• 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


    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Friday Night, Saturday Morning:
    Monty Python vs The Church

    Having been waiting to see this for years now, it was very pleasing to discover that the show had been re-broadcast by BBC4 to coincide with the broadcast of Holy Flying Circus last Wednesday. It's available on iPlayer for two more days.

    For those unfamiliar with the details, in the run up to the release of Life of Brian the BBC's late night talk show in hosted the now infamous debate between John Cleese, Michael Palin, Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark. It must have made a big impact then as well: shortly afterwards the TV comedy sketch show "Not the Nine O'Clock News" produced a well-executed spoof.

    Having seen numerous clips of this debate over the years, almost whenever the film is discussed in fact, I have long wanted to see the whole thing, and have wondered why the full version hadn't appeared on any of the many special edition DVDs of Life of Brian.

    The most likely reason for this it now appears is length. Given that most comparable programmes today usually restrict such items to 15 minutes; that I always seem to see the same few excerpts; and from what I'd gleaned from various discussions of the programme, I'd always assumed it was about 10-15 minutes. In fact the programme spends over 52 minutes on the subject, briefly squeezing in a song from Paul Jones and a chat with Norris McWhirter before it ended 15 minutes later.

    Something else also became fairly clear: the reason that these same few excerpts are repeated again and again (despite the quantity of material) is that the debate was incredibly poor. Leaving aside the fact that Stockwood and Muggeridge, and to a much lesser extent Cleese and Palin, fail to listen to what their opponents are saying, chairman Tim Rice, just lets the church representatives drone on and on about irrelevant side issues. No wonder modern day programmes tend to keep things shorter.

    Part of this is perhaps because they missed the crucial opening scenes of the film which established that Brian was not Jesus, but it was mainly due to the pair being allowed to bring notes, and Rice's deferential attitude to them. The 1970s were a very different time, with the authority of the church having a far greater hold - for instance the first ever "Question Time" featured a bishop, but I can only remember that happening once when I've watched it and I'm an avid fan. Stockwood in particular seemed to think the he was entitled to go on and on rather tangentially, and Rice seems too intimidated to step in.

    I suppose this was also due in part to the fact that Palin and Cleese were interviewed on their own first, and so, to a certain extent, had already had their say. Yet the subjects being discussed were far less controversial in this section. They talked about the process of raising the finance, and how they develop the script and so on. There were even a couple of interesting points around Bible films. Incredibly for a man who only a few years before had contributed to a hit film about Jesus, Rice had never heard of Rossellini, or Il Messia, which was released just two years after Jesus Christ, Superstar. Secondly Cleese makes the point that three more biblical comedy films were in production, which makes me wonder which one. Wholly Moses (1980) would seem obvious, but it tries so hard to cash in on Life of Brian that it's hard to imagine that it was close to completion much before Brian's welease. Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part 1 (1981) would be the other likely choice, but as to a third, all I can think of is the French film Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ, released in 1982.

    That said, it was this section of the show that contained what was, for me, one of the most interesting parts of the show.
    "Is there anything that could offend you on screen"

    Cleese (shrugs, then pauses)
    "I have one tiny quibble and I think that Terry Jones and Graham Chapman would no doubt disagree with me, but I think the crucifixion thing at the end is not about pain, it's about death and they are very separate."

    "So what's your beef?" [i.e. what's your problem?]

    My beef is that there are one or two close-ups of one or two people registering pain and I think that that confuses what the last thing's about. 'Cos I mean one's not really making fun of the fact that someone has been flayed to this flesh hung down and then nailed up. The point of that last thing is that it's about death, y'know it's about attitudes to death, and it's quite possible, to be relatively cheery about death, quite possible. I'm not saying it's easy.
    Cleese elaborates on this later on including talking about how if Christianity is true then death does have a bright side. I must admit that I've never really thought about that final scene in that way. I'm not sure the latter point holds up that well, but I'm certainly intrigued by the part of his answer quoted above.

    The above exchange is typical, actually, of Cleese's attitude throughout the debate. It's often been said that he and Palin were trying to have a serious debate and the two non-comedians were playing for, and getting, the laughs. Indeed one point that really stood out to me is when Cleese is trying to make a serious point but because his answer sounds like something out of a Python sketch the audience laugh, and Cleese looks almost aggrieved that his serious point has been lost because it was mistaken for a joke. Cleese steals the show actually. Stockwood and Muggeridge are two smug and too entrenched to really get their point across, indeed it could be argued that this debate was the defining moment of the established church's weakening grip on authority. Palin for his part is clearly furious and insulted and whilst his restraint is impressive, it hampers his contribution to the discussion.

    One final thing that I found interesting was how little these debates have changed in some ways. Whenever some perceived "outrage" is perpetuated against Christianity, someone will always object that "they" would dare to do this kind of thing about Islam. This argument is put to Cleese and he demolishes fairly well, by explaining about the dominance, authority, history and impact on the culture that Christianity has had and how this is why they set their sights on it. So it's surprising that 30+ years later the argument is still trotted out overlooking the fact that people do satirise Islam, and that Jesus is also considered a prophet in Islam.

    Secondly Stockwood/Muggeridge also lament the declining standards in biblical understanding. Perhaps this is even worse now than it was, but it was interesting to note that this was a point of debate even then. Other things are different though. The opening credits are far racier than any you see today - a couple seemingly naked and in bed stop to turn on the show. It wasn't clear if this was during, after or instead of having sex, but whichever way there would probably be a fair amount of complaint about increasing sexualisation of our culture were this to happen today.

    Overall then, the debate was a bit of a disappointment. The best bits have obviously been shown many times before and what is usually left out was fairly dreary. If only Rice had been David Dimbleby. At least Dimble might have heard of Rossellini.


    Friday, October 21, 2011

    Holy Flying Circus

    There have been many controversial films, books and television programmes over the years, but there's something completely different about Monty Python's Life of Brian: people actually like it. Many defend the right of Martin Scorsese to have made Last Temptation of Christ, or Salman Rushdie to have written "The Satanic Verses", but few people have the strength of feeling for them as they do for the anarchic tale of a man who was mistaken for the Messiah.

    It's no doubt because of this strength of feeling that BBC4 commissioned Holy Flying Circus about the events leading up to the release of the film. The programme is the latest in a long series of fictional recreations of the off screen lives of 60s and 70s entertainers and focuses on the, now infamous, TV debate between Michael Palin and John Cleese on the one hand, and the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge on the other. The story is told from three sides, that of the Pythons, that of the programme's production team, and a group of Christians (distinct from Muggeridge and the bishop) who object to the film.

    All of which makes it sound rather dull, except for the fact that the story is told in a surreal and Pythonesque way. In addition to the general atmosphere of silliness we also have over-the-top characters, men playing women, animated sequences, John Cleese played as Basil Fawlty, obscure interludes and even a scene inside an alien spaceship. In short Holy Flying Circus tries to make the medium the message.

    One further similarity is the way which both films have Jesus speaking at the start of the film and then not really again. Life of Brian famously shows Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount before the camera pans out to those at the back who can't quite hear what's being said. But Holy Flying Circus has Jesus explain in Aramaic - a clear nod to The Passion of the Christ, another controversial religious film - that the story is largely fictional, and just to make the point it has the supposed Jesus-figure fart.

    I suspect that many people, were they to see the film, would find that pretty offensive and will also be unhappy with the language and the nudity. I suspect the programme-makers would defend it on the grounds that doing so re-ignites the same battle now that the Pythons were fighting then. Sadly I don't think that's true. Is using the C word, doing Tourette's jokes and showing a penis for the sake of it really edgy, or just a bit like the kind of jokes Cambridge students might do "on a damp Tuesday afternoon"?

    That's not to say it isn't funny. Parts of it are very funny, particularly Mark Heap's turn as the head of the Christian protesters. But overall it's rather hit and miss; the odd laugh out loud moment interspersed with mediocre jokes and self-indulgent rubbish.

    But in the final quarter of an hour, the film changes gear and actually gives a reasonable and extensive portrayal of the talk show debate. This was particularly interesting to me as there are still parts of the debate that I have ever seen (indeed I was reflecting earlier that if Holy Flying Circus ever gets released as a DVD this would be an excellent special feature.

    This last part of the film, interspersed with the occasional deviation into Michael Palin's mind, is clearly the strongest part as the gags are refined a little and the drama takes over a little. Much of this is also due to a stronger focus on the better portrayed characters. Charles Edwards's take on Palin is outstanding. Complex and nuanced Edwards manages to play the domestic scenes touchingly despite the fact he is playing opposite Rufus Jones in drag. Darren Boyd also does a great job playing Basil Fawlty even if the concept he was given is a bit odd, but the others are rather weak. Punt is hopeless as Eric Idle and he and the three of the other Pythons are all rather two-dimensional. Lastly Stephen Fry's turn as God demonstrated precisely why his status as national treasure is beginning to drift.

    So whilst the concept of telling a story about Python in the style of Python is good, and whilst some of the performances are very impressive indeed, the overall effect is rather like the sketch shows described by Palin's taxi driver home - "very hit and miss".

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    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Dim Recollections - Moses und Aron

    Over on the Bible Films Facebook page - which is where you should go for latest news, and other people's reviews about Bible Films (you don't have to "do" Facebook to read it!) - Peter Chattaway has posted news that Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's 1973 adaptation of Moses und Aron was recently screened in New York. It's been a long time since I saw the film, but it's one of those films that has stuck with me if for no other reason than it's the only feature length film I've seen that is anything like it.

    The film is an adaptation of Arnold Schönberg's unfinished opera, Moses und Aron. Two other versions of Schönberg's piece have been released in the last few years, neither of which I've managed to see, but both of which I am keen to see. If nothing else I feel they might help me get a better understanding of Schönberg's work to enable me to grapple with what Straub and Huillet are doing with the material.

    In other words, then, Moses und Aron is not for the faint-hearted; I would class it as the least accessible film I have ever seen. Schönberg's opera is a complex exploration of how hearing God speak is an ineffable experience. It works on the interplay between Moses and Aaron. Moses is able to hear God's voice, but is unable to express what God has said correctly. Aaron on the other hand has the task of disseminating what Moses tells him for the sake of the masses. In the process much is lost, and essentially it's that which the libretto is trying to explore. What gets lost in translation?

    Schönberg never finished the third act and so only his lyrics remain, which shows that even the great man never quite got a hold on his subject matter, which makes me feel a little better for never managing to write down my thoughts on watching the film. He also pioneered in the field of atonal music - which uses notes independently of the standard scales with a single central tone. This means that even the music to the opera is not easy to appreciate and enjoy.

    Filming such material was never going to result in box office gold, but Straub and Huillet also have their own set of complex ideas that they wish to explore by adapting Schönberg's material. The majority of their work was, in fact, adapting established works. Indeed, the only other piece of theirs I have seen is Toute révolution est un coup de dés (Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice - 1977) was an adaptation of Stéphane Mallarmé's poem. I'm sure that in this day and age there are several others available to watch online, and so I should really watch more. Not to mention my need to read the two booksI have about their work.

    Their style is so cinematically austere, that it makes your standard Dogme film look like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. They use long, long shots, with very little movement. The image that is most prominent in my mind of this film is such a shot of the back of Moses head. There's also a lack of dramatic action. The focus of the film is the relationship between Moses and his brother, but there are occasional scenes with the rest of the Israelites (the chorus). But they remain stationary in the kind of rigid formation you expect from watching a choir perform live, rather than how you would expect a crowd to act - even in an opera.

    The austerity has a point however: it's pushing questions about cinema's form to an extreme. As David Thomson puts it in his essay on Straub 1.
    What we think of as story is invariably the effect of a chosen way of filming. The medium is intensely decision based, and thus there has always been an abiding formal element to it.

    ...There is a further, inevitable kind of order in the sequence of shots within a film. And although Straub's work has alarmed audiences and been enjoyed by relatively few, it is built upon the assertion that in cinema we respond to those sequences; that composition; light, movement, and sound play upon our thoughts and feelings."
    I'm not sure I fully understand that, but it's the most succinctly clear summary I have to hand!

    The final act is just read out - no music exists and so in some ways the final act is less accessible for more conservative opera fans, although conversely it does mean that the film becomes a little less accessible for the average film-goer.

    In Straub and Huillet's hands the opera also explores the question of word vs image, which is very in-keeping with the second commandment's ban on graven images, often understood as a ban on using images to gain a greater intellectual or spiritual understanding of God.

    So that's about it really, like I said, dim recollections. There are more perceptive comments from Richard Brody at the New Yorker.

    1 - David Thomson, "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film", LONDON (Little Brown), 2002, Fourth Edition, p.843.

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