• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, August 29, 2008

    Peter Greenaway's Last Supper

    British filmmaker Peter Greenaway recently performed a one night only digital show using Da Vinci's "Last Supper". Greenaway projected a film on top of Da Vinci's original painting to an audience in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. There are two tantalising minutes of footage available at The Guardian's website which do enough to suggest that it would have been really quite impressive to be there without really satisfying the curiosity of those who weren't. Thankfully the paper also has a handful of images from the evening, reviews by Robert Booth and Jonathan Jones, and an audio file of the two of them in conversation with Greenaway himself. Both Booth and Jones give a good impression of what it was like to witness the show. The following snippet is Booth's:
    To the strains of modern opera, he used cutting-edge technical trickery to make Leonardo's Christ appear like a three-dimensional hologram while a radiant sun rose and fell over his head. He turned the original colourful image red, grey and black before the artist's gentle brush strokes were replaced with a chalk outline of the 13 figures, as if Leonardo had drawn a crime scene. Dawn broke, dusk fell and by the end the disciples had been dramatically cast into the shadow of prison-like bars.
    Like all good art, it appears to have created a good deal of debate even amongst experts on Da Vinci's work. Whereas one anonymous scholar considers it "cultural vandalism" another claims it "has reconsecrated the painting after Dan Brown deconsecrated it". Greenaway himself cited Da Vinci's reputation as an innovator in his defence.
    If Leonardo was alive now he wouldn't just be interested in film-making, he would be handling high-definition cameras and would be right up against the cutting edge experimenting with holograms...He would be fascinated by the post-digital age. I am sure that he would support entirely what we are doing, which isn't true of a series of academics who believe that this painting belongs to them and not to the world at large. This painting belongs to the laptop generation as much as it does to academia and we want to demonstrate that."
    Whilst I certainly see his point, I can't help but wonder who the audience actually was that evening. Did Greenaway really free the painting from the grasp of academics, or simply move it from one exclusive group of art critics for another? Thankfully it appears that Greenaway is hoping to find a gallery that could re-stage the show on a full size replica. I'm certainly hoping they are successful. It would be a shame if such an innovative and bold piece of art were only witnessed by a small, hand-picked audience of contemporary art experts.

    Thursday, August 28, 2008

    Jesus Christ, Superstar at Loughborough Parish Church

    As I live in the centre of Loughborough, my nearest church is the historic Parish church - All Saints with Holy Trinity Church. The current building dates from the 14th century though it seems likely that the site once housed a Norman and perhaps even a Saxon predecessor. The other day I was cutting through the church grounds and heard a rendition of "Everything's Alright" from Jesus Christ, Superstar. Having previously seen the rock-opera play there about 5 years ago I hoped this meant that it was in for a re-run, and yesterday's glance at the Parish noticeboard confirmed my suspicions were correct.

    The production will be showing from 24th to 26th September starting at 7:30 with tickets available through Loughborough Town Hall and seats allocated on the evening on a first come first served basis. Tickets will be £8.50 with concessions available on the Wednesday (24th) for £7.50. It's the work of P Productions who are apparently linked to local amateur theatre group Greasepaint who I believe were involved last time as well.

    Having seen the production 5 years I have quite high hopes for it this time. As the piece is a tricky one to sing there will no doubt be the odd imperfection, but all of that is more than compensated for by the setting. Last time's performance made excellent use of the mediaeval setting including memorable use of the iron gates inside the western door (pictured). Certainly the production was far more atmospheric than most I have seen and hopefully this latest version will combine the best of the previous production with some good new innovations as well.


    Tuesday, August 26, 2008

    More on Cristus/Christus

    I wrote about Cristus (as it's spelt on the opening title card, although it usually seems to be referred to as Christus back at the start of 2007 based on the large collection of stills at this site (see translation). I watched the film for the first time recently (during Digory's night feeds which is a great time to watch silent films) and so I have a few points from that original post to correct plus a few more to make.

    Perhaps the biggest error in that post is my assumption that the 80 or so stills from the film were equally spaced. Hence I estimated that the nativity scene comprised roughly 40% of the film and the events of the passion a further 45%, leaving just 15% for everything else. In fact this is patently not the case. The version I have lasts for 82 minutes, and only about 23 minutes (28%) have passed by the time Jesus's birth and childhood are complete. The Last Supper scene, however, starts around the half way mark, a little earlier than I had originally thought. This leaves around 22% (18 minutes) of footage for Jesus's ministry. Still not a lot, but significantly more than my original guess.

    It also appears that my original scene guide contains a number of errors, mainly in that middle section. There I listed the episodes in Jesus ministry as: Sermon on the Mount - (Matt 5-7); Temptation - (Mark 1:12-13); Baptism - (Mark 1:9-11); Rejection at Nazareth - (Mark 6:1-5); Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus's Feet - (Mark 14:3-9); Walking on Water - (Mark 6:45-52); Journey to Jerusalem - (Mark 10:32); Triumphal Entry - (Mark 11:1-10). In fact, it would be correct to list the scenes as follows:
    Annunciation - (Matt 1:18-25 / Luke 1:26-1:38)
    Census - (Luke 2:1-2)
    Birth - (Luke 2:3-8)
    Shepherds - (Luke 2:9-15)
    Wise Men - (Matt 2:1-12)
    Flight to Egypt - (Matt 2:13-15)
    Boy Jesus - (Luke 2:41-52)
    Simon the Pharisee - (Mark 14:3-9)
    Cleansing the Temple - (Mark 11:12-19)
    Suffer Little Children - Mark 10:13-16
    Walking on Water - (Mark 6:45-52)
    Adultress - (John 8:2-11)
    Lazarus - (John 11:1-45)
    Baptism by John - (Mark
    Temptation - (Mark 1:12-13)
    [Extra Biblical Episode - "After The Sermon on the Mount"]
    Triumphal Entry - (Mark 11:1-10)
    Plot Against Jesus - (Mark 14:1-2)
    Last Supper - (Mark 14:22-31)
    Gethsemane - (Mark 14:32-52)
    Trial - (Mark 14:53-64)
    Beating - (Mark 14:65)
    Pilate, Jesus and the Crowds - (John 18:28-40)
    Flogging - (John 19:1-3)
    Pilate condemns Jesus - (John 19:4-16)
    Via Dolorosa - (Mark 15:20-22)
    Crucifixion - (Mark 15:22-39)
    Burial - (Mark 15:40-47)
    The Guard at the Tomb – (Matt 27:62-66)
    Risen Jesus Before Disciples – (Luke 24:36-41)
    Ascension - (Luke 24:50-53)
    (for notes on references see my citation guide)
    Whilst the quality of the transfer I watched was fairly poor - many scenes were spoiled by a lack of contrast - it was evident that originally this was an attractively photographed film. The settings were far more attractive than other Bible films from that era (e.g. From the Manger to the Cross) and many shots are beautifully composed. Take for example the one above where the crescent of the trees offset and complement the shape of the crowd coming up the hill.

    Another nice shot is the one that introduces Mary Magdalene. This scene is also interesting for its designation of Mary as a "courtesan". This is of course the description that Cecil B DeMille uses for Mary as well. Furthermore this scene is the beginning of the scene at Simon the Leper's house which is the first scene the film shows from Jesus's ministry. DeMille would also chose a scene with Mary at the start of his depiction of Jesus's ministry, but in that case it opens the film as a whole as he skips the birth narratives entirely.

    Overall though, the film offers very little drama. There's little to connect the scenes so, as with many early silent Jesus films, it has a pageant-type feel and events tend to happen without any background development. In fact this film goes a little further than some of its predecessors and includes a couple of freeze frame moments at particularly iconic moments such as the Last Supper, and the crucifixion (where the clouds continue to move in the background but everything else stays still). Clearly either the director or the cameramen has a good eye for striking visuals, but is not as interested in fleshing out the iconic images.


    Friday, August 22, 2008

    Non-Lucan Dialogue in Jesus

    It's often thought that Jesus (1979, aka The Jesus Film) is taken word for word from Luke's gospel. In fact this is patently not the case. There are all kinds of places where words are spoken / dubbed over that do not originate in Luke gospel. As I recently re-watched the film as part of my prep for my podcast about it, I thought I'd give a quick run-down on the five different types of non-Lucan dialogue that are found in the film. As there are various different versions of this film around now I should clarify that the following in based on the 2 hour version of the film that I believe was the original cut.

    1 - Prologue / Epilogue
    This I suppose is a little obvious, and some would not classify the opening and closing narrated sections as part of the film at all. But, to me, they are part of the film. Both sections are narrated and feature text from John even as the opening section notes how the film is based on Luke. The ending is longer, and whilst it starts off quoting John 3:16, it's the beginning of a mini-sermon and altar call.

    2 - Narration
    Whilst much of the film's narration is lifted straight from Luke, there are exceptions in addition to those already noted. For example, towards the end of the film the narrator tells us that Pilate was responsible for the "crucifixion of thousands".

    3 - Background Comments
    Perhaps the most frequent type of insertion is in the form of exclamations from the crowd. These occur in virtually every scene, and whilst they may be seen as background they are often clear enough to be distinct, and some are included in the subtitles. For example when the widow puts her mites in the offering we hear someone say "it's very little" or when Jesus is mocked the guards say "how does it feel to look up to somebody?". Given how this film is re-dubbed depending on the language of the audience watching it, I wonder how many of these comments are translated as well. I imagine, given their clarity, that many of them would also be included in the soundtracks for other languages.
    4 - Dialogue from Major Characters
    There are a few occasions when one of the principals says something that is not from Luke. For example, in the resurrection scene the women find the empty tomb and see the angels appear and then rush back to the disciples and recount what has happened, whereas as Luke only tells us that they recounted it. And as Peter rushes off to go verify their story Mary says "Peter, you must believe us". Perhaps the largest such insertion comes from Peter himself. When Peter hears the cock crow he prays the following prayer which is taken from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls of all places (see here):
    Lord we beseech thee do as thou ought in accordance with the greatness of thy power. Thou who did forgive our fathers when they rebelled against thy word. Thou who was angry with them. Thou who did not destroy them because of thy love for them and for thy covenant's sake. Thou did spare them.
    5 - Jesus's Dialogue
    The most unexpected source of dialogue not from Luke is that spoken by Jesus himself. Examples of this are relatively few, but two notable examples are when Luke simply tells us that he prayed, without telling us what he prayed. The film makes its own suggestions. For example, both before the feeding of the five thousand and as he blesses the bread at the Last Supper, Jesus prays the prayer from the Passover Shema "Blessed art thou oh God who brings forth fruit from the earth".

    I've been trying to estimate how much of the film's dialogue is imported, but without recording every word it would prove tricky. I would perhaps estimate somewhere in the region of 10%, but to be honest that's pure guess work. I should point out as well, that most of the footage used in Jesus is taken from a longer 4 hour word for word version of Luke's gospel.


    Thursday, August 21, 2008

    Mary in Film Database

    Michael P. Duricy has created a database of films which either feature the Virgin Mary, or some kind of Mary figure or imagery. The database lists over 1000 films split into 3 categories: Drama, Documentary, and Lecture; Historical and Symbolic Films; and, Intentional and Illustrative Aspects.

    The photo above is of Julia Ormond from the Peter Greenaway film Das Wunder von Macon (1992).


    Monday, August 18, 2008

    South Park on Job

    My Through the Bible in Five and a Half Years course is covering Job tonight, and as I've been busy with the new baby (and his sister and mother) I asked my friend Stu to lead the session. And I'm glad he did. Whereas previously I had only been aware of one film about Job he remembered that South Park covered the story a few years ago in their own irreverent fashion.

    The Job clip featured in Cartmanland (season 5) where Cartman inherits $1 million and builds his own amusement park. The official South Park site (which features a number of clips from the episode) gives the following synopsis:
    Cartman inherits a million dollars from his grandmother and fulfills his lifelong dream of owning his own amusement park: Cartmanland! A hemorrhoid erupts in Kyle's ass when he learns of Cartman's undeserved fortune, making him question the very existence of God and whether there's any reason to stay alive in a world where someone like Cartman is happy.
    You can also hear creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss this episode on YouTube.


    Friday, August 15, 2008

    Some Random Bits and Pieces

    There are various stories that are only tangentially related to Bible films that I thought might be worth mentioning anyway as they might be of interest to some. Most of which are, well, a bit odd.

    1 - MTV Splash Page reports that the latest draft of Jim Uhls' script for Rex Mundi is finished, and that the producers, who include star Johnny Depp, are hunting for a director. Depp will play Dr. Julien Sauniere and if that name sounds familiar then you're probably thinking of curator Jacques Saunière from 2006's The Da Vinci Code. It's neither plagiarism nor coincidence: Bérenger Saunière was a priest who figured prominently in the conspiracy theories that inspired both Dan Brown's novel and the comic book that Rex Mundi is based on which also concerns "the Holy Grail and a descendant of Jesus Christ". The major difference between the two seems to be that Rex Mundi seems to suppose that Martin Luther was assassinated before the reformation got going and that, as a result, Roman Catholic Church now dominates the world.

    2 - And it looks like 2009 or 2010 might be the year of the adapted comic books that sound a bit like The Da Vinci Code. Gale Anne Hurd is the producer for an adaptation of the comic-book series about a woman who discovers that she's the latest in a long line of holy female warriors descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Magdalena (not to be confused with the evangelical women's film Magdalena) will feature ex-Bros star Luke Goss (who recently played Xerxes in One Night With the King) as an agent who works with the Inquisition. More from The Hollywood Reporter.

    3 - There's no knowing what Lars von Trier's psychological thriller / horror film Antichrist will be like, but Variety is reporting that it has finally raised its $11 million budget. Also in Variety is news that Last Temptation of Christ's Willem Dafoe will star. Will he be playing the eponymous villain, and if so is this the first time that an actor has played both Christ and the Antichrist? (Max von Sydow's turn as "The Tracker" in What Dreams May Come doesn't really count).

    4 - Staying with Variety, they are reporting that Mark Ruffalo is going to direct his first film Sympathy for Delicious. Ruffalo will also be in front of the camera along with James Franco and script writer Chris Thornton. Thorton will play the role of wheelcahir bound faith healer "Delicious" Dean O'Dwyer, whilst Ruffalo stars as "a Jesuit priest who tries to help him come to terms with the limits of his gift".

    Thanks to Peter Chattaway for all of the above.

    5 - Meanwhile, Jeffrey Overstreet reports that Martin Freeman is starring in a comedy about two rival schools seeking to outdo each other with their Nativity plays. Jeffrey got the story from Variety which claims that Ashley Jensen of Extras fame will also have a role. No mention of Ricky Gervais or Stephen Marchant, who worked with Freeman in The Office and Jensen in Extras. Incidentally the writer of the last Nativity movie, Mike Rich, has penned a script for Secretariat.

    6 - The release date for the highly anticipated Prince of Persia has been pushed back by almost a year. Whereas it was originally scheduled for release June 2009, Hollywood Reporter says it's looking like it won't arrive until May 2010.

    7 - Finally, Film.com have an article on Steve Coogan's Hamlet 2. They report that whereas a film featuring a "Sexy Jesus" would normally be getting slammed by Conservative groups, Hamlet 2 isn't being because they criticise the ACLU.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008

    A Few Thoughts on VeggieTales: Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen

    I've made a few posts on Esther and, by coincidence, the other week at church Nina (my 2 year old) and her pals were sat down to watch VeggieTales: Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen (2000). I had watched this once before, but as I was looking after Nina anyway I was keen to re-watch it given both my currrent exploration and my criticisms of it in a previous post. My major bone of contention then was that,
    the Veggie Tales series sanitises the story to such an extent that it removes all dramatic tension from the film whatsoever. The Jews aren't at risk of being wiped out by a jealous megalomaniac. They simply are in danger of being exiled to the island of perpetual tickling. I must admit I don't understand the approach of this series and other attempts to purge the Bible of mentions of death, unpleasantness and other aspects of real life. Sooner or later children will learn about death, and that it's in the Bible, and the longer this goes on, the harder it will hit them.
    That was actually written before I became a parent, but I still largely standby what I wrote. Whilst I wouldn't want children unnecessarily traumatised, I do think death is part and parcel of life, and there seems little point to me in adapting a story if you are going to purge it so thoroughly of its primary narrative momentum. Just do a different story.

    Film is such a powerful and accessible medium that altering, as opposed to simply editing, a story inhibits a child's ability to know a story later in life. They have to undo their previous understanding as well as grasp for the first time what the story actually says. Obviously much of these alterations are humorous and are made to make the story more entertaining, which I accept is part and parcel of the whole Bible film sub-genre. At the same time, I'm frequently amazed at how few evangelical Christians are, in any sense, disturbed by some of the Old Testament stories. I think one of the main reasons that this is the case is that, early on, and, primarily thereafter, sadly, they are told the sanitised versions of the stories rather than confronted with a straightforward version of the text. The fact that the story ends with large numbers of the Jewish people's enemies being killed fails to trouble the majority of evangelicals simply because it is either minimised or omitted entirely from most re-tellings of the story that they will have heard. Anyway, revisiting the film gave me the chance to re-evaluate how the film handles the original story. The first scene of the film I got to see was the contest to decide the next queen. In the Bible this contest is essentially about Ahasuerus having sex with the (presumably) best looking virgins in his kingdom and choosing the one he enjoyed the most. Different films portray this differently, for example One Night With the King, despite the sexually suggestive title, plays this more like a beauty contest. The sexual aspect is still there, but it's very much toned down.

    By contrast, in the Veggie Tales version the decision is made on the basis of a talent contest - queen idol if you like. Esther's song moves the king and she gets chosen as queen. On top of this, it appears that the king (pictured below) is significantly older and physically unattractive, although it's hard to know for what passes for beautiful amongst vegetables. This again minimises any notions of romance and /or sex that dominate most of the other Esther films. Of course, portraying things as they really were would not be appropriate for young children, but why include this part of the story at all? All we need to know in order to keep the story moving is that Ahasuerus chose Esther.Whilst we're on the subject of this contest, it's notable that Esther sings a particularly Jewish sounding song. This means she emphasises her Jewish identity rather than conceals it as Mordecai actually urged her to do in the original story.

    One final observation is that Haman is not only planning to kill Mordecai and behind the command to wipe out all the Jews, but he is also behind the attempted assassination of the king. This places Haman in an even worse light than the Old Testament does and thus makes Xerxes' decision between his right hand man and his queen significantly more straightforward than it would have been.

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    Monday, August 11, 2008

    Jonathan Rosenbaum on The Ten Commandments (1956)

    I'm still catching up on stories from before my son Digory was born, 10 days ago now. A day or two before Peter Chattaway had linked to a review of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum originally wrote it for the Chicago Reader during its 1990 re-issue he's re-posted it on his blog under the title "The Power of Belief". He makes a number of interesting points (as well as publishing some nice publicity shots), in particular how the film's emphasis is not on its flashy special effects but on the genuineness of DeMille's message.


    Saturday, August 09, 2008

    Biblical Studies Carnival XXXII

    Photo by Tim Parkinson, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry has posted Biblical Studies Carnival XXXII in three parts: 1, 2 and 3

    Meanwhile, over at Codex, carvival organiser Tyler Williams is wondering about the future of these carnivals particularly regarding the work required to put together a monthly carnival. He quotes the point made by this month's incumbent...

    The number of really excellent posts by biblical bloggers on specific texts continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Here is a representative sample from last month. My apologies to everyone who posted on other texts, but whose posts are not listed: there is only so much one person can read and get around to writing up
    ...and then asks "perhaps we should move to more frequent carnivals? Twice a month?" and asks for feedback. I'm sure he'd like to hear from anyone who has any ideas.


    Thursday, August 07, 2008

    US Reviews for 'Not the Messiah'

    It's well over a year since I posted anything on Eric Idle's Life of Brian based oratorio 'Not the Messiah'. Since then, the show has played in a few places in the US and so Peter Chattaway has linked to a couple of reviews.

    Stephen Brookes of the Washington Post called it "hysterically funny" predicting that Idle's "dead-on Dylan impersonation will go down in musical history" and gives a decent indication as to what it might actually sound like.
    Idle rewrote the film's key scenes as songs, which Du Prez then set to music with gleeful abandon - mixing spirituals, doo-wop, Scottish ballads, Sondheim-ish show tunes, John Philip Sousa and even a tip of the hat to Handel himself.
    Which ratchets up my interest in seeing this yet another notch. Then there's Richard S. Ginell of Variety also mentions the Bob Dylan impersonation and admires the piece's "satire on oratorio form". Ultimately, however, he he finds it all rather "inconsistent".
    ...There could have been more sustained hilarity, and the most memorable thing in the score remains the classic, chipper holdover from the film, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
    I know that's intended to be a criticism, but I can't imagine, for even a moment, that it will deter devoted Pythonists from flocking to see it.

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    Tuesday, August 05, 2008

    MTV on Paradise Lost,

    The publicity machine for The Day the Earth Stood Still is starting to get up and running which gives director Scott Derrickson the chance to talk about his next project - an adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost. Even so, the recent piece at the MTV Blog is surprisingly lengthy for a film that's not due out until 2009. The official site contains nothing more than an email address.

    I'd recommend reading the whole article, but here are a couple of choice quotes to whet the appetite.
    Imagine the most evil creature that ever existed, a villain who commits atrocity after atrocity, who has scarred the world and each and every creature in it, a scoundrel so heinous he makes Heath Ledger's anarchist Joker look like Mother Teresa. Now imagine that you like him.

    Director Scott Derrickson says that when you see his upcoming adaptation of "Paradise Lost," the epic 17th-century poem by John Milton about the Fall of Man, you won't be able to help but have sympathy for its bad guy: the devil.
    I've not read the original, but I don't think the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose is meaning to be subversive here - he insists it's all in Milton's original work.
    In the movie, Satan goes from being a completely good being [an angel] to becoming the most heinous kind of evil, and you really have a hard time knowing exactly where he crossed that line because you were with him," the director said. "What is interesting about that story, in the way Milton laid it out, is that people jump off with him at different points and some never at all. Properly done, it's a story that tells readers a lot about themselves.

    "You have to respect that Milton created the first anti-hero with that poem, and certainly this was preserved in the script," Derrickson added. "At what point does love turn to jealousy, jealousy turn into hate and hate into evil?
    Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for highlighting the article.

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    Sunday, August 03, 2008

    Comic Con on Kings

    Peter Chattaway has done a piece on NBC's Kings at the recent Comic Con convention in San Diego. Pick of pile is a video of the leading cast and crew discussing the pilot. He also links to Tara Bennett's interview with series creator Michael Green and a piece by Liz Shannon Miller.

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    Friday, August 01, 2008

    Digory Page - Born 1st Aug'08

    I do try not to post personal items on this blog, but I thought this was a worthy exception. Digory James Page was born this morning (1st August 2008) at 11:50 am weighing in at 8lb 6oz. Mother and baby are both doing well (considering what they've just been through) and Nina (pictured below) is suitably excited. I was impressed that he managed to come smack bang in the middle of the day is was meant to come and that he was being born during the eclipse.I'm on leave now for 4 weeks and so blogging might be a bit erratic, but there are still a few items I'm hoping to post so please stay tuned. Meanwhile here's a photo of the two of us about 30 minutes after she was born.