Sunday, July 31, 2005

7B: On Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST 3/18/04 In movie theatre lobbies over the last three weeks, I’ve had the distinct feeling that I’ve seen some people before. Some are folks who don’t go to movies much, but they’re going to Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST in droves. I feel like I met some of them in 1988, outside the Manlius Cinema, when Martin Scorcese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST opened. They knelt on the sidewalk, wept, begged me not to risk my soul by seeing that movie. So far THE PASSION has earned more than a quarter of a billion dollars in U.S. ticket sales, & created some strange bedfellows. Now I’m the one with defiant friends who uncharacteristically raise their voices to say,” I’m not going to see it!” Unless you’re in a coma, you already know the sources of controversy are questions of whether there’s too much violence & whether it’s anti-Semitic. Yes to both & I’ll tell you why shortly. But THE PASSION has some very good things too – for one, it’s instructive about how films can be misused. Second, beyond the uproar, there’s a scene of grief so nuanced & quiet & utterly un-Gibson that I can only think the women smuggled it into his movie themselves. It’s not just the gore & distortions that cause the problem. It’s that both occur is such a seductive setting. THE PASSION’s production values are extraordinarily high. Beginning in the velvet blue night of the Garden & lurching through the harsher light of day, this movie has an extravagantly authentic look. Gibson claims this is the most accurate representation of Christ’s last 12 hours. Better than any film I’ve seen, THE PASSION captures dramatically what an outpost Jerusalem might have been to the Romans – seedy, dilapidated, the last place in the Empire you’d want to get buried for 11 years, as Pilate was when Jesus comes before him. The set for their meeting alone is brilliant. This formal public courtyard, with its raised level for issuing edicts, is a cramped miniature of vaster, gleaming Roman public sites. This remote colony with its contentious natives got by on a crude, badly proportioned copy, with steep, ungraceful stairs & dirty pillars. In fact THE PASSION is a painterly movie, though not admirably. Another historical film recently in Central New York, THE GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, was about the painter Vermeer. That film’s cinematography created a resonance by looking like Vermeer’s painting itself - we see the painter’s world as he saw it, so his portraiture tones & composition are more persuasive, almost a painting within a painting. This heightens the veracity of the film. But Gibson’s film has the opposite effect – particularly when he focuses on shots of groups of people at well-known junctures in the story, he overlays the painting style of a much later & geographically distant artistic period & pretends it belongs to Jesus’ time & place. Shooting with a largely Italian crew & frankly relying on their expertise, not to mention engaging in some visual imperialism, Gibson was wildly pleased with the outcome of his request for a look from 17th century European painting. In a TV special about the making of THE PASSION, Gibson exclaimed that his crew gave him “moving Caravaggios.” But movies are not just animated paintings. Astoundingly, Gibson seems often to have missed this fundamental point about the current evolution of his own artform. Gibson breaks a fundamental agreement with us. If the story’s made up, we know we’re getting special effects & we agree to let the filmmaker trick us. But Gibson has claimed near-documentary accuracy, & the documentary form promises not to trick us. It promises that special effects will serve accuracy. Looking authentic in some deeply affecting ways, Gibson’s film is more free to serve up distortions. So what we get is a narrative of Jesus’ last day like an accordion or a funhouse mirror, wildly expanding some parts & compressing others almost out of sight. For example, Jesus doesn’t just fall three times – he falls & falls & falls & falls some more. And then there is Pontius Pilate’s protracted, three-time struggle to get out of executing Jesus, which goes on for many hours & ultimately falls before the Jewish priests’ insistence – not recognizable as either the historical figure or the Catholic one. Of course Gibson blames the Jews. But hey, you know what? I don’t want the Catholics blamed for Mel either! For example, Jesus gets to keep his underwear on in this movie. Gibson’s soldiers & his mob are primitive, leering, sadistic. The acting is sometimes pretty close to the mugging you’d see in a fifth grade play. Now think about this: would such violent torturers primly avert their eyes & their whiplashes from one part of the body? Scorcese’s Jesus is naked on the cross & it makes sense that he would be. Anything else is really like John Ashcroft draping the statute of Justice to cover her breasts. And it would require that Gibson allow a fully-human, that is male, Jesus. Is this dirtier than all that blood & torture? Did Mel Gibson worry that children would see this film? It’s women who smuggle real grief into this film, somehow flying under Mel’s radar. He doesn’t give them much to do except stand around looking traumatized. Yet Maia Morgenstern as Mary the mother especially has several small but striking moments, most of all that when she quietly & simply wipes the bloodied cobblestones where Jesus was scourged. Such simple & overwhelming loss! Finally I most agree with Stephen King, who watched this movie sitting next to an 8 year-old girl he called Alicia so that she would not remain nameless, who covered her eyes for the whipping of Jesus but then “looked & looked & looked” for the nearly two hours remaining. I had two toddlers in the row ahead of me, kids without even the language to frame such giant, horrific images. So, there you have it, Stephen King the master of horror & me - worrying about what kids will dream after this movie! (1017)