Idol Chatter

You may not have heard of him yet, but for the past year or so, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has hosted a television show in Canada–where he is huge–as “The Naked Archeologist,” in which he is neither naked (thankfully) nor an archeologist (interestingly). The show’s wanton title comes from its premise–to “strip down” Biblical archeology for the layperson, or as the auteur himself states on the VisionTV Documentaries website, “to demystify the Bible in general, and archaeology in particular, to brush away the cobwebs and burst academic bubbles.”

But Canada isn’t enough for this veteran of 30 documentaries; in his latest opus, Jacobovici takes on the biblical account of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. In its beginning moments, the film, The Exodus Decoded, taps into our cultural memory, evoking the iconic–if fictional–image of the Ark of the Covenant, as found by Indiana Jones. The Ark is boxed and rolled away by a nameless worker, vanishing into a government warehouse of similarly boxed items. The question is, what happens to the inquiry after that? The film goes a step further, analyzing the archeological and historical evidence surrounding the biblical Exodus. As executive producer James Cameron–yes, that James Cameron–explains in the introductory narration that the film is on “a mission to answer the question: is the Exodus fact, or fiction?”

Of course, the business of attempting to prove a historical basis for biblical stories may necessitate challenging the status of the events these stories portray, events that religious people of multiple faiths believe are miracles. For instance, the film posits that the Ten Plagues, regarded by many as the miraculous centerpiece of the pre-Exodus narratives, did indeed happen, but that they were the result of a geological event, the Santorini volcanic eruption. The plague of the rivers turning to blood was a natural gas leak causing the water to be red-tinted; the pollution of the water caused all the fish to die and the frogs to hop out to safety, because they were the only ones who could; that led to pestilence, etc.

Those who are unwilling to find natural causes for biblical miracles will undoubtedly rail against the premise of the film; others might be more willing to say that a historical explanation is not inconsistent with miraculous status. Perhaps, in the more expansive view, a natural event–with the proper amazingly appropriate timing–is what creates a miracle.

In the last few days, I have found more articles debating what in the world has happened to director M. Night Shymalan’s career than I have found positive reviews about his latest movie, “Lady in the Water.” Not exactly good news if you are Shyamalan. And while I tried to keep an open mind, “Lady In The Water” is, in fact, yet another huge disappointment from someone who has created some truly iconic movie moments (and no, I am not referring to his last box-office bomb, “The Village”).

“Lady In The Water” is not a creepy thriller like the TV ads want you to think, and it is not quite a fantasy, like Shyamalan passionately insists it is in every interview he does about the movie. “Lady in the Water” is the tale of Story, a mythical creature who lives underneath the swimming pool of a suburban apartment complex, and is an odd mix of fairytale, drama, and not so-subtle commentary on everyone who has panned Shyamalan’s work in the past. Story is discovered by the unhappy and lonely apartment manager, Cleveland, and with his help, she fulfills her purpose by connecting with a struggling writer, way too conveniently played by Shymalan himself, who needs inspiration so he can finally write the story that will change our culture.

Once she has completed her mission, Story finds it difficult to return home due to a dangerous creature lurking in the nearby woods. With the help of a snarky movie critic, Cleveland rallies others in the apartment complex to help Story return to her home and live happily ever after.

And while many critics are ranting and raving about Shyamalan’s ego overtaking his talent–really, was there no room left in the budget to cast another actor, any actor, for Shyamalan’s part in the movie?–I have to say one thing in defense of “Lady in the Water” and Shyamalan himself. As I watched this movie, I had no doubt that Shyamalan truly loves telling stories and sincerely believes in the spiritual power of telling stories to shape our culture. In fact, one of the many problems with “Lady In the Water” is that he beats us over the head with this sentiment at every turn.

In a recent interview where he was reflecting on the power of writers to shape events, Shyamalan said, “It’s a beautiful thing and an empowering thing to be able to hear, if you could, the beauty of the spiral of things that happen. If God could tell you when you die, ‘This is what you did,’ it would be so cool.” Nice sentiment. So I’ll just keep the faith that his next movie might yet find Shyamalan back in top storytelling style.

(If you want to read two other interesting opinions about Shyamalan’s latest, go here and here. And if you want to watch a wonderful but underrated Shyamalan film from his early days as an unknown director, go rent the little-seen “Wide Awake.”)

ABC Family’s original movie, “Fallen” which aired last night (Sunday) and promised all sorts of exciting enchantments–prophecies, redemption, destinies revealed, and the lore of fallen angels–fell far short of my hopes for movie magic. In fact, rather than a movie, “Fallen”– starring Paul Wesley as Aaron Corbett, a boy who wakes up on his 18th birthday to discover that he is half-angel, half-human, called a Nephilim–feels more like a series pilot than a movie that brings closure to its storyline.

The story begins with myth, narrated with images and a voiceover by Aaron who explains to viewers:

When God created man, jealous Lucier mounted a great rebellion in heaven. His army of angels was defeated and forever banished from Paradise. These angels, The Fallen, abandoned Lucifer, choosing to live on Earth among the pleasures of humans. They took more wives and fathered abominations–Children called Nephilim, with the power of angels, but the souls of men. Angry, the Creator flooded the Earth, killing the Nephilim and driving The Fallen into hiding. He sent The Powers, fierce warrior angels to hunt those that survived the flood. But there was hope for The Fallen in a prophecy. A Nephilim would be born who would redeem them and return them to Paradise. So the Fallen watched…and waited….

Of course, Aaron turns out to be the Nephilim prophesized as the redeemer. A large part of the plot involves Aaron discovering this unwanted destiny that will take him away from the family that loves him and put him in the treacherous path of The Powers who want to destroy him. Without the promise of deeper storyline development, however, “Fallen” feels thin on plot and unfortunately comic at moments, since a lot of the dialogue is conducted between Aaron and his dog Gabriel (yes Gabriel, like the angel). The dog-speak is finessed by the fact that Aaron, as the redeemer-Nephilim, can understand all languages including those of the animals, though it was a campy choice for a movie that takes itself very seriously.

Apparently it’s not a coincidence that I felt I was watching a pilot episode rather than a fully developed film, since ABC Family plans to air a six-hour sequel mini-series next summer. So viewers have not seen the last of “Fallen,” though why ABC would decide to air such an open-ended, “to be continued” story a full year before revealing more is a mystery to me.

And I can’t help wondering: What came first, the BBC’s “Hex” or ABC’s “Fallen”? I only ask because “Hex’s” story arc revolves entirely around the Nephilim as well. I’m not sure television has room for two Nephilim-centered stories. One seems enough to me.

New York City’s public radio station, WNYC, has a wonderful segment today on a hair salon in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, that doubles as a Catholic shrine, crammed with ornate renderings of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the archangels, including a statue of the Infant of Prague that has 12 outfits that the owner changes each month. Says one customer, “It makes you feel safe in a way. I feel like I’m in church sometimes, but it’s a good feeling.”