• 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


    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Using Video Clips in Presentations

    This is an edited version of the original post. Readers are also advised to look at the comments for more information.
    I've been re-listening to Mark Goodacre's podcasts on Mark and was sad to hear that he's now given up using video clips in lectures because they're too prone to go wrong. I've been there, done that and suffered the humiliation. However, when you have a bona fide excuse to a clip from Life of Brian to an audience largely unfamiliar with it, then it's just a crying shame if you have to pass it up.

    As it happens I've not been allowed to leave it alone. Aside from my own need to use clips when I speak, part of my paid role also includes doing it for others. And then make it easy for someone non-technical to get it to work on the day. So I've had to push on through, and over the last year or two I've learnt a lot, made some discoveries and now feel I've pretty much honed the process to a relatively easy state. In the, somewhat optimistic, hope that I have I thought I would share what I do so anyone wanting to incorporate clips into future presentations can do so as well. You have to download a few pieces of free software, but once you've done that you should be away.

    The key trick is to incorporate any potential clips into PowerPoint. I know PowerPoint is the Ryan Air of presentation software (everyone slags it off but uses it anyway) and I know that smug mac types will be reading this safe in the knowledge that everything they do is better than if they did it on a PC, but here's something for us lesser mortals. I for one actually like PowerPoint. It's a tool that's widely abused, and the majority of presentations are just awful, but if you take your time to "get it" then it's a great, if somewhat flawed, tool.

    One of these flaws is that even in the more recent versions of PowerPoint, the only reliable video file type it can handle consistently is WMVs. But it's well worth doing, because once you've set it all up in the relatively pressure free, serenity of your office, then all you have to do is click for the next slide. You don't have to insert, wait for them to show all the different video logos, trailers, menus etc. (or hope that it's remembered the correct place to resume from). You don't have to open a new piece of software and drag the screen into the right place, or change the source on the video projector. You don't have to make sure you're alert so you stop it in the correct place. All you have to do is press the down arrow. Once.

    So here's a quick guide as to how to get video clips converted into WMV files so that you can import them in to PowerPoint and start your clip just by clicking for the next slide.

    Rambling over. Useful bit starts now

    There are two major ways of doing this. It's worth getting both in your arsenal in case there's a problem with one or the other.

    Method 1 - Import from YouTube
    This has now become super easy thanks to the later versions of RealPlayer. If you don't have that on your PC already, then you need to download it. RealPlayer, bless 'em, have now incorporated two additional pieces of software into their free version, "Converter" and "Trimmer". They are both simple and do what they say. It also has a widget so that if you are watching a video in Internet Explorer it pops up to ask you if you want to download it. This means that you can download things off some other sites as well as YouTube. So you need to get Real Player. Generally I use Mozilla rather than IE, but most people have a copy of it anyway, and besides I think RealPlayer also allows you to just type in the URL and it will download it for you, anyway...

    So here's what you do:

    1 - Find the clip in YouTube. Watch in IE and when the box pops up (or if you right click) select "Download this video". The video will begin downloading.

    2 - Open RealPlayer Trimmer. Find the video file you just downloaded and drag it into the Trimmer window. You then use the sliders to cut it down to where you want it. You can do this to within a second or two so it's not a hugely refined editing tool, but for lectures / presentations it's more than enough. Save this as a new file.

    3 - Open RealPlayer Converter and drag the new file into the window. Then in the "Convert to" box select the WMV profile, set where you want to save it and go.

    4 - Then open PowerPoint. Choose "Insert" and "Movie from File" (precise wording here will vary depending on version). I tend to use start automatically, but sometimes put a slide in before hand. It saves faffing around with a mouse trying to click in the right place. You can expand the video to a larger size and sometimes you have to change the width relative to the height (click on and drag in one direction only). You can hone this by watching the video through and looking for anything that should be a circle (sun, moon, car tyres etc.).

    And there you go. Could hardly be more easy (although I suspect there is the odd short cut). However the downside is that YouTube vids are frequently low quality so here's a better way for higher quality clips.

    Method 2 - Import from a DVD
    This is obviously a little more tricky as DVD companies don't want their product to be pirated. But if you own the DVD you are using then I don't think that morally there's any difference. It's just a matter of convenience.

    But to do this you have to download a few pieces of free software. The first is Handbrake. I have to admit this seems to work better on Macs, but I've recently discovered a critical setting I was overlooking before and so I think I should be fine now. However, just to be on the safe side I would also recommend using Freestar DVD Ripper. It's not quite as good as Handbrake, and sometimes you have to play around with the setting to get rid of unwanted subtitles, but it tended not to have the problem I now hope I've overcome with Handbrake. It's a useful second option.

    You also need to download Any Video Converter which out of everything I've mentioned today is the software I've been using the longest (except for PowerPoint obviously). Once you've got those you're ready to go. Here's how

    1 - Place DVD in drive and open Handbrake/Freestar. Select the chapters you want to rip and any other settings (it's worth playing around with these). Make sure you go to "Video filter" and select "Deinterlace". If it offers you a choice fast is usually OK. If you fail to do this it might go all odd looking. It's also worth keeping the video's size the same as the original. Click "start".

    2 - Open Any Video Converter and "Add Video". In the "Video Codec" box on the right hand side choose "WMV V9". If you have a relatively recent version of this you should be able to trim it to the correct length here as well using the "start time" and "stop time" options on the right. Also worth making sure the video is the same size. If you need more volume this is the time to fiddle with that too (under "options".

    3 - Then, as above, open PowerPoint, choose "Insert" and "Movie from File". See up their for tips. If you've done it this way there should be no problem making the movie fill the whole screen without a drop in quality. Note: for some reason the opening still that PowerPoint shows you when you've imported it is significantly lower quality than the film itself so don't worry if it looks a bit blotchy.

    General Tips
    Having said all that here are a couple of other things to bear in mind.

    1 - This is an easy process, but it's not necessarily quick. It's worth doing it whilst you are doing something else as the various stages take a while to complete once you click go/start.

    2 - It's well worth watching your film before you're done. I think you end up doing it quite a few times naturally but critically do it once in the context of PowerPoint before you finish it, and once before your lecture in the actual room, this gives you a chance to check that you've plugged the sound in correctly and that everything is OK. You can then relax a bit more knowing that it should all be OK. And the beauty of it is that you don't have to rewind, or hope the DVD player slips into standby and so on. You just return to the relevant slide and click again.

    3 - There is, however, one pitfall to avoid, which hopefully these checks will highlight. Unlike picture images, PowerPoint doesn't embed a copy of the video into the PowerPoint file. It only remembers the link, and how you've set it up to run. So if you're planning on taking your presentation along on a memory stick or a CD, or even if you've just saved the video on a drive which won't be available to you when you give your presentation, be careful. If you forget this you might end with no video.

    It's easy to avoid though. You just need to make sure that both the presentation file and the video file(s) are all on your laptop / memory stick, and that your presentation is looking for them in the place where you've stored it. If you prep it all on your own laptop anyway this should be no problem (unless you move everything), but if you are using a memory stick / CD just be aware of that one.

    4 - Next - legalities. I've written this to help those who are planning on using video clips anyway. But just because you can do it, doesn't mean that you are allowed to. I have no idea what the legal situation is in most countries. In the UK and many other places you can buy a licence from Christian Video Licensing International (CVLI). It doesn't cover all films, and technically you are still meant to be using the DVD rather than ripping a clip, but things are different for different contexts and countries so find out what applies where.

    5 - Lastly, I have a couple more things to say about the much maligned PowerPoint. Yes, it's often bad, but it's also a very powerful tool for something that the average person can do without too much hassle. It's really worth getting to know. The best piece of advice I know for crafting presentations is to try and think of your slides as a billboard. Use a high impact image a small amount of text. Unlike some, I do think bullet-pointed list have their place - particularly if you are giving out lists, but always include a few high impact images. My mate Lee Jackson is a consultant on this kind of thing, and you can view a presentation of his on designing presentations, with a few top tips at slideshare.net which he's also had published in PSA magazine. And if you've not seen this video yet, then you really should.

    The other thing is that very recently someone sent me a link to some new presentation software called Sparkol. There are costs involved with this but it's for add-ons rather than the basic cost (so you can get a feel for it) and it looks like it might be a good way to progress in the quality of your presentations. I've not tried it yet, but plan to do so very soon.

    As the Bible says, pride comes before a fall, and typically just a few days after posting this I tried to use method two on a couple of films and had to resort to a slightly more complicated workaround. I can't remember precise details, but I had to use another free piece of free software - Windows Movie Maker - to trim one clip and I think I may have used RealPlayer Trim to do the other one. Obviously this has no bearing on the YouTube method, but I thought it would be worth noting that this sometime requires trying a few different combinations. See further notes for Mac users in the comments below

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    Comparison: Bricks Without Straw

    Time for another Moses comparison. This week it's the scene(s) where the Hebrews are forced to provide their own straw for their bricks. It's a little more complex here than previous comparisons of Moses films. Anyway here are the films I looked at this week:

    The Ten Commandments (1956)
    Ten Commandments (1956) 50th Anniversary Collection – Region 2
    Disc 2, Chapters 2 to 3 - 0:05:54 to 0:08:53 [2:59 minutes]
    Moses played by Charlton Heston

    DeMille and co. do a good job of tying Moses' trick with his staff into the punishment meted out on the Hebrews. When asked how they will manage under the new conditions, Pharaoh suggests Moses' stick might do it for them. Moses and Aaron return to the Hebrews who seemingly were expecting an instant release and when they discover that Moses has failed they quickly turn against him. A shorter clip could be made stopping at around 8:18 minutes.

    Moses the Lawgiver (1975)
    Network/Granada Ventures – Region 2
    Disc 1, episode 2, chapter 9 – 39:46 to 41:14 [1:28 minutes]
    Moses played by Burt Lancaster

    This production handles this scene rather unusually. Having been summoned back to Egypt, Moses has a one to one conversation with Pharaoh, but no specific request is made. Then we are shown Aaron on his own requesting the three days in the desert. It ends with a task master telling him to relay a message. There's a cut and we see bewildered Hebrews finding out that no straw will be available to them now. Joshua objects the most forcefully and is punished and, like the 1956 film the episode ends in chaos.

    The Ten Commandments (1994)
    Goodtimes; Nine Film Set – Region 2
    Chapter 6 - 29:26 to 31:26 [2:00 minutes]
    Moses voiced by Joel Briel

    This is a fairly low quality animated film, complete with a cheeky talking bird and an uber-brat of a Pharaoh's son. It doesn't mention the withdrawing of straw provision, opting instead for having Pharaoh tell Moses they have to double the amount of bricks which they must produce.

    Testament: The Bible in Animation: Moses (1996)
    Bible Society; Nine Film Set – Region 2
    Disc 1, title 3, chapter 2 - 13:38 to 14:28 [0:50 minutes]
    Moses voiced by Martin Jarvis

    Rather unfortunately, the events here fall across a scene break. Aaron performs the staff to snake trick, but Pharaoh is somewhat unimpressed. A cut follows and we overhear two Hebrews complaining about having to make bricks without straw and voicing their preference for leadership rather than tricks. The camera pans beyond them to a boat out on the Nile which shortly afterwards Moses will be turning to blood.

    Moses (1996)
    Time Life Box Set – Region 2
    Part 1, chapter 5 - 47:35 to 56:05 [8:30 minutes]
    Moses played by Sir Ben Kingsley

    This is the only portrayal to show this incident before Moses turns his staff into a snake in front of Pharaoh, despite the fact that this is the biblical order. It's also a fairly lengthy clip. Whilst a shorter clip could be used that ends at 51:35, what follows is interesting enough to perhaps warrant inclusion. The Israelites fail to meet their target and so their Hebrew overseer is whipped, seeking out Moses to confront him later on.

    The Prince of Egypt (1998)
    Dreamworks 2006 Single Disc version – Region 2
    Chapter 15 - 41:41 to 45:45 [4:04 minutes]
    Moses voiced by Val Kilmer

    Like the animated Ten Commandments this film omits any mention of the fact that the Hebrews now have to source their own straw, opting instead to have Pharaoh order the Hebrews to double their quotient. It's because of this that I've included a couple of other animated versions in this comparison of the Moses story as one of our congregations is aimed at (young) children and adults.

    Ten Commandments (2006)
    Disc 1; 42:42 to 51:22 [8:40 minutes]
    Moses played by Dougray Scott

    This is one of this film's better moments. Again it's fairly long, but it shows not only the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, but also the response of the people, with the detail about the bricks without straw only being released before the end of the scene. Moses borther acts as a go beyween and chastises Moses for getting Pharaoh's back up.

    Ten Commandments (2007)
    32:40 to 33:36 [0:54 minutes]
    Moses voiced by Christian Slater

    I was one of the few critics that was fairly forgiving about this film when it was released, but it looks very dated today - the trees don't move in the air, nor does the characters hair (which people pointed out at the time) and the characters movement is stilted. It's not a bad portrayal of this scene however. Pharaoh spells it what he will do and then we cut to the Hebrews who we see suffering under the new restrictions. This is followed by a contingent of disgruntled Israelites trying to get Moses to admit he made a mistake to Pharaoh.

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    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Visual Bible's Matthew:Ch.28

    Just got time to make the final entry in my series on the Visual Bible's Matthew. After a fairly long post last time on the death of Jesus, this one will be comparatively short. I'm only covering one chapter rather than two, and it's a relatively short one at that (20 verses compared to 66 for chapter 27 and 75 for chapter 26).

    The resurrection hasn't been covered all that often in Jesus films, and even when it is, it is often significantly different from what we find in the gospels. Often we see Jesus at and in the tomb (Pasolini's and Gibson's films) as opposed to the empty tomb, or the events reported in the gospel are interpreted more metaphorically (King of Kings, Godspell, Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal). One notable exception is the BBC's The Passion which not only shows the empty tomb but also the two cases of mistaken identity.

    Here, things are portrayed with great fidelity. The women go to the tomb and find it empty, although we do not actually see the tomb itself. The reason for this is that the dramatic events that the author describes as prefiguring the moment of resurrection are here described rather than shown (with the exception of the earthquake which is portrayed by a shaky camera and a few rocks falling down). This is again probably due to the difficulty in portraying credible angels - nearly all attempts at this are distracting - as well as budgetary constraints. It does however also add to the sense that the narrator is using a metaphor rather than offering a literal description.

    We then cut to the women returning from the tomb and meeting Jesus on the road. This is shot from a low angle and Jesus entering the scene from behind the camera. It's a nicely composed moment, which I suppose also catches the sense of not quite being sure who this is for a brief moment. It's a shame that it's followed up by a cheesy moment of a slow motion Jesus walking along accompanied by triumphant music. There are no nail marks on Jesus hands though for what it's worth.

    That moment clashes particularly noticeably with the next scene where the Pharisees try to bribe the soldiers. There's no real sense that the soldiers have any fear of the consequences of them failing in their duty. Caiaphas however hides his face in shame, presumably at the deception these faithful Jews are now embroiled in. This is actually a complete contrast with the text which doesn't even mention the Pharisees, and lays the blame with the chief priests and the elders.

    Finally we come to the Great Commission which takes place atop the same rock as the Sermon on the Mount. For a moment it looks like the filmmakers will resist having Jesus look directly in the camera, but then, seemingly unable to help themselves they close with Jesus smiling reassuringly straight at the audience. Artistically it's weak, but it's not hard to appreciate why the filmmakers chose to do it in such a fashion.

    The film ends however with a sort of epilogue: after a long fade to black the camera follows Jesus as he walks towards a lake. He turns for a moment, again looks at the camera and beckons (us) to follow him. He turns on a walks a little further before repeating his "follow me" gesture. The shot freezes mid pose and the credits roll. This ending seems more in keeping with the end of John (21:19's "follow me") than Matthew. Matthew's more of a sending out. The difference is a speck rather than a log, but then I suspect that this series has been a far more examination than the filmmakers would probably have anticipated.

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    Friday, October 08, 2010

    Biblical Studies Carnival: Sept. 2010

    Photo by Tim Parkinson, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    Most people have probably seen this by now, but I like to post links to the Biblical Studies Carnival so here it is. This month's offering has been put together by Steven Demmler. Demmler runs You Can't Mean That! and has done a great job with this month's Carnival despite only three emails of nominations. In my own defence I am reading very few Biblioblogs at the moment, but I should at least try and nominate the odd post at least.

    The latest Biblioblog Top 50 is up as well.

    Thanks to all involved in pulling together both the Carnival and the Biblioblog chart.


    Thursday, October 07, 2010

    Comparison: The Burning Bush

    As I mentioned last week my church is looking at Exodus at the moment, and having been tasked with finding some suitable video clips to portray Moses' early life for last Sunday's meeting, I've now been asked to hunt out the best portrayals of the Burning Bush episode for this coming week.

    As with last week, I'm going to exclude the more obscure films such as Demille's 1923 The Ten Commandments (as it omits this episode anyway) and Moses und Aron as they are a bit too complex. I am however going to include DeMille's 1956 version of these events as his depiction is significantly shorter than his portrayal of Moses' early life, which lasts for roughly half the film.

    The Ten Commandments (1956)
    Ten Commandments (1956) 50th Anniversary Collection – Region 2
    Disc 1, Chapter 29 - 2:05:00 to 2:07:50 [2:50 minutes]
    Moses played by Charlton Heston

    Given the length of the overall movie it's strange that this pivotal scene is so short. The special effects here are weaker than I remembered them and Moses is given no signs with which to convince the Israelites of his encounter with God. The identity of the voice of God was hushed up at the time and, no doubt due to DeMille's death shortly after, it's never been something that has been cleared up entirely satisfactorily to my mind. Strangely, given the importance of head covering in Judaism, Moses begins this incident with his head covered up, but by the end of it his head is uncovered. His hair hair has not only become more grey, but it has also changed it's style, marking his transition from desert shepherd to God's chosen leader.

    Moses the Lawgiver (1975)
    Network/Granada Ventures – Region 2
    Disc 1, episode 2, chapter 2 – 9:45 to 14:45 [5 minutes]
    Moses played by Burt Lancaster

    This production consistently seeks to demythologise the events which is depicting, and this scene is no exception. This time there is no secret about the identity of the actor who provides God's voice: it is Lancaster himself. Whilst this can be explained as simply the voice we are most likely to hear God speak with (DeMille used Heston's voice in such a manner in the latter part of his film) it also leaves open the possibility that Moses is simply imagining the encounter. In a similar fashion, the two signs that God gives Moses are shot using an unusual effect which could be read as a hallucination, though it also does not rule out a more traditional interpretation. The two things that are unexplained are 1 - why the bush and the surrounding fires all go out at once, and 2 - why this encounter changes Moses to the extent that it does.

    Testament: The Bible in Animation: Moses (1996)
    Bible Society; Nine Film Set – Region 2
    Disc 1, title 3, chapter 2 - 7:18 to 9:46 [2:28 minutes]
    Moses voiced by Martin Jarvis

    For some reason the Testament interpretation of these events has already given Moses white hair (tradition does suggest he was 80 by this point) that stretches down his back, making Moses look rather odd. God is again voiced by the actor playing Moses, although here it seems less sceptical. The signs are mentioned but not shown, and everything is over rather quickly.

    Moses (1996)
    Time Life Box Set – Region 2
    Part 1, chapter 3 - 29:10 to 34:20 [5:10 minutes]
    Moses played by Sir Ben Kingsley

    This is one of the better portrayals. Ben Kingsley's acting is good here, even stuttering as he tries to convince God that he is not a good public speaker. It also uses some early CGI to turn the snake into a stick, which holds up reasonably well fourteen years later.

    The Prince of Egypt (1998)
    Dreamworks 2006 Single Disc version – Region 2
    Chapter 15 - 41:41 to 45:45 [4:04 minutes]
    Moses voiced by Val Kilmer

    This quite a creative portrayal of Moses first encounter with God. Firstly it uses two actors for the voice of God, the more dominant is male, but a woman's voice also whispers the words along at the same time, and with greater sustain. We also hear echoes of the past and the future as the implications of this moment strike Moses. Moses perhaps pushes things further here than in the other films (in line with the text) resulting in God's final outburst being an angry sounding one. The one false note is when God tells Moses he will smite Egypt only for the background music to swell up into an uplifting crescendo.

    Ten Commandments (2006)
    Disc 1; 30:00 to 31:50 [1:50 minutes]
    Moses played by Dougray Scott

    This might be one of the clips I use, whilst I dislike Moses' hair at this point, it is quite short, and has the most convincing effects. Scott argues with God quite well, again stuttering like Kingsley in the earlier mini-series. The scene is preceded by Moses disobeying his father-in-law's command to pay no attention to the holy mountain.

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    Wednesday, October 06, 2010

    Visual Bible's Matthew:Ch.26-27

    For obvious reasons the depiction of these scenes is always particularly critical to the artistic success of a Jesus movie, and as a result it's more widely discusses by Jesus film scholars than most parts of Jesus' life. So I've got significantly more thoughts on these two chapters of this film than normal which is partly why the write up of these two chapters has come so far after the preceding 25 chapters.

    Whilst the coupling of these two chapters is my own analytical device, it nevertheless highlights an odd pairing in the film: Jesus in his underwear. Obviously Jesus will end these two chapters wearing only a probably anachronistic loincloth, but interestingly he starts chapter 26 washing himself also in his loincloth.

    One of the more unfortunate aspects of this portrayal is its failure to distinguish between the different types of Jewish groups we come across in the text. In an earlier post I mentioned their similar style of dress, and also the presence of one particularly notable Pharisee, who was put out by Jesus even more than his colleagues. Now however whereas Matthew doesn't mention the Pharisees in these two crucial chapters until after Jesus is dead, the film shows this particular Pharisee to be a close confidant of the Chief Priest Caiaphas. In fact, for a while I thought he was Caiaphas. Such blurring of the distinctions between the differing sects in Judaism of the period is a little unhelpful, bunching together all the Jews into one group.

    Sometimes, this film fails to act out on screen the words that we hear from the narrator. Here for example (26:7, Jesus' anointing at Bethany) we're told that Jesus is "reclining at the table" but the pictures show him sitting upright. As with Pasolini's take on Matthew it is Judas who objects to the waste of perfume. The text of Matthew merely assigns this to the disciples. It is only in John's Gospel where Judas is named as the offender.

    It does however lead nicely on to Judas' betrayal. The scene closes with a long shot of the 30 silver coins being counted out one by one. This stresses Judas' greed in contrast to an earlier moment whereby Judas' objections seem to be less driven by avarice.

    We come then to the Last Supper. Jesus' identification of the one who has betrayed him ("Yes it is you") is made all the more explicit by Jesus embracing him for a long time after Judas asks "Surely not I Rabbi?". I can see the point that the filmmakers were trying to make, but it comes across as trying a bit too hard.

    In a similar fashion Jesus' impassioned crying in Gethsemane is not very convincing. It's surprisingly overdone given some of the better acting which we've witnessed in the immediately preceding chapters. There's also an unusual moment when, as the soldiers come to arrest him, Jesus hands a woman his coat. It seems to be Roman soldiers who are sent to arresting Jesus, even though Matthew simply calls them "a crowd".

    We get to the trial and it finally becomes clear who Caiaphas is, it's not the leading Pharisee of earlier chapters, though he is still present, but another actor. I use the word trial because the scene seems rather different in tone to the hearings before the Sanhedrin in other Jesus films: there's much more of a mob mentality. This reflects the way the text ends this passage with those present striking, slapping and mocking Jesus, but it starts a little earlier on. When Jesus answers "Yes it is as you say" the mob tries to grab Jesus, but the execution of this scene makes it seem a bit feeble. Ultimately they gather around him to hit and spit on Jesus, but again it's very unconvincing. Then suddenly we see part of Jesus' beard getting pulled out. This visual element references Isaiah 50:6 ("I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.") which many, including the filmmakers apparently, consider to be a prophesy that is fulfilled in the events Matthew describes here.

    Whilst this is going on, Peter is denying ever knowing Jesus. It's far and away the best scene by Gerrit Schoonhoven playing Peter, and quite powerful. As he gives his oath he kisses his hand. I'd be interested to know if this has any historical basis as it's not something I've encountered before.

    The most controversial moment in Matthew's Gospel, at least with regards to the question of anti-Semitism, is the trial before Pilate. The way the scene is handled in this respect is interesting. The trial takes place before a very large crowd (larger than the number shown during the feeding of the 5000 in fact) which tends to give the impression that this is a fairly representative sample of the population of Jerusalem at the time. I don't think that's the impression one gets from reading Mark in isolation, but the anti-Jewish rhetoric is greater in Matthew, and so it could be argued that this is in keeping with the text, even if personally I would have preferred a smaller crowd.

    These problems are compounded by the poor handling of two other issues. Firstly, Pilate is portrayed very nobly. He's certainly not the vicious butcher of Luke 13:1, Philo and Josephus. The second is the line from Matt 27:25 when 'All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!"' (a line which is worsened by the NIV's unnecessary use of an exclamation mark). This has been the principle verse used to justify persecuting Jewish people for being "Christ Killers". As a result many Jesus films omit it. Some may remember that Mel Gibson conceded to leaving it out of the subtitles although the words were still shouted by the crowd, just not in English.

    This production rather has its hands tied in this respect. Having decided to produce a word for word adaptation, regrettably the verse had to be included, but perhaps to mitigate its unpleasant history the filmmakers have it shouted out by just one woman, in spite of the wording of the text.

    In contrast, Jesus is then led away to be mocked by "the whole company of soldiers", but this is acted out by only a handful of soldiers, certainly not the whole company that would have been present during the troublesome Passover celebration. The soundtrack at this point takes a turn for the worst, opting for a synthesizer, which already appears very dated. Perhaps it's a nod to Jesus of Montreal, but I suspect not.

    And so we come to the crucifixion. What's striking about this film is that, in comparison to other Jesus films, it highlights how briefly the text talks about this story. Because of its perceived theological importance the crucifixion is often given far greater attention relative to it's actual length in the text. In the end it's just 25 verses out of 28 chapters. For Matthew, at least, Jesus' death is only a small part of the whole story. It's interesting, for example, that this is one of the few places where Matthew doesn't insert a prophecy from the Old Testament into Mark's account. When Jesus is finally crucified there are only 7 brief close-ups and two long distance shots. I've not yet read the section in Marchiano's book where he describes the filming of this scene, but it doesn't appear he will have suffered to the same degree that James Caviezel did in The Passion of the Christ.

    There are however a few interesting moments here. Firstly there's a shot taken along the ground as Jesus is having his hand nailed to the cross which is almost identical to one that appeared later in The Passion of the Christ. I've included them both below for comparison.

    Secondly, the apostle John is present at the crucifixion. Again this is something that we only find in John's Gospel, although it's interesting that Pasolini also placed John at the crucifixion in Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo. Likewise John is also comforting Jesus' mother. Interestingly we are never shown where John and Mary are standing in relation to Jesus. In John's Gospel they stand "near the cross", but in Matthew they are "watching from a distance". By not showing their relative positions, the filmmakers leave it open to the viewer to interpret the images.

    After Jesus dies we cut to the narrator explaining the tearing of the curtain and the events that follows. Whilst the text of Matthew does not quote from the prophets directly, he does add a description of "the bodies of many holy people" rising to life. My personal hunch is that this is a metaphor rather than a literal event, note for example the awkward way Matthew expresses the timing of the event. The film gives some credence to this theory. Instead of literally depicting these events, the narrator is shown describing them in a very exaggerated way.

    Lastly we end the chapter with the chief priests and Pharisees requesting a guard for the tomb. This incident is seldom included in Jesus films so it's nice to see it included. No prizes for guessing which character leads the delegation asking for the increased security.

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    Tuesday, October 05, 2010

    The Quest for the Historical Curtis

    I meant to post this on Friday, but time rather ran away with me.

    As you'll no doubt be aware by now, Tony Curtis died last week, and has been much mourned. Whilst I must admit to seeing fewer of his films than perhaps I should have, it was sad news. Precious few movie stars of the 50s and 60s survive him, and I doubt we'll see their like again.

    Last week was another major landmark for another North American. My good friend, and fellow Bible film geek, Peter Chattaway turned 40, and instead of spending the day lamenting being over the hill, his sharp-as-ever mind was beavering away making obscure connections that few of us would ever uncover otherwise. And given the passing of Antoninus but two days before, it was only natural that Peter's superpowers would hone in on Tony Curtis.

    So in his 40th birthday post he compares Two versions of Curtis' anecdote about growing up, and compares it to different versions of the same story in the different gospels. I'll leave him to take it from there. Tony Curtis to John Dominic Crossan in one easy step.

    So rest in peace Tony Curtis, and here's wishing a belated happy birthday to Peter. Chewing over the minutiae of Bible films wouldn't be the same without out him.

    Monday, October 04, 2010

    Comparison: Moses' Early Life

    Back in 2008 my church did a series on the Ten Commandments, and I wrote a post comparing how different films portrayed the giving of the Decalogue. Now we're returning to Exodus to take a broader look at it. We're starting this Sunday with Moses' early life, and I've been tasked to find a suitable clip.

    Because it's a young congregation (18-30s plus their kids), I don't think they will get much out of either of DeMille's versions of the story, though, in any case, the 1923 film omits the early life of Moses and the 1956 version takes somewhere in the region of 2 hours to cover it. I'm also going to exclude some of the less accessible/popular films such as Moses und Aron. I'm particularly interested in the biblical events here, so I won't offer much comment on the additional material that is added to what we find in Exodus 2:1-15.

    What strikes me about watching these four takes together is that they have a number of similarities in plot. Firstly there is no mention of the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah. Secondly, in contrast to The Ten Commandment all of these films suggest that the children are drowned in the river, rather than killed by swords, although there is some ambiguity on that point. Thirdly all of them show Moses being sailed down the river, whereas to me, at least, the implication of the passage seems to be that Moses mother Jochebed intends to hide him their until the danger passes. Floating a baby in simply a basket is as almost likely to end in death as leaving him for the soldiers. The reeds would allow his cries to be drowned out by the roar of the river, but also prevent his basket from sailing out into the river. Hence why Miriam hangs around to check everything is OK. Finally, none of these films show Moses having an altercation with the Israelite who witnessed Moses killing the Egyptian.

    So that's the things they have in common, what about the things that are distinct to each film?

    Moses the Lawgiver (1975)
    Network/Granada Ventures – Region 2
    Disc 1, title 1 – 0:00 to ~40:00 [~40 minutes]
    Moses played by Burt Lancaster

    When I first saw this 8 or so years ago I was shocked by the brutality of Moses killing the Egyptian. It doesn't seem quite as harsh now. Like many of these films several others witness the murder. There's narration here which mixes the Bible with other material, and by pronouncing it in an authoritative tone must have given the impression to those not in the know, that some of it is not from the Bible. There's a nice play on the dual meaning of Moses' name. The princess gives it to him, and explains its meaning, but as Miriam is present she explains what it means in Hebrew as well.

    Testament: The Bible in Animation: Moses (1996)
    Bible Society; Nine Film Set – Region 2
    Disc 1, title 3 - 04:10 to 06:15 [2:05 minutes]
    Moses voiced by Martin Jarvis

    Testament starts during the aftermath of Moses' murder of the Egyptian. Pharaoh's soldiers swarm through the Israelite settlement whilst Aaron persuades him to flee. This leads to a meeting with Jethro (the role of his daughters is passed over) and thus Moses tells his future father-in-law his story. It's a very effective sequence, largely shot in silhouette against a blood red sky. Despite this it's fairly menacing for kids, even though the murder scene is shown as shadows on a wall. The babies are thrown into the Nile in sacks emphasising the process of dehumanisation that may have occurred in the minds of the soldiers carrying out Pharaoh's grim command.

    Moses (1996)
    Time Life Box Set – Region 2
    Part 1; 0:00 – 14:15 [14:15 minutes]
    Moses played by Sir Ben Kingsley

    This is the oldest of the Moses babies, it's complete with two bottom teeth. This section of the film is notable for depicting Moses very weakly. In stark contrast to The Ten Commandments Moses is his "brother's" inferior. Not only does he stammer, but he's clumsy and provides an easily surpassed gift for Pharaoh's birthday. The murder scene, whilst not quite as visceral as Master Lancaster's, is appropriately brutal.

    The Prince of Egypt (1998)
    Dreamworks 2006 Single Disc version – Region 2
    3:04 to 7:54; 23:00 to 25:00; 28:03 to 31:54
    Moses voiced by Val Kilmer

    The murder of the Israelite children and Moses' narrow escape form the opening of the story which intertwines two songs, "Deliver Us" and "River Lullaby", which ends passing upwards from Pharaoh's palace, through the Israelites still slaving away, to a shot of a grand monument to Pharaoh. But then it zooms beyond it to focus on a structure far away which, given the accompanying lyrics, suggests the promised land.

    What's interesting about this scene is that it is animated again, later on in the film. Moses, have discovered his true identity falls asleep and has a dream in style of hieroglyphics of his salvation (pictured above). It's perhaps the movie's most acclaimed sequence, and rightly so.

    The slaying of the Egyptian scene is however a little dishonest. Rather than playing out the character arc we find in the Bible, (Moses' transition from a murderer to the leader of God's people) the incident is portrayed as an accident. The result of hot-headed anger to be sure, but there's no suggestion that Moses intended to kill the Egyptian.

    Ten Commmandments (2006)
    Disc 1; 1:47 – 21:00 [19:13 minutes]
    Moses played by Dougray Scott

    There's an interesting addition to this film's portrayal of these events. Pharaoh's motivation for killing the Israelite baby boys comes from a prophecy that one of them will overthrow him. This seems to mirror Herod's motives in Matthew's gospel, which is interesting as Matthew's inclusion of this story in the first place seems intended to deliberately mirror the events around Moses' birth in the text of Exodus.

    Most of these films show Moses discovering his Hebrew ancestry once he is an adult, but here he finds out when he is approaching his teens. Like The Prince of Egypt the programme seeks to mitigate Moses' actions by showing them as a response to attempted rape. There's also a suggestion that killing the Egyptian was an unintended consequence.


    In the end we used the opening clip from The Prince of Egypt for our children and adults congregation, and the Testament clip for our evening congregation. This week we're looking at the burning bush and so I'll be doing a similar comparison on that sequence at some point soon.