Thursday, December 10, 2015

Silver Screen Gods and Demons

It's the high religious season, so let's talk  about religion on film.

God and Jesus and The Devil are some of the favorite characters for filmmakers to use. They're instantly recognizable.

Well, usually.  (for those playing the home game: the first is Charles Manson and the second is young Obi-Wan)

But who does it best? Who is your favorite and why? I'll be tossing out mine. I can't promise 5 in each category, but that's the goal. And anyway, the Devil gets all the best lines, since we writers are in his camp, at least according to William Blake.


Please feel free to comment with suggestions for any of these lists.

God, on screen (John Huston in The Bible doesn't count):

1) Alanis Morrisette in Dogma. This is a God I could believe in. She loves, she hurts, she laughs. She kills and she heals.

2) The definitive on-screen God of my childhood was George Burns. Wise and kind and wanting to get the word out about love instead of rules.

Aside from voice-overs: John Huston, Val Kilmer, that's pretty much it.
Many people will add Morgan Freeman, but I avoided those movies.

To quote Jean Kerr "For all intents and purposes, God is a  lousy part in the theatre."

Jesus gets a lot more screen time. 
And usually more to work with.

These are the ones I grew up with. I haven't caught the Dafoe or Caveizel ones. And I've avoided the newer Extruded Religious Cinematic Product movies.

1) Victor Garber tops my list. Always. Like Alanis' God, this is a Jesus that I can believe and love. He's a Holy Fool, an avatar of the Trickster, sent to teach humanity and love them.

2) Ted Neely's Jesus was intense and tormented and a little scary. You can believe this guy came out of the desert with a new revelation. Ultimately, he's one man, up against political and religious power, all for trying to teach people about his radical vision that has nothing to do with Roman or temple politics. And he looks more at home flipping tables than blessing children

3)  I was about 9 when Robert Powell in the miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" made a huge impression on me. 9 was my mythic period: Greek, Norse, Star Wars and Bible all jumbled together and left me with--to coin a phrase--"too much heaven on my mind."

Slim, intense, with piercing blue eyes. He looks like an El Greco brought to life. He also seemed to make suffering into something ecstatic, not just pain. He looked not only as if it hurt, but as if he was transcending the pain. (Powell describes himself as "a face like a haunted parking meter")

4)  And no list is complete without Max Von Sydow

The Greatest Story Ever Told, or as I call it "White People in White Robes on White Rocks" was a 1960s exercise in Studio system tedium. I watched and livetweeted it some years back.

He learned English phonetically for this role and had to give up cigarettes on the set, lest an errant paparazzi post a "Smoking Jesus" picture. Still, he did the best with what he had, even if he looked mostly baffled.

Honorable mention goes to Kenneth Colley in Life of Brian.

 Because the movie is about Brian, we only see glimpses of Jesus. But the Pythons treated him with all seriousness, even as they laughed at Brian's parallel adventures. He has no lines
(geek note: he was Admiral Piett, Image result for admiral piett and also in Brassed off with Ewan McGregor)

And where there is good, there is also evil.
Before we get into that, let me toss out a few contenders who aren't quite the Devil himself, but close to it.

Tim Curry's brilliant Darkness in Legend

Jamie Sheridan's Randall Flagg in The Stand

And Max Von Sydow again, playing the other side as demonic merchant Leland Gaunt in Needful Things:

And no, not even the King of Hell rates, because Crowley only holds that throne as long as Lucifer in The Cage

And when he's out of the box, he holds his own very well, whether in the temporary vessel of Nick, or in his designated, long-awaited Sam Winchester. The writers keep him consistent throughout. (Sam is scary enough when he's not hosting the Fallen Angel)

Viggo Mortensen turned in a splendid job in The Prophecy. There was an awful lot of Bad Touch happening. He doesn't get much screen time, but what he does? He dominates the scene.

Robert DeNiro turns in a subtle, understated performance in Angel Heart, capturing his scenes, and transparently obvious as to who he is, (Louis Cyphre? Really?) but still captivating. A good friend to have, until you anger him.

There is nothing at all understated about Al Pacino in Devil's Advocate. (Again with the transparent names: John Milton.) He chews every bit of scenery he can get his teeth into and has a splendid time doing it. That was what struck me most. He seemed to be having the time of his life in the role.

Image result for al pacino devil's advocate

And on the small screen, we get another veteran scenery-chewer, John Glover, for 1997's "Brimstone".
This short-lived Fox show raised deep theological questions, questions about life and death, God and grace and love. And it did it all in the context of a chase plot. Peter Horton's cop character, Zeke Stone, went to Hell 15 years ago for killing his wife's rapist. But a jailbreak occurred and 113 damned souls escaped to walk the earth. So, Morningstar has sent Zeke out to find the damned and shoot out their eyes. If he succeeds, he gets a second chance at life on earth.

The markings are the names of the damned. They burn themselves off when he kills one.

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