• 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, January 01, 2018

    The Book of Life (1998)

    "It was the morning of December 31, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead. Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts". So ends Jesus' opening monologue in Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998). It's a moment that sums up so much about the film: the premise; actor Martin Donovan's deadpan delivery; the sharpness of the script; and it's irreverent, but not offensively so, approach to the subject matter.

    The Second Coming has been responsible for some dreadful movies, not least the original Left Behind film (2000) and The Omega Code (1999), not least because their attempts to portray the Book of Revelation's bizarre imagery in a pseudo-literal, yet modern, manner tends to make it all seem rather absurd. In contrast, Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998), takes a rather different approach, playfully toying with the imagery. 666 is just the number of a locker where Jesus stores The Book of Life, which, it turns out, is just a Macbook computer, albeit an "ancient" model made by a foreign manufacturer in Egypt.

    If that sounds like the film is about to turn into a trip to the near east to hunt out its secrets, you can rest easy. It doesn't. The film is set solely and firmly in New York. There are numerous indicators of this location, where almost all of Hartley's early work was filmed, as much for reasons of  convenience and expediency as anything else.

    Here, though, the location has a great significance. There are numerous clear indicators that the film is set in New York, even to those who have never been, the yellow cabs, the Twin Towers, the view from the Staten Island Ferry (above), the Empire State building, Subway signage, Flatiron building. As Sebastian Manley suggests "a focus on recognizable regional details and identities functions to ground the films in the familiar and particular" (Manley 103). Manley's analysis is good, particularly that "the image serves to underline the weight of responsibility borne by Jesus," and that "an image that describes the frame of mind of the protagonist" (105), but it does not go far enough. New York here has a specific role as a specific representative of Earth as a whole. Put it another way, were Jesus to return to Earth today, to a specific location, there are few other places that would seem as likely as New York - the kind of a cultural melting pot that is home to those from all nations. Where else could stake such a strong claim to be the capital of the world?

    The sense of place and location is just one of a number of characteristics that are typical in Hartley's films. Not unrelated to this is the absence of establishing shots in his films. Hartley also returns to the same actors again and again, in this case, Martin Donovan and Thomas J Ryan who had played the title role in Hartley's Henry Fool the previous year.

    For Manley, "one particularly strong mark of distinction, which has remained relatively constant across the director's filmography, is a preference for stylized performances: broadly, actors tend to adopt a 'flattened' style of line delivery, implementing few variations in either tone or facial expression." (7-8). The result of this is to shift the focus onto the characters internal emotions. Here, in particular, the film's Jesus is conflicted internally about his role in the Apocalypse, and Donovan's muted performance enables the audience to sympathise with his dilemma. This sense of sympathy is enhanced by Donovan's voiceover - another Hartley trait. Furthermore, whilst there is less focus on Magdalena (a beguiling performance from PJ Harvey) and the Devil (Thomas J Ryan), and neither of them has a typical voice over, they too deliver longer speeches in this flattened style, with a not dissimilar effect. The devil's three monologues are particularly significant, not only delivered whilst looking towards the camera, but also spoken into a visible microphone seemingly set up for that very purpose, drawing attention to the film's artificiality, whilst simultaneously making easier to understand his point of view.

    Another of Hartley's characteristics is the focus on relationships, particularly on forming what might be called alternate 'families', often in contrast to their actual families is retained here. Jesus is torn between his father, represented by the officious law firm Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat ("To him, the law is everything. Still, to this day, attorneys are his favourites.") and his fellow humans ("you're addicted to human beings" the Devil tells him at one point, something Jesus later concedes). The film ends with him relaxing in the company of the rest of the main characters in the film, his companion from the beginning of the film Magdalena; a dishevelled Satan; Dave and Edie, an unlikely couple from the bar; and Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat's former receptionist.

    That said, The Book of Life marked a departure from much of Hartley's earlier work. It was his first film shot on digital video and he uses it to draw attention to several formal elements of film. Most notable element of this is his use of slow motion blur and light distortion. Hartley reclaims "what might seem digital video's decidedly cinematic, even "ugly" limitations -- the jittery, blurry, not-quite-stable quality of the image's texture, the tendency to exaggerate or otherwise render somewhat "off" the properties of color and light -- as its own new, exciting palette, with its own potential for visual beauty." (McQuain). Hartley has spoken on various occasions as these distortion effects as being the "visual equivalent" of distortion effects for electric guitar, "there's much more freedom in music about using distortion. All that blurriness comes out of that aesthetic." (Eaves)

    This combines with various other visual techniques such as the repeated use of unusual camera angles - not simply by placing the camera above or below eye level, but also tilting the angle - and alternating between black and white. Many of these techniques are shared with Hartley's later The Girl From Monday (2005), very much a companion piece to this one with it's other-worldly lead character arriving, somewhat unannounced, on Earth. Indeed the result of the visual distortion, unusual camera angles and so on is to give the film a disorientating, somewhat surreal, other-worldly feel. Dubbed "a controversial retelling of the Apocalypse" the film's playful visual and comic elements enable more profound questions to be asked than would be possible with a retelling that were either more literal, or more closely resembling the world as we generally experience it.

    Stylistically the film is a pastiche of different styles and genres including science fiction, travelogue, the western, film noir and of course the Jesus film. The plot is essentially driven by the line quoted at the start of this discussion. Having returned to Earth to judge humanity, Jesus finds he has reservations. God's legal representatives try to pressure Jesus into getting on with the apocalypse. The Devil wants the book so that he can prevent it ("Revelation 12:12, Not my favourite passage."), whilst continuing to try and claim a few last souls. Encountering an atheist in a bar called Dave he offers him a Faustian pact his girlfriend Edie's soul in exchange for winning lottery tickets. Meanwhile Jesus delays his decision as long as he can. Seen twenty years later it's easy to forget that when The Book of Life was produced, real trepidation about the Y2K-induced computer collapse at the new millennium did exist" (Berrettini 58).

    The film's Jesus has a heavy emphasis on compassion. He was seemingly changed forever by becoming human, and his feelings only intensified on his return to Earth. It is noticeable, for example that the last line of his closing monologue shifts from 'they' to 'we' as if for the first time he is accepting his place as a human. His smart suit and white shirt contrast with the Devil's red shirt, scruffy overcoat, bruised face and sticking plaster. Jesus is portrayed as intellectual, rational and thoughtful in contrast to the grubby pragmatism of the Devil.

    Ultimately, the decisive moment comes when Jesus punches the devil in the stomach (in similar fashion to the way Donovan's character in Trust (1990) punches his father in the stomach at a similarly pivotal moment) [SPOILERS] and he decides to call off the end of the world. He tricks the Devil into releasing Edie's soul and finally the characters reassemble to see in the new millennium. The following morning, his mission abandoned, Jesus leaves the city at the end of the film on the Staten Island Ferry, with no indication as to where he is going. The film's focus on and location in a specific place, leaves this open. is he moving on to another place as when the hero moves on at the end of many westerns, or is this symbolizing his leaving Earth, where New York has functioned as a specific representative of Earth as a whole?[END OF SPOILERS] Either way he ends the film with a stunning monologue, reproduced below, about the potential possibilities awaiting the human race.

    Seen today what is striking about the film is how that final monologue - which talks about what the future, and of course for its original audience - what the new millennium would hold, is accompanied by a shot from the ferry of the Twin Towers. To them it was so emblematic of what humanity can achieve, of its promise. To us it summarises so jarringly, the awful possibilities of the destruction that humans can wreck, and what the awaited new millennium has thus far come to be defined by. The dashing of the very hopes the movie dares to imagine. "The possibility of disaster and the possibility of perfection". Even despite all that has happened in those twenty years these possibilities remain. We can only hope we can find the compassion we need.
    And the New Year arrived. The new millennium. Just another day in a lifetime of similar days, but each one of them crowded with possibilities. The possibility of disaster and the possibility of perfection. To be there amongst them again was good. The innocent and the guilty all equally helpless, all perfectly lost, and, as frightening as it was to admit, all deserving of forgiveness. What would become of them, I wondered. In another 100 years, would they all be born in test-tubes? Or perhaps evolve through computers to become groups of disembodied, digital intelligence machines? Would they remember who I was? Would they remember what I said? Would it matter? Maybe someone else will come along and say pretty much the same thing. Would anyone notice? In a hundred years, would they be living on other planets? Would the Earth still exist? Would they engineer themselves genetically so that disease was a thing of the past? Would they all just become one big multi-ethnic race? Would they discover the secret of the universe? God? Would they become gods themselves? What will they eat? What sort of houses will they live in? Cities - think about it. What will the weather be like? Will they still have to go to work everyday? What will they wear in the future? How smart will they get? And will being smarter make them happier? Will they all speak the same language in the future? Will they make love? Maybe there will be more than two sexes. Will they still believe life is sacred? Will it matter? Do we matter?

    Berrettini, Mark I. (2011) Hal Hartley - (Contemporary Film Directors). Champaign: University of Illinois Press. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/289391982/Mark-l-Berrettini-Hal-Hartley-Contemporary-Film-Directors

    Eaves, Hannah (2005) "Free to Investigate: Hal Hartley" at GreenCine, April 24. Formerly at http://www. greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=206 Now only available via the Internet Archive - https://web.archive.org/web/20150613061209/http://www.greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=206

    Manley, Sebastian (2013) The Cinema of Hal Hartley, Bloomsbury

    McQuain, Christopher (2013) "The Book of Life / The Girl from Monday" on DVD Talk 14th May. Available online - https://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/60528/book-of-life-girl-from-monday/

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