• 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


    Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    Report on Yesterday's "The Ancient World in Silent Cinema II" Event

    Whilst I'll be posting a few individual comments on each of the silent Bible films over the next fortnight, I wanted to post some reflections on the day as a whole. The journey down was a dream giving me just enough time to write my review for Pamela Grace's new book "The Religious Film" (also to be posted shortly). Bloomsbury Theatre is just a short walk from St. Pancras station, so I was able to grab a sandwich in the hugely impressive Quaker HQ Friends House before getting back to the theatre in time for the opening session.

    UCL's Maria Wyke is one of the two people behind this series of events (the other being Bristol's Pantelis Michelakis) and she gave a helpful introduction to the day's proceedings. I must admit I hadn't fully appreciated quite how complex projecting century old film on modern equipment is, so it was useful to be given a brief overview. There were apologies for the quality of the films, but, in actual fact they were far superior in quality to that which I had imagined. The detail was so much more apparent than on DVD (even when viewed with a projector). That said, in some cases such clarity highlighted the cheapness of the sets. I suppose that the earliest film makers may not have anticipated their films being shown on a large screen (and of course did not have a century of set-craft and location shooting to compare themselves against).

    The first session started with A.E. Coleby's comedy Wanted - A Mummy. Whilst only part of the film was available it was very entertaining, and notable that the essence of the double act (tension between a strait-laced individual and his more outgoing relaxed partner; and the man with a plan leading his partner into calamity) was very much in place. I can't help but wondering if Laurel and Hardy might have been influenced by this film.

    Next up was La Sposa del Nilo (Bride of the Nile - Italy 1911 - pictured above). Essentially this is a tragedy where a woman is thrown into the Nile to appease the Goddess Isis, much to the dismay of her fiancé. What surprised many of those present was that the man didn't manage to somehow save the day despite his best efforts. I did overhear one woman in the audience point out that if the heroine hadn't fainted so pathetically she could just have swum off! The contrast with the films that were to follow, though, was striking. Here was an angry God who needed appeasing with human sacrifice, and whose followers were so devoted that the hero is unable to save her. It's notable that the film concludes with a statement to the effect that the waters of the Nile returned. Our modern minds rightly ascribe this to coincidence, as would those of the original audience, but it's interesting that viewers would not be quite so unanimous in offering similar explanations for the cause and effect of the events in many biblical films. And of course the tragic ending makes an eloquent argument from silence for a benevolent, interventionist God - the 'true hero' of the rest of the biblical films.

    The last of the non-biblical films was no less interesting. La Vergine di Babilonia (The Virgin of Babylon - Italy, 1910) featured the fictional Babylonian monarch Ninia who, like Isis in the previous film, desired a woman who is betrothed. But in contrast to the leading lady of that film, this picture's heroine, Esther, is feisty, determined, strong willed and not afraid to refuse the kings advances. What was of most interest to me about this film was the various way it evoked several stories from the Bible in order to add layers of meaning. Whilst the Bible is clear that Esther was, originally at least, a Babylonian name, one cannot hear it today without thinking of the Jewish girl who became queen of Babylon. The film's plot - where a king desiring a queen uses his men's force before requiring her to audition in some way, but with the end result being the queen gaining power and saving her own, previously threatened, life - bears a great deal of similarity. Likewise Esther's dress is in strong contrast to the other Babylonian woman: it is much more in line with the costumes worn by Jewish women from the Bible films of the period.

    The other Bible story that this film calls upon is that of Daniel. Like Daniel Esther sticks to her moral code and is thrown into a den of lions as a result. The Lions refuse their lunch (the intertitle calls it a "miracle of miracles") and the people overthrow Ninia and proclaim Esther their queen, and she returns to her lover Joseph. The closing scenes also see Esther striking Christ-like poses.

    Three Bible films followed (Cain et Abel, La Sacra Bibbia, Moïse sauvé des eaux) before a short comfort break. I was dying to ask if I could attempt to take some stills, but didn't quite find the courage / bare-faced cheek. When we returned we were told that we were over-running and that some films were going to be cut, including the two Jephthah's Daughter films. The reason? The projectionist had managed to work out how to show the films at the correct speed (something of a feat given that originally projectors and cameras would have been hand-wound). Whilst in many ways this was a shame, I think it was the correct decision. The chance to see these films as they were meant to be seen was a major benefit, and while I'll have to wait a bit longer to see a film about Jephthah, these films are available to view in the British National Film and Television Archives.

    The remainder of the session saw the other two Moses films L'Exode and La vie de Moïse interspersed with The Life of Moses. All of the films on display were given an improvised accompaniment by pianist Stephen Horne, but it was the first of these where his work was at its very best. Improvised accompaniment is an interesting art form. When, as here, it is truly improvised - i.e. the musician has not seen the movie before at all - then the artist is simultaneously both part of the team of filmmakers, and part of the audience. The former is obvious: their work enhances the mood, entertainment and meaning of the film. But it's also true that they are (first time) viewers of the film. Whilst, aside from the odd gasp, chuckle or round of applause) convention dictates that the majority of the audience offer no immediate reaction, the musician acts as our spokesperson, reacting to what they see and swiftly working it into their accompaniment. I suspect that the reason I appreciated his work most - in L'Exode - is because this was also the film I found most startling, but I'll come to that in a day or two. The accompanist also plays another role interpreting the film for us. Music is so evocative (as superbly demonstrated by Christina Ricci's narration in The Opposite of Sex) that the accompanist has the power to change the meaning or mood of the film as well as simply enhancing it. Hence whilst they are part of the film-making team they also stand alone. The other filmmakers are no longer with us: the accompanist has the final word.

    Anyway, Horne was excellent throughout, and deserved his many rounds of applause. He mainly used the piano, but also used an electric piano (replete with synth, harp and other sounds) as well as a flute, a piccolo and the unhammered strings of the piano. I can't help wondering if my brother Geoff Page (an Oxford Uni. music graduate) would love to give this kind of thing a try. I might have to try and rig it up next time we meet up.

    The afternoon featured two, rather than the advertised three, lectures as Margaret Malamud had been taken ill. In actual fact two was all there was really time for. Indeed Judith Buchanan had to curtail her paper before she had a chance to talk about the Jesus films. Personally, I found her talk the more fascinating of the two. Much of it traced the development of Judith's portrayal in art which, as the wife of an artist, was right up my street. But her relaxed presentation style made her paper all the more enjoyable. It felt like we were being talked to rather than read to.

    David Mayer's paper was also very interesting, talking about how architecture and dance in early ancient silent film owed a huge debt to the theatrical plays of the late 19th century, and traced the development of choreography in some of D.W.Griffith's films, including the 1914 Judith of Bethuliah and, of course, Intolerance. Mayer's knowledge was clearly immense, and it was a privilege to hear him speak, though he was hampered somewhat by his PowerPoint presentation. His book Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W.Griffith and the American Theatre which explores these themes is due for release shortly (contrary to the Amazon site Mayer said it was still awaiting final publication).

    After a brief break for tea we were treated to Samson et Dalila, La Reine de Saba, Giuditta e Oloferne, Judith, L'Aveugle de Jérusalem, and Vie De Jesus. The cuts to the advertised programme, as before, enabled the films to be shown at the correct speed and the event to finish on time, which was great news for those of us dashing off to catch trains. Somewhat annoyingly, my train home had been dredged up from the eighties, and didn't include any power points for me to plug my laptop into. Somehow I have to find time to write up my notes on the films before I forget it all.

    Anyway, all in all it was a wonderful day out, and I'd like to offer my profound thanks to Maria Wyke, Pantelis Michelakis and everyone who worked to make yesterday happen. It was a fantastic event and I'm sure that the 150-200 in attendance enjoyed it just as much as I did.

    Edit: The Bioscope has a great write up of the day's events as well.

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