• 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


    Sunday, November 24, 2019

    Testament: Joseph (1996)

    As with several of the other entries in the Testament: Bible in Animation series, Joseph is made using the same Russian animation method that was the predominant style in The Miracle Maker (2000). However, whereas The Miracle Maker complemented its use of puppets with hand-drawn animation to represent psychological states of mind such as dreams, here the dreams of Joseph, his fellow prisoners and his pharaoh are merely reported rather than depicted. This preference for a more realist  approach is bold: it prioritises the story's original emphasis on its complex relationships, and Joseph's unlikely rise to power. However, within a decade The Prince of Egypt (1998) and its Joseph prequel Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) as well as The Miracle Maker produced such impressive, spectacular and acclaimed out of dream material that this film does rather suffer by comparison.

    The story's economy is clear from the start - Joseph is about to be thrown into the well, and the characters dialogue naturally summarises the events that have already transpired. Joseph is sold to Potiphar, then refuses his wife and finds himself in jail. The filmmakers draw various visual parallels between well and prison, but Joseph's desperation is short lived: when he correctly interprets Pharaoh's dream he gets assigned the task of saving the country. Joseph again prospers and is eventually able to be reunited with his brothers and, more importantly, his father.

    The expressive nature of the Russian animation really draw out the story's pathos, and makes this version a far more emotionally impacting portrayal of these events than either other animated efforts or even the various acted versions. I think the brevity of this portrayal helps in this respect, as well as the graceful yet sad movements and wide-eyed expressions on the puppets faces. The spectacular nature of Joseph's rise is really only apparent in the one scene (pictured above) when Joseph is first brought before Pharaoh. As much as I appreciate that moment, I can't help but feel that the filmmakers decision to opt for a simpler, more earthy, approach is justified by its ultimately more moving results.

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    Saturday, November 16, 2019

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: The Tower of Babel

    Of all the entries in "The Greatest Heroes of the Bible" series this is the one that is most clearly in the tradition of the Hollywood Biblical Epic. This is partly because the fundamental core of the story - a spectacular act of destruction of an enormous piece of architecture - is the very essence of the traditional biblical epic where, according to Wood, ultimately the excess of human edifices are spectacularly destroyed in order to demonstrate the nations dependence on God.

    That said, it is also because screenwriter is allowed to take the scant basics of the text (a mere nine verses) and more or less create his story from scratch. And the story he creates is the classic Cold War narrative whereby a ruthless dictator attempts to fashion a monument to his own glory only to be opposed by a humble prophet of God, who sticks out tremendous opposition to be finally justified in his stance by God's intervention.

    Here the king is called Amathar and the prophet Joctan (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's Richard Basehart) yet at the beginning they are both simply members of the city's somewhat divided council. Part of the council wants to build a tower; part are opposed to the idea. When Amathar captures a lion using only a net and a dog in the opening scene, he returns home to be appointed by the council as it's leader and gradually he steers his role from a leader of the council, to a king an then ultimately he disbands the council and becomes a dictator.

    What's most interesting about all of this is its contemporary relevance, despite this episode being 40 years old this year. In the US (and to a lesser extent, the UK) there have been accusations of the erosion of democracy and a sense, that was absent from how this was presented in my younger days, that this is something that is facilitated by a sizeable group of the people as much as it is something that an individual seizes. I'll leave assessing the validity of these claims to you, but whether you agree with them or not, it seems undeniable that these are the terms that are being bandied around in certain circles and so it's interesting to see how the path presented in the film corresponds to the concerns being raised about the US's current path. Amathar at first is elected and initially uses spin to get people on his side. Initially he argues building the tower is a way to honour God, and then convinces the people to donate their free time as builders ("do it for free, as a gift"). Once this principle becomes agreed he then increases it, embeds it more in law and begins to turn those who oppose it into enemies of the state. Meanwhile he is also briefing against the council to weaken popular support even for the idea of a council, paving the way for him to remove the very idea of a council.

    All this time both sides are arguing that their path is the one that honours God. Amathar's argument is to build a landmark that honours him and gets as close to him as they can; Joktan attempts to remind the people that the instruction given in the ancient writings of Noah were to spread out to populate the earth. Banding together to build such a monument is not only opposed to that but smacks of arrogance and idolatry. In the midst of all this there is a focus on relationships. Between Amathar and Joktan is the latter's son, Hevet - who starts off in support of Amathar, but eventually comes to side with his father - his fiancé Tova, who always has sympathy with Joktan, even if she is initially cautious about expressing it. not least because of her father, Ranol, who starts as one of Amathar's aides only to switch sides as the dictatorship tightens its grip.

    A key moment in all of this comes, when Amathar's position is portrayed as fundamentally un-American is the moment when he asks the people to "give up their knives, spearheads, axes and anything of metal to be converted into tools to build the tower". Soon after, he tells the people that  "No-one may bear arms", and as if to force home the momentousness of that, the camera hones in on Joktan's horrified reaction. And of course there are accusations of corruption, and those in the king's inner circle profiting from the new administration, and citizens turning one another in ("my spies are everywhere" argues Amathar, just as Ranol flees to join the opposition and is ensnared in a repeat of the opening dog and net scene). Eventually the claim is made that Amathar "thinks he's a god" and he pushes the people too far and loses support. Joktan rallies his forces and they head off for a battle on the tower.

    It's only at this point - a while after the dictatorship has reached it's most oppressive - that God intervenes. Joktan prays "Whatever your will we live only to serve you" and "show them your wrath" and whilst one imagines he might have already made such a plea, it's also presented as a decisive moment. However, it also means that the fall of Amathar is as much as a result of human uprising as divine intervention and begins to feel like God's pyrotechnics are not strictly necessary, which is an odd end point given the basic plot of the story.  That said, ultimately it's a bolt of lightning that accounts for Amathar - a sign of God's judgement on his "vanity" and "arrogance".

    The series is fairly low budget, but the presence of drawn on bolts of lightning (against a blue sky, see above) were fairly well executed for the low budget at the time, and director James Conway relies on a mixture of techniques to convey the moment of judgement. In addition to the animated lightning, there are pyrotechnic explosions, shaking of the camera, and chunks of masonry falling off, with fast cutting between close scenes of imperilled individuals and the bigger picture. However, the tower (which is square based - notably not in the style of Bruegel and Doré) is never really that large, despite the script's protestations to the contrary, so obviously the scene never really creates the kind of spectacle that could be regularly observed in 1950s cinema.

    Bizarrely the closing narration refers to the descendants of Moses, rather than Noah, or Abraham. I'm not sure whether that is just a slip of the tongue/pen, or whether that is trying to link the episode into the series wider basis, but of those that I have seen so far, this is one of the more interesting ones, enjoying the freedom of not being tethered to an in-depth biblical plot.

    N.B. I've written this in something of a rush with quotes written down on a first watch and am unlikely to have time to return to double check them for sometime. Some details in the above, therefore, may well be inaccurate. 
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press p.173-5

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    Saturday, November 09, 2019

    Blocking and Shot Selection in Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

    Last month I was discussing Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and its use of touch to create an intimacy between Jesus and the various characters who encounter him, who are, generally speaking, a stand in for the audience (link here). But the filmmakers look to create this intimacy in other ways as well, most notably through their blocking (placement) of the actors and the selection of shots, and how those shots are conventionally used.

    Whilst Zeffirelli is Italian, in many ways his the editing of his shots is typical of the classic Hollywood style. However, there are a few distinctive features of Jesus of Nazareth that I believe have made a significant contribution. Firstly this is a work made for television. The combination of the regular pattern of advert breaks, combined with the classic Hollywood editing is that each scene tends to land with a certain rhythm. Scenes tend to be a the same length.

    Typical Hollywood editing begins with an establishing shot, but here Zeffirelli has several, practically wordless establishing shots. There might be a shot that partially shows the layout of the room, but this is intercut with some momentary details concerning a key element of the scene. When Jesus is about to heal a man born blind, we see the man being ignored on the fringes of the action in one of the se establishing shots. At Matthew's banquet we see glimpses of the prostitutes that typify the kind of company Matthew keeps (reminiscent of Fellini according to Peter Malone, ). The camera flits to another nearby location, to catch something similar several times giving the audience a feel for the wider scene.

    The next key stage in these scenes is a shot that bridges these wider establishing shots, with the pattern of close-ups that is about to unfold. Sometimes it is a travelling shot, or some sort of zoom, but essentially it wraps up those disparate shots and swoops in towards a close up shot of Powell, or of the scene's main supporting character.

    The main part of these scenes, however is the combination of 'two shots' which capture Jesus and the other character in the same frame with close-ups/mid-shots of Jesus and the "reverse shot" from the point of view of the other character. Sometimes the shots are point-of-view, sometimes they are over the shoulder but the effect is much the same, the two characters are staring deep into the others' eyes This pattern repeats several times: shot/reverse shot occasionally punctuated by a two-shot and eventually, towards the end of the exchange, Jesus actually touches the supporting character. Often the scene ends on one of these three shots (or a reaction shot to what we have just witnessed, as if informing the audience how they should react). At other times though it seems the character is meant to be a stand-in for the audience, placing the viewer starring into Powell's eyes in these intimate moments.

    Watch the two clips in the YouTube video below and you will see what I mean. (The poster has created their own text intro, so the scene starts after 30 seconds)

    If you read my last post on this subject you will also notice the moment Jesus reaches forward and touches him. Again the fact that the film was shot for television rather than for the cinema gives a greater intimacy to these shots - the emphasis is on the characters tightly composed and up close so they show-up on small 1970s TV screens.

    Now this was just a convenient one I found on YouTube and not every element of the above description is in every occurrence, but of the 5-10 instances that have something like this sort of encounter, most adopt nearly all of the elements described above. But Zeffirelli is not creating his own language here, he is using long established patterns, particularly within American financed films. This established grammar is perhaps most familiar from moments of romantic attraction, or between a younger character who is being inspired by a wiser one. It's even occasionally used in situations where the feelings are as strong but negative (i.e. heat) rather than positive. These combinations of shots and placement are used time and again in American film to signify an intimacy, a special connection between the two characters.

    Interestingly there are (at least) two major deviations from this formula. The first is in the encounter with the rich young man. Here most of the camera work is repeated, but his time, Jesus never reaches out and touches the man. He does not become a follower of Jesus. Even more dysfunctional is the frst scene between Jesus and Judas. Here Judas approaches Jesus, but Jesus has his eyes closed and, for almost the entire scene, is perpendicular to Judas rather than looking into his eyes. Here also the touch is emitted. And we all know how this turns out. Having identified the above pattern it seems odd watching these two scenes, as if Jesus is almost intentionally withholding. Perhaps with Judas you could argue  that's fair enough: The scene plays as if Jesus is gaining special knowledge at this point of how his relationship with Judas will pan out. But the scene with the Rich Young Man seems almost unfair - if only Jesus had reached out and touched him. it feels certain that he would have followed him. Perhaps that's just me.

    In any case, perhaps this goes some way to explaining why people still feel so connected with the series. These filmmaking techniques creating intimacy, but backed up by a belief system and regularly confirmed on Sunday mornings and so on, it's not entirely surprising that for some this has formed a long term connection to this film in particular.


    Sunday, November 03, 2019

    Kommunisten (Communists, 2014)

    When Danièle Huillet died in 2006 many wondered what would happen to Jean-Marie Straub. Would he carry on without his wife an career-long collaborator? Thirteen years later it's clear that he did, but in limited fashion. Whilst he has directed numerous short films since Huillet's death, at 70 minutes Kommunisten (Communists, 2014) is the only one to last longer than an hour. It's more than just coincidence, then, that this is the most well known of the films from this latter period and it's actually the first of his that I have seen from this era.

    All of this explains two key features about the film. Firstly, that this is clearly a work very much in Huillet's memory. One of the film's earliest image is a mid-shot of two of figures filmed from behind while they gaze out of an open window (above) as if on the verge of transitioning from the dark material world into the light. It's closing image is Huillet sat alone, still, but not necessarily peacefully, on a hill and is taken from the pair's Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988). Eventually she says "new world" as she turns her head away. Small highlights the link between the music accompanying the shot  - Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 - the composer's "last major work before his death" (Small 2019, emphasis mine). The moment could not be more poignant.

    This segues nicely in the second feature of Kommunisten which is that it is largely comprised of excerpts of Huillet and Straub's previous films. Indeed the credits list the five works that are included as follows:

    1. Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2000)
    2. Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)
    3. Fortini/Cani (1976)
    4. Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1986)
    5. Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988)

    These lengthy excerpts - the one from Trop tôt/Trop tard is the static, uncut ten minute take outside the factory, for example - are not from the couple's most celebrated works (which I would argue are
    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) and 1973's Moses und Aron), but they are amongst some of the best and most memorable shots from the two's work.

    In a way, then, this is an adaptation of their own adaptations, another layer on an historical, multi-layered Schichttorte. Straub essentially takes those previous adaptations, and in typical fashion presents them anew, in a fresh context, but with also a high degree of continuity with his material. It's hard to think of a more appropriate tribute. The  Trop tôt/Trop tard section is the epitome of the pair's, long, static, diagonal takes; the excerpts from Fortini/Cani (1976) typify their slow circular pans. The footage from Der Tod - the "Communist Utopia" passage - embodies Huillet and Straub's politics. The sequence from Operai, contadini is perhaps the strongest example of the unusual, measured style they ask from their actors. In essence, then, it's a summary of their most distinctive traits - their fingerprint distilled down into a single film.

    Before this re-cycled footage, however, Straub adds fresh material in the form of an excerpt of André Malraux's 1939 "Days of Wrath" which concerns "how a man and a woman deal with being separated while the man is in prison" (Fendt 2015). Straub himself plays the off-screen representative of authority, interrogating two onscreen communists (one of whom is bedecked in a glorious Aran sweater - neither of the period of the novel, nor of adaptation, incorporating a look that is part timeless, part from the height of Huillet/Straub's career). The other man gets to return home to his wife and it is he who appears by his wife's side in the image above, "reunited, however fleeting this homecoming may prove to be" (Small 2019).

    However, this shot gives way to one that is almost identical in every respect except that the camera has now panned down to make the woman (not the male narrator) the focus. It's the kind of subtle yet powerful shot that typified the couple's work. Easy to miss, or to fail to notice the intention of the variation. Those who, somewhat unbelievably, criticised the lack of overt politics in the couple's work, fail to realise that theirs is filmmaking in the most nuanced of fashions. Indeed that cut typifies the entire film, Straub moving the emphasis on his career, or perhaps theirs, to her.

    Kommunisten, then, is a tribute to Huillet, but also to the dream of a better world, a dream that so many of those (communists) featured in their work have pursued, and a dream which Huillet herself pursued also. Straub's moving tribute seems like an act of adding his departed wife to this noble canon.
    - Fendt, Ted (2015), "The Dream of a Thing: Straub’s "Kommunisten"", mubi.com Notebook Feature, March 17, 
    Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-dream-of-a-thing-straubs-kommunisten
    - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: “Communists", mubi.com Notebook Column, October 8,
    Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-communists