Jesus, Mary Magdalene and “Bloodline”

 bloodline8.jpg

“I think I’m just a reasonable guy,” says documentarian Bruce Burgess in front of a sold-out, opening night crowd at the Laemmle Sunset 5, “who’s looking for the truth.” Normally, directors of documentaries do not need to explain or defend their film subjects. But Bloodline, Burgess’s first documentary feature film, has tapped into a societal fascination with the historical Jesus.

Burgess, along with his producer Rene Barnett, conducted a Q&A with an audience that was highly passionate, informed and participatory to such a degree that it would be the envy of most filmmakers. But then Bloodline, using researchers and experts, analyzing ancient scrolls and clues in artwork, strongly suggests that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that the Catholic Church has known this all along and that there are members of a secret society known as the Priory of Sion who are trying to disseminate this information, sub rosa, even while being connected to the Vatican.

The Priory of Sion may be familiar to those who read Dan Brown’s international best-selling novel, The Davinci Code. And while that book plays fast and loose with many historical facts, it laid the groundwork for serious consideration of the central thesis in Bloodline, namely that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, that they may have had children and that the idea of Jesus as the Son of God who was resurrected needs to now be viewed from a non-biblical perspective.

This remarkable documentary not only explores a burial tomb in the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau, where a mummified body and artifacts verified to be from the 1st century A.D. have been found, but it also follows Burgess and amateur archeologist Ben Hammott, who deal with unnerving threats to their exploration. Burgess, in direct address rather than voice-over, poses fair questions about what has been found and its ramifications. Without grandiosity and with marvelous dramatic tension, he exposes a series of sinister events during the three-year production. They include tapped phone calls, the suspicious death of alleged Priory member Lord Patrick Lichfield one week before a scheduled interview, the intimidation of an on-camera interview subject by an unidentified man and finally, someone cutting the brake line to Hammott’s van during his explorations in Rennes-le-Chateau.

The filmmakers have a spokesperson for the Priory in the icily imperious Brit named Nicolas Haywood, whose screen presence is not only subtly menacing but who confirmed to Burgess and Hammott that with The Davinci Code, and the 1982 nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, there will be more revelations regarding the historical Jesus. Burgess informed me that Haywood acknowledged, “There are definitely members of the Priory who are in the intelligence services both in England, in France and in the United States.”

The filmed discovery of that undergrown tomb in France, which could only be shot with a special camera through a narrow airshaft, will lead to an excavation very likely this summer, although it will require avoiding a collapse of the entire, sealed off tomb. “I’ve knocked around the Valley of the Kings a bit and other tombs,” Burgess says with charming English understatement, “and this will be a hard one.”

While Burgess has been criticized by religious groups, not unexpectedly, and has been humorously dubbed a “Ziploc bag archaelogist,” the crowds at the Sunset 5 and the East Village Theatre in Manhattan, where Bloodline opened, suggest a public hungry for re-evaluation of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Burgess’s previous television work has included mysterious topics like the infamous Area 51 at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada–where extraterrestrial-military complicity has been alleged–a series of Bigfoot sightings in a rural Oklahoma town, CIA assassins and yes, the search for the Holy Grail. “It’s gone on and on and on,” Burgess says of the Jesus-Mary Magdalene secrecy, “a bit like some of the UFO stuff, Area 51, where the secret is kept so long, no one knows why they’re keeping it.” He also cites historical precedent for the Catholic Church revising long-held truisms. “With Mary Magdalene, they did it overnight. In 1969, a papal bull was issued, and said there was no evidence she was a prostitute.”

Burgess feels that irrespective of the identity of the mummy–already verified as having a Middle Eastern origin–and whether the artifacts can be linked to Jesus or Mary Magdalene, that Bloodline and the movement for a more humanistic interpretation of these figures will eventually lead to doctrinal changes in the Catholic Church. He mentions the eventual possibility of women priests, gay priests and bishops and perhaps even a reconsideration of the requirement for priestly celibacy, a doctrine that many feel has impacted the sexual molestation scandals that have in recent years rocked the Church.

“If we can get to the true historical Jesus,” Burgess says, “I believe from what I’ve been told and from what I’ve ingested in doing this film that his true ministry would be far more powerful, far more beneficial, far more enlightening toward mankind than church doctrine. In other words, it would start to enable us to be all we can be.”

“The Ultimate Trip” Returns: 2001 in 2008

2001-keir-gary2.jpg

(Actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood at 40th anniversary screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills)

I have a friendly disagreement with a journalist-screenwriter friend of mine, Mike Tunison. He thinks the movie that changed his view of life, the universe and everything, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, was Star Wars. For me, it was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a sold-out event April 25 to honor the 40th anniversary of Kubrick’s remarkable adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” hosted by Tom Hanks. After the presentation in 70 millimeter, six-track sound, as it was originally shown, there was a panel discussion with actors Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, effects artist Bruce Logan and Daniel Richter, a mime who wound up playing the ape known as Moonwatcher and took nine months to choreograph the animal movements in the “Dawn of Man” sequence.

Hanks delivered a long but charming speech prior to the screening itself, introducing celebrities including former astronaut and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. “I believe Buzz is called Buzz,” Hanks explained deferentially, “because everyone talks about Buzz when he leaves the room.”

Hanks recalled his reading the Mad magazine piece entitled “201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy” before actually seeing the film for the first time at a domed theatre near the Oakland Coliseum. He marveled at the transition Kubrick created between an ape tossing a bone—newly invented as a weapon—into the air, and its transition into a spacecraft: “In the history of cinema, there has never been as great a time cut…or one that has cut out as much time.”

After the screening, culminating with the still visually transporting “star gate corridor” and the otherworldly music of Gyorgy Ligeti—perhaps leading to the film’s original promotional copy of “The Ultimate Trip”—Trumbull elucidated many of the technical aspects of making 2001. He reminded the Samuel Goldwyn theatre crowd that there were no computers used in the making of the film, that sixteen separate16-millimeter cameras were synched up to project data screens inside the depicted spacecraft.

There was no optical printing to be had, as George Lucas did during the production of Star Wars. So, when Kubrick wanted to project an ancient landscape for the apes in the beginning of the film, it involved a mindboggling use of 20,000 watt arc lamps, front projection onto a surface that was 50 percent mirrored with reflective beads and temperatures in the studio that reached 130 degrees. Richter recalled bulbs constantly exploded and had to be replaced, especially whenever a studio door was opened and a jetstream of air entered the space.

Lockwood tried to dispel the legend of Kubrick as a director who shot numerous takes, pushing actors to the brink, insisting that the only scene that required a lot of takes was when he and Dullea were inside a pod and had their lips read by soon-to-be renegade computer HAL-9000. He contended it was 35 takes. But forty years did not diminish the memory of Richter, who as Moonwatcher had to kill a fellow actor-ape named Richard Wood 42 times. Perhaps Edmund Kean was wrong when he said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Dullea wrung applause from the audience as he explained the harrowing method of shooting him re-entering the spaceship through an airlock without a helmet. It was done with rigging and a leap from two stories high. A former circus stagehand had to grab the rope at a certain point to prevent Dullea from breaking his neck.

These details of jerryrigging equipment, 40 years ago, makes even the cinematic effect of 2001 even more monumental. The detail, the use of music, the sense of wonder, mystery, spirituality and yes, ineffable loneliness that Kubrick created in his “Ultimate Trip” is what sets it apart from other science fiction films that had the benefit of more advanced technology.

For those who wish to learn more about the production, the Academy will have Trumbull return with others for “2001 in 2008,” on May 21, a program featuring more information on the making of the film, as well as previously unseen photos and unused footage of—with all due respect to Lucas and my friend Mike—the greatest space-related motion picture ever made.