And so we settled into our new home in unit 207 of Su Casa Apartments, which didn’t take too long. I shook out my duffel bag on the closet floor, stacked my art supplies on the shelf, and set my typewriter on the box that previously held my paints and pastels. I propped my two guitars against a wall, and we tossed a thin foam mattress onto the bedroom floor.
Jody hung her clothes in the closet and we were done: Hollywood residents with 300 dollars and zero jobs between us. So we went to the movies.
That summer Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ caused the American South to lose its shit. Loving Christians picketed, protested, and condemned not only Scorsese to eternal damnation but anyone who dared to see, project, or defend the film. Last Temptation apparently possessed some magical superpower that leeched a lifetime of faith from a viewer’s soul in its 164 minute running time. The film was a sacrilege, a heresy guaranteed to cause spiritual insanity, metaphysical shingles, and moral dyspepsia. According to its detractors, The Last Temptation of Christ was the cinematic Hitler, or at least Rockwell. No theater in Savannah or Spartanburg dared run such a dangerous film, but we were in the big city now. We crowded into a theater the size of a living room, the lights dimmed, and Peter Gabriel’s score filled the darkened room.
That soundtrack remains in my power rotation 25 years later, or more precisely my low power rotation. During my bouts of insomnia I play Passion on repeat, sometimes greeting daylight through the blinds while “It Is Accomplished” weeps and bleeds in my damaged ears. I’ve made love to that score, painted to it, written, moped, and entertained death.
The first time I reached any kind of meditative state I was listening to Passion in bed nude and uncovered, flat on my back like a gingerbread man, no sensory input but the music. I felt like I was floating at a perfect ambient temperature, my entire body imbued with a sort of post-coital satisfaction: affection and ecstasy, love for everyone and everything. For years after that I tried to get back there, but I am a shitty practitioner of anything other than scattering words across the page like lines of hungry black ants.
How good can a Jesus movie be when Harvey Keitel plays Judas and David Bowie makes a cameo as Pontius Pilate? Willem Dafoe makes a great white Jesus, though, with his lean body, angular face, and earnest menace. A good cinematic Jesus should be able to work up a rage as well as love and kindness, after all. My pick for best supporting performance goes to Barbara Hershey’s bush, in which the chosen people wandered lost for many years.
I didn’t see the same movie that the fundamentalists saw; in fact, I’m not sure that I saw the film that Scorsese made. My Last Temptation was the story of a son born for no other reason than to satisfy his father; a boy without a life of his own. That was his struggle: Do I live my own life or the one that my father demands? What can I do to please him? Why is he so hard on me? You think you have problems? My pops wants me nailed to a board because he loves you. Talk about a mind fuck. All I want is just once to hear, “Hey, good job, Jesus,” but no, it’s always “Go wander off into the desert and starve. When I need you I’ll send a snake with a message. And stay away from Barbara Hershey’s bush. That’s not for you.”
The cornerstone of western civilization is the story of a shitty dad and the adoring son who dies trying to please him. Consummatum Est — it is finished. At least that’s what I saw that afternoon with the lights low and the music loud, and I sobbed.
We made our way back to Hollywood through Beverly Hills, Jody’s Cordoba coughing and sputtering among the Porsches and Ferraris that weren’t moving any faster than us. “We have to find jobs,” I said. “I’m going to that record store we saw on Vine Street.”
“Drop me off on Melrose and I’ll try the restaurants,” she said.
The store was named Music Plus, half record store half video rentals. It was a freestanding shop near the corner of Sunset and Vine. Across the street stood a McDonald’s and just a few doors down from that was the “Welcome to the Jungle” Greyhound Station. Around the corner was the Cinerama Dome and a Fatburger. Just up the street were the Capitol Records tower, the Hollywood Palladium, a radio station, and a television studio where several sitcoms were filmed live in front of a studio audience.
I asked the guy behind the counter for an application and filled it out on the spot. “Can I see the manager?” I asked.
“I’m the assistant manager. I’ll take that, thanks.” He slid my application under the counter.
“Aren’t you going to look at it?”
“We’ll be in touch.”
“I really think you should look at my experience,” I said.
He smiled the “if it will get you out of here” smile and retrieved my application. “Oh, you have a lot of record store experience,” he said.
“Yes I do.”
“Hold on a minute, come with me.” We walked to the back room. “Irene, meet James,” he said. “Irene’s our manager.” Ten minutes later I was a $5.50 an hour employee of Music Plus.
Jody landed a job, too: nine bucks an hour as hostess for a fancy restaurant down on Melrose Avenue. After the movie we were down to $275, but it finally looked like we were going to make it. I wondered whether my father would be proud.
I can’t remember when, whether it was during the prime release week or later, but Last Temptation was actually shown in Savannah at the Oglethorpe Mall theaters. As we approached, (Bob, myself and a few others) there they were – the protesters with their signs and “You’ll go to Hell if you see this movie” chants. They weren’t allowed to protest directly in front of the theater entrance, so they chose to occupy the sidewalk that led to it. When we were weaving past them one asked if we were going to see the movie. No one in our group said anything so I spoke up that we were. And then I was informed that I was going to Hell. As protesting goes, I’m for it. But one should be informed with all of the facts before taking a stand – for instance, having actually watched a movie that you are protesting. When I asked the protester if he had seen the movie he replied that he had not and never would. I then asked how is it that he could protest a movie that he hasn’t even seen. No answer. So I told him that maybe he should before going through the trouble of making a protest sign. Didn’t matter. I was still going to Hell.
I thought the movie was great, but then I love everything Dafoe has ever done. The sets, scenery, music, story – all of it was beautiful. I saw nothing wrong with the movie at all. Crucifixion must have been a horrible way to die, and who really knows what goes on in someone’s mind in that plight. “Father, why have you forsaken me?” It made me think.