That’s Right Gibson–It’s Strange Cargo, not Strange Carcass
(Soundtrack: Joan Osborne–Relish)
Forget Caviezel, forget H.B. Warner, forget Dafoe even–there’s only been one great portrayal of Christ in film history…I’m talking about Ian Hunter in Strange Cargo (1940), of course. Fittingly, he’s a supporting character. Are you listening Mel? There is no difference between a hair-shirt and a straight-jacket.
Frank Borzage uses every convention of the ultimate Nietzschean genre (the prison-break film) to build his case against romantic “empowerment”–which is really just the flipside of asceticism. You know the drill with these–toss the moral law out the window: it’s man vs. men; self-actualization vs authority…the strong do as they will, the weak suffer what they must. You either beat the system or it beats you.
The gangster cycle of the thirties was born to dramatize this struggle. Eventually, there’s nothing to do with desire but kill it, and these protagonists all end up dead: either physically–as in Little Caesar, Scarface and a hundred others–or spiritually, as in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang… Depending upon the director’s point of view, this either comes across as martyrdom or mercy-killing, but in neither case is there any possibility of a truce between the outlaw and fate.
But how about that possibility?
What if you show human beings triumphing over every obstacle until they smack into the bars of the ultimate jail cell–the will itself? And then you give them the key? Or, rather, you tell them: there’s nothing on the other side, why not redirect that desire toward what’s on this side of it?
That’s exactly what Borzage does here–and he doesn’t go halfway with his deus ex machina… He sends God (Cambreau) in to pinch-run in the equivalent of the second inning, and he stays in there to run things for the rest of the game. This is Christ as player-manager.
When Hunter and Gable first meet, in a disgusting prison dormitory on Devil’s Island, Gable grabs the Bible off of his saintly cell-mate and says, flipping through the pages:
“There’s some things in here that’ll startcha talkin’ to yerself. Like this for instance: ‘And God created man in his own image.’ . . . Take a look at me–do I look like a God to you? This forsaken place is fulla Gods, I suppose? Only they’re not workin’ at it right now. They’re gods on a holiday.”
And he’s right. That’s Nietzsche’s (and Emerson’s) superman in a nutshell, absolutely free. In “Manners”, Emerson explains that his ideal human being ought to “carry the holiday in his eye”.
I’m more interested in gods who punch the clock. And so is Borzage.
This whole adventure is a preparation for salvation without apotheosis. The Christlike Cambreau does what he can for Telez (the brutal theist), Flaubert (the paranoid), and Moll (a lesser version of Gable’s superman). But Gable is the target from the beginning–in the penultimate scene, he screams at the drowning man: “who’re ya gonna call on for help now Cambreau–I’m the only God who can save ya now!” And then he understands what he’s just said and dives into the water. He pulls Christ back into the boat. And that’s what Christianity should have been about. Not God suffering as a man. But a person who becomes a God by halting that suffering. Borges theorizes that “Christ” wasn’t Jesus, but Judas. I vote for Pilate… The Gospels tell a story of human/divine failure…
Ah, but we love those martyrs, don’t we? We like to project ourselves into that Christ position. All that suffering, but there’s redemption beyond the grave, right? You’ll be sorry world… Billy Corgan syndrome. On that Ninth Art thread a couple of days ago, one of my interlocutors and I got into a discussion of Morrison’s Animal Man that illustrates this point perfectly. Robin Hermann maintains that the “Coyote Gospel” is sooo deep, while the saga’s ending in issue #26 was “trite”. Why? Presumably because he’s like one of those people who, when they observed Christ being nailed up there, thought: “whoa…that’s heavy man, I know just how that dude feels–but he’ll be vindicated, and so will I, someday…”
Borzage (like Morrison) is saying: “I got yer vindication right here!” You are God–and that’s a heavy responsibility. There’s no time for self-pity. Other people are being crucified every day, and if you can stop it, you’d better do so! Some holidays are far too costly.
“Why have you forsaken me?”
I give up.
Good Night Friends!