I've not really written in this section of my site much - mainly due to the fact I've not read much non-philosophy the last few months and I've seen few movies. However Nicole and I did manage to see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ today. As it has been the subject of enormous controversy I thought I'd write up my own thoughts on it.
Now I must confess that I've read most of the reviews of the film and thus went in with a great deal of curiosity and perhaps some preconceptions regarding violence, anti-semitism and some over the top B-movie flourishes. Some reviews were outright hostile. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, calls the film fascism and by implication connects it to Nazism. It has been called by some sado-masochistic. Others have called it the "Jesus Chainsaw Massacre" and a "snuff film." There were some good reviews from people like Roger Ebert. But by and large it seems like the response was negative and vicious by reviewers.
With all that baggage I went into the film expecting the worse. But I also went in curious to find the source for all this venom. I can certainly understand those of Jewish descent reacting negatively to a story that was often used to persecute them in Europe for more than a thousand years. However I was very surprised. The film was quite unlike I expected. I honestly don't see how they interpreted the anti-semetic bit. Certainly the high priest and Caiphas, the priest with the power behind the scenes, are overplayed a bit. However Gibson has part of the Sanhedrin walking out in protest to the treatment of Jesus. Most of the Jews are clearly sympathetic to Jesus. Now I could see accusations of the film being anti-Roman now... Yeah. The Romans are brutal. I think that there is a bit of hypersensitivity amongst some Jewish people on this one. Perhaps it is a bit akin to how some Mormons overreact to any negative press about the Mormons. But I just don't see anything in the film towards Jews that lines up with these complaints. Further, this is the basis of Christianity. I don't think most of these reviewers recognize the implication of their comments. It would seem to follow that they feel Christianity is inherently anti-semetic and any believer anti-semetic.
The film surprisingly wasn't anywhere near as violent as I expected. Perhaps I was expecting something worse. But I've seen many other movies which were far more violent. Heavens, I think in many ways Braveheart was nearly as violent. That's not to say it isn't flinch inducing and emotion tugging. It is. But it isn't the "sadomasochistic love fest" that many reviewers described. It is nowhere near the ballpark of say Kill Bill which most reviewers loved. I could probably name off dozens of critically aclaimed films that were far more violent.
I must admit that after finally seeing the film I came away with a very negative view of all the pundits who have been writing on this. I suspect many of them will be distancing themselves from their own comments now that the film has been so positively received by the public.
That's not to say it is a perfect movie. But it is very good. Very well made. I suspect the difference in opinions arises because it is one of those movies that if you aren't already a practicing Christian it just won't have the same impact. It definitely assumes some familiarity with the New Testament. I just don't think it would have the same emotional impact for a non-Christian or even someone who isn't terribly devout. I could see non-Christians who didn't understand the atonement miss the point of the film entirely. And indeed that's what a lot of pundits basically did. (The one I remember was "wasn't the message of Christ 'love thy neighbor?'") I think these pundits want to reduce Christ's mission to his political and ethical message and thus miss the basic theology of Christianity: the atonement. And it is that which the film focuses in on. What Christ suffered for our sins. If you don't really believe that he did this for each viewer of the film, then it will simply not have any impact. It will simply be the senseless depiction of the torture of a person. Yet for those who understand the basics of the atonement, then every scene adds to the impact and seriously makes you rethink your commitment to Christ.
Now the film basically is very Catholic. Although even there it wasn't as overtly Catholic as I'd expected. Christ definitely is not portrayed as the effete figure you frequently see on Catholic crucifixes or even in film. It is very well acted with the actor portraying Christ able to capture his love and charisma.. Even most of the symbolism, which is more overtly Catholic, works. (Except for a couple scenes which are a tad over the top and don't work - especially one towards the end with a crow)
To Mormons this difference in theology might change the effect the movie has. Most Mormons tend to see Christ's greatest work as done in the garden where he literally took our sins upon him. Catholics tend see this taking our sins as the torture he received after his capture. This explains their focus on the blood and suffering by Jesus as he is tortured. It is a substitution for our just torture for them. For Mormons we typically view things so differently that perhaps that "oomph" that will hit Catholics and many other Christians won't be quite as great. Still we all recognize that he did this for us and that it is a central symbol of our own religion. You can't be a devout Mormon without being touched and come away changed somewhat. Certainly I won't be able to take the sacrament on Sunday without reflecting on the film.
Some movies require distance to fully appreciate. There have been many movies which had a significant impact on me at the time, but which in hindsight either improved or paled from the distance. That doesn't mean that they necessarily do or don't hold up to repeated viewings. Some fantastic movies, like say The Usual Suspects really don't hold up to repeated viewings. But that film in particular seemed better and better, the more I thought about it.
For this reason I was curious to see how I'd react to Gibson's The Passion after a few days. Perhaps it is still too early to say for sure, but the weekend certainly has allowed me time to reflect.
In a way, I think that the film that The Passion best merits comparison to is Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Ryan was a bit of a phenomena, ushering in an era of WWII films and an appreciation of patriotism that only recently subsided with the Iraq war. Ryan also was widely discussed in terms of its extreme realistic violence. Up to that time there had been many realistic war films - many with extreme violence. But Ryan upped the notch of realism to a level unheard of. It was like being there. And, I can honestly say, that the violence in the opening twenty minutes there was far worse than anything in The Passion.
Does this matter? Well, yes and no. People defended the violence of Ryan saying that it was justified by the kind of film it was. Yet, with distance, it seemed that Ryan, while a very well made film, really didn't do much with the violence beyond shocking. And its aim with its shock was actually quite similar to The Passion. It attempted to make us appreciate just what that generation went through by showing it in the most realistic light possible. Yet, by comparison to Hank's and Spielberg's miniseries Band of Brothers, the plot and context seemed weak. There simply wasn't the characterization or concern that we felt in the equally realistic but far less intense Band of Brothers. If anything, that latter production made Ryan seem dimmer. It also highlighted the film as being significant because of that opening twenty minutes.
Now look at The Passion. It is doing pretty much the same thing that Spielberg did, minus the tacked on second act. We are supposed to care about Christ not because of characterization or because of what is shown in the film prior to the violence. Rather we care because of what we bring to the film and what we see done. Just as we all appreciated that WWII saved us from fascism, most Christians already believe Jesus saved them. That belief isn't changed by either film about either context. What does change is the impact - the intensity - of that recognition.
What is so different though, is that the same critics savaging Passion were praising Ryan. Don't get me wrong. I think that the Passion is a flawed film - likely for the same reasons that Ryan is. It is a film that diminishes with distance even if it did its job well.
So where does the film diminish? Well it really doesn't develop characters or motivation for any character other than Pilate. And even with Pilate the missing reason for his worry is overlooked. Pilate had been cruel and bloodthirsty with the Jews and was under scrutiny by Rome for this. Gibson touches on this, but really doesn't provide that cruel context for Pilate. Still, Pilate is by far the most developed and interesting figure. The ruling priests really aren't explained at all. As presented we don't understand why they are doing what they do. Neither do we understand Judas. Only Mary truly seems an effective character, and then perhaps it is because she follows her son, watching all that is done to him. It is the touching moment of a mother witnessing the torture and death of her son.
If the characters aren't fleshed out - aren't truly human - then perhaps we can be excused in the context of Ryan for wondering how significant that truly is. Perhaps we can hope for a Gibson produced HBO miniseries that could fill these details in, much as Spielberg did with his vision of WWII. Probably not.
What is most interesting in hindsight isn't what is wrong with the film. Rather, it is what works and why. Spielberg shocked us with Saving Private Ryan. He brought back into our awareness the sacrifice of WWII vetrans. He did that through the use of shocking violence. Gibson has done the same with Christianity. What is surprising is how few critics have noted this.
I know, I know. Everyone hates those "best of" lists. It's as tacky as putting up your favorite movies on your homepage. But I actually listen to a lot of songs based upon suggestions. With iTMS, Apple's new music store, this is pretty easy too. They play samples for you so you can decide if you like it. Further Pepsi has this deal where you can get free song downloads under the cap. (Tip: if you tip the bottle you can see if your bottle is a winner or not) Anyway, I've downloaded quite a few songs from iTMS the past few weeks and have found some cool bands I'd not heard of before. I've also included a few others I've been playing a lot the last couple of weeks. I originally made this list up for my brother but decided to just paste it here for anyone else who was interested.
Imperial Teen: Sort of that retro-rock but a little more indie. I kind of like them. I'm not positive if they are your style though. Songs: Ivanka; Yoo-Hoo. I downloaded the live versions. Pretty good live band in my opinion.
Black Eyed Peas: Half reggae half rap. But not crappy. One of the iPod commercials used this song. Songs: Hey Mama
Finley Quaye: Real mixture of styles. A little techno, a little folk, a little reggae, a little Eagles. Hard to explain. Surprisingly good. Each song is typically a pretty different style so don't assume just because you don't like one song you won't like the others. Songs: Dice; Sunday Shining; Even After All
311: OK, big semi-reggae band that's been around a long time. I normally don't like them. But they have this new Cure cover that is really good. Songs: Love Song; Amber
Belle & Sebastian: Kind of new folk band that's in the style of the 60's rock. I think this is really up your road. They used their songs in a bunch of VW commercials this fall. Songs: Step Into My Office, Baby; I'm Waking Up To Us; (lots of others)
Jet: An other band off the iPod commercials. Kind of that retro rock style again but with more of a big sound of the late 70's. (Think a bit of Foreigner and a bit of the Who as well as a bit of late 90's neo-punk, classic punk and a bit of the Cult) Songs: Cold Hard Bitch; Radio Song; Are You Gonna Be My Girl. You really need to download these songs. Very, very good. I can email these ones if you can't find them.
John Mayer: An other one a lot have been talking about. Kind of folky with a bit of blues. Some songs definitely have that kind of mellow mid-90's vibe to them. I kind of liked that style but I don't know if you do. Songs: Kid A; Your Body Is a Wonderland The Radiohead cover is particularly good - even if you hate Radiohead.
Lucinda Williams: Kind of more bluegrass or folk. But she has this fantastic Nick Drake cover that is great. This is one that you'll either love or hate as I know you hate trip hop and there is a little bit of that as influence. Most of the ones I listed here are more bluesy rock. But a lot of her stuff is more bluegrass. Songs: Which Will; Righteously; Drunken Angel; Jackson
Roland Orzabal: This has been getting a lot of play down here the past month but I don't think it has elsewhere. It is off the Donny Darko soundtrack from a year or so ago. It's an old Tears for Fears song from the 80's but done really, really well. (If a tad depressing) Song: Mad World
The Strokes: Great mix of late 60's and early 90's style rock. I don't know if you like the Strokes or not or have even heard them. Some of their stuff I can't stand. But these ones I like. Some of these got a lot of airplay so you may have heard them. Their most heavily played song, Last Night, is the one I like the least. Songs: Take It or Leave It; Someday; Last Night
White Stripes: You've probably heard a lot of their stuff. I really, really like them. I'm including some that haven't been overplayed on the radio and that you may not have heard. Songs: Black Jack Davey, St. James Infirmary Blues, In the Cold Cold Night, You've Got Her In Your Pocket