Ben_hur_1959_poster

Screening History: “Ben-Hur”(1959)

Blogathon.jpg

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.

chariot_race_ben-hur

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.

Ben-Hur

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!

la_la_land_film

Film Review: Eros, the Bittersweet–“La La Land (2016)” and the Melancholy of What-Might-Have-Been

Warning: Spoilers follow.

In her remarkable book Eros: The Bittersweet, the classicist and poet Anne Carson eloquently argues that eros is fundamentally built on the power of lack, of the sweetness of being denied the very thing that we so desperately desire to possess. While this may seem antithetical to some–isn’t the whole point of erotic desire fulfillment?–I’ve always found this to be an extraordinarily apt way of describing the process by which we experience the ache of romantic desire, an ache that is all the more pleasurable and painful for its inability to ever truly be fulfilled.

The sense of love being something that is always tainted with the tang of bitterness is what, to me, makes La La Land, one of 2016’s most lauded films, such an extraordinary, and very timely, film. On the surface, it appears just another Hollywood product, something that is full of joy and exuberance and romance. Further, it is also one of those films that Hollywood loves to make, i.e. a film that is about (or at least seems to refer to) the history of Hollywood itself. Beneath the veneer of seeming happiness and saccharine satisfaction, however, there is something more profound at work, however, a painfully pleasurable awareness of the poignancy of thwarted love.

And indeed there is a great deal of exuberance and joy to be found in this film. Produced in CinemaScope–that venerable widescreen process that was such a godsend to the film industry in the 1950s–and shot in truly eye-popping colour, one gets the sense that this film expresses in a profound way the great pleasures that can be found in the transparent expression of feeling. Further, it appears to be a film that is in love with the practice of filmmaking. I don’t mean this to be dismissive, but instead to say that it recognizes both the rich and varied history of Hollywood filmmaking as well as the power of film to call to us and allow us to experience the world in all of its conflicted, contradictory joy and pleasure.

Yet it doesn’t take long for the reality of the world to begin to intrude into the utopian love story that burgeons between the two leads, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Each of them has their own career aspirations, he to be a successful jazz musician and to open his own club in order to revitalize the dying genre (this opens up a white savior storyline that is, to put it mildly, problematic). She, on the other hand, wants to become an actress. Gradually, they both move toward the fulfillment of their desires, but it sets them on a collision course so that, despite how much they love one another, they know that they cannot be together.

It’s rather hard for me to explain in words how heartrending this realization can be in real life. There’s something…sweetly, terribly pleasant about that moment when you recognize that no matter how much you love someone, you know that the external forces of your life–your career aspirations, your desire to be yourself–preclude you being able to fulfill a future with them. This is something that the film brings to the fore in an intensely visceral way, precisely because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been led to expect from the Hollywood ending.

Indeed, the film ultimately reveals that both characters have attained their professional goals. Sebastian has finally opened his club, and Mia has become a successful actress with a husband and small daughter. Yet, despite the fact that they both have attained everything they want, the film remains haunted by a sweet sense of melancholy, of a love that is true yet unfulfilled. It is precisely because the moments of joy and innocence have been so exuberantly conveyed and expressed that this final moment of renunciation is all the more poignant.

The final montage of the film is one of the most exquisitely, beautifully orchestrated pieces of sound design that I have ever seen. As Seb plays, the camera treats us to a vision of a world that might-have-been, if only things had turned out somewhat differently, if only they each of them had been able to do pursue their dreams while also allowing their love to flourish, if only…If only this were the world as we would like it to be rather than the world as it is. We see Sebastian make one crucially different decision, and we see what their lives would have been like together. We are invited to experience two alternative ideas of time, the what-might-have-been and the what-is, the latter always tinging and limning the former with a despairing awareness that we know, we know, that this joyful life can never be.

While we have come to associate the genres of the musical and the romantic comedy with the sort of happy endings so common in romantic films produced in Hollywood, La La Land denies that element of closure that we have come to expect. They part ways, sharing just one glance, a look far more meaningful than any words could ever be. Yet despite the fact that the two leads do not end up together–and despite the fact that Mia is seemingly happy married and has quietly settled down into her life of fame, fortune, and family, something doesn’t ring quite right. We wonder if she is really as happy as she appears, or whether she will always remain haunted by the question: what if? And for Sebastian, the question is even more acute, as we are led to believe that he is romantically unattached, his heart no doubt still yearning for a woman he cannot have.

If ever there were a film that spoke to the tortured and pained zeitgeist of 2016–a year that saw so many beloved figures and dreams fall into oblivion–a year that saw an eminently qualified woman and a progressive future go down in flames and in its place rise up a terrifying regime seemingly intent on rolling back the last 8 years as if they had never been. Though this is of course a romance, it is also a distillation of the political and cultural milieu in which it was released, a reminder that, though we would like to believe the world is a uncomplicated place where loves are fulfilled and the world becomes a better place, the truth is very much the opposite.

Ben-Hur_2016_poster

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.

 

The_Boys_in_the_Band-1970_movie_poster

Queer Classics: “The Boys in the Band”

Today in “Queer Classics,” we’re reaching back in time a bit, to what is considered to be one of the key films in the history of queer cinema, William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band. Based on the play of the same name, the film depicts a birthday party thrown by Michael (Kenneth Nelson) for his frienemy Harold (Leonard Fray). The invitees include:  the flamboyant and campy Emory (Cliff Gorman); Michael’s one-time lover Donald (Frederick Combs); tortured Bernard (Reuben Greene); vexed couple Hank and Larry (Laurence Luckinbill and Keith Prentice); toyboy Cowboy Tex (Robert La Tourneaux); and, rather inadvertently, allegedly straight Alan (Peter White). When Michael initiates a phone game in which each player must earn points by calling and confessing feelings of love to someone whom they truly loved, the result is a bubbling up of long-repressed tensions and hatreds.

One can see in this film a glimpse of a gay identity in flux. Released the year after Stonewall, one can see in these young gay men a great deal of the self-hatred that was part and parcel of that identity (and, unfortunately, still is in many places). References to psychologists and therapists abound, and the rampant consumption of drugs (both recreational and prescription), suggests the bleakness with which these characters view their lives. Furthermore, the frictions between Hank and Larry–the former of whom wants monogamy and commitment, the latter of whom wants commitment without the monogamy–highlights the deeply troubled history of same-sex coupledom. While monogamy is taken as the standard by which all queer relationships are evaluated today, this film shows that it is possible, and even desirable, to look outside that model and that it is possible, just possible, that two people can find fulfillment with one another without its strict binds.

The biting humour is as stinging now as it was way back in those bad ole days, precisely because so many of us queer men still feel a bit distant from the mainstream culture of which we are a part. Those of us who still relish the revolutionary potential of an explicitly queer politics still take a bit of an ironic look at the homonormative world around us. While those in this film do the same, their caustic venom is turned inward as much as it is outward.

The most difficult question to ask, and to answer, is whether any of the characters are truly likable. There is something tragically comic about Michael, who has clearly internalized the homophobia of the surrounding culture to such an extent that he begins to lash out at the people that he no doubt loves the most (but isn’t that what we all do, after all?) For his part, Harold is Michael’s double, and he may be even better at the bitterness game than his friend, a fact of which he is well aware. Neither of them may be likable in the traditional sense, but the film does seem to want us to understand them in the context of the culture that produced them.

There is something both profoundly moving and bleakly nihilistic about Michael’s final statement. When he says that, like his father who died in his arms, “I don’t understand any of it. I never did,” one gets the distinct sense that he is speaking not just of the mystery over what Allan was crying about, but also about the entire nature of their queer existence. How do you cope with a world that either denies your existence or ruthlessly pathologizes you? How do you live with yourself or with others? It’s a bleak and terrifying question, and the films ending ultimately fails to answer it with anything other than a certain nihilistic despair.

Beyond the acidic, biting dialogue there are so many other wonderful flourishes that truly call to a gay audience. There is, for example, the book on the films of Joan Crawford that Harold reads while the telephone game proceeds. If ever there were a sign of abjection, it would be Crawford, and her inclusion, however oblique, is one of the film’s defter touches.

Does the film, as so many have stated, trade in stereotypes about gay men? Certainly, but that doesn’t mean that such stereotypes don’t often have at least a slight ring of truth. For that reason, I found the film echoed many of the experiences I still have today, calling to that part of myself that still, strangely, yearns for those things that make gay culture, well, gay (or queer). I’ve often felt that I was born a generation or two too late, and that the things that I take pleasure in are the things treasured by the generations that preceded me. For that reason, I loved this film, and would definitely recommend it to all those seeking to gain an understanding of queer history.

Trumbo_(2015_film)_poster

Film Review: “Trumbo” (2015)

As a fledgling scholar working in classical Hollywood, I was very excited when I heard about Trumbo, the biopic about the famed member of the Hollywood Ten.  This group of screenwriters and directed would go down in history as a mostly principled group of men who refused to cave in to the anti-Communist paranoia that swept the nation in the wake of World War II.

The film essentially charts the process by which the Hollywood Ten is blacklisted by the industry due to their refusal to name names before HUAC.  After languishing at King Brothers Productions (during which he is also compelled by economic necessity to take on more and more projects), Trumbo at last begins to claw his way back into respectability with The Wild One.  However, it is not until a young actor and producer named Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and a dour director named Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) intercede that he finally breaks the blacklist, and Trumbo’s name is openly acknowledged in the credits of both Spartacus and Exodus.  The film ends with a vindicated Trumbo delivering a heartfelt and deeply philosophical address to gathered Hollywood dignitaries.

Like many recent dramas, Trumbo strikes a delicate balance between portraying the 1950s in exacting and delicate detail, while also excoriating the period for its hypocrisy and repressiveness.  The film does not allow for a great deal of ambiguity, and rightly so, as the fanatical overreach of HUAC destroyed the lives and careers of not just the Hollywood Ten, but also numerous other Hollywood professionals who saw their livelihoods demolished on even the faintest suspicion of Communist sympathies.

There are, fortunately, a few moments that undercut (or at least dilute) the more straightforwardly hagiographic tendencies.  As the third act progresses, it becomes clear that Trumbo is not quite the loving and affectionate family man that everyone has believed.  While the father/daughter film trope is a teensy bit on the lazy side, Cranston does a grand job bringing out the prickly and sometimes sanctimonious traits for which Trumbo became somewhat infamous.

While Trumbo is the driving narrative center of the film, a few other characters gain nuanced treatment.  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) emerges as a conflicted and somewhat tragic figure, an actor desperate to salvage his reputation and maintain his livelihood.  Though we are not invited to condone his betrayal of his friends (including Trumbo), the film clearly wants us to sympathize with him.  He makes the best decision in a terrible situation, and while the relationship between him and Trumbo never returns to its

While perhaps not nuanced, per se, Helen Mirren does an absolutely marvelous job bringing Hedda Hopper to life.  Mirren has always excelled at playing powerful women willing to do whatever it takes to defend their principles, and say what you will about Hopper’s red-baiting, she was a woman stalwart in her (misguided) principles.  While the film may give her too much credit for the imposition of the blacklist, she does have some memorable (and vicious) lines, as when she reveals her racism by reminding Louis B. Mayer of his scrupulously disguised Jewish identity, as a trait he shares with many of his fellow studio heads.

Several of the other players deserve accolades.  John Goodman is splendidly vulgar as Frank King, Trumbo’s employer (a role that Goodman has honed to perfection).  Diane Lane, while conveying the long-suffering yet fiercely independent Cleo Trumbo, is rather underused, while Elle Fanning hits an unfortunately strident note as Trumbo’s increasingly resentful daughter Nikola.  And poor Stephen Root is almost invisible as Frank’s brother Hymie, while Dean O’Gorman captures the look of Kirk Douglas, without quite mastering the older actor’s unique verbal mannerisms.

Trumbo is one of those films that the Hollywood film industry loves to periodically produce.  By granting Trumbo the last word, it allows the industry to atone for the sins of the past and to lionize those figures who it once did everything its power to destroy.  The film holds valuable lessons for us in the present, as we find ourselves as a nation confronted with a not-dissimilar atmosphere of paranoia.  Like Trumbo, we should all be very wary of those who would mobilize our fears and make us give up those things that we value most about America.

download

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)

Perhaps no genre is as synonymous with the 1940s as the film noir, that dark and seedy body of films that peeled away the veneer of respectability that other genres such as the musical presented to reveal the rottenness beneath American culture.  This is certainly the case with the 1946 film The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the most iconic and justly famous noirs.

The film follows Frank Chambers (John Garfield) as a drifter who ends up working at a diner for its chubby but likable owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and his beautiful (and much younger) wife Cora (Lana Turner).  Cora and Frank immediately become attracted to one another, and they soon hatch a plan to murder Nick and run away together.  While they succeed and manage to elude the law, they soon begin quarreling with one another, and after an unfortunate accident claims Cora’s life, Frank becomes ensnared in the legal system once again, though this time death is his sure reward.

As always, the femme fatale emerges as the film’s most compelling and most contradictory figure. As always, one cannot entirely blame her for her decision to run away with another man.  Her husband is hardly am interesting man, and while the film never says so explicitly, one can guess that an even younger Cora probably married Nick in order to gain a small measure of financial and domestic security.  Frank, on the other hand, represents all that is dangerous and exciting in the world (and thus everything her husband is not), even if he is also substantially less respectable.

While there are some who deride Lana Turner as one of the Hollywood stars who had more looks than talent (and there’s no denying that the camera does love her), she does bring a peculiar sort of dynamism and emotional volatility to Cora.  This is a woman who is clearly a great deal brighter and ambitious than her husband, and who has grown frustrated with the domestic life that has entrapped her.  All of this is ample material for Turner to utilize, and she does so to full effect.  Just as importantly, Lana is also infinitely more interesting than her co-star John Garfield, who is a serviceable but also rather bland hero.

Thus, for the sophisticated and resistant viewer, the fiction that Frank spins around his motivations reads as just a little too pat, a little too assured to be entirely true.  The film never wants us to see this, of course, content to grant him the status of a morally dubious male antihero.  Yet Garfield does not have the same sort of authorial and narrational assurance of a Humphrey Bogart, for example, with the effect that we (or at least I), don’t find him to be all that convincing when he consistently takes such pains to paint himself as the victim of someone else’s manipulation.  Like so many other noirs, the entire film is told from his point of view, but that doesn’t mean that we, as the audience, necessarily have to believe everything that he says.

And then, of course, there is the disconcerting fact that Nick is one of film noir’s most boring and plodding husbands, even worse than Phyllis’s husband in Double Indemnity (who was more angry and seething).  Like those other husbands, however, he does not seem to know, or care, that Cora may have desires of her own that exist beyond the confines of the domestic world in which she is currently entrapped.  He is amiable enough, but we’re not invited to feel particularly sorry for him when he is struck down.  In the film’s representational scheme, he is the outward sign of the internal emptiness that always seems to afflict the post-war world’s sense of itself.

Like the best noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice allows us to indulge our own worst natures, the things about ourselves, both individually and collectively, that we would like the world to believe either don’t exist or remain in control.  While the film ultimately punishes its evil doers–the law being, ultimately, the postman of the title–the inexorability of the law remains cold comfort.  But then again, what did you expect from a film noir?

Score:  9/10

Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part One (1949-1955)

Welcome to the first of my three entries for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, focusing on the rise and fall of the biblical epic.  Today’s entry will focus on the rise of the genre’s popularity during the 1950s, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and ending with the rather lackluster films that characterized the genre’s output in the middle of the decade.

When Cecil B. DeMille released Samson and Delilah in 1949, the film no doubt looked like something of a throwback to a much earlier period in classic Hollywood.  The biblical epic had, in the past, been quite popular, particularly in the silent era and in the 1930s, when DeMille made such films as The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), both of which highlighted the director’s signature ability to blend a moral message with sin and sex.  And Samson and Delilah delivers more of the same, with the fleshly bulk of Victor Mature’s Samson easily seduced by the sumptuous and sensual Hedy Lamar’s Delilah.  The ancient world emerges in DeMille’s film as a site of terror and unbridled desires and while the film strenuously attempts to tame this world through its moralizing, it also acknowledges that the vagaries of the sexual unconscious are not so easily brought under control.

33-victor-mature-theredlist

The “voluptuous enslavement” of Victor Mature’s Samson to Hedy Lamarr’s sensuous Delilah (I borrow the phrase from the fine monograph, “Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema.”

DeMille’s film ignited something of a renaissance of the genre and the studios, still reeling from the Paramount Decrees (which mandated that they divest themselves of their theater chains, thus removing a crucial source of revenue), saw the epic as a chance to rejuvenate their lagging financial fortunes.  Both Fox and MGM released epics in 1951 (David and Bathsheba and Quo Vadis, respectively), which took on very different moments of antiquity, with the former focusing on the tumultuous and dangerous romance between the biblical King David and the latter narrating the love affair between a bellicose Roman soldier and a Christian maiden, all under the vindictive aegis of the mad emperor Nero.

The epic creates a particular vision of the world of antiquity as a world of fleshly and sexual excess and, while this might seem to be just another way in which mid-century America could excite itself while also taking comfort in the soothing balm of a moral message, I would argue that this emphasis on sex also serves a (perhaps unintentional) acknowledgment of the terrifying power of history to elude all our attempts to make sense of it.   These films betray a profound ambivalence about both sexuality (which, while pleasurable, also contains danger and the spectre of death) and about the thrust of history and the narrative drive toward containment.

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM's "Quo Vadis" (1951).

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM’s “Quo Vadis” (1951).

Further, these early entries of the genre express a deep ambivalence about the period of antiquity, which emerges as both the place where the miraculous and timeless presence of Christ (and, in some films, God the Father), still seems possible, even as it remains steadfastly opposed to the secular presence of the human and the political.  Even Quo Vadis, which seems to be the most unambiguous in its celebration of the triumph of Christian morality over Roman licentiousness, ends with the legions of Galba marching into Rome, their phallic military glory and thorough secular worldliness a pointed counterpart to the otherwordly presence of such figures as the aged and beatific Peter and the other Christians who lose their lives in the course of the film.  Thus, while the converted Marcus hopes for a more permanent world and faith,  the chaotic elements of the film, ranging from the legions that open and close it to the riotous citizens that topple Nero from his throne, suggest that the world of the flesh will remain flawed and tainted by the corporeal bodies of secular history.

These films, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledge the contradictory temporality that Christ occupies.  Since, at this early stage in the genre’s resurgence, Christ does not yet make a physical appearance, he must remain instead at the edges of the frame and the narrative, a potent force for historical change yet also unrepresentable precisely because He also supposedly represents the timeless, that which exists beyond the borders of the film frame and the terrifying world of antiquity, whether that be the ancient Levant of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba or the corrupt Rome of Quo Vadis.  

Given the enormous financial success of these outings, it should come as no surprise that the studios, in their usual rush to capitalize on trends, should want to go bigger and better.  Cue 1953’s The Robe, Fox’s chosen showcase for their widescreen technology of CinemaScope, which featured a curved screen that was wider than it was tall, all in an attempt to create a more profound sense of immersion and, according to the industry press at the time, participation on the part of the audience.  The film features Richard Burton as tribune Marcellus Gallio and Victor Mature as the Greek slave Demetrius as they both encounter the earth-shattering presence of Christ.  Marcellus is ultimately martyred by the mad emperor Caligula, while Demetrius survives to carry the Gospel forward.

Theatrical release poster for Fox's "The Robe" (1953).

Theatrical release poster for Fox’s “The Robe” (1953).

Following the release of The Robe, the genre continued to maintain its presence in many Hollywood studio production schedules, though the films released in the mid-1950s didn’t attain quite the heights of their predecessors.  Fox released Demetrius and the Gladiators, the sequel to The Robe, in 1954, while Warner Bros. released The Silver Chalice, based on the novel by Thomas B. Costain, in the same year, as well as Helen of Troy in 1956.  Even relatively minor studios got in on the action:  Columbia released Salome in 1953 (using it as a vehicle for star Rita Hayworth), Universal (recently elevated to the ranks of the majors due to the Paramount Decrees) released Douglas Sirk’s The Sign of the Pagan in 1954, and United Artists released Alexander the Great (starring the perennially tortured and histrionic Richard Burton) in 1956.

These various iterations of the genre can in some ways be seen as an attempt by mid-century American culture to come to terms with the terror of history (a term I borrow from both religious theorist Mircea Eliade and from historian Tefiolo F. Ruiz), represented most poignantly by the nuclear past and the threat of a nuclear future oblivion.  These films attempt to both contain the past and its terrors–the death and martyrdom that lie in the wake of the relentless march of Christian victory, or the unbridled desires that bring entire diegetic worlds to their knees–through narrative devices as well as through the promise, however illusory, of the ability to participate, to gain agency, in the workings of the great moments and individuals of history.  Further, these films also suggest that the ancient world, as dangerous and troubled as it is, in many ways offers a contradictory and perilous utopia, a place of plenitude, excess, and emotional transparency, even as it is also the a site of danger and punishment, where the divine will of God (itself often as inaccessible visually as the workings of history with which it is often conflated in these films) can demand the life of those chosen to reveal His will.

Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I explore the apogee of the genre, with such classic (one might even say iconic) films as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960), before we move into the genre’s fall in the mid-1960s.