Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Passion of Mad Max Beyond Braveheart

Mel Gibson has always had a flair for making action-driven revenge melodramas. Now, he's made the ultimate entry in the genre with The Passion of the Christ.

Mind you, this is the first time anyone has made a film about the life of Jesus that conceived of it primarily as an action flick. Most of the other previous films about Jesus have been, by comparison, boring and talky. The Passion does away with all that inconvenient and boring talk and gets right to the nitty-gritty of the exciting stuff, which is to say, the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, with all its beatings and floggings, culminating in a real gore-fest of a crucifixion.

So if we're going to get any insight into the meaning of Christ from this film, it's going to derive not from all those boring sermons he preached, but from the immense sacrifice he made for all mankind. And that meaning, in this telling, becomes very simple: Bad people brutalized Jesus beyond belief, and deserve to be punished for it.

It's a revenge melodrama -- without the satisfying catharsis of revenge.

Some people have said this film marks an odd career choice for Gibson. But it actually fits in rather neatly with his ouevre -- even from the very start.

Mad Max was the classic cheesy revenge melodrama. What made Max really mad, of course, was the cold-blooded murder of his wife and child, fleeing a pack of mad-dog motorcycle gangsters. Next thing you know, biker guts and eyeballs are strewn all over the highway, and another is given the choice between sawing his arm off or getting incinerated in a large explosion. He gets the latter. In The Road Warrior, (aka Mad Max II), which put Gibson on the cinematic map, Max has settled down to mere mercenary work, but he really goes off after the bad biker gang has beaten the holy crap out of him. This was, it appears, a mere warmup for The Passion.

Revenge melodramas have the certain appeal of a simple and clear storyline arc: First, the bad guys spend the first part of the story making life difficult, if not horrendous, for the protagonist. This finally culminates in some act of real horror. The protagonist then spends the rest of the story exacting a cathartic revenge upon the perpetrators.

Revenge has been an implicit and even explicit feature in the lion's share of Gibson's films. It pops up in the third Mad Max film, the Lethal Weapon films (especially the second, with that vivid shot of his drowned girlfriend), The River, Ransom, Payback and The Patriot, and probably significantly affected his decision to try his hand at Hamlet (which, as "serious" films go, has more than a passing resemblance to The Passion).

It seemed that Gibson reached a real apex in the revenge-melodrama genre with his Oscar-winning Braveheart, a depiction of the bloody and violent life of Scottish hero William Wallace. It featured not one but two revenge motifs: the first, Wallace's, after the cruel killing of his beloved bride Murron; and the second, the audience's, after Wallace's own brutal execution, played out in exquisite detail.

Indeed, The Passion feels like a two-hour version of the drawing-and-quartering sequence in Braveheart (which was long enough as it was, clocking in at about 20 minutes, as I recall). The only difference is that we are not given the satisfying conclusion, in which the Scots eventually overwhelm the British, and it is slyly suggested that the subsequent English royal line is descended from Wallace. In The Passion, the cathartic revenge is left unfulfilled -- but the need for it is quite clear.

And like Braveheart, Gibson's version of the Passion is unquestionably an action film. It opens with an ominous, thrumming score by John Debney that owes more than a minor debt to Peter Gabriel's amazing soundtrack for (ironically enough) Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. But that was one of those talky films; we know that this is an action film from the start. Nor does it relent for the next two hours -- though what really makes this film strange and, ultimately, creepy is that the entirety of the "action" is the gross physical punishment inflicted on Jesus.

Well, action films are not known for being either reflective or accurate. The Passion of the Christ, true to form, is neither. Anyone claiming this film is "true to the Gospels" is only half-right. It does take a number of scenes and lines of dialogue from the Bible -- though selectively, in a way that exposes the underlying political agenda of the film. However, there is a great deal more that not only is historically inaccurate, it is not found anywhere in Scripture, neither in the technical sense nor the broader sense -- particularly the relentless brutality of it all.

Bill Cork at Ut Unum Sint has already helpfully -- and quite accurately -- catalogued much of the non-scriptural material in The Passion. As I watched it last night, some points stood out immediately:

-- Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane? Where does that come from? It's not in any of the Gospels. Anne Emmerich, perhaps?

-- Jewish soldiers? As far as I know, the Romans permitted no such thing. The Gospels, notably Matthew, Mark and Luke, largely describe a gang of men, some of them from the high priest's office, who arrest Jesus. John's account mentions soldiers, but the clear implication was that these were Roman soldiers supporting the arrest.

-- The excessive brutality begins a mere 15 minutes into the film, when the Jewish soldiers who arrest Jesus wrap him in chains and throw him over the side of a bridge. Again, this appears nowhere in the Gospels.

-- It continues throughout. Violence is committed upon Jesus in nearly every scene, with any number of beatings for which there is no scriptural account. The Gospels, for instance, only mention that Jesus is beaten at the end of his ordeal before the high priests; but Gibson has him beaten throughout.

-- At every possible point, Gibson ratchets up the level of violence to nearly pornographic levels. When Jesus is flogged by the Romans, they don't merely whip him with the traditional lash. They get out torture instruments that are designed to dig in and gouge out chunks of flesh, which they proceed to do. One particularly memorable shot shows the meat flying out of his ribs. Later we are treated to a view of the exposed rib bones and surrounding meat. Again, there is simply no Scriptural basis for any of this, nor really any sound historical basis for it either.

-- He depicts Pontius Pilate as vaguely sympathetic, a waffler who is ultimately mere putty in the hands of the Jewish priests. In reality, Pilate was ruthless, a notorious suppressor of uprisings who never flinched at inflicting "Roman mercy." In a more common reading of the Gospels, though, it is likely that his motives all along were cynical manipulation.

-- Satan appears -- conspicuously associated with the Jewish priests -- throughout the film, lurking in the background.

-- The film places the scourging of Jesus (to which we are given the full 20-minute treatment, a la Braveheart,) after his first appearance before Pilate, but before he has been condemned to be crucified. This is not the sequence given in any of the four Gospels.

[There are many other points at which this film diverges from both the Gospels and known historical fact, but this latter is an important one, because it neatly illustrates the way that The Passion almost certainly is misleading when it comes to what we know historically about crucifixion as a form of execution, especially as it was practiced by the Romans.

The reality is that crucifixion was quite a common phenomenon under the Romans. It was a terribly cruel death, largely because it took so long and was so unremittingly painful throughout. Men could hang on a cross for up to two days before dying, if they were given the full Roman treatment. The Romans were expert at this sort of thing and had many ways of prolonging one's time up on the cross.

Flogging, as such, was a form of mercy, because it shortened the length of time one was forced to hang on the cross before expiring. And indeed, Jesus appears to have had a merciful death, by Roman standards; he was up on the cross six hours before dying, according to the account in John. A more typical death on the cross lasted 12 hours. But there is simply no evidence that the scourging of Christ reached the mind-numbingly sadistic levels depicted in The Passion.]

-- After an agonizing death march, the brutality culminates on Golgotha, where the Romans not only pull Jesus's right arm out of its socket to make it fit the holes for nailing, but then flop the cross over on its face after he has been nailed on to bend the spikes down -- then, sickeningly, flop it back once again for the sheer sadism of it. Again, there is simply no basis for these additional layers of brutality other than Mel Gibson's fetid imagination.

There are many other problems, of course, but the cumulative effect of Gibson's "artistic license" is that it grotesquely distorts not just the crucifixion of Christ but its meaning. His sacrifice becomes not a gift of love but a loss in war, an act of brutality to feel guilt for, a death to be avenged.

Against whom? The Jews? Well, yes, there is that. The question has hovered over the film for nearly a year before its release.

Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? In a word: Yes. But not in any kind of obvious fashion, like what you might find in Jud Suss or The International Jew or "The Prioress's Tale" in Canterbury Tales. It's more pernicious than that.

Gibson clearly identifies the Jewish high priests with evil throughout the film -- from the use of ominous music to the Jewish soldiers' presence to the slithering of Satan among the robed set. And he does use ancient stereotypes to depict them -- their hook noses, their conniving manner, their sinister intentions.

What is striking is the narrative choices that Gibson makes throughout. The Gospels, of course, give conflicting accounts of Jesus' death, and Gibson's version borrows freely from each of them and then tosses in his own "details" and rearranged timeline for good measure. At each step, Gibson's choice shape the kind of narrative he tells.

The final shape that emerges is a narrative that places the blame heavily on the Jewish high priests as causing Jesus to be crucified and nearly exonerates Pontius Pilate -- though he, of course, proves to be easily manipulated by the scheming Jews. A more balanced narrative might have noted, for instance, that one of the reasons the Jews may have had to arrest Jesus was the Roman preoccupation with violently suppressing uprisings, and Jesus' teachings had created a revolutionary fervor likely to bring down the wrath of Pontius Pilate. The Romans, in other words, could just as easily have been the chief culprits; but Gibson chose the Jews.

However, the anti-Semitism seems incidental to the larger worldview at play here. And what becomes clear is that Gibson's Catholicism is not merely conservative -- it is positively medieval. In that context, the anti-Semitism is a noxious and fairly constant presence, but it is only a product of its larger thrust, which is a religious politic of domination, the rule by guilt and fear.

This medievalist kind of Catholicism really is Christianity at its most primitive. It harkens back to a Catholicism that wrought not just pogroms but inquisitions. Anyone who understands the dualism of that worldview understands that it is going to be in fairly obvious conflict with modern sensibilities.

The Jewish high priests are not so much symbols as Jews per se, but in the context of the times, as despoilers of the faith. Their modern counterparts are not necessarily just today's Jews (though there is that) but the modern church itself -- which, to people with this kind of worldview, is similarly led by power-gorged cynics more interested in their personal gain than promulgating the "true faith." Certainly, we know that Gibson's father views the Vatican as a nest of heretics; and it seems apparent from this film that Gibson himself likely does as well.

The blame does get spread around. There are the narcissistic, worldly Jews like Herod, who are portrayed as mirrors of today's cultural liberals and partygoing hedonists. Pilate ponders, "What is truth?", as though he were ruminating on what the meaning of "is" is.

Ultimately, however, even questions like these are washed away in the relentless, grotesquely detailed violence. In fact, it is so stomach-churning that I can't imagine this film being a recruitment tool for non-believers. Anyone who is not a committed Christian would be more likely repulsed by the gore than attracted to the faith. After all, it is the Sermon on the Mount, not the Crucifixion, that has drawn believers to his teachings for centuries. All the Crucifixion has been good for is holding those already committed in deeper thrall -- or even radicalizing their beliefs.

Everything you need to know about The Passion of the Christ is that in it, the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to a one-minute sound bite. Jesus' humanity is reduced to a handful of Hallmark-card-tinted flashbacks. It is all obliterated by squirting blood and ruthless sadism. This is not a film for converting new Christians.

It is, instead, a systematic two-hour program of calculated brutalization -- of the audience. It is clearly intended to shock, and shock, and shock viewers again. In this regard, it has more than a passing resemblance to the programs of humiliation and dislocation that are the hallmark of religious cults.

I've mentioned previously that Gibson's sectarian brand of Catholicism is not "traditionalist," it is radical in its rejection of the Vatican and Vatican II reforms. The shape and structure of The Passion of the Christ confirm that an agenda conforming with these beliefs deeply informs every aspect of the film. It is, in a sense, a recruitment film for this radically medievalist kind of Catholicism.

It is timed to be injected into a society still reeling from the 2001 terrorist attacks and the fear-mongering environment that has been fostered in the body politic since then. In such a milieu, rife with a host of personal and social dislocations, psychologists say, people are more prone to developing or harboring an extreme dualist worldview -- a stark, black-and-white division of everything into good vs. evil. This likewise makes them more susceptible to recruitment into extremist belief systems.

I've previously discussed the work of psychosociologists Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins in this area regarding the propensity of people on the right to become extreme dualists. (Much of their work is based on Erik Erikson's groundbreaking studies in the 1950s.) A piece of theirs titled "Conversion and 'Brainwashing' in New Religious Movements" explores this in further detail:
Lacking "inner wholeness," some persons who are predisposed to totalism develop a self-concept which is polarized between a good self and a bad self. Involvement in a totalistic group with an absolutist, Manichean worldview and a charismatic leader creates a basis for affirming the pure idealized self in terms of a strong identification with the noble virtues of the movement, its vital truth and its heroic leader, while incompatible or rejected feelings and weaknesses are projected onto demonized scapegoats, e.g., Jews, reds, homosexuals, bourgeoisie, non-believers, etc. Thus, through totalistic commitment an internally fragmented person may evade both identity confusion and an oppressive negative conscience.

The result is that certain kinds of extremist movements are particularly suited for recruiting people with this "totalist" mindset. From my earlier cite of Anthony and Robbins:
Social movements with distinctly dualistic worldviews provide psycho-ideological contexts which facilitate attempts to heal the split self by projecting negativity and devalued self-elements onto ideologically devalued contrast symbols. ... [I]ndividuals may be tempted to enter communal and quasi-communal social movements which combine a more structured setting for interpersonal relations with a dualistic interpersonal theme of 'triangulation' which embodies the motif of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Such movements create a sense of mutuality by focusing attention on specific contrast groups and their values, goals and lifestyles so that this shared repudiation seems to unite the participants and provide a meaningful 'boundary' to operationalize the identity of the group. Solidarity within the group and the convert's sense of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of group goals may enable him or her to repudiate the dissociated negative (bad, weak or failed) self and the related selfish and exploitative self which they may be aware that others might have perceived. These devalued selves can then be projected on to either scapegoats designated by the group or, more generally, non-believers whose values and behavior allegedly do not attain the exemplary purity and authenticity of that of devotees.

The Passion of the Christ is, in other words, a film designed to virtually obliterate the memory of the love at the heart of Jesus' message, and replaces in its stead a sense of Christianity as a closed community devoted to nurturing other "true believers" and obtaining retribution against the "other side." It poses a sense of Christianity as a series of constant, unending challenges to the question: Can you live up to His sacrifice? And the suffering Jesus endures in this film makes it clear the answer must always be: No. You can't possibly. Only rigid adherence to the "true faith" gets you in the ballpark.

The theological dimensions of The Passion -- extremely limited as they are -- serve to reinforce this identification with an extraordinarily narrow view of what it means to be a Christian. Teleological questions about the nature of love and God are mere ephemera in this religious worldview; what matters is the subsumption of one's entire being to the responsibilities implied in Jesus' sacrifice.

Gibson, both in interviews and in the context of this film, clearly has little use for theological pondering and high-minded philosophizing. (Certain right-wing extremists, notably Christian Identity adherents, refer to this as the "feminization of Christianity.") The Passion, in fact, is a clear repudiation of that kind of Christianity. Gibson's faith is visceral, and The Passion intends to invoke that spirit in the rest of us.

I was reminded when watching The Passion of the work done by the religious scholars of the Jesus Seminar -- the very kind of scholars for whom Gibson has expressed deep scorn -- who in the 1970s and '80s used the tools of linguistics to "deconstruct" the Gospels, sorting out the layers of additional authorship that accrued to them over many generations to try to determine what the original gospels were like. The resulting scholarship produced a core text, called "Quelle" or "Q", that ostensibly represented the original texts.

It was essentially a collection of aphorisms and parables, the teachings of Jesus, with only a few biographical details. The Nativity, the Passion, and the Resurrection were all later additions. Yet pared down to this core, the "Q" text was astonishingly powerful, giving readers a fresh sense of the real Jesus and what was really central to his teachings. This work was neither, as the traditionalists argued, blasphemous nor degrading to the faith, but actually made Christianity a clearer, more vivid and more accessible thing, for those at least with the hearts to hear.

The Passion of the Christ is a kind of mirror-image negation of this sort of spiritual discovery: It too pares down the meaning of Christ to a narrow band of the Gospels, but does it by focusing on one of the more suspect "additions" to the original Gospel texts -- namely, the circumstances surrounding his crucifixion. (According to the linguists, these accounts were added as many as three generations after the events occurred.) And it too has a transformative effect -- but it makes Christianity less accessible, meaner spirited, and hardens the hearts of those already committed to the faith. Making the brutality of the Crucifixion into the core of Christian meaning is bound to do this. [Jeremy at fantastic planet has a similar assessment of the theology behind The Passion.]

But then, what should we expect from an action film? One of the film's only genuine moments of humanity comes when Mary, struggling to watch her son drag his cross to Golgotha, sees him fall with his burden and land on his knees, and she flashes back: To the moment when Jesus, as a small boy, falls on his face outside their home and lies there; Mary runs to him and picks him up, telling him she's there for him. And so she does the same now.

Any parent who has run to pick up their fallen child knows this feeling, and they know the dread of seeing their child die before them. Anyone with a glint of human feeling will be struck by this scene. Yet Gibson's Mary is amazingly two-dimensional, a vessel for motherly suffering and little else. And when the film is over, we do not so much feel for her as we identify with her; and identifying with her, we want justice for her. Revenge, if you will. The effect of this scene becomes embedded in the natural anger that the two hours of preceding barbarity are sure to inspire -- a shot that, in the end, is effectively the same as that shot of the little red ball bouncing down the road in Mad Max.

The ending of the film is strangest of all, because it is the culmination of all these preceding strands: We see the rock rolling away from the tomb, and bright lights seemingly emanating from within the tomb. Then we see Jesus' face in profile: Healed, healthy, and with a determined expression. He stands up and we see the holes in hands.

All this is accompanied to an increasingly martial drum beat, as though we were seeing Jesus, marching off to war. With all those Christian soldiers right behind. And then, with a drum clap, black.

You see, there's a reason there's no cathartic revenge in this film: That is what the audience is supposed to bring to the table. That is their responsibility for this sacrifice.

Jesus is on the march, you see. He's kickin' butt and takin' names. And the question The Passion wants everyone to answer is simple: Whose side are you on? Mel's? Or the evil ones?

That is, after all, what the Culture Wars are all about. And The Passion of the Christ wants to be the loudest shot fired yet. The Birth of a Nation for the 21st century.

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