Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Seventh Seal (1956)

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Every Halloween here in suburban New Jersey offers a good opportunity to observe the distant, often aloof attitude middle-class Americans have towards death. For the liberal, cafeteria Catholics and mainline Protestants that populate my little corner of the world, Halloween is a secular holiday, something for children. The decorations, the fake graveyards and the inflatable giant spiders that everybody seems to have on the front lawn, indicate but do not adequately express a consciousness of death.  Every time I see one of those bumper stickers that tell me to “put Christ back in Christmas” I wonder why they don’t also say “keep Halloween demonic.”

I was going open this review by saying something like “in 1956 when Ingmar Bergman released The Seventh Seal the threat of nuclear holocaust was very real,” but that would have been absurd. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the threat of a nuclear holocaust will remain every bit as much a possibility as it was during the height of the Cold War. A more accurate opening sentence would have read “in 1956 when Ingmar Bergman released The Seventh Seal the threat of a nuclear holocaust felt very real.” We have not eliminated the threat of extinction. We have merely papered it over with a collective sense of denial. Many of us live with a barely subconscious dread of dissolution and oblivion, that “quiet desperation” Thoreau talks about in Walden, yet we cannot, or dare not express what we fear.

For Ingmar Bergman the answer was to go back to the Fourteenth Century. Antonius Block, the tall, stern, philosophical knight played by a very young Max von Sydow – he was only twenty-six when he starred in Bergman’s classic film – returns to northern Europe after ten years in the Holy Land on a Crusade. Not only has he lost his faith in God. Scandinavia is being ravaged by the Black Plague. The end of the world is at hand. The opening scenes of the Seventh Seal are a tour de force in black and white photography. Block and his squire Jöns, who like his master has lost his faith, wake up on the stark, rock strewn Baltic coastline. Their horses stand knee deep in the sea. We notice that Jöns has slept on a pile of rocks, a quietly vivid image that makes it clear that he’s a rugged man accustomed to a harsh life on the road. Then Block sees Death himself. Death is not an abstraction. On the contrary, he’s a man, a terrifyingly strange man with a ghostly face and dressed all in black, but a man nonetheless. If the promise of eternal life was made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, Block’s dread of eternal oblivion has been made flesh in Bengt Ekerot‘s Grim Reaper.

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Ingmar Bergman’s vision of death.

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Those of you know know me online have probably seen this portrait.

Block’s reaction is not fear. Rather, it’s a renewed will to live. That death is a man like himself means that death can also be challenged to single combat, or to a game of chess. The two men cut a deal. Death will play a game of chess with the erstwhile Crusader. As long as the knight resists, he can remain on earth. If he wins, if he checksmates death himself, he will be released. If he loses, if death checkmates him, he will be taken away, perhaps to heaven, perhap to hell, perhap to simple oblivion, to non-existence. After Block wins the first round, he continues on his way, desperate to find an answer to the question we all ask. “Is there life after death?” Along the way they meet Albertus Pictor, a church painter who, unlike Ingmar Bergman, believes in a good, crude horror story, Raval, the theologian who had originally convinced Block to go on the Crusade, but who has now become a lowlife who robs the dead, a deaf woman played by Gunnel Lindlbom, Mia and Joff, a pair of traveling minstrels, and a teenage girl played by Maud Hansson, an accused witch who has been sentenced to be burned alive at the stake for consorting with Satan.

Block questions the girl. Have you spoken to the devil? An affirmative answer would give him hope. If the devil exists, then perhaps God exists. There are of course no answers be had from a mentally ill teenager who has been set up as a scapegoat for causing the plague. She genuinely seems to believe she’s seen the devil, but Block can’t be sure. Perhaps she’s simply delusional. Later, just before her immolation, he makes no attempt to interfere with her executioners, but does feed her a drug that will ease her pain, a little bit of oblivion to save her from the hell on earth that will probably end with her death. His encouner with Joff and Mia yields more. Block is touched by the sight of their year old son, the future, and Mia’s fleshy, womanly vitality. She offers him milk and wild strawberries on the beach where he had previously met death himself. The knight savors the milk and wild strawberries, pausing to enjoy a very tangible part of his last few days on earth.

I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light. Mikael sleeping, Jof with his lyre. I’ll try to remember what we have talked about. I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk.

For Block, however, the pagan mindset that would allow him to enjoy the last few traces of light before he descends into night and oblivion will never be sufficient. He must have answers, and since Death has made a second appearance, disguising himself as a confessor in a church, and tricking Block into revealing his strategy, the knight knows he doesn’t have much time. He will get no answers from Mia and Joff, but perhaps he can save them from the apocalypse. Mia, played by a beautiful young Bibi Andersson, is a simple woman content with that pagan enjoyment in her physical, mortal form that can’t satisfy Block. Joff who serves as Bergman’s commentary on the place of the artist, is a comic, not a tragic actor, basically a clown. There’s a magnificent set piece where Joff and Mia are performing a song about death, a smiling, satirical take on the idea of death not so very different from the silly Halloween decorations that pop up every year in suburban, New Jersey. They are interrupted by a religious procession, a terrifying, intense parade of people singing dias irae, flagellating themselves, trying to beat the understanding of death into their mortal bodies so they can save their souls before death consumes them. A priest gives a speech, a harrowing fire and brimstone sermon that recalls Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards.

It’s Joff, however, the clown married to the woman far too beautiful for him, or for any other man, who sees the truth long enough to save himself and his family. Joff’s visions, which Mia doesn’t take seriously, indicate that while he may be a buffoon, he understands what the knight does not. Antonius Block, like the priest at the dias irae procession sees only death. Joff has already had a vision of the Virgin Mary and even though his wife laughed at him and accused him of being drunk, he does not doubt his own eyes. He is secure in his faith, and Block, who cannot save himself, saves Joff and Mia, playing a last game of chess with Death. Death checkmates Block but Block overturns the board, forcing Death to pick up and replace the pieces, giving Joff and Mia those precious few seconds they need to steal away into the night, away from the plague and the apocalypse. Antonius Block, who has lost his faith in Christ has, nevertheless, become Christ, an existential, not a Christian Christ, a man who has given his own life so that a family can go on living in a world that has no answers.

It is the consciousness of death, in other words, not the idea of eternal life, that gives meaning to our mortal lives. That is probably why when I was twenty six, the same age as von Sydow in 1956, I was so anxious to make the idea of my own mortality real. I did not want to die. I was nowhere near death. It may have been lurking around the next corner, but in reality that corner was still very far down the road, but I needed to know it was there. You cannot live if you think your life will go on forever. It works the same way with a people, a culture. We Americans are largely protected from death, including and especially including the death caused y our own government. Do we Americans ever think about the trail of destruction we’ve left in the Middle East? Do we ever think about global warming, which could end us as a species, or the ongoing threat of nuclear war? Or do we simply deny the reality of death, even as we contemplate death, those inane secular Halloween decorations, mock graveyards and inflatable giant spiders the closest we ever get to the mortality always present in our everyday lives?

The Red Balloon (1956) Revenge of the Red Balloon (2000)

If you’re a member of Generation X, more specifically, an early member of Generation X (born between 1964 and 1968), I’m fairly sure you’ve seen Albert Lamorisse‘s 1956 Palme d’Or winner Le Ballon rouge. Le Ballon rouge. A thirty five minute long, nearly silent film about a little boy (the director’s son Pascal Lamorisse) and his red balloon, Le Ballon rouge is a beautifully filmed technicolor ode to the now demolished (and probably hyper-gentrified) Belleville area of Paris.

I saw it (and was quizzed on it)  in my Lutheran Sunday School in Cranford, New Jersey. Yes children, I never heard the words “abortion” or “homosexuality” in my liberal Protestant domination but I was exposed to classic French cinema. In any event, Le Ballon rouge has such an openly Christian message it’s basically a Christian allegory. The red balloon, the Holy Spirit, descends on the little boy the moment his soul awakens to the beauty of post-war, liberated Paris. For an agonizingly brief period of time, Pascal walks with Christ and Christ walks with him. Then the balloon is taken away by the ignorant masses before the Holy Spirit is resurrected in the form of, well, you’ll see if you watch the film.

François Truffaut hated Le Ballon rouge so much that his scathing review in Cahiers du Cinema was one of the things that got him banned from the Cannes Film Festival.

Writing for Les Cahiers du Cinema at the time Truffaut literally tore the film to shreds. Rather than regurgitating his entire article point for point let us summarize: Truffaut found the personification of the balloon to be its unpardonable sin. Where Truffaut was coming from was being one who preferred the fables of La Fontaine as opposed to the films of Disney. La Fontaine told the tales about animals without making them speak, without humanizing them in any way and what he felt Lamorisse had done was fall into the schmaltz of Disney.

https://themovierat.com/2014/11/09/thankful-for-world-cinema-the-red-balloon-and-white-mane/

Truffaut is partly just being a chauvinistic Frenchman resentful of the influence of American culture on France, but I also think he’s got a point. Even as a child, I found The Red Balloon a bit too precious and affected. I was more into John Wayne movies, which, sadly, they didn’t teach in my Sunday School. The Christian message is heavy handed and sentimental. Pascal Lamorisse can’t act (anybody who thinks children can’t act needs to watch “Room”). So I’ve always wondered. What would The Red Balloon be like if the hero of the movie were more like John Wayne or Clinton Eastwood, an ass kicking, red-blooded American red balloon and not some sissy French red balloon?

In 2000, a University of Southern California student named Gregg Rossen read my mind. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Revenge of the Red Balloon. It might not mean as much to you as it did to me if you didn’t see the original as a child, but holy shit did I think it was funny. I almost killed myself laughing.

Final Note: Albert Lamorisse also invented the game “Risk,” which was very popular with frat bros at Rutgers in the 1980s, most of whom probably saw The Red Balloon as children just like I did, and probably would have been just as surprised.

Family and Freedom in Drutse’s Shorts

Ion Drutse reflects his deconstruction of modern Moldovan family and all its collateral affairs in ‘Let’s Talk About Weather”. Set in the humbled hamlet of Soviet era, the narrative boasts of this naive conception of expectations within the schemes of familial love.

An old man who once toiled at quarrying fields, finds himself living amidst a set of grown up children famous across the village for their gross under achievements. What irks his already worn out soul is the return of his youngest daughter who was destined to break away from this family failure and make a career for herself in medicine. However, despite being welcomed with funny jokes and warm hugs every time she came back home, this homecoming of the youngest daughter in the house was treated with intentional apathy.

What intrigues me the most is the simplicity Drutse manages to create while dealing with such volatile psychological situations. The calmness that he builds around the father of the house is a characteristic of his belief in the persuasion power of emotional estrangement. Inferences of patriarchy can be traced by the puny description of the aunt and the cautious verbal manufacturing by the mother. The evolution of mother’s character is in consonance with her own realization of problems that are beyond the repair as we desire. However, it would still reinforce the idea of ethics that prevailed in the context of early Soviet societies.

Nothing ceases to take attention away from misplaced protagonists of this plot. One would want to believe that this is the story about a quintessential middle class father in Soviet Moldova, however, the quick and not so swift twists in plot are hard to reckon with. The vivid description of the distinctive loss that each member of the family carry with themselves is probably the only characteristic that reflects their commonality.

It’s hard to trace humor in what literally might appear to be humorous. This is a signature move of Drutse to keep his readers in this self indulging pity by blurring the lines between humor and awkwardness. One would be forced to look into themselves and their social capital while trying to make sense of this peculiar family. Peculiar? Well, if we call it so, it would be reflective of the pretense that we have gone on to normalize by taking ourselves too far from the soil. The dramatics of Drutse’s plot formation is the honest reflection of not so latent realities of many societies. That is precisely the reason that makes this story a must read in post colonial nations. Drutse’s narrative would pierce through our frame of unconsciously acquired identities like the strands of sunlight invading a dark room through a small round opening. It is pathetically original and would push us to feel uncomfortably exposed.

Well, in this galaxy of familial bodies of all shapes and sizes revolving around this inescapable force of destiny, Drutse flirts with the idea of freedom. The prodigious youngest daughter of the family becomes the operative matter of freedom in all its degrees. She is freedom, and freedom is her presence. But is she actually free or just a study for explaining what freedom ought to be? Well, that’s for the readers to decipher, so much so, that even Drutse pulls his hands off the strings on this matter. Personally, the presence of the youngest daughter seems like a journey of freedom itself. In my opinion, she represents what freedom might have been if it wouldn’t have been this. This unsettling account of freedom takes me back to Drutse’s catalyst style of writing where he becomes this invisible force that literally collides his readers with reality with no pretense or warning. And if you feel unsettled, it’s time for you to introspect your own affair with reality.

Despite being a brief read, Let’s Talk About Weather comes as a pill to grasp the familial maladies of the Soviet Moldovan society. It is an intelligent display of loss and sacrifice presented in a manner that knows no intelligence but knowledge. After all, it’s Drutse we’re talking about.

Picture Credits – Worldly Rise

Rosetta (1999)

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Rosetta is not a film for normal, happy, middle-class people. If you have a family or a job, if you’re the kind of person who makes friends easily, if you’re a graduate of an Ivy League university, don’t bother watching it. It’s not going to make any sense. Rosetta is a film for outcasts and misfits, for people who don’t understand how the world works, for people who have never learned the rules.

Some film critics have compared Rosetta, the seventeen-year-old heroine of the Dardenne brothers 1999 Palme d’Or winner, to Bresson’s Mouchette. I think they are mistaken. Rosetta is not suicidal. She is the opposite of a victim. There is a grim, relentless determination behind her pretty face. In the end, she will be defeated. Perhaps, like Mouchette, she will drown herself in the muddy little pond behind the run-down trailer park in the Belgium city of Seraing, where she lives with her alcoholic mother, but she will not go down without a fight. If Rosetta has cinematic relatives, she is closer to Jeremy Iron’s sleazy but willful Polish immigrant in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting, or to Delphine Seyrig perversely homicidal prostitute single mother in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Rosetta is a natural born pugilist. She will bang on society’s door and beat her hands bloody until she can bang no more, then expire out of sheer exhaustion, for society will never let her inside.

The film opens with Rosetta, played by played by Cannes Film Festival Best Actress winner Émilie Dequenne, running through a food processing factory, chasing after her boss and pleading with him to tell her why she’s been fired. Hasn’t she done a good job? Hasn’t she been a good worker? Why her? After he refuses to give her an answer, she lashes out, punching him in the face and kicking him until she’s restrained by another worker and dragged off the site by the police. We quickly learn the source of her violent despair when she goes home, hiding her shoes in a drainpipe so her alcoholic mother doesn’t sell them to buy whiskey. Rosetta has no father. The sperm donor could have been one of dozens of men her mother sleeps with for negligible amounts of cash and small favors. Her job, low paying and low status though it was, was her only sense of normality, a life-raft that kept her from drowning in the Belgian underclass. Her mother, who doesn’t even rise to the status of prostitute – she’s that mentally troubled woman men just take advantage of – is more like a daughter than a parent, the forty-year-old child of a seventeen-year-old adult.

Eventually Rosetta hits upon the idea that she could work in a waffle stand. It’s Belgium, after all, where they really do eat waffles. Waffles in Seraing are like cheese steaks in Philadelphia, the city delicacy. In the United States, it’s pretty easy to imagine the angelic looking Émilie Dequenne getting a customer service job without much trouble. Do you really think people want to buy food from a bald, middle-aged troll like me? Western Europe, on the other hand, and the more I learn about the European Union the more I realize it often combines the very worst of socialism with the very worst of capitalism, has a million and one hoops to jump through before you can even work behind a counter. There are waiting lists for sub-minimum wage internships. Eventually it’s Rosetta’s pretty face that does get her a chance at finding work. Riquet, an eighteen-year-old cashier, sees her once, and is instantly smitten. As soon as the boss fires another woman for being late, he asks the boss where she lives – she had filled out a job application – and follows her home on his motorcycle.

Riquet, played by Fabrizio Rongione, may have motives that go behind simple generosity – what normal eighteen-year-old doesn’t? – but he doesn’t deserve what he gets. He’s a genuinely nice guy. Or maybe he does deserve it. He should have seen what was coming after he gets off his motorcycle at the trailer park and she attacks him for reasons I doubt even she understands. She probably resents him for having a job. But he doesn’t run away. Rather, after he overpowers her, and pins her to the ground, he lets her know that “there’s a chance you could have a job. The boss just fired someone.” Rosetta is overjoyed. At last she’s found an opportunity for a normal life. She is in fact so happy that she even warms up to Riquet’s romantic overtures, going back to his apartment, listening to the demo tapes of his horrible rock band, dancing, chugging a bottle of beer, and even smiling, for the one and only time in the whole film. As we all know from our experience with capitalism, however, you should never be too happy about getting a shitty job. You’ll lose it the next day. That’s just what happens. Rosetta, who thought she finally had a chance at a normal life, doesn’t. The boss, who needs to make a place for his lazy son, who has just been expelled from school, fires her. Like Sisyphus, she had rolled the gigantic boulder up to the top of the hill only to see it roll right back down again.

It goes without saying that Rosetta doesn’t take getting fired well, but it goes beyond that. Whether she’s a villain or a a hero I’ll let you decide. I won’t spoil what she does to poor smitten Roquet. From my perspective she’s a good example of a line written by the current Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan. “To live outside the law you have to be honest.” Roquet is honest. Rosetta is not. But it’s probably more accurate to say that Rosetta is “beyond good and evil,” not because she’s risen above society like a Nietzchean Übermensch, but because she’s so low on the totem poll she’s not even an individual. Without or even with a job, she’s adrift on the sea of the vast underclass without a life jacket, a member of the “unnecessariat” who’s nothing more than a reflection of her place, or to be more accurate, her lack of place, in the economy. Rosetta is not a human being. She’s a case study in societal dysfunction.

Aesthetically Rosetta owes a debt to Chantal Akerman. Like Akerman, the Dardenne brothers use repetition to express the soul crushing boredom of a life in the lower working class. Half the time you won’t know what’s going on. Rosetta is hiding her shoes. Rosetta is throwing her traps back into the muddy pond to catch yet another tiny, sick looking fish too small to eat. Rosetta has stomach cramps. Rosetta is dragging her mother around the trailer park. Rosetta is running along a street somewhere in Seraing. Rosetta is applying a hair dryer to her stomach in the hopes that the heat will relieve her horrible stomach pains. Rosetta is hiding her shoes again. Why is Rosetta hiding her shoes? Who knows? But she’s hiding them again. Let’s just say if you’re used to big budget special effects, a lush musical score, or a plot that goes anywhere but deeper and deeper into the tedium of life in the underclass – Rosetta doesn’t have a TV and she certainly has no Internet or cell phone — you’ll hate Rosetta. You’ll probably turn it off in the first twenty minutes.

Or maybe you won’t. The Dardenne brothers have what Chantal Akerman never had, a charismatic actress who can do almost nothing for every frame in a ninety minute film, and still hold your attention. Rosetta is pure cinema. Émilie Dequenne would have been a great silent film actress. You can study her face for hours and not get bored. Rosetta’s visage, you imagine, is like a Rosetta Stone. If only you can figure out what’s going on inside her mind, you think, you can figure out your own place in society. You can figure out the rules, how the world works, the reason why you, like Rosetta, have been cast out, why you have no chance at a normal life. But of course you can’t and you won’t. There is nothing inside. There’s no place for Rosetta. There’s no place for you.

Homeless (1989)

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Homeless, just the sound of word is often enough to make us shudder. We walk past the mentally ill living on the streets of New York or San Francisco. Sometimes we reach into our wallets and drop a dollar or two into someone’s cup. Other times we just look up and keep walking, pretending not to notice what’s right in front of our eyes. There is no precise definition of a “homeless person.” Does it mean sleeping on a friend’s couch? Living with family members? Depending on the good will of another? If it does, then most children would qualify as “homeless.” Does it mean “not owning property?” People who live in homeless shelters and welfare hotels have roofs over their head, and are usually considered to be “homeless,” but how about people living in illegal sublets, or people on month to month leases? In the United States, if you don’t own your own property, you can never be quite sure that someone won’t put you out in the streets. Even if you do, however, you can still be evicted from your house if you don’t pay your property taxes. Insecurity, like Calvinist original sin, is part of capitalism. The people who rule over us wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Homeless,” directed by McCarthyite blacklist victim Lee Grant, is not only one of the great moments of American television. It’s one of the best movies of the 1980s. Don’t look for it on any of the “ten best lists” put out by film critics. Homeless is a brutally realistic glimpse into the life of the working class we rarely, if ever, see at the movies, let alone on television. All Lee Grant – who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1986 – has to do is get out of the way, and let the Darwinian reality of American capitalism speak for itself. I first saw Homeless on television in 1989, and it chilled me to the bone. I put it out of my mind as soon as I could, but I never quite forgot about it. I looked for it occasionally in the 1990s, but I don’t think it ever came out on VHS or DVD. Finally, when I noticed that Amazon put it up on their streaming service a few years ago, I decided to rent it. I saw it again last night after 27 years. It’s lost none of its power.

Mike Cooper (a young Jeff Daniels) and Zan Cooper (Christine Lahti) are a working-class couple in their early 30s. They have two children, ten-year-old David and his younger sister Tina. Mike, who worked in a steel mill through his 20s – it closed down during the now forgotten deindustrialization of the Midwest during the Reagan years – is a live-in superintendent in a Pittsburgh apartment building. Mike is studying at a trade school, hoping to get his electrician’s license. Zan works in a donut shop. Both hope to work their way into the middle-class before the end of the year. Sadly, it never happens. After a contentious visit to Mike’s older brother Eddie, they come home to find that they’ve been burned out of house and home. I suppose that Lee Grant spent most of her budget on the fire that engulfs Mike and Zan’s building – we never learn the cause but can’t help wondering if it had anything to do with Mike’s inexperience as an electrician – but she gets her money’s worth. The flames that quite literally explode out of the windows while the anguished Cooper family look on have a malevolence that’s hard to express unless you’ve seen the film. The fire almost seems to be the devil himself himself taunting the young, and now homeless family.

“Watch me now. I will show you the cold, heartless inferno that is American capitalism. I will destroy the hopes and dreams of both your innocent children. I will persecute you onto death.”

The devil, whether its the mythological fallen angel of the Christian tradition or the heartless, Darwinian logic of American capitalism, cannot succeed in destroying you without your cooperation. Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, is the beginning of the Cooper family’s downfall. Zan wisely insists that they take up Eddie on his offer to put them up at his house while they get back on their feet, but Mike, who already owes his older brother $1200 dollars, won’t hear of it, and insists on staying at a motel. Soon, their money runs out and they end up at Eddie’s anyway. Enter Eddie’s pride. Zan, who very wisely signed up for food stamps, foolishly uses them a the local market, where it soon gets back back to Eddie that is brother and sister in law are “welfare bums.”

Mike, his pride wounded, but not quite enough to stand up for his wife against his contemptuous older brother, grabs his family and drags them out the door, and they spend the next few weeks living in their car. When they’ve finally had enough — ever try living in a car with two kids? – Mike drives to the steel mill where he had worked for twelve years, and lets out a primal scream of despair. “I’m a worker,” he shouts at the grim industrial ruin. “I’m not a welfare bum. I’m a worker.” The next deadly sin, we now understand, is not Mike’s or Eddie’s but society’s. To be more specific, it’s the false consciousness of the white, middle-American “working” class for you can’t but help interpret Mike’s passionate declaration that he’s a “worker not a welfare bum” as a subconscious cry of despair that he’s white and not black. Mike is not a racist, and Zan, as we later see, is certainly not a racist, but their petty-bourgeois, individualist solution to the deindustrialization of the American Midwest in the 1980s – Mike decided to retrain as an electrician but made no attempts to organize collectively with his fellow laid off steelworkers – has put them in a hell they do not entirely understand.

The Cooper family’s next stop is a homeless shelter and a welfare hotel. Zan, not surprisingly copes better than Michael. She quickly becomes good friends with Prue, a black single mother on the run from her physically abusive ex-husband. Mike, who’s quickly becoming delusional, resents the friendship. “We’re not on welfare,” he insists, reluctant to see his wife become friends with a black woman. “Yes we are,” Zan reminds him, demonstrating that she, unlike her husband, is beginning to work her way out of the kind of petty-bourgeois, individualist false consciousness that keeps the white American working-class from rebelling. Prue, who’s been on the list for public housing for over a year, has survival skills Mike and Zan don’t, showing them how to get around the restrictions against cooking in their rooms, pulling Zan away from the television and making her go outside. But Prue is only a single mother, powerless against the forces conspiring for the Cooper family’s destruction. Zan has put David and Tina into a local public school, a public institution that should have been a place of refuge, but of course, it’s anything but. The Vice Principal goes out of his way to humiliate David and Tina, segregating them int a separate area of the lunch room with Prue’s kids and the rest of the “welfare hotel rats.”

If descending into the underclass has a bad effect on two adults in their 30s, it has a decisively bad effect on two children. Indeed, the most agonizing part of Homeless is watching all of David’s boyish enthusiasm destroyed. He and his littler sister have lost their innocence a decade before they should have. Their childhood has been prematurely and brutally murdered by the logic of downward mobility. Soon David turns to panhandling, then petty crime, putting their status at the hotel – where all the residents live under the close watch of a pair of unethical, predatory security guards – in danger. Then Mike decides to abandon his family and go south. That’s about it. Mike fails. His excuse, that he’s lost his part time job and that employment opportunities are better in Florida, rings hollow. When Zan pleads with him not to go, and he insists on leaving them anyway, we can’t help but agree with his older brother that he’s a loser, or David, who chases after his father’s car, throwing rocks and yelling “you’re a liar.” Mike has failed as a man. Because his pride has made him unable to face his wife and two children, he decides to abandon them to their fate.

That fate quickly reveals itself to be the two hotel security guards, both of whom have decided that Zan, now without the protection of her husband and made even more vulnerable by her son’s foolish decision to become a drug runner, can be raped without any consequences. Of course she can, something she knows all too well. If she stays in the hotel and refuses to sleep with either of the guards, they’ll call children’s services and have both her kids taken away. If she leaves the hotel, she not only risks losing all contact with her husband, who’s promised to call her every week at a pay phone in the lobby – there was no e-mail or Facebook in 1989 – but has to drag both her kids into the streets, to wash up at the train station, to ride city buses all night in the rain, to sleep in a vacant, abandoned house on the outskirts of town.

If the last half hour of Homeless scarred me emotionally at the age of 24 when I first saw it on TV, it scarred me even more last night at age 51, when I streamed it off of Amazon. Back in 1989, under the kinder gentler capitalism of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, I suppose it might have been possible for a homeless woman and her two kids to wash up in a public restroom, or ride the buses all night without being shooed away by security. The two police officers who surprise them in Eddie’s house, where they break in to spend the night, might have let them go without arresting them. In 2016, under the neoliberal capitalism of Barack Obama, Zan’s journey into the heart of Pittsburgh’s urban darkness now seems almost Utopian. It almost feels as if Lee Grant didn’t go quite deep enough. I’ve seen the homeless try to wash up in Penn Station in New York. Most of them get ten or twenty seconds. These days, with the kind of shock and awe techniques the typical big city police department uses, Zan would get pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and processed through central booking before the kids are sent to foster homes. Their reunion with Mike, who fails to find a real job in the south as completely as he failed in Pittsburgh, would never happen.

Yet Grant, who lost the the prime years of her acting career to the House Un-American Activities Committee because she refused to be coerced into testifying against her husband, in the end doesn’t pull any punches. Mike returns to find his wife and two small children living in a squat. Zan, whether out of forgiveness or because of the sheer terror of living alone on the streets, takes him back. “The system just wants people like us to disappear,” Mike says to Zan, who agrees then adds “but we’re not going to go away.” Whether or not they ever get off the streets is left to our imagination. We suspect they won’t since Mike, whether Grant realizes it or not, hasn’t changed. He also gets what he’s always wanted. When he hears a group of fellow homeless men outside their squat yelling at one another, he grabs a heavy copper pipe – which of course these days would have long been stripped out of any abandoned building — savagely beats one, and sends the rest of them fleeing in terror. “Get away from my house,” Mike screams, finally getting what he wanted. He’s a real man now, the king of his castle, the king of nothing.

Note: Although the film is still available on Amazon under the name “Homeless,” on IMDB the title has been changed to the kinder and gentler “There’s No Place Like Home.”

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Yes. That’s Marching Through Georgia in that clip.

Smokey and the Bandit, which was the second highest grossing film in 1977, beaten out only by Star Wars, is not only a great “bad” movie. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the world of the late 1970s. Saturday Night Fever, which was released a few months later, showed the dark side of a democratized sexual revolution. Smokey and the Bandit was a lot more optimistic. Where Tony Manero and his thuggish friends in Brooklyn had taken all the fun out of sex, Bo “Bandit” Darville, Carrie the runaway bride, and Cledus “Snowman” Snow had rediscovered the joys of sticking it to the man.

1977 was a lot like 2016. An increasingly tolerant, liberal culture was dampened by a general sense of “economic anxiety.” The left had been crushed, but the establishment had not yet regained the confidence of the American people. It would take them a few years go fully go on the offensive. In 1980, they would unite behind Ronald Reagan and ram “morning in America” down our throats. In 1977, however, in the form of Jimmy Carter, they limited themselves to suggesting that we lower our expectations, that we get used to the idea that our children might not have it as good as we did. In 2016 that probably involves some combination of global warming, the recognition that single payer healthcare will, in the words of Hillary Clinton, “never ever happen,” and the creeping realization that, however hard we fight it, sooner or later Wall Street is going to get our social security money. In 1977 it meant gas.

If there’s one thing that divides Gen Xers and Boomers from Millennials it’s the memory of the gas lines of the 1970s. I’m sure that a good many Millennials have read about them, but I doubt very many know just how important the oil shocks were to the transformation of American culture. That cheap gas, which everybody thought would go on forever, had come to an end. GTOs, Mustangs, and tail-fin Cadillacs had become Ford Pintos and Chevy Vegas. Where only a few years before we had listened to President Kennedy tell us that we could go to the Moon, we had now resigned ourselves to watching President Carter put on a sweater and tell us to lower our thermostats. Just as in 2016, a lot of people in what would later become known as “red America” weren’t quite willing to accept reality. These days, all you have to do is go to your local newspaper’s website, and look at the comments under the latest weather report. There’s a lot of denial out there about global warming. Back in 1977, building the biggest, fastest muscle car you could afford with the most powerful, gas guzzling engine you could fit under the hood was an act of rebellion.

James Dean in that Mercury ’49

Junior Johnson runnin’ thru the woods of Caroline

Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am

All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch

Bruce Springsteen, “Cadillac Ranch”

Smokey and the Bandit should have been a dumb, right-wing movie. That it wasn’t probably has something to do with that fact that its director Hal Needham was not an experienced filmmaker, but a Hollywood stuntman. Needham, who over the course of the 1950s and 1960s had broken 56 bones, his back, twice, punctured his lung and lost most of his teeth, wanted to make a fun little movie about bootlegging Coors Beer – back in the 1970s it was illegal to transport Coors Beer east of the Mississippi – and crashing as many cars as he could talk his backers into letting him buy. I doubt there are many uptight, conformist, or ideologically rigid Hollywood stuntman. The anti-authoritarian appeal of Smokey and the Bandit was of course going appeal to the urge of the redneck, white working class south against “the nanny state.” Sure Coors Beer tastes as much like piss water as Budweiser or Miller High Life, but since it was also made without any artificial preservatives that meant if you kept it sitting around long enough it could make you ill. What better way to stick it to the “nanny state” than to drink shitty beer that might just make you puke your guts out? Somehow, however, Needham makes a better movie than he intended.

When local millionaires Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette make Bo “Bandit” Darville, Burt Reynolds, an offer he can’t refuse — to pay him $80,000 if he’ll drive 700 miles from Atlanta to Texarkana, pick up 400 cases of very illegal Coors Beer, then drive 700 miles back to Atlanta, all in 27 hours — he knows he’s being played, that Big Enos and Little Enos expect him to get caught by the cops, but that’s part of the appeal. Sure the police might arrest him and throw him in jail for a few months, but along the way he’ll get to drive recklessly, needlessly burn gas to bring back a truckload of beer that tastes like any brand you could buy across the street in Atlanta, and add to his reputation as a “legend” in the world of long haul trucking. To me Reynolds seems just a little too obviously like a movie star to be believable as a truck driver, but it was the 1970s in the middle of the CB radio craze. Everybody thought truck drivers were cool. Bandit doesn’t drive the truck anyway. He leaves that to Cledus Snow, his long suffering partner. He drives that “Black Trans-Am” Springsteen sings about only three years later in Cadillac Ranch, his job being to drive so fast and so recklessly, to attract so much attention from the police that nobody will ever realize his partner is right behind him with over ten thousand cans of very illegal Rocky Mountain piss water. How could any self-respecting Georgia Good ol’ Boy turn down an offer like that?

Some things of course never change. The authority Bandit has so much fun sticking it to over the course of those 1400 miles, while played by actors portraying police officers, isn’t necessarily the police. It’s the government. The police in Smokey and the Bandit, like the Yankees in Buster Keaton’s The General aren’t villains. They’re just bumbling keystone cops, likable dimwits you can put one over on and come away with with little or no hard feelings. Nevertheless, when Hal Needham casts Sally Field, Burt Reynolds’ real life girlfriend, as Carrie, a woman from blue America – New Jersey to be precise – as a bride running away from a comically authoritarian, and racist, redneck Sheriff, almost by accident he stumbles into making a film that might not exactly be a leftist film, but which is certainly a film any leftist can enjoy.

If “Buford T. Justice,” played by the immortal Jackie Gleason, and his dimwitted son “Junior Justice,” played by retired NFL linebacker Mike Henry, remind you a little of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, then you’re on the right track. I doubt Hal Needham was a liberal, but I have no doubt that any Hollywood stuntman would find a character like Buford T. Justice and his dimwitted son the perfect butt of an endless stream of practical jokes. Buford T. and Junior Justice are the southern patriarchy personified, clownish, incompetent, dimwitted, but, nevertheless, relentless. I very much doubt Burt Reynolds is any more a liberal than Hal Needham, but he is a lazy, easy going, laid back actor who’s not going to resist a script that lets him sit back, relax, and get laughs. What’s more, he and Carrie, who never actually calls herself a “feminist” but who’s obviously meant to signify a “liberated” 1970s woman, have genuine romantic chemistry, something you can’t fake, and something Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher certainly didn’t have in Star Wars. Carrie is quite literally running away from the patriarchy, and the “Bandit” is perfectly willing to help her do it, as long as it’s fun.

It’s Smokey and the Bandit’s hook that seals the deal. A lot of very good 1970s films tied themselves to fads. Breaking Away exploited the 1970s cycling craze, and Saturday Night Fever owed part of its box office success to Disco. For Smokey and the Bandit, of course, the fad is the CB radio. I’m not sure if truckers still use them. Certainly nobody puts them in their cars anymore, not since we all got cell phones, but back in the late 1970s they were a cultural phenomenon. They were, for lack of a better comparison, like social media for the working class. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, there was no hierarchy on CB radio. You didn’t know how many “followers” your fellow users had. You couldn’t block people you thought yourself too good for. You didn’t lecture people about their “entitlement.” What you did do, especially if you were a long-haul trucker, was use your CB radio to organize against the police. In the 1970s, the 55 MPH speed limit was also part of the “nanny state,” a measure enacted not so much for safety as to save gas. CB radios were a way of learning when and where it was safe to speed just like the good old days of the 1950s. As Carrie, “Snowman” and “Bandit,” make their way east to Atlanta, they find that, like a non-violent Bonnie and Clyde, they’ve become folk heroes. All their fellow southerners, white, black, male female, bourgeois, proletarian, sex worker or church deacon, want to see them make it back to the Lakewood Fairgrounds, collect the $80,000 dollars, and, most importantly, beat the cops.

It’s actually a little shocking just how anti-racist Smokey and the Bandit is. When Buford T. Justice meets up with Sheriff Branford, played by African American actor George, no relation to Burt, Reynolds, he not only refused to believe that he’s the Sheriff, he wonders “what the world is coming to.” You can just see Justice in 2016 as a Tea Partier or a Trump supporter. When “Snowman” stops along the highway to fill his truck up with gas and have lunch, we notice that he’s good friends with the black owner and the black wait staff. Not so with the white customers, a redneck biker gang who provoke him into a confrontation, and beat him bloody. He gets his revenge by running over their Harley Davidsons with his truck. But it’s the final scene that fully convinced me that Needham, or Burt Reynolds, or one of the film’s editors, or someone, is pulling a fast one on the racist redneck south. As Snowman and Bandit approach the Lakewood Fairgrounds, and we a massive roadblock of Georgia State Troopers, we hear music. It’s not “Dixie” or heavy metal, or the 1970s hit trucker, CB radio song “Convey.” It’s the Civil War Union anthem “Marching Through Georgia,” the very music William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops sang as they marched from Atlanta to the sea, and put the final nail in the coffin of the Confederate South. I have searched high and low on the web for what exactly the intentions of Needham and Reynolds — both real southerners who had have absolutely known the cultural significance of Marching Through Georgia — were, but have found no real answers.

I suppose they just thought it was a funny joke. In my mind, however, it feels like the cinematic gods were apologizing to Abe Lincoln for Buster Keaton’s decision to make the hero of his great chase film The General – which is the progenitor of Smokey and the Bandit and every other chase film – a Johnny Reb and not a Yankee. Smokey and the Bandit was a massively profitably hit, costing $3 million dollars and making $300 million. The General, on the other hand, while a much greater film, was initially a flop. Keaton was never again allowed full control over a big budget Hollywood film. Bo Bandit Darville may be laughing at Buford T. Justice, but William Tecumseh Sherman is laughing at Hollywood.

Final note: Every other film Hal Needham made not only sucks, but massively sucks. Buster Keaton, Hollywood’s first great stuntman/director, had dozens of good films in him. Hal Needham, the last, had only one.

City Lights (1931)

City Lights, which is widely considered to be, not only one of the greatest silent films ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made, is all that and more. As Portland State University instructor Dennis Grunes points, out Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece is “the seminal American movie of the Great Depression.” Then why did it leave me feeling so cold?

I suppose that is at least partly the film’s intention. Unlike many Depression era movies, City Lights has neither a happy ending, nor a cathartic, tragic ending. For eighty six out of its eighty seven minutes, Chaplain weaves an enchanting fantasy of a homeless man who finds true love with a blind flower girl only to bring us back down to reality before the final credits. Chaplain, a genuine artist as well as a gifted entertainer, won’t let us carry the illusion out of the theater.

You might miss it if you’re not paying attention.

City Lights opens with the mayor of the city dedicating a statue to “Peace and Prosperity.” Even though City Lights is a silent film, Chaplain couldn’t resist adding the voices of the politicians to the movie’s soundtrack. They sound like the teacher from the Charlie Brown comics, pompous fools babbling nonsense that has little or not relevance to the genuinely disadvantaged, “Little Tramp,” who’s revealed to have fallen asleep in the statue’s lap after they raise the curtain. After being chased by the police away from peace and prosperity the Little Tramp then meets the woman of his dreams, a blind flower girl played by Virginia Cherrill. In real life, Cherrill and Chaplain couldn’t stand each other, and he came close to firing her. It’s a good thing for City Lights he didn’t. Cherrill is a luminous presence, a worthy “object” of the little tramp’s devoted adoration who betrays little or no sign of her personal dislike for Chaplain himself. After he meets the flower girl, suddenly finding a reason to live in spite of his poverty, the Little Tramp meets a man who has every reason to live, a millionaire played by Harry Myers, but who, for a a variety of frivolous excuses, wants to die. The Little Tramp, inspired by his infatuation for the blind flower girl, saves the millionaire’s life. To be more accurate, he tricks the millionaire into saving his life, accidentally falling into the river where the man had planned to drown himself. A friendship, which, as Grunes points out, accurately reflects the attitude of the Depression Era bourgeoisie to the poor, begins to develop. The millionaire takes the Little Tramp home, gives him dinner and a change of clothes, accidentally pours wine down his pants, and introduces him to the Butler, who, like most devoted servants of the rich, dislike the poor more than the rich do themselves.

Soon it becomes clear that the millionaire is a kind, generous man when he’s drunk, and a bit of an asshole when he’s sober. Meanwhile, the blind flower girl, who lives with her mother in a tiny apartment, is in danger of joining The Little Tramp in among the ranks of the city’s homeless. After she asks him to read her the eviction notice pasted to their door, The Tramp is determined to get the money to pay the rent. First he gets a job as a street sweeper, but gets fired for being late one too many times. Then he agrees to go into the ring with a professional prizefighter, take a dive, and split the purse. The prizefighter, however, has to leave town – he’s wanted by the law – and the Tramp finds himself in the ring with a hastily chosen replacement, who knows nothing about the Tramp’s agreement to throw the fight. The Tramp, a surprisingly tricky fighter, does his best, but in the end loses, and comes away empty handed. All however, is not lost, at least for the flower girl. The Tramp not only discovers a revolutionary new surgery that promises to restore her sight. He persuades his friend the alcoholic millionaire, who has returned from an extended trip to Europe, to pay the back rent and bankroll the operation. After a series of mishaps – the millionaire produces the cash but gets robbed and the Tramp ends up in jail, false accused of a crime he didn’t commit – the blind girl undergoes the surgery, gets her sight back, and ends up as the owner of a prosperous flower shop.

The flower girl’s miraculous cure, however, is the end of the Tramp’s beautiful dream. Up until she gets her sight back, Virginia Cherrill’s flower girl is a beautiful object with, perhaps, a rich inner life, but not an active subject with hopes and dreams of her own. Her disability gone, her own desires, which do not include marrying an ugly little homeless man, come to the surface. The Tramp, she has convinced herself, is a handsome young millionaire. There’s really no sadder moment in cinema – at least for men who aren’t handsome young millionaires – then the way her eyes light up at the sight of a tall, well-dressed young man she mistakenly thinks her benefactor and her disappointment when she finally meets The Tramp, her real benefactor. She’s kind to the poor little man – she gives him money and a flower – but it’s clear she doesn’t love him, at least not in the adoring, romantic way he loves her. Nothing, of course, can force romantic love, which is not kindness, respect, gratitude, nostalgia, or admiration, but an irrational selfish desire no one can really control. Some men inspire romantic love in women. Others do not.

Charlie Chaplin rises above the level of talented showman to become a genuine artist when he realizes that he can so clearly express what he will never experience himself.

Tom Hayden (1939-2016)

The best tribute anybody can pay to Tom Hayden is that he exemplified one of the cliches of his generation.

“Never trust anybody over thirty.”

Born in 1939 to a middle-class Irish Catholic family in Royal Oak Michigan, came out of the University of Michigan as not only an important student leader, but as one of founders of what would become known as “the new left.” While the Port Huron Statement — the founding document of the seminal 1960s radical organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — struck a middle ground between the Cold War Liberalism of John F. Kennedy and the battered and by that time thoroughly infiltrated Communist Party, Hayden would eventually move far to the left of social democratic mentors like Michael Harrington and Irving Howe.

The young Tom Hayden not only pushed the student left into an uncompromising position against the Vietnam War, his work as a welfare rights organizer in Newark, New Jersey – where he lived from 1964 to 1968 – helped lay the foundation for the 1967 Rebellion against police brutality and white supremacy. His book, Rebellion in Newark: Official Violence and Ghetto Response, flawed though it is, is still worth reading. By 1968, when he along with the “Chicago 7” stood trial for the trumped up charges of “crossing state lines to incite a riot” and “teaching the uses of an incendiary device,” few people would have laughed at the idea that Tom Hayden was destined to become an American Che Guevara.

So what happened?

Tom Hayden, like the rest of his generation, burned out and sold out. He married a movie star, Jane Fonda who he exploited for her money and fame, and in general treated badly. Then he entered the graveyard of the Democratic Party. Unlike fellow 1960s radical activist John Lewis, he never managed to get very far. Where Lewis would go onto a long and distinguished career in Congress, eventually serving as a leader of Hillary Clinton’s African American “firewall” against the left, the best Hayden could manage was a few terms in the California State Senate and years and years of trying to regain his relevance as part of ridiculous organizations like “Progressives for Obama.” On the whole, I suppose, Tom Hayden made a positive contribution to American politics, but rarely in American history has so much early promise come to so little.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

hur

(Note: This review is not about the 1959 version of Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston, which is a dull, bloated, overrated movie, or about the 2015 version, which nobody saw, but the original, silent epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which is a masterpiece.)

On April 6 and April 7 of 1862 one of the greatest battles of the United States Civil War took place in Hardin County in Southwestern Tennessee, The Battle of Shiloh. After Shiloh, which ended up as a closely fought Union victory, came perilously close to being a career-ending disaster for Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant, who was almost as good a politician as he was a general, and certainly no saint, started to look around for a scapegoat. He found his goat in the form of the 34-year-old Lew Wallace, a native of Indiana who was at the time the youngest Major General in the United States Army, but not a West Point graduate. Whether or not Wallace’s inability to get the Third Division online in time for the first day of battle on April 6 cost lives is open for debate, but there’s no question that it was Grant and Sherman’s incompetent intelligence gathering, not Wallace’s confusion, that almost led to disaster when Confederate Generals Albert Sydney Johnson and P. G. T. Beauregard came within an inch of destroying the scattered Union forces before they could consolidate near Pittsfield Landing. Wallace, who was relieved of his command, spent the rest of his life trying to redeem his damaged reputation.

Lew Wallace got the last laugh on Ulysses Grant. Grant was an excellent writer and a friend of Mark Twain who published a brilliant, but mostly forgotten autobiography in 1885. Lew Wallace wrote the best selling American novel of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben Hur, which was as popular in 1900 as Harry Potter or Star Wars is today, not only made Lew Wallace a wealthy man, it was eventually adapted into three feature length and one short film, a mini-series, and hit Broadway play, which opened in 1899 and ran for twenty-one years. It was the play, more than the novel itself, which inspired the 1925 epic. Starring Ramon Novarro and directed by Fred Niblo, Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ (1925) was most expensive film made during the silent era. Overshadowed by William Wyler’s far inferior 1959 film Ben Hur, Niblo’s film has recently become a cult classic among cinophiles, but has not yet reached the general public. I only found out about it because I used to follow a film critic on Twitter — who has since blocked me because she found out I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 — who assured me that it was nothing like Wyler’s ponderous, overrated bomb, that it was a genuine masterpiece that ranks with the best films by Griffith or Eisenstein without a boring moment in its two and a half hour running time. Hillary Clinton fan girl or not, she was right. Believe the hype. The 1925 silent epic Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ is a work of genius. Watch it now. Even if you hate silent film, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to see it. It may in fact even get you hooked on silent film.

These days we live in the post-film era. Most of the big budget extravaganzas that make their way to the multiplex are more like video games than films. Film, if it still exists, has moved to Netflix and cable TV, with mediocre soap operas like House of Cards and Madmen doing a bad imitation of what was once a great art form. Yet, even in 1930, I think, we lost something with the advent of sound. To compare the 1959 Ben-Hur with the 1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ drives home just how much. Wyler’s film, which cost three times as much as Niblo’s, and which had the advantage of twenty four years of advances in cinematic technology gets hung up on one unfortunate thing, Charlton Heston’s bad acting. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t particularly dislike Charlton Heston – he was fine in Anthony Mann’s El Cid – but he has no talent for infusing the English language with any sense of wonder or magic. He just reads lines. When his Judah Ben-Hur sees Jesus Christ being led to his crucifixion and growls “what has he done to merit this” he could just as easily be a middle class commuter watching the NYPD beat up someone for turnstile jumping as a man watching the actual Jesus Christ go to his actual crucifixion. Sound locks up film in the prison house of language and its a rare actor – Olivier perhaps in Hamlet or Henry V – who can set it free.

In 1925, the technology of film doesn’t serve to impede a sense of wonder and magic. On the contrary, it enables us to feel a sense of wonder and magic. Film wasn’t exactly new in 1925. It had been almost ten years since Griffith’s Birth of a Nation hit the theaters accompanied by protests and burning crosses. It had grown much more sophisticated. Not only does the opening of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ present us with a meticulously designed model of the ancient city of Jerusalem and an elaborate staging of the nativity, it’s in color, Niblo’s epic being perhaps the first major Hollywood movie to use color film. The effect is similar to what happens when an archive publishes a rare trove of color photographs from 1920s Paris or turn of the century Russia, the illusion of authenticity. Niblo’s film, which was actually the first movie they ever played in my local movie palace — which has course long been divided and subdivided into a multiplex – by its use of color in its first 12 minutes loudly declaims “this isn’t film. This isn’t art. This is in color. This is reality. This is the actual birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem 1925 years ago.” No words, which would only sound as if they came from Brooklyn, New Jersey, or the Midwest, intrude upon the illusion. On the contrary, we simply look at the actress Betty Bronson’s beautiful face and understand why the innkeeper suddenly took pit on Joseph and Mary and found them a place in the manger. He felt the same magic we do, the presence of God in the light and shadow.

That Ramon Novarro, the Mexican American actor who portrays Judah Ben-Hur, lacks Charlton Heston’s heroic build or stature, works to the film’s advantage. The emotional heart of Lew Wallace’s novel lay in Wallace’s anger over having had his reputation trampled over by the mighty Ulysses S. Grant. In Fred Niblo’s film, the underlying obsession with the eighteenth President of the United States is translated into the physical differences between the slim, olive skinned, almost feminine Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, the tall, imposing actor who plays his nemesis Messala. It really is to American cinema’s everlasting credit that in 1925, with Hitler only a few years away from power in Germany, Hollywood released a big-budget film that, Christian though it is, is also an effective protest against antisemitism. The Jews are presented as an oppressed subject people, ground down under the heel of the Roman tyrant. Anybody who thinks bodybuilding started out in the 1970s needs to watch the silent Ben Hur. Somehow Fred Niblo managed to find dozens upon dozens of big, brawny, thuggish looking actors, all of whom seem to be over six feet tall and fresh out of a session pumping iron at Gold’s Gym, and all of whom are utterly convincing as Roman legionnaires. The Romans are an arrogant, occupying army. The Jews are their soulful, oppressed slaves yearning to be free. When Judah Ben-Hur, an unintentional rebel who accidentally kills a Roman governor after he leans on a parapet and drops a heavy stone on his head, is sentenced to life in prison as a galley slave – Wallace’s exile from active duty military command at the hands of Ulysses Grant? — and his mother, sister, long time family servant and childhood sweetheart, are buried alive deep in the hell of a Roman dungeon they become the stand ins, not only for European Jews, but for the black freedman abandoned by the Republican Party in 1876. In his novel, Lew Wallace, a fierce unionist and radical Republican, repeatedly addressed the issue of slavery. Niblo’s film even manages to include black actors, one of whom mocks the pompous Roman governor as he’s carried through Jerusalem in a sedan chair by a retinue of slaves.

The sea battle, where Judah is befriended and eventually set free by a Roman commander who admires his youthful good looks and rebellious spirit, is an elaborate production — Niblo built and destroyed life sized reproductions of Roman galleys – the probably surpasses the famous chariot race. Since the 1925 film predates the Production Code by almost eight years, there are no puritanical restrictions on content. We even get to see topless women later in the film, scenes which had been edited out of the film prior to the latest restoration. The sea battle is as violent as anything in Saving Private Ryan. A pirate commander straps a Roman prisoner to the prow of his galley and executes him by ramming his head into the side of a Roman ship. “I captured you from Roman and in a sense I return you to Rome.” Another pirate decapitates a Roman sailor and raises his head high as a trophy of battle. Above all, the scene manages to convey the difference between being a terrified galley slave, chained to a ship that most likely be rammed and sent beneath the waves, and a free man like Judah Ben-Hur, whose shackles had been deliberately left unlocked by the Roman commander Arrius. Freedom, the film tells us, is not something anybody can give you, but the opportunity to take it for yourself. After their galley is sunk by pirates, Judah manages to save the life of Arrius. Floating in an open raft at sea, and believing that he lost the battle, Arrius contemplates suicide. Eventually however, much like Grant and Sherman at Shiloh, he learns that a near disaster had actually been a great victory. At Shiloh, the Union Army cleared western Tennessee of the Confederate Army. After the sea battle in Ben Hur, and Arrius learns that he has dealt a crippling blow to the pirates threatening Roman shipping in the Mediterranean, he adopts Judah as his son and gives him the privileges of Roman citizenship. A slave no longer, Judah Ben-Hur is now an honorary member of the master race.

Yet Judah decides against the idea of assimilation, of becoming one of a few Jews privileged to lead the life of a Roman aristocrat. Instead, he travels back to Judea to look for his long lost family servant, childhood sweetheart, mother and sister, both of whom contract leprosy in the Roman dungeon. Much has been written about the famous chariot race, where Judah finally vanquishes Massala in a way Lew Wallace could never get his revenge on Ulysses Grant, but the most remarkable segment in the latter half of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ involves a chase scene. As Daniel Levine, the co-proprietor of this blog, has often argued, one of the fundamental narrative strategies of American cinema, which was invented by D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, is the cliffhanger. We are presented with two parallel narratives. As the action proceeds, the director ratchets up our interest. We know it will have a happy ending, but we still become immersed in dramatic tension. Will the Klan rescue Elsie Stoneman before she’s raped by marauding freedmen? Will Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star before it obliterates the rebel base on Yavin 4. Will Frodo cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom before Sauron’s dark legions overwhelm Aragorn and the brave men of the west?

In Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the cliffhanger centers around Jesus Christ being led to his crucifixion. The dramatic tension, of course, has nothing to do with the idea of whether or not Christ will go to the cross. Of course he will. It involves Esther, Judah Ben-Hur’s childhood sweetheart, his mother and sister. Judah, who has returned to Judea not only to get his revenge on Massalla, but to find his unjustly imprisoned mother and sister, eventually resigns himself to the idea that he’s the last surviving member of his family, that his mother and sister have long since perished in a Roman dungeon. They have not. On the contrary, they’ve been freed. They know Judah has returned and they know of his whereabouts. The only problem is that they’ve both contracted leprosy and “the Princess of Hur,” Judah’s mother, is too ashamed to reveal herself. There is a scene of almost unbearable sadness where the Princess and Tirzah, her daughter, hover over her sleeping son. Each time Tirzah makes a move to wake her brother, her mother prevents her. “He’s of the living,” she says. “We’re of the dead,” recalling, in many ways, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great story Wakefield, and the invisible wall of separation that often falls between alienated family members. The Princess has resigned herself and her daughter to living out the rest of their lives in a leper colony among the living dead, but Esther, who becomes aware of their presence, as well as the divinity of Christ, descends into hell, the leper colony, to rescue her future husband’s family members. Christ has already been sentenced to death and is in fact already on his way to his crucifixion, but Esther races against the clock, dragging Tirzah and the Princess behind her on the way to Christ’s Golgotha and what towards what she believes will be their magical cure, a brilliant variation on the classic American chase scene that, of course, ends with the condemned Jesus passing his hand over the two women, curing their leprosy, and bringing them back from the land of the dead to the land of the living. Christ has not only reunited Judah Ben-Hur with his long last mother and sister, he has liberated Judah Ben-Hur, he has liberated Lew Wallace from his desire for revenge against Ulysses Grant and the Jewish people from their Roman oppressor.

“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” the original advertisements in 1925 read, “a film that every Christian must see.” See it even if you’re not a Christian. It’s a classic that deserves to be revived, not in a lame Hollywood reboot, but by a new audience.