Archive for The Ten Commandments

I still don’t know how a pharaoh talks

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2021 by dcairns

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is this giant Ridley Scott biblical epic and although it’s not ludicrous it somehow doesn’t impress either. You don’t know what’s real and what’s just pixels until finally you assume it’s all pixels. In fact they built quite a lot. It’s all colour-corrected to within an inch of its life, or beyond. Watching the extras was a breath of fresh air, suddenly things had their own colours and existence, of which they’re deprived in the movie itself.

The cast seem either clinically depressed or else just underused. Aaron Paul is introduced as a man who feels no pain, and then this never comes into play again. Sigourney Weaver has nothing to do. Christian Bayle — does he exist? His lack of personhood really comes across onscreen: maybe his best casting was VELVET GOLDMINE, which imagined its Bowie-figure as a shapeshifter with a void at the centre. In his interviews in the extras, Bayle speaks with the same gruff mockney accent he uses for Moses and which Russell Crowe used in GLADIATOR.

Joel Edgerton’s Ramses is based not on the Book of Exodus or Yul Brynner but on Joaquin Phoenix in the earlier hit. Phoenix’s confrontation with his father, Richard Harris, already echoed BLADE RUNNER’s meet-up between replicant Roy and his progenitor Tyrrel. It’s hard to decide if the echoes are deliberate, a recurrent theme as beloved of auteurists, or simply a case of Scott repeating a commercial formula that worked.

The movie is dedicated to Tony Scott, who took his life in 2012. As a tale of brothers, E:GAK is an odd tribute. Firstly, they’re not really brothers. Exactly as in GLADIATOR, the pharaoh (John Turturro)/emperor (Richard Harris) has a young warrior he wishes were his son. His natural son is a twisted egomaniac, lacking the competence of Moses/Maximus. The script’s only addition to Biblical lore that seems to resonate with the Scott brothers’ lives, in a way that isn’t grotesque, is Moses/Ridley trying to save Ramses/Tony from the annihilating Red Sea tsunami, which in this context would represent whatever depression or despair led Tony Scott to jump. But I don’t know if this was a conscious echo.

I also don’t know to what extent the film is deliberately right-wing. Scott films often seem to land in such terrain, but you can never get a sense of intent. Still, the movie is more concerned with the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, rather than their founding of their own land, so the film’s semi-namesake Preminger film is not evoked, and the film stops just short of being nakedly Zionist in a modern sense.

Scott in interviews appears tongue-tied, unfamiliar with basic figures of speech, at sea in anything resembling abstract concepts. His brains only work at full capacity when directed through his eyes, and then his design sense and imagery are often dazzling. But his colour sense, which always tends towards filtration, desaturisation, monochrome, has overlaid everything in a deadening glaze. Admittedly, this would be less of an issue in 3D, and I ought to have gone to see it on the big screen, if the lovely dimensional-environmental work in THE MARTIAN is anything to go by. But THE MARTIAN was far more involving on a human level.

The dialogue is functional. They avoid making the past seem like another country, they’re trying to make it seem like wherever we are now. I’m not sure this is a good call. I feel shortchanged — like I paid for a holiday and the plane never took off. The characters don’t feel like people you could know, which would be the advantage of robbing them of ancient world alienness. They just feel like movie cliches.

The real false good idea — apart from remaking De Mille, which apparently didn’t inspire the public with the desire to submit to spectacle — is the idea of demythologising the good book. The plagues of ancient Egypt are presented as natural phenomena. Moses communes with God via dreams, and even then, the burning bush doesn’t speak. Somebody stands in front of it and speaks. The dreams are quite scary and Lynchian, but devoid of magic. And the parting of the Red Sea is a tsunami where the tide goes out and rushes back in. Well staged, but you don’t get suspended walls of water. I think, just as the public wasn’t particularly drawn to Sir Rid’s dowdy ROBIN HOOD, a dowdy, unswashbuckled version with a chunky Robin, they weren’t enchanted by the idea of a Red Sea that doesn’t part, but just goes away.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS stars Patrick Bateman; Tom Buchanan; Barton Fink, Jesse Pinkman; Orson Krennic; Lucrecia Borgia; Ellen Ripley; Mahatma Gandhi; Halliday 7 Years Old; Freysa; Maya; Shansa; Saladin; Selyse Baratheon; Qotho; and Spud.

Moses strikes poses

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2021 by dcairns

An amusing irony: Howard Hawks said he learned what NOT to do by looking at DeMille’s films, then when he made his own ancient world epic, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, he ran into the famous “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks” problem, which DeMille had, you could say, solved: in DeMille films, pharaohs talk like characters in Cecil B. DeMille films.

Never more so that in the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS where Yul Brunner is at his Yul Brynneriest throughout. (Yet Cedric Hardwicke comes within shouting distance of humanity at times.) But the one, true biscuit is taken by Chuckles Heston, who starts out in his version of naturalism — declamatory, gravelly, planting his feet wide apart, flexing, heaving the words up from his solar plexus — but becomes something wholly other once Moses gets religion…

In prophet mode, Heston produces a form of “acting” I’m not sure we’ve really seen before. Maybe it’s what D.W. Griffith would have sounded like if his 1908 semaphore could be translated into spoken form. It has something in common with the ghosts in Japanese movies — think RASHOMON. It has nothing in common with human speech.

The best example is when Rameses finally frees the Israelites: we have to blame the script for some of it, though DeMille in his intro claims that history is really to blame. Moses starts speechifying — then walks out of the scene, still declaiming. You can hear his voice diminishing in the distance for close to a minute. Who does that? Rod Steiger does it in THE BIG KNIFE, playing a lunatic film producer of the L.B. Mayer variety. Charles Haid does it in ALTERED STATES, to hilarious effect. In the first case, a character point is being made, in the second, Ken Russell was forced to include a lot of talk he didn’t particularly care for, so he tried to dispose of it in novel ways. No such excuse exists here. Moses is just being written as a nutjob, unintentionally.

If you’re inclined to laugh at infant mortality, this film has much to offer, but this scene is the finest example, because the army of scribes has taken care to insert between Heston’s wooden lips pointed references to the liberation of the CHILDREN of Israel (DeMille has made the whole story an anti-commie tract), timed to coincide/clash with Anne Baxter descending a grand staircase with her divinely slain son in her arms. Which tends to make Moses seem every bit as crass as Heston giving one of his NRA speeches in the wake of a school shooting.

This moment, jaw-dropping though it is, is just a preliminary to Moses’ Big Hair acting in the film’s third act. Chuckles has looked in the mirror and asked himself, what would a guy who looks like THIS talk like? Big mistake. I can’t describe what he does. It involves BOOMING. The oratorical style might be defensible when Moses is speaking to the masses, as he so often is in this section. But he keeps it up for casual conversation. Booming banter. Supremely confident terrible acting.

For a few minutes, I thought I was going to find the film’s weird non-naturalism fascinating, the stiffness of its blocking and delivery hypnotic and kind of impressive. But it’s not quite rigid ENOUGH. The tableau style of GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is more my bag — genuinely experimental.

When Scorsese talks about the power of DeMille’s images, he seems to mainly be talking about the effects shots, and I think maybe we should credit the storyboard artists and John P. Fulton and his team, though I guess DeMille is responsible for approving everything. But I think it’s fair to say that none of the film’s undeniably impressive images have any good acting in them. (Only Edward G. Robinson is good in this, though I wish he’d played it at a Warner pre-code pace. As the only Jewish actor, naturally he plays the Bad Jew. Oh, and Yvonne DeCarlo, gamely battling her dialogue like Jason struggling with the hydra: whenever one terrible line is defeated, two more rise to take its place.)

I can understand Scorsese’s residual affection for a film he was impressed by as a kid. But I don’t think it’s objectively better than the Marvel and DC films he rightly dismisses.

Touchingly, Moses waves goodbye to us/his people at the end of the film, which was DeMille’s last as director. He clearly wanted to get the most out of it, which is why he narrates huge swathes, patiently describing what we can already see, sometimes sneakily suggesting debauchery and wickedness he’s not allowed to show us, much though he would love to.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS stars Major Dundee; King Mongkut of Siam; Lucy Morgan; Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Lily Munster; Shila – Cleopatra’s Daughter; Hajji Baba; Arthur Winslow; Julia Ross; Ellie Hilliard; Mrs. Danvers; Prince Prospero; Hatfield; Athos; The Black-Bearded One; Actor on DeMille’s ‘Samson & Delilah’ Set; Jesus – the Christ; John Miljan – Actor in Bedroom Scene; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Scar / Cicatriz; Hatfield; Donald Pecos – aka The Pecos Kid; Dr. Franz Edlemann; Samson Posey; Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis; Judas; Norman Frink; Alvin Straight; Mary Todd Lincoln; Chubby Bannister; Lucifer Jr; Alfalfa; Napoleon Solo; and Herb Alpert as himself.

The Pentecost Sunday Intertitle: Moses Supposes

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2012 by dcairns

Bloke goes up mountain for forty days (and nights), comes back with a couple of stone slabs, claims they’ve been inscribed by the finger of God. So, what’s he been doing up there? Waiting? Why couldn’t God show up in a more timely fashion?

If I were of a more suspicious nature, I’d suggest that Ol’ Mose might have spent at least some of that time with a chisel, and the rest of it rehearsing a convincing story. As George Harrison says in HELP! (while being pursued by a faux-Hindu death cult), “I don’t want to knock anyone’s religion, but…”

Mind you, Cecil B. DeMille and his collaborators have knocked up some smashing compositions here.

I did a quick internet search and came across the claim that Moses was forty when he left Egypt. Theodore Roberts, who plays him here, was over sixty, and looks older. If that’s Moses at forty, I’m skeptical of the Bible’s claim that he lived to be a hundred and twenty.

Interesting that in 1922 we get Michael Curtiz’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH in ’23 we get the DeMille, and in 1928 Curtiz makes NOAH’S ARK, each of which embeds a bible tale within a contemporary narrative it’s supposed to reflect upon. What’s interesting is that this form, explicitly intended to show the continuing relevance of the Old Testament, has disappeared from the cinema. Can you think of another example since the silent era? It seems to me that by concentrating on purely period bible yarns, Hollywood was treating the stories as escapism, without contemporary relevance…

In a very different way, Kieslowski’s DEKALOG may have a similar mission to the silent spectaculars, I guess.

Buy — The Ten Commandments (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]