• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Friday, February 08, 2008

    Superstar (1999)

    No, this post is not about a version of Jesus Christ, Superstar featuring Will Ferrell in the lead role. Instead, it's about a 1999 comedy in which Ferrell co-stars alongside Molly Shannon. Ferrell's main role is as Catholic high school heart throb Sky, who is the object of desire for Shannon's character, Mary Katherine Gallagher. Mary is desperately seeking her first kiss, and has decided that the only way to attain it is to become a superstar. However, like many teens she's a little awkward, both physically and socially, and so has to settle for watching Sky go out with her nemesis Evian (apparently the prettiest girl in the school).

    About half an hour into the film Mary drifts off to sleep and is visited by Jesus. There's an obvious similarity, then, between this and films like Johnny Got His Gun which I reviewed last week. Here, however, there's an added twist: Jesus is also played by Ferrell. Mary's somewhat confused by this, but 'Jesus' explains to her that their conversation is all in her head:
    Mary Katherine Gallagher: Oh my God!
    Jesus: Oh my Me! How are you?
    Mary Katherine Gallagher: It's going OK. Are you the Lord?
    Jesus: Well, to you I am. See, technically, you're, like, in this REM sleep state, and I'm a mixture of your mind's images of God, some past authority figures, uh, Skye, and your dad. Basically, your subconscious came up with me to help you deal. Dig?
    In contrast to Johnny Got His Gun, the explicit denial that this is in any way the 'real Jesus', combined with the humorous nature of the film, mean that this film cannot be read as offering serious commentary on the historical Jesus. It does, however, draw attention to the way in which our subconscious image of Jesus is informed by various sources, which often have little to do with the Bible, or historical probability. It also comments on the social construct of Jesus. Increasingly in our society Jesus has become a hip, new-age type figure. Toothless and benign, he's seen as a man of peace who taught people to love. What's amusing about this film is the way it uses that characterisation to send up the guiding star figure movie cliché that is so prevalent in films such as this. Interestingly, it could be argued that this cliché actually originated in films such as Quo Vadis?, where the original 'guiding star figure' was a vision of Jesus himself. Indeed one scene from the film appears to parody (perhaps unintentionally) the pivotal scene in Quo Vadis?.

    It's also interesting that both Superstar and the earlier Jesus cameo films both present Jesus as somehow unreachable and put barriers between the viewer and Jesus. The 50s epics, did this by avoiding showing his face, either filming from a distance, from behind, or just showing his hand etc. In fact The Robe actually uses the cross as a physical barrier in front of Jesus's face. Barriers such as these came out of a spirit of piety, but nevertheless made Jesus more remote.

    Superstar, on the other hand, shows its Jesus face on and close up, but makes the point, that this is not the real Jesus. Thus Jesus remains as remote as he was in the earlier films, only this time the barrier is uncertainty about our ability to encounter anything of Jesus apart from our own experiences. It's not, by any means, a cynical portrayal, but it is very much the product of post-modernist understanding on the attainability of truth or otherwise.One final point here is that the figure of Jesus is also represented in this film by statues of him which appear in the background in various scenes.The other thought that occurred to me in watching Superstar is how clearly it demonstrates the importance of the choice of actor to play Jesus. At the time of the film's release Ferrell had already featured in two of the Austin Powers films having made his name on Saturday Night Live. In fact Superstar started life as an SNL skit, so, at least amongst the shows fans he brought numerous character associations with him to the role.

    Ferrell has subsequently gone on to find huge success in a range of performance from gross-out college comedies (Wedding Crashers to his role in the more thoughtful Woody Allen film Melinda, Melinda. Despite those roles coming after his performance in Superstar, they continue to inform and alter the film's meaning, albeit perhaps marginally. Viewers who watch Superstar after they have seen Elf or Anchorman cannot help but read this film through those previous performances, in a way that someone unfamiliar with his body of work could not. It's a good example of how stars are no longer able to provide a blank canvas to those they continue to work with. Their face brings to their new roles connotations associated with their previous work.

    Overall the Jesus character appears four times in the film (although it depends quite how you count it), and Ferrell's portrayal of Jesus was included in Entertainment Weekly's 12 favourite TV and Movie Jesuses.



    • At 12:40 pm, February 12, 2008, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      Well, if anyone could do an insightful commentary on the cultural and philosophical significance of Will Farrell as Jesus, it would be Matt Page.

      Excellent analysis! Makes me think of the ways in which modern reverence and postmodern skepticism have combined to distance people from religion, even while increasing the general hunger for spirituality.

      I think films like "Superstar" are only further testament that, underneath our seemingly base and immoral popular culture, we often have a need to address the deeper cultural issues of established religion and personal faith.

      Well done!

    • At 8:47 pm, February 12, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Kevin



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