Dissertation Days (35): Out, Out, Damn Chapter!

I know I keep saying this, but I think I mean it this time. It looks like Chapter 3 will be sent off tomorrow. I’m finishing a few last-minute things–mostly footnotes and bibliographic entries that eluded me–but I’m so damn close! If I can just push myself over the finish line, and if I can just get this sent in tomorrow, I will feel soooo much better. Then I can take a day to catch my breath and then dive full-on into Chapter 4.

I am very happy to report that that Chapter is really coming along. I’m coming to that part in the process where I’m starting to get into the weeds, drilling down into the details that I really need to make it click. Today, I worked mainly on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible. For some reason, I really find myself drawn to this film.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily, depending on how you look at it), there is really only one chapter of a book that I’ve been able to find that discusses it at length. This has caused me to lean rather heavily on that one chapter, which is something of a handicap. On the other hand, it allows me to really negotiate and engage with another scholar’s ideas in great detail, something I haven’t really been able to do.

I also started a new book for research, this one devoted to the icon of Mark Antony. While this particular character is only tangential to my argument, I hope to find a few nuggets in the volume that will help me talk about the politics of the 1963 Cleopatra, particularly the way that it deals with politics, imperial stability, and imperial fall and decline. I hope to have that one finished in the next week or so, and then it’s on to another book that provides some context on the politics of containment.

I’m really hoping that Chapter 4 starts to come along a bit faster. I’ve been making steady progress, but I really want to pick up the pace. I tend to get mired down in chapters if I don’t get them done quickly, so I’m hoping to avoid that. Of course, a lot of that hinges on Chapter 3 and its reception, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Tomorrow may not see a Dissertation Days update, but Friday will be back at it.

Forward, friends. Forward.

Dissertation Days (31): Work, Work, Work

Overall, I think this was a better work day than yesterday. I actually managed to go beyond my 1,000 word goal for Chapter 4, and my re-reading of Chapter 3 made me feel like it’s not total dreck after all. Of course, that could be the caffeine talking, but I do like to think that this draft shows significant improvement from its predecessor.

If I have one complaint about Chapter 3, it’s that I think it’s still a bit bloated. If my adviser suggests it, I think that I will take out about 10 pages of excess, both in the context and close readings sections. It’ll work for right now, but there’s no question that the project as a whole can be a bit leaner. There is, though, a certain appropriateness to having a chapter about epics be too long. However, I’m not sure that my adviser, or my committee as a whole, will view it in the same light. There is something to be said, after all, for concision.

Chapter 4 is still coming apace. I felt better about the material I produced today than I did yesterday, both in the section about Cleopatra and about Fall of the Roman Empire. I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this will be the least dynamic and original of my chapters, but I suppose that’s an acceptable thing.

I am also not entirely sure how I’m going to fit my discussion of John Huston’s The Bible in there, though there are moments when I see how it fits. If I have to, I may eventually end up moving it to some sort of conclusion, but for the moment I’m going to keep it where it is and continue to hope that its connection to the other parts of the chapter becomes clearer as I go along.

Tomorrow, I am going to start my final read-through of Chapter 3, focusing on smoothing out any remaining rough edges, as well as making sure that the bibliography I have is the updated one (especially since I deleted some entries for this revision). I’ll also have to make sure that I fill out some of the footnotes that are still missing information.

Furthermore, I think I will only write 500 words of Chapter 4 tomorrow. I really want to get Chapter 3 knocked out ASAP, so I’m afraid that has to be my priority.

Onward and upward, as I always say. Onward and upward.

Dissertation Days (15): Three Outta Five Ain’t Bad!

I know it’s been a while since I posted a dissertation update. My Parents and I lost a furry member of our family, so we’ve been grieving. Today, though, I knew I had to get back in the swing of things. And here we are.

So, this chapter of my dissertation has basically five complete sections: context (historical); context (theoretical); close reading of Samson and Delilah; close reading of David and Bathsheba; and close reading of Quo Vadis. There is also, of course, a very brief conclusion.

So far, I’ve managed to finish three out of those five, especially since I managed to finish up my close reading of David and Bathsheba. It’s a little briefer than the one about Samson and Delilah, but that’s okay. It’s basically meant to be a complement to that earlier reading, an elaboration of the many ways in which the historico-biblical epic engages with the question of desire and history.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way that this section turned out, and I think I’ve added some nuance to the ways in which scholars have already talked about the film. I really think that thinking about colour adds a new layer of understanding to the way in which the film engages with the question of history and desire. David and Bathsheba may not have attained quite the canonical status of some other epics of the midcentury period, it does, I think, deserve more critical consideration than it typically receives.

Tomorrow, I’ve got to get deep into the weeds on the section of Quo Vadis. I’ve thought about excising it from the chapter, but have opted not to. I do think there is a strong case to be made for the way in which queer desire in the film operates at the level of form, and it makes a compelling counterpoint to the question of female desire raised by the other films discussed. So, it stays in for right now.

I was planning on submitting this chapter later this month, but since I’ll be traveling for quite a while, I’m going to submit it around the middle of June. However,  I going to continue working on Chapter 4 (which I fully intend to do tomorrow, in addition to my other work).

There is still a lot of work, but I think most of it will be done this week.

It can be done.

Dissertation Days (10): Bits and Pieces

Well, friends, I wasn’t quite as productive as I should have been. It was a busy day of meetings and such, and that prevented me from working on what I had intended to. I just need to remind myself that it’s okay if I don’t meet my goal every single day. Sometimes, it’s not going to be possible for one reason or another, what with grading, editorial stuff, and just general life.

However, I did manage to chip away at a few paragraphs that were giving me a particularly large amount of trouble. I even managed to craft this sentence about the visual contrast between the Philistines and the Danites: “The color scheme, bifurcated as it is along lines of power and prostration, registers the essential brutality of history.” This, in fact, helped me to clarify some of the issues that I’ve been struggling with, and I think it actually may end up being the linchpin for the whole chapter. As I go on to discuss in the rest of the chapter, the spectacle of color provides an immediate experience of the violence of erotic history.

Also, while I’m thinking of it, I also managed to weed out several of my “couplets.” I have this nasty habit of pairing up two nouns (or two adjectives) to round out a sentence. For example, I almost wrote “the violence of the erotic and of history” above but changed it. I don’t know whyI have this habit, but I’m working on breaking it.

I also managed to revise several of the paragraphs associated with my close reading of Samson and Delilah, so that actually felt good. That particular reading is beginning to cohere nicely, and I hope to have it done by early next week (though that means I might have to work during part of the weekend).

There might be a little bit of productivity left in me tonight, but I honestly rather doubt it. However, I do feel like I can get at least 10 pages revised tomorrow, as well as my customary 500 words of Chapter 4. If I’m really lucky, I might even make it entirely through my historical context section. Wouldn’t that be something?

I have to get a lot done in the next couple of days, before the travel-heavy May and June begin.

Sigh. There is, as they say, no rest for the weary.

So, on to another day.

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.

 

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