ALWAYS KEEPING AN EYE ON HOLLYWOOD!!!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS and THE HOLLYWOOD EMBELLISHMENT OF BIBLICAL STORIES

As an avid and devout fan of the cinema, there are many films I look forward to seeing throughout a new year. As we kiss- off the cinematically- mediocre year of 2014, cinephiles are already being treated and tempted to an array of celluloid treats for 2015 including JURRASIC WORLD, TERMINATOR: GENESYS and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Last year, however, there was one film that I kept a pulse on, waiting to hear more from and finally seeing it reach its theatrical release date on December 12th, 2014. That film was Ridley Scott’s EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Although much anticipated, my concerns fell upon just exactly how much of the centralized story would be kept intact and what kind of embellishments would I and audiences have to endure? Well, I saw the film on opening day, which inspired my new topic. This month’s article deals with the contrast between idealist and controversial viewpoints and the cinematic interpretations of religious/ biblical subjects in film for the purpose of storytelling… for better or for the worst.
The Bible: the oldest living collection of documented Judaism and Christian sacred texts and scriptures ever assembled. The human race has viewed this book with many interesting and widely diverse interpretations of its contents. To the believers, it is a book of proverbs, a gathering of true-life events, examples and lessons to which to live by and guide the faithful through a redeemed preparation into the afterlife. To others, it is merely a collection of mythical fables with interesting characters; all occurring in an era long since forgotten.
From a cinematic standpoint, Hollywood has oftentimes “borrowed” from the good book as a source of material. In some cases, the source pays off and other times it is considered a misfire in the box office. Studios have been taking, re-writing and interpreting their own versions of these biblical stories since film was invented. One such example was Cecil B. DeMille’s black and white silent classic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Released in 1923, the film was considered not only a work of cinematic achievement but an awe- inspiring testament to its biblical presentation and interpretation. Mind you, the general audience of 1923 did not have any other films to compare THE TEN COMMANDMENTS with during its time, since it was a unique and a one- of- a- kind release. The ticket buyer went by their own generalized perception of the story by a number of different ways: from what they had heard, having read about directly from the Bible itself or by what they had heard while attending Sunday school.
Even DeMille would try to top DeMille, as he would remake his own film and present 1956’s lavish THE TEN COMMANDMENTS starring Charlton Heston as Moses. Storytelling within film making in the earlier decades was considered an art form and embellishing on historical text was considered a natural occurrence… all in the name of Hollywood presentations and for the sake of good film-making. Meaning, it was okay to doctor- up a “as- written” story, if it would help create more dramatic, action, suspense or even romantic outcomes to draw the audience into the film. Hey, it helps fill the seats in the theaters so producers didn’t have a problem finagling the stories.
Charlton Heston as Moses
Alright, you get the picture now, I hope. Many controversial takes have been met in the cinematic crossroads, when it boils down to religious truth or elaborated fiction to help create a biblical motion picture. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is a perfect example of a religious film becoming a victim of its own Hollywood creators within the marked time to which it was made in. DeMille, himself, went on record stating that his project’s researches took from the best and most detailed resources to help re-create the most accurate account of Moses and Ramses’ story. For that matter, all the talks with theologians, religious leaders and historians may be true; however, it is plainly evident that THE TEN COMMANDMENTS also presents itself, for the good or bad of it, as an exercise in good ol’ Hollywood cinematic work of interpreted art: blending melodramatic performances, a grandiose musical score and spectacular visual effects for its time. As a magician alters the real world to help create and demand its audience’s attention by creating a ‘mirrored’ reality, the cinematic showmen does the same by conjuring- up an embellished realism to the world of the biblical truth… to add flare and expand on the imagination of the audience.  
Max Von Sydow as Christ in GREASTEST STORY...
The “Hollywood embellishment”, as I will call it, has been a part of many films over the years. It is evident, respectfully in both 1961’s KING OF KINGS and 1965’s THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. Both films take on the subject of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Both films fall into the comparative similarities of having been made in the early 1960s and also suffering from some of that “Hollywood embellishment” pixie dust as well. To help recognize the embellishment, one has to bring it forth by calling it out directly… here it is. Both films, respectfully, alters the common reality of the common by producing and presenting Christ with a number of now considered “cliché” points. Those points range from the Holy adolescent choir of angelic voices singing melodic scales every time Christ speaks or walks into a room to that overly- lit halo of light that hovers behind Christ like a new sunrise and the well- pressed linen of garments that remains perfectly clean despite Christ’s life in a desert are all part of the dramatic effect in presentation. This IS the Son of God and He will forever have a halo of light above Him, dressed to impress with the angelic chorus singing endlessly, as if set to ‘repeat’ on that Heavenly iPod.

Robert Powell is JESUS OF NAZARETH
Moving into the grittier years of the 1970s, director Franco Zeffirelli submitted the 1977 mini- series JESUS OF NAZARETH for approval. Although still suffering from a number of “embellishments”, it still didn’t seem to present itself with the kind of reflection or approach as the cinematic predecessors dealt with. The possible fact that the production consisted of Italian- British collaboration, may have fended some of that Hollywood overdo away from total ruin. NAZARETH would still present itself to be a little more accurate in a realistic viewpoint than its predecessors. Still, the definitive telling of Christ’s story was yet to come…
Compare any of these three entries with director Mel Gibson’s most accurate and realistic look at Christ’s last days in 2004’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Gibson, though a controversial individual and director, must be credited for his detailed presentation and  for  unveiling and focusing a large portion of the film on the truth behind the torturous scourging and abuse suffered by a man before being nailed to the Roman- created torture device known as the crucifix. In the spirit of keeping the realism intact, Gibson had all the actors learn their lines in the original combination of Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew dialects… not a single word is spoken in English. Much detailed was placed upon the authenticity of wardrobe, weapons and set design as well. Even at its best, even PASSION suffers from the slightest bit of embellishing, just for flavor. PASSION still forgives some minor detours from its original biblical telling to help ‘add- on’ some intense and emotion- provoking sequences to make its poignant message pierce through. Even at its best, Gibson was still blasted with controversy and even accused of being anti-Semitic.
Controversy of the highest degree can also plague a biblical film for not being biblical at all! Two fine examples include 1985’s HAIL MARY and director Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.
Directed by Jean- Luc Goddard, HAIL MARY tells an updated tale of the Immaculate Conception, or the Virgin birth. In this contemporary telling, Mary is a typical student who plays on a girls’ basketball team and works for her father while Joseph, her boyfriend, is a dropout and drives a cab for a living. Mary, being a virgin, discovers that she is pregnant without having had intercourse and must come to terms and acceptance that she has been chosen as part of God’s plan. Believing that she had an affair, Joseph becomes furious with Mary, but comes in contact with a stranger named Gabriel who assists him in accepting Mary’s pregnancy. As one can only guess, HAIL MARY was riddled with much controversy for its modern take on the sacred telling of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception thesis believed by millions of faith- followers in the Christianity and other relatable communities. Being a foreign film opening in the States, the theatrical run was not big by any measure. Only playing in a minimal of houses, the film catered to the lover of foreign cinema, art-house followers and the curious. The film stirred a small amount of negativity and HAIL MARY quickly disappeared from its theatrical run before protesters could create any controversial strife. On the other hand, those naysayers would have their moment of picketing glory three years later with the highly- controversial THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.
Picketers in New York for LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
Released in 1988, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST makes no secret that it was adapted off of the fictitious written works of author Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel was first published in 1953 and immediately caused a large stir of negativity towards its interpretation of showing  very humanistic, oftentimes a ‘weaker’ version of Christ, complete with his internal struggles of hate, fear, confusion, doubt and depression towards the various temptations brought forth in his life. Director Martin Scorsese, being a huge fan of the novel, decided to take on the subject early on in his directorial career with no previous success. Although released some 16 years before THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, it might serve as a pre-requisite to what Gibson was looking for in authenticity within the story. Let it be said that Scorsese was determined to tell his tale. Back in the 1970’s, before the studios closed production down due to its controversial depiction, the project once had actor Robert DeNiro attached as Christ. In 1988, Willem Dafoe was cast as the Judean carpenter. The story’s most talked about points reflect not only on Christ’s struggles to accept God’s calling but more importantly the direction the story takes shortly after the crucifixion. Still struggling to accept his fate, Christ is nailed to the cross.
He gazed upon the onlookers who are present for the event when he suddenly sees a young girl, angelic- looking, sitting at the foot of the cross. She informs Christ that his Father is pleased with him and that he does not need to die on the cross after all. Christ is told that he has passed his ‘test of faith’ and comes off the cross. Because of the non- sacrificial turn, Christ expresses his true feelings to Mary Madeline, a former prostitute and now follower of Christ’s teachings, to which they marry and have children.
We now see Christ maturing into an older man and finally laying on his death bed as an elder. Judas, a former Apostle (follower) of Christ, is much alive since the turn of events wipes the feeling of guilt from betrayal away, informs Christ that the world around him is burning. God is most definitely displeased with Christ choosing to take his personal actions into place and not follow his Father’s bidding. Christ then realizes that the ‘angel’ was actually the Devil, offering and succeeding in that final “temptation”. As if dreaming, Christ is startled back into reality and discovers that he is still on the cross after all. It is within that moment that Christ accepts his fate and informs his Father that “it is done” and dies for all man’s sins.

Author Nikos Kazantzakis
What Kazantzakis and Scorsese wanted to imply, whether by novel or film, is the complex struggle of man- that even the Son of God, although divine, was still a man of flesh and blood. He too, like the human race, would struggle with the acceptance of his Father and go through the everyday offerings of temptations and the choice to decide which path to follow. It should also be noted that director Scorsese and author Kazantzakis both grew- up in very strict religious upbringings, respectfully. At one time, Scorsese was ready to follow the priesthood. This then turns the topic onto an interesting ‘fork in the road’.
As humans, we are given a daily offering of which path to follow- good or bad, right or wrong. The Bible is, essentially, a collection of stories depicting a huge offering of human conflicts, paths chosen and, ultimately, the results from which the path was taken. When we take a closer look at the biblical telling’s, be it from the Good Book or from film, we can see where Hollywood’s interests are derived from. Film has merely become another chosen new format option to tell these stories as much as it would be man’s choice to pick up the Bible and read from it directly.
For example, the stories of Noah and Mary are not embellished in the fact that these two people were not born into or under the banner of supreme beings. They begin their lives as average human beings before God requires His will be done through them. Noah becomes a savior of God’s creations before drowning the world of sin and Mary is chosen to carry His only Son, Jesus Christ.
As previously mentioned, let’s talk about Noah. The story of Noah becomes one of the chapters told in director John Huston’s 1966 film THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING. The film focuses on the first 22 chapters of the Bible’s Old Testament with John Huston, himself, portraying Noah. As 1966 goes, the film brims over with much embellishment… again, for the sake of grandiose storytelling. Biblical films had much to live up to, after director Cecil B. DeMille raised the bar fairly high with his entries of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, 1932’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and1949’s SAMSON AND DELILIAH. Huston was not an excellent director, but directed a well- respected submission with this film.
Fast- forward to 2014 with director Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH with Russell Crowe in the title role. The film suffered much controversy for his personal take on the biblical story by fabricating a fictitious backdrop into Noah’s life including Aronofsky’s creation of names for Noah’s wife and three sons. An antagonist was also created to give Noah a more humane struggle… this is a major contrast to anything mentioned in any previous scripture writings as neither family names or confronting characters were ever mentioned. It should be said that the only struggle Noah faced, biblically speaking, was the inner- struggle of faith towards a faceless entity (God). NOAH was released with a mixed- bagged of critical outpours. On one hand, it was recognized for its visual and dramatic approaches taken to an ancient tale and bringing it to a 21st century audience. The other hand presented a more conservative preview of bloated storytelling and unnecessary additionals to a sacred story. At the end of it all, Aronofsky stated that the film shouldn’t be viewed as a biblical film (filled with obvious embellishments) but rather as an epic tale. The largest embellishment to be held liable for is taking a well-recognized story and writing a new “spin” to it altogether.
Now, with all that said, let’s go back to where we started… bringing us back to EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. How does it live up to its predecessors on two different avenues: 1) Is it far to compare it to DeMille’s THE TENCOMMANDMENTS because of the obvious plot? 2) How does it stack- up to previous biblical films… embellishments and all? Let’s begin.  
To start, let us question what we might already know from either the written word (the Bible) and/ or what we have seen on film: Could Moses turn the Nile red with blood by simply dipping his walking staff into it? Did the Red Sea part into a near- perfect division because God willed it? For that matter, did the fiery finger of God blast the words upon rock to write the sacred Ten Commandments? If you are a believer of faith, then you undoubtedly believe that the answer is “yes”. So, returning back to my earlier statement, as humans, are we not allowed to question and ponder so that we can better understand what we question or doubt? An interesting viewpoint for any individual to discover personally.
Director Scott (l) with Christian Bale in EXODUS
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is directed by Ridley Scott. Over the years, I have had my own personal dilemmas with the man and his choice of subjects and approach in his unique storytelling. Side one, a well-respected director with an overly impressive resume of titles: ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER and GLADIATOR… to name a few. Side two: a sometimes over- careless director who under- performs the obvious creative side we come to love about his works: MATCHSTICK MEN, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, A GOOD YEAR, AMERICAN GANGSTER and ROBIN HOOD. Admittedly, I was slightly concerned as to the direction Sir Scott would take. As previously mentioned on this blog site, I rank DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS as my all- time favorite film ever. I also grew up in a strong religious home and even danced around the idea of becoming a priest in my latter teenage years.
Much like devout novelists are passionate about how their precious written words are going to be translated and imprinted onto film, I request conscientiousness when interpreting valued material… the Bible and its contents being strong contenders to that treatment.
If you are not entirely aware of the storyline involved, the basic structure is as follows: Moses (Christian Bale- THE DARK KNIGHT) and Ramses II (Joel Edgerton- ZERO DARK THIRTY) are men who were raised together as brothers by Ramses’ father Seti (John Turturro- TRANSFORMERS). Believed to be born Egyptian, Moses lived his life in the shadows of Ramses, said to be the next king upon Seti’s passing through the bloodline. When it is discovered that Moses is actually son to be Hebrew slaves, he is immediately cast out of Egypt and left to die in the deserts outside the illustrious city. By God’s will, Moses is the said “chosen one” the slaves have waited years for to free them from Egyptian bondage and return to face Ramses, the newly appointed king after years have passed since Moses’ abolishment. Armed with a renewed faith, Moses demands that Ramses releases the Hebrews… the words come to no avail. A series of plaques befall the entire city of Egypt due to the ignoring actions of the slaves’ release. Unable to withstand anymore, Ramses reluctantly agrees to Moses’ terms and the Hebrews are let free. Although a treacherous journey to the “promised land”, it is along the way that Moses is given the Ten Commandments, ten moral rules to abide and live by, as by the words of God.
This now brings me to the overall take- EXODUS: GOD AND KINGS is a very strong film. The strength is pulled from various points: direction, storyline and photography are the high points that deserve recognition. The film takes several dramatic pauses in between some great battle sequences… as if to give the audience a chance to catch their breath. Those points, however, can take a little too much time to recover and continue with the storyline that should capture and draw the viewer in. It is gorgeous to sit and admire on the big screen. As is the case with the modern film, EXODUS suffers from a wee bit too much CGI (computer generated images) to help create the glorious Egypt and other exotic locales. The CGI is used very well between the second and third act of the film when the plaques befall Egypt. The use of trick photography, CGI and clever editing also help construct a breath- taking ‘parting of the Red Sea’ sequence that must be seen.
The obvious is that there is no real comparison between DeMille’s and Scott’s films, respectfully. They may be based on the same topic, but offer two very distinctive takes on the subject. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is an epic film of the highest magnitude. It is a product of the days of Hollywood at its finest with top- tier actors, costume designers, photographers and production crew. DeMille was the captain of a well- manned vessel and knew that second best would not be accepted. It is this kind of direction that made studio heads happy, the birth of the classic films were coming forth: GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, CITIZEN KANE and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO were only a small group of titles that bore the right to be called a true Hollywood creation. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS took pride in its rich cinematic Technicolor appearance, the detailed costuming and the jaw- dropping set designs back dropped by exotic location shots. 
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS tries for the same, but takes on a milder, yet direct, approach to its storytelling. Conversations between characters are real, withdrawing from the biblical language such as ‘thou’ and ‘thy’, as they generously appear in DeMille’s version. It is because of the use of language that the film takes on a different, not better, path in the telling of Moses’ plight. The events are not punctuated as in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The comparisons would almost be like the difference to seeing a play performed live in a theatre as opposed to seeing it on your television. COMMANDMENTS is very theatrical, which I wouldn’t except any other way, however, EXODUS takes a strong course to allowing you to see the realist effects of actions, emotions and plaques that befall the characters in Scott’s film. The musical score doesn’t ring in your ears with heavy brass but accompanies the film with a more Egyptian- like score to add to the ambiance. Costumes and sets are lavish and Scott has always known how to photograph a scene properly.
Let’s just say that it should be accepted (and possibly welcomed, to an extent) that the “Hollywood embellishment” is here to stay, for better or for worst, and will be a part of the biblical storytelling. But, in all fairness, the ‘embellishment’ IS Hollywood, isn’t it? The classic story of “the one that got away” must have begun by the telling of how a trout slipped out of the hands of a fisherman. Every time the story was told, especially to others of his fellow seamen, the fish ‘grew’ in size until it became virtually impossible for one man to handle one gigantic whaler that obviously got away! Hollywood loves telling its own ‘whoppers’ as well, but it is in the business to do so. To imagine what we cannot think about, to show us what we might only dream about and to believe in the unbelievable. That is the power of the embellishment and the main ingredient in the Hollywood recipe.
Thank you once again for stopping by and a very HAPPY AND PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR TO ALL! I will try to stay active and continue submitting regular topics open for discussion! As always, please share your thoughts and feelings on the various subjects discussed! I look forward to your replies and comments. Keep it right here and check often for new submissions

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