• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Thursday, May 31, 2007

    Podcast: Il Messia

    The latest Jesus Film Podcast is now available. This month it's Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia. This is partly because I'm going to see Rossellini's other Bible film Atti Degli Apostoli in a couple of weeks but mainly because Il Messia itself will be showing in a few weeks. I've already mentioned the details of these screenings and tickets can be bought from the BFI.

    Il Messia is the most obscure film I've discussed thus far, but has always been one of my favourite Jesus films. Preparing this has only increased my appreciation for it.

    There are six other talks available to download from this podcast. They are Jesus of Nazareth, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Montreal, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Miracle Maker.

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    Tuesday, May 29, 2007

    Mark Goodacre Reviews a New Book on Mel Gibson's Passion

    Mark Goodacre has reviewed one of the many books about The Passion of the Christ for the latest Review of Biblical Literature. Like the majority of the other books released about this film thus far, "Mel Gibson's Passion: The Film, the Controversy, and Its Implications", is a collection of individual essays by a range of authors. This one, however, is a little different as twelve of the twenty chapters appeared in the special spring 2005 edition of the Shofar journal. Shofar's editor Zev Garber has also drawn in eight new articles, and ensured that each chapter has discussion questions.

    More than once, I've heard Mark warn against the use of polemic so his extensive criticisms of this volume deserve to be taken seriously. The body of the review comes under two headings: Inaccuracies; and Overstatement and Hyperbole. In both sections there is little that could really be argued with, and assuming these are correct then this is fairly damning. There are a couple of points on which Goodacre praises the book, but even then it is fairly faint ("Within this framework the collection makes a valuable contribution to the debate", "in strongly revoicing some of the academy's concerns...it has some success" - italics mine).

    It's disappointing to see yet another book about The Passion which is so one sided. There are already a score of books from church leaders lavishing praise on the film, or from academics damning it. Few step into the middle ground, or place essays by those in favour of the film next to those against it. Goodacre is one of the few academics who have discussed the film's pros as well as its cons so he is perhaps best suited to fight the cause for a more balanced discussion of the film. (See his essay "The Passion, Pornography and Polemic", an expanded version of which featured in the book "Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ").

    See also my review of "(Perspectives) On the Passion of the Christ".

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    Monday, May 28, 2007

    Promo Video for Animated The Ten Commandments

    Speaking of Peter Chattaway, he has also dug out a featurette for the new animated version of The Ten Commandments due for release later this year as part of the series.

    As featurettes go, particularly for animated films, it's well done. There's footage of all four of the main actors (Ben Kingsley, Elliot Gould, Christian Slater and Alfred Molina) in recording, and few soundbites from them - Slater in particular, presumably because he'll play Moses. There are also some shots from the film (including the one captured above).

    A few interesting points raised by the video. It's interesting that they opted to record the voices in the same way as The Miracle Maker, i.e. by trying to get the actors all together when they did the recording. They seem to be well versed on recent animated Bible films, there's also mention of The Prince of Egypt (Slater noting that this film goes beyond the parting of the sea). Also mentioned is DeMille's film. One of the talking heads mentions how you can't ignore The Ten Commandments (1956 version presumably) when filming this story.

    Curiously though, they seem to have ignored the existence of some of the other live action versions of the Moses story. Several of those interviewed mention how this film will be different because it will portray a more human Moses. Whilst it's not surprising that they miss the fact that 1975's Moses the Lawgiver did just this, it's a strange thing to say when one of the film's stars, Ben Kingsley, also gave us a very human portrayal in the 1996 Moses. ABC's The Ten Commandments (2006) also attempted this, although it's likely that recording for this project was completed before this aired.

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    More Previews for Not the Messiah

    Monty Python fans will no doubt be anticipating the June premier of Eric Idle's Life of Brian oratorio Not the Messiah.

    I mentioned a few articles on this project in March, notably those by Playbill, Variety and The Globe and Mail. Peter Chattaway has just linked to another article on it in The Toronto Star. This in turn led me to track down a new article in The Globe and the Mail - an interview with Eric IDle (left in the picture).

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    Friday, May 25, 2007

    How Can I Improve my Writing? Part 2.

    Last Friday I started this two part series on ways to improve writing skills, and explained how I came to be asking this question, threw it open for answers, and took a brief look at some recent posts on the subject. This time I want to post my top ten ways to improve writing skills. Like all skills, it's part natural, but part down to practise and hard work.

    I've still got a long way to go to improve my writing, but a key aspect in that improvement is knowing how to go about doing it. So the following are a few things I've picked up. Some of these I'm good at: some of these less so. But in case they're useful for others, I thought I'd post them. Some apply more to aspiring film writers; others are more relevant to those doing more academic writing; others are more universal.

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    Top Ten ways to Improve your Writing

    1 - Read
    The best way to grasp what makes good writing is to be immersed in it. Aside from trashy novels, the majority of books that have been published will be reasonably well written, and so by reading frequently the good will outweigh the bad and improve your familiarity with written English.

    It's also worth finding writers who you realise are particularly good at expressing themselves in print (or on the internet) and reading as much of their work as you can. There are a range of writers, from very different fields who I admire, be it Ebert, Yancey, Goodacre, Reinhartz, or Wright to name but a few. It will be different for everyone. Usually, the reason that these particular authors stand out in our minds is because their writing is not only correct, but it is also clear, vibrant and well crafted. The most obvious marker can be how easy it is to follow their arguments relative to the complexity of their subject.

    For some, this is natural, for others it is a commitment to the kind of hard work that produces just the right word or nice turn of phrase. Reading a lot of those top writers will mean that at least some of it will rub off on you. This is one of those areas I need to work on more.

    2 - Learn about Grammar
    I must admit my grammar is a weak point, but in recent months I've started to be deliberate about improving it. Whilst it's a mistake to think that good grammar is all that's required for good writing it's certainly an important building block. In popular writing there may be the odd, very notable exception, but in academic writing it's even more black and white. If you can't write well your work won't be taken seriously, no matter how good your ideas are.

    I've read a couple of books on this recently. Brian Phythian and Albert Rowe's "Teach Yourself : Correct English" is a good, balanced overview of the technical aspects of the English language. Conversely, John Humphrys' "Lost for Words" is more impassioned plea to stop the mangling of the English language (as well as a call for better English). Between them they provide the know-how and the impetus to change.
    I've also just received a copy of "Eats Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss which comes highly recommended, as something between the two. Another book which I'm thinking of reading of is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax which seems to deal with both grammar and style.

    3 - Enjoy it

    Writing is not well paid enough to choose it as a career (unless you're happy to write about Posh Spice's latest fashion purchase), so most of us do it because we enjoy communicating our ideas. It doesn't always seem that way, particularly in academic writing, or if you have an impending deadline, but it's something you cannot afford to forget. Once you lose your enjoyment of it, it becomes a chore, you don't give yourself to it fully and your quality drops. This can turn into a vicious circle, so take time to remind yourself of why you want to communicate your ideas.

    4 - Write for different contexts
    Aside from discussion forums, most of my writing has taken place on this blog. However, I've discovered that writing for other audiences has generally improved my writing. It's obvious that the more stringent standards of academic writing will prove stretching, but I've also discovered that the opposite is true. From the start of this year I've also been reviewing films for the rejesus blog. My brief is clear: write for a broad audience.

    What's been surprising, though, has been the way that this has improved my writing. I've had to be much more careful about the words I've used. It's prevented me from retreating into the shadows of overly long words safe in the knowledge that my audience is intelligent enough to grasp what I'm saying. Having to work under this particular spotlight has forced me to find greater clarity in what I say.

    Many writers, particularly in academic contexts, would do well to take this on board. I've gradually come to realise that often the reason I don't really get what a particular writer is saying is not necessarily because I'm stupid, but because they're not explaining themselves very well. I'm partway through a book at the moment where this is particularly apparent because the book is a collection of essays by different authors. I won't name it, but some chapters are full of unnecessarily complicated words, overly long sentences and poorly expressed ideas.

    I do wonder if sometimes this kind of book is the worst for this kind of thing as the various authors, feeling the pressure of their work standing side by side with that of their peers, try to compensate by being verbose.

    5 - Know your audience
    It's an easy mistake to make, but you need always to have your audience in mind when you write. It may help to keep in mind as you write one or two people who typify that audience and imagine whether they would understand what you have written and how they would react to it.

    6 - Write more often
    Stretching yourself generally results in getting better at the things you are trying. One of the reasons I started this blog was to give me the discipline of writing more frequently. It was the latest in a series of steps to increase the rate at which I wrote. Just as practising anything more frequently results in getting better at it, writing more often will generally improve your skills.

    Of course it's possible to go too far. Quantity can certainly be detrimental to quality, especially if you get writing fatigue. The risks of that, however, are probably overstated. I've noticed that whilst there might be an initial drop in quality, after a while the quality improves again, and often goes far higher as skills that were hard to master at first become second nature.

    7 - Stretch yourself
    I guess this is taking the principle behind 3 and 4 and applying them elsewhere. It may be writing in a more stringent context, or about a more difficult or challenging subject than usual, or with greater length, or more succinctly.

    8 - Seek feedback
    I hate seeking feedback, but I force myself to be receptive to it whenever it is offered, because it's the best way to learn – at least in small doses. It's tough, particularly if you're as insecure as I am, but it is the only way to find out about your hidden weaknesses.

    9 - Read it through
    He says, aware that he's got about 5 minutes left to post this and he should have stopped ages ago!

    On a more serious note, I'm always surprised how repeatedly reading something through, (particularly if you also have to reduce your number of words) drastically improves it. Somehow the third or fourth time around the flaws become far more annoying, and you have fresh ideas for how to improve things.

    10 - Spell check
    Mainly one for bloggers, but this is all too common, and rarely excusable. At the very least you can copy things into Word or equivalent. If you find that too annoying then you may appreciate the Mozilla inline dictionary which underlines in red any errors (like word) only it does it in browser windows.

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    I'm fearful in posting this up that all the mistakes will be laid bare, and that's probably fair enough. Hopefully though some will find at least part of it useful.

    Thursday, May 24, 2007

    Moses the Lawgiver on Region 2 DVD

    I discovered on Monday that Lew Grade's 1975 series Moses the Lawgiver was released on Region 2 DVD back in March of this year.

    It's difficult to know for certain whether this is the full version. At 300 minutes it should contain most of the series (it's certainly not the 141 minute cut that gained a cinematic release), but the IMDb lists it as lasting for 360 minutes so a few cuts may have been made.

    It's been a while since I have seen this, but I recall it being one of the more challenging films about the life of Moses.

    I'll be reviewing this release shortly.

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    Wednesday, May 23, 2007

    Acts of the Apostles (1957 - Living Bible ) Episodes 5 and 6

    Way back in November, I started reviewing the Acts of the Apostles episodes of The Living Bible (1957). It's a ten part series, but I'd only got as far as episode four. Now I'm gearing up to see Roberto Rossellini's Atti Degli Apostoli, so I'm trying to watch / re-watch some of Rossellini's films and finishing looking at this series, so here are some comments on episodes 5 and 6.
    Episode 5 – God’s Care of His Own
    The Church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-21)
    Apostles send Barnabas to Anitoch (Acts 11:22-24)
    Barnabas brings Paul from Tarsus (Acts 11:25-26)
    Agabus prophecies famine (Acts 11:27-28)
    Collection for Jerusalem (Acts 11:29-30)
    Death of James (Acts 12:1-2)
    Peter’s Escape from Prison (Acts 12:3-17)
    Herod punishes the guards (Acts 12:18-19)
    Herod dies (Acts 12:19-23)
    (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

    Episode 6 - Every Christian a Missionary
    Pentecost (Acts 2:22-36, 41)
    Crippled Beggar Healed (Acts 3:1-26)
    Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22)
    Trial of Stephen (Acts 7:1-57)
    Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40)
    Ananias and Saul (Acts 9:10-16)
    Paul preaches in Damascus (Acts 9:20-22)
    Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48)
    Barnabas collects Paul from Tarsus (Acts 11:25-26)
    Church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30)
    Paul and Barnabas sent out (Acts 13:1-3)
    Great Commission (Acts 1:8)
    Notes
    These two episodes contrast quite strongly. The first continues the general trajectory of the first four episodes - dramatising the book of Acts in roughly the order it appears. Episode 6, however, is something of an excursus: it focuses on the issue of mission as presented in the book of Acts as a means towards convincing it's audience that they too should be missionary minded. Hence this episode is a whistle stop tour of the various episodes in which the apostles evangelise boldly. It's actually surprising how much of the book of Acts is covered in this one 15 minute episode.

    Episode 6 ends with the words of Jesus accompanied by a close up of his face. Interestingly, the actor playing Jesus is Nelson Leigh, who played Jesus in the earlier Life of Jesus episodes of The Living Bible. Leigh must have been available as well. He stars in this series as St. Paul, which is strangely distracting. No wonder Paul says that our bodies will be transformed to "be like his glorious body" (Phil 3:21). Perhaps the 5-6 year gap between the "Acts" and "Jesus" series finally rendered him too old to play Jesus: he would have been 52 at the time. That said HB Warner was the exact same age (52) when he played Jesus in The King of Kings.

    Episode 5 ends with Paul and Barnabas going off to Jerusalem to deliver the gift from the church in Antioch, but despite the story relocating to Jerusalem, we never actually see Paul and Barnabas arrive. This lack of clarity reflects that of the biblical text whereby Paul and Barnabas are sent to deliver the gift to Jerusalem at the end of Acts 11, but are not heard of until the start of Acts 13 when they re-appear in Antioch. There are two major options. Either Saul and Barnabas's trip was a relatively short and low key affair, or that statement gives a brief advance headline which explains that which follows in more detail over the next few chapters.

    It's a minor point, but Acts describes Herod's death as being in a public context, whereas the film shows this occurring in a private context. The death of Herod, which is described in fairly grisly terms, describes the event as being instantaneous, whereas the film merely narrates that Herod dies.

    There are some additional points about these episodes in my post on Galatians vs Acts in Film.

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    Tuesday, May 22, 2007

    Time on Huston's The Bible

    Peter Chattaway is starting to work his way through films featuring Noah's Ark, and having recently watched John Huston's The Bible: In the Beginning he's picked up on the subsequent career of Michael Parks who played Adam.

    More importantly, Peter also linked to an archived article on the film from Time magazine, dating from January 1965 - 18 months before it was released. There's all kinds of things in there, but in particular the film-makers are surprisingly keen, even then, to distance themselves from DeMille. Here are a couple of quotations:
    "The picture won't be like DeMille's," says one of De Laurentiis' assistants. "DeMille would take the 40 years of Moses' life not covered by the Bible and he would create a motion picture story. We have tried faithfully to reproduce and annotate the text of the Bible."...
    ...Sodom has been built out of charred plastic and spreads over 25 acres of Mount Etna. Katherine Dunham and her dancers were called in to provide the sin. Huston filmed Sodom dimly lit, and shied clear of the debauches of DeMille's epics. "There's no obscenity," says Huston, "but you will know unspeakable things are going on."
    I posted some comments on this film from Huston's autobiography a while back. There are also some nice behind the scenes photos available here.

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    Monday, May 21, 2007

    Miracle Maker - Special Edition DVD Review

    Back in March, I mentioned the Special Edition DVD release of The Miracle Maker. Having recently worked my way through the extras, and re-reviewed the film in both written and audio form, I thought I should write about the DVD release in particular.

    The weakest aspect of this release is the one that is seen first - the cover. In some ways it's largely irrelevant - it's the content and the look of the film which really matter. Even so, it's a lousy first impression, the cloudy sky background and the bright light seeping through the gaps between the figures in the main still, give the cover a floaty ethereal feel that is very different from the down to earth Jesus the film so excellently portrays.

    Cover art aside, it's a very good DVD. Having had this film on a pan-and-scan VHS for years, the wide-screen aspect ratio and the far crisper print are much appreciated.

    One of the biggest attractions of any special edition DVD is the audio commentary. This one features (executive) director Derek Hayes and producer Naomi Jones. There's plenty of interesting discussion, which centres around the relationship between the Welsh Cartwn Cymru animation company and their Russian counterparts Christmas Films. Having clarified early on in the commentary how the workload was split between the two groups of animators (Cartwn Cymru did the 2D work and some CGI, Christmas Films did the 3D puppetry), there are various anecdotes surrounding how the two companies worked together. I couldn't help feeling that the Russian company came out of those stories looking a bit behind the times.

    There are various other details as well. I've always felt this film was well researched and the commentary provides strong support for that theory. The explanation behind why the story starts in Sepphoris, for example, will be illuminating for many. Technical information is in good supply too with details about how the mouths were animated, and how the voices were recorded both being discussed.

    The other features are good as well. The "Making Of" documentary lasts for about half an hour and covers some of the same material that is discussed in the audio commentary. It's real strength is the footage it gives you. It's part interesting and part spooky to see figures familiar from the film reduced to lifeless, incomplete models.

    There's also a storyboard to film comparison. Rather than playing this next to the final product, or allowing viewers to flick between the two using the "angle" button on their handsets, the pictures changes automatically. This is much easier to watch, and allows us to see more of the detail than we would with the side by side comparison.

    Strangely there are no trailers for the film. The trailers advertised on the box (and on various websites) turn out to be for other programmes aimed at children. It's rather tedious flicking through with them, and it's a shame that the theatrical trailers for The Miracle Maker aren't included.

    Lastly there are two "interactive games". These are essentially quizzes, and I would imagine they are aimed at older children. Since the film is used a lot in educational settings this makes good sense, and is a nice addition.

    A film like this deserved a decent treatment, and it's good to see that it has finally been given it.

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    Friday, May 18, 2007

    How Can I Improve my Writing? Part 1

    (This is the first part of a two part article looking at how I can improve my writing. In this post I shall ask the question, explain how I came to be asking it, and throw it open for answers. I'll also take a brief peak at some of the recent work on the post. Then in a later post I'll combine some of those answers with what I've picked up from elsewhere).

    For quite a while now, I've been meaning to post something somewhere about ways to improve my writing. Since there has been a recent flurry of posts on this subject at some of the blogs I frequent, I thought now was as good as time as any to ask.

    I've been thinking recently that I need to continually find ways to improve my writing. One of the numerous reasons I started this blog was to improve my writing. It's all very well turning out 10 or so reviews a year when you have plenty of time to hone them, but I also felt that writing more often, would challenge me and help me move up a level. The risk is, of course, that the day to day writing is never quite as good as that which has taken longer to craft, but I think that's more true in the shorter term than in the long term. The process of writing very regularly means that the necessary skills get practised regularly as well. As a former sportsman, it was regular practise that made me a better player, rather than not doing anything between big games.

    But since starting that experiment 16 plus months ago, I hadn't done a great deal else to intentionally get better. Then I was challenged by the attitude of my friend, (and, as it happens, my boss), Ness Wilson. I've known Ness for about 13 years now, and was aware from the first few times I heard her speak that she was a good preacher. However, over the last few years, she's been very intentional about doing everything she can to improving her speaking, listening to some of the real experts reading books on it, listening to herself and analysing her talks , and so on. It's paid dividends. When she started this process, she was already an excellent speaker, but now she is one of the best I have ever heard. She isn't an hilarious speaker, nor the type that blows you away with the way they unpick a particular text. Those aren't really her strengths. But in all other respects, she is fantastic. (The problem comes when I go to see some renown speaker somewhere else. Very often they fail to reach the standards to which I've become accustomed).

    Anyway, knowing the way that Ness's deliberate effort in honing her preaching has paid off, I realised that it had been a while since I had done much to improve what I consider one of my key skills - my writing. I actually started being deliberate on this a while back, but I'd like to throw the question out to anyone who reads this blog....

    ...What can I do to improve my writing?

    Please feel free to comment below, or contact me directly. I'm looking for both general tips such as "read more", as well as things specific to my own writing, such as "you don't really know how to use semi-colons" (this is something I'm working on!). In particular, I'm thinking of practices writers can take on so that they continually improve their writing, rather than one off pieces of advice, but I'll take what's offered. Please be gentle with me though!

    As I said at the start of the article, there are a number of pieces on this at the moment in the blog-o-sphere. The recent spate of articles on this started with Angela Roskop Erisman at Imaginary Grace. Her post Writing in Biblical Studies looks at some of the resources that are available in four different areas: Academic Research and Writing, Non-Academic Resources, Teaching and Publishing.

    Erisman's post was picked up by Loren Rosson of The Busybody. The Seven Deadly Sins in Writing focusses on just one of the books Erisman recommends Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. The seven are sloth, gluttony, fog, pretense, gobbledygook, jargon, and euphemism. (I can't help wondering what a Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman film would look like if it was about a man who handed out twisted, ironic punishments to sinfully bad writers). I can't quite tell whether the "Seven Deadly Sins" format Rosson uses is from Hale's summary, or her own invention, but either way I like it.

    I'm not alone, both Mark Goodacre and Tyler Williams cite it in recent posts. Mark questions one (euphemism), adds one (polemic) and approves six, and I have to say I broadly agree with him. Tyler has less to say, but then he'd already commented on Erisman's original post(which is where I heard about it).

    I'll return to the subject at some point in the next fortnight, to post a mixture of my own ideas and (hopefully) some comments.

    Thursday, May 17, 2007

    Scene Guide - The Real Old Testament

    Having reviewed Paul and Curtis Hannum's The Real Old Testament last week, I'd like now to give some scene analysis on the film. This is a fairly easy task as the individual episodes are given Bible references, and tie in fairly well with the chapter breaks on the DVD. Citing Bible references makes the film more authoritative, particularly for those who are not that familiar with Genesis, whilst also defusing some of the potential objections that its critics might raise. The main story headings (for each chunk of the story) are just cited as whole chapters, but each element within that chunk is accompanied by more specific references. To capture this I've made the main headings bold. All verses are as cited by the intertitles
    [Extra-Biblical Episode - Introduction]
    Gen 1-3 - The Garden of Eden
    The Forbidden Tree - (Gen 2:15)
    Temptation at the Tree - (Gen 3)
    The Fall From Grace - (Gen 3:9)
    Gen 4 - Cain and Abel
    Cain and Abel's Offering to God - (Gen 4:3)
    Cain kills Abel - (Gen 4:8)
    God Confronts Cain - (Gen 4:9)
    Gen 12, 15, 16 - Abram and Sarai
    God Comes to Abram - (Gen 12)
    Sarai is Barren - (Gen 16)
    Sarai Deals Harshly with Hagar - (Gen 16:6)
    God Find Hagar in the Wilderness - (Gen 16:7)
    Gen 19 - Sodom and Gomorrah
    Lot Visited by Two Angels - (Gen 19:4)
    Lot and His Family Flee - (Gen 19:15)
    Sin of Lot's Daughters - (Gen 19:30)
    Gen 17, 20-22 - Abraham and Sarah
    Abraham and Sarah meet King Abimelech - (Gen 20)
    Sarah Laughs at God's Pledge - (Gen 18:9)
    God Tests Abraham - (Gen 22)
    Gen 29-30 - Jacob and Rachel
    Jacob Meets Rachel - (Gen 29:9)
    Laban and Leah deceive Jacob - (Gen 29:23)
    Jacob and the Handmaidens - (Gen 30:3)
    Rachel Trades Jacob's Favours for some Mandrake - (Gen 30:14)
    [Extra-Biblical Episode - The Re-Union Show]
    Notes
    There are a number of similarities between this film and John Huston's The Bible: In the Beginning (in addition to covering the same subject matter). Firstly, the film's title suggests it covers a greater portion of the Bible than it actually does: Huston's film stops at Genesis 22 (after the aborted sacrifice of Isaac). The Real Old Testament goes eight chapters further.

    Secondly, from a textual point of view, both films offer a fairly literal reproduction, yet in both cases it is precisely because these films let the stories speak for themselves that they bring such uncomfortable challenges to the original stories. Finally both films star their directors in key roles: Huston plays Noah and Paul Hannum plays Snake whilst Curtis Hannum plays God. There are, of course, numerous other comparisons.

    This is the only film I can recall which shows the incident with Lot's daughters. It's absence in other Genesis films perhaps owes something to it's strangeness, and even though it's played for laughs here, it's uncomfortable viewing. Another episode usually glossed over is that of Rachel swapping sex with Jacob for Mandrake. Having recently watched Pan's Labyrinth (my review), where the legends surrounding the plant are explored, these aspects seemed particularly pertinent to me this time around. For more on this see the post on Rachel and Genesis 30 at Ralph the Sacred River.

    Whilst covering most of the first thirty chapters of Genesis there are a few notable omissions. In particular Noah and the Tower of Babel, as well as the stories of Isaac and Esau. I imagine that former pair were omitted for reasons of budget as much as anything else. (Interestingly the Noah scene is the only one in which Huston sought to bring out the humour). I'm curious as to why the story of Esau was left out. Perhaps the Hannums couldn't see the humour in it when they were creating the scenarios. Or perhaps it was filmed, but didn't reach the same standard as the rest of the film. One or two scenes are moved out of the order they occur in the bible, although their arrangement there is not actually chronological in any case.

    As with MTV's The Real World, the film ends with a "Re-Union Show" where all the characters get together again. Bring characters separated by time together produces a few new laughs, such as when one character calls Eve a "babe" before realising that they're supposed to be related, or Snake extolling the virtues of agents. It is however, the weakest part of the film. Interestingly though, it does raise questions about the treatment of women in the book of Genesis.

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    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    My Miracle Maker Review up at ReJesus


    The title says it all really! A review I've written of the Miracle Maker has been posted at rejesus. I'll be posting some comments about the Special Edition DVD shortly.

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    Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    Update on Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination

    Last month, I mentioned the forthcoming release of the book "Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination" by Jeff Staley and Richard Walsh. Jeffrey got back in touch last week to let me know that it's now listed at Amazon and that the cover art has been completed (see right). It should be available in September, and will be published by Westminster John Knox Press.

    I won't repeat everything I discussed back then, so if you want more information follow this link, or read the other details on his homepage

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    Friday, May 11, 2007

    Thoughts on the Jesus Christ, Superstar Director's Commentary

    Despite my obsessiveness about Jesus films, watching this a month ago was actually the first time I have sat down to watch a film with the commentary track turned on. It's something I've always meant to do, but there are so many films to see in so little time.

    It was also the first time that I have watched the film in widescreen, and, being on DVD obviously helped the quality. I must admit I was blown away by the cinematography this time around. There is still much in this film that has dated, and not in a good way, but at the same time there are some incredible images at times too. Until fairly recently, I was sceptical about the merits of DVDs over VHS, and there was even a time (long long ago) when I failed to see the benefits of widescreen. But, increasingly, I'm re-discovering films for the first time as there visual assets are given the opportunity to show what they're worth.

    Anyway, I thought I would post a few comments on some of what was said in the commentary which was given by both director Norman Jewison and Ted Neeley who played Jesus. It was quite touching hearing the two come back together to do this commentary. Both men clearly felt a huge amount of affection for each other, and towards the end Neeley offers Jewison a heartfelt thank you for casting in this film which has gone on to be one of the defining moments of his life. Neeley has been playing Jesus ever since, (including, we are told, 2000 performances on a five year tour from 1992-97) and even met his wife on set.

    The other emotional aspect of this commentary is that the actor who played Judas, Carl Anderson - who was a great friend to both men, had died a month before recording. This was, I believe, the first time the two men had met since Anderson's funeral, where Neeley had performed "Gethsemane". As I said above, I don't have a huge amount of experience with director's commentaries, but I imagine that few of them are as emotional as this one. Perhaps that is something that goes more with older films, particularly ones that have been as influential on those who took part as this one.

    Thankfully it wasn't all emotional however, and there are plenty of interesting revelations. The pair explain, for example, that both Anderson and Neeley were referencing Kazantzakis's "Last Temptation" during filming; how the set was all pretty much there when they got there other than the scaffolding used by the priests; and how the cast was split up into different camps to improve the cliquey-ness with Jesus's group and the animosity with Judas and the priests. This was enhanced by the sense of isolation the whole cast and crew felt being stuck in the middle of the Israeli desert; it fostered community.

    As with most director's commentaries there is plenty discussion about some of the shots that are used. One of the more important shots for interpreting the film, which is often overlooked, is the opening scenes of the actors getting off the bus. Jewison notes how he wanted to introduce each character in turn, and it struck me how this captures part of the experience of those attending a stage version of this opera. Usually they would buy a programme, which introduces each of the characters, and flick through it before the performance starts. Likewise the actors "take a bow" at the end of the film as they file back onto the bus.

    I particularly appreciated the explanation of the dissolve from the vultures, who just happened to be flying overhead one day, to the priests. Further fuel for those who accuse the film of anti-Semitism, but an effective extra way of highlighting who the bad guys are nevertheless. As for those charges, Jewison and Neeley are keen to point out that the cast and the (all-British) crew included Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddists.

    Elsewhere there's talk of how the Dead Sea used for "Herod's Song" forms a most around him; praise for the locations ("like westerns"); and admiration for the way Tony Gibbs intercut "Superstar" with scenes from the crucifixion.

    There's also quite a bit of discussion about the casting. Jewison apparently drove a considerable distance to see Neeley play "Ted" in Tommy, only to find when he got there that he'd been injured that afternoon. Carl Anderson was worried that casting him as a black Judas might hurt the film, but Jewison reassured him by telling him he was being cast because of his talent rather than his colour. Jewison also quotes his younger self at one point as defending casting a blue eyed actor by explaining "this is not accurate, it's an opera we have to go with the voices". This certainly wasn't a problem for the actor playing Pilate and Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene) both of whom had sung on the original album.

    Then of course there's the trivia. Here are some of the pieces I noted down:
    • The "Clearing the Temple" scene had to be limited to two takes because everything got smashed up.
    • The tanks used in the famous shot where they creep behind Judas (below to the sound of flutes), were the real thing, fresh from the 6 Days War.
    • The grass for the Last Supper had to be grown specially, four months in advance.
    • The rope they used to hang Judas broke in take 1.
    • The soldier who was crucifying Neeley didn't speak English and almost put the spike (nail) through his hand for real.
    • Mrs Neeley cried when shown the flogging scene.
    • Filming "Gethsemane" required 6 guys carrying equipment up the mountain.
    • The 120o heat was so intense that filming in some scene had to stop every 30 seconds.
    Finally, there is also some discussion about the controversy surrounding the film. Strangely it seems the BBC was more concerned than the Vatican. Whilst the BBC banned the album, presumably from it's radio stations primarily, the Vatican sent journalists to see the film who were so overwhelmed they even suggested Neeley should be canonised. The problem for the BBC was apparently not because of the ambiguity surrounding the events after Jesus's death, but because they couldn't handle a singing Jesus. Speaking of that shot, Jewison confesses that the shepherds appearance was all down to chance. In any case Neeley was neither rattled, nor particularly surprised by the controversy, not only describing it as "great" but also "inevitable" due to the film's personal nature. He is pleased, however, that many fans of the film have found it brought them to a more spiritual place.

    There's obviously much more besides this, and the DVD also comes with an interview with Sir Tim Rice which I covered back in August.

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    Thursday, May 10, 2007

    Congratulations to Peter Chattaway

    I've also been meaning to post this all week. Having come fourth last time around, my good friend Peter Chattaway has gone two better this year. He's been awarded second place in the 'Media Review - Newspaper' category at the Canadian Church Press awards for his film column for BC Christian News. There are encouraging words too from judge, Marianne Meed Ward:
    Well written, relevant to the interest of your audience, packed with quirky facts and informative -- it's a media survey and piece by piece review rolled into one brief engaging package that never forgets the needs of the audience. A rare achievement.
    I'll second that. Nice one Peter! Congratulations

    Herod's Tomb Found

    I meant to post this on Tuesday whilst it was still fresh. However, I suppose the benefit of posting now is that I can link to some of the more interesting posts about this one around the blogosphere.

    In case you haven't heard yet, a team led by Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) has uncovered what they believe to be the tomb of Herod the Great at Mount Herodium. The discovery is the culmination of a 35 year hunt for the tomb of the man dubbed by the Romans "The King of the Jews", and the find includes Herod's grave, sarcophagus and mausoleum.

    Herodium, a palace fortress on the edge of the Judean desert, had long been touted as the likely location for the tomb. The process of discovering it, however, appears to have been somewhat more complicated than they originally imagined. Until 2006 the hunt for the tomb had focussed on the "Tomb Estate" in Lower Herodium, but after over 30 years with no success Netzer's team switched their attention to inside of the slope of Mount Herodium. The hill's volcano-type shape is due to an artificial cone towards the top and it appears that it was there that Herod was buried.

    It appears that Herod originally intended to be buried in the grand Tomb Estate, but later changed his mind. If his intention in so doing was to prevent his tomb being sacked following his death, his change of plan was wasted. Excavations have found the mausoleum to have been dismantled, and the sarcophagus to have been smashed into many pieces, apparently in ancient times. I imagine another possibility might be that Herod never changed his plans, but that his successor (or indeed the Romans) buried him in this location instead to affect the way he was remembered by future generations.

    The various Biblioblogs have been buzzing with news of this one. I first heard about it on NT Gateway, but Mark Goodacre has left the spade work to others on this occasion. Only too happy to take up the challenge, Tyler Williams has four posts on the subject: his initial post quoting the Israeli newspaper Haaretz which broke the story; Extensive excerpts from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem press release; a brief pointer to Todd Bolen's excellent King Herod: Ten Things You Didn’t Know; and finally three pictures courtesy of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Elsewhere, Jim West updated his initial post several times and has since added links to more photos. Finally, I wrote a brief and simple piece on this story for rejesus.

    By the way, couldn't resist using the photo above taken from King of Kings (1961) one of the few films that actually shows Herod's death.

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    Wednesday, May 09, 2007

    The Real Old Testament

    It's probably because religion is often taken so seriously that those with a sense of the comical find it such a hard subject to resist. Things have changed significantly in this area over the past 30 years. Back in 1979, Monty Python's Life of Brian faced a storm of protest, and was banned in many areas. These days things are far more lax. A few quick searches on YouTube swiftly reveal what an easy target religion has become.

    Sadly, quantity does not equate quality. Just as Life of Brian was swiftly followed up by the dreadful Wholly Moses, and the fairly weak bible scenes from The History of the World Part 1, so there is little in the current glut of religious comedy that will still be genuinely funny once we have got over that one time taboo.

    Thankfully, Curtis and Paul Hannum's The Real Old Testament is a notable exception. Shot on an ultra-low budget, with improvised dialogue it covers the opening 30 or so chapters of the book of Genesis in the style of MTV's The Real World. In addition to playing 'God' and 'Snake' the brothers also edited, produced and directed the film themselves.

    However, possibly the Hannums' biggest strength is their ability to draw together a group of actors who were sufficiently able to milk the material for all it was worth. Probably the most established star of the film was Sam Lloyd (Ted from Scrubs) who plays Abraham. That said, keen Scrubs fans will also recognise the names of real life husband and wife team Tim Hobert and Jill Tracy who star here as Jacob and Rachel. It's testimony to the rest of the cast, however, that they more than match the performances of these three. Particularly impressive are Kate Connor as Sarai/Sarah and Laura Meshelle as one of Lot's daughters. But it's Curtis Hannum's own performance as a petulant and fickle God which is probably the most memorable.

    It's also the performance most likely to cause offence. This is not a film for those unable to laugh at their faith. If you were offended by Life of Brian then stay away. This is not a film which shows God a great deal of respect.

    That said, the movie will have as many fans within the church, as it will outside it. The Real Old Testament is certainly irreverent, but its offence is tempered by its measured use of scripture. There's very little in the final film which is not from the book of Genesis, and whilst it is portrayed fairly scathingly, at least half of its irreverent tone comes from the original decision to shoot those stories in that particular style.

    The best films about the Bible are those that shed new light on overly familiar texts. The Hannums' film is certainly successful in this regard. By defamiliarising the various stories in Genesis it allows them to be seen in a new way. By filming the Old Testament is such a penetrating modern style, the strangeness of much of what went on in these characters lives becomes unavoidable. It cuts through centuries of religious gloss to the very core of the stories.

    But the biggest strength of the film is that it achieves its primary goal – to be funny. A comedy film can be moving, challenging or pioneering, but if it fails to amuse then it's ultimately a failure. The Real Old Testament is packed with great lines, and subtle performances. It's eminently quotable, and is one of those rare films that gets funnier with multiple viewings. Whether it's calling Sodom and Gomorrah "one of those love it or hate it places", Cain extolling the pleasant virtues of Nod, or Abraham reacting to God's idea about circumcision, the film rarely misses the mark.

    The original The Real World played for several series, in different cities, and it would be great if The Real Old Testament went beyond Genesis and gave other Old Testament books similar treatment. Sadly it's been over four years since it showed at the Slamdance festival, so, unfortunately, that seems unlikely. It's a shame, because as po-faced and fundamentalist Christianity are on the rise, we need more films that show us the biblical absurdities which often go unnoticed.

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    Tuesday, May 08, 2007

    The Miracle Maker and the Women at the Tomb

    Following the new special edition DVD release of The Miracle Maker, I've been revisiting that film, notably to listen to the director's commentary. However, I also recently watched the resurrection scenes at Easter with my daughter. She was only 10 months then, so I'm sure she got very little out of the experience, but I was intrigued to notice a detail in those scenes that has previously escaped me.

    I've noted before that this film contains as much post-resurrection footage as practically any film, and that it focusses its attention on the more voluminous accounts in Luke and John. Harmonising the various accounts of the resurrection is a tricky business. Different gospels record different people arriving at the scene and omit the accounts found in the others.

    Watching the resurrection scenes again at Easter I noticed three women who make fleeting appearances on the first Easter. We first encounter them as Mary rushes away from having met Jesus. The shot is so brief that I couldn't even to get a screen shot that wasn't blurred. Mary is rushing to get Peter and John to tell them of her discovery. The film diverts from John at this point, as in his gospel Mary rushes to get the disciples before she has seen the risen Jesus rather than after.

    Peter and John then rush to the tomb, with Mary following a way behind them. When Peter emerges we see this shot. Mary is now talking to the three women she passed earlier. However, it's unclear who these women are meant to be. Matthew's gospel records only two women going to the tomb - Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary": Mark records three - "Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome".

    Since we have already been shown Mary Magdalene going to the tomb alone, then these three women must represent a combination of the other three women recorded as witnessing the resurrection - "Mary the mother of James, the other Mary and Salome". Most scholars would, I imagine, equate "the other Mary" with "Mary the mother of James", so it's unusual that they show three figures here rather than just two. But it's interesting how the film-makers make this visual allusion to the other two resurrection accounts, without going into the details.

    This is probably because whilst the story is primarily seen through the eyes of Jairus's daughter Tamar, it also encourages the viewer to look at the story of Jesus, and, in particular, his resurrection, through the eyes of both Mary, and indeed Peter. Each of the three characters encounter the risen Jesus, and in each case we are shown the moment they see him and begin to realise what has happened through a point of view shot. To tell the story from the perspective of these women (in addition to that of Cleopas and Jairus) would, no doubt, be somewhat overbearing.

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    Friday, May 04, 2007

    Dates for Atti Degli Apostoli and Il Messia

    I got a copy of the BFI's film guide through in the post yesterday morning, and I'm pleased to announce (even before their website has) that both Atti Degli Apostoli and Il Messia will be showing in June as part of the BFI's Roberto Rossellini retrospective. As I mentioned back in October last year this is touring season to mark the director's 100th birthday. Both films will be showing twice (along with many of the great director's films), and the dates are as follows:

    Atti Degli Apostoli
    290 mins (+ intervals)
    Sun, 17th June 2007, 16:00, NFT2 - Southbank
    Sun, 23rd June 2007, 16:20, The Studio - Southbank

    Il Messia
    145 mins
    Wed, 20th June 2007, 17:40, NFT3 - Southbank
    Wed, 27th June 2007, 20:10, NFT2 - Southbank

    I'm planning to be at the Sunday 17th showing of Atti Degli Apostoli, so if you're there as well, please do come and say "hello". This may be the only chance I ever get to see this film. Ideally, I'd like to see Il Messia on the big screen as well, but a combination of family responsibilities, travel difficulties, lack of funds and owning it on video are all working against me.

    The National Film Theatre (Southbank) Box Office number is 020 7928 3232

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    Thursday, May 03, 2007

    Biblical Studies Carnival XVII

    Christopher Heard of Higgaion has posted the seventeenth Biblical Studies Carnival.

    Chris has done a great job, especially given that he apparently didn't receive any nominations. I must admit that it's an area I'm weak on. I don't read Biblical Studies blogs as widely as I should, and so I always feel a little guilty nominating. From here on in though, I shall have to do better. It's nice to get a mention as well. Thanks Chris.

    Next month's Biblical Studies Carnival XVIII will be hosted by Danny Zacharias of Deinde. Speaking of Danny Zacharias, I've often wondered whether he was any relation to Ravi Zacharias. I don't suppose anyone can shed any light on that could they?

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    Tuesday, May 01, 2007

    Aronofsky to Make Film About Noah

    In case you've not yet read this story at FilmChat, Looking Closer, or even in The Guardian itself, Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain) is planning on making a film about Noah. I have a feeling that I already knew that before reading it at the above yesterday, but I have no idea where I heard it. Back in January I mentioned that Aronofsky was making a bible film, but then there was no news on a title.

    The interview is mainly about The Fountain - which is released on DVD later this month. After that though, the only one of Aronofsky's other projects that he talks about in this interview is the Noah one. I found this quote particularly interesting:
    The script, Aronofsky tells me, is no conventional biblical epic. "Noah was the first person to plant vineyards and drink wine and get drunk," he says admiringly. "It's there in the Bible - it was one of the first things he did when he reached land. There was some real survivor's guilt going on there. He's a dark, complicated character."
    What I love best about Bible films is when they give you a new angle on a familiar story, so this has got me really excited about this project. The Fountain had a long, complicated a torturous path to production. Hopefully this project will happen a little more quickly.

    Jeffrey Overstreet also has an interesting interview with Aronofsky at Christianity Today.

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