When I worked at my undergraduate institution’s writing center, a nerdy film student came in one day for “another set of eyes” on his essay. He summarized the film his paper was about, Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, since I had never seen it. An alumnus of our school, Schrader’s film is more or less an R-rated, sex-worker-heavy version of a Christian parable. It’s also, frankly, not even that good. Regardless, the way this student, who would eventually become the best man in my wedding, described the meeting space of fervent yet not fundamentalist religiosity, humanism, and filmmaking would correct course the way I thought about visual art. It was one of those defining moments that taught me how to watch movies: watch them as if they matter, as if “the stories we consume relate to important questions of eudaemonia, or human flourishing, and to a civil society.” The Last Temptation of Christ, also written by Schrader, is a movie that matters.
The nominal etymological meaning of impact, “collision, or act of striking against,” provides a useful framework for thinking of Last Temptation’s cultural relevance: it impacted culture, and for that reason alone it’s worth viewing. Religious mythologies no longer needed to be shielded from non-religious cultural explorations. Even if the film itself didn’t shatter this barrier, its presence in the American film canon is symbolic of such an event.
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