Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year ...

.... and best wishes for 2007 to everyone.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

James Brown 1933-2006

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business has left the building.

James Brown - the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite, Mr. Outtasight - died Christmas Day of heart failure at a hospital in Atlanta. And we'll never see his like again.

Forget about the run-ins with the law, the years of drug abuse, the infamous mug shot. History will prove Brown one of the most influential musical figures of the 20th century. His funk-driven rhythms and sheer energy swept aside cultural and racial differences, and his performance style has influenced hundreds who came after. If you need evidence, go back and give a listen to two of the greatest live albums anyone's ever made - "Live at the Apollo, 1962" and "Live at the Apollo, 1967."

The first was recorded at a sold-out performance at the Harlem theater in October '62 and Brown paid for it with his own money - $5,700. He'd already been recording for six years at that point, and his repertoire ranged from the deep soul of "Lost Someone" and the balladry of "Try Me" to the funky rhythms of "Think," which foreshadowed where he was headed musically. The 1967 album is even better, with 19 tracks recorded in June of that year, including most of his hits, an epic version of "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" and a ten-minute riff on "Lost Someone." In his 1986 autobiography, written with Bruce Tucker, Brown tells how the recording of the first album was almost ruined by an elderly woman in the front rows who kept yelling "Sing it, motherfucker" near the audience mike while they were recording directly to two track.

But for a more intimate look at James Brown the man, check out the 1990 compilation "Messing with the Blues" (Polydor), which collects a series of performances from 1957-75, with Brown recording numbers from the blues, jump and jazz artists that influenced him, including Louis Jordan's "Caldonia." In a spoken word rap on the track "Like It Is, Like It Was," Brown reminisces about growing up "broke and hungry" in the Jim Crow South. "Some people tell me I should think about the good things ... but believe me, it weren't that good. At least you got a right today to say you don't dig it. If we had said we didn't dig it, we'd been dead. I don't blame nobody, 'cause ignorance get everybody. But it make you want to sing the blues ..."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Brand new Bruce

And, copyright issues aside, this, folks, is what makes the Internet great.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Daniel Craig IS James Bond

Confession: I haven't seen a recent James Bond film in about ten years, and I haven't seen one I've liked much in almost twice that. However, I have now seen the newest Bond film, CASINO ROYALE, and I'm here to say what I'm sure others will be saying before long:

Daniel Craig is the best Bond since Sean Connery.

I'm not really going out on a limb here. CASINO ROYALE is the toughest, most serious Bond film in years, and Craig inhabits it perfectly. He brings an amazing physicality to the role, along with a rough-hewn charm, sardonic humor and vibrant intelligence. There's a lot going on behind those ice-blue eyes, and never for a moment do you doubt him as a hard-edged - but still unseasoned - undercover operative for the British Secret Service. To say he breathes new life into a tired series would be an understatement. If the producers run out of ideas for new films, they should consider going back to remake some of the older non-Connery ones with Craig. Hell, even a couple of the later Connery Bonds would be better served by him.

The film itself has some of the same problems other Bond films have had. It's longish (two hours and 20 minutes), and the plot barely holds together as it hurtles along. It bears the multi-screenwriter mark of assorted showpiece scenes that seem to have been stitched together to make a whole, and some of the stunt sequences feel like they're from another film. But once the action moves to Montenegro and a high-stakes poker game (baccarat in the book), the film captures the dark heart of Ian Fleming's original novels perfectly. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (from Nicolas Refn's PUSHER trilogy) is terrific as Le Chiffre, "international banker to the world's terrorists," whose own life is riding on the game as much as Bond's. Eva Green (KINGDOM OF HEAVEN) is luminous as Bond's MI6 cohort and confidante, Vesper Lynd.

There's humor in the film, but almost all of it works, even while poking fun at the earlier Bond mythos. And amazingly - for the first time in years - large chunks of the original Fleming source novel are actually in the script. As readers of the book know, Bond takes some serious punishment along the way, and all of it - and more - is in the film.

But the real revelation here is Craig, who seems equally at home at a gambling table sporting a dinner jacket or in a narrow stairwell squeezing the life out of an opponent with his bare hands. This is Ian Fleming's James Bond.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Cocktails and questions

I'm a little late in posting this, but I was a guest last week at the Virtual Cocktail Party over at The Good Girls Kill For Money Club site, courtesy of the lovely and talented Tasha Alexander. Pour a glass and have a look.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Bad Review Revue

For those who haven't seen it yet, there is much brilliance here. Especially noteworthy is an amazing 1998 review of SPHERE by my buddy Matt Zoller Seitz, which ranges from brilliant to bizarre to slightly demented. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Let us now praise THE WIRE.

Many have done it before me, I know, especially in the three weeks since Season Four premiered. But now that I’ve seen the entire fourth season - courtesy of the folks at HBO - I feel the need to weigh in as well.

It is, quite simply, the best crime drama in the history of television.

That’s a bold statement, I know, and last season I may not have made it, exceptional as most of that season was. But this one is even better - deeper, darker and richer than those that came before.

Why is it so great? There are a lot of reasons - the sharp writing, the uniformly terrific performances, the broad scope of narrative that takes a microcosm (West Baltimore drug neighborhoods) and makes it a metaphor for society as a whole. But mainly I think it’s the planning. Unlike recent seasons of THE SOPRANOS - and this season of DEADWOOD - in THE WIRE, everything pays off. It strikes that perfect balance between the surprising and the inevitable.

As anyone who’s been watching knows, this season focuses on four eighth-graders at the fictional Edward J. Tilghman Middle School - (above, from left) Duquan (Jermaine Crawford), Randy (Maestro Harrell), Michael (Tristan Wilds) and Namond (Julito McCullum). They’re corner kids, already immersed in the street life they see around them, with few if any support systems to guide them. How they cope with their environment - and the unreasonable demands it makes upon them - is what forms the heart of the story.

Based on co-creator (and former Baltimore detective) Ed Burns’ seven years teaching in the Baltimore school system, this season is full of the kind of details only an insider could provide – like boxes of brand-new math textbooks left to gather dust in basements. His alter ego here is former Major Crimes Unit member Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), who’s become a teacher after leaving the force following the accidental shooting of a fellow cop.

His unit carries on without him, but out on the street, things have changed as well. Drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), who dominated Seasons One and Three, is nowhere in sight. He’s back in prison and losing what little influence he has left in the outside world. His ambitious lieutenant Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), who envisioned a brave new – and lucrative – world of semi-legality, ended up shot to death in Season Three’s penultimate episode. At the start of Season Four, the Barksdale organization is a shambles, with advisor Slim Charles (Anwan Glover) now working for uber-dealer Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), and loyal soldier Bodie Broadus (the great JD Williams) the last man standing.

In this vacuum, some of the characters introduced last season come to the fore, especially the ruthless boy king Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector) and his genuinely frightening henchman Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe), whose killer’s glare is only made creepier by the intelligence in his eyes.

The writers - including Burns, co-creator David Simon, Richard Price, George Pelecanos and others - have expertly kept all the surviving main characters from Season Three in play, without making any of their appearances seem gratuitous, although a newly clean and sober Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) does keep an inordinately low profile. Even more, they’ve effortlessly blended them into the new storyline, with maverick cop Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) now co-running a pilot program in the schools. Prez and Colvin’s attempts to reach out to their charges are just as compelling as the underworld drama being played out on the city’s streets.

Make no mistake, it isn’t all doom and gloom in the world of THE WIRE. This is also the funniest season yet, with most of the best lines going to the Bunk (Wendell Pierce) and his own peculiar brand of homo-erotic cop humor. It’s also the most accessible season so far. You don’t need a lot of backstory to follow what’s going on, and the complexities of the plot are relatively easy to absorb. There’s a little more soapboxing this season - not surprising, given the topic - but it never interferes with the story.

Where most crime dramas skate away from the consequences of violent acts, THE WIRE is all about the consequences. And there are consequences aplenty before the final heartbreaking episode. Ultimately, it’s about how adults fail children, and how systems fail people - whether those systems are police departments, school districts or drug gangs. But although THE WIRE may be tough, real and occasionally brutal, it’s never cynical. It’s full of hope, even if it sometimes watches unblinkingly as individual hopes flutter out. Crime drama – and crime writing – doesn’t get any better than this.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Random Readings Vol. 1

This week’s entry is a metaphysical musing from William Peter Blatty’s long-out-of-print 1966 novel TWINKLE, TWINKLE, ‘KILLER’ KANE. It’s a conversation between two men at an insane asylum being used to house shell-shocked war veterans. Read and discuss:

“Do you really believe in an afterlife?”


“Tell me why.”

“Because every man who has ever lived has been born with desire for perfect happiness. But unless there is an afterlife, fulfillment of this desire is a patent impossibility. Perfect happiness, in order to be perfect, must carry with it the assurance that the happiness won’t cease; that it will not be snatched away. But no one has ever had such assurance; the mere fact of death serves to contradict it. Yet why should Nature implant – universally – desire for something that isn’t attainable? I can think of no more than two answers: either Nature is consistently mad and perverse, or after this life there’s another; a life where this universal desire for perfect happiness can be fulfilled. But nowhere else in creation does Nature exhibit this kind of perversity; not when it comes to a basic drive. An eye is always for seeing and an ear is always for hearing. And any universal craving – that is, a craving without exception – has to be capable of fulfillment. It can’t be fulfilled here; so it’s fulfilled, I think, somewhere else; some time else.”

— From “Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane,” copyright 1966 by William Peter Blatty.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

More on the Mick ...

Last week, BBC Radio asked me to write a brief tribute to Mickey Spillane - in the Master's style - for their obituary program "The Last Word." The program aired on BBC4 Friday and can be found at BBC-Radio 4 - Last Word.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A writer, plain and simple

The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte staggered back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her naked belly where the bullet went in.
“How could you?” she gasped.
I had only a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.

With that final paragraph from his first novel, 1947’s “I, the Jury,” Mickey Spillane made his bones.

Spillane’s books - with their then-startling mix of sex, sadism and gunplay - redefined the detective story for the post-World War II generation, and made him one of the top-selling American authors of all time. Most of his more than two dozen novels featured his harder-than-hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer, who battled, gangsters, goons and Communists with equal ferocity, often aided by his adoring secretary, Velda.

Spillane, 88, died yesterday at home in Murrells Inlet, S.C., a small coastal community where he’d lived since the 1950s. The cause of death was not immediately known.

“I’m not an author, I’m a writer, that’s all I am,” Spillane said in a 2001 interview. “Authors want their names down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney.”

He was born Frank Spillane in Brooklyn on March 9, 1918, and baptized with the middle name Michael, which his father shortened to Mickey. An only child, he spent his formative years in Elizabeth, N.J., growing up in the Bayway section of the city and attending Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School, reunions of which he regularly attended through the years.

In 1989, a block on South Broad Street, between Bayway Avenue and Myrtle Street, was renamed “Mickey Spillane Way.” Spillane had mixed feelings about the honor.

“I don’t believe in that kind of self-adulation,” he told the Star-Ledger at the time. “Streets should be named after birds or numbers or something.”

Spillane’s family eventually moved back to Brooklyn, where he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1935. He sold his first story to Liberty magazine that same year and eventually became a comic book writer, creating the character Mike Danger. In the mid-1940s, when wartime production curtailed comic books, Spillane switched back to prose.

Spillane enlisted in the Army Air Corps and, on returning home, decided to write a novel to try to raise enough money to buy some property.

“I, the Jury” - the story of Hammer seeking revenge for a war buddy’s murder - was originally published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, but found its audience a year later through the then-new medium of paperback.

Despite uniformly savage reviews (one critic suggested the book be “required reading in a Gestapo training school”), “I, the Jury” sold nearly a quarter of a million copies in its initial softcover run. More Hammer books followed, all in inexpensive mass-market paperbacks, often graced with lurid covers featuring women in various states of undress.

Spillane’s books featured slam-bang beginnings - usually with some innocent being killed in the opening pages, leaving Hammer to avenge their deaths. “The first line sells that book,” Spillane once said. “And the last line sells the next.”

Titles sell books too, Spillane knew, and he chose them with equal care and an emphasis on pronouns - “My Gun is Quick,” “Vengeance is Mine!,” “Kiss Me, Deadly.” Shock value was as much a part of the Spillane appeal as the breathless plots and tough-as-nails attitude. In his books, Spillane torqued up the sex and violence to a pitch that was previously unseen in popular fiction (in 1947, the debut of Ian Fleming’s James Bond was still six years away).

Though his books seemed sometimes misogynist - or even downright misanthropic - Spillane’s rough-hewn, often graceless prose sometimes achieved a primitive power akin to Beat poetry. And America loved it. By industry estimates, his 26 books have to date sold more than 200 million copies.

“Hemingway hated me,” Spillane said in a 2001 interview. “I sold 200 million books, and he didn’t. Of course most of mine sold for 25 cents, but still .¤.¤. Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

Spillane’s influence went “beyond the printed page,” according to novelist and film noir expert Eddie Muller, who knew Spillane. “He almost single-handedly created the market for ‘pocket books’ in the late 1940s, and he was one of the first authors media-savvy enough to promote himself as a character.

“I don’t particularly love his novels, but it was impossible not to love the guy,” said Muller. “He was, arguably, the bestselling fiction author of the last century, and yet he never took himself seriously. That’s class - which Mick would have hated being accused of having.”

With his Hammer books, Spillane retooled the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler tradition for the post-WWII era and an audience that had already seen its share of killing. Unlike Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Hammer let his gun do the talking more often than not. For some, Spillane’s hero represented the disaffected American vet, the battle-hardened realist who came home to a country riddled by corruption and newly populated with empowered women. A Pacific veteran, Hammer carried a Colt .45 automatic, the ubiquitous WWII servicemen’s weapon. Spillane himself owned the same gun - and had a permit to carry it - for most of his life.

Hammer made the leap to movies almost immediately, with a 1953 adaptation of “I, the Jury.” Other films followed, the most notable being Robert Aldrich’s nightmarish 1955 “Kiss Me, Deadly,” which starred Ralph Meeker as a thuggish Hammer pursuing a “Great Whatsis” that turns out to be a case of radioactive isotopes. At the end of the film, which became a major influence on the French New Wave, Hammer is left gutshot and radioactive, floundering in the L.A. surf. Spillane himself played Hammer in 1963’s “The Girl Hunters,” opposite Shirley Eaton.

“I don’t like any of them,” he said of the film adaptations. “Because (the filmmakers) don’t read the books. In ‘Kiss Me, Deadly’ my story is better than (the movie) story. .¤.¤. They (change it) because it’s Hollywood. Everybody wants their name on the screen.”

Despite the sex and violence that became his literary trademark, Spillane had been a devout Jehovah’s Witness since the 1950s. He was married three times and fathered four children.
And though most of his novels were set in Manhattan, Spillane had lived in Murrels Inlet since 1953, when he moved there from Newburgh, N.Y. “It agrees with you,” he said in a 2001 interview. “I’m a country boy. I hate New York. But that’s where things happen, so I use it as a base for stories.”

Among his more unlikely fans, Spillane numbered writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” and with whom he corresponded. She praised Spillane’s writing style in her book “The Romantic Manifesto.” “There is not a single emotional word or adjective in Spillane’s description,” she wrote. “He presents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness.”

In the late 1970s and ‘80s, Spillane took an extended vacation from writing, though Mike Hammer lived on, in a long-running television series starring Stacy Keach. Spillane himself stayed visible playing himself in a series of Miller Lite (“She poured. We drank. To be continued”) commercials.

The literary Hammer returned in 1987’s “The Killing Man,” Spillane’s first novel in 16 years. “I used to write fast, but I can’t now, my rear end gets tired,” he said. “I can’t put in 12 hours a day sitting in a chair.”

Two more novels followed, the last being 2003’s “Something’s Down There.” In 1995, the Mystery Writers of America honored him with a Grand Master award.

“If the public likes you, you’re good,” he once said. “I don’t give a hoot about reading reviews. What I want to read are the royalty checks.”

For Mickey Spillane, becoming the most successful pop novelist of his day wasn’t a knock-down, drag-out brawl. It was easy.

A version of this story first appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark, July 18, 2006

Friday, June 30, 2006

Ho, ‘The Long Ships’!

For a nine-year-old, it was a big deal.

A Saturday matinee at the now-long-defunct Baronet Theatre in Long Branch, N.J. The movie: “The Long Ships,” a 1964 Viking adventure already in its third or fourth re-release. Lots of action and spectacle, a simple plot, larger-than-life acting (Richard Widmark as a Viking conman, Sidney Poitier as a Moorish warrior prince). In short, perfect Saturday matinee material.

Two things left a major impression on my nine-year-old mind. The first was a scene in which captive Vikings are threatened with “The Mare of Steel,” a Moorish torture/execution device that resembled a razor-sharp playground slide. The second was a stirring musical score, featuring a main theme that would haunt me for years afterward. Never mind the fact that, during the film, it most often accompanied shots of miniature Viking ships being tossed around in a studio water tank.

I saw the film on TV occasionally in the years that followed, would seek it out just to hear that music again. The older I got though, the more I realized the movie itself was ... ehh, not so good. The dialogue and characterization were anachronistic, the humor forced, and Poitier’s wig seemed to have a life of its own. But that music ...

In my late teenage years, I began the search in earnest. I discovered that an LP of the music — by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic — had indeed been released on Columbia’s Colpix label in 1964, but had gone out of print shortly afterward. In those pre-internet years, it became one of the rarest — and most expensive — soundtrack albums. I hunted for it in used record stores everywhere I went, and found it only twice — once for $75 in Red Bank, N.J., and again a few years later at a memorabilia shop on Decatur Street in New Orleans, for $60. I almost bought it that time — I could nearly afford it by then — but the store didn’t take credit cards and I didn’t have enough cash.

Flash forward to the digital age and the flood of CD re-releases. Still no “Long Ships.” I looked on eBay occasionally, and the few times the LP popped up, the bids were ridiculously high. Then an idle internet search last month finally hit paydirt — “The Long Ships” was on CD!

True, it was on a specialty label associated with the magazine Film Score Monthly , and it shared the disc with Bronislau Kaper’s score for the 1965 film “Lord Jim.” But a sonic icon of my youth was now finally in reach. I ordered it that night, had it in my car CD player for the ride to work the morning it arrived.

As soon as I did, I realized why it hadn’t been released on CD earlier. The master tapes sounded thin and tinny, almost as if they were being played through an AM radio. But that music! It melted the intervening decades away, put me right back in that theater seat. I turned the volume up as loud as I could, windows down, and sailed north up the New Jersey Turnpike.

Few things we enjoy as a child hold up in the cold, hard light of adulthood. And the chase is always better than the kill. But listening to that long-elusive music, 37 years after that Saturday afternoon at the Baronet, it sounded pretty great.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Welcome to #@*#%!! "Deadweek"

As DEADWOOD begins its third - and unfortunately final season - you can visit Matt Zoller Seitz's blog "The House Next Door," to read a variety of different writers (including Matt and his fellow Star-Ledger television critic Alan Sepinwall) waxing philosophical on all things DEADWOOD. I've contributed a character portrait of half-smart Yankton bagman Silas Adams (played by Titus Welliver, above), who I find to be one of the show's most interesting secondary characters. Matt - who's a talented independent filmmaker as well as a critic - has gone on record citing DEADWOOD as the greatest dramatic series in the history of television. He might be right.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Well, they blew up C-8 in Asbury last month ...

... and it only took 17 years.

For Shore residents, the unfinished structure called C-8 that loomed over Asbury Park's beachfront had become something of a local landmark. A high-rise condo project that went unfinished after its developers went bankrupt in 1989, the skeletal 12-story building had become a symbol of Asbury's failed redevelopment. Readers of THE BARBED-WIRE KISS will note that I used C-8 as the setting for the climactic scene in the novel, and at the time (2002) I was concerned the building would be demolished before the book came out. Well, obviously I didn't need to worry.

The end finally came on April 29, 2006, when a demolitions team imploded the structure to make way for a new condo development, part of Asbury's master plan for revitalizing the oceanfront. Will the Wonder Bar be next?

(Photo by Jackie Fritsche)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Fun with French

Recently received my author copies of the French version of HEARTBREAK LOUNGE (retitled FROIDEMENT, or COLDLY) and again Calmann-Levy did a beautiful job with the book, with (as far as I can tell, not reading much French) another great Florence Mortimer translation and a totally re-envisioned - and very evocative - cover.

However, it's always fun to run the jacket copy through an automatic - and strictly literal - internet translator. Below is the translated jacket copy for FROIDEMENT:

"The ex-cop Harry Rane meets one day of winter, in the small city of the New Jersey where he officiates as private detective, Nikki Ellis, a thrown into a panic young woman who research of the assistance: his/her former companion, Johnny Harrow, have been just released after having purged a seven years sorrow of criminal reclusion for murder. Nikki knows what it is able. It also knows that he will seek to find it, and especially to find their child, that it gave up with its birth and who was adopted.
In fact, Johnny, an intelligent man that the clink completely dehumanized, begins his trâque in Heartbreak Lounge, a cabaret where Nikki was a dancer. From there, it goes up the track which leads to its ex. For Johnny, revenge is a dish which is eaten cold, very cold. It only the guide - against its former owner, the caïd Joey Risk, counters his former accomplices who balanced it, counters the police force and the legal institution which believe capacity to handle it, and counters his/her former partner, culprit “to have given his son to the unknown ones”. All will have repentance to be had one day betrayed or underestimated Johnny Harrow, who eliminates them like one empties an ashtray - coldly.
Will Harry Rane be rather strong - or rather unconscious - to face such a machine to be killed?"


Friday, April 14, 2006

The Judas kiss

Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST can be tedious to watch, but it’s a lot of fun to talk about. As slow as it is at times (and as anachronistically funny as it seems at others), it’s a movie rich with ideas, some of them deeply moving. As a product of 12 years of Catholic school (and countless ponderous Biblical epics), I find Scorsese’s revisioning of the Gospels (and of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1951 novel) both exciting and ultimately affirming, though my allegiance to the faith has long since lapsed. After all, how many films ever addressed the duality of Christ, or His struggle to accept the burden of becoming the Savior?
What fascinates me most though is the depiction of Judas — perhaps the most reviled figure in history — as hero. Though Harvey Keitel’s accent sounded more Greenpoint than Galilee, he gave Judas a certain gruff, angry and determined quality that seemed right emotionally, if not always grammatically. He berates Jesus for building crosses for the Romans, threatens to kill him if he fails in his ministry and eventually sacrifices all he believes in to betray Jesus — at his request — and thus bring about the Crucifixion and Resurrection. "Could you betray God?" Judas asks Willem Dafoe’s Christ. "If you were me, could you betray your Master?" "No," Jesus answers. "That’s why God gave me the easier job ... to be crucified." All I have to do is die, Jesus seems to be saying. But you have to live with yourself.
All of this came back to me last week with the National Geographic Society’s unveiling of the Gospel of Judas, a nearly 2,000-year-old document that’s purportedly based on one-on-one conversations between the two. In it, Judas is said to have "exceeded" the other Apostles in his dedication to Christ, is the only one aware of his true identity as the Son of God, and betrays his Master only after Jesus convinces him it must be done. "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom," Jesus says. "It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal."
And in LAST TEMPTATION at least, grieve Judas does, giving up One he loves to those he hates, as part of a big picture he can only vaguely understand. "I have a terrible secret from God," Jesus tells him at one point. "Judas, I am the lamb. I’m the one who’s going to die."
"I won’t let you die," Judas insists.
"You don’t have a choice," Jesus answers. "Neither do I. Remember, we’re bringing God and man together. They’ll never be together unless I die. I’m the sacrifice.... Forget everything else, understand that."
Judas also plays a crucial role in the scene that gives the film (and novel) its title. Suffering on the cross, Jesus is greeted by the image of a young girl who claims to come from God. Like a benevolent Ghost of Christmas Future, she ushers him down, heals his wounds and shows him an alternate life in which he rejects his divinity, marries Mary Magdalene, has children and happily lives to a ripe old age. But it is Judas who confronts him on his death bed. "Traitor," Judas calls him. "Your place was on the cross. ... you broke my heart ... I loved you so much I went and betrayed you. But what business do you have here? With women, with children... Why weren’t you crucified? If you die this way, you die like a man... you deny God. Then there’s no sacrifice. Then there’s no salvation."
Shamed and repentant, Jesus begs his Father to allow him to return to the cross. His life as a man has been a dream, a final temptation he’s resisted — with Judas’ help. He looks to Heaven and gives up his life as he utters his final words: "It is accomplished."
This imagining of Jesus’s last hours may not be good theology, or even good cinema. And Sister Helen would certainly not have approved. But it adds a weight and complexity to the story that makes it seem all the more real, more transcendent. That whisks it away from dogma and doctrine into something both identifiable and immediate, emotionally true and, in its way, more inspiring than ever.