The Backlash Passion
Illustration by James McHughBlood, guts, and a happy ending. No wonder The Passion of the Christ is a showbiz sensation . . .
Mel Gibson's messianic meller, which opened on Ash Wednesday after more free media than Janet Jackson got, and a marketing campaign that could make Harvey Weinstein weep, may rake in $100 million—not to mention the skim from souvenir mugs, coffee-table books, prayer-reminder cards, and pewter spike pendants. How did a film described as an "anti-date movie" generate such buzz? The answer has everything to do with Gibson's canny use of Hollywood hype techniques.
First, stir the shit. Gibson did this by fanning the fires kindled by Jews (whose fears were well founded, judging from leaked copies of the script). He made outrageous comments on the order of, "Secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church." He allowed that he'd cut a scene in which the head Jewish priest cries, "His blood be on us and on our children," because, "Man, if I included that in there, they'd be coming after me at my house, they'd come kill me." Guess who they are?
Next, build a base. This Gibson did by flogging the film to a network of fundamentalist churches. Gibson's company, Icon, worked this sale like the pros they are, sending their man out on the road, facilitating block purchases of tickets, and soliciting testimonials from A-list televangelists, even as they kept the film from the eyes of potential critics. But the mass media were wary until The Passion's distributor got involved. In Bob Berney, president of Newmarket, Gibson had chosen a partner with a track record in pitching edgy films about subjects like pedophilia (Happiness) and lesbian serial killers (Monster).
For this project, Newmarket tapped into the current passion for backstory revelations. Soon we were hearing about the miracle (involving a lightning strike) that had occurred on the set. It was taken as an auspicious sign that the actor playing Jesus, Jim Caviezel, had the same initials as the Savior. These tantalizing tidbits were gravied up with a human-interest angle that centered on Gibson's struggle against the classic demons of drink and drugs. By the time he appeared on Primetime last week, the narrative of the sinner redeemed was at the heart of Gibson's conversation with Diane Sawyer. Her questions were as soft and fleecy as the Lamb of God.
Is Gibson an anti-Semite? "It's a sin," he replied. "There's encyclicals on it." Never mind that Gibson's breakaway Catholic sect rejects the most recent of these pronouncements, along with every other Vatican declaration since the 1960s. Never mind that Gibson's father thinks the Holocaust is mostly fiction and that the millions of Jews who lived in Poland before Hitler's rise merely migrated to places like Brooklyn. Under Sawyer's sympathetic gaze, Mel presented himself as a loving son who wouldn't allow his enemies to "drive a wedge" between his dad and himself. Karl Rove couldn't have programmed him better.
What accounts for Sawyer's gentle touch? The gut says: positioning. A network that appeals to the demographic taking shape around The Passion can make quite a killing, and to that end ABC will soon broadcast a film about Judas. Ads for this event appeared during the Gibson interview, which was watched by 17 million people, a larger share than even Michael Jackson's sit-down on 60 Minutes. Soon every network was running a low-budget version of the Gospel, all golden light and churchy chords. Here's a prophecy: You'll see all sorts of faith-based pageants as the media compete for this audience and flee from its wrath. Their eye is on the sparrow of the bottom line.
The real story here is the rise of a newly mobilized market and the crossing over of its values. In that respect, Gibson has done what Pat Robertson could only dream about, by enlisting the very techniques his co-religionists object to in Hollywood films. Among these aesthetic values, nothing is more commercial—and less faithful to the Gospel—than ultra-violence. You won't find epistles dwelling on the finer points of human brutality in the New Testament, but you will find such lessons in the cinema of Brian De Palma. When you see Jesus soaked in gore, think of the blood-bucket scene in Carrie.
Never mind those Caravaggio paintings that inspired Gibson. The real model for this film is Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, with its relentless depiction of torture, along with every slasher movie that cloaks its intentions in a higher message. Violence has become the measure of verisimilitude. If it's bloody, it looks real. That illusion allows us to enjoy what violence does provide: pleasure. If it weren't so exhilarating, it wouldn't be so popular.
Many people who would never attend a Bible movie will flock to this one because they get to see a man tormented by men as others look lustfully on. The faithful will sublimate this sadomasochistic sensation into religious ecstasy, as they have for ages. Either way, Gibson wins. He's made a spectacle of joy in pain—the essence of boffo.
Every generation gets the Passion it deserves. Back in the '50s, when Perry Como sang "Kol Nidre" on TV, anyone could take comfort in Gospel spectacles, with their Roman finery and celestial finales. It didn't matter whether you referred to Jesus as he or He. These old films enrage Gibson ostensibly because they were bland but actually because they crudely reflect the ethic of Christian humanism, tempered by firsthand knowledge of the Holocaust. That was then and this is now. Gibson rails against scholars who try to place the Gospel in a historical context. That's the sort of thing his father would call a plot by Freemasons and Jews.
When you do embed the New Testament in its time, you discover that the earliest books, composed about a generation after the Crucifixion, portray Jesus as beloved by the Jewish masses but reviled by their priests. It's only in the later Gospels, written by men who knew what the Romans had done to the Second Temple, and could do to them, that Pilate takes on an almost benign air and the Jews are affiliated with Satan. These late books are the primary source of Gibson's rendition, which reflects the traditional—and now repudiated—teaching of the Catholic Church.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has yet to weigh in on this film, but they certainly haven't allowed their parishes to be part of the hype. This is a fundamentalist megillah, and it's revealing that Gibson's rejectionist brand of Catholicism meshes so well with a reactionary Protestant agenda. Those who fear that this film will fuel anti-Semitism as it makes its way around the world are right to be alarmed. Despite his promises to the contrary, the curse upon the Jews that appears in Matthew is still in Gibson's Passion, cried out by the mob condemning Jesus but not translated in the subtitles. No one will understand these words as they are spoken in Aramaic, but what will happen when the film reaches other countries and new subtitles are made? And what about the relentless depiction of bloodthirsty Jewish priests and mobs manipulating a weak-willed Pilate? It is naive at best to deny that these images will resonate with what many Muslims think about Jews and what many Christians still feel deep in their hearts. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 25 percent of respondents think the Jews killed Jesus.
There are signs of this bias among some champions of this film, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who told CNN that Jews were upset because they don't share the Christian teaching of the Gospel, as faithfully rendered by this film. William Donohue of the Catholic League (which is unaffiliated with the Church) has called the ADL's Abe Foxman "an Orwellian genius" and attacked "Catholic and Jewish elites" for "instructing Mel how to portray Jews" while ignoring the blasphemous works that pour out of Hollywood. No doubt some fundamentalists view this film as an act of revenge on Jew-financed sacrileges like The Last Temptation of Christ. Still, many ministers will deliver sermons on anti-Semitism in the coming weeks. Doesn't that settle the issue? On the contrary, it begs the question.
There's a reason why Gibson's film shows some Jews helping Jesus while others torment him. Though he offers this as proof that he's not a bigot, it perfectly reflects the Manichaean view of Jews that many fundamentalists hold. There are good ones who act in a way that hastens salvation and bad ones who are agents of the devil. Either way, Jews have a preternatural power. They can abet the Rapture (especially by moving to Israel) or subvert God's plan. Those demonically clever secular Jews are still out there running Hellywood and the Mephistopholean media. To quote Gibson, both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times are "anti-Christian" papers. Many fundamentalists would agree. To these folks, Frank Rich is Satan's spawn (but that's another R-rated feature).
"Remember, it's only a movie," the great sage Liz Smith advises. If she's right, The Passion of the Christwill be equably absorbed by a culture in which one rush is as meaningful as another. But images and metaphors are powerful precisely because they reach below the level of logic. This may be the first major work of modern right-wing popular art, more potent than, say, Dirty Harry because it's much more primal. It resonates not just with pre-modern Christianity but with the current moment.
This is an election year in which religion is front and center. It remains to be seen whether George Bush will be asked to comment on Gibson's opus—or what he would say (thank God for the Jews of Florida). But certainly the Republicans are doing everything they can to identify the Democrats as the party of nonbelievers. They can't come out and call themselves the party of God. That's where the militant message of this film kicks in. It ends not with a heavenly ascension but with an image of Jesus striding forth to the beating of drums. This vision is about to meet an inflamed and paranoid time.
You have to wonder: What bloody beast slouches toward the cineplex to be born?
Author's note: I'm proud to count myself among the heretics barred from screenings of this film. In the spirit of the Gospel, my epistle is based on reliable sources.
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