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Screening History: “Ben-Hur”(1959)

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Some time ago, I wrote a 3-part series of blog posts about the rise and fall of the biblical epic (you can see them here, here, and here). At the time, I was just beginning to explore my dissertation. Since then, however, I’ve managed to write two chapters and have submitted the first draft of a third, and it actually looks like I’ll finish next year. Just as importantly, I’ve gained a more nuanced appreciation for the complexities of my favourite film genre, the historico-biblical epic.

Thus, when it came time to for the annual Oscar Blogathon, I thought, here’s a great opportunity to talk about one of my favourite Oscar-winning epic films, and give a little bit of an indication of how this film fits into my dissertation’s overall argument about the kind of experience of history that the historico-biblical epic provided for its postmodern spectators. So, here we go.

Historically, it’s important to remember that the film was produced in the context of the Cold War, in particular the growing threat that a nuclear holocaust might actually wipe out the entirety of human civilization. There was profound uncertainty throughout the immediate postwar decades about whether the atomic bomb was the weapon by which mankind would finally bring about the fiery oblivion that had been promised by prophets throughout the millennia. Further, many wondered whether it was possible (or even desirable) to attempt to stop this from happening, or whether the power of the bomb and the end of human history it promised should simply be accepted. The individual in the postwar world was not only vulnerable; s/he might in fact be thought of as irrelevant.

Industrially, this was also the period of Hollywood cinema when widescreen technology–which promised the spectator the ability to transcend spatio-temporal boundaries and to encounter a sense of presence with the ancient world–became increasingly widespread. While it had been inaugurated with another historico-biblical epic, The Robe, in 1953, several studios soon rolled out their own processes, for they understood that audiences needed something truly overwhelming and spectacular to draw them away from their living rooms. Indeed, MGM would make a great deal of the fact that their epic was produced in MGM Camera 65, and a production booklet for the film promised that the process promised even greater levels of participation and presence. One was invited to both participate in the action and to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the spectacle.

The aesthetics of the film make full use of this tension between agency and submission, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by the truly overwhelming spectacularity of it all. Imagine, for example, seeing the scene in which Judah must hide, unable to reveal himself to his mother, who has been stricken with leprosy. Imagine feeling as if you, the spectator, were there with Judah, yet also immobilized like him, unable to reach out and touch her, no matter how much your body aches to do so. While this can still be felt to an extent by viewing it on a large-screen HDTV, I daresay it doesn’t come close to measuring up to what the experience must have felt like when seeing it on the true widescreen. Small wonder that the film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography-Color.

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The chariot race, one of the most visceral and exciting sequences in the history of cinema (made all the more so by the widescreen technology used to bring it to life).

Further, one can sense throughout the film–at both the formal and narrative levels–an oscillation between agency and impotence. No matter how hard Judah tries to do the right thing, he finds his agency circumscribed by forces he cannot name nor control. He can do nothing to save his family from their imprisonment, he cannot save himself from his enslavement in the galleys (it is through the capricious whim of the Roman Arrius that he is freed from his chains and thus allowed to escape the sinking ship), he can do nothing to save his mother and sister (they are purged of leprosy by the Crucifixion), and he cannot even really win the chariot race (he both places his eventual fate in God’s hands and his nemesis Messala is ultimately brought down by his own vindictiveness). There’s no denying, though, that Judah is a spectacular sufferer.

There is, then, something exquisite and beautiful about this suffering, in no small part because of the star text of Heston (who won the Oscar for Best Actor). While I am not Heston’s biggest fan, he makes a fantastic epic hero precisely because everything that is thrown at him makes him stronger. Much has been written about the way in which his chiseled facial features and imposing physicality ensured that he always appeared tightly wound, ready to erupt into violence at any moment. That is certainly true in this film; even when he is chained in the galleys, Heston’s Judah is a slab of muscled flesh, an object of erotic fascination and muscular identification. We know that the years of servitude have only hardened his body until it becomes the perfect weapon, the perfect means of effecting his vengeance against the man who wronged him and his family.

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The exquisitely erotic suffering of Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur.

Yet for all if its beauty, the world that this film depicts is a place of dark and terrifying brutality. The chariot race is, of course, one of the most memorable events in the history of cinema, but it is also an indication the rather Hobbesian mentality that governs this world. Life for many is, indeed, nasty, brutish, and short, as indicated by the many charioteers who perish during the course of the race. Messala, struggling to stay alive long enough to taunt his old enemy, suggests as much when he defiantly informs Judah that the race goes on. All the blood that now stains the sands of the Circus are but the precursor, he suggests, to an ongoing set of conflicts and strife that will continue to rock the Roman world as it is gradually replaced by Christianity.

In the end, of course, the film has to pay at least some attention to the fact that it is “a tale of the Christ,” and so it ensures that his own journey to the Cross intersects with Judah’s attempt to rescue his family. Indeed, it is the Crucifixion itself that washes them clean of their affliction, thus rendering possible the reconstitution of the family and Judah’s spiritual peace. What strikes me as particularly compelling about this fact is that it renders the rescue of the afflicted family a matter undertaken by the suffering Christ rather than anything done by Judah. In an age in which individual human agency seemed to have become impossible, it makes sense that the film would displace Judah’s historic ability to effect change in his world onto the film’s (largely  unseen) Christ.

Ben-Hur was in many ways the apex of the cycle of historico-biblical epics that had begun with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949. While the cycle would produce several other high-profile and profitable hits, it would never attain quite the level that this film did, and none would manage to grab as many Oscars. Indeed, Ben-Hur’s Oscar haul would be unmatched until Titanic 40 years later. This film showed what was possible when a supremely talented director (William Wyler) was paired with a great cast, fine writing, and the seemingly unlimited financial capacity of the most glamourous and resplendent film studios (MGM, in the person of producer Sam Zimbalist, who sadly died before the film was completed). While other epics might be more glamourous or more historically sophisticated (Cleopatra in 1963 or The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964), they just couldn’t quite measure up to the splendid achievements of Ben-Hur. 

In terms of scholarship, there have been a number of recent essays and books published about this film. Of particular interest is Jon Solomon’s monograph Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster. This book provides an extensive overview of this story, beginning with Lew Wallace’s original novel. You should also check out Bigger than Ben-Hur, which is a collection of essays published by Syracuse University Press. Don’t let the university press designation scare you off; the essays are quite accessible and shed a great deal of light on how a 19th Century novel continues to exert a powerful hold on the contemporary imagination. Film scholar Ina Rae Hark has a compelling essay on the nature of erotic suffering in the 1959 film.

Even now, after almost 60 years after its initial release, Ben-Hur does indeed remain “The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime,” a testament to the might, the power, and the majesty of Old Hollywood and, just as importantly, to the enduring fascination of the world of ancient Rome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my entry in this year’s Oscar Blogathon. If you’d like to leave your own reflections or appreciations on the film, I’d greatly appreciate it!

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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Window on the West” and “The Forbidden Pool”

Having met the noble Gondorian captain Faramir and his men, we now get to see them in more detail, as Frodo and Sam are welcomed into their abode and treated as guests of honor. They are also treated to the beauty of the land of Ithilien, including the cave where Faramir and his company have set up their camp.

I have always found Faramir to be one of Tolkien’s finest creations, a fitting complement to his brother Boromir. Unlike his elder brother, who seems to spring from the mold of men like Rohan (which, for all of their valour, are of a somewhat lower order then their neighbours), Faramir seems to have something in him of not just the nobility of the fallen lands of the West but also a measure of their Elvish wisdom. It is precisely this wisdom that allows him to turn away from the temptation that brought low his brother. In that sense, he seems to have more in common with Aragorn than he does with either his father or his brother.

It is the changes to Faramir’s character in the film version The Two Towers that I find the most vexing, in large part because he is just such a wonderful character in the novel. It is precisely his ability to resist the pull of the Ring that makes him so compelling and that suggests that he will one day make an exemplary steward in his father’s place. While I don’t want to spend too much time belabouring the changes made to Faramir’s character in Jackson’s interpretation, it is worth noting that this Faramir is much more steadfast from the outset than his film counterpart. He is both wise and a powerful leader of men, and it this particular combination of traits that makes him such a compelling hero.

What stands out to me the most about this chapter, however, is the description that Faramir gives of the men of Gondor. According to his narration, the heirs of Anarion gradually lost their way and gave into the faults that had long plagued the men of Númenor:  the obsession with death and its deferral, the fixation on the past and their ancestors rather than the children of the current world, the gradual but inexorable slipping into decline. It is a rather heartbreaking rumination, and it is (I think) reflective of the novel’s overall view of humanity. We may build works of great power and grandeur, but in the end we always seem inclined to let those slip away into obsolescence and a seemingly inevitable decay.

This in part will explain the behavior of Denethor in later chapters. He, like so many of his predecessors among the men of Númenor, yearns for a day when his rule was unquestioned, and he spends more time thinking about the past than he does the present, much to the detriment of his son Faramir. Thus, he is blind to the qualities that make his son such an excellent and superb commander and future steward, blinded by his love of Boromir. He wishes for the way that things were in the past, whereas Faramir is wise enough to understand that the future is what matters the most and that it will ultimately be up to him to shoulder the burdens that his father still bears (and which have already begun to to drive him slowly mad).

And then of course there is Gollum, who feels deeply betrayed by the fact that Frodo leads him into a trap set by Faramir. Once again, Frodo showcases his essential morality and pity, for once again he refuses to strike down Gollum when he has the chance. Of course, the powerful and almost tragic irony here is that Gollum doesn’t recognize this fact, and it may well be this incident that continues to cement his determination to see his villainous plans for Sam and Frodo through to their ultimate conclusion.

Next up, we follow the brave Sam and Frodo as they encounter the city of Minas Morgul as well as the dreadful spider Shelob. Stay tuned!

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Why Are Tolkien’s Villains So Compelling?

Every time I re-reard The Lord of the Rings, I’m struck anew by how absolutely compelling Tolkien has made his villains. In many ways, these formidable foes–Saruman, Sauron, the Witch-king–threaten to overshadow the protagonists of the novel. While we know a great deal about the heroes, their motivations, their ancestries, a great deal remains shadowy and unknown about their evil counterparts, and it is precisely this lack of detail that imbues these characters with such an irresistible allure, constantly drawing us to them even as the text denies us the full understanding that we desire.

Take the Witch-king (and, for that matter, the rest of the Nazgûl). We know very little about them, except that they were a mixture of kings of Men who were seduced by Sauron’s promises of power that could be gained from his gift of nine Rings of Power. In fact, we know the actual name of only one of those figures, Khamûl the Black Easterling, and even of him we know only that he was second in power to the Witch-king, that he commanded Dol Guldur, and that he was the Ringwraith that the hobbits saw standing on the dock of Bucklebury Ferry. Everything else is merely speculation, and while there is certainly a great deal of pleasure in such an activity, it can never quite take the place of the authoritative word of Tolkien himself.

Of course, Saruman, for all that he is one of the most corrupt and despicable of the villains that appear in the novel, also hovers just out of full sight. Sure, we know a great deal about him through Gandalf, but we never really get to see the workings of his mind in his own right. We don’t know, for example, how he set about his destruction and industrialization of the Shire, and we don’t get to see his interactions with Wormtongue (though Jackson’s film does provide some of the exchanges between the two of them). We don’t even know that much about his activities as a Maia in the West.

And then there is my all-time favourite villain, the Mouth of Sauron, who appears at the Black Gate to taunt the armies of the West when they arrive to demand that Sauron come forth. Here is how the novel describes him:

The lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Númenoreans.

This brief paragraph ultimately raises more questions than it provides answers. What, for example, was his relationship with the Witch-king of Angmar? Were they of equal rank, though occupying different roles in the Mordor hierachy? (Perhaps the Mouth was responsible for the domestic side of things and the Witch-king was responsible for activities outside?) How old, exactly, was he? We know that he was of the Numenoreans, so it’s entirely possible that he was far older than any other man (even Aragorn). We aren’t even given his name, and the passage tells us that not only was it never written down by any tale (I love how coy the text is, by the way); the Mouth himself has become so enmeshed in Sauron’s service that he has given up his very identity. For that matter, we don’t even know whether he escaped from the destruction by the Ring’s oblivion. Certainly,

Tolkien was, as has been amply acknowledged, a genius at sub-creation. Yet he also knew that there were some things that should remain unknown, sometimes even to the author himself. The media scholar and theorist John Fiske, in his book Reading Popular Culture, notes that part of what gives enormously popular texts their appeal is textual poverty, and that certainly seems to the case with Tolkien. Indeed, there are quite a number of fan fiction texts surrounding the Mouth (I wrote one myself as part of a class ages ago), and these texts exploit this gap in Tolkien’s mythology to give the text even greater relevance, emotionally, intellectually, affectively.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Tolkien would be have to be one of the most flattered authors of the modern era.

And that flattery, in my mind, is well-deserved indeed.

This is the face of the terror of history.

Reading Tolkien in the Time of Trump

Now that it’s Tolkien Appreciation Month here at Queerly Different, I thought I’d begin this year’s month with a post about the Sauron of the 21st Century, the President-Elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Now, I know what some of you are no doubt thinking. Isn’t that hyperbolic? Isn’t it dangerous to conflate the doings of a mythological tyrant in a fantasy novel (no matter how popular and seemingly timeless) with the doings of an elected world leader in 21st Century America? Besides, what can a fantasy novel of any kind tell us about the workings and dangers of politics and tyrants in the real world?

Perhaps these are sound and reasonable questions, but as I was re-rewatching The Fellowship of the Ring with my students, and as I’ve begun my annual re-read of Tolkien’s work, it occurs to me that not only are there a lot of similarities between the Third Age of Middle-earth and our contemporary political; there are also a number of things that Tolkien’s magnum opus can tell us about how we relate to the world around us and how we can make sense of a world in which the forces of darkness and oppression seem to have been given a new form of life.

Furthermore, I think it’s worth pointing out that that political treatises and other straightforwardly nonfiction pieces are not the only works that help to shed light on the perilous world in which we live. Tolkien’s work, like the best works of fiction (including and especially those in the fantasy genre) help to hold up a mirror to our own world, to help us critically think about how we engage with the world around us.

As always, I was particularly struck by Frodo’s lament very early in the book that he wishes that he had not come into possession of the Ring and all of the trouble that it brings with it. His desire is an understandable one, as it is always difficult to live in a time where the things we’ve taken for granted–the peace, the stability, the steady movement toward a better world–seem abruptly under siege by a seemingly overpowering tide. It is, in these times, easy to give in to the temptation to be self-pitying and despairing.

Yet, as Gandalf sternly reprimands him, that is a sentiment expressed by all who live to see such times. However, it is not up to them to decide when they are born and in which they live; all that they can do is decide what to do with the time that is given to them. To me, this is an important reminder of what we can do now that all that we on the Left see everything that we cared for threatened with obliteration. It is not up to us to decide what happened now that it has past; it is, however, up to us to continue the fight, to continue working to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

In the wake of the election, and faced with the reports of hate crimes spiking in its aftermath, I’m reminded of Theoden’s most despairing line in the film version of The Two Towers:  “What can men do against such reckless hate?” It’s a powerful question precisely because it crystallizes so many of the narrative concerns of the novel as well. What, indeed, can individual men do against the forces that are so much greater than they? Is there any agency to be found in such a world? Sometimes, it seems that the answer to Theoden’s question is a simple, fatigued, utterly despairing, “nothing.”

Yet this also reminds me of Aragorn’s climactic speech, when he pronounces that the day when the strength of men fails is not the day that they face. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they will continue to fight, knowing that their strength alone may not be enough to save them. Just so, we on the Left must continue to fight, even know that we may not always succeed, even knowing that evil may yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, may yet again flee into some dark place and take a new shape. We must continue fighting, for to do anything else would be the worst sort of abrogation, the abandonment of the principles that we hold most dear.

Of course, it is also worth noting that the rise of Sauron  in the Third Age is due to a number of factors, but among them is the decline of the realm of Gondor and a growing sense of complacency. Even Gandalf, certainly one of the wisest figures left in that age of the world. For Gandalf at least it was, at least in a way, easier to believe the honeyed lies of Saruman regarding the fate of the Ring than it was to do what was necessary. As such, this incident is a cautionary tale on the dangers of complacency, of a willingness to ignore the gut warnings that we have about the very real dangers that exist in the world.

Thus, despite the darkness of spirit that seems to have fallen over many in the American Left (including yours truly), reading and watching The Lord of the Rings gives me hope that there is always hope, even it is just a fool’s hope. Tolkien’s work helps us to understand that we always have a moral and ethical responsibility to keep fighting the good fight, even when it appears in the immediate moment that we will be beaten down by the forces that are so much stronger than we are. We have an obligation to reach out to those who are weaker than we are, to show the spirit of compassion and mercy.

And if you need to still take a little more time to process your grief, to weep in frustration at the evils of the world, feel free to do that, too.

After all, as Gandalf poignantly reminds us, “I will not say do not weep. For not all tears are an evil.”

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Screening History: “Ben-Hur” and the Tragedy of the Might-Have-Been

I went into Ben-Hur with the lowest possible expectations. Critics and audiences alike seemed to disdain the film, and its opening box office was truly abysmal. I was worried that somehow this box office and critical disaster would taint my love for the 1959 version.

As sometimes happens, however, the film actually exceeded all of my expectations. While it does not hit the same notes of operatic grandness achieved by its predecessors (including, it is worth noting, the 1925 version, which seems to have been largely forgotten in the discourse surrounding this one), it is nevertheless a competent and at times quite moving film.

The film basically follows the same trajectory as the previous versions, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his boyhood friend and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves pulled apart by the historical times in which they live, in which the power of Rome continues to oppress the people of Judaea. Their own personal rivalry–which culminates in the famous chariot race–takes place at the same time as the ministry of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) whose sacrifice and Crucifixion lead to the eventual reconciliation of Judah and Messala.

Though he lacks the larger-than-life monumentality that Heston brought to his interpretation of the role, the young Jack Huston brings something else equally valuable. He manages to bring both a measure of vulnerability and sensitivity to the role, neither of which are traits that Heston could ever have claimed to embody. For that reason, I actually found Huston’s lack of star power refreshing, in that it allowed me to put aside my preconceptions of what Judah should look like and instead appreciate what this relatively unknown star (who nevertheless hails from an illustrious Hollywood lineage) was able to bring to the role.

Indeed, I thought there was a great deal of chemistry between him and his fellow lead Toby Kebell. The latter brings a powerful, brooding energy to the character of Messala, a young man overshadowed by a tainted family legacy and his own desire to prove himself worthy of being a Roman. It’s hard not to find him compelling, in much the same way as it was difficult to not find oneself attracted to Stephen Boyd (who played the role in the 1959 version). However, I do think that Kebbell brings a softer, more vulnerable–and thus, ultimately, more redeemable–characterization to the role.

Of course, Morgan Freeman also deserves credit for the gravitas that he brings to the role of Sheik Ilderim. Whereas his earlier counterpart had been a rather egregious example of blackface, Freeman imbues his character with a powerful, brooding solemnity. We learn, for example, that his son had also been a zealous enemy of Rome, a position that earned him an ignominious and horrific death at the hands of the Roman state. One cannot help but feel the resonance with the ways in which black bodies are still rendered subject (and abject) to the violence of the state.

Of course, the two of the most affective and intense scenes were the scene in the galley and the chariot race. Both allowed for a feeling immersion, of being there and inhabiting two very different moments. While the galley sequence (as such sequences frequently do) forces us to inhabit a claustrophobic world of the abject, the chariot race represents a reclamation of embodied agency. In fact, I actually think the scene in the galleys is more terrifying and visceral than the 1959 version, in no small part because so many of the shots are from Judah’s hampered point of view. The race, for its part, is quite as stirring as the original, and seeing it on the big screen was absolutely a part of the phenomenologically powerful experience.

It’s a tad unfortunate that the Crucifixion scene–which should, one would think, land with the greatest possible emotional impact–comes off as so stilted and emotionless. Santoro, bless him, just doesn’t bring a great deal to the role of Christ. Not that this is entirely his fault; the script doesn’t really allow him to do anything other than utter a few incredibly flat-footed platitudes. In this instance, it seems that the practice of the earlier films, which resolutely kept Christ out of the frame, proved to be the better move.

That aside, I do think that the latter half of the film holds together much more effectively than the first. Part of this, I think, has to do with the gratuitous number of cuts throughout the first half of the film. One would think that the opposite would be the case; after all, these early scenes are designed to establish the personal level of the drama. Unfortunately, however, Bekmambetov is a bit too fond of the cut, and it becomes distracting more than it should be.

Despite the choppy and often gratuitous editing of those early scenes, however, the film does succeed in showing how much Messala and Judah care for one another, a crucial bit of backstory that we don’t really see in the 1959 version (though Gore Vidal’s juicy gossip suggests that his script had a homoerotic undercurrent). As a result, we get to know and care about these characters and their relationship. And you know what? That final reconnection between Messala and Judah actually brought tears to my eyes. Because, despite everything else, it felt earned. These two actors bring enough emotional resonance to their roles that we actually care about what happens to them. At a broader level, it also provides hope that, even in this time of historical conflict, that somehow solidarity can and will win out of hatred.

Is Ben-Hur a perfect, or even a great film? Absolutely not, and there are a number of reasons for this. At the risk of continuing to compare the film to its predecessor, I do think it’s noteworthy that this reboot did not have a major directorial name attached to it. While Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to Hollywood, he doesn’t have the same sort of resumé as or cultural capital as a director like William Wyler, who had already established himself as a formidable artist director of stature. Bekmambetov, for better and worse, does not have quite that amount of presence to help lift Ben-Hur to the heights of true greatness to which it might otherwise have aspired.

In the end, I strongly suspect that the 2016 iteration of Ben-Hur will go down in history as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful reimagining of a cinematic and literary classic. Still, I do hope that those who watch it take it on its own terms, for it really is quite a good film in its own way. And that, perhaps, is its greatest tragedy.

 

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Film Review: “Star Wars Episodes VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

I debated about writing a review of this film. After all, the internet is literally full to bursting with thoughts, speculation, reviews, and box office analysis. But, since this is my own little corner of the internet, I thought I’d share my thoughts (I’ll largely eschew rehashing the plot, both the avoid spoilers and also because the internet is full of synopses).

First off, it is immensely satisfying to see the reunion of the key characters of Luke, Chewie, Han Solo, Leia, and of course the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. It’s hard to describe exactly what lends this series of moments their power, other than to say that it’s like seeing old friends that you haven’t seen in 30 years reunited once again.

Aside from the nostalgia factor, the four strongest appeals of the film were:  the reunion of the principle cast members from the original trilogy; Adam Driver’s portrayal of the broken and tragic Kylo Ren; the introduction of the most kickass heroine yet to appear in a Star Wars film; and the budding (b)romance between Finn and Poe.

I’ve always been a fan of Adam Driver’s, ever since I first saw his Byronic/Heathcliffian turn in Girls. Here, he brings that experience to good use, and his slightly elfin good looks lend an almost tender appearance to this torn and fractured character. Yes, it’s clear that he has begun his inevitable spiral into the horrors made possible by the Dark Side, but in the Star Wars universe there is always hope for redemption, and Driver’s particular brand of charisma makes me hope that there may be some for him when the trilogy reaches its conclusion.

For her party, Rey emerges as the film’s center. While she slides neatly into the role of the brave young hero (Joseph Campbell, anyone?), she is also a character in her own right. No small amount of digital ink has already been spilled debating whether she is the feminist character that Star Wars fans have been yearning for a long time, and I think that she is. She is resourceful and clever, independent and also complicated, yet driven by friendship and compassion. In that sense, she serves as the light to Kylo’s tortured shadow, the hope that perhaps, he can attain the redemption that eventually saved the grandfather that he so desires to emulate.

Lastly, we have the obvious romance between Poe and Finn. Okay, maybe it’s not obvious to everyone, but I certainly noticed a bit more than friendliness between the great pilot and the escapee from the First Order. The sharing of the jacket, their unalloyed joy at being reunited after a separation, all just seemed to contain more than mere friendliness. Do I think that the filmmakers will go full-on and make the ship a reality? Probably not. But still, they’ve given us more than a little to work with (the fact that it is two men of colour makes it even better).

But of course, no review of The Force Awakens would be complete without mentioning the soon-to-be iconic droid BB-8. He is definitely one of (if not the) most endearing robot I have ever seen (with the possible exception of WALL*E). I’m still not sure how those beeps and clicks can make the heart melt at their cuteness, but they do, from beginning to end.

There were a few rather unfortunate CGI moments, both of which raised the unfortunate spectre of the much-maligned prequels. While Supreme Leader Snoke has some potential as the successor to the great Emperor Palpatine, the CGI used to render him made him almost too-cartoonish. The same goes for Maz Kanata, who was just a bit too CGI for my own taste. While motion capture really does allow for a flexibility of facial movement not attainable with prosthetics, something about it just doesn’t quite work in The Force Awakens.

While The Force Awakens didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel when it comes to plot (even a cursory look at any synopsis will raise more than a few echoes of A New Hope), through some strange alchemy it manages to make itself stand out. I would say that this has a lot to do with the increased diversity on offer, as the powers that be seem to have finally recognized that both women and people of colour comprise a large part of the sci-fi audience. Whatever the cause, The Force Awakens is a delightful way to experience the Star Wars , both for those inhabiting it for the first time and those who have been there many times before.

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Screening History: “The Bible: In the Beginning”

Today’s entry in “Screening History” is John Huston’s The Bible:  In the Beginning, the last of the truly-great biblical epics that were such a part of the midcentury film landscape.  It’s very easy to mock the historico-biblical epic. Often, even the most devout of epic films can slip easily into the ridiculous, but somehow this film manages to avoid that trap, deftly straddling the sacred and the savage, pointing out how our deepest myths also express our darkest fears and most destructive tendencies.

The film covers several of the most important moments in the book of Genesis:  the Creation and expulsion from Eden; Noah and the Great Flood; the construction of the Tower of Babel; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the saga of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael.  In fact, the film ends with this last, particularly God’s sparing of Isaac’s life on the altar.

The expulsion from Eden is a truly evocative moment in the film, one that brings out many of the apocalyptic undertones that seem to always hover at the edge of the biblical epic.  One can feel the terror pulsing through the veins of the first humans, as they face the rage of the God they have disobeyed.  The conflict between Cain and Abel is also suitably disconcerting, in large part because of Richard Harris’s strangled, inarticulate portrayal of the first murderer, who is ultimately branded for the slaying of his brother.

George C. Scott, scenery-chewer that he is, nevertheless conveys a great deal of the tortured and tormented patriarch that Abraham undoubtedly was, pulled in multiple directions by both the women in his life and by the many tasks and tribulations visited upon him by the God that has, allegedly, taken him under His wing.  We can also see the ways in which the years weigh heavenly upon him, until by the end of the film he appears as more of a skeleton than the proud and overbearing patriarch that we normally associate with his countenance in biblical illustration.  And his partner in crime, Ava Gardner, simmers as the embittered Sarai/Sarah, her faith tested just as much as her husband’s by God’s ongoing delay in providing them the son they so desperately need.

Abraham's wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

Abraham’s wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

The scenes involving Lot and the ultimate destruction of Sodom are shockingly visually compelling while also intensely problematic and repugnant.  Whereas the feature-length film Sodom and Gomorrah preferred to depict the sins of Sodom as being centered around the (admittedly rather generic) cruelty and sadism of the queen and her cronies, this film certainly buys into the idea that it was the sins of homosexuality and gender deviance that led to God’s wrath and the ultimate destruction upon the cities on the plain.

There are a few points of slight ridiculousness, particularly the part of the film dealing with Noah and the destruction of the world by water.  Surprisingly, this part is openly played for comedy, with Noah becoming more of a buffoon than an Old Testament patriarch.  There is also the unfortunate fact that Huston is also the voice of God and the narrator, which results in a doubling that it is sometimes difficult to take entirely seriously.  Equally silly is the portion dealing with the construction of the Tower of Babel, which features a heavily-made-up Stephen Boyd as the King Nimrod.  While visually intriguing, it remains something of a mystery why exactly this portion of the film appears as it does.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

For all that it is a “biblical” film and thus suspect to charges of ahistoricity, the film does seem to want to address, if in a metaphysical way, the beginnings of man and the questions and crises that continue to haunt us, even in our supposedly more rational and explicable world of modernity.  Why do men continue to seek out knowledge, with no thought to its brutal consequences?  Why do people suffer?  What is (or should be) the nature of our relationship to the animal world?  Why do humans continue to destroy one another, even though it will bring about his own destruction?  And why does he continue to hope, even in the face of all of this, for a world beyond his own temporal and embodied existence?

The film raises these questions, but ultimately it does not have the language to answer them, for the God of the Old Testament is a terrifying and capricious entity, raining down his wrath on the unsuspecting humans who serve him.  What’s more, the world that The Bible depicts is one full of brutality and human sacrifice, of animality and cruelty, and the God that reigns over it all does little to actually provide the answers that his human servants seek.  While the film ends optimistically with the binding and saving of Isaac, even this bears with it the inscrutability of God’s desire to see Abraham sacrifice the son for which he has hoped.  The film suggests that there might be an answer, somewhere in our collective psyche, but it’s a fool errand to attempt to find that answer in the book from which the film takes its name.

Although George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told is usually accorded the dubious honor of killing the biblical epic once and for all, and for being the last cinematic production of its kind until Gladiator reignited the genre for the new millennium, I actually think The Bible deserves the latter distinction (though not, I think, the former).  It is, all told, a quite uneven film, but it is not quite as ponderously reverent as The Greatest Story, and it seems that American audiences liked it well enough.  It is a truly haunting and in many ways bleak film, a sign perhaps of the growing sense that the old ways of making sense of the world, so proudly trumpeted by the earlier iterations of the genre, no longer held the same sort of authority.  For those interested in the ways in which the epic film responds to the pressures of its time, The Bible:  In the Beginning serves as a fascinating case study

Score:  8.5/10

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Screening History: “Barabbas” (1962)

Every so often, a genre manages to produce a film that exceeds its generic restrictions, that rises above the worst tendencies of its predecessors and becomes a work of transcendent and powerful beauty.  Barabbas, the 1962 film, is just one of those entries.  Emerging out of the midcentury cycle of historico-biblical epics that had already produced some truly fine films (such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus), Barabbas continued to demonstrate the ways in which the epic could tackle the pressing questions faced by a world coming to terms with its place in the greater temporal scheme of history.

Taking as its subject the minor biblical figure of Barabbas–the man pardoned and released while Christ was crucified–the film follows Barabbas as he struggles to make sense of the world in the aftermath of Jesus’s death.  Denied his own ability to die, he can only watch powerlessly as his lover is stoned to death by an angry mob and he is eventually sent to prison and hard labor in the sulfur mines of Sicily.  He is eventually freed from the mines by a collapse, but is then taken to Rome to fight in the arena.  There, he witnesses the death of his friend (and Christian) Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, after burying him with appropriate solemnity in the catacombs, he partakes in a great fire.  Convicted of treason by Rome, he is crucified with numerous other Christians, and the film ends with his death.

A film like Barabbas could only have been produced in the 1960s, when the genre of the historical epic had not only begun to fray, but when the religious and political culture that had given birth to it had also begun to crumble under the onslaught of the changes of the era.  While certainly many of the conflicts and contradictions of the 1950s roiled beneath the surface of many earlier epics (as I have argued elsewhere), the end of the cycle saw them exploding onto the surface of the film itself.  Thus, Barabbas stages the fundamental conflict between embodiment and transcendence, a binary and a tension that it never entirely resolves to its own (or the viewer’s) satisfaction.

Quinn’s Barabbas is a man who struggles to think of any world outside of the body.  He grunts and groans and sweats across the screen (to paraphrase one review of the film), every aspect of his manner an indicator of his embodied-ness and his rootedness in his own world.  Quinn’s strangled vocalizations only heighten this sense of his own untranscendent nature, his own inability to find satisfaction beyond his own limited views of the world.

It’s really no wonder that finds it so difficult to attain the sense of transcendence that the Christians around him do.  As a poor man in the stews of Jerusalem, his only distraction is in engaging in drinking and whoring, and then the Romans force him to first work in the sulfur mines and finally in the arena.  Again and again, the film denies him the possibility of transcending or even understanding; he is only ever a body that manages to survive rather than actually live.  Even as the film nears its end, he finds that he cannot entirely conceive of the world beyond the flesh that the Christians constantly espouse.  After seeing that the city has been set aflame, he decides that it must indeed (as the Romans assert) be the Christians that have set it, and so he joins in the fray.  Unfortunately, he does not realize that the Christians have no set the fire, the emperor has, and he has thus inadvertently sentenced all of them to death.  Like so many other epic heroes of the midcentury cycle, he seems powerless to change the course of events that surround him, even when it is his actions, unintended as they are, that set them in motion.

The film favors a darker, more somber colour palette than one sees in many of the other Technicolor epics of the period, in keeping with the darkness and bleakness of the worldview.  And no discussion of the film would be complete without mentioning Jack Palance, who as always brings his own particular brand of skeletal psychopathy to the role of one of the arena’s premier players.  His death, while immensely satisfying, is also yet another sign of the fact that Barabbas cannot quite escape the cycle of death and mortality that keeps him mired in the world in which he finds himself.

Barabbas is an intensely evocative and haunting film, one that is sure to stay with you long after the credits roll.  In many ways, the ending is even bleaker and more pessimistic than Spartacus (to which it can be compared).  Even at the end, it remains ambiguous whether Barabbas has truly understood the message preached by Christ, of the possibility of a world beyond that of the body.  And indeed the last shot we get is of Barabbas’ abjected body hanging on the cross, having finally achieved the death that has eluded him since his fateful exchange with Jesus, a fatal reminder of the futility of embodied human agency.

Score:  10/10

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Screening History: “David and Bathsheba” (1951)

Not long ago, I had the joy of rewatching Henry King’s subdued yet powerful David and Bathsheba, a biblical epic that is more thoughtful than most and that has yet to receive the credit it deserves.  It is unfortunate that it came before the era of widescreen and the masterpieces that emerged in the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s:  The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and even some films that were only recognized as classics after the fact, such as Nicholas Ray’s Christ biopic King of Kings (1961).  Nevertheless, as a rather anomalous entry in a genre that is often either critically neglected or regarded with camp humour and derision, David and Bathsheba is a fascinating glimpse into what a genre can do when it is still taking shape.

The film stars Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward as the title pair of star-crossed biblical lovers, David and Bathsheba.  David is the tormented and contradictory king of Israel, while Bathsheba is the lusty and desirable wife of Uriah, one of David’s faithful (if rather dense and often unfeeling) soldiers.  When David sees Bathsheba bathing (not realizing that she has rendered herself visible to him, knowing that he will see her), he falls head over heels in lust/love with her, setting off a chain of events that will lead to the premeditated death of Uriah and the divine, prophetic wrath of the scold Nathan (Raymond Massey in all of his biblical, patriarchal glory).  Eventually the two lovers are forgiven by God, and the film ends happily, if somewhat unsettlingly, ever after.

When I first watched this film several years ago, I was stunned by how sensitive the film was to the experiences of biblical women.  The historico-biblical epic, after all, is not known for being a genre especially concerned with the female experience (or the experience of many minorities, for that matter), but this film is part of that very small subset of epics that actually give any amount of attention to women (others include DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and the much later The Story of Ruth).  Bathsheba is a woman frustrated with the way in which her society denies her any power and control over her destiny and especially angered by her husband Uriah’s refusal to either satisfy her own sexual needs or indeed grant her any agency whatsoever (or even to acknowledge that she would want it).  Uriah is the biblical patriarchal figure distilled into its finest essence, utterly unconcerned with women except inasmuch as they serve the needs of men.

While I am not Susan Hayward’s biggest fan, she does manage to convey a measure of the enigmatic female beauty that no doubt drew David down the path of self-destruction.  Yet despite the fact that she emerges as the film’s femme fatale figure (the film reads as much as a noir as it does an epic).  What’s more, she also admirably captures the frustrations that Bathsheba experiences in a world designed to oppress women.  That being the case, she uses the only weapons this world has given her:  her body and her sexuality.  While the film stops just short of valorizing this, it does offer a sympathetic view of the ways in which a set of social institutions can imprison a woman so that she feels she has no other way out except her body.

Peck, likewise, brings to the role of David a great measure of conflicted and tortured masculinity.  With his deep, powerful voice and handsome features, one can easily understand ow why and how Bathsheba would have risked everything to be with this truly kingly figure.  As with so many of his finest roles, Peck manages to convey sensitivity without abrogating the masculine persona that makes him such an erotically appealing hero.  Beneath that breathtakingly handsome face there roils the sexually and spiritually haunted man, haunted by the death of his childhood friend (and something more?) Jonathan, and by the fact that he has given up his connection with his God in order to pursue the woman whom he truly loves.

Massey’s Nathan is a perfect counterpart to Peck’s David, a truly patriarchal figure, his stentorian voice and granite-like features fitting the part of the punishing prophet of the Old Testament.  His thunderous condemnations of David’s adultery is a perpetual reminder of the fundamentally repressive nature of this ancient world, where sexual desire is always wedded to the possibility of death.  The Old Testament God is a wrathful entity, determined to reign in and keep in check the powers of the flesh and the unruliness of sexual desire.

The film’s subdued yet seething aesthetic may have something to do with the studio that produced it.  Fox, after all, was a studio that was quite famous for its social problem films, and indeed studio head Zanuck was always obsessed with creating a story that had compelling and conflicted characters at its heart.  While not as grand in scope as some of its successors and contemporaries (it is interesting to note that MGM’s lush, sumptuous, and decadent Quo Vadis premiered the same year as this film), David and Bathsheba is nevertheless a compelling and thoughtful meditation on the role of sexual desire and the damage that it can inflect upon those who experience and encounter it.

Score:  10/10

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Screening History: “Samson and Delilah” (1949)

Well, I finally got around to watching my Blu-Ray edition of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Samson and Delilah, and I can definitely say that it was worth the wait.  The color transfer is excellent, and it just reinforces my opinion that the only way to really enjoy a Technicolor film is to see it in Blu-Ray.  The chromatic richness of this particular presentation makes it worth purchasing, even if you already own the DVD copy (as I do, of course).

The film, based loosely on the events depicted in the Old Testament, follows the brief but tumultuous affair between the judge Samson (Victor Mature) and the Philistine noblewoman Delilah (Hedy Lamarr).  After Samson spurns Delilah for the love of her sister Semadar, the former becomes determined to bring down the Israelite strongman.  Conspiring with the Saran (George Sanders) and his fellow nobles, she lures Samson into a trap whereby he loses his great strength.  Upon seeing him blinded and forced to grind grain while bound to a mill-wheel, Delilah repents of her treachery and aids Samson in his destruction of the towering Temple of Dagon, killing Delilah, the Saran, and hundreds of other celebrating Philistines.

This film continues to be one of my favourites in DeMille’s entire extensive oeuvre, since it illustrates so clearly all of his strengths as a filmmaker and manages to leave aside most of his weaknesses (for example, it is significantly shorter than The Ten Commandments, which, truth be told, is a tad too long, even for an epic).  However, a few of the director’s more glaring faults still shine through.  The ending, featuring the milksop Miriam and the rather too-cherubic Saul, feels like something of a tacked-on addition, a final bit of moralizing that attempts to tidy up the energies unleashed in the scene immediately before, in which the entire Temple of Dagon is brought crashing down in ruin by the blinded Samson.  The scene does not even have the ponderous and condemnatory tone of DeMille’s introduction (delivered in his own voice) and this, coupled with the fact that neither character is anywhere near as compelling as the two leads, makes the ending feel rushed and slightly superfluous, in much the same way that (in my opinion), the ending(s) of The Ten Commandments feel quite rushed and almost beside the point.

It’s all too easy to dismiss films like these add mere camp, but as I’ve long argued, even the silliest of epics often contain at least a germ of historical awareness, and so it is with DeMille’s film.  From the very beginning, DeMille’s paints the world of antiquity as one haunted by the specter of primordial forces, the raging thunder and the unruly, terrifying energy of the sexual unconscious that always haunts this film.  Further, the film makes ample use of animal language and imagery, ranging from the lion that Samson defeats and the jawbone of an ass that he uses to overcome his Philistine oppressors and secure his freedom.  While DeMille, in his usual fashion, desperately wants to make all of this terror add up to some sort of moral message about the importance of freedom and man’s eternal desire for liberty, the political message gets a little lost in the fray.

Thus, for all that the film so clearly wants to condemn the sexual energies that have led to the dismay and destruction of the Temple and the ruin of two prominent and promising lives, it doesn’t really succeed in its moral message.  The sumptuousness and richness of the lurid Technicolor (to take but one example), mitigates against the moralistic flow of the narrative, inviting a contemplation of the erotic potential of the chromatic image that always seems in excess of the narrative designed to contain it.  The world of desire and the body, it turns out, is infinitely more compelling than the world of order and light, even if it is all the more dangerous because of that fact.

All in all, Samson and Delilah well deserves the place it now occupies as the film that jumpstarted the boom of biblical epics that swept through Hollywood throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.  Somehow, it manages to perfectly tap into all of the anxieties and terrors haunting the world as the Cold War continued to escalate, the sexual unconscious of America’s psyche seethed and writhed with the challenges to gender norms provoked by WW II, and the threat of the bomb permeated practically every aspect of American culture.  This tale of dangerous and destructive desire, with its climactic destruction of the temple, shows just how perilous and viscerally terrifying the ancient world, and the modern one that succeeded it, could be.

Score:  9/10