Monday, February 17, 2014

Back to the Twenties

Remember the premise behind the movie Midnight in Paris? Owen Wilson stars as a struggling writer working on a novel about a nostalgia shop that collects items from the 1920s. In the midst of his writing he gets carried away by a Peugeot (which must have been part DeLorean) to the actual Twenties where he meets his literary idols.

Attending the screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923) at St. Cecilia’s Parish [Back Bay] this past Wednesday was kind of like that.

The vaulted ceiling, high pillars, and stained glass of St. Cecilia’s are – obviously – meant for celebrating Catholic Mass, but they also served as a warm reminder of the grandness of the movie palaces from the first film-making era. In addition, the subject matter of the film made the venue the perfect choice.

And who could ignore the fact that having the screening at a church meant having the screening where there was an organ? I have thought for a while now that major league baseball and churches might be the only institutions keeping the organ alive. I am, in all likelihood, terribly misguided in this judgement, but I am glad that organs are still around, because watching The Ten Commandments while it was being scored live on the parish’s pipes was simply incredible.

The audience was fully immersed watching a movie from the 1920s in the manner that it would have been screened in the 1920s: in a spectacular setting with a live score. Kind of like Midnight in Paris.

The live score was performed by Mr. Peter Krasinski, who has clearly done this type of thing before. (Check his site and schedule here.) The performance was continuous. Yes, it was one, unending string of musical accompaniment. Impressed yet? You should be. The only close alternative in modern film-making that I can think of is the steady stream of tones rung out throughout Inception. Which is to say, there is no close alternative, because this was live.

And just so you can appreciate how impressive this feet was, you should know some things about this movie. But first, spoiler alert. Yes, a spoiler alert on a 91 year old film.


This film was nuts. It was absurdly entertaining and, at times, even modern. Better than a number of recent Hollywood productions, anyways. It begins – as you would expect – with the story of Moses. You think Noah looks like an action film? Pfffft. This one bounced from major set piece to major set piece, with a tremendous amount of action on screen. 

Plagues. Pursuit. Parting of the sea. Ten Commandments. Destruction of the golden calf. BAM! Each scene came one after the other with only the screen captions and written dialogue giving the audience a moment to catch their breath.

I was in disbelief at the scale of it all. From the costumes to the number of people on screen, the special effects to the choreographed action, it was like a modern, big-budget event film.

And then I realized that it had only been 45 minutes. The screen faded to black, and a mother reading the story of Moses to her two sons was closing the cover of the Bible.

It was a MacGuffin! What?! This is Hitchcock before Hitchcock!

Though the rug was pulled out from under him, Krasinski’s thunderous, epic, marching themes were seamlessly replaced by the accompaniment you’d expect from a TGIF special, a la Boy Meets World or Full House. For about twenty minutes, the audience was treated to a light-hearted back-and-forth debate on the qualities of following the Ten Commandments, punctuated by Krasinski's score. One brother wanted to follow them, while the other – that lovable rapscallion with the sly grin – vowed to get ahead in life by breaking them all. You might think that the film is going to come to a tidy end where the second brother sees the error of his ways and is welcomed home.

And then! 

Then the movie switches to a mad cap descent into criminal madness! The complete and total corruption of the character shown onscreen is something you would never have expected -- before I knew it I was watching an edge-of-your-seat boat chase to escape the law. Yup, it's kind of like it went from the Bible to Step by Step to The Godfather.

Having already switched from the grandiose to the heartwarming, Krasinski’s final transition was to a soundtrack of film noir. Like I said, this movie was nuts!


Finally the movie came to a close with a scene of redemption, though not every character found it. The film was incredibly adept at portraying twentieth century interpretations to the Ten Commandments that were fearless and astute (if at times charicaturized in performance for dramatic, storytelling effect) and are still relevant to life in the present day.

I think we have a tendency to underestimate the earliest films as experiments in the medium, but it became very clear to me very quickly that this was fully-realized film-making.Three films in one, it was an exciting blend of cinema from a bygone era. It was also far more poignant than I would have ever expected going in, and it was all highlighted by the tremendous playing of Peter Krasinski. 

If you have a chance to attend an event like this, I would highly recommend it. It was well worth the price of admission, and the setting, music, and film were an unforgettable and unique cinematic experience when all put together. I can't rave enough about it.

Til next time!