Wednesday Editor’s Pick: The Book of Life (1998)

by on March 14, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed March 21 at 8:00 at IFC Center [Program & Tix]
*Dir. Hal Hartley in-person


In honor of the release of Meanwhile (the director’s first feature in a looooong while), IFC hosts “Evenings with Hal Hartley,” selected Wednesdays thru April 4. The director and special guests appear in-person at every screening.


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Hartley’s typically wry, witty and inventive contribution to Haut et Court’s Millennium series envisages Christ (Donovan) reluctantly sent by dad to NYC to supervise the Day of Judgment; meanwhile Satan (Ryan) hopes to put a stop to the Apocalypse, while continuing his quest for wayward souls. The plotting, the philosophical discussions and the playing are as enjoyable as ever, but what makes this Hartley film special is his invigorating use of digital video and experiments with sound and music.




Merle Bertrand for Film Threat:

If ever a film needs that silly, “Contains material which some may find offensive” warning, it’s this biting comedy from Hal Hartley. But I say, screw ‘em if they can’t take a joke, because this darkly subversive little slice of anarchy, is easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year.Shot on digital video and blown up to 35mm, “The Book of Life” makes Hartley one of the first established directors to use the emerging format for feature film work. Smugly humorous, full of smart and subtle sight gags and clever wordplay, “The Book of Life” is nothing less than a thinking person’s prep for the new millennium.


Scott Tobias inquires about the digital format, for The Onion AV Club:

But you feel like you have to do something differently with video?
Not so much differently, but I want the character of the video to be seen for what it is. Video is not photography; it’s electronic images, so it has an inherently different look. So much energy goes into trying to make this electronic medium look like photography, and I’d rather not do that. I love photography, so I’d rather just shoot on film, if that’s what I want. On Book Of Life, I just took this camera and wondered what all the buttons could do for me. There’s a way of thinking about digital videotape in the same way that you would think about digital audiotape, and a lot of contemporary musicians will use distortion as a characteristic of the music they’re making. At least 30 percent of Book Of Life was trying to do that. Distortion can be another kind of color.


A short documentary about the making of the movie.


A Google Books preview of Mark Berrettini‘s commentary from his book on the director.

Mark Savlov for The Austin Chronicle:

This is a wicked, skillfully crafted, and eminently wise black comedy that feels as fresh as anything the director has done in years. Hartley’s film, while clearly a product of his own unique style, is a far cry from the director’s usual offerings. From its opening frames, in which we are privy to the arrival of Jesus Christ (Donovan) and his gal Friday Magdalena (played with irrepressible panache by British indie-rock fave P.J. Harvey) at New York’s JFK airport, Hartley washes the images with odd camerawork, primary colors, and staccato editing. It’s shot on digital video and blown up to 35mm, and the effect is magical, and strangely orienting. It’s December 31, 1999, and J.C., looking rakish in a pressed suit and tie combination, is in town to meet with his Father’s lawyers (Armageddon, Armageddon, Armageddon & Greene) to set in motion the Apocalypse. Magdalena, with her black backpack, leather jacket, and skin-tight clothing, tags along looking more like, well, P.J. Harvey than an angel. Jesus, though, is having his doubts about this whole destruction of the human race thing, and he’s not the only one, either. In a nearby hotel bar sits the Father of Lies, Satan (Ryan), tossing back a few stiff ones while rhapsodizing over the needlessness of it all. Satan, it seems, is content with the way things have been running all along. “Let God have his eternity,” he sneers. “My precincts are the seconds and the minutes of the everyday. As long as there is a future, well, I have my work to do.” At the bar beside him is the battered atheist Dave (Simonds), equally morose over his ongoing gambling problems and the fact that the bargirl Edie (Nikaido), his secret love, seems to ignore him. Still, she gives him freebies from time to time and there’s clearly something between them. Satan spots this right off and makes Dave an offer he can’t refuse — later, Dave approaches Jesus with the line “Can you help me? I think I’ve just lost my girlfriend’s immortal soul for a long shot.” Hartley’s film is full of dry, crackling wit like that, shot through with crystal clear observations on both humankind and things beyond that. Droll, sublime, and very, very funny, it’s the director’s most invigorating, intellectually arresting work in years.



Jeremiah Kipp for AMC:

After six feature films shot with the same ‘too hip to smile’ minimalist approach, critic’s darling Hal Hartley really needed to shake things up. Shot on hand-held digital video as part of the France Collection 2000 series, The Book of Life is that project, a shaggy dog guffaw at the end of the millennium. Miles away from what we critics enjoy referring to as ‘visually austere’ (i.e., static shots with careful compositions), The Book of Life throws caution to the wind. Working with new cinematographer Jim Denault (Boys Don’t Cry) instead of old standby Michael Spiller (Trust), Hartley spins and fusses in colorful blurred abstractions, creating a dreamy, impressionistic look with none of his trademark hard edges. Look, ma — no hands!
Millennial fears have passed, but audiences may still be riveted by this time bomb scenario. The clock is slowly ticking to midnight, transforming this comic meditation into a mini-thriller. Hartley maintains a clever tone of irreverent anticipation, taking breathers when Mary Magdalene takes a last-minute trip to Tower Records. Wouldn’t you know, it’s used as an excuse for the lovely P.J. Harvey to break into song? The masterstroke is casting Donovan, Hartley’s favorite actor, as Jesus Christ. Donovan plays the role in much the same manner as their earlier collaborations — soft spoken, intense, prone to erratic head tilts and ever-so-slight mood swings. He resembles a young politician in his dark suit and tie, PowerBook tucked under his arm. Think Jesus from Squaresville. It’s a nice touch. Running at 63 minutes, The Book of Life is a briskly paced jaunt that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Admirers of Hal Hartley, that modern day Buster Keaton of philosophers, will be pleased to see their man expanding his range.



Jeremy Hellman for Movie Martyr:

Set on the eve of the millennium (December, 31, 1999), Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life manages to send up the notion of the apocalypse in Hartley’s typically offbeat way. The film, which is shot on digital video, follow Jesus (Martin Donovan) as he wanders around Manhattan, pondering whether or not he should unleash his judgment upon the world. He is accompanied by Magdalena (P.J. Harvey) who is his personal assistant and confidante. In a little over an hour, with only about a half dozen main characters and only the barest special effects, Hartley weaves a fugue of hope, resignation, and a generalized sense of millennial tension. Few writers are better than Hartley at spinning memorable dialogue, and his stuff here is as good as anything that he’s turned out. For example, when Jesus calls Lucifer (Thomas Jay Ryan) on his cell phone, he greets him with a simple, “It’s me…” Hartley always underplays things, even when the world’s about to end.

The film’s obviously low-budget feel barely detracts from the overall work. Hartley takes his negatives (such as the sometimes abstract, sometimes amateurish digital video) and spins them into positives (the first sign of the Apocalypse is a video blip.) That he usually requires his actors to speak in ultra-mannered tones allows us to better appreciate the nuance and irony of the script. The satire doesn’t undermine the emotional punch of the film, however, and the sense that there is something at stake behind Jesus’ decision is palpable. Hartley films, which tend to be wonderful experiences, almost rely on an ability to ignore almost everything but the script and acting, and The Book of Life is no exception. It also reveals Hartley as a strict humanist, which tends to refute a lot of the slanderous accusations that he’s a pretentious ironist. One can be glad that this film, which has a somewhat one-note premise, has been kept to a brief running time. As such, Hartley’s film (which was created for a French TV series entitled 2000 As Seen By…alongside such films as Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail) is a deftly executed, wryly observed piece.


Gemma Files for Eye Weekly:

A gloriously blasphemous look at the coming Apocalypse, as told through the deadpan narration of Jesus Christ himself (Hartley regular Martin Donovan), sent back to earth to “judge the living and the dead” and already feeling typically ambivalent about the dreadful human cost of doing his father’s work correctly. With his faithful social secretary Magdalena in tow — as played by PJ Harvey, moping after her Savior like the world’s most mournfully unrequited groupie — Jesus ponders whether or not to pop the last two seals on the titular tome, which turns out to be an ancient Egyptian PowerBook. (Best cinematic image: Jesus’ cursor hovering over a screen that asks, “Do you want to open the fifth seal? Yes — Cancel.”)
In downtown New York, meanwhile, the Devil (Thomas Jay Ryan, Henry Fool himself) drowns his sorrows, grumbling about how badly he’s been misunderstood — in between tempting the poor, gambling-addicted, atheistic mook in the corner to swap his saintly girlfriend’s soul for a winning lottery ticket, that is. And Hartley wisely chooses to shore up his innate pretentiousness by shooting the whole thing in jittery, hand-held video, constantly deformed by motion and light. This is a festival of found images and stolen second-unit spectacle: Magdalena singing along with “To Sir With Love” at an HMV listening post; a religious monomaniac beggar suddenly thrown nose-to-nose with the Light of the World; the cheesy angel logo on the door of Satan’s bar weaving over passers-by outside like an unseen harbinger of Armageddon.



Stephen Holden for The New York Times:

Whimsical yet deeply serious, Hal Hartley’s “Book of Life” loosely translates the Book of Revelation into a hip religious fable that begins facetiously and becomes steadily more reflective. Shot on digital video blown up to 35-millimeter film, pastel-hued and filled with feathery digital afterimages, the movie has a floating, ethereal look that oddly matches its lofty subject.
The one-hour film could be taken as a companion piece to ”Henry Fool,” the director’s full-length pop fable, which opened earlier this year. Mr. Ryan, who played the title character in that film, brings the same mixture of self-deluded grandiosity and bitterness to Satan; he’s a familiar type, a chronic complainer and compulsively contrary.
So what will happen at the stroke of midnight? Does the world end? Or does Jesus, who begins to have second thoughts about his father’s insistence on punishment, take a more sympathetic and relativistic view of human folly and decide to call off the apocalypse? Let’s put it this way: Mr. Hartley’s mild-mannered Jesus turns out to be a nondoctrinaire liberal humanist with the mind of a science-fiction writer.


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