Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Thinking about the Passion Again

The Passion of the Christ.  Remember?

In January 2004 I wrote a column on it (previous entry).

I wrote it just as Newmarket Films was gearing up the media juggernaut.  

Gibson and Newmarket created an Us vs. Them battle in the media.  The intrigue it aroused sold millions of tickets.  The Perfect Storm.  

And it was all fake. 

Seriously.  Give me the name of an organization that really tried to stop the release of the film.  Yet, evangelicals turned the film into a Battle of Faith.  Gibson was the Outsider facing down the Hollywood Establishment. 

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching ... to the movie theater ... to ring up millions of dollars ... for Mel Gibson. 

Who was one of Hollywood's Biggest Movie Stars.

What's wrong with this picture?

After I wrote my original reactions, I got some not-so-nice ... okay, kind-of-nasty ... letters from former friends in the Midwest.  They questioned my faith.


How could I criticize a film that preaches the salvation story?


I shouldn't have problems with the fact that Gibson's publicity hounds were convincing Christians who condemn violent, R-rated films by Hollywood to go to see ... an R-rated film made by one of Hollywood's biggest stars. 


                                                            *     *     *


Using a Passion play drenched in blood, Gibson did what no evangelical Christian could have done:  changed the rules about going to the movies.


How?  Gibson played on the paranoia of the Right.  And he positioned himself outside of the Hollywood mainstream.  Thus, instead of condemning him, the Right made him a Hero of Faith.


Made sense.  If he hadn't, he'd have lost his primary audience.


                                                      *     *     *


The fallout from the faithful's belief in the film was vicious.  Some evangelicals thought you could determine a person's faith by their level of enthusiasm for the fim.


If the film moved you to tears ... then your faith was real.  If you didn?t ? well ?


It used to be that Protestants burned Catholics like Gibson at the stake.  A year ago, he convinced them to go see one of the most violent mainstream films ever made.


Where's the Reformation when you really need it?


*     *     *


I saw the film a few days before Easter.  It was disturbing.  Not inspiring. 


My thoughts wandered.  The lightning that struck the cross with Jim Caviezel on it.  The whip that missed the board and gave Jim Caviezel a little scar.  The missing resurrection at the end.


I know.  The traditional passion play doesn't include the resurrection.  And the film is a celluloid version of the European Passion Play.  You know.  The ones in Europe that were often followed by good, old-fashioned pogroms?  Where you beat up some Jews.


And I kept thinking about Lethal Weapon.  Gibson was doing his thing again, brushing each scene with just the right amount of gratuitous violence to keep your teeth on edge.  Wait.  Where was Riggs?


                                                     *     *     *


The Passion was a cultural phenomenon.  No one doubts that.  Most people saw it.  To talk about it at the water fountain. 


Some of the faithful felt that the film foreshadowed another Great Awakening.


What if Gibson had chosen not to make the film a shocker?  Chosen to take out the controversial aspects?  Allowed a studio to tame it down? 


What would there have been to talk about?


*     *     *


And now comes The Passion Recut.  The cleaned-up version.  Less violence.


Too cleaned up.  It can't find an audience.


Numbers never lie.  The film opened in 900+ theatres.  Opening weekend, the film averaged 24 seats per theatre.  


The cleaner film is a box office stinker.


                                                          *     *     *


Why did The Passion of the Christ bust open box office records?


Because its artist was insane enough to go the distance.  He risked a fortune to direct his personal vision of faith.


He's earned every penny he's made. 


The film is a dark, violent vision  But it sinks the claws of its anchor deep into the heart of Gibson.  The violence that fuels him.


Mel brought his vision of the Crucifixion to life as skillfully as he knew how.  He used his favorite colors, drawn primarily from the familiar palette of violence. 


Mel wasn't afraid to shock.  In fact, he planned to.


No one can fake passion.  You either have it or you don't.  You can't imitate it, any more than you can turn Aunt Bertha's eggnog into semen.


Gibson's spark of passion tapped into the zeitgeist.  The fuse of reaction to his work provided the necessary explosion picked up by the media:  chain emails (fake and real), internet bloggers, and the necessary sermons from the pulpits of the Right. 


People lined up on both sides of the fence, and thus, both sides of the fence had to go see the film in order to keep arguing.  Voila.  Box Office Magic.


                                                          *     *     *


Yeah.  I get the whole zeitgeist thing.  But the questions don?t go away.


Did the original film do well because its real audience loves gratuitous violence?  Perhaps its success had little to do with faith.  More with blood-thirst.


Are people skipping the new movie because they already have the DVD?  That would make sense.  Why go to the theater and pay for two tickets when you can simply pop in a DVD?


Was last year's trip to the theatre similar to the medieval pilgrimage to Rome?  A modern-day faith journey?  One that didn?t need to be repeated this year?


Or perhaps there is no "spiritual" explanation.  This is what happens when you re-release any film.   


As Linda Hamilton?s character says in The Terminator:  ?You know, you could go crazy thinking about this.?


*     *     *


I honestly thought that Mel Gibson was going to have a perennial film?like Disney?s masterpieces:  Snow White, Bambi, Sleeping Beauty?that could be pulled out each year and re-screened.  An annual blockbuster from now until Armageddon. 


I guess Gibson thought the same.


Did he make a mistake?  Should he have re-released the same film, not put it on DVD, maintained the purity of his original vision? 


If Gibson had screened the original film instead, would it have once again unlocked the Windows of Manna and rained down Blockbuster Green?

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