Friday, April 22, 2011

The Greatest Story Ever Gabbed

Werth: Hey there, Wise.  What are you doing?  

Wise: Oh, just filling my basket with jelly beans, candy eggs, Marshmallow Peeps, chocolate bunnies, and popcorn for my Springtime Holiday Film Festival.  

Werth: Um, isn’t that a laundry basket?  
Wise: Maybe.  But there are a lot of movies on my list, films that the big three television networks used to broadcast every year that celebrated rebirth, second chances, the importance of family—

Werth: All sponsored by the Cadbury bunny.  

Wise: Long before any joker could watch Saw III on his smart phone while riding the subway, most Americans had to wait for the annual broadcast of great films like The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Sound of Music, Ben Hur, and Easter Parade.  But the one I looked forward to most was Cecil B. DeMille’s  The Ten Commandments.  

Werth: The movie that made the book of Exodus fun.

Wise: Commandments accomplishes what so few of these giant Biblical epics ever achieve: the perfect balance between corny bombast and heartfelt sentiment.  After the Pharaoh issues an edict condemning all first-born Hebrew males, the older sister of baby Moses places him in a basket and sets him adrift in the Nile.  Found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses is raised in the palace as a favorite of the royal family until his heritage is discovered and he is banished from Egypt.  After wandering in the desert, he marries and settles into the life of a shepherd until one day he encounters a burning bush that speaks the words of God commanding Moses to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from their bondage. 

Werth: I was in bondage once when I saw a burning bush.

Wise: Of course, since Moses is played by Charlton Heston, he succeeds, although not without Heston’s signature blend of orotundity and virility.  He did tend to play this sort of character repeatedly during his career, but Commandments allows him to reveal a more tender side by expressing both reluctance and the residual terrors of having been chosen by God.  Part of this greater depth comes from the casting of Yul Brynner as a rival prince who inherits the throne. 
Both these actors were almost absurdly masculine, and the chemistry from  their testosterone-laden one-up-manship imbues the rest of the picture with a vitality it might not otherwise have had.  

Werth: I missed some of that because I had to cover my eyes during the “staff turned into a snake” scene.

Wise: Of course the rest of the cast is great too.  DeMille manages to coax both comedy and pathos  in equal measure without allowing everything to fall into a round of cornball line readings.  Yvonne De Carlo is particularly tender and effective as Moses’ wife Sephora, while Anne Baxter vamps it up as a vain princess who wants Moses all the more now that he’s been touched by God.  Vincent Price gives a delightfully oily turn as Baka, an Egyptian functionary who delights in his evil ways.  And, Film Gab favorite Judith Anderson plays a venomous maid hellbent on exposing Moses’ past.  

Werth: And don’t forget grumpy old Edward G. Robinson as everyone’s favorite fickle follower, Dathan. “Where’s your Moses now?” indeed.

Wise: I’m not sure that I could watch The Ten Commandments more than once a year, but its mixture of reverence and campiness makes it a delight worth returning to.  
Werth: I’m glad you’ve covered the Old Testament, because my favorite Easter flick is from the New one. It’s not just Good Friday, it’s a Super Friday with 1973’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
Wise: I don’t think this was covered in my catechism class.

Werth: After their initial successful recordings of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, budding Brit musical titan Andrew Lloyd Weber and his writing partner Tim Rice returned to the Good Book to see if they could put some guitar licks into the life of Jesus.

Wise: Because a messiah is only as good as his amp. 

Werth: But before producing an actual musical, in 1970 Lloyd Weber and Rice created what was known back in the day as a concept album. It was basically a way to throw your music out in front of the public to see if it stuck—and it did. It spawned the hit single “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” for Yvonne Elliman and later for Helen Reddy. So Superstar was Broadway and inevitably, Hollywood-bound.

Wise: It’s almost like the Last Supper took place at the Chateau Marmont. 

Werth: Director Norman Jewison (no, the irony is not lost on me) shot the entire film on location in Israel. It’s an amazing choice, because the stark, beautiful, ancient setting gives the film a real sense of gravitas. Superstar starts off with a small bus arriving in the desert and a rag-tag group of performers exit and put on their costumes, like a hippy bus and truck tour performing a passion play. It’s an interesting concept that eases the audience into seeing Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene sing rock songs. The production design is a blended assortment of period robes and fabrics, bell bottoms and scarves, and strange, S&M-like pharisee hats and harnesses, updating the story of the last days of Jesus without abandoning its roots.

Wise: Which prompted a certain segment of the audience to call the project a desecration, I’m sure.  

Werth: Of course it did, but I don’t understand the hullabalo. For me, Superstar does an amazing job of making Jesus and his followers human. Several of Lloyd Weber’s songs give us a unique insight into these characters obscured by history and dogma. Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again, Please” are plaintive pleas to reach and understand the man she loves. Judas’ “Damned for All Time” is a wonderfully well-rounded look at one the world’s greatest villains. And “The Crucifixion” and “John Nineteen: Forty-One” mix music and scriptural elements powerfully.

Wise: I’m surprised that Sunday schools everywhere don’t have matinee showings.

Werth: Well... there is “King Herod’s Song” performed by the delightfully fey Josh “Son of Zero” Mostel which might confuse the kiddies, but all in all, I think Superstar raises some excellent questions about faith and religion. And I challenge anyone not to get up and jive to the title track “Superstar.” If nothing else, Superstar is much more fun to watch than the other 1973 Jesus-ical, Godspell.

Wise: I’d need a truckload of peanut butter eggs to make it through that double feature.

Werth: Hand me some of those jelly beans. Tune in next week for more religious film experiences with Film Gab!

No comments: