Nov 19, 2016

The Sin of Jesus

After recently re-watching Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and reflecting on its smug anti-Christian hatred, I can only feel disgust when thinking about a Jewish writer and/or director attempting to utilize Christian themes, so the last thing that I would want to see is a modernist Jesus flick based on a story by a Christ-hating Judeo-bolshevik and directed by a Hebraic hipster that has a reputation for taking photos that mock white people and glorify negroes. Indeed, even the title of The Sin of Jesus (1961) directed by photographer and sometimes filmmaker Robert Frank (Pull My Daisy, Cocksucker Blues) reeks of a keenly kosher form of contempt for Christianity, yet I must admit that it is still nonetheless a strangely beauteous cinematic parable that seems like the sort of film Ingmar Bergman might have directed had he been temporarily possessed by the spirits of Werner Herzog and Tobe Hooper. Surely a sort of masterful warm-up for the eerily hypnotically haunting depiction of remote rural America as portrayed in singular cinematic works ranging from Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) to Herzog’s Stroszek (1977), the 37-minute black-and-white feature is a stark yet oneiric piece of Gothic Americana where auteur Frank reveals a sort a visceral fear and dread for all-things-rural. Based on a short story by Soviet Jewish commie writer Isaac Babel—a notable victim of Joseph Stalin's Great Purge that was shot was shot dead on 27 January 1940 after confessing to being a Trotskyite spy—the film is like a Hebraic hinterland horror film as seen from the perspective of a cosmopolitan Jew with a decidedly disturbed and completely distorted view of white rural Christian America.

A film that practically bleeds misery and melancholy in every single frame, The Sin of Jesus is as innately and unkindly unchristian as films come that feature Jesus Christ in a central role. Featuring a weak and sullen yet arrogant and heretical Jesus that pimps out his angels and is so pathetically morbidly depressed that he finds it virtually impossible to look a beautiful big-eyed woman in the face who he eventually begs from forgiveness from, Frank’s arguable cinematic magnum opus also features what is probably the most stereotypically Jewish depiction of Jesus in cinema history. Hardly the blond, handsome, and heroic Aryan Christ of European history or a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, the eponymous progeny of god in Frank’s film does not heal the blind but is himself blind to humanity and human suffering, hence his pathetic pleading for forgiveness to a uniquely unsophisticated woman that finds herself unwittingly killing an angel due to her desperate horniness. Of course, in its condemnation of a deity that causes human suffering, the film is almost cliché in its Jewishness to the point where it reveals that both auteur Frank and source writer Babel have no true understanding of Christianity or Jesus Christ, at least in the emotional sense. Indeed, even the goofy vampiric Christ portrayed by Teutonic queer avant-garde auteur Michael Brynntrup in his Super-8 epic Jesus - Der Film (1986) is holier than the emotionally comatose loser featured in Frank's film. 

 Strikingly ravishingly shot in terms of detail to the point where you clearly see a moth succumbing to death in a tattered spider web and mold growing on the walls of a dilapidated farmhouse, The Sin of Jesus is a poignantly pessimistic film where both physical and metaphysical decay ultimately make for a delightfully dejecting combo of the strangely transcendent sort in a film that seems like it was made in tribute to the apocalyptic philosophy of meta-nihilistic lapsed fascist Emil Cioran. Admittedly, I am not all too familiar with the writings of Judaic source writer Babel, but upon doing research on the author it became immediately apparent that he was an inordinately well educated man of many contradictions that, despite being from a wealthy family and receiving a thorough Jewish education that involved extensive study of the Talmud and Hebrew, would go on to support an atheistic communist regime that ultimately made him one of its many victims. When not dabbling in Zionist youth circles and French literary pretensions, Babel found time to befriend Russian peasants, whores, priests, and Cossack soldiers, among various other gentiles that were hardly fluent in Yiddish or Talmud studies. In fact, as his stories reveal, Babel developed a sort of Slavic-based ‘noble savage’ fetish, which is even apparent in Frank’s The Sin of Jesus adaptation, which depicts the horrifically hapless life of a dumb peasant broad that just cannot win in life, even with the help of the ostensibly holiest of interventions. As Maurice Friedberg at the Jewish Virtual Library noted regarding Babel’s bizarre gentile fetish, “It is this envy of what he saw as gentile physical strength and absence of moral restraints that caused Babel to create a gallery of Jewish protagonists who bore little resemblance to pathetic Jews described in certain Yiddish literature or to the Zionist dreamers and visionaries in certain modern Hebrew novels […] Babel's scenes of resplendent Jewish wedding feasts and magnificent funeral processions are reminiscent of the lush canvases of a Breughel.”  Of course, as his photographs, especially his most famous work The Americans (1958), reveal, Frank also shares this gentile fetish.

 Speaking of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Sin of Jesus is like the sort of film he might have directed had he been an underground Jewish beatnik filmmaker during the 1960s who was attempting to depict a post-apocalyptic farm were an impoverished philistine Jewess is forced to do manual labor as a result of NYC being wiped out in a nuclear holocaust. Indeed, while the film might feature Jesus and the actors portraying the leads are not all Jewish (Italian-American Julie Bovasso plays the female lead and Greek-American Telly Savalas plays her deadbeat beau), most of them certainly have would could be described as a stereotypical Hebraic appearance, including the angels. Needless to say, a film featuring Jesus, a farm, and hard manual labor could certainly be described as a dystopian scenario for a Jewish beatnik like Frank, so Jonas Mekas might have been right when he stated regarding the film in Movie Journal: The Rise of New American Cinema, 1959-1971, “No, I do not exaggerate much if I say, or rather repeat, that THE SIN OF JESUS will go into film history as one of the most pessimistic films ever made. Its pessimism is its main virtue. 'If your aim is high, it should be you that comes through the most,' says Robert Frank. The Pessimism of the film is his own: It is his own soul that he is revealing, his own unconscious. But we know that when it comes to true creation, it is the most personal art that is also the most universal. Self-expression of an artist is a universal act, it expresses a universal content. The lonely woman's (Julie Bovasso's) accusing and desperate cry in the dark, doomed New Jersey fields is an expression of the desperation of our own existence.” Notably, Mekas would pay tribute to The Sin of Jesus in his film diary Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), which features behind-the-scenes footage of Frank directing the film. While Frank's film is certainly a strikingly pessimistic piece of cinema that would probably be unbearable were it not for its consistently potent moments of rural gothic pulchritude and foreboding atmosphere, it is first and foremost an expression of grueling melancholia where the viewer is virtually submerged in the hapless heroine's metaphysical waterfall of tears. Arguably most surprisingly, The Sin of Jesus is a fairly tender cinematic work with a uniquely cold and impenetrable Jesus Christ that has never been seen before or since in cinema history. 

 As referenced in To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas & the New York Underground (1992) by David E. James, François Truffaut somewhat humorously stated in 1961 in regard to The Sin of Jesus after seeing it in a Paris movie theater, “That's the worst movie I've ever seen. I guess I'm just not an original sin boy.” Not to undermine the importance of the great half-heeb frog auteur's classic debut feature, but Frank’s film contains more visceral sorrow in a single shot than Truffaut’s sad autobiographical coming-of-age flick Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) aka The 400 Blows does in its entirety. Of course, the difference between Truffaut and Frank is the former loved life and the latter seems to loathe it, or at least one would assume after watching his nightmarish pseudo-biblical pastoral parable, which not only condemns god but also could be interpreted as a sort of abstract suicide letter. Naturally, due to be being based on a story by Jew Babel, adapted for the screen by a Jew named Howard Shulman, and directed by Jew Frank, the somewhat arrogantly titled film also gives you a good idea as to why the average Jew could never accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Undoubtedly, the Jesus of Frank’s film seems like a pathetic beatnik hobo compared to the Übermensch of suffering portrayed by Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). In short, The Sin of Jesus is a devastating reminder as to why Jews will never forgive Jesus for the perennial curse of living with the unpardonable sin of deicide. 

 The Sin of Jesus begins depressingly enough with forlorn female protagonist Arina (Julie Bovasso in an uncredited lead role) grudgingly getting out of bed in the morning while her good-for-nothing fat bastard beau Felix (Telli Savales in what was supposedly his first film role) continues to sleep. While Arina spends all day working on the farm and counting eggs, Felix sleeps like a champ as if he would rather be dead than living. As Arina narrates in regard to her lonely and stagnant life, “Months roll by with baby inside. Well . . . Nobody minds. I’m the only woman here.” To convince herself that her pathetic life is somewhat tolerable, Arina thinks to herself, “Oh, it’s good. It’s good. Felix lives with me now . . . that’s good. In that barn. Oh, well. It’s my room.” Needless to say, when Felix’s friend (Philip Sterling)—a degenerate pervert that wastes no time in feeling up the female protagonist—comes by the farm and informs her regarding her bedridden boy toy, “He’s gonna be away for a longtime […] I’m here now. I’ll be back,” she takes it extremely poorly, as her sole joy in life is crushed. When Arina later attempts to coerce Felix into not leaving by pleading to him in pathetic desperation, he gets physically violent and says nasty things to her like, “I’m sick of you and I’m sick of this place.” Of course, considering the baby growing in Arina’s body is probably not his as indicated in a flashback rape scene involving his friend, it is no surprise that Felix wants nothing to do with her or her unborn babe. 

 After reaching an all-time low after being left all by her lonesome, Arina is somewhat startled one day when she walks into her dilapidated barn and feels a sort of spiritual presence, or as she states herself, “[It] looks like a church. It is so still. Not a sound. So still. I’m all alone. Alone.” Luckily, before Arina’s knows it, a rather sullen and gaunt Jesus Christ (Roberts Blossom) appears inside the barn, so she immediately complains to him, “Jesus? Lord Jesus? I’m the girl that works on the farm. He left me. Felix went away. I have his baby. I don’t know what to do. He went away. Felix left me. I’m troubled. Please. Please, can you help me? I’m in trouble. I don’t know what to do.” While Jesus cannot perform the miracle of bringing deadbeat buffoon Felix back, he can perform certain miracles and makes her a special offer, stating like a pawnshop dealer with an unnervingly flat affect, “In heaven, there is an angel named Alfred. He is very unhappy. He wants to return to earth. For four years, I will give him to you as a husband. There’s lots of fun in him, but no seriousness.” Indeed, as the viewer soon learns, Alfred (St. George Brian) is probably the most mirthfully autistic and mindlessly hedonistic angel of cinema history, yet he is ultimately no match for the desperate lechery of pathetically sexually repressed protagonist Arina, who does not consider the extreme sensitivity of the heavenly young man’s otherworldly body. Jesus also informs Arina that there is no chance that she will be able to have a baby with Alfred, but she does not care because she is so excited. 

 When Jesus comes back a second time, he brings with him a less than angelic collection of multicultural angels that include a couple depressed young Jewesses, a lone negro, a seemingly queer and depressed fire-crotched boy, and a goofy four-eyed Asian, among others.  Of course, Jesus also brings Alfred, who is a fairly gawky boy that looks like he would make for a better son than lover for Arina. When Jesus declares, “The Angels have come to be at your wedding,” Arina immediately attempts to leave with Alfred, as if she is so desperately horny that she cannot even bother to spare a couple minutes to celebrate her special day with an extremely special supernatural cast of characters. Jesus also makes sure to inform Arina in regard to Alfred’s wings that they are, “delicate as a baby’s bread. If you don’t take them off each night before he goes to bed, you will kill him.” Rather unfortunately but not all that surprisingly considering she is a fairly slow-witted woman, Arina seems to be too excited to pay attention when Jesus warns her of autistic angel Alfred’s fatally frail wings. After the somewhat kitschy yet nonetheless celestial wedding ceremony where the angels throw feathers and play brass instruments in tribute to the eccentric newlyweds, Arina brings Alfred inside her humble abode and celebrates with him in an otherworldly scene that seems like the female protagonist’s idea of heaven. Not surprisingly, Arina forgets to take off Alfred’s wings before mounting his otherworldly member, thus resulting in a tragic deadly honeymoon.  Undoubtedly, Arina was completely infatuated with her new husband and revealed a sort of radiating glow of seemingly immaculate happiness during their wedding night that was in stark contrast to her previous morbidly melancholy self, so naturally Arina takes Alfred's rather senseless premature death fairly badly.  Somewhat provocatively, Arina ultimately blames her own stupidity that lead to Alfred's death on Jesus, as if he did not warn her about making sure to take off the angel's wings before fucking him.

 The next day, Arina carries Alfred’s tattered wings outside to Jesus, who states to her in a benign authoritarian fashion, “As it is on earth, so shall it be with you for this day on” and then calmly berates her for “killing my angel.” At this point, Arina becomes irately hysterical and loudly cries out, “Who made me like this? Who made my body heavy like this? Who made my soul lonely and stupid? Tell me! Who made a woman like me?” but Jesus simply looks away and states without even the slightest hint of emotion, “Go back, Irena. There is nothing more to say.” When Arina finally goes inside, she holds her womb while recalling a tragic incident when Felix’s creepy friend raped her, hence her somewhat mysterious pregnancy and why her (ex)beau probably left her. When Arina goes outside the next day, she yells, “I don’t want to know. I don’t need any answers” while a rather dejected and guilt-ridden Jesus meekly lurks around the farm. No longer able to tolerate her insufferably lonely life of incessant misery and misfortune, Arina curses the world and especially its creator. In the end, Jesus succumbs to guilt and vulnerability, gets on his knees, and then reveals that he is hardly almighty by pathetically pleading to Arina, “Forgive me. Forgive your sinful god,” but she now lacks the capacity for forgiveness and coldly replies, “Me … forgive him? I can’t. I have no forgiveness.” Undoubtedly, in Arina’s heart, god is now dead. 

 Undoubtedly, the more I find out about director Robert Frank, the more loathsome he seems, so I think it is only fitting that he is no fan of The Sin of Jesus, which I regard as easily his greatest and most accomplished cinematic achievement. Indeed, in an interview with Jack Sargeant featured in the book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema (1995), Frank would state the film “was not very good” and explain, “Well, it was an Isaac Babel story and the mistake was to take a story and try and make a film of it, but I was learning, you know, because there was no film schools, you had to learn by making stuff.” Aside from his rarely-seen Rolling Stones doc Cocksucker Blues (1972), the rest of Frank’s cinematic oeuvre is either obscenely overrated (e.g. Pull My Daisy), aesthetically autistic (e.g. Me and My Brother), embarrassingly masturbatory (e.g. Conversations in Vermont, The Present), or just plain worthless (e.g. Energy and How to Get It). With his sole mainstream feature Candy Mountain (1987) co-directed by Rudy Wurlitzer, Frank would ultimately got over his obsession with hipster posturing, so naturally I never suspected that he would have directed something worthwhile in his early filmmaking. In fact, as a result of my disappointment with the director's other films, I was absolutely shocked by how much I appreciated The Sin of Jesus to the point where I am shocked that Frank even directed it.

Certainly, female lead Julie Bovasso and cinematographer German cinematographer Gert Berliner—a man best known for his photography—deserve a lot of credit for the film's aesthetic majesty, as the actress' performance and the cinematography are certainly the most memorable aspects of the film. Of course, unlike most of Frank’s films, the Jesus parable actually has an actual storyline and talented actors as opposed to posturing beatniks and schizophrenic Hebrews doing nothing. Although just an assumption, I am pretty sure that Frank’s post-holocaust hatred and pathos certainly inspired his uniquely unkindly depiction of Jesus. Naturally, I can see how the film might be embarrassing for the director on retrospect, as it reveals an outstanding arrogance and megalomania in its renouncing of god, but then again that is one of the things that makes it so powerful. Indeed, the film certainly features the sort of Christ-hating that inspired Jews like Babel to become Bolsheviks. In terms of other covertly kosher quasi-metaphysical movies where the lead character arrogantly turns their back on god in the end, Hebraic auteur Michael Tolkin's debut feature The Rapture (1991) starring half-Hebrews Mimi Rogers and David Duchovny is in many ways quite thematically similar to The Sin of Jesus and the two films certainly make for a great double feature. 

 Despite my lack of religiousness and my general revulsion towards hypocritical Christ-bashing Jews that never seem to find the time to criticize the various glaringly barbaric aspects of Judaism and the tyrannical genocidal Jewish G-d, I think that it is a sad irony that, out of all of the many J.C. films that have been made, The Sin of Jesus is probably my favorite.  Of course, the film is less about Jesus than it is about a lefty Jew's contempt for the idea of Jesus and what he represents, but that is not why I appreciate it.  Indeed, to me, the film unequivocally proves that an artist's work can be appreciated in spite of its dubious political or even metaphysical message.  After all, I doubt most fans of Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising (1972) have ever read Moonchild (1923) or would describe themselves as Crowleyites.  As an urban Jewish bohemian that was born to a wealthy Judaic family in Switzerland during the Nazi era who once dubiously bitched regarding the supposed antisemitism of a cop in a small Arkansas town, “I remember the guy [policeman] took me into the police station, and he sat there and put his feet on the table. It came out that I was Jewish because I had a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation. They really were primitive,” Frank seems like the last person that could create a potent and lasting piece of rural cinematic Americana, yet The Sin of Jesus is simply unforgettable in terms of its sheer imagery, venomous cynicism, throbbing pathos and penetrating pangs of pessimism.

After watching Frank's film and noticing its seething rage directed towards god, I could not help but be reminded of Judaic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's wise and rather un-Jewish words, “It isn't sensible to be furious even at Hitler; how much less so at God.”  Of course, the somewhat bizarre thing about The Sin of Jesus is that Frank reveals rage towards a religious figure that he, as a proud atheistic Jew, does not even actually believe in, but then again one could argue that the film is actually an attempt to confront the seeming absurdity of poor, ignorant, and downtrodden peasants being the most likely to have faith in Jesus of Nazareth when they have such horrible, miserable, and accursed lives.  In that sense, the film proves to be provocative, if not misguided, but I suspect that it is just really one of the seemingly infinite examples of a Jew rejecting that Jesus was not the long awaited Messiah of the Messianic prophecies. As to how someone that is so poor and unlucky could be religious, Wittgenstein offered an insight when he wrote, “People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect as ill. Any man who is half-way decent will think himself extremely imperfect, but a religious man thinks himself wretched.” After all, it takes a certain degree of profound arrogance to, not unlike Frank, condemn a religious figure, especially a creator god, even if you do not believe in said religious figure, but I guess it might be a little different with Jesus, who makes Jews feel culpable for deicide, hence the classic antisemitic slur ‘Christ-killer.’  Additionally, I would not be surprised if Jews like Frank blame Jesus for pogroms and even the holocaust, not to mention the stereotype of a Hebrew complaining “Where was God?” in relation to said holocaust (in that sense, one could argue that Frank's film is a sort of cryptic-holocaust flick where a Christian acts as a stand-in for a Jew in the denouncing of god).  While Hollywood movies and mainstream TV shows never miss an opportunity to mock Christ, The Sin of Jesus seems to be one of the few cinematic examples where a Jew ‘attempts’ to make some sense of the supposed ‘false messiah,’ so naturally it should be no surprise that the film wallows in misery, melancholy, and tragic misfortune, as if it is the expression of the Jewish collective unconscious.  Either way, Frank's film surely had the opposite result on me as the director intended, as it gave me the urge to learn more about the real Jesus Christ, who was surely not anything like the eponymous melancholy wimp of The Sin of Jesus.

-Ty E

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