Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Bye Bye Bristol

One of the best places in Helsinki was stripped away from us film fans last weekend as the film theatre Bristol was closed. The theatre had been viewing films since 1961. For me, Bristol was always something of a hidden gem in the city's theatre lineup. It was a big theatre, showing interesting films, but with kind of few other moviegoers. If I wanted to see a film on an opening night, Bristol was the best bet to get good seats. I remember seeing Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring there for the first time. However, the viewing experience then wasn't so pleasant, as people threw popcorn off the balcony, someone smoked in the matinee constantly and people didn't turn off their mobile phones. I've heard rumours that Bristol was also the theatre where Finnkino put it's worst employees to work.

Nevertheless, Bristols seats were comfrotable, there was plenty of leg space and the first row on the balcony was probably the best place to see a giant blockbuster in my home city. Bristol became a comfrotable place for me also because it held a great number of press screenings of films. So there I saw the Good (Where the Wild Things Are), the Bad (Big Momma's House 2) and the Underrated (X-Men: The Last Stand) for the first time.

The final weekend's programme consisted screenings of old classic films. It was ridiculously awesome to see Conan the Barbarian on a big screen, in a theatre packed to the rafters but me and my friend in my favorite place, balcony front row, centre. I won't do a Conan review now, as I have bigger plans for the barbarian epic in the future. Suffice to say, this story shall also be told. I hadn't time to see other classic films that weekend as I had something of a christmas rush at work. Seeing Back to the Future, Talvisota and Jaws on it's giant screen would've also been cool. But there was no way I was going to miss Bristol's final screening.

Ben-Hur (1959)
Director: William Wyler

The classic Hollywood Epic Ben-Hur was the film which was also the first film ever shown at Bristol. I give big props for the theatre staff for arranging the screening to be accurate, from the playing of the opening music for the first ten minutes and having the Intermission time. Minuses for the modern audience not aware of these old-time habits.

I hadn't seen the classic before. As the film itself features occurences running parallel to the story of Jesus Christ, it was also more than suitable film to be shown so close to Christmas. For a person who thinks Life of Brian is one of the best films ever made like myself, Ben-Hur was also a fun ride. The Pythons clearly got a number of ideas for their masterpiece from the classic poster to the opening and closing scenes. I just about could manage in the theatre without starting to shout quotes like "Blessed are the cheese-makers", "Welease Wodewick!" and "Alms for an ex-leper!" during the course of the film.

Sure, Ben-Hur was quite pompous. It shoe-horned its Christian message to the point of boredom during the last twenty minutes and in every now and then during its course of three hours and 45 minutes. At its core it starts as a simple revenge story of a man wronged, but rising up from his downfall to avenge his fate to his oppressor. It is a pure Count of Monte Cristo story in the beginning. The titular Judah ben Hur (Charlton Heston) is condemned for a crime he didn't commit by his former friend Messallah (Stephen Boyd). Messallah wants to rise up in the ranks of the Roman military and sees this conviction as a way for better circles. Ben Hur goes on from being a slave to a war hero and then to become an adoptive son of a Roman aristocrat Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and a very powerful man himself. But he always keeps his vengeance and worry about the fate of his family in his heart.

I felt that the plot was oddly structured. Everyone has at least heard of the chariot scene in the film, but how it is glued to the actual story never makes sense to me. Why would a powerful Roman consul race lowly peasants often enough to be the best of the best in races which have a huge death toll? How convinient that Judah learns just the art of races during his time as an adopted son of a Roman aristocrat. The character motivations are also flimsy and switch from their goals bit by bit. The characterization isn't stable to say the least.

Nevertheless, the main scene itself is just as breathtaking as it had been promised to be. The stunt work is nothing short of marvellous, the editing, the sense of speed and of course the crashes made my pulse go from 0 to 200 in seconds. And to see it on a canvas as large as at Bristol. Wow! I can see George Lucas was inspires to make the pod race from Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace here. As it is shoehorned to the plot just as badly, Lucas makes the mistake that the viewers don't give two shits about anyone racing and the might as well be robots. In Ben-Hur, however, the antagonism of Judah ben Hur and Messallah culminates in the scene, as well as their worldviews. Messallah uses his horses purely as a mean for his own victory and constantly beats them to do a better job. Judah loves his horses and to keep them from harm is more important to him than gaining positions in the race. He fights Messalah only when he is attacked first and with Messalah's own weapons, the whip and the wheel. As he is shown to be such a good character I was waiting for him to forgive Messalah for his sins at his deathbed after the race. But Judah actually just gets even angrier.

One can see the Christian moral story of refusing the help of Jesus until it seems too late. Yet for the repenting one, redemption can still come. It is as flat as can be as long as morales are concerned, but at least Christ symbolizes here what he is supposed to: forgiveness to others and peace within oneself. One surely would need those qualities today as well as then.

★★★ 1/2

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