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Political Animal

Passionate Avoidance

By Brian Morton | Posted 2/11/2004

Most movies are what they are--a cinematic exercise in art, a statement, or a story told by a screenwriter as interpreted by a director. In many cases they are just vapid escapist entertainments designed to lure moviegoers into the theater, with a goal no deeper than to get them to part with a few bucks. They are what they are.

But, we would argue, some movies aren't worth seeing in this day and age.

Is this a radical viewpoint? Is this to advocate for boycott? For censorship? Well, no. But when is a movie less a movie than a radical treatise or propaganda? And, should a movie like this be made, when audiences pay money to see it, does that ratify a polemic as legitimate history?

The fact is, people vote with their feet at the movie theater--it is as binary a poll as you can get. Either people see it, or they don't. There is no room left for nuance, except for film reviewers (who are assiduously ignored by the studios, except in the case of effusive praise that can be screamed in 72-point type from ads appearing around Oscar time).

I can think of a few movies in the last decade or so that drew mixed reviews, but on the whole, because they recouped their investment, the directors tended to argue that their viewpoint was validated by the decent box office draw. Oliver Stone, the well-known director and polemicist, made 1991's JFK to argue for a conspiracist viewpoint of the Kennedy assassination, based on the director's passions and the credulous theory of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Alan Parker made Mississippi Burning (1988), a movie that centered on the deaths of three civil rights activists in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, but which focused on two white detectives, a decision that led a Washington Post reviewer to call the film "the right story, but with the wrong heroes." These movies featured directors wading into worthy topics only to make, in the end, controversial statements about serious issues under the rubric of "docudrama"--as terrifying a bastardization of a word that only the entertainment industry could create.

And so we come to the upcoming release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Being of the ilk who might exclaim, like the surrealist Spanish director Luis Buñuel, "Thank God I'm an atheist," this writer wouldn't ordinarily give a film such as this a second thought, except for the troubling circumstances surrounding the pre-release screenings, and the director's controversial views.

This being America, Gibson is free to make any movie he can get funding for, and so he has. But Gibson has dipped into the divisive and often bigoted well of the religious passion play, the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus Christ. And then, in a clear and unambiguously Hollywood kind of way, he went to the fundamentalist right wing of American political and self-styled moral leadership to try and build himself a bulwark against expected criticism of his product.

In short, Gibson has made a movie that many have said, upon viewing The Passion in various secret screenings across the country, is a blatant appeal to anti-Semitism. Since Vatican II in 1965, the Roman Catholic Church has refrained from laying the death of Christ at the doorstep of the Jewish people. Gibson not only has ignored the Church, but has begun enlisting commentators such as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, Bible-thumping, hectoring moralist Cal Thomas, and syndicated columnist Kate O'Beirne to tout the thing. In addition, the filmmaker had the audacity to try and twist a quote out of the pope as an endorsement, only to get busted for it later when journalists checked a little closer.

It would take too long to explain the Scriptural and historical context behind passion plays--I would recommend a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by author and Columbia University literature professor James Shapiro that ran Jan. 28--but suffice to say, this movie does nobody any good. If someone decided to remake D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation in this day and age, complete with heroic Klansman imagery, I doubt there would be as fierce a defense of it as there is of The Passion. But the end result is the same.

In the year 2004, when propaganda masquerades as a movie, there is nothing to be ashamed of for staying away from the cineplex. Especially when you know that the minute the film makes a dollar, the director will say, "I was right." Neither racism nor anti-Semitism should be condoned for eight bucks.

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