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The carefully crafted controversy surrounding actor Mel Gibson’s much hyped directorial debut "The Passion of the Christ" over its alleged anti-Semitic message (Jews killed Christ, now they want to kill my movie) will likely succeed in tempting millions of Americans to sit through a film with subtitles for the first time in their lives. How they’ll manage to move their lips in the dark with Mars Bars and corn dogs stuffed in their mouths is anyone’s guess, which is probably why it’s never been tried before.
America’s Christian majority have cause to rejoice over Hollywood’s temporary transformation into "Holywood". Families can now safely venture into cineplexes without worrying about what Pee-Wee Herman may have left on the seat. So much for "secular excitement." Some might argue that a man being impaled, flayed alive and left to bake in the desert could hardly be categorized as wholesomely edifying entertainment, unless of course you’re Mel Gibson’s dominatrix.
Like Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood before him, Gibson’s "Dances with Crucifixes" looks like yet another over-his-prime beefcake’s foray into serious filmmaking — only this time the amateur auteur has his eye on a bigger prize than an Oscar. If sainthood can be measured in box-office receipts then Mel can trade in his hairpiece for a hairshirt and let the beatification ceremonies begin.
Even before its release date, the controversy has already forged an unholy alliance between the Evangelical Christian right and conservative Catholics. Their combined spending power guarantees Mel Gibson a healthy return on his initial $25 million investment through merchandising alone. Still, there’s even more reason to praise the Lord and the marketing geniuses on his payroll: In two words, cross nails. What better accessory for a film whose S/M themes make it this year’s "Lord of the Nipple Rings." For children not old enough to watch an ‘R’ rated film, these pricey trinkets may very well make up for the lost revenue – (just don’t ask Junior which part of his anatomy he plans to pierce with them).
Given the current political situation, it’s perhaps not surprising that Jesus is making headlines again, or that "news" these days is being torn from the pages of the New Testament. Irrelevant theological debate has always flourished in a climate of war. What better way to detract scrutiny from unbearable images of suffering than to put them up on the big screen? The present administration, along with their corporate handlers are manufacturing yet another faux crisis of faith, dumbing down political discourse to the level of a pop-up bible so that the unholy guardians of the Empire can go about their more worldly business.
In the late 1980s, a similar controversy erupted when artist Andres Serrano exhibited a "blasphemous" series of photos depicting the crucifixion as seen through a jar of the artist’s own urine. Using the iconography of his Catholic childhood, Serrano’s work challenged the virulent homophobia of America under Reagan. A dying man bearing the cross of his unacceptable passions became an apt and powerful symbol of a nation coming to grips with AIDS. Now, as the issue of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages provides the impetus for a new onslaught of homophobia, Gibson gives us a battered and muscly defender of "family values," murdered by a howling Jewish mob; a minority anti-Semites throughout the ages have associated with decadent sexual practices and "tainted" blood. In an age of war, non-artist provocateur Mel Gibson explores the roots of his own blood lust in the character of Jesus simply because he has enough money to play dress up in the desert.
For all its "bad taste," Serrano’s novelty shop crucifix floating in a jar of pee could hardly be described as "kitsch" which may explain why Republicans were so offended by it at the time. Perhaps the most subversive element of "Piss Christ" was its rather melancholy and conventional beauty. Gibson, on the other hand, adds an element of high camp to his significantly bigger budget drama.
With oafish earnestness, Cecil B. De "Mel" gives his film the "golden shower" treatment, pouring on the melted butter lighting effects whenever Christ’s life is recalled in flashback, as if he has loaded his camera with parchment. Gibson not only pisses on his Christ, he ritually tortures him for the simple reason that his vision, ultimately, is that of a failed artist. With the theatricality of a novice kitsch meister, Gibson fills the void onscreen with his own bombast. Arguably, it is the absence of imagination; a falsely derived "passion," which drives Gibson’s Messianic ambitions.
It’s this very theme that director/screenwriter Menno Meyjes explores in his mostly-fictional and highly controversial 2002 film "Max" — an account of Hitler’s youthful days as a struggling "artist" emerging from the trenches of the first world war. The film’s hero, Max Rothenberg, a Jewish art dealer, mentors a greasy and sniveling little corporal; a fellow veteran of the battlefield where Max has lost an arm. The scrawny and bitter "artist" is star struck by his own ambitions to achieve greatness and sets himself to the task of realizing his goal of conquering the art world. With tragic consequences, the cynical yet generous-hearted Max takes it upon himself to channel Corporal Hitler’s "passion" into "art", hoping to divert his interest away from anti-Semitic oratory — the one "gift" Hitler has in spades.
Hitler, stumped by his own impotence at the easel (and likely elsewhere), can do no more than churn out faithful reproductions of architecture and landscapes with a mechanically uninspired hand. Infuriated by his own shortcomings, he finds a more accommodating and less demanding medium with which to release his spittled up rage. Corporal Hitler impresses the party’s bosses with his substanceless, (the key factor of kitsch) emotionally rousing beer hall speeches on the need for "racial purity." Hitler’s "talents" attract one of his commanding officers who needs someone with strong oratorical skills to stir the passions of Germany’s demoralized military. The budding National Socialist Party is looking to fill the political vacuum left in the wake of the disastrous signing of the treaty of Versailles and restore "dignity" to the nation after its humiliating defeat.
Then, as now, a nation coming to terms with the hubris of its disastrous leadership seeks comfort in the ancient myths of biologically determined destiny — a theme which rings as familiar today as movie audiences line up for each installment of "The Lord of the Rings" and now "The Passion of the Christ" — films which cast good and evil in spectacular race-based terms.
At one point, Max tells his intriguingly vile new companion, "You can be a modern artist, but you have to pay the price, and that’s honesty. Can you be that voluptuous with yourself?" Unfortunately, Max isn’t around to ask Mel Gibson that very question. With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, he could have answered the question himself with a resounding "no" and pulled the plug on this abominable "passion play," averting yet another artistic and political disaster.
Leilla Matsui is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in Dissident Voice.