Rightwing Film Geek

A New Testament film with zip about Mel Gibson or the ADL

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THE GOSPEL OF JOHN (Philip Saville, Canada/Britain, 2003, 6)

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN had a marketing strategy that raised eyebrows — it opened weeks ago in a bunch of medium-sized and small markets in the South and Midwest and has stayed away from the blue-state major Metro areas where films customarily open. It only began screening in Washington and Los Angeles last weekend, and best I can tell from the film’s Web site, New York or Chicago runs aren’t even planned. It looked like the kind of marketing strategy an example of what Eve Tushnet calls “Junk For Jesus” would use. Actually though, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is better than that, much better than it looks. Still, as long as no validly ordained priest said the Eucharistic Prayer over the cans of film, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is still a movie and has to be evaluated as such.

The basic idea of following John (or any of the other Gospels) word-for-word is unfortunately a very bad one. The Gospels simply are not written like screenplays. There are maybe a couple of characters besides Jesus who get more than one scene. There are no real conversations; there isn’t much description but a lot of narration. They’re mostly “Jesus said X” and “Jesus did Y.” And so THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, even more than most Jesus films that felt free to expand or contract as drama requires, often has Christopher Plummer narrating the action along only to interrupt it by breaking into dialogue, often of not very great detail. The effect is kinda like drifting into and out of song sometimes even within a line, as in Alain Resnais’ SAME OLD SONG. I don’t mean that as a compliment — it emphasizes THE GOSPEL OF JOHN as an illustration rather than as a movie, the “Junk for Jesus” ethic.

But though THE GOSPEL OF JOHN never does overcome the basic misguidedness of its pitch, the film-makers do work well with the grain of the wood and make the best possible film that could have come from this wack idea. Still, I hope that Visual Bible International, which describes itself on the film’s Web site as “having secured the exclusive worldwide rights to develop, produce and market film adaptations on a word-for-word basis, including both Books of the Old and New Testaments,” doesn’t try this trick with … um … Romans or Second Corinthians.

John differs from the other three Gospels, in both tone and content, much more than other three differ among themselves. Relatively speaking:

— There are more miracles and theologytalk in John and fewer parables and practical sayings. For example, His most famous speech and the one most concerned with right conduct, the Sermon on the Mount, is never even alluded to in John. By contrast, the famous opening verses of John are nearly impossible to get your mind around purely in modern English. Plus, in the place the Agony in Gethsemane would occur, John gives us four chapters of prayer and theological exhortation to the Disciples.

johnjesus.jpg— There is more Glory and certitude in John and less Sorrow and doubt. Neither Satan’s temptations nor the Agony in Gethsemane are even mentioned. The Jesus of John is never in doubt as He goes around performing miracles to show Who He is and has an absolute air of knowing what must happen. He nearly has to chase Judas out of the Last Supper — “go betray me now,” practically. The words from the cross in John are “it is finished” rather than “why have you forsaken me?” (as in Matthew and Mark), again emphasizing the playing out of Providence.

But why I think THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is a worthwhile movie is that the filmmakers effectively “roll with these punches,” these particular emphases in John’s Gospel. And know they *are* punches (to overstrain the metaphor). While I’ve said that John is a theology-heavy Gospel, one of the virtues of THE GOSPEL OF JOHN comes in explaining that theology. It happens in one of the few moments when the film discards its literalist premise. On the night of the Last Supper, we get impressionistic flashbacks to various things that we’ve seen, and now Jesus’ words explain what the miracles were all about, bearing witness to the Father who sent Him. The “that they all may be one” prayer is accompanied to half-second shots of all the various sorts of people Jesus encountered.

johntrial.jpgThe film benefits enormously from a quietly excellent central performance from Henry Ian Cusick, one which plays to the way Jesus is portrayed in John. This is a Jesus Who is sure in His skin, often happy and, yes smiling along while trying to enlighten the world that often rejects Him — never either a tortured doubter (the only tears you see from Cusick are when Martha, the sister of Lazarus, weeps at his death) nor a flat icon of good-two-shoesness. He sometimes tosses fire and brimstone as needed (the money-changers in the Temple), but only rarely. In other words, you see why His disciples would follow Him. And that He knows He is the Son of God and the Messiah, and doesn’t find that or his mission remarkable. The film’s portrayal of Jesus’ miracles is particularly fine. They are presented literally, but in an offhand way. There’s no thunder or zapping or wailing or attempts to explain them away. Or even an attempt to awe us. Instead, the wedding partiers pour water into their jugs and a few seconds later, wine comes out. We never see Jesus “resurrected,” as if in the payoff shot. Simply, as the Gospel states, we see Mary Magdelene come and find the empty tomb and then she comes across Jesus outside. The GOSPEL OF JOHN manages to be a low-key, reverent film without slipping into the sort of pious bombast that stifles drama.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN uses a recent translation, the Good News Bible, that is very understandable though it consequently loses some poetic/ritualistic glory. It took me a few minutes to realize that the reason Jesus kept saying “I am telling you the truth,” is that this is the oath better known in its King James translation as “verily, verily I say unto you.” The Douay-Reims has the (more literal) translation: “amen, amen, I say to you.” Either of the older translations has more artistic merit and probably a greater comfort level, but it’s safer to say the later one is clearest and least (in our terms of reference) adorned.

As for THE GOSPEL OF JOHN’s negative virtues, the foremost is that there isn’t very much (that I recall anyway) bombastic cinematic underwriting of the Jesus’ holiness, beyond what He says and does. It also helps in this vein that the disciples and the other characters are all played by actors unknown to me, avoiding the spot-the-star travesty that was, e.g. THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (that’s how *great* this story is … every star in town is in it). The score is restrained as Gospel films go. Only in a very few places, e.g. is Jesus is framed in those cliched glowing halos. More often in fact, we look at a plain sun to represent Jesus as a light unto the world. There are a couple of halo shots very early on, but that’s before Jesus has said a word and we’re mostly seeing Him through the eyes of John the Baptist. The film actually shows Jesus’ shadow and feet before we see His face, as the narrator says “and the Word became man.”

johnsandals.jpgYes, the feet. One of the most moving ceremonies to me personally is the Holy Thursday custom for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 Roman parishioners, which most bishops also follow. In THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, the disciples’ feet are shown to be dirty, and this is what a film about the Gospels can offer that even the Gospels themselves cannot — tactility, presentness. To put it bluntly, we see the dirt on the Disciples feet; we have seen the dust in the streets of the Holy Land. Thus when Christ humbles himself before his followers after the meal, we see what it means for the Word to be made flesh — that it rubbed elbows with dirt. Consistent with its offhand manner, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN doesn’t ever rub our faces in its cinematic ability to make us see and feel the things of the world. But it’s there, present, and frankly quite moving.

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November 25, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

Hate, Actually

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LOVE ACTUALLY (Richard Curtis, Britain, 2003, 2)

Why did I even bother to see LOVE ACTUALLY? Upbeat heartwarming chick-flick romances are not my favorite genre, but even if they were … good gawd, is this fat hunk of English toffee sweet. It is so relentless in its desire to be upbeat and happy and uplifting and “the feel-good film of the year” that I was reaching for the insulin. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to go out and kick a baby or strangle a puppy to de-treaclify your system. It’s like Ren & Stimpy’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song, only played straight.

LOVE ACTUALLY has about 10 romance-plot strands, brushing lightly off one another — Hugh Grant as Prime Minister, suppressing his hots for a staffer; Colin Firth falling for the Portuguese maid with whom he can’t speak; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman as a married couple, with Rickman sorely tempted at work; Laura Linney unable to connect with the guy she has a crush on at work; Bill Nighy as an old star recording a Chrtistmas hit; a British loser goes to America because all the chicks are hot and love a British accent; two nude body doubles; a man has an unrequited crush on his best friend’s wife; Liam Neeson plays a stepfather whose 11-year-old son has his first crush shortly after his mother dies; meanwhile, Neeson pines for Claudia Schiffer. (I may be forgetting, or repressing, some others.)

If that sound like too much for a 130-minute movie, you’re absolutely right. Some pruning away was needed. The individual plots are completely underdeveloped (avg: half a sitcom episode each) and thus nothing gets a chance to surprise us. Every last frickin one of those threads end happily — OK with maybe one kinda exception. But that’s the one that doesn’t get tied up well at the end — making the film’s last 20 minutes a truly toxic piling on of one more coming-together, one more reconciliation, one more successful meeting. The fact that eight different plot strands are all being resolved happily one after another after another (and in two different public meetings) makes it seem even more relentless and grimaceworthy than it might otherwise.

lovelincoln.jpgIt’s bad enough that an engagement between two people who can hardly speak a common language is treated as a great triumph worthy of triumphal trumpets on the soundtrack, but having Liam Neeson get together with Claudia Schiffer is just Cruelty to Audiences. Even getting a kiss from an unavailable love is treated as cathartic (imagine Emilio Estevez driving away from the snow cabin in ST. ELMO’S FIRE for a sense of the emotional falseness of this movie). And when LOVE ACTUALLY has a church funeral, as dictated by The Hugh Grant Romance Template, it’s for someone we had never seen alive, so there’s no emotional investment (death is SUCH a downer; like the Director said in THE PRODUCERS: “The whole third act has got to go; they’re *losing* the war.”). But more than that, the dearly departed supposedly prepared a snapshot video of her life to “Bye-Bye Baby,” a piece of Bay City Rollers bubble gum. I didn’t imagine that even the Church of England was that liturgically advanced. The whole script is like MAGNOLIA as rewritten by Up With People and Norman Vincent Peale.

I can already hear the objections — “Victor, this is a romantic fantasy. It’s not meant to be realistic.” Except that LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE AND ACTUALLY EVEN MORE LOVE tells you the opposite right away. It begins with pictures of people hugging and a narrator telling us that “love actually is all around us” and says you see it most clearly at the arrival gate at Heathrow. And the film ends with several of the plot strands coalescing at that airport terminal, and then the film subtly goes from its characters hugging and smiling and to those “real people” doing the same, and then a greater and greater number fill the screen. This film could not be more explicit in telling us it is a slice of life, something real, and that is simply an evil lie. Unless one’s idea of a slice of life is for a British dork to show up at the first bar he finds in Milwaukee, be surrounded by four supermodel-lookers who insist he stay over at their place. But unfortunately they’re so poor they only have a single bed and cannot afford any nightclothes and so they have to sleep naked (I am exaggerating not at all … I was actually ready for the film to reveal “it’s all a dream” because it’s SO over-the-top that you can’t even take it seriously as a fantasy). But no. That is not a plot strand, it’s a beer commercial. Or a sketch on “The Man Show,” which at least knows it’s parodic. This film is what Pauline Kael called “the sugar-coated lie” that drove her into a frenzy of hate about THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I’m not saying every movie has to be Ingmar Bergman or GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS … but couldn’t LOVE ACTUALLY have at least a couple of endings that somehow suggest that life is not perfect.

Then there’s one scene, in which Grant upbraids a visiting American president (Billy Bob Thornton as a Bushclinton horndog-yokel) for selfishness and bullying, that reportedly produced (predictable) cheers at the Toronto Film Festival. Now leave aside the scene’s basic absurdity — two heads of govenment do not dress one another down at a public press conference — which tends to code it as fantasy, i.e. wish fulfillment. But what also justifies calling the scene purely anti-American (rather than anti-this-or-that American policy) is its terminal vagueness. No American policy is mentioned … not Iraq, steel tariffs, Kyoto, the Confederate flag, any number of The Usual Suspects … no, none, nothing — only airy platitudes about “standing up for our interests,” without any idea about what the filmmakers think those interests are. (Wouldn’t a president and a prime minister mention this or that policy beyond “we’ll do what we want”?) So this makes the scene the equivalent of a meaningless generic insult of a person, rather than saying, e.g. they’re lazy, stupid, dishonest — or any number of insults that specific referents. The scene is just the equivalent of “America is an asshole.” And that’s anti-Americanism as such.

November 25, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment