The meaning of Scorsese—and a discussion about one of his two good movies
excellent and illuminating article
on movie director Martin Scorsese at the American Conservative Union website, Spencer Warren gets at Scorsese’s counter-cultural, anti-American, destructive essence, still unregenerate after all these years,
with the exception of just two movies, The Age of Innocence
(1993), and, in my opinion though not in Mr. Warren’s, one other made in 1988 (see below). In examining the almost unrelieved and apparently ever-increasing violence and depravity of Scorsese’s films, Warren doesn’t just condemn. He has a higher vision of the cinematic art and of culture that you will find in no other movie reviewer writing today. He is the traditionalist film critic of our time. But now that I think of it, are there any others? The American Conservative
, supposedly a paleoconservative magazine, has as its movie reviewer a biocentric material reductionist, while the discussions of movies at National Review
and National Review Online
are—well, the less said the better.
My only disagreement with the article is that Warren shares the general conservative horror at The Last Temptation of Christ. Conservatives have terribly and unfairly misunderstood this terrific movie. It’s not a sick and blasphemous version of the Gospels, because it’s not a version of the Gospels at all, as the movie explains right at the start. Rather it brilliantly uses the story of Christ to tell its own story of a spiritual quest. The very things about the movie that offend Warren, such as the degraded, backwater Galilee and the New York accent of Peter as played by Harvey Keitel, not to mention the extreme neuroticism of Jesus, work perfectly within Scorsese’s vision. See Carol Iannone’s article at First Things that goes beyond the conventional conservative view of the movie. Here also are a few letters to the editor mostly supporting Iannone’s article.
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Rachael S. writes:
You say: “It’s not a sick and blasphemous version of the Gospels, because it’s not a version of the Gospels at all, as the movie explains right at the start. Rather it brilliantly uses the story of Christ to tell its own story of a spiritual quest.”
I don’t think it is possible to “use” the story of Christ to tell another story. One could do that with mythological figures because they represent aspects of other universal things; Jesus Christ does not inhabit the same plane as Odin, Hercules, Superman, etc.; he was, is, and will always be, and should be immune from ordinary considerations of artistic self-expression; I think that treating him in any way that scandalizes the faithful is akin to flag-burning, though far worse.
The movie, if misunderstood, is understandably misunderstood. And Spencer Warren makes the point that Scorsese treated religion reverentially in the movie Kundun (but only because the religion was Buddhism). Why could Scorsese not do that with The Last Temptation of Christ? Two things I remember from the movie; Jesus was not fully aware of his divine nature until near the end of his life, and the scene where Jesus apparently has sex with Mary Magdalene.
Certainly these images, and the thoughts they evoke, are the opposite of what we should be thinking and feeling when we are dealing with the majesty of Jesus. But it would be difficult for such a man as Scorsese, who has helped create many lasting images of degradation, to approach the cross with reverence (in film).
Well, let’s remember that the movie was based on Kazantzakis’s novel and followed it reasonably closely. So by Rachael’s standard, no one could should be allowed to make a movie of The Last Temptation of Christ.
Another thing that the film’s critics miss is that it’s not just Jesus’ marriage with Mary Magdalene that departs from the Gospels, but virtually everything in the movie. Other than having a central character named Jesus who has a follower named Peter and who knows a fallen woman named Mary Magdalene and who goes through some temptations in the desert and who is ultimately crucified, all the rest of the main events of the movie, including the several stages of Jesus’ spiritual journey (which comprise the main substance of the movie), have nothing to do with the Gospels. Jesus in the Gospels is perfect man and perfect God, the master of reality. Jesus in the movie is a pathetic, tortured, neurasthenic seeker. He is very ordinary humanity in which something higher gradually grows. The fact that the entire plot of the movie is so different from the Gospels ought to make it clear to anyone that this movie is not a movie of the Gospels.
The idea strikes me as wrong that the greatest story ever told, the central drama of human history, can never be touched, that a creative artist cannot make his own variations on that story, so long as he makes it clear that he is not presenting that story but his own version of it. Are we that weak and vulnerable that our Christian life will be harmed by a fictionalized version of the Gospels that expresses an artist’s individual vision?
I saw the movie twice, the first time when it originally came out, and I couldn’t stand it, I was repelled by everything about it.
Then I saw it on video a few years later and saw it with completely different eyes. I saw that it was not an absurd and obscene trashing of the Gospels, but an expression of Kazantzakis’s and Scorsese’s own vision. For me, the test of a book or a movie is, does it hold together, does it work? And for me, TLTOC worked.
“Well, let’s remember that the movie was based on Kazantzakis’s novel and followed it reasonably closely. So by Rachael’s standard, no one could should be allowed to make a movie of The Last Temptation of Christ.”
I am not saying no one should be allowed, I am saying that a properly devout person would not spend the time or energy on an idea using Christ’s name that is so obviously going to need qualification in order not to offend against the sacred person of Jesus.
“Are we that weak and vulnerable that our Christian life will be harmed by a fictionalized version of the Gospels that expresses an artist’s individual vision?”
Faith can often be vulnerable, and human beings are weak. From your website I have absorbed the message that there are things that trump an artist’s individual vision (translated: self-expression); I think avoiding scandalizing the faithful is one of those things.
As I explained, I was highly scandalized by the movie the first time I saw it. Then I saw what the movie was doing, and I wasn’t scandalized. I felt it was an original conception that worked. And I admire that. So while I understand that many people were scandalized, my own experience of being scandalized and then realizing that the scandal came from a misunderstanding of the movie, gives me a different point of view.
There are so many things in the world that are horrific attacks on Christianity. I don’t see Last Temptation as one of them. I see it as a sincere work of the imagination, expressing the author’s own spiritual vision and answering his question: What if the divine mission of Jesus was carried out, not by the perfect man, but by a flawed, conflicted, weak man, by someone like ourselves? That was Kazantzakis’s idea that gave birth to his book. Is it Christianity? No. But neither is it an attack on Christianity.
Kazantzakis can’t invent his own spirituality, can he? The spirituality that says a weak, conflicted man could ultimately save himself (or others) is the germ of not needing God in the first place. It is false and squalid; God already had something much better in mind. Plenty of authors have used this royalty-free idea throughout the years without having to reinvent it.
I took a look at the Iannone article again, to revive my memory of the movie. Jesus in the movie doesn’t save himself. In the movie, God is a reality. God is pulling Jesus toward him. The whole thing is about Jesus’ acceptance of his sacrifice.
A reader writes:
I just read Spencer Warren’s article on Scorsese. It’s beautiful! I don’t agree with everything (although I do with most of it), but it’s beautifully written and beautiful in thought. What a great contribution Spencer Warren has to make.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 23, 2007 11:09 PM | Send