WARNING: THIS COLUMN MAY NOT BE EVERYONE'S CUP OF HOLY WATER
What a guy
With all due respect to anyone else who writes a similarly themed column, I couldn't resist the chance to use my column before the much-celebrated Easter holiday to explore a piece of the cinematic output revolving around the popular Jesus the Christ.
As everyone knows, Mr. Christ had a rough time. Infact, his predicament was so intense that it's easy to understand why it makes for a good story, be it in written (as in the different versions of the book known as The Bible) or visual form (as in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). I actually wrote about several productions in the latter (day saints) category for the purposes of this article, discussing the bizarre manner different folks have used to portray the character.
But I'm facing a situation similar to that of Jeremy Summers, who says in his column (elsewhere on Matchflick) that he also started out writing about several Jesus-themed movies. Simply put, I'm realizing, as I edit it, that the column focuses predominantly on one movie.
So I've decided to cut out the other stuff. Now this column is exclusively about the Grand Guignol version of the story, the movie that John Landis - in a documentary about grindhouse cinema - called the only true "grindhouse" movie that's been released in the last several years. Yep, you know the one I'm talking about.
Sometime around late 2002 or early 2003, Mel Gibson decided to start a lengthy, ambitious project: destroying his own career. He did this by way of a process through which he'd, hopefully, burn to shreds much of the goodwill he'd built up in the last twenty five years. His first step was to release, on Ash Wednesday of 2004, a snuff film called THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
Gibson, hellbent on making the film, put up his own money to do it. I have to admit, that takes balls. It is an independent movie, technically. But then again, I think he had a little cash to work with.
And okay, it's cool that the story is completely told in the language of the land it takes place in. Too many movies that take place in non-English speaking regions aren't, and it always bugs me. Gibson can take half of the credit for this, because apparently - if he'd had his way - the movie would have no subtitles. The finished movie does, infact, have subtitles. And that didn't seem to bother millions of people who don't like having to read subtitles when they go to the movies.
The simple truth is that the movie, which I eventually saw (out of curiosity) after several months of disinterest, was filmed in a dirt clod. And in the words of a stunned young man I knew at the time who happened to be from Venezuela, a man who went to see it with his girlfriend to hopefully gain spiritual enlightenment or entertainment of some sort, "It is about blood."
Well that's a pretty good way to sum it up. In one of the many cruel jokes perpetuated by the MPAA, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was rated R (this flick is NC-17 if I've ever seen it). The violence starts, if I remember correctly, about ten minutes into the film, and lasts all the way through. I remember the caption review in The Independent, the entertainment trade paper that runs throughout NC's Triangle region: "We'll see how much Jesus can stand in this excruciating, and very, very bloody film." They weren't kidding.
The centerpiece is a sequence that's awe-inspiring in its ability to showcase what an audience (including myself) is willing to sit through. Christ is taken to the center of town after being arrested, and is thoroughly beaten by Roman soldiers. And I don't just mean beaten. Whipping isn't enough, because you can't keep a good savior down. So the soldiers bring out some cat-o-nine-tails and proceed to put in work on our hero's body, eventually culminating in a lash that - in full detail - rips a chunk out of his side and exposes his ribs. Until then, Christ has handled it pretty well. That shot gets to him. By the end of the scene, in the words of one reviewer I read, Jesus looks like an explosion in a butcher shop.
When I watched THE PASSION, I could feel a serious S&M undertone to this scene (and infact, when my brother and I saw John Waters speak in Greensboro, Waters called the picture "the greatest S&M movie ever made"). And it's this very scene that
was severely trimmed to form THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST RECUT a year later. Unfortunately, neither release of THE PASSION was given the ad line "Go see it, for Christ's sake."
Everybody ready for a good time at the movies?
Gibson decided to appeal to those put off by the extreme violence (that turned out to be no one, since the "recut" did nothing at the box office), and thus make even more money, by editing some of the worst moments.
Or did he secretly, as a human being, feel ashamed for vindicating his own bloodlust so viciously as he released this monument to human carnage upon the devout public? Well to be honest, I think the scourging scene is the most extreme representation of the entire movie's tone. But Gibson was as surprised that this RECUT still received an R rating as many were that the original received one in the first place. Gibson's stance on this, however, was different: he thought his edited version of the bloodthirsty catharsis of a sick man should've gotten a PG-13. Not that kids weren't apparently seeing it anyway.
As a matter of fact, when the original version of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was released to DVD, I remember walking into stores like Walgreens and seeing huge displays for it: a sizeable cardboard cutout of Christ's wounded and bleeding head above a ton of DVDs that were there just for you! Right in between, I don't know, "Pixar Presents Scruffy The Squirrel" and the new Adam Sandler movie. Fun for the whole family.
I've felt all along that Mel Gibson's reasoning for making the movie didn't lie in his religious beliefs. Oh, he may've thought they did, because he's been so "religious" all his life. But I believe he was deluding himself.
I think Gibson was in a serious state of breakdown (this is, after all, a man whose most popular characters are known for their mental instability) and needed some form of release. As anyone who's seen his previous movies knows, the man loves violence, and particularly torture. He's gotta have the torture, and everything about it. And having been force-fed (since he was a child, presumably) the story of Christ's willful love and courage, his triumph over persecution...and thus being intimately familiar with it...he saw within his very grasp the potential to make...
THE MOST VIOLENT MOVIE EVER MADE!!!!!!!!!!
It's okay, he could get away with it, it's...about Jesus.
The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that Christ comes off as a sort of perverse superhero who apparently could take the beating of thirty men and still keep walking, despite repeatedly falling (A friend of mine said, after seeing the movie, "I got tired of seeing Jesus fall down"). He never screams a lot (he mostly grunts), and so I never found myself feeling too much pain over his pain, as I have in movies about other characters (I have a soft spot for characters who are wrongly punished by a flock of others). He handled it pretty well; apparently Jesus could take quite a good beating.
Taking into account what any human being is capable of enduring, I think that in this movie, Jesus should have been dead by the time the cat-o-nine-tails started purring. I also got the feeling that, since no human being could possibly withstand anything even close to the level of physical abuse we see Christ take, something in Gibson's story was keeping him alive throughout the movie. But what? Or who? The Devil, whose despicable self is seen at times, carrying the baby in IT'S ALIVE? His heavenly father, who allegedly allowed it to happen, and whose nonhuman self sheds a ridiculous giant tear at the end of the film? Mel Gibson, who's obsessed with torture?
Personally, I found the five minutes or so that Scorsese devoted to the process, which were pretty realistic about what it would be like if that actually happened to a man - and which were all the more effective because there was at least an hour of buildup before that scene, which developed the character and showed how his actions would eventually cost him - ten times more powerful and painful than the two hours of Gibson's movie.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST takes a pretty simple approach, which other movies have used to their advantage as well: Show a character who's really done no wrong, who's suffering and scared of harm that might come to him/her, then
show the severe harm that comes to him/her. In this particular movie, there's nothing but punishment. It's a pretty numbing experience. There are even completely irrelevant touches, like a man getting his eye pecked out by a vulture, the thorns on the crown audibly crunching against the bone of Jesus' skull, and Jesus' arm being ripped out of socket to stretch to the other side of the cross. Lovely.
And Christ the character wasn't the only one who got stung by harmful forces: Apparently two people on the set got struck by lightning, and one of them was the actor that played Jesus, Jim Caviezel. How's that for a message? (And God speaketh : STOP FILMING THIS! YOU'RE MAKING ME LOOK BAD!!)
Not to mention the fact that the movie was instantly condemned, before it was even released, for being anti-Semitic. Gibson (whose father was a famous anti-Semite) half-heartedly denied that it was, but wholeheartedly admitted that he stuck to "the truth" of the story. Apparently "the truth" is that the bad guys were the Jewish leaders and followers, who all turned on Jesus and called for his death.
If I remember right, the only "good" Jews in the movie were Jesus himself, his mother, Mary Magdalene (her Jewishness is debatable, I guess), and some guy who helps him carry the cross. In his review, Roger Ebert - who praised the picture - rushed to proclaim that it wasn't anti-Semitic, and that - in his opinion - any reasonable person would agree. But the examples of good Jews that he noted, as I did above, were exceptions: basically Christ's loved ones and the man who was forced by Roman soldiers to help him carry the cross. The other Jews in the movie were figures of evil.
True, the Roman soldiers didn't come off very well either, but making Pontius Pilate a noble, conflicted man who didn't really want to hurt Jesus? Come on. The main Jewish leader, Caiaphas, on the other hand, was rabid for Jesus' death; but as it turns out, by the end of the movie, Christ has been beaten to such a pulp, even Caiaphas is a little taken aback.
And, as it turns out, Gibson was pulled over by Florida police a few years later when he was heavily under the influence of the blood of Christ. As the cops read him his rights, he proceeded to - among other things - spout hurtful words about Jews in a loud, obnoxious and angry manner. Hey! Turns out, the movie was made by an anti-Semite! I'm not sure I ever read about - or saw on TV - anyone connecting this incident with the anti-Semitism complaints regarding THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Jesus, by the way, was supposedly Jewish.
Did I mention that it was actually Mel Gibson's hands driving the nails in during the movie's cruci-"fiction?" (I'm drivin' the nails, Riggs! No, I'm drivin' em, Rog). According to Gibson, the reasoning for this is simple: "It was me that put Him on the cross. It was my sins." Right. Replications of the nails were even sold as part of the film's merchandise, just in case you wanted to take some of that "I crucified Jesus!" feeling home with you.
The movie was also a huge hit, of course. One of the biggest movies of all time. Infact, as Mr. Summers' column mentions, the same people who protested Scorsese's movie flocked to this one. Why? Because THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST shows Christ, who's suffering from illusions and delusions, imagining that he's having sex with a woman, and thus engaging in the human act that leads to child birth. Of course that's offensive. Stick to the damn story, which involves him being mutilated and punctured with rusty nails.
People even took their children to see THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
THEIR CHILDREN!!!!!!! What the hell is wrong with people?!? If CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST was about Jesus, would it be okay too?!? If the movie had nothing to do with religion and was called THE TORTURE AND CRUCIFIXION OF CHARLIE FUCKFACE, would that have been okay to show the kids? Would the adults have wanted to see it? Okay, maybe some adults - I meant the religious devotees.
Why was it such a hit? Because it was about a beloved figure? Not in my good book. Again, I think it was a case of people deluding themselves in the name of religion. I remember two noteworthy comments on The Daily Show around the time it was released. When Jon Stewart asked Willem Dafoe (Christ
in Scorsese's movie, and also the star of ANTICHRIST) why he thought it was so popular, Dafoe laughed a little and said "Because Mel Gibson directed it?" And when George Carlin was on, Stewart asked him if he'd seen the movie yet. Carlin said he hadn't but that he wanted to: "I wanta' see it because I heard it's really violent! I like violence!"
This picture has my blessing
If Mel Gibson's name wasn't on it, and it didn't have an instant reputation for being astoundingly, graphically violent, do you think people would've shown up? Or do you think it would've been one of those super-religious movies that get released to a few theaters in the country, usually star Kirk Cameron these days, and are heard of by almost no one? At least my mom, who believes in the story of the resurrection quite fervently, was horrified enough just by TV clips of the movie to have the good sense to stay away.
Yet I think the movie's valid, not as a movie as much as a milestone in pop culture. Mel Gibson's movie, because of its mythology and because he's Mel Gibson, was able to squeak by with an R, even though it was not a movie any child should be allowed to see. Yet many were, in the name of righteousness, by devout people who claimed the movie spoke for them and their beliefs. So I'm thinking, at least THE PASSION is an unintentional commentary on this barbaric story - which the movie pushes as far as it'll go - and the fact that it's been passed down to impressionable minds for centuries.
It's hard to say what was going through the minds of fanatical Christians as they watched this sickening, sadomasochistic orgy of violence - a movie that truly depresses the human spirit - and not only tolerated, but defended, the violence as a righteous and truthful representation of a historical event. Not to mention that, if they were watching any other movie (a horror movie for example) that had such violence, they'd be running for the hills and protecting their children from it. Their minds, for this movie, locked up and convinced them that they appreciated the validity of such visual carnage.
So world, here's your movie of pure hatred, about a character that's supposed to represent love. A movie that dwelled endlessly on torture, right before torture porn became big. And a two hour movie of a man's death, which Richard Roeper praised on TV ten months before he called the first SAW "a glorified snuff film."
Some people I knew at the time of the movie's release told me of people they knew that had seen it, and described their reactions to me by imitating their voice tones and the looks in their eyes (which were similar to looks they might have if they'd seen someone actually get brutally murdered in front of them). "It was intense!" one of them said, imitating their friend. That's because it was a snuff film.
A snuff film, however, that will long be cherished as an exemplary model of the power of love and the purity of belief. I just read the original review of the movie in Slate magazine, which went under the title "Jesus H. Christ" and expressed shock and concern about the movie's horribly graphic content, even questioning Gibson's dubious reasons for making it and calling it - just that - a snuff film. Here's the sole comment, left ten months ago by a reader, on the page of the Slate website that contains the original review:
I find it amazing that the GOD of the Universe CHOSE to create a sacfrice for us..... we are so NOT worthy... The LOVE & COMPASSION shown by God should make our world fall to it's knees. Instead we choose to tear apart a movie that shows GODS compassion. Without the sacrifice of Jesus- we are condemed to HELL. The Devil is out to Kill, Steal & Destroy us. I personally would rather have GOOD RATHER THEN EVIL PROTECTING ME.
Well...I would rather have good rather than evil protecting me too.
On the comical side of it, a person I once talked to thought it was hilarious that Gibson had Jesus - as just another example of his greatness - invent the four-legged table (which begs the question later in the movie "How could they do this to the man that invented the four-legged table?!?"). You can see this clip on Youtube, where one user comments: "Jesus also invented the skateboard and the porcelain toilet, but they edited those parts out. They're in the Director's Cut."
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Apr 6, 2012 1:11 AM
|"This movie is about humiliation, torture, and a brutal murder." In the old Catholic Church ratings system, this movie would have been on the CONDEMNED list, along with The TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and The DEVILS.|
But since the humiliating, torturing, and brutal murdering is done to Our Lord and Savior - oh, that's different. Bring in the tiny tots. I'll have to tell you my delinquent kid and the Catholic Church joke one day.
For tje record, my favorite Passion Week movie is GODSPELL.
Apr 6, 2012 2:16 PM
|This movie makes TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE look pretty warm and cuddly to me. I look forward to hearing the joke.|
Was Gibson born again as a beaver?
Apr 9, 2012 4:00 PM
|The Passion of the Christ is the only movie to make me throw up after watching it. I wasn't around for the death of christ and could have left it to my imagination. I don't think we were ment to see it. Great column by the way.|
Apr 11, 2012 12:09 AM
|Thanks! I guess Mel Gibson wasn't the only one purging a few things when it came to this movie! I have a feeling you weren't the only one puking after seeing it however. I think throwing up is a more understandable reaction than getting anything spiritual out of it - that's for sure. What a revolting movie.|
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Every other Friday
This is an outlet granted to me by the makers, in which I will espouse grand words, unleashing in written form
the very movie-related praise and outrage I'm probably thinking about and/or discussing at the time anyway.
I was born in a log cabin that was built in a sewer. After serving during wartime, I woke up from this vicious dream and learned to tapdance.|
It's a commendable trade, but not a recommendable one. As I've said many a time, on one hand, I have five fingers. Yet on the other hand, I have
five fingers. Sometimes I sleep. I would probably watch more sumo wrestling if it was on TV more often. The first movie I saw at the theater was Superman
II...the last was The Terror, and this much is true. Far be it from me to call myself stupid, but if I did so (and believe me, I would), I'd say it behind
my back. Then I would figure out how I did it. Sometimes I sleep. Love, Nate.
If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Nathan Reece by clicking here.|