Saturday, April 11, 2009

ABC airs "The Ten Commandments", 1956 DeMille epic; a straightforward take on the "meaning"


Tonight (April 11, the night before Easter), ABC stations aired the Cecil B. DeMille epic “The Ten Commandments”, running for four hours and 44 minutes with commercials, with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramesses II, .

In fact, I remember, at around age 13, seeing this in down Washington DC (I think at the RKO Keith's theater) with family, and that the film was preceded by DeMille’s walking out on the screen and saying that the story takes three hours and 32 minutes to tell. It’s well to remember that this was his second take on the story (the first in 1923, with some grainy Technicolor at the end).

At the time, there was a lot of controversy about wide screen. Paramount initially was the only major studio that did not want to emulate 20th Century Fox’s CinemaScope. There is a great technical discussion on VistaVision on the “Widescreen museum” site here.

The film wound up as 1.85:1 (standard today), but unfortunately ABC crops the film at 4:3. The look is quite garish, with brilliant orange-reds (as on the mountain at the end), and clashing technicolors in the costumes (like purple and green), sometimes to anticipate modern animation.

The actual conclusion of the Bible story from Exodus seems rushed at the end (even the famous Red Sea parting sequence), but a lot is made of the Passover (with some changes from the Bible regarding Joshua), and there is some sense of real horror from the screams. In ancient tribal culture (Jewish, Bedouin, Egyptian, etc) families played enormous psychological importance on the firstborn male, as beyond lineage (and religion) they often had little else. The film makes a lot of belief in the one God, Jehovah, and on the abstract expression of faith by the “chosen people”.

But I can’t help but take the opportunity to ponder the “hidden” meanings behind the Ten Commandments, especially when I remember the fight over displaying them at the capitol in Alabama some time back.

Not all of them lend themselves to existential examination. But a few do.

For example, “thou shalt have no other God”. I recall so much was made about idol worship in Sunday school. In Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aaron (we still wait for the DVD), the climax musically comes with the dance of the Golden Calf. (Ever notice that “Aaron” became a much more popular first name for men than “Moses”?, even though Aaron contributed to the plating of the calf and to the lawlessness) But the personal meaning seems to go like this. If you like hanging around someone who is stronger than you, then you should be open to the reverse experience. Someone may need you as a role model. It may put demands for a particular intimacy that is unwelcome (a kind of clinging)--hard to accept in a modern individualistic culture that regards choice of adult intimacy (and refusal of intimacy) as a fundamental right legally. But it seems to be expected by the morality of the commandment. It seems ultimately to become a matter or religious law that anyone can be expected to provide for other people whether he has is own children or not. I recall a particular moment in third grade (1952) when, in an after school religion class (in public school then) the teacher asked us to write down anything we wanted to tell her, and I wrote "I have idols." In the Army, later, the guys in the barracks (like my buddy "Rado Suhl") would say, "ocelots have clay feet!"

On to other commandments: I’ve never made that much out of cussing, or been a fan of blue laws (we had them in the 50s), but the honoring of parents seems to go pretty deep. If your parents have a committed marriage (if they did, “you” were lucky), they expect their kids to revere the relationship they had.

The adultery commandment seems self-evident – except that in the New Testament we get into adultery of the heart or as a thoughtcrime. The commandment seems to have a corollary, that continued lifetime interest in the spouse is demanded (and rewarded by the social approbation of marriage). The commandment seems to attack fantasy (or porn) and demands a certain aesthetic realism.

The not stealing and killing seems straightforward, and seems like a challenge to man to design his justice systems to be reliable. These commandments relate more to a secular legal system separate from the church, supported by individualism and the libertarian notion of harmlessness. Yet, justice is never perfect – is that another reason for the First Commandment (to admit that we “need” God?) Likewise goes the “false witness” commandment. Perjury is a major crime in any secular legal system in any democracy.

The commandments about coveting are interesting. On a material level, they seem to challenge the sort of jealousy that happens in soap operas. Yet, sometimes, jealousy is almost necessary if one is going to provide for others. Or perhaps it means one should not covet material success or even the “attractiveness” qualities of someone else, or even demand that someone else “pay his dues” the same way. Does that lead back to “needing” God?

Old Testament law was capable of raising some pretty deep and sometimes almost contradictory moral questions.

But not much of this comes out in the Paramount movie. Religion is kept simple. In fact, the Pharaoh admits that the God of Moses is the “real God” after the Red Sea episode. Moses doesn't get to cross the Jordan River and carry on in the Promised Land because (besides a specific sin that he mentions) "he knows too much" -- a bit of the knowledge of good and evil. I can even remember grade school teachers in public schools (this was the 1950s) telling us about wandering in the wilderness for forty years for disobedience or lack of belief. In the film, the forty years (a number of significance to Rosicrucians) is enough for the guilty to die out and for their children to have a chance at a new life -- an interesting notion in these days of talk of "generativity" and the world that we will leave our kids.

I had seen “The Robe” (based on Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel, which I think I read for a book report in ninth grade) in CinemaScope shortly after it came out, at the Jefferson Theater in Falls Church, VA, that got retrofitted for CinemaScope. I remember the short before it, explaining the process, and I remember crying at the tragic end of the film. To me at the time, it was so unjust.

And I remember seeing “Gone With the Wind” at about age 11 at the Arlington Theater (which is now a Cinema and Drafthouse), at around 3 on a Sunday afternoon (it may have been Easter). We got there before the end of the previous show, where Melanie has died and Aunt Pittypat is crying. The movie seems like a “she had it, she lost it, she got it back” romance, of losing everything to war and coming out on top, only to lose it (Rhett) again. Yes, I remember the last line of the film. I don’t think I quite understood what Belle Watling did then. And, oh, remember Scarlet’s denial in the beginning that there would be war. She was wrong, and history can mug us.

I never saw George Steven’s “Giant” (with Rock Hudson, based on the novel by Edna Ferber) until the 1980s in Dallas at the Inwood Theater, about the time that Rock died.

Of course, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski had his own take on the "Decalogue" (Ten Commandments) in his famous series in the 80s, written up on the TV review blog here. His idea of "thou shalt not steal" is off the usual mark.

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