How one reads a text—including how one evaluates the aesthetic merits of a text—is almost entirely dependent on a host of factors that, taken as a whole, are best summed up in a word: context. This is an obvious point. Nonetheless, let me give an example.
I’ve now watched Martin Scorsese’s 1988 picture The Last Temptation of Christ twice. My first screening was five years ago, my second, a few days ago. Based on more knowledge of the film and the controversy that engulfed it—based on more context—my judgment of the movie has changed.
The first time I watched The Last Temptation of Christ, my assessment was similar to conservative film critic Michael Medved’s: “It is the height of irony,” Medved told a television reporter, “that all this controversy should be generated by a film that turns out to be so breathtakingly bad, so unbearably boring.” Like Medved, Harvey Keitel as a heroic Judas left me cold. Medved panned: “With his thick Brooklyn accent firmly intact, braying out his lines like a minor Mafioso trying to impress his elders with his swaggering, tough-guy panache, Keitel looks for all the world as if he has accidentally wandered onto the desert set from a very different Martin Scorsese film.” This was exactly my initial reaction: Scorsese had rendered a “Goodfellas” edition of the Gospels. It was laughable.
My view of the film has changed as I learned more about why Scorsese made it, and what he put into its making. Scorsese had been obsessed with making a film based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 book, The Last Temptation, for over 15 years. Scorsese grew up a devout Catholic and remained fascinated with Christian symbolism even after he quit attending church. He was taken with Kazantzakis’s post-Enlightenment, Nietzschean Jesus, a Christ who created his own meaning. Scorsese, like Kazantzakis, wanted to emphasize the human side of Jesus, flaws and all, in order to make Jesus relevant in our contemporary, corrupted world. As part of this mission, Scorsese wanted a proletarian version of Judas, who was the hero in Kazantzakis’s revisionist tale. For Scorsese, working class heroes hailed from Brooklyn.
Scorsese’s commitment to making this film was evident in the hardships he overcame along the way. For example, Paramount, the first studio to purchase the rights to produce the film, canceled production at the last minute due, in part, to a groundswell of conservative anger that a movie was being made about Kazantzakis’s controversial novel. In the years between when Paramount cancelled the film and when Universal Studios agreed to make it, Scorsese made several more mainstream films in order to buy freedom to make The Last Temptation, his true labor of love.
All of which is to say that my second viewing of The Last Temptation of Christ was through a different lens. I came to the film with more respect for Scorsese’s vision. It’s hard to explain, but because of such contextual knowledge, I truly enjoyed watching the film the second time. I was better able to make meaning of it.
For a great account of the making of the film, and the controversy, see Thomas R. Lindlof, Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars.
And for a snapshot of the controversy, see this Oprah episode.