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Concerning The Passion

Posted by acdtest on August 12, 2003

Concerning The Passion

ecently under way is a new round of an old criticism of the yet-to-be-released Mel Gibson film, The Passion, chronicling the last twelve days of Jesus’s life, again charging that the film’s treatment of Jesus’s trial and his subsequent crucifixion is all but certain to give rise to a new wave of Christ-killer anti-Semitism. One wonders what the film’s critics would want done concerning this film which Gibson has reportedly declared will, in strict accordance with the New Testament Gospel accounts, “…lay the blame for the death of Christ where it belongs” (i.e., squarely at the feet of the Jews of the time). Stop its distribution? Let its distribution take place, but convince Gibson to omit in the film the Gospels’ account of the ordered arrest and trial of Jesus by a committee of the Sanhedrin (at which trial, according to the Gospels, Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy, and subsequently turned over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate for execution based on a misleadingly worded charge)? Convince Gibson to invent a new story of how Jesus came before Pilate, and was sentenced to death by him, that doesn’t involve, as the Gospels have it, the complicity and instigation of members of the Jewish hierarchy of the time, and even, in some accounts, the Jewish population at large?

Consider, please, there are but two near-contemporary documents that have come down to us that report these events and their attendant details, and which are all we have by way of near-contemporary witness on the matter: The New Testament Gospels, and a brief mention by the not-always-to-be-trusted Jewish historian Flavius Josephus whose brief remarks are in agreement with the Gospel accounts. And while I — a down-to-the-bone Jew, and a Kohan to boot (an automatic-by-inheritance member of the Jewish priesthood whose lineage traces back to Moses’s brother Aaron, the first Kohan) — in no way hold the New Testament Gospel accounts to be inerrant, I’ve no problem at all considering them authentic historical documents, and at least possible legitimate sources of actual historical fact.

The reports in all three so-called “synoptic” Gospels of the New Testament of the ordered arrest of Jesus by, and his subsequent trial before, an extraordinarily convened committee of the highest members of the Sanhedrin (the supreme ruling Jewish council of the time, adjudicators of all matters religious and legal), as well as that extraordinarily convened committee’s finding Jesus guilty of blasphemy in a kangaroo-court style hearing, and their ultimately turning him over to the Roman authority (Pilate) for the purpose of having carried out the capital sentence demanded by the offense but which by Roman provincial law was forbidden the Sanhedrin to carry out itself, are all in basic agreement on the essential details, and I see little reason to not accept those reports as being at least historically plausible. That, of course, is not the same as saying the reports are true. It’s saying merely that, in the absence of reliable historical evidence to the contrary, those reports ought to be treated as at least provisionally true. Unless, of course, one places no trust in the basic honesty of the reporters.

So, should any trust by other than believing Christians (who accept as a matter of faith that everything written in the New Testament is not only true, but inerrant) be placed in the basic honesty of the Gospel writers (all of whom were anonymous and only later assigned the names by which we now know them)?

It would seem, on the best available evidence, that all three New Testament synoptic Gospel writers were basically honest Christians telling the story as it was known to them. None were scholars or historians, and, with the exception of the writer called Luke who was a fully educated man, even somewhat illiterate, or at least naïve-of-craft writers, and one of the telling signs of their basic honesty is that they all include incidents in their relating of events that a theologue, evangelizer, or mythologizer would have taken great pains to conceal; incidents, for instance, that cast some of the apostles themselves in a most dubious light indeed.

Another is that even though their relating of the events of Jesus’s life was addressed principally to those Jews (the majority) who had not accepted Jesus as the Christ,* as well as for the guidance of those Jews who had (i.e., Christians), they included much that would be seen by Jews of the time as decidedly antagonistic. The very last thing these writers would have done were they dishonest men is, for instance, include material that attacked a Jewish hierarchy (the Sanhedrin) that, as a body, was held in great esteem by the overwhelming majority of Jews, as well as include material that portrayed at least a fair number of the general Jewish population as a mob of bloodthirsty savages. Or if including it all because well known at the time and therefore impossible to omit, would have taken substantial pains to in some way mitigate.

But include it these writers did, and with no discernable attempt at mitigation. The fairly clear inference is that they included it all unvarnished because they were intent on telling the story accurately as it was known to them, and to the at-large Christian community of the time.

In consideration of all this, it seems clear to me that the Gospel writers’ basic honesty is largely to be trusted, and their reports of events at least plausible historically. It seems further clear to me that in the absence of any reliable historical evidence to the contrary, one ought to provisionally accept the reports of these writers as being essentially (as opposed to in every small detail) true no matter how inconvenient such acceptance may be. And if perverse use of that provisional truth puts a weapon into the hands of anti-Semites then one deals with the anti-Semites, one does not alter what, at least plausibly, appears to be the truth. For a Jew especially, to do otherwise would be a betrayal of our millennia-old traditions of dedicated scholarship and ethical teachings; traditions that, in the secular sphere, are the very ground of our identity as a unique and indispensable people.

And so the answer in this matter of the Gibson film seems clear to me as well: If necessary, kill all the anti-Semites whenever and wherever they surface (or even if not necessary, for that matter; it’s never a bad idea), but save blameless the apparent truth and its messengers, even though that truth be only provisional because based on a merely plausible telling rather than on incontrovertible and verifiable historical fact.

*The Gospels were also in some measure addressed to the Roman powers that were, but on political grounds; ergo, the largely sympathetic to the Romans treatment of the story involving the cruel and ruthless Pilate, and his historically thoroughly implausible reluctance to find Jesus, a Jew, guilty of any crime.

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Should I Feel Ashamed?

Posted by acdtest on April 23, 2003

Should I Feel Ashamed?

ast night, ABC, using a splendid if at times over-color-saturated film-to-tape transfer, aired its biennial Passover/Easter season showing of the legendary Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. This almost half-century-old movie — a standout example in the long tradition of Hollywood spectacles that had its American beginnings in cinema’s infancy with the great D. W. Griffith’s two seminal works, Birth of a Nation, and Intolerance — has held up surprisingly well over time, and as is the case in most years it’s aired on ABC, I was last night among the audience tuning in.

Even given my generally snotty tastes in cinema, that’s hardly surprising as I’ve had something of an obsession with this movie ever since its 1956 release; an aberration which was for me a source of some little embarrassment.

Well, O.K., some major embarrassment.

In my crowd, at the time, the lingua franca of cinema discussion was the films of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and while one might have been able to screw up enough courage to admit to liking a movie by, say, Alfred Hitchcock, or one of the several Frog directors, even though such an admission would be good for at least a month’s worth of snide remarks and jokes at the confessor’s expense, to admit to liking a movie by DeMille, and one of his God-and-sex biblical epics no less, was an admission so reckless and fraught with peril that something other than mere courage was required. Something like, you know, wanton stupidity.

As already noted, however, I was obsessed with this movie, and so, mildly ashamed though I was, admit to it I did, and in consequence suffered banishment from our cinema roundtable until a plea of temporary insanity permitted me to again join the conversation.

But the roundtable knew only the half of it. Or to be more accurate, only the hundredth of it. For in the first two years of the movie’s release, I saw it — in the theater, and by actual count — 103 times, even traveling to out-of-town locations whenever that became necessary. By the end of that period I knew the dialogue, every word of it, verbatim and by heart, and knew, too, every miniscule fault of production, and even the faults of various release prints, as well as I knew my own body’s birthmarks.

Well, there’s no precise accounting for obsessions and the layered, byzantine, and mostly unconscious thought processes which provoke them. But those 100-plus viewings aside, should I really have felt so ashamed of liking this movie as much as I did, and in fact still do?

Consider the script, for instance. Although the dialogue has its share of embarrassing lapses — most often when it quotes verbatim and with cloying sanctitude from the King James version of the Hebrew Bible, or when it’s trying to score some moral point — it’s in large part fairly literate in the context of the story told, especially in the movie’s opening half. True, the script’s sneaky but box-office-savvy occasional attempts to insinuate parallels between Moses and Jesus are more than a little annoying, as is the over-ripe, King-James-y prose of the occasional voice-over narration (spoken by DeMille himself). But these are mere quibbles when one takes into account the movie’s gargantuan 220-minute running time.

Then there’s the score for the movie by Elmer Bernstein which is nothing to sniff at. It’s a rich, quasi-Wagnerian affair, more than musically competent in its own right, and perfectly suited to its task; just what a first-rate movie score ought to be.

How about the handling of the story itself? Its dovetailing of the Hebrew Bible narrative with speculative material based on then current biblical and archaeological research, most of it having to do with events not covered by or only hinted at in the biblical narrative, is fairly seamless and, for its time at least, perfectly plausible. Plausible as well for its time, and well detailed, too, were the myriad of things Egyptological and Bedouin, due allowance made for license poetic (such as Ramses II — father of some 150 children — having but a single wife and child). The costumes, for instance, were largely spot-on correct, as was most of the architectural detail (again, allowance made for poetic license). The only truly tacky thing in the detail department was the absurd, Ted Turner Production Really Bad Beard given Moses at movie’s end. I keep hoping that for the next release someone will take a digital pen to those closing frames, and give the departing Moses a beard worthy a prophet of his stature.

And what about the actors? Pretty much perfect casting all round, actually. Charlton Heston, from whom even the great Orson Welles could not coax a nuanced performance, could not have been more perfectly cast. Other than Heston, no-one then (or now, for that matter) had the required on-screen bearing necessary for a role so mythically heroic. And if his performance lacked nuance, well, so what. There was little nuance called for. One might even say it was part of the role’s job description. Ditto the role of Ramses, in which role Yul Brynner did his born-for-it king thing to perfection. In like manner much the same could be said for all the principals, all of whom were, at worst, competent (if hammy) actors, and at best, thoroughly convincing, as was perennial screen villain Vincent Price most particularly in the role of the nasty and lecherous Master Builder, Baka.

And the cinematography? First-rate throughout, of course, which is just what one expects of a Hollywood product. The technical side of Hollywood movie-making, then as now, is so superb it could, if its personnel were so inclined, make even a rank beginning director appear a seasoned pro. And while a few of the many vaunted special effects were a bit tacky even then (the two cartoony “pillars of fire” most especially), they were no more so than were the vaunted video-game-tacky special effects of, say, Star Wars, a movie made some twenty years later.

All this, however, is but mere fussy detail. What’s really notable about this movie is its quality of telling an heroic, mythic saga in the earnest, literal, and straightforward way sagas have been told and retold around hearths and campfires for millennia prior to our era; a quality reinforced by DeMille’s occasional voice-overs. In those bygone eras, if the storyteller really knew his stuff, and his narration, sung or spoken, was properly keyed to the sensibilities of his audience, he could be counted on to stimulate the imagination of that audience into generating images in an at once individual and collective theater of the mind wherein the saga would, in vivid images as recognizable and familiar to one’s neighbors as they were to oneself, spring into glorious, palpable, larger-than-life life.

DeMille at his biblical-epic best, as he was in The Ten Commandments, was just such a storyteller who not only knew how to straightforwardly tell a Judeo-Christian heroic saga keyed to the sensibilities of his audience, but provided that audience as well with vivid realizations of images effectively latent in their imaginations since earliest childhood, and by so doing bring to life for them that heroic saga in all its palpable, larger-than-life glory.

Should I really have felt (feel) ashamed of liking such a movie?

Not in my saner moments.

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Death Of An Olympian

Posted by acdtest on March 7, 2003

Death Of An Olympian

[Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. The following appreciation was published originally (print) on the occasion of Kubrick’s death, 7 March 1999.]

he death, Monday of last week, of American cultural icon Joe DiMaggio, almost totally eclipsed TV coverage of a loss the preceding day of substantially greater cultural dimension. For with the death at age 70 of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, the world lost an artist of Olympian gift.

The lopsided coverage left me, I confess, a bit miffed, even though I understood it, sort of (Kubrick, an ardent Yankees fan, would have understood it perfectly). I don’t pretend to be competent to comment authoritatively on what DiMaggio’s accomplishments as a ballplayer and as a man contributed to the sport of baseball, America, or the world in general, as the sum total of my knowledge of sports and sports figures consists of my knowing that (a) baseball is played with a bat, and (b) football isn’t. But one doesn’t have to know much about such matters to know that DiMaggio hasn’t played ball in decades, and that the DiMaggio mythos will only become more burnished and be made more potent by his death, whereas the death of an active artist of Kubrick’s stature is an almost palpable loss as it means the world will forever be denied any future work from him.

In the short history of cinema there are but a handful of men (and one woman, Leni Riefenstahl) who can be said to have achieved Olympian stature as filmmakers. Needless to say (or perhaps not so needless given the extent to which pop modes of thought have today contaminated even the loftiest domains), such stature is not secured by box office grosses, quantity of output, or celebrity. It’s secured exclusively by that which it ought properly to be secured: Magnitude of gift.

At the very top of that elite pantheon of cinema is the towering figure of Orson Welles, who, one can say without question or fear of serious challenge, possessed the most prodigious and profound gift of any filmmaker before his time or since. He is the Shakespeare of filmmakers, the Bach of cinema, which is to say he’s absolutely sui generis. Below him in the pantheon (you decide on the order) reside filmmakers such as Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Riefenstahl, Eisenstein and Griffith. I suggest, as will, I’m sure, discerning others, that Stanley Kubrick rightly belongs in that august company.

Kubrick, born in New York in 1928, was not above turning out Hollywood product when he had to, and when he did, his work could stand with, and usually above, most of the best of that genre. His Spartacus (1960) and Lolita (1962) are more than adequate testimony to the fact. But turning out Hollywood product was not what interested Kubrick. Near the beginning of his almost half-century career he abandoned Hollywood and the United States to take up residence and work in England where he felt he could best operate as an independent.

And independent is what Kubrick had to be as what interested him was filmmaking — the making of films, not movies; something antithetical to Hollywood and the movie establishment. To comprehend just how necessary a move that was on Kubrick’s part one has to comprehend that, Pauline Kael notwithstanding, the distinction between film and movie is not merely a matter of snobbish or pretentious semantics (though it can be, and too often is). Although the terms are used interchangeably in ordinary discourse to refer to the same thing (Kubrick himself would probably have used the term movie in preference to film), they’re often useful shorthand for indicating the very real and substantive difference between the two.

One difference is movies make the big bucks, films rarely do. But there’s a more fundamental difference that perhaps can best be expressed by stating that a film mostly says what it has to say by way of techniques and methods uniquely cinematic; a movie mostly by way of elaborately illustrated narrative, an adaptation of a technique borrowed from literature by way of the stage.

To demonstrate the distinction more concretely, and using, mutatis mutandis, only the material of the original script, try to imagine Citizen Kane — an apotheosis of film — turned into a novel or stage play of equal power.

Can’t be done. The work’s narrative — its “plot” — is but a skeleton structure. All the film’s power, indeed its very life, depends almost exclusively on devices uniquely cinematic, many never used before, or here used in ways not previously imagined.

Now, in the same way, imagine turning into a novel or stage play of equal power a typical Hollywood biography of the same era (or as it’s called in the biz, a “biopic”; technically, Citizen Kane is also a biopic), any one of which would be pure movie — say, The Life of Emile Zola, or the best of that genre, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.

Piece of cake. The work makes the transfer effortlessly, and loses little by the transition.

Today there are few pure examples of either film or movie, most modern works incorporating the telling characteristics of both. Not surprisingly, however, one fairly modern example of pure film is a work by Kubrick; the one, in fact, for which, in the public’s mind, he’s most famous: His 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One may take exception to my classifying 2001 as an example of pure film, but consider, please, the following: When shown on TV, even in so-called “letter-box” format, 2001 fails. There doesn’t seem to be much there. It looks merely like a quirky if atypically well-made sci-fi movie. In the theater, if not shown in its original Super Panavision format, it fails in almost the same way, if not as abjectly. Ditto if it’s shown in the theater in Super Panavision but the release print is even marginally substandard. In other words, 2001 depends almost entirely on its meticulously planned and crafted cinematic qualities, meticulously executed from conception to projection, in order to work, and one can hardly get more purely film than that.

When Kubrick was working in his true métier he transformed to his purpose everything he touched. One thinks immediately of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), both works adapted from novels of the same names, and both altered substantially from their originals in ways that brought heated words of disapproval from their authors, Anthony Burgess and Stephen King, respectively.

In the case of The Shining, one can see what might have truly galled King. The novel is a typical King opus, brimful with his trademark brand of tacky horror, or what passes for horror in a King novel. Kubrick adapted and changed much of the novel for his film, producing an authentically disturbing and harrowing masterpiece of the genre (which, however, is not to suggest the film has no flaws of its own). One could say the approximate difference between Kubrick’s film and King’s novel, as well as the TV movie King later made of it, is that Kubrick’s overarching frame of reference seems to have been Henry James’ short novel (or long short story) The Turn of the Screw, while King’s overarching frame of reference, both for the book and the TV movie, seems to have been Tales From The Crypt, the comic book.

In any case, neither King nor Burgess had cause to whine. The novel is the author’s and remains his. The film is the filmmaker’s. One has only little to do with the other.

On reflection, what was perhaps most important about Kubrick over his long career (and I suspect Kubrick might have argued with this assessment, but I make it nevertheless) was that from Paths of Glory (1957), his first real film, through Full Metal Jacket (1987), his last film save one (Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which is still to be released, and the final cut of which was finished just one week before his death), he was, in his work, unremittingly and almost to the exclusion of all else, devoted to the aesthetics of film. In an era which has seen, and is still seeing, the beleaguered retreat of the aesthetic in all the arts in favor of what has earnestly been called the socially and politically responsible (one can, for instance, graduate from most undergraduate colleges today without ever having read a single line of Shakespeare, Milton, or Joyce, but one will never get out alive without being exposed, in extenso, to the third-rate brayings of, say, an Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, or Adrienne Rich), the importance to world culture of such unremitting devotion to the aesthetic by an artist of Kubrick’s gift simply cannot be overstated. As I’ve already remarked, the loss of such an artist is almost palpable, and leaves in its wake a void which won’t soon be filled, and perhaps may never be.

On hearing of Kubrick’s death, Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood moviemaker par excellence, is reported to have said, “Stanley Kubrick was the grandmaster of filmmaking. He copied no one, while all of us were scrambling to imitate him.”

Generations of filmmakers to come will surely echo that very same sentiment.

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Classic Christie Adaptation

Posted by acdtest on January 21, 2003

Classic Christie Adaptation

idney Lumet’s 1974 big-screen movie adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express, is on my list of Top Ten Greatest Brain-candy Movies. I’ve seen it some half-dozen times, and each time it’s just as delicious as I remembered it. It is, in fact, a movie perfect of its type, and one of the few times the phrase Stellar All-star Cast is no mere hype but the simple truth in that most of the cast are indeed genuine stars, and their performances stellar. There’s Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely, and George Coulouris. Mouth-watering just to contemplate in one movie, and when headed by a skilled and invariably intelligent director like Lumet, a confluence almost certain to result in something well worth one’s time.

I’ve not read the Christie novel, and so can’t comment on how faithful an adaptation was done, but in any case, and for any movie adaptation, it makes no difference as the movie is the movie, the novel the novel, and the two have only the most tenuous of connections. But in this case, if the novel isn’t exactly like the movie, well, it should have been.

The key character in this whodunit is, of course, Christie’s famous fictional private detective, Hercule Poirot, played brilliantly by Albert Finney. Now, I bow to no-one in my admiration for the Poirot of David Suchet in the long-running series on PBS’s Mystery, but one senses immediately that Suchet drew much on Finney’s realization of the character to shape his own, rounding and smoothing the sharp, edgy eccentricities of Finney’s Poirot (which is Christie’s) as when realized in that high relief they’d be intolerable in a weekly series. Finney’s Poirot is fastidious, meticulous, impatient, and vain to a degree bordering on, but never crossing over to, sheer caricature. It’s one hell of a balancing act, and Finney pulls it off without so much as a trace of sweat. Typical Finney, who in this role is absolutely unidentifiable as Finney so perfect in manner and figure has he transformed himself into the great Belgian sleuth.

Classic whodunits are not exactly Sidney Lumet’s specialty, but he took this one, and turned it into a stylish masterpiece of the movie genre. It’s easily the classiest, lushest, and most intelligent of its type ever done on film, and one wonders how the director of such films as The Pawnbroker and The Hill could ever summon the requisite mindset and sensitivities to accomplish such a feat. But summon them Lumet did, and the evidence of his success is indisputable, and also available on VHS (but not yet on DVD) for all to witness without cuts or commercial interruption. So, give your mind a delightful and refreshing two-hour break some rainy evening, and pop it in the ol’ VCR.

Your brain will thank you.

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