Friday, December 24, 2010

Jesus on film: a meditation

Islamic works are fobidden to pictorially depict the prophet Mohammed. Much sport was made earlier this year when a film about Mohammed was unearthed which  didn't show him once (apart from a hand in this shot or a foot in that). An early British film depicting the last days of Christ was done entirely point of view. The idea is a sound one, as far as I'm concerned. Got something sacred you want to celebrate on film? Keep it off screen. And that's from a lifelong atheist.


Now the day is here again and we get down to our gluttony and greed (well, that's what I'm doing) I feel it's time to observe the effect of the day's cause as it has appeared on the screens. Not a history as such just a few notable examples. 

If, on the other hand, you want to show some of the reasons why the being might deserve sanctity, it's not a bad idea to show said entity among the people, acting and reacting comparably. That's what this here collection this day celebrateth.
So, sit back, take another sip o' something fine, find room for yet more plum pudding and with me sing: happy birthday Jesus.

This one almost made me a Christian. Really. I got into the story through the music and was impressed by the central figure who now wasn't just a tightly coloured image on a Christmas card but a rebel standing with strength against the man. There was doubt and self doubt. There was anguish and humour. The entire course of music and yarn was coloured entirely by a hippidom it was a little too old for but it presented so well, such a great use of music to tell a story and when I saw the film (my first experience of it was as the soundtrack album) I continued to be impressed. Why, though, when it has such a reputation for sheer unbridled nafness?

Mainly, it works as a film. It declares itself to be stylised piece from the word go with the construction of the sets depicted during the overture (what else are you meant to do with it when in the theatre it's usually just the orchestra and a curtain?). This introduces both the Israel location and it's historical remnants and the modern dress and scaffolding approach to the aesthetic. In other words it looks like it's going to be a typically radicalised theatre production from the early 70s but soon proves itself as a cinema piece. Judas' opening number Heaven on Their Minds sees him walking from the glare of the desert to the warmth of a sizeable cave. This will not be a filmed play, folks.

Nor will it be a movie musical as such. JCS is alone among rock operas by ... being an opera with rock music. Naive statement? Well compare and contrast Hair, more a manifesto of hippydom than a story (and with music I can't listen to) or Tommy (good music but only barely makes any sustained sense ... just had an idea for another post). Jesus Christ Superstar takes its cues from the Bible and revoices them in the idiom of its time, using rock music that doesn't sound like it was played by session drones (though it probably was) and a really tasteful orchestral weave. The libretto can, I'll admit, stray towards the self consciously hip (ie not even remotely hip) but the transposition of the gospels to something more like an early 70s vibe of neat casual seriousness works well.

And then there's the film itself. If the set construction at the beginning didn't clue you in, this is going to be a big busy mix of costumes, locations and props from any era that might work in juxtaposition. Roman soldiers look like US Marines on the Merry Prankster bus. King Herod sings a sustained taunt to Christ in ragtime, looking like an LA cocaine lord surrounded by an extra from every porn movie made between 1968 and 1973. The pharisees have a kind of Greek orthodoxy to them but their black robery reveals some serious chest action. Pilate looks like a king from a medieval passion play. Judas is a kind of Black Panther in homespun with an intensity to match and a cyclone of a voice. He's seen in a later torment being chased by a squadron of tanks. Jesus looks trad but again he almost has to considering how he gets most of the hippier lines, something has to anchor him.

By the crucifixion and the big closer title number which however big 'n' brassy sadly ponders the impact Christ might have had now, we've been through a rapidly changing series of scenes and sets with a lot more dramatic conviction than anyone might have expected from this piece. Don't be put off by being caught drinking in the daggy 70s, the anachronistic bag has already been opened on screen. Just rejoice, exult and pray along with this one. Really, one of the best on offer in this post.

Four crosses.

As a Python fan from childhood (when affecting it could get you otracised) I couldn't wait for this one.

I saw this at the Townsville twin cinema complex (The Forum and the Odeon: same building, two names, they knew how to multiplex back in the 70s) and it was preceeded by a travelogue which started like any other crackly afterthought from a dusty bygone age but quickly took a strange turn when the narrator started getting frustrated with the imagery and began to rant at it. At that point we realised we'd been listening to John Cleese's voice and then savoured every clipped syllable as he hurtled into an intimidating fury. That was just the short.

(Incidentally, I have never seen this in any other presentation of the film, not on video, dvd or bluray, unlike the Crimson Permanent Assurance one that Terry Gilliam made for Meaning of Life which was on every version. Be nice to see it again.)

Anyway, if Jesus Christ Superstar interested me enough to read the Bible, Life of Brian was enough to turn me from it for anything but the enjoyment of myth.. Not least of which was the insane reaction by religious groups who thought that the film was ridiculing religion. In fact, Brian celebrates the simple goodness of the Christ message and sprays contempt on the agenda laden interpretation and subsequent distortion of that message.

First up, Brian isn't Jesus. He's just Brian, the boy born a few mangers west of the messiah whose very proximity causes such embarrassment to the magi when they turn up with approapriately sobering epic music, bearing gifts of myrhh and frankinsence. Brian grows up to sell Romanesque treats at the local bread and circus where he catches sight of the vision-lovely Rebecca, a vocal welsh-accented fighter for the Judean People's Front (sworn enemies of the despised People's Front of Judea). He is smitten and the rest of the story is his attempts to win her affections thwarted by the rest of the world trying to turn him into the messiah ... while the real one is going about preaching and sowing the seeds for the next couple of millenia of European culture.

From this point Brian's life is so closely alligned to the Jesaic one that all the gospel scenes of soberer movies can be lampooned often to savage effect. From the women disguising themselves as men to take part in stonings, the bullseye evocation of Biblical prose at its most tiresomely pedantic, the credulity of those so blind they will only see what they're told, the ludicrous infighting of the resistance movement, a very very funny twist on the Barabas/Christ mob choice scene. And finally there's a Spartacus joke at the end just before a chorus of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life sung by the mass crucified. At that point a younger audience has probably been given as good a primer on religion origin myths as they are going to get.

Five crosses!

Jim Cazeivel shares a joke with Cleophas in The Passion
Mel Gibson wanted to show his Catholicism off with this one the same way that Spielberg wanted to show how ruddy the health of his Judaism was with Schindler's List (ok, cheap shot, I don't care if he done found his religion I just hate the movie). Just as Speilberg cast SL in wartime monochrome Mel went for a film in Aramaic, the language of the region at the time. Oh, and Latin when the Roman's turn up. Nice idea.

But the driving idea behind this film is not linguistic authenticity but an altogether other realism. Gibson's stated aim was to depict Christ's ordeal as graphically as possible. He wanted to confront the easy of faith with the searing example of Christianity's central figure. And that's what happens. We begin in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is praying hard and close to faltering. He is approached by a waxily pale woman with a voice like a first violin lesson who suggests he throw off his burden of mission. In case you hadn't twigged who this figure represents Mel organises a fly to emerge from one of her nostrils. Oh ... it's Satan. Good call on the casting, there, Mel. Threw me.

Then the Romans barge in, wake everyone up and seize Jeeze and pack him off to the Procurator of Jerusalem, one Pontius Pilate. If you know your gospels (and Jesus Christ Superstar lead me to mine) you know the rest. In the film version the rest is a constantly amping catalogue of humiliation, torment, torture and degradation to the point where Jesus' ribcage is visible through his flogging wounds. Then it's off to Golgotha for some nailin' and wailin' and -- END.

Ok, Mel meant what he said. The passion of the Christ and nothing but. But while this concept alone might strike us as honest we ought to remember the filter its director pushed it through when making it. Mel Gibson is an avowed Catholic he's made a lot of that. But he's not just any Catholic, he's a pre-Luther, lightning casting, blood literalising, transubstantiating, monster of Catholicism. He didn't just go all medieval on Jesus' ayis because getting medieval and depicting Christ are indistinguishable to him. His is not the soft golden figure on bookmarks and cards, He is not an exalted blow waved glowing alien hybrid of Michaelangelo or Titian, he's a Grunewald Christ, torso ripped with splinters which make its viewers wince with pain. The Northern European rennaissance made its religious imagery hard won, remembering that while no one can easily imagine divine eternal light, they only need a splinter under a fingernail or a toothache to understand hell and suffering.

But here we come to my real problem with The Passion and it's the same as any depiction of suffering toward a religious end. Isn't the fact of seeking to outdo all other attempts and provide the most churningly violent protestation of faith not the kind of hubris that might well constitute a mortal sin? Is Gibson's grandstanding humility not the thing centre screen? It seems to me that the most glaring question of this film is not the extent of its gore but the huffing and wheezing orgasmic blindout that cannot provide the difference between passion and pornography.

Four crosses for the attempt at authenticity but two off that for the sleaze from the director's chair.

Passion play ... Sopranos style
I missed this at the cinema and saw it two years on. I mention that as it was just after I saw Willem Dafoe as the frightening and sleazy Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart. When I heard him intone, "it is accomplished," from the cross it was in the same voice as the one that said, "pretty soon you're gonna hear a big sound coming down from Bobby Peru". This didn't ruin Last Temptation for me at all. In fact, it enhanced it. The film begins with Jesus collapsing in a seizure which told me that this might be a telling of the tale without a god or one in which a god visited his only begotten with such a violent calling card. This is before I got to the fact that the film was directed by one of my favourites at the time: Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese had always attracted me with the honesty swirling in there among the violence. The trouble taken to play out situations so awkward that they felt like the audience's own memories. Marty was a New York Catholic from Little Italy and knew his neighbourhood and its religion. He even studied to be a priest. Lapsed or not, his Christ story was going to be compelling. And it is.

Dafoe breaks through my image of him as a slimy psycho and rises high into the Christ persona. I'm not saying that because he's playing the son of god, I'm saying it because he's playing someone who is surprised and frequently terrified by his sense of mission. It covers a multitude of pains as he walks from moment to moment accommodating the ridicule of others and his burning self doubt. When he does act and speak like the Christ of the gospels it is either emboldening or heart rending. All this with an understatement that seems like a natural self-armor. Dafoe's Christ is constantly so many things at once it's like watching a Bach fugue walking around in a homespun robe.

And that's just Jesus. The most prominent figure besides Jesus is his old mate Judas, played by the leonine Harvey Keitel (who voices a real lion that appears to Christ in the desert). Judas, in this account from the novel by Nikos Kazantsakis, is Christ's minder, not just his disciple but the voice of a human conscience. In an early scene Judas goads Jesus in the carpentry shop, attacking him for making crosses. This could have been a scene from Life of Brian (it isn't easy keeping a straight face through the initial dialogue) but it sets the tone of the rest of the film and if you can accept it you're in for something strong.

And these are the goods Scorsese delivers. A north African location shoot with period costumes and a selection of Renaissance aesthetic performed with the voice of the mean streets of Little Italy. There's a lot of tough stuff in the novel which Marty puts right up there on screen in this his second last great work. Oh, and when I said Renaissance I meant the ugly northern one as well as the more teatowel friendly one that happened in Italy. If Willem is a Boticelli Jesus, Harvey Keitel is a Hieronymous Bosch Judas. A scene close to the end which is a frightening cover version of one of Breughel's visions of Hell.

But the thing that made this telling contraversial is the notion in the title. Christ's torment on the cross comes to a sudden silent halt as an angelic little girl bids him come down and leave his suffering. He does so and walks into a world that at first reveres him and then patches up any earthbound temptations he picks up. Legend diverges from life until he meets Paul (an angry Harry Dean Stanton) tells him his continued corporeal existence has become an embarrassment to the industry built around the inspiring version of the story. A final confrontation with a still living and judgement-heavy Judas and we are whisked back to Golgotha which is no longer a nightmare of human pain but an exultation of the spirit. "It is accomplished," murmurs Booby Peru on the cross. But he's smiling and not Bobby Peru anymore.

Four crosses

... or, more usually and against the director's wishes, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW

Who cares if it's trad. It's beautiful.
Pier Paolo Pasonlini did something very traditional here. I don't mean that he took a single gospel only as the source. I mean that he followed in the footsteps of Italian Renaissance painters by depicting the Bible story locally, paying only minimal service to a biblical aesthetic.

Christ and his disciples here are pretty clearly as Marxist as the limitations of the source text will allow. This is the Jesus who says he comes bearing a sword but, as this is not an American movie, he knows his audience is not going to take it literally and expect him to tie a band around his head and get all ripple abbed on Judea.  The control Pasolini exerts over the text and even his own fiery anti-religious fervour results in a depiction of the Christ story that is clearly serving an agenda (Satan appears as a modern day Catholic priest, for example)
but also quite sincerely serving its origins as well.

Pasolini was a complex figure capable of brutal work, bombast and quiet beauty. Here, he almost challenges himself to find something he can put his name to and still serve a traditional audience (though one prepared for more depth than usual in this central account). Neo-realist religion? Here it is. Plain, if not entirely simple, and the pick o' the bunch.

It's out on local dvd. Find it.

Also recommended but so difficult to find it's almost futile mentioning it, is Dennis Potter's television production Son of Man. Christ and apostles are drawn from Potter's Forest of Dead childhood but the creulty and heart tearing gravity he could wrest from his dialogue are all present. And, another thing I've only seen on tv, a realisation of the Pilate and Christ sections of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Also, funny and heavy as Russian lit and UK tv. I can't even give you the title of it but I wish it would appear somewhere.

As to earlier tellings like Life of Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth,The Greatest Story Ever Told etc, they aren't for me. I like the story itself, still, but accounts that give no edge to the figure of Christ seem like wasted time to me. Anyway, there were a few that couldn't escape my attention. But if it's real post prandial viewing on the day of days for the king of kings you want I'd track down a copy of the 60s St Trinians movies or the Tawny Pippet. Relax, sit back, drink, digest. It's Xmas. Speaking of which. Merry....


  1. Lovely, thanks.

    I can put Son of Man up on my site if there is interest.

    Does this help with your M&M reference?

  2. Very happily put a link up for the Potter piece. The europudding M&M is familiar to me. I think I even watched the Stratton-introduced broadcast on SBS. The one I'm thinking of is from the '80s and so British it .... I've just imdb-ed it:

    No one's put any of that up on youtube and if you search for pilate you get a lot of people writhing on the floor in agony, possibly in a sustained attempt at maintaining the rage against the procurator. I think it's futile but I wish them well.