Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Passover special: ‘The Ten Commandments’

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Can you top this? Not only is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 swan song as a director the most hyperbolic epic of all time – so is the trailer.


“The greatest movie picture of all time!” “A supreme emotional experience!” “DeMille’s overwhelming masterpiece!”

Modesty of means and statement was never a strong point with DeMille, the master showman of the American cinematic extravaganza. Only he would have the guts to turn the story of Moses and Passover into a rip-snortin' romantic triangle, complete with oily, bare-chested male leads, a drag-queen-ready performance from Anne Baxter, and an ornery and disheveled cast of thousands.

The stiff, painterly frame compositions and bombastic, super-serious acting style make this an instant camp classic. It is time once again to teach our children the true meaning of Pesach by laughing along to this enormous zircon of a film.

Theologically, it's a nightmare, despite the reams of experts referenced defensively in the opening credits. In DeMille's very special preshow front-of-curtain chat, he clearly equates ancient tyranny with contemporary Communism. DeMille's voice continues to narrate as the film begins.

In this interpretation, Moses is more of a he-manly star-spangled freedom-seeker. Shoehorning this complex set of stories into a riches-to-rags-to-Sinai saga formula makes this "Ten Commandments" the apotheosis of cinematic adaptations. The crazy-mirror sumptuousness of the scenery and the burning conviction in everyone's eyes (save for Cedric Hardwicke, who does whatever he damn pleases on screen and gets away with it) can't anchor its outrageous extravagances.

Comparisons of this earnest Biblical confetti with the ironic, subversive theater of Charles Ludlam and others who pretended to the throne of the Theatre of the Ridiculous are apt. The mise en scene and dialogue collide, with a screech of cocked eyebrows and sideways glances.

“Moses has words. Pharaoh has spears.”

“Your tongue will dig your grave, Memnet!”

“Does it take the entire Nile to quench your thirst?”

“Oh, Moses, Moses, why of all men did I fall in love with a prince of fools?”

“In the copper mines of Giza, the living are dead.”

“Too many ears tie a rat’s tongue.”

“All that you would have from me, he would not even take!”

“You do not cry out, Joshua. But you will – for the mercy of death!”

And on and on. It’s a heckuva story, deliriously extravagant. Ludicrous, yet compelling. At 220 minutes, it usually takes us all of eight days to wade through its garish delights. Happy Passover!