So let it be written! So let it be done!

It’s that time of year again, and I know we’ve all been looking forward to it.  Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments will receive it’s annual Passover/Easter airing this Saturday (3/30/13 at 7:00 p.m. on ABC)!  As I’ve repeatedly commented, it’s ridiculous that I get sucked into it, but I basically always do.  DeMille regularly managed to take something that really shouldn’t work and somehow make it compulsively watchable, and this is his final (and popularly best-remembered) example.  It got me thinking a little bit, however, about the interaction of film and religion.  Cecil ‘s formula was to emphasize “accuracy” and piety while looking for every opportunity to also play up the sex and violence.  That worked exceptionally well for him, but it isn’t particularly fair to whatever religious tradition ends up in his crosshairs.  But can a film ever be?  If film is an art form (which I believe it is) then it should be able to legitimately deal with anything.  Religion is such a delicate subject, however, that it’s repeatedly shown itself to be a minefield.

Let’s just examine the track record of films dealing with the beginnings of Christianity, shall we?  DeMille’s original King of Kings (1927) was castigated for even showing Christ (something the 1959 re-make of Ben-Hur assiduously avoided).  The Nicholas Ray 1961 version of King of Kings took flack for not only showing Jesus, but also having the temerity to show him, and his disciples, as men of approximately the right ages (rather than as imposing elders with long beards and attendant gravitas).  George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) became such a financial risk that it turned into a long game of “spot-the-star-cameo” (it tends to undermine credibility when you keep thinking things like, “Isn’t that Shelly Winters?!?  Oh, look it’s John Wayne!  And that Pat Boone really IS an angel!”).  Martin Scorsese tried to present a thoughtful and serious discussion of Christ’s mortal aspect in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – and was pilloried for it.  And I know a lot of people who can’t react civilly to the mere mention of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).  Taken altogether, not such a great track record for film as a vehicle for religious expression, though it’s ironic that lots of people have no problem with a lot of unconventional religious ideas when they’re presented in an art gallery.

I don’t, of course, want anyone to think the issue is solely a problem for Christianity.  Judaism has the aforementioned The Ten Commandments, Hindus get Guide (1965) and Buddhists can watch Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) – but that’s about it.  And Islam has never quite figured out how to deal with the ban on portrayals of the Prophet, though some filmmakers have given it a shot in films like The Message (1977) and the more recent animated film Muhammad: The Last Prophet (2001).

When thinking about these titles, it’s clear that no film can ever satisfy everyone when it comes to religion, and that’s really o.k.  I appreciate the virtues and faults of everything I’ve just listed, but part of what they all should do is prompt a little bit of discussion about the actual ideas which lie behind any of them.  Is it really that awful for the disciples to be depicted as young men?  Do the star cameos detract from Max Von Sydow’s performance as Jesus?  Does DeMille go too far by including Dathan (a character, by the way, who actually appears in the Bible: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+16&version=NRSV).  Is Marty really out of bounds when he suggests that a wholly human Jesus might legitimately not want to die on the cross?  And all that Mel-Gibson-y violence really does have a theological point, doesn’t it?  And this is where these films make a difference.  They might inspire you (not for nothing am I named “Jeffrey”), and they might upset you, but either way, here’s hoping they get you to actually think about what’s being shown and how it’s being depicted.  If that prompts you to open up your Bible, Torah, Koran, Dhammapada or Bhagavad Gita, then they’ve served a useful purpose (and we should all be more familiar with all of those books than most of us are).

So, here’s hoping everyone enjoys The Ten Commandments tomorrow night (or any of the other films I just mentioned, at your earliest convenience), but when you’re done watching pull out the appropriate scriptures, do a little reading, and see how you think the filmmakers did.  Then see what happens from there.

What would Aesop make of it?

I know, I know, it’s been awhile.  It’s just that life sometimes gets in the way…  At any rate, I’ve watched a few films lately that congeal around an interesting theme, and I thought it might be worth mulling over in writing.  The story of the city mouse and the country mouse goes back at least to Aesop’s fables (maybe further), but in the Twentieth Century the story took an unexpected turn.  By the 1920’s, urban and suburban development started to cause a massive shift away from agrarian ideals and towards metropolitan life.  The struggle contained in that shift is plainly reflected in the narrative content of films throughout the world.

In America, the underrated Harold Lloyd is one of the great straddlers of the rural/urban divide, and no film demonstrates this more than Girl Shy (1924).  Lloyd stars as a shy country boy, so nervous when talking to women that he stutters uncontrollably.  Despite this handicap, he’s written a book about his lovemaking prowess, and travels into the city to visit a publisher.  On the way he encounters the rich (and very metropolitan) heiress Jobyna Ralston, and they fall into a state of complete, mutual infatuation.  After the usual plot pleasantries and amusements, Lloyd is forced to race from the country into town to rescue his beloved from marrying an oily big city bigamist – and the entire last half hour of the film encompasses Lloyd’s trip from the country to the city, during which he uses a variety of transportation types (car, streetcar, motorcycle, horsecart and horse) as he races to the rescue.  The chase not only physically exposes the transformation from rural to urban, but also manipulates the dichotomy between the pure, traditional rural values and the morally problematic pitfalls of city life.  The country boy saves the city girl, but there’s no question as to which locale is preferable.

A few years earlier Henry King explored the same split in his The Seventh Day (1922) wherein a yacht full of wealthy wastrels is forced into port in a rustic town where they’re exposed to quaint rural concepts like “work”, “church”, “sincerity” and (of course) “love”.  Once again virtue triumphs as humble fisherman Richard Barthlemess and his quaint, young sister triumph over the corruptions of the city, enabling improbable love matches with two of the city folk.

As urbanization accelerated, some filmmakers tried to straddle the line by setting their stories entirely in the country and having main characters problematically pine for the big city.  In both Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (Henry King, 1952) and Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949), discontented women desperately hope to escape small towns by traveling to the nearest metropolis – Chicago.  In each case, they’re willing to manipulate others and compromise themselves in pursuit of the glamour of city life, and in both instances they’re cosmically punished for their malcontented (and implicitly amoral) pining.

The theme emerges even in documentaries as diverse as Humphrey Jennings’ English Harvest – which thoroughly romanticizes country life, and which can be seen here:

Or Godard’s British Sounds, which implicitly criticizes modern work with a segment set in a contemporary auto factory for which the soundtrack is entirely composed of the noises of the shop floor (oh that Jean-Luc!).

Even more interesting to me, however, is the way in which the theme continued (in a perverted way) in a couple of other recent films I watched.  The otherwise execrable Green Card (Peter Weir, 1990) features Andie MacDowell trying to cheat her way into an apartment lease via a fake marriage, because the particular apartment includes an elaborate indoor greenhouse.  Her duplicity is especially ironic given that her life seems mainly to revolve around efforts to encourage the planting of gardens and green spaces throughout Manhattan, thus returning to city-dwellers some of the contentment and clarity previously attributed to country folk.

More amusingly, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (Eli Craig, 2010) inverts standard horror movie formulas while returning to a country/city theme.  Tucker and Dale are “hillbillies”, but they (and the farm-raised college girl who befriends them) are much more reasonable than the city-bred college kids who cause so much trouble by bringing their wanton ways to the country.

In narrative theory, the city/country theme is an example of a “masterplot” where a basic story (in this case over two thousand years old) recurs with minor variations.  Having watched all of these films over the last three weeks, it was striking to me how this particular plot has been manipulated over the course of the last hundred years, and what that clearly suggests about the massive changes in physical existence (and moral conceptions) mankind has experienced in that time frame.  Heaven only knows how it will change further over the next hundred years…