• Bible Films Blog

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

    Saturday, May 26, 2018

    Salomé (1922)


    Alla Nazimova was one of the leading figures of 1920s cinema, not just in her native Russia, but throughout the film-viewing world. Not only was she an actor of some repute but she also wrote, edited, produced and directed. Indeed, whilst her husband Charles Bryant was given the directing credit for Salomé, many consider that Nazimova is, at the very least, worthy of consideration as a co-director. Certainly she, in combination with her friend Natacha Rambova oversaw the film's art-direction and had a hand in the design of the costumes and sets,. The costumes and sets were based on the original drawings Aubrey Beardsley created to accompany Oscar Wilde's play.

    Whilst the film lacks Strauss' music and omits most of Wilde's text, it is very much an adaptation of Wilde's 1891 play, itself drawing on numerous writers and artists stretching back from Flaubert and Moreau all the way to the New Testament. David Thomson records that Nazimova herself called it "a pantomime of the play", and there's a certain appeal to that description (624). Wilde's plot and sense of decadence are clearly at the forefront, much of the film's dialogue belongs to him, and the film retains the occasional Wilde innovation, such as calling John the Baptist 'Jokanaan'.

    Another aspect of Wilde's work that remains is the production's atypical sexuality. Numerous sources testify to Nazimova's lesbianism or bisexual (e.g. Lambert 162), and the result of her bold choices with respect to costume and set design was to create one of the earliest pioneering works of queer cinema. With its androgynous characters, stylised costumes and phallic props, Salomé is perhaps the most camp of all biblical films - a category with no shortage of competition - and it's influence can be seen in an array of subsequent films based on the New and Old Testaments, from 1933's Lot in Sodom, through to more macho efforts such as The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    The visual impact of Navimova's work is breathtaking, with avant garde, art deco, sets and strangely alien-esque costumes. Herod looks like a cross between Bacchus and a circus clown, Herodias like one of Macbeth's witches and Nazimova herself looking like she had just stepped off the set of Metropolis, itself still half a decade from completion.

    But its emotional impact is no less powerful. Whilst there seems very little interest in Ulderico Marcelli's original musical arrangement, contemporary versions of the score are well and truly in abundance. Recent soundtracks such as those by Mike Frank or P. Emerson Williams or The Bad Plus have revitalised the movie bringing it new-found popularity in the modern age.Indeed it's one of the finest examples of Silent film music coming full circle: just as in the early days a movie might be accompanied by anything from a single pianist to a full-scale orchestra, depending on the size of the venue and the grandeur of the production, today live showings feature an inspiring array of accompaniments from canned music on a DVD, through small collectives, right up to 70-piece orchestras.

    In a version of Salomé that I saw recently, Hayley Fohr's drone inspired score combined violin and double bass with drums and manipulated vocals to give an ethereal power to Bryant, Nazimova and Rambova's images. Paul Joyce described it as "a mix of avant rock, post-rock, electronica and trace elements of folk/country" which captures it nicely. The music gave heightened the emotional impact of the film, but it's clear from the fact that this is such a popular film to screen that this is not a two-way street. Even watching the film in silence the power of its imagery is clear.

    Fohr chose to omit the film's intertitles, a decision which proved controversial with some. Watching the film again, this time with the intertitles included, I'm not convinced they move the plot on a great deal, although their design and their use of Wilde's dialogue give them a certain aesthetic pleasure. It would have been better had the missing intertitles simply been cut, rather than replaced with several seconds of black screen. Nevertheless, I'm reminded of the famous dictum of another key director of the silent era, Alfred Hitchcock: "Show, don't tell". If nothing else, Fohr's the wordless approach does underline the film's ability to convey its story and its meaning based purely on its imagery.

    What lies at the heart of all this emotion are the film's themes of desire, rejection and unrequited love. Herod desire's his step daughter oblivious to the pain he is causing Herodias. But Salomé has no eyes for him, only for John, who in turn is too pure for the sultry dancer. Instead Jokanaan gazes only towards the heavens. Meanwhile two of Herod and Herodias' servants (Herodias's unnamed page and Narraboth the Syrian guard) are similarly entangled. The former has eyes only for the moon - which looms large in numerous shots - the latter keeps an overly attached eye on the princess. Salomé is oblivious to both. In a desperate attempt to keep Salomé away from the Baptist, Narraboth takes his own life, but when his body falls at Salomé's feet she barely even notices, stepping over his body to continue her attempt to win a kiss from the prophet (see above). When the princess finally gets her kiss, once Jokanaan's head has been removed from his body, it so enrages Herod that he has her immediately executed.

    Sadly the film's pioneering expression of sexuality proved similarly fatal to its performance at the box office. In addition to its unconventional style, rumours that the film had "employed only homosexual actors" (Anger 163) and tales of on-set debauchery, hurt the film at a time when the industry was still suffering from the fallout from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Yet somehow it was this film, rather than some of Nazimova's more commercially successful films that has survived. No doubt this is partly because it became cherished by a community that was still very much living underground in the early 1920s, but perhaps it was also because, in a field where still few, if any, women are known primarily by their surname in the way that many men are, this film, more than any other expressed a purity of artistic vision and single-minded determination to make the film the way she imagined it.

    In addition to Joyce's review, readers may also like to read those by Martin Turnbull and God is in the TV.

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    - Anger, Kenneth (1981 [1975]) Hollywood Babylon New York: Dell Publishing
    - Joyce, Paul (2018) "Under the Moon… Salomé (1923) with Haley Fohr Ensemble, Barbican" at ithankyou. Available online at:
    http://ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/under-moon-salome-1923-with-haley-fohr.html
    - Lambert, Gavin (1997) Nazimova: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
    - Lindsay, Richard A. (2015) Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    - Theophano, Teresa (2002) "Film Actors: Lesbian" at glbtq.com. Available online at
    http://www.glbtqarchive.com/arts/film_actors_lesbian_A.pdf
    - Thomson, David (2002) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, LONDON (Little Brown), Fourth Edition.

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    Thursday, May 24, 2018

    Judas (2004)


    This review was originally posted on 7th April 2005, and I've been meaning to post it here ever since they deleted all my reviews a few years back. As someone emailed me this week asking about it I thought perhaps now was a good time to do so. I've not revised the text of what I wrote so please don't judge me on it too harshly. And if you enjoy reading it please consider a donation to web.archive.org as without them, you wouldn't be reading it. For another, similarly old, take on this film try Jugu Abraham's review

    It’s funny how you don’t get any Jesus films for a while and then three come along all at once. *Last year's The Passion of the Christ (my review) was preceded by the Visual Bible’s word for word rendition of The Gospel of John. Once The Passion proved to be the surprise hit of the year, US TV network ABC was quick to dust off it’s film Judas, (which had sat unloved on their shelves for a couple of years), and screen it shortly afterwards. It’s quite a surprise, then, to find it released for rent, in the UK – few American TV shows have made it so far.

    Thematically, Judas is similar to Jesus Christ, Superstar, even if its considerably more orthodox in its theology. As the title would suggest, it’s mainly focused on Judas, and how he ended up becoming one of history’s most reviled villains. Interestingly, whereas most Jesus films, except perhaps The Passion, try to whitewash Judas, this film presents a more complex character. It’s true that he ends up becoming a political pawn in a first century Roman-Jewish power struggle, but the character’s manipulative tendencies, uncompromising stance and social awkwardness are clearly shown as factors in his downfall. Yet unlike most other Jesus films, there is a glimmer of hope that Judas finds last minute salvation.

    In comparison to Judas, the flaws of which largely aid the intended portrayal, the depiction of Jesus falls well short. It is unfortunate that Jonathan Scarfe, who plays Jesus, has a similar face and expression to Matthew Lillard’s irritating reality TV D-lister in high school drama She’s All That, but even so, a casting director chose that face nevertheless. What is Scarfe’s fault is that he plays Jesus as a whiny spoilt child who is still to grow up. The turning of the tables in the temple, unusually included at the start (preferring John’s chronology to the Synoptics), is portrayed as a temper tantrum. The "get behind me Satan" incident is shown similarly. Whilst there are few other so direct examples, the "it’s not fair" look and the "if you don’t do what I say I’m going to tell my dad" glare are never far away. Whilst not as bad as Glen Carter’s disastrous, pouting, Jesus in the 1999 filmed for video version of Jesus Christ, Superstar, it runs a close second. If Jesus really was like that, Judas must have had the patience of a saint to put up with him as long as he did. I would have shopped him long before, and spent my 30 pieces of silver on a grandstand seat.

    It is a shame that that Jesus’s role is portrayed so woefully. Judas’ emphasis on Jesus as a miracle worker would otherwise have been a welcome relief to the scores of versions which have focused only on the ‘great teacher’ while marginalising the signs and wonders which the gospels suggest were the key to Jesus’s popularity.

    Like its protagonist, Judas is certainly not all bad. The sets and costumes are fairly impressive, even if you get the impression that this was the only pocket of the Roman Empire where dentistry was flourishing. And the modernising of the dialogue is a worthy effort, even if it fails a few times.

    However, such a weak portrayal of Jesus will undermine any story he features in. Jesus is such a crucial figure in human history that we are only aware of characters such as Judas because of how they impacted his life. So whichever executive consigned this to an early ABC grave prior to its unexpected resurrection as a shameless cash-in was probably right. Leave this at Blockbuster and go watch, the Jesus mini-series, The Gospel of John or Jesus Christ Superstar live on stage instead.


    *Like I said above, this was originally written in 2005, so I left the chronology in to reflect the era it was from.

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    Wednesday, May 16, 2018

    Salome (1953)


    Salome (1953) was the last biblical epic to be made before the advent of widescreen later that same year, and it remains a fine example of what could be achieved with the academy aspect ratio, not least because of director of photography Charles Lang's compositions and striking use of technicolor. Yet for all that, it's a film that is easily, and indeed often, sneered at. For many, it seems it has become the poster-child for all that is 'wrong' with biblical epics: the camp; the excess; the fake piety; cheesy dialogue and bad acting; not to mention a plot that bears little resemblance to the scant source material. Yet on closer inspection it is a different film, a better film, than its reputation suggests.

    It's true that, in contrast to many biblical epics, Salome seems to rather relish the lowness of its brow, in particular the elements of camp. Alan Badel portrays John the Baptist in super serious fashion, his clipped English accent and wide-eyed staring into the distance, contrasting with his camel-hair costume like Jeeves in leopard skin. In contrast Charles Laughton dusts off his performance as Nero in Sign of the Cross (1932) and "plays Herod like a giant, randy eunuch" (Lindsay, 107). And then there's the earnestness with which Rita Hayworth, once the forces sweetheart, plays a character fifteen years her junior.

    Hayworth's role is particularly interesting. Tragically, as a star she is beginning to be remembered less for her movies than for her posters. Even amongst serious film students, the pivotal role of posters of her in The Bicycle Theives (1948) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) seems to be overtaking her fine performances in films such as Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shangai (1947).

    Whilst it's true that at 35 she was perhaps a little too old to play a coming of age princess, it's certainly no worse than Henry Winkler playing "The Fonz" at almost forty, or, more recently, 31 year old Andrew Garfield playing the teenager Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Indeed with this role there was even historical precedence; Alla Nazimova was 43 when she played the eponymous role in the 1922 version of the story. In contrast to all of those actors, Hayworth appeared fresh-faced and bright-eyed and was perhaps 'never lovelier', than as the princess who finds her homeland has more to offer her than Rome. Sadly Hayworth's career never really recovered from the film's critical mauling, though she continued working for another twenty years.

    Salome also had a similar affect on director William Dieterle's career. One of many Jewish directors to flee 1920s Germany, his career never reached the peaks of Robert Siodmak or Billy Wilder, even though his 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola won the Academy Award for best film. After Salome he produced only a few more films over a twenty-year period, eventually returning to his native country in the late 1950s.

    Yet the film was not the financial disaster all this suggests, going on gross $137 million at the box office. The film's success was, in part, down to a controversial billboard campaign featuring the Salome's love interest Claudius (Stewart Granger) leaning over a scantily clad Hayworth. The city council in Los Angeles claimed to have received "over 150 letters of protest" about the posters and so forced them to be taken down (Variety 1953a), although the subsequent court case was dismissed, finding that "(p)ublic morals were not shocked" (Variety 1953b). The controversy and resulting publicity only appears to have piqued interest at the box office, to the extent that in May 1953 Columbia were reportedly thinking of casting Hayworth in another biblical picture this time about Mary Magdalene (Variety 1953c).

    However, contrary to what the controversy suggests, the film's real surprise, was the way it tried to redeem Salome and, by extension, Hayworth's image. In contrast to the marketing images of Salome, in her opening scenes she appears clad in a virginal white gown, dancing an innocent, rather than seductive, dance. It's interesting that whereas the filmmakers were taken to court but ultimately vindicated over the use of Hayworth's image, in the film Salome herself is exiled without any kind of trial or due process, an innocent victim.

    This portrayal as Salome as a misunderstood innocent continues throughout the film. Forced out primarily on the grounds of "being a barbarian", her only real crime throughout the film is taht she is initially a little put out at her mistreatment. The male characters, and indeed, her own mother, consistently judge her based on little more than her appearance: Caesar banishes her, Pilate assumes she will be trouble, Herod lusts after her, the Baptist condemns her (or at least her family) and her mother deceives and uses her. Ultimately even the audience's primary expectation - that Salome will dance to condemn John the Baptist - is proven to be false. In a revision of the basic plot breathtakingly out of keeping with the traditional story, Salome dances not to condemn John, but to save him. Ultimately, John dies not because Salome is too corrupted, but because she proves to be too innocent, outwitted by her mother's machinations.

    It's difficult to know what to make of the film's revisionist take on the story. Previous film adaptations, such as the 1922 silent Salomé, tended to take their lead from Oscar Wilde's 1891 play (and, to a lesser extent, Strauss's 1905 opera). Wilde provides a different motive for Herodias' daughter to the biblical story, where Herodias encourages her daughter to ask for the Baptist's head to silence his criticism of her affair with Herod. In Wilde's play, Salomé falls in love with John, but when he rejects her advances, she turns on him and dances for Herod in order to exact her revenge. However when finally presented with the Baptist's severed head, her old feelings return and she kisses it, an act that so appals Herod that he has her killed. Wilde's Salome, then, is presented as the archetypal femme fatale: attractive, lustful, capable of furious anger such that the cycle of the story can only be completed by her death. In other words it's a noir plot where a women is punished for her failure to conform.

    Of course, aside from her posters, Hayworth is best remembered for her role in Gilda (1946) a typical film noir where she plays a typical femme fatale. It's not hard to imagine, then, that audiences expected her to undergo a similar comeuppance. Yet instead of a biblical Gilda they get treated to an innocent Hayworth who only agrees to use her sexuality when pressured by various characters, and for the noble cause of saving John. Thus whilst Forshey is correct to note that the curious revision of the plot still manages to appeal "simultaneously to the religious sensibilities and the prurience of the audience", it was surely not in the manner in which they were expecting. This is no doubt why even though the famous dance of the seven veils scene is more or less as might be expected, it ultimately feels out of keeping with the rest of the film.

    Commentators on the Bible on film have tended to judge the film harshly for this very reason. For Babington and Evans the "wildly inventive" narrative is the result of "deformation piled upon deformation...producing an exhibition of the sub-genre's intrinsic interests, motifs and themes, though at the cost of historical plausibility" (186). Be that as it may, the revisionist plot does join together particular biblical details in an interesting fashion. The gospel accounts of John the Baptist's death never mention Salome by name - that detail is left to Josephus. Yet the name Salome does occur in Mark 15:40 and 16:1 as one of the women at the crucifixion and the empty tomb. This is usually taken to be an entirely different woman, as is perhaps likely, but there's a certain poetry to the theory that the daughter of Herodias did somehow become one of the followers of Jesus, possibly even one of the women of means who supported him.

    Whilst the film doesn't explicitly make this claim, the final shot we see of Salome is her, again dressed in white, stood next to Claudius and listening to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Christ's face is not shown, only his back is visible, both here, and in an earlier scene where he restores a man's sight (where we get a close up of his hand). As is typical for the Roman-Christian epic, we're left to infer the rest.

    I can't help wondering, however, if the reason the subversion of the original story is so notorious is not so much because it diverges from the Bible - it would hardly be the first epic to be guilty of that - but because they've failed to properly smooth out the plot around the edges of the transplant. In particular, it's not really clear how come Granger's Claudius shifts from being banned from returning to Galilee in one scene, to turning up there hoping to save the day in the next. Nor is it clear why, when he does arrive, he's unable to do so. I imagine there's a cutting room floor somewhere that could tell a tale, but without scenes explaining this, the ending comes across as a bit of a mess.

    Ultimately, though, I still can't decide about Salome. Is it a cynically exploitative take on the story made in the knowledge that, provided they could keep the censors at bay, the prospect of Rita Hayworth stripping off would prove to be box office gold? Or is it bold revision of the traditional story which not only attempts to rehabilitate the biblical character, but also the star that played her. Either way it provides an opportunity to revisit the biblical story in the light of the #MeToo movement. A girl of unknown age coerced into trading her body. If that's not a metaphor for the Hollywood of yesteryear, I don't know what is.

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    -Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    -Forshey, Gerald E. (1992) American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars Westport CT: Praeger
    -Lindsay, Richard A. (2015) Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    Variety (1953a) "
    Rita Shows Too Much ‘Salome’ to Suit LA." May 5 
    Variety (1953b) "Solon’s Not Hot ‘Salome’" May 19 
    Variety (1953c) "Widescreen, Stereo Sound For Coronation Tinter" May 26

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    Wednesday, May 02, 2018

    Jesus' Female Disciples (2018)


    About ten years ago, Channel Four was a reliable source of documentary films about the Bible. In particular Robert Beckford hosted various programmes that enabled the station to cover both it's mandate to include some religious content and it's charge to produce provocative work and promote alternative points of view. Sadly, eventually things ran out of steam; for a while Channel 5 took on 4's mantle and churned out the odd religious conspiracy doc; and then that too seemed to pass. The last few Christmases and Easters have seen rather threadbare.

    It's a welcome return then, to see that this year Channel 4 broadcast Jesus' Female Disciples: The New Evidence as its Easter offering. Fronted by Prof. Joan Taylor (Biblical Adviser for this year's Mary Magdalene movie) and regular contributor to biblical documentaries, Prof Helen Bond, the programme takes a look at the first female followers of Jesus.

    As would be expected much is made of the first few verses of Luke 8 which names Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna as those who "provided" for Jesus and his followers "out of their resources". Unsurprisingly then the first section focuses on Mary Magdalene. It does well here to avoid getting bogged down to much in Pope Gregory and the Da Vinci code, the presenters dismiss the smear job on Mary with a few good-humoured eye rolls. Instead it looks more at Mary's origins. Mary's name may indicate that she haled from Magdala, but which of the many? Having journeyed to one of the more likely candidates they go on to talk about how Magdala is Aramaic for tower. This leads to a particularly interesting point. Just as Simon was called Simon Peter, the rock, and James and John were known as Boanerges (the sons of thunder), might "tower" be Jesus' affectionate name for Mary?

    After the break move onto the next woman on Luke's list, Joanna. Joanna, Luke tells us was the wife of Herod's steward Chuza. This takes Taylor and Bond to the city of Tiberias, the location of Herod's palace, a place we have no record of Jesus visiting and, as is pointed out, somewhere very different to the small towns and villages Jesus is normally found in. Bond also suggests, a little speculatively, that it was probably Joanna (rather than Mary) who provided the lion's share of the money for Jesus and his followers.

    At this point I was rather expecting the programme to move onto Susanna, but of course little else is known about her other than her name. Instead Bond and Taylor move on to another passage of the Bible, Mark 6:7-9. This is the passage where Jesus sends his followers out to spread his message two by two. Noting how the phrase "two by two" recalls the story of Noah's ark, where the words very much mean one male and one female, Taylor suggests that this would be the natural interpretation here as well. After all, given cultural boundaries between men and women, it would hardly be appropriate for men to be ministering and baptizing women.

    Having looked at the texts the presenters then move on to look at some of the archaeological evidence for female followers, disciples and leaders. First of all they find an early shrine to St Salome (The Cave of Holy Salome), who the Gospels identify as being at both the crucifixion and the resurrection. The cave - one of the earliest remaining Christian churches - where they find a graffitied prayer to the saint. They then relocate to Napoli where they find late 5th century paintings of Cerula complete with evidence suggesting she was a bishop.

    Having opened with a volley of Jesus film clips, this documentary got off to the perfect start, but the rest of it was well worth staying around for. Having watched many of these films over the years, as well as being involved in biblical studies for most of my adult life, it's always good to come away with something new; this time there was a good deal I hadn't heard before. As you would expect from the Middle East and Rome the visuals were pretty good and the traits that I suppose should really be thought of as the genre conventions (going on a "journey", academics pretending for the camera they don't know stuff they plainly do, the overly dramatic language) were largely kept under control.

    What's more whilst the majority of TV documentaries still tend to have only a single presenter, or two men (the buddy-doc) it was good to see two female presenters working together and playing off each other to get their respective points across. Some will find it too speculative, but this is the nature of working around the margins of ancient texts that are, even at best only a partial reflection of what really happened. To that end, the programme explored some interesting and fresh ideas and theories based on the limited evidence: It's good to have Channel Four doing this kind of thing once again.

    Available on catch-up for 7 more days

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    Tuesday, May 01, 2018

    Xena: Warrior Princess - The Giant Killer (1996)


    Over the years makers of biblical films have often been at pains to stress the historical and/or biblical accuracy of their particular portrayals. There have always been exceptions however and, as would be no surprise to fans of the show, one adaptation that is cheerfully anachronistic is the episode of Xena: Warrior Princess called The Giant Killer (Series 2 episode 3, 1996).

    As the title suggests, this is the episode where Xena meets up with an old friend of hers, a giant called Goliath, only to find themselves on opposing sides of the conflict between Israel and the Philistines. Like the biblical story Israel is still being led by King Saul, seconded by his son Jonathan, but unlike 'the original' David is already a valued member of the Israelite army, such as it is, and good friends with Jonathan (who dies before Goliath does).

    For their part, the Philistines are led by a king called Dagon, (in the Bible the name of a Philistine god rather than their king) who sees Saul as a "petty criminal". Dagon also claims that the land "was an unproductive desert when we got here, and now, it's a thriving area!", which echoes the claims often made about how the kibbutz movement transformed the landscape of modern Israel.

    Goliath here is given a far more significant back story than in any other dramatisation that I can recall. He has known Xena from her time before the series began. Not only is he familiar with her metanoiabut it emerges that the last time the two of them saw each other they were fighting together against another giant called Gareth. On that occasion Goliath saved Xena from Gareth's army only to see their enemy kill Goliath's family.

    A decade on and Goliath is still hunting Gareth. It's for this reason that he is working as Dagon's muscle - despite his apparent misgivings about the Philistine king - yet when he finds out that he will be opposing Xena he almost considers deserting the Philistine army. Dagon however convinces Goliath to stay by promising to tell him where he can find Gareth if he stays.

    Reluctantly the two former comrades end up on opposite sides of the battle and unfortunately for the Philistine hero, Xena tells David about his weak spot and helps him plan how to bring the giant down. Goliath's death, then, has a sense of tragedy about it. Not only do we, at least, appreciate his motives, but Goliath dies in vain, with his family still unavenged.

    By coincidence, I happened to watch this film, Mary Magdalene (2018) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2012) within a week of each other and I could but be struck by the parallels between them. (Minor Spoilers for all three) All three feature a male protagonist who is mourning the death of his family and is now driven to action by that sense of loss. Here, as with Guardians it's too gain revenge on the person that murdered them. In Mary Magdalene it was to bring about the kingdom, which, one could argue was still a form of revenge, only a kinder, gentler form, with God doing the avenging. Nevertheless, all three characters suffer a cinematic "death" of sorts, with a sense of them being united with their families in death. And, of course, the audience gets the sense that ultimately they will get their wish (sort of). In Guardians it comes sooner than the others. In Mary it depends on how you view the Jesus movement and your faith for the future. Here, Goliath's revenge storyline reaches a conclusion later in the series when Xena causes Gareth to be struck by a bolt of lightning (end of spoilers).

    Either way, this redeeming of Goliath is a radical departure from the Bible, and even his portrayal in most other David films, although films such as David e Golia (1959) do this to a certain extent. This is thoroughly in keeping with the way Xena's "lack of historical accuracy" is a "running joke" throughout the series.2 "Xena's self-parody" and "her mismatched style" reinforcing that her "storyline never really happened".3 The series repeatedly subverts the myths in it's path, through it's humorous tongue in cheek style. By revisiting each story, playfully exaggerating and reimagining them, and developing characters beyond the details we find in the 'original' myths, it simultaneously presents a made-up version of the story which was definitely not how it happened, but nevertheless highlights the incomplete, and typically one-sided, nature of the traditional version of the stories. 

    In this particular episode it's interesting that in addition to the aspects of the dialogue and script (available online) that alter and exaggerate the story from the first Book of Samuel, it also does it visually. When we first encounter Goliath he is already taller than the 9'9" (or 6'6") that the Bible credits him with. However, as the episode goes on he grows taller and taller relative to the other characters, moving from perhaps 12 foot to about 18th by the end of the episode.

    There is also some toying with the idea of God. Being more familiar with the Greek pantheon, Xena's sidekick Gabrielle struggles to get her head around her new found friends' monotheism. At one point she tells David "This one God stuff is a new concept for me". David tries explaining that his god is "the ultimate power the highest Being there is", before employing a metaphor or two, "try to think of him as a sort of caretaker to the world, like our shepherd". This reminds David of a song he had just thought of, which he then recites which is, of course, Psalm 23. Shortly afterwards, on the morning of the battle, Xena sees David with his head bowed, sidles up to him and says "You might want to mention the weather to, you know, Him"

    But perhaps one of the most interesting things the episode does is with David, and his rise to power. Whilst Saul remains king, Jonathan's death creates something of a vacuum. Initially it seems like Xena, who has sided with the Israelites due to Dagon's oppression of them, will be the one to take down Goliath and liberate them. Yet after Jonathan's death both Xena and David independently come to the same conclusion that it has to be David that kills Goliath and defeats Dagon, not Xena. What the Israelites need is "a leader", "someone to believe in". Thus Xena advises, equips, emboldens and fights alongside David, but ultimately it is he who leads the people and he who takes on and defeats Goliath.

    Ultimately, then, for all the show's subversion, it leaves the story's primary structure more or less intact. David becomes the hero, defeats Goliath and ultimately becomes their leader. It's an approach nicely summed up by a final disclaimer in the credits: "No Bible myths or icons were irreparably mangled during the production of this motion picture". Well quite.

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    1 - My understanding is that Xena first appeared in the Hercules TV series starring Kevin Sorbo as an anti-heroine, before having a change of heart after her dealings with Hercules. The redeemed Xena then began her own series as a hero with a past.
    2 - Frankel, Valerie Estelle (2018), "Hercules, Xena and Genre: The Methodology Behind the Mashup" in Diak, Nicholas (ed.) The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Since the 1990s, pp.115-134. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland. p.116
    3 - ibid. p.123
    4 - I'm grateful for Grantman Brown's transcript of this episode provided at SpringfieldSpringfield:
    https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=xena-warrior-princess&episode=s02e03

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    Saturday, April 28, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 12


    This is part 12 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode and are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here
    So we arrive at the final episode in the first series of A.D.: The Bible Continues, which, three years after series 1 concluded, looks likely to be the last episode, leaving the series high and dry somewhere around Acts 11. It's a shame really because as the series has continued it has far out stripped my expectations, not only surpassing The Bible (2013) and it's spin off Son of God (2014), but also the series' earliest episodes which seemed to fall prey to the same weaknesses as its predecessor. As the series has moved further away from the Gospels, and as the biblical content has been diluted with the Roman/fictional content it seems to have improved. There's still been the odd dodgy special effect - and this episode's angelic appearance to Cornelius is no exception - but the over-emphasis on violence has been replaced by better storytelling craft, character development and pacing.

    The backstory that has been building up through the last few episodes is that of the statue of Gaius (i.e. Caligula) that is to be erected in the temple. The portrayal here conflates things a little. Pilate was out of power in Jerusalem by about 37AD, but the incident with Gaius' statues did not occur until around 39-40AD (recorded in Philo). There was however an earlier episode which both Philo and Josephus record where Pilate tried to erect Roman standards bearing Caesar's image. This took place around 26-27AD, at the start of Pilate's governorship and at which the Jewish leaders and people "fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law" (Josephus, War II:175-203, 7). This earlier episode was portrayed at the very start of Jesus (1999).

    The composite incident we are left with in A.D.: Kingdom and Empire has Gaius' statues being brought into the temple by a nervy Pilate. There the Christian's, led by James and Peter, join Caiaphas and the high priests in kneeling on the ground in front of Pilate's soldiers and bearing their necks. Pilate decides discretion is the better part of valour and withdraws to consider his options. The last scene in the series is someone coming to arrest Peter, presumably just in time for series 2 to begin at the start of chapter 12.

    Before all this however Peter has been in Joppa. There he encounters Cornelius after both men have heard from God. Peter for his part hears a voice that simply says "Peter, these are looked on as unclean, but do not call anything impure that God has cleansed." and on screen we see a selection of brief shots of individual non-kosher animals.It's all over rather quickly. Cornelius however, sees his vision only after being overwhelmed by guilt for killing Joanna. He takes some time out from Jerusalem for a while and arrives in Joppa and whilst there sees a vision of an angel who tells him "Godly has looked kindly on your...repentance" and asks him to send for Peter. The two meet and talk, and then those present - including Cornelius's family - start speaking in tongues and we see tongues of fire.

    This scene is notable for several reasons. Firstly, because whilst all the elements of the biblical version of the story are essentially present, albeit in abbreviated form, it feels rather deprived of the Jewish context. I think essentially Peter seems to lack any sense of disgust at the unclean animals and untroubled by the implications of what is now happening. It's more than that, though. Somehow despite the way the series has led the way in its portrayal of race in many ways, it doesn't quite get this right here. The incident just lacks the significance the Bible gives it.

    Secondly, it's interesting to see the different characters speaking in tongues. This is straight out of the Bible, but it's interesting that we don't often get to see Christians speaking in tongues, except occasionally at Pentecost, and even then it's rather different. Here the characters are speaking tongues making a similar sounds and in a similar manner to how charismatic Christians do today. That's an assumption by the filmmakers, but it's interesting to see.

    It's also notable that Mary Magdalene is with Peter when she meets Peter and she somehow discerns that Cornelius was responsible for killing her friend Joanna and is troubled by it. Again it would be easy to be sniffy about this, but there is a ring of truth about the way this unfolds. Cornelius haunted by the guilt of it. A discerning Christian able to somehow put the finger on the issue, which, in turn therefore deeply affects the person in question.

    Lastly once their meeting is over Cornelius pretty much just returns to his old job. The show does quite a good job of exploring this. Peter and his friends expect Cornelius to join their ranks, just as previous Jewish converts have done. Cornelius however think he has to go back to soldiering, but with an expectation that roles will change. It's tempting to say the show is pushing for a world where faith has no bearing on your beliefs and actions in your day job, but actually this is not at all fair. Instead it leaves it open and we're unsure how it will resolve itself. Cornelius is clearly a changed man and that is impacting how he lives in all areas of his life, but for him it doesn't equate to leaving the army, at least not yet.

    It would be interesting to see how these various things resolve themselves, both as the focus shifts away from Jerusalem and as the leading characters become less tethered to the biblical characters. Sadly it doesn't look like we'll get the chance. It's a shame though because whilst I had to force myself to watch the first few episodes, in the second half of the series I've found myself having to slow down the rate at which I watched it to give myself enough time to write it up. I believe Roma Downey and Mark Burnett would like to produce more episodes. Lets hope that, against all odds, they get the chance.

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    Sunday, April 22, 2018

    Jesús, Nuestro Señor (1971)


    Probably an entire book could be written about Jesus films from Mexico. The country's Catholic roots and relative poverty have meant their gospel adaptations have held a distinctly different flavour from the excess and Protestantism of their North American counterparts. Jesús de Nazareth (1942)María Magdalena (1946),  El Mártir del Calvario (1952) and El Processo de Cristo (1965) all have their distinctions, but it's perhaps the 1971 film Jesús, Nuestro Señor (Jesus Our Lord) that is of most interest today.

    A good deal of that is due to the choice of Claudio Brook as Jesus. Brook made his name in a string of films withLuis Buñuel. He had what many consider the title role in The Exterminating Angel (1962) and the lead role as something of a Christ figure in Simon del Deserto (Simon of the Desert,1965). Four years later, Buñuel had left Mexico, and Brook joined him in Europe to work on La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way), to many the director's most strongly anti-religious work. Whilst that time the Jesus role went to Bernard Verley, Brook played a bishop.

    Whilst Jesús, Nuestro Señor is a far more reverential work than Simon and La Voie Lactée (it still contains a couple of sequences which, if not quite as surreal as Buñuel's work, certainly seems unusual compared to most English language Jesus films.

    Two moments catch the eye in particular. When John the Baptist is executed, his head is brought on and laid before Herod with it's eyes open. Herod tries to evade it's stare. Eventually he even gets off his throne to walk out of the head's direct gaze, only to find it rotates slightly in order to follow him pacing increasingly anxiously back and forth.

    The other is one of those parts of the Bible that is usually considered a bit too much like something from a horror movie to be included in most Jesus films. According to Matthew 27:52-53, at the moment of Jesus' death, the tombs were opened and the saints came back to life. The metaphor sits rather awkwardly  alongside an earthquake and the tearing of the temple curtain as if wanting to drop a hint about the resurrection without giving it away. Here Jesus has already raised Lazarus, Jairus' daughter and the Widow of Nain's son, and the newly raised bodies arise in similar fashion, and start walking about, still bound in their grave-clothes.

    But the differences between Nuestro Señor and Hollywood offerings from the same period go far deeper than just these odd moments. There's clearly a gulf in budgets, which leads to the occasional ill-fitting beard and significantly smaller crowd scenes. This has a particular difference in the trial scene in Pilate's house. Their smaller numbers, and the way they are vociferously lead by the priests, belie any idea that this crowd is in someway representative of the Jewish nation as a whole. The space is crowded, but it's really only a handful of people who are in league with the establishment. Later the priests cruelly laugh at Jesus even after he's been flogged. Some will find that more troubling; others will see such a reaction to the suffering of one of their countryman as further evidence of their detachment from their people.

    There's also some interesting use of the camera, including the type of shots that mainstream Hollywood might have considered itself above. Occasionally the films zooms into a scene and then out again before focusing elsewhere. The shots draw attention to themselves, not least because they zoom in quickly, and sometimes unevenly, resisting moving at a dignified pace. There are also shots from low angles (see above), emphasising Jesus' power and various interesting high shots, including the "God shot" that captures that begins the dance of the seven veils.

    Comparing and contrasting the film's visuals and colour palette with its American rivals is also an interesting exercise. There are marked differences from the brightly coloured clothing the characters wear, through to the school play style costume an angel wears in for a shot of the nativity. Yet at the same time there are visual similarities such as the contrast of deep blue skies and Jesus' bright red robes, so reminiscent of King of Kings (1961). The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) began focusing on an invented fresco of Max von Sydow as Jesus.

    In contrast, Nuestro Señor starts with a series of famous paintings based on the life of Jesus, such as Filippo Lippi's "Adoration Of The Child" and El Greco's "Disrobing of Christ". Comparing the DVD and YouTube versions of these images to the originals, it's immediately obvious that the colours are now muted down to a sepia hue. It's unclear, though, to what the extent this is due to the quality of the print and the extent to which it's a choice by the filmmakers to make contrasting images more visually similar. In any case the bright, and by modern standards gaudy, colours that are prominent throughout the rest of the film, also recall various High Renaissance era paintings by Raphael and Michelangelo.

    The differences between this film and the classic Hollywood style also extend to its sound. The film's main theme, whilst still essentially orchestral, seems to lean more heavily on brass instruments, but adds in a number of less familiar instruments. We also hear the voice of Jesus inside the heads of those accusing the woman caught in adultery. This is an interesting development allowing the audience to experience different perspectives on Jesus in a short space of time. The use of these different perspectives would find a fuller experience a couple of years later with Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973). The film's aesthetics, then, are not wrong, or inferior, though they are limited by budget: they are just different from the more stately approach of the classic Hollywood epic. It makes for an interesting contrast.

    It's notable, too, the prominence the film gives to woman. In particular Mary, whom Jesus has a lengthy conversation with early on, practically the film's only invented scene. But also a wealthy looking Mary Magdalene; Herodias and her daughter; the widow of Nain; the woman caught in adultery; Pontius Pilate's wife Jairus' daughter; and Mary and Martha are given significant screen time. Because the film pieces together a series of scenes from the gospels, with relatively little embellishment, in a manner reminiscent of early silent Jesus films. The selection of scenes, then, speaks volumes, and it's notable that scenes featuring women, and those raised from the dead are particularly prominent.

    Brook carried on working until his death in 1995, mainly featuring in Mexican productions, though a role in Licence to Kill (1989) was a notable exception. His work on Cronos (1993) with Guillermo del Toro, means he is probably the only actor to have starred in films by both of Mexican cinema's leading lights. For his part, the director of Nuestro Señor's, Miguel Zacarías, went on to release a further two films based on the Gospels:  Jesús, el niño Dios (Jesus the Child of God), was released in the run up to Christmas that same year with its sequel Jesús, María y José (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 1972) arriving in cinemas just a few months later.

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    Thursday, April 12, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 11


    This is part 11 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode and are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here
    After the announcement in previous episodes that Caligula intends to place his image in the temple this episode finds panic over the potential for riots over the issue. Caiaphas and Pilate are trying to manoeuvre things politically whlist the zealots to co-opt the Ethiopian official to help in their violent schemes. Somehow Caiaphas knows about this but fears if he goes to Pilate he will be seen as a Roman collaborator and if doesn't that not only will Pilate blame him, but the revolt's inevitable failure will result in the Jews being crushed by roman might. Understanding, but nevertheless unsympathetic to this plight, his wife Leah meets Pilate's wife in secret and tips her off. Pilate wastes no time hauling the Ethiopian official before him, shaming him and sending home alone.

    Claudia tries to free Joanna, but it caught in the act, but Pilate's only concession is to let Claudia decide if she will die quickly and quietly by strangulation, or suffer crucifixion. Joanna makes the choice herself, opting for the former, and it's Cornelius who Pilate charges with doing the deed. Whilst several Christians have died for their faith in the series so far, I think this is only the second time a principal character has after, obviously Stephen.

    Meanwhile Peter and Philip have a meet up in Samaria, during which an angel appears to Philip, but not to Peter even though he is stood right beside Philip. The angel tells Philip to head to the Jerusalem-Gaza road. Peter heads off to the beautiful seaside location of Joppa and is reunited with Mary Magdalene and Tabitha who is dying from the wounds incurred during her flogging.

    This nicely joins things up, and it's interesting though to consider how radical a reworking of this passage this is when considered in terms of its portrayal of women. As one of the few women in Acts she is almost as cherished today as she was back then it's good to see her role developed a little, but it's also notable how radically her role has changed. In Acts 9 Tabitha is loved for "always doing good and helping the poor" and has apparently made many clothes for the women of Joppa. Whilst A.D. leaves space for this she has progressed to the stage where she had left her home town to become a professional seamstress in an important family.

    As noted in my comments on episode 10 she also was moved into a more typically male role - within biblical films and the modern imagination at least - by being flogged for her profession of faith. It's this flogging that ultimately results in her death (rather than becoming "sick" Acts 9:37). So in contrast to the rather passive figure of the Bible completing stereotypically female acts in a homely manner; here we find a career women who suffers a sterotypically male punishment.

    The other way in which this sequence defies gender stereotypes by reworking the source material is in Mary Magdalene's role. In the New Testament, Mary has disappeared from view long ago (she doesn't even feature by name in Acts). Here however, not only does she seems to push/transport Tabitha all the way from Jerusalem to Joppa (even though Peter was doing a similar journey at a similar time), it is also her that has the faith that Tabitha can be raised from the dead, and talks Peter into it. In Acts it is two men who "urge" Peter to come and the implication is that he find the faith fro this himself. Whichever way things worked out then, here it is Mary that is taking the initiative and is the one that has the faith. Again more evidence of the series' somewhat more socially progressive position.

    The episode culminates with the story of Philip and the Ethiopian official. Expelled from Jerusalem, his problems only appear to have got worse. In contrast with the account from Acts, he's no longer moving but stationary as the his wheel has come off his chariot and he is dejectedly sitting on his chariot reading Isaiah when Philip appears over a hill. The second part of the story however does follow Acts 8:26:40 very closely to the extent that Philip has barely finished lifting the man back out of the water before the Spirit whisks him away. There's a flaring special effect - the kind that the series as a whole has been getting away from, coinciding with it's improvement as a series. You can still view this scene here. Incidentally, Peter Chattaway wrote a nice piece on this scene at the time, including looking at a number of other portrayals of this incident.

    However, the episode saves its final shot for one of Pilate taking delivery of the statue of Caligula. It will be interesting to see how the final instalment in this series manages to marry up this story-line so rooted in Jerusalem with the growth of the early church that is increasingly happening elsewhere.

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    Monday, April 09, 2018

    Book Review - The New Peplum:
    Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s


    The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s
    Edited by Nicholas Diak

    McFarland (2018)
    234 pages
    Paperback
    ISBN 978-1476667621

    The re-emergence of the historical epic in the mid-1990s was something of a surprise. I sometimes wonder if the indignation of those who failed to see it coming have lead to the now resurgent genre being largely overlooked in academic film studies. And that's even before the fact that some of the genre's best loved recent hits were made not for film, but (gasp), television, is taken into account. There are, of course, a good number of books on silent and classic peplum, some of which even cover the occasional 21st century work, but aside from the odd book on biblical films, or associated with specific movies, the newly emergent sword and sandal films are still very much in the desert.

    Thankfully a new book, "The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s", edited by Nicholas Diak has stepped in to fill the gap. Tackling movies such as 300, Gladiator and Hercules and TV shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess, Spartacus and Vikings, the fourteen authors combine to give a good general overview of the neo-peplum, covering both a good range of the genre's key recent works and a wide variety of approaches to discussing them.

    After a foreword by David R Coon, Diak gives an introduction to the collection as a whole. He starts by searching for the best term to use to describe the works explored in the book, before deciding that "much as the term neo-noir came into currency to establish its own identity...the term neo-peplum is the most appropriate verbiage to categorize peplum films made after 1990" (5-6). He then goes on to highlight the five factors that are so distinctive of these later pepla "the advent of pepla on television; rapidly improving technology and filming techniques; trans-media storytelling in other forms such as comics, video games and music; the establishment of fan culture and communities; and the fluidity and adaptability of what constitutes a neo-peplum film" (6). He expands on each of these in turn before concluding that whilst filmmakers have failed "to recreate the success of Gladiator and 300...the proliferation of new neo-pepla on television, or that neo-peplum elements continue to be incorporated into other film genres" (such as superhero films) suggests the genre has an ongoing importance (14). The introduction ends with a brief introduction to the essays that are to follow.

    The book is divided into four sections, the first of which "Crossing the Rubicon" looks at "Expanding the Neo-Peplum Boundaries". Paul Johnson gets things moving with "Adapting to New Spaces: Swords and Planets and the Neo-Peplum". In it Johnson examines three recent science fiction films, Tron Legacy (2010), John Carter (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2015) which retain elements of the neo-pepla but which also "'de(re)compose' into new forms" (23). In particular he looks at the way the films loosely adapt classic myths such as Oedipus and The Odyssey; utilise elements of action and melodrama; echo the locations of classic peplum films; feature overdubbing; and retain in modified form the emphasis on the male body. "The key to their basis and success is adaptation, appropriation, and an ability to recombine, adjust and mutate the paradigm" (39). In so doing they "highlight an adapted continuance of the genre" (40). There's mention of the sword, sandals and monsters group of films within classic genre, but this could have been expanded more. Discussing John Carter's Tharks without mentioning Ray Harryhausen seems like a bit of a flaw to an otherwise solid opening.

    Not dissimilarly, it's a little surprising that Francisci's seminal Hercules (1958) receives only a brief mention in Djoymi Baker's "Hercules: Transmedia Superhero Mythology" which examines Brett Ratner's 2014 film of the same name, but in some ways that is her point. Rather than being the preserve of a single authoritative source Baker argues that it is precisely the "way that contemporary culture refashions the myth that keeps it alive" (45). In this specific case the film and its "paratexts" (44), of which Baker gives fascinating examples, emphasise the film's link with this era's most popular genre, the superhero movie. Baker also uses a neat parallel from Singin' in the Rain (1952) to highlight how the film starts by demythologizing, but then "arcs around" to return "to the myths and filmic tradition that the film originally dismisses as nonsense" (52) and how the paratexts play their part in both demythologizing and remythologizing.

    The third essay in this collection is Kevin M. Flanagan's "From Crowds to Swarms: Movement and Bodies in Neo-Peplum Films. Flanagan focuses on the role of crowds in peplum films which he considers to be "bread and butter to the genre, often underscoring the most lavish and narrative-punctuating moments in these films" (63). Yet crucially Flanagan notes that more recent films "are less interested in revising the narrative or ideological terrain of earlier films...and more concerned with pioneering new forms of bodily representation...many of these recent films invest less importance in crowd scenes of the old sort' and instead imagine mass bodies as swarms" (64). Having looked at the work of Elias Canetti and others on crowds, particularly in the ancient world and in cinema, he moves on to examine films such as 300 (2006), Gladiator (2000), Wrath of the Titans (2012) and Immortals (2011). Ultimately he finds the new technology used to create crowd scenes in neo-pepla makes them seem more malign and"echoes audience fears about new modes of warfare and protest" (75).

    Section 2, which focuses on "the barriers, challenges and liberties involved when realizing old worlds as new" (15), opens with Steve Nash's "The Are No Boundaries for Our Boats: Vikings and the Westernization of the Norse Saga". Being less familiar with the sagas, songs, Skaldic verse and Eddas of the Viking world, I appreciated Nash's detailed overview of the fluid material which he argues "is characterized by one key trait: a rejection of centrality (85). This is markedly different from the more-connected biblical material and indeed the "authoritarian structures that guide traditional Western narrative practice" (80), which Nash describes as "rhizomatic" which he argues reflects the way the Vikings themselves were "obsessively preoccupied  with a rejection of fixed narratives or boundaries". It would have been nice to see a little more space given to an analysis of the Vikings (2013-present) series, however.

    Nick Poulakis' "Sounds of Swords and Sandals: Music in Neo-Peplum BBC Television Docudramas" is hampered somewhat by the author's view of television as "unsophisticated" (98) and him seemingly polarising what I would argue is spectrum of truthfulness between documentary and drama.1 Nevertheless, he makes some interesting observations about the way that music for neo-peplum docudramas often "yearns for the 'archaic,' the 'natural' and the 'exotic,' while embodying issues of postmodern nostalgia, ideological aestheticization, eclectic innovation and post-capitalist consumption" (101), resulting in a "neocolonial (aural) discourse [which] is dominant for BBC Television docudramas" (104).

    Sticking with television, Valerie Estelle Frankel tackles two of neo-pepla's best known shows in "Hercules, Xena and Genre: The Methodology Behind the Mashup". Frankel explores the ways in which the two shows subvert and "co-opt the ancient myths...while re-imagining them" (130), rather than being "bound by the constraints of history or traditional myth" (116). Frankel enthusiastically highlights the playful nature of the two series as well as the way both series bend the stories which they toy with towards "modern sensibilities" (130). Hercules does this by "recasting its heroes as figures of the nineties" (118) most notably its "truly sensitive Hercules who cries and listens to women" (116); Xena presented a feminist vision of history "in which women can be anything they wish" (115), as well as taking "a major step for gay rights" (124). I've only ever seen snippets of Xena, but Frankel has persuaded me I ought to see more.2

    The book's third section - which looks at "The Glories of Rome" - opens with two chapters looking at the Starz TV network's series Spartacus. Hannah Mueller gives a detailed analysis of the series' "representation of emotion, violence and sex" in "Male Nudity, Violence and the Disruption of Voyeuristic Pleasure" (136), noting how its "camera does not significantly distinguish between male and female bodies" (138), rather what matters is how "control over the gaze mirrors the imbalance of power" (138). Like Mueller, Jerry B. Pierce ("Sex Lies and Denarii") discuss at length the shows portrayal of sex, violence and "moral depravity" (159). He notes the way the series contrasts the "duplicitous, crassly exploitative, and morally flawed" Romans (169), with the "reliable, trustworthy and altruistic" slaves (170), noting that whilst in general the series repeats the "expected tropes of ancient Rome...of corruption, exploitation, and immorality" (174), one key difference is that it "normalizes queer3 relations by divesting them of their previous deviant overtones" (175).

    Staying with Rome, Kevin J. Wetmore moves away from Italy during the time of the republic to Britain during the later years of the empire in "In the Green Zone with the Ninth Legion". The chapter's subtitle - "The Post Iraq Roman Film" nicely sums up its content, which looks three recent films, The Last Legion (2007), Centurion (2010) and The Eagle (2011). Wetmore notes how in contrast to the way the classic epic "present Rome and her soldiers as modeled after Nazis, fascists and/or communists" (178), these later films demonstrate a "reversal of this construction" (179). Whilst the "corrupt ruling class" still remains (181), the heroes of these films are the ordinary soldiers who are presented as "Honorable warriors fighting a save, religiously-driven, inhuman enemy (191). Thus all three films, released after the start of the invasion of Iraq, "align with a construction of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" (182), demonstrating "echoes of Iraq" through their reconstruction of Roman Britain (186).

    Part Four, "Sculpted in Marble" looks at the issue of "Gender and Representation". In "Laughing at the Body: The Imitation of Masculinity in Peplum Parody Films", Tatiana Prorokova examines three parodies of the genre, namely Mel Brooks' A History of the World: Part 1 (1981), Meet the Spartans (2008) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). In particular Prorokova focuses on how these films parody the portrayal of masculinity in many neo-pepla finding they take one of two opposite paths. Either they depict the male body as "physically untrained" or with "exaggerated strength and almost unbelievable invulnerability" (205). A particularly welcome focus of the chapter is the manner in which Spartans pushes the genre's idealising of the male body into portraying it as "an absolutely artificial, plastic object" (204).

    The final essay in this volume is Haydee Smith's "Queering the Quest: Neo-Peplum and the Neo-Femme in Xena: Warrior Princess".4 The particular focus here is the show's "elusive lesbian subtexts" and how it "critiques the constructed nature of romantic relationships, expected gender roles, and the aesthetics of culturally coded gender presentations" (208). Smith explores the idea of Xena as a "neo-femme icon" and the strategies of "performing feminine mimicry, disguising oneself with passing privilege, and queerly retelling social stories about hegemonic feminine gender roles" (210). The show never explicitly outs its two female leads and Smith sees this as a strength: "Whether or not the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is lesbian, it is undeniably queer; the queer nature of such a bond offers almost limitless possibilities" (214), and portray "the progressive potential of queer readings (215). Ultimately Smith concludes "Xena's aesthetic, strength, and sexuality defy feminine/masculine demarcations and reconfigure gender roles and regulations" (216).

    Smith's chapter segues nicely into an afterword by one of Xena writers and producers Steven L. Sears. It's an entertaining end to an enjoyable volume which does a great deal towards putting study of the neo-peplum on a more even footing academically with some of the more fashionable genres. Highlights for me were Flanagan's observations on the changing nature of crowd scenes and Frankel's advocacy for Xena, whilst Diak's introduction makes a number of great, general points in a relatively short space of time.

    As ever with these things they can only cover so much. Obviously my personal  preference would have been for a chapter or two on some of the more recent biblical pepla, but that might have upset a very nicely balanced collection of essays which Diak has collated, and that part of the market is already served by several good books whose extensiveness compensates for their broader time frame.

    It was good as well to see at least a reference to Indian peplum (14) which, again, there was not quite room for, but which might get included in future works on the subject should they ever be commissioned. I do hope they will be, because on the evidence of this volume, they deserve to be.

    =================
    1 - Whilst this may be true in general, I would argue that Rossellini's historical dramas such as The Rise of Louis XIVth is more sophisticated than the vast majority of offerings at the cinema and more factually accurate than many documentaries. Certainly compared to cinematic documentaries such as Supersize Me or Bowling for Columbine, Rossellini's TV dramas are both better art and less biased.
    2 - In particular the third episode of season 2 - "The Giant Killer" where "Xena sets up the David and Goliath battle by counselling the Israelite hero in the weak spots Goliath is hiding well as human politics (sic.) (126)
    3 - Whilst I recognise that some find the term "queer" to be offensive, many, have sought to redeem, reclaim and refine the term more positively. Recognising that it is a commonly used term in academic film studies, frequently by scholars who identify as LGBT, I have retained it here where it forms part of a direct quotation.
    4 - as note 3 above

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    Friday, April 06, 2018

    Further Thoughts on Mary Magdalene


    (Photo credit - Transmission Films)
    I made a second trip to see Garth Davis' Mary Magdalene (2018), yesterday, so thought this would be a good juncture to discuss a few other observations I have about the film, some of which only occurred to me during a second viewing. (Link to original review)

    Attendance
    The first thing that surprised me was the attendance. This contrasted greatly with the screening I went to on the film's opening night, where perhaps only 8-12 of us watched it two weeks before Good Friday. This time, at 6pm on Easter Wednesday, the, admittedly small, theatre was packed out, with about 60-80 in attendance. Having recently read one of my friend Steven D, Greydanus' tweets about the amount of time spent at church in the run up to Easter, I'm wondering if the recent strategy of releasing Bible films in the run up to Easter is perhaps misplaced.

    Brutality of Mary's Family
    It's often the earliest scenes that most benefit from a repeat viewing and so it proved here. Among various things to strike me this time was the brutality of Mary's eldest brother Dan. I recalled it the first time, but second time around the way he bullies all the members of his family - even his father - is really uncomfortable. Whilst none of Mary's family are in favour of her leaving to follow Jesus, there are a range of responses. In contrast to Dan, there's Mary's other brother Joseph (?). It is he that is the first one from Mary's family in contact with Jesus, and he that suggests "the healer" might be able to sort out his sister after the failed forced exorcism. Mary's father lies somewhere between the two. Certainly he lacks the anger of his eldest son, and he too is shown to be intrigued by the Jesus movement, but he also stands aloof from it in the scene where the people of Magdala swarm round Jesus on the beach (very reminiscent of Jesus Christ, Superstar).

    Supersessionism
    The other things that was utmost in my mind in these scenes and throughout, is the question of whether the film is supersessionist and therefore anti-Semitic. This line of thought was planted by an anonymous article in The Conversation which argues that whilst the film "dodges many of the anti-Jewish pitfalls of earlier Jesus films" the way it shows Jewish worship in the synagogue at Magdala "presents Judaism as unchanging from antiquity to today".

    The two issues the article hones in on are the gender segregation in the temple and the use of modern Hebrew rather than the Aramaic that would have been spoken at the time. I was staggered by the author's claim that "no evidence to support a division of genders in synagogue worship in antiquity" as I have seen/heard this presented on numerous occasions. I have, however, never looked into the issue myself. The author cites a paper on Leadership in ancient synagogues which provides evidence of women leading in synagogues at that time. That already disproves my previous understanding, even if it doesn't go quite as far as the author's assertion ("no evidence"). This quite key as the film is at pains to portray Mary leaving a 'world' that oppressed her to join a movement that liberates her and treats her as an equal, and to an extent plays those two worlds off against one another. And in rewatching the film it's clear that the religious aspect of the former world is a key component (though not the only one) of her oppression and one that the film ramps up, for example the over reaction to her praying in the synagogue. The use of Hebrew rather than Aramaic seems less problematic to me, but it does portray Judaism as frozen in time, which is a key element of supersessionism as I understand it.

    Two other scenes came to mind in this respect. The first is the contrasting scenes from Cana, where significantly there is no interaction at all with the religious aspects of the town. In Magdala many are baptised, but Mary is the only new recruit. In Cana Jesus comes away with a substantial following.

    More significant, in this respect, is the film's other depiction of the Jewish religion, and again it's very negative. As The Conversation article points out the scenes of sacrifice in the temple are portrayed as a problem, and Jesus' opposition to them goes significantly beyond what we find in the various clearing the temple passages in the Gospels.

    I feeling led by the article's line of thinking to question whether it's even possible for a Jesus film to avoid supersessionism. And to wonder, if so, if that equates to all Jesus films being anti-Semitic. Mary Magdalene gets a lot right in this respect - it avoids the most troubling passages completely, it even shows some fair minded Jews who listen to Jesus, and agree to disagree (although they are too few in number), it absolves Judas of blame and it makes it clear that it's the Romans who are responsible for killing Jesus because the people have called him Messiah. And yet, it undoubtedly pits Jesus against, Judaism and ultimately portrays him as being a bridge between his people and our modern values such as female equality. Can any Jesus film avoid this?

    Plot spurred on by Crisis
    Anyway, there were a few other things which came to mind. Firstly, it occurred to me this time around that as much as Mary's change of path is sparked by her meeting Jesus, it's also the result of a crisis, namely her impending marriage to a man she doesn't love. It's her reaction this (rushing to the synagogue to pray out loud) that make those around her think she is possessed and leave her feeling drastically adrift from her family.

    Repeated Ideas
    I was also struck by the number of themes and ideas that repeat through the film. So there is the opening shot of Mary floating/sinking in the water, which is not only repeated later in the film, but is also what Mary describes just before she asks Jesus "Is that how it feels to be one with God?" Then there is the phrase that Jesus uses when asked about forgiveness asks something along the lines of "How does it feel to hold all that anger inside? Does it lessen as the months go by?" Mary repeats this later in the film (after the resurrection if I remember rightly) only changes "months" to "days".

    Then there is the repeated retelling of the (reworked) parable of the mustard seed, which, again occurs at the very start of the film and then towards the very end. This is interesting in itself as the revision is quite significant, but quite nicely done (if I didn't have so much to do at the moment, I might devote a whole post to this, but still). There are four ancient versions of this parable, three from the Bible (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as well as one in the Gospel of Thomas. These vary quite a bit suggesting it's use was widespread in the era before the gospels were written down. Mary's version changes the protagonist from Matt/Luke to a woman (like the protagonist in the following Parable of the Leaven) and she plants it in her garden, rather than sowing it in a field - a far more caring and nurturing image. Perhaps when the DVD comes out I'll go into more depth.

    Similarities with Paul
    Lastly, there are also a number of similarities between this film and last month's other big screen Bible film, Paul, Apostle of Christ. Both films are kind of semi-fictional, turning their backs on some of the key material in the Bible in favour of their own material. Mary ignores John's post resurrection sequence; Paul is located in the time after the account in Acts has ended. Both films also have a quietness about them. Paul is wordier than Mary but still everyone speaks in hushed tones. This extends to a somewhat anti-epic feel to both films. Both have crowd scenes, but the vast majority of time in both films is spent tucked away from public view. Also both films minimise the violence in the places where it would be expected (in the crucifixion and the beheading of Paul), but introduce some grim scenes elsewhere, namely human bodies burnt by the Romans. And both give their lead women more elevated roles than either they have had before on film or in the source material, but don't really develop any other female character. I've got a feeling there are other similarities and may add a few on if they occur to me later.

    Needless to say there are a few things I will be keen to re-visit when this film comes out on DVD.

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    Sunday, April 01, 2018

    Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) Revisited


    I thought as it was Easter Sunday (at least in the Western Churches) that I should post about a Jesus film and as earlier in the day my family sat down to watch Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) I thought this would be a good place to start since it's been a long time since I wrote anything about that film at all.

    One of the thing that I've mentioned before but never on the blog is that what is unique about the piece is that the film's numerous solos give us an account of things from the perspective of each of the major characters in turn. The solos let us inside their heads, including Judas (various starting with "Heaven on their Minds"), Mary ("I Don't Know How to Love Him"), Jesus ("Gethsemane"), Pilate ("Pilate's Dream"). Herod ("King Herod's Song"), the Priests ("Then We Are Decided") and even Simon the Zeaot ("Simon Zealotes"). These songs function as internal monologue, something that is typically absent from biblical films. Even when it is present, such as in Last Temptation of Christ (1988) it is only from one character's perspective, rather than seven or eight.

    But enough of previous observations, what about this viewing? One thing that really stood out to me this time was the extent to which the film seeks to be more inclusive. Whilst Jesus and a number of the other lead part are played by white men (Herod, Caiaphas and Pilate), Judas is African Carribean, Simon the Zealot is mixed race and Mary Magdalene is Asian American. This diversity is all the more apparent when looking at the broader range of actors including the chorus. The number of non-white face is far more extensive and women are prominent amongst Jesus' followers, as well as in other roles ((although not his disciples, nor amongst the priests). There are even a few shots of two men with their arms around one-another, suggesting the film is also positive about same-sex couples.

    In this respect the film goes far further than the play. In Lloyd-Webber and Rice's original rock opera Mary is the only principle female part. Indeed even though the dream that Pilate's wife has in Matt 27:19 is covered and indeed developed into a song in its own right, it is transferred to being the dream of her husband, the two characters are conflated into one, and Claudia is left out of the script. Here though, just as Pilate's song comes to an end a woman comes to him and the two act if they are equals, and seemingly, then, husband and wife. Later, the same woman appears in two shots accompanied by two other women, but both times the shot cuts to Pilate next and there is something disapproving in the way they are looking at him. It's a small nod towards recognising the character's role, but there nevertheless.

    One of the things that is famous about the film is the way it blends modern and ancient imagery: whilst the Jesus story is "set" in first century Judea, the film takes place in modern Israel; costumes are deliberately anachronistic; the presence of tanks, aeroplanes, and many of the items on display in the clearing of the temple scene are from the twentieth century not the first; and the language does not even attempt authenticity. Another aspect of this is the al fresco Last Supper scene which actually introduces a third era into the mix by copying the composition of Leonardo's famous fresco, both in wide shot and in this close up shot where the position of the disciples hands matches (more or less) the pose from Leonardo's famous mural.

    One thing I particularly appreciated this time around is the complexity of some of the shots, including a long shot of Caiaphas and Annas during "Then We Are Decided" and the one through the hole in the cave at the start of "What's the Buzz?". One that is particularly impressive is the one that links "The Death of Judas" and the trial before Caesar. It starts on Judas' still dangling body at the top of a mountain and pans out and down until moving in on Jesus' trial which is about to begin. It must have been an incredibly difficult shot to achieve, which raises the question why director Norman Jewison went to the effort. Presumably this is to underline how Judas' death will be for ever tied to the death of Jesus, and how Jesus' sacrificial death is dependent on Judas' betrayal. Here's the longest version of this shot I could save as a gif:

    That's all for now, but if you want to read / hear more about my thoughts on this film you can read my other posts I've made on it here, in particular the scene guide, or you can download my podcast on it here:

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    Friday, March 30, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 10


    One of the delights of the 1985 series A.D. was the way the mix of biblical, historical and fictional material was blended together and allowed minor biblical characters to be developed a little bit, even if that was, at times, largely fictional. Early episodes of this version of A.D. The Bible Continues (a.k.a. A.D. Kingdom and Empire) didn't really seem interested in this approach. Taking the story right back to the crucifixion there were a host of male apostles, women followers and backers, and authority figures that needed introducing.

    Recently, however, this facet of the series has really started to develop and, in particular, it has come to the fore in this tenth episode as the apostles who dominate the early stages of Acts (and who are known from their time with Jesus) begin to fade into the background a little.

    Most notably for this episode is the introduction of James who, at the start of the episode, rather burst onto the scene a little like he does in Acts. The episode actually starts with a flash back as a way of introducing us to James as the brother of Jesus. Whilst some scholars speculate that this James had already been part of the twelve, this is not the case here where he is introduced as a new character. There's something a little off with the way he seemingly has access to the power structures in Jerusalem that the other apostles don't, even though he is the brother of an executed criminal and of no higher social class than Peter and the others, but nevertheless, it goes some way to explaining how James suddenly seems to come to prominence in Acts having played a minor, and perhaps slightly antagonistic, role in Luke and the other gospels.

    Meanwhile Caiaphas, fearing - once again - that things might blow-up, is desperately trying to persuade Saul to tone it down a bit. He's not alone. Whilst Peter and the others largely recognise there's a certain something about him, fear he is putting their reputation, if not their lives at risk. Simon the Zealot is the most vocally unhappy with this and after a few complaints, both in the last episode and this, he accepts a meeting with Levi the leader of his old resistance fighter colleagues.. Simon seems to be trying to have it both ways, seemingly wanting to silence Saul, but without ever telling anyone to kill him This is slightly odd as the pre-Christian Saul most likely had zealot connections of his own. When he describes his "zeal" in Philippians 3:6 this is likely not just a metaphor. Like the zealots he saw people hindering the coming of God's kingdom and saw violence as a way to further the coming kingdom.

    Other minor characters also get a good outing here as well. Joanna, to whom we were reintroduced in Episode 8, has now led another servant called Tabitha to become a follower of Jesus, but she's barely just prayed what, one assumes, is meant to be a version of the sinners prayer, when Claudia and Herodias burst in. Herodias is incensed and ignores Claudia's attempt to deal with the affair in a low key manner. She takes the issue to her husband in front of Pilate. The timing for poor Tabitha could not have been worse. Pilate, Herod and a high ranking Ethiopian official have become locked in a testosterone-charged struggle to see who can make their kingdom look most impressive. In the cold light of day it's a little silly, but deserves credit for depicting some of the dynamics of the power issues in that region at that time. Ethiopia was not subject to Roman rule, indeed at the time of these events its own Aksumite Empire was just starting to gain a footing in the country itself. Presumably then there was an uneasy trading relationship with Rome, both keen to project their power and independence to dissuade the other from attack whilst also recognising the mutual benefit of trade. Pilate invites Herod along, but it's really only to show how his Rome has subjugated Judea's king.

    So when Herodias arrives announcing a Christian amongst her staff, Pilate sees it as an affront to his posturing and has her flogged. The scene is reasonably disturbing - we're used to see men flogged in historical dramas but not women but is that 19th-21st century piety or a historical reality (I have no idea if women were flogged, even occasionally, like this, but it's quite possible they were). Tabitha survives badly scarred, and is secretly ushered off somewhere. I have a feeling that she'll be popping up in Philippi, if this series ever gets there...

    Also, lined up to appear in future episodes is the Ethiopian official (not sure I'm keen on the traditional use of "eunuch" in his title). In terms of biblical chronology he should already have had his encounter with Philip, but I guess that will feature in the next episode. Things have been nicely set out here though. The official has appeared in all his grandeur in Jerusalem which has left the ruling Roman powers feeling threatened enough to search his party upon entry and report it to Pilate, but canny enough to know they need to play things sensibly, hence Pilate's dinner party invite. The official visits Jerusalem's temple. He calls himself a "Humble believer" and he and Pilate discuss him celebrating Yom Kippur. When he meets Caiaphas, the high priest gives him a copy of the scriptures as a gift, which nicely sets things up for a later episode.

    What all of this does is give a very positive portrayal of Africa which is still all too rare in western output. The Ethiopian official cuts an impressive figure, and his self-assurance, wealth and confidence in how he should be treated, do much to speak of the magnificence of his country and of his continent in general. Modern times have very much encouraged westerners to look down on Ethiopia, and patronising stereotypes persist. (This is not helped by the enduring popularity of the problematic Band Aid Christmas song and, in particular, subsequent re-releases). This is despite the fact that Ethiopia is one of the world's fastest growing economies and for a lot of history has exhibited a higher degree of civilisation than equivalent nations in the west. Anyway, the series has been good on race as a whole, and this is just another example. Pilate's attempt to impress his Ethiopian guest fails, instead he turns his head in disgust, again, setting things up for (I presume) the next episode. Things are even worse for Joanna - Pilate decides to have her killed.

    Meanwhile, James (who looks like Christian Bale) has somehow negotiated a deal with Caiaphas, so long as the Christian's just "respect the temple". Peter, John and Simon seem to think it's reasonable, but Saul sees it as a compromise and preaches being "freed from the tyranny of the temple". But when Simon meets with Zealot he realises he cannot help his "brother" to be murdered just because they disagree on theology and approach. The zealots have been asked to murder Saul by Caiaphas' wife Leah and when they hear Saul preach against the temple for themselves they decide to act, asking Simon to deliver him to them. Simon is clearly unhappy with this and when he rejoins the disciples he finds Saul soothing Tabitha and reassuring her with an early version of Romans 8:38 and realises he needs to help Saul escape. The final scenes neatly intercut Saul saying goodbye to Peter, James, Simon, John and Barnabas in the desert with the scape goat being released at the culmination of Yom Kippur. The closing overhead wide shot of Saul walking into the desert leaving the Jerusalem disciples behind is a one of the series best.

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