Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Musing Pictures: Ben-Hur (1959)

Though I enjoyed the famous chariot race, as well as the somewhat less lauded (but rhythmically fascinating) naval sequence, I couldn't help but wonder what filmmaker William Wyler was thinking. Ben-Hur is a surprisingly Jewish story, about a Jewish guy (Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston) fighting for Jewish autonomy, independence from Rome, freedom to worship, and all that.  He is presented as a religious man, kissing the mezzuzah at his doorpost, saying the blessing over bread before eating it, and generally flaunting his monotheism in the face of polytheistic Romans.  He is a peaceful man, drawn in to violence by the relentless abuses of his Roman counterparts.

The story is meant to be a Christian story.  Ben-Hur encounters Jesus a few times over the course of his journey, eventually coming to witness the crucifixion itself. To Christians, I suppose there must be some sort of transcendence here, the Jew sees a truth beyond Judaism as Jesus' message spreads. But that's not what happens here.  Ben-Hur never really changes.  He triumphs over his adversary, feels remorse, but never really comes to terms with any of it.  Sure, there's a bit of a miracle at the end, but it's more of a coda to the story, rather than a part of Ben-Hur's journey.

In a broader historical context, it's fairly astounding that this story is told in this way. So much of Christian narrative history is tied to the idea that Christianity supersedes Judaism, almost becoming a "Judaism 2.0".  Jews who do not buy in to that idea are frustrating to Christian ideology -- why not upgrade, after all?  And yet, the film was thoroughly embraced by its audiences, earning gobs of cash at the box office and winning eleven Academy Awards.  Was it okay, somehow, in the late '50s, to be Jewish despite Christianity?  I don't think that's the case any more (see Gibson's Jesus film, also incredibly profitable).


Friday, February 15, 2013

Musing Pictures: Deep Impact (1998)

With all the recent talk of meteors, asteroids, and our proximity to doomsday, I decided to catch the other meteor-impact film from 1998.  People remember "Armageddon" from that year, but "Deep Impact" did quite well theatrically, both in the US and overseas.

Disaster movies at this scale -- especially movies where the world's end seems imminent, are tough stories to tell.  First of all, we rarely believe the threat (I mean, it's a movie, right?  It's going to end well for at least a few of the people we care about!  And certainly, the Earth will not be destroyed!)  Second, a story of global significance is hard to convey without individual narratives, and those individual narratives often trivialize the global danger.  ("Titanic", on a smaller scale, runs in to this problem: we care so much about the two heroes that we kind of don't care about the thousands of others on the ship.  I mean, of course we care, but not quite like that...)

Both "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" kind of make the same mistake:  Some parts of the world get destroyed, millions of nameless, faceless people die (and so do a few people we know peripherally), and humanity, on the whole, survives... but has humanity learned anything?  Is there any redemptive value to humanity's survival?

I ask this in light of other, older end-of-the-world stories.  When the world is flooded, and only Noah and his clan are left to repopulate it, the understanding is that they are somehow different, a new hope for humanity, and a symbol of humanity's renewed contract with their Creator.  "War of the Worlds" (a very flawed narrative for other reasons) concludes with the emergence of a humbled and vulnerable humanity -- a humanity that has learned its lesson.

But humanity remains pretty much unchanged in both the '98 asteroid films.  I find that in stark contrast to a film that made its impact a few years earlier, "Independence Day".  There, in order for humanity to survive, humanity needs to fundamentally change, to unite, even across deep-rooted and historical divisions.  The humanity that emerges from the near-catastrophe of alien invasion is transformed.  More than that, it has earned its redemption.

I think that's what I found most incomplete about "Deep Impact".  The story, however consequential to millions of individuals in the film's version of Earth, seemed to have no real meaning to humanity as a whole.  In the final scene, the president (played by Morgan Freeman, interestingly) delivers a speech in front of the scaffolding of a new US Capitol building, under construction.  It's the same old building that they're re-building.  Not something new.

Compare that to the famous presidential speech in "Independence Day", in which that film's US President speaks of a new meaning to the word "Mankind".  The events in that film have profound consequence to those who survive them, not just to those who do not.

Global disaster films are really about salvation.  They're about giving us hope that when things get really, really bad, there's what to strive for -- beyond survival itself.


Saturday, February 02, 2013

Musing Pictures: Zero Dark Thirty

Partway through Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," I found myself gripped by the realization that this film would forever paint my grasp of history. Sure, I knew about the pursuit of Bin Laden, about the stealthy raid on his Pakistani compound -- that was all in the news, and I tend to keep up with the news.  But the tone, the mood, the images (especially the images of the compound itself, which have become iconic, and synonymous with both the event itself and the film) are new, and are a product of the film and its creators.

At first, I found this realization troubling.  Who were these people that I should trust their version of history?  But then, it dawned on me, all of history, or what survives of it, is preserved in this way.

I recall learning in grade school that "history is written by the victor."  This year, we are reminded (perhaps) that history is actually written by the storyteller.

From "Argo" to "Lincoln" to "Zero Dark Thirty", it has been a year of historical films, films that take what we think we know of history (a lot, in the case of "Lincoln", very little in the case of "Argo") and re-tell it to us.  They give us new avenues through which to appreciate the actions, decisions and challenges that faced our forbears.  They re-define how we see politics, and how we understand our role in the world.

That's a big responsibility for a storyteller to bear, and some carry it with more grace than others.  But it's humbling to note that in the end, it's not the most accurate history, but the best told story that survives.