DID YOU READ

Shelf Life: “The Last Temptation of Christ”

Willem Dafoe in "The Last Temptation of Christ"

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Religion is something I no longer give much consideration to, but the idea of faith, and spirituality, is something still find to be profound, important, and for those who possess either (or both), valuable. That may seem contradictory, but the point is that devotion to some greater force or power, assuming that commitment is in the service of positivity, empowerment and hope, is something to be supported and celebrated, whether or not it’s something you believe in. And it’s precisely because of this odd juxtaposition of faith, hope and responsibility that I’m able to find films like Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” so profound and moving.

Within the last few weeks, the wonderful people at Criterion released a Blu-ray for Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” not only one of the most unique religious films ever made, but certainly one of the most controversial. There are still countries in which it is banned, and there are still people who consider it to be nothing less than absolute blasphemy. But how do people consider it as a work of art? Moreover, is it possible to do so? Concurrent with Criterion’s stellar new release, this week’s “Shelf Life” looks at the film to see what resonance it has today – as an entry in Scorsese’s filmography, an examination of faith, and just as a piece of cinema.


The Facts

Released on August 12, 1988, “The Last Temptation of Christ” only came to the screen after some major shake-ups in its casting, and significant problems during its production. Scorsese first decided to undertake the project in 1983, but protests from religious groups led its then-distributor, Paramount Pictures, to bail out. In 1986, Universal Pictures picked it up, and after several roles were recast (Willem Dafoe took the place of Aidan Quinn, David Bowie replaced Sting, etc.) Scorsese was finally able to make the film, albeit with a budget of $7 million, which was literally half of what Paramount originally offered.

The film went on to earn $8.4 million during its theatrical run, and Scorsese netted a Best Director nomination for his work behind the camera. As Mary Magdalene, Barbara Hershey received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Golden Globes, and Peter Gabriel earned a Best Original Score nomination for his work on the soundtrack. The film also maintains an 83-percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


What Still Works

What works about “Last Temptation” is what was meant to – an in-depth, humanistic portrait of what religious devotion means, as filtered through a fictionalized version of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The film very specifically announces that its story does not come from the gospels, which should have alleviated critics’ concerns that it portrayed Jesus in a way that was unflattering or contrary to the way he was depicted (or I suppose his behavior was documented) in the Bible. All this really means is that the film gets underneath Jesus as a legendary religious figure who sacrificed himself for humankind’s sins, and show that he had the same hopes, desires and vulnerabilities that the rest of humankind does. (Although more importantly, who cares? If you know who the person is that you worship, who he or she is and what he or she stands for, then it’s irrelevant what a film or any other art form says about them.)

Narratively speaking, what the film does so wonderfully is it shows the mortal side of a man who recognizes – even if he resists – the calling of a higher power. He wants to toil in obscurity and live a normal life without incident, but the calling he receives – which admittedly could be perceived as mental illness – is something he cannot deny, and which is only exorcised when he speaks on behalf of God. The way the film portrays his sermons is utterly believable: although he speaks in recognizable parables, they don’t come out as pure, effortless poetry, but endure a birthing process that arrives at a greater truth rather than simply starting out there. And even when he speaks, he’s not entirely sure what he’s saying is right, and changes directions in his crusade several times until he realizes exactly what he has to do. There’s a remarkable humanity to his doubts and insecurities, his rage and self-acknowledgement of his other shortcomings, and it actually gives his transformation that much more power.

Cinematically, Scorsese had to make the film on a tight budget, but one never feels it. Although there are no traditional “ancient locations” as a backdrop for Jesus’ story, no colonnades or Roman ruins for him and his disciples to walk through, he creates a palpable sense of time and place, even if specific locations are treated more impressionistically than geographically. Dafoe’s performance as Jesus is revelatory: he seems so possessed of the character’s dimensions – his strengths and weaknesses – that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. And Peter Gabriel’s score rightfully introduced the entire world to the “world music” genre; his score is so captivating and evocative that it’s inextricably linked to the imagery on screen as both a seemingly accurate musical backdrop for the time and place, but also an undercurrent of almost primal feeling that embodies and articulates the feelings that are welling up in the characters.


What Doesn’t Work

It’s really subjective whether or not this works for you, but it’s completely understandable if Scorsese’s decision to allow his actors to use contemporary regional accents turns some viewers off. Keitel’s Brooklyn swagger is absolutely un-ignorable, but the other actors retain their very recognizable accents and Dafoe’s uninflected, contemporary delivery seems conspicuously at odds with what one expects from a period film, much less one that purports to be reverential about the life of Jesus Christ. Mind you, I don’t think it doesn’t work, but I understand how some might not like that choice.

Otherwise Jesus’ seeming direction changes through the film seem to make his journey slightly scattershot and unpredictable, but that also feeds directly into the idea that Jesus was allowing himself to be open and susceptible to the word of God, and therefore following whatever instruction or inspiration he received.


The Verdict

“The Last Temptation of Christ” is a beautiful film – a really powerful depiction of one man’s struggle with his faith in God. Even if you’re not a Christian or religious at all, there’s much to appreciate in its portrayal of a character who desperately wants to believe in something greater than himself, but finds himself challenged by what that faith requires him to do. Not only does it hold up, but it’s a film that everyone should see, not to refute the decades of controversy or simply celebrate its artistic merits, but because it both challenges and reassures notions of faith and devotion that, if one looks at it with the right eyes, apply to everyone, regardless of their religious disposition.

Leave your own impressions of “The Last Temptation of Christ” in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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