Monday, April 12, 2004

Easter Monday--the Holiday, and the World's Latest Movie Review

(Interesting how in English the word "latest" can mean both "most late" and "most recent." I can't think of any other term that works though--"most delayed" would imply that I started on this a long time ago and only just now completed it, while "oldest" would mean that it's been laying around unpublished for ages. So "latest" it is. But first, Easter.)

I liked Laura's reflections on the Easter holiday, past and present. We're more like her sister than her: we're hugely into holidays and all their trappings around here. Both Melissa and I really delight in ritual, traditions, and a calendar oriented around expected and meaningful events, whether that meaning be profound (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving) or rather silly (we celebrate King Kamehameha Day in June, mainly because it gives us an excuse to listen to our inexplicably large collection of Hawai'ian folk and guitar music). I have to report, though, that Easter is particularly stressful around the Fox household, because aside from a pretty regular dinner menu, we don't do anything which involves decorating, candy, or gifts. I have nothing against pagan traditions as such (I mean, they're so much fun!), it's just that...well, unlike Christmas and the Nativity and Santa Claus (who exists, mind you), somehow we could never find a way to bring all the varied elements of the Easter holiday together into a coherent whole; bunnies and chicks and all the rest seemed, to our mind at least, to interfere with keeping Christ's sacrifice and resurrection in its central place. So, soon after we married, Melissa and I decided that we'd just move the whole thing to May Day (see, I told you we don't have anything against paganism (or revolutionary worker's movements, for that matter)). Not that we forbid our daughters from participating in the holiday; if there's an Easter egg hunt at the church on Saturday we happily contribute, and we have children's stories about the Easter bunny and so forth. But basically, we keep Easter Sunday separate from all that, and don't break out the decorations until well after most other families have taken theirs down. The girls seem to understand. Besides, I think they feel that coloring "spring eggs," and finding chocolate bunnies (bought on a discount the day after Easter) in their May Day baskets when they wake-up on May 1, is something special and unique--and therefore meaningful, in a way which brings our family closer together. Which is one of the main points of holiday rituals after all.


I finally saw The Passion of the Christ. I went to a 10pm showing on Easter Eve, after the girls were asleep and Melissa had hit the sack. (I rarely go see movies on my own, for one reason or another. If it's something Melissa doesn't want to see--and that's not infrequently the case--I generally just wait until it's out on dvd or video.) There's no need to rehearse all that has already been said about the film; I found it astonishingly violent, disturbing, occasionally awe-inspiring, in some ways crude, its intensity sometimes organic but just as often forced. Not nearly as perverse an exercise, I thought, as many critics claimed, but not nearly as powerful as many others testified.

Upon reflection, my uneven reaction to the movie clearly originates with the way Mel Gibson, Jim Caviezel, Benedict Fitzgerald, et al, chose to present the scourging of Jesus. Everyone who cares to know has either seen for themselves or long since heard how ugly and grisly this extended sequence is. My issues with the film, however, arise not with the scourging per se, but with the visual consequences of it. Jesus is left a shredded, pulpy, oozing piece of meat after the Romans are done with him; he is, literally, unrecognizable. And from that point on, I had enormous difficulty getting into the movie, its message or drama or mood, because every time the camera focused on Jesus, I couldn't help but think: "How is that carcass walking?" It was an enormous distraction, and a discomforting one (like how you try to tear your eyes away from a traffic accident, but can't). Which is really too bad, because I think the first 45 minutes or so of the film demonstrated that Gibson and his collaborators had strong grip on the material. The Satan figure was frightening and subtle; the Gethsemane sequence, though allowing more than a few Hollywood conventions (the mist, the moody music, the slow motion scenes), was gripping in a quiet and very persuasive way. Before the walking corpse of Christ came to dominate every scene, you had some nice character moments: Peter, James and John and all their varied reactions (defiant, terrified, heartbroken, filled with self-loathing and doubt); the showy, blustering, more-macho-than-real Jewish guards; the Roman soldiers alternating between cool superiority, raging annoyance, and efficient violence. Even the Jewish council was, I think, a wonderful bit of filmmaking, with quick and telling lines of dialogue that gave you a real sense of both foreboding as well as the ambiguity of events. I didn't think anything was played in a heavy-handed way (not even the demonic persecution and ultimate suicide of Judas; I thought all the elements of those scenes--the children chasing him, the flies, the maggots--were Gibson's quite effective way of getting inside Judas's head) up until the scourging. And even afterwards, there was good work and some great scenes (I loved the teardrop/raindrop falling from heaven, as well as Satan's hysterical, defeated howl). But despite the good work I just couldn't take much out of it; I was too busy staring at Jesus's repulsive, sliced-open wreck of a body for any of these scenes to really work on me as they were supposed to. (Indeed, I think the only moments which could legitimately be described as anti-Semitic came in scenes after the scourging; whereas previously there was some diversity in how Gibson presented the Jewish authorities, it was just too easy, for me at least, to make the leap from "motivated by genuine religious zeal" to "motivated by pure Satanic blood-lust" once the priests were shown as continuing to call for Jesus's crucifixion even after being confronted with his ruined body.)

Obviously Gibson and his team knew what they were doing; why did they do it this way? Maybe this just shows how much of my Mormonism incorporates a kind of "empty-cross" Protestantism; maybe for a Roman Catholic like Gibson, the meaning of the plenitude of Christ's blood is plain enough. I spoke to a colleague of mine about it this morning; he suggested that the larger point of Gibson's aesthetic choices was the idea that Jesus simply would not, could not, die until He willed it; that as God, His defeat and death would only come, no matter what the agony, when He consented to it. I suppose that's one message. But out of the final hour of the film, I think there was only one time where Gibson's aesthetic vision actually pulled me in and made me think what I was seeing on its own terms. It came when the Roman soldiers turned Jesus's cross over parallel to the ground, so to beat down the spikes they've just hammered through his feet and hands; there is a great, dull thud, and we see a horrifying jolt of pain shake the ripped and beaten body of the Christ, now suspended about a foot above the ground. Blood dribbles from his body and onto the ground, flayed strips of flesh dangle loosely in the air; his arm has been stretched and dislocated, and we can see a patch of his ribs where skin and muscle have been completely torn away. It made me think of butchering animals, cutting them up into meat and skin and bones, and hanging them up on hooks. It made me think of a slaughterhouse. And that, of course, is not irrelevant to the story of Jesus. Christ, we are told, was the Lamb who meekly went to be slaughtered. If there was not a reason for Him to go through such horror, to receive such a thorough death-dealing, then presumably that symbol--of an animal whose blood is shed and then is dismembered--would never have been given. But it was; He was, the prophets tell us again and again, the Lamb, the scapegoat, the sacrifice on the altar. So I'll give Gibson that much, for whatever it's worth. (I should note that a friend of mine, a convert to Catholicism, thinks my comments here make sense of what I described being distracted by in the previous paragraph. Perhaps--but even if what I was distracted by can be made sensible in my mind, that doesn't mean it still wasn't distracting. So, whatever the quality and efficacy of the film's message, I think we at least agree that it's execution was flawed.)

Apparently, my Easter weekend viewing of the film not only put The Passion back on top in terms of box office, but helped it become, as of now, the 8th highest grossing movie of all time, and still going strong. Clearly, unless some summer blockbuster shatters all expectations, it will be the highest grossing film of the year. It'll be interesting to see how Hollywood acknowledges (or doesn't acknowledge) it at next year's Academy Awards.

Update: My old friend Matt Stannard has, partly in response to the above comments, put up on his blog a reflective and insightful defense of The Last Temptation of Christ as a far superior movie to The Passion. I've never seen Last Temptation, though I'm pretty familiar with many of the traditionalist criticisms made of the film's attempt to present Jesus as an "imperfect, self-conscious man," as Matt puts it. (I've also heard a lot of crummy things about the casting as well.) Matt makes me want to see it though; in his view, the great power of the film's telling of the story is its presentation of Jesus's choice to reject "the mundane," the world of compromise and small victories and everyday joy, in the name of transcendent hope. (Moreover, he even uses an article from First Things to make his point!) So now that I've finally seen The Passion, Last Temptation takes its place on my "to-see" list.