Monday, April 13, 2009

ten commandments

I was watching the glorious Charlton Heston/Yul Brynner Hollywood cheesefest The Ten Commandments the other night - my holiday tradition, along with the dyeing of eggs. We used to watch it almost every Easter when I was a kid. Not sure why the annual telecast was bumped forward one night, but nothing stays the same, does it? When I was ten I think I was overcome by Brynner's and Heston's hotness and decided that Easter to read The Bible. I made it all the way through the first three or four books and then got really bored with all the begats and the extremely misogynistic portrayal of women. So let it be written.

Watching the movie the other night I was struck by two things. First, the only thing missing were song and dance numbers. The whole movie is so saturated in color, at least in the Egyptian sequences, which are of course, the best part, and all the acting is so completely over-the-top that a break for a musical number with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor wouldn't have seemed out of place. It's impossible not to smile when Nefretiri/Anne Baxter intones, "Moses, Moses, Moses!" Brynner, of course, steals the entire movie and when the camera fades out on him for the last time, all the fun is gone, despite the still-to-come big fifties state-of-the-art parting of the Red Sea special effect. Brynner is bigger-than-life as he is with all of his performances, but somehow in just the right way. The movie tries in vain to keep up with him. He made such an impact on me in this film that when I visited Egypt, no matter where we saw a statue or depiction of Ramses, I always pictured him.

The other thing that really struck me was a scene about halfway through the epic, where Moses has been cast out of Egypt and has settled down for a little domestic bliss with Sephora, played by Yvonne DeCarlo of Lily Munster fame. They are looking at Mt Sinai ("it's only a model!") and he asks the crucial question:

Moses: Does your god live on this mountain?
Sephora: Sinai is His high place, His temple.
Moses: If this god is God, he would live on every mountain, in every valley. He would not be the god of Ishmael or Israel alone, but of all men. It is said he created all men in his image. He would dwell in every heart, every mind, every soul.
Sephora: I do not know about such things, but I know that the mountain trembles when God is there, and the earth trembles, and the clouds are red with fire.

O.K., game over. You lost me. Moses/Heston asked a completely profound question, one that I ponder frequently, and was blown off by an "I drank the Kool-aid" speech of "I don't know, I just believe." Cue the music and bring in the Busby Berkeley dancers.

I know that I have to view the film in the context of when it was made, but I think it's interesting that a movie that is shown every year, possibly watched by some for its religious content, would have such a nugget of a philosophical question embedded, however deeply, under all the other layers of schmaltz, pageantry, melodrama and Technicolor.

This exact question posed by Heston's character is what gets to the heart of my problems with organized religion. Why every sect thinks theirs is the only "right" way is just darn crazy to me. Anyone who has done just the tiniest bit of reading of other cultures' creation and other mythologies has to realize that all humans tell the same stories. Each sect might give the heroes and heroines different names and back stories, but the essential lessons are the same. So what is the problem? Why can't we get past this "my way or the highway" attitude about religion? So let it be done.


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