Archive for the 'Film genres' Category
The Hateful Eight (2015).
The Academy Awards ceremony is upon us. Once again this year, I offer an overview of the two music categories: Best Original Song and Best Original Score. For the songs and some score cues I’ve provided links, so you can listen as you read.
This year’s nominees showcase music written in an array of musical styles for a wide range of narrative contexts. The composers and songwriters recognized for their work include some newcomers, some savvy veterans, and a pair of legends who have helped to define the modern film score.
As always, this preview is offered for non-sporting purposes. Anyone seeking insights for wagers or even the office Oscar pool is duly cautioned that they assume their own financial risks for any information they use. And since I was only half-right with last year’s prognostications, you might seek predictions from insiders at Variety and Entertainment Weekly.
Diversity in numbers: Best Original Song
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).
When the Oscars were announced a few weeks ago, they made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Noting the lack of racial diversity among the acting nominees, social media exploded, creating #OscarsSoWhite as a popular Twitter handle to draw attention to the situation. After a cacophony of tweets and retweets, several celebrities weighed in. Will Smith and others suggested that they planned to boycott the ceremonies.
The nominees for Best Original Song, though, are a pretty significant exception to the OscarsSoWhite meme. Both the performers of these five songs and the topics they address reveal that Oscar voters haven’t entirely ignored the fact that films can be a force for social change.
The Weeknd’s breakout year on the pop charts has continued with an Oscar nomination for “Earned It” from Universal’s hit of last spring, Fifty Shades of Grey. The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” has enlivened playlists all year long, but “Earned It” is a slow-burn soul ballad that accompanies Christian and Anastasia’s ride home after his mother interrupts their morning tryst. The song was co-written by the Weeknd, Belly, Jason “Daheala” Quenneville, and Stephan Moccio, and features a simple two-chord pattern on the piano that eventually builds toward a more harmonically adventurous string passage. According to Moccio, the song was intended to reflect a male perspective, hinting at the darkness lurking underneath Christian’s sexual peccadillos.
The Weeknd, Quenneville, and Belly are all Canadian. But considering that the Weeknd and Quenneville are of African descent and that Belly is of Palestinian heritage, their nomination offers a modest riposte to the criticism leveled at the Oscars for their lack of racial diversity. However, since their song appears in one of the more critically reviled films to receive a nomination, it seems unlikely that “Earned It” will take home the prize next Sunday.
Tuning up nonfiction films: Nominated songs from docs
Racing Extinction (2015).
Two other nominations come from recent documentary films, continuing a trend begun with last year’s nod to Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. The first is for J. Ralph and Antony Hegarty’s “Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction, which examines the threat man poses to the survival of several bird species, amphibians, and marine animals.
Hegarty is only the second openly transgender person to receive a nomination, a quite pleasant surprise for fans of her work as a singer and songwriter. Hegarty initially made a splash in 2000 with the release of her band’s debut album, Antony and the Johnsons. Her breakthrough, though, came with the 2005 release I Am a Bird Now, which topped several critics’ year-end lists and won Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize.
“Manta Ray” is a delicate waltz based upon a central theme from J. Ralph’s score for Racing Extinction. Although the song itself appears only over the closing credits, Ralph’s theme threads through the film, introduced during a key scene when a member of the filmmaking team removes a hook and fishing line from a manta ray’s dorsal fin. After the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, commercial fishermen increasingly targeted manta rays since their gills were thought to have curative powers among practitioners of Chinese folk medicine.
Anchored by her soft, tremulous voice, Hegarty’s music has always exuded sensitivity and melancholy in almost equal measure. With Hegarty’s ethereal tones floating over Ralph’s simple piano accompaniment, “Manta Ray” not only captures the animal’s grace and beauty, but also hints at the tragedy of their steady decline.
Racing Extinction is not Hegarty’s first brush with Hollywood. Previously, her music was featured in James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta and in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. But given all the media attention to the Oscars, Sunday night will offer Hegarty a much bigger stage and a chance for the world to see her extraordinary gifts.
The other nominated song from a documentary is “Til It Happens to You,” which was written for Kirby Dick’s searing documentary on campus rape, The Hunting Ground. The film not only exposes college administrators’ efforts to cover up incidents of sexual assault, but also shows how two University of North Carolina rape survivors used Title IX legislation to draw attention to the problem.
“Til It Happens to You” brought Lady Gaga her first nomination and Diane Warren her eighth. Beyond the sheer star power brought by the pair, Gaga and Warren both have discussed their own experience as rape victims.
According to Variety, Gaga worried that the gravity of the film’s subject matter might not square with her outlandish diva persona: “I was very concerned that people would not take me seriously or that I would somehow add a stigma to it.” But her concerns appear to be unfounded. Warren reports that other survivors have reached out to her saying that the song and film is “making people feel less alone.”
Some of this reaction undoubtedly derives from the emotional gut punch delivered by the song’s lyrics. They not only describe the feelings of devastation felt by rape victims. They also express the difficulty of dealing with unfeeling bureaucrats and callous peers. The refrain of “Til It Happens to You” conveys the sense of isolation created by others’ inability to fully know what it’s like to walk in the victim’s shoes.
Licensed to Trill: The Spectre of Youth
Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall” from Spectre adds another notch to James Bond’s gunbelt. Four previous Bond films have received nominations for Best Original Song. And in 2013, British chanteuse Adele took home a golden statuette for the title track of Skyfall.
For me, the piece is well crafted, but falls somewhere in the middle of the Bond music pantheon. Not quite the peaks of Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” or Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” But also not the dregs of Rita Coolidge’s “All-Time High” or A-ha’s “The Living Daylights.” “Writing’s On the Wall” is vaguely Bond-ish in much the same way that Smith’s smash hit, “Stay With Me,” contained strong echoes of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
The last nominee is “Simple Song #3” from Youth. Of all the nominees, David Lang’s piece is the one most firmly integrated into the film’s narrative. “Simple Song #3” is featured at the end of Youth, performed onscreen by singer Sumi Jo, violinist Viktoria Mullova, and the BBC Concert Orchestra.
The song is a classic “Adagio” structured around a repeated descending string figure. Gradually, other instruments are added, creating patterns of shifting harmony that surge beneath Jo’s vocal line.
Although “Simple Song #3” doesn’t appear till the end, the song is mentioned at several earlier moments as the work of the film’s protagonist, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine). Ballinger is a retired composer and conductor lured back to the stage by an invitation from the Queen to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday. According to Lang, the piece offers a window into Ballinger’s psychology. It balances both the aspirations of his youth with the melancholy of a life lived apart from the woman he loved.
Placed in the film’s climax, Ballinger’s work provides an emotional capstone that operates at several levels. Given the complexity of its narrative function, “Simple Song #3” is not so simple.
Prediction: As a longtime Antony and the Johnsons fan, I would be delighted to see Hegarty and Ralph making their acceptance speech on Sunday night. But it seems to be Lady Gaga’s year so far. After winning a Golden Globe for her work on American Horror Story: Hotel, singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, and performing a tribute to David Bowie at the Grammys, Gaga will cap off a stellar start to the new year by walking home with Oscar on her arm. It will also provide career recognition to Diane Warren, whose music has graced more than 200 different films and television shows. After last year’s disappointment, Warren finally will get the opportunity to be forever “Grateful.”
Old White Men and Even Older White Men: Best Original Score
The nominees for Best Original Score are a group of seasoned craftsmen who collectively have received more than seventy Oscar nominations and have written music for more than seven hundred feature films. At age 46, Jóhann Jóhannsson is the youngster of the group. Carter Burwell and Thomas Newman both turned sixty late last year. And John Williams and Ennio Morricone are both octogenarians.
Jóhannsson is nominated for his score for Denis Villeneuve’s drug war thriller Sicario. The Icelandic composer received a nod last year for The Theory of Everying, but lost out to Alexandre Desplat’s charming Euro-pudding score for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The score for Sicario, though, couldn’t be more different than that for The Theory of Everything. Where Everything’s music was lilting and lyrical, Sicario’s is tense and ominous, emphasizing rhythm, timbre, and texture over more conventional structures of melody and harmony. Several cues are organized around pounding drum patterns punctuated by sustained, dissonant blasts of strings and low brass. In an interview, Jóhannsson recalled, “I think the the percussion came first, and then I started to weave the orchestra into it. Very early on I decided to focus on the low end of the spectrum—focus on basses, contrabasses, low woodwinds, contrabassoon, contrabass clarinets and contrabass saxophone.”
Other cues also emphasize percussive textures, but with the instrument sounds processed so that they sound driven to the point of distortion. Even a more restrained cue like “Melancholia” still maintains a quiet intensity, structured around a cyclic harmonic pattern played on acoustic guitar in a vaguely flamenco style. The score is brutally effective in capturing the mood of Sicario’s taut action scenes. In fact, for me, Jóhannsson’s score was, without question, the best thing in the film.
The Old Hands: Carter Burwell and Thomas Newman
Carter Burwell received his first Oscar nomination this January for his score for Todd Haynes’ Carol. Burwell got his start on the Coen brothers’ debut, Blood Simple (1984), and has been a regular collaborator ever since. He has also worked regularly with a number of other filmmakers, such as Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, and Bill Condon. Given the rather quirky and absurdist tone found in many of their projects, Burwell’s great gift is to provide music that emotionally grounds the characters, finding notes of lyricism, melancholy, and pathos in the strange stories of lovelorn puppeteers, sex researchers, and bumbling kidnappers.
For Carol, Burwell tried to capture the peculiar mixture of passion and distance that characterizes Therèse’s initial attraction to Carol. Because Carol comes across as both elegant and a bit aloof, Burwell not only utilized ambiguous harmonies, but also “cool” instruments, such as piano, clarinet, and vibes.
On his website, Burwell identifies three main musical themes in his score for Carol. The first is a love theme introduced in the film’s opening city scene. It presages the relationship even before we’ve been introduced to the characters. The second theme underscores Therèse’s fascination with Carol. Says Burwell, “This is basically a cloud of piano notes, not unlike the clouded glass through which Todd Haynes and Ed Lachman occasionally shoot the characters.” The third theme captures the characters’ sense of loss when they are separated. Knowing that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara would convey the characters’ pain in their performances, Burwell opted instead to use open harmonies (fourths, fifths, and ninths) to communicate their sense of emptiness.
Burwell orchestrated the music for chamber-size ensembles to maintain the sense of intimacy between the characters. Some cues feature as few as four instruments while others were performed by as many as 17 musicians.
Burwell’s spare, modest score is a departure from the style Haynes explored in his previous foray into this territory: his Douglas Sirk homage, Far From Heaven (2002). Elmer Bernstein’s score for that film was lush and emotionally expansive, aping Frank Skinner’s musical stylings in films like Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). Burwell wrote only 38 minutes of music. Yet it all is beautifully attuned to the film’s mood of quiet desperation.
Thomas Newman earned his thirteenth nomination for Bridge of Spies. (Insert Susan Lucci joke here.) Newman, of course, descends from film composing royalty as the son of the renowned classical Hollywood tuner, Alfred Newman. Yet, despite Newman the Younger’s distinguished career in Tinseltown, Newman the Younger has a long way to go to catch his pops. Alfred won nine Oscars and accrued more than forty nominations.
Newman’s music has graced some of the most beloved American films of the past three decades, such as The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E. Although he is known for his versatility, an NPR story on his score for Bridge of Spies notes that Newman has become known for passages that incorporate “quirky, layered piano writing and jagged string motifs.”
Newman and Spielberg save the score’s biggest moments for the film’s climax and epilogue. Indeed, more than half of the film’s score is backloaded into its last three cues, which together account for about 25 minutes of music. Displaying Newman’s full emotional range, “Glienicke Bridge” anxiously underscores the tense prisoner exchange that delivers Rudolf Abel back into Soviet hands. “Homecoming” features solo trumpet and oboe to convey James B. Donovan’s sense of validation now that his fellow commuters’ scowls of disapproval have turned to smiles of patriotic pride.
Newman’s score for Bridge of Spies is a very solid piece of work evincing the craft and refinement displayed by earlier masters like Jerry Goldsmith and John Barry. Yet the music’s modesty and conventionality make it the kind of score all too easy to overlook.
The Legends: John Williams and Ennio Morricone
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Oddsmakers have tabbed our final two nominees, John Williams and Ennio Morricone, as the most likely to take home the big prize. The former is nominated for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in George Lucas’s series and the seventh scored by Williams. Coming 48 years after the composer’s Oscar win for the first Star Wars film, Williams’s music updates the neo-Romantic style he helped to revive in the 1970s. It also adds new themes for key new characters, such as Rey and Kylo Ren.
Williams wrote a massive amount of music for The Force Awakens. (Indeed, the 102-minute score is more than double that of Newman’s score for Bridge of Spies.) But very little of it simply replicates materials from the previous films. By Williams’s own count, only seven minutes of the score function as “obligatory” references to his own immediately recognizable themes.
As in his previous work, Williams shows enormous skill in juggling the various leitmotifs that are attached to the film’s dramatic personae, often moving a motif through different instrument combinations in order to vary the color and timbre of each cue. And Williams’s sure touch with this material undoubtedly enhances J.J. Abrams’ everything-old-is-new-again approach to The Force Awakens, a strategy that seems to have satisfied long-time fans, many of whom probably have dusty old compact discs of the composer’s earlier Star Wars scores.
The score for The Force Awakens earned Williams’s his fiftieth nomination and it is a fine addition to his already considerable oeuvre. Still, considering that Williams has won Oscars on five previous occasions and the been-there- done-that aspect of the enterprise, it is hard to believe that this score will bring the composer his sixth statuette. Thankfully for him, Williams’s reputation as one of the greatest composers to work in the film medium is already firmly secured.
That leaves just Ennio Morricone, the equally legendary Italian composer whose collaborations with Sergio Leone redefined the sound of the Western. Nearly fifty years after Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly topped U.S. record charts, Morricone garnered his sixth Best Original Score nomination for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
The film marked Morricone’s return to the genre after several decades of avoiding it. According to the composer, most directors who approached him simply wanted him to replicate the sound of his great Spaghetti Western scores. Morricone preferred to pursue projects that let him stretch in other directions.
Tarantino gave the Maestro a free hand in developing the score of The Hateful Eight, and Morricone responded with one of his best scores in decades. Aside from his characteristic use of vocal chants as rhythmic accents, the score for The Hateful Eight largely avoids the sort of psychedelic touches and extravagant tone colors found in his Spaghetti Western scores. Gone are the electric guitar, ocarina, whistles, and coyote yelps that established Morricone as a kind of musical meme. Substituted instead are much more conventional orchestral colors with the strings and wind sections taking prominent roles in The Hateful Eight.
Perhaps one reason for this move back to classical Hollywood convention is due to the hybrid qualities of Tarantino’s story. As Peter Debruge noted in his Variety review, The Hateful Eight is “a salty hothouse whodunit that owes as much to Agatha Christie as it does to Anthony Mann.” Morricone himself seems to concur. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the composer added, “Quentin Tarantino considers this film a Western; for me, this is not a Western. I wanted to do something that was totally different from any Western music I had composed in the past.”
Morricone’s score has a “theme and variations” structure that shows him adeptly changing his tempo, texture, and instrumentation to adapt his main theme to new dramatic contexts. His Overture provides the basic template for the score. The low strings and winds play a sustained minor chord that sneaks into the soundtrack. After a few seconds, the upper voices enter playing chords on the first and third beats of each measure to outline the basic harmonic progression of the main theme. Eventually an oboe will enter playing a repeated interval as a counterrhythm over the top of this pattern.
This gives way to the strings, which intone a serpentine diatonic melody that provides the spine for the rest of the cue. Gradually, Morricone introduces more instruments, such as vibes and brass, to vary the tone color and even adds a simple bridge section that consists of a series of soft, chromatically descending chords. After a brief restatement of the main melody, the cue finishes with a series of long sustained chords marked by shifting harmonies in the inner voices. The clarinet plays a fragment of the main theme before it eventually fades out. The cue never comes to the kind of climax that a traditional cadential structure would provide. Instead it simply unwinds itself.
The central theme is probably given its most elaborate treatment in the main title, “L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock – Version Integrale.” A steady timpani pulse and a sustained pitch in the strings provide a pedal tone against which a new melody is introduced in the contrabassoon’s low register. This musical figure has a serpentine quality like the other, and it has been written to function as counterpoint to its predecessor at later moments when the two will be interleaved. Morricone gradually introduces more instruments to thicken the texture and even adds brass and pizzicato accents as embroidery atop the main theme. A hi-hat cymbal adds some rhythmic variety to the basic pulse of the timpani.
After a brief detour into some transitional material, the main melody returns, but now played by strings, xylophone, and muted brass instruments. The main musical figure continues to be restated with new ideas simply piled on top. As the music grows in both volume and intensity, Morricone adds trills and furious agitato string runs to create a cacophonous, but organized musical chaos. The cue climaxes with the melody played fortissimo in octaves by the violin section, soaring toward a sudden and abrupt stop. After a short pause, the contrabassoon quietly returns to play a brief musical coda that eventually fades to silence.
Morricone has long been a master of this type of musical structure. He’ll start with a simple musical idea, but then adds different countermelodies or obbligatos to vary its mood and tone. The ongoing accretion of elements creates the effect of a long crescendo that eventually finds release in silence. (For an earlier example of this kind of technique, see his cue for “The Desert” on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack.)
Beyond its purely musical effectiveness, though, “L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock” exudes a roiling tumult that fittingly captures the sense of deception and distrust that will pervade Minnie’s Haberdashery. The musical mood remains mostly dark and ominous throughout, leavened only by the bright solo trumpet fanfare that underscores Sheriff Chris Mannix’s reading of Major Warren’s Lincoln letter.
Tarantino’s trust in the Maestro was amply rewarded. This is a score that no one but Morricone could produce. As was the case with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for Sicario, it seems to be the best thing about The Hateful Eight. Tarantino wanted a soundtrack album for one of his own films that he could proudly place alongside other Morricone albums in his collection. He got it and then some.
Prediction: The Maestro finally gets his due! Although Morricone received an honorary Oscar in 2007 for his “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music,” none of his individual scores have received awards from the Academy. I expect that to change next Sunday night. In fact, betting odds put Morricone’s chances of winning an Oscar for Best Original Score at 1 to 5. That means that a five dollar bet will net you one dollar profit if you win. That is about as close to a sure thing as you are likely to find in the gambling world. And even I’m not dumb enough to buck that trend.
In truth, I would be happy to see any of these composers take home the Oscar. I’ve enjoyed their contributions to the art of film music for much of my adult life. But, for me, the only real question is this: How long will the standing ovation be as Ennio Morricone prepares to give his acceptance speech? I put the over/under at 65 seconds.
You can find interviews with nearly all of the nominees for Best Original Score: Morricone, Williams (here and here), Newman, and Johannsson. Carter Burwell’s notes on Carol can be found on his website.
Emilio Audissino’s book on John Williams offers a terrific overview of the composer’s career. For a study of Morricone’s compositional techniques and style, see Charles Leinberger’s monograph on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Scarecrow Press’s series of Film Score Guides. My book The Sounds of Commerce includes a chapter on Morricone’s spaghetti western scores.
More on Morricone: The Maestro weighs in on the film scoring process in Composing for the Cinema: Theory and Practice of Music in Film, which is coauthored with Sergio Miceli. You can listen to the opening cue of the score for The Hateful Eight here.
P.S. 25 February 2016: Thanks to Peter Brandon for a correction concerning the Canadian identity of The Weeknd, Quenneville, and Belly.
Continuity editing was one of the great collective inventions of filmmakers. In the ten years after it crystallized in Hollywood around 1917, it was adopted around the world. The technique has hung on a surprisingly long time, rather like geometrical perspective in pictorial art. It’s so powerful that it’s hard to escape.
It’s powerful partly because it’s adaptable to a lot of narrative situations. It provides filmmakers what we can call a set of stylistic schemas, or routine patterns, that can be adjusted in various ways. Analytical cuts that take us into or back from the action, shot/reverse shots and eyeline matches, over-the-shoulder framings (OTS), and slight camera movements that set up reestablishing shots: these straightforward schemas can be used in an indefinitely large number of ways.
I‘ve been noticing this flexibility while writing (still!) my book on narrative strategies in 1940s Hollywood. In particular, I was looking at fantasy tales and the peculiar problems they pose for filmmakers. First, how do we represent ghosts, angels, and other visitors from the Afterlife? And how do we make sure that audiences understand that what we see isn’t necessarily what some of the characters onscreen are seeing?
Our Town (1940).
On the first problem: Today we have CGI resources that allow Afterlifers to move freely among the living characters. These effects were much harder to achieve back then. The supernatural-fantasy genre developed its own conventions (yep, schemas). Most films resorted to presenting the Afterlifer in double exposure.
But superimposed characters can’t move easily among the clutter of furniture in a set. A supered ghost can’t go behind a sofa; the sofa will always be visible through it. You might resort to a traveling matte shot, as William Cameron Menzies did in Our Town (1940), when Emily revisits her family after her death. The shot (just above) is particularly flashy because the younger Emily is also in it.
Or you could pull off the remarkable trick in Earthbound (1940). Here a ghostly Warner Baxter settles comfortably into the middle ground and strides around behind furniture and other actors.
He can even give up his seat to an old lady and shift to another.
These effects were achieved by a technical feat that I don’t fully understand. (See the codicil.) But the trick wasn’t widely adopted, and most filmmakers opted for a simple expedient. Typically the Afterlifer shows up as a superimposition, but he or she gradually materializes and becomes a solid presence like all the other actors. This is from The Canterville Ghost (1945).
Then comes the second problem. Sometimes the living can see the spectre, but sometimes not. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the angel Jordan and Joe the prizefighter arrive from the Beyond and watch the murderous couple from behind. They aren’t visible to the living, but they’re just as tangible.
If a living character seems oblivious to the otherworldly guest, we’re to assume that the guest is invisible. Each film has to inform us of who can see what, and most films do—redundantly. The spook or divine messenger will explain that the living can’t see them, or that only certain characters can. (Sometimes children and animals can see them while grownup humans can’t.)
These conventions can get tweaked. Once we know the Afterlifers aren’t visible to the living, they can comment on the action from the sidelines, as when the dead pilot in A Guy Named Joe (1944) slips in wisecracks while his girlfriend is wooed by a young aviator. In the comic The Man in the Trunk (1942), an all-too-tangible ghost can’t follow a character leaving a room. He explains, “I failed my examination on how to walk through walls.” In The Remarkable Andrew (1941), the ghosts of US founding fathers can ransack offices for evidence in an utterly unconstitutional search and seizure. Most ghosts can pick up objects, but the ones in The Cockeyed Miracle (1946) can’t, a fact redundantly explained to us. This generates suspense when they try to grab a fallen bank check. (Incidentally, this is a long, skillfully directed scene, and it does have recourse to a matte shot when one ghost tries. unsuccessfully, to hide the check by standing on it.)
All of these tweaks rely on continuity editing. But in the course of the 1940s, I’ve noticed, filmmakers played a little more ambitiously with the Afterlife conventions, and continuity style allowed them to do it. The results are sometimes provocative.
Ghosts coming and going
Consider the arrival/departure of the Afterlifer. The default is the special-effects twinkling that lets him or her materialize into the scene and fade out of it. But some filmmakers tried more natural options. In Alias Nick Beale, the title character, aka Satan, strolls in from offscreen, or, thanks to John Cromwell’s staging, is masked by other players before being revealed on the scene. He’s presented to all the characters as a real person, but the staging gives him arrivals of relaxed abruptness.
Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) finds other ways to avoid the hugger-mugger of transparency and melting departures. Captain Gregg assures Mrs. Muir that to her he is “like a blasted lantern slide,” but for us he just steps into the frame and stays on as a solid presence. He disappears just as simply: Mrs. Muir turns away, then a new shot shows that Gregg has gone. Good old shot/reverse shot does the trick.
It’s neat that the second reverse shot on Mrs. Muir reaffirms Gregg’s absence by making her seem more isolated than the earlier mid-shot does. This cut-back to show her isolation after his departure is stressed even more in a later scene, when a medium shot shows her turned slightly away from him; in that interval, he disappears again.
Only after the captain has decided to leave her forever does he resort to the standard spook trick of dissolving away. But in this melancholy context, the familiar device takes on a forbidding finality. He leaves her sleeping and has magically made her forget all about their year together.
In the epilogue, when the elderly Mrs. Muir dies, the captain returns, sturdy as ever, and again the film avoids the cliché. The default schema is to let the dead person’s spirit float up in superimposition from the corpse. Instead, Mankiewicz presents Gregg standing over the lady in a tight shot and simply lifting the now eternally young Mrs. Muir into the frame. Again, all we need is shot/reverse shot, this time with the extra intimacy of an OTS.
These uncommon options take us a little by surprise, refreshing the genre conventions, while also suggesting that the films drive a little deeper into the heart than the usual spook story. The simplicity of presentation helps us take their spectral affair more seriously.
In The Bishop’s Wife (1947) the angel Dudley, like Gregg, comes and goes via offscreen space. A pan follows Henry the bishop, who hears a noise outside his study. The shot pays off with a reverse-angle cut to Dudley, now magically present at the fireplace where Henry was.
At other points, as in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the framing excludes Dudley, and when we cut to the long shot Dudley is gone.
Soon, though, there’s a gag on the device. Henry, furious with Dudley, turns away and prays that Dudley will leave him. As earlier, the camera tracks in.
At first it seems that the prayer has been answered, when the camera tracks back from Henry and we see his slightly surprised expression, implying that Dudley has vanished.
But it’s then revealed to us, before Henry knows, that Dudley has changed position and is still in the room.
This quiet revision of the schema is in keeping with the film’s other jabs at Afterlifer conventions. At another point, Henry demands that Dudley execute a miracle. He locks the study door, evidently expecting Dudley to stalk through it in the usual phantom fashion. Instead, Dudley just twists the knob, magically opens it, and exits, closing it behind him and leaving Henry to bang against the relocked door.
Re-turning the screw
In general, supernatural romances play down the magical side of the Afterlifers’ visits. This is partly because they rely on a certain ambiguity about who can see what.
Henry James’ brilliant tale “The Turn of the Screw” provides an instance that people have argued about for generations. The unnamed governess, sent to take care of little Miles and Flora, starts to see dead people: the servant Peter Quint and the governess Miss Jessel. Most of her encounters with the ghosts take place when she’s alone, or with the children. Since the story is narrated from her viewpoint, and in the first person, we have no other testimony about the apparitions. The children seem to spot the spooks, but we can’t be sure. And we can’t be sure that they aren’t simply figments of the governess’s imagination. In the one scene that brings in another witness, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose declares that she can’t see Quint or Miss Jessup. Is the governess mad, or are the children really haunted by the corrupt couple?
The tension exemplifies what narrative theories Tzvetan Todorov called the “fantastic,” the tale of uncertain explanation. The fantastic hovers between scientific, or at least real-world explanations, and supernatural ones. Either the ghosts exist, as in most ghost stories, or they can be explained psychologically, as the narrator’s hallucinations.
Actually, in film, and I think in “The Turn of the Screw,” there’s a third possibility: that the Afterlifers exist as beings who can be seen only by the select few. In “The Turn of the Screw,” Flora definitely seems to see Miss Jessel on one occasion, so perhaps we can posit that the governess sees the ghosts when Mrs. Grose can’t.
This possibility is of course the premise for The Sixth Sense, and we find it as well in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, in which Gregg is visible only to Mrs. M. The situation is more equivocal in Portrait of Jennie (1949). In this film, David O. Selznick inflated the fantasy-romance genre as he had pumped up the historical drama (Gone with the Wind), the home-front film (Since You Went Away), and the western (Duel in the Sun).
During the winter and spring of a single year, the luckless painter Eben Adams encounters Jennie at different points in her life: as a little girl, a teenager, a college student, and a mature woman. He falls in love with her. Their penultimate encounter takes place when she comes to his apartment and allows him to paint her portrait. Then she disappears.
Is Jennie a time traveler or a ghost or an illusion, or even a supernatural muse? A bit of each. After each brief visit she withdraws, leaving Eben yearning for her. The art dealer Miss Spinney suggests that in order to paint well, Eben must love someone, so perhaps he has conjured up Jennie to inspire his art. It’s true that he sketches, draws, and paints several Jennies. (The final version, the portrait, won’t be shown us until the film’s last image, in blazing Technicolor.) And it’s true that, in a scene much like that featuring Mrs. Grose in James’ tale, we get a hint that Eben is hallucinating Jennie.
He has just spoken with the adolescent Jennie in Central Park when Spinney comes up to him. He watches Jennie go off, in a standard passage of continuity editing.
But then, thanks again to continuity eyeline technique, Spinney doesn’t see her.
Normally this cutting pattern would suggest that Jennie is purely Eben’s vision. (For a modern example, see Johnnie To’s The Mad Detective.) Yet we will soon learn that Jennie did exist. Playing detective, Eben discovers that she was orphaned, taken care of in a convent, and left for college—all things her apparition told him. Worse, he learns how she died: on a rocky seacoast he has already depicted in some paintings.
Selznick was concerned to make Jennie neither a real person nor a pure product of Eben’s imagination. In an early story conference he remarked that Jennie is both in Eben’s mind and in some really existing realm. “We must convince the audience that this story may be strange and odd, but it’s true. All the other characters may say, “Poor Adams, he must be nuts,’ but we know it is true.” The fact that only Eben can see Jennie doesn’t make her a figment of his imagination. Eben may have conjured her up, but she also chose to visit him, predicting that some day he will paint her portrait. The man has, somehow, met a woman from a spiritual world who has been seeking him. Eurydice-like, she will be pulled back into it.
Too few fancies, one powerful friend
Recognizing that spirits can become selectively visible to the living helps explain the delicate power of another supernatural fantasy of the period. The Curse of the Cat People (1944) uses hyper-judicious framing and editing to create perhaps the most mysterious 1940s Afterlifer.
Irena, the woman who can change into a panther, has died in The Cat People (1943). Her widowed husband Oliver has married Alice, and their child Amy, dreamy and unpopular, wishes for a friend. Near the start of the film we’re led to think that Irena is that imaginary friend, wholly a product of Amy’s mind. Irena comes to her in the garb of a traditional princess or fairy godmother, a bit like the fairy of Pinocchio (1940), so we might take her as Amy’s imagining. And the teacher Miss Callahan, who might seem to be playing the raisonneur, says that the little girl has “too many fancies, too few friends.” But that doesn’t seem to me quite right. I don’t think that ultimately Irena is Amy’s projection. Nor are we exactly in the realm of Todorov’s fantastic, hesitating between subjective and objective explanations.
Consider the progression in the film’s depiction of Irena. At first, Amy is shown playing in the garden, purportedly with her friend but alone in the frame.
Later she says that her friend taught her a song, but she can’t recall the words. This suggests that that encounter, kept offscreen, is a vague one. That night, as Amy awakes from a nightmare, she is soothed back to sleep by her friend, whom we hear softly singing but see as only a shadow. Her lullaby continues as Amy sleeps.
Still later, Irena appears to Amy in the garden only after Amy sees a picture of her. Irena appears un-magically, entering the shot as casually as Dudley or Captain Gregg and holding the ball that Amy has tossed out of frame.
Amy asks her who she is. “I’m your friend.” The fact that Amy doesn’t recognize her from earlier friend-encounters, suggests that the friend wasn’t yet defined in bodily form. She had magical powers, such as darkening or lightening the garden or teaching Amy a song, but she assumed no particular shape. We, however, saw her female silhouette while Amy slept. Now Irena is fully embodied, and we can see her along with Amy.
Apart from the Irena scenes, we do get into Amy’s mind. But the techniques used in those scenes are ones that are never applied to Irena. When a deranged neighbor lady recites the tale of the Headless Horseman, we get exaggerated optical POV shots from Amy’s perspective and the subjective sound of wind and horses’ hooves.
The sounds are repeated as auditory flashbacks in Amy’s nightmare and while she is hiding in the forest during the climactic snowstorm. Later, Amy will calm the old woman’s homicidal daughter by envisioning her as Irena (in a superimposition) and embracing her as “My friend.”
From a storytelling standpoint, such images and sounds are sharply distinguished from Irena’s scenes with Amy. Those are treated in quite a neutral, objective manner.
There’s more. At the midpoint of the plot, in a crucial scene, Oliver learns that Amy considers the dead Irena as her playmate. He’s convinced she’s imagining it all. Anxious and angry, he takes her out into the garden and demands to know if Irena is there. Amy sees Irena under the tree, but Oliver doesn’t. As in Portrait of Jennie, reverse-angle cutting conveys each character’s vision.
In cinema, we assume objective (fictional) reality to be the default value. So the incompatible viewpoints of Amy and Oliver in the garden might suggest that Irena exists only in Amy’s mind. But in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Portrait of Jennie, the protagonist can see the ghost when no one else can. Nothing in this garden encounter denies the possibility that Irena is a ghost visible only to Amy and us.
We get some immediate backing for this. When Amy looks at Irena a second time, at Oliver’s insistence, Irena puts her finger to her lips, as if urging Amy not to acknowledge her.
This, to put it stiffly, is the action of an independent agent. Amy is unlikely to conjure up an imaginary friend who warns her to keep quiet. And by telling Oliver that of course she sees her friend, she disobeys just as briskly as if Irena were of flesh and blood.
We have a clincher at the very end of the scene. Oliver and Amy go in, turning away. Neither sees the garden, but we get two shots of Irena watching them and reacting unhappily.
Again, it’s hard to reconcile this image with Irena being a pure projection. She’s behaving like an ectoplasmic free agent. In addition, Alice and Oliver, despite their skepticism about Amy’s friend, don’t rule out supernatural goings-on completely. At various points both mention they sense Irena’s presence in the house. Irena has become in the course of the action a full-fledged ghost, but one with benefits.
The epilogue confirms Irena’s otherworldly mission. As Oliver takes Amy into the house, he asks if she can see Irena. She looks and sees her, smiling.
Can Oliver see Irena? Now that he’s decided to trust Amy, he says yes—without even looking.
As in the earlier garden scene, once father and daughter have gone inside, we’re treated to an independent shot of Irena under the tree. And now she melts away, in the conventional disappearing act of an Afterlifer. As with Captain Gregg’s withdrawal from Mrs. Muir, by saving this well-worn option for this moment the filmmakers invest it with an air of permanent departure.
The Curse of the Cat People cleverly invokes the possibility that Irena is purely imaginary, then dispels it. For once, nobody redundantly explains to us who can and who can’t see the ghost; we have to figure things out. Instead, the vague role of imaginary playmate gets gradually defined as Irena, the ghost. Continuity editing is recruited to suggest that Irena is coalescing into the friend Amy wishes for. At first only an atmosphere, then a shadow, and finally a properly solid spirit, Irena is a shape-shifter, more elusive than other apparitions of the period. The plot creates a sympathetic spirit seeking to console a lonely child and correct her father’s harsh, plodding common sense. Perhaps making amends for her effort to destroy Oliver’s romance with Alice in the previous film, the dead cat-woman fills out the role of imaginary playmate and saves a family.
There are other ingenious ways that the conventions of 1940s supernatural films are tweaked by the resources of continuity style, and I’ll be considering them in the book. The general point is that even schemas as commonplace as eyeline matching, or conventions as hoary as having a ghost dissolve out of the scene, can take on new force when filmmakers practice their craft with discreet intelligence.
Earthbound‘s ghost effect derives from a prism set in front of the camera. Warner Baxter is located in an adjacent set, and one face of the prism was silvered to reflect him onto the primary set. The best description I’ve found is here, thanks to good old Lantern. But we need more information. How can Baxter move so precisely around “our” set if he’s offscreen? Presumably, he’s in either a black set or one with furnishings laid out like ours. In that case, the furniture would need to be draped in black, so parts of his body will be blocked to the right extent. But in either case, we need to explain how he manages to synchronize his movements so exactly with the actors in front of the camera. If you know more, please correspond!
My quotation from Selznick comes from “Portrait of Jennie Conference notes (1/20/47),” David O. Selznick collection, Box 1123, file 11, Harry Ransom Research Center. Thanks to Emilio Banda and to Steve Wilson, Curator of Film at the Harry Ransom Center.
You probably know that “The Turn of the Screw” was filmed as The Innocents (1961). It’s also the basis of a strong Benjamin Britten opera.
A vast survey of Afterlifers on screen is provided in James Robert Parish, Ghosts and Angels in Hollywood Films (McFarland, 1994).
For more on my still-in-progress book on 1940s Hollywood, go here and here. If you’re keen on the Forties generally, you might be interested in The Rhapsodes, my study of film criticism of the period, to be published in March by the University of Chicago Press.
Nearly two years ago, when Flicker Alley released its wonderful collection of French films made by the Russian-emigré production company Albatros in the 1920s, I wrote, “Now, if Flicker Alley will manage to release its long-rumored project, Albatros’s 1923 serial, La Maison du mystère, starring Mosjoukine, we will all be doubly grateful.” That release arrived yesterday.
For decades, La Maison du mystère remained one of the fabled lost films of the silent era. It was an enormous popular success upon its release in 1923, and critics praised it as well. Even Louis Delluc, who highmindedly promoted cinema as a realistic, restrained art, grudgingly said of it, “La Maison du mystère is a serial. They are a necessity. So be it. This one is intelligent, sober, frank, genuinely human.”
Watching the film today, “sober” seems an odd term. Despite its many arty moments, the film presents a conventionally melodramatic story, with Mosjoukine playing a struggling factory owner betrayed by a villainous “friend” who is secretly in love with his wife. He is falsely accused of murder, presumed dead after an escape from hard labor, and operates under various disguises. Blackmail, flashy escapes, a suicide pact, and flagrant coincidences all play roles. Yet in contrast to the fantastical ones of Louis Feuillade from the 1910s, the ones we are most familiar with today, Le Maison du mystère paid more attention to characterization and moved at a less breakneck pace. (Feuillade had moved into this sort of dialogue-centered melodrama himself in the 1920s, as in Les Deux Gamines, 1921, but these films are rarely watched today.)
With Alexandre Volkoff directing the script he and Mosjoukine adapted from a popular novel, filming began in the summer of 1921. At the beginning of 1922, Mosjoukine contracted typhoid fever and was out of commission for six months. Shooting was completed in the summer of 1922, and the film was released in ten weekly episodes starting in March of 1923. Ultimately, like so many silent films, it disappeared.
Severely abridged feature-length versions existed in some places. An 18-reel print discovered in the Iranian archive was destroyed in a fire before it could be sent to France for restoration. Luckily, the original negative turned up at the Cinémathèque française, having been donated in the collection of Alexandre Kamenka, the producer who took over Joseph Ermolieff’s company in 1922 and turned it into Films Albatros. After restoration, the film was shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2002–well before we began our annual visits to that festival in Bologna. It was presented again at the Museum of Modern Art in 2003.
The Flicker Alley release runs 383 minutes and seems to be essentially complete, although the intertitles apparently are replacements. Unlike so many restorations derived from worn release prints, this one is visually gorgeous. It’s mostly in black and white, though it has appropriate tinting for fire and night scenes. Neil Brand provides an excellent piano score.
The old and the new
Like so many of the major French films of the 1920s, especially the Impressionist ones, La Maison du mystére combines a sentimental, old-fashioned story with unconventional stylistic devices: unusual pictorial motifs, beautiful cinematography and design, and imaginative staging. It is probably this visual interest that led to the film’s original acceptance by reviewers and to its enthusiastic reception by modern historians and silent-film buffs.
One visual motif that begins early on is silhouettes. The opening involves Mosjoukine’s character, Julien, still a bumptious, naive young man, courting Régine, the daughter of a wealthy couple who live near his chateau (the “maison” of the title). Despite his shyness, they manage to become engaged and walk joyfully through the woods together.
The entire wedding scene is then compressed into a series of shots done against bright white backgrounds render the actors and settings in near-black silhouettes (above). The result looks like a live-action version of a Lotte Reiniger cut-out animated film.
As I discussed in my entry on the Albatros DVDs, the settings in the studio’s films tended to be impressive as well. Here much of the interest is created by actual locales. David speculated that the whole film was conceived around the ruined fortress or castle where several scenes take place. That’s not likely, but the filmmakers used the ruins well. Rudeberg, a woodcutter whose penchant for amateur photography leads him to photograph the murder of which Julien is falsely accused and convicted, hides the prints in this castle. Rather than turning them over to the authorities, he is using them to blackmail the real murderer, the factory manager Corradin. Corradin twice follows him to the castle, leading to dramatic compositions of the two men in different parts of the frame. In the image at the top, Corradin slinks along the row of arched doorways at the bottom, while Rudeberg is visible moving through a higher archway at left center.
Alexander Lochakoff, the main designer for Ermolieff and then Albatros, was somewhat restricted by the story. He needed to provide realistic interiors for an antique-filled chateau rather than the modern apartments in which some of the other Albatros films take place. Still, he managed some characteristic designs, such as the prison corridor at the bottom of this entry, a location seen only in one brief shot.
There are some brilliant moments of staging in depth. After Julien is sentenced to twenty years of hard labor, his new situation is introduced via a tracking shot with the camera atop a cartload of stone which he is pushing. Gradually the laborers breaking stone and the guards overseeing them are revealed (below left). In another shot in the ruins where Corradin is tailing Rudeberg, he is glimpsed in the background (below right).
In a scene late in the film, Julien plans to flee with Régine and their daughter Christiane. He is dressed as their chauffeur, but Corradin shows up and spots the car. Julien hides and watches him from behind a tree in the foreground.
We then see the two women approaching, framed through the back window of the car and watched by Corradin, in the foreground. He ducks down and pretends to fiddle with the car’s engine to prevent their realizing who he is as they draw near.
I could go on illustrating such stylistic flourishes, but I leave it to you to find them for yourself. There’s a very early example of a montage sequence to compress the passing of World War I into a series of titles, from 1914 to 1919, superimposed over stock footage of combat, and a marvelously choreographed high-angle scene in a forest as a troop of policemen pop out of nowhere to surround and arrest Julien.
All serials need stunts
Much of the film consists of conversations and confrontations among the characters, a trait which no doubt led critics to contrast the more action-oriented serials of recent years. Still, there are two sequences where derring-do takes over. After the police arrest Julien, he makes an escape via a rope down the tower and wall of his chateau, a feat accomplished in a single take tilting down to follow his progress.
Later, in an episode entitled “The Human Bridge,” Julien and four of his fellow prisoners escape from their guards while working on a railroad track. This lengthy sequence involves first the commandeering of a passing train and then a chase over an area of rocky crags. At once point the escapees find the rickety remains of a tall bridge above a river gorge and fling ropes across. The four other prisoners then lie end to end, clinging to the ropes, forming a bridge to allow Julien, who has been wounded during their flight, to cross over. One extreme long shot of the scene shows two of the men’s hats falling off, demonstrating as they drift down to the bottom that there is no trick photography involved. It is certainly as impressive as any of the stunts in Feuillade’s films.
Touches of Impressionism
La Maison du mystère certainly cannot be characterized as an Impressionist film. Yet the movement was beginning to expand in 1921, and there are some moments of subjectivity that draw upon its newly minted conventions. As his trial is drawing to an end, Julien closes his eyes, and the shot goes out of focus. We see a series of quickshots of his surroundings and his family as he seemingly recalls the events of the trial as a montage scene. Finally the same framing of Julien shows him coming into focus.
This is a fairly straightforward Impressionist device, but a more daring suggestion of a subjective state occurs much later. Julien’s daughter Christiane and Rudeberg’s son Pascal have fallen in love, and they vow that if they cannot marry each other, they will both commit suicide. When the villainous Corradin forces Christiane to agree to marry him, Pascal sets out to drown himself. His distraught state of mind is conveyed in a single shot as he walks toward the mill pond and hesitates. As he moves into the shot, he is framed in a standard medium close-up. As he hesitates, however, he moves unusually close to the camera and then backs partway out of the frame, as if afraid to continue. Finally he turns and stares into the camera, moving forward out of focus until his dark-shadowed eyes fill the frame. The implication is that he determines to go on with his plan.
(Fans of Evgeni Bauer will recognize Vladimir Strizhevski, the son in the director’s final film, The Revolutionary.)
Apart from the imaginative staging, cinematography, and design, La Maison du mystère is full of fine performances. It provides a vehicle for a virtuoso performance by Mosjoukine. He is part Douglas Fairbanks, part Lon Chaney as he leaps energetically about in the early parts of the film and then dons various disguises during his long period as a fugitive. He briefly poses as a clown in a small circus and later returns to work incognito in his own factory as a wounded war veteran with a limp and eye-patch.
Mosjoukine’s fellow actors refuse to be overshadowed by the star, with Hélène Darly as Régine managing somehow to age from a young lady to a mature mother without any apparent change of makeup. Nicolas Koline, best known as Tritan Fleuri in Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, brings something of his usual comic persona to Rudeberg, while also conveying the character’s guilt over choosing to use his photographs for blackmail purposes rather than to reveal Julien’s innocence. Charles Vanel, who had been acting in films since 1910 and would become a major star in the sound era, conveys Corradin’s villainy perhaps too well, making one wonder why any of the other characters ever trusted him.
Flicker Alley, along with the Cinémathèque française, David Shepard, and Lobster Films, have filled in a major gap in film history, and we are indeed doubly grateful.
The quotation from Louis Delluc and information on the production of the film come from the essay, “The Art Film as Serial” by Lenny Borger with David Robinson, included as a booklet in the DVD set.
Back in the early 1990s I got interested in ancient Egypt and particularly the Amarna period. I started reading, attending conferences, giving papers at conferences, and eventually publishing scholarly articles. In 2000 I was invited to join the expedition at Amarna, registering statuary fragments. That work quickly grew into matching pieces, reconstructing a considerable portion of an important statue, researching in museums around the world, and now working on a large book on Amarna royal statuary. (You can read a bit about my work in this page of our website–badly in need of updating.)
So I watched Exodus: Gods and Kings with a somewhat different attitude than that of most other viewers. Now I don’t expect all films set in ancient cultures to be 100% authentic in their design and their depiction of events. Considerations of spectacle and general visual appeal take precedence at times. But Exodus goes a bit over the top. Even a one-time tourist to Egypt who was paying the slightest attention to the guide would spot some laugh-out-loud moments here.
The departure from historical reality here led me to think, as I often do, about the ways in which the makers of fiction films set in ancient Egypt and other early cultures tend to try and lend an air of authenticity by hiring an expert consultant who is listed in the final credits.
Something similar happens in educational documentaries of the type shown on The Learning Channel or The History Channel. There several experts may appear in talking-head segments, and additional scholars will be credited at the end as consultants.
My experience, however, is that in at least some cases, consultants’ advice is ignored, even in the documentaries. Filmmakers tend to do what they think will be most appealing to the viewer, and then credit the consultants anyway, as if they had actually guided the filmmakers throughout. I know this partly because several of my teammates and other Egyptologists have complained that it is not uncommon for their suggestions to be dismissed. I have been filmed a couple of times, though I ended up on the cutting room floor in both cases. My chunks of broken sculpture, which tell me a great deal and in some cases are very unusual and important historically, just aren’t visually interesting enough for the public–or so the assumption is. On one of these occasions I pointed out to the filmmakers that one object was more relevant to the point being made than the one they wanted to use. I was told that the one they wanted to and did use would look more attractive. I’m sure a lot of consultants more expert than I hear the same thing.
Too much history
One has to sympathize with filmmakers tackling a tale set in ancient Egypt. Its history just goes on and on.
The date for the unification of Egypt under a single ruler and the invention of the hieroglyphic writing system that made its centralized administration possible keeps getting pushed back as more discoveries are made. Now it’s at about 3100 BC. Pharaonic Egypt ended in 30 BC with the death of Cleopatra VII Philopator (yes, that Cleopatra) when she committed suicide, reportedly using a poisonous snake. To give a vivid indication of how long pharaonic Egypt lasted, Cleopatra lived distinctly closer in time to us (just over 2000 years) than she did to the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza (about 2600 years earlier). And those pyramids were built about 500 years after that unification I mentioned.
The challenge for filmmakers is that many of the things we think of as most emblematic of ancient Egypt happened far apart in time. The Great Pyramids of Giza were built around 2600. The introduction of horses and chariots was–well, nobody knows exactly, but perhaps some time in the 1640 to 1550 BC range. Yet filmmakers cannot resist the temptation to have people dashing about in chariots as they supervise the building of the Great Pyramids. Howard Hawks’s Land of the Pharaoh does it. Exodus: Gods and Kings does it. It looks good, but in modern terms it would be sort of like William the Conqueror checking his email to see how preparations for his invasion of Britain were going.
Apart from the problem of Egyptian history, Exodus mixes two different genres of story. The Exodus story is a myth based solely on texts, with no archaeological evidence to confirm it. Ancient Egyptian history really happened. That history can be portrayed authentically, while the Exodus story can be portrayed faithfully. There’s a difference. Moreover, even people who believe that the Exodus really happened can’t agree at what point in that history it occurred. Probably the most popular choice for the Pharaoh of the Exodus is Ramses II, and the filmmakers have settled on that. He’s not called “Ramses the Second” in the film, and indeed ancient Egyptians didn’t think of their kings as numbered. Still, the fact that his father is Sety indicates that the Ramses in the movie is the second of the eleven Ramses that sat on the throne of Egypt over the years.
Absolute chronology is impossible to determine for ancient Egypt, but best estimate is that Ramses II reigned from 1290 to 1224 BC. (He lived to be 97.) That’s Nineteenth Dynasty, New Kingdom. The period I study is roughly 1353 to 1335, the reign of Akhenaten, who is Eighteenth Dynasty, New Kingdom, so not all that far apart by Egyptian standards. The late Eighteenth Dynasty and early Nineteenth were the pinnacle of Egyptian power and wealth: perfect for a sword-and-sandal spectacle.
Yet in making Exodus, the filmmakers have not solved the problems I’ve just mentioned. Time and space are oddly warped, and design concerns have trumped authenticity to a considerable degree.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of Exodus: Gods and Kings is how it mashes together not only things from different periods but also localities that are actually many miles apart. The early part of the action is set in Memphis, which was genuinely the administrative capital of Egypt during much of its history. See the image at the top, which gives the best view of the city’s layout. The earliest pyramid ever built, the Step Pyramid of Djoser (constructed somewhere around 2630 BC and probably the one over on the left in the image), is part of the necropolis of Memphis, but it’s up on the high desert, well away from the city, which is down in the cultivated area. And what is that other step pyramid doing on the other side of the river? There was only the one step pyramid, and all the pyramids built as tombs for the pharaoh were on the same side of the river, the west. The pointed pyramid in the distance has been transported from Giza to Memphis. Admittedly, that’s only a distance of about fifteen miles.
But the pyramid is also shown under construction. Ramses II would not have built a pyramid for his own tomb, since long before that point pharaohs had started using rock-cut tombs in what is now known as the Valley of the Kings. That’s where he was interred.
In the film, the palace of Sety and later of Ramses is modeled on the temple of Amun at Karnak, way down in Luxor (about 350 miles away). The massive columns of the hypostyle hall, one of the most familiar tourist sights in the country, were indeed built by Sety and Ramses, but it’s a temple, not a palace. Temples were built largely or entirely of stone in this period, while palaces were mainly built of mudbrick and painted mud plaster. We don’t know nearly as much about palaces as we do about temples, because they tend not to survive very well. Pharaohs tended to travel around, staying in palaces built for specific purposes, rather than to erect one giant one to call home.
The road running out from the palace down which Moses, Ramses, and other leaders of the army depart is lined with criosphinxes, sphinxes with the heads in the form of a ram, the sacred animal of Amun (see bottom). These are copied from the criosphinxes that line the sacred ways leading up to Karnak from the west and south. These criosphinxes didn’t have colossal statues of gods standing in between them, though the filmmakers may have added them to give a hint at the multiple gods of the ancient Egyptians. Given the film’s title, one might expect a little more exposition on the gods of Egypt, to create a contrast with Moses’ monotheistic religion. Instead we get almost nothing relating to gods except entrail-reading, which was not practiced in ancient Egypt.
The choice of Memphis as the main city setting is a dubious one. Sety I founded a new city east of the Delta, and Ramses II built it up into the new main royal residence and capital of the country, Piramesse. I mention this not to be nitpicky. In fact, at the beginning of his reign, as he is in the film, Ramses quite possibly was still primarily residing in Memphis. The point really is that the Bible specifies that the Exodus began with the Israelites leaving “Rameses” (spelled thus in the King James translation, “Exodus” Chapter 12, 37). It’s not absolutely certain that this Rameses is identical with Piramesse, but no other candidate has been discovered, and it seems likely. Piramesse lies well north of the Red Sea and due west from the land bridge from Egypt to the Sinai peninsula. Heading straight for Canaan, the Israelites shouldn’t have had to deal with the Red Sea or any parting thereof to get where they wanted to go. Still, it makes a vivid story.
Piramesse is also quite far from any pyramids or other spectacular, familiar Egyptian structures, and out in the flat lands north of the beginning of the Delta. Plus a lot more people have heard of ancient Memphis than Piramesse, so one can understand the filmmakers’ choice of cities.
Familiar and not so familiar mistakes
Another thing that film designers of stories set in ancient Egypt invariably do is to put many of the male characters and even extras in the striped headcloth called the nemes. That’s the one that forms a sort of triangle on either side of the face. Guards, overseers, officials, all wear the nemes. In this hanging scene, for example, the chap at the far left in the frame below has one, as has the man in the middle ground, just to the right of the scaffolding. So do the men lined up at the back of the scaffold. But the nemes was a royal headdress. Only the king could wear it. The royal uraeus, the rearing protective cobra worn above the forehead, was also confined to the king, and during some periods his wife. We see Moses wearing one when going into battle, which would not have been allowed.
And speaking of this scene, hanging was not a method of execution used in ancient Egypt. In fact, execution as such was fairly rare, but someone who rebelled against the state or the gods might be burned alive or impaled. On the whole, severe punishments involved loss of property or hard labor, like being sent to the pharaoh’s quarries or mines–likely to be a death sentence in itself.
In two or three shots of the palace, we see peacocks wandering around. There were no peacocks in Egypt at this point. I suppose the designers thought that these showy birds would add to the spectacle and the sense of vaguely decadent luxury. There were, however, other options. For example, ancient Egyptian royals and nobility loved monkeys and kept them as pets. They are frequently depicted in reliefs and paintings, mainly in tombs, sitting under their owners’ chairs, though favorite dogs or cats often occupy that spot instead. A particularly lively monkey appears in the image to the left, from the tomb of a prominent Eighteenth Dynasty official, Anen, on the west bank at Luxor. The monkey is leaping under the chair of Queen Tiye, and beneath it is what appears to be a cat embracing a duck in a friendly fashion (left). That seems pretty visually interesting to me.
In the film, Ramses’ army includes cavalry, but ancient Egyptians didn’t ride horses into battle. The troops were either in chariots or on foot. The horses originally introduced into Egypt were too small to be ridden by someone fully astride their backs. Consequently saddles were unknown in Ramses’ era. The rider had to sit well back on the rump, as Egyptians still do today when they ride donkeys. In the Memphite tomb of Horemheb (last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty or first of the Nineteenth, depending on whom you ask), there’s a rare depiction of a man riding a horse in exactly this fashion (right). He’s probably a groom, taking a horse from one of the chariots visible at the upper right to tend to it elsewhere.
Exodus: Gods and Kings also dusts off that Hollywood cliché of showing legions of Israelite slaves laboring under the lash to built the Great Pyramids. The main sources of this notion are Herodotus (writing about 2200 years after the event) and the book of Exodus in the Bible (perhaps written close to 3000 years after their construction).
In fact the Great Pyramids were built by paid laborers. Many of these were part of a permanent workforce who lived in a village near the plateau. Others might have been part-timers, such as farmers whose fields were under the inundation for four months out of every year.
The claim in the film is that the Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. Four hundred years before Ramses II’s reign, Egypt was falling apart, with the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasty pharaohs fighting for control. The country was declining into the Second Intermediate Period, with part of the land controlled by the Hyksos, a foreign group of rulers. There were probably few if any slaves being brought into Egypt at the time, let alone a huge group like the one posited.
Slavery in ancient Egypt is still not fully understood, but clearly it was a more complex and flexible system than the sort of slavery that we think of today. There weren’t all that many slaves in the Old Kingdom when the pyramids were built. The big influx came with the expansion of the empire in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, when Egypt conquered southward into Nubia and northeastward into the Levant. At that point prisoners of war became the main source of slaves. They would either serve the pharaoh and his institutions or be awarded to the military officers who had served well in combat. Slavery didn’t become the basis of the national economy, ironically, until the Greeks took over.
Slavery took a variety of forms. It could be a punishment for wrongdoers, but it could also be a way of going bankrupt, working off debts by serving the creditor. There is evidence that slaves had legal rights, such as owning property. There are recorded cases, perhaps exceptional, of slaves gaining training in professional skills, including writing. Some could rise to management positions, even supervising freemen in their masters’ estates. In some instances, slaves married or were adopted into the families they served. Slavery covered a wide range of circumstances, but it didn’t extend to the sort of mass oppression portrayed in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
I could go on, but a few more brief examples should suffice. The Great Sphinx, which is located in front of the central pyramid at Giza, is placed out in the desert instead. Colossal statues of Ramses were not built of individual blocks of stone. Even his collapsed colossus at his mortuary temple, which weighed about 1000 tons when intact, was made of a single giant piece of granite. Huge sphinxes would not be built in the middle of residential areas, let alone slave dwellings, as are the ones we glimpse in the film.
And finally, the golden helmet that Ramses wears into battle is based on a queen’s protective vulture crown. His wife, Nefertari, would have been the one to wear such a crown. The real Nefertari is shown wearing several embellished ones, including this one with large plumes and a sun disk, in her spectacular painted tomb. The vulture’s head acts as a uraeus in this case, though it has rather bizarrely been replaced by a snake on the version given to Ramses.
Don’t get me started on the camels.
Research with a little twist
To be fair, the publicity surrounding Exodus didn’t make a lot of big claims to authenticity. There was some attempt, however, to promote its faithfulness to historical fact. The Hollywood Reporter ran one brief paragraph in a piece on possible Oscar nominees for best production design.
Arthur Max, production designer
Before creating ancient Egypt’s Royal Palace of Memphis, Max took a research trip up the Nile to visit the Luxor Temple and the Temple of Amun [i.e., Karnak]. He also made stops at the British Museum, the Petrie Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Egyptian Museum of Turin. The $150 million production spent 16 weeks building large sets at Pinewood Studios, and CG was used to extend their monumental scale. “Each column is 10 feet in diameter and about 70 feet high,” says Max. “All the furniture is hand-built–there’s not a lot of ancient Egyptian furniture around. All the murals are hand-painted in traditional pigments. They even re-created period sculptures like a 42-foot high head of Ramses the Great.
Some of the other design people, however, freely admitted to a concern with flashiness over authenticity. Variety ran a story on the costumes:
Those who have seen Janty Yates’ work with Ridley Scott in period epics like “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven” know they can expect a feast for the eyes that’s grounded in research, but also offers what she called “a little twist.” Translation? A bit of extra sheen in a metal breastplate, or, in the case of Scott’s biblical saga, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” dressing Ramses entirely in gold, or making T-shaped garments for the plebes that look “quite hot,” per Yates.
Another Variety story of the same type is very misleadingly entitled “Making It All Look Real” (in the print edition; the online title is “Artisans on Making ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ Look Authentic”). In fact, the piece is about how authenticity was sacrificed to design considerations.
Filmmakers strive for period authenticity–up to a point.
Take Ridley Scott’s “Exoduc: Gods and Kings.” Set decorator Celia Bobak said she took certain liberties. For example, tables in ancient Egypt were low to the ground–a look that she felt contemporary audiences might find laughable.
Similarly, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski requested the use of silk fabrics to enhance the film’s warm, golden-color palette, even though linen and wool were more period-specific.
Bobak added that materials used for creating the furniture “were anything but authentic,” but were made to look so by a team of painters who paid attention to surface decoration and detail.
Working with production designer Arthur Max, a frequent Scott collaborator, Bobak researched the period by visiting the Cairo Museum and Egyptian archives in Europe. Once the duo established the look of each set, prop makers, graphic designers and carpenters brought everything to life.
Why modern audiences would laugh at low tables is unclear. I suspect that decision had more to do with staging the scene where Ramses threatens to cut off the hand of Moses’ “sister,” which he is holding down on a table top. That certainly would have looked silly with the characters bending over a low table.
Yes, there was an expert consultant
With this sort of personal research and devil-may-care attitude, combined with the highly selective use of actual historical fact, you might assume that the Exodus project didn’t hire an expert consultant. In fact, they did. They didn’t flaunt their consultant in the credits, though, as such films tend to do. I scanned the credits for the name Alan Lloyd, but I didn’t spot it. It must be there somewhere, since it’s listed on the imdb Full Cast and Crew for the film. There it’s way down at the bottom, under Other Crew:
Dr. Lloyd is listed as “technical advisor (Doctor),” which might convey the impression that he was on the medical team. I don’t know why the filmmakers buried him in this fashion, since Dr. Alan Lloyd is an actual, reputable Egyptologist. He’s currently the president of the Egypt Exploration Society, which has been a major British institution fostering Egyptological work since 1882. He retired from the University of Swansea in 2006, with a substantial record of publication and other scholarly activities. His specialties include Herodotus, the Graeco-Roman period in Egypt, and ancient warfare.
Dr. Lloyd also is a big film fan and admires Ridley Scott, as an interview with him on the writing studio site reveals. There he expresses enthusiasm for the film and the experience of working on it. In particular he speaks of the care taken concerning texts:
One particularly clear indication of this was that they continually came back to me to provide them with copy for Egyptian texts, and this was sometimes hieroglyphs, and this I provided them with, and indeed they used it.
They also, at times, wanted material in hieratic, which was the script that was normally used for letters and documents, and I produced that material for them.
Particularly interestingly, and I don’t know how many people in the world would pick up on this, or even whether it was used, but they wanted text of the Ten Commandments, but not in English.
They wanted it in Hebrew and I gave them the Hebrew text written in the old Hebrew alphabet, not the one that everyone is familiar with. It is the proto-Hebrew alphabet, which is very different.
All the texts in the film flitted by so fast that even an expert couldn’t judge them, but I assume they were accurate. We get one glimpse of Moses writing the Commandments on a tablet, but the view is from opposite him and we see the writing upside down. (By the way, in the Bible, didn’t the Lord himself write these?)
Oddly, toward the end of the production, the filmmakers only showed Dr. Lloyd selected sequences from the film. The same interview continues: “Professor Lloyd has seen footage from the film and says that some of the sequences he watched, including the Battle of Kadesh and the plagues visited on ancient Egypt by an angry God, are ‘brilliantly’ realized.”
To be sure, the long montage sequence of the plagues is probably the best thing in the film. Moreover, given Dr. Lloyd’s expertise in ancient warfare, it seems likely that he was consulted particularly on the battle scene. It’s certainly more authentic than most of the film’s other scenes. Six-spoked chariot wheels, yes. Plumes on the royal horses’ heads, yes. Bows and arrows, yes. The chariots themselves look fairly close to surviving ones from the New Kingdom. My guess is that Dr. Lloyd pointed out that cavalry was not used in that period but was told that showing warriors riding horses (with saddles) was more visually interesting than mere foot soldiers.
Perhaps Dr. Lloyd was not shown the entire film because of all the inaccuracies in the other scenes. Or perhaps I am being too suspicious.
Hollywood remains in an ambiguous position in regard to historical authenticity, especially in spectacular tales set in ancient times. It plays well in the publicity, but when the designers come up with their visions, it’s awfully easy to dismiss it.
A final comment
There has been much criticism of the filmmakers for using white males for the lead roles. True, it’s hard to think of Christian Bale and especially Joel Edgerton as an ancient Canaanite or Egyptian. But to give the film some credit, the moment I saw John Turturro as Sety I, my unexpected reaction was, Wow, he looks like a Ramesside pharaoh. Specifically, like Sety I.
How can we know? For a start, Sety’s mummy happens to be one of the best-preserved that has come down to us. Even so, it’s hard to tell from a mummy what the man looked like, though he obviously had a beaky nose, a long chin, and prominent, high cheekbones. In the early 20th Century, artist Winifred Brunton studied Egyptology alongside her husband. They worked in Egypt, and during that time she painted a set of portraits of the pharaohs and their families, based on paintings, sculptures, and mummies. They’re actually fairly plausible as conceptual paintings. Although they’re not scientific evidence, they’re still held in some regard by Egyptologists–though obviously the depiction of the skin color of the ancients does look too European. Her portrait of Sety I is at the right below. She shows the pharaoh as a younger man, but to me the resemblance is there.
The only source I could turn to for frames from the film was the set of online trailers. I can’t be entirely sure that all of my illustrations are in the final film, since occasionally shots from the trailer get dropped.
The photo of Ramses’ helmet was one of many of his golden costume taken by blogger Jason in Hollywood during the current “23rd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design” exhibition, which takes place in the pre-Oscar period.
For those interested in birds in ancient Egypt, a catalogue of a recent exhibition at the Oriental Institute in Chicago is available as a pdf online for free. No peacocks, but storks, pelicans, hoopoes, geese, and many more, as beautifully rendered in tomb paintings and other ancient artworks.
Anyone visiting Bologna, whether for Il Cinema Ritrovato or any other purpose, can wander over to the Museo Civico Archeologico, just off the Piazza Maggiore, and see the original of the relief of the horse-riding groom and other magnificent scenes from the tomb of Horemheb.
For a good, brief Associated Press summary of evidence against the Great Pyramids being built with slave labor, see here. For a longer but accessible account of the work of Mark Lehner, who has long excavated at Giza and discovered the village of the pyramid workmen, see here.
Winifred Brunton’s portrait of Sety I appears in her Kings and Queens of Ancient Egypt (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1926).