The Sign of the Cross – Cecil B. DeMille (1932)

Another hole in my schedule, so another semi-random choice (part of a Charles Laughton retro at Film Forum, although Laughton does a smaller, albeit memorable, turn as Nero). This is a pre-code epic that focuses on the early Christian church and its persecution in Rome during the reign of Nero; being pre-code, it is well-known for some racy bits involving Claudette Colbert (as Nero’s sister Poppaea) bathing in asses milk and the “lesbian” Dance of the Naked Moon (often cut). As a chance to see an early epic by DeMille, a director whose works I am hardly versed in, on the big screen, I decided it was too good to pass up.

I do have a few things to say about the film as a discreet object, but in honesty “reviewing” a film this old feels odd. I do not discount that my evaluations would be as valid, in my time, as a review of the film on original release might have been to its time; and I would resist anyone who views films this old, or older, as mere artifacts. All the same, this is not a film made for us, or for the ages, and my review of it as a semi-mediocrity wouldn’t add much. Instead, I’d like to focus on the audience for this film, then and now, and talk a little bit about laughter. You see, a film of this age, with this topic, and within the classical Hollywood rubric of coy sleaziness (or lewd chastity), will be treated by some percentage of the audience as camp, and the reaction will be laughter. Calling it “camp” is giving too much credit to these audience members, as they are not likely, during their laughter, thinking of any particular aesthetic category. The Sign of the Cross is not camp; it is, in many places, kitsch, but as a popular, industrial form of “art,” all film is, in part, indebted to, if not partaking of, kitsch. It would have been understood as kitsch in its own time, and really, these folks who laugh take a little kitsch a long way, as often their laughter is simply a marker of the change in performance and film styles over the past 80 years. Okay, a lot of “sophisticated” types come to films like this and laugh – not the laughter of ridicule, but of distance and knowingness. So what? (It was not even particularly bad in this case, being that most moviegoers at Film Forum, attending a 12:30 pm screening, are film nerds, are there alone, and only laughed very occasionally. I just happened to be sitting in front of two couples who did laugh a lot).

Well, the laughter got me thinking about distance and why audiences go out to be entertained. First, though, let me set the stage a bit. The film, as previously mentioned, deals with the early Christian church in Rome. The plot concerns a beautiful young Christian, named Mercia, who happens to come into the purview of the prefect of Rome, Marcus Superbus (played by a frighteningly young and “dashing” Frederick March). The general edict around town is to sniff out and report any Christians, as Nero has framed them for burning Rome. Mercia and her little group of believers are betrayed; Marcus, who is no lover of Christianity, but wants Mercia for himself and hopes to teach her to “enjoy life,” is caught in a tough situation. He wants the girl, but without her community, the girl has no interest, so he is caught between wanting to “save” one Christian while not wanting to save them all, lest he piss off Nero. He might be able to thread this needle if it were not for Poppaea, who is herself in love with Marcus, and wants to eliminate the competition. As Nero’s puppet mistress, Poppea makes sure Marcus’s pleas for leniency fall on deaf ears. It hardly matters, however, as Mercia (Elissa Landi) is indeed virtuous, and prefers to die with her fellow Christians within the Colosseum than live on as Marcus’s wife and practice her faith invisibly. The film spends its final hour or so within the Colosseum, as the games are played out that will climax with the wholesale slaughter of Mercia and her group. Marcus, after all else has failed, pleads with Mercia to reconsider (Nero will let her live if she converts), and when she does not, he decides to go to his death with her, even though he does not believe in her God. (Perhaps he hopes for conjugal visits in purgatory). They ascend the stairs of the dungeon together, walking into the light (and the waiting jaws of a dozen lions we’ve previously seen licking their chops). The film ends.

I think we can all understand why such a film might be met with laughter. What struck me was the rippling laughter across the centuries, the mirroring within this film’s performance of three audiences. First, we have our contemporary audience, the so-called “sophisticated” audience; then we have the “original” audience, which attended the film when released in 1932; finally, we have the “primitive” audience, that audience portrayed in the film itself, a vision of Romans at the Colosseum, reacting to the “movies” of their own day. What struck me was the diminution of a spectrum as time passes. The “ancient” Roman audience watch their entertainments and react with a variety of affects: laughter is predominate, but also fear, revulsion, sadness, pathos, and anger. This makes sense to us, as they are watching “real” events: gladiators killing each other, or pleading for mercy; prisoners fed to animals, or trampled to death; animals battling each other to the death; fights between exotic prisoners (such as the pygmies vs. Amazonian women match that is re-staged for us sophisticates). We imagine the audience of 1932, only partly mysterious to and distant from us, as having a mixed reaction – not the reaction of the “ancient” audience, obviously (even viewers in 1932 were more sophisticated than them), as the screen partly removes both the threat and the allure. What is seen is present but absent; it is not real, it cannot really affect us, and furthermore, even if it does affect us, we know that it is all an imagining. No blood was spilled for our, or their, benefit – film audiences have understood this from the beginning of the medium. All the same, we can also imagine this audience of 1932 having an investment in the drama unfolding before them. Of course, some viewers will be too “sophisticated” to do anything but laugh or be bored, but there will also be viewers who take the portrayal of religious devotion seriously, or who are also frightened or horrified by the violence, fascinated by the spectacle, and the like. And perhaps the majority, if not most, of that generation of viewers might feel many of those things at the same time. But then we come to the contemporary audience, who do not react to the images at all (as far as outward displays go) except to laugh. My first thought was that we do indeed live in a hideous age of decadence, one in which we have become too inured to images, both as entertainments and as emblems of historical, lived reality (of any register). These bearers of an undead past that stalks through our lives flow over our eyes too smoothly. And in comparison to the decadence of ancient Rome, of which we, as modern folk, are often compared by those on the righter side of the political spectrum… well, we come off far worse, and far more decadent. For those ancient audiences, the spectacle had a stake – the lives and deaths of those far below, but also the emotional state of the viewer, and the interrelation of both levels to a realpolitik, to civic life and responsibility. That entertainment was full-blooded, embodied, and hid behind no scrim of disavowal. This portrayal of ancient decadence is, of course, a negative example, a message as well, and it was intended for the audience of 1932 – if we are to compare it to a world, it should be the world of 1932. And that world of 1932, in the depths of that Depression, was full-blooded as well, but it had its scrim that belied harsh reality: the movies. What do we have now? Decadence without the blood, as the world is now flat and dry. In 1932, images referred, even if through denial, to that unrelenting world out there. Now, images refer to images, and images are paramount, the “bloody” world only a remainder, that necessary sacrifice which enables the image to exist, but is then left behind. “Sophisticated” laughter bothers me because it is bloodless, because it takes all images to be the same, and in a perverse reversal of reality, “beneath” the viewer, as if, given a modicum of intelligence, an individual can float above this world, now purely representational, like a god. The laughter marks this evacuation: of responsibility, of the possible, of affective response, of a world of stakes and of the rule of violence (or the violence of rules). What makes me sad about this laughter is that it is not a mark of superiority, but a sign of failure and of inferiority. It is not an indicator that one is “above” the representation, but indeed, beneath or behind it – a shade of a shade, an unsuccessful image haunting its betters, trying to convince itself that his or her reality matters, when, indeed, the laughter is the mark of hollowness, of the irrelevancy of the physical, and of the spectator him or herself.

It need not be thus. All it takes to engage with an image is imagination and, yes, compassion; you must meet the otherness of the image halfway. This is the disaster of post-modernity, as we have begun to offload such affective work onto machines and plow those atavistic desires into a constant seeking that takes technology as its avatar. We are losing real abilities. I, for one, prefer to stay naive and credulous. And, I am sure, others in the audience were likewise affected by Mercia’s martyrdom, or by the ridiculous horrors of the arena. Like much of what matters, though, such sentiments have gone underground, out of a pathetic self-policing, totalitarian in form but in function nothing more than meager embarrassment. Laughter is the public response, the washed-out face of cynicism we all must wear to stand a world so unhinged by empty imagery and useless spectacle. I’d suggest, though, that there could still be a “sophisticated” response to such a film that would not be empty and condemned to one gesture only; one could affectively respond to the representation as such, that is, the image already at a remove. For instance, could not a contemporary audience find a gang of middle-aged dwarves in blackface (the pygmies) fighting androgynous, middle aged “Amazonian” women disgusting? Or sad? Or outrageous? Perhaps the scenes of captive animals, forced to play-act for the camera? The problem, such as it is, would not exactly be solved, because within these sentiments would still linger the bitter triumph of presupposed superiority, but at least they would be reactions to the reality of what was present before us. If our reality is to be reduced to the purely representational, then let us at least moralize about and find fault with that; let us treat the production of these images with the same seriousness that the ancient audience treats the production of “reality.” Restricted to laughter, we become mirrors not of the ancient rabble, but of Nero – weightless, mad, above the fray, laughing at everything until the knives come out, any recognition arriving too late. Future audiences, in all likelihood, will be at an even greater remove, and for the better. Who can look at the portrayal on an ancient urn, for instance, and feel anything except an intellectual understanding or fascination, a passing sense of a world forever closed to us? Many films will some day be like this, objects that have a distinctly archaeological, or anthropological, interest.

Now that I’ve whetted your chops with that juicy disquisition, I’m sure you are still wondering if the movie was any good or not? Well, like the later DeMille films I’ve seen, it was a mixed bag of boring parts and interesting parts. It surprised me how poor DeMille is at maintaining clarity of action during a sequence; he tends to cut from a variety of angles, none of which exactly repeat, and often his cut-ins are clunky and slightly mismatched. Individual shots are strong in a “pictorial” kind of way, but often lack an underlying pull or heat. The best part of the film, as well as the worst, was the ending. Poor Mercia, having been for the duration confused by Marcus’s pleas of love and fidelity mixed with his distaste for her beliefs, finally gets to have her day and die like the virtuous maiden she is… until Marcus crashes in on her and steals her thunder. His final pleas to her, and then his decision to die by her side, not only feels contrived – what exactly is the point of dying with someone when you don’t believe you’ll be reunited in the afterlife? – but it robs her of her agency. Her solo martyrdom (as Poppaea has ordered her held back, so she can’t be part of her beloved community in their death) is now transformed into a forced wedding, her sacrifice discounted at the hands of the over-the-top self-destruction of Marcus. Her radical chastity is reduced to that of the dutiful wife. While she ascends the stairs head held high, I couldn’t help but feel her resignation, and the relief that death would bring from this world of self-important, deluded, and cowardly men. A prime example of a Hollywood ending that tries to make everyone happy by splitting the difference (a win for romantics, and for chastity too, I suppose) and succeeds only in denaturing both.

Three stars out of five

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