Friday, April 30, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #8: Ben-Hur

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
Wow, guys.  Just wow.  First off, I'm an incredible idiot in rare form this week.  You know what I did?  I put in the single disc of classic epic Ben-Hur on the wrong side and managed to let all 71 minutes of the second half play out before realizing that I was totally missing a huge chunk of the movie.  There was actually a minute where I thought, geez, for an epic that movie was really short and illogical.  Granted, the double sided disc the film came on wasn't marked with a part one or part two but merely said 'widescreen'.  I was like, yes, of course I want widescreen and took it from there.  It was for the better, ultimately, because I totally didn't pay attention to those 71 minutes apart from thinking that the famed chariot race happened way earlier than I thought possible for a climactic moment in the narrative arc and realizing that M.I.A.'s new song "Born Free" made it feel super intense.  Since I had no context for what was actually at stake in the chariot race, I brought in a whole load of references from other epic pieces of cinema.  I was all over Ben-Hur being free, man.  Escaping Roman tyranny and getting on with his bad self (why is that expression so hilariously ridiculous?).  The point is, really, in that first round anything could have been happening and I wouldn't have known because instead I got a phone call, watched youtube music videos, constructed a playlist for driving in the car and kept asking myself why this movie didn't make any sense.  Normally, the fact that the screen read entr'acte instead of overture at the beginning would have been a tip off...but, like I said, I was 100% pure film illiterate idiot on Monday night.  There are no two ways around it.
Of course, once I flipped the disc over and actually sat down to pay attention to the film, I watched Ben-Hur from beginning to end and considered myself accomplished.  At last! 212 minutes of an epic I'd been unconsciously avoiding for my entire life now done (and yes that last hour+ makes a whole lot more sense when you've seen the first 2/3)!  I've considered some things from watching William Wyler's classic.  Are they important or valid criticisms?  No, but I'll share them with you anyways.  The first is that I think I've found the reason for my avoidant trepidation of Ben-Hur.  It's something that I always forget.  I know it, I think, but I forget and I'll forget again.  The full title of Ben-Hur is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  What?  Whaaaat?  When I saw that my gut reaction was one of disappointment.  I was suddenly so not into watching this movie.  I can't pinpoint the exact reasons for this, but too much Christian doctrine in a motion picture tends to color it in a way that's complicated and negative, tending either towards the preachy or mundanely controversial.  I failed to see the connection between what I knew about the film and what I've heard about the Jesus.  After watching it, I'll still say I think there's a reason no one ever mentions the subtitle: it's simply not relevant.  The reason for the film's full title is that its story is taken from Lew Wallace's 1880 book.    Believe it or not, the 1959 Wyler adaptation is actually the third film version.  It's a remake.  A remake with 11 Academy Awards, but I digress.  Wallace's goals seem to have been less about direct presentation of that mythos and more about attempting to capture what a figure the likes of Jesus Christ could have evoked in others at the time of his existence.  Jesus, then, despite gaining a place in the title, has a cameo role.  He's the deus ex machina of sorts that allows for the more fantastical turns towards a happy ending in the film's final sequences.  Miracles are the only way possible to restore what Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) has lost via repeat instances of adversity.  You know what? I hate to argue with a classic, but I think this film might have been just a little bit better without the final scenes of crucifixion and curing of leprosy. I could believe it up until that point...then things just came too easily.  I felt the author's hand, and the author was apparently guided by Christ-like voices.  It's like being a story of Ben-Hur wasn't enough.  All of a sudden it needed to be a story about someone else, too.
Guess what, though?  At the end of the day, Ben-Hur is a film about Ben-Hur and not a tale of the Christ.  No. This is a tale of Ben-Hur being persecuted.  Ben-Hur getting majorly cheated by his former BFF.  Ben-Hur losing his family.  Ben-Hur getting ripped on a galley boat.  Ben-Hur climbing the ranks.  Ben-Hur being the horse whisperer.  Ben-Hur making friends and influencing people.  That's what this movie is about.  It's also about Charlton Heston and how even though he's 100% from middle American No Man's Land (literally, this is what wikipedia says.  and we know this means it's credible), we totally believe him as a wealthy Jewish merchant prince in Jerusalem.  He plays his role like a cowboy in gladiator sandals.  He sweats and swaggers and stares off into the distance and grieves and every interaction he has with another human being feels urgent.  He's a man's man with traitorous Messala (Stephen Boyd), Arrius (Jack Hawkins), and sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), but is sweet to his mother and sister and predatory with slave girl Esther (Haya Harareet).  Put a beard on him and he's Moses.  Give him a loincloth and he'll take on the Apes. In chainmail, he's El Cid.  Of course, this is his role as actor, and movies (especially in Hollywood's Golden Age) have always cast oddly Americanized versions of clearly foreign characters...but I've never heard anyone question Charlton Heston in any role outside of the NRA.  Maybe it's because Heston, like the epics he's famously starred in (and this one in particular) manages the same self-importance as the spectacle behind him.  He takes himself as seriously as the film's pompous grandiosity suggests you take it, and together, these elements dodge their own worst attributes.  The semi-pretentious, loosely drawn Christ theme disappears into the background, and you're not allowed to question the mid-20th century machismo that drips from Heston's every pore.  It works.  It worked then and it somehow holds up now.  So, though I still think the film is poorly titled and could do without the Jesus...at the end of the day, it would seem Ben-Hur still ranks.
This picture = someone's camera + vhs tape.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    Nice blog i like it about hollywood
    Some ideas to decorate in style include: life size cut outs of famous actresses and actors, movie reel tins centerpieces (type 'movie reel centerpiece' in search), large clapboards that you personalize, 'walk of fame' stars (you could make your own and include family and friends names on them), and of course balloons with a Hollywood theme.

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