Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Passion and the Furor

I wrote the column below in January 2004.  It got a few reactions.


Two weeks ago, my Amish-Mennonite father – who doesn’t believe in watching television, going to the movies, or reading Entertainment Weekly – emailed me a set of testimonials about the “life-changing” effects of Gibson’s new film, The Passion of Christ.


My father then asked, “Steve, can you tell me who Mel Gibson is?”


His email was rapidly followed by another email, sent by another friend.  It contained a different testimonial, written this time by none other than Paul Harvey, who reported about how moved he was by the film during an invited screening. 


Harvey’s comments were echoed in the same email by conservative commentator David Limbaugh, copied from a July 9, 2003 edition of his column. 


Limbaugh praised Gibson as “a model of faith and courage.? 


Limbaugh concluded with this mild remark: ?The moral is that if you want the popular culture to laud your work on Christ, make sure it either depicts Him as a homosexual or as an everyday sinner with no particular redeeming value (literally). In our anti-Christian culture, the blasphemous The Last Temptation of Christ is celebrated and The Passion is condemned.?


It took one punch through Google to find out that this chain email was a hoax:


eRumor ( reports that Paul Harvey?s comments were ?actually written by attorney and author Keith Fornier,? and Paul Harvey?s name was substituted afterwards.


As I closed out eRumor, something clicked.  The manipulative email I had read moments before suddenly felt very familiar.  And very personal. 


For you see, I know the landscape of America?s culture wars, having grown up in a conservative, Christian home.


*     *     *


I think the press is missing the real story behind Gibson?s Passion.


Those of us who grew up listening to preachers condemn the evils of Hollywood have been in awe of Gibson?s real accomplishment: he has sold a film to a core audience of evangelical Christians who up until now have always condemned graphic violence in film ? no matter what the reason.


How could they now support an almost X-rated level of violence ? one that Time?s film critic Richard Corliss describes as ?crimson carnage from the moment Jesus is condemned, half an hour into the 127-minute film.?


It?s not as if the film needed to use graphic violence ? when creating the classics Jesus and The Greatest Story Ever Told, the directors didn?t use graphic depictions of blood and gore.


But this is Mel Gibson, who is known for big sets, gigantic casts, epic themes.  This is the artist who has made excessive violence a primary color in his directing and acting palette. 


Gibson?s obsession for strict adherence to the Gospels in this film is matched only by his quest to show the gory details of the Passion.


And thus the real problem.


Gibson must have feared that if the religious right got wind of the realistic violence and nudity found in the film ? and perceived it as a blasphemous portrayal of the Christ ? many Christians would refuse to see the film.


Gibson knew that to sell the film, he was going to have to find a way to market it to an audience of Christian conservatives who have spent the entire 20th century declaiming the very thing they were now going to defend.


The Los Angeles Times recently questioned whether or not the film had to be this polarizing.  I think Gibson brought the firestorm on himself. 


EW reported that Gibson began his war by entering Bill O?Reilly?s ?No Spin Zone? to defend a movie that ?no one had [yet] publicly attacked.? 

Rejecting the earlier, more reverent treatment of films about Christ, such as The Robe, Gibson chose to do a reality version of the Passion, one much more in line with his own rough-hewn, traditionalist beliefs.


Gibson?s vision shows Christ stripped virtually naked and subjected to a violent whipping that leaves his back in ribbons, an excruciating scene detailed in the Gospels.  His film would be edgy and break all previous boundaries.


To sell this type of film, Gibson determined that he had to control the media?s discussion.  Otherwise, his graphically realistic directing choices could be perceived as irreverent or sacrilegious, and his target audience would condemn it en masse.


In truth, Gibson?s choice wasn?t even a gamble.  Our country?s so-called culture wars have conditioned the evangelical community to fight reactively, rather than thoughtfully. 


All Gibson had to do was tap into the explosive hatred that fundamentalist Christians have for the ?liberal media.?


If they could see his film as the underdog fighting for conservative Christian values, it would immediately become an icon of everything that is good, and above criticism.


Gibson?s strategic success should be the marketing story of the year.  By ensuring that the Christian market would support the film ? and by creating a furor that would pull in the general market as well ? Gibson trumped Martin Scorsese?s publicity campaign for The Last Temptation of Christ.


In evangelical Christian circles, Gibson has cast himself as the Courageous Christian fighting against the atheistic, liberal media wolves.  By exploiting the "us against them" feelings of fundamentalists, he has convinced his followers to unquestioningly support him.


And thus, a man who belongs to an extreme Catholic sect ? one that has been deemed ?heretical? by the Vatican?has become Christianity?s ultimate evangelical.  This by creating a film whose directing choices would have been condemned by the Right in any other context.


The fact that my father would consider going to see this film shocked me deeply.  This is a man who has consistently refused to watch any realistic portrayal of evil, violence, or nudity within the arts, even if it is within the context of a clash between right and wrong.


If my father was thinking about buying a movie ticket, then Gibson really has succeeded in promoting his film beyond anyone?s wildest dreams. 


The end result of his one-sided War Against the Liberal Media has been a buzz that other publicists can only dream about.


And that buzz is going to pay for Gibson?s $25 million investment. 

Will I see the film? I wouldn?t miss it.  I may not be a member of the Christian Right, but I am a Christian, and this is a powerful redemption story, which is central to my faith. 


But, just like everyone else, I?ll wait until after I see the film to judge it.

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