Friday, September 11, 2020

G-d Week: Truly this man was the son of God.


THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD

1965
Directed by George Stevens
Written by James Lee Barrett and George Stevens

Spoiler alert: very very N/A


I think the adjective I best like to use for the mid-century Hollywood Bible epic is pageantlike.  It's a word that suggests, to me anyway, an explanation for the thing most modern commenters hate about them, that is, their conscious departure from two of the most central qualities of American filmmaking, the illusion of realism and efficient narrative momentum.  If they frequently did this for no greater reason than to put on a show for a spectacle-craving audience, well, what's wrong with a show?  Yet sometimes I think their makers arrayed their rich pageantry with loftier ideas in mind: to gesture, as articulately as they could, at something bound to resist any literal depiction, hoping to emphasize the sense of spiritual importance they wanted to convey, but could not photograph.  Even so, this higher form of pageantry was usually just one of the tools at their disposal.  With the vast majority of the mid-century Bible movies, what we really have is only a special case of the sword-and-sandal flick, and like all good sword-and-sandal flicks, they're built around adventure and romance and intrigue more than anything else.  The Bible films only make themselves fully distinguishable from their secular counterparts in those moments when they throw Judeo-Christian magic into the mix, usually in ways that we would reject as dubious and awkward, were they not founded in ancient narrative tradition and still-living religion.

Then there's The Greatest Story Ever Told, which cast a long shadow over its genre, so that while it has never been the most beloved or most watched of the Bible epics, it has somehow become representative of their movement as a whole, even when it's not actually all that much like them.  If pageantry was simply one of the tools used by DeMille or Vidor or Wyler, emphasizing the grandeur of their productions, and therefore, presumably, the grandeur of God, when producer/co-writer/director George Stevens set out to make his Greatest Story, he determined that if he had this hammer, he would treat every scene like a nail.  His Bible epic would be all pageant, revering its subject from its first frame to its last, for three straight hours and more.

So let us get that piece of housekeeping out of the way: for us, The Greatest Story Ever Told exists at 199 minutes.  While there appears to be substantial confusion as regards to what its correct runtime once was, the number that seems the most trustworthy to me is for a roadshow presentation of 225 minutes, conceivably preserved somewhere, but by no means accessible.  Its general release, by contrast, was 147 minutes, which seems downright savage, albeit indicative of how well that roadshow must've gone... and it occurs to me that this is exactly how a respectful but negative review of The Greatest Story would begin, though if you're familiar with the film's reputation, a negative review (if probably not a respectful one) is exactly what you'd expect.  Then again, if you're familiar with me, you know I'm never on the "right" side of just about anything.


Oh well: to this day, Greatest Story remains infamous for all sorts of reasons—its tortured production, for starters, that saw it languish for seven years from pre-production to release, during which time the Bible epic had begun its collapse.  Stevens's film, taking its (admittedly off-putting) title from a 1947 radio series, was meant to be the first of the mid-century Bible films to take on the life of Christ, but whatever thunder this might've afforded The Greatest Story, it was stolen by 1961's rather different gospel adaptation, King of KingsThe Greatest Story's combination of enormous cost and being years late proved fatal: along with the similarly-gargantuan The Bible ...In the Beginning, it basically blew up the genre.  It wasn't especially good for United Artists, either, who took over the production from 20th Century Fox after the latter realized just how wildly Stevens would mismanage the project, allowing him to shop the film elsewhere after he'd spent nearly two million dollars on paintings and models and research trips and story development without having actually filmed anything.  Ultimately, Stevens's approach never grew more disciplined.  They say he was a perfectionist, and that's plainly visible; he also indulged every whim that crossed his mind, turning a film that in any circumstance would've been pricey into a financial quagmire.  It was two weeks before shooting began that he finally decided (after changing his mind twice) precisely which widescreen photography format it would use.  There are stories about how Stevens, the former cinematographer, would arrive without a plan, and just sit and silently stare at his set for hours figuring out the lighting design while a thousand people sat around getting paid.  The direction of several sequences was farmed out to David Lean and Jean Neguleso just to get them done.  It was a debacle—a production that lingered in principal photography for nine months, post-production for eighteen, generated enough film to wrap around the moon, and, in the end, cost no less than $20 million.  (Meanwhile, Fox produced Cleopatra.  They sure dodged a bullet!)

When Greatest Story was at last released, critics swarmed on it, and maybe the adjective most often employed to describe this mid-century Hollywood Bible epic was "boring."  It was long.  It was slow.  It was moderately plotless.  One repeated refrain was that Stevens's deployment of recognizable stars in cameo roles was distracting, though the observation "these actors are acting in a movie" strikes me as a pretty stupid complaint.  In The New Yorker, Brendan Gill summed up the critical and maybe even the popular sentiment: "If the subject matter weren't sacred in the original, we would be responding to the picture in the most charitable way possible by laughing at it from start to finish."  Frankly, I suspect the opposite.  Sixteen ceaseless years of pompous Bible epics had soured folks on the genre.  Now they'd been asked to spend more than three hours on the most pompous of them all.  If The Greatest Story brought the same exact style and vision, but in some form other than the dying gasp of a disfavored genre built around commercializing and/or glorifying an oppressive religion—maybe even if it weren't smack dab in the middle of 1965, as American culture endured a seismic shift; or, hell, maybe if it just didn't call itself "greatest"—I don't much doubt that critics would have insisted we attend instead to the things we're allegedly supposed to pay attention to in this kind of movie: the way it looks, the way it moves, how it seeks to achieve its aims, and whether it achieves them in earnest.


The Greatest Story looks and moves like a strange dream, and it's successful in ways that took me fully off my guard, even if some of its highest aspirations—Stevens, not a humble man, at least claimed he'd set out to make the definitive cinematic treatment of Jesus—were so ambitious as to be endearingly dumb.  (I mean, the New Testament has four gospels.  The Christian religion doesn't have a definitive treatment of Jesus.)  But, Lord, that ambition is palpable in every last one of those 199 minutes.  Again I'm drawn to call it a pageant, an enormous, expensive, overwhelming pageant of the birth, ministry, and death of Christ, and the film's overriding goal—of creating a beautiful and meaningful votive object—is made clear as soon as the opening credits end (and even those are a bit of a device themselves, with a long yellowed scroll topped by the film's title and a list of scene descriptions).

So: the very first proper shot is a stately pan across a painted cathedral dome that reveals a pantocrator of the ascended Jesus (unmistakably Max von Sydow, The Greatest Story's particular Jesus).  We spend some time obliged to contemplate the beatific face of this not-especially-Semitic, in fact rather Swedish Jesus, as Alfred Newman's ethereal and (mostly) unobtrusive score soothes us in the same way the existence of Jesus is meant to soothe us.  A narrator (uncredited as such, but I believe Charlton Heston, who plays John the Baptist) reads the first verses of the Gospel of John, which we'll soon see was the most fitting of the gospels to use, not solely because it's the most recognizable, but because its christology is most fully in line with the film's.  Now we are transported by a long dissolve into The Greatest Story's fantasia of the past, specifically the dark night of Jesus's birth.  From here, The Greatest Story shall walk us through a melange of the four gospels—plus a little minor invention, here and there, but far less than usual—as Jesus preaches, gathers followers, performs several minor miracles, performs some other miracles offscreen so that we only hear tell of them, and performs one very major miracle right before the intermission, then arrives in Jerusalem at the head of his disciples, raises a riot, and, for his turbulence, dies upon the cross.


But that very first shot exists as a reminder that this is only representation, and virtually every decision Stevens makes continues to remind us of the inherent insufficiency of any artistic attempt to pin down God.*  (The Gospel of John concludes this way: "But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that were written.")  And, as they are all so splendidly mutually reinforcing in their effect, it's hard to know which aspect of The Greatest Story to start with.  But since I've mentioned that ensemble of stars already, why not that?  Supplemented, in the best Bible movie tradition, by a cast of thousands, somewhere between two and three dozen recognizable, "name" actors graced Stevens's set, sometimes filling roles so small they don't even have lines.  Only a very few could be described as creating characters: Claude Rains's nihilistic Herod the Great; José Ferrer as his son, a surprisingly sober interpretation of Herod Antipas; and, of course, Heston's John the Baptist, which was a truly inspired piece of casting, the single figure in the film that embodies the muscular, posturing brand of religiosity so favored by other Bible epics, here essayed by that style's greatest proponent.

Other figures flit about the margins, inspired in their own ways: Donald Pleasance's seemingly harmless physicality is belied by the questing eyes of his never-named Satan; Telly Savalas's amused cynicism creates a memorable Pilate; Sidney Poitier emerges from out of a crowd as Simon of Cyrene, to shoulder the smallest part of Jesus's burden as he makes his way through the stations of the cross—and in a movie that has had a few black faces here and there, but has been a typically white affair otherwise, it's fascinating that with Poitier's arrival we suddenly find the backgrounds newly populated with the races of the world, a questionable addition for a film that ever wanted to plant us in First Century Judea, but an intelligent choice for a movie that values symbol and aesthetic as much as this one does.**  The disciples, meanwhile, melt into an undifferentiated mass.  Only Judas (David McCallum) ever individuates himself, and even then you get the impression it's because Judas would have to.  The reduction of stars to featured extras has obvious merit.  In its way, it's supposed to be distracting.  The great and the small alike are leveled before Sydow's Jesus, who quietly dominates the film.  Only once is his supremacy threatened, by Heston, whom he suborns immediately, and whose voice is brought down to a whisper to address him.


In his first American role, we find Sydow giving a great performance, though I do not know if it is great acting: it is, in keeping with the complexion of the film, an almost exclusively superficial turn.  But it's also exactly the performance it needs, a serene and ethereal presence rarely troubled by messy emotion, half in another world already.  Even his not-entirely-successful attempt to manage his accent works to productively alienate him from his co-stars.  His Jesus speaks as a dreamy philosopher—a bit of a hippie, honestly, though still capable of righteous anger, and The Greatest Story's cleansing of the temple sequence really elucidates why Jesus was worth the effort of executing.  But even the invented, "conversational" moments often come with a tinge of the schematic: "Jesus... that's a good name"/"Thank you" is delivered with a warm smile and it's even disarmingly, low-key funny, but it nods to the meaning of Yeshua in Hebrew, "deliverer."

Throughout, Sydow maintains an almost eerie stillness.  I would most readily liken it to silent film acting (though by no means as gesticular as that would imply), and the easiest comparison I can think of is Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, though Stevens gives Sydow the diametric opposite cinematic treatment: even for ultra-widescreen spectacle, The Greatest Story is constructed to an unusual degree in very wide shots—the better to show off the locations and sets and crowds, but also to situate its Jesus as a superhuman force of moral clarity capable of bringing order to human chaos.  Sydow's slow, deliberate movements and Stevens's mannered compositions call attention to this messiah, but only by implication; the snarky way to put it would be to compare it to a Where's Waldo? with a thousand guys in white robes, but they present their messiah plainly enough, even if they often ask you to seek him out.


So when I say Sydow is like Falconetti, I think it's the sense of conviction that each one brings to their respective martyrs, not in the specific techniques either the actors or their directors use to get there.  Sydow is granted very few close-ups, but they hit so extremely hard when they come, even on the small screen; and when they come, they are shockingly, even uncomfortably close.  Three key sequences use them with extraordinary purpose: the series of jaggedly-edited, dead-centered close-ups that brings Jesus face-to-face in subliminal spiritual confrontation with John the Baptist; the crucifixion; and, at the end of the middle, Jesus's condemnation by the sisters of Lazarus at his funeral.  This, I think, is the longest-held close-up of the film, as Jesus contemplates their grief, and all at once, the humanity of Jesus—something that till now has been barely suggested—is confirmed, and it's like a silent atom bomb going off on the screen.  The camera allows Sydow to consider deep emotions that he has been obliged to bury, not just the unfathomable pain of divine empathy, but also the recognition that, to achieve his mission on Earth, he has caused pain himself, by reducing a human life, his friend, to a prop for his glorification.  In The Greatest Story, Jesus wept with guilt.

This powerfully small and subtle human moment, however, is surrounded by signs and symbols of cosmic import.  A motif throughout the Gospel of John is the distinction between darkness and light; The Greatest Story presents itself as a feature-length meditation on this motif, to the point of genuine abstraction:

(And look at that cross on the floor!)

Running through two cinematographers during its long production (William Mellor died, replaced by Loyal Griggs), it's one of the most evocatively-shot films of its decade, and the artiest of all the mid-century Bible epics.  Much inspiration was taken from Christian Renaissance and Baroque painting: there are few "natural" assemblies of human bodies in this film, and it bears something like the stiffness of devotional painting (there is one sequence where it almost goes too far, when it reimagines Da Vinci's Last Supper by way of La Tour), but it arrays its figures in such striking ways, it's more interesting than "natural" assemblies would be.

What it does not take from the tradition of Christian fine art is color.  The Greatest Story's visual tale of light and darkness is mediated almost exclusively through a limited palette of deliberate non-color: shades of white, shades of gray, shades of beige, blues only because the sky's unavoidable, and blacks.  The art direction and costume design is astonishingly stark, but never drab; the angular, theatrical sets and the sculptures of light that populate them tell this Greatest Story with far more force than its script's impressionistic collage of gospel vignettes ever could.  (Though I certainly like that impressionistic sense, and the frequent resort to dissolve transitions, often held so long they become superimpositions, gives The Greatest Story a floaty quality that is tremendously effective at pulling it out of linear time.)  A simple decoding of The Greatest Story's color scheme is that its colors merely identify different factions; maybe the simplest is "white good, black bad."  And that wouldn't even be wrong, although it becomes more complex as it goes along, and perhaps inconsistent, but nonetheless charged with its own emotional, mystical logic.  I am impressed in ways I cannot explain by the most blatantly "fake" lighting in the film, in its nod to the dance of Salome, who frolics in green, in and out of the expressionist knives of light that carve Herod and his palace from the darkness.


Red is almost absent, but it crops up more and more as the Romans become a more active force, and—more to the point—as we move closer to the crucifixion.  (It is too much to be accidental, though I would have pushed it further, were I Stevens.)  But then, red also seems to be the color of forgiven sin (Mary the adultress; Matthew the tax collector).  And I guess that fits too.  Black is donned by the more, er, skeptical Jews, though it's clear enough that The Greatest Story at least tries to avoid anti-Semitic caricature.  It's worth noting that Stevens documented the Holocaust for the Nuremburg trials, and his film immediately prior to this was the story of another holy victim, The Diary of Anne Frank.  His dignified Antipas is one clue as to his intentions; another is where he the locates his Christkillers.  Though Pilate dresses in bloody reds, The Greatest Story denies his Roman soldiery their usual screen vividness, desaturating and degrading them into grays.  Pilate's clanking mass of legionnaires are always the most obvious evil here.  Indeed, before we even see a Roman, we see their works: a line of crucified bodies stretching out to the horizon, reminding us that Jesus was only one of them.

Sublime beauty is here as well, and of all the many counter-intuitive decisions that went into The Greatest Story, perhaps the one that works the very best is the use of the American Southwest as "Judea," with Stevens looking at Israel and concluding that the American desert felt more like the Holy Land.  Thus the stunning vistas of monumental geology that make up so much of his film.  Its "Jordan" finds itself flanked by enormous slabs of rock, creating a natural demarcation between darkness and light as the sun sets and Jesus and his silhouetted disciples consider the brevity of life in the ripples of the water.  An unprecedented "Sermon on the Mount" takes place on a literal mountaintop, where heaven meets earth.  The magi cross a snowy hill, because it snowed in Utah--but, hey, it's Christmas.  Above all, there is something appropriately apocalyptic about the desolate wasteland of our West: it conjures a world that indeed does look like it's ending, while establishing a place where miracles could plausibly occur.  Like so much here, its scene-setting is utterly divorced from history or reality, yet this is precisely why its pageant works: it manages timelessness by refusing to be attached to time.


Really, it rarely sets a foot wrong: there's a bad group shot in Herod's palace; I hate Mary Magdalene's initial hairsprayed coiffure; the thunderstorm wrought upon the soundstage crucifixion sequence is just shitty rain animation overlaid onto the shots, not real water, which, God, this movie cost $20 million, buy a fucking hose, George (though the otherwordliness of this crucifixion is otherwise great); the crucifixion as a whole, reportedly more drawn-out in the original cut, suffers slightly from being too abbreviated; I am a little ambivalent about the amount of strange, often hard-to-identify semi-scriptural voiceover, mostly because it tends to come when its images are already doing all the talking.  (I do not necessarily hold that John Wayne's centurion's infamous quotation from Mark is especially ghastly, though its memeification has made it unavoidably funny, and that is a problem, considering where it is.)   But overall, it is magnificent work.  In the tension between its undeniable physicality and its blatant artificiality, it finds something profounder than either alone.  I expect it feels nothing like the actual life of Yeshua bar Yosuf.  But it feels very much like a film that could have been made by a devout and talented Christian, whether they lived in the Twentieth Century or in the First, and there is something amazing about that feeling.  It is so full of joy at its own message, that when it breaks with its solemnity to express this joy utterly—the manic proclamation of the resurrection of Lazarus at the gates of Jerusalem, driven by Handel's "Halleujah Chorus"; its triumphant echo in the sincerely-cheesy process shots of Jesus's ascension—I could only respond to it with a joy of my own.  Yes, maybe its votive purpose means that you could only ever get out of it what you brought with you.  But I dig myth, and The Greatest Story Ever Told is as chock full of it as just about any Bible epic ever was.

Score: 10/10

*Of course, George Stevens did not live to see Terrence Malick in full bloom, though I think it's worth mentioning that there's not a little bit of Greatest Story in Malick's filmography.
**Also maybe he felt bad about Swing Time... which he should.

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