Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Watta Letdown

Today's article by Cintra Wilson about Mel Gibson's "The Passion" may be the low point in Salon.com's history. The article -- which apparently requires a subscription to read -- features Wilson passing off innuendo, opinion and guess as proven fact. I am a big fan of Cintra Wilson's work, such as her attack on last year's Oscars, but this is just pathetic.

It's an interview with Rev. Mark Stanger, an Episcopal priest invited to a preview screening in Illinois. It has some good cracks about the way that the Religious Right is using the film as a crass "marketing" opportunity, but it quickly deteriorates into assumption and unjustified criticism. Take, for instance, this exchange:

So, Mel Gibson seems to be arguing that the gospels are factual documents.

Exactly. And that all of the references to the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, were proof of fulfillment of prophesy, whereas it's most likely that in order to make sense of the events surrounding Jesus' death, the gospel writers searched the Hebrew scriptures to find things.

So, after the crucifixion, writers of the New Testament were looking back at the Old Testament and finding connective threads to make sense of what they were writing?

Yes, exactly, the way anybody looks into their own faith tradition to make sense of traumatic events in their own life. Also, some of these [New Testament authors and their communities] were already being persecuted themselves for their beliefs. So, the way to make sense of that is to show Jesus as a model of patience under suffering.

You know, when Matthew says that the events of the Gospel came to pass to fulfill precise prophecies in the Old Testament, you can either accept or reject Matthew's teaching on that point. But if someone makes a movie that accepts Matthew's viewpoint as correct, you can't fault the filmmaker as if his choice were completely unjustifiable. Yet that's exactly what Wilson and Stanger do: they form a mutual admiration society founded on softball questions and the fundamental assumption that no one could reasonably take the Bible seriously.

There are also the times when the Rev. Stanger reveals himself to be a little hypersensitive:

One of the ways [Gibson] tries to produce an air of authenticity in the film is to have the principals speaking Aramaic, the dialect of Hebrew that Jesus would have spoken, and the Roman soldiers and Pilate speaking Latin.

very chillingly, in the interview after the showing, Mel Gibson said the reason that he had [his cast] speaking those original languages -- and I didn't misinterpret him, because he told a long story to illustrate it -- he said, "If I was doing a film about very fierce, horrible, nasty Vikings coming to invade a town, and had them on their ship with their awful weapons, and they came pouring off the ship ready to slaughter -- to have them speak English wouldn't be menacing enough."

How did that hit you?

I almost puked. It was so xenophobic: The good guys speak English; the bad guys speak these other languages. It wasn't a consistent view, because in the film Jesus was speaking the same language as his tormentors, but even so, I think it was meant to cause confusion and awe in the audience, to have these horrible people speaking either a Semitic or an ancient language like this.

Did you feel like that the use of these ancient languages was a veiled anti-Semitic comment?

Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim. Some of those words in Aramaic sound a little bit like Arabic -- Arabic is a Semitic language too. [In the film, it came off like] nasty foreigners were doing this thing to our beautiful Jesus. So when Mel Gibson said in the interview that the reason for the other languages was to highlight the brutality, that kind of freaked me out. I could see how it would work on an unsophisticated audience.

It's probably the same feeling that people in Guantánamo Bay have, having had soldiers barking at them in English for two years.

(emphasis in original). Yes, you read that right. The good Reverend almost puked because the bad guys didn't speak English, even though none of the characters spoke English. And he's ready to condemn Gibson because Aramaic sounds too much like Arabic, even though it is completely correct as a choice of language (unlike Gibson's more debatable choice to use Latin).

The capper is that Rev. Stanger gets irritated with the film's graphic depiction of Jesus's crucifixion. He's got a good point here:

Jesus' crucifixion was made too singular. This was an ordinary event. Jesus was one of dozens of insurrectionists that the local Roman occupiers would have crucified, but [Gibson] tried to make his suffering especially agonizing and horrible. That was the other subtext -- I thought there was an unspoken assumption that somehow, for Jesus' death to have meaning to believers, it had to be more horrible than any other kind of suffering and death. The film doesn't really say that, but that's the idea, and that's why it has an "R" rating -- for the violence. The protracted scourging.

He then makes some good points about how the violence of the movie seems gratuitously graphic, which certainly seems like a valid viewpoint (though it may go too far to connect that violence to the visions of Sister Emmerich, about which much has been written elsewhere). He then blows it in the final words:

I think a 5-year-old who has to get cancer surgery and radiation and chemotherapy suffers more than Jesus suffered; I think that a kid in the Gaza Strip who steps on a land mine and loses two limbs suffers more; I think a battered wife with no resources suffers more; I think people without medical care dying of AIDS in Africa suffer more than Jesus did that day. I mean, I don't want to take away from that, but this preoccupation with the intensity of the suffering, I think, has no theological or spiritual value.

Setting aside Stanger's claim that there is no spiritual or theological validity to the belief that Christ's death was a sacrifice for sin (something that Stanger calls "so primitive" elsewhere in the interview, but which is flatly part of the New Testament), it's simply ludicrous to say that these other people suffer more than any one of Rome's crucifixion victims. Lest we forget, the point of crucifixion is to torture the victim to death through suffocation. The only way to breathe in that position is for the victim to pull up, which means that he must tug on the nails that hold him to the cross; to get relief from that pain, he has to relax and lose the ability to breathe. Agony, or suffocation. Agony, or suffocation. Over and over, for a couple of days, until someone takes pity and breaks his legs so that he has no choice but to suffocate.

The furor arising over "The Passion" infuriates me, both because the Left is getting its panties in a wad before people have a chance to see it, and because the Right is hardselling the movie before people have a chance to see it. Is it anti-Semitic? Anti-Arab? Anti-irony?

STFU and watch it for yourself.

 8:42 AM

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