My friend Carmen at In The Open Space: God & Culture tagged me with a meme that is going around asking people to select their three favorite "Bible Films" and to add one Bible based film they would like to see made.
This was a hard challenge for me because I mostly don't like Bible films, and I'm tempted to start a long discourse on why. But then, I'm always afraid in such instances that doing so turns into a knock on those who act or feel differently, and I don't want to do that either.
I guess I do need to say enough to contextualize my list. I tend to not like Bible films for much the same reason I don't like literary adaptations--good enough is hardly ever perfect, and I end up feeling as though my relationship to the text gets transferred in ways I don't particularly like. Also, I actively resist passive reading or passive viewing where the Bible is involved, meaning I'm usually working against the text.
Okay, so much for my caveats. Here are the three that I would consider my favorites:
The Miracle Maker (Hayes, 2000)
I find that the claymation and animation mix helps create defamiliarization, an essential element of any Bible film for me. Most of the interpretive choices or glosses are fairly well vetted, so the film mostly avoids the kinds of theologically problematic glosses on scenes that take me out of a film when I watch them.
I do tend to dislike the mix of Biblical and apocryphal interpolations (despite two of them being on my list), and I would prefer that an unknown voice Jesus, since any actor's persona carries with it problematic associations with other roles. Generally quick moving, and at times (in the animation) more emotionally suggestive than literal, The Miracle Maker is generally my go to film if I want a film as devotional or contemplative aid, though even this one feels long at 90 minutes sometimes.
The Bible: In The Beginning (Huston, 1966)
If I like The Miracle Maker for being stylized, I like The Bible for its insistent plainness. The most iconic thing about it is Huston's rich, accented voice, and the minimalist interpretations of the early Genesis scenes to help me to think of them as historical depictions of actual people rather than legendary archetypes. Certainly by the time one gets to George C. Scott as Abraham, I feel like I'm watching an actor read his lines rather than a tableau enact the spoken words, but I have a soft spot for the Noah passages. Perhaps it comes from having read of Huston's trials in working with animals and feeling as though there is something just a little metafictive in the way that he, like Noah, takes on a task that is so clearly out of his control.
I've posted a little bit more about Huston at 1More Film Blog, including this quote, which made me love the man, even while I was still on the fence about what I thought of this film: "I try to direct as little as possible. The more one directs, the more there is a tendency to monotony. If one is telling each person what to do, one ends up with a host of little replicas of oneself." Honestly, I don't know how anyone could direct a Bible film any other way.
Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)
D.W. Griffith's film is often viewed as his apology for or defense of Birth of a Nation, but really it's his defense of himself for having made Birth of a Nation. Intersplicing four stories of intolerance through the ages, the film might not be considered a Bible film by some, since only one of the stories is from the Bible. I find that I need something outside the standard depictions of the passion text, however, to keep me from just falling into a familiar sense that I've seen it before. And since some Bible films do feel self-contained to me, I sort of like ones that point outside the cinematic text and address the question of the text's relation to the surrounding world rather than simply being an illustrated text. As a film, Intolerance's use of sets and actual people always instills a sort of awe in me that CGI just doesn't give. There is something epic about the production values that gives the film a sort of weightiness that, while not the end-all-be-all of a Bible film, is, I think, a necessary element.
In terms of Bible films I would like to see made, that's a tough one. I'm tempted to say Carl Theodor Dreyer's long contemplated but never filmed biography of Jesus, but the truth is that I'm happy enough with what Dreyer created. I suppose Hosea might make a good film, as would Jonah, if there were a way to contextualize it quickly enough that the human emotions that are so universal in these texts could be allowed to stand without all the exposition. Rather than pick a film that I want made, can I pick an auteur whose Bible film I would be most interested in screening, whatever subject matter he/she picked from?
Answer: Frederic Back.