#555) Parable (1964)
OR “Clown of God”
Directed by Rolf Forsberg and Tom Rook
Written by Forsberg
Class of 2012
The Plot: When visiting the 1964 New York World’s Fair, be sure to stop by the Protestant Pavilion and see their short film “Parable”. Unlike religious films of the past, Jesus is not presented here in a literal sense, but rather metaphorically as a clown dressed all in white (Clarence Mitchell). This clown wanders into a circus, helping those who are being oppressed by the circus’ cruel puppet master (Gordon Oarsheim). Ultimately, the clown replaces the human marionettes and becomes crucified (if you will). But the clown’s good deeds live on in the most avant-garde passion play you’ve ever seen.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a history of church-sanctioned short films (typically made in response to overblown Hollywood religious epics) and cites “Parable” as “[o]ne of the most acclaimed and controversial films in this tradition”. There’s also an essay by UCLA archivist Mark Quigley.
But Does It Really?: Oh sure. I’m all for movies on this list that stand on their own piece of ground, and “Parable” sticks out thanks to its experimental interpretation of the Bible. Plus, thanks to its original engagement, “Parable” represents the 1964 New York World’s Fair on this list. No argument for “Parable”.
Everybody Gets One: Rolf Forsberg got his start as a theater director in Chicago, which led to him becoming a writer and director for “Light Time“, a Lutheran TV show that taught morality to children. It was his work on “Light Time” that led to the New York City Protestant Council of Churches commissioning Forsberg to create a short film for their World’s Fair exhibit.
Wow, That’s Dated: Circuses and sideshows.
Wow, That’s Not Dated: Religious groups being upset over depictions of Christ as anything other than a White male. Ok Greg.
Seriously, Oscars?: Due to its screenings at the New York World’s Fair (as opposed to Los Angeles), “Parable” was not eligible for an Oscar. For the curious, 1964’s Live-Action Short Subject winner was “Casals Conducts: 1964”, an appreciation for cellist and conductor Pablo Casals.
- “Parable” was filmed in Baraboo, Wisconsin, about 40 miles north of Madison (and just south of Wisconsin Dells!). This filming location may seem random, but Baraboo is the home of the Circus World Museum (The Ringling Brothers grew up in Baraboo). I suppose filming in a museum filled with circus artifacts is cheaper than trying to film an actual circus.
- The only information I could find on co-director Tom Rook is that, like Rolf Forsberg, he also directed the TV show “Light Time”.
- The opening prologue is the only part of the film with spoken dialogue, in this case a narrator saying that this film is a parable in the truest sense. This film is not meant to accurately portray Jesus, but is rather an original story based on Jesus’s teachings. I guess some people missed the prologue.
- The clown dresses like he lives beneath the Planet of the Apes.
- Among the cast members appearing as circus performers are Saeed and Madhur Jaffrey. The couple had both appeared in Rolf Forsberg’s Off-Broadway production of “A Tenth of an Inch Makes the Difference”. Although they divorced shortly after “Parable”, Saeed continued acting in his native England, while Madhur brought Indian cuisine stateside with her book “An Invitation to Indian Cooking“. Plus, Madhur is the one who introduced Merchant to Ivory.
- Why are all the kids dressed in hoodies? Is that a metaphor too? They all look like Elliot from “E.T.” Side note: the children were all students from Baraboo East Elementary. Hopefully this counted as a day off/field trip.
- I will admit that if this film didn’t have the prologue, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the Christ metaphor. I would have eventually figured out it was an allegory of some kind, but not necessarily Christ.
- This is all well and good, but how about a scene where people loudly suppress each other in the name of that clown, despite the fact that their actions obviously go against his basic beliefs and teachings? Or did I just get too real for you.
- If anyone needs me, I’ll be at that Robot Lincoln exhibit.
- “Parable” attracted controversy before it even premiered. World’s Fair president Robert Moses tried to get the film removed (even though he declined to see it), other Fair organizers resigned in protest, and some religious-types even threatened violence if the film was shown (oh the irony). The Protestant Pavilion stood by “Parable”, and the film played a successful run at the Fair.
- After the Fair closed in 1965, the film maintained its controversial status. According to the Quigley essay, “Parable” was on a banned film list at the LA County Library in the ’70s (for promoting “anti-establishment type things”) while at the same time being screened at churches across the country.
- Among Rolf Forsberg’s later films is 1979’s “The Late Great Planet Earth”, another nuanced take on religion, narrated by Orson Welles.
- “Parable” paved the way for more liberal interpretations of Christ in film. Since 1964, we’ve seen Christ metaphors in such films as “Cool Hand Luke“, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial“, and “The Matrix“, to name just a few.
- Also inspired by “Parable” and its looser depiction of Jesus: John-Michael Tebelak, who wrote the musical “Godspell” as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University. A revised version with a new score by Stephen Schwartz landed off-Broadway a year later, and is probably still playing somewhere right now.
Further Viewing: The other religious films made exclusively for the 1964 World’s Fair: “Man in the 5th Dimension” at the Billy Graham Pavilion, and “Man’s Search for Happiness” over at the Mormon Pavilion. Man, there were a lot of movies.