Friday, February 28, 2014
Standing on the safe side
of the guard rail,
the teeming masses soon to become more rabid
than starved rats, mill about
temporarily still, like extras on a zombie movie.
Pressed against the gate, but open doors ahead
and prizes for the first. Even employees hide
until the initial run is over, afraid of frothing
madness, of errant elbows,
of hidden blades, like prison shanks,
punches muffled by heavy winter gloves,
and no holiday pay or hazard pay.
The gate opens, first a trickle, the very front
relieved as steel is removed for their faces,
then more, and more, and more,
an avalanche of screaming flesh,
as if escaping some biblical disaster.
I watch a woman, bundled against the cold,
fall underfoot, cradling her head; None stop.
When the stampede passes, she gets up, fresh
bruises forming around her face, and hobbles--almost
hops-- to enter, joining the others.
I pull my radio up, call the other cops.
They saw her too. We laugh. The melee
continues unabated. My friend brings me
hot cocoa. Would've preferred coffee.
We check the slip ties and extra cuffs,
freezing our asses off. How's that for holiday cheer?
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Growing up, my mother was rather restrictive of what films we were exposed to. This isn’t to say we were sheltered. Being a kid in the 80s and early 90s meant seeing the hyper-masculine films of Sly, Arnold, and their ilk. Action movies with big body counts were okay because the violence was fake. Films that dealt with sexuality and religion (and those with more visceral violence) were forbidden. One such film was Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Due to its stark, humanistic take on Christ, it remains one of the most controversial depictions of Christ, and one of my favorite films, even after my switch to atheism.
Scorsese’s films have always held a deep, emotional core in them. From Mean Streets to Raging Bull, the lead character is usually guilt-ridden and seeking some form of personal redemption. The guilt is tied into Scorsese’s staunch Catholic upbringing. The director openly stated he’d wanted to make a film about Christ’s life since childhood. It’s entirely possible that a filmmaker with Scorsese’s immense talent could have made a vivid, conventional Christ film. Instead he chose to approach the subject matter from a human (rather than divine) perspective.
The Christ character presented in Last Temptation is stripped of all grandeur and piety. Replacing those traits we are given a figure wallowing in self-doubt and visions he cannot control. He rejects these visions and his calling by collaborating with the Romans. His collaboration, as a carpenter, is make crosses for the crucifixion of condemned Jewish revolutionaries. This action ostracizes Jesus from his community and draws the condemnation of childhood friends Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus is frail, a human being truly suffering under the weight of a destiny he neither desires nor fully understands.
The doubt of one’s purpose in life is one of the profound aspects of the human experience. It’s often associated with the guilt one can experience for not living up to their potential. The Jesus character of this film suffers from crippling doubt throughout the film. The character becomes far more relatable to the audience because he experiences the same fears we face on a daily basis. Both Scorsese and Niko Kazantzakis (the author of the novel Scorsese adapted for the film) struggled with the conflicting images of Christ as presented in the Gospels. The common portrayal is of someone divine and human simultaneously. That combination could not be reconciled easily. On the one hand there is the supposedly divine mission; on the other hand, the normal human desire to love and be loved, to enjoy life’s bounty, and to have a family.
Much has been said and written about the ending sequence. Dafoe’s Christ is nailed to the cross, suffering greatly, and it is nearly his time to die. This moment is a human at his most desperate: the desire, born of our primordial past, to avoid suffering and prolong life. Then a beatific, golden-haired angel appears and tells him what he most wants to hear at that moment: you don’t have to die. It is the relief on Dafoe’s face that sells this moment, harkening back to his earlier protestations in Gethsemane.
The sequence that follows can be viewed as a dream, a supernatural reality, or the vivid hallucinations of a dying man. Christ marries Mary Magdalene, whom is implied to be something close to a childhood sweetheart. After her sudden death, he marries both Mary and Martha (the sisters of Lazarus) and raises a family with them. This is the titular last temptation: to not bear the weight of the world and live a simple life. It is an inversion of the Hero’s Journey.
Two events stick out from this sequence: the meeting with Paul and the deathbed confrontation with Judas. Christ meets Paul preaching in town while running errands with his family. Paul preaches his story of blindness and redemption, of the savior Jesus, who died and rose again. Naturally upset at being the focus of this man’s ravings, Christ upbraids the apostle. Paul’s response is one of the most direct and honest descriptions of religion I’ve ever encountered on film. He outright states that the truth about Jesus is not as important as the feeling the message creates in the audience. A better argument for the inherently dissonant nature of faith and religion could not be made.
The deathbed confrontation is a marvelous ending, which brings the relationship of these two characters to a head. Two different men speak openly with each other: Jesus, the unsure prophet; and Judas, the devoted revolutionary. The film (and the novel, although I haven’t read it completely) treat Judas Iscariot in a far better fashion that the canonical gospels do. Bear in mind that the novel and the film were produced long before the Gnostic Gospel of Judas became public knowledge. Rather than the reviled traitor of biblical lore, Last Temptation treats Judas as a firebrand, a warrior trying to free Israel from Roman occupation. The relationship between Judas and Jesus is shown to have gone back to childhood and the events of the film show a close bond grow between them, one based on genuine love and trust. Judas is shown as a reticent traitor, not wanting to betray his beloved friend and rabbi but understanding the necessity of the action.
It’s the devotion Judas shows throughout the film that makes his admonitions at the final confrontation so much more heartfelt and caustic. After listening to Jesus plead with him to commit betrayal, Judas is justifiably outraged to find his friend reneged on his obligation. It is Judas who reminds Christ of the necessity of the sacrifice, who reveals the golden-haired angel as Satan, and the Christ has led since the crucifixion removes all hope from the world. The penultimate scene where Dafoe crawls outside, in the midst of the Roman sacking of Jerusalem, and prays to return to the cross, shows us the regret and joy Christ is feeling in that moment. He makes allusions to himself being the prodigal son in his prayer, begging his father to return him to the cross.
I’m not a believer anymore. The concept of vicarious redemption is morally repugnant to me. But I enjoy a good story. The Last Temptation of Christ is a good story because it shows a human striving to meet the standards of the divine. Stories like this are ubiquitous in human culture. Scorsese and Kazantzakis managed to distill the mythic elements of the Christ narrative into someone more relatable, more human, and ultimately more praiseworthy.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Thursday, February 20, 2014
I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy the Patheos website. Few sites on the web give space to so many disparate points of view under one roof, so to speak. They have blogs for Atheists, Catholics, Progressive Christians, even Pagans. And they have a group of blogs devoted to the viewpoints of Evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christianity has, by and large for the last 30+ years, been closely associated with conservative values and the Republican Party. I don’t demonize Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives. As far as I’m concerned, some conservative ideas (such as limited government) appeal to me. But the Evangelical Christians I’ve encountered on the web have a tendency to write things that border on the absurd, if not running full-tilt into absurdity with all the volatility of a braying jackass.
Friday, February 14, 2014
I once asked a lover:
On a scale
1 being Breyer’s Vanilla
and 10 being a Cenobite,
where did I fall?
On nights I release control,
like taking my hands off the steering wheel,
and let her top, I’m a 4.
On nights I take control,
when I cruise through my passion,
I’m a 7.
On nights I disconnect,
when I drive idly but my foot pressed
to the accelerator,
I’m a 9.
I’m an unabashed geek. If you go to the essay D is for The Doctor, that should be plainly obvious. As the title of this essay suggest, I’m looking at Robocop, one of the gems of 1980s science fiction. A film that epitomizes the phrase “dark satire”, Robocop (and I’m referring to the first film only) has lost none of its excellent story beats in the intervening 20+ years since its release.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
I wasn’t going to write about this but given recent events, it seems like a good time.
I’m an addict.
I’ve been clean for going on 8 years now. That’s 2959 days since the last time I used any kind of illicit substance. 2959 days and counting. When addicts talk about their demons, they use the word “demon” because it’s the only word in English that conveys how insidious addiction is. We all have our little voices, the things our conscious minds tell us during our day. Sometimes, it’s innocuous things like “stand up straight”, “suck in your gut”, and “you should call that person”. For an addict like me, it’s like constantly standing at the top of a skyscraper looking over the edge. The voice says “Jump because you can fly”. For 2959 days, another voice chimes in immediately, “No, you can’t”. So far, the second voice has won out.
My greatest fear as an addict is that one day the voice encouraging me to fly will win out. Imagine standing at attention every day for a week straight. No sleep, no rest, just on your feet and fully aware every single day. That’s what life is like every day for an addict. Add in a depressive disorder that rears its ugly head up at least 3 or 4 times a year and you’ve got a recipe for interesting times. Some days are easier to handle than others. And there are some days, like the entire month of September of 2013, which test my resolve to stay clean.
Occasionally, I’ll drink, just to take the edge off. By occasionally I mean once every three or four months and even then it’s maybe three drinks over the course of seven or eight hours. Alcohol was once my drug of choice when it became the cheaper demon to purchase. Now, I can have alcohol in my home and not feel the immediate need to get hammered. Having a drink is a luxury I afford myself in order to give my demon a little taste, a little something to shut the fucker up long enough to get through the next few weeks. For some, total abstinence is needed to survive. I find those people to be among the most courageous. Russell Brand is someone I admire for his recovery and his campaigning for abstinence drug treatment plans.
There’s no cure for my demon. The only methods I know of to deal with it are to placate it or to lock it away. The only other option is to listen to it, take the jump, and let it convince you that when you hit the pavement below, you’ll bounce right off like Looney Tunes. But I won’t bounce. I’ll break and it won’t be me picking up the pieces. It’ll be my friends, my family by choice and my family by blood, which will have to pick up the pieces. That’s the reality my everyday life.