Sunday, November 23, 2014

Not Because I'm Christian ... Because I'm a Writer (and a Viewer)

With the latest biblical video game coming soon to a cineplex near you, I’ve been thinking about storytelling as an author and as a moviegoer.  Biblical stories have lent themselves to embroidery and retelling since the beginning; perhaps not least because the stories themselves almost ostentatiously offer a paucity of detail.  Jewish scholarship for millennia have built upon the bare bones of the Tanakh (having grown up highly Judeo-adjacent, you’re not going to catch me writing the term “OLD Testament” thoughtlessly I hope), and gentiles have been in on the same game for centuries now.

Centuries ago, when I was a liddle-*liddle* kid, some of the first stories that caught my imagination were those of Genesis.  Because of those tantalizing voids in these stories, I became obsessed with backstory.  Not even “WHY, WHY?” – though these stories beg the profoundest of moral questions, given their fundamental position in the Bible – but “WHAT ELSE?”

These questions absorbed me, and once I got old enough for purty, midcentury modern aesthetics, diaphanous costumes, Anne Baxter, and movies to arrest my attention, “The Ten Commandments” fixated me to no small degree.  Its annual event-viewing at Passover and Easter time always stopped me in my TV-viewing tracks, even when I was too young to stay up past Moses’ banishment from Egypt.  (Much like Sound of Music, Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind, there were great swaths of this we-watched-it-every-year-when-it-aired movie I never knew existed.  Beyond Maria’s getting married, Dorothy’s beauty makeover at the Emerald City, and Scarlett being widowed, there were realms unknown.)

For me, that movie’s always been about Anne Baxter’s dramatic smoker’s voice, allure-as-evil, a fancy palace, exotic locale and time, and pretty costumes.  And Yul Brynner, who is OSUM and a biscuit.

That was really the cinematic point:  wish fulfillment.  Ten Commandments and every 1950s biblical/historical epic involving any amount of sand or religiosity (see also They Egyptian, a nonbiblical story but one so seriously Judeo-Christian it actually used sets and cast left over from Ten Commandments, and closed with a fascinating piece of 19th-20th century spiritual theorizing that captivated me at the time) was cartoonishly unrealistic, providing a great deal in the Booming Elocution department, even more in production design joy for the crew, and a curiously contemporary brand of fantasy most people find has aged amusingly in sixty or so years.

And yet, the current crop of setpiece dramatics, nominally Biblical stories, are very much the same.  Noah and Exodus:  Gods and Kings place an emphasis on CGI dramatics, the high-intensity visuals and action born of a generation’s ever more sophisticated video game aesthetics, and a manner of world-building (and, even sixty years on, STILL casting) having little to do with the people of Bronze Age and even pre- or quasi-historical Mesopotamia.  The new tellings just as lacking in story as Heston’s bombasity; only the eye-candy has changed and the spectacle delivered via a different state of the arts.

I like a good CGI popcorn flick – give me a Marvel film and I’m there, uncritical, ready to partake and ooh at the gee-whiz.  I’m a great, uncritical audience.  But.

But.  When it comes to Noah and Moses and tales which almost predate themselves, in terms of the cultural significance and enticing hints of ancient life in the Fertile Crescent … what wouldn’t I give for a quiet, intimate film, focusing on imagined *people* more than spectacle and thrill … ?  A movie looking at the strange and dark tales of the patriarchs, men (and those glimpsed women, as storied as the men) whose legacy seems to be revered not because they were moral but because they lived at the dawn of a spiritual civilization we carry unto this day.

I’ve learned that this is not necessarily usual – but, from my smallest childhood, the entire contents of those stories were taught to me in Sunday school.  The nakedness, the murder and polygamy and incest, the child and human sacrifice.  The special, spiritual morality of Abraham, who married his own half-sister, then used her beauty for gain and deceived kings through her, was lost on me and always has been – but, having gotten some age on me, the idea of his being a prophet of G-d intrigues me.  We’re all flawed, but all we know of Abraham is his flaws, all but unallayed by the assurance of his peculiar rectitude.  The binding of Isaac alone has provoked us intellectually, emotionally, and socially for thousands of years.

At bottom, it’s a queasy thing, really.  I was ENTERTAINED by this lurid stuff, this first literature I ever knew – Noah, having a bad relationship with his boys, Lot procreating with his daughters (after having offered them up as sexual sacrifices in Sodom), parent after parent scheming against each other due to favoritism amongst their children.  And Jacob, and his favoritism amongst his wives.

I never even got as far as the Midrash, where we are told those wives were *all* sisters, where we elucidate the idol worship bewilderingly present throughout the families (not just households) of the matriarchs and patriarchs.  Where the women unnamed take on lives and even speak.

Even for the sources who originally wrote down these traditions, always, there has been *more* …

And yet always less than we seem to come up with – the porcine performances (ironic, all things considered) and splashy visuals, the impressive story*telling* that omits human stories.

Tucked into the annual memories of my childhood, quiet amid the saturated brightness of movies shared every year, and my enduring fascination with Hebrew Biblical films … there is a false memory, one that cannot have happened (indeed, is not remembered at all by my mother), of one movie I watched with my mom one single time.  It is the memory of sharing faith and mother-daughter time, one couched in a generation’s depth of warm feelings – one I found, somewhere in my thirties, never happened.

For some reason, I recall it as happening upstairs in the bedroom at my grandmother’s house in Ohio.  I was unwell or perhaps just petulant that day, and on my own up there.  There’s this strongly affectionate recollection that we watched a movie alone together, that I remembered for years as being called “Ruth and the Bible.”  Its actual title, almost certainly, was The Story of Ruth, and – as I read about it today – I see that not only was the lead role played by an Israeli woman, but its reviews praise it in a noticeable way:  It was called “refreshingly sincere and restrained” and “commendably unepic” …

Now – one – this makes me highly eager to see this film again (probably to own it, to love it, to name it George – heck, I already renamed it once).

But, two, I am struck by the longing for a Biblical story to be told, to be portrayed, on a quiet, intimate level.

There is not much in the story of Ruth, which could be Blowed Up Real Good by Hollywood, and though there has been a surge in interest in the nature of the love between Ruth and Naomi (lesbianism seems not to have made it into the variety of entertaining sexuality within the Holy Scriptures), this does not beg for special effects, and so the only production-design hope for it would lie in a story of lushly attractive white girls getting their languid on in appealingly exoticized gauzy accoutrements, while Boaz stands by fascinated at this dynamic and perhaps sweatily drops a few grains for the gleaning.  Ahem.  He may not do this in Bitchin’ Velvet, but one has faith in the resurgent fashion for men in long hair, and that surety in Hollywood, the currently-sellable, pretty and white boy.

It could be done – and it could be done inexpensively.  But would it make any money?

One has to wonder.  And maybe order the DVD of that movie I affectionately recall sharing with my mom, in a time and a place it could not have happened.

The formative tales, too, could be told with this intriguing closeness, with attention to aspects other than the pyrotechnics of miracle and divinity.  Perhaps there is no other audience who would be fascinated to look into a world not peopled by obsessively styled white people, inhabiting a world in which NONE of our social assumptions holds – about family, about marital arrangements, about day-to-day life and the religion and superstition permeating an existence nowhere near so thoughtless and easy as the modern middle-class is today.  Perhaps there’s no money in world-building designed to explore, to understand – only production design and gee-whizzery.

Gee, but I’d give a buck to sink down into a movie like that.  Would you?

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