2003 Milk Plus Droogies

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Kill Bill Vol. I

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Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

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Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

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Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Sunday, March 07, 2004

The Gospel According to Mel

I finally made it. A week and a half later, and the theater I went to was still packed (while waiting for the film to start, I made some interesting demographic observations about the audience, but I think I’ll leave that to the comments). I have to admit, I only went to the The Passion of the Christ for two reasons: (1) curiosity, and (2) a misplaced sense of objectivity. I’m not a believer; I rejected Catholicism long ago, and am now a firm atheist; nor am I a fan of Mel Gibson’s recent work. I used to kind of dig Braveheart, but the Mel’s increasingly apparent martyr complex and rank homophobia soured any enjoyment I got out of the old fashioned melodrama and battle scenes. Even though I’ve followed the developing controversy (and the crassly evident attempts to capitalize on that very same controversy for marketing purposes) and many of the mixed reviews, I still was kinda, sorta optimistic that Gibson could have pulled off a half-way decent movie about the final hours of Christ’s life. Stranger things have happened; a gay Marxist managed to create one of the most moving and profound films concerning Jesus Christ.

Alas, I was disappointed. Not extremely disappointed, since my half-hearted optimism only took me so far. Still, I have never seen a film that relies so heavily on what the audience brings to the theater, while providing so very little in return. Unless you have a vested interest in the material, watching someone get beaten and flogged for almost two hours has a tendency to cause one’s interest to flag (case in point, during the scenes on Golgotha, as several of the people sitting around me were openly sobbing, I sat in the darkness thinking about various quotes from The Simpsons that dealt with Christianity; I had to stifle some laughter). The film’s central problem is the narrative itself, and it is not only the fact that everyone in the audience already knows how it ends. Actually, come to think about it, that is one of the film’s biggest problems. The film is too dependent on the audience already being at least somewhat familiar with the events depicted in the film. The film literally preaches to the choir, providing very little context as to why events are transpiring on screen, even from the supposedly all important spiritual perspective. For a story whose central tenet is that Jesus had to die on the cross to forgive mankind for its sins, the movie does a piss poor job of explaining why it had to happen, or it’s even it’s importance (the film, however, does go to great pains to draw out Pontius Pilate’s political dilemma). Not that the film goes into any great depth when it comes to Jesus’s teachings, which in the film, are reduced to a series of soundbites presented in isolated flashbacks.

My guess is that anyone not brought up in the Judeo-Christian perspective would have a hard time understanding what the hell was going on in the course of the film. Also, I can’t see how the film would be an effective tool for proselytization, all I could see the film doing to people who are not familiar with Christianity is scare the crap out of them. This dependence on audience familiarity also renders what could have been a positive aspect of the film’s success, the fact that millions of Americans are flocking to see a subtitled film, into a pyrrhic victory. I mean, who cares if it is in Aramaic and Latin if you already know what’s going on, you don’t even have to really read the subtitles.

The lack of context provided by the film is further exacerbated by the filmmaker’s decision to only depict a relatively small portion of Jesus’s life, albeit an important one in the overall arc of the narrative. By focusing almost solely on what is effectively the middle of the narrative, all but ignoring Jesus’s birth, early life, ministry, and Resurrection, the filmmakers have drained all the character growth, conflict, complexity, etc. from the story, you know, the things that make narrative’s interesting. I’ve read the gospels and they are interesting, textured narratives, something captured by such exemplar films as The Gospel According to St. Matthew and The Last Temptation of Christ, but lacking from The Passion of the Christ. Jesus barely interacts with his disciples, Mary Magdalene, or his mother (of course, my favorite scene in the entire film comes early on; it is on of the few scenes where actual humanity is interjected into the story, it is the scene where Jesus is building the table in his mother’s courtyard), they are all, in fact, cyphers for the purposes of the narrative. I’m sure the intent of the filmmakers was to render the main characters as icons, for the purposes of reflection by the faithful, instead of flesh and blood people (you know, something that would make them interesting separate from the fact that they are all venerated figures in Christian mythology), and in some respects, especially in regards to Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci, who have wonderfully expressive faces, they succeed, but in others they fail miserably. Especially Jim Caveziel, who is pretty much a blank slate (Caveziel seems to be competing with Jeffrey Hunter for the title of “Pretty Boy Jesus;” give me Willem Dafoe or Enrique Irazoqui any day of the week and twice on Sunday), when not screaming in agony or writhing in pain. I don’t think he was helped with the Aramaic dialogue, as it sounds like he was speaking pho-net-ic-al-ly (the Italian actors who got to speak Latin sounded much more confident and natural).

For the most part, the Romans, with the exception of that lovable bloodthirsty tyrant Pontius Pilate, his wife Claudia, and a couple of the centurions, are depicted as sadistic animals, while the Jews, with the exception of a few proto-Christians, are depicted as a sinister cabal (the priests and Temple Guards) or a bloodthirsty, easily manipulated, fickle mob (everyone else). Simplistic depictions turn cartoonish when Gibson pushes his narratives to the extremes. For example, Satan, who appears frequently throughout the film as an androgynous, hairless perversion of the Virgin Mary (you’d think that temptation would be more effective in the guise of, say, a little girl, instead of a weird, scary monster), and the demons that plague Judas (the film actually skirts with horror-movie motifs when it comes to Judas’s final fate, obviously expanding on Matthew 27:5, perhaps cross-pollinated with Dante; maybe Judas will get a fair shake, though I think he already did in The Last Temptation of Christ, in tomorrow night’s ABC telemovie?), or the decadent court of King Herrod (where in Mel Gibson land, decadence=homosexuality). Why do I think that these depictions are cartoonish? Because they are so overwrought (especially when Satan, in a field of bones, cried out in anger).

But overwrought is the adjective of the day when it comes to The Passion of the Christ, but what can you expect from a movie whose primary purpose is to depict nothing but the suffering of it’s main character? Mel Gibson obviously never met an action that could not be shot in slow-motion (I actually lost count of how many times Gibson ramped the camera during the opening scene in Gethsemane; or how many times a Roman centurion whipped him in a low-angle, slow motion shot; or how many times that Caveziel stumbled and fell, writhing in agony in slow motion); a big moment that could not be punctuated with a camera push-in; or a scene that could not be underscored with some kind of ominous piece of music (Peter Gabriel, where art thou?), and I actually kind of liked the music, along with Caleb Deschanel’s moody photography (save for the fog-drenched blueness of the Gethsemane scenes). My “favorite” stylistic motif was when some characters looked directly into the lens (the most noticeable example being Mary, after the body of Jesus is taken from the cross), as if they were shooting accusatory glances at the audience, implicating them in the brutality of the events. Which is actually kind of the point of the narrative, so I have to give Gibson that one.

But, in The Passion of the Christ, who is really responsible for the death of Christ? Gibson, in many recent interviews, may have responded with “humanity”, but the film all but has a big, blinking arrow pointing straight at the Jews, and we’re not just talking about the priests, it seems we’re talking about the whole of Jerusalem at one point. The sneaky Jewish priests manipulate all of the events, railroading Jesus to his death using the bloodthirsty Jewish crowd as a political incentive against the incredulous Romans, who hesitate to punish the clearly innocent Jesus. Even if Gibson neglects to translate some of the more colorful aspects of Matthew (such as Caiaphas’s blood libel, or some of what the crowd was chanting when Barrabas was freed), I find myself agreeing with Frank Rich and Abraham Fox, this film is rank anti-Semitism. It might not inspire new hatred, but it will certainly reinforce that which has already been learned (it also doesn’t help that people already inclined to accept the literal truth of the Gospels, may also extend their beliefs to this film, which despite Gibson’s protestations to the contrary, is not all that historically or theologically accurate; for one thing, Gibson continues the conflation of the Mary Magdalene with the adulteress, not to mention the poetic license he takes by expanding the story of Judas, Pontius Pilate, and Claudia). Given all of Gibson’s recent statements, I wonder if he even realizes what he’s created, as he may have just internalized all of it. It certainly doesn’t help that his father is a Holocaust denier (and that Gibson himself has made questionable statements concerning his father’s views); that he is part of a Catholic splinter group that rejected Vatican II (you know, that thing that absolved the Jews of deicide); and that parts of his screenplay may or may not be based on the writings of two notoriously anti-Semitic mystics. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The film is what it is.