sleight of …

I enjoy the TV show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” which airs on the CW network. The premise of the show is that professional magicians appear and do one of their best tricks with the bad boys of magic, Penn & Teller, sitting in the audience. Penn & Teller try to figure out how the trick is done. If they can, they communicate this to the magician using jargon or coded language, so that the trick is not ruined for the audience. If, however, they are fooled, the visiting magician wins a trophy, bragging rights – and the chance to be the opening act for a performance of Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas show.

The show started in the UK, with British TV personality Jonathan Ross as the emcee. The CW began running the British episodes and eventually took the show over itself. At first, they kept Jonathan Ross as the host, even though he’s not well-known here. Recently, however, Alyson Hannigan of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” took over as host.

Tonight, a magician named Mahdi Gilbert fooled Penn & Teller. That’s not amazing in and of itself – in fact, they get fooled about once per hour-long episode. What was amazing about Gilbert’s performance was … something else. He performed a close-up sleight-of-hand card trick for Penn, Teller, and Hannigan.

I said “sleight of hand.” That was an unfortunate choice of words, but it’s the standard expression, but I’m not sure what to say instead in Mahdi Gilbert’s case. Here’s a YouTube video of Gilbert doing basically the same trick he did for Penn & Teller, in much more casual surroundings than a Las Vegas stage:

comedy bang! bang!

Since getting back a cable tier that included IFC a week or two ago, I have been catching up on the new season of one of my favorite shows, “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, the first season with “Weird Al” Yankovic as sidekick.

This show is really popular with a certain subset of comedy fans, but a lot of other people have never heard of it. I think it’s wonderfully creative and silly and joyful.

“Comedy Bang! Bang!” is based on a podcast of the same name – both the podcast and the TV show are hosted by Scott Aukerman. Strangely enough, I don’t really listen to the podcast that often. This post will be about the TV show, not the podcast.

It’s difficult to describe because it’s too easy to describe. It’s a parody of a talk show – but it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s got elements of everything from “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” to “Community” to “Saturday Night Live.”

Originally, Aukerman’s music director and sidekick was Reggie Watts, who was hilarious. Reggie left the show after several seasons to become the bandleader for “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” Kid Cudi took the position for one season, and he was fine, but he left because of conflicts with his musical career. This season, “Weird Al” – who had been a guest and done cameos on the show in the past – took the job, and he’s a perfect fit.

Within the talk show format, there’s a first guest – a real celebrity, although sometimes playing an exaggerated or caricatured version of themselves – and then a second guest, who is actually a sketch character or an impersonation of a celebrity. (The podcast follows this same real-guest-plus-fake-guest format.)

Here’s the real Ellie Kemper and a fake Jesse Ventura (James Adomian):

But there are several levels of the show going on at the same time as the talk show parody. First off, there’s a behind-the-scenes element. We see Scott and Al talking to crew members about the show, there’s an angry network executive who pops up from time to time complaining about things, and so on.

But there’s usually also some subplot making fun of some other pop culture – from beach movies to “Lord of the Rings” to “The Big Chill.” And there are funny fake commercials and trailers and flashbacks.

I really enjoy this show. It may take a few episodes to get into, especially since each episode has a different feel and flavor to it due to the pop culture parody aspect. You might even want to go online and look for some of the old Reggie Watts episode before perusing the newer Weird Al episodes – but I think it’s well worth it.

in through the back door

I was over at my father’s this afternoon and he turned on “Emergency!” on MeTV. For my younger readers, “Emergency!” was an hour-long drama from the 1970s about two firefighter/paramedics in Los Angeles and the doctors and nurse who supervised their medical work at a nearby hospital. It was a popular and entertaining show, but it had an even-larger impact on the real world than its ratings would indicate. The show informed the casual viewer about paramedics, an idea that was still in its infancy, and encouraged the creation of paramedic programs in cities and towns across the U.S. It was from Jack Webb’s production company, but an associate of Webb’s named R.A. Cinader was in day-to-day charge of things.

The episode we happened to watch today, however, spent a small amount of time on the regular characters. Instead, it focused on Los Angeles animal control – two officers, one of them played by an impossibly-young Mark Harmon, a veterinarian played by David Huddleston, and a supervisor played by Bing Crosby’s son Gary.

I immediately figured it to be a backdoor pilot – and a quick check of Wikipedia confirmed this.

What’s a backdoor pilot?

Each year, TV networks receive hundreds of proposals for new shows from studios and independent producers. At a certain time of year, each network selects the most promising proposals and orders “pilot episodes” – sample episodes that demonstrate what the show will look like. It’s those pilot episodes that the network uses to decide which ideas it will actually order to series.

Sometimes, pilot episodes are seen by the public. If the show makes it to series, the pilot may – or may not – be used as one of the first-season episodes. However, if the network asked for a lot of changes to the pilot, or if a lot of roles had to be recast, the pilot may never see the light of day, except maybe as a DVD box set extra or what have you. Some cable network – TV Land, maybe – once ran the previously-unaired pilot for “Gilligan’s Island,” which was significantly different from the show which followed it. For example, instead of Ginger being a movie star, Ginger and Mary Ann were secretaries and best friends. There was a high school teacher instead of a professor.

“Star Trek” had a first pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike. NBC disliked numerous things about it but still saw potential, and asked Gene Roddenberry to shoot a then-unheard-of second pilot. By that time, Hunter was unavailable and Roddenberry cast William Shatner instead, changing the character’s name. However, frugal Roddenberry didn’t throw that pilot footage away – he simply declared that Pike had been captain of the Enterprise before James T. Kirk, and that allowed him to use much of the Jeffrey Hunter footage as flashback sequences for a first-season episode of the show.

If a pilot episode is not picked up to become a series, the pilot may be locked away – or maybe shown as a one-time special. A few years ago, there was a very funny pilot, “Mockingbird Lane,” which was a witty re-imagining of “The Munsters” starring Jerry O’Connell and Eddie Izzard. The show was not picked up, but the pilot episode was aired around Halloween as a special.

So that’s a “pilot” – but what is a “backdoor pilot”?

In 1959, Danny Thomas – star of “The Danny Thomas Show” – and his producing partner Sheldon Leonard (Nick the bartender from “It’s A Wonderful Life”) wanted to create a TV show around rising young comic and actor Andy Griffith. They pitched it to CBS, but CBS was not interested enough to put up money to shoot a pilot.

So Thomas and Leonard put their heads together and found a way to shoot a pilot without the network putting up any extra money. They wrote an episode of the show they already had on the air – “The Danny Thomas Show” – in which Danny’s character is traveling through the South and his car breaks down in the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Danny is introduced to the town’s sheriff, Andy Taylor, and various other colorful characters.

The strategy worked. Using money already in their budget, they were able to give the network a glimpse of what they were planning even though the network hadn’t funded an official, stand-alone pilot. The network ordered “The Andy Griffith Show” to series, and the rest is history.

This technique of using an episode of an existing show to introduce a potential new one became known as a “backdoor pilot.” The resulting episodes are sometimes clunky and contrived, but that’s the price you pay.

“Emergency!”’s “backdoor pilot” about Los Angeles animal control was not picked up by NBC, and so it remained an unusual – and unusually star-heavy — episode of the show. It was a little bit contrived – the animal control officers rescue a child’s pet goat from a fire, but can’t get it to a veterinary hospital in time to rescue it from heart problems and so must convince a doctor from the normal “Emergency!” cast to operate instead, with the remote radio advice of Huddleston’s kindly veterinarian.

OK, this is probably more than you wanted to know about backdoor pilots. What can I say? Maybe I should propose a pilot episode about the Guy Who Loves To Mansplain Things.

An RC and a Moon Pie

If you are within driving distance of Bedford County, let me suggest a weekend activity for you: the RC Cola & Moon Pie Festival in Bell Buckle, which will take place this Saturday, the 18th.
This is one of my favorite events, and I always volunteer to cover it for the newspaper. It’s a fun little festival with a quirky, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

Bell Buckle is an eclectic little railroad town in northeastern Bedford County. It’s home to The Webb School, an outstanding prep school with students from all over the world. The combination of the rural setting and the academic influence has always given Bell Buckle its own quirky personality. My father had a three-point charge including Bell Buckle UMC for 17 years, and so I lived in the parsonage there my last two or three years of high school and when I was home from college.
Back when I lived there, there was an event held in June called the “Country Fair,” sort of a wannabe stepchild of the huge Webb School Art & Craft festival that takes place each October. By the mid-90s, the country fair had atrophied and the town’s merchants were looking for a way to revive it. Someone read a news story about the anniversary of the Moon Pie, and the town contacted Chattanooga Bakery and asked for permission to put on a Moon Pie festival. Chattanooga Bakery, probably not expecting much, gave its permission, as did the local RC Cola bottler, and the first RC Cola and Moon Pie Festival was held in 1995.
Moon Pie is a snack consisting of two cookies, with a marshmallow filling between them, dipped in chocolate (or some other flavored coating — there are now multiple flavors). In olden days, Moon Pie was one of the largest and most filling snack foods which was sold in country stores, and Royal Crown Cola came in a larger glass bottle than Coke or Pepsi for the same price. Hungry farm laborers would combine the two as a make-do lunch, and “an RC and a Moon Pie” became inextricably linked in southern culture.
In 1996, the Olympic Games in Atlanta were the talk of the region — the torch relay even passed through Shelbyville — and the Moon Pie festival responded in typical fashion. That year only, it was billed as the “Moon Pie Games.” The 10-mile run, which is still a regular feature of the festival, was added. It is 10 miles, NOT 10K, and the course is hilly and challenging, especially in hot weather. That is a serious run, managed by the Nashville Striders running club with computer chip timing. But another 1996 innovation, poking fun at the Olympics, was “synchronized wading.” Carla Webb, who is currently Bell Buckle’s first lady, started writing brilliantly funny skits — referencing local personalities and events — which were performed in a wading pool. Synchronized wading continued for many years, and is revived occasionally. This year, however, Carla is part of a new musical act, Davis and Dayle, which will be making an appearance as live entertainment at the festival. I’m curious to see them.
The festival draws numerous vendors, including crafts, food and what have you. There’s live entertainment including cloggers and a band. The centerpiece of the day is the parade, which passes in front of the town’s railroad storefronts, followed by the crowning of the RC King and Moon Pie queen. There have been some quite prominent honorees over the years, including Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter just a year or two before Waylon’s passing. Gov. Bill Haslam was the king one year. I first met Russ and Tori Taff while writing a story about their selection as king and queen, a few months after they moved to Bell Buckle. After the Nashville floods, a family from Nashville which had lost its home was honored, and there was a voluntary admission fee for the festival that year to benefit them.
This year’s king and queen will be world champion duck caller Johnny “Boo” Mahfouz and Miss Plus Size Tennessee Misti Appleby (she’s a Bell Buckle resident).
At the end of the day, around 4 p.m., the “world’s largest Moon Pie” is sliced and served to festival-goers. I have to admit I am usually not around for that part. I tend to arrive before 7 so that I can get good photos and/or video of the 10-mile run starting, and so by mid-afternoon, I’m often pooped, especially if it’s a hot day.
But it’s a good kind of pooped. I love this festival, and I think you’d love it too.
For more information, go to

broadsword, calling danny boy

Turner Classic Movies runs a Memorial Day marathon of war movies – but, given the somber nature of the holiday, they run a sort-of-surprising variety of movies within that genre. Yesterday, the emphasis was on service comedies, including both Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, as well as “No Time For Sergeants.” I wonder if they ever get any complaints.

Tonight in prime time, they’re running “Where Eagles Dare,” one of my all-time favorite movies, but it’s a slam-bang, over-the-top spy thriller.

I am sure most of you have seen it, and I’ve blogged about it before, but in case you’ve somehow missed it, it stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Burton, of course, is known for heavier dramatic fare, but his son challenged him to do an action movie as a change of pace, and to prove his versatility. “The Guns of Navarone” (which will also be on TCM today) had been a big hit, and so Burton wanted to adapt another Alistair MacLean spy novel. But all of MacLean’s novels were spoken for, and so MacLean agreed to write a new, original screenplay, which he then turned into a novel. Eastwood, who was riding high as the star of Sergio Leone westerns, wasn’t sure about taking second billing, but agreed to it anyway, and the two of them make a fantastic team – the bombastic Brit and the cool, laconic American.

This is one of those movies that you don’t want to spoil, but I can give you the basic setup. An American general, with knowledge of the D-Day plans, has been shot down and captured by the Germans and is being held prisoner in a remote mountain castle. A British commando team, headed by Burton, with Eastwood as a token American member, is dispatched to rescue him.  But events soon make it clear that the situation isn’t what it seems and that no one can be trusted.

Supposedly, Spielberg is a fan of this – when he was asked about it by an interviewer, he immediately started parroting Burton’s radio call sign, “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” Once it gets going, the last two-thirds of it have the same sort of slam-bang action-serial pace as Spielberg’s “Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” There’s a fight on top of a skylift car.

Anyway, I love it. I have it set to record (I also have the DVD around here somewhere), but I’ll probably watch it live if I’m here tonight.

To prompt or not to prompt

I posted last week about a new version of “Match Game” which will air this summer, and in passing I mentioned, and included a YouTube clip of, the mid-1980s “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour,” one of the most notorious flops in game show history.
I actually liked both “Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares,” but despite sharing lots-of-celebrities gimmick they’re actually quite different shows, and I think that’s one reason the attempt to put them together did not work.
One thing that differentiated the original 1970s shows from each other was the matter of whether the celebrities got any advance preparation. On “Match Game,” for better or worse, they did not. Any answers given by the panelists were their own, and any tomfoolery was their own. As I mentioned last week, five shows were taped in a day — that’s the norm for half-hour game shows — and the celebrities had access to Adult Beverages during the lunch break, which is why the Thursday and Friday shows tended to be more, um, free-spirited than the Monday and Tuesday shows.
“Hollywood Squares” was a different matter. If you’ve seen any version of the show (except the “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour”) you know that the normal pattern was that the host (Peter Marshall, John Davidson, Tom Bergeron, and Peter Rosenberg from MTV’s “Hip Hop Squares”) would ask the celebrity a question, and the celebrity’s first answer would normally be some sort of joke, but then the celebrity would give his or her “real” answer. Whether the celebrity’s answer was right or wrong was not the determining factor, of course, because the contestant would then get the chance to either agree or disagree with the celebrity’s answer, and that would determine the outcome of the question. In some ways, the contestant was helped by a too-obviously-wrong answer from the celebrity, and so the producers had an interest in prepping the celebrities to the extent that they could at least give a credible wrong, or “bluff,” answer. In any of the versions, the host would usually read a disclaimer at the top of the show that “the stars were briefed before the show to help them with their bluffs.”
According to most sources, virtually all the joke answers were written in advance, even from some of the stars who have been complimented over the years for their quick wits on the program. In the Tom Bergeron / Whoopi Goldberg version, head writer Bruce Vilanch — who had not really been known as a performer up to that point – was made one of the squares. Vilanch had worked for years with center square Whoopi Goldberg. His placement on the tic-tac-toe board put him right next to Whoopi. Vilanch, who’s written for at least a dozen Oscar ceremonies and numerous other awards shows, has been known for writing jokes on the fly backstage, so that the host could refer to and build on some blooper or running gag from earlier in the show. I’m guessing he probably wrote some on-the-fly jokes for Whoopi on “Hollywood Squares” as well.
I’m not saying there was anything at all wrong with this; it’s entertainment, after all, and some of those scripted “ad libs” were pretty funny, no matter who actually came up with them or when. But it was a different type of humor than “Match Game,” and therein lied one problem with trying to mash the two shows together.
The “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour” was one of the game shows run by Mark Goodson, the creator of “Match Game,” who simply licensed the “Hollywood Squares” name and format from its original creators or whoever owned it at the time. Goodson had taken pride in the fact that the celebrities on “Match Game” were unscripted and wanted the new show to be unscripted as well.
In order to facilitate this, without all the celebrities looking like idiots in an SNL “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch, the trivia questions on the Hollywood Squares portion of the “Hour” were largely limited to true-false or multiple-choice formats, which limited the chances for the celebrities to look stupid. There were also, of course, no scripted joke answers.
This meant that the “Hollywood Squares” part of the show wasn’t very much like the “Hollywood Squares” people had come to know and love in the late 60s and through the 70s. To make matters worse, it was hosted by Jon Bauman of Sha Na Na, who lacked the kind of polish that Gene Rayburn brought to “Match Game” or Peter Marshall brought to the original “Hollywood Squares.”

great moments in the theatre

We had a good rehearsal for “The Foreigner” tonight, except that our lead, Aaron Gaines, wasn’t there. He had a good excuse: tonight was opening night for “Once Upon A Mattress” at Motlow College, in which he’s a cast member.

We started the evening working on one scene and finished it working on a different scene. In between, while we were taking a break, our director, Tony Davis, had us sit and tell our favorite non-musical play, our favorite musical, and our favorite moment from any play. In some cases, what we were remembering fondly were film versions of the plays in question, but in other cases they were plays that we’d seen, performed in, or dreamed of performing in.

Anyway, here were my answers, which are subject to change without notice:

Favorite non-musical play: “The Man Who Came To Dinner,” by George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart

I remember this from two sources: the movie version starring Monty Wooley, which is one of my all-time favorite film comedies, but also the video of a Broadway revival version which starred Nathan Lane. The late Julio Francesconi, when he had stopped by the Times-Gazette to drop off one of the wonderful short stories he wrote for us at Christmas, Halloween or Easter, once told me he thought I’d be perfect for the starring role in the play. I’d love to do that someday. It’s too large a cast for The Fly, but maybe they’ll do it one day in Tullahoma.

I’ve blogged about this before, so I probably don’t need to ramble on too much about it, but it’s a comedy about a pompous, sharp-tongued and self-centered radio comentator and columnist, Sheridan Whiteside (a thinly-veiled parody of Algonquin Round Table member Alexander Woolcott, a friend of the playwrights). Whiteside, with his harried secretary in tow, storms into a small Ohio town for a speaking engagement, but breaks his hip and is forced to stay a while, taking over the house of the hapless family that had only planned to serve him a pre-lecture meal. When his secretary starts to fall for the local newspaperman, Whiteside fears losing her and schemes to break up the romance.

Here, you can see a little bit of Monty Wooley followed by a little bit of Nathan Lane. Coincidentally, I think the Lane clip takes place immediately after the Wooley clip:

Favorite musical play: “Guys And Dolls,” music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on short stories by Damon Runyon

I have long said that if I had any vocal talent at all, my dream role would be Nicely Nicely Johnson in “Guys and Dolls.” He’s a supporting player, but gets to sing my two favorite songs in the score, “Fugue For Tinhorns” and “Sit Down (You’re Rocking The Boat).”

I know this one only from the movie version, but I think it’s supposed to be relatively faithful to the play.

The movie is set in Runyon’s world of lovable and relatively-harmless gangsters and gamblers. Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra, in the movie version) runs “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York,” but he’s running out of places to hold it and needs some cash to put down as a deposit on a possible location. In hopes of a windfall, he bets high roller Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that Masterson can’t seduce strait-laced Salvation Army* missionary Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons).

Technically, Sky Masterson is the lead role – and Sinatra was furious when he had to settle for the part of scrappy Nathan Detroit instead of the ladies’ man Masterson. But a good Nathan Detroit can actually steal the show, as Nathan Lane did in the 1992 Broadway revival that launched his career.

*They don’t actually call it “The Salvation Army,” choosing the movie-generic “Save-A-Soul Mission” instead, but the intent is clear.

Favorite moment from a play:

You will find it at the very end of this clip, after the song. George Hearn, playing the title role in “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” is obsessed with revenge. When Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) gives him back his old barber tools, he sings to them, holding aloft the straight razor with which he hopes to strike down the man who ruined him. He then says, in a growl-like scream, “at last my arm is complete again.” Chills ran down my spine the first time I saw this, on public television in 1985. Johnny Depp was not even in the same ballpark.

buona sera

Watching TCM just now while waiting to go in to work, I saw a promo for their annual film festival (a bucket list item for me, but not this year). One thing they mentioned was that Gina Lollobrigida would be there for a screening of “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” (1968).

Sometimes, the films they show at the festival get screened on TCM before or after the festival takes place. If “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” pops up on the schedule, I will try to let you know – but it would also be worth setting a DVR search for it if you commonly do such things. I’ve only seen it a couple of times, but it’s a hilarious comedy.

The movie takes place in a small Italian village. Years before the movie takes place, during the American occupation of Italy following World War II, a young Italian woman has flings with three different American soldiers. After they leave, she has a daughter – and she writes each of the soldiers, without telling the other two. All three have been supporting her in the years since, which has allowed her and the daughter to live quite well compared to the other villagers. She has told the other villagers that she is the widow of a (fictitious) American pilot named Campbell, the name inspired by a soup can.

Now, though, there’s a complication. The military unit in which the soldiers served has decided to have a reunion – in Italy. Naturally, each of the three soldiers (Telly Savalas, Phil Silvers and Peter Lawford) wants to meet the girl he believes to be his teenage daughter. So the mother (Lollobrigida) is in a panic.

A terrific comedy with a terrific cast. Watch it if you get the chance.

A study in contrasts

In between working on my lines Monday night, I was watching two movies on TCM — one I’d seen before, the other I hadn’t. Both were part of a month-long TCM focus on art in the movies.

The movies were about as different as you can imagine. “The Art of Love” was a wacky comedy starring Dick Van Dyke, James Garner, Elke Sommer and Angie Dickinson, and it was a lot of fun (although I missed more of this one while working on my lines than the other one). Van Dyke and Garner are Americans living in Paris. Van Dyke is a struggling artist on the verge of giving up. Garner tries to talk him out of it.

Van Dyke, through a weird coincidence, is seen by Garner jumping off a bridge and is presumed to have committed suicide — the tragic story of which sends his existing artwork skyrocketing in value. When Garner discovers that his friend is still very much alive, they hatch a plan — Garner sells Van Dyke’s artwork and gives Van Dyke the money while Van Dyke remains in hiding, letting everyone believe he is dead while he cranks out new paintings for Garner to sell. But then Garner starts moving in on Van Dyke’s fiancee (who doesn’t know about the ruse), and so when the police start to think Van Dyke’s death was murder instead of suicide, and blame Garner for it, Dick lets his friend sweat for a while as punishment. He even plants some incriminating evidence. I wasn’t familiar with this movie at all, but I would watch it again. It’s an over-the-top farce, so don’t think about it too hard. Ethel Merman and Carl Reiner are in it too, and Reiner was one of the co-writers.

The other movie, which I have seen before, was the fascinating documentary “F is for Fake,” directed and hosted by Orson Welles. In the early 70s, a Spanish TV producer was working on a documentary about the world’s greatest art forger, Elmyr de Hory, and brought Welles in as a consultant. At the same time, a writer named Clifford Irving was working on a book on Elmyr. The two projects were separate but on good terms with each other; the documentarian shot some footage of Irving interviewing Elmyr and also some talking-head footage of Irving speaking as an expert on the subject.

Then, Irving sold a magazine article in which he claimed to be an acquaintance of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Eventually, the story was debunked and Irving was exposed as a fraud, in one of the biggest news stories of its era.

Welles was fascinated by this — the man who, just a few months earlier, had been dispassionately reporting on the topic of art forgery turned out to be a faker himself. Welles, working with the Spanish TV producer, took the footage shot for the documentary, shot new footage featuring himself, his girlfriend at the time, and others, and created an ingenious look at art, deception, and the relationship between the two, referencing Welles’ own experience with the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. A couple of Welles’ former Mercury Theater colleagues make an appearance, and there are also some “Citizen Kane” references.

The documentary comes complete with a clever surprise ending. (The next time TCM airs this, pay close attention to Welles’ opening narration and see if you can figure it out in advance.)

Each of the movies is fun, but they couldn’t have possibly been more different.


risenA week or two ago, the youth of First UMC Shelbyville asked our youth director, Alden Procopio, about the movie “Risen.” Alden thought – correctly – that she ought to see the movie before recommending it, so she and Rev. Lanita Monroe went earlier in the week. They liked it so much that Lanita sent out an e-mail blast inviting all ages, not just the youth, to attend the 4:15 Sunday matinee.

So I joined the group today, walking from the church to the theater and back again. The short review, which I’ll expand on below, is that I really enjoyed it – I thought it walked a fine line between an innovative approach and reverence to the source material.

I get frustrated with some of the ham-fisted attempts to put faith on film. Not surprisingly, three of the four coming attractions before tonight’s movie were faith-based. One of them, a fictional story about a teacher suspended for using a Bible verse in her classroom, seemed like a perfect example of what I normally don’t like in this genre. The movie (judging only from the trailer, which can be inaccurate) is really black-and-white, portraying the chief opponent as a one-dimensional villain and the teacher and her supporters as a persecuted minority. Any non-Christian would find it laughable and unconvincing, but non-Christians wouldn’t go see it in the first place. The movie is aimed at Christians – but its primary purpose (again, judging from the trailer) seems to be reinforcing how great we are and how nasty and evil anyone who disagrees with us is. The question of how and when faith can be expressed in taxpayer-funded public schools is a complicated one, and not always a matter of black and white, heroes and villains. But a more-nuanced treatment probably wouldn’t sell group tickets to churches.

Sorry; excuse me for getting off on a rant there. I only bring it up to contrast it with “Risen.”

Now, to be fair, any Biblical epic is going to suffer from a little bit of the same preaching-to-the-choir effect I described above. Few non-Christians are going to be interested, so any claims of evangelistic value are going to be wildly overstated. But I think a well-done Bible movie at least has some value in terms of inspiration. It certainly served that purpose from a couple of our youth, who said during the post-movie discussion back at the church that the movie had helped them imagine the crucifixion story.

By way of confession, about 10 years ago I tried to write a novel which was not unlike “Risen” in intent – it was supposed to tell the story of what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I still have the incomplete manuscript; I gave it up because I decided I didn’t have the Bible scholarship to do it justice, and my original excuse that it was going to be “more like a parable than Bible history” was just that, an excuse.

“Risen” brings the story to life in a way which I found creative and reverent.

The story is told through the eyes of Clavius, a Roman tribune, played by Joseph Fiennes. Pilate (Peter Firth) sends a war-weary Clavius, who seems to be Pilate’s protégé, to the crucifixion site to break the legs of the three convicts and hasten their deaths. (If you remember the Bible story, you know that Jesus was already dead by that point and was pierced in the side instead.) Then, the next day, when the Judaean religious authorities complain to Pilate, Clavius is sent out to put Pilate’s personal seal on the tomb and post a couple of guards there.

Minor quibble: It’s sort of a Hollywood cliché that in movies, ancient Romans speak with upper-class British accents. But when working-class Roman soldiers are given working-class British accents (not Cockney, but something like that), it just sticks out like a sore thumb.

On the next day, the tomb is discovered to be empty – and Pilate commands Clavius to investigate, and to locate Jesus’ body in order to refute the rumor that he has somehow been resurrected.

This leads to what seems like a first-century police procedural, as Clavius and his newly-assigned deputy, Lucius (Tom Felton), track down rumors, dig up newly-buried bodies and try to intimidate everyone.

Clavius keeps telling people that he’s after the truth, and that he’ll allow them to go free if they’ll give him the truth. Eventually, of course, Clavius comes face-to-face with a truth he did not expect.

From that point forward, the movie changes in tone a little bit, bending the rules to depict Clavius as being present (albeit in the background) for several Bible scenes involving Jesus and the disciples. As long as you accept this as a work of inspirational fiction, and don’t take it too seriously, I’m fine with that. After all, as previously admitted, I tried to do the same thing. Think of it as “Ben-Hur” for the 21st Century.

The filmmakers do get several little details right. Jesus actually looks (gasp!) Middle Eastern, rather than like that blankety-blank Warner Sallman painting. The crucifixion wounds are in Jesus’ wrists, rather than his palms. If you tried to crucify someone by putting nails through their palms, the nails would tear through the flesh. Only by nailing just above the wrist – which still would have been considered the hand by the gospel writers – do you have the proper bone structure to hold someone on the cross for several days (which is how long crucifixions normally took). Clavius gives the disciple Bartholomew an accurate description of how crucifixion actually kills a victim – by suffocation. The victim must keep pushing his body up to breathe, and eventually, after days of agony, he gives up, exhausted, and is strangled by his own weight.

Rev. Lanita, in talking about the movie to the youth, lamented that they fell into the common trap of portraying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, when the gospels don’t refer to her as such. (The idea that she was a prostitute comes from someone in church history speculating that she was the same woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, even though the Bible does not give us any specific reason to make that connection.)

It all seemed to work, at least for me. Fiennes is absolutely great as Clavius. You can feel his weariness, but then he shifts it aside and becomes an intimidating interrogator, and he makes his conversion – which, by the conventions of this type of movie, has to be somewhat sudden – believable. He still seems like the same person. With a lesser actor, this movie could have easily descended into camp.

Firth and Felton are also great on the Roman side, while Stuart Scudamore (running a close second to Cumberbatch in the silly name rankings) is quite good as Simon Peter (IMDb lists him as “Peter,” but he seems to be referred to mainly as “Simon” by the other characters). Stephen Hagan is just a tiny bit too giddy as Bartholomew, but I’ll let it slide – especially since the more-common mistake in Bible epics is to be universally-gloomy. This movie actually had a few moments of welcome and appropriate humor, such as one where one of the Romans makes a disparaging remark about the Jewish high priests just as we, the audience, see them approaching him from behind. There’s also a scene between Simon and Clavius late in the movie which incorporates some funny byplay.

I just really found the movie inspirational. I doubt many people who aren’t already believers will be converted by it, because I doubt they’ll go see it in the first place. But we probably shouldn’t expect movies to proselytize anyway. I think this is fine as a creative expression of faith, one which someone like me (and the teens from church) can simply enjoy on its own terms.

I highly recommend it.