Criterion Sunday 266: The King of Kings (1927)

It is difficult to watch this epic-length life of the Christ without thinking of Hail, Caesar! and its satirical take on the po-faced earnestness of filmmakers trying to render the Biblical story visual. DeMille’s production hasn’t got an ounce of jocularity or self-awareness to it, and to a certain extent that’s just as well, because it’s difficult to approach some of this material without being utterly committed to the solemnity of it all. It feels less like a portrait of Judaea 20 centuries ago as it does a pageant of big iconic scenes, and DeMille spares no effort to have doves fluttering around the important symbols, or have Jesus holding a lamb. Indeed, the campness is high as Jesus is backlit with lights every time he appears, looking like every (Western) portrait of him, all glistening beard and beatific expression (except, briefly, when Simon Peter has renounced him three times and Jesus looks on smugly). There’s some interesting use of very early colour in the opening and during the Resurrection sequences, though the black-and-white is more persuasive and has a real beauty to it at times. There is undoubtedly some great religious art which has been made, even about Jesus, over the years, but this one feels like it’s more for the existing fans, rendering iconic all the famous scenes, without really finding the drama (as say in another Criterion release, The Last Temptation of Christ) or a persuasive sense of how the lived experience might have been back then (as in Life of Brian). Sosin’s score has a grandeur and, for better or worse, largely matches the film’s own storytelling, at times lapsing into a slight kitschiness.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two discs, and the second has a shortened 112-minute release from 1928, with two separate scores. I haven’t watched that yet, but will update this page when I have.
  • On the first disc, the extras are a few production photos, some from the film’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (it was the film chosen as the opening premiere at this new cinema), as well as extensive documentation of the original illustrated programme booklet (both photos and extensive text of the contents), and some telegrams from DeMille to his cast.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cecil B. DeMille; Writer Jeanie Macpherson; Cinematographers J. Peverell Marley and F.J. Westerberg; Starring H.B. Warner, Ernest Torrence, Jacqueline Logan, Joseph Schildkraut; Length 155 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 October 2019.

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Criterion Sunday 61: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

I think it’s reasonable to hold the things you love when you’re a teenager to a different set of critical standards. People who got into Star Wars back when that was first out can sometimes be unreasonably dogged in defending it, even though, well, it’s not really all that good (the first one has a sort of camp enjoyability to it, I’ll admit). Life of Brian comes from that same era, and even features a short sequence that nods towards the recent popularity of that aforementioned space-set blockbuster, and needless to say it was a common fixture on the television during my formative years, at which time I found it to be pretty great — though I always liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) more myself. I haven’t seen any of the Python output in decades, though, so it was interesting to revisit this foundational text as part of my Criterion-watching project, and for all that I want to say it’s still a shining beacon of 1970s British comedy (and maybe it is; I don’t know much of the era’s competition), it has sadly not aged all that well for me. Sure it’s always worthwhile to take aim at misplaced religious zealotry — something that I’m sure we’re all aware continues to be relevant today — and Brian takes some good shots at this kind of small-minded thinking by having its not-very-Messianic figure hounded to his death. However, it’s still ultimately a group of middle-class Oxbridge graduates being sophomorically silly about the Bible; I don’t believe that’s a case for any kind of censorship, it’s just not always as funny as it thinks it is (and these lads, particuarly Terry Jones, playing women continues to grate). Still, there remain some classic comedy sequences, the best of them skewering po-faced 1970s socialist groups, as in the ‘what have they ever done for us?’ debate chaired by John Cleese’s Reg (of the People’s Front of Judaea, not to be confused with their mortal enemies the Judaean People’s Front), or an ‘action’ committee he chairs near the end. I suppose one’s reaction to this is dependent on the level of nostalgia you cling to around the Pythons, but I do honestly wonder how the kids of today find this stuff. Ultimately, it feels very much of its era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Jones; Writers Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones and Michael Palin; Cinematographer Peter Biziou; Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 November 2015 (and many times at home on VHS, Wellington, in my youth).

Noah (2014)

I must confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Darren Aronofsky, though as it happens I’ve seen a good number of his feature films starting with his debut Pi (1998). If I think, then, that this latest — a biblical epic about the eponymous ark-building character — is his best work, then that probably shouldn’t be taken as a rave review, but still it has enough going for it that it might just scrape through to being a film that I can genuinely recommend at some level, rather than being a masochistic exercise in cinematic punishment (hi, Requiem for a Dream).

Of course, punishment is still a key theme at some level, since the film deals with the Biblical story of Noah, who builds an ark to protect a few deserving creatures from God’s wrath. God, incidentally, is never named in the film, but as “the Creator”, he (still a man apparently) remains present in the narrative, and wisely Aronofsky refrains from having any of those high camp ‘voice from the clouds’ type moments. Instead we get a number of stop-motion animated interludes retelling the Creation myth and setting up these characters, which reappear later on in the film and manage to somehow interweave it with evolutionary theory. Stop-motion animation also gets used for the Nephilim, who here are fallen angels trapped on Earth in solidly rock form as “the Watchers”, and again it shows some nous from Aronofsky that he’s not tried to make them ‘realistic’, for what exactly would be the point of that? They’re giant rock creatures after all, and ones which are not even too abstracted from the original tale.

I think the key here is that this isn’t an attempt to resolve the story of Noah into something akin to realism by shearing it of its supernatural elements; not much would be left of it, after all. Instead, it sensibly focuses on the moral issues, as Noah grapples not just with the Creator’s intended punishment but with his own role in that punishment. He is pushed to the edges of sanity but what he perceives are the Creator’s demands, as he interprets the flood as a way of ridding the Earth of all the errors of humanity, including him. Of course, the world’s repopulation presumably leans rather heavily on incest, but that’s a consideration that is beyond the scope of the film.

So it’s a Biblical epic and also at some level an ecological horror story, as the forces of evil, incarnated by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone, doing his best Cockney hard man once again) wreak havoc on the world with their vicious tribal society, which we briefly glimpse as, I suppose, a pre- rather than post-apocalyptic dystopia. But however dark and barbaric Tubal-cain’s settlement may be when Noah infiltrates it, it’s his people’s insistence on hunting and eating meat that is presented most insistently as their greatest failing, making Noah something of a visionary evangelistic vegetarian epic.

Few of the actors really make much of a mark in the film next to Russell Crowe’s charismatic central performance. It feels only right that he should embody Noah in all his contradictions and vainglory, as the quest he embarks upon is the kind of single-minded folly that only the most confident of epics could countenance, and Crowe has already proved he can hold this kind of film together. Anthony Hopkins gets a few scenes as the decrepit old Methuselah, living atop a mountain and largely absent for most of the film, while the lovely Emma Watson gets written in as a love interest for Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, largely forgettable). Instead his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) gets a more prominent role, but then his conflicted character, who forges an uneasy alliance with Tubal-cain, is rather more interesting.

As is no doubt clear, I can’t really comment on the religious accuracy of this retelling, but then I shouldn’t really have to. As an epic story about humanity grappling with its own fate, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Maybe the Bible is finally the kind of excessive setting that suits Darren Aronofsky’s talents.

Noah film posterCREDITS
Director Darren Aronofsky; Writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 April 2014.