• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Matt Page


    View my complete profile
    Contact me

    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 Sontage 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


    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.


    Friday, February 17, 2017

    The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)

    The Last Days of Pompeii is one of the few Bible movies that is also a disaster movie. From the moment it start we know how it's going to end - badly. It's title is the ultimate spoiler, in a genre hardly renown for its unexpected plot twists. Indeed perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is how it manages to span the time from well before the death of Christ circa 30 A.D. to the eruption of Vesuvius 49 years later within the adult lifetime of its leading character, Marcus (Preston Foster).

    Marcus is already reasonably old when we first encounter him several years before the death of Jesus. His wife is run over by a chariot and Marcus ends up having to accept a fight in the gladiatorial arena to pay her medical bills. Yet despite his victory as a gladiator, when he returns home he is too late to save her life. Angered and grieving Marcus returns to the arena, works his way up the pecking order with success after success until he is able to retire and diversify into supplying fresh slaves for the arena.

    Throughout the early part of the film Marcus maintains something of a moral core, even though he is pulled this way and that by anger, grief and the need to overcome poverty. So when his victory over an opponent leaves a young boy orphaned, Marcus decides to adopt him. Yet in order to be able to support the boy (Flavius) he takes a job capturing slaves and making orphans of their children - a point that is nicely underlined by a fade between a shot of a captured slave holding his son and one of Marcus back in Rome holding Flavius in a similar pose.

    All of this is part of Marcus' transition from all round good, but tough, guy in the opening scenes to someone with a good heart increasingly trapped and shaped by their decisions, decisions made based on very limited options (at least that is what we are led to believe). But this is never really very convincing on either front. For someone with a supposedly good heart Marcus is persuaded to commit atrocities all too easily. Conversely, for someone struggling to make even a basic living honestly, he seems to climb to the top of the greasy pole, with all its wealth and power, with consummate ease.

    Crucially, Marcus has a chance encounter with an old woman who precedes to tell him, (whilst ominously starring at the ceiling), that he must take Flavius to meet "the greatest man in Judea". So based on little more than the advice of her and one of her comrades, Marcus and Flavius head to Judea intent on going to meet Pontius Pilate. Before he gets to Jerusalem, however, they almost have a chance encounter with Jesus, except this time he's not quite in the mood for taking vaguely sage-like pronouncements from total strangers, so he presses on to the capital. The filmmakers offer little plausible reason for this inconsistency; it's just an eye-rollingly clumsy plot device, scantily clad in some cod-theology about fate and determinism. No-one quite walks on and says "Ah, but God moves in mysterious ways", but someone definitely thought it. At some point. For at least about two seconds before deciding to worry about something else instead.

    Not dissimilarly Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone) is sat musing about his his need to find someone to covertly infiltrate and hamstring the Ammonites. "If I could only find a man" he utters, seconds before his servant mentions that our former champion gladiator turned horse-trader is coincidentally waiting in the lobby. Marcus agrees to go out stealing Ammonite horses for Pilate, but when he returns Flavius has been in an accident with a horse and is almost dead. As luck would have it, though, there's "a young man, a wandering healer passing through the village..." and so Marcus and his son get to have their chance encounter with Jesus after all.

    Despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) had only debuted eight years previously, and was probably still doing the rounds here and there, the film opts not to show the face of Jesus. It's possible that this decision was based purely on artistic motives, but it's far more likely that it was indicative of the level of outrage that had been unleashed by Claudette Colbert's nipple popping out of that bath of milk in The Sign of the Cross three years previously. Things had certainly soured and it's striking to see how quickly the atmosphere had changed.

    Instead of filming Jesus, the filmmakers shot much of the healing sequence (sorry about the plot spoiler, but it was never going to turn out another way) from Jesus' point of view. Marcus carries Flavius to the front of the crowd with his eyes, and the eyes of the crowd, all transfixed on the camera. The heavenly music kicks in, there's a wide, reverse shot from a distance behind the crowd, and then they and Jesus obligingly wander stage left, leaving Marcus on his knees and Flavius back on his feet.

    Flavius's healing, though, appears to have been more or less Jesus' last. By the time Marcus has returned to Jerusalem Jesus is already on trial. Pilate washes his hands of it all, of course, and his duplicitous dealings with Marcus could easily have been spun into suggesting it was all for show. But the film opts instead for a shell-shocked Pilate putting his head in his freshly washed hands and murmuring "What have I done? What have I done?". There's some nice double meanings in their initial conversation, as Marcus nice-but-dim fails to appreciate that his new found friend is somewhat shell-shocked, but soon Pilate is complaining that he was "forced" to condemn that "poor man" and coming out with banalities such as "Oh, let men wallow in the quicksand they have made of life" and "Pin your faith to gold, Marcus". Whilst there's hardly any mention of the fact that the "mob" is predominantly Jewish the description of them, and the exaggerated extrapolation of their actions (to looting and violence) is certainly troubling from an anti-Semitism point of view.

    In trying to circumvent this still-angry mob, Marcus inadvertently gets spotted by the man who led him to Jesus in the first place, who begs him to intervene to prevent him being crucified. When Marcus asks what he, one man, can do, all his friend can suggest is "You can die for him" without really explaining what that would do to help. He does lay a good guilt trip on him though. "When your world crumbles about you, you'll understand what you have done today". "Crumbles" geddit? I wonder how this is going to end...

    Two contrasting shots of hilltops (three crosses atop Golgotha versus a smoking Vesuvius) lead to a jump ten or so years into the future. Flavius is almost grown up (and played now by John Wood) and Marcus, who now runs the arena, is wearing a greyish-looking wig. Unbeknown to his father Flavius is stashing away runaway slaves, intending to transport them to an uninhabited island, before a major celebration in the arena the next day. Flavius is somewhat haunted by his memory of Jesus, an encounter his guilt-hardened father is trying to pass off as a dream.

    Things come to a head when Pontius Pilate turns up for dinner amid news that a slave has been captured who is going to reveal the hiding place of the others. Flavius refuses to "keep silent forever in the face of injustice and brutality" recalling his 'dream' of Jesus saying "You shall love your neighbour as yourself". Marcus tries to reassert his lie. Pilate cannot. Shame falls upon the two of them and suddenly everyone remembers exact quotations from their wordless encounter a decade (or five) before. Flavius returns to the slaves' hiding place, in undoubtedly the best photographed scenes of the entire film; the tight compositions and moody lighting perfectly supplementing the slaves' fear and paranoia. Flavius is accused of being a spy just as the soldiers arrive to capture them

    The re-capture of the slaves is good news however for Marcus and the rest of the town's elite, deemed a better omen than smoke from Vesuvius. The games contain the most spectacular scenes of the movie, the grand arena, replete with a giant statue of a naked soldier with only a sword to preserve his dignity. When Vesuvius 'unexpectedly' explodes, initially with all the special effects expertise of a high-school chemistry set, the statue is the first thing to go, crumbling like a sandcastle on a spin-dryer. The scenes of the eruption are spectacular, howver, not least for the sheer scale of their destructiveness. DeMille's falling masonry of 1949 has nothing on this in terms of spectacle. If these scenes could have, perhaps, used more meaningfully human interactions, then the shots of people drowning in the choppy waters as they attempt to escape the lava pouring down the hill are, nevertheless, rather chilling.

    I'm reminded of what Michael Wood ([1975] 1989: 178-182) says about "what is perhaps the most interesting of all the set scenes in the epic: the great crash." I'll quote at length (albeit abbreviating where possible).
    ...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.
    Here, in particular, the scale of this destruction is particularly suited to the story (or should it be vice-versa). Marcus starts the film care free and poor. It is only when he learns to worry about the future that he gets dragged down into immoral behavious. The message of Pompeii's destruction at the end of the film -- and it is a destruction quite in contrast to what actually happened. In real life Pompeii was preserved intact by falling lava, mud and ash; here it is levelled, destroyed by a shaking from below rather than above -- the destruction is Marcus' world being destroyed, along with his false gods and, I suppose, his idol of money. (SPOILER: Only once this happens is he liberated and able to see a vision of Jesus welcoming and accepting him with open arms. END SPOILER).

    From a historical angle the few nice historical touches (like Marcus burning a pinch of incense to the gods) do nothing to paper over the monumental gaps in the historical masonry - the gleefully disregarded for credible chronology being only one fault line among many.

    The directors of this film (Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper) came to it having had great success with King Kong (1933) and their ability to create iconic spectacle and destruction comes good again. Combining models with live action footage is again very much to the fore. The impressive nature of these few final spectacular scenes is not enough, however, to rescue the film from its tiresome, overly earnest performances and the paper-thin characterisations. The plot of Kong was so extreme that weaknesses in these areas didn't matter. But this is an epic and the demands of believable plot and half-decent characterisations are greater (albeit only a little bit greater). Making a giant gorilla both terrifying and sympathetic is one thing. Doing the same for Foster and Wood is entirely another. Ultimately last Days is more giant turkey than great ape.


    Thursday, February 16, 2017

    How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood

    Whilst the late nineties had proved a fruitful time for television and church backed projects, by the turn of the century the major studios had considered the Bible film genre was dead. The experimental period had provided some success with smaller projects, but the vitriol, and indeed threat to life, faced by the makers of Last Temptation of Christ had led them to the conclusion that any similar projects were extremely risky; if anything the Christian right which mobilised itself in response to the film had grown in size, influence and power. Yet at the same time, with falling church attendances and subject matter so significantly at odds with the zeitgeist of the new millennium, it seemed unlikely that a Biblical Epic could find a large enough audience to cover its production costs, let alone prove profitable.

    Such was the degree of scepticism that even a major Hollywood star, who had enjoyed success with an historical epic at the box office and with critics, was unable to find backing for film about the death of Jesus. Part of this was perhaps due to the uncompromising vision of Gibson's film. Rather than a family friendly, bland Jesus film such as The Greatest Story Ever Told it would be ultra violent and in a foreign language. If Hollywood Execs had even considered the possibilities for a moment, they would have swiftly dismissed the possibility of a Christian audience turning up en masse for a violent, R-rated film.

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and we now all know the end of the story. Rejected by every major studio, and no doubt a few minor ones along the way, Gibson decided to fund the project himself. He spun the studios rejection into a David and Goliath story, worked tirelessly to pitch it to church audiences and gain the support of their leaders, and, as a result, the film made a huge profit. The resulting success spawned a myriad of new Biblical Epics, both at the cinema and on television, but, as with the supposed Golden Era, whilst some proved successful many have failed to find an audience.

    In many cases this is because the studios that failed to predict The Passion's success, continued to mis-diagnose the reasons why it proved successful. Much of the failure of the subsequent films suggests that those responsible for green-lighting these projects had drawn the wrong conclusions. I want to highlight some (and I stress "some") of the reasons why The Passion did well and perhaps why subsequent releases did not.

    Fragmentation and Tribal Identities
    If 2016 taught us anything (and it seems clear that for many people it did not) it's that we're living in increasingly factionalised times, times where the different factions are not only becoming more and more distinct from those in other factions, but where each is starting to get caught in a self-reinforcing bubble, where the stories, news, beliefs and practice of those within one bubble bear very little relation to those of other factions.

    For decades filmmakers and promoters tried to try and hold the different factions together in the hope of appealing to enough of them to make their product worthwhile. What Gibson did however was to ignore very large sectors of the market in order to focus more squarely on other factions. So very few of the middle class, city-dwelling, younger audience have seen Gibson's film. Indeed I get the impression that the majority look at it with disdain. But for practising Christians from more conservative households, Gibson's uncompromising vision was exactly what they felt they had not been served by the Hollywood system.

    One of Gibson's key approaches, then, was not to bother to court the whole population, but to focus on the conservative, church-going population. He figured if he could get them on side in sufficiently large numbers then he didn't need to attract those from ourside that demographic. This was the basket into which he put all his eggs, and it paid off.

    Grassroots, word of mouth and social media
    Gibson also rejected the more traditional top-down marketing approach of spending a huge amount in buying premium media advertising space and reinforcing the message again and again. Instead he practically reinvented the grassroots campaign. Focusing in on his demographic he realised that church leaders held the key. By both dazzling them with his star power (humbly attending their conferences), focusing on their common ground (e.g. a "manly" Jesus, a traditional version of the story), building a strongly persausive case for the areas where their preferences may have differed initially (e.g. using original languages) and speaking their language ("The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film...I was just directing traffic."), he got church leaders on board. Not only were they interested in his project, but they were fully on board, convinced that this created an opportunity to forward their agenda ("an evangelistic opportunity"). Ultimately they were so convinced that not only did they encourage, and in some cases direct, their congregations to buy tickets for the film (thus doing the job of marketing) they also booked out cinemas and sold tickets en masse (thus also doing the job of sales).

    Whist this was before the advent of social media as we know it today (before the emergence of Facebook and Twitter) there was still an enormous amount of sharing on websites, blogs and discussion fora. For example, the Arts and Faith forum where I was active at the time had both a -pre-release thread and a post-release thread adding up to over 1150 posts between them. And the film's marketing team didn't need to buy advertising space in the various glossy Christian magazines, as they were all covering the film in their features sections. It was, after all, what everyone was talking about.

    Subsequent Bible filmmakers have also tried to promote their films by these routes, by emulating much of what Gibson did. Whilst it was unlikely that any film would reproduce The Passion's success, there have been very few real successes and it is notable that when the two big Bible films of 2014 were released this strategy was relegated to being only a minor player. Part of this is due to audience fatigue - as the novelty of being courted wore off each new appeal generated less interest - but also a lot of the subsequent pitches to churches failed to capture what Gibson brought. Yes some of that was the kind of star power that very few could bring, but there were other aspects of the appeal to churches that were not picked up on that might have been easier to reproduce and I want to look at one or two of those now.

    Muscular Christianity
    As alluded to above, Gibson's Jesus was a "manly" Jesus. In the run up to the film's release he talked several times about the weaknesses of previous silver-screen Christs and it was not hard to imagine that he was often referring to the slender Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (see the various quotes in my old piece "Film: A New Passion"). Instead Gibson produced the most violent Jesus film ever made and presented his hero as a figure who was not unlike the Martin Riggs character that Gibson played in Lethal Weapon (1987). Like Riggs Gibson's Jesus could suffer immense pain and yet instead of giving up would come back for more (such as the flagellation scene where Jesus defiantly drags himself to his feet after an already heavy beating). Gibson's William Wallace also comes to mind.

    What's interesting about this is that certain sections of the church have traditionally protested against sex and violence on our screens. There's an argument to say that these are not all the same groups of people, and certainly there's some truth in that. At the same time think there are many who would hold to that argument in general but would make exceptions in certain cases such as this.

    Later Bible films, like The Nativity Story (2006) reverted to the model of Bible Films as family friendly fare. It flopped. In contrast one of the few productions to take a more violent approach to the scriptures, 2013's The Bible proved more successful. It's perhaps an uncomfortable conclusion but, for me, the Passion's violence was part of the reason it was so successful with the Christian market. That might seem like a shocking thing to say, and is perhaps an uncomfortable opinion, yet the filmmakers could not have been more clear about the film's level of violence. "By the time [audiences] get to the crucifixion scene, I believe there will be many who can't take it and will have to walk out - I guarantee it" actor Jim Caviezel said as part of the film's promotion and there is a profusion of similar quotes.1 Indeed most of the claims about the film's historical accuracy were really claims about the film's 'accurate' depiction of the violence to which Jesus was subjected.

    This was a message that strong appealed to many Christians. Fed up of being seem as effeminate for following Jesus they yearned for a films such as Gibson's which reaffirmed that following Christ was not a slur on one's manhood. This leads nicely into the next reason for the film's success.

    The Religious Right's Persecution Complex
    For years now many parts of evangelical Christianity - on both sides of the Atlantic - have had something of a persecution complex. This seems to exist in spite of the fact that many Christians in other parts of the world are actually being persecuted and tortured for their faith. So the incredibly rare stories of staff being asked not to wear religious symbols, or not being allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexuality have been used to stir up tremendous feeling in the UK. In the US there's been no shortage of claims that Christianity is under attack. It's no coincidence that the most visited article on my whole blog is the one that explains that the rumours about a film being made about a gay Jesus are false.

    To an audience soaked in this mindset Gibson's tale of his struggle to find funding for his pet project struck a familiar chord. How typical of the liberal elitist Hollywood to reject such a film, and so it quickly rallied people to Gibson's "cause". A similar things happened recently with Donald Trump's ascent to the presidency. Trump played the card of Christian persecution and found an evangelical base that voted 81% in his favour. He continues to claim he is being persecuted even though he is now the most powerful man in the world.

    By pitting himself as some sort of David against an anti-Christian Hollywood Goliath, Gibson grew a huge base of support all who shared his passion to see a decent portrayal of Jesus to supplant the weak film Christs of King of Kings and Jesus Christ, Superstar. No-one really stopped to ask what kind of David had enough personal wealth to be able to sink £25 million dollars into making the film on their own. Nor what he would do with all the profit if it proved to be successful.

    What is most troubling about this reason behind the film's success is not the opposition Gibson faced initially, when trying to make the film, but the way he handled the questions people raised about the content of the film. Many, on hearing that Gibson had used Katherine Emmerich's ant-Semitic "Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ" as one of his major sources, were concerned that the film too would be anti-Semitic. Instead of listening to these voices, seeking to learn from them, act, amend any content that he'd not previously realised would prove troubling and promote the film with even greater endorsement, he chose instead to go to war. He again played the persecution card, marking out those who questioned the film's potential for anti-Semitism as a powerful enemy when they lacked even a fraction of the resources he possessed. Sadly this further rallied many parts of the church to his defence, many of whom failed even to see the significant difference between the words in scripture and the interpretation of those words in a film. Buying a ticket for the film became seen as a way of supporting Gibson, and by extension the Bible, against those who would criticise it.

    Supernatural Endorsement
    One other thing which is notable about the marketing of this film, which has tended to be absent in later biblical films is the way Gibson used different forms of supernatural endorsement for his film. This is in fact nothing new and goes back to several of the Jesus films from the silent era. DeMille for example used some of the self-same methods. There are at least four different strands here.

    Firstly there are the claims for inspiration. The most famous is Gibson's claim "The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic"2. Even at the time I remember there being debate about whether this was a 'pitch' or Gibson's genuine belief (and perhaps it was both), but certainly it had the effect of persuading people that it was something they should go and see. Enough people believed the film was, in some way God inspired.

    Secondly there were the accounts of miracles as well as what will have sounded, to many, as attacks from the enemy. The most memorable of these are the claims that twice people were struck by lightning during the filming of the crucifixion (including leading actor Jim Caviezel). In previous generations that might have been seen as God being against the film rather than in favour of it, but here the fact that one of them "just got up and walked away" was taken as evidence that God was protecting the cast and crew.3. In the same piece Gibson also talked about "people being healed of diseases".4

    The third way, which also crops up in on of the pieces that was circulated long before the film's release, is the mention of conversions during filming. "Everyone who worked on this movie was changed. There were agnostics and Muslims on set converting to Christianity".5 this ties in with Gibson's hope that the film would have the "power to evangelise"6. This later theme was picked up by church leaders who began to market the film, on Gibson's behalf, as an evangelistic tool.

    Lastly there is that infamous almost-endorsement by the Pope. Whether or not the Pope really said "It is as it was" and the story behind the quotes hasty retraction is irrelevant, that became the story and the endorsement of it from the church's high office. Even though the majority of those buying tickets may not have been Roman Catholics, the words attributed to the Pope became gospel and even if he didn't actually say them, his team weren't fighting too desperately to retract them. This combined with Gibson's unsubstantiated claims for historical accuracy gave the film further credibility - a crucial criterion for many evangelicals.

    In addition to these three factors there are also three further lessons that could be picked up from The Passion's success.

    The Growing Christian Audience
    Gibson's genius was to realise that there was a growing Christian audience out there who would respond positively to the right product. This audience had not had a great deal of specifically tailored quality content in the years leading up to The Passion's release and it's questionable as to whether they've had a great deal of it since. America's culture wars and the emergence of a more vocal form of Christianity, prepared to show its loyalty to the brand had created a growing, and in some ways new, market. Whilst many of the films that have subsequently sought to exploit that market have failed, a greater number have succeeded than ever did before.

    Diminishing Influence of (Liberal) Experts
    One of the quotes that so typified the Brexit debate in the UK was the pronouncement of the (then) Lord Chancellor Michael Gove that the "people in this country have had enough of experts". With similar sentiments being felt on the other side of the Atlantic as well it reminds me of how many people spoke out about the more problematic aspects of the film (the excessive violence, the anti-Semitism, etc.) without causing any change in the final film, or any significant impact on its box office success. The not-at-that-point disgraced Ted Haggard's claim that the film "conveys, more accurately than any other film, who Jesus was"7 was repeated far more times than those of biblical scholars, with their expert knowledge of the gospels and the world in which Jesus lived and ministered. Many objections by those who had a greater knowledge of the relevant issues were waved away in the rush to endorse such a powerful evangelistic tool. The article I had written for a Christian magazine weighing the pros and cons of the forthcoming film (available here), for example, was dropped at the last minute for one talking about how it was going to usher thousands of new converts to Christianity. Not that I'm bitter (I am).

    Diminishing Influence of Film Critics
    Not unrelated to the above, a pattern has emerged subsequently in the Christian press surrounding the release of major new Bible films. When such a film is released numerous Christian magazines turn not to their in-house film critic, or even to an experienced Christian film critic, but to a popular/influential leader and/or speaker instead who will give their opinions on the likelihood of the film "reaching" those outside the church or how the film coincides with their own personal idea of what Jesus was like.

    But this is not just a problem with the church. In the decade and a bit since the release of the film it has become increasingly clear that the majority of people don't really care, or even agree with, what film critics say. Few, if any, of the top performing films at the box office will appear on critics' end of year lists and whilst Oscar nominations will boost a film's earnings, they are hardly a predictor for financial success (and many critics look down on the Oscar nominations which the general population often considers too highbrow). Back in early 2004 critics were not exactly expecting great things from The Passion. The studios valued such opinions then and perhaps even shared them. Today they would be unlikely to take them seriously. Film critics no longer have the power to derail a movie let alone one with the power to evangelise.

    1 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News - A very violent 'Passion' (reproduced here). January 26, 2003.
    2 - Kamon Simpson - Colorado Springs Gazette - "Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders" - June 28, 2003
    3 - Holly McClure - New York Daily News - A very violent 'Passion' (reproduced here). January 26, 2003.
    4 - Holly McClure - ibid.
    5 - Kamon Simpson - Colorado Springs Gazette - "Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders" - June 28, 2003
    6 - Kamon Simpson - ibid.
    7 - Kamon Simpson - ibid.


    Wednesday, February 08, 2017

    The Characteristics of the Biblical Epic: Part 1 - What the Experts Say

    This is the second in a series looking at the Biblical Epic Genre
    In my last post in this series I was looking at the arguments for and against there being a Biblical Epic genre. In this posts I want to consider what the defining characteristics of that genre might be if it is to be accepted that said genre exists.

    Wood (1989: 173) describes how the "ancient world of the epics was a huge, many-faceted metaphor for Hollywood itself" and how the heroes of these films are not Moses or Ben-Hur, but DeMille and Wyler. For him one of the key characteristics is the "myth of excess" (1989: 174). He also lists several others:
    "The basic elements of the epic seem to run from the minor ones like the music....to relatively major ones like certain sturdy , straight-faced acting styles to absolutely essential elements like the big scenes (the orgy, the ceremonial entry into the city, the great battle, the individual combat, and where possible, a miracle or two) and the big, earthshaking themes." (Wood 1989: 175).
    Wood is writing about the epic genre in general however, rather than the Biblical Epic specifically so some of these may be less essential than others.

    Like Wood, Grace (2009) is also concerned with a broader genre, only in her case it is the "Hagiopic" (a religious biopic which could be set in a relatively modern era such as 1943's The Song of Bernadette) rather than the (historical) epic. She lists "several of the most striking characteristics of the traditional hagiopic" as follows:
    "...the typical locations, characters, and sounds; the genre-specific interweaving of chronological tome and a sense of eternity; the concern with suffering; the miracles and the sense of the nearness of the heavenly realm; the nostalgia for an earlier era; and the depiction of persecution and painful death of an innocent person. There are also generic narrative patterns. One typical narrative element involves sceptics, doubters, or cynical characters, who make snide comments about religious belief near the beginning of the film, only to be proved wrong at the end..." Grace (2009: 13)
    In contrast Babington and Evans (1993: 4) take a different approach, dividing the genre into "three sub-types of film: the Old Testament Epic; The Christ Film; and the Roman/Christian Epic" they do also note a few characteristics that cover all three genres. For example, "every production is a 'unique', costly, much-advertised affair" (1993: 6). Related to that is that "the genre only exists in the superlative mode" (1993: 6). One further characteristic were the "pressures towards conformity and ecumenical blandness" (1993: 8).

    They also note the contradictory attitudes of fascination and repulsion towards the (supposedly) heightened sexual content and the manner in which, typically, neither of which is ultimately fulfilled (1993: 11). This is similar to the more frequently discussed technique, popularised by DeMille, of dressing up the wolf of a greater amount of sexual content, in the sheep's clothing of a pious moral message and biblical content.

    Ultimately Babington and Evans list the following as the key characteristics of each of these sub-genres:

    The Old Testament Epic
    Culture heroes/villains, (50)
    Contemporary allusion, (53)
    American matters [i.e. parallels], (55)
    The battle of the gods , (57)
    Patterns of scepticism, (58)
    Spectacle (60)
    Law and Orgy (65)

    The Christ Film
    Miracles, (103)
    The Resurrection, (105
    The Jews, (105)
    The women, (107)

    The Roman/Christian Epic
    Shadow of the Galilean [i.e. Jesus Cameo only], (179)
    Prologues to what is possible, (181)
    Prologue into plot, (185)
    Christianity & Romantic love, (197)
    The Disappearing Jew, (199)
    Earthly powers, (202)

    There isn't really space here to go into the definitions of each of these, but it's worth pointing out how different these characteristics are of these more specific sub-genres.

    In his recent work "Hollywood Biblical Epics" (2015) Richard Lindsay is mainly concerned with the one obvious characteristic of biblical epics that no-one else seems to mention – camp.
    "...a good story, a romance of biblical proportions, push the boundaries of spectacle and special effects, let them see the events of biblical history played out on the big screen as a grand pageant --furthermore, in the hypnotic-suggestive state of movie watching..." Lindsay (2015: xxi-xxii)
    Lindsay also cites the work of Douglas K. Mikkelson (2004) on the "silver screen gospels", most notably The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Mikkelson lists three criteria for such films:

    1 - "The film's main focus is to present a dramatized biography of Jesus in his historical time and place"
    2 - "The film is based on one or more of the New Testament Gospels"
    3 - The film must have been "released as a major motion picture or a major television movie"

    Surprisingly the only author I'm aware of who tries to systematically lay out the main criteria is Adele Reinhartz in her chapter "The Biblical Epic" in last year's "The Bible in Motion" (2016: 179-182). She lists the following four characteristics:

    1 - Scope and Scale,
    2 - Allusionism,
    3 - Romance, and
    4 - Markers of Biblical Authenticity

    She then takes a closer look at two further "features", "adapting the Bible to film" and “'then as now,' that is, the use of the past to reflect on the present" (2016: 184) where she examines the treatment of: gender, science and medicine, civil rights, cold war America, communism, atheism and idolatry, and epic religion.

    In a future post I'm going to propose my own criteria, based on the wealth of ideas above but also my own thoughts on the matter.

    - Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    - 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.
    - Mikkelson, Douglas K. (2004) "The Greatest Story Ever Told": A Silver-Screen Gospel". Lanham, MD ; Oxford: University Press of America
    - Reinhartz, Adele (2016), 'The Biblical Epic', in Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (ed.), The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of Biblical Reception in Film, vol. 1, 175-92, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter
    - Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press


    Wednesday, February 01, 2017

    Is There a 'Biblical Epic' Genre?

    This is the first in a series looking at the Biblical Epic genre
    I want to look at the question of if there is a 'Biblical Epic' genre? It's a question where it's tempting to jump to snap answers, but on closer inspection the issues blur a little. Certainly if the genre 'Biblical Epic' exists then the case is less clear cut than, say the 'Musical' genre, but that shouldn't necessarily mean that the answer to the question is a 'no'. After all, every genre is a little fuzzy around the edges. So I'm going to discuss some of the possible reasons why this might not be a legitimate genre and then mop up a few other points from there.

    Biblical epics are grouped together because of their common source, rather than on the basis of cinematic common ground
    I can certainly see the appeal of this point however I think three points should be made in response. Firstly, that whilst this objection might hold for all biblical films, the biblical epic is a smaller subset of that overall group. Godspell is clearly a biblical film, but many would argue that it is not a biblical epic. Secondly, whilst this genre is unique in this respect, many other genres share a common conglomeration of sources. Musicals are largely adaptions of Broadway shows. War films are usually based on the accounts of those who fought in these modern conflicts. Films Noir often come from 'pulp fiction' novels. Admittedly this is not quite the same, but neither is the point entirely irrelevant. Finally, whilst biblical epics do share the common ground of the biblical narratives, often what sprouts from it has been uprooted and replanted several times before it reaches us. Ben-Hur, to name but one example, is undoubtedly a biblical epic, but its links to the gospels are very slight indeed. Really it's an adaptation of nineteenth century historical fiction.

    Biblical epics are really just a sub-division of historical epics
    ...but then they are just a sub-division of all historical films (i.e. films not set in the present or future) and yet the differences between a 40s-era romance and a biblical epic are clearly considerable. It's true that these things can divide and divide - Babington and Evans, for example, divide the biblical epic into three further sub-groupings - however this is relatively consistent with genre theory which focuses on what different films hold in common and what audience expectations are. The audience for 300 would not have the same appetite for The Nativity Story (2006) as they would for Robin Hood (2010) for example. Their expectations from what each of those films would deliver is quite different.

    Overlap with other genres
    It can be argued that certain biblical epics also clearly meet the criteria for another genre. Jesus Christ, Superstar is a musical. Various adaptations of Noah qualify as disaster movies. The observation has been made several times that The Passion of the Christ is heavily reliant on the horror genre.

    However, this is not unique to the biblical epic genre. There are various westerns that are also musicals. The crossover between the woman's picture and film noir is frequently discussed, not to mention all those science fiction disaster movies. So this is just what we would expect, often resulting in some of the films around the fringes of one particular genre meeting the criteria for another.

    What arguments are there in favour of a biblical epic genre?
    The classic understanding of genre is that whilst the auteur theory centres around the filmmakers' perspective, genre theory is all to do with the audience. Genres function as a signpost for the potential audience to quickly understand the kind of film they are likely to see. A film of a particular genre will meet certain expectations. Some of these expectations might be subverted, but essentially the audience will broadly know what to expect. As James Monaco (2000: 300), looking back at the fifties and sixties when genres and biblical epics were both in their heyday, puts it:
    The elements were well known: there was a litany to each popular genre. Part of their pleasure lay in seeing how those basic elements would be treated this time around.1
    If this is, indeed, the key point then clearly biblical epics meet this criterion. Fans of biblical epics know the kind of thing they are going to get. Indeed, if anything it was the genre's failure to adapt and subvert itself that lead to the 'death' of the genre in the late sixties.

    The other classic definition of genre is that it is essentially a gathering together of a group of films with common characteristics. This essentially cuts both ways. On the one hand if this was the sole criterion then a certain group of films could indeed be grouped together and called a biblical epic, or whatever someone wanted. However this can also be seen as a weakness as it does rather undermine the whole premise. If there is little more to genre than a subjective grouping of films based on perceived similarities, then what exactly is the point? Suffice to say, that this is where the second element comes in, that of audience expectations and marketeers' shorthand. Indeed some argue that the point of genres is their predictability. "(T)here are a limited and predictable range of features; where characters and events are more predictable and where our expectations are more likely to be fulfilled" (Phillips 1999: 166).

    In a future post I'm going to look at what some of those characteristics might be for the biblical epic genre and later still I hope to look at a few more modern biblical epics to see if the genre characteristics of the traditional epics still hold in the twenty-first century.

    - Monaco, James ([1981] 2000), How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, Multimedia, Third Edition, New York: Oxford University Press
    - Phillips, Patrick ([1996] 1999), 'Genre, Star and Auteur - Critical Approaches to Hollywood Cinema' in Jill Nelmes (ed.), An Introduction to Film Studies, Second Edition, 161-208, New York: Routledge


    Thursday, January 26, 2017

    La Vie de Jesus (1997)

    The title of Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jesus (The Life of Jesus, 1997) may catch the eye of those like me, but its biblical themes are far more subtle than the title would immediately suggest.

    La Vie de Jesus is about Freddy, a rebellious teenager from a deprived area of rural France. He hangs out with his mates, has sex with his girlfriend (Marie), moans at his mum and plays the drums for his marching band. He also has a form of epilepsy which limits his employment possibilities and leaves him reliant on his mates to go out.

    Whilst the film caused a degree of controversy when it was first released for his close-ups of penetrative sex, it's actually the racism of Freddy and his mates that proves the most uncomfortable. Yet when the group of them racially abuse, what they assume is, an Arab family, the son (Kader) decides to try and woo Marie - an act that eventually leads to him being beaten by Freddy and his mates and left by the side of the road.

    There are three Jesus-related images in the film which gran the attention and remind us of its enigmatic title. The first is as the brother of one of Freddy's friends lies dying in the hospital. Another friend spots a painting of the resurrection of Lazarus and tries to draw Freddy's attention to it. "Have you seen the picture" the friend asks "its the story of a guy who came back to life". "Shut up" Freddy replies. There's seemingly no place amongst this group of friends for Jesus the bringer of life.

    Yet a little unexpectedly it's a shot of the beaten and bloody Kader that provides the film's next Jesus-esque image and we're reminded that Jesus was not the one that we/they expect(d). He was a despised outsider. That said, shortly afterwards there's a shot of Freddy (above) that also seems to chime with traditional images of Jesus.

    A friend of mine, Mike Leary, has written a short piece on this film and its use of the name Jesus in the book "Light Shining in a Dark Place" and the relevant section can currently be read on Google books.


    Saturday, January 21, 2017

    Le Fils de Joseph (2016)
    (The Son of Joseph)

    This essay isn't so much of a review as a look at some of the film's main themes. As such it will contain spoilers though there are not any particularly shocking twists that would be spoilt by what I discuss below. It's also very much a work-in-progress,so please don't judge it too harshly...

    Eugéne Green's Le Fils de Joseph is a Bible film but, crucially, neither a biblical epic nor a typical modernisation of the Nativity accounts. Instead of taking those two more well-trodden routes it opts for a different approach that is quite distinct from any other biblical adaptation I can recall. Instead Green's film explores the story via a modernised story of Vincent a teenage boy who begins the process of discovering who is father is. Whilst for a moment Green toys with his audience to suggest that there might be some kind of supernatural element to his birth, it quickly becomes apparent that, far from being divine, his father is not even a particularly good human.

    At the same time Le Fils de Joseph is far more than just an off-beat modern-day story with familiarly named characters. Instead it examines issues of fatherhood, divinity and parentlessness on a number of different levels, enhanced by a technical formalism which underpins these different elements.

    Firstly there is the way the film is divided into five acts, each of which is named according to a different biblical story as follows:

    I - The Sacrifice of Abraham
    II - The Golden Calf
    III - The Sacrifice of Isaac
    IV - The Carpenter
    V - The Flight into Egypt

    This is a relatively unusual formal element, made all the more notable by the fact that two of these intertitles are named after the story of Abraham and Isaac, and one after the Israelite's exodus from Egypt, rather than Mary and Joseph. They're also one of a number of ways in which the film references the work of Jean Luc Godard, whose own modernisation of the Nativity, Je vous Salue (Hail Mary, 1985) was a more straightforward, and perhaps less successful, adaptation of the narratives about Jesus' birth.

    Other formal elements of the piece however would appear to owe more to the work of other French filmmakers, most notably the work of Robert Bresson, whom Green acknowledges as a major influence.1 The second aspect, and perhaps the one that has been most remarked on by reviewers, is the manner in which the characters frequently speak or stare directly into the camera.

    Whilst not a few films allow their leading characters to speak into the camera, it is relatively rare that the majority of the lead characters do so. Interestingly, this is done in such a way that leaves the question open to interpretation as to whether the characters/actors are meant to be aware of the camera. There are no Alvy Singer / Frank Underwood moments when characters knowingly address the camera, but at certain times, certain characters seem to sense it without specifically interacting with it. This technique itself brings a level of meaning; the viewer observes from a position with some echoes of divinity - on the one hand present yet unable to intervene or interact with the characters. Likewise the characters sense our presence but do not interact with us.

    Thirdly, the actors often hold their poses in a certain way and underplay their acting style. Rather than pacing around set and twisting and turning to indicate their passion or emotions, generally they more or less remain standing on the same spot throughout a scene. They tone down the use of their limbs and keep their facial expressions relatively non-demonstrative. As in Bresson's work is a refusal to tell the viewer what to think, leave it instead to the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the character's thoughts and emotions. As Green has explained it's also about enabling the viewer "to see more deeply into the reality of the present....you have to take your time...I want to take the time to go into what is hidden behind the appearance of reality."2

    Finally, by keeping the actors' relatively stationary, Green is able to repeat the same sequence of shot types numerous times throughout the film, most notably for dialogue where he typically starts with a mid-length two shot of the characters, before alternating over-the shoulder shots which gradually edge forward until they become close-ups. Often the sequence will end up on a mid-shot again, without the characters appearing to have moved. Alternatively the sequence ends on a close up that is held for several seconds with the character starring into the camera.

    These techniques are consistent throughout the film and, as we have seen, provide one of the levels with which the film addresses its themes. The other levels, however, appear less consistently and in many places intersect with one another.

    The most obvious of these is the plot. Vincent has been brought up by his mother, Marie, in the knowledge that he doesn't have a father. One day however he opens Marie's desk and find a letter she sent to his father that was returned. When Marie refuses to give him any more details he tracks down his father, Oscar Pormenor, who is now a successful publisher. Later Vincent sneaks into Oscar's office, witnesses first-hand his father's philandering and disregard for his other children, and proceeds to attack him. But in fleeing the scene he has a chance encounter with Oscar's brother Joseph. The two become friends and together with Marie they flee to the country. Given this is a film about Mary and Joseph made by a Bresson fan it's perhaps no surprise that the final, and most iconic, scene features a journey with a seemingly watchful donkey.

    Attached to this basic structure are a number of individual conversations, particularly in Act i, which revolve around different facets of absent parents, in quite oblique ways - one of Vincent's friends is selling his sperm on the internet; his mother, who is a nurse, has to care for a young girl whose father has just been killed in a car accident; Vincent's father has obvious pride in his literary son, writer Mathieu Orfraie; Oscar and Joseph's conversation about their own judgemental father; Vincent and Joseph have various conversations about the biblical characters Joseph ("Through his son he became a father") and Abraham ("God didn't ask him to [sacrifice his son]. The voice he heard was his own."); and the pair watch the performance of a 17th century song written after the death of the author's son.

    Then there are all the small almost incidental references the film makes. Most obviously in this respect is the naming of Vincent's mother as Marie and of his "adopted" father Joseph. But many more exist far more fleetingly. Early on a shop banner reveals its name to be Pere & Fils, Orfraie's book is called "The Predatory Mother". Then there's the way that when Vincent first spots Pormenor he is wearing a red scarf and later on in the film Vincent mirrors that by wearing one himself. In a later scene Green captures a two shot of Vincent and Joseph both with the sweater tied around their neck in identical ways (above) - they are a mirror image, but together and now united on the same size.

    Surprisingly, the biggest "reference" makes in the film has nothing to do with Mary and Joseph. Caravaggio's painting "The Sacrifice of Isaac" (1603) plays a pivotal role in the film. A large copy of it is displayed on Vincent's wall and early in the film it features prominently in a discussion between Vincent and Marie, often with the shot arranged to make it, rather than Mary, the focus of attention. Green allows his audience plenty of time to take the painting in, as he wants them "to be able to have the same experience as they [the characters looking at the paintings] do".3

    When the scene ends Vincent takes a long stare at this image, which we are given as a point-of-view shot, and at the end of the act we see a shot which superimposes Vincent putting handcuffs around his wrists in the foreground with the Caravaggio in the background. Clearly the image forms part of his motivation in the following scene for his attack on his biological father. Pormenor, like Isaac, is bound (by those same handcuffs), gagged (using the aforementioned red scarf) and laid horizontal awaiting an attack that never comes. Vincent brandishes his knife and seemingly has every intention of going through with it (below). The only difference, aside from the role reversal, is that the angel that prevents Abraham from striking in Caravaggio's work is not depicted in Green's. Similarly, the second act - named "The Golden Calf" because it has become clear that Oscar cares far more for his literary prodigies than he does for his biological children - ends with another point-of-view shot of the painting. This time the camera moves slowly leading the eye towards Isaac's distorted face before panning back towards the angel and then back again to ending on a close up of the knife. The camera works in a similar fashion when the scene is re-enacted by Vincent, only rather than taking it in one continuous shot, Green uses cuts, making the experience more abrupt and shocking and replaces the angel with a shot of the closed door.

    Of course, whilst the title and subject matter of the film may prime the audience to expect Vincent to be a Christ figure, this scene confirms that this is not Green's intention here. Not only is this not how a Christ figure is expected to behave, but the film makes no explicit attempt to link Vincent to Jesus aside from the names of his mother and his adopted father. Whilst early in the film Marie says to Vincent "You have no father." it soon becomes clear that this is not meant in a literal sense. Furthermore there are no Christ figure poses, halos, sacrificial acts, pseudo miracles or people revering Vincent in some way, indeed quite the reverse. In the film's opening scene, Vincent leaves two of his friends as they torture a rat. One asks where Vincent has gone. "He's weird." replies the other. In the next Vincent takes a long walk straight towards the camera in a shot laced with an ominously meaningful-looking aura. But just as he opens his mouth, as if to make some profound utterance, a passing cyclist accidentally clips Vincent's rucksack and the profound moment is gone. This is not what audiences of biblical films have come to expect.

    If Vincent is not to be associated with Jesus, then it's tempting to align him with Isaac. Jesus, of course, had no earthly father; Isaac may have wished he also had not. Both were children who were subject to their father's desire for sacrifice. The use of Caravaggio's painting and the titles of acts i and iii ("The Sacrifice of Abraham" / "The Sacrifice of Isaac") may suggest that this is a more of a role reversal however with Vincent, the abandoned son, taking revenge on his errant father.

    These themes sit neatly alongside the two other paintings that feature prominently in the film. Indeed for Ben Kenigsberg of the New York Times, Green's films "draw as much on architecture, paintings, music and theater as on cinema".4 In the fourth act Joseph takes Vincent to the Louvre where the pair are shown looking at Georges de La Tour's "St. Joseph the Carpenter" and Philippe de Champaigne's "The Dead Christ on his Shroud". The first portrays Joseph (who bears a striking resemblance to the Abraham of the Caravaggio painting) with a young Jesus in his carpentry shop. As the filmic Joseph explains to Vincent the drill is in "the shape of a cross, to remind us how Jesus will die". The second shows us the aftermath of the crucifixion with the dead Jesus stretched out, his sacrifice complete. In the latter image Jesus' hand rests on his loincloth as if to draw attention to his 'humanity'.

    Throughout his career Green has been heavily influenced by the Baroque period and the idea of the hidden God who only appears "in certain moments when the natural moments of nature were suspended".5 Much of his interest, which goes back over to 40 years ago when he founded le Théâtre de la Sapience partly to perform Baroque productions, lies in the manner in which Baroque thought "gives a possibility to live in the modern world with a spiritual life".6 In addition to the three paintings that are so prominently featured, then, there is also a pivotal scene where Joseph takes Vincent to see a piece of Baroque theatre. After the trip to the Louvre the pair enter a church where a classical singer accompanied by a lute perform a version of The Lament of Euryalus's mother from Virgil's Aenid.7. This time it's an expression of another parent-child relationship a mother expressing the loss of her son. It's significant, then, that in the next scene Vincent is seen at home in his mother's company for the first time since Act 2. Having returned home Vincent decides to introduce her to his adopted father.

    Yet despite the depth of issues the film explores it remains surprisingly comic in tone, just one of the many departures from traditional biblical epics. Variety described it as a "mirthful contemporary remix of the Nativity story",8 the New York Times noted its "throwaway humor"9 and the Phoenix Cinema summed it up nicely as "A delightful and enjoyably off-beat comedy of misplaced paternity".10

    Indeed whilst the films humour comes and goes, it's usually used to make a point. At the beginning of the film Green shows us a shot of the high street where two people focusing on their phones unexpectedly crash into one another. Green has spoken about his concerns that "we live in a world in which the present doesn't exist. If you go out on the street you see people with their mobile phones...they have no contact with their present. But the present is the most important time".11

    The funniest scenes revolve around the literary world which Green, as an author of books has experienced first hand. In particular the scenes at the launch party for Mathieu Orfraie's book which satirises literary reviewers in much the same way Denys Arcand mocked film and television critics in Jesus d'Montreal. Vincent, for example, meets one self-aggrandising critic who, assuming he must be an author, proceeds to tell him how Oscar has told her he is "brilliant". It's not only a swipe at literary criticism, but it also reminds us ironically that Oscar has not even acknowledged his son Vincent, let alone made plans to publish his novel.

    Oscar is a comic-tragic figure. Despite having no interest in his children and cheating on his wife, Oscar believes himself to be "a man of principle", merely bored by the "details" of how many children he has. His chief principle however seems to be refusing to help his, once-errant, brother. It's a judgement that prompts Joseph's to reply "I hope you reap the fruits of your virtue", (a prophecy is fulfilled just moments later when Vincent knocks him to the ground and puts a knife to his throat). "Pormenor" is an ironically chosen name which translates as "details", which Green has explained is because whilst "he thinks that everything that's important is a detail" ultimately it is he who "turns out to be a detail".12 Significantly, we are told that Joseph did not take this surname, and that neither did Marie give it to Vincent.

    Since Oscar is Vincent's true father who leaves a man called Joseph to do his fathering for him, it raises the question of whether Oscar is meant to represent God. Certainly the distant father who having brought his child(ren) into existence then has nothing to do with him (them) close to the deist idea of a non-intervening god which is so critical to deist thought. However, whilst he may be the biological father of Mary's 'fatherless' child, that child, as we have seen above, is neither a modernised Jesus or Christ figure. Green's films are marked by this love of paradox and ambiguity. As Green himself has said, “Cinema is the place where the materiality of the world and the sacred, the visible and the invisible meet”.13 It's a quote that goes back to at least 2014's La Sapienza but it deftly captures the paradoxes and contradictions that lie at the heart of Le Fils de Joseph. It's a film where the world that is portrayed is not quite the world we live in. Instead its a world that tells us far more about our own world and makes us yearn to meet the hidden God even if only at the end of our journey.

    1 - http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/

    2 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    3 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    4 - https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/movies/the-son-of-joseph-review.html?nlid=73642489&_r=1
    5 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    6 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    7 - Vergil, Aeneid 9.460-524
    8 - http://variety.com/2016/film/reviews/le-fils-de-joseph-review-1201705952/
    9 - https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/movies/the-son-of-joseph-review.html?nlid=73642489&_r=1
    10 - "The Son of Joseph". Online synopsis from Phoenix Cinema http://www.phoenix.org.uk/film/the-son-of-joseph/ - accessed 12 Jan 2017
    11 - Interview with Green at the Film Society Lincoln Centre - the Close Up podcast
    12 - http://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/feature/2016-10-13-eugene-green-in-conversation-on-son-of-joseph-le-fils-de-joseph-feature-story-by-anne-katrin-titze
    13 - http://isalyinnroadtripblues.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/blog-post_27.html