Monday, April 21, 2014

The Judas Question (Jesus Christ Superstar 2000)

So, as I'm sure most of you at least noticed, yesterday was Easter, one of the big two holidays in the Christian faith, next to Easter. Between the two of them they cover both the birth and death/resurrection of Jesus, and they've been the subject of countless movies, pop culture references, and even a few comics that I so don't recommend.

Of all of those movies and references and terrible comics, though, there is one version of the Easter story that I find the need to rewatch every year. It's not Passion of the Christ, which made me uncomfortable and felt a bit like torture porn. It's not The Last Temptation, which is just weird, and it's not the Jesus movie because reasons. It's not even Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter, which is a real movie that I have seen. In fact, I don't like any movie that tries to make Jesus into the protagonist of a typical Hollywood blockbuster. 

Why? I mean, I'm a Christian, so this should be totally my thing, right? As a Christian who is super obsessed with pop culture I should be one of those people who is absolutely rapturous every time a new religious movie comes out, overjoyed that for once my two passions get to merge.

The problem with that is twofold: in most cases, a religious movie is either theologically sound but badly made and kind of painful to watch, or wildly inaccurate but entertaining as hell. I know of very few films that manage to be both on point and watchable. It's hard.

It's doubly hard when you're trying to tell the Easter story too. Because this is the crux of our faith, that Jesus died and rose again to reconcile each one of us to God, and it is freaking ridiculously impossible to show that in a two hour movie. It's a theological concept so complex that most Christians I know have been wrestling with it their whole lives and will continue to do so - and we're the ones who actually believe it.

Why am I telling you all of this? Part of it is to explain why I don't review religious movies most of the time, but the other part is to tell you about a movie that I do love, and that I do think is important. Not because it's particularly spectacular to watch or has high production values or even has really on point acting all the time, and it's not the most theologically accurate movie out there by a long shot. But it is the one thing that I find to be really important in a movie about Easter and Jesus and my faith: It's honest.

The movie in question is Jesus Christ Superstar (the 2000 version), a filmed version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. It's not nearly as well known as the 1979 version, which featured a notably diverse cast and some of the weirdest film moments I've ever seen (including Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter), and the 2000 version is more of an avant-garde operetta than a traditional film. The sets are minimal, it's clearly all filmed on a stage, and the props are almost non-existent. There's no world-building, no budget, and very little to go on other than the actors and the songs themselves.

It's brilliant.

It's brilliant for a lot of reasons, but I would put the real reason why I love this movie as this: Jesus Christ Superstar is not a movie about Jesus. It's a movie about and from the perspective of Judas, the disciple that betrayed Jesus to his death and then killed himself. And that is the story that we actually need to hear.

It's not that the story of Jesus isn't important. I'm a Christian. Of course I think it's important. The point I'm making is that no one likes to talk about Judas, especially not in relation to Easter. We talk about Peter, and how he betrayed Jesus but was redeemed, about Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb, and we talk about Jesus risen, bringing back the glory. But we never talk about Judas, and I think that is a huge mistake.

Judas isn't the hero of this story for us, he's the villain. And like I always say, the best villains are the ones whose motivation we understand. Judas? He's a good villain. Arguably the best villain. Because I understand his motivation so well it kind of hurts. More than that, though, is the thing we absolutely have to remember. Judas is the villain to us, but he's the hero in his own head. And that makes a hell of a lot of difference.

And this movie finally addresses the real question that I think plagues a lot of us, Christian and non: Why did Judas do it? Was he just a dick, or was there something bigger going on?

The answer is, of course, obvious. There is always something bigger going on. And it matters.

(For the record, there are no spoilers in this article. You can't spoil something that happened two-thousand years ago and spawned a world religion.)

The movie opens on Judas (Jerome Pradon), singing to himself and the camera about how he's not sure what's going to happen with Jesus (Glenn Carter) and the disciples. He's worried that the movement has gotten too big, that Jesus is too full of himself, and that it's all going to come crashing down at any moment. He's scared - actually, he's terrified. And it's clear from here on that this is Judas' story more than anything. We see everything through his eyes. Everything that happens is yet another portent of doom. And Jesus? He doesn't look so good in this version.

This version's Jesus is a mewling, whiny diva, who swoons off after yelling about how they'll all be sorry and no one will remember him when he's gone. This is kind of offensive, actually, until you remember that all of this is from Judas perspective, and he is not a reliable narrator. So everything that happens is skewed through Judas' lens.

And Judas' real problem isn't that Jesus' followers are getting out of control, which they are, or that Mary Magdalene (Renee Castle) is kind of sort of in love with Jesus and he just can't have that because she's a grody girl, though that is a subplot, or even that Jesus won't listen to his complaints. Judas' problem throughout the film is that he doesn't trust Jesus. Not even a little bit. 

That's it. This whole movie and all its sprawling musical numbers, right down to the devastating death and intense retribution that Judas enacts on himself can be blamed on one simple fact: Judas doesn't trust Jesus. Not with the ministry, and especially not with himself.

So Judas betrays him. Oh, first he tries reasoning with Jesus, telling him to pack it in and run, and then he tries showing Jesus how much his followers have gone off the map (which to be fair, they have, and the scene where Simon leads them all in joyful dance while they wield automatic weapons is one of the scariest scenes of the film). Finally, when none of that seems to work, he turns to the nuclear option: handing Jesus over to the authorities for his own good. Because if Jesus won't stand down, someone needs to put him down before he starts a war.

You know, I think there is a strong possibility that Judas never really got what this was all about.

And in a very real way, I think that's why we need this movie. It's not just another retelling of passion week, because we don't actually need that. I personally don't think there is a better version than what you can find in the gospels, because whatever you believe, those were written by the people who actually cared and were there and probably had very strong feelings about the events. 

What we need is a story that reminds us why the gospel is so important. Because we are freaking terrible at figuring out what is really happening, and because, if I were in that story, I can't guarantee I wouldn't be right there next to Judas, selling Jesus out for his own good. I know myself, and I know that I would probably think it was the right thing to do.

Or, at best, I would be on Jesus side, but for the very wrong reasons. I would be craving that revolution he offered, and assuming he meant a real one that would result in a very real war. I wouldn't be thinking supernaturally, because I'm not that good. I'm too sure of myself in this world to be able to see another one, at least not without help.

We need to remember Judas' story because his story is our story. It's so easy to demonize him and call him a dick, but you have to remember that everyone believes they are the hero of their own story. Judas thought he was doing the right thing. That in and of itself is the scariest and most important part to remember about this movie. And that's why I love it.

I mean, there are other reasons too. It really is a spectacular musical, and the singers in this version are way, way, way better than the original (I hate the original). Plus, Jerome Pradon really makes you emotionally invested in Judas and his relationship with Jesus, while Glenn Carter slowly turns this caricature of a man we see in the first few moments into a full-fledged, breathing, living man, who is scared and tired and determined to follow his father's will. 

Plus, Renee Castle and Rik Mayall are fabulous, and I challenge anyone not to get chills at the very end when Jesus dies and Judas screams. Chills.

This article was actually a little hard for me to write. It's one I've been mulling over for years, because it's never not true. I've been a fan of this movie for, gosh, nine years now? Yikes. And even though it is really theologically inaccurate and sometimes offensive, and oftentimes weird, it matters deeply to me. But on the other side, it's hard talking about faith and spiritual stuff on the internet. Especially when you're a feminist pop culture blogger. Just gonna say, not the most comfortable position to be in.

But it's true. I do love this movie, and I do think it's important, for Christians and non-Christians. For Christians, I think we need to remember, at Easter and at other times of the year, that evil isn't a snarling, mustache-twirling villain, it's a person who believes that they know best - better even than God. For non-Christians, I think it's a good movie, and I think it's apt to make you see the whole passion story in a whole new light.

Mostly, though, I love this movie for me. I love it because I cry when Jesus and Judas finally face each other down, and when they fight, because Judas is so wretched and broken and will not be swayed. I get choked up when Judas comes to betray Jesus, and Jesus already knows and already forgives him. And I freaking bawl when we see the light come on in Judas' eyes, that little spark that says, "What if you were wrong? What if he really was God?"

I don't want you to get the wrong impression from this article, the idea that I think Jesus is boring and we should all be paying attention to Judas instead. That's not true, nor is it what I'm saying. Instead, I think we should look at the whole story, all sides of it. And, yeah, I think there are very real, practical problems with making Jesus the protagonist of your movie (perfect protagonists are boring, so either you make Jesus dull, or you say he's not God), and yes, I do think that an artistic interpretation is often better than a literal one, but still. Hear what I am saying.

We don't like to face Judas because we're scared we're just like him. Good.

4 comments:

  1. Typo report: "yesterday was Easter, one of the big two holidays in the Christian faith, next to Easter." The second "Easter" presumably should have been "Christmas".

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    1. I should really get around to fixing that.

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  2. Hi there!

    I suppose it’s a late comment to the JCS 2000 review, but I have to say just how glad I am that there is someone out there who loves this film version as much as I do! Yes, I completely agree – I picked up the underlying doubt in Judas that set off the entire tragedy the first time I watched it, when Judas sang: “You have set them all on fire, they think they’ve found the new Messiah; and they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” I suppose what I like so much about JCS is how the story has the same level of tension and drama in a modern setting as it was back in the time of the apostles. That, and the singing talent and music that makes JCS what it is.
    I actually still don’t quite see what there is not to like about this version – the 1973 version had a Herod that was crazy instead of a plain malicious and greedy one played expertly by Rik Mayall; and the 2012 version has a Jesus who only seems to have two facial expressions and seems well, a tad too angry in my opinion. Regardless of the varied degrees of singing talent, JCS 2000 just stands out in its own right.

    I think another great interpretation of the Judas and Jesus relationship was a bit after the Last Supper when Judas is kneeling at Christ’s feet and asking Him why He let things happen the way He did and all the apostles resume singing sadly, Jesus bends down to put his hands on Judas’ head but he jerks away before they touch and he walks away without looking back while Jesus watches him leave. (It was a blow to the gut just watching it. Darn Broadway actors making my heart bleed.) I mean, we can speculate all we might like about Judas and whether or not he was to blame or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but at the very end we do know that Christ offered forgiveness that Judas didn’t accept. It’s not as thought I’ve learnt anything new from watching JCS, but it is nice to see that they think along the same lines that I have always thought about the drama between Jesus and Judas. That, regardless of how big a part Judas did play in Jesus’ death, it did not have to end in tragedy if he had sought or accepted forgiveness. I like it. I like that as well as showing Judas as an understandable concerned friend who had very good reasons - according to his own understanding at the very least - to hand Jesus over to the authorities, it still remains clear that forgiveness always was, and always will be, able to be attained.

    Thanks for such a profound review. If you have any more ideas or analysis on JCS, do let me know! What do you think of Mary Magdalene in JCS? (Other than the fact that she’s gorgeous?) I will still never get over not being able to see Glenn Carter reprise his role as Jesus in the UK Tour this year. They need to film that like they did the Arena tour in 2012 (which… wasn’t anywhere near the 2000 version but that’s another discussion) because I need to see it!

    Cheers

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    1. I actually haven't seen the 2012 version, but I'll take your word for it. For my money, this one is the best because it goes most hardcore into the actual emotional states of the characters, but I am very partial.

      Yes! The idea that Judas could have been forgiven, that tragedy was not inevitable, is one of the themes I love most here. I think it's too easy to write Judas off as the bad guy who was always going to be the bad guy, instead of seeing him as a man who made a mistake and refused to accept the forgiveness he was offered because of his pride. I think it's much more personally convicting the second way.

      I really think Mary is a complex and interesting character (I ought to write about her one of these days) - and I too need to see this on a real stage someday!

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