Thursday, March 24, 2005


1) I finally rented Passion of the Christ. I skipped it when it came out, for a variety of reasons. I’ve never had much interest in bloated epics - I haven’t seen any of Mel Gibson’s earlier bloated epics - so why see this one? That and the crowds - mobs of the devout... I feared I would react badly. I remember seeing Titanic - and having to control my laughter at the end, with the CGI’d people slipping off the CGI ship. Human pinball... There were a lot of places in that lousy film that demanded a laugh - or at least ironic appreciation of the melodrama. I rather liked the melodrama of Titanic - just that instead of a taut, silly picture, reveling in its genre heritage (ironically, like Almodovar or Maddin, or not), drawing the real emotion out of the conventions of its expression, it was a bloated epic, full of cheesy music, cheesy effects, cheesy, gratuitous camera work, big gaudy sets that require time, to appreciate... God! How to ruin a fun idea! Anyway, around me all the poor girls were sobbing, and I had to hold back the laughter...

2) Let’s cut to the chase: The Passion of the Christ looks cheap. The opening sequence looks as fake as anything in Guy Maddin, but it looks like Mel is trying to pass it off as a real Hollywood movie set. Once you get to the crowd scenes, you can see Mel saving money, by shooting things tight, to minimize the amount of background he needs to dress. Even longer shots are kept within fairly narrow bounds. Of course I could be wrong - it could just be that Gibson is a complete hack, who simply doesn’t know how to make a film look good. I don’t know. I think it’s the money. I think he wanted this to be a real bloated epic, but did not have a bloated budget. $25-30 million - that’s low for bloated epic, though a pretty good amount for a real movie. So I may be right. The problem is - trying to look like a bloated epic on a modest budget is a formula for making a really boring looking film. If Mel had had $100 million to throw around, he probably could have made something truly spectacular (though undoubtedly gaudy and vulgar in the worst way - but that was the point of the film - to turn the last hours of Christ’s life into thrilling spectacle, full of gore and the simulation of high emotion) - lacking the budget, he also lacked the imagination to make a film that looked like anything other than a cheap bloated epic.

3) What kills this film more than anything is the pacing. It is slow and ponderous - not because Gibson wanted to make a slow, meditative film - this is not meditative in any sense - but because it is slow and ponderous. Scenes are dragged out endlessly - with lots of pointless cutting around the room, and portentous music, the actors deliver their lines in slow monotones, as if they were reading them phonetically of cue cards (what are the odds?); scenes drag on and on, repeating their main points... This reaches a kind of nadir not so much with the flogging, though that’s pretty bad - take the structure of the flogging scene: slow start, lots of posturing and leering by various romans; some sad looking onlookers - then the beating begins; it stops - we get the same foolishness we started with, almost a reply of the beginning of the scene - then more, worse beating - and another pause, and they flip the poor SOB over and more of it.... then Jesus' followers coming out to sop up the gore and - you expect them to start writhing in the blood or something disgusting like that.... No, bad as it is, that isn't the nadir - the nadir comes later, the march through the streets of Jerusalem - slow, repetitive, clichéd - how many times can you show poor Jesus flopping to the ground in slow motion, with the cross bopping him on the head as he hits the ground? Watch and find out! Over and over - like a loop: Jesus staggers under his cross - Romans leer and flog - crowd shots - Romans growl and flog the crowd - sympathetic onlooker! - Jesus falls - Romans snarl and leer and whip the crowd - they drag Jesus to his feet and Mel replays the loop... This was when I gave up and started fast forwarding...

4) There is exactly one effective moment in the whole film: the moment of Jesus’ death. His face is shown in tight close up with a wide lens, lit/colored in blues and shadows - it flattens his face out, stretches it, so that for a second there, it looks like an ikon, and has the spiritual effect of an icon. (Evoking, we could say, the Transcendental Style of art.) For that shot, almost by accident, the film achieves something moving and beautiful. It is fleeting - it is literally one shot. It is gone.

5) There have been exactly two great Jesus movies. One is Life of Brian - it is not exactly a Jesus movie, but it is a very sharp satire on religion and politics, the JPF or PFJ and poor Reg/Loretta and the rest based, perhaps, on student politics of the 60s (if I remember the commentary tracks right), but probably as accurate a portrayal of Palestine during the life of Christ as you can find. Dozens of radical sects, political or religious, all squabbling among themselves, accusing one another of betraying whatever they were betraying... I'd bet on it.

The other - one of the greatest films ever made - is the magnificant Gospel According to Matthew. God, but this film shames Gibson's movie, on every conceivable level! But let's stick to just the one level - the tone of the film - and it's pacing. It is odd - there are those who like to say that Mel's Jesus movie is the most faithful adaptation of scripture ever - that is total nonsense. For one thing, it completely hashes the tone and pace of the scriptures. A decent adaptation has to get the strengths of the original, I would think, and that style is one of the best things about the gospels. Pasolini gets that just about right. Read the Gospel of Matthew - it buzzes along at a murderous clip. Then read the Gospel of Mark - which slims it down and speeds it up. Their style is economical, taut, spare - they are never bloated. And the dominant impression one gets from Pasolini's film is of speed - watch how Pasolini shoots Jesus. Over and over we see shots of Jesus walking away from the camera, shouting over his shoulder at a crowd of (literal) followers, who are trotting along at his heels, camera and all. Not to mention shots where Jesus turns his back on the camera (and his followers) completely - demanding we follow him. He's always running away - he's always moving into a new world, that demands that we move to follow him.

It's embarrassing and depressing to compare Pasolini's mastery to Gibson's hackery. And it is ironic that the effect of Gibson's lack of style is to stop the film completely - drain it of its violence and its energy (it's too late to be impressed by a bunch of fake blood, I'm afraid - that's not violence - that's makeup), it's sense of tumult, its radicalism. It reduces Jesus to sentimental flotsam, a cheap plastic replica of something once emotionally and spiritually powerful.

It is a bad movie. A depressing movie - the gospels tell a hell of a story - Jesus is a great character, who represents all manner of powerful things. Gibson's movie seems deliberately designed to strip the direct challenge of Jesus' message and character out - to obliterate the possibility of a real individual response, and to substitute a mass sentimentality, controlled from above, controlled and shaped by some other authority. It is a completely "priestly" movie, in Nietzsche's sense. It wants to make herds. And it succeeded marvelously, drawing in herds of viewers who responded like cattle. It's a disgrace.

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