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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Tuesday, July 20, 2010

    What to Make of the Latest Story in the Mel Gibson Saga...

    A lot has been said over the last couple of weeks about the latest stories about Mel Gibson. I'm always nervous about believing something just because the papers say so, but with audio recordings being online for anyone to hear, its difficult not to take it all at face value.

    So I'll try to restrict myself to considering how these latest incidents might affect how we read The Passion of the Christ. For example, Kim Masters, in an article for The Hollywood Reporter quotes an anonymous producer who claims that "if he [Gibson] were to make The Passion of the Christ today, it wouldn't do a dime less business".

    That seems to be a fairly outlandish claim. Not a dime less business? Not one person who bought a ticket last time might be put off this time? Peter Chattaway takes it from there:
    The Passion of the Christ owed a huge portion of its success to the churches that bought out entire theatres and gave the tickets away, all in the name of "ministry" -- and one huge reason why the churches did this was because they bought into the "narrative" of Gibson's life and career, i.e. he was a devout Christian who had lost his way during the early days of his Hollywood fame but he had begun to turn his life around about a decade or so before he made The Passion.
    ...whatever the film's merits, I find it hard to believe that Gibson could have sold this film to North American churches today the way he did six or seven years ago. I find it hard to believe that churches would have wanted to associate with Gibson in the absence of some major, major public apologies -- and even then, I would think these scandals are "too soon".
    Part of the problem here is, I think, that its far from clear what scenario is being envisaged. It seems fair to assume that the producer in question isn't talking about Gibson making The Passion again - that would be absurd, but imagining a scenario whereby Gibson didn't make the film then but made it in 2010 is equally problematic. For one thing, it seems unlikely that these latest stories, and Gibson's anti-Semitic outburst in 2006, would have gained quite as much publicity as they did were it not for The Passion. Gibson wouldn't have had the money or the fame to make Apocalypto without the profit from The Passion and whilst he did appear in Edge of Darkness it seems unlikely that these stories would have been such major news if it was the only film he had done in 7 or 8 years. Furthermore, these stories are all the more headline grabbing not just because they were about a movie star, but because they were about a movie star with such strong religious convictions that he made the most successful religious film of all time. Hypocrisy always sells.

    Not entirely unrelated to that is furore around Gibson's anti-Semitic outburst of 2006. Whilst most, if not all, racist remarks by movie stars would be disapproved of by the media, this story had extra legs precisely because The Passion had been so strongly accused of anti-Semitism. Gibson's outburst was perceived by many as clear proof of those accusations, making the story more newsworthy.

    That said, it's possible that the '"narrative" of Gibson's life and career', as Peter puts it, could still be spun in a way that might garner church support. Gibson's life could be depicted as one where he has battled with his faith, but has felt God with him and as a way of saying thank-you he wants to make a film about Jesus with 'the power to evangelize". I don't think the take up would be anything like as great, but I could still see it doing well, albeit with the kind of 'public apologies' that Peter insists would be required.

    However, in the light of the anti-Semitic outburst, any such film would have to be substantially different in its handling of the Jews than The Passion was in order for it to be widely embraced. In 2004, many Christians felt that accusations of ant-Semitism were trumped by Gibson's perceived fidelity to the gospels. But in the light of that outburst, and perhaps even the subsequent learning/counselling from Jewish groups that Gibson said he would undergo, it seems likely either that Gibson would make the film differently, or that at least some church leaders would have had second thoughts about embracing the movie so unreservedly.

    The other major criticism of The Passion, of course, was that it was too violent, and this, also, looks a little different in the light of these latest allegations. For me, the most disturbing part of the tapes is when Oksana seems to ask Gibson "What kind of a man is that? Hitting a woman when she’s holding a child in her hands? Breaking her teeth twice in the face! What kind of man is that?" and rather than deny it he appears only to say that she "deserved it". Now it appears pretty hard evidence, but I'm painfully aware of how even something like this could be misleading, so what I'm about to say should be read bearing that in mind.

    Nevertheless, in the light of all this, the violence in many of Gibson's film seems somewhat more worrying, whether it was in the name of revenge (Mad Max), against himself (the dislocating his shoulder scene in one of the Lethal Weapon films and Wallace's death in Braveheart) and his saviour (in The Passion).

    The Passion gave us what is far and away the most violent depiction of the crucifixion to date. If Gibson has beaten Oksana, does it change how we read it? Is The Passion a sub-concious lashing out at Jesus. Is it a reflection of the horror that he feels at his own sin, such that he goes so over the top in depicting the extent to which Jesus had to suffer in order to atone for it, beating himself by proxy so to speak? Or does Gibson somehow let the violence sees God impose on Jesus justify his own violent outbursts? Furthermore, does this incident shed any new light on the long standing discussion about whether violent movies result in a more violent society?

    Lastly, I feel its important to state that I'm troubled by the way that so many of the areas around this discussion have become completely polarised: racist/not racist, violent/not violent, anti-Semitic/not anti-Semitic. It seems to me that we are all made up of the various influences on our lives. Some of those influences might encourage us to reject other ones, but it's not always easy to totally purge oneself of such negative influences.

    Gibson's father is on record as a holocaust denier, and it's hard to see how Gibson Jr. won't have been influenced by that. At the same time, he clearly knows that it's wrong - he said as much after his 2006 outburst and there are signs of him curbing the excesses of Anne Catherine Emmerich's work in his adaptation of it, even if he wasn't able to do it to the extent that he should have. It's significant, to me at least, that this outburst happened when he was drunk and therefore the controls that he might place himself under in ordinary life weren't there. That doesn't excuse such comments or actions, but at the same time, the idea that it exposed 'the real Gibson' is too simplistic a take for my liking. Our self control is a part of the real us. Similarly, whilst the conversation with Oksana is horrendous, it's significant that Whoopi Goldberg has appeared on record saying he's not racist, and then had to defend herself because of her comments.

    Now just because Whoopi Goldberg says something it doesn't mean it's true, but I do think that racism has become such an inflammatory topic these days that it's holding back our society from truly freeing ourselves from it. Even the British Nationalist Party says its not racist, whereas, in truth, I suspect that most of us harbour some unhelpful influences that we know are wrong and thus suppress. Until the term becomes less potent, I think it's going to be difficult to completely purge racism from our society.



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