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Posts Tagged ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about E.T. is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun Times

“The image of E.T. emerging from his mobile tomb summons a storehouse of symbols that mark the presence of God and divine miracle.”
Roy M Anker
Catching Light

Hollywood has had an interesting dance with religious films over the years with various degrees of successes, failures and controversy. An abridged list includes The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Seven Years in Tibet, King David, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.

The biggest game changer being The Passion of the Christ. Oddly, the violent retelling of the crucifixion of Christ became the all time R-rated box office champ. Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar gamble eventually  paid a dividend of $600 million at the world-wide box office. Despite it’s predicted failure at the box office, in the year it was released (2004) it became the seventh highest grossing movie ever. (With the audience it found some would say it paved the way for films like The Book of Eli and The Blind Side.)

Speaking of The Passion, did you ever see the humorous studio notes Steve Martin wrote for the The New Yorker?:

Dear Mel,
We love,
love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights…Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud the more I like it.

But in general Hollywood has had much more luck dealing with stories that would be considered spiritual allegories. They tend to me less didactic, less overtly religious and less controversal, and generally better stories.  And the box office responds much better to them. Films I would put in this category are Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia,  Star Wars, and The Matrix. (Though it’s fair to say that not everyone is in one accord with the meanings of these films. But then again, how many different religions are there? Focus on something like separate protestant denominations and you’ll see the numbers climb into the the thousands. Getting people to agree is not that easy.)

In the spirit of Easter, one film that has been closely identified with the death and resurrection of Christ is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the movie,”essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

Written by Melissa Mathison (a self-described “ex-Catholic’) and directed by Steven Spielberg (raised Jewish in Anglo-Saxon suburbs) there has been much written about the spiritual aspects of E.T., but Spielberg has said (in Take 22; Moviemakers on Moviemaking) that, “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

So much detail went into the technical aspects of E.T. it would be hard to believe that Spielberg and Mathison were not at least aware of the spiritual parallels they were drawing on. (At least kicking around somewhere in Mathison’s Catholic-schooled subconscious in the eight weeks she took writing the first draft.) But I don’t think they were pandering to a Christian audience, in fact, when the movie first came out some Christian leaders were calling the film “new age.”

Spielberg and Mathison were simply trying to tell a story that would make a good movie, and in doing so tapped into their own upbringing (Spielberg has talked about his parents divorce and his longing for an imaginary friend), their spiritual upbringing, mixed with creative imagination, as well as a powerful death and resurrection theme that many associate with the cornerstone of the Christian faith. (Of course, Joseph Campbell would make the case that death and resurrection themes pre-date Christ, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.)

But in making E.T. the filmmakers made one of the most uplifting films ever and the one that the American Film Institute currently lists as the 25th greatest American film. Sitting nicely between Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove.

© 2010 Scott W. Smith



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“Movie storytelling is about redemption–the recovery of something lost or the attainment of something needed.”
                                                               Brian Godowa
                                                               screenwriter, To End All Wars 

“All main characters are wounded souls, and the stories we tell are merely an acting out of the healing process.”
                                                            
   Richard Krevolin 
                                                               Screenwriting From the Soul 

shaw

 

Director Martin Scorsese was once told by a priest friend that his films were “too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday.” In his films, characters like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) are wounded souls with no hint of redemption. No hope of resurrection. (Though the real life Jake LaMotta has said that the film changed his life.)

But there are plenty of films that somewhat mirror the Christ story of death and resurrection, of transformation or redemption, or even the concept of laying ones life down for another. Though one could argue there are similar themes throughout history (and Joseph Campbell does) it’s hard to miss the Christ metaphor in a film like Gran Tornio when Clint Eastwood is positioned in a Christ-like pose at the end of the film.

And it’s impossible to miss the Christ-like imagery of Tim Robbins on the poster of The Shawshank Redemption, taken from the climatic moment in the film when he emerges free from prison (death) on his way to paradise (life). 

Audiences never tire of stories of  transformation because I think that is one of the chief reasons we go to films. Yes, we want to be entertained, we want to eat popcorn, and we want to escape. But deep down inside we want to have purpose and meaning in our lives and art acts as a conduit to give structure to what often seems like a meaningless life. It points to the mysterious. 
                                    

 “Stories are equipment for living.”
                                          Kenneth Burke 

 “Stories are the language of the heart.”
                                          John Eldredge 

So while yesterday on Easter Sunday I pointed to the many films that actually portrayed Christ figures such as in The Greatest Story Ever Told, today I’ll point to films that show a Christ-like metaphor in their central characters, or have themes of transformation, sacrifice and/ or resurrection. (And like yesterday this is just a partial list, but the ones that seem to have lasting appeal.)

ET
The Lion King
Tron
On the Waterfront
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Sling Blade
Cool Hand Luke
Schindler’s List
The Natural
Babette’s Feast
Hoosiers
Cinderella
The Beauty & the Beast
An Officer and a Gentleman 
Tender Mercies 
Braveheart
Superman
Spiderman
Iron Man
The Matrix 

Roger Ebert has an interesting read called In search of redemption and talks about  the kind of films that made him want to be a film critic. He talks about films with “human generosity and goodness.” And he even closes with a nod to Juno.  

Now if you’d like to take a deeper look at spiritual side of films then Paul Schrader is your man and I recommend his book Transcendental Style in Film as he looks at the films of Ozu, Bresson and Dryer. Schrader is the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, The Mosquito Coast, and The Last Temptation of Christ. And he’s a graduate of Calvin College.

If you happen to be in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area tomorrow night (4/14/09) I will touch more on this in a talk I’m giving at Calvin College. Schrader is not Calvin’s only connection to Hollywood. Phil Oosrerhaus was an assistant to the Wachowski Brothers on The Matrix as well as an associate producer on the sequels. 

As I pointed out in Screenwriting from Michigan there is a lot going on there film-wise. There were 32 features shot there last year including Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I also look forward to giving a screenwriting talk there on Wednesday. 

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith


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