• 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, March 31, 2017

    The Gospel of Mark (2016)

    Years ago I ran a balloon debate on the subject of the four gospels. The participants were each given one of the four gospels, went away to do some preparation and then had to put forward their case as to why their gospel ought to remain at the expense of one of the others. Unsurprisingly, Mark lost. John is the most distinct, Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount, Luke has the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, but what does Mark have? It's probably the oldest, but other than that most people would struggle to tell you much about its own distinctive take on the life, death and maybe resurrection of Jesus (but more on that later).

    Mark's Gospel has also been a loser in another way - until the recent release of the Lumo Project's The Gospel of Mark it was the only canonical gospel not to have a word-for-word screen adaptation. Luke was adapted in the seventies, Matthew in the nineties and John just after the turn of the century, but despite rumours that the company who made those two, later, adaptations were planning to record a version of Mark's gospel, nothing ever materialised. Until now.

    The Gospel of Mark has been released as part of the Lumo project, which has produced filmed versions of all four gospels. A not insubstantial part of the reason for the project getting this far is that it has taken a rather unusual approach. Instead of having actors recite their lines at the relevant moment in the film, all the text is spoken by an unseen narrator. The DVD even offers the choice to choose between Rupert Penry-Jones performing the NIV version of the Gospel, or Tim Piggott-Smith's reading of the King James. In contrast to the majority of films about Jesus, which tend to suggest they are getting back to the original historical figure, the use of narration really emphasises the textual nature of the gospel. It's a similar approach to that taken by the Genesis project's Gospel of Luke and Genesis in the 1970s. The characters voices can be heard faintly in the background, speaking Aramaic, but not loud enough to know whether they are speaking the words from Mark's gospel or Matthew's. This has allowed the producers to re-use the same footage in different films even though the precise wording of the two texts may vary. This also de-emphasises the the actors and their acting and places a greater emphasis on the actual text.

    All of which raises a number of interesting issues, particularly for biblical scholars. Some might object, for example, that having the same footage re-used even though the wording is different rather underplays the differences between the gospels. Indeed at times the images don't quite fit the words that are being spoken. We see two donkeys in Jesus' entry into Jerusalem; darkness is said to come, when it manifestly doesn't and, most disappointingly of all, Gethsemane's streaker - one of Mark's most intriguing flourishes - is mentioned but absent.

    This impression that  the differences between the gospels are being somewhat watered down is bolstered by the use of the same actor playing Jesus. Of course, that said, there was only one historical Yeshua so this approach is far from unwarranted. Furthermore the opposite can also be argued. Whilst the reusing the footage might suggest a marginally greater degree of harmony, it does highlight the fact that the latter gospel writers (particularly Matthew and Luke) did simply re-use large chunks of text (/footage) from Mark's gospel (and, in Luke's case either Matthew and/or Q as well).

    Nevertheless, having noted the way the film emphasises text the film also has a strong emphasis on image. It is, at times, beautifully shot, with many of the establishing shots filmed in striking locations. Then there's also the choice of Selva Rasalingam as Jesus. Shorn of the ability to act with his delivery and intonation Rasalingam gives a very physical performance, of a strong, tough Jesus. Many filmmakers have talked about presenting a Jesus who could credibly have spent his younger years working as a tekton (builder/carpenter). This is certainly true of Rasalingam, but the strength in his performance is something far deeper.

    It is also no a performance designed to win over fans cheaply and easily. Whilst once or twice he's a little over smiley for my tastes there are also times where his brusqueness will not appease those who like their Jesus' meek and mild, or to be constantly sporting a smile. You can never please everyone in this respect so I think the balance is about right, particularly for the Gospel of Mark, which of the four canonical portraits, puts the greatest emphasis on Jesus' humanity. It's a challenging portrayal, but in a way that asks good, honest questions about our preconceptions.

    It's also nice to see some of the less popular episodes from Mark get treated, the miracles in particular. One of the distortions of biblical films is that they tend to focus on certain types of miracle. On the one hand there are those that are the most dramatic, or the most spectacular, that look the best on the big screen. On the other hand many filmmakers, choose miracles dependant on their acceptability to cynical modern viewers. 'Miracles' where more 'natural' explanations....

    By restricting themselves to a particular text the filmmakers' choice as to which episodes to include are taken out of their hands. And so these less desirable incidents are included when usually they might not be. So here we see a series of exorcisms, hands healed, someone is given the ability to speak and those that were blind see. Mark's gospel is full of little healings like these, but they are often too understated, or repeated too often to get included in big, gospel-harmonising films. In this film, it's a fascinating reminder that Jesus wasn't just about grand set pieces but about changing individual lives. Few Jesus films contain any more than one exorcism, for example, but Mark's gospel is full of them and it's good to see that put on the screen for once, however out of kilter it seems to the modern world.

    Not dis-similarly it's also good to see Jesus' apocalyptic predictions about the fall of Jerusalem captured on screen in its unadulterated entirety. It's only natural that the majority of filmmakers, omit, greatly abridge, alter or harmonise this speech. Sometimes the results are even rather impressive such as in Jesus of Montreal (1989). Obviously a variation on this speech has appeared in the Genesis Project's Luke and the Visual Bible's Matthew, but in those cases the sources texts have already changed the words we find in Mark. So it's good to see the original, with it's more this-worldly emphasis and its dramatic imagery. The film does well with this as well setting the scene round a campfire (a setting that captures the dark and fiery tone of the speech) but intercutting it with flash forwards to keep things interesting.

    Having done this part so well, it's disappointing that the ending is so unimaginative. The agreed upon text of Mark appears to comes up short at chapter 16 verse 8 (before any sightings of the risen Jesus) and all we're left with is a series of fragments where others have sought to create a new ending. It's a scenario that suggested a series of interesting possibilities cinematically, particularly for an adaptation that puts such an emphasis on the Gospel's text. Sadly, all we get is the most popular of these endings presented as a piece with the rest of chapter 16. Whilst this is perhaps the least problematic and controversial solution, my inner Bible geek had hoped for something more creative and interesting here.

    But that's just me, and probably shouldn't be taken too seriously. You see whilst Mark did lose out in that initial balloon debate, over time, it's gradually become my favourite. Indeed, in my estimation, it's even overtaken the gospel attributed to my namesake Matthew. I appreciate the way that Mark is less varnished than Matthew and Luke (both of whom took it and amended it for their particular purposes). I value its breathless, hurried, style. I enjoy its many mysteries such as the ambiguous, possibly lost, ending.

    Whilst Lumo's Gospel of Mark isn't primarily aimed at Mark-geeks like me, it does do a good job of bringing many of those aspects to the screen and like the other entries in the series is generally well put together. It may be the last of the gospels to make it onto film, but it's certainly one of the strong attempts at this kind of word for word adaptation.


    Monday, March 27, 2017

    La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906)

    I'm reviewing this film as part of the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon (though I've been meaning to do so for some time). The film is available as part of the Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913) box set from Kino Lorber or if you're naughty/skint like me you can see it on YouTube.

    Alice Guy1 is famed for being cinema's first female director and producer, having a hand in around 1000 films beginning with her directorial debut La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. Having revolutionised the infant industry in her native France she moved to America and set up a studio, but not before creating her film on the life of Jesus La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (The Birth, Life and Death of Christ, 1906). From a technical angle it's shot in a similar tableau style as Pathé's 1905 and 1907 films La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ).2

    The Pathé film was down to Guy's friend and rival Ferdinand Zecca. Indeed two years before the release of this film Guy found Zecca selling soap on a street corner having been seen as surplus to requirements at Pathé (McMahan:2009, 125). Guy hired him instead, leaked the news to Pathé who reinstated Zecca and he then proceeded to re-work La Vie et La Passion de Jesus-Christ. It's an anecdote typical of Guy who was not only a pioneer in the film of cinema, but also a mentor who possessed the canny knack of spotting talent and developing it. In addition to Zecca she also gave a hand up the ladder to Victorin Jasset (although he was fired during the making of this film), Lois Weber, Louis Feuillade and her future husband Herbert Blaché all of whom would go on to great success (McMahan:2009, 125-126).

    As filmmakers though Guy and Zecca could not be more different, at least within the limitations of the tableau approach that so typifies films from cinemas first decade and a half. Zecca's film is far more theatrical, his actors perform in a manner that is often seen as over the top. The use of stencil colour also adds to this flashy style.3

    Guy however is far more subtle and nuanced. Her actors are far more naturalistic and the film lacks the grand, showy gestures of Zecca's film. It's often thought that the style of acting found in Zecca's film is deliberate and typical of the era. What isn't given sufficient consideration, in my opinion, is the fact that many of those who appeared on screen at this time were simply not very good actors. At this stage in the development of cinema it was still very much theatre's poor relation. The best actors appeared on stage rather than on screen and the theatre was a far more lucrative source of income for those with talent. In this context then, Guy's ability to both see the need for, and manage to produce this kind of more natural and realistic types of performance is critical, and far more fitting, I would argue, for her subject matter. "Guy's work is more modest, but more deeply felt." (Williams, p.40)

    This noticeably more humble aesthetic did not prevent Mademoiselle Alice from using camera tricks. There are a number of uses of double exposure, or cuts allowing angels to suddenly appear on screen. In fact such angelic visitations happen five times throughout the film (not including the charming original intertitles), most notably in the, extra-biblical, scene above where they guard the sleeping baby Jesus when Mary pops inside for a moment. Notice too the simplicity of the angel's costumes in that shot contrasting with Zecca's elaborate halos.

    But Guy was very much an innovator. Whilst she was not quite the first director of drama (the very first films were effectively documentaries) she was certainly one of the first, persuading her boss Leon Gaumont to let her make La Fée in her own time. As Gaumont's Nicolas Seydoux has put it "She told her boss that making movies was the best way to sell his equipment" (Simon: Preface, xv). At the time Guy was only employed as his office manager. having witnessed her success Gaumont freed up Guy to produce more films. When he invented the Chronophone (an early system that synchronised sound with moving images) she produced the 'photoscènes' that showcased it. Guy later moved to the US with her husband and the two set up their own studio, Solax, one of the first to move away from New York.

    This entrepreneurial thirst for innovation can be seen in the way Guy uses the camera in the film. Camerawork was still very much point-and-shoot, but this films showcases a number of developments in that respect. Firstly, I recently read David Bordwell's post "Anybody but Griffith". Whilst he describes how during 1908-1920 the move towards editing began to predominate, he argues that "the tableau strategy developed into a powerful expressive resource which "offered rich creative choices to filmmakers" (Bordwell). Bordwell highlights shots from a number of films from the 1910s that suggest that directors using the tableau style were doing more sometimes doing far more than just plonking down the cameras in front of what was effectively a theatre stage and letting the scene play out, but that this was a creative choice.

    One of the key things Bordwell focuses on is various times where the "shot makes sense from only a very limited number of points" and he cites various examples from 1910. Yet this approach is found various times in Guy's film. The most notable example is in the scene where Peter denies knowing Jesus (see image below). Like many of the scenes in the film it is inspired by James Tissot's illustrations of biblical scenes, though whilst they owe something to Tissot, by no means does she merely slavishly reproduce his work in moving form. Here the architecture of the scene owes more to Tissot's second denial of Peter whilst the sense of action belongs more to Tissot's third denial.

    It's clear however that whilst Guy is inspired by them she also creates something of her own that is more cinematic. When the shot begins Jesus is absent and the focus is on Peter. At the end of the shot Jesus walks along behind the scenery and perpendicular to the camera line. As he does he appears in two places where there is no wall, stopping on the second occasion to look back at Peter. Like the scenes Bordwell discusses, this shot would not work for many viewers in a theatre. It works here by using the composition, and the audience's prior knowledge of the subject to draw their attention to the place where Guy wants to focus their attention.

    There are several other shots like this in the film such as "The Arrival of the Magi" where the camera can see the infant Jesus for almost the whole time, but very few people would be able to see him were the same scene reproduced live in an auditorium, and "The Samaritan" where the audience is pre-warned as to the disciples arrival in a similar fashion to the denial scene.

    Another way in which Guy develops the tableau style is by filming various scenes from more interesting angles. For example the Last Supper. Whilst the vast major of artistic presentations of this subject have simply captured it with table in the centre of the frame and square-on, Guy films it from an oblique angle, and therefore is able to make Judas's early departure all the more obvious for the audience.

    Thirdly, there is a panning shot as Jesus is brought before Caiaphas. It's slight, but still relatively rare for the period. More striking in this respect is the scene "Climbing Golgotha" which begins partway up the hill looking down at the crowd accompanying Jesus to his execution as they snake up the hillside. But as Jesus himself is about to file past the camera it pans left and upwards to view Jesus and the rest of the procession from the rear. Again Guy could have chosen to insert a cut here, but her panning of the camera is a deliberate choice to keep all of the action within the same shot

    Most impressive in this respect is a three shot sequence involving a degree of continuity editing. The first "Jesus Before Pontius Pilate" shows Jesus before Pilate, shot from an angle to Pilate's seat of power. Not only does Guy's blocking move both characters around all of the space, but as the shot ends Jesus is taken out of the rear of the shot, more-or-less along the camera line and seemingly down some steps, but Pilate exits to the back and stage right.

    The next shot, "The Torment" shows both men arriving at their destinations, Jesus at his whipping post and Pilate at the balcony that overlooks it. Whilst the camera has dropped a floor to be on the same level as Jesus, there's no mistaking that we are seeing the back of the previous shot, filmed from the opposite angle. It's an attempt at continuity in the form of "something close to a reverse-angle shift" although the flow is rather disrupted by the intertitle that introduces the new scene (Abel, p.166).

    The third shot, "Ecce Homo", is again looking up at Pilate's balcony, but this time the camera is filming from a fresh angle, straight on as opposed to the previous angled shot. The main reason that the three shots here and the "Climbing Golgotha" shot are possible is because much of the production was filmed on location. Again this gives the film a more natural film in contrast to Zecca's edifices, but it also means the terrain is far more interesting than what could be shot on the flat floor of a studio.

    The most celebrated of this film's innovations is the mid-shot of St Veronica that appears as Jesus is dragged along the road to Golgotha. Veronica wipes his face and then Guy cuts to the mid-shot of her displaying a likeness of Jesus's face on her cloth. As David Shepherd points out as this shot is immediately preceded by an unnamed woman kneeling in front of the cloth and gazing upon it this essentially becomes cinema's first point-of-view shot (Shepherd, 73).

    Shepherd also notes how the white sheet Veronica uses to show her viewers an image of Christ evokes the cinema screen that Guy is using to display her image of Christ to her viewers (p.73). The fact that the observers of Veronica's image are predominantly female is just one of many suggestions that this film was made with a female audience in mind.

    Certainly it is the most female focused of all the major Jesus films. This starts with the emphasis on the birth scenes, noticeably on Mary, including the scene described above where angels care for Jesus to keep him safe whilst she finds some respite. Most notably, as my scene guide demonstrates, the only three scenes included from Jesus' ministry all feature women prominently, the woman at the well (here just titled "The Samaritan"), the raising of Jairus's daughter and the washing of Jesus' feet. "The scene in which Peter denies Jesus focuses on the women around the disciple as much as on him." (Abel, p.166) When Jesus falls on the Via Dolorossa it is "six women coming to Jesus' aid", rather than Simon of Cyrene (Hebron, p.546). Naturally, the scenes of women witnessing Jesus' resurrection feature heavily in the film's closing scenes.

    It's disappointing that 111 years later, and all the gains in equality that have been won in that time, that no subsequent filmmaker has yet matched Guy's vision of a Jesus who had women right at the heart of his ministry. Many more recent films have sought to include women at the Last Supper, and highlighted their presence at the resurrection, but all too often this seems like window dressing rather than something akin to Guy's core conviction that women were so central to Jesus' plans. But then few people saw the things in such a remarkable way as Alice Guy. I'm grateful to those who have championed her achievements and helped us see a little of more of how she saw the world.

    1 - Whilst after her marriage to Herbert Blaché she became known as Alice Blaché and then after their subsequent divorce, Alice Guy Blaché, at the time of making this film she was unmarried and simply known as Alice Guy. Therefore I have chosen to use this name throughout.
    2 - Contrary to what it says on the case, this is the version that has been available on DVD for many years (along with From the Manger to the Cross). One day I'll get around to summarising the evidence for that, but you can find out for yourself in Shepherd et al, "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"
    3 - For a longer comparison see Friesen pp.87-94

    - Abel, Richard (1994) "The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914", Berkeley: University of California Press.
    - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. (2016) 'La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27
    - Bordwell, David (2017) "Anybody but Griffith" http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2017/02/27/anybody-but-griffith/ retreived 24th March 2017.
    - Friesen, Dwight H. (2016) 'La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1907): The Preservation and Transformation of Zecca's Passion' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.158-178
    - Hebron, Carol A. (2016), 'Alice Guy Blaché and Gene Gauntier: Bringing New Perspectives to Film', in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (ed.), "The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film", vol. 2, 543-55, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter
    - McMahan, Alison, (2009) "James Tissot and Alice Guy Blaché" - http://www.aliceguyblache.com/news/james-tissot-and-alice-guy-blache retrieved 25/3/2017
    - McMahan, Alison, (2009)'Key Events and Dates: Alice Guy Blaché' pp.124-131 in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Shepherd, David J. (2016) 'La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (Gaumont, 1906): The Gospel According to Alice Guy' in "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)"; ed. Shepherd, David. pp.60-77
    - Simon, Joan, (2009) 'The Great Adventure: Alice Guy Blaché, Cinema Pioneer' pp.1-32 in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Simon, Joan, (2009) 'Preface' pp.xi-xx in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press
    - Williams, Alan (2009) "The Sage Femme of Early Cinema" in "Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer", Simon, Jean (ed), London: Yale University Press , 2009

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    Monday, March 20, 2017

    Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon

    This weekend I'll be taking part in the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon. It's hosted by Fritzi Kramer's site Movies Silently.

    I'll be reviewing Alice Guy's La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1906) which I wrote a scene guide for back in June last year.

    If you'd like to join in then it's not too late - just add your idea for a post in the comments on this post.


    Sunday, March 12, 2017

    The Characteristics of the Biblical Epic: Part 2 - Defining Attributes

    This is the third in a series looking at the Biblical Epic Genre
    In my last post in this series I was looking at the criteria that various scholars have come up with to help classify the biblical epic. In this post I'm going to draw up my own "list" before going on, in the next post, to explain why this approach isn't really particularly useful. Given that, then, this post might be a rough around the edges. Anyway here are a few characteristics that tend to be present in almost all of the Biblical Epics.

    Adapting a Biblical Narrative
    This one is so obvious that I almost just left a sarcastic remark, but I do think a few points are worth making here. Firstly, that this is by no means the sole qualification. There is more to a biblical epic than it being based on one of the biblical narratives. It follows then, that not all Bible films let alone all 'biblical films' are Biblical Epics. Jesus of Montreal (1989) is clearly a biblical film, but no-one would classify it as an epic.

    At the other end of the scale there's also the question of how much biblical content is required to classify an epic as 'biblical'. My own definition is that it should be a dramatisation of one or more characters who appear in the biblical narratives. At the thin end of the wedge this would include The Silver Chalice (1954), but exclude Spartacus despite the prologue's attempts to link to the story of Jesus.

    The Moral Victory
    It seems to me that one aspect of the Biblical Epic that sets it apart as a genre from other sub-genres of Historical Epics is the inevitable moral victory. Sometimes this coincides with a more quantifiable victory as in The Ten Commandments (1956) and Samson and Delilah (1949), but oftentimes the hero may lose in the eyes of "the world" but from a moral, or indeed a historical, point of view they are a winner. Such examples include The Robe (1953) where in the final moments Marcellus completes his moral transformation, but is sent for execution; nearly all of the Jesus films where Jesus is executed, but stays true to his cause; and David and Bathsheba (1951) where David ends the film significantly weakened in the eyes of his people, but nevertheless restored in the eyes of God. This perhaps reflects Michael Wood's point that the true hero of these films is God rather than his human agency. Ultimately, no matter how things turn out for the film's protagonists, the audience knows from its historically-privileged position that they are on the side that will prove to be victorious in the long run.

    The 'Moral Victory' theme can also be read as a response to the nihilistic pessimism of Film Noir, a genre where the leading characters are frequently unwilling or unable to make the right choices and where the pull towards wrong is, at times, seemingly inescapable. In Biblical Epics 'good' always pulls through, with the leading characters, at least making the 'right' moral choices.

    Analogy and shared pasts
    Closely linked to the above is the manner in which biblical epics seek to draw analogies with the modern day, either representing the events of that day in such a way to draw parallels with this day or suggesting the roots of Israel have much in common with the shared past of America. Whilst the famous example of the former is the presence of cold war themes in The Ten Commandments (1956), this film is also an example of the latter as the Israelites leaving Egypt is narrated in terms that would not be out of place accompanying the story of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving to found America. Another common example is the suggestion that Israel then and America now have both lost their way and need to turn back to God before disaster strikes. The message is that just as doing right in the ages depicted lead to a better future (which vindicated their actions in their 'present') if modern day Americans will make the right choices then they too will be on the right side of history.

    Sex/no sex
    One of the most common ways these films attempt illustrate the lack of godliness is in many characters' more liberal attitude to sex, often, um, climaxing in an orgy scene. This trait is most distinct in the 50s epics due to the curious relationship the epics had with the production code. One the one hand the code was more lenient with the Biblical Epics than with any other genre. Their view seems to have been that the amount of flesh on display, the portrayal of orgies and the loose morals of many of the characters is tempered by both the films' moral message and their historical verisimilitude. On the other hand however the code did prevent the films from depicting any actual sex. Participants in the orgies kept their underwear on and the leading characters never really got to consummate their love. Add to this, of course, the fact that in all of the Jesus epics (bar Last Temptation and many of the other epics the central character is seemingly celibate. In this way, then, there is a paradox between the promise of movie sex - a promise the films' marketing teams were all to happy to use to aid promotion - and the amount that actually occurred. In essence, in the Biblical Epics, sex is something that happens to other people. Even in Solomon and Sheba (1959) the two leads' attempt to sneak off to a quiet spot in the middle of the orgy to try and consummate their relationship is foiled by God destructing his own temple to prevent them.

    There is an incredible earnestness about Biblical Epics. Whether it's the tone of the narrator's voice, or written into the characters faces, these films seemingly take themselves incredibly seriously. It is perhaps the main reason why the genre is so ripe for parody by those no longer held by its spell.

    It can be argued that humour, or it's absence, is one of the aspects of a genre that is most embedded, but also most overlooked. Take, for example all the action movies where the hero makes a "pun" after he has just killed an opponent. In the cold light of day this would seem an unlikely response, but it's a way of reminding the audience that this character is simultaneously both like them and not like them. In Biblical Epics seemingly the opposite is true. Aside from the occasional wry comment, usually by one of the campier characters the majority of the audience is unlikely to identify with, the genre is extremely self-serious. Consider the puns James Bond would have made on witnessing just one of the ten plagues of Egypt, for example. The fact that there is very little joking around or attempts at humour is a mechanism for reminding the audience, lest they forget, of the extreme importance of the events they are witnessing. These are not mere stories, they intended to be earth-shattering events of huge significance.

    Even the Roman-Christian epics, where the nature of the films and their heroes is closest to the action movie, lack this sense of humour. Strangely, then, the two recent epics that have attempted to inject some humour by their leading characters have both been Jesus films. As with the action films the humour in both Jesus (1999) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) signifies that the character, in this case Jesus, is both like and unlike the audience. On the one hand he likes a water fight, or to share a laugh about a kitchen table (Emphasising Jesus's humanity), but at the same time these happen in-between extreme incidents that emphasise Jesus' otherness (his divinity). Perhaps this breaking of genre codes explains my own reaction to these attempts at humour. To me they simultaneous feel both like a brief breath of fresh air yet rather awkward and our-of-place.

    The other kind of self-seriousness these films exhibit is almost a kind of opposite. Critics of the genre in general, or a specific film in general frequently cite terrible, "corny" lines of dialogue. Usually the question they ask is "How can anyone say that with a straight face?". "How?" indeed. The answer again seems to be that these overblown, overly earnest lines, are again examples where normal reactions ought to be suspended. These are not just stories, the filmmakers are at pains to remind us, they are accounts about the very birth of civilisation/salvation.

    Linked to the above point about corny dialogue, and that about the characters that are permitted to make humorous comments is the fact that another of the key distinctives of many Biblical Epics is camp. This is very much at the foremost of my mind at the moment as I'm reading Richard Lindsay's "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". Lindsay cites Susan Sontag's descriptions of camp as "Failed seriousness" (p.xxix) and the "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration" (p.xxx) before adding something Sontag excludes, namely that camp "is often specifically queer, but it need not be exclusively queer" (p.xxxi, emphasis his). Ultimately he agrees with Philip Core's definition of "camp as an expression of what is simultaneously hidden and revealed about the personality"(p.xxx).

    Even to those unfamiliar with academic definitions of camp, it is fairly plain that it is a feature of most of the major Biblical Epics from Mary Magdalene's zebra-powered chariot in The King of Kings, to Jay Robinson's portrayal of Caligula in The Robe to the underlying scorned-lover motivation behind Boyd's depiction of Messala in Ben-Hur, through to Richard Gere dancing in his underpants in 1985's King David. But it's even present in The Passion of the Christ a point that is, at first, surprising and then rather obvious. As Lindsay puts it "The androgynous Satan figure and the gay Herod figure suggest the kind of decadent society that would put the Son of God to death" (p.46).

    Indeed Biblical Epics are not just about the existence of camp, but usually camp of the kind of wrong in the world which, one way or another, God is intent on rectifying. Thus ultimately Magdalene covers up her gold bikini, the smug sneer is wiped of Caligula's face and Satan descends into hell; camp orgies are terminated by "acts of God" such as earthquakes and lightning and huge pagan temples and idols crumble into the dust. It's a mark against the genre that the 'more-godly' world at the end of these films is usually one that is more heterosexual.

    Closely linked to the above is the degree and the sense of excess in the Biblical Epics. As Wood explains "(o)nly epics, I think, insist on our thinking so much about money while we are in the cinema. Every gesture, every set piece bespeaks fantastic excess." (p.169) However, this excess is not simply about good storytelling or attractive marketing it also serves to bolster the film's moral message. This is closely tied to the points made above about "Moral Victory" and "Camp". Often the epics' excess is a way of signifying decadence, or the might of the empire against which God's people are to stand against. However, perhaps, it receives its fullest expression in the large scale destruction that occurs at the end of many Biblical Epics. Wood again ((178-182):
    ...the idea of waste in these movies receives its fullest expression here...Here are costly sets, carefully built constructions, going up in smoke or toppling down in ruins, the very feats of engineering we have just been admiring are now thrown away. This is visible expense, like the crowd of extras, only more startling. This is money being burned...It is pure excess, a ritual expression of lack of need...Having all that cash to throw away is a sign of (apparent) financial health. But actually throwing it away is a sign of moral health, a sign that you are not hampered by your riches...I don't think this is a reaction against a past of puritan prescriptions. It is rather the oblique expression of a faith. Here is God's plenty...to save money or gasoline or energy is to doubt the profusion of Gods gifts...For many modern Americans worldly goods are so abundant that that it becomes a form of scandal to want to hang on to any of them for very long.
    Of course 'Excess' is not just linked to destruction in the Epics it's often used to underscore the supposed momentousness of the events that are being depicted. The moment of Exodus in both versions of The Ten Commandments, the Hallelujah Chorus in The Greatest Story Ever Told and the ark in the various epic adaptations of the Noah story.

    Divine Activity
    One of the key factors that distinguishes the Biblical Epics from other historical epics is the presence of divine intervention. This takes different forms in different films. Whilst Grace describes this as "the miracles and the sense of the nearness of the heavenly realm" (p.13) this varies depending on the type of story which is being adapted. As a description it best fits the Roman-Christian Epics where Peter sees a vision (Quo Vadis?), Marcellus is haunted (The Robe) and Miriam and Tirzah are healed (Ben-Hur). However, in the Old Testament Epics "nearness of the heavenly realm" seems a little cosy compared to the acts of judgement and destruction which typify God's decisive action in the film. In the Jesus films it is not so much about a connection to another "realm" as the presence of God made man and walking among mortals.

    What is striking is that whilst divine activity is far from unique amongst ancient writings, very few other historical epics (at least within the Hollywood tradition) include such incidents, without moving into the fantasy genre where the aspects of self-seriousness and contemporary resonance are also absent. To put it another way, only the only form of divine activity that Hollywood cinema takes seriously is that which affirms Judeo-Christian belief. More recently characters have been allowed to believe in other gods - there were mentions of the supernatural in the early twenty-first century epics Gladiator (2000) and Troy (2004) - but in such cases their faith remains strictly a personal affair. The divine does not appear to have a decisive effect on the lives of mortals.


    Having said all of this, I'm no longer sure having lists of genre characteristics is particularly helpful. When I started researching this series of posts I was very much hoping to come up with a list of criteria that would more or less indicate which films were part of the genre and which weren't. However as I have looked into more I have learned that not only is such a process widely practised it is also rather problematic. The reason I went down this path in the first place is because two of the early pieces I read, many years ago now, did offer such list based classifications. The first was in the very first general film studies text I read, Warren Buckland's "Teach Yourself Film Studies" where the author briefly examines Film Noir and lists seven of Noir's main attributes.

    The second was in Gaye Ortiz and Clive Marsh's "Explorations in Theology and Film: An Introduction" which is now 20 years old and which has not dated as well as some of its contemporaries. The chapter in question was Robert Banks' "The Drama of Salvation in George Stevens's Shane" which started by listing the key characteristics of the Western. Both pieces very much caught my attention and have acted as doorways to discovering two genres that I have a real love for. Nevertheless, I've only read one subsequent piece of scholarship on these genres that attempts genre classification by list, and crucially I was not able to rediscover it to mention it here.

    Anyway, this approach is not generally favoured by most authors on genre studies. One of the main reasons for this is that such lists are inevitably part of a self-fulfilling circle. If I define a genre, I do so with reference to a particular list of films that qualify for that genre, but if I start with a list of films and seek to draw out their shared characteristics then the question arises as to on what basis these particular films were selected in the first place. There's more I could say on this, but for a footnote this has already gone on quite a lot and I should probably press on and wrap it up.

    - Banks, Robert (1997) “The Drama of Salvation in George Stevens’s Shane,” in Explorations in Theology and Film, Marsh & Ortiz (eds.), Oxford: Blackwell, 59-65
    - Buckland, Warren (1998) "Teach Yourself Film Studies", London: Hodder & Stoughton.
    - Grace, Pamela. (2009) The Religious Film:Christianity and the Hagiopic, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
    - Lindsay, Richard A. (2015), Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press


    Friday, March 10, 2017

    Day of Triumph (1954)

    Day of Triumph's claim to fame in the pantheon of Jesus films is often misreported, but essentially it's this: it was the sound era's first American film about the life of Jesus to appear in cinemas. Between it's release in December 1954 and the previous major Hollywood Jesus film, The King of Kings (1927) there were Jesus films from other countries, such as Golgotha (1935) and El Mártir del Calvario (1952); films in which Jesus featured around the margins of the main story, such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) and The Robe (1953); and even American Jesus films that played in smaller venues like churches or on TV, such as No Greater Power (1942) and 1951's Hill Number One. So whilst things are a little less clear-cut than is sometimes imagined, Day of Triumph's role is certainly a significant film and a forefather to the many American Jesus films that would follow in its wake.

    What's surprising on watching the film again, after a great many years, is how well it tackles some of the issues latter Jesus movies have grappled with. Like many Jesus films there were accusations of anti-Semitism in the run up to its release, which apparently "made many theatre owners reluctant to book the movie".1 The film does have a few problematic elements in this respect. Judas, for example, is depicted with arched eyebrows and a devilish beard and is shown to be both overly ambitious and scheming ("I'll begin to offer casual suggestions on important matters, later I'll advise on more vital affairs."). Ultimately it's over-confidence and hubris that lead to his downfall. Yet at the same time, in other ways it is a sympathetic portrayal of Judas. He has strengths as well as his eventual weaknesses: he is eloquent and visionary, delivering the film's best dialogue in a scene affirming Jesus' humanity; his betrayal of Jesus is not in the least motivated by the money, but out of a desire to see Jesus elevated to Judah's king; and he is played with great sympathy by James Griffith such that ultimately it is Judas that is the character the audience is left rooting for. It's perhaps the most intimate and fleshed-out portrayal of Judas yet captured on film. It doesn't milk his suicide, unsensationally keeping it off camera. Had it, no doubt it would have detracted to a certain degree, from the film's "happy" ending.

    The film attempts to try and present the historical and religious context of the film in a fair light. Various characters, including Jesus, are called by their father's names (e.g. Jesus bar Joseph), the Zealots - who here appear on very good terms with numerous disciples - are unmistakably Jewish, not least because they wear skull caps and pray. These key plot elements here were reproduced in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961) - a zealot party divided between those backing Jesus and those supporting Barabbas, ultimately betraying the former in favour of the latter, to Judas' heartbreak - but whereas Ray's film largely secularises the zealots, here they belong, and are very much motivated by the Jewish faith.

    Historically speaking whilst the film still implicates Caiaphas and Annas, their actions are largely isolated from the general populace and Arthur T. Horman's script has them make it clear that only Pilate has the power to execute Jesus. Pilate himself is portrayed as being cunning and sly, deliberately trying to make the priests appear culpable. When it's suggested that Pilate might consult the people, it's the priests that instruct their servants to go and assemble a group of their supporters to deliberately influence the vote. The zealots infiltrate the crowd as well, of course, unusually with Judas still amongst their number. By this stage, however, whilst he is still with them in person, in spirit they have rejected his vision and switched their alliances to Barabbas. When Judas, seemingly alone in such a biased crowd, continues to call for the release of his master, he is struck on the head and knocked out by one of his fellow zealots who prefers Barabbas to the "weeping" Jesus. It's the last time Judas is seen in the film.

    The strength of the portrayal of Judas, the fact that it is supposed to be a film about Jesus, and the presence of two major stars (Lee Cobb who plays Zadok and Joanne Dru's Mary Magdalene), does give the film something of a problem, namely that it's a little unclear who the film is actually about. At the time of filming, it was Dru that was the film's biggest star, having had the leading female roles in 1948's Red River and the following year's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, though her appearance is only brief. Interestingly, Dru's Magdalene is never specifically identified as a prostitute, indeed the film portrays her as a woman of some means - an assertion that there is at least some evidence to support.

    As Zadok, Cobb (whose performance in On the Waterfront earlier that same year had propelled him to stardom) features far more prominently. Indeed in some ways the film is more about Zadok, and his path to faith, than it is about Jesus. As the most prominent of the various 'narrators' in the film, it is primarily through Zadok's eyes, or at least those of someone alongside him, that we watch the events of the film unfold. Jesus is the Amadeus to Zadok's Salieri. Zadok is a relatively neutral presence amongst the disciples and zealots who intermingle throughout the film repeatedly asking the various characters what news they have in order to gain updates about the latest developments. In addition to Judas the political schemer he also maintains a good relationship with Barabbas and his supporters (militant firebrands), Simon (the former zealot, who has now opted for Jesus's peaceful path) and, unusually, Andrew who is seemingly linked to both the zealots and the disciples. It's a device that means that Zadok, and by extension, therefore, the viewer get to hear about and ultimately witness the resurrection, in the scene that top and tails the rest of the film.

    What, then of the film's depiction of Jesus? In many ways the film's most radical statement about Jesus was its decision to show his face. It's true that the film's producer/writer/director team of James K. Friedrich, Arthur T. Horman and John T. Coyle had already produced a series of short films (The Living Christ series, 1951) featuring the same actor, Robert Wilson, as Jesus, as well as a longer film for church use I Beheld His Glory (1952). But this was the first time since the introduction of the Hays Code that Jesus had appeared in US cinemas.

    Having waited 27 years the filmmakers waste no time in revealing the face of Jesus. In a teaser shot, before even the credits we see Jesus in close-up, shot from below against a rich blue sky (top). It forms an interesting contrast with the long wait before Jesus' appearance in The King of Kings (1927) and his hidden performance in the previous year's The Robe. It also anticipates similar shots in Ray's King of Kings that would be released 7 years later in 1961. This appearance before the credits role is also somewhat reminiscent of the start of John's Gospel, a reminder of Jesus' preeminence, his existence before the beginning of the world/the film.

    Within the main body of the film, Jesus' first appearance is also interesting. Jesus appears behind a drying fishing net which in effect places a veil between him and the audience. It is a veil that is soon to be torn down to reveal the face of God made flesh. Indeed the concept of a fully human Christ, one who fully partakes in human experience is close to the heart of the film's portrayal of Jesus. In the speech alluded to above Judas describes the man he is following in the most sold and physical terms:
    I've lived travelled eaten and slept with Jesus bar Joseph for more than two years and I've studied him more closely than any man. He's learnéd, but he's human; mortal, flesh and blood, just like you and me. When briars scratch his legs, he bleeds. When the day is hot he thirsts. He hungers, he sweats, he tires, he laughs, he cries. Would God or the son of God have such weaknesses?

    This conversation (between Judas and Zadok) is just one of many behind-the-scenes musings about who Jesus is and how he might be used to forward various individuals' differing agendas; they are left frustrated by his refusal to conform to the patterns of behaviour they expect of him. When he enters Jerusalem, swept along on a wave of euphoria and seemingly well poised to declare himself king, he stops at the temple, weeps and disappears from sight. The music shift in tone at this point from typical epic pomp to something more nightmarish. This is the music of Judas' perspective as his plan for Jesus fails just when it was set to succeed. Whilst Judas insists it could all happen again the zealots decide Jesus is not going to fulfil the role they had hoped and turn their attention to the urgent task of freeing the captured Barabbas.

    This kind of speculation and dramatic license was a significant shift away from Friedrich and Coyle's earlier work on The Living Christ series, perhaps due to the introduction of Irving Pichel as director. Not only does the film include a far more varied and meaningful range of music in the film and a far more interesting use of the camera, but it is also liberated from the kind of slavish keeping to the text that made Living Christ good for Sunday schools but ultimately unsuitable for cinemas.

    Having said that, in places the film's dramatic additions give it a few structural problems. Major characters such as Mary Magdalene appear prominently only to retreat to obscurity, their role reduced to little more than an opportunity to get Jesus to say or do a particular thing. More pointedly, the film seems to have three or four different beginnings and almost as many natural endings. Yet this weakness doesn't detract too greatly from the film's many strengths

    1 - https://www.movieguide.org/news-articles/revival-of-distinguished-1954-classic-film-day-of-triumph.html

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    Sunday, March 05, 2017

    Day of Triumph (1954) Comes to DVD and Download

    Despite the many Bible films to have been released to DVD in the last twenty years one that has been curiously omitted up to this point is 1954's Day of Triumph. Thankfully the good people at the Gospel Films Archive/Christian Movie Classics (whose other work I've covered here) have finally made the film available both on DVD (via Amazon) and for digital download from Vision Video. The DVD also features an introduction to the film from the son of its producer James Friedrich and the 1941 short The Child of Bethlehem (dir. Edwin Maxwell).

    At the moment the film has not been digitally remastered, but I know that is something the team at Gospel Films Archive are hoping to do in the future. However, the recording on the DVD is from a good quality TV broadcast master, it's just not an HD version taken from the original negative. The image at the top of this post is a screenshot of the film's opening scene. There's a little discolouration but otherwise it's very clean and the resolution is certainly far better than that VHS copy you may have stashed in the attic.

    I've been sent a review copy of the DVD and I'll post a review of the film shortly. Having seen it on VHS a few times many years ago it was really interesting to watch it again with a far better appreciation of the successes and failures of the Jesus films sub-genre. I will include some screen shots from the film so any fellow purists can assess the quality for themselves.

    Essentially, though, for the time being this is the only version currently available of what is a significant entry in the canon.

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