The Gospel According to Film

Has any story been adapted to film more than the tale of Christ?

This past weekend (among countless others), I took a journey through faith depicted on film. Some regular entries could be The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, two Charleton Heston epics that always air on TV this time of year, but I chose landed on three others: The Last Temptation of Christ (for its annual Good Friday viewing in my living room), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (which I had never seen but long wanted to), and Jesus Christ Superstar (a musical I’d seen a couple times, but was very familiar with the music).

Perhaps it was watching three tellings of the same story within a 36-hour time span, or a deep-rooted familiarity with the Passion from my Catholic upbringing, but seeing these very different takes on the life of Christ within a short period became a richer experience than the sum of its parts. Watching any of the films in isolation would have been viewing it on its own merits (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but assessing them more as complements to one another made each movie all the more unique, defined, and artistic.

The Last Temptation of Christ, as explicitly stated in its introduction, is a “fictional” exploration of Christ’s battle between “the spirit and the flesh.” The conflict within Jesus as both man and god is, frankly, the point of the film, and this thesis drives the depiction of Christ even as a character. He goes on an emotional arc throughout the entire film: first in torment, troubled by his internal pain; determination to understand His purpose; a loving, enlightened figure inspiring and healing those around Him; then a defeated, dejected shell; and finally, the courageous, benevolent Son of God who sacrifices Himself for the world. Christ is a fully realized, human character, and His emotional journey and experience as a man makes His ultimate sacrifice all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

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The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

The depiction of Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, however, embarks on less of a journey; in Pasolini’s film, Christ is confident, eloquent, though arguably cold, direct, and lacks the loving warmth we often see in Renaissance-era artwork or other film adaptations. The viewer’s relationship to Him is almost impersonal, with milestone moments such as Christ’s arrest and trial shot from a distance, from the perspective of a member of the crowd witnessing. This sense of detachment is washed away by the movie’s conclusion however, through the powerful depiction of the Resurrection. The cold tone permeating most of the film is foiled by a glorious chorus of song, believers rejoicing to spread the word of God, as Christ is heard in voice-over dialogue: “Behold, I am with you always, unto the end of the world.” Whether the voice is for His followers or to us directly, the disconnect is breached as He makes a promise to always be there.

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

The sense of glory from Christ does not quite shine through in Jesus Christ Superstar, the grooviest tale of the Passion ever committed to film. This depiction of Jesus is sad, frustrated, and troubled throughout, and no moments of miracles or God-given glory ever transpire. The life and spirit of the film come from, well, everywhere else: the excellent portrayal of Judas by Carl Anderson, going jumpsuit to jumpsuit as he fears for Christ, betrays Him, and even chastises Him. While Jesus is, of course, the center of the action, most of the songs and story are seen from the perspective of those around Him. Mary Magdalene is also portrayed terrifically, by Yvonne Elliman, effortlessly gliding between sensuality and an almost-motherly love toward Him. Jesus does not go on the emotional arc or display the vitality that the other characters do, and this may well be the point of the piece: the tale of Christ, told by the perspectives of those around Him.

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Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

These films are absolutely not to be taken as Gospel and are not documentaries (though how cool would it be if Jesus Christ Superstar were!), but experiencing three very different interpretations of this globally-known tale was a fascinating, enlightening journey through all the perspectives and artistic decisions that shape and contribute to our modern understanding of Christ.

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Weekly Round-Up: May 15-21, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Woman in the Dunes (1964) – At its best, this demented love story is an absolute thriller, chronicling the kidnapping and imprisonment of one man by a rural Japanese village. Unfortunately, this intriguing premise loses momentum and is all but buried by its 2 1/2 hour running time. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Descendants (2015) – I adore this movie, to the point where my friend Albert and I recorded an audio commentary this week (to be released soon) analyzing the film even further. The Disney villains’ kids go to high school together – what more could you want? RECOMMENDED.
  • The Witch (2016) – Even better on home video than in theaters, thanks to subtitles! I even watched it with audio commentary which provided additional insights. Nearly six months in, this might be my pick of top movie of 2016. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Blue Hawaii (1961) – Silly but enjoyable Elvis musical about a young man torn between his destiny as a pineapple heir and staying a beach bum with his friends. Great songs and Angela Lansbury are icing on the cake. RECOMMENDED.
  • The New World (2005) – Spectacular historical drama exploring the intertwining lives of John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. From what I’ve seen, this is by far my favorite Malick film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Black Moon (1975) – Surrealist trashfest that is equal parts Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Godard’s Weekend, but with none of the wit or purpose. I get that there was something about a battle of the sexes, but couldn’t grasp how hordes of naked kids running about or old ladies talking to pet rats contributed to this idea. NOT RECOMMENDED.

Band of Outsiders (1964)

One of the most undeniably cool movies I’ve seen, Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard is the story of three young adults who scheme to rob a neighbor. Everything that takes is by chance, including their friendship by ending up in a class together and the woman (played to vulnerable excellence by Anna Karina) who accidentally slipped to her boyfriend that a fellow tenant in her apartment building is loaded.

Like you’d expect from Godard, though, this is a classic case of style over substance. As meaty as the story is, the Band gets its bite from its filmmaking techniques; the black-and-white imagery of a bleak home accompanied by melancholy music foils the outrageous fun of the famous Madison dance scene in which the three heroes dance to a (possibly imaginary) R&B song.

This high contrast makes the pacing uneven at times, swirling between quiet moments of plotting with high-intensity crime, but that’s probably the point. These are individuals who are clearly uncomfortable and not equipped to pull something like this off, so it’s uncomfortable for us the audience to watch them.

The icing on the cake is in the final scene; as characters drive off, their discussion recaps what essentially the theme of the film is. There is a dialogue on the nature of humanity, whether we are even meant to band together, or if we are always individuals at heart, ready to break apart.

This concept is reflective both of the French New Wave as well as this film’s overall influence by American culture; the sense of individual over the community is a pretty groundbreaking idea in 1960s French cinema, reminding us how groundbreaking this film and the ideas it presents really are.

As almost a middle ground between the more thrilling Breathless and the more lighthearted and comedic A Woman is a WomanBand of Outsidersmay be the ultimate Godard film, seamlessly blending his humor with cold-hearted intensity.

Bikini Beach (1964)

Bikini Beach may be the Beach Party series at its camp best, with the one-two punch of over-the-top humor and some fantastic songs. While not the very best Beach Party film, it has all the trademarks of a classic and reminds us why this series is so special.

The plot is similar in structure to all the other movies, with the beach bunnies and the hot dogs doing to the beach (this year, Bikini Beach!) for the summer. Fortunately, the narrative is diluted with overlapping and over-the-top elements, including a grumpy old man who chronicles the kids’ exploits in the local paper (the Bikini Bugle), the arrival of British rock star the Potato Bug, and Frankie’s sudden interest in drag racing.

Everything is ridiculous, which is exactly as it should be. This film series works best when we get layers upon layers of chaos, which come together beautifully in the film’s climax, as a standard fight scene where all the narrative elements come together in a battle royale rich with gags.

More than the other Beach Party films though (as far as I’ve noticed), Bikini Beach has very interesting recurring themes. We see several different binaries of young vs. old, from the old man vs. the beach kids, the British Potato Bug to the American Frankie, the senior citizens at the Sea-esta by the Sea at the drag race filled with kids. Like the cleavage nestled within a bikini, these divisions persist for most of the film, but in the finale, all comes together in climactic chaos.

And lastly, the songs. My goodness, the songs! Both songs by the Potato Bug, “Gimme Your Love” and “How About That” are standouts (with the latter featuring a wild dance breakdown by Annette), with the gorgeous “Because You’re You” shining as possibly the best Frankie-Annette love ballad.

This film barely grazes the genius of Beach Blanket Bingo, a beach adventure yet to come at the time of Bikini Beach’s release in ‘64, but it is still great entertainment, rich with fantastic songs and hilarious camp.

Muscle Beach Party (1964)

Muscle Beach Party is one of the more forgettable entries in the Beach Party saga, but it is possibly the best in terms of sheer quality. Like all the other films, it is about the same band of kids going to the beach for the summer, but the side story (of the Italian heiress trying to pluck out Frankie and make him a star) is actually pretty interesting. There is also the funny backdrop of the muscle men who have set up camp along the beach, resulting in a very entertaining fight scene at the end.

We also get the standard Frankie-Annette bickering that we have come to expect, and love, from these series. I love them so much because they often argue about whether or not to get married and, over the course of many movies and many years, we don’t see them tie the knot – they are a modern couple and don’t jump to get married like many young people did prior to the 1960s.

In addition to the expected Beach Party fare, the temptation Frankie faces is rather compelling. As an audience, we of course know he’s a talented singer, so the Italian temptress offering him a career as a pop singer is weirdly meta and it’s fun to see everyone’s reactions. Frankie’s friends rebuke him for his choices, with his friend Johnny spitting that “golden surfboards tend to sink.” What?

There’s also a hilarious visual gag of a beach gal, Candy, dancing and making the surfer boys fall off their surfboards with every sway of her hips. This comes in handy at the end, as it sends muscle men flying all over the cabana club and ensures a victory for the scrawnier beach fellas.

This all probably sounds insane if you aren’t a Beach Party fan, but all this crazy narrative makes sense within the Beach Party universe, and especially within this film. Compared to the other entries, Muscle Beach Party is a pretty “normal” film, with significantly fewer camp elements and scenes than the others. It’s the kind of movie you can be less embarrassed to like.

That said, though, Muscle Beach Party is probably one of the less memorable Beach Party films because it is so much more realistic, and the songs aren’t as good as in the other films. We are blessed to see Donna Loren in her first Beach Party appearance (singing the great “Muscle Bustle”) and it’s always fun when Dick Dale and his Del-Tones are around. This movie just makes less of an impression, but it does provide some good flashes of better elements in other beach party films. This is a movie where, for the most part, everything works, but it doesn’t resonate as strong as moments in the other, weaker, Beach Party films.