Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.100.5: Willing Suspension of Disbelief, Part 1

 passion

Mel Gibson directing Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (Icon, 2004)

It should be evident to any readers of these pages over the years that two of my abiding interests are religion and motion pictures, two subjects that it has occurred to me intersect at the human capacity, or need, for the willing suspension of disbelief.

Essentially, what religion does that satisfies and fuses both the real and the imaginary is to give narrative and purpose to existence. Movies have a beginning, a plot that moves and motivates the narrative, and an ending; and so does religion. Theoretical cosmology might have a quite different rendering of the beginning and ending (if there is one) of the existence of the universe, but it doesn’t sell in Hollywood. People have neither the intelligence, nor the sentiment, to abide the science that grudgingly reveals a reality with an arc that has none of the character and personal relevance as “revealed truths.” Reality might be presented as a narrative, but not always one that engages us as does the narrative of a good movie or a convincing faith.

Religion and movies had another symbiosis: sex and violence. Early movies surprisingly raised a lot of concern about the need for censorship. One could provide many examples but one that always struck me was Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 short film, Easy Street, in which there is plenty of violence between police and immigrants, a near rape, spousal abuse, and even drugs. The film begins with a destitute Little Tramp Chaplin attending a revivalist church meeting. He becomes a cop, subdues the local bad guys and eventually the local bar is converted to a church. Chaplin makes somewhat a mockery of Americans and their moral hang-ups, but he also cleverly gives the audience what it wants—sex and violence, packaged in religious redemption. Still, there were moralists who saw great danger in early films and pressed for production codes and other modes of censorship in Hollywood’s early days when it was first recognize that movies offered the same spectacles and cognitive contortion as religion—the willing suspension of disbelief. Paradoxically, the Bible proved a great firewall against censorship; the portrayal of biblical stories with their graphic sin and debauchery in need of redemption insulated movies like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) or C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), and numerous movie biographies of Samson and Delilah, King Solomon, David and Goliath, from charges of gratuitous involved sex and violence. So long as there is punishment and/or redemption all’s well that ends well.

And what greater Hollywood ending plot than one in which a god-man sacrifices himself to save all mankind (well, at least by some future sequel). There is no question, whether Jesus is played by Jeffrey Hunter, Max Von Sydow, Willem Defoe, James Caviezel (more on his portrayal below)[1], and that we know Jesus is going to die but be resurrected, the crucifixion of Christ is a guaranteed box office gift that not only keeps on giving monetarily, but further imprints the “truth” of the gospels into the public consciousness. It is not without some secular as well as religious relevance that the story of the New Testament has been filmed as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

Yet it is one of the curious aspects of the Hollywood idiom that many of these movies about the origins and growth of Christianity, almost always shown in a positive if not even proselytizing light, were the product of a cinematic industry that was for much of this period owned, operated and controlled by Jews. In his excellent book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Neal Gabler writes that “Hollywood Jews were always very tender with the Catholics.” The Jewish Hollywood movie moguls were, as Gabler explains earlier in his book, always eager to create in their films a good and patriotic perception of America. And America was then as it is now a largely Christian country. Some of the moguls, particularly Louis B. Mayer, appear to have had a special affection for Catholics, perhaps because they suffered some of the same prejudices as Jews. To Mayer, “Catholicism had that aura of the august and the holy. Or so Mayer thought.”   Producing movies that portrayed Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, was also good politics and public relations, and almost always good box office. But usually, in these productions it was left out altogether, or to ambiguity, as to what role the Jews of Jerusalem played in the crucifixion of their rebellious rabbi.

Apparently this was an omission that actor, producer and director Mel Gibson considered in need of correction. Gibson, a devout, conservative Roman Catholic, apparently also felt that a “counter-reformational” version of The Passion of the Christ (2004) was due. Not only had the Jewish moguls failed to cinematically indict Jesus’s fellow Jews for his death, but also conservative Catholics had been upset by when Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council (and subsequently Pope Paul VI) had repudiated the long-held belief among conservative Christians in the Jewish deicide.[2] Gibson apparently prefers the origin of that slander that had long been the basis for pogroms and other persecutions of the Jews that appears in Matthew’s gospel.

27:24: When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

27:25All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

There is little room for sex in The Passion of the Christ, but the violence more than makes up for it. Gibson is clearly worried that if his audience is not persuaded that Jesus suffered the worst death of any human being before or since we will not believe that he was supposed to be dying for our sins. And so we get a movie that would better have been titled “Beating the Bejeezus Out of Jesus,” a self-defeating project of gallons of theatre blood and gore that goes on, and on, and on, for two hours, until the audience realizes that it is being punished for Mel’s sins. Worse still, it is hackneyed and hokey filmmaking. Everybody in the cast, of course, looks like what they are supposed to look like: a tall and handsome Christ, sneering Pharisees, Roman soldiers who could double as Soprano thugs, Mary and Mary Magdalene are decked out as nuns, and then there is the Devil (how did he get in this thing?), who looks like Boy George with his shaved eyebrows. The dialogue is in Aramaic (or was it Urdu? Who can tell?) and Latin, of which I caught a couple of words and phrases because it was pronounced like, well, Aramaic. In any case it’s a blessing, since having to read the subtitles does divert the eye from the carnage.

Since we know Jerusalem as a rather crumbly ancient city Gibson apparently figured it looked that way in Christ’s time as well. A little anachronism is acceptable, I guess, as artistic license. But when the high priests tossed Judas a purse of thirty pieces of silver, did the purse actually float through the air in slow motion? Subtlety is not Gibson’s forte, and he really likes to overcrank that camera; we get Christ being flailed in slo-mo, falling a good half dozen times in slo-mo (dust and pieces of flesh flying about in slo-mo), the pounding of nails in slo-mo, sometimes we get some subjective camera, some ground level angles, some overheads, bust mostly slo-mo, lots of slo-mo. We actually end up wishing for the ending we all know is coming (but when, we are stuck in slo-mo!?). By the time Caviezel (Christ) gets to the mount he looks so much like raw hamburger the Romans might be having a barbeque rather than a crucifixion.

Christ finally, and mercifully, succumbs, the skies darken, the Temple starts crumbling, even the Devil, who showed up at the crucifixion with an grotesque little kid left over from a David Lynch film, is thrown back into Hell. We get a closing shot of a naked and unmarked Christ walking out of his tomb, and that’s it. The passion of the Mel is over and his sins are expunged and he has given those murderous Jews their comeuppance.[3]

Well, not so fast there, centurion. There is the controversy over Gibson’s portrayal of the Jews as Christ-killers (once again). The Romans get off easy, as does the reluctant Pilate, or the brutal buffoons who do the dirty work for the Jews. There’s enough of it to confirm for his prime audience that Christ really wasn’t a Jew, he was the Christ, and those Jews preferred Barabbas, who looks like a drooling, snaggled-toothed madman, to the Christ.

People flocked to the theaters to see Gibson’s film. He made millions and will make more on the DVD, which many churches are buying in lots for the faithful. But I have to wonder how many people are going to say for the second, third or fourth time: “Hey, let’s make some popcorn, slip into our jammies, turn on the DVD player, and watch Roman soldiers beat the bejeezus out of the Christ for a couple of hours. But it is a good idea to keep a few towels handy to wipe up that blood oozing out of your TV.

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©2016, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.4.2016)

[1] In some movies the aura of Jesus is enhanced by the absence of a full frontal visage. In Ben Hur, for example, we only see Christ from the rear as someone who offers a drink of water to Judah Ben Hur, or as an indefinable man in white in the distance, or an unrecognizable personage hauling a heavy cross to his crucifixion. The intended effect is to create something “sacred,” for us to substitute our own version of what Christ might have looked like.

This form of portrayal would have certainly suited Muslims who have always had their issues with realistic representation. In Richard Grenier’s book, The Marrakesh One-Two (NY: Houghton-Mifflin, 1983) a crew filming a movie in Morocco about Mohammad hilariously tries to get around the Islamic prohibition of representations of the face of the Prophet (a serious insult to devout Muslims that resulted in a terrorist attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015). The novel had a real-life parallel in the movie The Message (Tarik Int’l. Films), a 1977 box office disaster from, produced and directed by Moustapha Akka who hoped to create a Muslim cinema classic, sort of an Arab “Ten Commandments”, shown on television every Ramadan. The Western version starred Anthony Quinn as Mohammad’s uncle; Akkad had to film a second version side by side, with an all-Muslim cast, to quiet Saudi protests. Yet protests plagued the film, forcing production to move from country to country, and terrorists prevented the opening in New York, despite the fact that they hadn’t seen the film! Typical.

[2] The Jewish deicide slander cannot entirely be laid at the feet of Roman Catholicism. Martin Luther, particularly in his I later works, notably On the Jews and Their Lies, expressed antagonistic views toward Judaism, writing that Jewish synagogues and homes should be destroyed, their money confiscated, and liberty curtailed.

[3] Gibson apparently carries his anti-Semitism around with him and on an occasion of imbibing too much alcohol, giving voice to it. His father, also a conservative Catholic, is an open holocaust denier. Gibson has also said in interviews that he feels “there is no salvation outside the [Roman Catholic] Church.” In another respect the The Passion of the Christ just seems to carry forward what Hollywood woiud call a “Mel Gibson vehicle.” Gibson’s movies, from his early Mad Max, through the Lethal Weapon series, through Braveheart, The River, and The Patriot and Payback, is always the tough, little underdog being put upon by larger malevolent forces. Even the rather interesting Apocalypto, which he directed, is faithful to this recurrent theme. Reputedly, Gibson would have liked to play Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, but had to give the role to another actor. See “Votive Offering,” by Colleen McDannell, in Catholics in the Movies (NY: Oxford U. Press, 2008)

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