Four Frames – The Wicker Man (1973)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews during April with the theme of ‘faith’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror The Wicker Man.

The words “oh God” have been uttered countless different times in cinema, but never with such uncomprehending horror as when Edward Woodward’s sacrifice-in-waiting howls them out in The Wicker Man.

Religious intolerance and zealotry have been unfortunate bedfellows for thousands of years and are brought to the fore in Robin Hardy’s cult classic.

The Wicker Man

Ostensibly about the mysterious disappearance of a young girl, the film is drawn more to the inimical conflict between the God-fearing police officer Sgt Howie (Woodward) and the equally devout community of Summerisle, a remote island off the Scottish mainland whose paganistic residents are investigated by the “Christian copper”.

Equal parts dumbfounded and appalled by the beliefs and actions of the “raving mad” islanders, Howie confronts its larger-than-life leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee at his fruitiest) about their faith. “And what of the true God?” implores Howie, to which Summerisle drily retorts: “He’s dead. He can’t complain; he had his chance and in modern parlance, he ‘blew it’.”

The Wicker Man

The film opens with Howie proudly singing a hymn in church alongside his fiancée before giving a reading from the Gospel of Luke about the Last Supper and Christ’s imminent sacrifice – a passage loaded with the symbolic weight of the events to come.

As his investigation hits one wall after another, his stunned outrage reaches new heights when a group of schoolchildren enthusiastically espouse the phallic association of the maypole, while their teacher explains to Howie their belief in reincarnation and the elemental power of nature (“children find it far easier to picture reincarnation then resurrection… rotting bodies are a great stumbling block for the childish imagination”).

The Wicker Man

It’s never clear which side the film falls on. Our natural reaction is to side with the Christian Howie; he is after all being led a merry dance by Lord Summerisle and his fellow pagan worshippers. However, Howie’s religiosity is beset by intolerance towards the community’s faith, which he brands a “fake religion” because it doesn’t conform to the notion he holds true. Howie talks down to virtually everyone, while his evangelism borders on sanctimoniousness.

In Summerisle’s eyes, the officer’s sacrifice to the sun god and goddess of the fields is both a religious necessity and a rare gift – “a martyr’s death”. Stripped of the fool’s costume he stole to infiltrate the community’s May Day parade (attire that has extra significance once he realises he’s the one who has been duped), Howie’s arms are outstretched in a crucifix pose as he is dressed in a virginal white robe before being led to the brow of the hill, where he eyes his fate and wails: “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!”

The Wicker Man

As the flames dance around the doomed man, Summerisle’s words spoken moments before to Howie linger in the mind: “You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect.”

The Wicker Man remains highly provocative, not least for the disturbing endgame played out by the devout in the name of religion.

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Thousand Words – The Portrait Of The Religious Movie By An Atheist Director

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout April with the theme of ‘faith’. This piece is part of the site’s Thousand Words section and examines why many of the most thoughtful films about religion come from atheist directors.

Ever since its earliest days, cinema has, to quote the esteemed French critic André Bazin, “always been interested in God”.

Whether it be biblical tales of all scales and budgets, stories about saints and sinners, or more grounded accounts of everyday church professionals, filmmakers have consistently returned to the well of religion to draw inspiration.

Many of the most thoughtful and challenging cinematic examinations of religion come from directors who are declared atheists or agnostics; a fascinating paradox that begs the question – just what is it that drives such filmmakers to explore religious themes?

The most recent, and certainly lavish, example is Exodus: Gods And Kings (2014); Sir Ridley Scott’s epic retelling of the Moses story.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Scott, an atheist who once declared that “the biggest source of evil is, of course, religion”, has dipped his toe into such waters before with Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), his controversial 12th-century Crusades drama, released at the height of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, which asked why Christians and Muslims can’t just get along.

Scott has spoken of choosing to strip superstition and supernaturalism out to find his way into the story and this is reflected in the logical way the plagues are explained by Ewen Bremner’s Expert, while Moses’ vision of God comes from a knock to the head. Scott’s most interesting decision is to depict God as a petulant young boy, who is accused by Moses of acting out of revenge, not love.

Exodus: Gods And Kings proved a hard sell to the same Christian groups who didn’t take kindly to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), whose eponymous central figure the atheist director has described as “the first environmentalist”. Aronofsky’s singular vision (he called it the “least-biblical biblical film ever made”) of a zealot driven to the brink of madness by his mission from “the creator” and the presence of giant angels made out of rock proved too subversive for some.

The CGI effects and huge budgets of such tentpole blockbusters are in stark contrast to the work of Ingmar Bergman, whose austere ascetic belies the emotional explosiveness of his dramas.

Winter Light

Reconciling his “tormented and joyless relationship with God” in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Bergman concludes: “When you die, you are extinguished. From being you will be transformed to non-being.”

Having previously addressed God’s silence in the likes of The Seventh Seal (1957) (“Why can’t I kill God within me?” asks the medieval knight, to which Death replies: “Perhaps no-one is there.”), Bergman returned to this theme as the crux of a trilogy of powerful and devastating masterpieces: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963).

The trilogy can be distilled to a key scene in Winter Light involving a depressed Pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand), who goes through the motions for his diminishing congregation in spite of his own faith having evaporated since his wife’s death, and the Sexton (Algot Frövik).

Rather than the physical pain Jesus endured in his final hours (“It couldn’t have been all that bad”), the Sexton suggests Christ’s real torment was emotional, having been abandoned by his disciples and seized by doubt in his last moments on the cross. “Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence,” suggests the Sexton, to which the Pastor can only meekly respond: “Yes…”

The Gospel According to St Matthew

The life of Christ has been portrayed countless times on film, but none have done so with the poetic power of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According To St Matthew (1964).

Pasolini is a fascinating figure; a homosexual and atheist who embarked on the film after reading the New Testament in a hotel room and explained his philosophy in a press conference thus: “I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”

Unlike most other depictions of Christ’s life, The Gospel According To St Matthew‘s neorealist approach is striking for just how raw and unvarnished it is. Imbued with Pasolini’s Marxist leanings, Jesus is portrayed as a revolutionary leader who expects and demands the word of God be listened to and obeyed. Arguably the most wholly realised biblical movie ever made, it speaks volumes about The Gospel According To St Matthew that it sits within the Vatican’s list of 45 great movies.

Another atheist filmmaker who appears on that list is Luis Buñuel (for his 1959 film Nazarin); which is amusing as many of his films openly mock the Roman Catholic Church.

Buñuel is well-known for his merciless satirical style, but few institutions get it in the neck as sharply as organised religion, whether it be subverting the image of Christ in L’Age d’Or (1930), or playfully portraying Satan as a busty blonde trying to tempt the saintly title character off the pillar he has sat atop for six years, six weeks and six days in Simon Of The Desert (1965).

Buñuel remained an uncompromising figure, as the following passage from his autobiography My Last Sigh attests: “If someone were to prove to me – right this minute – that God, in all his luminousness, exists, it wouldn’t change a single aspect of my behaviour.”

Equally uncompromising was Robert Bresson, who revisited the themes of redemption, salvation and grace throughout his celebrated career and became regarded as the “patron saint” of cinema; ironic considering the director once cryptically described himself as a “Christian atheist”.

Au Hasard Balthazar

Set in a convent, the metaphysical thriller Angels Of Sin (1943) is a daring and assured first feature that immediately established the director’s unique style. The beauty of grace is central to the spiritual odyssey that is Diary Of A Country Priest (1951), while The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962) is unsparing in the suffering handed out to the Christ-like Maid of Orléans.

However, it’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) that remains arguably his most divine film, a work described by Jean-Luc Godard as “the world in an hour-and-a-half”. Like Joan, the saintly donkey Balthazar endures cruelties and humiliations with a nobility that rises above the sadistic instincts of his human masters – with the exception of the vulnerable Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who also withstands the torment of others.

Cinema is storytelling and religion is rife with stories; so should it be any wonder that the most transcendent filmmakers explore such themes, be they believers or not?

Four Frames – Ace In The Hole (1951)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. It’s awards season and The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘fame’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Billy Wilder’s underseen classic Ace In The Hole.

Anyone who thought Billy Wilder’s savagely cynical noir about a disgraced journalist’s search for a career-rejuvenating scoop was too sensational need only recall 2010’s media circus that surrounded the plight of the 33 trapped Chilean miners.

The sight of hundreds of rubberneckers flanked by publicity-hungry officials and hordes of reporters dowsing the crisis at ‘Camp Hope’ with high drama and low rhetoric is sadly reflective of the tasteless carnival that plays out in Ace In The Hole (1951).

Ace In The Hole

Its orchestrator is Kirk Douglas’ fanatically single-minded Chuck Tatum, a down-at-heel ex-New York hack whom we meet being towed into little ‘ole Albuquerque in New Mexico, sitting in the hitched-up car defiantly reading a copy of the local Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin and carrying himself with an arrogance that’s as audacious as it misplaced.

Tatum is taken on by the paper’s principled editor (Porter Hall) despite ridiculing it (“even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque”), mocking the secretary’s hand-stitched motto “tell the truth” and making it clear he’ll only be around as long as it takes him to sell a big story and win a place back in the big leagues.

Ace In The Hole

After a year of scraping around, Tatum stumbles across his scoop when he learns of a man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who has become trapped inside a mountain tunnel whilst searching for Native American relics. We straight away see the wheels turning in Tatum’s eyes as he sensationalises the story (“Ancient curse entombs man”) and sells promises of celebrity to the corruptible local sheriff (Ray Teal) in order to lean on a contractor to spin out the rescue effort for dramatic effect.

The Big Carnival (as the film was initially renamed just prior to its release) quickly descends, with people herding to the ‘cursed’ mountain to gawp at the ensuing drama, while good old fashioned American capitalism cranks into gear, with car parking charges, a fairground and stalls selling distasteful Native American headdress and copies of the lyrics of a swiftly penned song about Leo’s rescue.

Ace In The Hole

Also benefiting is Leo’s callous wife Lorraine (the fantastic Jan Sterling), who couldn’t care less about her stricken husband and wants to run away to the big city, but is convinced to hang around by the ringing tills of her diner and Tatum’s forceful persuasion. Lorraine realises she’s met her match in the tabloid hack (“I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time, but you’re 20 minutes”) and a volatile game of mutually assured destruction plays out between the two of them.

Douglas was once quoted as saying that he’d “made a career out of playing sons of bitches” and none are more repellent than the force-of-nature that is Chuck Tatum, a natural born deceiver who lives by the adage that “bad news sells best, because good news is no news”.

Ace In The Hole

Realising the story may not pan out exactly how he’d first intended, Tatum suddenly seems to want to do the right thing by Leo, but you suspect it’s more out of a sense of self-preservation than guilt. Besides, it’s way too late to put the genie back in the bottle and once the circus leaves town, no-one cares anymore.

A work of all-too-sad relevance that hasn’t aged a day, the brilliance of Ace In The Hole is in the way it reflects the very worst of the Fourth Estate right back on us and our own morbid curiosity.

Four Frames – The Godfather: Part II (1974)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. It’s the festive season and The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘family’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘family’ classic The Godfather: Part II.

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. As for family, well…

Towards the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s tenebrous portrait of a family eating itself from the inside, an aghast Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) asks his adopted brother Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) why he wants to wipe everyone out when he’s already won, to which he’s cooly informed: “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom, just my enemies.”

The Godfather: Part II

Just who isn’t an enemy in Don Corleone’s paranoid mind by this time is open to debate, but any hope of saving his corrupted soul from damnation evaporates when he has his own brother Fredo (Jon Cazale) killed. Fredo is a dead man walking from the moment Michael discovers his weak-willed brother has ties to Florida crime lord Herman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a former associate of their father whom Michael is convinced wants him dead.

The die is cast when, during a New Year’s Eve party in Havana, Michael dramatically embraces his brother and says “I know it was you… you broke my heart”. Despite seemingly acquiescing to his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) pleas for Fredo to be brought back into the family fold following their mother’s death, it’s mere window dressing; Fredo is nothing more than an enemy in Michael’s eyes that needs to be “wiped out”.

The Godfather: Part II

The Shakespearian tragedy of this moment is lent even greater weight when Coppola flashes back to a Corleone family dinner party almost 20 years earlier in which a wide-eyed Michael defiantly resists taking after his brothers into the ‘family business’ by announcing that he’s signed up for the Marines following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ironically, Fredo is the only one to support his decision.

This scene evokes the Michael we meet at the start of The Godfather (1972); a man determined to live a life governed by his American future rather than his Sicilian past, which is exemplified by his relationship with Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). However, just when he thought he was out, the family business pulls him back in.

The Godfather: Part II

When Kay reminds him of his promise to make the family’s affairs legitimate within five years of becoming Don (“that was seven years ago”), Michael swears he’s doing all he can. However, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ low-lighting tells another story. Indeed, darkness gradually envelops the film as the light of hope and redemption is extinguished.

Michael comes to see Kay as little more than a vessel to produce a son in order to continue the Corleone line and a revealing moment comes when, instead of enquiring about his wife’s health after receiving news of her miscarriage, he demands to know whether it was a boy.

The Godfather: Part II

A later confrontation accentuates the irrecoverable chasm that has opened up between them. So blinded by what he has become, he is indifferent to Kay’s heartbreaking admission that “at this moment I feel no love for you at all”, but reacts with volcanic rage when she drops a bombshell about their lost child. When Michael closes the door on Kay, he is also closing the door on any future happiness.

While the family business thrives, Michael’s other family lays in ruins, a victim of ruthless ambition and rampant neurosis. Sat alone at the end of the film, dead-eyed and paralysed by vengeful enmity, we see what it has cost him.

Top 10 Horror Movies

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. The Big Picture has been running a series of horror-related features and reviews, while its contributors have also provided their Top 10 horror movies. The nature of these lists is such that you invariably change your mind every five minutes but, for now, this is my list (The Shining doesn’t make it I’m afraid – sorry).

Horror has been a staple part of my movie watching since I was a teenager. I can remember getting collywobbles the first time I watched Psycho at 3am on my own; being genuinely freaked out by the end of Ringu; and sitting through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre thinking it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. However, no other horror film has stayed with me like George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It was a game changer, not only for cinema in general, but also for my appreciation of what an often derided genre can be capable of.

10. The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist

9. [Rec] (2007)

Rec

8. The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting

7. Psycho (1960)

Psycho

6. Ringu (1998)

Ringu

5. Halloween (1978)

Halloween

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

3. Alien (1978)

Alien

2. The Thing (1982)

The Thing

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night Of The Living Dead