The Good Old Naughty Days

Compiled by Michel Reilhac

“In the beginning was the Word.” Most people in the Christianized world are familiar with that phrase, although some surely find it puzzling. The enigmatic assertion begins the fourth of the Bible’s accounts of the life of Jesus—but don’t expect any explication from The Gospel of John, Philip Saville’s stagy dramatization of the scripture: Though Saville and scripter John Goldsmith make the words flesh, they hang them on only the most skeletal of interpretations.

A Canadian-British production filmed in Toronto and Spain, The Gospel of John opened first in Bible Belt markets, which is only logical. Not only is Jesus a hotter property there than in the Northeast and on the West Coast, but many Southern Christians come from the Bible-reading tradition and thus are more likely to know what’s in John’s particular account. Very different in tone and language from the other three, John was most likely written later than Mark (generally agreed to be the earliest), Matthew, and Luke. It shows considerable influence of Greek and Persian philosophy and religion, and it reflects a church that was consciously separating itself from its Jewish origins. John mentions “the Jews” more than 10 times as often as any of the other gospels, and about half of those references are negative.

Film buffs who’ve paid attention to the controversy over Mel Gibson’s allegedly anti-Semitic The Passion of Christ may be surprised by the quiet arrival of The Gospel of John, which explicitly portrays Jews as demanding that the Romans crucify Jesus. Justifying his film, producer Garth Drabinsky notes that it’s a word-for-word account of its biblical source. Faithfulness to the text is not exactly a defense against charges of anti-Semitism, however, especially given that many scholars trace Christian hatred of Jews to John’s gospel. But a recent article in Jewish publication Forward suggests that The Gospel of John has avoided censure in part because Drabinsky (who co-founded but no longer has an interest in Cineplex Odeon and is currently under indictment in both Canada and the United States for fraud) and fellow producers Sandy Pearl and Joel Michaels are Jewish.

Drabinsky hopes subsequently to film the Gospel of Mark, which seems to lend itself better to adaptation. Mark’s Jesus is more human, capable of doubt and temptable by Satan. By comparison, John’s Jesus is Schwarzeneggerian: stiff, relentless, and always on message. He arrives full-grown, as if off a celestial production line, and tiresomely repeats himself. Yet the Book of John, which was initially rejected by the Christian establishment, has become the most influential of the four: This is the gospel that explains the concept of being “born again” (probably derived from Persian worshipers of Mithras), extols the once-controversial idea of the Trinity, and establishes Jesus as a divine manifestation of “the Word”—that is, the Logos, a Greek notion of the cosmic rationality that orders the universe. John is also the book that inaugurates a long-term strategy for Christianity, which at first was based on expectations that the messiah would quickly return and this world would end.

None of this is addressed in The Gospel of John, which is little more than a three-hour Sunday-school pageant. Between them, the narrator (Christopher Plummer) and Jesus (Henry Ian Cusick) speak most of the book, with occasional lines entrusted to disciples, antagonists, and onlookers. Saville, who’s had an undistinguished 50-year career in British film and TV, uses desert locations and fluid traveling shots to banish comparisons to the Hollywood-back-lot Bible epic—yet most of his techniques are as stodgy as anything in a Cecil B. DeMille swords ‘n’ sandals flick. The reaction shots are particularly stilted, suggesting silent-comedy double takes rather the awe of bystanders realizing that they’ve encountered the Son of God.

The unseen Plummer, whose tone is alternatively breathy, amused, or conspiratorial, gives the movie’s most entertaining performance. He’s so much livelier than the rest of the film, in fact, that viewers may wish The Gospel of John had dispensed with traditional dramatization for a hypertext mode, akin to that of Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips’ miniseries A TV Dante. Experts could have popped up to speculate that the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved”—purportedly the author of the book—was in fact Mary Magdalene, not some unnamed bearded guy. Or, better yet, to address that nagging insistence on pinning the crucifixion on the Jews. But if such liberties might have made for good cinema, they would have been bad marketing: The movie’s core audience, after all, is among those people who take literally the most abstract of the Bible’s Jesuses.

Michel Reilhac’s The Good Old Naughty Days opens with a short film of a pretty young woman, naked from the hips up, dressing her hair. Ah yes, the early 20th century: an innocent time when glimpsing a pair of breasts was the height of titillation.

Guess again. All but the first of the 12 French shorts assembled by Reilhac explicitly depict male and female genitalia, vaginal and anal intercourse, fellatio, and lots of cunnilingus. The last gets special attention because the most common arrangement is one man and two women, although there are also twosomes, foursomes, and other lineups. Made between 1905 and 1930 to be shown in “the best brothels in Europe” and recently discovered in a bourgeois family’s attic, the movies depict scenarios nominally set in classrooms and convents—where the nuns wear stockings and heels under their habits—as well as fantasy locations that are apparently supposed to be China and Renaissance France. Two of the films, perhaps designed to entertain older men, depict fanciful pre-Viagra cures for impotence. Even some ‘toons and a dog join in the fun—not that it looks like fun, exactly: A few of the players ostentatiously smile, but most of them appear rather grim.

Reilhac provides occasional printed commentary, but, like Saville, he didn’t exactly knock himself out putting these films in context. Aside from the addition of Eric Le Guen’s jaunty piano score, the film is merely a collection of found objects. The compilers didn’t even translate the title cards that are in French. (Some are bilingual or in English.) Although the spectacle of uninhibited sex in an era before your parents (or grandparents) were born is intriguing, these artifacts quickly become monotonous, and not one needs to be seen in its five- to 10-minute entirety. This is raw material for a possible documentary, not a finished film. In this case, the cause may be laziness rather than excessive reverence, but The Good Old Naughty Days is every bit as blank as The Gospel of John. CP