My obsessive listening champion for 2008 so far is Passion, Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. Nothing else even comes close.
The last time I was this fixated was the summer of 1993, when I had Sugar’s Beaster (Bob Mould’s finest, blastingest post-Husker Du record to date) in continuous rotation for two months, relieved only by K.D. Lang’s Ingenue (a concept album about unrequited love, with each song corresponding to a stage in the journey from crush to rapture to self-abasement to numbness to recovery), which in turn would enter continuous rotation until I switched back to Beaster. I don’t know why these fixations develop, but when they do I let it ride and allow my subconscious to control the old mental iPod.
At first I thought the thing with Passion might have been nostalgia for that Saturday morning in 1988 when I headed to New Sodom to see Martin Scorsese’s film and found the street in front of the Ziegfeld had become an open-air Bedlam of Bible-bangin’, snake-handlin’, tongues-talkin’, sermon-shoutin’, fire- and brimstone-flingin’ Jesus whoopers all lathered up and ready to mud-wrestle Satan right there in front of the ticket booth.
It certainly isn’t nostalgia for the movie, which I found as unwatchable as the underlying Nikos Kazantzakis novel was unreadable. The idea that so inflamed the Jesus whoopers — that Christ could have been tempted down from the cross with the vision of an ordinary man’s life — seems perfectly acceptable in theological terms, though it was the kind of thing that could have gotten your eyes gouged out in medieval Constantinople. My problems with the book were strictly literary and artistic, considering that the book’s 500-plus pages of theological grunting and groaning were leading up to one of the biggest foregone conclusions in literary history. That and some curious turns of phrase that could have been the result of poor translation, but which probably reflected the fact that as a writer, Kazantzakis was a little less than divinely inspired. The film compounds those problems with its own clunkiness, exacerbated by a tiny buidget and restricted shooting schedule, some unfortunate improvisations and performances (couldn’t Harvey Keitel have hired a vocal coach to work on that New Yawk accent?), and terrible casting choices. Andre Gregory as John the Baptist? Puh-leez.
But the soundtrack is sort of magnificent, emulating the film’s most original idea — the Holy Land as a teeming crossroads of cultures and nationalities — by weaving African, Asian, Balkan and ambient textures into a patchwork that comes across as a unified whole. It all comes together, appropriately, for the closing music, in which Christ’s decision to accept crucifixion is celebrated by trilling Arabic voices, thumping African drums and a simple, celebratory motif that occasionally takes on the overtones of church bells. Even if, like me, you view these theological concerns from the outside, it’s a moving summation for the film.