Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Moses' Robe Costume Design in "The Ten Commandments"

I think that it’s about time to comment on another art form that appears in moviemaking- namely, the costume design. Costumes have a fickle role in movies: sometimes we remember a costume forever; other times we can’t remember and we don’t care. In many iconic epic films like Gone with the Wind, we recall the costuming with amazing clarity. I think this is because the great epic films are such visually-based spectacles, that the costumes, which create part of the imagery of the film, are more ingrained in our memory.

In the Biblical theme of this week, I’m going to turn to perhaps the most famous of all the Biblical epics (known affectionately as the “Sword and Sandal” movies): Cecil B. DeMille’s enduring masterpiece, The Ten Commandments (which should be coming on television soon). The plotline of the Ten Commandments is pretty straightforward: a Hebrew baby, Moses, is raised by the Egyptians, discovers his heritage, escapes Egypt, and then returns to triumphantly lead his people out of slavery and finally (if you’re still awake four hours later) receives the titular Ten Commandments from God. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

But to be honest, like I said previously, you’re not watching The Ten Commandments for its pretty basic Biblical plot, or even its very good cast (led by Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and the beautiful Anne Baxter). You’re spending your evening to revel in the magnificent sets, the cast of thousands, the enormous proportion of the film itself, and maybe even for that parting of the sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s bathtub.

Because it’s a historic epic, all the characters are magnificently costumed. Perhaps, the most famous of all the costumes is, as would be expected, the robe of Moses. In a vital plot twist, Moses discovers his Hebrew heritage through a piece of Hebrew cloth his lover tries to conceal from him. He later discovers that he was wrapped in this piece of rag when he was pulled out of the River Nile as an infant.

When Moses’ Jewish heritage is discovered, he is exiled from Egypt (clothed in now, the full Hebrew robe) and stumbles across the desert to the Land of Canaan. There, God eventually reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush, sends him back to Egypt, where Moses must lead his people out of bondage.

Whilst in Egypt, confronting his once-brother, Ramses, Moses is garbed in the Hebrew Robe, a powerful sign of his now-embraced identity. From then on, Moses doesn’t change his clothes, staying in the rough red, white, and black garment. Moses is wearing this robe in the most powerful scenes of the film- the changing of the Nile into Blood and most of all, the Parting of the Red Sea.

The Robe obviously represents Moses’ Jewish identity. Officially, it’s their customary costume, but more importantly, it was worn by Moses’ mother. When Moses is ready to embrace his heritage, his identity, his cause in life- he puts on the robe and does what needs to be done.

There may also be a more subtle message in the costume. The Ten Commandments sometimes seems to have a deeper patriotic message. All this talk of freedom and leading people out of bondage would have certainly struck a chord with an American audience in the midst of the Cold War. A powerful American actor playing Moses, dressed in basically red, white, and blue, would certainly seem to help support the American cause against Communist tyranny. Everyone wants God, or at least His Biblical prophets, on your side in the midst of an ideological struggle.

This costume is hugely iconic. It appears in another form in Mel Brook’s classic parody, History of the World, Part I, when Moses (Mel Brooks dressed in a similar robe) brings down the Fifteen Commandments from Mount Sinai, drops one tablet, while announcing “I bring you these 15, I mean, 10 commandments!”

Two men- John L. Jensen and Arnold Friberg were credited in costume design, though they participated in many other artistic aspects of the film as well. I found a costume sketch from Jensen on an auction site which would seem to point to his designing of the costume.It's really quite a beautiful piece of art on its own as well as being an important piece of film history. 

However, Friberg claims that he, not Jensen, was the chief designer of the robe. Friberg, as it would happen, was also a painter of many religious scenes as he was a devoted Mormon. In fact, rumor has it that Moses’ shepherd costume was based on one of Friberg’s paintings for the Church of Latter Day Saints. It was also rumored that whoever designed the robe chose the bold color pattern (red, white, and black) originally. As it so happens, this color choice was the same color pattern of the Tribe of Levi which fits very nicely and coincidently into the plot. It is very likely that Friberg did design the costume, as DeMille gave it to Friberg after the filming was done. Friberg kept the costume until his death in 2010.

The costume was actually woven by Dorothea Hulse, one of the world’s most famous weaver and a very famous costume design. Perhaps most of the credit should go to this woman who actually created the rugged, bold costume of Moses that it so famous. Hulse worked for a number of epic films, including, coincidently, The Robe. She’s pictured below with The Robe’s director. Hulse is another one of those important women in Hollywood, whose work is so essential to movies and whose work is also hugely underrated. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Ark of the Covenant in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)

In honor of Holy Week, I thought I’d cover a very Biblical piece of art: the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Indiana Jones movies are some of my favorites: if Raiders or Last Crusade is on- I have to watch it, I just can’t help myself. When you basically look at these movies: you have to give it to Steven Spielberg, if you didn’t already. He took the best parts of everything he had available: the old cheesy action movies of the ‘50s, the special effects he utilized in Star Wars, the talent of the great Harrison Ford, and basically the best action movie plots ever.
If you’ve never lived (i.e. never saw Raiders), it’s the story of an action-inclined archeologist, Dr. Indiana Jones, who is on the trail of the elusive Ark of the Covenant. Consequently, so are the Nazis, and Indy has to try to beat them from harnessing the power of the Ark for evil. There are exotic location, great fight scenes and pretty incredible sets.
The Ark of the Covenant is the macguffin of this movie: a mysterious object that propels the plot. The entire movie is based around the attainment and later protection of the Ark. It’s an object of unthinkable historical value as well as spiritual power.
One of the best aspects of the Indy movies are the mix of fact and fiction, and it’s very prevalent in Raiders. The Ark of Covenant is obviously a real object. According to the Bible, it was the box that held the Ten Commandments that Moses received from the Lord. According to some sources, Moses himself sculpted the Ark himself, on top of the mountain.
Tradition says that the Ark was a gold-covered box with an intricately carved lid with two cherubim on top. Historians now believe this may be slightly misleading, as very few Israelites would have actually seen the Ark, which was kept under very close security in the Tabernacle tent. What is known of the Ark is its tremendous power. When the priests holding the Ark entered the River Jordan, it opened up for the Israelites to cross into the Promised Land. By simply circling the city of Jericho with the Ark, the famous walls came tumbling down. And when the Philistines stole the Ark, a plague hit their land. According to the Bible, by simply touching the Ark itself was to bring death upon you.  
The Ark was lost in history after Jerusalem was looted many times by conquering armies. It is uncertain when the Ark actually disappeared but it has been sought for years by real archeologists. While several sites claim that they own the Ark, including one site in Ethiopia, none of these claims have been validated. That’s all fact.
In Raiders, Indy’s friend Marcus Brody tells the government officials who commission Indy to find the Ark, how the Ark has the power to “level armies” (a slightly misleading fact). In Raiders, the Ark is seen as a superweapon, which has the power to bring victory to whoever owns it. Obviously, the Nazis cannot be allowed to find and keep the Ark, as it would mean disaster to the rest of the world.
Cue the ensuing plot, during which, yes, Indiana Jones and his Egyptian friend Sallah find the Ark in the Well of Souls, when it then stolen. Cue more plot. I won’t give anything away. In the film, the Ark is seen, as above all, a source of divine power and its attainment obsesses the characters. It eventually leads to some of their demise, when their pride in believing they could harness its power proves to be fatal.
Because the object is lost, Spielberg had to rely on artistic tradition for the construction of the actual prop. Supposedly, he depended on the artist renditions of the great 19th century religious artist, James Tissot. If you look at his depictions of the Ark, this seems to be fairly apparent.
Spielberg turned to many members of his Star Wars artistic team, many who have gone down in history as some of the greats in modern Hollywood History. Joe Johnston helped design some of the early concept art. (See below).
The greatest contributions, however, go to other members of the crew. Ralph McQuarrie, who designed, among other things, the Darth Vader mask, helped complete designs for the Ark. His sketch of the Ark leveling armies is seen in Indiana’s bible.
The sculptors, Brian Muir and Keith Short also played a large part in designing and sculpting the piece itself. I don’t know exactly how much credit can be given to whom, but I do know that all these men played important parts in the design of the Ark. Their designs have gone down in the public mind as the actual Ark of the Covenant, regardless of the historical accuracy. The Ark is probably one of the most famous props in film history and in Biblical history as well- and as you should be able to tell from this length post- for good reason.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Bedknobs and Broomsticks"(1971) Bayeux Tapestry-inspired Opening Title Sequence

In honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d feature a film that stars an actress who absolutely loves Ireland and just so happens to be one of my favorite actresses ever- Angela Lansbury. Before I get incredibly sentimental over Angela, I just want to throw out there that she is perhaps one of the most versatile and talented performers in our time, who has met success in every medium she’s entered into. Who can match her combination of acting savvy, vocal ability and characteristically warm humor and wit? Anyhow, Angela also has a lovely little cottage in Ireland that she moved her family to in the 70s and she doesn’t have enough nice things to say about the beautiful Irish countryside and the warm-hearted Irish people.

I first fell in love with Angela when I was a wee tot- watching one of the most underrated Disney movies ever- 1971’s live-action/animated feature film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It’s a lovable movie about a prim British spinster (and witch-in-training) who is determined to learn a spell for “substitutiary locomotion” which she believes will help the British repel the feared Nazis from invading their shores.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks has suffered the fate of time for a few reasons beyond its control. It was cut and re-cut so many times; most people haven’t seen the movie in its entirety. It’s often compared to Mary Poppins and was in fact meant to be a follow-up holiday hit- which didn’t happen because the movie was recut so many times.  In fact, many members of the Mary Poppins crew reappear in Bedknobs and Broomsticks including the irresistible David Tomlinson and the music-writing Sherman brothers among others. Because it kind of flopped, a lot of people just assume it’s not worth their time- but trust me- it is!
I’ve watched and re-watched this movie so many times. I’ve continued to appreciate the humor and the wonderful music; but one aspect that I’ve appreciated in more recent years is, of all things, the title sequence. As per usual, the opening titles are accompanied by a beautiful orchestrated version of the soundtrack. 
A unique aspect of this scene (if you will) is the art that goes behind the titles- they’re incredible intricate and original. For this film, Disney employed an expert illustrator, David Jonas (see above) to design the titles. Jonas chose to base them, of all things, off the 11th century embroidered masterpiece, the Bayeux Tapestry. Perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when designing the title sequence for a Disney movie, but really it works.
In case you’ve never heard of it before, the Bayeux Tapestry (see above) was commissioned by the Norman Bishop Odo in order to commemorate William the Conqueror’s victorious conquest of England. It’s a massive tapestry which tells the story of the invasion in its entirety. It’s incredibly concise and complex, but it’s quite enjoyable to take in because of all the little details that were included. As it covers an invasion of England, it is quite an appropriate motif for the film, in which the antagonists are the potentially-invading Nazis. 
Jonas, who started as an illustrator in New York in the 1950s, was really quite talented. He moved to LA and began working for Disney later, working primarily as a storyboard illustrator and art director. He merged many aspects of the Bayeux Tapestry into the titles including many medieval themes as well as members of the cast including the Sherman Brothers.
He also “updated” the tapestry design and added portions of the film into it including Angela on the titular broomstick, the famous bed, and even the invading Nazis. He managed to keep all parts of a design faithful to the original design of the Bayeux Tapestry- including some subtle references that only people familiar with the Tapestry would appreciate. For instance, during his invasion title card, he put soldiers of different stylized sizes near each other, in a subtle reference to the quirky proportions the original medieval artists used on the tapestry
As you know, I love a great title sequence that helps set the stage and introduces thematic elements of the movie right off the cuff. And as you also know, I love the iconic designs of Saul Bass- but I think I might even enjoy the Bedknobs titles more- just because they’re so clever, so fun and really quite marvelous works of art of their own. They’ll give me an excellent, artsy excuse to re-watch the movie again…  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Symbolic Icon of Christ in "Diabolique"(1955)

Re-Released Movie Poster from
The Criterion Collection
The whole world has been feeling very Catholic lately, with the election of the new pope, Francis I. As a Catholic myself, I share that excitement, and decided it was time to dig out a religious work of sorts to dedicate my post to.

So I’m going sojourn into the exciting land of foreign films for a brief moment. I’m not great connoisseur of foreign films, but I do appreciate them and try to sample a few every now and then. Recently, I saw one of the best movies I’ve ever seen- foreign or otherwise. It was the French horror classic, Diabolique (1955). My compliments go to M. Clouzot, the director. I’ve only ever felt such suspense with the better Hitchcock films and doubt I will enjoy the thrill of suspense like that ever again. Of note, Clouzot outbid the Master of Suspense for the film rights for the short story by a reported matter of hours.

Because it’s a foreign noir, it means that the potential audience shrinks, at least now of days. But Diabolique is truly a classic, a film anyone can appreciate. I’m briefly summarizing the plot, but won’t delve into it too deeply, for fear of ruining the surprise. Basically, a delicate wife and hardy mistress of the same abusive, brute of a schoolmaster plot together to kill him and then, things start falling apart…
Diabolique (1955):
Clouzot's use of light and dark helps suggest the opposition that exists
between the film's main characters at different times. 
Clouzot uses incredibly strong imagery that has indelible impact. A few elements of the film were repeated a few times to stress their own thematic importance. Who knew a tablecloth could be so potent?? It's this imagery that helps make the film so universal to audiences all over the world. 

One of the most important was an icon of Christ that is seen near the beginning and the end of the film. The wife, Christine, is said to be a former nun, a religious fanatic of sorts, with a strong sense of right and wrong- which makes it very difficult for her to stoop to the mortal sin of cold-blooded murder. Needless to say, she is seen multiple times praying in front of this icon of the face of Lord begging for help from on high in her time of need.
Diabolique (1955): Still:
Christine blowing out the candles at her small shrine

One of the chief themes of the film is that there is no perfect crime; that judgment is always delivered by an almost divine force- the force of God if you will- regardless of the planning. Clouzot stresses this with an inclusion of an icon of the face of Christ which will serve as an easy and direct symbol for God.

Really, it’s not much of stretch anyway.  In the Catholic tradition, especially for those of the Eastern sects, icons of Christ, the Virgin Mother, and the Saints bear huge importance, as they are created in order to allow a believer to channel their thoughts more easily to God. In Catholic lingo, they are sacramental of nature. So, in a sense, a sacramental, which has no power of its own, is supposed to help the believer reach the spiritual heights of the Lord and come in closer contact with Him.
Diabolique (1955): Still
Christina, the poor wife, places much value in her icon, lighting candles by it day and night. When she decides to go through with the murder, she puts out the candles- attempting to hide the icon- attempting to hide the face of God from perceiving her evil intentions. This fails and she relights the candles later in the film, prays-begs- in front of the icon begging for the intervention of God, for him to shine His face on her again. But perhaps it is too late…
Icon: Detail
Even when she puts out the candles, the icon remains visible, having almost a spiritual glow- representing the ever-present nature of God. He can discern- even through the darkness of the soul- and will find justice in that darkness- as occurs at the end of the film. The symbolic nature of the religious icon takes on a similar symbolic nature in the film.

If you haven’t perceived it yet, the icon represents God and especially the faith and the fear of God in Christine. And, in a sense, an almost divine force does deliver Christine- omnipotent, kind and driven by justice- a paternal, Godlike figure if I ever saw one- but you can figure it out for yourself.
Face of Christ
Engraving by Claude Mellan
I could not find the original icon, from which the prop would be based upon. It looked like an engraving, probably based on a painting. To my discernment, it appears from the Early Renaissance, particularly from Flanders. I found a few icons of Christ as “The Man of Sorrow” that appeared somewhat similar, but not exactly the same. What I found so incredibly about this particular face of Christ were the eyes, which appear incredibly large and compassionate. Is Clouzot sharing some of his own beliefs into the film- his belief of the mercy and kindness of a God who will surely forgive Christine? I’ll never know the answer to that question- which I pose to myself- but I do know that Clouzot should be praised for his use of such a powerful symbol in his film. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Christening Setting in "The Godfather" (1972): St. Patrick's Old Cathedral

One of my favorite movies ever is classic mafia film, The Godfather… and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Why do I love The Godfather? Oh, let me count the ways and paraphrase the sentiments of the many critics who came before me. Perhaps it’s because the film, which covers a range of topics from dysfunctional family relationship to mob warfare, has such a succinct plot, such an incredible cast of characters and has so many layers of meaning, symbolism and characterization.
Most people, especially most movie people, have seen The Godfather, so a summary of Francis Ford Coppola’s would be superfluous. But, I’ll briefly set up the scene, whose setting I’ll delve into. Michael, the youngest son of the mafia Don Corleone, despite his wishes to stay out of the family business, becomes deeply involved in the inner workings of the Corleone family when the Don is shot. Fast-forward a few hours, and the movie begins to conclude. The Don has died- ironically peacefully- and Michael has assumed power. His sister, Connie, gives birth to a son, to whom Michael will stand as godfather. So, the Corleone family gathers in church for the christening and one of the greatest scenes in movie history takes place.
Michael (Al Pacino) literally and symbolically assumes the role of his father, the late Don (Marlon Brando). As he stands as his nephew's godfather (Connie's son), the murders of his family's enemies take place and one of the greatest movies ever made nears its conclusion.  Michael choses to kill off all the family’s enemies in one foul swoop, when he appears to be in his most innocent moment- standing in a church- apparently oblivious to the terrible deeds going on outside. But the audience- and Michael- know better.

The most obvious aspect of this scene is the contrast in it. Michael, as he supposedly renounces Satan in the Baptismal vows of the Roman Catholic Church, orders actions that are undeniably mortally sinful. In one scene, he renounces evil; in the next an evil murder, ordered by him, is gruesomely depicted. Coppola deserves all his props for this scene, which I consider one of the finest, if not the greatest, scenes in  film history.

But, the scene has nuances as well, nuances stressed by the setting. (Of note, the exterior of the Church is actually different from the interior of the filmed church). Regardless, what the audience views is the Gothic-like interior of Saint Patrick's Old Cathedral in New York City. In a place of worship of an ancient religion of the old world, Michael simultaneously assumes the seemingly ancient authority of a mafia don- a role belonging in the past where one man controls the fate of so many. A church also obviously has divine associations. Inside, Michael considers himself god-like: in charge of the fates of many. In fact, Michael has achieved state of sin so great it defiles the beauty of the hall inside. As the film portrays a mafia don as an almost a character of Biblical Patriarch quality- it seems appropriate that a grand religious setting is used.

It could be argued taht the setting is perhaps the most important aspect of the scene. Without the sacred and therefore sinless connotations that the church implies, the scene loses some of its key contrast. In a less divine location, uttering words of less holiness, Michael appears less wicked. Coppola is stressing the opposite. Michael appears more evil because of his environment and thus the setting, and nuances achieved by it, are essential.

The magnificent interior of the church also adds scope to the story that is epic in proportion. Finished in 1815, the cathedral was designed by noted American architect Joseph Francois Mangin. The cathedral has self-proclaimed "restrained simplicity" with its massive size and ornate and beautiful altar. In 1879, the Cathedral ceased to be the seat of the bishop of New York when the current St. Patrick's cathedral was built. In short, it is a completely appropriate location for a film that portrays a darker side of old New York and the mobs who ruled it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Symbollic Lacework in "The Letter" (1940)

I’m going to return back to early film history, to one of my favorite classic film genres- the Film Noir era of the 40s and 50s. One of my favorite, early, noirs is the 1940, Bette Davis classic, The Letter. The Letter and even its leading lady have become fairly obscure in recent years. If people today know Bette it’s because of her work in the ‘50s, especially All About Eve (read my post about the Sarah Siddons statuette here. However, I have a pretty special place in my heart for The Letter, because it’s a fairly beautiful little plot with some very intense moments and some really great cinematography.

The movie starts explosively, when Bette’s character, Leslie, is seen viciously shooting a man running out of her East-Asian plantation home. Leslie claims that he was attempting to take advantage of her and that it is an open shut case of self-defense. Because she is beautiful and charming, her story is immediately accepted. Though she is believed by the European community, she is still arrested out of routine and then the plot begins to thicken. Soon it becomes clear that Leslie may not be so innocent.

Gradually, she reveals to her husband’s best friend and lawyer that she had an affair with her victim. The plot becomes further complicated when the titular letter, proving the existence of her affair (and thus creating doubt about her “innocence”) falls into the hands of her lover’s terrifying Eurasian wife. She becomes desperate to seize the letter, uphold her image, and do anything to achieve these goals. The ending is really great and unexpected and Bette really was at the top of her game-playing a cunning, shrewd woman.
In this movie, Leslie is often seen tatting (creating lace). She begins the night of the murder, continues in jail and by the time with her covert meeting, is a beautiful shawl. Lacework is certainly an art, albeit a home art and one that is hugely unappreciated. Consider the massive discipline required to achieve such complex and beautiful patterns. I’m also fascinated by such home arts, because they’re so often not appreciated even though they require the time and the talents of your traditional arts.
The lacework, besides being a prominent work of art in the film, is also an incredible and deep thematic symbol. First, the lace represents Leslie’s false façade. On the outside, she is simply a lovely, underappreciated woman, much like the lace she wears and creates. In actuality, her personality and her lace is as complex as the lies she weaves. The lace also represents the lie she creates to defend herself. In the beginning of the film, Leslie begins tatting and begins creating her lie at the same time- very symbolic in my mind. By the time of the climactic meeting scene, her lie is completely formed (and believed by most) just as is her lace shawl is finished (due to all her extra time in prison- but whatever). By this time in the plot, the lace has become very intricate, but also extremely delicate. If the letter is revealed to the public, disproving Leslie’s innocence will be as easy as destroying her lace.
Another aspect of art in this film is the incredible filming. There are many very intense camera angles and imagery created by the director. In one of my favorite scenes (reminding me a little of the cinematographic treatment of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon- click here for my post on the Falcon), Leslie stands in front of a window with blinds- creating jail-bar-like shadows across her face- representing her doomed nature and her underlying guilt that has brought on her damnation.
I don’t know who created the lace. I do know that Bette Davis was actually an avid crocheter- believe it or not. While it would be very interesting if she made the prop- I find it doubtful. Most likely, the artisan who created it will never go down in infamy- unlike Leslie’s character and of course, the immortal and beautiful Bette Davis.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Seinfeld Painting Sighting: The Chaperone

I was watching Seinfeld reruns the other night, as I often do. I can't help myself- I just love that show. So, the other night "The Chaperone"- the one where Jerry attempts to date a Miss America contestant and Kramer ends up becoming her consultant again. In one scene, Jerry is chaperoned by Kramer in some swanky restaurant.

 As I'm watching this scene- all of a sudden I notice a painting behind Jerry and Miss America. And I paused the screen. And I was a little in shock. You know why?

Because guess what it was? It was Turner's The Fighting Temeraire that appeared in Skyfall! (Check out my old post from November here.)

Now, the room is fairly dark and the moments are brief, but I am almost one hundred percent sure that I know that painting. You can decide for yourself. But I would recognize that beautiful sunset and old steamship anywhere. 

Obviously, it is not the actual painting. In the Skyfall post, you should remember that the real painting is in the National Gallery in London. I also know that this painting doesn't have any symbolism or deeper theme. It just fits into the setting very well. And obviously, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld wouldn't know that this painting would act as an illustration of a thematic element of the most recent James Bond film. 

Now, I realize this siting isn't really very important but I find it a little funny and neat. And I'm not going to lie, I was pretty impressed with my art in film knowledge to recognize that. So, despite my dislike of Turner, his paintings have continued to appear in my posts- so maybe I'm a little hypocritical. But I'm just going to say that Hollywood just likes Romanticism too much... 

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