During my last year of university, I wrote an essay on the visual theme of chess in Jesus Christ Superstar. Think I’m stretching it? Then let me direct your attention to Exhibit A: Hats.
This is the first clue that got me looking for other chess…stuff. It almost seemed like a perfect set-up: Caiaphas and his priestly gang are all dressed in black (a classic chess colour) and each wears a hat that, in some cases, could be likened to chess pieces. Caiaphas’s headwear is shaped like the top of a pawn piece, and his sidekick Annas’s conical hat is a bit reminiscent of the bishop. I would have left well enough alone if it weren’t for Exhibit B: Scaffolding.
I found it interesting that Caiaphas and his pals of the cloth discuss the outcome of other people’s lives on a structure not unlike a chess board. Okay, it’s not identical to a chess board, but the scaffolding is criss-crossed, and from various angles, the crossings are shaped like squares. This is where they strategize and discuss what their next move should be (“So like John before him/This Jesus must die”). Uncanny though this is, I knew I had to explore this idea further because of Exhibit C: White Jesus.
I’m not referring to Jesus’s ethnicity (although…). I’m referring to what he’s wearing: a white tunic. It’s not new to visually contrast opposing forces in a movie. But when you’re building a case for a visual theme of chess, and you consider that white is the other common chess colour, something like this can be seen as compelling evidence. It’s even more convincing when you see that an effort is made to block Jesus in such a way so as to emphasize the difference between him and the priesthood, like when he’s arrested (or literally check-mated, being “King of Jews” and all):
White also distinguishes him from, well, everyone:
Nobody else in the movie gets to wear that particularly beaming shade of white . Some of his followers don beige or dark ivory, but only Jesus is as bright. That is, until Judas fulfills his duties as official betrayer, offs himself, and appears to Jesus in a post-mortem vision:
Until he dies, Judas wears a hot pink outfit. And once he’s done what he was (presumably) preordained to do, he reaches the same level of heavenly holiness as Jesus. At least, that’s what the movie suggests. In some ways, it reminds me of reaching the eighth square, where you can turn a sacrificial pawn into a powerful queen.
This all fits in rather beautifully in a biblical narrative because, if you take it at face value, it seems God controls everything. Every move is calculated and predetermined by the Guy Upstairs, each event bearing proof of God’s omniscience. And in some form, isn’t that what chess attempts to mimic? Instead of one god, there are two, and each predicts the game based on a set of mathematical possibilities and tactical advantages. It only takes one move to impact the rest of the game.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that’s inherent to critiquing movies. So when I found out that Norman Jewison would be at Ebertfest, I figured the time had come to stop guessing and ask the higher power behind Jesus Christ Superstar if the visual theme of chess was something he’d intended.
I thought I might have to go through a publicist or agent to get to ask Norman that question, but the only person he brought with him was his wife. This aptly demonstrates a sentiment that was repeated throughout Ebertfest: it’s not about the movie business; it’s for the love of movies.
I’d hoped for a proper sit-down interview, but in the frenzy of the festival, it never happened. Still, I was fortunate enough to get to ask him that very question during a discussion panel on choices filmmakers make. Here’s what he said:
“Every film that you make, you see the film in your mind’s eye. So that’s why the director can explain to actors and set designers and cameramen what they see, what film they’re making. Because it’s in your mind, in your imagination, it sometimes conjures up images that you get locked into. In Jesus Christ Superstar, I was making a rock opera. There’s only one line of dialogue in the film: ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.’ That’s the only line of dialogue, unlike everything else, which are songs and lyrics. So it’s about the good, the bad and the beautiful. It’s a rock opera. That’s all it is. It’s not a treatise that I was making. So, I was making this musical, and therefore, when it came to costuming and style and period, what period are you dealing with? Well, we’re dealing with today. That’s why I put tanks and planes and guns into the film. Because they’re contemporary. The work itself is contemporary, written by two young Englishmen. So, when it came to costuming, I was trying to do a mixture of biblical and contemporary. That’s the only thing I can say, because when the time came to make the film, I started to walk around the Holy Land, where the story originates, I guess that’s what affected me more than anything. And I was just listening to a walkman, singing to myself, and trying to visualize [it]. And I didn’t want to build big temples and places. I wanted to find them organically, because I felt this is what’s left of the Holy Land. These are the rocks and earth that people walked on. So I think that was it. I tried to give the Romans always a look, [with] the helmets. With the other characters, I tried to give them indications of period, but on top of that, it was all contemporary. It was a t-shirt and things. It was a mixture…it’s hard for me to describe it because it was many years ago, and I was much younger, and I was out in the desert in [inaudible] degrees. I was a little out of it, I guess…[laughing]..But yeah, it’s an interesting look. The picture does have an interesting look, and I like the look very much. I really think it works.”
Later, when the resplendent Chaz Ebert found out that I had not been scheduled to appear on a post-movie panel like other Far-Flung Correspondents, she asked if I had a preference. That’s how I got to co-interview Norman (with the lovely Anath White) on a panel after the showing of a film dear to his heart, Only You.
In retrospect, I wish I’d had more time to prepare questions. I’m good at ad-libbing jokes, but as a journalist, I like to blueprint my interviews. It didn’t matter much since Roger wanted us to ask him about specific things which, all told, made for great stories. That’s one thing I learned about Norman Jewison: the man sure knows how to tell a tale.
That’s why it’s difficult to pin him down to a style or genre. He cares more about the story than anything else, and he wants it to be told with as much compassion and humanity as possible.
One question I’m glad I asked him (and it was ad-libbed to boot) was about how he managed to get such iconic performances from actors. Case in point: Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen, Cher and Ted Neeley, who’s still playing Jesus, if that’s any indication. In Norman’s response, which led some people to think he was flirting with me (I don’t see it), he said this:
“The relationship between a director and an actor is one of trust. That’s what it’s really about. It’s about the fact that the actor knows that the director trusts the actor, or the actor wouldn’t even be there. So you keep reminding the actor, ‘of all the people in the world, you are the one, you are the one to play this role, because I chose you.’…[Sidney] Poitier was always very concerned about Rod Steiger [while filming In the Heat of the Night]. He would say, ‘he can go over the top, you know. He can get too big.’ And I said, ‘I’ll watch him.’ When Rod Steiger won the Academy Award for his performance, I think it was recognized that he had given a performance in that picture from his heart that was very honest and deep and true. So I think it’s all about believability, isn’t it? And the end result is, do you believe that scene? Do you believe that person on the screen. That’s what the audience is asking themselves every moment they’re watching a picture.”
There are different types of directors out there. There’s the visual director, the actor’s director, and then there are those who, like Norman Jewison, are consistently mindful of the audience’s experience.
I’ve often said that art necessitates an audience. Without it, there is no art. There is no one for the art to matter to. And art has to matter to someone other than the artist to exist at all.
After I asked Norman my question on chess and Jesus Christ Superstar, a lady from the audience came up to me and said, “You know, I never looked at it that way before, but when I think back, you’re right! Those hats. The costumes. I’m going to have to watch it again now.”
I still think there’s a visual theme of chess in Jesus Christ Superstar, but Norman doesn’t see it. He doesn’t have to. I think it was Salvador Dali who said something along the lines of, the artist is not the best authority on their own work.