1978: Deciding my immortal soul was in peril if I didn’t get some of that old-time religion, my mother enrolled me in Sunday school. I’d never taken churchgoing seriously, right from my earliest childhood sacrilege, and had enjoyed several years reprieve from Christ’s self-indulgent message about love and brotherhood and all that other new-agey hocus pocus. With my earliest breath of comprehensible speech, I’d articulated my extreme boredom with the weekly church services. Even my mother’s concession to allow me to bring paper and pencil so I could draw in the pews throughout the repetitious sitdown-standup-singalong-shutup routine failed to keep me from expressing my disinterest in the whole rigmarole. So, in an effort to silence my complaints, my mother allowed me to become a lapsed Protestant at the ripe old age of five. This suited me fine. Sunday morning cartoons weren’t nearly as plentiful and diverse as Saturday morning cartoons, but there were still a few token entries in the lineup that were worth my time much more than simple salvation.
My parole from the rigors of soul-saving only lasted a few years before my weekends were again imperiled by my mother’s new hope that I would at last be ready to have some spiritual guidance forced upon me. Sunday school proved to be just as lame as I had always feared – a misguided attempt to sway the wee children from the road to hell by accurately simulating what hell and damnation might be like through a grueling program of glory-be songs and forced camaraderie. The real hardship for me – the true hell of it all – was that I was going to miss out on my weekly rerun of Jonny Quest.
Jonny Quest, for the ignorant heathens among you, was (and remains) the coolest adventure cartoon ever. Produced by Hanna-Barbera for one season of 26 episodes back in 1964-1965, it was a space-age boys-adventure wet dream. There were two attempts to revive the show in the 80’s and 90’s, but modern television executives just didn’t get what was so great about classic Jonny, as evidenced by their efforts to update the setting and add icky girls to the mix. The fact is, Jonny Quest was a wonderful politically incorrect Neanderthal of a show that was unapologetically manly (not to mention homoerotic) and excessively violent to a degree even contemporary adult dramas dare not match. The pilot alone had a body count of about 50, which isn’t bad in 23 minutes flat. The five principals were all guys and there wasn’t the slightest effort to appeal to a broader demographic than young boys and arrested adult males (like myself, today). It also sported one of the best television jazz scores of the era, which I still listen to regularly.
Admittedly, I’d seen all the episodes of Jonny Quest a dozen times over, so it was hard to make the argument that I should be in front of the television on a Sunday morning rather than in school learning about the greater glory of God. But in my heart, my very soul, I still preferred the sermons of the mighty J.Q. to those of the big J.C.
Now, when I say I’d seen every episode of Jonny Quest already, that isn’t entirely true. There was one – just one – that never seemed to air. That was the “Turu the Terrible” episode. You remember it, I’m sure. It was the one with the old guy in the wheelchair who uses a pet pteranodon to guard his silver mine and keep the slave labour in line. Being a typical dinosaur-obsessed kid, I was dying to see this one particular show, shots of which played tantalizingly over the opening and end credits. Alas, week after week went by and it never ran once. But then, one Monday, reporting back to regular old non-religious school, I heard from a friend that it had finally played – the previous day, while I was at fucking goddamn Sunday school. This was before the VCR revolution, back when if you wanted to see something on TV, you had to watch it when it was broadcast or you were screwed. And I was indeed screwed.
The wrath of God Himself had nothing on my rage as an incensed Jonny Quest/Turu-deprived ten-year-old. This Sunday school shit had to go. I waited impatiently for my chance. It presented itself only a few weeks later.
Our masters at Sunday school must have spent much of their week trying to devise gimmicks to keep the class interested in what they were telling us about the Bible and its cast of thousands – so much so, I remember all the gimmicks and not one of the lessons. One of the things they were intent on pumping up was prayer. The usual private closed-eye mutterings weren’t good enough for them. They wanted some way to make this an inclusive group activity in a more touchy-feely sort of way. It was therefore suggested that the next time we met, we would all hold hands in a circle while we talked to the Lord. Personally, I thought this was a great idea because it gave me all the ammunition I needed to get my ass out of there and back on the couch in front of the TV where it belonged.
“Next week we’re having a séance to talk to Jesus,” I dutifully reported to my mother as soon as I got home.
And that was that. “Séance” proved to be precisely the correct choice of word to raise my mother’s hackles and get me pulled from the class immediately. The very next Sunday morning I was back watching Jonny Quest religiously. They never did run the Turu episode again, and it took me a full 25 years to finally catch it, but I had accomplished what I set out to do. I had damned my soul in the name of a cartoon.
Which brings us to today.
2004: The complete set of original Jonny Quest episodes came out on DVD this Tuesday past. Of course I snatched it up instantly, and look forward to reliving the many wrongheaded, scientifically implausible, and politically incorrect adventures of the Quest gang. But the old memory of how Jonny, Hadji, Race, Dr. Benton and Bandit orchestrated my fall from grace prompted me to seek out a new dose of that old-time religion. Something that might renew a faith I never had and bring me back into the fold.
So on the very same day I went to see The Passion of the Christ.
Right off the top, I have to take issue with the film’s supposed historic accuracy and faithfulness to the gospels. Aside from the typical nitpicking about the hows and wherefores of crucifixion, I was surprised to see how wrong they got their stigmata.
The stigmata is based on the celebrated wounds Jesus suffered leading up to and during the crucifixion, as accurately mirrored in that great piece of medieval artifact hokum, the Shroud of Turin. And yes, Mel Gibson’s movie does show the crown of thorns, the nails through the extremities, and the poke in the ribs with a sharp stick with an attention to detail that handily crosses the line between unflinching and pornographic and steps boldly into Guinea Pig territory. But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. Witness the scourging of Christ, which isn’t so much an accurate depiction of a flogging as it is a graphic portrayal of a live skinning. There are chunks of meat flying off the guy. Remember when Freddy Krueger was really having at Jason Voorhees on the pier in Freddy vs. Jason? It’s that kind of over-the-top violence and gore, but at least Freddy and Jason have the excuse of being undead. In The Passion, Jesus isn’t supposed to be undead. Not yet at least. By the end of the movie, Our Lord and Saviour is one big seeping wound. There isn’t a single square inch on his entire body that isn’t split wide open and bleeding profusely. He’s such a mess, the stigmata is lost in the shuffle. Seriously, no one walks away from a beating like that, let alone walks a whole mile away with a 200-pound weight on his back. I know he’s the son of God and everything, but he’s not fucking Superman.
This, however, fits in perfectly with Mel Gibson’s body of work. Even before he got all born again, his entire career pointed towards a morbid obsession with extreme sadism and masochism. I can’t think of a single movie star who has spent so much screen time being horrifically tortured. Go through his filmography. He must be tortured at least as many times as Jodie Foster and Jennifer Jason Leigh are raped in their movies. And that’s a lot. Gibson is unique in this regard. I certainly don’t remember Cary Grant ever having his toes pulverized with a hammer, do you? Okay, maybe in The Philadelphia Story, but that’s it.
Mel probably would have played Christ himself if he had had the chance. The fact that he has a cameo appearance as both the hands that nail Christ to the cross and the feet of Christ that Mary kisses bears this out. But I’m sure he realized his appearance in the title roll would have earned the film an NC-17 rating. Not for violence, but for the fact that every scene in the film would have featured Mel ejaculating in a self-flagellating religious fervor. And an NC-17 would have kept the devout from traumatizing their children with the film over and over again, at least until it was released on home video.
In the end, The Passion of the Christ failed to save my lost soul despite the seductive power of cinematic ultra violence, which I usually quite enjoy. I guess I’ll just have to get off with violence in a non Christian-approved vehicle by watching Race Bannon and Dr. Quest kill a bunch of sinister frogmen. Those wetsuit bastards have it coming even worse than the nasty Roman legionnaires.
It is finished.