressive oration. This is perhaps typical of the film's highly idealised and sexualised Moses figure, played by the Guilherme Winter. In The Ten Commandments, for example, Charlton Heston loses all sense of his earlier sexual availability once he encounters God; here Winter continues to smoulder long afterwards.  Moreover, he is also more active and virile than his cinematic predecessors. I can't recall another Moses who runs after his commissioning at the Burning Bush, so it's particularly striking towards the end of the film to see him sprinting back to urge his people through the walls of the Red Sea, with shouts of "Vamos!"

    It's a sign of how greatly CGI has revolutionised visual effects that the Burning Bush scene is barely worthy of comment. Back in 1957 this scene - modest by comparison with its equivalent in this film - was much discussed and ultimately the only Oscar which DeMille's film won was for Visual Effects. Here the scene is fine, its just perfunctory rather than profound, spiritual or moving. Perhaps this is highlighted by the reception Moses gets when he first returns to Egypt. Ramesses, now Pharaoh, welcomes him with open arms, as do the rest of his former family. As Moses explains to Aaron later "it was really hard to see the happiness and love they showed me". Only Ramesses' son Amenhotep seems to take exception to Moses, glancing dismissively at him and questioning the poverty of his clothing. In fact the costuming is really on point here. Even before Moses enters the palace there's a stark contrast between the pristine and luxurious Egyptian costumes and the shabby, well-worn outfits of Moses and his brother. I don't recall Moses ever seeming so out of place in the palace.

    Despite the warmth of Ramesses original welcome his attitude quickly seems to change, seemingly without a great deal of motive. This is not a problem the Bible - which often doesn't explain the motives of its characters and, in this case, never contends that Ramesses and Moses even knew each other - but having built a great deal of affection between the two men (including Moses saving Ramesses' life) the change of heart rings a little false. It's perhaps a casualty of having to abridge the original footage so drastically. The subtlety of the gradual deterioration in the two men's relationship left on the cutting room floor. Obviously things only deteriorate further once the ten plagues arrive.

    If the first half of the film was typified by its soap-opera origins, then the second half, once Moses returns to Egypt, is far more dominated by effects and CGI. While the Burning Bush scene was somewhat underwhelming, the plagues are depicted much more successfully. Clearly a great deal of thought, planning and money was sent on this section which is apparent from the first plague. The water turning to blood provides the film with two of its most arresting images. Firstly, Pharaoh's wife caught swimming in a pool comes up for air literally covered head to foot in blood. Moments later her husband dips his hand in water only for them to emerge covered in blood. Both elements draw on horror tropes and the metaphor with the latter is made more effective due to the shot foregrounding Pharaoh's bloody hands in front of his horrified face. The grossness of the plagues is similarly reinforced with all ten being depicted, and particularly the infestations of frogs, lice, flies and locusts. Meanwhile a great deal of the budget seems to have been spent on the seventh plague. The "making of" documentary on the DVD largely concerns itself with this scene emphasising the "flashing fire" within the hail, causing some fairly spectacular, if a little over the top, footage. Finally, the death of the firstborn is shown, not by a creepy green mist as in 1956, but by streaks of bright white light, which prove no less terrifying. The terrible inevitability of what is happening is brought home by showing the moments leading up to Amenhotep's death. The film has stacked the pack somewhat by making Amenhotep seem unlikable, but those present have heard Moses' words. Their surface scepticism quickly dissipates as they see the streaks of light encircling them. There's a moment of fleeting defiance before the sheer inevitability of the situation reaches its grim conclusion.

    Following the plagues, where thousands of frogs and swarms of locusts filled the screen, we get grand exodus scenes intended to look as if millions are leaving 6. The newly liberated Hebrews quickly encounter the pillars of cloud and fire, the latter of which is particularly well-rendered. Likewise, the path through the Red Sea looks very impressive. Miriam makes an interesting comment here about the sea-bed: "its dry". This rather sums up this film's approach to the miraculous parts of the texts. Various productions from the 1956 The Ten Commandments onwards have attempted to try and give some scientific plausibility to the supernatural elements. The 1975 mini-series Moses largely minimalised the plagues, for example, while Exodus/: God's and Kings brought in a sceptical expert to provide an explanation. This follows a similar explanation in DeMille's film where Rameses 7 gives the following monologue:
    ...word came of a mountain beyond the Cataracts which spewed red mud and poisoned the water. Was it the staff I gave you that caused all this? Was it the wonder of your god that fish should die and frogs should leave the waters? Was it a miracle that flies and lice should bloat upon their carrion and spread disease in both man and beast? These things were ordered by themselves, and not by any god.
    Here however, not only is there no attempt to rationalise these supernatural acts, it intensifies them and links them to Moses' pronouncements. When Exodus 14:16 refers to "dry land" it's usually understood as idiomatic, rather than literal as Miriam's words stress here. The film is robustly and unapologetically Pentecostal in its approach with a strong emphasis on Christianity, miracles and prosperity. This is taken a step further in the words used in the supposedly Jewish Passover Seder which stress phrases about "redemption through the lamb".

    This Christianisation of the text is, of course, something that also typifies DeMille's two versions of the story, and as the film progresses, DeMille's approach becomes more and more dominant (not least because The Prince of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings more or less finish after the Red Sea). The scene where Moses receives the Ten Commandments is hugely reminiscent of DeMille. Tongues of fire engrave the rock with the words of the Decalogue - indeed a flaming hand stretches out to touch the rock as the first words are inscribed - and all ten are read out in full. One difference, however, is the way the giving of the different commandments here is inter-cut, perhaps interrupted, by scenes of the people worshipping the golden calf. DeMille's film maintained the purity of the moment. Here following God is contested, an ongoing battle.

    Indeed once Moses returns and orders those 'faithful' to God to rally round, the film then starts to return to the footage of Joshua at the start. The Joshua footage is interspersed with that of Levites surreptitiously killing those who had not sided with Moses; of the people walking purposefully across the desert; and the 120 year old Moses writing a few final words 8. The words Joshua speaks become more clearly recognisable as those from the first and last chapters of the Book of Joshua, "Are we going to submit to God or our own pride?" he shouts fiercely, daring anyone to defy him.  The film increasingly resembles Braveheart (1995) as it draws to a close with the words "Now is the time to conquer what is ours", seemingly regurgitating the words from Macedo's book.

    As treatments of the Book of Exodus go I enjoyed this one more than I expected. The lighting and the attempts to blend actors into CGI scenes occasionally let it down, and I must admit that I'm not a fan of the multiple slow-motion montages that recur throughout the film. Nevertheless, for those who know the story it gives a reasonably coherent version of events, even if the characterisation is a little flat in places. This is somewhat ironic as the telenovela is largely based on building back stories for all the characters. Where this lets the film down is in the portrayal of the Egyptians. It's not unusual for a Moses film not to sympathise with them, but the scene of the bodies of hundreds of soldiers floating face down in the Red Sea passes without comment, despite being such an arresting image. Perhaps it could be argued that this tones down the text of the Bible, where Miriam sings a whole song celebrating the way in which "Horse and rider have been thrown into the sea" (Ex 15:21). Where this becomes problematic is the way in which the film's validation of Joshua seems to align with Macedo equating his non-Evangelical countrymen with the Egyptians. Sadly, the film's dehumanisation of them (not to mention of the non-faithful Hebrews) casts a shadow across an otherwise interesting project.

    1 - IMDb. Other sources cite 150 or 176 episodes.
    2 - http://cinema.uol.com.br/noticias/redacao/2016/01/28/os-dez-mandamentos-estreia-com-lugares-vagos-em-sessoes-esgotadas.htm - Retrieved from web.archive.org
    3 - According to Brazilian Film database Filme B. This is roughly $20 million.
    4 - Cited and translated in Zaitchik, Alexander  and Christopher Lord (2019) "How a Demon-Slaying Pentecostal Billionnaire is Ushering in a Post-Catholic Brazil" in The New Republic, Feb 7. Available online: https://newrepublic.com/article/153083/demon-slaying-pentecostal-billionaire-ushering-post-catholic-brazil.
    5 - I find no direct traces to DeMille's original The Ten Commandments (1923) and, of course, one of the other screen adaptations of the Moses story might also have exerted some kind on influence on the filmmakers.
    6 - In the "making-of" DVD the filmmakers refer to the 600,000 men referred to in Exodus 12:37 (and they stress that this is not counting the women and children).
    7 - This is how the credits to the 1956 film spell his name. The credits for this film use Ramsés, so I have anglicised this as Ramesses (as per Wikipedia and my own natural inclination towards Ramsees). Others uses Ramses. Exodus: Gods and Kings uses "Rhamses".
    8 - Earlier we see him writing Genesis and the beginning of Exodus.

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    Saturday, May 02, 2020

    Intertextuality: Red Dwarf and King of Kings

    I've been thinking about intertextuality and biblical films a lot this week. It's a key issue for biblical films, because they have even more potential sources of influence than your average film (see below). Anyway, I also happened to watch an episode of the BBC 1990s sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf and a couple of things which featured a reference to King of Kings.

    What particularly interested me in this clip was that here was a biblical film that was being referred to in a science fiction sit-com. The juxtaposition of genres here is interesting enough, but also the futuristic element of the conversation suggests a level of cultural cache, something still referred to by people in the twenty-second century still remember.

    For those unfamiliar with the show at it's heart lies the classic British double act, Rimmer the somewhat socially awkward, uptight, one who follows the rules but secretly envies his tormentor. Lister, the more popular, relaxed, laid back and amiable one, who teases his colleague and gives the audience a laugh. Interestingly here the roles are reversed slightly, but you get the picture. The episode in question Holoship (series 5 episode 1) begins with the four crew mates watching an old film (that film is a made up one, but has a very Casablanca feel - a film that has an episode dedicated to it in series 4). Lister is in tears. Rimmer sits there sneering at it and when it ends describes it as a "pile of blubbery school-girl mush". When he also adds that he found it "unrealistic" Lister responds in his defence:

    Lister: Rimmer, you said that about King of Kings, the story of Jesus.
    Rimmer: Well, it's true! A simple carpenter's son who learns how to do magic tricks like that and doesn't go into show-business? Do any of us believe that, even for a second?
    Lister: He was supposed to be the Son of God.
    Rimmer: And when he was carrying that cross up the hill, any normal, realistic bloke would have mule-kicked the guy on the left, clobbered the one on the right, and been over that green hill and far away before you could say "Pontius Pilate".

    I guess there are a few things I love about this clip. Firstly, it's a rare insight into the reception of biblical films by ordinary people, people who don't consider themselves Christians, not indeed who are film experts - though Lister is a loves to watch the occasional classic film, very much channelling the scriptwriter's love of classic cinema. Elsewhere they reference Casablanca and It's a Wonderful Life, indeed I learned about all three of these films through this show before I had ever seen them.

    Secondly, it's a great example of multiple layers of intertextuality at play regarding a biblical film. As noted above on top of the reference points available to an average film, biblical films are not only adaptations but often adaptations of multiple biblical accounts (especially in the case of the Gospels where filmmakers harmonise the four Gospel accounts). Furthermore, they are often adaptations of fictionalised biblical novels, or remakes of previous films on the subject, as well as having two millennia of biblical art to allude to, the many layers of Christian history and biblical interpretation and, of course, all the other films which may have influenced the final work. Assuming the film to which Rimmer and Lister are referring is Nicholas Ray's 1961 effort then this film also interacts with contemporary history of the Romans such as Josephus, Philo and perhaps one or two other historians of the Roman era. Ray's film also makes distinct visual references to DeMille's earlier Jesus biopic The King of Kings, reproducing a shot of the foot of the cross bumping on the flagstones as Jesus drags it to Golgotha.

    Red Dwarf goes further, however, not only referring to this composite visual text, but also introducing it's own reference, to the hymn "There is a Green Hill Far Away" which Rimmer riffs on in the last line". As this is not the only time the series refers to Jesus or God, all of that is in the mix too.

    Finally, the natural assumption is that this film is the one that Nicholas Ray directed in 1961, but that is only an assumption. For example, it's possible that Rimmer and Lister are referring to DeMille's 1927 The King of Kings, who is to say which version would have survived into the latter part of the 22nd century. Alternatively, it provides the possibility that the film in question is a later remake - one that hasn't happened even in our own time 25 years after this episode was first broadcast. Indeed it's reasonably likely that another popular Jesus film with the title King of Kings will be produced in at some point in the future and therefore more natural that Lister and Rimmer would refer to it rather than a historical artefact from almost 200 years before they are born. The possibility, then, of a Jesus film from the 22nd century is an intriguing thought.

    Red Dwarf: Holoship is currently available to view on Netflix (in the UK at least).

    Thursday, April 30, 2020

    Still No Real News on The Passion of the Christ 2: The Resurrection

    About a year ago a strange thing happened. Noticing IMDb had a poster image for a sequel to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) I began preparing a blog post on the subject. After all despite the rumours of a sequel about the resurrection that have swirled for roughly the last fifteen years, none of them had ever really seemed substantive enough to actually write up. Yet when I sat down a couple of days to write the thing the page was empty. The body poster had gone. Actually it was probably a fake poster designed by a fan, which IMDb swiftly took down once they were alerted to the fact.

    However, there has been a fresh flurry of headlines about the film in the last few weeks following an interview that Jim Cavaziel, the star of the original film (my review), gave to Fox Nation. It was Easter after all.

    Sadly, I'm not able to comment on the interview as it's not available in the UK, but that didn't seem to be a problem for our tabloid The Daily Express who also published an article on it containing most of the pertinent parts and there were a few more bits in a piece by Fox News.

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about this story is Caviezel is still lined up to play the title role. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) star was 36 when The Passion came out in 2004; if the sequel - which has the working title The Resurrection - comes out as planned next Easter, then Caviezel will, by then, be 52. To put that in context, H.B. Warner, the oldest actor yet to play Jesus in a major biopic, was 51 when his role in DeMille's silent The King of Kings arrived in cinemas in 1927. While my long-time ally Peter Chattaway noted recently that actors playing Jesus have been getting older, this would still make Caviezel the oldest. And that's assuming that Easter 2021 is even remotely realistic. Given there's been no news of filming (certainly Caviezel doesn't mention it) and the current situation with the Coronavirus, it's starting to seem unlikely.

    What Caviezel did say seemed somewhat underwhelming. He confirmed the script is on it's fifth draft and said he "It's going to be a masterpiece. It's gonna be the biggest film in world history, I believe it will be based on what I feel in my heart." He then made some comments about how easy it is to get super hero films made relative to Bible movies and that he will get "to play the greatest superhero there ever was."

    All of which is much less interesting that the details Gibson himself has given. In an October 2016 interview with USA Today he said "We’re trying to craft this in a way that’s cinematically compelling and enlightening so that it shines new light, if possible, without creating some weird thing". Earlier that year Gibson was interviewed by megachurch pastor Greg Laurie and explained Randall Wallace, who wrote the Braveheart script, was looking at the screenplay. The relevant bit starts at 3:30. He also said:
    "That's a very big subject and it needs to be looked at because we don't want to just do a simple rendering of it. We can all read what happened but in order to experience and explore probably deeper meanings of what's about, it's going to take some doing
    Then in November 2016, he had this interview with Stephen Colbert where, explaining the scale of the film he was planning:
    "It's more than a single event, it's an amazing event and to underpin that with the things around it, is really the story, to enlighten what that means. It's not just about the event, it's not some kind of chronological telling of just that event, that could be boring."
    His interest isn't in a straight telling, but asking the question "what are the other things around it that happen?" When Colbert queried if there were any "bad guys" Gibson replied "There are. They're in another realm. Sure. You're going all over the place. What happened in three days?...I'm not sure but it's worth thinking about isn't it"

    This seems to tie in with this interview with Raymond Arroyo from around the same time where Gibson explains
    "It's not the Burnett version. It's not man comes back walks through walls, has holes in hands, eats a piece of fish. It's a vast theological experience and I think you need to delve into what that means in a way that you take that as the centrepiece and you juxtapose against many things that go on around it and in other realms so that...it gets pretty wild. It's like an acid trip."
    When Arroyo asked if it was nearly ready, Gibson indicated not:
    "It just keeps revealing itself more and more the further you get into it, everything from the fall of the angels to the... it's just crazy...It's opens up all these channels...It’s like, why didn’t they recognise him on the way to Emmaus, y'know?
    Finally, in another Autumn 2016 interview (this was during the promotional tour for Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge) he gave an interview to Deadline where he explained The Resurrection as "Sort of a sequel, that moves on from the Resurrection, but jumps back before, after, back to the Old Testament. The Old Testament is a pre-figurement of everything and the New…you can correlate them in an uncanny way."

    One of the things that always seemed odd to me growing up was the line in the Apostles Creed that says that Jesus "descended into Hell". The biblical justification for all this is fairly tenuous, but the "Harrowing of Hell" is an ancient tradition and it sounds to me like this is what Gibson is working on.

    If so, that will be interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because in the run up to The Passion Gibson promised a film that would show events "just the way it happened", but actually delivered a whole load of supernatural (and some would say "horror") elements happening on another level. From the sounds of it, the sequel could either follow a similar pattern, or even largely abandon the pursuit of "realism" in favour of something more fantastical (for want of a better word).

    Secondly, it looks from the megachurch clip above that this will be marketed heavily towards the evangelicals who turned out in spades to "support" The Passion. If so it will be interesting to see how well that works. Evangelicals don't tend to talk too much about the Harrowing of Hell - as I say the Bible doesn't talk about it much and so aside from a few hangover traditions from more traditional churches, and the agreement that Jesus' death beat the devil it's something no-one ever seems too keen to flesh out. Of course similar points were made about traditions about the stations of the cross and meditations on Christ's wounds, only for those who made them to be fairly surprised how the film did, so it will be interesting to see if something similar happens if, and indeed when, this film makes it to cinemas.

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    Thursday, April 23, 2020

    Jesus Christ Superstar Live (2018)

    This year marks half a century since Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concept album was released and, if anything, it’s popularity is accelerating. The 1973 remains the only proper film version, but this century has seen at least three high profile recordings. The first in 2000 featured a pouting (blond) Glenn Carter mocked by a sneering Rik Mayall and condemned by a Pontius Pilate clad in a Nazi-esque uniform. Then in 2012, following ITV’s talent contest Superstar a stadium tour ensued featuring winner Ben Forster in the lead role with comedian Tim Minchin as Judas and former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm as Mary Magdalene. A DVD was released before the year was out.

    Six years later NBC announced their intention to broadcast Jesus Christ Superstar Live on Easter Sunday 2018 starring singer John Legend as Jesus and rockstar Alice Cooper as Herod. Legend would go on to earn a Primetime Emmy nomination for his performance. The production was performed in front of 1500 people in the venue and 9.4 million viewers at home (Wikipedia).

    The venue for all this, in the heart of Brooklyn, looks spectacular. The purpose built stage is huge, and the production makes the most of it with light and pyrotechnics bringing life to a sparse, grunge-tinged set. Several tiers of scaffolding host the orchestra and various members of the cast from moment to moment. However, the simplicity of the set allows its use in certain instances to really stand out. Parts of it look like dilapidated wall paintings. We’re unable to work out except a vague sense of religious heritage now faded and overlain with grime. During the overture a dancer spray guns on the word “Jesus” on one of the walls in red paint. The graffiti is sprayed over later in the production as the crowd begins to turn on their would-be messiah. Most strikingly the final shot before the role call sees the walls part to leave a cross-shaped space through which the still crucified Jesus is withdrawn gradually disappearing from view and being replaced by a bright light which only intensifies as the gap narrows again. It’s a wonderful metaphor for new life and hope coming from death. If only there was a Christian word for that…

    Dress is modern and urban, though the priests, Pilate and Herod appear in more unusual costumes. Previous modernisations feel like they have tried too hard to make a statement. Here they are pitched just right to be modern, but retain a nod to the historical nature of the story. Jesus is in skinny white jeans and a longline grey cardigan. Cooper’s Herod is clad in a sparkly gold suit, Pilate in maroon leather trousers and matching dress coat. The priests wear black throughout, though at one point they have hoods pulled far over their faces.

    All of which brings me to one of my misgivings about the production and Jesus Christ Superstar in general, the recycling of antisemtic tropes. Some of this is inherent in the music itself. The song where the crowd pressures Pilate into crucifying Jesus is impressive musically but also troublingly powerful. Set on a huge stage, with a vast crowd of extras all crying to crucify Jesus it only reinforces the perspective that the Jews were to blame for Jesus’ death. Having four Jewish priests plotting on a darkened stage with their black hoods pulled over their faces reinforces the “Jewish conspiracy” stereotype. Some versions of the opera omit “Pilate’s Dream” which puts Pilate’s wife’s dream about Jesus (Matt 27:19) on her husband’s lips casting him as fearful from the start, ripe to be bullied by a Jewish mob. Creative directors love to put a new spin on hit shows - indeed this production is a testimony to that impulse. It would be nice to see just one version of the opera return this song to his wife and give PIlate a more menacing presence from the off. From a Jesus films geek point of view it’s curious to see Ban Daniels, who played the most sympathetic Caiphas to date, in the BBC’s ultra-aware The Passion (2008), playing Pilate here instead. And it’s good that this version continues the show’s tradition of colour-blind casting, with John Legend joining the growing list of people of colour to have played Jesus.

    Legend’s casting is interesting for other reasons too. The original cast were all largely unknown and while the film turned Ted Neeley into a star, subsequent productions went back to using unknown actors. However, the 2012 version was an interesting transition in this respect. The show took a group of unknown hopeful performers and in the tradition of all reality TV competitions gradually the winner emerged a star. By the time the production was touring stadiums, Forster was better known than almost all of the rest of the cast. This time around Legend is a bona fide star in his own right, already with ten Grammies to his name.

    The star power Legend brings to the role blurs the line between him and a role which is about fame (and its transitory nature). During “Hosanna” Legend is not just celebrated by the cast, but he breaks the third wall and moves along the length of the audience giving high-fives and grasping outstretched hands as Jesus drinks in the adulation. Legend is, of course, acting, but those audience members interacting with him, are they playing along out of their love for Legend, for Jesus, or just their love of the show and the drama of the moment? Perhaps all three.

    I also wonder about the different ways Legend’s existing fans will interpret the show compared to prior fans of the show. Superstar is essentially a revisionist piece because Judas is a more sympathetic character than Jesus. Legend’s performance echoes this. He oozes charisma, but at times his Jesus seems a little too pleased with himself. I can’t help but wonder though if those tuning in as fans of Legend, but who are unfamiliar with the musical, will interpret it in the same way as I do. Christians who are unfamiliar with it often dislike the performance not realising that what they are reacting to is more about the role itself than this particular performance.

    Inevitably with situations like this - where one work is still very much cherished and where both versions (perhaps due to the source material, the opera), stick very closely to the original - you end up comparing casts. Legend sings some of the songs better, more sweetly perhaps, than Ted Neeley, but can’t match him on the high notes in Gethsemane. I’d never noticed it before, but without Neeley’s amazing vocal work the song kind of drags. Legend only had one shot at it of course. Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas gives a sold performance. He doesn’t quite have Carl Anderson’s charisma, but that actually suits the role, and Anderson can’t moonwalk, at least not to the best of my knowledge. Sarah Bareilles’ turn as Mary Magdalene probably bears the best comparison with the original - no mean feat given Yvonne Elliman’s in the 1973 film. Interestingly her saffron costume is more or less the only one that would not appear out of place in the 1970s as if soothing potential love interests are the one constant over the past 50 years.

    But of course the other challenge these actors have, which those in the original did not, is trying to give performances that work both on stage and on screen. I must admit that I’ve not experienced a live stage show on screen like this before, so apologies if this is a tired observation. Nevertheless, Alice Cooper excepted, the cast do a good job with these challenges, generally producing performances which work to 1500 people in the audience, as well as for the up close cameras. Visually this is made more interesting as well by the presence of several roving musicians who appear almost as part of the cast at various moments.

    It’s good to see that even at fifty, Jesus Christ Superstar is still capable of bringing something new. It speaks volumes about Rice and Webber’s original work that it has transitioned so effortless this far into the twenty-first century. As much as I love the original film, it’s so caught in the 1970s that it’s a hard sell to modern audiences and neither it, or subsequent other filmed versions capture the thrill of catching the show in a theatre. That this version manages to achieve that is hugely impressive. In part that is due to this version’s sheer energy. Superstar has always had dancing, but directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski do a great job of getting it to convey that “buzz”. That and ambitious lighting, use of the ample space the auditorium provides and the roving, circling camera work make for a truly impressive adaptation. I have a feeling that next time I sit down to watch Superstar with the kids, it will be this version we will be reaching for.


    Wednesday, April 22, 2020

    Book Review - Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: 'Objectivists' in Cinema

    Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: "Objectivists" in Cinema
    Benoît Turquety
    (Translated by Ted Fendt)

    Amsterdam University Press 
    315 pages
    ISBN 978-9463722209

    The resurgence of interest in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in recent years has seen a blossoming of scholarship about them, particularly in English. Benoît Turquety's Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: "Objectivists" in Cinema, translated into English by Ted Fendt, sits alongside  Fendt's own "Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet" (2016); Sally Shafto and Katherine Pickard's "Writings", also 2016; and Ute Holl's 2017 "The Moses Complex", about Moses und Aron; and with Tobias Hering and Annett Busch's "Tell It to the Stones: Encounters with the Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub" due later in the year there is suddenly a wealth of material.

    Turquety's angle is his argument that Huillet and Straub's films share striking similarities with the work of the Objectivist poets, especially Louis Zukofsky, he also discusses George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff. The brief introduction lays out this scope. Returning to Jacques Rivette's review of Fritz Lang's Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1956) Turquety suggests Straub and Huillet attempted to take it to an extreme "in which all traces or residues of subjectivity -- of personal intervention and even of style -- disappear in favour of a form precisely calculated according to rigorous principles" (11). He sees similarities with their use of pre-existing texts, precision and minimising personal comment, with artists such as Poe, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Mallarmé and particularly a group of early 20th century poets known as the Objectivists. He concludes with a brief introduction to them and the principles behind their work.

    The remainder of the book is sub-divided into four sections: Part One "Foundations", Part Two "Language/Authority", Part Three "Interruptions" and Part Four "Trials, Series". Chapter 1 ("Erotic Barbarity") looks at 1969's Othon or to use its official title Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer, ou Peut-être qu’un jour Rome se permettra de choisir a son tour (Eyes don’t want to stay shut all the time, or Perhaps one day Rome will let herself choose at her turn). Turquety uses Othon as an access points to the pair's oeuvre in general - the visibility of the layers of history, the importance of sound, the actors' delivery and particularly their use of framing which could be considered "violently off-balance" (27) or conversely, "atonal" (28). This desire to "have it both ways" (29) is also echoed in their desire for both "intelligent classicism...and radical novelty" (29) and "material and fleeting meaning" and whilst this "disconcerts people" it is also a reminder that "The work exists first as the site of loss" (29).

    The other chapter in part one is called "Objectivity and Objectivities" and takes a close look at the word "Objectivists" in the book's title. Turquety starts by repeating an oft-used summary of Huillet/Straub, that "they 'deconstruct' the 'codes' of 'classical cinema' (31), before discussing three different meanings for the term 'Objectivity': "the work of art as an object" (39), "the 'objectivity' of perception" (39) and in the sense of "impartiality" (40). The question facing Huillet and Straub is "How does one make political cinema if it must also be a hands-off cinema?" (41). Turquety finds here a link to similar questions being posed in the earlier part of the last century by "The Objectivists", a group of poets whose ideas mirror those of Straub-Huillet's, and so spends the majority of the chapter discussing their ideas. Primarily homing in on Louis Zukofsky, he also discusses George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff, declaring that the "three of them represent the core of what is at stake" (49). Turquety discusses the theory behind their work, breaking it down into three sections "The Eye and the Object" (50-53), "Sincerity and Objectivation" (53-56) and "Objectivist Politics" (56-62) before shifting the focus to the similarities with Cézanne and composers Bach and Schoenberg whose work was so prominent in Huillet and Straub's early films. The summary here seems to be that the "originality of Objectivist art theory is its affirmation that abstraction (objectification) and figuration (sincerity) are complementary, that sincerity is necessary for objectification, but also, in return, objectification alone permits exactitude...at the heart of sincerity" (58).

    Part 2 ("Language/Authority") takes two different approaches to the couple's 1975 film Moses und Aron, which will be where this volume is of most interest to regular readers of this site. Chapter 3 - "The Power of Speech (or the Voice), of Seeing and the Path: Moses and Aaron" - offers a detailed analysis of the film, not as long as Ute Holl's monograph, but at almost 75 pages, it's the second longest piece of writing on the film available in the English language. working sequentially through the film it compares Schoenberg's work with Huillet/Straub's, noting the areas where they subvert his meanings with their own intentions. Despite initially seeming neutral, Straub and Huillet's subtle uses of cinematic techniques such as mise en scène present a different take on the subject from Schoenberg's opera. Take for example the widely discussed opening scene where God, the burning bush and Moses' face all remain off camera. "The theme of seeing (or not seeing) is one of the foundations of the opening sequence" (79). "We do not see what Moses sees: we do not see Moses seeing....it would be unthinkable for this to happen differently" given both works explore the problems of a god who is unseen, "this framing was, in some ways, the only logical one" (79).

    The difference between the two works perhaps finds its fullest expression in shot 19 where the choir representing the people (rather than the choir representing God) is first displayed on screen. "It sings off-screen before a pan brings it into the frame" (81). Because the God-choir remains off screen the fact that the people-choir begin the shot off-screen "it is inevitable that we think both choirs are the same", that "burning bush=off screen people" (81). Turquety considers this "a forced, if not radical, inversion of Schoenberg's content" (81). Later he explains that "Huillet and Straub effectively make a counter-reading of Schoenberg's opera and empty it of what is at the centre: God" (93).

    Turquety then examines the depiction of  the three miracles (though finding the term "problematic" (98)). I'm not sure I completely agree with his argument that "Historically, there was a miracle -- at least a 'sign' or 'prodigy'. Egyptian magicians performed them too, to a certain extent" (102, emphasis original). Nevertheless, his point is that onscreen because, for example we see a staff being thrown in one shot, then a snake in the next, and then a staff being picked up, the "miracle is the hole between the images" (102). He also notes the circularity of these miracles, "water is blood and then water again" (100).

    Finally in this chapter, Turquety ends by looking at the orgies and power struggles in Act II and the unfinished Act III. Again Huillet and Straub subvert Schoenberg's stated intention that the orgy gets increasingly out of hand, by producing a "logical" (113) and "rather well-behaved" (115) orgy. Turquety cites the July-August "Cahiers du Cinema" interview in 1975 where Straub observed that "they are a people suffering from despair" (p.20, cited on 113). Turquety considers Act III as a "theoretical reversal of the situation, a response to the question: what would have happened if the other had won" (120), in other words "here is a film that offers two endings and maintains that both are the ending" (120, emphasis original). He sees this as Straub/Huillet's "desire to exacerbate the tension to the point of mutually destroying the two 'conductors'" , Moses and his brother (121). Furthermore this is the nature of the objectivity Turquety is discussing in Huillet and Straub's work. "The work forms an impasse and implodes; it is this implosion" (122).

    The second chapter in this section (4. 'Speech Against Power, or Poetry, Love and Revolution: "A"-9') primarily returns to Zukofsky - "a young, leftist, Jewish and atheist intellectual" (130) - and offers an in-depth analysis of his objectivist poem "A"-9. Starting by analysis the poems relation to the rest of his work "A", the nature of it's two distinct halves and its adoption of the canzone song form, he proceeds to draw on some of the similarities with Straub and Huillet's work. In particular, he draws attention to their similar "use of pre-existing texts through interferences between semi-independent, superimposed structures, apposition, disjunction, quotation, etc., techniques always reflecting in problems in the relation between language and things, language and images, language and power, the gaze, love and art." (147). Turquety concludes that for both Zukofsky and Huillet/Straub "the resulting forms are their objectivation" (147).

    Part three consists of a single chapter (five) though at eighty pages long it is by far the book's longest. In it Turquety turns to a number of Huillet and Straub's other works: Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's 'Musical Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene'" (1972), History Lessons (1972), Too Early/Too Late (1981), Cézanne (1989), Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice (1979) and The Bridgegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp (1968) as well as Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) as discussed by Zukofsky. Indeed Turquety summarises Zukofsky's 1936 essay on Chaplin's art as that which moves beyond artistic intentions (which are "always predatory" (166) - "it does not matter what an author thinks", 166-7) and which "to allow the work to act on its own" (169). That Huillet and Straub held Chaplin in such high esteem surprises many, but becomes a little more comprehensible in light of the fact that his mastery of cinematic tools had inspired Zukofsky's to make it "a goal of poetry" (306).

    As with previous chapters Turquety uses this selection of Straub and Huillet's films to note the common ground they share with objectivist poets. In particular, their use of quotation (often without attribution); montage as a form of ideogram; fixity's similarity to long static shots; the importance of form as much, if not more than 'content'; cuts as interruptions; and, lastly the way they use abstract links between material as a type of fugue to unite seemingly disparate material. These are the aspects of filmmaking which make Huillet-Straub films so distinctive and Turquety makes a strong, detailed persistent case for them as objectivist intentions, not that they are "trying to put 'cinematic equivalents' in place", but relying on "material form" (180). The author is not arguing that a "Huillet and Straub shot is an equivalent of Zukofsky's poem or would have the same effect or act in the same way" but that they share "common preoccupations, ambitions, conceptions, and concerns" (206).

    Having drawn out parallels between the objectivist poets and numerous films across Huillet and Straub's career, chapter 6, which opens the book's fourth section, focuses on a single film, Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations, 1983). Turquety posits that both Straub and Huillet's film and Kafka's "The Man Who Disappeared", from which it is adapted, are built around "a series of catastrophic encounters that take the shape of endless trials." (240). The majority of this chapter hones in on the presentation of first such trial from Klassenverhältnisse where Karl attempts to defend the stoker in the presence of his captain. Huillet and Straub film this scene (and others) almost entirely from a single camera position. They use this approach to highlight the power dynamics which are latent in the scene primarily by their use of consistent camera placement and the cuts and editing between shots. By muting out more distracting elements, these facets are more clearly highlighted. Turquety relates this to similar themes in George Oppen's poetry. Whereas in Oppen's Discrete Series poetry "The eruption of the 'I'...interrupts and breaks the poem" (269), Karl, in the film's final scene, ultimately "abandons any idea of subjectivity" (272).

    The trial theme is carried over into chapter 7 "On Dissolution" with two other of Huillet and Straub's films which also both structured around trials. Turquety opens with an analysis of The Death of Empedocles (1987), adapted from Hölderlin's play noting that "what Huillet and Straub maintain from the play is organized into two symmetrical parts, each ending in a big trial" (283). But the film is really about the force of language, "an instrument of domination (rhetoric) that prepares and fulfils its own dissolution" (285). Straub and Huillet "radicalize [(the play's] dramatic stasis by pushing the actor's immobility to the limit" (282) so that any small variation in pose, diction or use of the camera becomes significant. Turquety quotes Straub statement that "sensations must never be provoked, sensations must be translated" (281).1 This thought also carries over into his discussion of Workers, Peasants (2001) starting with a comparison with another objectivist work, this time Charles Reznikoff's "Testimony" (287). Reznikoff's poem takes extracts "from testimonies and trials, from...within a judicial framework" (287) reformatting them into poetry with neutrality as a core principle. In similar fashion Workers, Peasants adapts four chapters focused on disputes from Vittorini's novel "Women of Messina" namely chapters 44-47 which stand out "in the novel, [as] the text of these four chapters is formally distinguished from the rest: it does not appear in classic narrative form, but in an almost theatrical manner" (293). As with Empedocles the directors draw "from a limited pool of gestures, postures, and other cinematic elements" (293) such that the film becomes "a study of the possibility, limits, and modalities of an objective language whose paradigm...is legal testimony (296). But in the published script Vittorini's prose is presented as verse, "though every word was written by Vittorini" (296), such reformatting destroys the link between form and content, creating "an objectivation of language" (296) which, as with Reznikoff, "superimposes a very different form of perception on the question of testimony...deeply modifying the problem of judgment" (296).  Thus the film reflects Reznikoff's emphasis on "neutrality", content based on testimony and comparable use of "editing" to reshape the material.

    The book's brief conclusion neatly draws together its main arguments and ideas.  As Turquety has ably demonstrated the films of Straub and Huillet sits alongside the poetry of Zukofsky, Oppen and Reznikoff; as well as the writings of  Hölderlin and Kafka; the paintings of Cézanne and the music of Schoenberg through the value they place on ideas such as sobriety, impersonality and neutrality - ideas at the heart of Objectivism (303). Yet at the same time these are radical works, both in terms of form and (crucially) because of this mastery of form, politics - "only the strictest formal requirements could create a true political presence for an artistic work" (304). Returning to the idea that "intention is ultimately just a predatory manifestation" (305, author's emphasis) adaptation in the hands of Huillet and Straub is "not a matter of presenting a personal gloss of the original text, but presenting the text as neutrally as possible, while including several structural layers that, without touching it, simultaneously analyse it and even critique it" (305). It is this analytical approach which eschews a "focus on the characters' inner psychological conflicts and instead emphasizes relations -- of class, power and desire" (306). This is particularly true when remaining objective when handling materials in the form of testimonies and trials, "questioning language and its effectiveness, problems of truth and power (rhetoric), and the organization of space and politics (307). 

    A significant proportion of the four other recent Huillet/Straub books mentioned in my introduction are given over to original documents and reflections of the couple's working practices. Whilst this is most welcome, it does mean that analysis of Straub and Huillet's work is still fairly sparse (in English at least). Roud (1971) and Byg (1995) only consider the first twenty years of the couple's output. Ursula Böser (2004) only adds Class Relations and Cézanne to this list of analysed works. Excellent as these titles are, it's great to have some in depth analysis on other films such as Too Early/Too Late and Workers, Peasants. The challenge for many will be, as it was for me, their inexperience with poetic analysis, but readers should not be put off - these sections are no harder to understand than the rest of the work and the comparison between, for example, line breaks in poetry and cuts between shots in cinema illuminates understanding of the latter, rather than obscuring it. Make no mistake, this is a complex work operating at a high level, but it is rewarding and repays repeated readings. There's the odd mistake (a bullet point falls into 'open breach' on page 241, for example) but ultimately Turquety's book throws fresh light onto Huillet and Straub's work in general which remains important, even as it is difficult to understand. And anyone wanting a more in depth understanding or Othon, Moses und Aron, Class Relations, Death of Empedocles or ;Workers, Peasants, would be well advised to track down a copy.

    1 - Daney, Serge and Narboni, Jean (1979) "Entretien avec Jean Marie Straub et Danieèle Huillet", Cahiers du Cinema, 305 (November) p.18.

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    Friday, April 10, 2020

    Reflections on "Popular Visual Media and the Bible" Conference

    As someone who is not a paid academic attached to an institution I don't get to go to many biblical studies conferences so it was a real bonus to be able to attend this one. Due to covid-19 the original conference in Exeter was rearranged as an online conference. There was a fair bit of apprehension as to how this would all work, but I think it's fair to say the organisers, Rebekah Welton (University of Exeter) and Zanne Domoney-Lyttle (University of Glasgow) did an excellent job not only in getting everything working seamlessly, but also in making things easy for those presenting papers. These things are hard enough to do in person, let alone when you can't even see if a speaker is "in the room". The result of the smooth running of the conference meant that people actually began to reflect on the fact that for this particular conference the online version was fairly appropriate (given the subject matter), though the networking and chats between sessions was the obvious casualty. Still it'd be great for the planet, and those with more limited budgets, if a result of this online success was more conferences offering good remote options in future.

    Session 1 featured Siobhan Jolley (University of Manchester) and Laura Carlson Hasler (Indiana University) looking at two recent hit comedies. In “I can’t be physical with you” – Reimaging John 20:17 through Fleabag" Jolley drew out rather well the similarities between the never formally named protagonist of Fleabag and the reception of Mary Magdalene, cover both biblical texts and their artistic outworkings. The quote from the session's title was linked with Jesus saying "Touch me not" in John 20:17 and other comparisons were made such as "Fleabag does not want to be part of the Christian community; she just wants to be close to the priest". There were also observations about how such comparisons and fresh interpretations "can make space in the text". For me, it also got me wondering about how Fleabag's famous looks to camera have something in common with the author of John's occasional interjections, particularly as some have used the designation "the disciple whom Jesus loved" as a reference to Magdalene. I'm not sure I'll ever read/hear John 21:25's "I suppose that even the whole world" in quite the same light again.

    Laura Carlson Hasler had been planning to fly in originally to deliver her paper "The 'Good' Book?: Protestant Television Without the Bible". Her paper offered some interesting reflections both on Netflix's The Good Place and the BBC/Amazon's Good Omens (my comments), particularly the role that physical books seem to play in the series. I won't go into spoilers, but it made interesting use of the term "the Good Book" given the series' title and how, despite the array of ethical and philosophical texts and arguments referred to and shown in both series the Bible almost never features. Yet the worldview the series seeks to escape not only clearly originates in Christianity, but specifically Protestant Christianity.

    After the break there were three sessions again with a strong emphasis on recent television shows which mix religious elements in to their contemporary entertainment. Bea Fones (Durham University) gave her paper on "Daddy Issues: Angelic(Mis)Conceptions and Gender Binaries in the CW’s Supernatural", but sadly disruptions meant I was unable to catch the whole session, and my complete unfamiliarity with the show made it difficult to catch up. There was some good stuff at the end about how may filmed takes on angels adopt a more binary approach to angelic gender than the Bible itself.

    Mat Collins (University of Chester) was next, on one of my favourite topics, Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Abraham. This formed a significant chunk on the talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival in 2009 "Biblical Horror Stories for Children" which is sadly not available for download at the moment (though I can share it with anyone who is interested). Collins' "Subversive Screenings: Rethinking Genesis 22 in Popular Visual Media" looked at three works which subvert the Bible's take: Aronofsky's Noah (2014), a storyline in Lost and this Mitchell and Webb sketch on Abraham. I've written before on the link between Noah and Abraham in my own review, and don't know Lost, but despite being a fan of Mitchell and Webb didn't know that particular sketch which is brilliant as always. I really like Collins' observation that the moral of the story has changed from the Bible's original test-of-obedience, which Abraham passes, to a test-of-morality which, in the modern examples, he ultimately fails. The pre-lunch session saw Rebekah Welton (University of Exeter) presenting on "Sibling rivalries and reconciliation in Supernatural: God, the Darkness and Genesis 1:1-5". Again I'm not at all familiar with the series and unfortunately, again, I was sadly distracted by the day job.

    The conference organisers had stated their intentions to avoid just going back over the biblical epics so while the sheer wealth of recent televisual material justifiably dominated morning's sessions, the post-lunch session always promised to be the most intriguing. In Tom de Bruin (Newbold College) "Reception of the Bible in My Little Pony and Christian Apocrypha" basically looked at how Christian fan fiction created by fans of the show My Little Pony has reflected their Christian theology. De Bruin used the term 'Christian Bronies', and while I can't recall if the term was de Bruin's own or one they had adopted themselves, I was surprised to learn these were often adults. The whole thing was fabulously bizarre, featuring conversion narratives for the characters from My Little Pony, yet somehow de Bruin linked it back to parallels with the way in which some early Christians created their own fictional narratives.

    Stephanie O’Connor (Dublin City University) took on "The Batman and the Bible" looking at religious interpretations of comic book heroes in general and, in particular, contrasting the Dark Knight with the more familiar Christ figure of Superman. Batman is a Christ figure we can identify with. Unlike Superman he is fully human, capable of being hurt, reliant on effort and discipline. But it was host Zanne Domoney-Lyttle's paper that was the real eye-catcher. "Wrestling with the Bible: Crucifixions, Kingmakers and a Monday Night Messiah in Sports Entertainment" - a paper born out of Domoney-Lyttle's husband love of wrestling - discussed the unusual biblical narratives that some networks have adopted. David and Goliath is an obvious one, but also the narrative that led up to the line “Austin 3.16 says I just whooped your ass”.

    For me at least, the final session moved into areas with more serious implications. Tim Hutchings (University of Nottingham) presented "'My Jesus Would Be Chunky' Visualising Virtue and Vice in a Christian Videogame" which examined Scripture Union's surprisingly successful video game / app "Guardians of Ancora". Hutchings research involved actual interviews both with representatives of Scripture Union, who had been involved in the commissioning process, and the game's producers who were contracted to complete the work. Hutchings didn't waste any time getting to his point, showing the above screengrab in the opening minutes. It's a shockingly careless piece of unconscious antisemitism via cultural bias. We can, perhaps, give the games company the benefit of the doubt - while you would hope they would do their research, they're not expected to be experts on the text - but this was a project Scripture Union oversaw and frankly they should know better. Just on this shot alone (and adopting for a moment the SU's position that the Gospel accurately record what actually happened) we can see how this moves away from the actual text in a way that negatively portrays Jewish people and blames them for Jesus death. You have the crowd calling out "Kill him", (not what was said) no nuance as to who these particular Jews are, attractively built roman soldiers and Jewish characters who are somewhat other than that, almost a reversing of the power dynamics at play, and so on. Hutchings' interview excerpts only highlighted the issue - it didn't seem like the huge numbers of Jewish deaths that Christian-inspired antisemitism has contributed too had even been considered - but of course there had been plenty of thought about giving Jesus an appropriately modern-looking hairstyle and so on. One of the SU team involved in the project was actually present and brave enough to add her own perspective. I'm not sure that even then she really appreciated the problems. It shouldn't shock me - I've not always been so aware of these issues and I know plenty of people who are both horrified by antisemitism and yet unknowingly perpetuate it. I guess I just though that Christians in general, and particularly those Christian organisations seeking to promote fidelity to the Bible, had become more aware of the issues.

    David Tollerton (University of Exeter), who himself found the above paper "unsettling", then presented on "Anti-Judaism in English History and the strange moment when Doctor Who appeared to propagate biblical supersessionism". He was looking at the episode from the latest Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) called The Witchfinders (S11E8) where the Doctor materialises in 17th century Lancashire and attempts to dissuade the locals from burning a witch. When they argue "As King James has written in his new Bible,'Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.'", the Doctor counters "In the Old Testament. There's a twist in the sequel. 'Love thy neighbor.'". As Tollerton points out this verse actually originates from Leviticus 19:18 and the portrayal of King James is interestingly anachronistic.

    Finally Holly Morse (University of Manchester) gave her keynote on "Serpentine Saviours and Woke Women: Twenty-First Century Television Goes Back to the Beginning". Morse spoke particularly about Netflix's recent remake of Sabrina and converted me from someone who was not particularly interested in it (I was already a man when Sabrina the Teenage Witch landed in the 1990s) to having it fairly near the top of my TV list. Morse particular drew on Sabrina's reimagining of Eve.

    Morse's paper felt like a good end to an excellent conference. Certainly I wasn't alone in feeling that not only was the overall standard of contributions very high, but that there was a real consistency to them, both in terms of quality and theme. It would be great if something like this were to happen again, and whilst the absence of a real meet-up was sorely missed, as someone who only operates around the fringes of academia, I felt I got to connect with a whole bunch of people who share the same research interests as me. You can follow others' thoughts on Twitter via #VisualBible. Thanks to Zanne Domoney-Lyttle and Rebekah Welton and of course all the speakers who made for a great day.

    Monday, April 06, 2020

    Brazilian Biblical Telenovelas

    For some time now I’ve been meaning to write about the various biblical telenovelas that have emerged from Brazil in the last decade. As their description implies, telenovelas are extremely long running TV series – somewhere between a US TV series and a soap opera – which may run for between 30 and 200 episodes. Whilst the first, 1951’s Sua vida me pretence ("Your Life Belongs to Me") originated in Brazil, they have been popular across South America since the 1960s and more recently have gained growing audiences in various other parts of the world, notably Asia and the Iberian peninsula. Indeed while Wikipedia’s claim that telenovelas are the "most popular non-English-speaking scripted forms of entertainment in the world" is both unsourced and unlikely (given books, music and video games all fall into that category), it nevertheless gives you a suggestion of the form’s popularity across the world despite most of the English speaking world being entirely unfamiliar with the term.

    The development of biblical telenovelas is interesting not least because it represents a seventh type of format for biblical screen drama1. The sheer running length means that the vast majority of the material is invented. Huge casts play fictional roles in made-up sub-plots supporting an overall narrative which combines the silver thread of a biblical episode with other archetypal plots such as the love-triangle, rags to riches etc.

    What's remarkable about all of these biblical telenovelas so far is that they have all been made by the same company - Rede Record. Prior to beginning these series, Record TV was a significant way behind Brazil's leading production company, Globo. Indeed, not only did Globo specialise in telenovelas, they also had so much market dominance that the only programmes in the annual top ten ratings were those made by Globo a dominance that dates back to the 1960s.2 Record had tried to compete with telenovelas set in contemporary times, it was only when they struck on the idea of producing biblical telenovelas that they started to get places in the top ten.

    So far Record have produced the following biblical series:
    -A História de Ester (Esther, pictured,10* 2010)
    -Sansao e Dalila (Samson, 18, 2011)
    -Rei Davi (David, 30, 2012)
    -José do Egito (Joseph, 38, 2013)
    -Os Milagres de Jesus (Jesus' Miracles, 35, 2012-14)
    -Os Dez Mandamentos (Moses, 242, 2015-16)
    -A Terra Prometida (Promised Land, 179, 2016-17)
    -O Rico e Lázaro (Daniel†, 181, 2017)
    -Apocalipse (Revelation, 155, 2017-8)
    -Lia (Leah [and Jacob], 10, 2018)
    -Jesus (Jesus/Acts, 193, 2018-19)
    -Jezabel (80, 2019)
    *First number cited is the number of episodes for each story.
    †The title translates as "The Rich (man) and Lazarus" - the parable which Jesus tells, but the story is set in the time of Daniel in exile in Babylon with Nebuchadnezzar on the scene.
    That's a reasonably comprehensive list, though if you look at some of the popular stories that haven't been covered yet - Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Lot - are all in Genesis. I don't know if Rei Davi (2012), which I wrote about in 2014, goes so far as to include Solomon, but otherwise most of the stories that have been covered before to a significant level have now been done.
    Moreover, adding up all those episodes gives a total of 1171 episodes, and each episode has at least a running time of about 30 minutes. Wikipedia says Os Dez Mandamentos (The Ten Commandments, 2015-16) lasts for 60 minutes. Given it featured an incredible 242 episodes that means it ran for around 242 hours - more than an hour of material for every minute of Cecil B. DeMille's famous epic of the same name. Perhaps it's not surprising that of all the stories these telenovelas have told, it was this one that was edited into a feature film. Os Dez Mandamentos - O Filme (2016) cut all that material down to just 2 hours (according to IMDb) and then again to 78 minutes for the DVD. Whilst some good samples of these shows are available from the Record TV website, US Netflix or on YouTube etc. this film is the only complete material with English subtitles that can be bought in permanent form, at least that I have found. I'm expecting my copy any time now.

    What's also interesting is that Record TV is owned by the founder of Brazil's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) an evangelical group that is part of a growing conservative movement in Brazil - jumping to around 22% of the population in the 2010 census vs 70% Roman Catholic. Officially the country is secular. This is a very different background to the UK and it's hard to think of, say, The God Channel finding itself in such a position.

    This becomes more significant because telenovelas have a reputation for being used in the past to shape social attitudes. The most famous example of the former is the Mexican telenovela Acompañame (Accompany Me, 1977-78) which promoted family planning, saw a very significant rise in family planning-related activity in those years, and commissioning of further family-planning messaged productions.3 As a result another four series were made with similar aims.

    It's the kind of thing that liberal/atheists hate and conservative/evangelicals love. It's either a great step in evangelism and making inroads into the culture, or it's a worrying trend aligning with a move to the right in many countries at the moment. It's hard not to see the rise of such telenovelas as part of a wider cultural movement that saw a right-wing, Catholic-turned-evangelical win Brazil's 2018 presidential election.

    In any case I'm interested to find out more about the subject and hope to review Os Dez Mandamentos - O Filme once my copy arrives. There's an interesting chapter on these productions by Clarice Greco, Mariana Marques De Lima and Tissiana Nogueira Pereira in "The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium" (ed. Wickham Clayton) for those seeking more information, and enough material to watch on Record TV's website to get a good feel for the phenomenon.4

    1 - In addition to feature films, short films, television series, mini-series, TV plays, live broadcast stage-productions. A further potential format is the soap-opera, but I know of no such venture based on the Bible.
    2 - Greco, Clarice, Mariana Marques De Lima and Tissiana Nogueira Pereira (2020) “The Phenomenon of Biblical Telenovelas in Latin America” in Clayton, Wickham (ed.) The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium: New Heart and New Spirit. Manchester: Manchester University Press p.71.
    3 - Basten, Stuart (2009) "Mass media and reproductive behaviour: serial narratives, soap operas and telenovelas". The Future of Human Reproduction: Working Paper #7.St. John’s College, Oxford & Vienna Institute of Demography. p.4-6
    Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20121119022224/ https://www.spi.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/PDF/Soaps_-_Number_7.pdf
    4 - My tip would be to search for the individual titles listed above on the Record website and then watch the various video clips. Google translate is useful for getting the gist for those who, like me, don't speak any Portuguese.