I Once Was Blind: King of Kings (1927), Cecil B. DeMille

DeMille’s King of Kings airs on TCM at 1:00 AM Eastern Time, Easter night (that is, Monday morning)

Just about every year around Easter, TCM airs Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. To me, it is essential viewing, not simply because DeMille epic grandeur (I mean, you’ve seen his Ten Commandments, right?) but for the sensitivity with which he relates the story.

I have no idea how many times they’ve tried to film the life of Christ. It’s a lot, I know that much. And while they each serve a purpose in their own way – Ray’s King of Kings (Technicolor), The Passion of the Christ (historically graphic violence), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (hysterical, heretical) – DeMille brings a poetic approach to the story that I can’t recall finding in any of the Jesus movies I’ve watched. Of course, I believe that all 155 minutes of King of Kings are worth watching, but on this particular point, the poetry of the image (DeMille’s film is silent, after all), there is one moment that perfectly captures my meaning.

The film opens with several accounts of Jesus and his miracles, people recounting to other people what the things they’ve heard about Jesus. “I have seen him heal the blind.” “’Tis said he can raise the dead.” It sounds great, but it sounds like little more than gossip and rumors. DeMille hasn’t even shown the audience what Jesus looks like. A crowd gathers outside a house. He’s in there, we’re told, but still no sight of him. Even now, Jesus is nothing but a story.

It is about ten minutes in that DeMille first introduces a young blind girl, groping her way through the crowd, desperately seeking Jesus, to no avail. Like her, we too are looking for Jesus while DeMille, obstinately, refuses to bring us to him. It is then that a formerly lame boy, Mark (yes, the Gospel writer), hears her cries, takes her hand, and promises to lead her to Jesus. Mark brings her to Mary who brings her to Jesus. And yet, we, the audience, have still never seen him. We know he’s there, but he is still hidden from view.

And the girl pleads with Jesus. “Lord, I have never seen the flowers nor the light. Will you open my eyes?” And the screen goes dark.

When a small shaft of light begins to break the darkness. Slowly, the light grows brighter as an image begins to emerge, at first faint, overexposed and out of focus, but growing stronger until it is revealed to be the face of Jesus.

This is a perfect illustration of what is so powerful about DeMille’s approach to the story of Christ. Our first glimpse of Jesus is not in a simple, documentarian manner. There is no “hey, that’s Jesus, by the way” moment like there is for the introduction of every other character in film. We are not introduced to Jesus as disinterested, third party observers. We see Christ first through the eyes of a blind child who had lived her entire life in darkness until she met Jesus. And the message is clear. We are that blind girl. We, too, have been living in darkness, never truly seeing until we have seen Jesus.

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Daily Projections, 12-18-2018: My Dear Enemy (2008)

Title: My Dear Enemy
Director: LEE Yoon-ki
Country of Origin: South Korea
Year: 2008
Screening Format: Blu-ray
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

IMDB classifies My Dear Enemy as a “road movie”, and it is. Sort of. My Dear Enemy is to road movies as a day spent running errands is to road trips. You spend a lot of time in the car without ever really going anywhere. The journey here is an emotional one. Hee-su (played by Korea’s Queen of Cannes JEON Do-yeon) tracks down her ex Byung-woon to collect on a debt he can’t pay. They spend the remainder of the day together, gathering a little money here and there to pay his debt. Byung-woon believes the best about people, while Hee-su has built a wall of cynicism around herself. This is masterfully translated into the look of the film. In social situations, Byung-woon gets stuck right in while Hee-su stands apart, rarely speaking. Visually, too, she is shot frequently in reflection, through glass, or partially obscured by a barrier. Throughout the day, those barriers are gradually worn down until she interacts with others of her own accord. Beautifully shot making often masterful use of the 2.35 aspect ratio while at other times intentionally refusing to use the entire frame (mirroring the editing: elegant long takes interspersed with series of quick, superfluous cuts), LEE Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy is a sensitive and subtle film worth a deeper look in the future.

Daily Projections, 12-12-2018: Monterey Pop (1968)

Title: Monterey Pop
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Country of Origin: USA
Year: USA
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

It’s hard to believe I’ve gotten this far without in life without having ever seen Monterey Pop all the way through. Sure, I’ve seen Hendrix and his flaming guitar, every minute of Otis Redding, and parts of Shankar, but never the whole thing. And the experience of seeing it all at once makes a few things more evident that are harder to notice in standalone clips. For one thing, it seems to me that the look of Monterey Pop owes a lot to Bert Stern’s Jazz On a Summer’s Day (1959): the camera work, the editing, the “plot” – it’s all right out of the 1958 Newport Jazz festival (though Aram Avakian’s editing in Jazz is more impressive, I think). Of course, Jazz On A Summer’s Day is the yardstick by which I measure all concert films, so maybe a bit of confirmation bias here. Monterey Pop certainly captures a moment in history, which I suppose should be the goal of a good concert film. And what a moment it was. There’s something truly special about watching “Mama” Cass Elliot, sitting in the audience, being blown away by the talent of a still young Janis Joplin. And where else can you watch the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz rocking out to Ravi Shankar?

Daily Projections 11-29-2018: To Sir With Love (1967); The Innocents (1961)

Title: To Sir With Love
Director: James Clavell
Country of Origin: UK
Year: 1967
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Notes: One in a long tradition of “inspiring teacher” films. Up until now, I had only seen the remake which was on TV some time in the early ’90s. It’shard to imagine anyone bringing as much dignity to the role as Sidney Poitier does, and yet, as if he needs the added gravitas, in many staff lounge scenes, Poitier is filmed from waist level causing him to appear more imposing than the other teachers who are filmed at eye level. While it’s hard to conceive of someone like Judy Geeson as the least bit menacing today, the lessons Sir drills into his students are possibly more relevant now than they ever were in 1967. Perhaps a teacher like Poitier’s Mr. Thackery would be plagued by scandal these days, but then again, who isn’t.

Interesting to note that the recording of “To Sir With Love” used in the film is not the version I grew up listening to on the radio: more rubato and more flexible phrasing than the single version I’m used to. Also, I never realized the Mindbender’s “It’s Getting Harder All The Time” was from this movie.

Also, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to seeing young Patricia Routledge.

Title: The Innocents
Director: Jack Clayton
Country of Origin: UK
Year: 1961
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting:Home
First viewing? Yes

Notes: A genuinely creepy ghost story with gorgeous cinematography. Absolutely not the sort of film that should be watched alone, late at night, in a house with a lot of windows – a lesson I learned the hard way. Deborah Kerr is as good as she ever was (the best that she ever was by her account).Costuming cleverly done as Kerr’s Miss Giddens begins the film in light colored, fashionable dresses and gradually adopts a more conservative style of dress until she is in full mourning garb as she becomes increasingly consumed by the house and the mystery within.

The Innocents is absolutely oozing with atmosphere, practically dripping with all the stifling humidity of the best Southern Gothic literature, no doubt the result of Truman Capote’s involvement with the screenplay.

Probably some of the most convincing depictions of ghostly activity I’ve seen without resorting to special effects. More akin to the subtlety of The Uninvited than the trick photography of typical Hollywood horror. The horror of The Innocents lies on the periphery: in the corner of the eye, across a pond, up a tower, outside the window. It’s all in what you might have seen.

What is a “Christian film”?

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Ingrid Bergman in Rosselini’s Stromboli, a film Éric Rohmer described as a conversion experience.

Inevitably, when writing a blog like this, it will become necessary to wrestle with the question: “What is a Christian film?”. I addressed it briefly in the FAQ, but it’s worth revisiting here. Wikipedia says it is “an umbrella term for films containing a Christian themed message or moral, produced by Christian filmmakers for a Christian audience, and films produced by non-Christians with Christian audiences in mind”. Note that the emphasis is on the faith of the audience – the customer – not the filmmakers. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but it’s not hard to read that as something of a cash grab.

I say this not as a criticism, but with a sense of frankness. If you grew up in suburbia in the 1990s (as I did), you know all about the Jesus business. Jesus-themed parody T-shirts, WWJD bracelets, Amish romance novels (don’t get me started): there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. But it’s only fair to acknowledge that we’ll forgive a multitude of aesthetic sins if you stamp a Bible verse on them. I myself went through a four year period where I listened exclusively to Christian rock music and, to quote one of my favorite bands from that era, All Star United, “this Jesus thing, it’s a smash hit!”. Even then, we knew on some level, what we were getting ourselves into.

The way I see it, Christian movies are just another facet of the Jesus merchandising juggernaut. And just as it was not wrong of me to limit my music listening to the likes of Dime Store Prophets or Seven Day Jesus over Belle & Sebastian or Radiohead, there is nothing wrong with someone limiting their movie-going to things like God’s Not Dead, God’s Not Dead 2, or God’s Not Dead 3 instead of Star Wars Episode 19: A Galaxy Even Farther Away or Fast and Furious 127. But let’s not forget, the Christian blockbuster did not exist until 2004 when Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ finally convinced Hollywood of the purchasing power of church people. That doesn’t mean God didn’t go to the movies before 2004, you just had to look a little harder. And just as I eventually came to Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian as an adult, my concern is not so much what we consume when we make these faith-conscious viewing choices, but what we are missing when we play it safe.

Take the films of Eric Rohmer, for example, the elder statesman of the French New Wave, the philosophical godfather of the Cahiers du Cinéma. His films are, you might say, very French. His characters run around naked a lot, have plenty of affairs, and generally make a lot of bad decisions. If you were to make your movie watching decisions based on an arbitrary Scripture quotation threshold or a minimum “Jesus” quota (an actual idea I heard proposed multiple times in the ’90s to determine the “Christian-ness” of Christian music), you might see a lot of movies that affirm everything you already believe, but you’d never watch a single work by Rohmer, a devout Catholic and traditionalist who legitimately believed that the cinema was “a 20th century cathedral” and that “true cinema is necessarily a Christian cinema because there is no truth except in Christianity”. That sounds to me like the kind of filmmaker Believers should be flocking to, not hiding from.

In the 1970s, Paul Schrader (the man who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver) identified a style of filmmaking that expressed an ineffable sense of spiritual longing left unsatisfied by modern secularism. Not all of the movies I want to cover fit into Schrader’s definition of “transcendental cinema”, but that’s the kind of approach I want us to take as we dig into the last 125 years of movie-making. I want us to take an honest look at what we might be missing. You’ll hear enough at church and on your Christian radio about how you should see whatever it is that Kirk Cameron most recently slapped his name on. But are they telling you why it’s important that you watch Boris Karloff roam the streets of Edinburgh strangling people in The Body Snatcher? Because I will.

Further Reading:

Interview with Paul Schrader from the Globe and Mail (2017)

Toward a Definition of “Religious” CinemaChristianity Today (2014, paywall) – Note, I haven’t read the whole article as the bulk of it is “subscribers only”, but coming from CT, I imagine it’s well thought-out .

What am I doing here?

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Renée Falconetti as Saint Joan in Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Every time I start a new blog, I’m forced to ask myself “why am I doing this?”. It’s a fair question. There are so many blogs out there. I’ve had at least ten of them in the last decade. And when it comes to film blogs, well, there are just so many of them vying for attention, it can be hard for me to convince myself that I have anything to add to the conversation.

But recently, I realized there was something that is constantly lacking from my film blog reading. And that is the question of religion. It’s not the issue of morality or ethics where we fall short – we love to dissect the intricacies of historical ethics with the cudgel of modern morality – but when it comes to religion, we have a major blind spot. (I am talking specifically about Christianity here both because it is the dominant religion of Western storytelling and because it is what I know, but I think the same goes for all major religions depicted in world cinema and analyzed by American critics.)

To see some evidence of what I’m talking about, read almost any discussion Carl Dreyer. Dreyer’s universally revered masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a work of blatantly religious significance, yet nearly every author who discusses the film seems to have a reflexive need to mention that Dreyer fell somewhere on the spectrum between nonreligious to devotedly agnostic (the exact wording depends on who you are reading). From there, the conversation turns to how Dreyer shoots his actors, the intensity of Falconetti’s performance, and the brevity of her film career. And, yes, these are all important factors in the importance of the film. But lost in all this is any mention of the religious significance of the story or the parallels drawn between Joan’s trial and the life of Christ which is, after all, the reason the film is called The Passion of Joan of Arc in the first place. Sure, it may be true that the concept of The Passion is virtually unheard of in an aggressively secular modern Hollywood, but in Catholic France or Dreyer’s Lutheran Denmark of 1928, everyone, even a nonreligious to devotedly agnostic Carl Dreyer would have known it intimately.

Now, I am not saying that the technical aspects of a film are irrelevant or that religious films are somehow more valuable or important than secular ones. Far from it. I think – and I know I’m not alone in this – that we get ourselves into a lot of trouble when we slap a “Christian” label on a glorified MadLib of a script and expect churches to bus their congregations to the cinema out of a sense of “duty” (I’m looking at you, Pure Flix). What I am saying is that there are religious elements and even downright laudable lessons to be found in secular cinema that are lost either through modern culture’s relative Biblical illiteracy, or worse, our own pietistic unwillingness to look for them.