Sunday, June 27, 2010

I'm God, and yes -- I AM talking to you

Another one from the college archives, this time a look at how Jesus from The Last Temptation of Christ fits in among some of Scorsese's other famous protagonists. Based upon observations made by Harlan Jacobson.

In a 1988 review, Harlan Jacobson writes: "In the rush to spill so much passion over Martin Scorsese's divine inquiries in The Last Temptation of Christ, the first question Christ grapples with in both Nikos Kazantzakis' novel and the film has simply disappeared: not was he man or God, but was he nuts?"1 Jacobson's review tries to redirect discussion of the controversial film away from the question of blasphemy and towards consideration of the film's protagonist as a typical Scorsese character. "Scorsese's Christ," he claims, "is the central character of his canon, a smalltime weasel on the fringe who is heretofore usually Italian and definitely lunatic. He's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, guileless and too inept to make the mob. He's Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, trying to punch his way beyond the emptiness of making it in America. He's most assuredly Travis Bickle standing alone in front of a mirror in a Times Square flophouse in Taxi Driver, asking himself 'You talkin' to me?'"2

Jacobson's assertions are not at all difficult to accept. It is not surprising that Scorsese would create his own Jesus on film after having used Christ as the referent of so many of his previous screen characters. Christ symbolism is often very explicit in Scorsese s films, certainly in the three cited by Jacobson, and even in a work as early as Boxcar Bertha. That Scorsese's Christ would have so much in common with his previous screen stand-ins, then, seems entirely natural. While Jacobson could perhaps improve his argument by substituting Charlie for Johnny Boy (who is, despite his apparent "ineptness," too comfortable with his identity to be strongly compared to Scorsese's Jesus), the three films provide perfect ground for the comparison: Scorsese' s Jesus is previewed vividly in Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle, and (the substituted) Charlie.

Like Jake and Charlie, Jesus is plagued by awareness of his own sins, and constantly tries to repent. He tells Jeroboam, "I'm a liar, a hypocrite. I'm afraid of everything. I don't ever tell the truth — I don't have the courage. When I see a woman, I blush and look away. I want her but I don't take her — for God, and that makes me proud. And then my pride ruins Magdalene. I don't steal, I don't fight, I don't kill — not because I don't want to, but because I'm afraid." He considers it his own fault that Mary Magdalene hates God, and begs her for forgiveness. "I know the worst things I've done have been to you," he tells her.

Jesus seeks atonement in self-punishment. He explains in voice-over how he attempted to dispel the voices he hears in his head: "First I fasted for three months. I even whipped myself before I went to sleep. At first it worked. Then the pain came back, and the voices." Jesus invites punishment by making crosses for the Romans and carrying them to the crucifixion site, enduring the scorn of other Jews. "You're a disgrace!" shouts Judas, after throwing one of the crosses to the floor. "You're a Jew killing Jews! You're a coward! How will you ever pay for your sins?" After this chiding, Jesus binds himself with a belt of inward-facing metal prongs and carries the cross for a crucifixion party. Jews throw stones at him, Mary Magdalene spits in his face, yet he continues. He endures a personally prescribed punishment ritual in the same way Charlie does when holding his hand over flames, or as Jake does by allowing opponents to pummel him in the ring.

Also like Charlie and Jake, Jesus endures a series of punishments which leads to one final "big punishment" which indicates his success at redemption (for Charlie, the end punishment is being shot, after enduring Johnny Boy's irresponsibilities; for Jake, it is ending as a pathetic stage performer in a dark nightclub after allowing himself to be beaten in the ring). After struggling with the various courses of action suggested to him (and enduring the ridicule and apparent failure they bring him, as when he announces his divinity to the men of Nazareth, or leads the aborted attack on the temple), Jesus realizes and accepts the fact that he must be crucified. Unlike Charlie and Jake, however, whose ends suggest that they have not been redeemed and are to remain in a symbolic hell (the streets for Charlie, the nightclub for Jake), Jesus is granted redemption. The "hallucination" he experiences on the cross assures him that his actions have been worthwhile, that he is redeemed and destined for heaven as the son of God. (If this sequence is not a hallucination, as could be argued, then he is most definitely assured of his divinity, recalled to the cross years later by an omnipotent God who has forgiven his previous failure.)

If Jesus' desire to repent is previewed in Charlie and Jake, then his tumultuous search for the proper course of action is previewed in Travis Bickle. Both Travis and Jesus adopt and abandon several different roles in their search for purpose. The roles they experiment with are remarkably similar. Travis first attempts to become a romantic lover, unsuccessfully courting Betsy. He abandons this course (one of "love") for a more violent one, and attempts to become a political assassin and kill Palantine. Failing at this, he decides to become a rescuing hero, the suicidal "savior" of young Iris. Likewise, Jesus first adopts a plan of love. He stops the mob from killing Mary Magdalene — Cf. Travis on Betsy: "They can not touch her" — and tells them to "love one another." After he returns from the desert the second time — the desert being to Jesus what the "Times Square flophouse" is to Travis: a secluded retreat where he spends a great amount of time alone and gets his new "visions" — he opts for a much different approach. "I'm not inviting you to a celebration," he tells the apostles. "I'm inviting you to a war." He then tells the men of Nazareth that "there will be a flood and there will be a fire; everything will be destroyed." Similarly, says Travis, "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." Jesus changes his course once more after the aborted attack on the temple: He is to be crucified willingly, without resistance, in order to save humankind. "We're bringing God and Man together," he tells Judas. "They'll never be together unless I die." Compare that with Travis' note to Iris before the attempt to kill Palantine — "By the time you read this I will be dead" — and his suicidal hand gesture after the final bloodbath, a gunfight which results in the reunion of Iris and her parents. Both characters follow the same progression through love, war, and martyrdom.

Jesus also indicates that, like Travis, he would like to "become a person like other people." His confession to Jeroboam expresses his desire to have women, steal, fight, and kill. He further expresses his desire to be a normal human to Lazarus' sisters. "Don't you miss all this?" asks Mary. "Having a home, a real life?" "I admit it," replies Jesus, "I'd like it, but I'll never have it." He also admits to Mary Magdalene that he "wanted her" when they were children.

Like Travis, however, and also like Charlie and Jake, Jesus can only access "normal life" through its reproduction as image. For Jesus, this reproduction is in the form of his hallucination on the cross, in which he fantasizes about married life with Marry Magdalene and Lazarus' sisters. For Travis, normal life is depicted on television soap operas and greeting cards. Charlie and Jake access normalcy only through home movies (in Mean Streets these appear with the film's opening credits, in Raging Bull they accompany the montage of Jake's success in the ring).

Harlan Jacobson is quite correct in labeling Scorsese's Jesus a typical Scorsese character. The recognition of personal sin, the desire for a personally prescribed penance, and the struggle to define the right course of action are characteristics of many Scorsese characters, and Jesus fits among them perfectly.

See also: Scorsese's Enunciative Presence

Notes 1 & 2: Jocobson, Harlan. "You Talkin' to Me?" Film Comment, Sept./Oct. 1988, p. 32.


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