Archive for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

The Psychic Sunday Intertitle: Thinking Aloud

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 21, 2017 by dcairns

Heard about this one in a Facebook discussion about surtitles or supertitles or whatever you call them — the rare practice of superimposing an intertitle over action. Not very popular due to the difficulty of re-doing the opticals for foreign markets. Academic Carol O’Sullivan was asking for examples, citing BEN-HUR as one. I weighed in with Hitchcock’s THE RING, which uses the effect during a climactic boxing match possibly for the same reason they used it in the BH chariot race — to keep the action going under the dialogue, for a faster pace.

Eric Scheirer Stott recommended WALKING BACK, directed by Rupert Julian under Cecil B. DeMille — right under him — which is a hectic jazz age road to ruin romp, exulting in Charlestons, hip flasks and slang while wagging a stern finger at them simultaneously. The DeMille Hypocrisy in full cry.

The superimposed intertitles are fascinating — they represent the hero’s stream-of-consciousness inner monologue. A unique bit of film language, at least until ANNIE HALL’s date scene.

If you can think of any other examples of superimposed intertitles, let me know and I’ll make sure Carol hears about them.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Raven Mad

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 13, 2015 by dcairns

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Don’t chop the N off! The N is really important!

I’m a bit of a Charles Brabin fan, but until now I had really only seen his pre-code films. His career ended in 1934, as if he personally was unimaginable under the Hayes Code. Before then, he made THE MASK OF FU MANCHU with Boris Karloff and a nakedly sadistic Myrna Loy in yellowface; the best, grisly bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, which are still astonishingly extreme; and the vicious, fascistic BEAST OF THE CITY. Oh, I’ve seen a bit of TWINKLETOES from the silent era, and he did bits of the original BEN-HUR. But THE RAVEN is from 1915, way earlier. It’s interesting to see a filmmaker whose style I kind of know (Scouse maniac), working with material conducive to his dark talents, but in a much earlier period, when DW Griffith held illimitable dominion over all.

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It’s a Poe biopic, following hard on the heels of Griffith’s EDGAR ALLAN POE (1909) and THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE (1914), which adapted The Telltale Heart (with a bit of The Black Cat). Here, Brabin attempts to create a hybrid life story and adaptation of The Raven, throwing in a bit of William Wilson and a lot of delirium tremens for good measure. It’s basically a classy temperance film, which sits awkwardly with its other ambitious since the poem The Raven is not, so far as I can see, about alcoholism per se. Still, fun to see Poe’s rather unsuitably short stories being fleshed out using the same tricks Roger Corman and his scenarists would deploy in the sixties — conflate, insert, absorb, extrapolate, invent! We’ll get a feature out of this thing somehow!

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The movie begins with a weird history of Poe’s ancestors in little vignettes — a founding father comes up a beach while oars wave strangely in the background — are they drying them off? A revolutionary primes a pistol. Then the rot sets in: Poe’s immediate forebears are actors. A sad case of generational degeneration. What chance did the lad have?

Then we get a snippet of the Poe childhood, some shapeless excerpts from the admittedly somewhat shapeless life, and then the showstopper, the immortal poem hacked up into disconnected intertitles while star Henry B. Walthall (of BIRTH OF A NATION fame) staggers about bemoaning that fatal glass of beer. Good actor, Walthall — the only one in the cast to have absorbed Griffith’s ideas on underplaying, he seems shockingly modern compared to everyone he’s compelled to share scenes with. But left on his own, or with a confused corvid, he reverts to arm-waving a bit — who wouldn’t?

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Still, Brabin serves up some striking images, and I liked the looseness with which he goes from location to theatrical set and back, uncaring as to consistency. There are a lot of tricks with multiple exposures so Walthall can be haunted by the ghosts of lost loves, or face off against his Doppelganger. A bit more plot and Brabin would have really had something here — unfortunately Poe’s life doesn’t really provide much plot — he saved that for his fiction, which has consistently provided better source material than his earthly existence.

The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona and I thoroughly enjoyed our Easter viewing of the silent BEN-HUR (subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) directed by Fred Niblo, though I suspect some good bits are by Charles Brabin, before he was removed. Brabin also did the best bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS and again didn’t get a credit. Not a good politician, it seems, but a very good filmmaker.

All through this I was comparing it to the Wyler version and generally thinking “This isn’t obviously inferior in any way.” Radically different from Charlton Heston in every way, Ramon Novarro is still a good lead. There are a lot of spectacular sets and miniatures and matte paintings. There’s even a tracking shot with a foreground miniature in the build-up to the chariot race. The race itself is very exciting, but I get the impression they massacred horses to make it, whereas Wyler and Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt looked after their horses well — the one injured steed was nursed back to health over a period of months and was able to rejoin the race before the finish, so long was the shoot on that one sequence.

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The bit of the silent film that’s clearly superior is the battle at sea, with full-scale galley ships in a real sea with lots of real extras who pretended they could swim to get the job, and then found themselves bailing out of a burning vessel with every prospect of a watery death. Supposedly nobody perished, but the production was hauled back from Italy to Hollywood and Brabin was removed. Still, the scale and conviction of the scene is hugely impressive, and it benefits from not relying on miniatures and a studio tank. The good stuff in the Wyler is all basically real, as I think it should be in an epic.

But Wyler’s ending (not sure which of the various credited and uncredited screenwriters came up with it — it’s not in the novel) beats the Niblo, hands down. It’s all about how the films weave their narratives in and out of the New Testament. In the silent film, Jesus cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy while on his way to Golgotha, AND resurrects a baby to boot. “How can they crucify him after that?” asked Fiona. In the remake, the film’s recurring motif of water comes into play again, as rain falling on the bloody body of the crucified Christ flows to the lepers and heals them, which is an almost science-fictional speculation on how miraculous Christ actually was, but in keeping with the Catholic church’s bizarre, idolatrous fetish for holy relics (pieces of the cross, saints’ bones, etc). It’s cheeky, but it works — it allows for a stronger all-is-lost moment when the crucifixion occurs before “Cheston,” as Fiona calls him, can obtain a miracle cure for his family.

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The silent movie accompanies the crucifixion with some impressive but slightly irrelevant disaster-movie special effects, which we enjoyed. The effects team use the expanding cloud of dust to softly wipe between the slow-motion miniature and the full-scale crowd. It works even better than the flooding in the silent NOAH’S ARK.

Right after watching it, we re-watched the 1959 version of the chariot race, then I told Fiona that Stephen Boyd has the most agonizing death scene in film history, so of course she wanted to see that. It really is fantastic — very smartly written and played to the hilt by Boyd, always a very enthusiastic actor. It’s a shame THE OSCAR is so damned enjoyable because one should really remember Boyd (he of the Klingon forehead) for his many extremely good movie moments, not for his unconscious foray into campy trash.