April 18, 2012

The Last Cinematic Temptation of Sitzman?

Christ's Temptation, a mosaic in Monreale Cathedral. (Image Credit)
If anyone knows how to use Photoshop, would you mind putting a videotape in Satan's hand and sending a copy of the image back to me? Thanks a bunch!

The title of this post doesn't make much sense, but it was hard to come up with a good one. I'll tell you right now that this post will be long, confused (and confusing), and possibly rambling and uninteresting. It'll also mention Religion, one of the Four Forbidden Topics for Polite Conversation (the other three being Politics, Sex, and Celine Dion, of course). You've been warned. I originally planned to hack out a review in 20 minutes, but I've been at this for like 7 or 8 hours over a few days now, as if this freaking blog post is gonna be my Magnum Opus or something. I even did research for this blog post-- Research! I was even joking with my brother that I'd have to provide an annotated bibliography for this post.

However, you don't have to read it if you don't want to; I won't take offense. But it is a good example of the beauty of a blog, in that it's like a modern-day journal. If I were writing this 20 years ago I would have just grappled with these questions in a diary, but today I can publish the convoluted ramblings of my inner monologue for the whole world to see! Actually, that's a lie. 20 years ago, if I had to actually write all this by hand in a journal or --God forbid!-- a typewriter, I probably just wouldn't have done it. I may have thought about these questions for approximately 5 minutes and then gone to play some more Castlevania.

Anyhow, let's do it to it.

Doing It To It

In the comments section of a recent post my brother Paul and I started talking a bit about religion and/or theology, and we joked that we should start a blog with a name like "Ryan n' Paul's Katekhism Korner" (cheesy names like that always need to change C's to K's, for some reason-- possibly to fulfill orthographic prophesy?). Well, we didn't do that, although we did start a "siblings blog" with our sister. But major theological questions remained unanswered, and they came up again recently. Last week while Andy was still visiting, he and I watched The Last Temptation of Christ on Netflix.

See, normally every year around Easter I like to watch Jesus Christ Superstar (aka JCS in this post) because it's one of my favorite movies. The songs are great, the acting is good, and overall it makes me reminiscent of my childhood, for whatever reason. But since Andy was also visiting during Easter last year, he'd already seen JCS. We decided that we'd check out Temptation since it was on Netflix, it was something new and different, and also because we'd both heard it was controversial. In fact, as I did a pit of poking around on the internet, I found out that apparently people even threw Molotov cocktails and burned down movie theaters in France to protest the movie. That kind of thing just makes you more interested! Plus, with Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel --Harvey Keitel!!-- as Judas, and Martin Scorsese behind the camera, this movie just sounded too crazy and incredible to be true. Here's the trailer:

Leaving out our own personal religious convictions (or lack thereof), let's consider this movie a minute. First of all, Andy and I both liked it, inasmuch as you can like a movie that eventually ends with a person's brutal torture and state-sanctioned murder. In many ways the story is pretty traditional in the way it follows Jesus and the events near the end of his life: he recruits disciples, teaches people, pisses off people who misunderstand his message, meets with Pilate (played by David Bowie... in print, it looks like I'm lying, but yea, I pulleth not thy leg), and eventually gets condemned to death. It doesn't have the sweet songs that JCS has, but it does have a pretty kickin' soundtrack by Peter Gabriel. There are of course some differences, though, and naturally the differences are what make it more controversial than Superstar.

I suppose that since the movie came out in 1988, if you were ever going to see it, you probably already have, but let's make this official:


Sweet, I always wanted to do that.

OK, if you want to know why it's called "The Last Temptation of Christ," here's the deal: when Jesus is dying on the cross, a young girl comes to him and says that he's suffered enough, and that he doesn't have to die. If he wants, he can have a normal life as a normal person, and what follows is a sort of dream sequence in which we see Jesus get married, have a family, and live that normal life. In the dream (or possibly hallucination), he was never crucified. It's an interesting concept, especially when we see that the young girl was actually Satan, who had said that he'd tempt Jesus again. In the end, Jesus decides that he doesn't want that cop-out life, and suddenly he is back on the cross, where he dies after saying "It is accomplished." Pretty powerful stuff. The movie's now over, so cue the song by Peter Gabriel (whose name looks especially significant in this context, come to think of it).

I won't really get into all the theological implications of this film, since so many have done it better than I have; click here for a critical review from a Christian perspective, and here for Roger Ebert's defense of the film; both are very well-written and thought provoking. I will however mention the two biggest "sticking points" of the movie: 1) Jesus' humanity and, 2) Judas' role in the story.

Jesus' Humanity

Christianity teaches that Jesus was both completely human and completely divine. It also teaches that this concept is something we can't hope to wrap our minds around --that's a good thing, because I know I can't. The way the movie handles this is to focus almost entirely on Jesus' humanity. Possibly they saved the divinity aspect for the sequel? Anyhow, in this version, when Jesus is tempted, he has doubts. For the very devout who believe that Jesus never sinned, such mere doubts can of course be construed as blasphemy. In Temptation, Jesus seriously doubts if he's the son of God, and he's constantly second-guessing himself and his mission. The same doubts are seen to a lesser degree in Jesus Christ Superstar and even the Bible itself, when Jesus asks to avoid being crucified, if possible. I'm certainly not going to be the referee on this issue, but I can say that for me personally, the idea that Jesus could have had doubts about his mission is actually quite comforting and satisfying. If he were indeed truly human, then that helps us relate to him. Again, though, I can see both sides of the issue. If you believe one way or the other, I'm not going to be able to convince you to change your mind, and I wouldn't even want to try. But the other controversial aspect is a bit more open for debate.

Judas' Role

The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas), Padua Chapel (Image)

This is a perennially controversial issue, so it's no surprise that this movie adds to the controversy. The crux of the issue seems to be this: in order for Jesus to die, he has to be betrayed by Judas. However, Judas was a disciple, one of those guys hand-picked by Jesus. Are we to believe that when it came down to it, Jesus was a lousy judge of character? Here's where the first question mark appears. If Jesus was truly divine, he obviously would have known what Judas' role would eventually be, so then we have to consider the question of why Judas betrayed Jesus, and whether it was even his own decision to make. 

Let me put it this way: if someone calls you "Judas," will you think it's a compliment? Of course not! His name is synonymous with betrayal. And indeed, in many depictions of Judas, he's evil incarnate, just aching to narc on Jesus and watch him be murdered. But that kind of "pure evil" argument just isn't satisfying, or at least it's not to me. It's the same argument that people sometimes make about really crappy people like Hitler or Stalin, but even with them the "evil" argument falls short; I'm certainly not trying to say they weren't terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people, but if we are able to simply say that someone is evil, to a certain extent it takes away that person's humanity, and that humanity is necessary for coming to terms with their actions.

It's the same with the famous "the Devil made him do it" argument. If that's true, then what happened to Judas' and Hitler's personal volition? If they were just pawns in a cosmic battle, then how much guilt can even be ascribed to them personally? Just try it: "Judas was evil, and that's why he betrayed Jesus, and Hitler was evil, so that's why he killed millions of people." See, doesn't it seem like something's missing? The "evil" argument bypasses any attempt to actually understand a person's motivations and actions, and essentially relegates that person to a semi-supernatural realm that we can't possibly comprehend. In the process, it also absolves us of having to try to understand that person and his motivations; since an abstract concept like "evil" can't be understood, we don't even have to try. But that just doesn't work for me. We can choose not to deal with the issue, but it won't actually go away. So how do we deal with Judas?

The depictions of Judas that I find most satisfying are in both Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ. The former is good first of all because Carl Anderson, the guy who played Judas, was an incredible singer. I mean, just check out these chops (He's pretty subtle, so in case you miss him, he's the guy in the white V-neck jumpsuit with the tassels, descending from a crane):

Secondly, Anderson's performance was also good because of the way he depicted Judas: in JCS, viewers feel that he actually deeply cared about Jesus and their message, but that Judas was too obsessed with the social and political realities of the day, and his misguided intentions to keep them on the "right path" led him to eventually betray Jesus. The whole film is about coming to terms with faith, but it seems to criticize blind faith. The song in the video above, "Superstar," is basically one big question mark with tassels. But that's exactly what I like about the movie. If your beliefs are so fragile that they can be knocked down with mere questions, then are they really worth believing in? As they say, it's complicated. But it's even more complicated in Temptation.

The way Harvey Keitel plays Judas, he's actually a good guy. He doesn't want to betray Jesus, but Jesus basically makes him do it because without the betrayal, the whole plan will fall through. Of all the disciples, he's also the only one that's not an absolute poser or dimwit (interestingly enough, just yesterday I read a passage in The Catcher in the Rye that has a pretty similar view of the disciples being a bunch of phonies - it's quote #4 in this link). Anyhow, in Temptation Judas betrays Jesus because he has to, not because he wants to. We'll never know Judas' real motivations, but this take is also interesting. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to believe Judas was the tragic hero he's shown to be in this movie, but if I had to choose between this narrative and the "Pure Evil" one, I think I'd take the Tragic Hero explanation.

Conclusion: Not Really A Conclusion

Like I said before, if you've already seen either of these movies, you likely have an opinion, and I'm not the one who's going to change or even challenge that opinion. I'm just saying that I "liked" these movies, and that I'm glad they exist. I think that anything that can question conventional thinking and make us think of why we have our previous assumptions and beliefs has the potential to be a good thing, and these films certainly do all of that.

So, have any of you seen this movie or read the novel it was based on? What are your thoughts, impressions, or reactions? I'd love to hear more ideas about this movie or the ideas behind it. Or you could also comment about JCS. I'm always up for talking shop about that movie, as long as you don't assert that the song "Pilate's Dream" is better than "What's the Buzz." If you say that kind of crazy, borderline- blasphemous crap, I'll know you're just trying to be provocative and controversial!

If you made it this far, you deserve a medal. Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Oh, and just 10 minutes after I posted this, I came across this comic that somehow touched exactly what I was just talking/blathering about:

(Comic Credit)
Interesting. So the now the question is, was me finding this comic a mere coincidence, or divine intervention??

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Lucy said...

i read the book. it was really weird and I don't recommend it.

not what I expected at all; i thought it would try to humanise jesus. in fact he was most bizarre and unlikeable, followed everywhere by some giant clacking gold statue-thing which was trying to make him accept his God-status. and the last temptation bit was really quite marginal to the rest i thought. I was expecting, from all the fuss about the movie, (which I remember; the priest preaching anyone who saw it would be excommunicated) that the normalness of jesus the man was going to be the central thing. but not in the book at least. =/ and the last temptation was a kind of an afterthought, it seemed to me.

i would like to see the movie, just to find out if its different. and to see if i get excommunicated.

that comic made me think of the "Fuck Off Jesus!" series which always makes me laugh and laugh.


probably get excommunicated for that too. whoops!

Paul said...

I'll get right on that photoshop.

AnnaLisa said...

I have not actually seen the movie, but I remember the controversy when it was released. Scorsese was painted in shady tones for *years* afterward. At the time I thought basically what you said (although I think you articulated it much better than I could, so I'll borrow your quote): "If your beliefs are so fragile that they can be knocked down with mere questions, then are they really worth believing in?"

Really. Isn't that what faith is all about?--coming to terms with the questions. Accepting that what you believe *must* be bigger than your mind can comprehend, and having (that is, repeatedly learning to adopt) the humility to live with that.

I think this post is insightful, and I'm sharing it with my buddy and former pastor Ben.

P.S. Thank you for the medal. Ha! I'm so long-winded, I probably should offer one EVERY time I post. Even comments, as you can see.

Sitzman said...

Hey everyone! Thanks for commenting!

@Lucy - If you've managed to go this long without being excommunicated, I'd have to really wonder what it'd take, haha...And the note about the book is interesting. I'll avoid it, then. That clacking thing wasn't even in the movie.

@Paul - Thanks!

@AnnaLisa - Thanks for the encouraging words and the comment! I'd also be interested to hear what your friend Ben has to say. Thanks again for always reading and commenting!