Sunday, April 27, 2014

New Rome and Old


WHY is the 55 year-old movie “Ben-Hur” with its leisurely pace and retro technology a vastly more satisfying cinematic experience than the state-of-the-art “Captain America” movie?

“Captain America: Winter Soldier” is forgotten the moment you leave the theater, while the images and music of “Ben-Hur” seen on a movie screen echo inside your head for weeks.

There are similarities between them. Both films present the theme of “order versus chaos”—as timely a theme as any now going, given that we’re on the brink of becoming a totalitarian society. The difference is that in “Captain America,” the Imperial Romans are everywhere, playing both good guys and bad guys. America—Washington D.C. specifically—is the New Rome, seat of the kind of power and empire which in “Ben-Hur” Messala lavishly praises. (Long-shot special-effect views of both Imperial towns show surprising similarities.)

Pontius Pilate tells Judah Ben-Hur not to judge the empire based on his experience with Messala, an overeager enthusiast—and anyway there’s no other choice. “The grown man knows the world he lives in, and for now, the world is Rome.”

This is also the message of “Captain America.” Despite rogue elements in the nation’s security apparatus, there’s no other choice but to rely on Shield’s superheroes and their agencies to protect the country. As Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow tells Congress at the end, “You need us.”

“Captain America” pays lip service to opposing totalitarianism, but its strategy is the same as the plan of the bad guys: Create a sense of chaos in order to justify the imposition of order. Which is exactly what “Captain America” and movies like it are doing. The difference between “bad guy” Robert Redford and “good guy” Samuel L. Jackson/Nick Fury is one of degree. Fury wants to take away only some of your freedoms.

“Captain America” is virtually the same movie as the recent “Iron Man III.” The same generic, monotonous techno-style musical score. Many of the same set pieces. There’s a freighter to be stormed; a corrupt politician inside D.C. betraying the country; plenty of aerial combat with amorphous high-tech planes; a plunge by the hero into an ocean; confusions about characters or even exactly what’s happening on screen. The plot complexities are given quickly and never fully explained. We know there’s a countdown of some sort; something vague will happen if something isn’t stopped; predictably it is stopped, though the heroes seem to have been or should’ve been killed many times over. Unlike the Roman Messala, they’re not vulnerable creatures. They never face the real consequences of their actions—as Messala in “Ben-Hur” so graphically faces them.


Unlike “Captain America,” “Ben-Hur” has only three set pieces, all well prepared for. (The A.D.D. crowd would argue, too well prepared for.)

ONE.) The Roman sea battle with pirates. The special effects are dated, but appear no more fake than today’s CGI.

TWO.) The chariot race. All the overused fast crashes and speeding vehicles in today’s generic action movies don’t equal this sequence.

THREE.) The crucifixion/miracle sequence, the real climax of “Ben-Hur.” Its sound, music, and editing, combined with the story’s emotional climax, make it one of a kind. The emotion of family combined with spirituality make the effect overpowering.

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