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Archive for the ‘author Joel Bocko’ Category

by Joel Bocko

The best depiction of Jesus Christ onscreen is also, alas, one of the least-known (type its title into IMDb, and you’ll wade through five higher-ranked results). Dennis Potter’s feverish 1969 teleplay Son of Man depicts the most famous and celebrated figure in the history of the world as a dirty, half-mad prophet trembling in the wilderness and bellowing at his followers, with nary a miracle in sight (when Jesus performs an exorcism, the woman in his arms appears to die). Yet as depicted by a fully-committed Colin Blakely, this ferocious wild man is among the most charismatic and compelling Christs I’ve ever seen: fascinating in his forceful delivery and admirable in his consistency, responding to slaps, goads, and outright torture with a determination to practice what he preaches by “loving his neighbor.” Given that these neighbors include the cunning high priest Caiaphas (Bernard Hepton) and the flagrantly cruel and condescending Pontius Pilate (Robert Hardy), this is no small order. This Jesus gets no relief, no reward – there is no happy ending, no Easter Sunday resurrection following the Good Friday execution. He moans those famous words, “Why have you forsaken me?”, expires, and the lights dim while the camera pulls back.


Although this is without reservation a filmed play (it even aired on a BBC series entitled “The Wednesday Play”), and Potter himself later complained that Son of Man was “shot on video in three days in an electronic studio on a set that looks as though it’s trembling and about to fall down,” in fact there is a visceral cinematic punch to the images. Director Gareth Davies inserts us into the midst of crowds with his jostling handheld aesthetic, while he complements dramatic dialogue with subtly sweeping dollies and slow-burning pans: the camera is always moving. (One over-eager tilt, playing with the shadow of the cross behind Jesus’ head, even captures an unprepared boom mic in the frame.) The compulsively choppy cutting also keeps us on the edge of our seat: often we’ll leap from the very tail-end of one character’s sentence to a desert sermon reaching its climax, crowd caught in mid-cheer. In Potter’s and Davies’ hands, the ancient world becomes immediate and we are plunged headfirst into a tumultuous hothouse of rabblerousers, spiritual seekers, and cruel overlords. In this sense, the “trembling” set “about to fall down” is a virtue, this soundstage barely able to contain the sparks flying to and fro.

The film intercuts three characters’ storylines, playing various worldviews off one another: a bored, callous Pilate (no noble handwasher of legend) debating Jesus’ importance with soldiers and fellow administrators; a cagey yet not completely corrupt Caiaphas caught between appeasement of his Roman ruler and satisfaction of Messiah-hungry Jerusalem; and finally, a Jesus quite distant from the coiled intellectualism and burdensome political power of the other two central characters, but no less tormented by his sense of duty. Initially described as a “loon,” he wanders through the desert picking up followers and preaching the word of God, winning coverts as much through passionate, two-fisted delivery as through the stark, intoxicating words spilling from his lips. Screened at a time when youthful radicals were spurning conventional power structures and living by instinct and camaraderie rather than cold, careful strategy, Son of Man presents a Jesus whose earthy presence is a manifestation of the spiritual truths he represents. Colin Blakely invests this Christ with a hearty appreciation for the tangible, caressing a cross while ironically admiring the quality of its timber (in the film’s most celebrated line, Jesus sighs, “You should have stayed a tree, and I should have stayed a carpenter”).

The grubby, sweaty physicality of this Biblical landscape is underscored by frequent eruptions of brutality. Numerous bodies are beaten to a gory pulp in clashes between Romans and Jews, Pilate casually discusses pacifism while a gladiator is mutilated before his eyes, and Jesus himself is raised atop the cross with stinging lacerations criss-crossing his torso. In one of Son of Man‘s most chilling moments, the culmination of violence is suggested rather than shown: Pilate slaps around a beautiful maidservant while she proclaims her faith in Christ’s message of love, and then a few scenes later we discover (via an off-hand remark) that she was subsequently flogged to death. The film even opens by cross-cutting (no pun intended) Jesus’ solitary seizure in the wilderness with a Roman massacre in the Jewish Temple. Immediately we are taught to link spiritual and physical torment, social upheaval with inner turmoil. Hard-won clarity and lingering pain go hand in bloody hand.

Son of Man‘s recognition of the physical and psychological costs of being divinely possessed – and its consequent depiction of a doubtful, very human Jesus – link it to another revisionist Biblical film, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). I’m currently reading the Nikos Kazantzakis book on which that film was based, and the similarities are striking – both stories depict Jesus asking God repeatedly, “Is it me?” (and almost seeming to plead that it not be) and both authors focus on tensions between revolutionary, anti-Roman currents in Messianic Judaism and the universalist, peaceful, inner-centered message of Jesus. Yet there are notable differences too: while both Potter and Kazantzakis envision the traitorous Judas Iscariot as a crucial character and kind of audience surrogate, Son of Man reveals him as a lamb of a man, arguing for mercy from his worldly leader as he’s forced to betray his spiritual leader, while Last Temptation features an angry redheaded brute of a Judas, a man of ironclad convictions, determined to challenge Christ because he isn’t forceful enough. Likewise, the two stories have opposite interpretations of Jesus himself: the Christ of Last Temptation is fragile, wavering, an innocent overwhelmed by God’s grace, while the Son of Man is rough-hewn, thick-bodied, vibrating with a manly sense of righteous fury.

Finally the two tales of Christ suggest different authorial visions of the grace of God and the coming of his Kingdom. On page at least, Kazantzakis struggles less with having faith than following it – his Jesus knows what God wants and resists because it terrifies him, not because he doubts its truth; in the world of the novel we too are guided to feel God’s mysterious but undeniable presence. Whereas Potter paints a picture that, suiting its medium, is externalized: we hear Jesus’ preaching, we see the impact it has (including on Pilate and Caiaphas, struck by doubts at the moment of condemnation), but when the potential Messiah is asked for proofs of his divinity, he denies them not only to his onscreen interlocutors but to us. The ambiguous presentation of Jesus’ otherworldliness and the film’s apparently pessimistic ending challenge us to draw our own conclusions. Potter cannot tell us if Jesus’ words are correct, if his path is the one to follow: only by listening and thinking for ourselves can we decide. It’s a credit to the power of Potter’s speeches, Davies’ presentation, and especially Blakely’s performance that at film’s end our greatest temptation is to believe.

Be sure to check out Allan Fish’s review of “Son of Man” which introduced me to this film. And finally, you can watch “Son of Man” itself on YouTube, which seems to be the only place it is available right now:

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Marty

by Joel Bocko

“I think of this as a great rainy afternoon movie. You’re flipping through the channels on one of those great lazy Saturdays…it’s summer but it’s raining outdoors and you’re stuck inside. You come across a classic movie channel (AMC, TCM–take your pick) and pause. What’s this? Ernest Borgnine? You always like him, why not stop for a moment and watch. It looks like it’s just beginning. ‘Marty’? Yeah, you’ve heard of it, vaguely. Won the Oscar or something, but it’s been kind of forgotten. So you start watching and before long you’re totally enchanted, completely charmed, by the simple story and realistic characters. Who can’t sympathize with Borgnine’s sensitive butcher, hanging out with his Italian friends and their goofy conversations about Mickey Spillane, all the while pining away with his heart of gold for a girl that his buddies call a ‘dog’? The conversations have the kind of natural humor and warmth that remind you of the old days hanging out with your pals. As you watch the movie, you find yourself enthralled and you never change the channel, watching it till the end, realizing that you’ve seen this plot riffed on and spoofed on various TV shows, films, and cartoons over the years. When the movie’s done, you’re really excited–this is one of those films you discovered on your own and nothing can beat that thrill.

“Now, this isn’t the way I saw ‘Marty’–I rented it and now own it on DVD–but it’s the spirit I get from it. I love the conversation between Marty and his best friend, its street poetry that’s entertaining without being false, in the diner as their Friday night lays out ahead of them. I love Marty and Clara’s walk, their honesty and his enthusiasm; you worry is he going too far, being too gregarious for the shy Clara? Will it work? I love the preparations for Sunday Mass, the fight between the married couple, and Marty agonizing over standing up his girl while his friends have an amusingly banal and silly conversation in which they keep repeating themselves. It’s really just a charming and wonderful film, joyful even in its sad moments. If you don’t enjoy it, what can I say, but my recommendation comes completely honest and from the heart. This is one of those personal favorites that also happens to be an underrated classic–but just underrated enough so that the joy of discovering it on a rainy Saturday afternoon remains undiluted.” – Me, April 24, 2003, my first online review (IMDb)

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Lady and the Tramp

by Joel Bocko

Lady and the Tramp is one of the great romances of all time…but it’s much more as well. In fact, the animated classic samples numerous mid-century film (and TV) genres. “Lady in Movieland” explores many of them while also observing Lady’s anxiety and eventual acceptance of a new member of the family (and what this means for her own comfort and independence). Hope you have as much fun watching this as I had making it.

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Image

by Joel Bocko

Movies are motifs and moments as well as stories – individual, isolated campfires flickering in the desert dusk and not just landscapes strung together by a stretch of lonesome road. Perhaps Westerns more than most other narrative films rely on this identification with details rather than plot development. Indeed, often the plots exist as clotheslines over which to string the details: the kids playing in the dirt staring up in awe at the outlaws riding nonchalantly through town, the bedroom sequence in which a lonely drifter becomes loquacious with a local whole, the banter over whisky at the bar (nobody drinks beer in saloons, it seems). Audiences go to Westerns – or went to Westerns when they were more popular – less to experience surprise twists and turns in a novelistic story than to gaze with affection and curiosity at a portrait of a time and place both familiar and foreign.

“Revisionist” directors like Sam Peckinpah may have upset and upturned conventions, but they also honored and expanded upon those conventions in the first place. Watching films like The Wild Bunch today, their once-groundbreaking violence no longer shocks; one is struck instead by the ways in which they feel nostalgic or old-fashioned. They exude a sense of affectionate camaraderie which one seldom finds outside of buddy comedies (albeit sans stoicism) in 2013. Perhaps no Western more acutely captures the passage from warm if rough camaraderie into brooding, suspicious isolation than Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). Even stylistically, the film – particularly when comparing its various incarnations (three have been released over the years) – is torn between a sense of long, lingering (perhaps excessive) attention to detail and a relentless march toward an inevitable outcome.

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by Allan Fish, Joel Bocko, Dean Treadway and Sam Juliano

Between January 2012 and October 2013, Allan Fish led one of the most enjoyable–and ultimately informative–exercises Wonders in the Dark has ever hosted: a weekly poll in which all readers were invited to elect “alternate Oscars” in (ultimately) nine categories: picture (feature), director, actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, cinematography, score, and short film. Allan graciously allowed me to compile nominees for that final category from 1960 on, which was educational to say the least. To revisit the enthusiastic, often contentious, and frequently loquacious discussions and individual ballots, you need only to check out the “Wonders in the Dark Yearly Poll” archives. These threads were often more than half the fun of the whole enterprise–and perhaps another will arise below. Just for fun, we’ve also included the most important final stats at the end of the post–biggest winners, most votes received, and the top films (at least by our estimation). (Joel Bocko)

Seemingly an eon ago, I ran across Allan Fish’s ongoing project on WONDERS IN THE DARK and immediately had to throw in.  This was when we were doing the round-ups for 1935 or so (I missed the previous years, I’m sorry to say). Inspired by Fish’s incredibly inclusive nominations, I quickly decided to participate, and deeply.  Like many of our weekly participants, I made it a priority to take a look at what I knew about each year’s film output, and to exact and even broaden my knowledge of each year’s products, so as to more definitely determine my favorites out of the bunch (in the process, I ended up seeing many movies I would not have seen without this project).  As the years progressed, into the 50s and so, I started to notice some titles that Allan was leaving out of the mix.  By the 1960s (the start of my major wheelhouse), I began noticing more and more forsaken titles.  So, by the 1970s, I began to add films, performances, score, cinematography, and short nominations into the mix, ultimately with Sam Juliano’s approval (and without credit).  My intention was simply to augment Allan’s already exhaustive nominees list, so as provide all the voters with absolutely ALL the possibilities before them.  In the end, this turned out to be an emotionally churning, educationally enriching experience–one that I’ll treasure forever; I hope we all see each year’s nominations as being a COMPLETE overview of each year’s output (right down to even the most outside possibilities as to the best of each year).  As for the project as a whole, it’s kinda like a mini-SIGHT AND SOUND poll, amongst bloggers and hardcore film lovers, and not amongst big critical and filmmaking names. I’ve often pulled my hair over the winners (how did Peter O’Toole not win for Lawrence of Arabia, and how did Paul Newman not win for The Verdict?–those are just two that killed me–and how did Newman win for Absence of Malice instead??).  Still, I accepted each of these outcomes, as well as all others (we all did).

As for this post: I did a major amount of copy editing, and all of the bolding and italicizing of each year’s winners, and I added to Joel Bocko’s final stats, detailing the top short filmmakers, and–most importantly–tallying the “winningest” films in our poll (which really seems like a justifiably selected gallery of great films–they’re the titles ALL cineastes must see–and this is a list we should all be proud of, considering how we came about it).  Anyway…I did it all out of love–pure love–like, totally INFINITE love–for this absolutely singular art form to which we all have pledged sections of our lives.  Each week, even though I’ve been busy with my own blog and podcast, I happily devoted many hours of my time, not only to my posts, but to WONDERS IN THE DARK in general (and, geez, I can’t even hazard to guess how many hours of his time Allan Fish gave to this project).  Nearly finally–without “MovieMan” and shorts expert Joel Bocko, this complete overview would not have been possible; he a cinema authority like no other.  Much more extra gratitude needs to be accorded to Jaimie Grijalba, Sachin Gandhi, Jon Warner, Shubhajit Lahiri, Frank Gallo, Samuel Wilson, Stephen Mullen (Weeping Sam), Mark Smith, Camolas, Duane Porter, Peter M., Bobby McCartney, Dennis Polifroni, sirrefas, Martin Bradley, Maurizio Roca, Movie Fan, R.D. Finch, Drew McIntosh, Stephen, Peter Lenihan, Anu, Frederick, Angelo D’Arminio, Kevin Deaney, David Noack, Jacob Z–and so many more—because…well, without all of you, this would have amounted to nothing.  Thank you all for being part of this 92-week-long project.  Speaking for myself, I can’t possibly express what this collective effort has meant to me.  I’m so much smarter now than I once was.  And I’ll be returning to each year’s posts on WONDERS IN THE DARK for direction as to what I should see next (I really wanna see every film that needs seeing before passing from this realm–and, really, I have plenty of time to do this).  And now–truly finally–thank you, Allan Fish, for your complete and astonishing knowledge of film, and to Sam Juliano for your endless generosity. (Dean Treadway)

My own glowing assessment of the passion that went into this project was expressed last week.  Again, thanks to Allan, Joel and Dean, this was unquestionably one of the greatest highlights in the history of the site. (Sam Juliano)

As for the results themselves (including the results of last week’s 2012 vote), without further ado:

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by Joel Bocko

By refusing to broadcast the Honorary Awards for the fourth year running, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has given the cold shoulder to luminaries of film history. Perhaps we should return the favor.

This is not a clever list of “Top 10” reasons to ignore, criticize, or make fun of the Academy Awards. Right now I’m only interested in one deeply unfair and indicative reason. That said, a brief bit of background may be in order…

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by Joel Bocko

If there’s a more American film than It’s a Wonderful Life, and a more American hero than George Bailey, I don’t know it. No other film more comprehensively or powerfully captures the common American experience between the wars – that is to say, between Armistice Day and V-J Day – and no other film creates a richer dialogue between the dreams and ambitions that motivate us (then and now), the comforts and camaraderie that soothe us (perhaps then more than now), and the responsibilities and burdens we feel toward our families and communities (now more essentially than ever). It is timeless but it is also very, very much focused on its own time (or rather, a time just passed), a quality that gives It’s a Wonderful Life tremendous strength rather than dating it. By featuring popular songs and political references, by tying the daily life of Bedford Falls into the greater drama of the nation, it provides us with a moving portrait of our parents’ or grandparents’ experience; by not being afraid to situate itself in a particular moment in history, the movie shows us the universal in the particular. Besides, It’s a Wonderful Life has never been timelier, maybe not even when it was released, amidst a postwar era waving goodbye (and good riddance – no wonder the film struggled at the box office) to the years depicted onscreen.

Indeed, while it represents a generally darker, grittier strain than was apparent in most thirties films, It’s a Wonderful Life functions more as a culmination of one Hollywood epoch than the introduction to a new one. Its ensemble cast, its determinedly studio-created world, its dreamy, diffused black-and-white glow, all hearken back to the golden age of Hollywood which was starting to come to an end. Within a few years, techniques like location shooting, stylistic developments associated with noir and naturalism,  looser acting styles imported from New York, and outside circumstances like the HUAC hearings and the breakup of the studio monopoly would all contribute to a noticeable shift in American movie style and content. These trends would escalate with the increasing use of color and the introduction of widescreen, facilitating an increase in lavish epics to compete with television (ironically, the medium that would eventually make It’s a Wonderful Life the classic it remains today). Before long, the kind of film It’s a Wonderful Life represented – focused in scope, indulgent of character, romantic in its emotional content yet realistic in its sensitive observations of social dynamics – would be more or less extinct.

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