Archive for The Bible

Animal Magic

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2015 by dcairns

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I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Fitzgerald in Telluride the other year. An impressive gentleman, he numbers among his achievements exec producing two late John Huston movies, WISE BLOOD and UNDER THE VOLCANO. I asked him about the Great Man, and he was VOCIFEROUS, and extremely convincing in his passion, as he stated UNCATEGORICALLY that Huston was indeed a great man and that anybody who had anything bad to say about him was doubtless an untalented ingrate. However, I have also asked novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp about Huston, having been promised that the results would be entertaining… but Sharp seemed already tired of the subject and merely said that Huston was a nasty man and a sadist. Both witnesses seemed credible and were in a position to know. Fortunately, I’m not called upon to come up with the definitive verdict on this legendary filmmaker and can content myself with the platitude that Huston was doubtless large, contained multitudes etc.

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His autobiography, An Open Book, I can give a thumbs up to, however. Dipping into it again as an accompaniment to a viewing of THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING was extremely informative and fun. First, the movie —

Dino de Laurentiis’ demented inspiration to make The Film of the Book notwithstanding (they managed only a few opening bits of Genesis), I’d always found this a dull film, but it rewards a sympathetic re-viewing. It’s all flawed, and many of the flaws do result in a kind of tedium, but you can see why the decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Huston, essentially an atheist, was drawn in by the language of the King James Bible, and handed himself the job of narrating the movie, effectively becoming the Voice of God. Getting Christopher Fry to write all the dialogue in a comparable style results in lines that are hard to speak naturalistically. George C. Scott solves this by talking very slowly, giving his character, Abraham, time to come up with all this great material. Unfortunately, all the lesser actors in the previous chapters have spoken slowly too, wearing down our capacity to appreciate another ponderous prophet. The only actor in the whole film who talks rapidly is Huston himself, not as God but as Noah.

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Huston pours a full bucket of milk into a gaping hippo then pats it on the nose — insanely dangerous.

When Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alec Guinness all passed on playing Noah, Huston realised that as he’d been practicing with the menagerie assembled for the ark scenes, he might as well take the part himself, and would have stolen the show if the raven, the elephant and the hippo weren’t on hand to steal it from him. Tossing off his lines with casual disregard, he invents a new kind of biblical acting that could have rescued the movie if only he’d passed the tip on to somebody else. As he once told Sean Connery about his character in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, “He can talk fast: he’s an honest man.” (Connery has said that his usual error is to talk TOO fast, resulting in Hitchcock requesting “a few more dog’s feet,” by which he meant “pawses.”)

The animal action here is extraordinary, and went largely unremarked, since, as Huston writes, everybody knows the animals went in two by two so they aren’t amazed to see it happen before their eyes.

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As entertaining as the stuff about THE BIBLE is in An Open Book, the whole chapter about Huston’s charmed relationship with the animal kingdom tops it. His pet monkey, the Monk, gets some very sweet anecdotes (riding about New York on the back of a Pekingese). The only animal Huston expresses doubts about is the parrot. Realising that his grandmother’s parrot loved women but hated men (parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex), the young Huston once attired himself in a wig, full drag and face powder, doused himself in perfume, and approached the sacred perch, addressing it in an assumed falsetto.

“The parrot’s feathers fluffed out. I put my hand in the cage and the parrot cooed. Suddenly it cocked its head, looked me right in the eye, and then proceeded to dismantle my finger.”

OK, Fitzgerald’s right on this one: he dragged up to seduce a parrot, he’s a great man.

Another fine messiah

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2013 by dcairns

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How do you cast Jesus? It seems a difficult thing to do. Paul Schrader pointed out that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST attempted something quite rare — most Christfilms tend to take a view which is actually, according to church doctrine, somewhat blasphemous — they portray Jesus as a wholly divine figure, walking about in human drag. This is apparently far more acceptable to the faithful than going the other way and showing him as entirely human. Schrader’s script favours a reading of Jesus as a man in some way directly connected to the divine consciousness, and the subsequent movie attracted quite a lot of criticism.

Traditional movie messiahs, from H.B. Warner to Max Von Sydow, haven’t really been very human at all (though only Jim Caviezel’s has reduced him to a literal slaughtered lamb, a dumb animal) — devoid of humour, flaws or convincing uncertainty, they seem to be already in possession of the full script. They embody the problem of the Movie Messiah: we all know the story.

Nick Ray, when casting I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS KING OF KINGS, actually considered Max Von Sydow for the part — but he probably wouldn’t have had the clout to pursue such an audacious call, as George Stevens did. This does suggest that for any generation, the number of options is surprisingly limited — unless you’re Pier Paolo Pasolini and you’re looking outside of Central Casting altogether.

The following are just some random thoughts on actors who might have brought something more interesting to the role.

John Garfield. Firstly, I’m sick of fair-haired Christs. Can’t we have an authentically Jewish King of the Jews for once? Moviemakers seem under the spell of an unspoken assumption that since Jesus was the son of God, a cuckoo laid in the nest of a Jewish handyman, he himself was gentile. (Shades of the WWI draft board chairman who remarked “Jesus Christ was British to the core!”) It’s a sinister, unquestioned and fascinating prejudice that creeps into nearly all mainstream depictions of the Lamb of God.

Garfield would not only have given us a Jewish Jesus, but a really angry one. Which might help Mel Gibson get over his spluttering outrage — I think he’d be down with the idea of a kick-ass Christ. (Suggested caption for the last shot of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: “He’s back. And he’s mad.”) True passion is something Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sideboard seemed unable to really handle or suggest in the role, so Garfield’s trademark intense outrage would be welcome.

A Jewish Jesus might seem outrageous to some, but I don’t think it’s going far enough. Jesus was born in the Middle East, of Middle-Eastern parents (I’m not sure how God affects the genetic mix, but find the Hollywood assumption that he’d pass on light hair and blue eyes rather offensive). I can’t think of any true Israeli movie stars offhand, but if you wanted somebody more ethnically correct than Jeffrey of Louisiana or Max of Lund, you should probably think Omar Sharif. Who would bring a sunny (as opposed to Sunni), sexy and laid-back charm to the part. You can’t say that wouldn’t be at least interesting

I don’t see why you couldn’t be Muslim and play Jesus, just as I don’t see why you have to be Christian to do it — acting is an exercise of the imagination, and the only limit is within the actor’s mind. For that reason I’d also like to see basketball star turned actor Kareem-Abdul Jabbar play the part, just so he can be the only Jesus who, when suspended from the cross, still has his feet on the ground.

The other guys who seem like good casting, in a Mel Gibson kind of way, are John Barrymore and Marlon Brando, because they both loved to suffer. Gibson’s godawful film did seek to correct one major flaw in most New Testament adaptations, which is that Christ never seems to be in any real pain. He just looks a bit sad, as if God was sparing him the physical agony of being nailed up, speared etc. This would seem to defeat the whole point of the sacrifice (whatever the point is — it never made sense to me). Gibson’s problem, arguably, is that he got a bit carried away with this idea. His Jesus does nothing BUT suffer.

Incidentally, you know the controversy around The History Channel’s The Bible, where the make-up applied to Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, playing the Devil, makes him look a bit like Barack Obama? The makeup artist and producers insist this was not their intent, which suggests a somewhat asleep-on-duty approach — aren’t you supposed to notice when your character design turns into a political cartoon? But can I point out that even if the presidential resemblance was unintentional, the fact that they’ve taken a pale-skinned Arab actor and blacked him up to play Satan is, in itself, HIGHLY DUBIOUS.

More Easter musings from 2009.

Now, who would YOU like to see playing God’s favourite revenant?

An Oil Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2008 by dcairns

D-Day 

THERE WILL BE BLOOD is so overwhelming on a visceral level that it’s kind of hard to talk about. I will have to see it again.

 Disorganised thoughts:

The opening, wordless twenty minutes have rightly commanded attention. I loved how the first dynamite explosion BLASTS blue sky into the frame, in what feels like the first intense colour apart from blood-red of the single opening title.

If Anderson’s previous work has often danced close to the shadow of Robert Altman, in terms of locations, themes, structure and casting, this one feels more like his Terence Malick movie, with its natural light, landscape cinematography, and indirect approach to plot.

The images of the burning oil well actually seered into my retinas — I’m not being poetic, I literally had an afterimage stuck there, and when I blinked there was a tiny silhouette of Daniel Day-Lewis dancing about under my eyelids. Bastard.

Ere I am JH

I wonder if Day-Lewis’ performance is not only a John Huston imitation (and a damn good one, though Clint Eastwood got quite close in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART without doing very much) but a John Huston PORTRAIT. It’s not just the accent and voice, but the bandy gait, the cigar, the mannerisms, and the whole WAY of speaking. If the dialogue hasn’t been drawn straight from the Upton Sinclair book (and those in the know seem to agree that the novel is a fairly distant ancestor to the movie) then it’s firstly a very fine piece of consistent and engaging and unintrusive faux-period writing, and secondly a very good encapsulation of the way Huston speaks in interviews.

This might make sense of P.T.A.’s constant screening of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE during the shoot. Because I’m not convinced the two films have so much to do with each other, but I do think Daniel Plainview has a lot to do with John Huston.

(Refresh your memories of Huston’s delivery with the above.)

He lacks Huston’s twinkle, of course. But both men share a devilish charm, which is seen when Plainview speaks to crowds and seduces them with carefully chosen words and an air of supreme confidence and paternal concern. And Huston’s cruelty is pretty well documented. Asked why he would be particularly mean to anybody who appeared vulnerable or unstable, he would reply, “Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block.” Which almost makes bullying (the most indefensible activity) seem sort of quirky and whimsical.

While Paul Dano also gives a stunning performance (he should have got an Oscar nomination for his WALK alone), his character doesn’t have quite the mystery of the Day-Lewis monster. He is revealed as a false prophet, and we discover that he himself knows it too. We also discover Plainview’s anti-religious side, without having it actually EXPLAINED to us. We can only guess at its causes, while reflecting that it’s another trait in common with Huston (WISE BLOOD is one of J.H.’s few really heartfelt films).

One thing that’s unusual about the P.T.A. film is the extent to which it forces you to really think about the Plainview character. He has an attempt at explaining himself to Kevin J. O’Connor’s character, but enough of his motivation is left in shadow to make him an urgent discussion point as you leave the cinema. All he can say is that he’s angry, and hates most of humanity, and he seems to regard this anger as an inborn trait he can do nothing about.

Was Huston angry? It’s a theory, at least. Much of Huston’s behaviour seems to have been in defiance of his poor health in childhood. Did the drive and determnation that forced him to repeatedly throw himself into a rapidly-flowing river as a boy, to prove his need to live, bring with it a rage against all weakness — a projection outwards of the vulnerability he wished to destroy in himself?

In the Soup

This psychiatric stuff isn’t really my natural element, but the film seems to force one to it, which is part of its peculiar strength. I’m reminded of André Hodeir’s fine piece on the Marx Brothers (recommended by David Ehrenstein here on the blog), where he comments in passing on the scene in DUCK SOUP where Groucho psychs himself into a state of outrage at the thought of something which hasn’t even happened (“I hold out my hand to him and that hyena refuses to accept it!”). Hodeir observes, “the psychological mechanism of anger is displayed here with great comic subtlety,” and I think the same might be said of Day-Lewis’ whole performance here. As in real life, anger leads to more anger. When Plainview starts to finally unleash it, it can’t be stemmed and even after he’s fully revenged himslef it continues to flood out, with horrible consequences.

Perhaps that’s why he’s so chipper in the last shot — has he finally been freed of a monster that was gnawing his insides?

You can see the Groucho version here:

The moment is 3 minutes 50 seconds in, but the rest is all good too — you can see Charles “Emperor Ming” Middleton reprise his role of prosecutor from Von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (a film which seems to have obsessed Groucho, judging by his further reference to it in HORSE FEATHERS).