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Wednesday, March 03, 2004
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

I will be participating in a panel discussion on The Passion of the Christ at USC's Annenberg School of Communications this evening. I have seven minutes to lay out some of my thoughts regarding the project. Excuse me while I collect my thoughts here...

I thought I would work off the question above, distinguishing between what does the project mean to Hollywood, to the masses who are flocking to it, and then what does it mean in itself?

A. WHAT DOES POTC mean to Hollywood?

The industry is shocked by the box-office numbers for the project. The day before POTC opened, I read one of the industry box-office pundits predicting that the film "might actually top $30 mil in its opening week." Talk about misreading the signs of the times...

A lot of people in town were prepared to dismiss the original spike in box-office to an orchestrated campaign by church groups. I don't think anyone can look at the $125 million in five days without the following thought process intruding:

- Either there are a hell of a lot more church groups out there than I knew, or else more likely,
- There are a lot more people interested in Jesus out there than I ever imagined.

There are many in Hollywood who will want to dismiss POTC as a fluke. And they would be right. The primary thing that has powered this film is the fact that it was written, produced, directed and bankrolled by a global movie superstar. We have grown so used to movie stars being preoccupied with saving whales, wearing ribbons and ridiculing religion, that the notion of one of "that tribe" producing a devout consideration of the redemptive Sacrifice of Jesus is truly inconceivable.

People all want to know what the success of this film will mean in terms of future projects. Who knows? It might mean some openness for Biblical epics, but the problem is you aren't going to see another POTC until you have a filmmaker who actually believes and loves the Biblical story. POTC is awesome ibecause of its theological sophistication. This kind of movie could only be produced by a filmmaker who is in awe of God. I don' know that there are too many other A-list directors who could meet that requirement.


B. WHAT DOES POTC MEAN TO VIEWERS?

This is another way of getting around to the two questions, "Does this film make viewers want to go beat up Jewish people"? AND "Is the violence in this film ultimately sickening to the viewer?" The question comes down to, "Is artistic license absolute?" or in other words, "How much responsibility does an artist/entertainer bear in the impact their work has on their audience?"


SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT ARTISTIC FREEDOM...

I belong to a school of thought that sees the arts as having a vital place in human society. Decorating stuff is more than just a private impulse for self-expression. But it is minimally that, and we have to leave room for the artist to make dark and crazy weird things in the privacy of their own studios. The ethical question comes in when the artist decides to take some of that stuff out and put it in the middle of the public square. Some of the stuff that bursts out of the artist is poisonous to human society. It's like vomit. Vomit is very real. But reality isn't virtue enough to allow someone to smear it all over the walls in a room. A lot of the art we have been subjected to for the last century has been tantamount to being smeared with vomit.

The artist can lead people to want to be good. The arts can stretch us to see and experience farther than our normal workaday worlds would take us. They arts can connect us to one another, to our deepest selves and to the transcendent.

The artist's ethical question comes down to, will this work of mine lead people toward the good or away from it? Will it fill them with hope or despair? Will it make them want to be more fully human, or will it validate them in settling for being more like a pig?

Now, the fact is, the artist's responsibility can only be measured according to the standard of a healthy human being. We can't limit the artist, for example, because some wacko out there has a pathological response to the color purple. This is what governments try to do, and it is always wrong. However, suppose MOST people have a pathological response to the color purple. Suppose it isn't aberrant to start frothing at the mouth when you see grape soda, but rather the norm for the kind of beings that we are? Then, the artist who uses purple is being irresponsible.

I don't think POTC leaves most people in a worse place than they were before. I think it leaves most people better off. The fact that it is not a happy film, doesn't say anything about this question at all. Sometime truth is firghtening and being disturbed is a positive, like being wakened from sleep.

Much of the criticism coming against POTC is hugely problematic in terms of the whole question of artistic freedom. Where are the people in the creative community for whom artistic freedom has been their clarion call?


SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT PROPOGANDA...

The anti-Semitism charges against The Passion of the Christ keep coming down to two notions:

--"The POTC is anti-Semitic."
OR
--"The POTC is not in itself anti-Semitic, but some people might find their latent strands of anti-Semitism affirmed by the film."

Regarding the first notion, I think that to be effective, propaganda must in some sense be intentional. Now, if Mel Gibson was trying to make an anti-Semitic work, he did a very bad job of it. In fact, we could go through the film, and find ways in which hatred for Jewish people might have been heightened. There is just too much ambiguity in the film to claim that it has this agenda. So, if this was the agenda of the film, we would have to conclude that it was very sloppily done.

Regarding the second notion. See the argument above about making art for people who have apathological response to the color purple.


SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT ARTISTIC LICENSE...

Mel is getting criticism from theological circles for making a film that is historically inaccurate in its sensibilities. Other people have taken issue with the fact that there are things in the movie that are not in the Scriptures. Mel has been going around claiming that he made a film that was as historical as possible, and faithful to the Scriptures.

This dispute reflects a distance in terms between the scholar and the artist. Mel has made a film that is visually historical. He got the costumes right. He got the production design right. The characters are semitic looking. They don't speak with British accents and have blue eyes and perfect teeth. The scholars want to see a dissertation on the relationship between Rome and its occupied territories and specifically the situation in Palestine. That is the kind of complexity that belongs in books. That is why we have them.

There are three senses in which an artist can be inspired by the Scriptures.

The first sense would be in the attempt to be literal. (Enter Evangelical America.) People tell me the Gospel of John movie is like that. The Jesus film that Protestants love so much is probably also of this type. The second sense would be an artist who is anti-Scriptural. That is, the artist creates a work that is at odds with the fundamental spirit of the work. He is arguing with the hierarchy set up in the Scriptures. Such a project would be The Last Temptation of Christ. Many people of faith find the character of Jesus in that film to be incompatible with the Jesus they know.

The third sense of the artist inspired by Scripture is the one who is functioning super-Scripturally. This involves the distortion of some details, to achieve a new emphasis. The emphasis, however, is fully in concert with the fundmental spirit of the Scriptures. So, for example, the image of God's finger touching Adam's finger is nowhere in the Bible. However, it is absolutely consonant with the sense of the creation narrative. And, borrowing from JPII, it's very distortion itself becomes a source of theology.

The Passion of the Christ is most like this.

On another level, a lot of theologian types are angry at the story that POTC tells. They want to movie to be more about Jesus' preaching, or about the resurrection. The only response to these people is a shrug. That isn't the movie that this artist wanted to make. He has the right to make whatever movie he wants to make as long as it ultimately leaves the viewers better off than they were before. To ask the sacred artist to create a work that encompasses the entire panoply of salvation history and theology is to bind up an impossible burden and to lay it on the artist's palatte.


FOR WHOM DOES POTC TOLL?

Clearly, the film is much more for people who know the story than for those who do not. Were it not, there would be a lot more attempts to give backstory and develop characters. The fact is the film picks up like the Stations of the Cross on the wall of any church. And then it just goes. Some people could stroll in to a church without knowing anything about Christianity and admire the craft of the sculptor or painter who created the Stations of the Cross. Some others might be provoked to learn more about the sotry that the Stations signify. "Why is this man being done to death? Where are his friends? Why doesn't he fight back?" Finally, some will see something in one of the Stations that will strike them at the bone. They will be stopped by one of the images and it will be a moment of grace for them. Mel Gibson's Passion will probably work like that with different groups of non-Christians.


WHAT ABOUT THE VIOLENCE?

The passion of the Christ is not a great film INSPITE of its violence. It is a great film THROUGH its violence. The violence is the principle symbolic device of the piece. Personally, I thought he could have cut some of it out. But maybe, for him, the violence wasn't quite enough to express the horror of sin that he was getting at. The Pope says that the artist will always look at his work and find it insufficient in light of the creative inspiration that has been given to him.



ooops...gotta go to work. Maybe more later...