The Place of the Skull

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Look — it’s Jesus!

Since Easter is approaching, we decided to watch a man get nailed to some timber.

To say that Julien Duvivier’s GOLGOTHA — a big budget, star-studded life-and-death-and-life of Christ movie — falls into the trap of the biblical movie, is to not say nearly enough. Duvivier’s film flings itself headlong into that trap, with the crazed abandon of Joe Cocker, if Joe Cocker were a film about Christ. It’s not the best metaphor in the world, but you get what I mean.

To clarify: a common complaint about Hollywood epics is that they lack real people, or at any rate people we can relate to. Part of the trouble is dialogue. “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks,” as Howard Hawks put it, is a brilliant encapsulation of the problem of presenting characters from an age and culture very different from out own, who would have spoken a language different from the one we’re presenting them in.

(Sidebar: Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic flogathon THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST cuts this Gordian knot with the classic simplicity of the true moron: it doesn’t matter that the languages used in Gibson’s s&m porno Christ are not the right ones for the period. All that matters is that the vast majority of modern viewers don’t understand a word of what’s being said, thus accurately recreating the effect of being present at the real crucifixion.)

The result of all these difficulties with speech and characterisation is often a certain wooden quality, often reinforced by the scale of these productions. Recreating life in ancient times can be very expensive, and filmmakers sometimes see this expense as a goal rather than a result. Plodding, monumental epics naturally tend to diminish the human element, encouraging the actors to declaim and strike poses, so the whole problem is exacerbated.

And then again, it’s an artistic challenge to imagine what people were actually like in earlier times. We can err by making them too like us, but also by making them too different. When Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what age,” he inquired, “did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?”

Duvivier’s movie, a super-production of the kind more associated with Hollywood than France, was filmed amid giant sets, with a ceaselessly gliding camera. Since the days of CABIRIA and INTOLERANCE, filmmakers have recognised that camera movement allows for the celebration of vast scale, although they have likewise struggled with the fact that such movements, when motivated by a desire to explore space rather than follow characters around, can tend to minimise the people still further. Duvivier, like George Lucas, built his fantasy city in Tunisia, although his gigantic Jerusalem — a combination of massive sets, existing structures and special effects — easily beats the crap out of Mos Eisley Spaceport.

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“There never was a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

The restless tracking shots with which Duvivier examines this vast arena call to mind Michael Curtiz, with whom Duvivier is often compared. Such an analogy often does a disfavour to both men, by implying that they’re impersonal artisans, capable of turning their hands to any genre, and devoid of personal trademarks. Curtiz certainly has a signature style, which involves a high-gloss visual surface, a roving camera, and an avoidance of thematic obsessions, apart from a tendency to linger on moments of sadism. Duviviershares some of the visual concerns, but was also usually involved in the scripting of his films, which do cover a wide range of territories, but feature recurring themes and character types too. In this film, however, he could almost be a parody of Curtiz, ignoring the people and story and concentrating most of his attention on design and cruelty.

But the devotion to the look isn’t 1005 consistent. Although most of the characters are chipboard stereotypes — grumbling pharisees, a shifty Peter, an angsty Judas — a few touches give humanity (of a degraded kind) to the Roman soldiery, who are heard grumbling about the weather and laughing as they poke a blindfolded Christ with a stick (“Which one of us was that, eh?”), in a variation on the arse-kicking game played by Hugh Herbert in FOG OVER FRISCO. And while Christ himself is weirdly de-emphasised as a central character, rendered more as icon than personality, Pontius Pilate and Herod each get moments when the film slows its pace right down, and Duvivier pays rapt attention to the faces of his actors. Of course, since the actors are Jean Gabin and Harry Baur, this kind of star treatment is to be expected, but it’s nonetheless startling when Duviver holds on Baur’s great face for second after second, as Herod sizes up an off-screen Christ. (Christ is frequently off-screen, even in scenes where he’s present. It feels like Duvivier wants us to be startled whenever we do actually get to see his main character: a commendably mad idea.)

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This is a remarkable scene all round, since it has become invested with the grimmest of all possible ironies. Herod is played by an actor later tortured and murdered by the Gestapo. Jesus is played by an actor who was a fervent collaborationist and Nazi sympathiser, Robert Le Vigan. To see Baur passing judgement on Le Vigan is quite weird, melancholy and disturbing.

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Then comes the flogging, which Duvivier does not show, instead slowly closing in on the faces of witnesses gazing through a barred window. “We want to see!” someone cries, but Duvivier does not let US see. There’s a sly, cynical wit here that Mel Gibson could learn from, if it were possible to put the words “Mel”, “Gibson” and “learn” in the same sentence without the sky falling in. There’s also the famous “blood libel,” which brought Gibson some criticism — as I understand it, the line is in the bible, so Duvivier (or even Gibson) including it is defensible on grounds of fidelity to the source, but it’s still unfortunate.

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Which it does, right after they nail Jesus up. The traditional death mass (AKA “the theme from THE SHINING”) gives way to an insane xylophonic freakout as the firmament pours past at time-lapse velocity, rent asunder periodically by the most convincing SFX lightning-flashes I’ve ever seen in a ’30s movie.

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I never knew Judas hanged himself on Skull Island.

As you can probably guess from my description, and from any memories you might have of George Stevens’ beautiful but lumbering arse-marathon THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, Duvivier’s film isn’t exactly moving, just solemn and sweeping, but it’s at least spectacular in creative ways, and follows its own perverse course so blindly that it achieves a kind of artistic grandeur above mere spectacle. It’s exactly the kind of film which might tend to reinforce the usual prejudices about Duvivier as an empty-headed purveyor of glossy production values, but once you’ve seen LA FIN DU JOUR or PEPE LE MOKO or POIL DE CAROTTE or PANIQUE you ought to be inoculated against that kind of poppycock. And there’s an underlying strangeness to the whole approach that seperates it from the monumentalism of Stevens’ much-maligned film.

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31 Responses to “The Place of the Skull”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Robert Le Vigan’s Jesus looks a lot like Christopher Lee. Seriously this is the oldest Jesus I have seen from the still. But a very Gallic looking Jesus, I suppose. Obviously him being a vicious anti-semite collaborationist is terribly ironic.

    In Pasolini’s film, all the Jewish high priests wear these weird hats modelled apparently on cardinal gear. His film was shot in Southern Italy and used the local Italian dialects. The reason was that Modern Nazareth in the West Bank region was too modernized and touristy. George Stevens film is of course legendary for John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion.

    The idea of shooting a film entirely in Aramaic is a total joke. The reason is that the pronounciations are dead and lost for good, all you can do is guess what they talked like. It’s no more authentic than Dimitri Tiomkin’s gibberish chorals for LAND OF THE PHAROAHS.

    The one reason why LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is so striking is that for the first time you have a film stripping away all “Christian” symbols. The music by Peter Gabriel for instance is totally earthy and non-Occident. Pasolini’s film still used Bach(and of course Odetta) while Scorsese did something else. And Willem Dafoe’s Jesus is a rare non-charismatic Jesus, he comes off as an eccentric, but he’s stunning in the scene where he faces Saul/Paul(or as Paul Schrader calls him, the Man who invented Christianity). And before that in Bunuel’s THE MILKY WAY where Jesus is an adorable man-child.

  2. Arthur S. Says:

    Speaking of PASSION and flogging, I recently saw Rohmer’s PERCEVAL LE GALLOIS, his wacky adaptation of the Arthurian legend in the manner of medieval presentation. At the end of that, for no reason of plot at all, he shows the audience a medieval passion play in full and it looks suspiciously like Gibson’s gorefest. Of course, there’s not as much blood but it looks quite similar or maybe the passion plays are all like this. The great part about that scene is the use of Gregorian chants on the soundtrack, it’s really stirring. And this is authentic music from the middle ages re-orchestrated, not something made up by Rohmer(who’s reknowned for being fastitidious about period detail).

  3. A short clip from Ferdinand Zecca’s 1905 La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ:

  4. Peter, that’s beautiful! You are my rock.

    I particularly love the combo of YouTube digitisation with 1905 film stencil-colouring. It’s kind of trippy, and everything looks like a cut-out.

    I don’t think ALL passion plays are uber-violent, but I’m not an expert. Maybe back in the day they were. Gibson’s vision is certainly medieval in its brutality. With the effect he was aiming at though — total immersion in the sensory overload of being PRESENT at the crucifiction — it doesn’t much matter what language he used as long as it’s not recognisable. His preference for screening the film without subtitles makes this clear — he wants us to feel we’ve travelled through time and space and are really THERE, unable to understand a word, just witnessing this brutality and hysteria. Because obviously that’s the part of the Bible he understands. He’s nothing if not consistant, and I would actually call the film a success on its own terms. They’re just not terms that interest me so much.

    Scorsese’s decision not to use recognisably post-biblical, western music was a very sound one, like the Nino Rota score for Satyricon, which doesn’t even try to guess at what Roman music was like, but just avoids sounding like music from a film about Romans. It’s a bit like Gibson’s Aramaic, in a way.

  5. Mel Gibson’s NASCAR Jesus isn’t based on the gospels at all but rather “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ” — the ravings of a bi-polar anti-semitic nun, that the extreme right of the church (and considering the church is exreme right to begin with you can imagine what they’re like) has been trying for years to make a saint.

    It doesn’t get any sicker than this crap.

  6. Arthur S. Says:

    Ugh…Gibson’s film has artistically speaking put a damper on the whole Life of Christ series of films. Now if a film-maker chooses to make a film about Jesus for any number of reasons, he’s literally trapped because no matter how he shoots the crucifixion the audience will immediately summon up Gibson’s mess. The only option is to not show the crucifixion, end it with Judas kissing Jesus and cutting straight to the ressurection.

    Or a better idea is to make a film adaptation of THE GRAND INQUISITOR, the brief story in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV where Jesus comes back to Inquisition dominated Spain and is told by the Church representatives that they don’t need Jesus anymore and if he stays, they’ll burn him at the stake and make sure the people pray for it to happen. Wonder if a film-maker could get away with that.

    The most depressive thing is that for today’s teenage targeted audience whose culture is entirely secular, the Gibson film will be the only introduction to Jesus that they’ll have and it’s pretty sad.

    I saw MARY recently, a film by Abel Ferrara which deals with the New-Age interest in Jesus in the 21st Century and in that film there’s a line where Forest Whitaker’s character interviews a cocky film-maker played by Mathew Modine(who’s just made a film about Jesus with Juliette Binoche playing an actress cast as Magdalene whose name Mary Palesi gives the film it’s title) and he talks about how there’s no need to re-tell the Jesus story anymore.

  7. That’s Ferrara’s best film,IMO. He’s a very serious Catholic scholar and goes into a lot of things that aren’t ever brought up, including the fact that Mary Magdalene was an full-fledged disciple and had a gospel of her own. Naturally the Church threw it out, not only because she was a woman but because it was the one gospel where Jesus said he was not the “Son of God” but merely a teacher.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Scorsese’s LAST TEMPTATION(which Ferrara seems quite taken with) is among other things unique in that it’s the first visual iconography of The Last Supper in the history of visual representations of Jesus(essentially the history of Western visual arts) to include women and in that film Jesus is usually flanked by Judas and Magdalene, rather than Peter in other cases. It’s a pretty stirring film and The Last Supper scene in that film is beautiful.

    Abel Ferrara – serious Catholic scholar. A long way for a guy whose first film is titled NINE LIVES OF A WET PUSSY. Incidentally, the auteur of SHOWGIRLS, Paul Verhoeven considers himself a Christian scholar and plans to make HIS Life of Christ someday…I am not making this up. And his film will be about how the Church has screwed their Lord over. Why not make a film about St. Paul who basically invented Christianity more or less. Or a film about the rise of the Catholic Church would be interesting, it’s after all the world’s oldest active political organization. I believe Gore Vidal wrote a book about a period of Roman history where the Church transformed itself from persecuted to persecutors of native pagan rites.

  9. Oh, 1905 Jesus is to die (and be resurrected) for. Is he floating away in a bagel at the end?

    I believe both Mel Gibson and his loathsome father belong to the schismatic order which the Pope recently welcomed back into the fold. For them Holocaust denial is just the fancy fringe on a much more traditional form of eliminationist antisemitism. Nice job, pontiff.

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    Well a Hitler Jugent has to look out for his own after all.

    How the Church can possibly recover from the disaster of his papacy is a mystery? And a Pope is in pontiff as long as he lives unless some cardinals get creative. Cardinals have a history for creativity like that young Pope in the 60s before John Paul II.

  11. It’s a bloody awful pope, this pope we’ve got, isn’t it? Not that his predecessors have been exactly liberal. Sooner or later the Catholic faith has to come into, if not the 21st century, at least the 18th. It does seem likely to happen during our lifetime, if only because the popes are all so old the turnover is pretty quick, and it’ll only take one softie…

    Verhoeven has a big storehouse of info on Jesus and Hitler, both of whom he wants to make biopics about. But when an interviewer asked him frankly whether he ever thought he’d be allwoed to make them, he admitted he probably wouldn’t.

    MY Jesus film would never be allowed: I’d portray him as a conman whose cult got out of hand. It seems to me a perfectly feasible interpretation of history (with a charismatic, likeable rogue at the centre) and therefore fair comment, but I suspect others would disagree.

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    Jesus as a conman…well anything’s possible I guess. Except whatever your issues with Christianity it’s kind of hard to break through Jesus’ own sayings in the Gospels, it’s progressive and quite leftist and anti-Temple and anti-Roman. That’s the issue with Christianity is that at the centre is the man who embodied for years and centuries a fighting revolutionary which inspired anti-colonial sentiment in Latin America and Africa which was colonized by the Church.

    Christianity started out as a small left-wing Jewish sect that eventually became the most powerful religion in history, and actually the first religion in essence since earlier it was basically folk confined. Like Judaism had no interest in conversion or anything but Christianity had to go out of it’s way to justify it’s existence and had to create this big Church which isn’t anywhere in the Gospels listed as a plan.

  13. The apocrypha, including that Magdalene gospel, are even more progressive than the stuff that was left in. It’s tragic how such a free-ranging and basically high-minded set of precepts were perverted into a rulebook.

    My conman idea isn’t quite realistic, I guess. Real cult leaders tend to be unstable but committed. In reality it’d be the disciples who’d be the real crooks. And Paul would make a good gangster.

  14. Christopher Says:

    I picked up a copy of Gologotha from a Korean seller off Ebay a couple of Easters ago..to have as an alternate”Easter” film..Its a great visual film that I thought was better the second time around..All in french..aramaic subtitles might have helped me a little! heh..
    Cool 1905 Jesus film..My favorite bit of business is still the Nativity scene in the 1925 Ben-Hur,of which I sent out You Tube clips in place of Christmas Cards last year! :o)
    …I think in Gibson’s The Passion the excessivly violent and over the top punishment that Christ goes thru,is more symbolism than trying to show how it actually was…Giving the viewer an Idea as to the extremes a fellow will go to pay his debts..Its a love story remember..
    I see Scorcese’s Last Temptation..”Jesus meets the Goodfellas,the same as The Greatest Story Ever Told,equal parts of greatness and sillyness…
    I don’t think a Jesus movie has been made that could really satisfy…I’d rather a film on the order foxe’s book of martyrs
    The things certain people endured to bring the bible to light for the common man and suffered at the hands of the Catholic church for doing so,make the days of the Romans look like a picnic..

  15. Oh, I’ve heard good things about the Book of Martyrs. You recommend?

    B. Kite fondly (mis?)quotes Harvey Keitel’s line “Ey, Jesus, waddaya doin’ makin’ crosses faw da Romans?” but that side of it never bothered me. Americans are too embarrassed by their accents, in my view — it’s the same with Shakespeare.

  16. To be fair, 1965’s Vatican II briefly brought the Catholic Church into the 20th century. Since then, though, there has been a serious reformation which has taken it back a good couple of centuries.

    For your delectation, here is my capsule IMDb review of what I prefer to call The Boringest Story Ever Told:

    Having sat through the truncated 197 minute version I shudder to imagine what the full 260 minute experience was like. Stevens’ film is as passionless as a Church of England sermon, and though it looks beautiful–stunning, at times–this potted version of the life of Jesus is a dismal failure. Max Von Sydow does his best with what little he is given: a script full of biblical platitudes. Some of the other cast members are quite good, especially Jose Ferrer and even Telly Savalas, but ultimately the game of spot the guest star becomes wearing. Oy, Shelley Winters?? As distracting as Harvey Keitel was in Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese’s film is a better telling of Christ’s life by a country mile, at least attempting to explain why he did what he allegedly did. Here Von Sydow marches from biblical re-creation to biblical re-creation. You may as well read the book instead.

  17. That feels about right — but if I ever get the chance to see it on the big screen, I think I might chance it. I like Stevens for his early work, and am sympathetic to the idea that his so-called “decline” was really just a transformation. I’d like to think so anyway.

    Apparently Nick Ray briefly considered Max Von Sideboard a year or two earlier for his own Jesusfilm. Now that might have been a collaboration worth seeing.

  18. A conman is a step of from a flesh-eating zombie –which according to the gospels is what Jesus basically is.

  19. Christopher Says:

    Other than a few distractions,most notably the duke!..Surely this man was the son of God ..waHA!”..and one or two annoying bits with Van Heflin..The Greatest Story Ever told is pretty fascinating in some of its set pieces,particularly,for me,the scenes with Donald Pleasence as the “casual’Satan..The temptation in the Cave with the moon rising is a memorable bit..
    My favorite line from the Scorcese..”Nazarin!..Thats against the Law!”..When Christ brings a prostitute into the Temple..
    You’re probably right about quibbles with accents.Whos to know what Jesus and his mob really sounded like?..No doubt his disciples used quite colorful language! :o))
    The trials and atrocities heaped upon those great Scholars of old with their expert abilities to translate greek and latin and therefore bring true spiritual enlightenment to the people,is well documented by now..Whats interesting about the Foxe book ,is seeing it in its old english,at the time and to see for real the extreme abhorence these people held for the Pope..He was to them the Anti Christ…Satan in the flesh..and they didn’t hold back in saying so

  20. Arthur S. Says:

    Well the defiance of the Pope led to the rise of the serial-killer named Henry VIII to create the Church of England just so he can legally divorce and murder his ex-wives. And then a hundred years afterwards, the English monarchy was toppled by Oliver Cromwell who became a mass-murderer. What is it about revolutions that become so perverted?

    For me the dialogue of THE LAST TEMPTATION is poetic and perfect the way the dialogue of Fuller’s films are. It’s somewhere between earnestness and over-the-top. The best bit is the confrontation betwee Jesus and Paul, where Harry Dean Stanton plays him like a preacher out of Faulkner(probably angered the televangelists who did bother to see the film) and of course the stunning deathbed scene where old man Jesus is visited by Judas who tells him that he sold out.

    The dialogue of KUNDUN which like THE LAST TEMPTATION has English stand-in for another language is better realized in my view. It doesn’t sound like natural English conversations but it’s better composed.

  21. Kris Kristofferson on JC:

  22. I like Andre Gregory as John the Baptist too. When Jesus kneels, half the sound cuts out, and Dafoe looks around in surprise, exactly like Marcello in the fountain in La Dolce Vita!

  23. Musn’t forget about Pasolini and his “La Ricotta” …

  24. Chris, I agree with you about “La Ricotta”. I think it’s a brilliant piece, the way it combines the mystical and the mundane, which is Christianity.

  25. Pasolini’s comedies are always so weird, off-centre and disturbing! He does all this stuff like speeded up action and Chaplin homages, and the effect is totally non-comedic. It kind of fascinates me. Some of the alienation is certainly deliberate, but did he also intend to be funny? At least a little? I think Hawks and Sparrows is the only one that I find actually amusing at all, and even then, it’s gloriously overwhelmed by the creepiness.

  26. Arthur S. Says:

    LA RICOTTA is the greatest put down to Bible films in film history and also a great political film and a great Fellini parody with Welles. Whenever I do a Welles impersonation I always do an Italian accent and talk about my “profundo archaico cattolicismo”.

  27. Pasolini was always a Catholic at heart. I get more of a sense of the spiritual from LA RICOTTA than I do from IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO.

  28. Arthur S. Says:

    Pasolini related to religion in the aesthetic and cultural sense but he made it clear many times that he didn’t believe in it and religion plays less of a role in his adaptations of antique and Renaissance literature. Maybe it was his mother who he dearly loved and who was a devout woman(and who he cast as Mary). It’s not like the case with Bunuel whose religious sensibility was more schismatic. I think Pasolini decided to deal with the religious spirit of lower class Italy upto a point but then he moved past that.

    Of course that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a beauty and spirituality to his films or some films. Especially the most mysterious of them all – TEOREMA.

    I don’t get any sense of spirituality with LA RICOTTA but a sense of sadness and absurdity.

  29. —————-
    I don’t get any sense of spirituality with LA RICOTTA but a sense of sadness and absurdity.
    —————-
    Which is part and parcel of the spiritual.

  30. This is fascinating, but I can’t really contribute as I don’t have the theological background. I did just enjoy a massive tome by Dante Ferretti on his work, and that’s led me to pick up a copy of The Arabian Nights to get a bit deeper into PPP.

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