LENT 2004

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Why Does Mel Gibson Cry Out?

In that bygone era optimistically dubbed the Enlightenment, the first “modern” critics used to debate the differences among the arts, even wondering whether one or another was “better”. This may seem odd to us now, although some of us may find it hopeful that technology seems to be driving a vector towards an all-encompassing, veritably psychedelic, pan-artistic vision of the future. Will that day think ours was “enlightened”? Be that as it may, in an essay remembered mostly by students of philosophy or critical theory, the eighteenth century thinker Gotthold Lessing asked of the famous Hellenistic statue, “why does Laocoon not cry out?” His answer had to do with the differing expressive devices of a verbal, time-consuming art like poetry, as opposed to a static visual art like sculpture.

I don’t think of Lessing often, perhaps not often enough, but he came to mind when I viewed Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. A movie is sometimes referred to as a “picture” although it is actually a connected series of pictures, but the term seems particularly apt in this case. Rather than telling the story of Jesus as a narrative, Gibson has chosen to concentrate almost exclusively, and in excruciating detail, on the gory details of his suffering. The film includes a few brief flashbacks, and an equally brief resurrection scene, but these did not serve to give me much of a sense of context, let alone the impression of a story being told. Rather, what I received amounted to an image, the image of a human body forced to, and beyond, the utmost limits of survival.

In presenting an image, as opposed to a story, of Jesus, Gibson engages in an age-old tradition. Visual art has long disseminated the Christian narrative, but it has also served another purpose: to establish devotional images for the purpose of prayerful meditation, providing the believer with a gateway into a mystical space where an actual experience of Christ may be had.

If the Christian narrative has remained steady, these images of Jesus have varied over time, according to the needs of his worshipers. The early Christians, powerless and subject to persecution, were fond of the protective image of the Good Shepherd. When the church became a great political power Jesus appeared in majesty, as Christ Pantocrator, King of the World, or the Judge, wielding the power of damnation. As medieval civilization grew and flourished, the nurturing image of Mother Mary came to the fore, with Jesus reduced to the benign image of a child upon her lap.

These images have in common that they are symbolic; divorced from the narrative; summing up particular qualities of a manifold deity. Jesus himself was never a shepherd, but he makes of it a parable, and his image in the guise of shepherd provides an entry point into his meaning, even if it violates the “truth” of his biography.

The image that Gibson engages is called the Man of Sorrows. It differs from the crucifixion proper, or the various other scenes of the Passion, in that it is divorced from context. The Man of Sorrows is a devotional image, typically presenting the (almost) naked Jesus, crowned with thorns, wounded, and holding a scourge, or other instruments of his torture.

Gibson’s graphic emphasis on the suffering of Jesus may reflect a long-term trend towards greater “realism” in cinema, revising the old Hollywood style much the same way that Sam Peckinpah once defamiliarized the sanitized violence of the Western through a choreography of blood. He also seeks realism by rendering the dialogue in foreign languages, although this ended up reminding me of the subtitled “Elvish” scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies. One hears what is said to be Aramaic, but I couldn’t say how accurate it was, or how well spoken. Was it contemporary or first century Aramaic? Were Jesus’ lines delivered in the country bumpkin Galilean dialect he would have actually used? I don’t suppose it matters, but it serves to remind us that realism in art is always relative; a matter of convention rather than truth.

If verisimilitude is not in and of itself enough to explain Gibson’s fixation on non-stop gore, what else is there? He deserves credit for having greater artistic ambition than most of contemporary Hollywood evinces, but no small part of Gibson’s success has been through typical action movies like the Lethal Weapon series. Whereas pioneering “violent” films like The Godfather, or Taxi Driver, used explicit violence as punctuation at critical points, today’s action films have become a cartoonish series of explosions, shootings, crashes, etcetera, with little variation in rhythm. The formula becomes predictable and boring, requiring ever-bigger booms and broader splatters in order to sustain the same thrill. The violence in The Passion recalls this sort of filmmaking (more than it does horror movies, for example, which still require some measure of suspense,) and the film suffers for it, becoming tedious. By the time the scourging was over, I had little patience left for the road to Calvary, let alone the crucifixion itself.

Still, I don’t think mere filmic convention can explain Gibson’s particular view of this inherently “serious” subject. Violence is metonymous with suffering and death, and thus it is also inherently serious: this is what gives an “edge” to those ridiculous action movies. Jesus’ message, however, was about the ultimate failure of violence and death, so why wallow in these without stressing their impotence? In the end, I couldn’t help feeling that The Passion expresses a sense of persecution; of a violence done to Christianity as such. In our secular age, the religion itself may be seen as suffering mockery and abuse, even unto blows.

This is certainly the perception of many contemporary Christians. And not without some justification. Within the circles I inhabit there is little respect for religion, or at least for the central religion of our Western heritage. Often, there is outright scorn. Among believers, the complaint is voiced that for our politically correct secular culture anti-Christian bias is the last prejudice to go without censure. Of course, Christianity has purchased such resentment through its worldly success, and the many sins it has committed along the way. Nor has it altogether lost secular power: its followers can point to polls (and a president) that back up their assertion that true believers represent the true American consensus. But to be both powerful and persecuted is a paradox, one that suspends spiritual growth, and withholds from them the protection of the Good Shepherd.

Today’s Christianity cannot have it both ways, and so it writhes in agony, crying out, through voices such as Gibson’s Passion, like (as Virgil wrote of Laocoon) “the roars of a bull when it flees wounded from a sacrificial alter and shakes the ineffectual ax from its neck.” It is telling that in Gibson’s case the contradiction is resolved in the mutilation of flesh, rather than the elevation of spirit. Perhaps this represents the final triumph of worldliness, in which case it may be noted that a great deal of Christianity’s success has derived from its accommodation of secularity. It may appear that the Church has been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, but it was actually much more adaptable than many other religions. It’s been cutting deals with politicians since the days of Constantine (when it changed its Sabbath from Saturday to satisfy the sun-worshiping emperor,) and its willingness to compromise has had a lot to do with why a once backward Europe came to dominate the globe. For this reason its current cries strike me as unseemly, at least as a matter of worldly concern.

If Christianity has been flexible, it has also reached breaking points, like the schism between Rome and the Eastern Orthodoxy, or the Protestant Reformation. These have not destroyed the religion as such, but the different sects have pursued different interests. Gibson is said to follow a conservative strain of Catholicism that resents the reforms of Vatican II. Much has been made of this, particularly in the matter of Anti-Semitism, which Vatican II specifically repudiated. I didn’t come away from the film with any pointedly Anti-Semitic reading; there is an inherent conflict between Christianity and Judaism, but it doesn’t seem to me that it was Gibson’s responsibility to reconcile them. Certainly there are disquieting historical questions, particularly in the way the role of Pilate is portrayed, but as I’ve said, Gibson seems to be concerned more with the truth of the punished body than with history, or even with the Gospel narrative. Another sign of this is that his use of foreign language is not really historical: he has the Romans speaking Latin, even though their official language in the east was Greek, the same language in which the Gospels were written. (Even in Rome itself, the new religion was first preached in Greek.) The filmmaker’s attachment to Latin may reflect another dissatisfaction with Vatican II: the elimination of the Latin mass. In this I actually have some sympathy with the conservatives. The doctrinal reforms of the 1960’s were long overdue, but the demystification of ritual strikes me as a bad move for an institution founded in Mystery.

As an artist, I don’t think that Gibson needs to apologize for having his own point of view, any more than I would stop others, supporters and critics alike, from using his film as an opportunity for their own cross-promotion, so to speak. I’m more disappointed by what I see as artistic failures. Other than the scenes of torture there is little in the film that really rises above the level of cliché. Good people are beautiful; bad people are ugly. Women are good-hearted supporters, but ultimately impotent observers in a world of male action. The Devil lurks in the background. In fact, the scene that most reminded me of a typical action movie was the resurrection. Quick cuts of the stone rolling aside, the empty shroud, then glimpses of Jesus rising, never showing his whole body, but his formerly bloodied eye now clear and intent, and, as the music swells, a purposeful stride. I had a sense familiar from a million Hollywood revenge scenarios, where the hero, escaping certain death, is about to go out and blow the bad guys away, as the audience cheers between mouthfuls of popcorn. All that was missing was an enormous gun in his hand.

He did have a hole in his hand. Christianity has rationalized the issue of Christ’s Wounds: he retains only the stigmata: the wounds received on the cross, as a “trophy of his victory”, so Gibson is not obligated to raise up the bloody mess of a body that he so seems to relish. But The Passion’s resurrection scene is necessarily brief, and shorn of overt magic, just as Veronica is shown offering her napkin, but we do not see a miraculous image of Jesus’ face imprinted on it.

Deemphasizing the miraculous in favor of “realism” is in line with interpretations of Jesus since Enlightenment critics began dismantling the literal reading of scripture in the eighteenth century. Religious art has also declined since then, not only among iconoclastic Protestants. Representations of Jesus have tended towards the merely illustrative and anecdotal, while devotional images have become the province of the poorly educated and the underclasses. More often than not, contemporary renderings of the Gospels, like Jesus Christ Superstar, or The Last Temptation of Christ, have emphasized Jesus’ humanity, even as scholars and archeologists have sought (without great success) evidence of his worldly existence.

I would hope that Gibson’s movie represents the nadir of this trend. His preoccupation, not even with human psychology, but with the physical body, mirrors a preoccupation with Jesus’ historicity. If there is any efficacy in this religion it is located in another plane of reality altogether. In this sense the image of the Man of Sorrows occupies a critical juncture; the balancing point of Christianity.

One of the most notable representations of the Man of Sorrows is a drawing by Albrecht Durer, the great German artist who brought the Renaissance to the north. The striking thing about this work is that Durer has drawn his Christ in the form of a self-portrait. In some religions this might constitute a sacrilege, but at the heart of Christianity is the coincidence of the human and the divine, which Jesus represents. There is a danger of vanity here, and indeed that sin has been diagnosed in Durer’s penchant for self-portraiture, particularly in a painting from 1500, when in his prime he portrayed himself in a particularly Christ-like image where we are not quite sure whether his fingers make a sign of benediction, or stroke his costly clothing in a gesture of worldly success.

The drawing of 1522 is another story. Aging and ill, we also know from his writings that Durer was legitimately anguished by the recent advent of Luther’s Reformation. Apparently a truly devout man, he had great sympathy for the reformers, but did not wish to see a schism. His body failing (though not grotesque,) his faith challenged, at this juncture Durer had perhaps more cause than some of us to see his own suffering as an image of his God’s. And the picture he produced has (if we are open to it) the power to teach us this equivalence. For me, Gibson’s film (and I like to think that I was open to it) did not.

It is less than ironic that Durer’s drawing was destroyed in World War II. I cannot guess the fate of Gibson’s movie, but it seems to me mostly a matter of preaching to the converted. Unlike Durer, who managed to combine great pain with great beauty, The Passion of the Christ strikes me as too painful, and not beautiful enough to win many converts, though some of the faithful may be transported. If so, I hope their rapture transcends, rather than exemplifies, the taste for banal violence that pervades our culture.

All of us will ultimately find that our bodies must assume the burden of death; we do not need a spectacle of gross anatomy to remind us. We will have reason to cry out, regardless. Better our cries were assuaged by Jesus’ Wisdom and Mercy than that His should rise in vain.

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