It was 1967 and Wendl was at the Drive-In with her boyfriend, watching a movie called The Bible. At each scene, she told her boyfriend what would happen: Cain would kill Abel, Noah would escape the flood. Her boyfriend was … Read More
It was 1967 and Wendl was at the Drive-In with her boyfriend, watching a movie called The Bible. At each scene, she told her boyfriend what would happen: Cain would kill Abel, Noah would escape the flood. Her boyfriend was amazed that she already knew the plot line since the movie had just been released. "I read The Book," she explained to him. Wendl recounts this memory as we stand in front of a vintage Italian movie poster of that movie, La Bibbia (on which a handsome young, shirtless Cain is pictured wielding a club, ready to kill his handsome young shirtless brother, Abel – fratricide never looked so good) at the exhibit "Reel Religion, a Century of the Bible and Film" in the Museum of Biblical Art on the Upper West Side. "He hadn’t read the Bible?" I am still at the Drive-In with her boyfriend. "No." Pause. "But he had his uses." While the exhibit of over fifty vintage movie posters of international biblical films, from The Passion Play of 1898 to Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, Passion of the Christ, is fascinating, sharing it with Wendl and listening to her commentary on it is at least as enlightening and entertaining as the material itself. In front of a poster for Sodom and Gomorrah, which is billed as the" twin cities of sin," Wendl comments, "I thought that was Minneapolis and St. Paul." A quarter of a century ago Wendl and I worked on the same floor in midtown Manhattan where she was known for her quick, funny retorts and her knowledge of pretty much everything. After not seeing her for at least fifteen years, we passed each other on Columbus Avenue last summer. Though she had already walked away, and I’d only caught a glimpse of the side of her face, I called out, "Wendl?" and she turned and said, "Angela?" and now here we are, picking up the thread of a conversation we started many years ago in that office and on walks home through Central Park. We are two converts to Judaism who continue to find the Bible and all things religious fascinating and important and relevant and worthy of being discussed. When Wendl steps on a covered electrical outlet on the floor, she raises an eyebrow and smiles slightly, "A portal," and she knows that I will know from just that one word what she means: religion as a portal to God, these posters as a portal to the movies, the movies as a portal to the Bible, Jesus as a portal to God and the afterlife et cetera., etc. "Yvonne de Carlo," Wendl points at a name on The Ten Commandments poster. "She was Lily Munster. It was actually The Ten Commandments that was my first baby step toward Judaism. I went to see it on Sunday, and my Sunday school teacher got mad at me when I told her. So…" she shrugs. For Wendl, the posters bring back memories of the movies themselves. I, on the other hand, have seen none of the movies, save part of The Ten Commandments which my kids once watched on television. I grew up in a church that for a long time forbade watching movies or television. A mere peek of Caspar the Friendly Ghost was like opening the door to Satan. So these posters do not evoke for me recollections of a darkened theater or a steamed up car window at the Drive-In, but rather memories of reading the original in the thin, crinkly pages of the King James Bible. Nonetheless, today both Wendl and I are viewing the exhibit with former-Christian, now-Jewish eyes, and it’s this under-over-layered quality of the past impinging upon the present that has us pondering Ben-Hur. I don’t recall him as a biblical character, even one of those minor, walk-on, walk-offs who appears in Chronicles. Wendl can’t place him, either. Turns out, Ben-Hur was a completely fictional character. Like talmudic exegesis, this film and others like Salome and Fabiola (about a spy turned gladiator lover, "You don’t meet many of them today," says Wendl) use the Bible as a jumping off point. Painters and sculptors and writers and musicians have long utilized their artistic mediums to put out to the world the visions in their heads that the biblical stories conjure for them. Film is the latest tool to explore this Book, which is clearly ever-present, despite the fact that it was written thousands of years ago and the characters lived in the distant, distant past. At the end of the exhibit we sit at a table in front of two small television screens on which clips from some of the biblical movies are being played. When Lot’s wife looks back in Sodom and Gemorrah, Wendl shakes her head, "Uh, oh. There’s a Morton Salt girl in her future." In the black and white silent movie Salome, from 1923, Salome dances her dance of the seven veils to the great enjoyment of the lascivious king, and Wendl turns to me and says, "Any man who wears that much lipstick has got to be debauched." In some respects, I’m sure I’m not as good a companion as Wendl’s boyfriend was back in 1967, even though I know the plotlines. It’s because Wendl and I knew in advance what was going to happen to Jesus but didn’t like the ending that we are here, far from an outdoor movie screen that lit up the sky with celluloid revelation, and far from the Satanic world of Caspar and crew. I laugh when Wendl suggests that Yul Brenner would have made a good "after" Samson – I get the joke, I know that Delilah cut his hair, no further explanation needed. And it occurs to me that, aside from family, friends are some of life’s most important portals, for they are portals to our pasts, to ourselves and to new possibilities.