Cinematic Religion

I realized I was pretty tough yesterday on the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Despite the datedness of the film by 2023 standards, it was a very big film at its release and had an effect on my thoughts about religion.

It is an epic religious drama Paramount film that was produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille. It was made for big screens, shot in VistaVision with color by Technicolor.

It is not based on the Bible, though it uses passages from it, especially the Book of Exodus. The screenplay used versions of the story found in the novels Prince of Egypt Pillar of Fire and On Eagle’s Wings. It is a dramatized version of the story of Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince who ultimately delivers the enslaved Hebrews.

Charlton Heston is Moses, Yul Brynner is the Pharoh Rameses, and there are plenty of other Hollywood stars playing these Middle Eastern figures.

This is actually Cecil B. DeMille remaking his silent film of the same name as a big-budget sound film. They filmed in Egypt and the Sinai. It had one of the biggest sets ever constructed for a motion picture, and thousands of players and crew.

At the time of its release, was the most expensive film ever made. It paid off grossing approximately $122.7 million at the box office during its initial release, making it the most successful film of 1956 and the second-highest-grossing film of the decade. According to Guinness World Records, in terms of theatrical exhibition, it is the eighth most successful film of all time when the box office gross is adjusted for inflation.

In 1957, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but only won Best Visual Effects.

I have still vivid memory of the scene where Moses’ staff becomes a cobra. I also recall my childhood confusion when Ramses’ priests are able to do the same “magic trick.” Of course, Moses’ snake satisfyingly devours the two others.

The most well-known scene in the film is when Moses parts the Red Sea. In its time, that was an awesome special effect. I have a much more powerful memory of that scene. My family was driving home from the Jersey Shore one summer night when I was very young and the film was playing at the Amboys drive-in which was close to the Garden State Parkway. You could always see the giant screen from your car. (Probably that caused a few accidents over the years.) As we passed, Moses parted the sea. Very impressive.

The Ten Commandments is broadcast at Passover in the United States on the ABC Television Network. Watching it again this year, I had many of the same feelings as when I saw it as a boy. So much cruelty by Ramses and by God. So many people die. These Bible stories made me doubt that this God was a good one. Certainly not a kind one.

As a child, I wondered how much of this story was true. Did God really allow Moses to turn the Nile River into blood? Enraged at the plagues, Rameses orders that all first-born male Hebrews will die. That seems believable. But God’s “cloud of death” instead kills all the first-born of Egypt, including the child of Rameses and Nefretiri. That, I doubted. Did the Red Sea part so the Hebrews could cross and escape Ramses soldiers? And did God drown all the soldiers who followed them across? So much death.

Paramount Pictures poster – Link

The Occult Bookstore

This image is of Ray’s Occult Books, the rundown fictional NYC bookstore opened by Ghostbuster Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd). In the time between Ghostbusters I and II,.

Ray had problems dealing with life then. The city of New York had a restraining order on them for the property damage incurred while they saved the city from Gozer in the first Ghostbusters film. Those were hard years following the collapse of the Ghostbusters. He opened a store that specialized in bizarre, strange, and hard-to-find books. Ray tells someone that his books cover alchemy, astrology, apparitions, Bundu Magic Men, demon intercession, U.F.O. Abductions, psychic surgery, stigmata, modern miracles, pixie sightings, golden geese, geists, and ghosts. Peter Venkman was a frequent customer. We know that in 1989, Peter ordered a book a copy of Magical Paths to Fortune and Power.

Discovering this little piece of movie trivia, I immediately remembered an occult bookstore I had gone to with my friends Karen and Bob. Ray’s store exteriors were filmed at 33 St. Mark’s Place, but the store was supposed to be in the cooler part of Greenwich Village. The store I went to was also in the Village back in the 1970s but I don’t remember the location. We always called it “the occult bookstore” and I’m not sure what was its official name – if it had one.

It was as odd as Ray’s and equally odd were the staffers and customers. You could get into some interesting conversations there with people.

I bought a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead there and some incense on one visit. The book is for the living to prepare yourself or others who are dying for liberation and the passage between worlds in the bardo.

I’ve thought about that store and that book, especially when Bob passed from this world and I wondered if he was somewhere in that intermediary place between life and death and the next step.

I know Ghostbusters is played for laughs but I have been haunted my whole life by the idea of ghosts (only once by a ghost) and wondering if there is an afterlife.

Ray’s store shows up in Ghostbusters II, and the third film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and in the comic book series and board and video games.

I Can’t Put a Number On It

I’m not a fan of those best-of and greatest lists. They are quite common at the end of each year. The best films, books, TV shows, records, actors etc. They are particularly annoying when the author puts a number on the list or Oscars-style you have to decide on only one winner.

The “ten-best” of anything is always going to be wrong for a lot of people who will disagree with the ranking or with those who didn’t make the list. Rolling Stone magazine recently posted a list of The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.” I knew when I saw the title they were in for some trouble. Even with 200 names, people were going to complain about someone being left off, and about the ranking of some who made the cut. Not that I am anything of an authority, but there were plenty of names I never heard of on that list. I see a lot of comments online saying “Where is Celine Dion?” That kind of list is bound to court controversy – and that’s probably one reason media sources and critics create them.

A friend asked me to send my list of the best films of 2022. I can’t do the best list. Even with all the films I did see last year, when I look at other best film lists I see contenders that I never saw. Plus, what I liked is just what I liked. I liked The Fabelmans and it made some lists, but I suggested it to friends and a few thought it was just okay. A film that my wife and I saw at the Montclair Film Festival last October and really liked was Linoleum.

The title didn’t help this very unusual independent film starring Jim Gaffigan and Rhea Seehorn, but we loved it. Then again, we met the director and producer and got to talk with them after the screening. And I like Gaffigan both as a comedian and as an actor in all the little films he has done. Rhea was one of the best things in a favorite show of the past few years, Better Call Saul.

I hope you see the film somewhere, somehow. It’s currently not available to rent, buy or stream but its U.S. release date is February 24, 2023. I’m also sure that a lot of people will not fall in love with it as we did. That’s why I don’t do best-of lists or rank anything.

I can’t really give you a good summary of the film without ruining it. Online it says “When the host of a failing children’s science show tries to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut by building a rocket ship in his garage, a series of bizarre events occur that cause him to question his own reality,” but that really doesn’t do it. It’s complicated in a good way. It’s the kind of film that I want to watch again just to see what I missed on the first viewing.

I just realized why I might have liked those two films. As a kid, I wanted to make movies. Like Steven Spielberg, I made films with a Super 8 movie camera. I didn’t take it as far as Spielberg and I didn’t become a director, but I get it.

In February of 1962, I wrote a letter to NASA astronaut John Glenn who had just returned from his historic flight in the tiny capsule named Friendship 7. This Mercury spacecraft circled Earth three times and then splashed down. He was an early hero of mine. I still have the letter and packet of materials I got in the mail from Glenn and NASA. I was not alone in wanting to be an astronaut. I was 8 years old. I did not become an astronaut. I did not become an astronomer, though I have spent a lot of time looking up at the sky, reading about it, and writing about it sometimes. I get it.

Election Movies

After you watch the lunar eclipse and vote, you might want to watch an election movie. Scott Simon of NPR has suggested a few films about American election politicking.

One thing you might notice is how elections in America have changed, especially in the last two decades.

Primary Colors, 1998: a Mike Nichols film based on a novel by “Anonymous (Joe Klein) in which John Travolta plays a Clintonesque candidate and Emma Thompson is his smart and long-afflicted spouse. Larry Hagman has a cameo as a governor with secrets. Deception abounds but as Travolta says, “This is the price you pay to lead.”

Election, 1999: This Alexander Payne film based on the Tom Perotta novel is a lot more fun and though here it is Reese Witherspoon as the ambitious student politician and Matthew Broderick as the teacher who takes it all too personally, the comparisons to big-time politics are not lost on us. Scott Simon picks this line from a student-assembly speech: “Who cares about this stupid election? We all know it doesn’t matter!”

Advise and Consent, 1962: an Otto Preminger film, based on
Allen Drury’s 1959 bestseller has Henry Fonda as the nominee with a secret. Charles Laughton is his adversary, and Don Murray is a Utah senator who also has a secret of a different kind. This is the first major Hollywood film with a sympathetic gay character and it is also Betty White’s film debut. She is a Kansas senator. A politician tells his son it’s all right to lie to a reporter: “It’s a Washington, D.C., kind of lie.”

The Best Man, 1964: based on Gore Vidal’s 1960 play is about a contested political convention. (nowadays we contest the election results more often.) Here we have a Trumanesque ex-president who tells a young politician “It’s par for the course to fool the people. But it’s downright foolish to try to fool yourself.”


bildungsroman shirt
Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include the early novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts, and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming of age has a lot to do with the family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good material for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex, and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age are being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle-class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They are boomeranging back to their parent’s residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

The Euphoria of Expressionism

I haven’t watched the HBO series Euphoria but I keep seeing raves about it on social media. It is an American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name. The second season hit this year. The reviews I had seen initially described it as a “teen” show since it follows a troubled 17-year-old who is “a drug addict just out of rehab and likely to end up back in rehab, and her high school friends.

It gets a majority of positive reviews, with praise for its cinematography, plot, score, and performances. The subject matter is mature and somewhat controversial for its nudity and sexual content. Some critics found the nudity and sexual content excessive considering the characters’ ages.

From the German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What caught my attention this past week was the video (below) discussing the visual style of German Expressionism and its influence on later films and TV including Euphoria.

German Expressionism in films was a movement that used distorted sets and sharp contrasts of light and dark. The movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films so with supply down, demand went up for german films. . The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. In American films, it was influential in what in a later movement we call “film noir.” In all instances, it is highly stylized, sometimes surreal, and not a style we often see used today. (Though there are “neo-noir” films.)

Many film historians consider German silent cinema to be far ahead of Hollywood films of that time when it comes to innovations and style. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by the movement from the very beginning. In 1924, he worked as an assistant director and art director at Babelsberg Studios near Berlin on the film The Blackguard. His set designs for that film are expressionistic. It is also seen in his directing, especially in some of his early, less well-known films. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock used styles that the studio did not want used, such as Expressionist set designs, high contrast lighting, and trick camera work. One example of the latter is a shot of a man walking across a glass floor that is shot from below,

Another classic German Expressionist film is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (German: Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens), an early vampire film that is an unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This 1922 silent horror film is directed by F. W. Murnau.

Count Orlok’s shadow on a staircase in Nosferatu

Though not all Expressionist films are horror, most have at least elements of the thriller and suspense, either physical or mental. One later American example is The Night of the Hunter. This 1955 American thriller film is directed by Charles Laughton. The critical reaction to the film at its release was so strong that it is the only film Laughton directed. It stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. It is the story of a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal money hidden by her executed husband.

Expressionist lighting by Laughton puts Gish in silhouette and Mitchum lit in the background

It is a dark film based on a real serial killer. It was a commercial and critical flop at its release, but in the decades since its release, the film has been listed as one of the best American films. It often makes the list close to Citizen Kane, another classic that has an Expressionist style in many ways. The director of photography on The Night of the Hunter was Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles’ followup to Kane, the 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.

Euphoria is not the only example we see today. The new Joel Coen interpretation of The Tragedy of Macbeth and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley have definite Expressionist elements.

Euphoria is Expressionist in its style of sets and cinematography, but not in its plot.

Here is the short video that inspired me to look back on Expressionism. And it might get me to check out Euphoria.

A short film by Thomas Flight that shows Expressionist influences