The Last Temptation of Christ

By total coincidence, my Palm Sunday choice of entertainment is Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film of The Last Temptation of Christ.

I was in the audience opening night at the Ziegfeld in New York. To get into the theater, you had to walk past Christian fundamentalist protestors, waving signs and shouting epithets.

The movie, back then, seemed heartfelt but a little weird. It was weird to be a Downtown New York hipster and see Willem Dafoe playing Jesus. It was weird to hear Judas talk with a tough-guy Brooklyn accent behind his big putty nose, see fellow Downtown hipster John Lurie play an apostle, see Harry Dean Stanton play Paul. It was weird to see Mary Magdelene naked, having sex, it was weird to hear stories you’ve memorized in Jacobean English be translated into contemporary American English. It seemed a little arch, a little self-conscious, a little too 80s. It seemed a little long, a little confusing, occasionally obvious, occasionally very very strange.

Repeated viewings takes all the weirdness away, turns them into mere stylistic choices. Bold choices, but secondary to the script and the story, as it should be, as it must be. Now the movie seems like a very important, deeply moving human drama about the divine in all of us. In fact, I’ll go further than that; if this movie had been around when I was a kid, I might actually believe in the story of Jesus now. Scorsese’s Jesus is approachable, human, confused, upset, doubtful and given to temptation. Hey, that’s me! But, “Owl Creek Bridge”-like, he wakes up from his dream and presses on, knows that the divine is possible when you realize that life isn’t the most important thing in the world.

I am also struck by the similarities between Jesus and another Willem Dafoe character, Norman Osborne.

Both characters hear voices. Jesus hears God, Norman hears the Green Goblin.
Both come with signiture identifying props. Jesus has a cross and nails, Norman has a glider and hand grenades.
Jesus is a simple carpenter who becomes a powerful savior, Norman is a simple arms manufacturer who becomes a powerful villain.
Jesus is betrayed by Judas and killed by the Romans, Norman is betrayed by the board of Oscorp and is killed by Spider-Man.
Both Jesus and Norman are scorned and mocked as crazy people.
Both Jesus and Norman are buff and ripped.
Both of their stories were written by great Jewish writers.
Norman is tempted by a mask, Jesus is tempted by Satan, who wears many masks.
Jesus has a scene with David Bowie, Norman has a scene with Macy Gray.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.
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16 Responses to “The Last Temptation of Christ”
  1. urbaniak says:

    I’ve had a similar response through the years. When I first saw it my reaction was “Huh. Okay.” I’ve seen it a few times since then and each time I like it more and more. In fact, now I love it. I recently saw Dreyer’s classic silent “Joan of Arc” and it’s doing a similar thing. Which is saying “Okay, what would it actually be like to be a real human being who is (or believes they are) touched by God? Let’s examine that.” So many “Bible movies” are theatrical pageants full of declarative acting. Dreyer and Scorcese both say: “Wait a minute. Weren’t these supposed to be real people?”

    • Todd says:

      Now that I think about it, I was watching the movie today and badly needing to get back to work, but I kept thinking “I want to find out what happens next!” Yes, that’s right, I’m watching an adaptation of the most told story in the Western world, and I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what ol’ Jesus would do next.

  2. eronanke says:

    I just watched this movie a month or two ago, (Netflix>all), and, not being a religious person, took the movie with a grain or two of salt. It was very interesting how Willem took the character and humanized him in a way I wasn’t expecting. I enjoyed Judas and Paul just as much – they were not biblical archetypes, they were *people*.

    That being said, how dare you compare David Bowie to Macy Gray? Heathen!

  3. craigjclark says:

    Jesus is a simple carpenter who becomes a powerful savior, Norman is a simple arms manufacturer who becomes a powerful villain.

    If nothing else makes me laugh today, this one line will be sufficient.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi Todd

    After writing an unbelievably funny, if ridiculously long comment to you that was promptly deleted in the “spell check” process, I have decided to write a less witty, and more direct message. Hi, Todd, this is Alisa from Carbondale…(You worked w/ my husband Keith at BK (one veal parmesan..and that’s it…) and you and I performed at the same open mike nights.) We have wondered what you were up to, and through the miracle of “google” were able to find out. (If we hadn’t been such buffoons we could have looked at our son’s copy of Antz and found out years ago…) Congrats on your success! You deserve it. I’d love to hear from you some time… Take care! Alisa C. (ok…so now, I’m afraid to do the preview and spell check…so ignore all typos please.)

    • Todd says:

      Re: Hi Todd

      Hey, Alisa. I HATE when long, funny, well-written posts get deleted for some stupid reason. My sympathies.

      My memories of my Burger King days are foggy. All that special sauce went to my head. What was your act at the open mike nights? Was that at the New Yorker, or one of the more transitory open mike things I participated in?

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Hi Todd

        It’s hard to believe that anyone could forget life in Carbondale, IL (all sarcasm intended). I’ll attempt to jog your memory a bit. When I performed, it was with my maiden name, Alisa Lilly (what an antiquated term….makes me feel like my marriage arrangements involved the transfer of goats.) I did stand-up at the New Yorker (actually…the NEW New Yorker….but let’s not split hairs) and at a few of the other occasional spots, like TJ McFly’s and a steak place with a long forgotten name. Most of my jokes were standard girl comic stuff….bad dates, dieting…the usual. (“I met a nice guy at the laundromat last week. We hit it off and he asked if I’d like to go for a spin….I said “sure” and he threw me in the dryer.” etc.) This was during the time that Dana Nelson (another Burger Kingite) did his juggling on a unicycle to the Rolling Stones. To this day, I can’t hear “I can’t Get No Satisfaction” without an incredible urge to pick up an orange, a banana and a bowling ball.

        Actually, the first time that we met was at a little place called “Just Desserts”, upstairs on “the island” in C’dale. I did a little bit of improv with you…. not much. I don’t know if the group folded or if my participation in it ended. What I do remember is being cast as a human egg during conception, with a variety of sperm…aka men in Saran Wrap circling around me while I was in the throws of ectasy. Perhaps having an 18 year old virgin playing an orgasmic egg was a bit of a casting error. Bet you didn’t do that again!

        As for Keith…he was an assistant manager at BK..short, dark hair, glasses, with sort of a Clark Kent-ness about him. You actually were instrumental in our introduction. We had decided to name our first born “Stewart” in honor of one of your plays as an act of gratitude. But when it came down to it, we went with Jonathan. Sorry ’bout that.

        So…does any of this ring a bell? Alisa

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Hi Todd

          Wow, okay, cool.

          Dana Nelson I remember because one day he didn’t show up for work and we found out that he had literally run off and joined the circus. Ringling Brothers was in town that week and he had gone to audition for them, they had accepted him and he was off to Clown College in Florida. He was with Ringling Brothers for a long time and now has a show doing magic in a Vegas Casino (I just found out by Googling him).

          One of the reasons I often think of Dana is that the whole bunch of us were profiled in one of the Carbondale papers and the picture they chose for the piece was of Dana juggling, you know, a bunch of things.

          The writer of that piece had asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I had said that I wanted to write and direct my own movies, you know, like Woody Allen does. This got translated in the paper as “Todd Alcott wants to make Woody Allen-type movies.” That error haunted me for years, that people would think that I actually held as an ambition to make “Woody Allen-type movies” (whatever that means) Then, what do you know, I get a major studio deal and what happens, it involves writing a part for Woody Allen.

          I too strongly associate Devo’s recording of “Satisfaction” with Dana on his unicycle, but also I can’t hear Little Richard sing “Baby Face” without thinking of Dana juggling doll parts (including, yes, a baby face).

          Keith I remember vividly, because he’s the only person I’ve ever seen kill a mouse by stomping on it. He might not remember the incident because he probably stomps on mouses several times a day, but there we were in the back of the BK, opening a package of buns at eye level, and a mouse had gotten into the package. It made a break for it, running along my arm and jumping to the floor. I, of course, citified dandy that I am, squealed like a girl and jumped up on a chair, but Keith, as though drawing his next breath, stomped on the mouse like it was a cockroach. Bang, end of problem.

          I may have participated in the “egg and sperm” sketch, but the writing sounds more like the work of John Zakhar. He was always more about the visual gags. Good lord, were you actually a member of Cut Rate Comedy at some point?

          Every now and then I hear from John, and once I got a note from Dave Attmore, the proprietor of Just Desserts. Do you remember Toni Thompson? She was a member of Cut Rate for a while, and went on to a career in radio. I heard from her once not that long ago, and also saw her on an infomercial oh, twenty-five years ago now.

          Christ, we’re old now.

          I Googled you to try to find a picture to jog my memory, but the closest I came was a photo caption for an anti-Bush rally in Carbondale. The caption came through but the photo did not.

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: Hi Todd

            Well, what a heart-warming Keith story! That is, perhaps, the most disturbing thing I’ve ever heard. (I am a therapist now, so I don’t say this lightly… ok..a little bit lightly) Ick!

            I googled Dana also. I saw a little clip of his act. Parts of it seemed very familiar. You are right about the version of “Satisfaction” being Devo and not the Stones. I thought the song never sounded quite as “jerky” when I heard it years later. That would explain that. We visited with Dana once when Ringling was in St. Louis. (We were living there at the time…K had been transferred with Burger King.) I wondered if he was still in the clown business. I wasn’t sure how long a clown career generally lasts.

            And yes, you had the right person in the protest article. I was shocked at the amount of info about me floating around cyberspace….i.e.-that I participated in at least one protest, who’s political campaign I was involved in (given the protest story, I bet you can guess who’s campaign I WASN’T involved in…), my 2003 salary at the university, the details of a law suit I was involved in… Pretty alarming really. But, not as alarming as it would have been if you had been able to find a picture of me. No one needs that kind of trouble… Actually, if I get a chance, I’ll scan an old (circa 1983) photo so you can maybe figure out who in the heck I am. I’m not sure what else to tell you about me… You came to a couple of my performances with a girlfriend and gave me some feedback. The only two of your observations I remember were “I didn’t know you had cleavage” (I guess I hadn’t noticed that either…) and “Has anyone ever told you that you have David Bowie eyes?” (This was not actually accurate…I think he has eyes that are two different colors. Mine just have two different sizes of pupils.) My short “career” in stand-up ended the night that about 25 international students and my very conservative new mother-in-law watched a performance at “Prime Time” (that’s the name of the steak place I couldn’t remember earlier…) I wasn’t sure if the blank looks on the audience member’s faces were because of a language/cultural barrier or because I was, in fact, not funny. (Yes, I am willing to entertain that very distinct possibilty.) But either way, I guess I lost my nerve that night. Stand-up is a lot of fun when the audience is with you. But when they aren’t, it’s an incredibly lonely place to be. Every now and then I have an urge to try an open mike night again, just for the hell of it. But I doubt that I ever will. I might dabble in writing one of these days when life settles down. I’d love to do stuff for another comedian. I could sit in the audience and appreciate the laughs and disassociate myself from the awkward silences….(“must be her timing, certainly not the material!”) But for now, I’m content to use my sense of humor with clients. Actually, it turns out that being funny is helpful as a therapist. It sort of helps normalize the human condition and gives people permission to laugh at themselves or the crazy circumstances they find themselves in.

            I’m sure Keith will get a kick out of hearing the mouse story. (He’s living in St. L. and I’m living in Carbondale for the moment. He took a position there in November and I stayed here so our son didn’t have to switch schools his senior year.) He will also get a kick out of the fact that you have no memory of who I am. But, if schmooshing mice is what it takes to be remembered, then I am quite comfortable with my anonymity.

            • Todd says:

              Re: Hi Todd

              The girlfriend is long gone, but I remember taking her to see your act. I don’t remember the cleavage line (I probably didn’t know anyone had cleavage) but the David Bowie line sounds like me.

              (David Bowie, in addition to having two differently colored eyes, has one eye with a fixed pupil, due to an illness he suffered as a child. It left one eye blue and one green, and one pupil completely dilated. He has no depth perception and, in the early part of his career, was in constant danger of falling off the edge of the stage. I don’t know what the story is with his teeth, except he’s British.)

              Shortly after critiquing your performance, I moved to New York and took up standup. I lasted six weeks. The world of standup is brutal and unpleasant and I wasn’t cut out for it.

              • Todd says:

                Bowie update

                Mea culpa: David Bowie was punched in the eye as a child. He did not have an illness. My apologies to Mr. Bowie, his childhood assailant, and eye-disease-inducing bacteria.

              • Anonymous says:

                Re: Hi Todd

                I’m glad you have recovered partial memory of who I am. Thanks for clarifing the David Bowie thing. Then you were correct…I do, in fact, have David Bowie eyes. Though they are both the same color (blue) one of my pupils doesn’t react to light which is why they are often different. I don’t know the origin of this, I just noticed it one day.

                I certainly understand the brutal stand-up thing. If crowds are tough in C’dale, I’m sure N.Y. is much worse. I also imagine that the comedians are pretty competative too. But this writing gig seems to be working well for you. How did you get started in that?

                By the way, in terms of an update on us…Keith got into the Grocery biz and is now a Grocery Manager at a natural food grocer in St. L. (Wild Oats Markets). We had our son Jon in 1988, I went to grad school and I’m a clinical social worker. Most of my work has been as a therapist. I gather from your posts that you have kids. How’s that going for you?

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Hi Todd

          Hi Alisa. It rings a bell with me (the impresario formerly known as Dave Attmore).

          Hi Todd. Still brilliant, I see. 😉

          Next time you’re in C’dale, say ‘hi’.