A Pocket Full of Clemsonite

March 20, 2009

Denys Arcand’s “Jesus of Montreal” clues us into what a contemporary Savior would look like

So far, cinema has acquired quite a few films treating the subject of Jesus Christ in a rich, creative manner. Let me put it straight, I am not referring to faithful (pun not intended) adaptations of the Gospels, but rather author films, or at least have a coherent source of inspiration other than the Gospels themselves. Also, I am ruling out films referring only in passing to miracles or other aspects which are present in the life of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament. As a consequence, I won’t talk about Tarkovski’s “Sacrifice” or Carl Th. Dreyer’s films. Finally, when the Biblical reference is just brief, even if it’s a masterful depiction of the Last Supper (as in Bunuel’s Viridiana or in Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. – the original film, not the TV show), I will skip these as well.

We are left, more or less, with the following list:

– Pierpaolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”, which is apparently breaking the first rule, being a good adaptation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Except that, when you take a closer look, this black-and-white film is more than that (if you watched a color version, it was an abridged version which was colored manually, so there’s nothing in it bearing some of the author’s intent). It could be a story of our time (or that time, early 60s) in Italy, or it could be a story of any time. You could actually watch those simple people and see nothing is idealized; they are under the material and social constraints of their time as much as we are under ours. This approach is unusual for a film depicting the life of Christ. Just because of this, it can be considered an oddity among others, although, as we will see, every film on this list has its share of very individual characteristics.

– Norman Jewison’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a film based on an opera rock. As such, it has some good music on it. Well, even Ian Gillan is there. This film approaches the last weeks in Jesus’ life from Judas’ standpoint, which seems actually intelligible, but of course so wrong (from the eternity point of view, as opposed to the perspective of his times). I have to admit that not everything is golden here, in this film. Aside from music, I especially noticed Jesus’ reaction when, on Palm Sunday, people switched from singing “J.C., J.C., would you pray for me?” to “J.C., J.C., would you die for me?”, and the appearance of modern paraphernalia in the life two thousand times before us, e.g. the machine guns in the temple.

– Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” is perhaps the most faithful to the spirit of the Bible, although from an Eastern Orthodox stand. This film is based on a novel written by the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, also known for his book “Alexis Zorbas” which became “Zorba the Greek”, a famous film with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates. Throughout the film we are exploring the human nature of Jesus, who is facing the temptations in the desert and he is resisting them, but is still weak, and resists a final temptation, while on the cross. Namely, he decides he cannot go on anymore and God allegedly sends an angel to free him from the cross and take him somewhere safe. He then marries Mary Magdalene (and YES, he makes love to her, this is maybe why the fundamentalist Christians fought against them being presented at movie theaters in many places in the US) and has children. Only later, something doesn’t seem right, and realizes that the angel is not really an angel, but its opposite. He then is old, but sees his mistake and repents. The final scene is back on the cross, as if all this was a temporal parenthesis which has just been closed and Christ dies, murmuring the redeeming words “It has been accomplished!” As a side note, the acting is uneven, Willem Dafoe is not so great as Jesus Christ; instead, David Bowie is marvelous as Pontius Pilate.

– Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” is a trademark Monty Python production, meaning it’s filled with this acting group’s jokes, centering a fictitious Brian, who happened to have been born in the same night and a few houses away from the place where Jesus Christ was born. This life in the shadow of the chosen one will mark Brian’s life, until a few random events make the Jews believe that he is the One and follow him in his absurd quest to free Judea from the Romans. The story focuses on the last part of this inadvertent “Messiah” and despite having lots of casual jokes; it has a few good, thought-provoking points. Again, this is not a film that is recommended for people who are rigid in their Christian faith, but rather for those able to think by themselves and discern what’s perennial from what’s only incidental in the Great Story.

But my main goal tonight is to discuss “Jesus of Montreal”, the film I have recently watched, the one showing up in the title. Right now I believe it is better than “Last Temptation”, it is deeper and is better placed to our time than other such productions. It is both a discussion about the essence of faith in God as God (and not as a mere convention) and about the art as Art, and not cheap commercialism, in this case movies a la Hollywood or TV ads.

The story begins with Daniel, a former valedictorian in his Dramatic Arts School, who preferred to travel around the world and appear in random underground theater plays. He is asked to resuscitate a Passion Play script about Jesus Christ, which is to be enacted around Easter in a Catholic church in Montreal. Well, those in the know about what Montreal can do to religiousness can already guess that this will be a highly unconventional performance. It is, mainly because the script was based on the latest updates on the archeological discoveries in the Middle East. But not only that: Daniel sets off his troupe by looking for good actors who happen to do other things in other to make ends meet. One is a porn movie audio dubber; another actress is making TV commercials relying on her physical beauty, although she wants to really act. This is obviously a parallel to the gathering of the Apostles, but also to the theme of Mary Magdalene the prostitute. After all, they are all (except Daniel) prostitutes by not being faithful to their profession, but instead making such compromises.

The most haunting series of scenes is with Daniel taking the Christ-of Theater role while attending a TV ad casting where his Magdalene has to undress in order to get the OK for having the right physical assets to show up in the ad (an awful Grease-like dancing number). He destroys everything in there, as Jesus caused some mess in the temple for the money changers. Later, he is summoned to trial, he pleads guilty and refuses to be represented by a lawyer. The judge sees here a reason for him to be examined by a forensic psychologist. What ensues from this Pontius Pilate-like encounter? A statement according to which he is better anchored in reality than most judges.

The play is successful. The public likes it (although some of them cling on “Jesus” as if he were the real Jesus; it’s fun to see a mix of actor, audience and police guards there), but obviously the priest and his higher-ups has a big problem with it. Actually, he doesn’t have a problem with his own life, in which he has a relationship with a woman, he even doesn’t have a problem with the plastic saint figurines he sells to people who can’t afford, as he puts it, psychotherapy, and goes to hear the priest absolving him/her of their sins for much cheaper. He might have a problem with quitting the religious order for living with the woman, because this would leave him completely broke. Actually, the funniest scene occurs when the priest tells the actors that they should change the way they are interpreting the play, and they mock him by giving him a sample of the “repertoires” they could use in acting. Affected style, NY-style, slang-style (with flamboyant Canadian cusswords), kabuki-style. Awesome.

Long story short, a final show is put on “stage” by the actors. The police arrives before the end and tries to stop the play, but some people from the audience are intervening and a fight ensues. During the scuffle, Daniel, who is on the cross playing the crucifixion scene, suffers a head concussion and is taken to ER. He recovers for a while, his female colleagues take him to the subway station where he plays his last act, and falls unconscious.
The irony continues, he is now taken to a Jewish hospital, where he actually dies. But Jesus continues his miracles, he gives life to a practically dead man via a heart transplant and eyesight to a woman via a eye transplant.

Still, the temptations are not over, after his death a consultant is advising the rest of the actors to found a theater company bearing Daniel’s name, and its goal would be to stay away from commercialism and stick with real theater play. We can only guess the actual confrontations with the reality, knowing that they have made compromises before. Will this proto-Christian model live on in the world of theater?

We don’t know, obviously, the answer to this last question. We still know that a man died for his ideals, and that his friends value his sacrifice and want to keep his effort’s memory alive in their lives. This is basically at the root of any imaginable Christian movement, and shows that the engine that gave the humanity Jesus Christ almost 2000 years ago is not necessarily dead.

And, most importantly, this film gives us an image of the scenario of “What if God was one of us”, as Joan Osborne is saying here, lyrics here. It’s no little thing.

Thank you, Denys Arcand, the God-fearing cinephiles salute you!


March 3, 2009

The Story of Marie and Julien – A Rivette-ing Romance Beyond Life and Death

If we are to make an inventory of the ghost-like characters in European films, what do we have? The first ones coming to mind are the angels in Wim Wender’s “Himmel uber Berlin”, remade with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan as “City of Angels”, the silent man in Kieslowski’s “Decalogue” and maybe the basketball playing dead friend of Lilja in Lukas Moodyson’s “Lilja 4Ever”. Nothing really helpful in making us understand what happens in a slowly-paced film like almost all Jacques Rivette’s.

So, what is going on here? The film is structured as a shift from Julien toward Marie. The first part, titled “Julien”, starts with their conversation during a dream. Surprise, they actually meet in person shortly after that. And while more than a year ago, the last time when they met, everyone was having another partner, this time it seems they both have the slot available for the other. It’s just that Marie appears to play a little “hard to get”. But Julien is patient: after all, his profession is vintage clock repairing, and this involves a lot of tedious and boring work. An advantage of his line of work might be that he is a perfectionist, and he also senses when something is out of tune.

That way, he soon senses that there’s something weird about Marie. On the screen, we can definitely see something that can be labeled as mental instability, but it could be more. So much more that it is too complicated for Julien to solve.

The gimmick used by the director to nudge Julien toward the solution is the blackmail plot. He had found some compromising materials about a woman, owner of a doll manufacturing business, and agrees to return them for a hefty sum. Since there are three such materials, there will be three transactions. The first one is undertaken by Julien, the next one by Marie. And something happens.

Marie sees someone that shouldn’t exist. It’s the deceased sister of the blackmailed woman. She even sends a letter which somehow arrives to Marie, and the two women communicate. That way, we understand that these two are alike, and this means for us that even Marie is dead. We can even track down the reason why she returned in life after staying in the limbo for a while. The other woman had some unsettled “affairs” with her sister, and apparently Marie was still unfulfilled by her life, and especially her love life, that she responded the dream call from Julien. And now, the impossible is happening: although her deadline is near, she doesn’t want to leave this realm again. The question remains: but what if she doesn’t heed the calls from above? What will happen? Nobody really knows the rules…

I am throwing a bone or two here. In order to better understand this “ghost” story, we must relate it to other important ghost stories. Here are two.

– Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” is a film comprised of a series of ghost stories adapted from a book written by a Westerner, which westerner collected them in Japan. And the first one seems to have part of the key. In this story, a samurai hit by some sort of financial crisis leaves the city to work for a wealthy important figure. Although he loves his beautiful, loving and hard-working wife, he decides he will have higher chances to succeed if he were to marry another woman from his future master’s entourage, in the hopes that he will eventually able to restore his wealth and return to reinstate his old wife. Well, long story short, things don’t go as planned, so he starts thinking more and more about the loving wife he left behind. When he no longer stands his current nagging wife, he leaves his status and returns. He arrives at dusk at his old wife’s house, and during that evening they share memories and plan to restart their life together, full of hope. The samurai’s surprise is immense in the morning when he wakes up, because all he can see is a run-down building, with nothing usable, and after he gets out someone tells him that his wife had actually died some time ago.

Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari
– This is a story of wartime, when a potter is decided to make it big by selling pots in the market to the soldiers. He earns big, but he also loses big, and he was that close to losing everything. His first encounter with a ghost happens in the market, when a local princess approaches him and asks him to bring her some of the pots she had just handpicked. Upon arrival, he is invited to stay the night, and it turns out that the virgin princess needs a husband. What’s a man to do than accept, in these conditions? Yes, but when he is running some errands in the market, everyone runs from him when they hear where he is staying. Lastly, a priest tells him that his new wife is a ghost and this relationship is forbidden, so he must act toward his deliverance from it. Back “home”, he learns that the princess was actually killed in a family feud and she returned to earth to find true love which she missed in her life, but she had now found in his person. Nevertheless, he leaves (let’s skip his departure’s details).
– In the meantime, his wife is killed by some hungry rogue soldiers wanting her food. When he returns home, upon entering the door he sees the devastated house with nobody inside. He gets out through the back door, returns to the front door and reenters. So (this is a masterfully handled scene) he meets inside his wife who was already worried for him, and his child was sleeping next to her. These facts will be negated early in the morning, when the neighbors arrive and tell him his wife was dead, and obviously she had already vanished.

Now it’s time to go back to the story of Marie and Julien and see what we have. We have indeed a story of love and a story of madness which has pushed Marie to suicide before. She doesn’t want to leave, but somehow she agrees that she doesn’t have any choice. She even shows Julien that she is left unharmed by the sharp knife, the blood doesn’t spill. She warns him that after her departure he will completely forget her. She even leaves shortly after the knife scene, when only Julien bleeds.
It’s actually quite an amazing scene; we are seeing it from both worlds. We see Julien seconds after Marie has vanished; acting as if he had really forgotten Marie, during the phone conversation he clearly exhibits this. We also have the view from Marie’s “window”, looking at Julien and his dog, she is also looking at her dry wound, and suddenly, the blood starts dripping.
Yes, somehow she’s back here, she needs emergency care, and let’s forget about technical ramifications as canceling her death certificate and so on. We are talking here about saving a soul or two, about saving a life, or about a life returning.

Indeed, seeing this film is not about “watching paint dry”, as a Gene Hackman character once said about Eric Rohmer’s film (incidentally, this film was produced by Rohmer’s “Les film du Losange”). Actually it’s about watching red paint dripping again. And it’s magic. Luminous, and having a clockwork precision. Jacques Rivette is a painter (as in La belle Noiseuse), a filmmaker (as in Julie and Celine Go Boating), a theatrical script writer and director (as in Va savoir), but also a clock master, as in Story of Marie and Julien. Gone are the minutes like “Gone in 60 seconds”, such films that take maybe 2 ½ or 3 hours have something to tell.

But if you’re in a hurry, it’s very likely that you’re going to miss it…

March 1, 2009

Marco Ferreri’s “La grande bouffe”, not for the faint of heart, or *art

Imagine a certain group of influential people who have reached their expiration date on this earth. A good example that can be
found today is the investment bankers’. Except that they’re not the first, and certainly not the last. A somewhat practical question is: how to describe their disappearance? Since we are not talking about, say, dinosaurs, lost hundreds of millions of
years ago, but about humans, it has to be done by resorting to human traits. And since for the human watcher, the following
assertion applies: “I am human, therefore nothing human is foreign to me”, as Terence once said, it must have a special effect
to stick to certain traits that are human, but exacerbated. Abominable, disgusting traits or drives will work, too.

Nowadays, people have a high disrespect of the financial establishment, whose greed is already proverbial, and this world is
crumbling under its effect of its own greed. So it would make sense that, if one wants to make a film about such guys, describing them die while incessantly eating would not be too far off.

There is a problem, though, with this approach. It’s not that it’s not realistic, in the artistic sense. It’s that the idea was
used decades ago, for the purpose of describing the end of bourgeoisie, as we know it. (La grande bouffe) is maybe the pinnacle of this approach. Let’s review: four successful people (all males), for reasons that are not fully explained (but we are allowed glimpses into it), decide to retreat in one week-end to a manor and, taking advantage of the great chef skills of one of them, to eat first class food until they literally die. We get to see awesome gourmet dishes going down their throats. Whose theirs? Well, the characters have the actors’ last names: Ugo (Tognazzi) the chef, Michel (Piccoli) the entertainment business tycoon, Marcello (Mastroianni) the airline pilot who can’t spend any single night without getting laid, and Philippe (Noiret), the sexually-repressed judge. As we can see, opposites come together here as parts of the same socio-economic niche.

We are introduced into their preparations for the final rides of the four protagonists (or knights of Apocalypse?) and arrival
to the manor, where we witness an unforgettable adaptation of Othello’s monologue “To be or not to be, that is the question”,
in the manor’s yard, with a cow’s head in the hand. One has to suspect that Jeunet’s (mostly known for “Amelie”) “Delicatessen” take on post-apocalyptic gourmet food, is in fact a pastiche (a pretty good one, I must say) of Marco Ferreri’s film.

The first night of feast passes as planned, with only pictures of naked women on the screen. But the next morning Marcello
threatens to leave unless he can get his hands on some girls. So he snags a few “lost souls”, but there’s also a “real woman”,
a grade school teacher, attracted by the men’s clout and the good food, who will come to spend the night with them. This woman is actually a character which can also be found in “end of times” films like Jiri Menzel’s “The End of the old Times”
(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097681/) or Eldar Ryazanov’s Cruel Romance / The Girl Without Dowry (see a lyrical excerpt here ), a woman-accessory, without actually being considered fully as an equal. Although the scenes in which she is involved are extremely funny. First, she wants to tie the missing buttons of Philippe’s pants, and then she moves on to… you know what. Philippe’s reaction is maybe the most hilarious scene in the entire film: he asks her to marry him. He even sticks to his decision even after she gives herself (not because she is being “frivolous”, but out of the *goodness of her heart*) to the other suffering guys there.

We get to witness several side effects of over-eating, effects which should be reviewed by some corporate decision-makers in
financial institutions thriving on pushing credit. First, it’s the “*art” from this review’s title, which is actually a sign of relief from the stomach pain. Also, Marcello gets to know another painful effect on what he hurts most: severe difficulty in
maintaining erection and reaching orgasm. This, more so than overeating, is pushing him to death. Last, but not least, is the
logical problem of residue: if you’re eating too much, there’s the obvious problem of feces, which nastily overflow and give
everything a brownish flavor. Over-producing consumer crap issue, anyone?

Words to the wise: I consider this as mature artistic vision, and the author is not to blame for the vision his artistic eyes
are set on more than Zapruder getting on celluloid the murder of a president. And, if we do not reduce Marco Ferreri’s film to
a Nostradamus-like prediction of the end of the financial burgeoisie, we can appreciate it for what it is, in its wider scope.
It is, to a certain extent, parallel to another masterpiece of the cinema which can sometimes be perceived as abominable, just
because it speaks clearly about some human traits that are less praiseworthy, and some viewers lack the inner hinges to fully
grasp it. I am talking about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, in which Italian fascists do unspeakable things to a group of
youths, in a visionary warning about a consumerist society which has no saints, no morals, and will likely end up by reducing
itself to nought. Unfortunately, in this case of Salo, the director fell first prey to his vision. He was assassinated close to
the beach where Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 was shot, and later his film was banned for so many years.

Coming back to “La grande bouffe”, everything goes as planned. The whores, not getting the point, leave after overeating a few times (they also exhibit a few side effects of eating too much), and the teacher assists them while they make steps toward their passing, A specific scene, when she gives pleasure to a dying Ugo who doesn’t stop eating, is reminiscent of a scene in Roman Polanski’s “What?“.

But it is the magnificent ending which is leading us back to the philosophical question “To Be or Not To Be”. Since the dead bodies have taken the place of the meat in the fridge, the next batch of fresh meat which is delivered cannot fit in, hence it is left in the yard, next to the dogs and other animals. A carcass is even put on a smaller tree. Leaving us to wonder which is the next carnivorous species who will replace this breed that has just disappeared. Like the sheep in Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” ( recently released in the US in the Criterion Edition) replacing humans in another bourgeoisie-bashing film made by a director happy to hit on bourgeois morals.

Needless to say that this is not a film to recommend watching with minors or people with rigid morals around. Judging by my
experience, I would not even recommend a masterpiece like Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” to be watched in such conservative environments. But the deep meaning of the film is, ironically, very understandable even by the adopters of “doom and gloom” attitude. So, it’s more about being flexible enough to discuss it, even view it as a scenario coming time and again in the cyclical historical time, make steps to come to terms with it, and move on.

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