Three years after Mel Gibson was caught careening down the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu in his Lexus at twice the speed limit in a 45 mile-an-hour-zone with an open bottle of tequila in hand, the middle-aged Mad Max was successful in having his drunk driving conviction wiped from his record this past week. What will never be expunged, however, are Gibson’s long list of cinematic crimes, chief among them Passion of Christ.
The Anti-Semitic tirade that the arrest provoked from the “artist” cast a rather different retrospective light on the notorious film. Even if the law has handed down forgiveness to Mel, the Musical Patriot will never yield in his stern judgment, nor erase a single item on the Aussie’s voluminous rap sheet of filmic transgressions. As a brief to be submitted to the courts of public opinion, I’ve retrieved this account of a trip I made to see the Passion of Christ in 2004 while living Berlin. With the law in full retreat, I’m going to take ever chance I can to throw the Good Book at Apostle Mel from here on out.
Soundtrack to a Crucifixion
A distinct advantage of movie-going in Europe is that you can take alcohol into the theatre. There are bars in most cinemas so you can have a few before the screening, then order a couple to go. You can drink before, during and after the show.
It’s not that I make a habit of getting reasonably—or unreasonably—drunk at the movies in Berlin, but when it comes to facing a film like Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ one feels the need to take the edge off.
So, a good half-hour before the Sabbath eve show-time, I found a mooring at the pub in the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz and ordered a liter glass of potent brew. Then I ordered another.
On the big semi-outdoor movie screen on the other side of the vast Sony Center pavilion penguins were on the march across Antarctica. After working my way down through my second beer, I realized the legions of birds were weirdly reflected everywhere in the concave, green-blue glass interior encasing the pavilion itself.
After another few minutes and still more beer, I noticed that the penguins were even to be seen in weirdly distorted form waddling around my own glass. I leaned closer to the window and brought my own reflection into focus. I could see penguins marching round my eyeballs. Had my own participation in infinite regression brought me to the threshold of a hightech epiphany? Was the Lord about to work a digital miracle on me through the Blade-Runner haze of Potsdamer Platz? Would I be born again in a brew pub in Berlin?
I took hold of my beer with both hands and finished it off, then set an erratic course across the pavilion for the Sony Cinestar theatres. After a quick trip to pump the bilge, I ordered two more half-liter bottles at the cinema’s bar. Once inside the theatre, I put them in the drink holders on either side of my seat.
Movies here begin with a good half-an-hour of ads and previews. The ads are all about sex. That’s how the ad-makers lure the movie-going public into the theatre early enough to sit through their ads.
The ads are shown without regard for the nature of the film that follows. Take your kid to Finding Nemo, and the six-year-old will have lots to think about once the ads start. She’ll see plenty of sexual goings-on enacted to the throbbing beat of surround-sound bump-and-grind. Golden-skinned female models licking phallic ice creams or pouring Campari on prone male models, then sucking up the bright red liquid from white shirts clinging to erect nipples. All this is shown without the least concern for the tastes and sensitivities of the audience.
If these kinds of ads seem ridiculously inappropriate as the introduction for a kids movie, they seem just as dissonant as prelude to a Passion film.
But then, as the first stand-by beer bottle is emptied, one realizes that it’s all product: cell-phones, liqueurs, candy bars, a movie about the crucifixion, the Holy Nail-necklaces and kindred relics sold by Gibson’s Passion marketing machine. They’re all goods, they all gratify some need. Consumerism is our religion. The devout evangelists of the American Heartland may celebrate it somewhat differently than the dissolute Euro Trash of the Potsdamer Platz, but we are all of the same faith.
I went to the film not because I wanted to see it, and certainly not because I relished the thought of adding my six Euros to the cash rushing into Mel Gibson’s bank account, a torrent fed not only by devout Christians but by curious pagans like me. What brought me into the theatre was the soundtrack.
Much has been made of the fact that Mel Gibson strenuously resisted the addition of sub-titles to the movie. He wanted to force his viewers to confront the exclusively Aramaic and Latin dialogue without translation help. This accorded with Gibson’s desire to make a movie of crucifixion as it “really happened.” There were no sub-titles on Golgotha.
Yet Gibson never questioned the notion that there would be music for his film. The sub-titles were added later, but the music was to be an integral part from the start. Conversely, the idea that a movie, even one that alleges to be obsessively realistic, can be without a soundtrack is inconceivable to hacks like Gibson. When you go to a Gibson movie you can be sure that he is going to let you know how to feel. Music does that emotional work. Indeed, music is an almost ubiquitous presence in the film, more so than in many other products of the Hollywood machine.It hardly needs mentioning that Gibson was not interested in an ethno-musicologically accurate rendering of Levantine music of the first century C.E. This was to be Hollywood Blockbuster music.
As production stills to be found on the film’s website show, Gibson took an active role in the soundtrack, logging many hours in the studio with headphones, attending the recording sessions, even giving a pep talk to the massed choir in a high school gym as they prepare sing for the Lord, or at least for Gibson’s movie. In other photos Gibson confers earnestly with professional Indian musicians who contributed their multi-cultural sonorities to the soundtrack: passion music knows no boundaries.
Gibson hired the film composer John Debney to write the soundtrack. Debney has some fifty feature scores to his credit. In 2003 the films for which he wrote music grossed half-a-billion dollars. We are talking about a proven Hollywood entity.
Coming up with music for the passion would seem to be a daunting task, much more so than enacting the drama itself. Passion plays have been performed in Europe for at least a millennium. Gibson adds little to this tradition outside his use of schlock-ridden slow-motion photography, his taste for blood and gore, and his tin ear for Aramic. Still, as a filmed-version of a passion play, I would say it’s bad, but no worse than that.
The music, however, must be held to another standard. It hardly needs to be said that the passion story has inspired some of the greatest music ever written. The great composers who provided music for the story wanted to be judged not only by their congregations, but even more by their musical colleagues and by history.
One of the most famous passion texts of the 18th-century—akin to Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzergerald’s passion screenplay–was written by the Hamburg poet B.H. Brockes in 1711. In what was apparently a competition to see who could produce the best music for this passion, the libretto was set in 1714 by Telemann, Handel, and two other famous composers of the time, Johann Mattheson and Reinhard Keiser.
J. S. Bach led performances of Telemann’s version, and certainly knew the others as well, even borrwed from at least one of them for his own music. Brocke’s literary text influenced the Matthew Passion libretto . The status Bach accorded the work is to be seen in the calligraphic manuscript of it he lovingly prepared in 1736 in two colors of ink. It is one of the most beautiful hand-written scores, a visual masterpiece.
The piece was performed many times during Bach’s lifetime, and then “re-discovered” in 1829 in a performance directed by Felix Mendelssohn. The complexity, unity, emotional and artistic power, and sheer ambition of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion has never been approached by another composer before or since.
John Debney is no exception. Indeed, he lags behind even the least of lesser lights, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, whose Jesus Christ Superstar is a far superior work, and Peter Gabriel, whose score for Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, sounds as if it had a good deal of influence on Debney’s pseudo-passionate excretions.
Yet Debney seems not to be totally ignorant of Bach’s work. At some moments in Gibson’s film, the composer wraps Jesus in a “halo” of strings–the kind of shimmering orchestral chords which Bach, and other passion composers of the 18th-century, used to evoke Jesus’ divinity. Whether this musical affinity is coincidence or not, there are no further similarities between scores.
What is there to say about Debney’s shoddy agglomeration of pseudo-sacred massed choirs, world-music percussion riffs, ersatz Middle Eastern shawm licks, heavenly harps, High Plains pan-pipes, and frothy Romantic orchestral swells? Only that it topped the soundtrack charts its first week out. And that if you are really overwhelmed by the violence depicted in the film, simply close your eyes. Then you will hear that Gibson, Debney and their accomplices have a served up a passion story that is nothing more than harmless, bloody kitsch.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com