Saturday morning, and everything is dripping outside. A thunderstorm woke me up in the middle of the night, but the rain lulled me back to sleep almost immediately. I feel very rested this morning, which is a good thing. Today I am going to write and edit and clean and go to the gym; it’s been a while–I haven’t been to the gym since before the Tennessee Williams Festival, which is not only shocking but scandalous–and I have to make sure this mess of an apartment is under control. I also want to do some reading today; I am rather behind on the Short Story Project, and I really want to finish that Bryan Camp novel. (Preorder it, seriously.)
I reached the halfway point of the Scotty novel yesterday, which was both a relief and a little off-putting. It’s not very good so far, but it’s also a messy first draft; first drafts are supposed to be messy. This weekend i am going to reread it, as well as track the various plots while doing an outline of the first half; this will hopefully help me to catch mistakes and errors, and places where the story may have gotten off track. Sigh. The drudgery that must be done. It’s lovely to not be on a deadline, though, so I don’t that horrible pressure, that sense of time running out. I think that’s all part of the reason I have never felt satisfied with anything I’ve ever published; I always feel like I ran out of time.
So last night I watched the end of Jesus Christ Superstar, and then, bored, scrolled through all of my Apple TV apps until I found Red Dawn–not the remake, but the 1984 original–and thought, Hmmm, I wonder how this holds up, particularly in reading Molly Ringwald’s piece about The Breakfast Club, so I watched that, and have some thoughts. (And yes, I know it was remade recently, and perhaps that might be worth a watch at some point–Chris Hemsworth–but I was more curious to see the 1984 version as a time capsule of its original period).
So, Jesus Christ Superstar. I remember when it originally surfaced in the late 1960’s, a new take on the New Testament and the ubiquitous Christ story. It’s hard for people who weren’t alive during that time to understand how different the world was then than it is now; the changes that the 2016 election was a reaction to were beginning. Christians felt Jesus Christ Superstar was an abomination, a heresy, an attack on their faith; a modern day reinterpretation of the story, an attempt to make all the characters of the New Testament human was seen as an attack on their faith. Telling the story from the viewpoints of Judas and Mary Magdalen was even more offensive; the betrayer and the fallen woman? An attempt to justify and understand Judas, who committed the biggest crime in the history of the Christian faith? And well, the whore?
It was, regardless, incredibly popular; it made Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber stars (paving the way for everything they’ve done since; so in some ways we can blame Cats on Jesus), and the music was everywhere. “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” and “Superstar” played on Top 40 radio incessantly; even Helen Reddy recorded the former and had a hit with it. Ben Vereen was the original Judas and it made him a star. It was made into a film by Norman Jewison, which sparked more outrage and yet the soundtrack was a huge seller, with Yvonne Elliman playing the Magdalen again, with Carl Anderson as Judas and Ted Neeley as Jesus. I loved the film soundtrack–those vocals by Ted Neeley are intense–and listened to it all the time. I think I know the score by heart; but I also remember being criticized by classmates when I moved to Kansas for loving it so much.
I was rather dreading this live concert staging, to be honest; I like John Legend, but just wasn’t sure he had the vocal power to hit those intense notes. I also liked that they had cast a man of color as Jesus; Judas has always been a role for a man of color, and knowing that Brandon Victor Dixon, who’d played Burr on Broadway in Hamilton and Sara Bareilles was playing the Magdalen was reassuring. I didn’t watch it as it aired; we were watching something else Sunday evening, but I was following the live tweets and Facebooking, and the reviews were definitely mixed. But when I watched it myself, despite my misgivings and how much I associated the roles/vocals as already having been definitely performed, I thought it was very powerful and beautifully done.
Even as a child, certain tenets of Christianity, and the mentalities that went with it, made no logical sense to me (I know, trying to find logic and reason in religion is a fool’s game; which is why it’s called faith). The vilification of Judas, for example, never made sense to me. If Jesus is venerated, not just as the son of God but because his sacrifice made our salvation possible, didn’t it stand to reason that had he not be crucified our salvation through faith and Christ wouldn’t be possible? So, to me, it only made sense that Judas also should be venerated; without his betrayal the rest of it wouldn’t have happened. Likewise, the anti-Semitism reverberating through the century, based in the Jews being Christ-killers; if Christ hadn’t been crucified there would be no Christian faith, and no salvation.
No one I ever asked these questions of were ever able to give me an answer that made sense to me.
So, my watching Jesus Christ Superstar as an adult who no longer considers himself to be Christian was vastly different from the twelve-year-old who saw the film after church on a Sunday. As I watched this time, I was able to see it from a new perspective, a new appreciation of the story; how would people see something like this happening in their lives, in their reality today? Over the centuries Jesus’ Jewishness has been whitewashed out of him; images of the blond blue-eyed Jesus are everywhere (Ted Neeley in the original film is one of those great examples) and I also realized that all the fiction about the mythology of the Christ (and there are a lot of them, from Ben-Hur to The Robe to Quo Vadis and on and on and on; the enormously successful mid-twentieth century author Taylor Caldwell wrote enormous, bestsellers taken from these stories–Dear and Glorious Physician about Luke, Great Lion of God about Paul of Tarsus, and I, Judas) always played up the supernatural and religious aspects of the story; Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the very few I am aware of that actually tells the story from a human perspective. Who were these human beings, these apostles, who listened to the message of Jesus and saw religion and faith and the world in a new light? Who witnessed the events described in the contradictory gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?
To me, looking at the story from that perspective–“he’s a man, he’s just a man”–is a lot more interesting, and can provide fresh insight; make it relatable to newer generations. I always thought the resistance of organized Christianity to Jesus Christ Superstar, which made the story more accessible to younger generations, was kind of strange. But times, as I said, have changed. In 1970, the possibility of a live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar was unthinkable. And yet here we are today.
Red Dawn, in its 1984 original version, is a whole other ball of wax. And yet, as a historical document, watching it again now was an interesting experience. We forget the paranoia of the Cold War years, and people now in their thirties don’t remember the Cold War, the Soviet Union, the anti-Russia anti-Communist sentiment that was, in truth, the precursor to the prejudices of today. The fall of the Soviet Union and eastern European communism, the fear of world domination by Communism and the end of “Western freedom” as understood by Americans, was a serious thing; and while it heightened after the end of the Second World War, it existed since the Romanovs fell and the old Tsarist Russian empire became the USSR. Cuba was a huge part of that, too, and the anti-Castro hatred; a Soviet outpost just ninety miles from Florida, the fall of Central American countries under the sway of Cuban Communism…the geopolitical world of that time is incredibly hard to imagine today if you didn’t live through it, and even I forget…yet watching Red Dawn brought it all back vividly.
This is not to say it’s a good film, because it’s not. As a film it fails on many levels, not the least of which is acting and the script itself.
At the time of its original release, the movie was a big deal. People my age–early twenties, teenagers–made it into a hit, and also saw themselves as the characters in the movie, which even then I was all, yeah, right. (We always identify with the heroes in movies; we never see ourselves as the quislings.) The movie is about the outbreak of World War III and a Soviet invasion of the United States; it opens with Patrick Swayze dropping off his younger brother (an incredibly young Charlie Sheen) and his best friend (C. Thomas Howell) at the local high school. The score from the last football game is still up on the scoreboard; a loss for the local team, some good natured joshing about how it’s a disgrace and an embarrassment, the usual straight boy ribbing, and then it’s time for school. During History class soldiers start dropping in from the sky; when the African American teacher goes out to see what’s going on, he becomes the first casualty of the invasion (and my first thought was, of course the only black character in the movie is killed in the first five minutes). There is chaos, a group of the boys escape when Swayze comes back for them–why they drive past any number of commandos and soldiers who are killing everyone in sight and blowing shit up and aren’t targeted or killed themselves is move magic) and then rush out to hide out in the nearby mountains and forests, armed and dangerous, with no idea of what’s going on. Eventually two sisters join them–Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey–and again, there’s really not much development of the characters; ‘something happened’ to the Lea Thompson character which is never discussed, but it’s changed her. Eventually, the kids become the Resistance, calling themselves Wolverines after their high school mascot, fighting back against the invaders.
There’s also a rather telling shot in the opening of the film, where you see the bloodstained back of a pick-up truck, with a close up of the bumper sticker reading You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead fingers. The camera then pans down to the dead body holding a gun; a commando reaches down and literally pries the gun from the cold dead fingers.
Eventually, they hook up with an American soldier who teaches them strategy, tactics, and they become an impressive teen fighting unit; he also explains to them how it all happened (paraphrasing): “All our allies in Europe stayed out of it because they’ve forgotten how to fight especially when they’re not the ones being invaded” and “Cubans infiltrated the country, coming in through Mexico pretending to be refugees from Central America or workers, and were able to get into our bases, ready for the signal.”
You can connect all those dots for yourself. All I will say was I sat there, watching and listening to all of this, and was like, really? And they talk about Hollywood’s liberal agenda?
There’s also a scene where the invaders have lined up a bunch of Americans who refuse to be re-educated, to be machine gunned, and they start singing “America the Beautiful” just before the Wolverines take the invaders out.
I also found myself wondering if anyone in 1984 saw this film as problematic, but I also rather doubt it. I know all my friends thought it was amazing, imagined themselves as freedom fighters, etc.
I know I thought about writing a book about an invasion of the United States; a seed of an idea that over the years has encompassed many themes and realities. Rewatching Red Dawn when my imagination had already been triggered by Jesus Christ Superstar was an interesting experience.
But the most interesting thing was to see how much my own perspectives have changed over the last thirty or so years.
And now, to get some shit done.