Today is Easter, and even though I’m not that religious myself, I know that in the Christian calendar it’s the biggest holiday there is. My family back home in Oklahoma are extremely devout Catholics. Yesterday, I was talking to my mother on the phone. She was telling me all about the three hour Good Friday service she attended, and how sad it makes her to think of the suffering of Christ. It makes her so sad in fact, that in some weird way she can’t get enough of it. She went straight home and popped in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” In her opinion, this is the best movie ever made. In fact, it’s so good she says that, “it’s beyond even being a movie.”
My Armenian Jesus - Altadena, CA
I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen the film. Other than The Road Warrior and Braveheart, I can pretty much do without Mel Gibson. He’s a conservative blowhard, a hypocrite (I can explain this in detail if interested), and an anti-Semite. Fun stuff! His fans don’t care about that because most of them are in agreement, including my mom. I asked her why she loved the film so much? “The scourging of Christ at the pillar. The amount of pain you see him suffering…it’s so…real. No one could ever film anything near what Jesus really went through, but Mel came close,” she said.
This answer doesn’t surprise me, it ties into a bigger aspect of our families fascination with darker imagery and movies. In fact, I was just looking at some Psychopath footage where I’m discussing with my friend Mike, the Marquez family devotion to Catholicism and how it shapes them. Mike’s a production designer that came out to to consult my Uncle Victor, and help him with some plans early on in the first year. He pointed out to me that when he first went into Victor’s home, he was surprised to see so many religious statues and icons. Right next to a Crucifix, there would be a head cast of Lon Chaney Jr.! Mike believes that the Catholic imagery and upbringing is responsible for Victor’s love affair with horror movies and the macabre. Meaning, if you are constantly presented with an image of your savior, bloody, beaten, and hanging from a cross, that will affect you. Then there is the talk of the “body and blood” of Christ. This is not to mention the catacombs, stories of the martyrs, and talk of demons and evil in the scripture. Christ’s death and resurrection was to clear our sins, save our souls so that we may have a chance at the afterlife. Basically, if your life goal is to die and live forever in Heaven, why wouldn’t you like horror movies? Its bible study by way of Fangoria Magazine.
Crown of Thorns, Hammer Horror Style
This all makes sense to me, because for the longest time I was really into Universal Horror films, Gothic Horror, and Tim Burton. I went into film school innocent, still going to church, and still a fan of these kinds of films. Put all that together, and you get a nineteen year old kid confused, but interested in venting some of that influence on screen. You have to understand that my parents didn’t want me to go to California. I had been sick just a few years earlier, and was still recovering from my illness. My mom was concerned for my health, but mostly she was concerned for my soul. She was certain that if I went to film school out West, I’d probably end up turning against the faith and being corrupted. God bless her. Under that kind of pressure, I wanted to show my folks back home that I still knew Jesus, and I was okay talking about him. In my mind, I was going to do something that they’d be proud of. That’s when I decided to make my Crucifixion film.
As a first year student, you have to take many different “basic” film classes. One of them was called Cinematic Language. Every week the instructor would assign you a certain genre of film to make, or a certain technique to utilize. The particular assignment this week was about Contrapuntal Sound. That meant a film in which the imagery on screen would be opposite from the audio or music. If you knew me in college, you know I was always wearing vintage suits and listening to old music. My favorite artist of the moment was George Gershwin. The music was picked, but what about the counterpoint content?
Suddenly, it came to me…Jesus.
Fauxman Soldier - Altadena, CA
I became a mad man, obsessing about how pertinent this movie would be…how pleased the family would be with me. I cut up an old pair of blue jeans, and wrapped strips of it with electrical tape making a cat o nine tails flogging weapon for my Roman soldier. Could have easily bought one of those at the sex shop on Colorado, but the thought never entered my mind. I rented a few pieces of chest armor for the Roman Soldier as well, and cast a buddy that was a bit rough in the part. There was an Armenian student in the photo department that I cast as Jesus. He had a beard, he had long hair, he was perfect! Everything was coming together, and I became quite the zealot working on the project. I read some passages from the bible describing the Crucifixion, and took some notes. I was going to cover all the hurtful, painful stuff in my film. Crown of thorns…check. Pierced with a lance and bled water…check. Stripped, mocked, and humiliated…check. The last thing to do was to shoot, so on Sunday we went up to the end of Lake Street in Altadena to a place called the Cobb Estate. It’s the beginning of a popular hiking trail, and the site of a former home of Harpo Marx. Perfect spot, as long as you don’t turn south and shoot toward Pasadena. The were plenty of trees and hills which acted as my personal Golgatha. There were even some railroad ties nearby that we pulled from the trail and used as the makings of our cross!
And then we shot the film. I don’t remember the shoot at all. Just the image of my Armenian Jesus covered in ketchup and dirt standing in my shower in a loin cloth washing off afterward. Here is the film we ended up with.
It isn’t a great film, but it got me an A. Looking at it 11 years later, I think it’s repetitive and extremely violent. At the time I was very proud of this film. It did exactly what I wanted it to do, made you look at the pain and suffering of Christ over and over again. Set against a popular song, my point was that Jesus was a big deal, and he had a big message. People today get so wrapped up in the mainstream idea of Christ, they forget to listen to his actual words. The “S’Wonderful” of Gershwin was there to make you think. It’s meant to grab you for a moment, and say “that’s a weird song for that image?” Maybe make you stop diminishing Him into a simplistic idea or into dogma talking point. Take a real hard look at Jesus, and listen…then maybe you can do his work. This is something I felt lacked in my religious upbringing…its all action with no substance.
I checked out a projector and reserved a room at the downtown Tulsa Library upon my first trip back home. I showed my entire family my hand cranked 16mm Bolex opus, hoping they’d understand what I was trying to do. Nope, no one got it. Immediately, my mother told me that this was heresy. She said that what she had feared was happening, I was changing. She even suggested I talk to a priest about the film after I explained to her what it was about. None of my reasoning was getting through. So today she’s certain that Mel Gibson is alright, but I’m a lost, pointless soul.
It was George Gershwin and Jesus Christ that woke me up. After that, I was no longer going to be a Christian for Christianity sake. I wasn’t going to numbly go through the motions. I was going to dig deeper and see if I could really hear what Jesus Christ was saying…and I’m still listening today.