The Big Guy

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile –

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door –

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…

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20 Responses to “The Big Guy”

  1. Interesting comparison with KING OF KINGS – coincidentally, according to Bernard Eisenschitz, Nick Ray had reportedly considered Von Sydow for his JC before Hunter was attached to the project (he quotes Ray as saying “Look at the eyes and the ascetic look on his face!” at a screening of a Bergman film). Not really sure how Max’s stoicism would have fitted in with Ray’s particular vision though – Hunter, for all of his shortcomings, at least physically embodied his archetypal angst-ridden young rebel. Nice eyes too.

  2. Armin Jäger Says:

    You just dropped off when things get interesting. Stevens’ film is one of the best composed motion pictures ever, one could write small essays on a lot of shots. Considering that a good part of the western art history was devoted to religious themes, I can’t help but feel that this is a pretty appropriate approach to the topic. The shots are beautiful in themselves, but also visually translate the story, notice e.g. the shot of Jesus and his disciples under the bridge while the Roman troops march above it. The film also preserves the essential strangeness of the proceedings instead of bringing it close to the viewer via realism. It’s a pity that most reviewers fell laughing from their chair’s when John Wayne appeared and discarded the whole film along with this horribly misjudged bit.

  3. Outside of James Dean and Sal Mineo, I don’t think Ray had much luck finding young rebel leading men. There are more good examples of older ones in his work. I guess Dean just wasn’t replaceable, not that the public would have accepted JD as JC.

    Ray references Renaissance art too — that big diagonal shadow in Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew turns up in KOK. At the end of the Stevens film it becomes a weird blue filter slashing the screen in two.

    Wayne isn’t even particularly awful in what he does, it’s just that who he is overpowers the moment. I guess a lot of viewers would struggle with Ed Wynn as Abram too, but I’m less familiar with EW and also he has a decent amount to do and he does it brilliantly. I’m reminded that Chaplin wanted to play Jesus in the 20s, but found no takers.

    There will be a follow-up piece on Stevens’ style and methods… soon.

  4. Actually Stevens’ war experiences HELPED him as a filmmaker. He came home from the war — where he witnessed the opening of the death camps — and realized he was not going to make a comedy. Instead he made his greatst film I Remember Mama. This was his first response to Hitler. The Diary of Anne Frank was of course his second. As for Greatest Story what really stole his thunder was this little programmer by a gay communist athiest

  5. And I’ve always been fond of The Second Greatest Story Ever Told.


  6. James McAndrews Says:

    As far as Christ’s historical existence there is a reference in The Annals of Tacitus and in the writings of Josephus, neither of which were Christians. Here are the links to those references.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacitus_on_Christ

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus

    BTW, love the visuals of The Greatest Story Ever Told but always had a hard time with a blue-eyed Jesus.

  7. I knew there was some kind of historical mention but didn’t know how clear it was. Thanks for that. It seemed likely that somebody would have to have preached and been crucified to kickstart this whole Christianity thing.

    Still have plenty of major Stevens films to see, but I’m appreciating his unique style, which seems widely misunderstood based on reports of his on-set method (“he films in a circle”).

  8. It’s not much to go on.” Christians” existed. That’s pretty clear. It’s also clear they were greatly disliked. As fof Jesus H, the jury is still out And what of this brother of his? Was James a “Virgin Birth” too, or had Mary lost her cherry by then?

  9. That first screengrab reminded me Elvis and the inmates dancing in JAILHOUSE ROCK. And Elvis WAS the king of kings.

  10. “a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good” – This sounds somewhat like Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man.

  11. More JC at the flickers, MORE. I’m loving this series.

    “‘Do unto others’ thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea …”

    The version of the golden rule in the Talmud is credited to Rabbi Hillel, who was slightly older than Jesus (if you buy the usual chronology). The congruence between the teachings attributed to Hillel and Jesus tends to support the notion that contrary to later propagandizing, Jesus was actually a proto-Pharisee.

    I don’t see any reason to doubt that Christianity began amongst the followers of an actual guy named Yeshua who was crucified. If people of that period wanted to make up a messiah story out of whole cloth, which they wouldn’t, it wouldn’t have been that particular story. Whether that Yeshua is the same entity as the Christian Jesus is a morning star/evening star-type philosophical problem, but hey, it ain’t my problem.

  12. Yes, but Moorcock has a license to take risks as he’s writing speculative fiction and won’t be taken too seriously. I was thinking more of a theory that Jesus wanted to preach some new ideas and eventually got tired denying he was the Messiah… Showing him as a well-meaning opportunist would really upset the crowd who didn’t get Life of Brian…

  13. Fascinating, Katya — I should talk about things I’m ill-informed on more often, I’m learning so much here! Thanks :)

    Oh, my hypothetical Jesus movie would undoubtedly involve the story of the Laughing Jesus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Treatise_of_the_Great_Seth

    This wouldn’t work in the Stevens film though because Sidney Poitier doesn’t look enough like Max Von Sydow for them to pull it off.

  14. Opinion: The secret of Gibson’s success was a skillful publicity strategy based on Gibson and his film being opposed by Jesus-hating liberals. Bill O’Reilly (who had an unrelated deal with Gibson) pumped it up and a huge audience of conservative Christians turned out to support a morbid, eccentric slant on Christ from a man who said his then-wife was barred from Heaven because she was a Protestant. The beauty of it all was that otherwise, those very same conservative Christians would have angrily rejected the film as a Hollywood star’s assault on the Bible.

    It’s the same old scheme used to guilt liberals into supporting awful “art films” or to sucker rubes into lining up for low-quality porn: You outrage a few pundits, attract pickets and/or a legal action, and count the money.

    Wonder how many of the millions of “Passion” DVDs will be dug out and viewed on Easter?

  15. The success of the Gibson and the relative lack of success of the Scorsese certainly demonstrate the value of having the media and church groups on your side for a venture of this kind. Scorsese was under attack before his film was even made (which is why we don’t have a version starring Aidan Quinn).

    But, though I think publicity is essential for getting people in, apparently some believers thought the Passion experience was in some way worthwhile. And since there’s no actualy religious insights in the film, I have to assume they felt they were bearing witness to something that felt authentic to them. I also have to assume that Gibson thought he was delivering some kind of worthwhile experience (because I can’t believe he knew he was exercising taboo areas of his libido, which he clearly was).

  16. Scratch a “Born Again” and you’ll find an S&M adept. Don’t you find it rather odd that Salo is considered beyond the pale while Mel’s NASCAR Jesus is regarded as “deeply religious” et. al. ?

    BTW when I wrote a favorable review of The Last Temptation of Christ I got a deluge of anti-semetic hate mail. My favorite was from Greatest Story Ever Told participant Pat Boone. He told me he was praying for me to be delivered from the evils of Judaism.
    (As everyone who knows me is well aware — I’M NOT JEWISH!)

    It’s obviously confusing to outsiders but the object of Last Temptation protests wasn’t Marty but rather MCA/Universal chief Lew Wasserman who was seen as its real auteur — a “filthy money-gubbing Jew!” out to “destroy Jesus Christ.” The Beverly Hills Police force had to be called out when a mass of Born Againers turned up outside of Lew’s home threatening to burn it down.

  17. I hope you saved the Pat Boone Parchment!

    Schrader said the one thing that suprised him about the Lat Temptation outcry was the level of anti-semitism. Some of it was phrased creepily with that plausible deniability thing — “Jews shouldn’t make films like this because it might encourage some people to hate Jews…”

    I think next Easter I’ll do Last Temptation, Gospel According to St Matthew, and… well, anything but The Passion of the Christ.

  18. You bet your booties I saved it!

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