Just a few quick notes about some Ben-Hur things that popped up last week.
Movies are a huge money-making industry — but they also offer moments of spiritual uplift. Actors often play noble, inspiring characters — but they serve the visions of artists and businessmen who sometimes treat them like cogs in a machine.
These and other tensions are captured in the first clip from Hail, Caesar!, a film that was once described by its directors, the Coen brothers, as a film about “the movie business and life and religion and faith. Faith and the movie business.”
Via Fred Clark, I learn that character actor Jay Robinson died a couple weeks ago. Robinson made his big-screen debut as the insane emperor Caligula in The Robe (1953) and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), but his career was sidelined by a stint in prison for drug possession, until he started getting bit parts and guest roles on TV shows like the original Star Trek (where he played an alien named Petri) and Planet of the Apes (the TV series, not the movies). He also popped up in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) in the sequence where we see what goes on inside a man’s head as a man has sex; while Burt Reynolds and Tony Randall tell the rest of the man’s body what to do, Jay Robinson shows up as a priest who tries to sabotage the proceedings.
I recently watched Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) for the first time in years, and I hope to write something about it soon. But one detail caught my eye, and got me curious to see if it was part of a trend that might have popped up in other Bible movies, too.
Specifically, I was struck by the writing credits that appear during the opening titles. The film gives credit to four different screenwriters, which is fairly typical — no doubt there were other writers who worked on the film without credit, too — but the film also goes on to specify not just that it is based on the Bible, or on a particular book of the Bible, but that it is based on particular chapters within that book.
Thinking about this, I inevitably started thinking about Jesus movies, and I began to think about the fact that the recent mini-series The Bible has joined Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in taking a step back from recent “historically accurate” depictions of the Crucifixion towards a more traditional sort of iconography.
In orthodox Christian belief, Jesus is both God and man, fully divine and fully human. And it is because God has revealed himself in the form of a particular person who lived in a particular time and a particular place that Christians down through the ages have generally felt free to portray Jesus in icons, passion plays, and other forms of religious art. But except for the most basic and theologically essential points, such works of art have generally passed over the particularities of Jesus’s life. His humanity, expressed in the mere fact that he can be depicted at all, is often balanced with his divinity by a degree of artistic abstraction: Whether depicting Christ in static paintings or following the stations of the cross according to a set pattern, artists have tended to downplay realistic or naturalistic details to focus on the more eternal truths.