• 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


    Friday, October 20, 2017

    Greaser's Palace (1972)

    I first heard about Greaser's Palace (dir:Robert Downey, 1972) around the turn of the century on one of of the first websites to cover the Bible on Film, Pete Aitken's Post-fun Adult Christianity. Sadly the site has been defunct for many years now, though you can find it on the Internet Archive, but it's mention of a "zoot-suited Jesus" has stayed with me, such that I've always hoped to be able to find it, but never quite managed it.

    The film is very much a product of its time. It was released in 1972, three years after Buñuel's The Milky Way (1969), a year after Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and the same year as The Ruling Class (1972). The following year would see the release of both Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell and all six movies have the same off-kilter feel about them. There was, perhaps, a temporary artistic freedom in the air that allowed for off-beat, irreverent and potentially offensive portrayals of Jesus as filmmakers toyed with Jesus' cultural capital.

    It was a blip. By the mid to late 1980s the church, most notably the religious right in America had got it's act together and was no longer prepared to let artists exercise their freedom of speech unchallenged. The protests over Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ are notorious.

    Greaser's Palace has never quite been popular enough to gain cult status, but it's that kind of film. Jesse (Allan Arbus) parachutes down on the outskirts of an obscure western town wearing a zoot-suit and pink fedora. The town is dominated by the fearsome owner of the town's bar, Greaser's Palace, who on spotting Jesse's arrival marches out in a celebrated long reverse tracking shot that keeps going just as yo expect it's going to end. It's the kind of technical pun that appeals to directors and film critics. Indeed you can hear Paul Thomas Anderson discussing it here.

    Jesse, however, isn't here to save the world, but to meet with his agent. Sure he'll raise Greaser's Son from the dead every time his father kills him, and somehow he even ends up on a cross, but this is not the driven man of social action of so many other films that modernise Jesus. He's on his way to Jerusalem "to be an actor, singer, dancer". Faced with a body of water he not only walks on it, but performs back flips, before disappearing from sight below the water and reappearing on dry land. Even Greaser is impressed by that one. His daughter is less impressed: Jesse is starting to steal her limelight.

    Despite it's intriguing premise, then, it doesn't have a great deal to say (not that it necessarily has to). It's the most overtly comic of the films listed above, and it draws on various types of humour; if the site of the Holy Ghost wearing a top hat and dressed in a white sheet doesn't amuse you, maybe the slapstick of Jesse and Greaser's son trying, and failing, to climb on a donkey will. The occasional moments of 1970s era homophobia and racism probably won't.



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