Sunday, March 27, 2016

Religious Films

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at religious films. This field of movies is actually far more varied than the sentimental crap that’s usually playing in theaters (see: God’s Not Dead and War Room) and offers a breadth of insight into spiritual life and traditions.

Here is a look at some films discussed on today’s show as well as some additional titles.

The Ten Commandments (1956) 
Dir. Cecil B. DeMille

Perhaps the de facto entry in the genre of religious films is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. This film tells the Exodus story with Charlton Heston as Moses an--along with his titular part in Ben-Hur--Heston would be forever linked with the Moses role. This film is one of the most successful motion pictures ever made and when its box office gross is adjusted for inflation it still ranks among the top ten domestic releases of all time. The enduring popularity of The Ten Commandments is partly due to its annual television broadcast. The picture has been shown on the ABC network on or around Easter nearly every year since 1973. In 1999, ABC did not to televise it (ironically, the same year that the film was added to the National Film Registry) and the network received numerous complaints, so they’ve kept it on the broadcast schedule ever since.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Dir. Pier Paolo Passolini

In the heyday of Hollywood’s religious and historical epics it was considered a given that movies about Biblical stories were to be made on an epic scale with huge casts, elaborate sets, and a grand musical score. They were also very safe and nonpolitical with any challenging elements filed off. As this trend began to wane, Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Passolini directed The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Passolini was a writer and filmmaker whose work was politically charged and frequently controversial. Shot in black and white and filmed in a gritty cinema verite style, Passolini’s Jesus film stripped away the gloss of Hollywood productions and presented Jesus as a Marxist prototype who spoke against the powerful and the wealthy. This film was influential on Martin Scorsese and its impact can be seen in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Godspell (1973)
Dir. David Greene

Godspell is perhaps the strangest telling of the Christ story ever filmed. Based on the off-Broadway production, the film reinterprets the Gospel of St. Matthew through the lens of the counter culture of the early 1970s. Godspell plays very much like a stage production and it is pretty lightweight but its playfulness and weirdness make it worth a look.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is a fictionalize take on the crucifixion, imagining Jesus as a man who struggled with human desires. The movie has a reputation for being shocking but for some viewers the most shocking thing about it may be how earnest it is in its intentions. The filmmakers do take liberties with religious tradition and theology but those liberties are taken for the purpose of examining the relationship between earthly desires and higher callings. For many years the controversy has overwhelmed the content, but The Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most interesting religious films ever made.

Dogma (1999)
Dir. Kevin Smith

Religious films are not renowned for their humor. In fact, they tend to be quite humorless and self-serious. But filmmaker Kevin Smith, who had directed Clerks and Mallrats, decided to apply his unique brand of comedy to religion with Dogma, a mash-up of fantasy adventure, theology, and scatological humor. In this film, a lapsed Catholic is given a holy mission by the Voice of God to stop a pair of renegade angels from inadvertently undermining the Almighty and negating all existence. Despite its silliness, the movie has a sharp sense of humor and a few terrific performances by Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon. The movie caused some controversy at the time of its release in 1999 with Smith receiving hate mail and death threats. Smith was flabbergasted by the controversy, pointing out that protesters were getting upset about a movie that featured a rubber poop monster.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Dir. Terry Jones

Monty Python’s Life of Brian satires the Gospels through the story of a man who is mistaken for the Messiah. The film faced protests both in Britain and in America as high profile faith organizations and religious figures complained that Life of Brian was offensive and ridiculed the story of Christ. Defending the movie, director Terry Jones has said that Life of Brian is not blasphemous, as it does not lampoon actual religious figures, but it is heretical because it criticizes the abuse of religious authority.

The Omen (1976)
Dir. Richard Donner

During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s there were a series of occult themed movies. Of these, the most popular were the so-called Satanic Blockbusters: 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, 1973’s The Exorcist, and 1976’s The Omen. Each of these films spoke to a different constituency. Rosemary’s Baby was well received by the occult audience, The Exorcist was very much a Catholic film, and The Omen spoke to the evangelical movement that was surging in the late 1970s. The Omen supposes that the Anti-Christ of the Biblical Book of Revelations is alive on Earth as a little boy. The film has recently been spun off into the dramatic television series Damien.

Lucifer Rising (1980)
Dir. Kenneth Anger

Although movies like The Exorcist and The Omen deal with satanic characters, these films are to be understood as Christian pictures. They spring from a Christian worldview and reaffirm Judeo-Christian values. A film that would more authentically be described as Satanic is Kenneth Anger’s legendary short film “Lucifer Rising.” Anger is an occultist who approached the cinema as a magical ritual and “Lucifer Rising” was intended to usher in a new spiritual age. The film also features an inspired musical score by Bobby Beausoleil.

Samsara (2012)
Dir. Ron Fricke

A lot of what are referred to as faith-based movies are re-tellings of Judeo-Christian stories but there are other possibilities. The 2012 documentary Samsara visualizes the Buddhist concept that people are stuck in a cyclical existence of ignorance. This picture is a collage, not a story, and it is best understood as a cinematic poem. Samsara juxtaposes images of geography, architecture and industry to a slow, meditative score and the combination of visuals and sounds makes for some startling connections.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Dir. Mel Gibson

The Passion of the Christ is a dramatization of the crucifixion of Jesus with an emphasis put on the gore. The movie was one of the most controversial titles of the last decade, with accusations that The Passion was anti-Semitic, although the debate centered less on the actual content of the film and more on the personal foibles of director Mel Gibson.

Noah (2014)
Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Despite the enormous box office success of The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood steered clear of Biblical films for another decade. As movies from independent faith-based production houses started succeeding in mainstream theaters, Hollywood got in on the act. Of these, the most notable title is 2014’s Noah. Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of the Biblical flood story was not necessarily the uplifting movie that the faith-based crowd was looking for but it was an intelligent and ambitious film that presented the flood story as a parable for climate change.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Religious Films on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, March 27th Sounds of Cinema will feature a look at religious films. The program will feature a look at a variety of pictures such as The Passion of the Christ, Life of Brian, and The Omen.

Sounds of Cinema can be heard on Sunday morning:

If you're not in the broadcast area, Sounds of Cinema can be heard live streaming from each stations website.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Spring Film Screening: Network (1976)

Network will be shown on Friday, April 8th at 7pm in the Stark Hall Auditorium on the Winona State University campus.

Network is a satirical comedy about a fictional television network. When UBS Evening News anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has an on-air meltdown, an unscrupulous network programmer (Faye Dunaway) takes over the news division and turns the nightly broadcast into a circus. Success leads to a whole new slate of programs in which information is replaced by sensation, terrorist groups are given their own weekly shows, and Howard Beale becomes “the mad prophet of the airwaves.”

Since its release in 1976, Network has come to be regarded as one of the greatest works of American cinema. The movie was included on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films and in 2000 it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Howard Beale’s proclamation, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” has become one of the most frequently quoted and imitated lines in all of popular culture.

Network has also proven to be one of the most prophetic feature films of all time. The movie anticipated the absorption of television networks and Hollywood studios into corporate conglomerates, the corruption of news divisions, as well as the arrival of “reality television.” Network also articulated the popular rage that pervaded audiences of 1976. That rage is recognizable to contemporary viewers and the whole film is incredibly relevant to audiences of 2016. And Network does all of this while being wickedly funny.

Network runs 121 minutes and is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Admission is free and open to the public.

You can find out more about the film here

This event is sponsored by the Winona State University Department of Theater and Dance, English Department, Mass Communication Department, the Darrell W. Krueger Library, and Sounds of Cinema.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Movies for International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day. Here are some suggested titles to complement the day:

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
Set in Romania in 1987, the film tells the story of a woman seeking an abortion when it was illegal.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
Ellen Burstyn's performance in the title role of Martin Scorsese's 1974 film is still extraordinary in its honesty, complexity, and rawness.

The Blue Light (1932)
German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is best known for her Nazi propaganda films The Triumph of the Will and Olympia and that has association has tainted her filmography. But Riefenstahl directed and starred in other work, many of which were impressive in their own right. Her first film was 1932's The Blue Light.

Daughters of the Dust (1991)
This movie was helmed by Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film by an African American woman director to receive a theatrical release in the United States.The movie is a portrait of a family in the Gullah community in early twentieth century South Carolina.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
One of the best movies of 2015, this film tells the story of a teenager's sexual awakening amidst the counterculture of the 1970s.The movie is creatively executed and deals frankly with the link between sexuality and identity.

Frida (2002)
The story of artist and activist Frida Kahlo, played by Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor. The style of the movie replicates the aesthetic of Kahlo's paintings.

Girlhood (2015)
A French film from Céline Sciamma, Girlhood tells the story of a black teenager who joins a clique of rowdy teenage girls. The movie has some impressive performances. especially by Karidja Touré in the lead role.

In a World (2013)
Written, directed, and starring Lake Bell, In a World is a show business comedy about a woman attempting to make it in the field of voice-over acting and competing to be the voice of a major movie trailer.

Stories We Tell (2013)
Filmmaker Sarah Polley's documentary about her family is a complex piece of work in which she discovers secrets about her mother and father and ultimately reveals something about how and why we tell stories.

Suffragette (2015)
This film is a drama of women fighting for the right to vote in early twentieth century Britain. The film captures the danger and violence faced by the activists.