• 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


    Thursday, August 29, 2013

    Chinatown: An Introduction

    I was asked to give a five minute introduction to Roman Polanski's classic neo-noir Chinatown at last week's Greenbelt Festival so I thought I would post up what I said. It's a film I've loved since I first watched it and preparing for this talk and watching it again a couple of times really deepened my appreciation of it. So without further ado I'll hand over to Saturday night's me.


    Well thanks for coming to our late night screening of Chinatown. My name is Matthew Page and I've been exploring the intersection between faith and film for about 12 years now, primarily about Bible Films, but more recently film noir, the genre in which Chinatown is one of the most pivotal examples, and so I've been asked to give a short introduction to the film.

    Chinatown is showing as part of Greenbelt's 40th anniversary, we're showing a trio of films from the year Greenbelt started in 1974. For many Chinatown is not just the best film of that year - although The Godfather part 2 took all the Oscars - but one of the best of all time. It's a fitting film to look back on after 40 years, because the story itself is set roughly 40 years prior to that in 1930s era, great depression hit, Los Angeles. And if you go back 40 years before that, to 1894, oil had been discovered two years earlier and cinema would be invented the following year. In 1894 the population of Los Angeles was just tens of thousands. The discoveries of oil in 1892 and cinema in 1895 sent the population rocketing. Today it's 12 million.

    The rapid emergence in such a short space of time of such a large city, essentially in the middle of a desert made water an incredibly precious commodity and therefore the key political issue. So it's the issue of water, and the power associated with it, that drives the plot, as private investigator Jake Gittis is hired to snoop on the LA water board's chief engineer.

    However, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what the plot is about is the same thing as what the film is about. Here things couldn't be further from the truth. The plot is essentially about what happens when Gittis snoops on the water engineer, but the film is about corruption, deception, oppressive structures and power. The plot has little to do with Chinatown the place, but Gittis' experiences there permeates the film in scene after scene.

    Gittis, in a brilliant performance from Jack Nicolson, used to be a cop in Chinatown but seems to have left disillusioned. Gittis, with his sharp suits and almost celebrity status puts high expectations on himself, but the film offers little evidence of his ability to make the world a better place. His disappointment at his failure to resolve Chinatown's problems despite the police's intransigence, seep through in scene after scene. Significantly, Gittis is in every scene. The audience only see what he sees and experiences what he experiences. He is our way into the multitude of complex threads that make up the film's fabric. We see its events through his eyes.

    But the question of who to link the director Roman Polanski with is more complex. He appears partway through the film as a hood with a knife, but as someone who escaped the holocaust and later saw his wife murdered perhaps Polanski is Gittis, seemingly impotent in the face of evil. Or is he Faye Dunaway's character? Or even, given his subsequent crimes, John Huston's character?

    Huston himself provides the link between this film, arguably the first neo-noir and the earlier Film noir movement which emerged and peaked in the 40s and 50s. Huston directed many of the key movies in the film noir genre including the Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Asphalt Junction and Beat the Devil. Film Noir was a genre defined primarily by it's themes of paranoia, deception, male impotence and betrayal. Most of the films were set in the 30s, 40s and 50s, many involved private eyes and were very much notable for their expressionistic use of light and shade.

    Chinatown embodies many of these distinctives, but brings a new twist. There are three notable differences, firstly the use of colour although far from all film noir is in black and white. Secondly whereas the earlier films very much focused on corrupt individuals, Chinatown is more of a commentary on a corrupt society. Lastly the golden era of Film Noir had very much been hemmed in by the American Production Code which inflicted certain standards on films, including that notion that bad characters had to get their comeuppance. Eventually this lead to a certain level of predictability as to how the film would end. But by the 70s the production code era was over and the tension as to how a film might resolve itself was reintroduced. I won't give away how this film ends but it's worth noting that director Polanski and writer Robert Towne disagreed strongly as to how the film should end.

    But if it Chinatown could not have been produced very much earlier, it is also difficult to see it being made any later than 1974. '74 was the year that saw President Nixon resign over a scandal that came to be called Water-gate. The film's "fiction" about corruption and power had become uncomfortably close to real life. But more significantly 75 saw Jaws become a smash hit. The studios changed tack moving towards big adrenaline-fuelled action films and away from slower, more reflective films such as Chinatown which gradually unwind and relish tight dialogue, subtle acting skills and visual lushness. "Forget it Jack, it's Chinatown."

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    Sunday, August 11, 2013

    For or Against the State? The Hebrew Bible and the Establishment

    I've been having another look at Amos recently, in particular reading Dow Kirkpatrick's interesting Bible study guide to the book that bears his name.

    In contrast, one of my churches is returning to the story of Joseph son of Jacob in the autumn and has asked me so for some advice on useful clips. It's the second (or is it third) time that they have looked at the story in recentish memory. This follows another recent repeat-series on the book of Daniel (very much on the first half of the book).

    One of the main reasons for this is that as a church with heavy populations of students and new parents there is an enduring relevance in the stories of these men in strange circumstances, trying to adjust to life in a new land. Not to mention that for those in the workplace there's much to be drawn from these two upwardly-mobile professionals.

    Part of this is, I think, due to the clear link between the two books. It's not the kind of church where the leadership team or the preachers would pay a great deal of attention (if any) to issues of authorship, composition, date of writing and literary genre, (In contrast, I'm guilty of occasionally finding these issues more interesting that the texts themselves) and there is, of course, a good level of dispute over these books with some seeing the Joseph narrative being written by Moses with Daniel as a roughly contemporary account, whereas others view Genesis as being (post?)exilic and Daniel as from the 160s BCE.

    For what it's worth I lean towards the second position, but either way it's fair to see a degree of dependence, whether literary, or, to adopt a more conservative view, due to Daniel-the-man's personal identification with his ancestor. This latter point is essentially the idea that Daniel was well versed enough in the scriptures to be familiar with the story of Joseph. When he finds himself in a similar situation, particularly given the similarity of their gift with dreams, he draws inspiration and ideas from Joseph's example.

    So whilst, to a certain extent, the type of dependence is not of primary importance it still matters to some degree. Personally I'm unconvinced there ever was a real Daniel and that these stories are the product of spiritual contemplation on the story of Joseph and then on stories from the exile in the context of another empire once again bearing down upon the descendants of Israel. So if a church in the 21st century church studies Daniel they are essentially (unknowingly?) contemplating a contemplation on the Joseph story. If they have done both twice in recent history then this is essentially a fourth visit to the Joseph narrative in recentish memory.

    In contrast, whilst my church has used the odd proof text from Amos, they've never really looked at the book in any real detail. For me, the contrast is all the more noticeable because Kirkpatrick is very much committed to reading the book thought the window of Amos' worldview. Essentially he takes Amos as a member of the oppressed peasant farmers in a society dominated by a powerful combination of the religion and the state.

    So Amos and Joseph/Daniel take very different approaches to the issue of oppressive statehood. Amos stands outside it and refuses to co-operate with it. He speaks against it from outside and is condemned by it. To him the religious and the political cannot be separated. Both are corrupt and worthy of judgement.

    Joseph/Daniel's approach is markedly different. For them there is clear separation between religion and state. Indeed, whilst it is understood that Pharaoh and Neb/Cyrus/Darius are worshippers of other gods, that is no reason for Daniel/Joseph not to collaborate with them on issues of state. In fact religion is never really a conflict in the Joseph texts.

    Whilst this is not really the case in the Daniel narratives, the conclusion still seems to be that foreign states and their religion are only a problem when they oppose servitude to Yahweh. There are two key places in Daniel where religion causes a clash. The first is the story where Daniel's friends are thrown into the furnace. Daniel is simply not mentioned in this story. The recent TV series The Bible depicted Daniel as being present with Nebuchadnezzar on his platform and hence exempt from the command to bow. This is a possible explanation, but (assuming Daniel was a real historical character) it's also at least plausible that that he was amongst those who bowed (even if he later realised his error). Either way the king's realisation of Yahweh's power has little impact on his religion or on matters of state.

    The second such occasion is when Daniel is faced with the command not to pray. Here it is undoubtedly Daniel who is faithful. The similarities with the furnace story suggest either Daniel's chance at redemption, or that the furnace story deliberately anticipates the lion's den story and the story's climax of the king acknowledging that Daniel's god is God. However, again his position of power and his politics are largely unchanged aside perhaps from greater pluralistic tolerance.

    (There is also the story of the Daniel and his friends refusing the king's food, but here the conclusion is even weaker - the four friends may keep their specifically religious diet as it still enables them to collaborate with the state.)

    Amos' critique of church and state is radically different. He criticises the outworking of his own religion, and how it is complicit in state oppression and inequality. For him the two are not, and perhaps cannot, be separated. In contrast to Daniel and Joseph, both of whom end up in positions of power, Amos remains outside the power structures. Daniel and Joseph live fulfilled lives at the heart of power, their choices endorsed by the story's end, something they would have gone to their graves knowing. Amos's story just fizzles out. Perhaps he knew his words were justified, perhaps he died in questioning and despair.

    Perhaps part of this derives from their relative roles in society. Amos is a peasant. He's a farmer growing a subsistence crop. Kirkpatrick describes the sycamore fruit as edible but not particularly delicious. (Had he been writing a decade or two later he may have quoted from Crocodile Dundee).

    Joseph and Daniel however came from a very different social background. Both are educated to a good degree - rare at the time. Joseph is the favourite, first born, legitimate son of a tribal chief. Daniel is also part of the nobility (Dan 1:3-6) and highly educated. In other words both are familiar with being part of the establishment and the power structures of the day. They are men who easily slot into the upper echelons of not only their own society, but those in which they find themselves.

    All three stories are worthy of study and contain examples of men trying their best to be faithful to the God their worship, but I can't help feeling that it would be better if my own church looked at Amos for a change. Arguments can be made both ways for who took the better path. Both Joseph and Daniel gave their people relief in a troubled time, even if Joseph's actions would lead to disaster long after hs death and It was Nehemiah rather than Daniel who secured his people's release from exile.

    But only in Amos do we find a critique of the establishment and oppressive governments that use religion and religious leaders to further their unjust causes. Kirkpatrick makes the point that "God became not only human, but poor human" and goes on to discuss the incarnation and a Christology defined by "Jesus' relationship with the exploited ones".1 Amos has the more radical message, and it's the one which seems consist with Jesus' decision to stay outside of the power structures of his day and offer his critique from that standpoint.