Sunday, April 8, 2007

Thou Shalt Watch Lots of Movies

I'm not sure what to do about movies on this blog, frankly. Sometimes I feel like I ought to have a blog devoted to film, as a number of friends do. Supposedly I write about movies (although I haven't done it for publication or mammon in quite a while) and many of my posts here are likely to be on that subject. I'm considering having a second blog to collect my film-related blatherings, a sort of edited mirror of this one. But once I declare myself a film blogger, am I suddenly obligated to start putting more thought and effort into my rantings? And, as Robin Williams once remarked in a very different situation: "It's like peeing in velvet pants. It might feel lovely, but will anyone want to watch?"

All of this comes to mind because I've just finished half paying attention to an old Passover/Easter weekend tradition, the annual ABC broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. This was DeMille's last movie, widely regarded as his crowning achivement. It has got to be one of the most popular and most watched works in cinema history, and one of the most beloved among a large segment of actual moviegoers (as opposed to us critic types).* But, Jesus, Mary and Moses, what a cruddy film.

DeMille had been one of Hollywood's behemoths, a sort of Spielberg-Plus without the cinematic instincts, since the silent era. But even by the time he made his first Ten Commandments movie in 1923, he was a staid filmmaker. Judging from the '56 movie, he didn't grow much after that, beyond the inevitable additions of sound and color. Aside from the state-of-the-art special effects, this often seems little more than a filmed stage spectacular, with its ornate and blatantly phony sets, its barnstorming, declarative acting, and camerawork and editing that's... well, not static, downright straitjacketed. And DeMille clings with endearing nostalgia to the mustiest version of the silent intertitle tradition with voiceover narration that takes over any slightly difficult narrative duties and carefully tells the audience what to think and feel about the onscreen events.

Watching this lavishly budgeted church youth group production, it's amazing to remember it was made when the French New Wave was at the starting gate. When Orson Welles had been setting the standard for visual dynamism and artistry in Hollywood cinema for fifteen years. When the late-silent German filmmakers (F.W. Murnau, for example), who brought the moving camera, wordless storytelling and mute emotional expression to new heights of subtlety and power, were already a dusty memory.

So, confession time: I kind of liked it. I think, maybe. Some of the time. Some crud has a certain je ne sais quoi, which is French for "What the hell?" I didn't turn it off, and sat through the whole three hours and forty minutes, although I did other stuff the whole time, including typing up that Harold Camping post below. A lot of its appeal is good old-fashioned camp value, much of it generated by the hypocritical clash of high-minded piety and showbiz luridness, a blend that was DeMille's stock-in-trade. [EDIT AFTER A NIGHT'S SLEEP: OK, actually, I'm not sure I want to follow the standard critical line that this is an amusing hypocrisy on DeMille's part. The Bible, or at least the Old Testament, displays a very similar blend of the lurid and the high-minded, and maybe even for the same reason - a lot of these stories, or versions of them, were first auditioned by oral storytellers who needed to "give the public what they want" in order to hold audience attention. So I'm going to say DeMille is just following the example of his source material.] Another factor is the warm, fuzzy peacefulness of cinematic comfort food; for all its calculated exoticism, The Ten Commandments is redolent of sleepy evenings in front of the TV at the grandparents' place, after a big family dinner. Beyond all that, the film sometimes makes it into the realm of head-snapping lunacy, candy-colored, "ya gotta see it to believe it" surrealism.

All of which is to say that even crud can have its virtues, some of them beyond the reach of mere talent or quality. Maybe I'm the only one who needs to be reminded of that.

*[Irresistible historical footnote with tendentious undertones: At the time of the making and release of the movie, DeMille was deeply involved with a project to place granite Ten Commandments monuments at public buildings around the country, where they continue to inspire trouble and controversial court decisions. More details here.]

(And acknowledgments to for the image of Charlton. A little ironic, considering how little personality he has.)

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