By Adam-Troy Castro
And again our plan to alternate our general movie-commentary column with the retread-analysis feature The Remake Chronicles falls to the wayside, because of some random thoughts about a current release your friendly reviewer does not intend to see, and some others about a recent release that your friendly reviewer did venture from his cave to investigate.
Those of you who give a scintilla of an iota of a damn can rest assured that The Remake Chronicles will likely return next month, most likely with an examination of one of those cases where the return to the well resulted in the reduction of one classic story to a state similar to what you’ll find floating on the surface of a septic tank. In the meantime:
One of the bigger holiday movies is Ridley Scott’s take on Exodus, which came in for more than its share of abuse long before the first withering reviews came in.
The biggest complaint everybody has, in this era significantly removed from the lily-white The Ten Commandments of Cecil B. DeMille, is that it makes these events taking place in the cradle of civilization look awfully damn caucasian. Nobody in sight possesses so much as the olive coloring the lightest-skinned tend to have in the real Middle East. Nobody has as much melanin as you would expect to find from those coming out of northern Africa. For Moses, we have Christian Bale — and while we really cannot whip the guy for the first name his parents gave him decades ago, it can even be said that it might have given those responsible for the film a much-needed first clue.
Of the film’s actual quality, if you squint past the problems involving complexion, your humble reviewer can say nothing. It will be, at most, a cable movie for him.
But it does present him with an excuse to launch into a personal theory about the inherent weak point that plagues (ha) all dramatic representations of the Moses story.
You see, when you’re adapting history, or as in this case Biblical stories that are taken as history (beware, I am here avoiding controversy, not courting it), you often run into the problem that such tales were not written with the movies in mind. They may have inherent pacing and motivational problems, that might not have escaped revision if the general form of the events were not written in stone. For instance, take every filmed retelling of the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, of which there have been three based on differing source material; all three begin with tension on the ship, take a little break from that tension while the ship is moored at Tahiti midway through its journey, and then return to shipboard intrigue when Bligh and crew head for home. You cannot omit the stopover at Tahiti. It’s part of the story. It’s a major motivator for the decision to overthrow the cruel Captain Bligh on the way back. But Tahiti remains the story’s hump, the place where tension bleeds, and you cannot help that.
The similar problem with dramatizing the events of the biblical Exodus is that, at precisely the most dramatic part of the story, Moses is not a character with agency. He’s a conduit.
I mean, before that point, he’s a protagonist. Raised as a privileged Egyptian, he then finds out he’s a Hebrew and kills an overseer in a fit of rage. That’s agency. He runs from the life he always has known, loses everything, and starts again. That’s agency. He is an aristocrat who discovers he is a member of the downtrodden, loses everything, and has to change his definition of himself. That’s agency. All of these things are part of the hero’s journey. He is a guy out there making decisions of life-altering import.
Then God provides the burning bush and Moses is no longer a character. He is the emcee to a series of outrages against the country he fled. If he has trouble getting the trust of people, God provides him with a miracle. If he has trouble intimidating the Pharoah, God provides another miracle. Moses becomes a guy with a miracle-dispensing machine, who doesn’t even need to push the button to make those miracles come out.
(It has never been clear to me, by the way, whether God determines what the plagues are, or if Moses even has some input into choosing them… but in any event, he is clearly reading a script that has been written for him.)
Moses becomes interesting again during the forty years of exceptionally poor navigation in the desert, because there he is still acting as a leader (and I indeed once read a very compelling story about his final night of life, when he pleads for the chance to step into the promised land himself), but you’ll note that this story presents him as a human being, again. A human being with wants that are not being fulfilled, who must work out some way to accept that.
But during the plagues? He’s a dramatic null. As I say, the emcee. Chuck Barris to Gene Gene The Dancing Machine. The Bert Parks of biological warfare. (“Coming up next: boils!”) Even his threats are scripted for him. Even in the Cecil B. DeMille films, which handled the tale about as well as anybody could on screen, he kinda disappears while the special effects take over.
I compare him to Tony Stark, in the Marvel films. Really. Stark is a terrific character. But he is no longer visible when the pixels take over (except in fleeting head shots). The movies have to rely on constantly reminding you that Robert Downey Jr. is in there. They accomplish this by cutting to his mug every time they need to break up the mayhem with some personality. But Moses doesn’t get that. As the messenger of God, he is stoic: an edifice, not a person.
Here’s a horrible, horrible admission for a Jew to make. I always felt sorry for Yul Brynner’s Pharoah, in DeMille’s remake of the property he had made once before, as a silent. Sure, Pharoah’s a petty bastard and a keeper of slaves. But he becomes most intolerable at the same point when Moses becomes most impenetrable — and Brynner was too good an actor, even in that cornball performance, to not make you feel what his character was feeling.
And what he feels is this: he’s been plunked down into the middle of a horror movie.
Here’s a guy whose father loved his adopted brother more than him. Whose wife loves his adopted brother more than him. Who couldn’t catch a break even when that adopted brother killed a guy and became a wanted fugitive and known member of a despised race. Who has anything a man could want.
And then the bastard comes back into his life possessed by something beyond comprehension, taking away everything that remains. So here’s a guy who’s actually going through an emotional journey — and yes, he’s a bad guy — versus one who is basically road manager to Elvis, a guy who’s reading a script written by an omnipotent being, and a guy who is basically in no danger of losing, even if the script drags out the inevitable. And then the interloper kills his son and all of Egypt’s first-born, and Pharoah relents, and Pharoah is driven by pride to change his mind… and loses his army too.
Dang. That’s one kick in the balls after another. And you get to see Pharoah absorb all those blows. Yeah, he’s a piece of crap, but yeah, I do feel sorry for him By contrast, Moses is at that point in the story a juggernaut. A guy who has taken a howitzer to a knife fight, and never doubts himself, never hesitates, never changes his mind, never even has to make a decision.
I take pains to note that, of course, Exodus is not a movie treatment, but a religious text. It works fine as a religious text, though that can be argued. As movie it works as excuse to show off your era’s best special effects, and as spectacle. It does not work as drama, because its hero is by design a sock puppet: a spokesmodel. This is inherent in the material. Moses is just not around for the climax of his own story, at least not if you define the parting of the Red Sea as the climax. He’s not the guy who knocks. He’s the guy who points.
I wanted to talk about Interstellar here. Maybe I still will. The bottom line is that I loved it, with some reservations; I am forced to put it aside, for the moment, by a dwindling supply of remaining space that only leaves me with sufficient room to discuss one fantastic film that could better use the praise.
The terrific Birdman (2014; directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu from a screenplay where he and Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo share credit), is a feast for the eyes and the heart, a near miracle in an age where it seems impossible for a new film to possess imagination and richness of characterization and eye-popping visual flair, and also to have that rarest treasure these days, an actual point of view. It stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomas, a movie star now two decades past his prime, best known for playing the titular superhero, as Keaton was himself once best known for playing a guy dressed like a bat. But Riggan now wants what has always eluded him, respectability, and so he has poured his soul and his reputation and his savings into a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
We enter the action in the weeks before the play opens, and witness the discouragement he receives on all sides, from the semi-estranged daughter who knows only that the story is old and that nobody cares about it on Twitter, to the nightmare method actor who shares Riggan’s stage and assures him that his past commercial success renders him an artistic fraud, to the critic who wants to destroy him because he represents the Hollywood studio system she hates, to the very audience that knows him only as the guy who used to play Birdman. It’s in short a virtual catalogue of all the voices that whisper intimations of failure in every artist’s ear, to which their own considerable demons become just another voice in the chorus steering them to ruin.
As a past Batman, Keaton is of course familiar with and familiar for the premise of an actor who has trouble escaping his superhero suit, which renders his casting a transparent comment on the action; it’s so very on-the-nose, in fact, that you might overlook the added resonances to the presence of one past Hulk (Edward Norton, as Riggan’s nightmare co-star), and one past Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, as Riggan’s daughter). Everybody involved, especially Norton, is operating at peak efficiency, but special notice accrues to Keaton, whose close-ups emphasize and use what time has done to his face. He has become a map of the life he’s lived, and the film rests on how the stresses and uncertainties of this very busy, very upsetting two weeks play on that face. Keaton knows how to use that instrument. It’s a genuinely great and nuanced performance.
The slipstream fantasy element, a function of Riggan’s disintegrating ego, is the presence of the superhero he used to play, who follows him around whispering in his ear, advising him to return to the familiar, reminding him that it was only in the suit that he ever managed to fly, and at one point — stunningly — staging a full-scale city-destroying CGI action sequence of the sort that would certainly render Riggan’s retreat to his signature character the most sensible business decision. (Riggan also appears to have developed telekinesis, an externalization of the tension bubbling within.)
All of this is filmed in an audacious stylistic conceit that places most of the events, but for a short post-climax coda, in what appears to be a single long take, the actual cuts hidden in various patches of darkness or camouflaged fades. The camera follows characters around the labyrinthine bowels of the Broadway theatre and out into the chaos of the surrounding neighborhood — most notably in a sequence taking place during an actual performance where Riggan is accidentally locked outside the building in his underwear and must pad past gawking crowds to make it back to the stage in time for his cue. In this context, the inclusion of actual flying scenes and other small manifestations of the man’s desperation all make perfect surreal sense. It turns the film into an exploration of the artistic impulse as it applies to this one terribly flawed man, and all the factors that urge artists away from risks and toward the familiar.
Of its conclusion, I’ll say only that what actually happens is by design open to debate. I have had spirited arguments with other viewers who believe that one thing happened, while I will go to my deathbed contending that another thing happened. This is fine. Art exists in the ambiguity. But note: I’m the one who’s right.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.