• 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.

    Tuesday, January 30, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973): An Introduction


    Still from the 1959 Berlin performance
    Moses und Aron (1973) is arguably the most mentally challenging of all biblical films. The lack of discussion of it amongst scholars of the Bible on Film is not, to misquote G.K. Chesterton,  because it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and not tried. The film is directed by Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, two filmmakers who though born in France went on to make most of their films in Germany and who are renowned for their austere and inaccessible style. Furthermore it is based on a complex and difficult atonal opera by Arnold Schönberg / Schoenberg, one of the best known examples of twelve-tone serialism. The result is a dense and challenging work that "manages to combine biblical commentary with timely political propaganda" (Tugenhaft). It's a piece that will alienate the vast majority of audiences but still have much to say, reflecting a key dilemma when looking at biblical films: the more entertaining and accessible they become, the less spiritual and vice versa.

    Given Straub and Huillet's unique filmmaking style, and in particular the faithful yet innovative way they handle their source material, it makes sense to examine Schönberg's contribution first in some detail, so that Straub and Huillet's treatment of it becomes clearer in future posts.

    For Schönberg, "Moses und Aron" was the culmination of his work adapting biblical narratives. His "interest in the musical statement of religious thought" first came to fruition with his oratorio "Die Jakobsleiter", based on the story of Jacob's Ladder, in 1917 Steiner, 41). Around this time he began to experiment with twelve-tone technique that typified the third, and final, phase in his career. Ten years later he wrote a play "Der biblische Weg" (The Biblical Way) which, like Preminger's Exodus (1960), explored the idea of a modern Jewish state whilst drawing on the biblical narratives about Moses. Later works included "Psalm 130" (1950) and the also unfinished "Modern Psalms".

    Initially Schönberg developed "Der biblische Weg" into an oratorio before converting it into a full blown opera, "Moses und Aron", and by the end of 1932 he had finished the first two acts and written the libretto for the third. Sadly it was to remain largely in that form even though "Schoenberg’s letters leave no room for doubt that he was firmly resolved to complete the work’s composition” (Wörner 91). The transition between to two pieces also coincides with Schönberg's return to Judaism, which was sparked by an anti-Semitic incident in Mattsee, Austria in 1921 but did not become official until he had fled from Berlin to Paris in 1933.

    Schönberg died in 1951 with the third and final act still unfinished. It did not even receive a full concert performance until 1954 in Hamburg and the first proper performance of the opera did not come until Zurich in 1957 (Wörner 104). Following its German premiére in Berlin, 1959 (pictured above), it was performed on only a few more occasions before Straub and Huillet decided to adapt it for the screen in the early seventies.

    The unfinished nature of the final act has led to different approaches towards its performnace. Performances have tended to either end at the close of Act II, or perform the final section without music. Indeed the lack of agreement as to the best approach goes back to the first two performances. “In Zurich it had been decided to close the performance with the end of the second act; the text of the third act was reproduced in the programme-book. In Berlin, the text of the third act was spoken on the stage by Moses and Aaron, in the manner of spoken drama, while, as a very soft background, the music of the first scene was relayed through a loudspeaker.” (Wörner 105) More recently, Hungarian composer Zoltán Kocsis developed his own score for the missing section, which was performed in Budapest in 2010 (Jeffries). Goldstein summarises a range of theories as to why Schönberg failed to complete the opera (151), before concluding that it is best to "explore the aesthetic implications of the opera as one whose third act is spoken and to resist speculating about the philosophical implications" of that for opera (152).

    In future posts I'm going to explore in more detail the story, the techniques Schönberg uses and key elements of his portrayal, before going on to look at Straub and Huillet's film in more detail.
    ================
    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.
    - Jeffries, Stuart (2014) "Schoenberg's Moses und Aron: the opera that comes complete with an orgy". The Guardian 15th May. Available online at - https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/may/15/schoenberg-moses-und-aron-opera-orgy 
    - Steiner, George (1965) “Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” Encounter (June), pp.40-46.
    - Tugenhaft, Aaron (1997) "Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron" in Sources: The Chicago Undergraduate Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume III. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20031013145056/
    http://humanities.uchicago.edu:80/journals/jsjournal/tugendhaft.html
     

    - Wörner, Karl H. ([1963] 1959) Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ trans. Paul Hamburger, London: Faber and Faber.

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    Friday, January 26, 2018

    Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Samson and Delilah (1978)


    I have a few Samson movies on my list of key films that I still need to review, so with the release of a new Samson film next month, I thought now would be a good time to run a short Samson series. However I didn't have time to watch those films and review them, so I settled for the Samson and Delilah entry from the late 70s series The Greatest Heroes of the Bible.

    At the start of the film starts Samson is already an adult, aware of his powers and his God. When some Philistine soldiers threaten his parents and a girl from his village, he lashes out to defend them. He soon regrets being so hotheaded and retreats some distance to reflect and pray, only to have his prayers answered. A billowing cloud and echo-effect voice-over portray God affirming Samson and commissioning him using the words from Judges 13:3-8 that were actually spoken to his parents by an angel before Samson was born.

    The leading roles here are played by John Beck and Ann Turkel neither of whom are familiar names today, which is something of a departure from the other entries in this series (at least amongst those I have seen) where at least one of the cast had a decent TV role, a minor movie role, or went on to become more famous following their appearance. Beck is particularly unconvincing in the role here. He's fairly tall, I suppose, but not particularly muscular, which rather works against him. On the one hand if God was the source of Samson's power then there's no need for Samson to be big, but in contrast once Samson's hair is cut off, it seems inconceivable that he would not be able to put up more of a fight.

    The lack of a known name is not this film's only departure from the series formula, however. One real positive here is that the script avoids the spurious fictional sub-plot to spur things along. These tend to be one of the biggest weaknesses of the other films and Samson and Delilah does far better without it.

    The film does focus quite a bit on the role of leader and judge, something that is often rather skipped over, not least by the source text. Here however the film constantly shows Samson carrying round a large shepherds crook - which he uses to fight with in several scenes, portraying the protecting shepherd leader and prefiguring King David. But we also see Samson struggling with and gradually coming to terms with his responsibilities as leader. After the initial fight scene the Philistines wage a campaign against the Israelites which they promise to continue until Samson is brought to them. As with the rest of Judges 15:9-16 the people beg Samson to turn himself over, which he does only to break free, grab a convincing weapon-like ass's Jawbone and rout his captors.

    This leads to a sort of peace which lasts for a while until an unfortunate turn of events. The girl from Samson's village encounters a lion, runs off in panic, and falls and dies. Samson kills the lion - in a manner that seems far more realistic than in the DeMille's version, but instead of leading to riddle making sends Samson into a downward spiral of depression. Samson is seen out drinking in Gaza calling out "What good am I to God? Or he to us?". Thus whilst there's not much sub-plot, there is this invented motive for what happens next.

    In the words of the film's narrator, Samson has a crisis of faith and becomes "a man adrift" and whilst there's no sign of activity with a prostitute in Gaza he does end up in trapped in the city overnight with the authorities unwilling to open the gates. Here, though, the gates Samson rips off are rather small, made out of wrought iron (in the Bronze age?) and Samson doesn't so much carry them the 16 or so miles to Hebron, as turn and chuck them at some soldiers. Perhaps this was just down to the budget, or an attempt at presenting a more likely scenario that then got exaggerated through centuries of storytelling. Either way it doesn't really work as it seems neither realistic, nor the kind of particularly spectacular act of which one who was channelling God's strength might be capable.

    In the midst of this is the Philistine plot involving Delilah. She's seemingly aroused by what she hears of this strongman and thus keen to meet him and the two become attached. But after her initial attempt to trap him fails, he heads back to his people to resume his judging duties. It's clear though that both are torn between doing their duty for their respective countries, the financial difficulties of their circumstances and their feelings for one another. The film does a reasonably good job of portraying these varying tensions not least their national loyalties. Samson of course gets sucked back in, Delilah reluctantly strikes again and the Philistines have their man.

    The climatic scene, though, is a bit of a calamity, as the cheap 1970s special effects have aged particularly badly. God starts to speak to Samson - again more echo chamber and billowing clouds - but soon key members of the crowd hear him too. Then suddenly Samson goes white, and then, in the films most bizarre moment his (already shoulder-length) hair grows back to it's previous luscious length. Samson leans on the pillars, which structurally don't appear connected to much else, yet nevertheless the walls all tumble down like only large blocks of polystyrene can.

    For an episode that tried a few interesting things, the ending is a bit of a let down then. The script made a reasonably good attempt of fashioning a reasonably sturdy plot out of a series of episodes that cohere rather badly in the original. If only architecture in the finale had been assembled to the same standard.

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    Monday, January 22, 2018

    Highest visited posts of 2017


    In the real world I'm a bit of a stats geek so I thought some others might also be interested in seeing which of my posts of the last 12 months have been the most visited. as you can see from the graph above one post - my review of The Star was the run away winner, but the top fifteen new posts from 2017 are as follows:

    1. The Star (2017) [323 views]
    2. The Gospel of Mark (2016) [172 views]
    3. La Vie de Jesus (1997) [154 views]
    4. How The Passion of the Christ Wrong-footed Hollywood [114 views]
    5. Using Ewan:Star Power in Last Days in the Desert [113 views]
    6. Joseph and Mary (2016) [108 views]
    7. Chasing the Star (2017) [106 views]
    8. Paul, Apostle of Christ set for 2018 release. [86 views]
    9. Le Fils de Joseph (2016)(The Son of Joseph) [82 views]
    10.The Resurrection on FilmPart 2 - Mark's Gospel [73 views]
    11.The Characteristics of the Biblical Epic: Part 1 - What the Experts Say [72 views]
    12.The Resurrection on FilmPart 1 - Matthew's Gospel [71 views]
    13.La Sacra Famiglia (2006)The Holy Family: Jesu, Mary and Joseph [71 views]
    14.Nativity Films Revisited [67 views]
    15.Last Days of Jesus (2017) [59 views]

    Not a great deal of activity really, and even where posts are popular it's rarely the posts that I've worked on the hardest that prove popular, even within a small niche within which this blog operates. But I suppose the good news is that occasionally one of my posts remains popular year after year. So here are the 11 posts which have registered over 1000 views in their lifetime, and some of these are fairly good I guess (though I'm a little disappointed in what my top visited post ever is, but still) :

    1. The Corpus Christi Film is a Hoax [29511 views]
    2. Full List of Adam and Eve Films [5784 views]
    3. The Christ Figure of Cool Hand Luke [3543 views]
    4. Dayasagar/Karunamayudu (1978) [3092 views]
    5. Finding Adam and Eve Films [2200 views]
    6. The Seventh Sign (1988) [2029 views]
    7. Top Ten Jesus Films [1963 views]
    8. Visual Bible's Gospel of Mark [1663 views]
    9. Ten Commandments (2006) - A review [1380 views]
    10. Films About Esther [1265 views]
    11. Godspell (1973) Scene Guide [1045 views]

    Wednesday, January 17, 2018

    A.D. (2015) - Part 6


    This is part 5 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here
    After the focus on and death of Saul in the last episode, this episode picks up the start of the story of Saul. In comparison to the previous episodes, this one avoids a lot of the usual pitfalls. There are no big special effect moments and the violence is relatively minor compared to the rest of the series.

    Instead the episode rests heavily on the introduction of Saul and thanks to a great performance from The Fall's Emmett J Scanlan. Having watched various Acts films over the years Saul is often played as a relatively rational thoughtful man - he has to grow into the great Paul of Tarsus after all. Here, however, Scanaln is allowed to play it vert differently. Here Saul is the kind of privileged young hothead who has a bee in his bonnet about something but is so full of himself that he gets off on asserting himself violently. Saul is the kind of guy who writes angry aggressive tweets, or endlessly moans about feminists, or carries a torch in Charlottesville. He's unaware of the privilege of being a young white man in a culture where that cushions him from the reality of many people's lives. He has a massive sense of entitlement. When at first he isn't taken seriously he escalates his complaints and seeks an audience with the most powerful of his countrymen, Caiaphas. They should listen to him, right? After all he's confident and articulate, even if what he is raging about doesn't particularly form a strong argument.

    Having grown up in London during the troubles in Northern Ireland, Scanlan's Irish accent also evokes the violent religious zealotry that troubled the area at that time. There's no doubt it shouldn't - I know plenty of people from both North and South Ireland who are wonderful, compassionate, thoughtful people. But the media has given a platform to a steady stream of religious zealots with that accent in my lifetime. They're by no means representative, but nevertheless, my mind makes that shortcut even if it, too, is irrational. For me, at least, it gives an extra note to Scanlan's unhinged performance.

    I think what I most appreciate about this is that it makes me realise that the opening part of Saul's narrative has always felt a little iffy tome. The way he so quickly transitions from holding the coats during the stoning of Stephen to being the leader of a gang of thugs going round the country hunting down Christians seems disturbingly sudden. There doesn't seem to be a satisfactory reason why it is him doing this task rather than someone closer to Caiaphas or at least more prominent. The angry, yet privileged, young man driven by his irrational fears but critically left unchecked somehow makes sense of this to me. No wonder Peter and the others begin to flee.

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    Thursday, January 11, 2018

    2018's Coming Attractions


    Having reviewed 2017 last week, I thought it might be worth having a brief look ahead to what 2018 has in store for Bible Film fans. It looks like it's going to be a busy year.

    Firstly, this is because there are at least four Bible films lined up for release this year - indeed there are three that have already announced a Lent release date. The most prominent of these is likely to be Mary Magdalene starring Rooney Mara in the title role and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. Release dates in the US have been complicated by the Weinstein affair, but it's looking like it will get a release in the UK, Italy and Germany on the 15th March.

    Quite how widely it will be distributed is another matter. On the one hand biblical epics with more minor stars (e.g. Ben Hur (2016) and last year's The Star) have passed the "Loughborough Test" (if they play at my local that's usually a sign of a fairly wide distribution) but others with big names playing Jesus, such as Last Days in the Desert (2015) barely got a release anywhere in the country.

    Another film to pass the Loughborough test, somewhat to my surprise, was 2016's Risen. The makers of that film also have a release planned for Lent Paul Apostle of Christ. James Faulkner has the leading role, in that one, though his younger self - and it appears much of this film will be told in flashback - will be played by Yorgos Karamihos. Jim Caviezel will play Luke with Joanna Whalley and John Lynch as Priscilla and Aquilla. IMDB has release dates for only two countries, the USA and the UK, the 28th and 30th March respectively.

    The third film to be looking at a release in Lent is Pureflix's Samson this too has release dates on IMDB - the 16th February in North America. There's also a date of for the UK (2nd March), but it seems unlikely to play in many places, save perhaps some church screenings. The trailer for that film is now online and I'll write a quick piece on that one shortly. It does star Rutger Hauer though, albeit not in the lead role.

    Finally, there is the fourth instalment in The Quest Trilogy, called The Christ Slayer. As with the others it's written by DJ Perry and, like last year's Chasing the Star will feature a small part for the late Rance Howard. There are no released dates for this one on the film's IMDB page, but if the release of Chasing the Star is anything to go by there will be a few screenings (literally) around Michigan swiftly backed up with an early DVD / home release schedule.

    There are also a number of books to be released this year. The one I'm most excited by is the The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film - mainly because I'm an egotist and it will feature a chapter I've written for it on the Biblical Canon on Film. There are a bunch of great writers in it though. I'm honoured to have something included alongside such luminaries as Adele Reinhartz, James Crossley, Lloyd Baugh and Jon Solomon as well as editor Richard Walsh.

    T&T Clark have another Bible and film volume out this year, Biblical Reception, 4: A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of Exodus: Gods and Kings edited by David Tollerton. Again there's a great group of writers involved in that one, including Cheryl Exum and David Shepherd. Michelle Fletcher has a chapter in both of these works.

    Slightly on a tangent, but The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s, edited by Nicholas Diak also sounds interesting with chapters on TV series such as the recent Spartacus and Xena as well as films such as Ninth Legion. I think I will be reviewing that one.

    Lastly Helen Bond has edited a fascinating sounding volume called The Bible on Television looking at TV Bible documentaries. There are a range of good contributions in that one including filmmakers Jean Claude Braggard and David Batty, as well as scholars such as Mark Goodacre and Robert Beckford

    I also have a couple of resolutions for this year. The first is to watch more films directed by (or otherwise made by) women. If 2017 taught us anything it's that even though cinema is seen as a "liberal" industry it's still a place where the voice of 50% of the population is still not adequately heard. My other resolution is to finish the first draft of a book I've been working on. I'll be posting more on that in due course.

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    Sunday, January 07, 2018

    Trailer for Pureflix's Samson


    I try to space out my posts here rather than doing them in one go and, to be honest, time commitments usually enforce that anyway. In any case, the result is that I've been a little slower posting about this year's forthcoming PureFlix Samson, for which the above trailer has just been released.

    For those not in the know PureFlix are a faith-based producer, who run an online Christian film content subscription service in not dissimilar fashion to Netflix. This is not their first foray into the Bible film genre, back in 2013 they produced the adaptation The Book of Daniel. (I wrote a little about that here).

    It's been a while since I wrote anything about film portrayals of Samson. Indeed the last post, prior to this one, with a Samson tag is over 8 years old. Nevertheless I watched a few since then, most memorably the episode from the History Channel's The Bible series back in 2013. Three things struck me from this trailer in particular, then.

    Firstly, we see a shot of Samson lifting the gates of Gaza. This is quite rare as I recall. Certainly it's not a part of DeMille's famous version of the story. According to my scene guide for the Bible Collection's version of this story, the incident with the prostitute from Gaza is included, but I don't recall seeing Samson lift the gates. I'll check on The Bible's version and report back. I'm also due to review the 1922 silent version shortly. For some reason, I suspect it will feature in that one.

    Secondly, the weakest aspect of DeMille's 1949 version is the scene where Samson wrestles with a lion.Not unreasonably actor Victor Mature was reluctant to be too closely involved, the final sequence featured scenes of a stunt man (who seemed a little reluctant himself) wrestling with a live lion and Mature wrestling with a fake one. It's hard to tell in the latter scenes who turns in the better actor performance...

    Finally we also get to see a brief shot of , what I presume is, the climatic scene where (and I don't want to give too much away here) Samson destroys the temple. I guess most of Pureflix's audience will know the story, but still it's unusual to see a trailer give quite this much away, even if the story in question claims to be 3000 years old.

    My good friend Peter Chattaway has also made some interesting observations, including that the trailer suggests that this film's Samson "seems to fall into the 'reluctant hero' trope" adding that "he does fight back, but usually as a way of seeking personal revenge rather than to fulfil any sort of divine destiny." He has also posted a whole group of stills in this post.

    The film is due for release on February 16th  - the first Friday after Ash Wednesday - and stars James Taylor in the lead role, with Caitlin Leahy as Delilah and Bladerunner's Rutger Hauer as Samson's father.

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    Thursday, January 04, 2018

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2017


    Occasionally at the end of one year or the start of the next I like to do a little review of the previous year. Some years it happens, some years it doesn't. If nothing else though, this year I feel a little more on top of things so given that it's been a reasonably interesting year I thought I would revive the tradition.

    Perhaps the most significant thing this year was the release of Sony's The Star. Living in a small town in the UK, it's a reasonable measure of the significance/size of a film if it plays at my local cinema and as with Ben-Hur last year, The Star did. It was also the first animated Bible film to do so since 2000's The Miracle Maker. My review is here.

    Far less widely released was the similarly themed, but more thoughtful and serious, Chasing the Star, (my review) which had a limited release in a select part of the US before a planned early release on DVD. As things worked out it was released only a few weeks before one of its stars, Rance Howard, died.

    There were a number of other cinema releases as well that were of interest to readers of this blog, even if not quite matching my typical definition of a Bible film. Technically Le fils de Joseph - which told a modern day story but with heavy biblical imagery - debuted last year, but it's main cinema run was this year. Darren Aronofsky, director 2014's Noah, ploughed a similar furrow with mother! It gained a far wider release and became one of the year's most talked about films as critics tended to either love it or hate it. Audiences stayed away more than was expected. Lastly, Martin Scorsese's Silence is definitely not a Bible film, even though it's sure to rank on many most spiritual film lists for years to come.

    Releases to DVD/Bluray/downloads and streaming have become so complicated now that I'm not going to go into them all, just to pick out the two most significant of the year. Firstly, Day of Triumph (1954) is one of those films that has been on my radar for years - one of the first times I imported a film from the US around the turn of the millennium - and it was finally released for home viewing again this year. There are plans to remaster it, but no news on that yet.

    Secondly, came the release of Straub and Huillet's adaptation of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1973). At the time I heard of this I was under the impression it had never been released for home viewing, but it turns out there was a limited release a few years ago that I missed. With second hand copies of that currently going for over £200, it's good to see it get a re-release, particularly as two of Straub and Huillet's other films are included in the package. I wrote a few bits in preparation for this release last year, and I plan to write two or three more pieces on it this year, covering the opera itself, the film itself and perhaps a review of the set as a whole.

    I tend to be less interested in Bible documentaries though I make a point of seeing them if they crop up on terrestrial. I only managed to catch the PBS/Channel 5 documentary Last Days of Jesus this year. It lent rather too heavily on Simcha Jacobovici for my tastes. Next year might prove interesting in this respect as Helen Bond has edited a book about TV documentaries called "The Bible on Television", lined up for publication later this month.

    Lastly, books. The main news here was the publication of "Noah as Anithero: Darren Aronofsky's Cinematic Deluge", edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (who edited the book in which I had two chapters two years ago) and‎ Jon Morgan. It's the latest in a string of offerings from Routledge and included essays from Robert K Johnston, David Shepherd, Richard Walsh and David Tollerton. Many of the same authors will also feature in two more volumes being published this year, a similar volume on Exodus Gods and Kings edited by David Tollerton and "The T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film" which will feature another chapter from me.

    Two other books - a little more tangential to the core of what I cover here did catch my eye. S. Brent Plate edited the four volume "Film and Religion" as part of Routledge's "Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies" series. Not dissimilarly, Wendy I. Zierler's "Movies and Midrash: Popular Film and Jewish Religious Conversation" looked at films such as Magnolia and Memento from a Jewish perspective.

    In terms of this blog I have covered a few mini-topics through out the year. The main one was a more thorough look at Nativity films (largely out of season). But I also wrote a few pieces on the epic genre, the Resurrection on Film, A.D. The Bible Continues, Daniel films and Moses und Aron. I also staked out my intentions regarding what I'm going to be covering moving forward, which is hopefully going to lead to finishing the first draft of a book this year. Well it's a New Year's Resolution, at least...

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    Monday, January 01, 2018

    The Book of Life (1998)


    "It was the morning of December 31, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead. Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts". So ends Jesus' opening monologue in Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998). It's a moment that sums up so much about the film: the premise; actor Martin Donovan's deadpan delivery; the sharpness of the script; and it's irreverent, but not offensively so, approach to the subject matter.

    The Second Coming has been responsible for some dreadful movies, not least the original Left Behind film (2000) and The Omega Code (1999), not least because their attempts to portray the Book of Revelation's bizarre imagery in a pseudo-literal, yet modern, manner tends to make it all seem rather absurd. In contrast, Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998), takes a rather different approach, playfully toying with the imagery. 666 is just the number of a locker where Jesus stores The Book of Life, which, it turns out, is just a Macbook computer, albeit an "ancient" model made by a foreign manufacturer in Egypt.

    If that sounds like the film is about to turn into a trip to the near east to hunt out its secrets, you can rest easy. It doesn't. The film is set solely and firmly in New York. There are numerous indicators of this location, where almost all of Hartley's early work was filmed, as much for reasons of  convenience and expediency as anything else.

    Here, though, the location has a great significance. There are numerous clear indicators that the film is set in New York, even to those who have never been, the yellow cabs, the Twin Towers, the view from the Staten Island Ferry (above), the Empire State building, Subway signage, Flatiron building. As Sebastian Manley suggests "a focus on recognizable regional details and identities functions to ground the films in the familiar and particular" (Manley 103). Manley's analysis is good, particularly that "the image serves to underline the weight of responsibility borne by Jesus," and that "an image that describes the frame of mind of the protagonist" (105), but it does not go far enough. New York here has a specific role as a specific representative of Earth as a whole. Put it another way, were Jesus to return to Earth today, to a specific location, there are few other places that would seem as likely as New York - the kind of a cultural melting pot that is home to those from all nations. Where else could stake such a strong claim to be the capital of the world?

    The sense of place and location is just one of a number of characteristics that are typical in Hartley's films. Not unrelated to this is the absence of establishing shots in his films. Hartley also returns to the same actors again and again, in this case, Martin Donovan and Thomas J Ryan who had played the title role in Hartley's Henry Fool the previous year.

    For Manley, "one particularly strong mark of distinction, which has remained relatively constant across the director's filmography, is a preference for stylized performances: broadly, actors tend to adopt a 'flattened' style of line delivery, implementing few variations in either tone or facial expression." (7-8). The result of this is to shift the focus onto the characters internal emotions. Here, in particular, the film's Jesus is conflicted internally about his role in the Apocalypse, and Donovan's muted performance enables the audience to sympathise with his dilemma. This sense of sympathy is enhanced by Donovan's voiceover - another Hartley trait. Furthermore, whilst there is less focus on Magdalena (a beguiling performance from PJ Harvey) and the Devil (Thomas J Ryan), and neither of them has a typical voice over, they too deliver longer speeches in this flattened style, with a not dissimilar effect. The devil's three monologues are particularly significant, not only delivered whilst looking towards the camera, but also spoken into a visible microphone seemingly set up for that very purpose, drawing attention to the film's artificiality, whilst simultaneously making easier to understand his point of view.

    Another of Hartley's characteristics is the focus on relationships, particularly on forming what might be called alternate 'families', often in contrast to their actual families is retained here. Jesus is torn between his father, represented by the officious law firm Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat ("To him, the law is everything. Still, to this day, attorneys are his favourites.") and his fellow humans ("you're addicted to human beings" the Devil tells him at one point, something Jesus later concedes). The film ends with him relaxing in the company of the rest of the main characters in the film, his companion from the beginning of the film Magdalena; a dishevelled Satan; Dave and Edie, an unlikely couple from the bar; and Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat's former receptionist.

    That said, The Book of Life marked a departure from much of Hartley's earlier work. It was his first film shot on digital video and he uses it to draw attention to several formal elements of film. Most notable element of this is his use of slow motion blur and light distortion. Hartley reclaims "what might seem digital video's decidedly cinematic, even "ugly" limitations -- the jittery, blurry, not-quite-stable quality of the image's texture, the tendency to exaggerate or otherwise render somewhat "off" the properties of color and light -- as its own new, exciting palette, with its own potential for visual beauty." (McQuain). Hartley has spoken on various occasions as these distortion effects as being the "visual equivalent" of distortion effects for electric guitar, "there's much more freedom in music about using distortion. All that blurriness comes out of that aesthetic." (Eaves)

    This combines with various other visual techniques such as the repeated use of unusual camera angles - not simply by placing the camera above or below eye level, but also tilting the angle - and alternating between black and white. Many of these techniques are shared with Hartley's later The Girl From Monday (2005), very much a companion piece to this one with it's other-worldly lead character arriving, somewhat unannounced, on Earth. Indeed the result of the visual distortion, unusual camera angles and so on is to give the film a disorientating, somewhat surreal, other-worldly feel. Dubbed "a controversial retelling of the Apocalypse" the film's playful visual and comic elements enable more profound questions to be asked than would be possible with a retelling that were either more literal, or more closely resembling the world as we generally experience it.

    Stylistically the film is a pastiche of different styles and genres including science fiction, travelogue, the western, film noir and of course the Jesus film. The plot is essentially driven by the line quoted at the start of this discussion. Having returned to Earth to judge humanity, Jesus finds he has reservations. God's legal representatives try to pressure Jesus into getting on with the apocalypse. The Devil wants the book so that he can prevent it ("Revelation 12:12, Not my favourite passage."), whilst continuing to try and claim a few last souls. Encountering an atheist in a bar called Dave he offers him a Faustian pact his girlfriend Edie's soul in exchange for winning lottery tickets. Meanwhile Jesus delays his decision as long as he can. Seen twenty years later it's easy to forget that when The Book of Life was produced, real trepidation about the Y2K-induced computer collapse at the new millennium did exist" (Berrettini 58).

    The film's Jesus has a heavy emphasis on compassion. He was seemingly changed forever by becoming human, and his feelings only intensified on his return to Earth. It is noticeable, for example that the last line of his closing monologue shifts from 'they' to 'we' as if for the first time he is accepting his place as a human. His smart suit and white shirt contrast with the Devil's red shirt, scruffy overcoat, bruised face and sticking plaster. Jesus is portrayed as intellectual, rational and thoughtful in contrast to the grubby pragmatism of the Devil.

    Ultimately, the decisive moment comes when Jesus punches the devil in the stomach (in similar fashion to the way Donovan's character in Trust (1990) punches his father in the stomach at a similarly pivotal moment) [SPOILERS] and he decides to call off the end of the world. He tricks the Devil into releasing Edie's soul and finally the characters reassemble to see in the new millennium. The following morning, his mission abandoned, Jesus leaves the city at the end of the film on the Staten Island Ferry, with no indication as to where he is going. The film's focus on and location in a specific place, leaves this open. is he moving on to another place as when the hero moves on at the end of many westerns, or is this symbolizing his leaving Earth, where New York has functioned as a specific representative of Earth as a whole?[END OF SPOILERS] Either way he ends the film with a stunning monologue, reproduced below, about the potential possibilities awaiting the human race.

    Seen today what is striking about the film is how that final monologue - which talks about what the future, and of course for its original audience - what the new millennium would hold, is accompanied by a shot from the ferry of the Twin Towers. To them it was so emblematic of what humanity can achieve, of its promise. To us it summarises so jarringly, the awful possibilities of the destruction that humans can wreck, and what the awaited new millennium has thus far come to be defined by. The dashing of the very hopes the movie dares to imagine. "The possibility of disaster and the possibility of perfection". Even despite all that has happened in those twenty years these possibilities remain. We can only hope we can find the compassion we need.
    And the New Year arrived. The new millennium. Just another day in a lifetime of similar days, but each one of them crowded with possibilities. The possibility of disaster and the possibility of perfection. To be there amongst them again was good. The innocent and the guilty all equally helpless, all perfectly lost, and, as frightening as it was to admit, all deserving of forgiveness. What would become of them, I wondered. In another 100 years, would they all be born in test-tubes? Or perhaps evolve through computers to become groups of disembodied, digital intelligence machines? Would they remember who I was? Would they remember what I said? Would it matter? Maybe someone else will come along and say pretty much the same thing. Would anyone notice? In a hundred years, would they be living on other planets? Would the Earth still exist? Would they engineer themselves genetically so that disease was a thing of the past? Would they all just become one big multi-ethnic race? Would they discover the secret of the universe? God? Would they become gods themselves? What will they eat? What sort of houses will they live in? Cities - think about it. What will the weather be like? Will they still have to go to work everyday? What will they wear in the future? How smart will they get? And will being smarter make them happier? Will they all speak the same language in the future? Will they make love? Maybe there will be more than two sexes. Will they still believe life is sacred? Will it matter? Do we matter?
    ================

    Berrettini, Mark I. (2011) Hal Hartley - (Contemporary Film Directors). Champaign: University of Illinois Press. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/289391982/Mark-l-Berrettini-Hal-Hartley-Contemporary-Film-Directors

    Eaves, Hannah (2005) "Free to Investigate: Hal Hartley" at GreenCine, April 24. Formerly at http://www. greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=206 Now only available via the Internet Archive - https://web.archive.org/web/20150613061209/http://www.greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=206

    Manley, Sebastian (2013) The Cinema of Hal Hartley, Bloomsbury

    McQuain, Christopher (2013) "The Book of Life / The Girl from Monday" on DVD Talk 14th May. Available online - https://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/60528/book-of-life-girl-from-monday/

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