Friday, April 18, 2014

Understanding BEN-HUR

About the movie Ben-Hur (1959), which I saw last week in a movie theater.


Could a film that won eleven Academy Awards be considered underrated?

Yes, if in the years since its release it’s been consistently disrespected and downgraded by film critics.

(For instance, the American Film Institute rates it #100 of its top 100 American movies. In 2012, the Sight and Sound poll of film critics conducted by the British Film Institute ranked it #588 on their list. Only two critics voted for it. One of them, curiously, was Camille Paglia.)

When objectively examined, Ben-Hur belongs in the TEN Best list of American films. The problem is that from the beginning, the closed-mindedness of many important film critics toward religious themes prevented them from understanding what Ben-Hur is about. They failed to comprehend why it’s an artistic triumph, and why it’s important.


First, the superlatives.

Ben-Hur has a very literate script. The dialogue is resonant and tight (except for a couple missteps toward the end). It concisely expresses the story’s theme of Community against Empire; Judea versus Rome. This is noteworthy in the words of the Roman characters played by Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, and Frank Thring; advocates if not fanatics for their Imperial cause. They’re in no way stereotypes. The script was the product of intelligent writers Christopher Fry, Karl Tunberg, and Gore Vidal. The words show a thorough knowledge of life, society, and the world. The competing views presented are well balanced.

Ben-Hur is a spectacular, awe-inspiring viewing experience.

The movie is masterfully directed by William Wyler operating at the top of his form. Note the perfect compositions from the beginning, with the manger scene, or the line of goats viewing the intrusion of Messala and his Roman legions into their peaceful world.

Or note the variety of camera angles. Early, when he betrays his friend, Messala is viewed from above, which gives him the appearance of a toy soldier isolating himself from the world. At the finish of the chariot race, Messala is viewed at ground level, emphasizing how he’s been knocked down, his deeds come full circle.

Or, the framing device of the cave during the final storm; and a quick shot of Jesus on the cross, the reflection of the cross in a puddle; the montage comparison of Jesus’ hand with the hand of one of the women. The storm-and-miracle sequence shows great artistry. It’s great cinema.

Ben-Hur contains what remains, especially when viewed on a big screen, the most exciting action sequence in  film, without a single CGI effect, and with stars Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd doing most of their own stunt work.

Ben-Hur contains the best galley-slave montage sequence ever, for whatever that’s worth.

The musical score by Miklos Rozsa, of prime importance for the overall effect—which is operatic—may be the best film score ever composed.

Above all, Ben-Hur, by the time it concludes after nearly four hours with intermission included, is an cathartic artistic experience, of a kind seldom equaled. Director William Wyler specialized in conveying the emotion of families (see “Best Years of Our Lives”). He was the perfect choice to direct this film.


How have film critics for fifty years been consistently wrong?


The three most influential film critics of the day, Dwight MacDonald, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael, hated Ben-Hur. They hated everything about it. You’d think they’d at least have enjoyed portions of it. The cinematography or music. The solid and subtle acting of Boyd, Hawkins, and Thring articulating the more “adult” words in the film. At least, certainly, the chariot race. Merely watching the competing horses racing in a perfect line, four white horses alongside four black ones, is a picture both thrilling and beautiful.

That these esteemed critics hated all of the movie (Sarris called it “unendurable”) says more about themselves than the film.

From the start, Ben-Hur is nakedly religious. The cynicism of the critics couldn’t accept this. One sees them viewing the perfectly composed manger scene with utter scorn.

A second problem is that the three critics were consciously intellectual. This was their identity—experiencing the world and the things of the world through the trained analytical mind.

But art at its best is about more then the intellect. It reaches into the individual’s heart. It provokes the soul.

The three critics had to have hearts of stone not to be moved by the last thirty minutes of the movie. How do we explain it? They had to have already walled themselves off from every part of the movie experience of Ben-Hur.

That they did, ironically, caused them to miss as well the intellectual elements of the story, which are there, layered within the images, music, and drama.


Several story threads take place at once.

First is the overall “Tale of the Christ,” providing the film’s framework, from Jesus’ birth to death.

Fitting within this framework is the story of Judah Ben-Hur; his struggle to make himself and his family whole.

Within both threads—integral parts of them—is the larger theme of Empire versus Community; Rome against Judea.

The movie has a complex yet unified structure, which ranges in viewpoint from the most personal (family) to the broadest (the interplay of social and historical forces).


It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Charlton Heston in the lead role. Not because of his performance. Heston is at times acted off the screen,  by friend and foe—which is the point. Heston is perfect for the part because he’s square, good, honest, upright—attributes integral to the character of Ben-Hur, and which the actor embodies.

From start to finish Judah Ben-Hur is a strong but passive presence in the movie. He’s there to be acted upon. His soul is the prize to be won by various competing forces. Male or female. Pagan or monotheistic. Sybaritic or domestic.

Messala wants to win his friend over to his own Imperial fanaticism. He promises that his friend will rise with him. Ben-Hur is too stolid and simple, or virtuous, to buy into the plan.

Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) likewise sees Ben-Hur’s strengths and engages in his own tug-of-war with him. Circumstances help him win Ben-Hur over, briefly, to Rome. Despite pagan allures, greater are the other forces tugging at the Judean prince.

Ben-Hur must be persuaded by an Arab sheik to seek his revenge on Messala via the chariot race. “There is no law in the arena.” Even in the race itself, Messala is the one attacking the other and not the reverse, though Ben-Hur is the one ostensibly seeking revenge. His very presence causes resentment. (Stephen Boyd’s performance as Messala is near perfect.)

Charlton Heston has a strong enough film presence to endure plot-and-performance fireworks from all sides, from actors, actions, and miracles, yet by presence alone carry the film. A lesser actor would’ve been obliterated.

The final tug on Judah Ben-Hur comes from three women: his mother, sister, and would-be wife. Only via the new pacifist creed of Jesus, and accompanying miracle, is the character able to put aside both Rome and revenge. The women triumph.


Critic Dwight MacDonald at the time found Ben-Hur to be overly bloody and violent. How times have changed! Today it appears subtle and tame—especially when compared with the nonstop sadism of films like Passion of the Christ, whose scenes of torture obscure what Jesus was about.

Ben-Hur, on the other hand, shows the barbarity of the arena to show the barbarism of Rome. It’s a necessary part of the message, one kept in balance by the rest of the film. The violence is used as contrast to the pacifist message of Jesus. Jesus is an escape for Judah from the violence and tragedy of the world—the message an escape as well for the audience.

Hundreds of movies have been made since 1959 far more violent and bloody than Ben-Hur; most if not all of them lacking any balance to, or escape from, the carnage.


As Balthazar urges him to, at the end of the story Judah Ben-Hur chooses life over death. Domesticity and the nuclear family—and religion—win out. Roman power and sensuality have been presented as inevitable temptation, but the wrong choice. The movie’s theme is politically liberal but socially conservative. One can see how atheistic film critics disliked the choice given them by the film. They saw or feared themselves placed on the wrong side of the equation, and reacted by blocking the dilemma (and the artwork presenting the dilemma) entirely from their heads.

The movie continues to be relevant. The dilemma, the choice, remains an impossible one for most of today’s film critics. Which means, that though it’s an intelligent film, an overpowering sensory experience, and a moving work of art, Ben-Hur will continue to be egregiously undervalued by the intellectual community, if not by the broader public.


(COMING UP: A comparison between BEN-HUR and the current movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA, WINTER SOLDIER. I’m tentatively titling the piece, “New Rome and Old.”)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Single Shot

The beauty of the motion picture is its ability to convey a world of ideas in a single image.

Example: The 1959 Western "Warlock," when the two famed gunmen, played by Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn, are seen approaching town, their traveling gambling house/brothel "French Palace" following behind them.

The shot is an explanation and criticism of American civilization, capturing the tawdry and transient nature of the society that was quickly put up on this once-almost empty continent. A civilization constructed by exiles and vagabonds.

The two aging gunfighters, Fonda and Quinn, seem to themselves have painted faces (the makeup of Hollywood at least). Kabuki masks-- as we'll see in the story, the masks of fame.

The movie is yet another takeoff on the Earp-Holliday legend. The first two-thirds of the film follow the real story fairly closely. For comparison, watch "Warlock" after viewing the excellent 1993 flick "Tombstone." The way similar events are handled is fascinating.

"Tombstone" went back to the history, attempting to reconstruct historical reality. "Warlock" is a layering upon 70 years of legend and myth. Taking "Tombstone" for a facsimile of reality, one can see how the Western genre, in the form of "Warlock," simplified and stylized the story-- in so doing, digging for deeper meaning. Which is the purpose of art.

Compare the scene of Fonda and Quinn approaching town with a similar one in "Tombstone": the arrival with baggage of the Earp family. "Warlock"'s view is more true, if less factual. It does what "Tombstone" cannot-- it captures both the fame, and the unstable vagabond nature of the Western hero. Again, it does this with a single shot.


Though most of it is filmed in brightest light, "Warlock" is the darkest of all Westerns, along with "Lawman" and "Unforgiven." The bright light accentuates the darkness, the unhealthy nature of the characters and the town, giving them nowhere to hide; everything made naked and known. Caught in the light. All obsessions, desires, and falsehoods are exposed for everybody (including the audience) to see.

That it's a disturbing film is probably why it's never been acclaimed. It remains politically incorrect to this day-- there's nothing normal or healthy in Anthony Quinn's character; nothing Disneyfied or unreal. None of the characters are "normal," not the judge, not Fonda, not the two gals, not the bad guys. The exception is the reformed cowboy played by Richard Widmark, because he's at least striving to find a better nature. The irony with him is that he connects with the most cynical character in the movie, the prostitute Lily ably played by Dorothy Malone as counterpoint to Dolores Michaels melancholy "angel." Lily has contempt for all men. It's only because Widmark's cowboy has no ego, no giantlike Fonda/Quinn, Blaisdell/Morgan, Earp/Holliday persona to maintain, that he and Lily are able to tolerate each other-- to give each other a way out of their previous lives. A way out which Fonda's Blaisdell in his situation is unable to take.


Artists push fellow artists to greater achievements. "Warlock" was a huge influence on Sergio Leone. I would also bet that its complexities heavily influenced John Ford, pushing him to go deeper than he ever had in examining the nature of myth, in 1962's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Both Westerns are deep, are large statements on American myth, in different ways.


Classic in style, look, and form; thought-provoking, tragic, mythic and anti-mythic, when you think about "Warlock" afterward it becomes close to a great movie, though it resolutely refuses to please.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Good Writing Music

Music to write to by Lana Del Rey: “Summertime Sadness”

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dinner With?

An oft-asked question is which famous or historical persons you’d like to have dinner with, if you could choose anyone. Most asked the question will answer with the names of pop stars or sports figures.

As for me, I would choose first two guys who were both intelligent and gregarious. Both were known, in fact, for sitting at tables, in ale houses or the like, with all kinds of people, high and low; reputable and disreputable. They also, in their own way, had a sense of humor.

I’m speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, and England’s Shakespeare. Both would be guaranteed to offer high levels of conversation and insight.

I’d also want to fill out the evening with a couple ladies. My first choices in that department would be two women known for their allure and charisma. Legendary allure. I’d be curious to know what they were like. Odds are they’d be more petite than women are now, possibly not quite as buff, but their intelligence would be sparkling, their eyes and smiles, fascinating.

Who else but Helen of Troy and Egypt’s Cleopatra?

A good time would be had by all.

What would be your choices?

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Different Review of “Gravity”

THERE’S no need to praise the movie’s technical quality. This aspect of the film is amazing. As good as advertised. What most struck me about Gravity was its solipsistic viewpoint.

The main character, Sandra Bullock, exists in a kind of cocoon. Not just within her spacesuit, and the various spaceships, but also within her mind. It’s as if any moment she’s about to drift away into space, to be alone forever—not physically but psychologically.

This, more than the impressive special effects, explains the movie’s appeal. The audience identifies with the character. Sandra Bullock has an everyman quality about her that aids this identification.

It’s a mark of where we are as a civilization that the movie is so focused on the self. Previous rescue-in-space movies like Marooned and Apollo 13 were depictions of cooperative teams. The frantic struggle of the hive to rescue a few of their own.

In Gravity this takes place off-stage. “Houston” is never seen. One member of the mission, “Sharif”—thrown in for obvious p.c. purposes—isn’t seen up close until he’s dead. We know, in fact, as soon as he’s mentioned, that his mission in the movie is to be quickly destroyed.

The other crew member, George Clooney, is a voice and a smile. His purpose is to be ethereal. An intermittent intrusion into the solipsistic Sandra Bullock viewpoint.

The movie shows where our civilization is now—at least among the intellectual classes. It’s not a healthy place. The chief intellectual, Bullock, demonstrates a bare willingness to survive. That she eventually gains that will is the movie. Otherwise she’s detached, grieving at the inescapable pain and injustice of life—which for previous generations was a given, but which for her has become an unrecoverable-from surprise.

Interesting that the three nations whose technology is depicted—the U.S., Russia, and China; the first two definitely—are suffering from drastic demographic decline. A disbelief in themselves. A bare willingness to keep going. Instead: solipsism. Escape into technology or pain-numbing prescription medication. Or vodka!

Space, in the movie, is frightening. At the very moment our advanced populations could be plunging into space, to explore it and populate it, and advance the species (there are no aliens, folks; we’re all there is)—propelled by ruthless, fearless adventurers—there’s seen instead a desperate rush back to the safety of the womb. To gravity.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

About “The Wizard of Oz”


I’d seen the 1939 classic movie “The Wizard Of Oz” many times, but in a sense I’d never really before seen it. I hadn’t seen it before on an actual movie screen. I especially had never seen it in Imax 3-D, which makes the film more amazing.

The added trick or dimension to the movie enhances its magic; its dream qualities. A gimmick, sure, but in this instance a gimmick which supplements the nature of the film, which is not fantasy so much as pure dream.

The 3-D is most impressive when the swept-away house lands—right before the switch from sepia-toned Kansas to Technicolor and Oz. This is the culmination of a very intense sequence filled with a tornado, tumult and noise. Then suddenly, all is silence. Quite a pause before Dorothy opens the door onto a new world. Seeing this scene on a large Imax screen emphasizes its effectiveness. Needless to say, the movie is masterfully made.

I noted the 3-D again most during the scenes with the Wicked Witch of the West. Margaret Hamilton’s terrific performance and green make-up become more striking, as the witch seems to stand apart from the rest of the scenery—if not jump out at us. Her over-the-top performance enhances the 3-D technical wizardry.

It’s a children’s movie, without question, but with impact on the rest of us, because most of us have watched it as children. I was struck throughout by how excellent the production is, everything about it—then wondered if my opinion was because of the cultural resonance the movie holds. Much of the movie, if not all of it, is part of the language of common culture—ruby slippers, yellow brick road, Kansas quips, the man behind the curtain, and not least the steadfast dog Toto, the most famous movie dog of them all.  Watching the film again for me was an emotional experience.

“The Wizard of Oz” is a simple film. The greatest art is often the most simple. Basic, primal, striking chords not of the intellect, but something deeper within us. “Wizard of Oz” does this as well as any movie ever. It’s a dream, and as a dream plunges deep into the subconscious, so that we ask ourselves afterward what’s really going on.


“The Wizard of Oz is a movie about fears and anxieties. They’re the anxieties of childhood, but remain with us on some level for all of our lives. The anxiety of losing a loved one—or even a dog. The fear of abandonment and death. The perception of impersonal forces outside our control, such as “the law” or the power of wealth, as hinted at near the beginning when Miss Gulch tries to take Toto away. (“Run, Toto. Run!”) The anxieties are stepped up in the Oz sequences.

There’s the anxiety of change. The notion of leaving the farm for the big city—metaphor for the excitement and fear of adulthood, of going out into the world to encounter new friends and adventures. There’s evident also, as part of this, American fears. Of being corrupted, becoming no longer so simple. Oz could be a metaphor for New York City but maybe also for Europe—seat at the time the movie was made of sophistication, civilization, and culture. The Munchkins are dressed like good European burghers. The Oz residents sound European. The movie mocks the pretensions of civilization, from decrees and death certificates (“most sincerely dead”) to war medals and university diplomas. That near the end the Wizard says “E Pluribus Unum” twice within a short time span shows his world—he’s a thoroughly and uniquely American character—stumbling toward an identity apart from yet part of the larger, more sophisticated world. In that sense, “Kansas” really means “America.” Oz is something foreign; more powerful but also more fearsome and corrupt.


There are other, deeper fears happening in the film, through the character of Dorothy, who we strongly identify with, in part because of the portrayal of Dorothy by Judy Garland, whose performance isn’t just terrific, it’s definitive. In the movie, unlike the book, Dorothy is clearly an adolescent, leaving childhood behind her. Anxieties about the changes taking place within her permeate the Oz dream sequence. The symbolism of the ruby slippers then becomes palpable. No doubt the producers, when making the slippers red instead of silver, did this because red would look better in Technicolor. Yet much of the film seems to be crafted from their subconscious—from everyone’s subconscious—as if something deep within them, within all of us, was the true creator of the artwork.

Red stands for puberty and sexuality. It’s what Dorothy and the witch fight over. The tension between Dorothy and the witch/Miss Gulch is sexual. Miss Gulch’s hostility toward Dorothy is animated by sexual jealousy. Dorothy is becoming an attractive, healthy young woman—bursting with health, goodness, and energy; the qualities Miss Gulch, without knowing why, detests. This is pseudo-psychology, I know, but it’s also obvious. Amazingly enough, the witch, in her green make-up, has an evil, gothic appeal—picked up  by the creator and fans of the book/musical “Wicked,” for instance. Margaret Hamilton must have found the costume liberating. What makes the character impressive and scary is that the pretences of civilization—which a Miss Gulch must adhere to—are gone. We see full-bore the inner person, which an adolescent dream would bring out.

The characters of the three friends take on larger meaning from this viewpoint. I was struck, while watching them, that the movie gives us how women view men. As bumbling, incomplete, but ultimately necessary (especially in the battle with her primal rival!) and liable, with some prodding, to perform great heroics, as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion demonstrate in their rescue of Dorothy.

In her dream Dorothy is assessing the available possible suitors—alas, confined to the three farmhands! Her dream sees each one as flawed and incomplete—as the three low-rent farm hands, poor straggling victims of the depression, indubitably are. Yet she also sees their strengths, and at least in her dream, seems to make a tentative choice between them.

The final credits give the Kansas names of the performers, stressing that Kansas is the real world. The rest, the glorious Technicolor paradise/nightmare, was dream only. Ray Bolger, for example, is listed as Hunk, and not the Scarecrow. There’s one exception to this in the cast list. Can you recall who that is? It’s key to unlocking the rest of the mystery of the film story.

All the other major characters in the Oz story have analogs back in Kansas. The Wizard is Professor Marvel. The two witches: Miss Gulch. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are the farm hands. Toto is Toto. But what about Glinda the Good Witch? That mysterious force which Dorothy mentions IN THE DREAM as watching over her? What’s her analog?

Glinda could only be Dorothy Gale’s mother—the memory of her mother, all-good and benevolently beautiful, as Dorothy is becoming beautiful, like her. That the absent mother is present throughout the dream story is what gives the movie, for all of us, the strongest resonance. We know this, subconsciously. We’ve always known who Glinda is in the film (the books are something other), which is the real reason why people love the movie so much.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Order and Chaos


Anatomy of a Murder

The other night I watched for the second time the superb 1959 Otto Preminger film, Anatomy of a Murder. I saw more in it than caught my eye the first go-round.

For one, I was struck by the way the attorney characters, and the society they represent, attempt to impose a semblance of order upon chaotic events and people.

At the beginning of the movie, the life of lead character James Stewart, a former district attorney in Michigan;s Upper Peninsula, is one of listless chaos. Fishing and drinking. This is manifested by a refrigerator overflowing with freshly caught fish. Stewart is becoming like his alcoholic friend Arthur O’Connell. That Stewart is given the opportunity to represent the defendant in a murder trial becomes a way for him to impose order upon his life.

We soon see that the defendant and his wife, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick respectively, are embodiments of chaos. Neither properly fits the narrative which Stewart will need to create in the courtroom in order to win the trial.

This is as realistic a movie about the justice system as has ever been made. Shadings and uncertainties are everyplace. The verdict is acceptable because the formalities have been maintained. Stewart himself only appears to be an island of integrity—he uses his homespun facade to get what he wants. The integrity in the process comes from the process itself; giving justice its proper tribute in the form of an imperfect trial. Trials are often imperfect. Their deeper purpose isn’t to achieve justice so much as maintain order. This, at least, is the message of the film.

This is an ensemble movie, depending on the effectiveness of its array of characters to be effective. The acting is perfection itself—keeping us unable to pull away from what at its core is a simple story. Once the players take the stage we’re absorbed in them. The simple framework of the trial creates countless complexities. Black-and-white photography adds to the movie’s documentary feel.

The back-and-forth trial fireworks between James Stewart and prosecutor George C. Scott dominate the surface proceedings. Both men are terrific. Both do more with their roles than is written. Yet the greater acting honors go to the many-layered couple, Gazzara and Remick, and their love-hate relationship.

Lee Remick portrays white-trash sexuality with naked reality. Gazzara nails his character’s surliness, shrewdness, anger, and rough integrity. They’re not likeable but they’re recognizable and understandable, pushing the envelope of their relationship in the same way Stewart pushes the acceptable bounds on lawyer machinations in order to achieve his end. His lawyer performs for the jury, as James Stewart performs for we the movie audience.

Stewart and O’Connell, with help from sarcastic secretary Eve Arden triumph not because they’ve won the trial—a questionable verdict—but because they’ve restored meaning and purpose to themselves. For them, nothing else matters.

Setting, atmosphere, performance, seriousness, theme—all as believable as if the events happened today.