The Last Temptation of Christ

March 20, 2013

lasttemptationFinally. After weeks of controversy, most of it generated by people who hadn’t seen the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ has opened. People who like to think for themselves can now make up their own minds.

The controversy surrounding this tale of Christ has sparked picket lines and shouting matches. Church leader Donald Wildmon and Last Temptation director Martin Scorsese debated on “Nightline.” A band of fundamentalists offered Universal Pictures $10 million to buy the movie and destroy it. And protests at the house of Universal president Lew Wasserman took on an ugly anti-Semitic tone.

All of which brings to mind the line from Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came to Earth today and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up.” So much fuss and nonsense over such an entirely well-intentioned enterprise.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a long-cherished project for Scorsese who, along with screenwriter Paul Schrader, has adapted the speculative novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is a thoughtful, serious film about the struggle between flesh and spirit, and emphasizes the human anguish and dimensions of Jesus (it does not, contrary to rumor, deny the notion of Jesus’ divinity).

The opening and closing sections of the film are the most intriguing. In the first reel, we find Jesus as a carpenter who hears voices and is disturbed by his Chosen status. The middle, more familiar section of the film shows the Jesus of the Gospels, accepting his role as Messiah, enduring the temptations in the desert, gathering his disciples, and performing miracles.

The final portion of the film is a fantasia during the crucifixion, as Satan leads Jesus on a tour of what his life might be if he chooses to live only as a man—complete with marriage, children, and a sexual life. There is no explicit precedent for this in the Gospels, but it’s a legitimate extension of the idea of temptation, and it actually heightens the concept of the sacrifice of Jesus; if there weren’t any temptation, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.

The Last Temptation runs on for two hours and 40 minutes. It’s a stark-looking movie (Scorsese made the film on the amazingly small budget of $6.5 million, in Morocco) and Scorsese aims for none of the grandiose effects that we know and love from Cecil B. DeMille biblical pictures. The actors speak in everyday American accents, the dialogue itself is without the usual King James poetry.

Much of it is engrossing. The theological debate within the film becomes a bit murky and inarticulate at times; the film never seems to find the specific argument it wants to put forward, but perhaps that was the intention.

A lot of the debate is between Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe (the Christlike sergeant in Platoon) and Judas (played by Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel). In this version, Jesus virtually orders Judas to betray him, and noting Judas’s anguish, says that “God gave me the easier job.”

Mary Magdalene is played with considerable sensuality by a tattooed Barbara Hershey; Andre Gregory is arresting as John the Baptist; Harry Dean Stanton does a touching cameo as Saul, later Paul; and David Bowie is a patrician Pontius Pilate.

Scorsese says he has been wanting to film this story for the better part of two decades, but it seems to me in many ways he’s been making it all along. There is tortured Christian allegory in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, and those films actually deal with faith and redemption in more alive, forceful terms than this new film. It isn’t Scorsese’s best movie, but The Last Temptation isn’t glib blasphemy, either.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

We certainly haven’t gotten any more enlightened since then; you can imagine what would happen to this movie is someone tried to make it now. I think I’d like it more today myself, but I haven’t watched it stem-to-stern in a while (saw the parts with Harry Dean Stanton a couple of years ago and was really stirred). The casting of Keitel is one of those strokes that at first seems puzzling, and eventually feels inspired.

Death Watch

June 11, 2012

Death Watch has probably disappeared from local screens by now, but it’s an ambitious and interesting film that deserves a little notice. Director Bertrand Tavernier has had three intriguing movies hit Seattle screens in the last few months: A Week’s Vacation (1980) at the Film Festival, The Judge and the Assassin (1975) at the Seven Gables, and Death Watch, the French Tavernier’s first English-language film, at the Crest. Shooting in English seems to have been a bit of a problem for Tavernier, as Death Watch doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as A Week’s Vacation. But there are so many ideas flying around in Death Watch—maybe too many ideas—that it’s always fascinating to watch.

For one thing, Death Watch is engaging just in terms of storyline: a TV producer (Harry Dean Stanton) comes up with an idea for a ratings bonanza. He puts movie camera in the eyes of one of his cameramen (Harvey Keitel) and has the guy record the final days of a patient with a terminal illness (Romy Schneider). Schneider doesn’t want her last days filmed, and she tries to escape; when Keitel finds her and stays with her, she doesn’t know she’s being filmed, so her life is recorded, and she becomes the highest-rated show for days without knowing it.

When Keitel begins to have second thoughts about the humanity of his filming, there’s a problem: he cannot close his eyes, because if the cameras are deprived of light for more than a few minutes, they will malfunction and blind him. (This means that he no longer sleeps, and there is much made of the fact that his dreams have been taken away from him.)

An overload of rich cinematic material here, and Tavernier isn’t quite the accomplished juggler to pull it all off—not yet. But the thing remains compelling, a fact that is in large part due to Romy Schneider’s superb performance. Keitel is erratic, and gives a non-directed performance, but Schneider, seen against the stunning landscape of Scotland, makes her private character seem quietly triumphant at film’s end, and leaves behind a record of a very human being.

First published in the Herald, November 1982

This is a complete coincidence—I just pulled out this review because I was looking for sci-fi titles last week—but apparently Death Watch is currently enjoying a restored re-release in Britain, and getting a little of the attention it failed to get the first time around. It is well worth a look, and Romy Schneider’s performance is special. By the time this opened in the U.S., she was already dead.


December 13, 2010

The story of Uforia, which is to say, the story behind Uforia, is yet another tale of studio neglect and little-film-vs.-the-system fighting.

The movie was made in 1980, and has languished in limbo since. It turned up for a single showing at the 1985 Seattle International Film Festival, at a Harry Dean Stanton tribute (which gamely went on when Stanton couldn’t make it). Late last year, Uforia was booked at a single screen in New York City and did surprisingly decent business.

So, the little comedy is traveling around the country, trying to build up steam (much like another unreleasable Stanton movie, Repo Man).

Uforia is so determinedly low-key in its pleasures, it’s not difficult to see why the film was a hard sell. It’s a low-rent fable about a batch of small-timers who band together in a small California desert town and decide to believe in something.

They come to believe in flying saucers, or at least the imminent arrival of same. A check-out girl (Cindy Williams) at the local supermarket is a staunch believer, and she has visions that the aliens—friendly ones—are coming to take a few humans with them. She sees herself as the Noah of the intergalactic Ark.

She has to convince her new beau (Fred Ward) of this, which is no small order. He’s a tequila-swigging drifter who patterns his style after Waylon Jennings and proudly exploits his “God-given right to believe in nothin’.”

He’s hooked up with Brother Bud (Stanton), a sly itinerant preacher who runs “Brother Bud’s Why Not Salvation Crusade” in tents on the outskirts of town. When Williams starts seeing the aliens in her dreams, Brother Bud sees a way of fleecing the believers, and he promptly options the desert hilltop where Williams insists the extraterrestrials are going to land.

For almost all of its running time, Uforia rambles along, allowing these characters breathing room. If their brief descriptions make them sound stereotyped, that isn’t how they play. Even the opportunistic Brother Bud has his moment of grace, as he ponders why some of the people in his bogus healing sessions actually get healed: “Everybody’s got to believe in something, I guess. And I believe I’ll have another drink.”

Writer-director John Binder evokes the good feeling of a Frank Capra comedy, and litters his desert landscape with goofy supporting characters, such as the granola couple who name their child Krishna Jesus (“You don’t think that’s too heavy?”), and the benign tourists who claim to have been mesmerized by aliens.

Binder is splendid at capturing the everyday quality of life. He’s not quite as effective at structuring his story. And he’s painted himself into something of a corner with the flying saucer business; it means his ending has to be fantastic, or disappointing, or both.

It’s Binder’s first directorial effort (he’d worked on the screenplays of Honeysuckle Rose and North Dallas Forty). I don’t know what he’s been doing since 1980—tyring to get the film released, maybe—but I hope he isn’t completely soured on filmmaking. He’s got a gift for making characters, or the recognizably terrestrial variety, come alive, and that’s much too valuable a talent to lie fallow.

First published in the Herald, 1986.

Here’s a mostly forgotten Eighties artifact: it has now passed through initial neglect to brief appreciation to neglect again. I saw it again on cable-TV in the late 1980s and thought it held up really nicely—just a delightful little picture with a strong echo of Melvin and Howard-era Jonathan Demme to it. Whoever John Binder is, he put something rather lovely together with this one.

Repo Man

December 1, 2010

Stanton, Estevez, the code

You know Repo Man is going to be good when you figure out that its most demented character—an auto-repossession worker (Tracey Walter) who gives every indication of missing a frontal lobe or two—is the only person who really knows what’s going on. Not in a specific way, mind you. But this whacked-out creature has a theory of the way the universe works.

He wonders why, for instance, when you think about a plate of shrimp, that somebody always mentions shrimp, or a plate, or a plate of shrimp, within the next few days—that suddenly all you hear about is shrimp?

Well, maybe that doesn’t happen to you. But this man knows that everything is connected, and he’s right. About a half an hour later, a character walks into a deli, and a hand-painted sign catches your eye: “Special: Plate O’ Shrimp.”

It’s proof that there really is order in the scattered, fragmented world of Repo Man. It would be silly—and beside the point—to summarize the plot, which isn’t particularly important to the movie. But, for the record: It begins with a scientist (I think), on the lam from the nuclear tests at Los Alamos, who drives his radioactive car (carrying the corpses of some extraterrestrials in the trunk) into Los Angeles—where else?

And there’s this kid named Otto Maddux (say it out loud), played by Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen’s son. He needs a job and gets hooked up with some repo men, retrieving cars when the payments go overdue. The leader of these repo men is played by Harry Dean Stanton, the pock-marked, rat-faced supporting actor who has become a central figure in the history of low-life cinema.

The movie includes their repossession adventures, Otto’s punk friends performing random crimes, and a new romance for Otto with a girl who has an odd interest in aliens. But it’s really a mad crazy-quilt for the punk age, a cornucopia of absurd events that start to make sense after a while. Repo Man has bits and pieces flying all over the place; it can’t quite hold up under the strain of trying to tie them all together, and it falls apart near the end. But it’s fun getting there.

The film is the brainchild of a British-born, California-educated man named Alex Cox, whose first feature this is. Cox clearly has a lively visual imagination (he’s helped by the great German cinematographer, Robby Muller), and a good sense of pace. His dialogue ranges from the loopily brilliant (like Tracey Walter’s ruminations) to the relentlessly profane.

And he knows whereof he speaks. After he went to film school, Cox worked for a while as an auto-repossessor in Los Angeles. Coming from that strange business, it must have seemed normal to jump into the surreal world of Repo Man.

That doesn’t quite explain the plate of shrimp. But I know this much: They’re out there, these shrimp, plates, and plates of shrimp. Don’t be surprised when you start noticing them.

First published in the Herald, 1984.

This was awfully fun when it first arrived – and still is, sure, but really was then. Stanton was having his apotheosis (Paris, Texas was happening, too) and he turned away from the sleazy roles he’d been perfecting for so long. Which was kind of a shame, although you get why he’d do that.