Archive for the Mythology Category

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Movies in Mysterious Ways

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2023 by dcairns

Look, it’s Jesus!

Remember, until Monday, God is dead and we can all do as we like.

Lucien Nonguet & Ferdinand Zecca’s LA VIE ET LA PASSION DE CHRIST (1903 and 1907) is a bold early Jesus movie — or two movies — Zecca made it twice, and the version on YouTube is variously labeled with the dates of both productions. IMDb claims identical runtimes for both original and remake.

Not sure if the BBFC had banned the Messiah from the screen at this point or if it hadn’t yet occurred to them that anyone would be so audacious as to stick him up there.

Hang on —

Tom Dewe Mathews’ entertaining Censored: What They Didn’t Allow You To See, and Why: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain confirms that the BBFC and its Jesus ban didn’t come into existence until 1912. At this stage, we were still censoring microscopic images of cheese mites for fear they might impact sales of stilton. This was instigated by the dairy industry but presumably enforced by some branch of government.

Later, we are told, DeMille’s KING OF KINGS bypassed the BBFC to receive a limited release, but TDM doesn’t tell us how this was achieved (a neat trick: it should be replicated, if only we knew how).

In approach, Zecca’s movie most resembles an early trick film — it’s all shot on sets, with elaborate hand-colouring and special effects for the star of Bethlehem, angelic visitations, etc. These have a slightly MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL quality (strange that this film excites fewer charges of blasphemy than LIFE OF BRIAN — it actually shows God as a crap cartoon and makes him a petty, oafish official for us to laugh at — Christians seem to feel that God can sort of take care of himself, is too abstract to really insult, whereas JC needs defending, somehow).

But it’s much longer than a trick film — 44 minutes, a real feature. Even longer on this YouTube vid, where it loops back to the start and begins all over again, as if Christ’s ascension triggered the appearance of the star of Bethlehem thirty-three years earlier, making him a sort of Holy Ouroboros.

Jesus coming up through a trap door to scare off the Romans is so totally a stage trick — hard to place oneself in the mentality that would find this cinematically effective. Since we’re in early tableau mode — to which THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD would perversely return — the Romans have to run off, apparently frightened by the apparition, but looking at US, so we can see their terrified faces. The levitating Messiah then fades from view by a dissolve. If he can use cinematic VFX for his exit, why is his entrance so stagy? And why doesn’t he simply walk out of the cave, as he does in the book? A question for Segundo de Chomon, who did the stencil colouring and who presumably put together the miracles here.

The book doesn’t explain why he needs to have his boulder rolled away if he’s simply going to push off to Heaven. But since he shows his face multiple times in the coming days, it seems like he’s up and walking about corporeally and his ascension happens later. But maybe not — he moves in mysterious ways, remember. I wouldn’t put it past him to nip up to Heaven but then drop in on us whenever he felt like it. Though he hasn’t been seen much lately. Not by anyone I’d trust.

If you find the Zecca version — whichever it is — stagy and stodgy, you should get a load of Georges Hatot’s. It’s only ten mins long, but this was epic stuff in 1898, when it was made. Somehow it’s always been felt that a Christ biopic ought to be seriously lengthy, though our ideas about what constitutes a long movie have adapted over the decades. I imagine a Gospel flick today would have to be about a day long.

Hatot seems to like lots of space at the top of his frame, and he prefers keeping his cast as far away from us as possible. He has no objection, seemingly, to a vertical line running down his sky back-cloth at 1:14, 2:06, 7.13, and 7.42 (the word “cyclorama” seems altogether too grand for use here). Not sure if this is meant to be the SAME celestial line or a series of them. I do like the set of the Garden of Gethsemane, though, which resembles a work electron microscopy, so that one fears to see the Messiah menaced by an influx of rampaging cheese mites.

Chalice in Wonderland

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2023 by dcairns

“There’s no place like Rome!” effuses Albert Dekker, barging back into THE SILVER CHALICE with wholly inappropriate gusto. “Someone actually wrote that?” asked Fiona, wandering into the living room to find me numbed to somnolence by the movie’s relentless onslaught of leaden verbiage and gaucherie.

A servant of two masters, Paul Newman as Basil is sculpting Jesus and Nero at the same time, rendering unto Caesar I suppose. We then get, by way of climax, Jack Palance — as Simon Magus, a “real” biblical figure — trying to prove the superiority of his magic over that of the Christians. He causes to be built — by enslaved Christians, adding insult to injury — a Great Tower, from the top of which he promises to fly. This is initially going to be done via a concealed contraption, a bronze wheel and rod arrangement. A meaty assistant will crank a lever causing Palance to orbit the tower on the end of this rod, which will be invisible to the audience and emperor below because, as we all know, bronze cannot be seen when held up to the sky. It’s absolutely foolproof, at least enough to convince Virginia Mayo, and we all know what a stickler she is.

I can’t really be bothered with anything Paul Newman does from here on in because he’s a complete bystander in the film’s rivetting concluslion. Palance, crosseyed with hubris, decides that he’s going to fly for real, wearing a bat-cape (which may be why he was cast in the Burton BATMAN) and a leotard printed for some reason with tadpoles or black spermatozoa. I guess the idea really is a phallic one — our man is, after all, going to come popping out the top of a great erection, his skintight cossie alive with little swimmers. Costume design is credited jointly to Rolf Gerard (also the fiend responsible for prod des) and Marjorie Best on the IMDb, but in the film she has a mysterious “Wardrobe Executed by” credit and he has only Production Design. If both are true, then the film’s great achievements in Stylistic Unity can certainly be laid at Rolf’s wardrobe door, while Best, a very experienced movie costumier, was presumably forced at gunpoint to carry out the schemes.

The script has promised us a magical duel between Saint Peter and Simon Magus (who is annoyingly never referred to by that really cool name). But we don’t get a fun Merlin-Madame Mim battle, nor a Dr. Craven vs. Dr. Scarabus one. Peter sits this one out. Various biblical apocrypha describe Simon actually flying, and Peter sabotaging his maiden flight with a well-aimed prayer, causing the soaring sinner to crash to earth in several pieces. (Accounts vary: one bloodthirsty version has Simon smashed up by the fall, then stoned by his disappointed fans, and finally bled to death by the surgeons labouring to save him. But this is act three, we’re in a hurry, folks.)

I would have liked to see that ending, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy what Victor Saville and Lesser Samuels served up. Palance, going fully off his rocker (and, to be fair, this can be used to retroactively justify JP’s very eccentric performance up to this point), mounts the tower. Virginia Mayo sends the chunky flunky after him to stop him breaking his neck. Good high and low angles. Jack executes a magnificent swan dive into the studio floor.

Various species of chaos now erupt. Nero, for no particular reason, orders Mayo thrown off the tower. “If she can fly, her life will be spared.” Fiona at this point reasoned that since the hefty bronze rod operator is already up the tower, Virginia ought to be able to pull off Palance’s planned levitation trick. But we never see this and the assumption has to be that she dies. It would make a great reveal in a sequel, THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF HELENA FROM THE SILVER CHALICE, but alas it was not to be.

Screenwriter Lesser Samuels’ talent may have deserted him, but his brain — alas! — is still working. As Basil and Deborah sail off into a brown sort of sunset, St. Pete (Lorne Green of Bonanza!) gives a big speech in which he predicts the rise of skyscrapers and electric light bulbs. This ties in with the curious panelled design of Simon’s tower of power — it’s a prophetic sculpture of a skyscraper. The story COULD have enlisted Basil to work on it — a silver rod for Palance might have made more sense than a bronze one — but making him entirely passive was thought preferable. Peter’s bizarre monologue about the twentieth century is needed to explain how the Holy Grail vanishing could possibly be a positive thing — apparently it’s going to turn up sometime soon and maybe do some good. Keep watching the shelves!


Absence of Chalice

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2023 by dcairns

“Why do I do these foolish things?” asks Pier Angeli in what I am choosing to call Part Three of THE SILVER CHALICE, and Paul Newman misses a trick by not replying, “Because they remind you of me?”

Meanwhile the art direction takes a quick step sideways from Gerald McBoing-Boing and lands amid Terry Gilliam’s Python cut-outs.

Imagine, a film about the Holy Grail in which the hero’s quest is to find Albert Dekker. Well, it’s different, you gotta say.

Asides from that, Paul “Basil” Newman is torn between good girl Angeli and bad girl Virginia Mayo — who was also his childhood sweetheart back when she was Natalie Wood, which is unusual for a bad girl. Another way in which TSC is different.

“He’s as gentle as a lamb when he’s lamb-like,” says Mayo, speaking of JACK FUCKING PALANCE. It’s dialogue that straddles the line subsequently identified by David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel as separating clever from stupid. On the face of it, it’s a stupid thing to say, but it’s possible some higher wisdom lurks within. But not the way she says it. The way she says it is while wearing ludicrous false eyebrows, like a glam metal Groucho.

There may be circumstances under which a line like “Be comforted, my Basil,” could be gotten away with, but this film does not provide such circumstances. It doesn’t even hint that they may be arriving anytime soon.

“Why waste such a trophy on a multitude of sun-baked barbarians in Jerusalem?” Mayo is getting all the memorable lines. She should have gone on strike for less memorable lines.

Pier Angeli’s difficulty is her English, which is occasionally uncertain. “Jerusalem held a great ac-traction for you,” she manages to say. Since her father and grandfather are played by Americans, it’s hard to see why her character should be struggling with the language. If it weren’t for that, occasional flubs would be human and amusing, and Basil Newman could point them out and they could both laugh, which might be nice. Like when George Brent teases Kay Fwancis about her lisp in LIVING ON VELVET. Also, her name is Deborah, so it’s Basil and Deborah.

They get married in the next scene, a sham marriage (in a sham film) amid much rumbling and clanking from the camera dolly and the crew. “Rubber-soled shoes, what did I tell ya!” It’s not quite on a level with Mel Brooks’ parodic camera moves in HIGH ANXIETY, but shading towards it.

A character refers to Newman as “the artist who is called Basil,” which gives me Prince vibes. Then the Christ cup gets stolen so the film can finally be a grail quest. Although hopefully Albert Dekker will also turn up.

Then there’s a dramatic camel-mounted fight scene. Which has a few well-staged moments, a few lapses of basic continuity, and is sabotaged from below — it’s hard to look like you’re fighting for your life while mounted on something that persists in making Kenneth Williams faces. Joseph Wiseman has been making those faces all through this movie, and now, adding to the confusion, he’s atop a camel. A Wiseman on a camel is very fitting for a biblical-marginalia epic, but if I blinked rapidly I could convince myself the camel was atop Joseph Wiseman.

Rome! And a pretty fun orgy — sex can only be suggested by having vaguely exotic dancers, but the great trays of bizarre foodstuffs being hefted past an indifferent Nero (indifferently played by Jacques Aubuchon) get the idea over. Who but a colossal perv would eat “succulent dormice, saturated with poppy juice”? This is the biggest set yet, advancing designer Rolf Gerard’s Big Idea — expansive yet simple. The Muppet Show type niches create a not quite convincing impression of the lavish — I presume the statues within are repeating sets of photographs.

Special guest star Norma Varden (above, right) — the lady Robert Walker nearly chokes to death at a party in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN turns up here and avoids getting the same treatment from Jack Palance. Amazing that a bit player could have regular work as party guests, back in the day. Not actually the best job to have, since you don’t get to eat the food or drink the booze (which isn’t booze). Still, at least that allowed Norma to skip the dormice.

(On LES VISITEURS DU SOIR, filmed during WWII with serious food shortages, director Marcel Carne was so concerned that his starving extras would destroy the banquet by eating it before he could get all his shots, he had the food sprayed with poison before their very eyes. A props man friend tells me that today, to stop extras drinking from their glasses, he’s seen the “wine” distributed with fingers stuck in the liquid. A less disturbing variation of the same device.)

Palance’s magic tricks on this occasion consist mainly of producing large quantities of snakes, which reduce Nero to hysteria. I’m not sure snakes are THAT funny. The tricks depend more heavily on jump cuts than any illusion since the days of Melies — how Palance is supposed to be editing the film while he’s in it is a trick unexplained. Obviously, short of actually training Palance in legerdemain — and it would take a ballsy magician to attempt such a feat — David Blaine ain’t gonna cut it — the filmmakers could have used hidden cuts to create the illusion of stage magic, instead of conveying so blatantly to us that either Palance is the real messiah (“And what rough beast” indeed) or that he has the assistance of a member of ACE, which he has. The man’s name is George White, and I guess these are his scandals.

SILVER CHALICE is populated by people on their way up or on their way down (and out) — like any film, I guess, only more so. White cut THE NAKED SPUR and numerous films of Vincente Minnelli, from THE CLOCK on. If the film seems indifferently put together, I’m inclined to blame weaknesses in the material. White went straight from this into TV and B pictures: WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET and MUTINY IN OUTER SPACE lie ahead.

Magical duel! Palance is to challenge the apostle Peter to a battle of the wands, commissioned by Nero. I am definitely down for that: it promises to be terrible. Since Palance’s slight-of-hand is augmented by jump-cuts, what special effects wizardry will be drafted in on Peter’s side?