Sunday, December 07, 2003

Not a lot happened today besides reading and packaging books (including a book that sold for $127.) And hanging a picture of two wolves on my wall above my bed. It's a painting of two wolves in snow. One wolf looks like he hasn't eaten in weeks and is snarling as if he's about to jump out of the painting and tear into your throat. The other wolf looks like he's just had a massage, a doobie and a cup of hot cocoa. I like it.
So, since there isn't much else to report, I'm ready for a major review here. I believe this is the first review of a film I'd seen before.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

I had to go back and rewatch this after seeing Taxi Driver. I first heard about The Last Temptation of Christ when I was in junior high. It was at a church picnic and there was the local busybody, who I think was named Wilma, going around with a petition. The petition was to get the Edwards Cinema chain to keep this film from playing in Orange County. Wilma said that there were scenes of Our Lord having sex with Mary Magdalene. Needless to say, Wilma had not seen the film, had no intention of seeing the film, and her only source of information about the film was this knee jerked out petition, put together by some "to the right of Attila the Hun" religious organization who also hadn't seen the film.
In my religious education I took a class on the Images of Jesus through history, art and literature. Long before this class I learned that Kazantzakis' book The Last Temptation of Christ was required reading in nearly all Protestant seminaries and most Catholic ones as well. I'm proud to say that I have read the book. It's a beautiful book, well written, well translated and one of the more thought provoking, nay thought inciting books I've ever read.
In the Images of Jesus class we had to have a major project on images of Jesus. Mine was to show films once a week, in the evening after classes when we could all meet up with popcorn. I'd introduce the films with info on the making of, theological implications, and so on. It ended up being a showing of some of my favorite films of all time. Last Temptation was one of them. Naturally, Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth was another. Life of Brian, Jesus Christ Superstar and Jesus of Montreal rounded it out. Some of my favorite films. But Last Temptation might be my favorite Christ film. I don't know. Life of Brian is a close second. Last Temptation has the most interesting interpretation of Christ I've seen, but it doesn't have the funniest scene ever filmed. Biggus Dickus.
Anyway, Last Temptation has an awesome script and one of the greatest living directors at the peak of his craft. It's a visually beautiful and haunting film. I think the cast is pretty close to one of the strongest I've ever seen. One of the best scores this side of Lisa Gerrard as well.
We get to watch Willem Dafoe craft the centerpiece of his career as one of our strongest underused living actors. Harvey Keitel never matches his role here and I'm saying that as a big fan of his work... well, most of it anyway. There are two actors who have a scene or two each who blew me through the wall with their performances. One was Andre Gregory (yes, that's My Dinner With) as John the Baptist. His performance has the stink of madness. The other is Harry Dean Stanton as my namesake: Saul/Paul.
The story is basically this. It's a restructuring of the story of the gospels around the concept that Jesus was the Messiah, Son of God and, especially, a man. I say especially a man because he has all of the doubt, fear, cowardice, and uncertainty that any of us would face with a burden such as his. He tries to weasel out of his burden a couple of times, just like any of us would. The film starts with Jesus betraying his people by, as a carpenter, making crosses for a living. Judas (Keitel) is both the foil and the impetus to get Jesus into fufilling his destiny.
Christ is tempted in the desert, after being baptized by John the Baptist (who I can't mention enough. Really, if it were just the scenes of him it would be worth owning.) Coming out of the desert Jesus just starts reacting to the highly legalistic religious world around him. He ends up on the cross (hope I'm not blowing it for anybody.) A neat twist is that Jesus convinces Judas to betray him so that he can die on the cross for the sins of all humankind. Judas, now Jesus' closest friend, has a hard time with this and asks, "Would you be able to do this if you were me?"
Jesus replies, "No. That's why I got the easy job."
The Last Temptation part comes on the cross where a being convinces Jesus to come off the cross and live the rest of his days as a normal human being (and this is where Jesus has intercourse with Mary Magdalene within the bonds of matrimony. AND JUST AS IT APPEARS IN THE BOOK WHICH EVERY MINISTER HAS TO READ! Or, in my case, gets to.) The other great scene is when he meets Paul, who is preaching about the crucified and resurrected Jesus in spite of the fact that the real life Jesus came off the cross.
I won't go any futher lest I ruin the ending. Oh, and David Bowie is Pilate. Oh, oh, and John Lurie is the disciple James. So you know it's cool.
I love this film because, like most of those who grew up in a Christian church, I grew up with the cartoon story of Jesus being born, speaking only in a classical music radio station dj voice, and dying cleanly, heroically like a trooper clean skinned on a cross of sanded wood that could have come out of a Home Depot. I love this film because it shows Jesus as being as scared, confused, angry and cowardly as I am. I love it because it suggests that the foundations of a faith I've found so lofty and cold that for years I could hardly admit sharing some belief with doesn't need to be inhuman. And the anarchist in me loves it because it tears down the mythology that so many Ned Flanders I've know protect like wounded mother bears.
But that's just me. Even if you hold no stock in anything biblical, this is a film you should see. You should see it because it offers a difficult and unpopular perspective on western civilization's scapegoat, the person in history that everybody who is interested in molds into their own image. On top of all of that, it's one of the most visually stunning films I know. I really hope that everybody sees this film, even if they don't gush about it afterwards as much as I am.

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