Movies postsTuesday July 30, 2013
Ben-Hur: the Travis Bickle of His Day
I watched “Ben-Hur” over the weekend. I know, but I'd never seen it beginning to end.
It was kind of fun—the epic sprawl, the overture, the intermission, the pace—but most fascinating was how much I didn't identify with its hero, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). In fact, I kept agreeing with everyone but Ben-Hur. That includes Pontius Pilate. You read right: Pontius Pilate.
When Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) first arrives on the galley ship, for example, and demands that the exhausted slaves row faster and faster, then at attack speed, then at ramming speed, what do we make of him? Is he a sadist? Is he testing them? Does he just want to see them sweat and glisten? Is he testing Ben-Hur, whom he notices early and often? Does he just want to see him sweat and glisten? I assumed he was a villain. Then he says this to Ben-Hur, who, at this point in the story, because of an earlier face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is a believer:
The God I pray to will not save me. The God you pray to will not save you.
That pretty much sums up my thoughts on religion, but Ben-Hur argues the point:
Ben-Hur: I can't believe God would let me live these three years to die chained to an oar.
Quintus Arrias: It's a strange, stubborn faith you keep—to belive that existence has a purpose.
Again, I'm with Arrius.
But Ben-Hur winds up saving Arrius (of course), who adopts him as a son, and Ben-Hur triumphs over his enemy, Messala (Stephen Boyd), in the famous chariot race. Except it doesn't end there. Despite all of the good that has come since his encounter with Jesus, Ben-Hur actually loses his faith again when he discovers that in his long absence his mother and sister have become lepers. He refuses even to hear the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, he goes to Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring), who warns him thus:
Perfect freedom has no existence. A grown man knows the world he lives in. And for the present, the world is Rome's.
I nodded. You might not agree with it, you might fight it, but you'd be a fool to ignore it. Ben-Hur is a fool here. Think of it: He actually had a face-to-face encounter with God and he still lacks faith. Makes the rest of us, who get no such face-time, seem evangelical.
Indeed, for the last hour of the movie, before he gets all Christianed up again, Judah Ben-Hur reminds me of a movie protagonist who would come along 17 years later. This is Ben-Hur talking with Esther (Haya Harareet):
I tell you every man in Judea is unclean ... No other life is possible except to wash this land clean.
And here's Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” in 1976:
Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.
But what's fascinating about “Ben-Hur” to me is the assumption by the filmmakers of the audience's shared Christian background. They assumed we all believed in the same God, and if we didn't, if there were Jews around (and apparently there were), well, it was OK since our God was a Jew. Jews got a pass, but only them. Donuts or bagels—no other options.
Yet we were only seven short years from the year TIME magazine would ask on its cover “Is God Dead?” and John Lennon would call the Beatles bigger than Jesus. What a leap. Our shared assumptions were gone by then; the fragmentation of the culture had begun by then. When today's conservatives complain about how Hollywood doesn't make old-fashioned movies anymore, this is what they're complaining about. They're talking about movies like “Ben-Hur” that assume that the Christian God is the one true God, with a bagel on the side. They want Charlton Heston again and an all-star cast but wind up with Kirk Cameron on a miniscule budget.
“Ben-Hur” was the No. 1 movie of 1959 and remains in the top 15 all-time if you adjust for inflation. But its world, the 1950s world in which it was made, was ending. A rain came.
Face-to-face faith, which he'll lose later in the movie, only to get it back in the final reel.
My American Movie
It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that the question I posed yesterday on Facebook and today on this site, “What's the great All-American movie?” is answered, by me, with “Breaking Away.”
I grew up in Minneapolis, Minn. rather than Bloomington, Ind., with a middle class rather than working class background, but that movie, from Mike's cutoffs to Moocher's hair to the aimless “What do we do now?” ethic, feels like the America I grew up in. My identification has only gotten stronger the further we've gotten from that time and the more cutters our global economy has created.
As I said when I wrote my review a few years ago, the tone of the film is light but serious issues lie beneath it: issues of identity and class, both of which, here, feel specifically American. It's not just a bike-racing movie. Among its themes:
- This country was built by people who are not welcome here.
- The epithet we're called is the job we can't get.
Not to mention:
- Owning your epithet is the best revenge.
But there's also this:
When screenwriter Steve Tesich arrived in this country in the late 1950s, he learned English through television, through sitcoms, and you can argue the film has a sitcom quality to it—particularly its ending. On campus Dave meets a pretty French girl and soon he’s using Frenchisms as he once used Italianisms. When he sees his father, he shouts out, “Bon jour, papa!” and the father looks back, startled, horrified, and the camera freezes. At that point, we begin to hear the Indiana University fight song, and the freeze-frame fades into a shot of the Monroe County Court House, and a graphic informs us: FILMED ENTIRELY IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. No shit. The film is steeped in the place. But nothing says “Indiana” like this ending, which refuses to take itself too seriously. There’s something very Midwestern, very American, about that.
The quarry is where working-class jobs were. The A&P is where working-class jobs have gone. But it’s a shit job and that’s why these guys are aimless.
What's the Great All-American Movie?
I asked that question yesterday on Facebook and got more than 30 responses. These were the movies with more than one vote.
|The Grapes of Wrath||3|
|The Best Years of Our Lives||2|
|The Right Stuff||2|
I kept categorizing them in my mind:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses:
- The Godfather
- Scarface (1982)
We're better than our PR:
- The Right Stuff
- Singin' in the Rain
What's so funny about truth, justice and the American way?
- 9 to 5
- Rocky V
Something is disappearing (Tony Soprano's lament):
- American Graffiti
- Breaking Away
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- High Noon
Something's wrong here, not sure what it is:
- The Best Years of Our Lives
- Being There
- Five Easy Pieces
- The Grapes of Wrath
- The Parallax View
- Poltergeist (“It's all in the subtext”)
- Rebel without a Cause
We venture out to go home:
- Apocalypse Now
- Apollo 13
- Citizen Kane
- Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
- Sullivan's Travels
- The Wizard of Oz
I also got many complaints that it was an impossible question. “You have to be more specific,” one said. “There's no such thing as an All-American movie,” another said.
But that's the point, isn't it? Since America isn't more specific.
But this was my favorite response, via Twitter:
@ErikLundegaard Nothing says “America” like Apocalypse Now.— Jason Lamb (@KarlShowJason) July 3, 2013
We watched TV.
If Ever a Character Could Put You Off Women for Life...
Interesting back-and-forth (at least as interesting as Twitter allows) between James Marsh and Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells on Monica Vitti's character in “L'Avventura.” Marsh began it this way:
If ever a character could put you off women for life it's Monica Vitti in L'AVVENTURA: needy, insecure, tedious & paranoid right from day 1.— James Marsh (@Marshy00) May 11, 2013
Wells still finds her alluring, which is partly why he's watched the movie six or seven times. I'm with Wells here, despite having watched it only once.
But Marsh raises an interesting question. If ever a character in a movie could put you off women for life, which would it be?
For a long time, my answer was Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” I got major creeps after watching that movie. I don't think I wanted to be with a woman for a week after that. Or a night anyway. (I was young.)
Then about 10 years ago I saw “The Blue Angel,” with Lola Lola ruining the distinguished life of Prof. Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings); reducing him to a clown, an ass, a rooster. I know it's Dietrich, and Dietrich is so sexy, but that makes it worse. You understand why the good professor winds up on the path he winds up on. The road to losing all dignity and self-worth. The road to cock-a-doodle-doo.
Yours? Feel free to shift the question as to gender and gender preference.
The good professor, before the cock-a-doodle-doo.
Fargo: The Word Cloud
The Film Stage posted the following “Fargo in a Word Cloud” on Twitter the other day:
Glad I made the cut. (Center, about sixth row from top.)
And don't forget where the Jerry Lundegaard name came from.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard