“Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” —Graham Greene, The Quiet American
G.K. Chesterton once said that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I wonder whether he would reconsider that statement if he saw Jesus’ Son? Based on a semi-autobiographical suite of short stories by Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son is set in the early 1970s and tells the story of a tortured, drug-sodden young man, played by Billy Crudup, known to us only by an unprintable sobriquet. The movie’s title comes from a song by Lou Reed about heroin (“When I’m rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus’ Son”—attention to meter isn’t Reed’s strong point). There is a great deal of heroin in Jesus’ Son—as well as uppers, downers, marijuana, and good old-fashioned alcohol. Our protagonist’s girlfriend, Michelle (Samantha Morton), who introduces him to the pleasures of heroin, dies of some sort of drug overdose, as does at least one other character. There is also a fair amount of violence, vomiting, and grubby casual sex, all of which is conducted to what the press material calls “the classic beat of 70s AM radio.”
Jesus’ Son is clearly meant, at least partly, to be an exercise in nostalgia for the 1970s and the excesses it represented. The movie opens with our anti-hero hitchhiking and recalling the traveling salesman who “fed me pills that made the lining of my veins feel scraped out…. I knew every raindrop by its name, I sensed everything before it happened.” In other words, he was high as a kite. If you like that sort of inconsecutive pseudoprofundity, you may like Jesus’ Son. Few countercultural clichés fail to appear in the film, which also features many flashbacks, narrative digressions, and other devices directors tend to use when they wish to appear avant-garde but are not up to telling a good story.
Jesus’ Son is a Movie with a Message. According to the press material, it is a “lyrical, edgy, and often hilarious tale of a young man’s journey from the lower depths to an unexpectedly divine state of grace.” If you believe that, perhaps you would consider buying the Brooklyn Bridge, which I would be happy to sell you for a modest consideration.
In fact, Jesus’ Son belongs to that large and varied genre of works that poach on religious rhetoric to traffic in sordidness with impunity. This is often done cynically. Think, for example, of Salvador Dali, who was always going on about the religious or mystical implications of his obsession with sexual perversity and decay. Or think of the trendy English artists Gilbert and George, who specialize in huge scatological photo-montages and who tell us, “We believe our art can form morality, in our time.” (One critic compared their work to the Isenheim altarpiece.)
It is slightly more complicated when the religion is wheeled on—well, I was going to say “sincerely,” but I am thinking of all those many cases in which sincerity is fatally undercut by sentimentality. It is a cloying, indeed an insincere sincerity. Although often full of pathos—tears, after all, come cheap—what we have in such cases is too saccharine and too contrived to be sincere. Jesus’ Son is a splendid example of the beast.
Directed by Alison Maclean, Jesus’ Son is one of those movies that specializes in cut-rate redemption. The protagonist is a feckless, self-absorbed loser—not malicious, exactly (especially not compared with many of the creeps he runs into over the course of the movie)—but someone who has embraced irresponsibility as a vocation. The key moral, or antimoral, of the movie is that this irresponsibility is visited on rather than chosen by him. The fact that he is bumbling and ineffectual is supposed to be a sign of his purity or innocence, when in fact it is merely a token of his ineptness. In one bizarre scene, he and another drug- sodden character are out joy riding and run over a rabbit. The other character rescues a litter of bunnies from the mother, entrusting them to Our Hero (as I will henceforth call him), who puts them in his pocket and, in his drug-induced euphoria, promptly forgets about them. When it transpires a bit later that he has inadvertently squashed them, his companion asks angrily, “Does everything you touch turn to s—?”
The brief answer is, yes. But the question is whether all-around gormlessness is a version of saintliness. That is an equation that Jesus’ Son means to foster. The more traditional alternative holds that by making various choices, we can easily put ourselves in a position where misfortune is not so much our fate as our responsibility. Aristotle once pointed out, “Men are responsible for having become careless through living carelessly, as they are for being unjust or profligate if they do wrong or pass their time in drinking and dissipation. They acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a certain way” There are many things in our culture—including movies like Jesus’ Son—that argue frantically against Aristotle’s observation. But if Aristotle is wrong, then there is no such thing as moral responsibility.
This is a question that Jesus’ Son wishes to finesse. When Michelle gets pregnant, she and Our Hero try to stay off drugs for a while, but eventually they drift back to their addiction, and Michelle winds up getting an abortion. When Our Hero leaves the abortion clinic, he indulges in a bit of voice-over narration in which he tells us that only later did he understand what the abortion protestors were getting at. But how are we to understand that later insight? And what are we to make of the heavy- handed religious imagery that punctuates Jesus’ Son like clockwork? At one point when Our Hero looks wistfully out of a diner window, the camera pulls back, and we see his head garlanded by what is clearly meant to be a crown of thorns. In another scene, Our Hero—high again on drugs—follows a man into a laundromat and, in among various other hallucinations, sees an image of the Sacred Heart emblazoned on the man’s chest.
All of which means…what? We are meant to think that when Our Hero winds up working in a nursing home and kicks his drug habit, he has reached that “unexpectedly divine state of grace” I mentioned above. Perhaps Our Hero will do some good at the nursing home. Perhaps he will stay off drugs and remake himself into a responsible member of society. And no doubt grace had something to do with his rescue. But to present this tale of sordidness and woe as a deep religious drama is to sentimentalize religion and invest a decidedly secular pilgrimage with a redemptive aura it doesn’t deserve.