Then Playing — The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ; The Sea of Grass; Times Square

The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1906). As the title implies, this early silent film from director Alice Guy-Blaché covers the whole life of Jesus Christ in its relatively brief running time. It’s primarily a film passion play, though, concentrating far more narrative attention on the crucifixion than any other element of Christ’s time on Earth. As with nearly any cinematic effort completed in the first decade of the twentieth century, much of the appeal is in marveling at the inventiveness of creators working within an entirely new art form. Guy-Blaché stages scenes with impressive scale and integrates camera tricks and other rudimentary special effects with flair. Admittedly more artifact than fully satisfying viewing experience, The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ is still a stirring example of the foundational discovery process of an enduring medium.

The Sea of Grass (Elia Kazan, 1947). The fourth screen pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is also the second feature film directed by Elia Kazan. In both cases, the results are uncharacteristic and only fitfully engaging. The plot of the film, adapted from a Conrad Richter novel ten years earlier, keeps Hepburn and Tracy unpleasantly at odds before separating them almost entirely for the back half of the narrative. Tracy is a New Mexico rancher with a bad reputation, and Hepburn is the St. Louis woman who enters into marriage with him, quickly becoming dissatisfied with the arrangement. The Sea of Grass is adrift in languid melodrama until an ending that feels so hastily tacked on it might as well feature totally different actors, as if clipped from another film altogether. The seething power and tight command of visuals that distinguishes Kazan’s screen masterpieces is entirely absent. The film is a perfunctorily rendered slog.

Times Square (Allan Moyle, 1980). This scrappy indie centers on mismatched teens, politician’s daughter Pamela (Trini Alvarado) and brash Brooklynese-spouting outcast Nicky (Robin Johnson), who meet in the psychiatric ward of a New York hospital. After they bust out, the two romp through midtown Manhattan, during a time when it was still a roiling stew of exquisite seediness and decadence. They eventually escalating their antics to insurrectionist pranks, in part because a radio DJ (Tim Curry) purrs out on-air monologues about them, leading to folk hero status. Writer-director Allan Moyle keeps it a loose affair, emphasizing the shabby charms of the piece — especially his winningly unaffected leads — which helps mitigate the damage of the many plot holes and dubious character consistency. Compromised as cinema, the film is an interesting memento of the time and the place in which it was made. If nothing else, Times Square has a dandy soundtrack.

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