Christmas (or your favorite winter holiday) is quickly approaching, and that means that it’s time for the annual winter marathon. This time we decided to feature Martin Scorsese, and not just your standard gangster stuff, but a wide range of films from this accomplished and diverse director.
We started with Scorsese’s first major film, Mean Streets.
Meet Charlie. Charlie lives on the mean streets of Little Italy in New York, and he’s kind of a soft gangster. He’s a collector of some sort for his uncle, but the operation isn’t exactly the kind of thing you’d see in, say, Goodfellas. For instance, throughout the entire film, not only does Charlie never pull a gun, there’s no particular reason to believe he even owns one. Furthermore, his uncle’s protection racket is pretty gentle. When a restauranter can’t come up with the money due to poor business Charlie asks what is to be done about it, and the answer seems to be, “well, he’s having trouble with his business, so whatta you gonna do?” I mean, we’re not really talking baseball bats into kneecaps here.
Charlie’s also got a bit of Catholic guilt following him around. The thought of hellfire obsesses him, and he can’t seem to pass by earthfire without seeing how long he can stand the heat on his fingers. But, you know, he’s a good boy, and he’s in line to inherit a restaurant, which is apparently the way you move up in this particular version of the mafia.
Meet Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy is basically the antithesis of Charlie, in that he’s a complete and total screw-up. For instance, here we see him after having just blown up a mailbox for no particular reason. I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly a mafia-endorsed activity.
Johnny Boy has gambling debts all over town, and the single driving theme of the film is a particular debt owed to Michael, who understandably wants his money back. Johnny Boy is not only blowing him off, but is apparently still going around town gambling away cash instead of paying up. It takes the cool head and sweet talking of Charlie on Johnny Boy’s behalf to smooth things over enough for Michael to put off Charlie’s next payment to the following week.
You’d think that with a good guy like Charlie helping him out, that Johnny Boy would, you know, tone it down a bit and set out putting together some money to pay the menacing Mr. Eunt Domus, but no. Instead, he gets his friends into a bar fight by acting like a cocky jerk. Frankly, you’d think there was very little reason for Charlie to put up with a loser like this. I mean, he’s got his respectable mafia job to think about, and it’s quite clear that his uncle doesn’t like Johnny Boy.
But there’s always a reason, and it would appear to be Charlie’s relationship with Teresa – Johnny Boy’s cousin. You see, Teresa is also persona non grata for Charlie’s uncle (for the poor reason of her epilepsy) and Charlie’s reasoning is probably a bit of misplaced loyalty and a bit of “Let’s keep Johnny Boy from telling my uncle about this”.
Teresa has two desires in this world – one, to move out of Little Italy and away from her parents to an apartment of her own (to which she hopes to lure Charlie out of his Mafia life), and the other to not allow Charlie to watch her dressing. She doesn’t seem to mind him watching as she walks around undressed, just while she is dressing. OK.
Finally the day comes that Johnny Boy is supposed to pay back Mr. Eunt Domus, but instead of the $3000 owed, he gives him a ten dollar bill. It’s all he has. Then, when the indignant Mr. Eunt Domus lights the $10 bill on fire, Johnny Boy pulls a gun on him! Now, I never gave you the impression that Johnny Boy was particularly bright, right? Because he’s a double dumbass. I mean, the gun wasn’t even loaded. But Mr. Eunt Domus storms out, claiming that Johnny Boy is too craven to actually pull the trigger and Charlie realizes that he’s got to get Johnny Boy out of town, and pronto.
He and Teresa get Johnny Boy into the car, but it’s not pronto enough and Mr. Eunt Domus catches up with them and shoots Johnny Boy in the neck, causing an accident that Charlie and Teresa appear to survive. The End.
All-in-all it was a pretty uneven movie. Very dark in its cinematography, practically no plot, poor dubbing at times and that’s before my (new) DVD started crapping out 3/4 of the way through and we finally had to find it streaming online to finish. Maybe I’m missing something, but I didn’t get it. The critical acclaim, that is. If this film was made by somebody who didn’t turn out to be Martin Scorsese, would anybody care?
Our second film was, by far, my favorite film of the evening – 1988’s The Last Temptation Of Christ. It follows a pretty familiar story, if you grew up anywhere that remotely practices Christianity. Or at least the version of the story as mulled over by the author of the book that spawned the film, Nikos Kazantzakis.
Of course, if you were remotely conscious during 1988, you’ll also remember that this film is perhaps the most controversial piece of cinema…in my lifetime. You had boycotts, you had entire cinema chains refusing to screen it, you had threats of hellfire just for daring to watch the film. (Yes, most of the film’s detractors never actually saw the film, which kind of makes criticism a bit difficult, no?)
Why in the world was it so controversial? Did it deny the basic tenets of Christianity? Not a bit. It even led with a disclaimer that it is a fictional exploration of the Christ story and that it’s not based on the Gospels. But I think it took a pretty non-orthodox view on three subjects, which ultimately was responsible for the seeds of the outrage. The outrage itself seems like so much anger for anger’s sake, but the three subjects that probably underlie the legitimate concerns were the following:
1. The treatment of Jesus’ struggle against being the Messiah
2. The treatment of Mary Magdalene
3. The treatment of Judas Iscariot
Where exactly do you start a film about Jesus? It’s a good question – Scorsese (or perhaps Kazantzakis – I haven’t read the book) decides to skip the whole “birth and wise men” thing and jump in with Jesus as a carpenter before he begins his ministry. What is Jesus’ carpentry stock and trade? Well, naturally he builds crosses for the Romans to crucify Jews on!
And 50% of your fundamentalists, already angry about a film they haven’t seen, just walked out of the theater.
But bear with it. Here’s Jesus, who since as long as he can remember has had this voice in his head telling him he’s the son of God. Kind of a rough voice to be saddled with. Why not tinnitus? Jesus wants to make the voice go away, he wants to be a normal person, he wants God to hate him and thus to leave him alone. So he builds crosses when nobody else will do it. It’s all a part of point number one, which is explored in detail throughout the film.
Jesus’ best friend is a guy by the name of Judas. Yep, that guy. That just makes it more ironic when Judas betrays Jesus in the end, right? Well, just wait a bit and we’ll see how that goes.
And of course, Jesus’ girlfriend is Mary Magdalene, the local prostitute.
Holy the WHAT?!?
Yep, you heard that correctly. Not only does Jesus have a girlfriend (it is made explicit that he has remained virginal), but she’s the town hooker – a trade she turned to to spite Jesus, in the same way that Jesus turned to crossmaking to spite God. He still loves her, which is very Christian of him, but they have a bit of a rough go at it. He does show up just in time to save her from the stoning (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…”), and you know, it all starts to make sense about right there.
You look at the Gospels, the stories about Jesus, as if the authors were telling you everything. What if they weren’t? You know, there’s this story about Jesus saving a random prostitute, but if that prostitute was Magdalene, essentially a disciple herself, would they really want to finger her? (Get your mind out of the gutter!) The story is about forgiveness, which is good in and of itself, but do we forget so easily? Probably better to just gloss over that. And this story is all about how many other things might have been glossed over.
The funny thing is that for the next hour and a half of the film, it takes the Gospel stories pretty straight. Jesus visits John the Baptist (who, by the way, is the funkiest cult leader of hot topless chicks ever) and is baptized in the Jordan and has some discussions with John.
Then Jesus heads out on a fast in the desert where he is faced with numerous temptations from Satan, all of which he overcomes with aplomb. Satan says he’ll be back, which you kind of forget about.
He emerges from the desert to meet Mary and Martha (sisters of Lazarus, who he will subsequently perform this miracle on – you might have heard of it), and he starts his ministry and miracles by healing a blind man.
Then you’ve got the wedding at Cana, water into wine, the Lazarus bit, the casting out of demons, the whole nine yards. The story (beautifully filmed, by the way) hits most of the points. Finally we get to Jesus’ return to Jerusalem and the upsetting of the moneychangers’ stalls at the Temple as Jesus comes to realize (and resolve himself to) the final plan.
Finally we get to the Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus to the Romans for those thirty pieces of silver. But wait, didn’t we say that Judas was Jesus’ best friend? He was, and not only that, but his most loyal and trusted companion. Why did he betray Jesus?
Ah, says Kazantzakis, but he didn’t – exactly. You know the whole story: the son of God, innocent of sins of his own, dies an unjust death willingly on the cross and in so doing atones for all of the sins of men. Jesus has to die on the cross. It’s the whole point. And as much as he hates to do it, Judas is the one who is charged with the task of turning Jesus in. He’s not a betrayer, he’s just the only one Jesus trusts enough to get the dirty job done. The most painful, the most difficult step towards the salvation of mankind is taken not by the Messiah, but by the betrayer. And the film deals with this perfectly. It’s not Judas’ fault, Kazantzakis suggests, that the disciples who later wrote the Gospels didn’t “get” Judas’ own sacrifice. If they had, maybe they’d have been chosen to do it themselves. The popular idea of Judas punished in eternal damnation for his crime is an easy one to swallow, if you don’t think about the whole story arc. But if you do… And that’s what this movie is great at doing – making you think about the Christ story in its entirety, and what it all means. It really is the most deeply spiritual of any of the Christ films I’ve seen.
But it’s not over, of course.
We’ve still got to get to Pontius Pilate, played in a brief cameo by a somewhat incongruous David Bowie.
And of course, there’s the whole crucifixion thing. And then the movie ends.
No, of course it doesn’t. Because you forgot something. For one, didn’t Satan say he was going to be back? And for another, what’s the title of the movie again? “The Last Temptation of Christ”? The title doesn’t really make any sense. He’s on the cross, he’s going to die on the cross, and there haven’t been any temptations since like half an hour into the movie.
Wait a minute! Who’s this little girl!?! I don’t remember her!
Of course not – because this is the eponymous Last Temptation. A little girl claiming to be Jesus’ guardian angel (and of course later revealed to be Satan) comes to Jesus on the cross and tells him that God is pleased with him. And just as God would not allow Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac, so will God not actually go through with sacrificing his own son. She beckons Jesus off of the cross and leads him to a new life, the life of a regular man, the life of a man who lives, works, loves…but is free from the obligations of being the son of God.
Jesus begins by marrying Magdalene, and they do in fact consummate the marriage (more outrage, to be sure), but when she is with child, she dies. The angel assures Jesus that there is only one woman in the entire world (in a metaphorical sense) and leads him to take both Mary and Martha as wives, with whom he has many children.
But for some reason, reality keeps invading the fantasy that the “angel” is selling Jesus. Here’s Paul, preaching about Jesus. And when Jesus confronts him, and tells him that his story isn’t true, that he never died on the cross, Paul tells him that it doesn’t matter. The story of the Jesus who died on the cross is the one the people need, and it’s the one that he’s going to continue to tell. And finally, as Jesus is about to die of old age some of his surviving disciples come to him, and chastise him for abrogating his responsibility. And the world begins to fall into fire and flames as the redemption that Jesus was meant to have achieved is hanging by its final thread.
And it’s only then that a panicked Jesus realizes that he has nearly succumbed to this Last Temptation, and he screams to God of his repentance:
Will you listen to me? Are you still there? Will you listen to a selfish, unfaithful son? I fought you when you called. I resisted. I thought I knew more. I didn’t want to be your son. Can you forgive me? … Father, take me back! … I want to be your son!
And his plea is accepted, and Jesus is returned to the cross having resisted the Last Temptation, and with an “It is accomplished”, he dies.
A beautiful film, both visually and emotionally, and I suppose I’ve said enough in the review to not need to rehash any of it here.
Our third film was another oddity for Scorsese – a period piece from 1993 called The Age of Innocence, loosely based on the Edith Wharton novel of the same name.
The stage is set in 1870s New York City. Though it may be an age of propriety, an age of naïve fidelity, an age of innocence as they might say, this age also had its darker side. It was an age when bowler hats, heedless of – even outwardly violent towards – their human masters, constantly threatened to fly from their accustomed heads and Oddjob the nearest stranger in the crowd if not sturdily held fast, a perpetual insurrection of the millinery.
It was an age of portrait-gazing. The preferred pastime of the rich and bored was to sit around and stare at the many paintings on the wall, waiting for one of them to suddenly wink, or slyly smile. They never did, or at least, not until the absinthe was broken out.
It was an age of mad science, when a woman could be crossed with a parrot with no ethical considerations or moral repercussions. Nobody really knew why it had become so popular to intergerminate large women with psittacines. Modern theories suggest it may have been prompted by a suggestion from the Nabisco Company, which had recently erected a large saltine cracker factory on the outskirts of Hoboken, but none know for sure. It was, after all, an age of uncertainty.
It was also an age of vampires.
One of the most devious vampires of the age was LouAnne Johnson. Recently returned from the trenches in Transylvania where she had ostensibly been fighting on the side of the mortals, LouAnne insinuated her way into New York society by taking a position as a tough-as-nails governess for the Sawyer family and their daughter Veronica – an unpopular and mousy girl whose greatest of pleasures included going to the opera, of all things. “Included” isn’t quite the right word. “Comprised” would be better. It was all poor Veronica did, the opera. What a bore.
But under the guileful tutelage of her undead mistress, Veronica dropped the square act and was accepted into the most exclusive clique in all of New York, one which had its origins all the way back in old New Amsterdam – the Heathers Club. Acceptance into the Heathers Club had but one requirement – the applicant must have been named Heather.
Veronica was most decidedly not named Heather. And so, suspicions grew of a darker power behind Veronica Sawyer and her miraculous popularity. Some said that she was in league with a demon lover, an incubus who visited her bed at night, forcing its foul morningborn spawn upon her. Some elected to believe the more milquetoast explanation of witchcraft.
However, the case also caught the attention of the most versatile and famous chief executive of all time: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. The official story was that Lincoln had been killed a decade before, victim of an assassin’s bullet, but Lincoln still walked the world, cleanshaven and anonymous, carrying on the work that he considered so much more important than emancipation, the vrykolakasectomy he cherished so dearly.
He arrived none too soon. LouAnne Johnson, already remarkably reclusive during the day, had taken to often disappearing of nights as well, and in the shape of a bat she hung above the dining tables of the wealthy as she cased the next victim of her bloodlust. Already three corpulent parrot-women had gone missing, and LouAnne’s repeated joke that “perhaps she has flown the coop” was growing threadbare; suspicions were mounting.
Then, disaster struck. Under the influence of her vampire governess, Veronica lured an annoying local stableboy into the woods and shot him clean through the temple with an arrow from her very own longbow, forgetting until too late that her personal arrowheads had been engraven with her V.S. monogram. The arrowhead unrecoverable in the stableboy’s brainpan, Veronica quickly conceived to forge a suicide note wherein “the stableboy” confessed to an unrequited love affair with Veronica, as consequence of which he had forsworn to slay himself with the cupid-like arrow of his own love.
Despite the fact that no elaborate bow setup was ever found, suicide pacts became all the rage in New York, with the members of the Heathers Club among the primary authors.
Lincoln, who had previously wormed his way into the good graces of our undead villainess now found the time ripe to confirm his deep suspicions of the governess. Donning a set of false wax teeth, he chanced calling upon her chambers alone, ostensibly to woo her as liberally as any Victorian gentleman had ever wooed a Victorian maid. Then, when his approach was secured he quickly blurted out a false confession of vampirism, flashed his teeth, and dove straight for LouAnne’s neck. She flinched not a bit, even rising instinctively to meet his fangs, and the prey was caught.
It was an age of vampires, as I have said, but it was a different age. Then, even vampires had a sense of honor, and a vampire, caught in her deception, was mortally stung. It was not a question of fighting Lincoln, the greatest Vampire Hunter in history, to the death – that would prove too futile, she well knew. It was not even a question of pleading for clemency, for an escape to a new town, a small village where she could carry on her exsanguinations unmolested. She was defeated, delenda as Cato would say, and she all too willingly exposed herself to the next rising sun over New York Harbor, effervescing away like a sloe gin fizz.
The vampire vanquished, her influence collapsed. Suicide pacts throughout the city were broken. Veronica, still blatantly not named Heather, was ousted from the Heathers Club and allowed to return to the dreadful opera life she loved so well. For this, she owed a deep debt of gratitude to Lincoln, which she was prepared to satisfy in any way he desired, but she still being a maiden he insisted that he must not emancipate her maidenhood. He still got a decent bit of satisfaction out of her before heading off on his next strigoic adventure, don’t get me wrong. The end.
Disclaimer: The movie I have just described to you did not happen. But it was waaaaaaaaay better than the real movie, which was a two-hour and fifteen minute exercise in the most tiresome love triangle you’ve ever seen. Day-Lewis is married to Ryder, but for no apparent reason falls for a woman separated from her husband. Nothing is ever consummated, and the film literally bored five people out of the room in the first half-hour. I like my version better. Eat that, Scorsese!