Newsbites: The historical epics edition!

Let’s tackle these in historical-chronological order!

1. The Associated Press says some of the late Charlton Heston‘s movie memorabilia will be auctioned off this summer, including a titular set of “faux granite tablets” from The Ten Commandments (1956).

2. Variety reports that Danish director Asger Leth has signed on to direct Olympia, a love story “set against the backdrop of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece as war waged between Athens and Sparta.” The script has gone through drafts by Robert Rodat (1998’s Saving Private Ryan) and Gavin Hood (2005’s Tsotsi).

3. Variety reports that Kevin MacDonald, director of The Last King of Scotland (2006), is attached to direct The Eagle of the Ninth, an “epic Roman adventure” based on “Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel about a young Roman centurion who travels to Blighty in 135 A.D. to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Rome’s Ninth Legion in Scotland 15 years earlier.”

4. Variety reports that Focus Features has picked up international rights — which covers all territories except for North America and Spain — to Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora, which takes place in 4th-century Alexandria. The premise of the film is summed up here as: “Trapped in the Library of Alexandria as religious riots flare on the city’s streets, [the astrologer-philosopher] Hypatia battles to save the collected wisdom of the ancient world.”

5. Variety reports that Gale Ann Hurd will produce and Mikael Salomon will direct Mortal Armour: The Legend of Galahad, a “period romance” about “young Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail.” Salomon is a Danish cinematographer who was Oscar-nominated for his work on The Abyss (1989) and Backdraft (1991) and then became a director, working mostly in TV; his only theatrical films to date are A Far Off Place (1993) and Hard Rain (1998).

6. Variety and the Hollywood Reporter report that Johanna Wokalek has replaced Franka Potente as the title character in Pope Joan, “which recounts the ninth-century legend of a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to educate herself and ultimately ascends the papal throne”.

7. Variety reports that Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and producer Bela Tarr are developing “a film about the 15th century sodomy trial of Italian genius Leonardo Da Vinci.” Naturally, we all wonder what sort of double-bill it will make with Wilde (1997).

8. Variety reports that Percy Adlon, the German director perhaps best known for Out of Rosenheim AKA Bagdad Cafe (1987), is developing Mahler auf der Couch, “a psychological drama about the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s life” that will deal with “the composer’s tumultuous marital life with Alma and his ambivalent relationship with Sigmund Freud.”

The Variety article mentions that this story has been told at least once before, in Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974) — where the composer was played by Robert Powell, three years before he starred in Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and Alma was played by Georgina Hale. It was also covered a few years ago in Bruce Beresford’s Bride of the Wind (2001), which was mainly about Alma and her lovers; Alma was played by Sarah Wynter, and Gustav, who dies fairly early in the film, was played by Jonathan Pryce.

My sister is a huge, huge fan of Gustav Mahler, so I have to keep tabs on this sort of thing.

Expelled — copyright lawsuit update

More evidence that Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed may be coming to Canada on June 6: The date apparently came up in court yesterday, as lawyers defended the film against Yoko Ono’s accusation that they had violated her copyright by including a few seconds of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ on the soundtrack, and the judge in that case has promised a “fast decision” because of the Canadian release date and other time-sensitive matters.

To quote the Associated Press:

U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein said he will rule quickly in the case after both sides described the issues surrounding the song and movie in harsh terms during arguments on Monday.

Lawyer Anthony T. Falzone said the movie, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” was set to open in Canada on June 6 and DVD rights needed to be finalized by the end of May for distribution in October. The movie is currently being shown in about 200 theatres in the United States.

He said an adverse ruling by Stein would mean “you have muzzled the speech of my clients” because they would have to replace the song with other images, losing the chance to make the issue important enough that it could even influence the U.S. presidential campaign.

“If you issue that injunction, you trample on these free speech rights and you put a muzzle on them and you do it in a way that stops them from speaking on this political issue leading up to the election,” Falzone said.

Uh, wait a minute … the election? Does anybody seriously think that the battle between Darwinian science and so-called Intelligent Design theory is really going to be a factor in the showdown between Barack Obama and John McCain? Really?

Besides, I repeat what I have said before: Shouldn’t this movie be about the science, and not about partisan politics?

Meanwhile, here is what Yoko’s lawyer said:

Ono has accused the movie’s producers of infringing the song’s copyrights by using portions of it without her permission, giving the impression that the Lennon family had authorized it.

Dorothy M. Weber, a lawyer for Ono, Sean Lennon, Julian Lennon and EMI Blackwood Music Inc., said the makers of the movie “took away their right to stay no.”

She said the defendants – Premise Media Corp. of Dallas, Rampant Films of Sherman Oaks, Calif., and Rocky Mountain Pictures Inc. of Salt Lake City – had obtained authorization for the other songs used in the movie, a point the judge noted himself. . . .

About 20 to 30 seconds of the song are played in the movie.

Falzone said the portion of the song – “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too” – was central to the movie.

“What they are criticizing here, your honour, is they’re saying that happy, naive feeling you get when you hear the song and think about peace and children and play is dangerous, dangerously naive.”

Falzone said the movie suggests “that this absence of religion paves the way for fascism, totalitarianism, Nazism.”

“Really, what the film is doing is, it’s asking if John Lennon was right and it’s concluding he was wrong,” the lawyer said.

He said the movie makers did not believe they needed to ask Ono’s permission to use a portion of the song because it was not the entire song or enough of it to infringe on the copyright.

“Why would you ask somebody for permission to criticize their work?” he asked. “It’s not likely it’s going to be granted.”

Indeed. In general, I would take the filmmakers’ side on this one, to the extent that I think people should be free to comment on songs and films like this. But I also think the movie’s discussion of religion, and the accompanying attempt to portray atheists as fascist nihilists, is a huge, huge red herring in a movie that is supposed to be about competing scientific theories.

The Greek gods go, the warrior women stay.

From USA Today‘s story on the “tightrope” that the makers of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian have walked, between satisfying Christian fans of the book and broadening the movie’s appeal:

He also had to leave out some beloved scenes and characters. Goodbye to Greek God Bacchus and his wild girls who in the book accompany Aslan on a joyful romp; writer Stephen McFeely said the Greek gods are no longer an easily recognizable cultural reference.

Um, isn’t that kind of the point of the story? That the culture — both Narnian and English — has lost touch with its mythic, imaginative roots, etc.? Certainly one of the things I always liked about the Narnia books — and movies like Fantasia (1940), pictured above, which also depicts Bacchus — was the way they introduced me to stuff like this when I was a kid.

I do like the Gresham anecdote that comes near the end of this other bit from the USA Today story, though:

Adamson also updated the movie for 21st century mores. To make it more inclusive, he added female dwarves, child-aged fawns and an “Afro-centaur” (Cornell John) as Glenstorm, the noble half-man, half-horse. In addition, the Pevensie sisters, Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), join the battle, which they avoid in the book.

For Adamson, it was an obvious choice to allow women an active role in the fight. Referring to the gift of bow and arrow that Susan received in the first movie, Adamson laughs, “If she’s just going to make sandwiches, then give her a plate and a knife.”

Adamson made his case for the changes to Gresham by arguing that Lewis’ female characters become stronger as the book series progresses — something he attributes to Lewis’ real-life romance with Gresham’s mother, Joy Davidman. Gresham agreed. As evidence, he recounted an encounter he witnessed between Lewis, Davidman and a longbow-wielding trespasser on their property. Davidman carried a small “garden gun.” When the man aimed a drawn arrow at the pair, Lewis chivalrously stepped in front of Davidman to shield her. He remained for a moment until Davidman, a Bronx native, commanded, “Goddamn, Jack, get out of my line of fire.”

“That whole kind of experience of my mother’s determination and personality I think changed Jack’s ideas towards women,” says Gresham.

I have heard variations of that anecdote before, and I do like it, even if I am somewhat dubious about the way Adamson invokes it here — or the broader characterization of Gresham’s mother — to turn Susan into another generic “girl power” killing machine.

Canadian box-office stats — May 18

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

The American Trap — CDN $113,597 — N.AM $113,597 — 100%
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay — CDN $6,470,000 — N.AM $34,098,389 — 19.0%

The Forbidden Kingdom — CDN $5,210,000 — N.AM $50,368,985 — 10.3%
Made of Honor — CDN $3,280,000 — N.AM $33,903,519 — 9.7%
Forgetting Sarah Marshall — CDN $5,310,000 — N.AM $55,313,405 — 9.6%
What Happens in Vegas — CDN $3,790,000 — N.AM $40,341,516 — 9.4%

Iron Man — CDN $18,590,000 — N.AM $223,124,385 — 8.3%
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — CDN $4,110,000 — N.AM $55,034,805 — 7.5%
Baby Mama — CDN $2,620,000 — N.AM $47,343,255 — 5.5%
Speed Racer — CDN $1,460,000 — N.AM $30,284,073 — 4.8%

A couple of discrepancies: The American Trap was #10 on the Canadian chart (it does not appear on the North American chart at all), while The Visitor was #10 on the North American chart (it was #11 in Canada).

Expelled — coming to Canada after all?

Various blogs and websites — here, here, and here — are reporting that the pro-Intelligent Design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed may be coming to Canadian theatres June 6. The rumour had better be right, since Ben Stein has already begun to promote the film on Canadian TV, chatting about it a few nights ago on CBC’s The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos — where, bizarrely, he seemed to imply that gravity and the laws of thermodynamics fall under the heading of evolutionary theory.

This reminds me, I’ve been meaning to post some extra thoughts that I’ve had on the film since I first commented on it one month ago, shortly after it was released in the United States. (Many thanks, by the way, to the people who wrote me to answer David Berlinski’s question and explain what a “species” is!)

Let’s start with John Derbyshire‘s post from a few weeks back, when he noted that Ben Stein made the following comments while promoting this film on the Trinity Broadcasting Network:

When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you. . . .

Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.

Well, it’s a good thing so-called Intelligent Design theory isn’t science, then! Otherwise it might kill someone.

Okay, that’s being snarky. But you have to wonder why a film that demands “academic freedom” for people pursuing a, let’s say, unconventional sort of science would be constructed and promoted in such a way as to denigrate science itself. How can the makers of this film say they want ID to have a place at the table when the table itself is so horrifying to them? (I have always found it interesting that, when I interviewed Stein myself, he issued his strongest denunciation of scientists while answering a question I had asked about the film’s treatment of ID scientists!)

In a similar vein, one of the best critiques I have read of this film was written by Jim Manzi and posted a couple weeks ago at National Review. Manzi makes much the same point that I made last month, regarding how the movie needs to demonstrate some of the actual alleged science behind ID if it wants ID to enjoy any sort of “academic freedom” — but he makes the point more methodically, and in greater detail.

Then there is the political element.

When I interviewed Stein, he said he was approached by the film’s producers because he was one of the few “conservatives” in Hollywood. But is ID necessarily a “conservative” movement? Various people in the film argue that ID, as a science, is not tied to any particular religion — and indeed, Stein himself is Jewish, though the film still fits broadly within the category of “Christian filmmaking” — so why would they imply that it is tied to a particular end of the political spectrum? (As my colleague Josh Hurst points out, it is odd how “footage of Ronald Reagan starts to pop up everywhere” in the film’s final moments.) Shouldn’t ID be just as politically neutral as it is religiously neutral? And shouldn’t it be presented as something that stands or falls on its own scientific merits?

Matters are further confused when the film quotes Eugenie Scott to the effect that many Christians believe evolution and religion are compatible, and then the film cuts to a journalist who asserts first that all religions can be broken down into “liberal” and “conservative” camps, and then that liberals will side with anyone against the “fundamentalists”. The clear implication seems to be that only “liberals” will accept evolutionary theory — yet surely there are many politically and even theologically conservative Christians and Jews who accept it, or are open to it, as well. (Hint: One of them is writing this post.)

Finally, a point of terminology.

One of the filmmakers wrote me after my review went online to say that I had gotten my facts wrong when I wrote that “the film never acknowledges that some ID theorists actually believe in evolution, albeit perhaps only to a point.” He sent me a few quotes from the film which, he claimed, did affirm “evolution” of some sort. But when you look at them closely, it turns out they don’t — at least not in the sense that most people use that word.

Paul Nelson, a young-earther, affirms nothing more than “change over time”, while Jonathan Wells affirms nothing more than “minor changes within species” — and he explicitly belittles Darwin’s efforts “to show how this same process leads to new species, in fact, to every species.” William Dembski comes closest to affirming “evolution” as most people use the term, except he pours on lots of qualifiers and never mentions any of the particulars of evolutionary theory except to marginalize them; after stressing the limitations of “natural selection”, whatever those limitations might be, he concludes: “What we’re finding with Darwin is that he had some valid insights, but it’s not the whole picture.”

So nowhere in this film do any of the IDers affirm, say, common descent, which is a key part of the sort of evolutionary theory that I had in mind when I wrote that sentence in my review. Nowhere does anybody say, as I gather leading ID theorist Michael Behe has said, that animals did evolve more or less as Darwin said they did, but there are just some things we can’t account for at the microscopic, cellular level. So I think my point stands. (Behe does not appear in this film at all, by the way — though he does appear in the ID-skeptical documentary Flock of Dodos (2006).)

The film has grossed $7.5 million since opening in the United States five weekends ago, which makes it one of the dozen top-grossing documentaries of all time. It will be interesting to see what waves this film makes, if any, should it actually be released here in Canada — especially given that it is a Canadian production.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

To get ready for the rumoured alien visitation in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I recently spent a few nights watching all three versions of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) — a film that I had not seen since high school — and I found it interesting on multiple levels.

For one thing, there are only two feature films where Spielberg has had sole credit for the final screenplay — this film and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) — and both of these films make significant use of characters, themes or music from Pinocchio, either the original book written by Carlo Collodi in 1883 or the animated film released by Walt Disney in 1940. The two Spielberg films emphasize different aspects of that story, though; Close Encounters is all about “wishing upon a star”, whereas A.I. is all about trying to become a “real boy”. And, interestingly, Close Encounters is all about a child-like man who abandons his family to commune with the aliens, whereas A.I. is all about a child-like robot who yearns to be with his human family, or at least his mother, rather than to commune with his fellow robots.

For another, there is the film’s attitude towards family — which varies depending on which version of the film you’re watching. As Glenn Kenny has observed, the original theatrical version of the film — which had never been released on home video prior to the 30th-anniversary edition that came out several months ago — introduces Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) as a sort of lovable loser who has never properly grown up, and who drives his family away with his obsessive behaviour. But the “special edition” released in 1980 cuts out some of Roy’s most pathetic behaviour, both before and after he first encounters the aliens, and it adds new scenes which depict his wife and kids nagging at him before he encounters the aliens and yelling their hatred of him after he encounters the aliens. As Kenny writes, “this new introduction posits a family so awful one would be a fool not to leave it. Here, Neary isn’t the schmuck, and the family IS the monster. Ruthless, like I said. But effective.” For what it’s worth, the “director’s cut” released in 1998 balances things out a little more; it stays true to the “special edition” for the most part, but it reinstates some — not all, but some — of the footage that was unique to the original version.

Also, speaking as one who first saw this movie in his teens and is now re-visiting it in his late 30s, it is striking to me that Spielberg and Dreyfuss were both in their late 20s when they made this film — though Roy, the Dreyfuss character, gives his date of birth as December 4, 1944, which would make him not quite 33 when the film came out in November 1977. (Spielberg actually turned 30 late in the production.) Already, at that age, Dreyfuss was playing a family man with a house and a wife and three kids … and he drops it all to follow the aliens. Spielberg says he wouldn’t tell the story this way nowadays; he says the character’s readiness to abandon his family for a ride into space reflects the “youth” that he, Spielberg, was feeling at that time. (Spielberg’s first child would not be born for another eight years; he now has several.)

Interestingly, though, Roy is accompanied to Devil’s Tower by a woman who is desperate to get her son back from the aliens. Roy’s wife puts family first, and ends up looking kinda bad; but Roy’s friend puts family first, and ends up looking pretty good. The main difference between the two seems to be that one (the married wife) is holding Roy back, while the other (the single mom) is not.

While watching this film, I actually found myself beginning to imagine E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) — which came out five years later — as a sort of sequel in which Roy’s wife and their three kids move to a new home and find themselves deep in denial, persuading themselves that Roy has gone to Mexico with “Sally” instead of into space with the aliens. Spielberg has always said that E.T. was inspired by his parents’ divorce, and I wonder if the slightly-younger Spielberg ever tried to see the marital split in Close Encounters from the children’s point of view, rather than Roy’s. (In that regard, one of the commenters at Kenny’s blog has an interesting theory: “I’ve always seen Roy’s story as an abandoned child’s idealized version of ‘where daddy went,’ but one that still carries a strong undertone of ‘it was your fault’ guilt.”)

Like I say, I hadn’t seen the film in over 20 years, but I have always vaguely remembered the scene where Roy’s wife complains that the kids shouldn’t stay up late to watch the rest of The Ten Commandments (1956) because the movie is way too long. (Hey, I remember staying up late to watch that film on TV when I was a kid back then! With commercials and everything, it really did take up the whole evening!) Spielberg would go on to reference the story of Moses elsewhere in his career — he featured the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and it was his idea to make the first DreamWorks cartoon The Prince of Egypt (1998) — and it’s not too hard to draw parallels between the alien encounter at Devil’s Tower and the divine encounters at Mount Sinai.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am reminded of how the barriers placed by the U.S. government around Devil’s Tower — and the way the local livestock are knocked out with nerve gas — are vaguely reminiscent of the instructions God gave Moses specifying that no animals and no other persons should come up the mountain, on pain of death. So it is striking that Spielberg has Roy, an “everyman”, punch through the barrier and make contact with the aliens against the wishes of the official, institutional powers that be. Of course, the “everyman” does this because the aliens have summoned him; so if one wanted to pursue the Devil’s Tower – Mount Sinai connection, one could say that one of the themes of this film is that “everymen” have been called to commune with God directly, and that institutional religions get in the way with all their don’t-cross-this-line rules. (Christianity mixes things up a bit by ripping the veil that separates God from man, but improper contact with the divine can still be lethal.)

In any case, I had remembered most of that stuff, either from my one viewing of the film way back when or from reading about it in the interim, but I had completely forgotten about the religious service that is held for the government or military agents in the red suits just before they approach the aliens, asking to be taken as “pilgrims” into outer space. And this scene is prefigured, to a certain degree, by an earlier scene in which one of the military bigwigs says he wants to come up with a plan that will allow the army to evacuate every “Christian soul” away from the vicinity of Devil’s Tower. A throwaway line of dialogue, perhaps, but when that religious service came up near the end, I began to wonder. Spielberg himself is not Christian, but his inclusion of these details says something about the way he saw his country, and about the way he thought it saw itself, at that time. And hey, incidentally, the first time we see those people in red suits, they are walking through an air hangar partly filled with crates. Crates.

And speaking of possible Raiders of the Lost Ark allusions, I was also struck by how the American government sets up a bank of movie cameras to film the arrival of the UFOs at Devil’s Tower … late at night, surrounded by craggy rocks … just as the Nazis set up at least one camera to film the opening of the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders … late at night, surrounded by craggy rocks. (See the screen captures below: Close Encounters on the left, Raiders on the right.) And of course, Raiders, too, plays on the idea that the government — even the American government — is paranoid and secretive and doesn’t want people to know when it has come into contact with awesome supernatural forces.

In one of the bonus features, the point is made that Close Encounters was the first major pop-culture expression of the idea that we had nothing to fear from aliens — and I found myself wondering about 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which came out nine years earlier. Kubrick’s movie is rather ambivalent on the question, I suppose: the aliens do encourage the advancement of the species, but at the expense of individual persons (a similar theme comes up in Arthur C. Clarke‘s Childhood’s End); the first sign of alien influence on human development is the rise of a new kind of warfare; and if you follow Clarke’s version of the conclusion of that film, you learn that the Star Child is capable of saving the Earth from nuclear self-destruction, which raises interesting questions about the other ways in which he or the aliens guiding him might try to “control” us, so to speak. And, hmmm, what about The Day the Earth Stood Still way, way back in 1951? Yes, there is a threat of doom there, but only because we already pose a threat to each other and to the various worlds beyond our own; apart from that, the aliens are our friends. Sort of. Hmmm.

Anyway. Watching Close Encounters again after all this time, and seeing how it connects to some of Spielberg’s other films, has been really interesting and informative in its own right. If the rumours prove false and there really isn’t anything all that extra-terrestrial in Crystal Skull, I won’t mind; my time has not been wasted.