Friday, March 11, 2005

Four Questions for supporters of "The Passion"

I'll be seeing and reviewing the new "Passion Recut" sometime this weekend, as soon as I see it. As a warmup for what I'm positive will be a genial and pleasant exchange with readers amd fellow bloggers across the web, devoid entirely of anger, namecalling, people accusing other people of being "paranoid" and use of the term "secularist" as a put-down (thanks, Bill O'Reilly,) I was considering posting my old pre-blog review of the original-release version of "Passion." Finding it, however, too be a bit on the long side, I've decided instead to post this and hope that maybe some "Passion" fans can enlighten me:

What follows are five detailed questions pertaining to aspects of the film, it's content, it's popularity and it's controversy that I'm still having a bit of a problem wrapping my head around. Usually, whenever I bring these up I'm either accused of trying to incite anti-Christian bias or told that I "just don't get it." Very well, help me get it. Let's all pretend for a minute that we're still living in the Age of Reason and have an exchange over this instead of calling names. I'm serious. If you're a fan of "The Passion," give me an answer to some or all of these questions, I'm genuinely curious to hear from you:

WHY is "The Passion's" endless, ultra-explicit violence acceptible for children but the similar violence of other films is not?
I realize that not every Christian parent thought it necessary to subject their kid to this film, and if you're one of them, please excuse yourself from this question. Those who DID, though... seriously, explain this to me. Down the line, Christian leaders are always at the forefront of trying to censor and remove extremem violence from films, but on this one most were largely silent? Why? Why were the same "family movie reviewers" who've been telling me for years that every violent film "could have stood to be less explicit" now telling me that "Passion's" highly-fetishized ultraviolence is 100% necessary to "understanding" the message. Does this mean that violence is okay for children so long as it's pushing a Religious message? If so, can I now show "The Exorcist" (a totally in-line pro-Christian anti-Satanic film) to an audience of preschoolers if I so choose to? Just asking...

WHY does the use of "extrabiblical" material here not upset those who were furious about "The Last Temptation of Christ?"
The constant line I hear again and again about "Passion" is that it's wrong to criticize it's storytelling because "it's taken directly from The Gospels." But the thing is, it's not. Nowhere in any of the "accepted" four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,) do I recall the presence of Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane, as we see in the film. Nor is there any mention of the Sanhedrin soldiers throwing Christ off a bridge en-route to the judgement of Caipphas. Nor does any accepted Gospel describe Judas being assaulted by an "Evil Dead"-like ghoul under said bridge, or being hounded into suicide by an army of goblin-faced toddlers unleashed by Lucifer. Not even in the quirky-details-laden Gospel of Luke will you find any tale of Jesus inventing Tall Tables. Out of four Gospels, only one describes a pre-crucifixtion flaying even remotely approaching the horror show in Gibson's film, and at least one seems devoid of pre-execution torture entirely; and NONE of them say anything about Satan slithering around among the Temple Elders (there's not even much Gospel evidence for the presence of the Elders themselves at the actual scourging) to show off a Chucky-like demon baby. The film also presents Mary Magdalene and the rescued-prostitute to be the same character, and while thats a mistake most adaptations make it's still a mistake.

Now, I'm not questioning Gibson's right to artistic invention in the film, I'm merely asking for fairness: Gibson has PACKED his film with cinematic invention, coded references to pre-Vatican II Catholic imagery and documents (particularly "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ," a 19th Century record of Sister Mary Catherine Emmerich's fever-dream induced visions of the crucifixtion, now regarded as discredited by the Mother Church, from whence the "bridge-drop" scene is taken) but he maintains that his film is "based on the Gospels" and his defenders repeat it as, well, gospel. But Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" contains a approximate amount of Biblical contradiction (actually less so, since in that film the Biblical-inconsistencies are eventually revealed to be a dream of Christ's) and continues to be savaged by Christian film critics for these "blasphemies." All I want is clarification, folks.

WHY have Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians embraced the film when it's presentation of Christianity is so explicity Catholic?
There are certain things about Catholicism that most Protestant sects (Lutheranism and Methodism in particular, if I recall) are supposed to regard as, at best, heresy. Chief among these are the veneration of the Virgin Mary (believed to have been based on co-opted paganistic earth-goddess imagery rather than any scriptural basis and thus rejected by Martin Luther's "back-to-basics" movement) and the "Stations of The Cross," (a Catholic traditional of ritual-theater involving instances with little or no scriptural basis,) both of which are present and soundly accounted-for in "The Passion." Gibson even places Mary and Jesus posed in a "pieta," a scene popularized in Renaissance art but appearing nowhere in scripture.

Again, it's Gibson's right to make an expressly Catholic version of the story, but then why was the film so heavily supported by the predominantly-Potestant "evangelical" movement when so much of it's content is regarded by many Protestant faiths as, at best, a corruption of scripture fundamentals? If the answer is, "we wanted to show support for a Christian film, even if it's a vision of Christianity we don't 100% agree with," then fine, I can accept that. But, if so, does that not make the success of the film less the story of a film-appreciation movement or even a religious movement and more the story of a political point-scoring movement?

And, finally...

WHAT is a non-believer, a skeptic, follower of another faith or just anyone not intimately-familiar with the material supposed to get out of this film?
The crucifixtion is the climax to, it is said, "the greatest story ever told." It's supposed to be the hammering, drive-the-point-home trump card to the story of a man's life considered so profound that if introduced to it by a convincing enough evangelist one is intended to fall to their knees, humbled by the sudden realization that the man described is the Son of God himself. Evangelism, the winning of converts and new believers, is the key mission of Christians individually and Christianity itself. The reason the term "preaching to the choir" is supposed to be such a condemndation is because it's exactly what Christianity is NEVER supposed to do: The faith is, above all else, meant to be accesible and open to ALL who would hear the Truth. Above all else, the evangelist mission of their faith forbids Christians from keeping Christ to themselves, treating The Word as something that is only to be heard and appreciated by those who are already "in the club."

But this is exactly what "The Passion" does. It treats Jesus and His story as a speciality item, a niche-market curiosity to be appreciated and enjoyed only by those who already "get it." The miracles He performed? We see none of them. The message He spread? We hear a tiny bit of the Sermon on The Mount. For two hours plus, we see an actor dressed as Christ being flayed alive, and not once does the film remind us why he's doing it. Redeeming the sins of mankind? You'll only know it if you've already accepted that going in, otherwise we're treated to a film that is essentially two hours of simulated sadomasochistic torture-pornography, leaving us with the notion that He is to be worshiped... why, exactly? Because he could take a punch well? What's supposed to be the most moving tale of personal sacrifice in the entirety of human history is reduced to a simplistic action-movie cliche: The hero we side with on the sole basis of his ability to endure pain and seemingly beg for more. By the logic of "The Passion," the criteria for Lamb-of-God-hood should make Uma Thurman's "The Bride" from "Kill Bill," Jet Li's "Nameless" from "Hero" and every action hero Mel Gibson has ever played equally-qualified for the role of Savior; and with no disrespect to those fine characters I think Christ perhaps deserves slightly better company.

There's a basic rule of storytelling and filmmaking at work here, folks: You can't rely on visceral "ooh! That looks like it hurts!" gut-reaction pity to inspire pity and connection from the audience; you need to give them a reason to care or at least a character worth caring about. Taken on it's own, as a work of filmmaking, "Passion" fails to do these things: From where I'm standing, this is a cheap shock-show for makeup-FX torture, not some kind of transcendant religious experience unless you're already "on the bus," in which case it's simply missing the point.

So there they are, my four BIG issues with "Passion" in question form. If you've got answers, I'm waiting to hear them.

3 comments:

Haze said...

Well like always bob... your posts are very good and i love reading them... and no im not going to answer any questions. Because i agree with most of what you have stated. I just wanted to ask a question myself... I personally don't understand why Gibson re-released... the passion with a quote "re-cut"? I mean here is my comment... If i want to see the re-cut i will just advance my dvd past the real bloody scenes. I mean this is all he really did was take out some of the very violent scenes so more would go see it, is how I view it. I mean if he would have added in some scenes he took out or made a different opening sequence or ending sequence. I might go see it. But i am not going to bother because i can watch it at home with a click of the remote. PLease let me know what you think of this bob.

haze

Wesley Fulgham said...

Amen. You hit the nail on the head. People always ask me why this film offends me yet movies like Sin City, Kill Bill vol 1&2,Ichi the Killer etc. Well three reasons 1.These films are about gangsters, hitmen ,and all around scum and like you pointed out Jesus deserves better company.
2. Even the unrated edition of Ichi the Killer does not have the non-stop level of torture and bloodshed the Passion flaunts as a "message of Christ's love". I'm a fan of screwed up cinema as the next film geek but I have my limits in taste and again Jesus deserves better.
3. The people who haved praised The Passion have slammed films Like Saving Private Ryan(several conservative critics have stated the violence isn't necessary to apperciate the sacrifice of the soldiers yet it's neccesary to see Jessus be flogged for TEN minutes c'mon) and the brillant Schiendlers List(LIBERTAS acutually called it a moral cartoon!) Yet when someone critcizes The Passion well you know the rest that's my time keep up the good work Bob

Wesley Fulgham said...

Amen. You hit the nail on the head. People always ask me why this film offends me yet movies like Sin City, Kill Bill vol 1&2,Ichi the Killer etc. Well three reasons 1.These films are about gangsters, hitmen ,and all around scum and like you pointed out Jesus deserves better company.
2. Even the unrated edition of Ichi the Killer does not have the non-stop level of torture and bloodshed the Passion flaunts as a "message of Christ's love". I'm a fan of screwed up cinema as the next film geek but I have my limits in taste and again Jesus deserves better.
3. The people who haved praised The Passion have slammed films Like Saving Private Ryan(several conservative critics have stated the violence isn't necessary to apperciate the sacrifice of the soldiers yet it's neccesary to see Jessus be flogged for TEN minutes c'mon) and the brillant Schiendlers List(LIBERTAS acutually called it a moral cartoon!) Yet when someone critcizes The Passion well you know the rest that's my time keep up the good work Bob