March 15, 2004

The Kool Aid of the Christ

So, I haven’t written anything about Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. That’s mainly because I can’t write a review of a film I haven’t seen. However, certain things are becoming clear enough that I can at least make a few comments and point you in the direction of some reviews. I’ll contain my criticisms to the level of criticism I would have for other films I haven’t seen, such as House of 1000 Corpses or Dude, Where’s My Car?.

There are a number of criticisms and comments of the film coming from people whose opinion I respect.

Curtis over at TX Reviews focuses his main criticism on the fact that the character of Jesus is underdeveloped in the film. I, myself, wondered why Gibson chose the Passion to the exclusion of other parts of Jesus’ life.

But, perhaps Gibson is not trying to instruct at all, when it comes to Christianity. Perhaps he’s only trying to communicate something he feels very deeply. Ebert makes the observation that:

But “The Passion of the Christ,” more than any other film I can recall, depends upon theological considerations. [�] It is a personal message movie of the most radical kind, attempting to re-create events of personal urgency to Gibson.

I can understand that. This is a film driven by a belief. And, in large, people who share that belief are reacting similarly. The question, what is that belief? is not one I think I can answer without seeing the film. Yes, there’s a religious component to the belief. But also, there is something about violence to it—something about victimization.

I’m steering clear of the anti-semitism aspect partly because it’s lost in subtlety that someone who has not seen the film is not going to be able to work out. But to continue on with the “belief” aspect, I have heard more than one Christian making reference to this as being “their” film, in the sense that there are already many films about oppression and maltreatment of Jews. Do people believe that it is time for Christians to rise up in some sort of perceived victimhood? The Christian victim meme is out there, so much so that it is gaining attention. Perhaps this has something to do with the phenomenon.

One thing that is clear to anyone whose seen clips of the film is the high level of violence. It’s not available online, but this week’s Entertainment Weekly contains an article by Stephen King. He declares it a good film, but switches in mid-article to another concern. A young girl of perhaps 8 is seeing the film with her mother who just instructs her to cover her eyes during the bloody parts.

Alicia hid her face for 15 minutes�but that left another 50 minutes of punishment, torture, cruelty and death to go. And was I ashamed to be in the theater, even though the film Gibson has made is, if taken on its own artistic and religious terms, good—perhaps even great? I was. I feel that same shame heating my skin now, days later. [�]

The child I’ve chosen to call Alicia looked. And looked. And looked. I think she’ll be looking for a long time to come. In her dreams.

It’s worth reading the whole article, because it is the best treatment of the violence aspect I’ve seen from a man who has mad violent films himself. He doesn’t mention the ratings SNAFU, even though the ratings board has been one of his peeves over the years. Ebert makes references to the fact that either the ratings board has no problem with violence (as opposed to sex in films) since they did not award the NC-17, or they were afraid of a backlash because of the subject matter. You decide.

Margaret has had her own reaction to the film’s focus on the violence which ended Jesus’ life. She drew a cartoon to express her opinion regarding both the violence and how the film is being used by some. Here it is, with a little bit of context on Greg’s Peace Passion. And some comments of hers appear on an earlier post on Greg’s weblog.

I have my own reasons for finally making some mention of this film. My reason is that the arrogance bothers me. Not the arrogance of making a religious film, or making a film about Christianity. Or even the arrogance about making a violent film. I respect Mel Gibson’s right to make any sort of film he likes. It’s the arrogance Gibson has about the film, in that he seems to think that there is no interpreting filter. He’s said, famously, that if you have a problem with the film, you have a problem with the gospels. Mel has partaken of The Kool Aid of The Passion—his own Kool Aid. Mel should understand that even if he were there, with Jesus every step of the way, the film would still be a point of view. And how can it be anything but that after 2000 years and through a number of lenses?

What do I care if he’s slipped over the border into self-delusion? Well, for one thing it now makes me feel it’s OK to enjoy the humor (not that I usually hold back, but I certainly feel better about it)

My favorite skewering thus far appeared on SNL this weekend. I hope you caught it. It was “The Passion of the Dumpty” (which I imagine will appear on the internet sometime soon). It was an on-target lampooning of the Diane Sawyer interview.. Robert Smigel replaced cuts from the movie in the original interview with animations of the horrible treatment of H. Dumpty. A shadowy figure pushes him from the wall and is later revealed to be a Jewish caricature, complete with a Star of David. Eventually, a fried egg rises into heaven. The interview was interspersed with parodies of the Bush campaign ads, each one having to change because of objectionable content. The piece was a home run.

The only mention of it on the internet is in this freeper forum, where the predictable reaction is taking place. People objecting to the rising of the fried egg, etc. They feel insulted. What a perfect reaction! Now, the film is Christianity. Parody the film and you’re attacking Christianity. By their same criticisms, Jews should be up in arms over the Jewish caricature in the bit. But its obvious that this parody is attacking the two big controversies of the film—its violent contend (a horse crushed Dumpty’s head at one point) and the anti-semitisim some perceive.

There appears to be little negative reaction from the Christina world toward Gibson for opening the door to this obvious criticism. I’ve seen Catholic criticism attacked by right-wing (conservative protestant) media. That’s to be expected, right?

So, what do I think of the film? I think I’ll see it eventually. Shouldn’t I? It appears to have been thoroughly vetted by Christians. How can I understand Christianity if I ignore a film that has become so important to so many American Christians? When it is out on DVD I will have to rent it, and take in every second of the bloody mess. And I’ll meditate about what it means to be a Christian, something I previously thought had more to do with the teachings of the Christ rather than the every detail of his death.

Posted by James at March 15, 2004 10:32 AM
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