• 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.

    Sunday, January 20, 2019

    Visual Bible: Acts (1994)


    Back in 2010 I went through The Visual Bible: Matthew a few chapters at a time. But, aside from the odd post here or there, I've never looked at the sequel to that film, Acts. It's been a while since I watched the whole thing through but here are a slightly random collection of thoughts I have about this production.

    The first thing that strikes you when watching Acts is the tagged on prologue. Matthew has only a slight added on "this is the person who wrote this book" intro, and mainly promoted its theory that the Gospel was written by the similarly named disciple, by visual means, occasionally fading between the narrating Matthew, and the disciple years earlier, a wry smile by the older actor at certain points etc.

    This is nothing like the prologue here, where we are introduced to a boat in a storm (which is certainly not on the level of Master and Commander), and then someone needs a doctor, and lo and behold here's Dr Luke - and we're told he wrote the gospel and Acts and was a friend of Paul. Given that there's far from universal agreement that the author of these two letters / accounts was Paul's friend, and that its unclear whether Luke was a medical doctor, let alone the kind who might respond to "is there a doctor in the boat- type requests, this all seems a bit silly. Given the licensing agreement for using the text of the NIV was that the film "literally be the Word of God" [emphasis original] this is somewhat surprising (Marchiano 30).

    Visual Bible's 2003 Gospel of John pulls back from this type of approach. There's an opening title to put the potentially anti-Semitic material in context, and it closes memorably on the young John's face, but it never actually presents things in quite such a black and white way. I think I remembered liking the way it actually gave the film the same sense of mystery about the full identification of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" as the gospel, but I would have to check. Whereas Richard Kiley played the aged Matthew, here we have Dean Jones playing Luke as an older man.

    Whilst Bruce Marchiano (who played Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew ) retains a cameo here as Jesus, many, if not all, of the disciples are played by different actors. This film does seem to be trying to be a sequel, rather than a separate entity like John. Its feel and particularly the use of the same actor as Jesus seem to support that theory, even though the other actors are different. The most noticeable change of actor is that of Peter. In the original he was played by a terrible actor, but he did manage to convey something of the uselessness of the Peter that comes across in the gospels. But here not only have they replaced this actual actor (and there's many reasons why they could have done this such as unavailability or the weakness of his acting), but they've also replaced the type of actor. No longer is is he feeble and stupid, now he is played by James Brolin - an actor so charismatic he was at one stage lined up to play James Bond. In contrast to Matthew's Peter, Brolin's is a leader of men, smiley, confident and so on. He's also older, which of course carries a connotation of being wiser, and more authoritative.

    Now this might be a deliberate attempt to show some of the difference between the gospels and Acts (and Luke does show Peter more positively than Mark, at least) but one of the most interesting dynamics in Acts is how the Simon of the gospels becomes the Peter of Acts and the early church. Even locating a radical turn around as a result of Pentecost would have been something, but Pentecost seems to have little effect on him, other than giving him an opportunity to preach.

    Acts continues the process Matthew started of trying to model the early Christ movement into the image of the promise keepers (a 1990s male evangelical movement). So there's even more hugging and inane laughing. and whereas in Matthew this at least seemed to be Jesus trying to bring them out of their shells a bit, here it's just imposing cheesy Christian man type Christianity onto the early church. Aside from the general feel there's also the choosing of the replacement disciple, where Joseph congratulates his rival in his victory in the style of a disappointed Oscar nominee, and is then commiserated by the man who drew the lots, the victorious Mathias and various others nearby. Perhaps worst of all is when in Acts 5 the disciples are released after a flogging and skip away laughing! This certainly wasn't a flogging in the mould of The Passion of the Christ.

    Another bit that grates with me is the part where Peter's shadow heals someone. The impression I get of reading this from Acts is that Peter's movement is experiencing growth, and as a result, he is more pressed, both physically but also for time. However, his anointing is being accelerated accordingly so that even as he walks past people they are healed. Instead, here they take a very literal approach, taking away the sweep of the past and the amazing healing, and reducing it to an alternative method of praying for someone that allows for a full hug later on. In other words, the means of conveying what is going on (the growth an popularity of the church) becomes the event in itself.

    The special effects, are rather weak in the scope used to depict some of the more supernatural elements. I would have loved to see what Pasolini would have done with some of the material, but here they are terrible. Jesus's ascension is poor and lacking creativity - confined by the film's literalist interpretation. Pentecosts's tongues of fire are similarly disappointing - both something very literal on the one hand, but also akin to a high school play on the other. The conversion of Saul is a little better in this respect with a few whirring point of view shots capturing the moment's disorientation.

    On another occasion though, when a more literalist, understated approach might have fitted the material, the films opts instead to cut back to Jones narrating. This is particularly disappointing for me as someone who has long found the Annias and Saphira  to be particularly significant. The text's lack of explanation for their deaths (it notes only that they dropped down dead) leaves room for speculation. Did God kill them? Peter? Or was it just a coincidence? Given all this, it was a bit disappointing that this was not depicted, particularly given that the most literal rendering of this would require no special effects at all. Perhaps they decided that it was too controversial to impress on people with a specific image, or perhaps they tried it a few times, and failed and budget didn't allow for more takes. This isn't the only time Visual Bible has copped out of dealing with an odd passage, I remember feeling similarly disappointed when Matthew narrated the passage after Jesus dies where random men in their tombs are resurrected and walk round Jerusalem. Having Kiley/Jones narrate these passages is a bit of a cop out - if you're planning to produce a visual Bible it feels a little like sweeping the difficult passages under a rug to just have them narrated.

    The camerawork here does seem to be a little more interesting here than before, despite Marchiano's assertion that the film used "No great camera angles, no fancy acting, no dazzling effects — just Jesus and the word" (Marchiano 27)

    Jones, Brolin and Henry O. Arnold who plays Saul/Paul generally do a good job playing their parts, but as with Matthew, the project itself makes things a little stilted. Matthew however had a groundbreaking performance from Bruce Marchiano at it's core - a Jesus whose smiling "Jesus in jeans" type Christ broke the mould of previous cinematic incantations and which has influenced to a degree most of the versions that have followed (Marchiano 16). But Acts lacks this crucial USP. Whilst being the only word-for-word production of Acts does mean it is still unique, it lacks the draw that Matthew had, and suggests that had Visual Bible had the funds to film more of the good book it may not have had the same reception as the original movie.

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    Marchiano, Bruce (1997) In the Footsteps of Jesus: One Man's Journey Through the Life of Christ. Eugene, Oreon: Harvest House.

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    Saturday, January 12, 2019

    Untangling the Pathé Passion Plays


    I've been promising for a while to write a post disentangling the various Pathé Passion Plays made during the turn of the twentieth century. The films are most widely known due to the 2003 Kino-Lorber/Image Entertainment joint DVD release with From the Manger to the Cross, although obviously they are also available on YouTube. However, both the DVD and that YouTube link claim that the version of the film they have is from the period 1902-1905. Having a range of years is, in itself, a bit odd, and what's more subsequent research suggests that their dating is incorrect.

    Pathé's first Jesus film was released in 1899. Gaumont produced their first Jesus film at around the same time. Over the years they evolved it and remade it such that the final version wasn't completed until 1914. By which time it's style will have been looking very mannered, though that didn't prevent subsequent re-releases. This development took two different forms. One the one hand, there was the creation of new scenes to complement the original ones. This, for example, is why a time range of 1902-05 is often ascribed to the film. The first scenes were shot in 1902 and released but new material was being filmed and gradually made available as things progressed.

    On the other hand, there was also the refilming of material that had already been filmed before. Indeed, within that 15 year period there were four distinct series, one in 1899, one in 1902-05, one in 1907 with the final incarnation in 1914. For each of these material was re-shot, often improved in certain ways, such as the creation of more impressive sets - something that became a key part of the Pathé brand - larger numbers of actors, improvements in camera quality, and variations in location. At the same time there is a remarkable consistency in terms of composition and ideas, with various scenes being recreated in almost exactly the same fashion from version to version.

    Three further obstacles hamper the progress of those trying to get to the bottom of this situation. Firstly, there is range of different titles given to the different editions. The films have come to be known as The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ in English or La vie et passion de notre Seigneur Jésus Christ in French, but the shorter La vie et passion de Jésus Christ or even La vie de Jésus or The Passion Play have also been used.

    Secondly, there is the fact that Pathé gave distributors and exhibitors the opportunity to pick and choose which scenes they wanted to display. So a theatre owner could choose just to show the nativity scenes, or run a shorter version of the film and not have to pay for the whole thing. This is a totally different mindset to how cinema is distributed today. Given that so many copies of the film have been lost over the years it's hard to work out what is happening with various different fragments and run times of similar, but slightly different looking material.

    Lastly there are also various red-herrings. The film's use of colour is much discussed, but it's unclear when this first began (though it was certainly fairly early) or at what stage the colour was added to the various remaining fragments of material we have today. The film's artistic choices in terms of a central, fixed, camera became such a typical part of Pathé's house style, and Pathe's success in this era was so substantial, that it came to be seen a something primitive that later filmmakers evolved on from, rather than a creative choice. But look at a variety of 1890s and 1900s films and you'll soon see that many other approached to camera positioning and use were in evidence. And then there's the use of intertitles, which can date from far later and can themselves contain incorrect information; the release of intermediary versions; and the quality of the print which can make a newer film look far older to the uninitiated than a pristine print of an old version. A further complication is that the film continued to be chopped about, repackaged, recycled and re-released under new titles well into the sound era. I have a VHS at home which calls the film Son of Man (1915) but which comes from a release after it was "hand-colored by Nuns" in 1928.

    Anyway, there's been a great deal of work into these films over the last few years, not least by Alain Boillat and Valentine Robert, Dwight Friesen, and Jo-Ann Brant, all of whom have essays in David Shepherd's book "The Silents of Jesus". Between them they break down and de-lineate the four films, which I'll summarise here with references to the relevant page in Shepherd's book:

    1899
    Little is known of this film. It contained 16 tableaux (p.27) and the odd scene may be included in these films I discussed back in 2006 (though I stand by very little that I wrote in that post and I think most of those are from later versions). The director is not known, but it's possible that it was Ferdinand Zecca who first joined Pathé at this time.

    1902-05
    This is the version that the Image/Kino DVD claims to be, but it appears they are mistaken. We can forgive them - it they had not painstakingly restored this film and made it widely available, the subsequent research which has cleared things up a little might not have happened. There was a VHS release in 1996 by Hollywood’s Attic (31). In any case, it was directed by Ferdinad Zecca and his assistant / co-creator Lucien Nonguet. As the time range suggests this was the most evolutionary stage. The 16 original tableaux were reshot - some longer some shorter - and new titles were added (p.27). Then over the following three years additional tableau were created, taking the eventual total to 32 (p.27).

    1907
    This is the version that is available on the Image/Kino DVD, or at least that is one of them because two very, very slightly different versions exist, one in black and white and one in colour, though the differences extend to marginal variations in composition, not just the use of colour (p.79f). The number of tableaux in this version are hard to number with precision. Boillat and Robert state 37; Friesen cites 39 (p.79), but only lists 35. In many ways Zecca seems to be responding to his friend and rival Alice Guy's 1906 Jesus film (p.87-92) as evidenced by the increased percentage of outdoor footage at a time Pathé was increasingly building its reputation on its sets (as evidenced by the now prominent Pathe logo on several of them). The film has been discussed in many places at length, so I'll say no more on this for now.

    1913-4
    In contrast to the previous two or three stages, the fourth and final film was directed by Maurice-André Maître. It's this version which was re-released as Son of Man in 1915 and again after 1928 and for several years was available on VHS from Nostalgia Family Video. As you might expect everything here is bigger and better. Abel claims that there were 75 tableaux, but Boillat and Robert, writing more recently reduces this figure to 43 (p.27). Brant notes how his use of "deep staging and misè en scene "intensify the pathos", "dramatize the logic", provide a "more complicated visual experience" and "liberate his story" (158). Again he uses more outside scenes, bigger crowds and scenery, but he uses this to increase his depth of field.


    I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion over the various films - I must admit it's still not entirely clear to me, and still I watch  the DVD I discussed back in 2006 and long to know the story of how what seems to be a jumble of fragments came to be assembled in this way. In writing this post I also sat down and watched the two later films together in parallel, pausing one or the other to keep the episodes in sync. That in itself was enough of an interesting exercise to make this worthwhile.


    1 - Abel, Richard (1994) The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, Berkeley: University of California Press. p.320

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    Tuesday, January 01, 2019

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2018


    It's that time of the year when everyone is doing a review so for the second year running I thought I'd do one here as well, not least because it's been a fairly eventful year in the world of the Bible on film. After all it's not often that there are four Bible films in one year, even if one is a Netflix special.

    For me the highlight of the year was Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. I enjoyed it so much I forgot that it still hasn't been released in the US due to the Weinstein affair. Apologies for those of you in North America, but personally I think it's worth the wait, but then it's always good, and quite rare, to get to see a Bible film in a cinema. And it's an interesting film which is why I added a couple of extra posts on it even after writing my review.

    The same could not be said of another film that got released in Lent. Paul Apostle of Christ starring James Faulkner may have had the odd theatrical performance in the UK, but otherwise it was a much more US driven release. There's something a little strange about that given both Faulkner and his co-stars Joanna Whalley and John Lynch are all British. There were quite a few bits about this one I liked, not least the almost opening shot tracking Luke (Jim Cavaziel) through the night time streets of Rome.

    The third film to be released in cinemas somewhere in Lent was Pureflix's Samson. I didn't get to see that one when it came out, and I must confess I still haven't seen it yet, though no-one has argued that I got anything wrong in my speculative non-review. That was my most popular post of the year. Alas, though, there was no sign of DJ Perry's final entry in The Quest TrilogyThe Christ Slayer. Maybe we'll see it in 2019.

    What did get, rather unexpectedly was Netflix's The Last Hangover. Of the three new Bible films I did see I think this was probably the weakest. It wasn't terrible and had a few laughs in it, and, to be fair the concept was fairly amusing, but ultimately it always felt like a skit stretched way too thinly. If you're the kind of person that gets offended by the more out there portrayals of Jesus I would steer clear.

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    The main news on the books front was the publication of "The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film" which featured my chapter "Can we Try That Again: The Fate of the Biblical Canon on Film". There are some great writers amongst my fellow contributors (Adele Reinhartz, James Crossley, Lloyd Baugh, Jon Solomon and editor Richard Walsh) and I've really enjoyed the chapters I've read so far.

    T&T Clark also released, "Biblical Reception, 4: A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of Exodus: Gods and Kings" edited by David Tollerton. Again there's a great group of writers involved in that one, including Cheryl Exum, David Shepherd and Michelle Fletcher.

    There was also a book edited by Helen Bond called "The Bible on Television" looking at TV Bible documentaries. This included contributions from filmmakers Jean Claude Braggard and David Batty, presenters such as Robert Beckford as well as scholars such as Mark Goodacre and Bond herself. It was a busy year for Bond, having ticked off the theory she went on to front a TV documentary of her own with Joan Taylor (theological adviser on Mary Magdalene). Jesus' Female Disciples went out at Easter in the UK on Channel 4.

    Having not received review copies for "The Bible on Television" or ""A New Hollywood Moses", this year's book review (and I tend to find time to do these is quite limited as it takes a lot of work to do them properly) was The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s, edited by Nicholas Diak. Whilst it didn't cover any biblical films in much depth, it gave some interesting discussion to recent close bedfellows such as Xena and the new(ish) Spartacus series, as well as films such as Ninth Legion. It was well worth a read even if a lot of the films being discussed are a bit more trashy than your typical biblical film (though DeMille fans might argue otherwise).

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    I ended last year's post by making a couple of resolutions, so I thought I would revisit them here. I tend to see resolutions as being more useful when they are a positive act of doing more of something, rather than stopping doing something and my ones from last year were a - to watch more films directed by (or otherwise made by) women. and b- to finish the first draft of a book I've been working on. I had a degree of success in both. Despite viewing 400 films this year (including a lot of shorts) I still find it difficult to watch all the films I would like to, and so didn't hunt out as many female filmmakers as I'd like to. I'm going to roll this one over for 2019, something that should be made easier by Kino-Lorber's release Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers which is now available on Netflix.

    In terms of my own book, well, I've only partially ticked this one off as well. I had a list of films I still need to cover, and I managed to review all of them, but then when it came to pulling it all together I realised there were several films I thought I had reviewed which in fact I hadn't. So those are now done as well and I have 115-120 reviews, some of which still need a lot of work, and some of which need culling, but it feels like it's getting there. Writing a book is all well and good, but getting it published, well it feels like that will be the bigger challenge. Time will tell.

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    Lastly, there's just time to mention my top ten new posts of 2018. I did a separate post for this last year but thought I've merge it all into one this time around.

    1. Samson [1245 views]
    2. Paul, Apostle of Christ [658 views]
    3. Mary Magdalene [505 views]
    4. The Last Hangover [276 views]
    5. Book Review: "The New Peplum" [170 views]
    6. Jesus' Female Disciples [108 views]
    7. Xena: The Giant Killer [108 views]
    8. Giuda (1911) [103 views]
    9. Judas in Mary Magdalene [89 views]
    10.Why the Film Community Needs to Rethink its Stance on the Biblical Film [77 views]

    A few points on this. Overall it seems that, no doubt thanks to the four biblical films being released, my top posts did a little better this year. Last year the leading post only had 323 views. This year the top three all eclipsed that. But by the time you get down to the lower places things have evened out a bit more. If you want to look at last years stats or see my top ten posts of all time you can see those here.

    The appearance of two posts in particular make me happy. Firstly my review of Giuda (1911) which is not widely available. It screened in Bristol this year, and hardly anyone has ever reviewed it, so it as nice that the piece has been seen more widely, as I am turning into a silent film geek. Secondly my post "Why the Film Community Needs to Rethink its Stance on the Biblical Film" snuck into the top ten. This felt like something of a rally cry and something I'm increasingly looking to put across is just how many top filmmakers have explored this area and how there are such diverse ways of approaching the subject.

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    Sunday, December 23, 2018

    Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921)


    (The above screen-grab is from Reiniger's 1956 film The Star of Bethlehem)
    One of the lost biblical films that I dearly hope will turn up in someone's attic one day is Lotte Reiniger's 1921 Der Stern von Bethlehem. For years I laboured under the mis-apprehension that the 1956 film The Star of Bethlehem which I reviewed here, was essentially just the 1921 film re-released with narration. Sadly I've now found out enough about this to make this appear highly unlikely. For one thing most of Reiniger's pre-WWII films were lost during the bombing of Berlin, though thankfully her classic The Adventures of Prince Achmed - made five years later in 1926 -  has survived and enjoyed a couple of recent restorations. The European Lost Films Archive officially lists this as lost.

    Another key factor is that the 1921 film appeared so early in Reiniger's career that it seems unlikely her style would have developed to the level of sophistication on display in the 1956 film. The layering on the backgrounds, the use of colour and just the smoothness of the movement all suggest an artist at the top of her game. Prince Achmed is considered a masterpiece, but even with that it's plain to see the development in her technique.

    That said Reiniger always gave the impression that she was just doing what came naturally to her. In a rare interview with her in 1976, she talked about how she was able to cut-out intricate figures from card from almost as soon as she was able to hold a pair of scissors.(1) You can see her at work in the 1970 documentary, The Art of Lotte Reiniger, and the speed with which she works is certainly impressive. She also included an animated version of her scissors cutting out the figures at the start of another of her surviving early films Cinderella (1922). The intricacy of these cut outs, the sleeves on the dresses here for example - in a hand-cut moving image - are incredible. Furthermore "Reiniger’s great strength as an animator is her inclusion of delicate little motions that imbue her creations with life".(2)

    Reiniger started her career as an animator working on Paul Wegener's Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1918) aged just 17. The film was a live action movie, but when Wegener was struggling to get his rats to follow his piper he turned to Reiniger to produce an animated sequence instead. The year after Hameln's release she directed her own short film Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart, 1919) making her work more or less contemporary with the women featured in Kino Lorber's Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set, released last month.

    Der Stern von Bethlehem was only her third film then (following Amor und das standhafte Liebespaar) both of which were produced by the Institute for Cultural Research in Berlin.(3) Whilst the Institute Around the same time she began to work for advertising exec Julius Pinschewer and it's thanks to this partnership that we have her oldest surviving work Das Geheimnis der Marquise (The Marquise’s Secret, 1921/2).(4) The film tells of a woman who woos her lover thanks to her skin which is "as white as snow". When the Marquis begs to know which god gave her such radiance she tells him it was all down to her Nivea cream.

    Whilst the plot and dialogue are hardly extraordinary it's an interesting reference point. For one thing Reiniger's art and creativity is plain to see. In particular the moment when she is applying her cream and her face appears in the mirror opposite is especially striking. It's also notable that the figures here are white on a black background, rather than the dark figures in the foreground that came to typify Reiniger's style.

    Interpolating between Marquise and Cinderella gives us a fair idea of what might have been in Der Stern von Bethlehem. It's unlikely to have been as long as the 1956 film and the background would probably have been plain, rather than the striking, multi-planed backgrounds of the latter work.(5) The style may have been slightly different from all three films.

    Reiniger and her husband and life-long collaborator Carl Koch eventually fled Nazi Germany and for many years moved from place to place including Egypt, Greece and Italy. Eventually they had to return home and were pressed into making work for the Nazis. After the war the couple moved to London where they enjoyed their most productive period, creating 22 films in just ten years between 1949 and 1958. Many of these films were based on German fairy tales including a remake of Cinderella so the 1956 remake was something of an exception.

    Sadly, it seems likely we'll never get to see the original, but the 1956 version an be viewed on the Gospel Film Archive's Christmas Collection DVD, on YouTube, or on this DVD/Bluray release of  The Adventures of Prince Achmed which also includes her 1974 film The Lost Son based on the parable of Jesus.(6) If you would like to find out more about Lotte Reiniger there are a range of good podcasts or you could have a read of Whitney Grace's new book "Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Film Animation".

    ============
    1 - Kenneth Clouse Collection, Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Available online - http://uschefnerarchive.com/project/lotte-reiniger-recording/
    2 - Kramer, Fritzi (2018). Cinderella (1922) A Silent Film Review March 18, at Movies Silently - http://moviessilently.com/2018/03/18/cinderella-1922-a-silent-film-review/
    3 - Guerin, Frances and Mebold, Anke (2013) "Lotte Reiniger." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, Web. July 6, 2016 https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/lotte-reiniger/
    4 - ibid
    5 - Seemingly it was Reiniger, not Walt Disney, who invented the multi-planed camera, though he developed the design and patented it. Indeed, quite a lot of Reiniger's leagcy appears to have been consolidated into the Disney myth. Snow White (1937) is often credited as the first feature-length animated film, but of course this appeared a full eleven years after Prince Achmed which at between 66 and 81 minutes certainly qualifies as being feature length.
    6 - The BFI have posted an excerpt of the film on YouTube and it's clear that this version of the film contains a male narration track which also features some singing in contrast to the voice of Barbara Ruick who provides the narration on the Cathedral Films version released by Gospel Films.

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    Saturday, December 22, 2018

    The Last Hangover (2018)


    When moving pictures began to emerge as a popular medium in the late 1890s, it wasn't long before early filmmakers turned to the Bible for their material. Likewise, when television began to spread in the 1940s religious programming was quick to follow. So it's perhaps something of a surprise that it has taken this long before a major video-on-demand service has produced a biblical adaptation.

    Even so The Last Hangover (2018), which debuted yesterday on Netflix, has been produced in conjunction with the company's Brazilian operation, rather than their US team and it's a comedy rather than a drama. The programme is actually a spin-off of the annual Christmas parody from Porta dos Fundos - a Brazilian YouTube channel, with over 15 million subscribers and reworks the events of the Last Supper into a spoof of The Hangover (2009).

    Having seen neither The Hangover or watched much of Porta dos Fundos' work puts me at something of a disadvantage in terms of some of the references, but the concept is not difficult to get your head around. Jesus (Fábio Porchat) and the disciples get together for their last supper together ("Who does suppers anymore?") and when the disciples wake up the next morning with hangovers and hazy memories, Jesus is gone. The rest of the film flicks between the disciples trying to piece things together and flashbacks from the previous night. It's possible, I suppose, to see this as a nod to the way Christians have sought to piece together the life of Jesus from the four gospel accounts, each of which is different from the others and tells only part of the story. Heck, I suppose that you could even see it as a critique of the way many Christians think of the gospels as first-hand eye-witness accounts, even though there are various reasons for questioning such a position.

    That, however would seem to be a bit of a stretch. This is essentially a YouTube skit spun out to about 40 minutes and looking to appeal more to fans of the 2009 film than the devout. For one thing, it's not hard to think many of the latter would be offended by this. Whilst Jesus is portrayed as the son of God, the film goes far beyond that "glutton and a winebibber" tag from Luke 7:34. This Jesus swears, does drugs, shouts homophobic slurs and even kills a magician who is temporarily stealing his limelight. Meanwhile Mary Magdalene has continued her work as a prostitute - a fact that goes over Jesus' head much to the disciples amusement. But then it's 2018 and material like this is all over the internet. Tell Netflix you don't like this kind of stuff being made if you like, but ultimately this is "on demand". It's hard to imagine anyone genuinely being offended by this after accidentally stumbling upon it unknowingly.

    The idea of the disciples being in a state on the morning of Good Friday is potentially quite interesting. After all, they had just taken part in a big celebration, after which they struggled to stay awake, ran off into the night naked and were generally lying low the following day. It's not a historically likely scenario, but it's one that, done right, could have some merit and might even produce the odd insight. That doesn't really happen though. The Last Hangover is passably entertaining and there's the occasional good lines, but oddly, the thing I was most impressed by was the long opening tracking shot, which began outside the tavern in which the group was meeting and weaved it way up to the middle of the group as they raised their glasses for a toast.

    So disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, The Last Hangover isn't particularly funny. My fellow Bible Film geek Peter Chattaway guessed that it would be closer to Wholly Moses (1980) and Year One (2009) than Life of Brian (1979) and that's a pretty fair summary. It feels like a skit spread too thinly; indeed 2016's Porta dos Fundos sketch, where Jesus uses the occasion of his birthday party to praise Judas for being such a great friend, is far more on the money. Ideas like this can work over a longer running time - for example in the excellent The Real Old Testament (2003) which is a similar mashup of Genesis and the 1990s series The Real World (1992 onward) - but there the narrative relied on the biblical text, adopting only the form of the modern day production, rather than just pushing both the form and narrative of the modern work into the nearest available episode from thr gospels.

    Perhaps such analysis is taking things too seriously and I should take on the advice of one of the disciples who advises Jesus to relax because after all, "by tomorrow no-one will remember a thing". That seems like an appropriate summary of this little film. It has no great aspirations, just an interesting-ish scenario and a few good lines. It's entertaining enough, but it's hard to imagine many people will give it that much extra thought once they've moved onto MacCauley Culkin's Google Assistant advert or a rerun of the 1999 Friends Christmas special.

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    Friday, December 14, 2018

    Mesih (Jesus, the Spirit of God, 2007)


    Nader Talabzadeh's Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007) is the first Islamic film about Jesus. One of the reasons that a Muslim film about had not been done before was because the Sunni form of Islam does not permit portrayal of prophets, indeed the hadith discourages portrayal of all humans and animals in general. Secondly however, the Qu'ranic material about Jesus (who it calls Isa) does not fall so conveniently into entire books as it does in the Bible, or even in the same way as the Qu'ran treats other Islamic prophets such as Noah, who have their own surah (71).

    To produce his Islamic Jesus film, Talabzadeh turned to another text, the Gospel of Barnabas. The origins of this gospel are unclear. There are mentions of a gospel bearing Barnabas' name from even before the formation of the canon in the fourth century, but there are few compelling reasons to believe that this is the same text we have today. Tales abound of the book being secreted away in a fourth century pope's private library, but there's little news of it until its re-emergence in the seventeenth century.

    It's perhaps no surprise, then, the text we have today is fairly unusual. It's far longer than any of the canonical gospels, and contains almost all of the material from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as some that is unique. Moreover it contains a number elements at odds with the traditional portrayal of Jesus. Most notably Jesus goes out of his way to make it clear that (in contrast to Christian teaching) he is not divine. There is also a chapter (135) with strong echoes of Dante's seven circles of hell, as well as numerous predictions about the future coming of Muhammad scattered throughout the text.

    Perhaps most controversially Barnabas expands on the Qu'ran's implication that Jesus was not crucified (surah 4:157). Instead both the text and the film have Jesus taken up to the third heaven. while back on earth Judas is transformed into Isa's likeness and is crucified in his place. At the time of its release Talabzadeh spoke about his intention "to make a bridge between Christianity and Islam, to open the door for dialogue" (Breitbart). It's notable, then, that whilst Talabzadeh does include this passage, he also includes a very abridged version of the Christian account of Jesus' death. Films with multiple endings, such as Wayne's World (1992) and Run Lola, Run (1998), proliferated in the 1990s but this is surely the only religious film to have tried such an approach. Both sequences are introduced with a subtitle, firstly "Continuation of events according to the Christian narrative" and then shortly afterwards "Continuation of events according to Islamic sources and the Gospel of Barnabas".

    The ending here, more akin to Freaky Friday (2003) than holy writ, is one that will strike those unacquainted with Barnabas as a little odd. But then the same might also be said by those who are unfamiliar with the ending of the canonical gospels. The idea of God replacing Jesus' body with that of Judas is no more inherently strange than the idea of God replacing Jesus' lifeless body with one that has been transformed and resurrected.

    There are numerous other moments in the film which will raise eyebrows with those familiar with the Christian versions of the story, which are also taken straight from the pages of Barnabas. For example, the inclusion of Barnabas the man as one of Jesus' twelve disciples (ch.14); the moment when Caiaphas bows before Jesus to worship him (93); the scene where the Roman Senate pronounces, for Jesus' sake, that he is neither God nor the son of God (98); or, the way that what condemns Jesus in the Sanhedrin is his assertion that the Messiah will be a descendant of Ishmael, not Isaac (208), all of these are to be found in the Gospel of Barnabas. Perhaps most oddly is the scene when Jesus is asked decide if a woman should be stoned for adultery. Instead of just writing in the sand, he creates a mirror in the sand, which one accuser looks into and is driven mad with the horror he sees therein. It's a scene reminiscent of parts of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a film which Talabzadeh admires even if he is critical of its theology.

    Gibson's film was, of course, heavily criticised for its anti-Semitism and sadly the same criticism could also be levelled at Mesih. Some of this comes from the Gospel of Barnabas itself. It's also possible that some of this might be coloured by the ill feeling between Iran and modern-day Israel. Whichever way, when Pilate falters about passing sentence on Jesus one of the priests shouts out "we take full responsibility for his blood" which if not a direct quote of the Matt 27:25 passage Gibson included, certainly seems like a reasonably accurate paraphrase. Moments later the narrator say that "God set a seal on the cruel hearts of the Children of Israel". Indeed, across the film in general, the Romans, bizarrely, seem to almost support Jesus, whereas the Jewish leaders are seen as the full instigators of his death. Furthermore the moment when a Jewish High Priests kneels, bows before Jesus and hails him as "My God" will, quite understandably, cause offence in some circles.

    In a few places the filmmakers add dramatic flourishes of their own which are particularly interesting in this respect. Firstly, Gamaliel the Jewish rabbi known to us from the Talmud and the Mishnah as well as the Bible's book of Acts appears in one of the first scenes featuring the Jewish leaders. In Acts 5 his tolerant laissez-faire policy of leaving the Jesus movement to run it's course seems like almost pro-Christian wisdom, but here, whilst the tolerance element remains, both Judaism and Christianity are held to be in error, and his word come across as more wrong-headed than wise.

    Similarly 'brought forward' is St. Paul, or Sha-oul, whose campaign of terror against the followers of Jesus begins with him murdering the newly raised Lazarus. Again, given Saul's role in spreading what Talabzadeh sees as false accounts of Jesus, this seems like an attempt to discredit him, though one that is consistent with his initial appearance in Acts.

    Similarly, the filmmakers also give additional validity to the Gospel of Barnabas by not only introducing Barnabas as one of the twelve, but also by showing him at various points in the film, as scribbling down the events as they are happening. Some of the more traditional Bible films have adopted a similar approach, the use of the older and younger Matthew characters in The Visual Bible: Matthew (1993) or Luke's appearance in A.D. (1985) as well as various other scenes where Matthew or John are seen taking their pens with them or noting things down. On the one hand, these touches are light propaganda, not least because they are reasonably unlikely, yet somehow I always find this a nice touch, and here's its no exception.

    One particularly interesting element of the film is Jesus' appearance. Isa is played by Ahmad Soleimani-Nia, a veteran of the Iranian army. As this footage was also used as part of an 1000-minute TV series, Soleimani-Nia had to maintain his Christ-like appearance as Jesus for seven years in case they needed to shoot additional scenes (Fleishman).

    Soleimani-Nia is strikingly different from any of the film Jesuses that had gone before him. For one thing Isa's long blond curly hair seems far more 'western' than those watching an Islamic take on Jesus might expect. Whilst he would not easily be mistaken for the Jesus of Christian art, there certainly seems to have been some influence; Talabzadeh did, after all, study at New York's Columbia University Film School for several years. Certainly this blond look makes Jesus stand out from the film's other characters who look more typically Iranian than he does. That said Soleimani-Nia's appearance could not be described as western either. Thios makes him a striking figure, but also give him an air of the other-worldly, both at home in this world, but also distinct from it. Whilst none of the canonical gospels, the Qu'ran or the Gospel of Barnabas give a physical description of Jesus, there is some precedent for Isa's appearance from the Hadith. The Hadith of al-Bukhari (vol.4 no.168) describes Jesus as having "curly hair and a reddish complexion" (Tatum 221). This too is different from the film's final portrayal, it may well be a factor in how he is portrayed.

    In contrast the rest of the characters feel far more authentic. Just as Soleimani-Nia was a former member of the Iranian military, the rest of the actors seem much more believably like the kind fo people Jesus may rubbed shoulders with. Not only are they more ethnically similar, but there's an ordinariness to them that is absent from the majority of western Jesus films. Similarly, the muted, almost monochrome, costumes feel more authentically like the kind of things peasants of Jesus' time may have worn, as opposed to the bright colours of Hollywood's grandest biblical epics.

    Perhaps the most interesting visual aspect of the film, however, is its frequent use of slightly below eye-level camera positions. Filmmakers often drop in the occasional low-level shot to emphasise a certain character's power. Here it is not nearly quite so deferential, but it is used frequently throughout the film. The extent to which it is used suggests that Isa's superiority is not about a certain context or a particular moment, it's something more integral to who he is. The subtlety of the position indicates that whilst Isa is special compared to those around him, he's not that special. He's not a god, just a prophet.

    And it's that which seems to be at the heart of this film. Overall it is surprisingly faithful to its source, but that source is clearly the Gospel of Barnabas rather than the canonical gospels. It's this that makes the film so interesting amongst biblical films, even if the extra interpretative step that places between it's viewers and the original events themselves will not be welcome in all quarters.

    ===========
    - Breitbart (2008) "'Islamic Jesus' hits Iranian movie screens" Jan 13. Retrieved from Web Archive - http://web.archive.org/web/20080115212748/http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=080113231632.1q3rt654&show_article=1

    - Fleishman, Jeffrey (2008) "An Iranian's vision of Jesus' life stirs debate" in Los Angeles Times April 29. Retrieved from Web Archive - http://web.archive.org/web/20120113224042/http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/la-fg-jesus29apr29,1,3806018.story

    - Tatum, W. Barnes (2004) Jesus: A Brief History (Blackwell Brief Histor. London: Blackwell

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    Saturday, December 01, 2018

    Quo Vadis (1951)


    Revisiting Quo Vadis (1951) after all this time I feel I should somehow have more enthusiasm for it - it was nominated for eight Oscars™, after all. How many Bible movies can boast that? Yet for all it's fabulous colours and spectacular crowd scenes; despite Miklós Rózsa much lauded score; and despite, even, Peter Ustinov's memorable take on Nero, I find myself strangely unmoved by it. I don't want to spend too much time on that - as ever I'd rather dwell on the positives and the aspects of it that do catch my attention - but, I guess, the central love story seems to lack the necessary drama or gravitas to pull everything off. Robert Taylor's Marcus Vinicius is far from the first hero to start off a film as a jerk only to reform his ways, but somehow I can't buy into the idea that forcibly removing a woman from their home and throwing them into the middle of one of Nero's orgies would ever fan the flames of love in a fair maiden's heart. Perhaps it's just the lack of action scenes, but watching it again with the kids, I'm a little embarrassed at how, well, boring it is.

    Which isn't to say that there's not a few interesting things to discuss as well. For one thing, it wasn't until I re-watched this that it became apparent just how specifically the Coen Borthers parody this film in particular in Hail Caesar (2016). The opening shots of the Coens' film-within-the-film is practically a shot for shot homage to the opening of Quo Vadis. View these two short clips from the two films back to back and you will see what I mean. This is also film with the overly long trumpets which was parodied so mercilessly in Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979).

    It's all too easy looking back on it almost seventy years later to only recall those films to affectionately mock it, but, of course it had huge impact at the time. Not only did it top the 1951 box with over $20M in worldwide income, it also inspired films like The Robe (1953) and a handful of other Roman-Christian epics that were to follow.

    Yet as much as later films have reused, recycled and reinvented aspects of it, the film itself drew on works that went before it. Firstly there are the earlier adaptations of Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1896 novel. There were three silent versions of the film made in 1901, 1912 and 1924. The 1912 film (available to view online) is arguably the most famous - some credit it with being the first true epic. If nothing else it's this one, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, I feel most guilty about for not having seen. That might be something I put right shortly.

    But as much as Mervyn Le Roy's 1951 retelling derives from both Sienkiewicz's novel and the various early adaptations, it also is influenced to some degree by another film. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932) clearly draws a great deal from "Quo Vadis", not least it's plot, though presumably changes just enough to avoid a lawsuit. There's Nero and Poppaea and a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian girl. Despite the furore caused by the film it performed reasonably well, but more significantly it provided a bit of a template for how a proper adaption of the novel could be handled. Replace Charles Laughton with Peter Ustinov to play a similarly self-obsessed camp Nero, tone down the orgy a bit and hope the spectacle grabs the audience's attention. DeMille's film forms the bridge between the novel, the 1912 film and LeRoy's remake.

    Having said that I'm not sure how to read the portrayal of Nero and, to a lesser extent Patricia Laffan's Poppaea. Ustinov plays Nero as a vain toddler without anyone to keep him in check. Leo Genn's Petronius peddles a fine line in providing sharp answers that cut both ways, only Nero cannot even conceive of the possibility that what sounds like praise might in fact be an insult. Ustinov was nominated for an Oscar™ (as was Genn) but lost out to Karl Malden's turn in A Streetcar Named Desire. His performance is memorably, but mainly for its over-the-topness. Of course, Nero was over the top, but Ustinov channels Laughton as much as anything. More to the point, despite his toned down sexuality, these days it just feels a little bit transphobic. Ultimately it also overshadow's Laffan's Poppaea a bit too much, at least to the extent that I would have liked to see a bit more of her character (who is, after all rather more instrumental in how events transpire between Deborah Kerr's Lygia and Marcus Vinicius). That said I also suspect that this would also have had it's problems.

    Having come this far and only just mentioned Deborah Kerr, I feel I owe her the last word. I don't really know where this ranks amongst her films, but in the orgy scene she is particularly outstanding. As Marcus makes his arrogantly ham-fisted attempts to seduce her she bristles at the very prospect. On the one hand she remains calm and prim and proper. On another level she is clearly appalled and horrified at what is happening to her. And on perhaps another, part of the disgust she feels is because she is attracted to Marcus despite her misgivings. The film doesn't really make as much of her as it could. Marcus's story arc consists of his conversion; Petronius' his rebellion; but for Lygia (and I suppose, Paul and Peter) there's little to no story arc. As Christian's their characters have already reached their goal and the film, unlike, say Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) gives little consideration to the possibily of regression (or even progression) following a conversion experience.

    Despite my intentions, I seem to have ended on a negative note. Undoubtedly, there are things to admire about Quo Vadis. If you havent already seen it, you really should, but, perhaps only once.

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    Sunday, November 18, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1974): The Opening


    Regular readers will know that over the last year, I've written various posts related to Straub and Huillet's 1974 film Moses und Aron without actually discussing the film itself very much. The last time I wrote anything on it directly was seven years ago, and even then, that was my dim recollections going back to the first few times I watched the film in 2002/03.

    Having finally got myself a copy of last year's Grasshopper DVD release I re-watched it a while back, freshly armed with a greater understanding of the work of Schoenberg, Huillet and Straub, and so just wanted to add a few extra random observations to what I've written before. I've got a few to make so I've reduced them down into a few shorter posts. This one will deal with the films opening - indeed what happens before the adaption even really begins.

    The work of Straub/Huillet work generally revolves around texts and even by their own standards they show especially strong fidelity to Schöenberg's libretto. The result of this is that the start of the film, those few moments before the first piece of music, take on a particular significance. The opening shot is of the pages of a German Bible open on Exodus 32:25-18. This is accompanied by a female voice reading the passage, also in German. The verses in question are those that describe wrestling power back from Aaron as he calls those faithful to God to his side and they proceed to pass through the camp killing those worshipping the golden calf.

    As well as their concern for significant texts, Huillet and Straub are also concerned with layers of history. Here we see the two things combine in an interesting manner. The film the audience is about to watch is an adaptation of Schönberg's text, which has itself drawn from various traditions about Moses, themselves going back to the text of Exodus. Even then, source theorists would argue that the final text of Exodus was not written in Moses' lifetime but depended on at least four earlier texts/sources (the passage in question being a classic example of the Priestly source), which, in turn, drew on earlier traditions.1 Thus we have layer upon layer of history and texts in evidence.

    Having said all that, it is significant that the passage in question is absent from Schönberg's opera. At the end of Act II Moses is left feeling rejected by the people's unfaithfulness. In the, admittedly unfinished, third act, Moses has somehow returned to power and has Aron held captive. Including this passage then at the start of the film not only draws attention from a key part of the story that will not otherwise be detected, but placing it so prominently at the start of the film, particularly in such a faithful adaption of the opera, really highlights it, as well as highlighting Schönberg's omission of it. It also aligns this film with another of their key themes from the rest of their work - certainly up to this point - that of power and different ways of looking at those forms of history that validate the powerful.

    The credits follow - simple printed black text on a whitish screen, until just before the main part of the film begins a handwritten dedication flashes onto screen. This is to Holger Meins - a cameraman and member of the Red Army Faction who had died on hunger strike in prison. The Red Art faction was, as their title suggests, a far-left militant organisation, whom the majority would consider terrorists. Meins himself not only made the infamous short How to Produce a Molotov Cocktail, but had been involved in several fatal attacks. He and other RAF members were held in the maximum security Stammheim Prison and held in solitary confinement. Meins died in November 1974. Huillet and Straub's dedications had caused controversy before - there was uproar when they dedicated Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) to the Viet Cong. This time around West German television refused to air Moses und Aron unless the dedication was cut.2

    Incidentally I've previously tended to date this film as 1973, but as Meins death was not until November 1974, that is the earliest year we can assign it to, if not 1975. That would make it a fairly hasty dedication. Given that Meins is now known to have been involved in actual killings, I wonder if Straub and Huillet came to regret it. That said, it's possible that the film circulated before Meins' death without the dedication and that this was a later addition. I note that Wikipedia claim that the film was circulated in the US initially under the title Aaron and Moses.

    =================

    1 - For those interested in such issues, for around a century and a half the dominant theory in this area has been the Graf-Wellhausen/Documentary Hypothesis (although it owes a great deal to Graf's tutor Reuss). This posited that the Pentateuch was composed mainly from four earlier sources, Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and the Deuteronomist. However, for much of the last century the Documentary Hypothesis has had the dubious honour of being the one the most scholars agree is worth proving wrong. Evangelicals tend, in the main, to hold to the idea of Mosaic authorship. Others hold to significant variations on the basic theory, usually enhancing the role of pre-existing oral traditions.

    2 - Fairfax, Daniel (2009) "Great Directors: Straub, Jean-Marie & Huillet, Danièle", Sense of Cinema, September. Available online
    http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/great-directors/jean-marie-straub-and-daniele-huillet/

    3 -

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    Friday, November 09, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Sunday, October 28, 2018

    Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Sunday, October 14, 2018

    Jésus de Nazareth (1942)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Friday, October 05, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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