Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Testament Week: the Book of Jim & Artie

Posted By on 12.21.11 at 08:00 AM

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin (1852)
  • The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as not depicted by the Mitchell Brothers
I started reading the Bible seriously around the same time that I became aware of sex as something other than an abstract concept. The two experiences were surprisingly compatible, as I found plenty of grist for my burgeoning imagination in the Book of Genesis alone. And few verses proved more inexhaustible than these lines from Genesis, chapter 19. It comes from the denouement of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a passage I’d recommend to any adolescent unable to get his hands on the 1980s classic Taboo:

Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two young daughters lived in a cave. And the older one said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.

This episode is curiously absent from Sodom and Gomorrah: The Last Seven Days (1975), a pornographic feature directed by Jim and Artie Mitchell (Behind the Green Door) at the height of their commercial success. While that’s an unfortunate omission (think of what the Mitchells—who specialized in epic orgy sequences—could have done with Lot and his daughters!), it doesn’t detract from The Last Seven Days on the whole. In fact, the movie is one of the few effective biblical adaptations I know, fully conveying the carnality and sordidness that often inspired Yahweh’s destructive wrath. Not only does it feature sexual couplings of every kind (bestiality is included), it portrays the denizens of the title cities as little more than animals walking upright. People fuck in trees, use vegetables for sexual stimulation, and ambush their enemies—like apes—while they’re fornicating.

Lay readers rarely discuss the pervasive sensuality of the Old Testament, even though the Book of Genesis devotes almost as much attention to its characters’ sex lives as the Mitchell Brothers do to theirs (let's not forget Joseph’s temptation by the pharaoh’s wife, the pleasant menage a trois that Jacob lands himself in...). I’d argue that this sensualism is in fact central to the book's power as a foundational text: the emphasis on material reality only enhances the miraculousness of God’s interventions. Before I could engage with the Bible’s ethical imperatives, I already had a store of images associated with names like ‘Nineveh’ and ‘Sodom’—and they looked nothing like the spectacular sets of Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical films. Rather, these were arid, forbidding landscapes populated mainly by moral degenerates, whose lives demanded the righteous intervention of the Abrahamic God. That may be why I like The Last Seven Days so much: by virtue of their ineptitude (the film appears to have been shot in a San Francisco-area nature preserve) and pansexual excesses (did I mention the vegetables?), the Mitchell Brothers pretty much bring to life the Bible as imagined by every bored and horny confirmation student.

Before I hit adolescence, the physical realities of Genesis seemed beyond debate, as did the punishments Yahweh meted out in those stories. Even though I sometimes found His violence excessive or arbitrary (why, for instance, would God wipe out an entire city? if He was omnipotent, why couldn't he kill only the bad people?), I felt assured that it was a necessary part of a larger narrative—one that culminated in the present, I supposed, with the sustaining existence of the Jewish people. But with puberty came skepticism, rebellion. I latched on to every chapter of the Torah that didn't make sense as part of a holy book—the pornographic episodes and the stuff that read as nonsense. Yet doing this somehow further personalized the stories for me; it burrowed them into my teenage imagination, much like the images I conjured in childhood.

For that reason, I don't regard The Last Seven Days as anti-religious, even though it depicts Yahweh as a talking chimpanzee from outer space who just pretends to be a deity to scare earthlings into altering their sexual practices (it’s his job, you see, to curtail the spread of gonorrhea throughout the universe). If the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah resulted in the moral betterment of those who survived (presumably, there's a moral to this story), does God's exact motivation really matter? I'm fine with the Mitchells' dramatization. When pressured by an aide to justify why he vaporized Sodom and Gomorrah, the chimp at the spaceship controls does a bad John Wayne impression and says, “because their people were a bunch of liberal assholes.”

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Sodom and Gomorrah: The Last Seven Days is available for rental at Odd Obsession Movies.

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Read more from Testament Week:

"Testament Week: Salvation terminator," by J.R. Jones

"The Woman's Bible," by Sam Worley

"Testament in Rogers Park," by Kate Schmidt

"In the beginning, God created smug teenage boys," by Tal Rosenberg

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