Over the last several weeks our local Cineplex has been running a series of classic films on Sunday and Wednesday nights. I have had the distinct privilege of going nearly each week with my aspiring film-maker son. Together we have seen some of the greats of all time on the big screen. This all started with our introduction to The Grapes of Wrath.
Since that night we have gone back for The Shawshank Redemption, The Silence of the Lambs and Gladiator. Along with The Grapes of Wrath the former two are on my Top 25 Films of All Time. The attendance hasn’t been great. For a couple of these it has only been me and my son, which is just fine with me because we can chat freely during the movie, something I would never do with other people in the audience. I only like talking during the movie on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
This past Wednesday was another installment of our classic film odyssey. The 1959 winner of 11 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Special Effects… William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. By the way, this was by far the best-attended so far.
This film is just as much a spectacle as it was 55 years ago. Sure, those Oscar-winning special effects aren’t as “special” as the CG we have today. The naval battle and some of the green screen shots are a bit worn around the edges. Our eye for finding the seams in visual effects is acutely developed. But the scope of this undertaking still shows. The chariot race scene alone is extraordinary. But across the board it is an exhibition of film-making on the grandest scale.
Acting continues to evolve. Some of it for the better. Some for the worse. But I can still appreciate the older style of acting that Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith and Stephen Boyd employ in this film. It is so precise. Each word…each gesture…every facial expression is carefully and exactly orchestrated. All four of these actors gave great performances with Heston and Griffith taking home Oscars for their work.
Modern-day acting has become, generally speaking, more “natural.” Don’t get me wrong. I think actors like Dustin Hoffman, Cate Blanchett, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and Al Pacino are great and I love a good Stanislavski-inspired performance. But there is something that happens when I see an actor ACTING! that draws me in. I think it’s part of why I thoroughly enjoy Wes Anderson’s films. The actors perform with that some old style of precision (with Anderson’s peculiar slant, of course).
One last note on Ben-Hur. I thoroughly appreciated our local Cineplex for keeping the overture and intermission intact in their showing. It pushed the running time to nearly 4 hours but to this film’s credit it never felt like it. It never drags. It never wanders. Ben-Hur is a crisp, clean epic in the most classic sense. Judah Ben-Hur’s heroic journey is colossal but told in such a clean way that you can wrap your mind around it wholly. And the way that the life of Jesus Christ frames not only the era but Judah’s personal journey from revenge to forgiveness is remarkable. The portrayal of Jesus, all either from behind or with His face obscured in shadow, is very renaissance-esque but the intention is effective, keeping the story about Judah instead of Jesus.
Next week’s “classic” is Titanic. Not. Gonna. Happen. I saw it in 1997 and thought it was good. End of story. It is perhaps the most over rated movie of all time. Instead we’ll stay at home and pick a classic film from our collection to watch. Post your suggestions below or on the Captions Facebook page. Or tweet at me (@cmselby) your suggestions with the hashtag #classicfilms. Our collection is extensive so feel free to suggest anything. Even if I don’t have it I can try to track it down.