It’s safe to say that Mel Gibson’s recent directorial approach draws heavily from the films of Martin Scorsese. The entire concept of the film was long since anticipated by “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Then there’s the fact that the movie takes the next step in on-screen violence beyond Hollywood’s last benchmark, “Gangs of New York.” And even the stylistic debt is immediately referenced in the garden skirmish, presented using the variable-speed editing approach developed by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker from “Raging Bull” on, except that it unfortunately devolves into a near-constant slow motion for the remainder of the film. And maybe it’s just a coincidence, but all of the main characters even looked a lot like Scorsese back when he sported a beard in the 70s.
But perhaps the best comparison is to foreign film. Namely, “The Passion of the Christ” most closely resembles Luc Besson’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.” Both deal with false imprisonment and unjust execution, both enjoy an overdose of medieval violence and gore, and both insert a literal spiritual / metaphysical test attended by odd cloaked deity figures. And for that matter, “The Passion of the Christ” is even a lot like Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc,” as well.
Here too, both consist of trials and persecution at the hands of the clergy that lead to crucifixion, except that Dreyer alternates crusty mugs of monks with the open, plaintive expressions of Maria Falconetti, whereas Mel Gibson alternates the angry postures of Pharisees with gratuitous shots of Jesus’ torn up body. Is it just me, or did they turn the traditional Easter rituals into some sort of a moist, juicy, Jesus-shaped piñata. Suffering succotash, indeed.
For that matter, the bulk of the movie played like one of TV’s “Survivor” programs. We sit and watch an endurance contest through shrouds of fog while listening to exotic-sounding music. More and more, it seems that the “reality show” format is Hollywood’s version of cinematic realism. And perhaps that’s just the start of the difference between “movies” and “the cinema.” The shock value of makeup and special effects in the former all too often takes the place of genuine dramatic scenario and performance in the latter.
In “The Passion,” the only real dramatic role was the Judas Iscariot subplot, who both figuratively and literally wrestled with his own demons. It would have probably made for a more interesting movie if he was central. Unfortunately, however, they killed him off early and the audience is left with Jesus’ unidentified anguish. We are freed to fill in the details of his existential suffering with our own interpretations of Christian doctrine. This is because James Caviezel spends most of the time muttering mindlessly in Aramaic or even moping around like Johannes from Dreyer’s “Ordet,” vaguely proclaiming irrelevant sound bytes like some sort of aloof sage. In place of character development, we just have a mindless procession of pain and perjury. Here, it’s the spectacle of violence that takes center stage.
And while it might be cinematic violence, I would hardly say that it was cinema. Here’s the difference. Take something like Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible.” That was a movie that shows it all by refusing to look away, literally camping the camera on the ground during an excruciatingly long rape and beating. Then again, something like Werner Herzog’s “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is a movie that shows nothing, accomplishing its incomparable effects through rushed, anxious narration. Either approach has the legitimacy of cinema. But as shocking as it is, “The Passion” does neither. It ultimately looks away. Literally, we see only occasional glimpses of the torture, continually following incidental characters around the outskirts of the arena instead. The violence is shocking and horrifying, but the film ultimately betrays itself and chickens out on its supposed agenda.
The movie leaves it to us to judge the representations. The text literally begs that of us. The omnipotent, omnipresent vantage point of camera is not intended to represent God. In fact, the film text makes clear that it is actually the sun and the moon that alternate as the ever-attentive eye of God. In that respect, the monoscopic eye of the Father is visually a bit like the monoscopic eye of the Son, represented by that one prominent, gold-colored, un-swollen eye that finally dilates into blackness upon his death on the cross.
Rather, the camera’s eye is ours as the audience. We are meant to identify with the action and situate ourselves within that context. That is why Magdalene looks directly at the camera as the action closes towards the end of the movie. That is also why, when the religious leader who has bribed Judas finally delivers the money, he throws the bag of coins directly at the camera itself. As if in 3D, it flies directly at us, growing larger as it approaches in slow motion. We are almost exactly in Judas’ position, having sold out our religious convictions and obedience to a ban on idolatry for an $8 ticket, as it were.
Are the Jews being vilified by this movie? Not really. Certainly there’s been a lot of public debate about this. But it’s not really there. Granted, the historical Jewish leaders are personified as “the bad guys” and certainly they’re given more than their fair share of sneers and scowls. But the actual scourging was a Roman tradition carried out by the Romans of their own volition. It should come as no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church carried on this tradition into the Inquisition and the Crusades. So it could even be said that it was the early Christians who killed Jesus, not the Jews.
But although those Jews were clearly “tagged” as the bad guys, the bad guys were not necessarily “tagged” as Jews. Think about it. Folks who know the story understand that the long gray beards and funny hats belonged to the Jewish leaders. But the only person actually identified as a Jew in the movie was the man who picked up and carried the cross for Jesus. So the villains weren’t recognizable contemporary Jews by any stretch of the imagination.
Actually, they were just vicious Middle Easterners. Their long grey beards were the same as Saddam’s when they pulled him out of the hole last year and Osama’s when he was making his video threats after the 9/11 attack. The villains of “The Passion” spoke a strange, exotic language and were situated in a culture of religious bloodthirst. As such, they were actually tagged in the popular consciousness as Muslims, not Jews. The backlash about Mel Gibson’s possible anti-Semitism is misdirected. It’s actually yet another aspect of the contemporary xenophobic campaign against the still-exotic Middle East.
What do the movies mean? Why the overwhelming lack of ambivalence in Hollywood, the cocky certainty that one side is right and the other side is wrong? Is this what hawkish America wants, to slaughter our enemies without remorse?
Think about what just won Best Picture (and 10 other Oscars), “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Kings.” Now, there had always been definite homoerotic undercurrents throughout the series. It’s not surprising that the wise old sage Gandalf was played by the Lord of the Gays himself, Sir Ian McKellen. Think about it, the third installment begins with two hobbits humping on the ground trying to get a ring. Then, by the end of it, we get two more hobbits cowering together in fear of that big flaming vagina above the mountain, having just run in horror out of a dark, sticky, musty tunnel and having just gotten penetrated by the spider's prick. All told, I haven’t seen that much homoerotic anxiety since Keanu kept getting penetrated in the Matrix movies.
Now, it’s always fun to look for Hollywood representations of penis envy, castration anxiety, and all those other erotic fixations, and the whole Lord of the Rings series definitely provided ample fodder for that, there’s a lot more to it than just ‘name-the-complex.’ In actuality, the basis of film as an art of representation is itself founded on certain basic psycho-sexual roles.
Our psychological identification with what we see on film is ambiguous. That’s why horror films work, because we can identify with both the victim and the pursuer (hence the cliché of the handheld camera circling outside the house, peeking in through the windows). As such, film capitalizes on our shared psychological mechanisms. For instance, the most common dramatic conflicts in movies tend to be more or less Oedipal, meaning that they involve bisexual relations. In the traditional psychological formulation of that conflict, an individual feels aggression towards the father while simultaneously experiencing an erotic desire for that masculinity. It’s an ambiguous sense of identity gained through relating with and simultaneously differentiating oneself from another person. Similarly, the erotic desire for the mother is matched by the repulsion of her demystified body.
Films operate on that same level of identification, investment, and narcissism. That is why unquestionably ‘heroic’ movies like “The Lord of the Rings” are only able to create a curiously unambiguous opposition of absolute good and absolute evil by denying evil a face by which we might have otherwise have identified with it. After all, it’s tough to see the humanity within legions and throngs of nameless, faceless hordes. The Gollum character captured the fancy of so many viewers precisely because he was perhaps the only individual who literally embodied an ambiguous conflict of desires.
In denying a reality to the so-called evil elements, “Lord of the Rings” falls in line with Hollywood’s longstanding tradition of wartime movies (with examples as recent as the “kill the skinnies” exercise of Black Hawk Down), “jungle” flicks, and all the rest of that xenophobic rigmarole. It just so happens that many of the Lord of the Rings movies were finding their peak of mass appeal at a time when the nation’s president was swaying public opinion concerning a questionable war by using the same breed of vacuous platitudes about absolute good and absolute evil. I could never tell whether life was imitating art or if it was the other way around.
But I was never really all that into the series in the first place. I only saw all three because my mom had grown up reading the books and I wanted to take her to the movies each time or else she probably wouldn’t have gone on her own. To me, they’re just cartoons, both figuratively because the characters are exaggerated caricatures of reality and literally because the second and third installments seemed mostly like exercises in digitally pasting non-performances of un-inspired actors from sterile soundstages directly onto the irrelevant, poorly compiled ‘mess en scene’ composites of the kinds of paddle-less video games that are all the rage in the multiplexes nowadays.
But it’s tough to expect much more from this kind of a project. You’re basically filming three movies at once involving a cast and crew numbering in the thousands. I didn’t honestly expect much of a personal touch or any sort of an aesthetic guideline. Maybe I would have liked the movies more if I’d read the books, but I’ve never had an inclination to do so. I must admit that I enjoyed “The Return of the King” more than I did the other two. I really dug those elephants (which apparently were one of the few elements that weren’t even in the books, ironically enough).
I think they were targeting the 14-year-old male demographic. They seemed to do a fairly good job of that. It’s a complicated world with lots of weird names to remember and lots of secret passages to uncover. When I was a kid, I remember liking that “The Hobbit” cartoon. I liked the idea of magic rings that turned you invisible and special swords named Sting. I even bought my own ‘magic ring’ in a border town in Mexico . . . but that’s another story.
I’m definitely curious about Peter Jackson’s earlier career, though. I’ll be interested in seeing “Bad Taste” and “Heavenly Creatures” at some point. Apparently, his next project is a $200M remake of King Kong, the flick that first inspired him to start making movies as a child. I wouldn’t surprised if it ends up being still more loud and lifeless fodder for the masses. Boy, if that didn’t sounds snobbish.
And so here’s the question: can we make a blanket recommendation for a movie based solely on the success of its visuals? After all, you wouldn’t condemn a beautiful painting just because it’s based on a story you don’t like, would you? Have not movies always tended to be more about images and sweeping emotions than about a particular film’s stated ideas?
It’s common to see the terms “cinema” and “movies” used interchangeably. But it’s more accurate to say that ‘cinema’ as such established itself decades ago in an attempt to give legitimacy to the art of motion pictures. Even before the early “talkies,” filmmakers had adopted narrative strategies common to novels and the acting chops of stage drama. This was necessary because most early short films were meant strictly as spectacle and for idle entertainment.
And yet this is ironic, since there were many filmmaker-theorists who advocated film as potentially the ultimate in both refined art and metalinguistic communication. Either way, the fact that early film was soundless, although due to technological limitations, caused many to give supremacy to the communicative value of the image. Filmmakers (esp. Griffiths and Eisenstein) developed a film grammar that often operated functionally without necessary recourse to verbal insertions (intertitles, etc.). This influence lasted long after sound became incorporated into the process.
Film is unique, however, in that its ideas, its “stated ideas,” and its images can be three very different things, even within the same film. Progressive artists have continually sought advancement on all three tiers, often advancing each category independently from the others. And yet film’s unique representation of reality is ultimately quite distinct from literary fiction, since film concerns what is shown (i.e., presented in its immediacy) rather than what is described (i.e., depicted through a process of signification). So anymore, it could even be said that, for ideas and stories, look first to movies and then to the library. Granted, books have a longer history and therefore a wider tradition of references from which to draw, but film has made important strides in developing a universal form of communication that does not require cross-cultural interpretation or linguistic translation.
When Hollywood entered the “blockbuster era” around about the mid 1980s, an emphasis on film spectacle took center stage once again. As was the case with most early film, “spectacular” visuals became enough in and of itself to justify a lack of narrative or dramatic invention. The influence of that cultural enthusiasm for technology is still felt today, perhaps now more than ever. That is an important factor to why there is such a sharp division between so-called mainstream and independent films; between the multiplex and the arthouse; and therefore between the terms “movies” and “cinema.”
Due to these arguments, the mere presence of the Aramaic spoken language with English subtitles in “The Passion of the Christ” is ludicrous. Apart from the budget, perhaps that is what does the most to set it apart from all of the rest of the Jesus movies (and made-for-TV movies) out there. But it gives merely an illusion of legitimacy. The ancient language offers just the pretence of authenticity. Through the use of subtitles, it tags the “foreign / cinema” feel, which brings with it the air of an advanced art. But the technique is actually just a contrived artifice and a distraction.