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The Ballad of Mel and Jesus 

Christ, you know it ain't easy

Thursday, Feb 26 2004

I don’t know about you, but I was sick of Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie about six months ago. By that point, New York Times columnist Frank Rich had already smacked The Passion of the Christ — sight unseen — for potential anti-Semitism, and L.A. Times media critic Tim Rutten (who also hadn’t seen it) compared producer-director Gibson to an “unwholesomely willful child playing with matches.” In retaliation, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly attacked the baleful “secularism” of those who would criticize the film — Mr. No Spin has a business deal with Gibson’s production company, incidentally — while in The New Yorker, the devout Mel was placidly turning the other cheek, saying of Rich, “I want his intestines on a stick.” You can take the movie star out of Braveheart . . .

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Naturally, that was just the beginning. It’s a Bush Culture trademark that the media stagger from one seizure to the next — Janet Jackson’s bare knocker, Howard Dean’s yeaargh, Dubya’s dodgy military record. Lately we’ve been deluged with stories piggybacking on Gibson’s movie. CNN broadcast Who Was Jesus? Newsweek’s cover asked, “Who Really Killed Jesus?” And Dateline sent Stone Phillips to Jerusalem to investigate the real story of Jesus’ final days. (I kept waiting for a CSI team to turn up and do DNA work on the nails.) Gibson was working the cultural refs as energetically as Bobby Knight. Even as his face popped up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, wearing a thorny crown made of celluloid, the man himself was turning in a spooky performance on ABC’s Primetime. Jumpy, jokey and possessed by The Truth, he seemed like the wacked-out hero of Conspiracy Theory impersonating . . . Mel Gibson.

It’s easy to make fun of this conga-line of idiocy, yet there’s a reason why Gibson’s movie and the hoopla surrounding it have claimed so much attention. More and more, Americans address huge social issues not on news shows, op-ed pages or the campaign trail, but through popular culture. We use Michael Jackson and Eminem to explore racial identity, Martha Stewart and Buffy to examine changing ideas of womanhood. With The Passion of the Christ, our modern secular culture has bumped against a homegrown explosion of fundamentalist belief. Where the Singaporeans and French confront such an issue by banning Muslim head scarves in public schools, Americans do it by talking about a motion picture.

Of course, were it not for Gibson’s celebrity, the movie would have struggled to get any publicity. Although the Christ myth dominates Western civilization, our mainstream media pay shockingly little attention to Christian life (aside from those modish pedophile priests) and even less to Christian art. The “Left Behind” series sells books by the Rapturous millions, but these novels get far less media coverage than the thrillers of that Oliver North wannabe Tom Clancy. Even a well-reviewed film like the recent Gospel of John got virtually no ink except in its connection to The Passion of the Christ.

To be fair, you can understand the media’s fascination with Gibson’s fascination with the Passion. It’s unheard of for a movie star to ante up $30 million of his own money to make any film, let alone an earnest, literal-minded version of Jesus’ final 12 hours. Such ambition alone would make Gibson’s project newsworthy, but his story offers the added frisson of two clashing patrimonies. On one side is Gibson’s 85-year-old father, Hutton, who is (to put it charitably) a crackpot: A traditionalist Catholic, Gibson père is an anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and says Jews want to establish “one world religion and one world government” — he vocally insists that they’re conspiring with the Vatican and U.S. Federal Reserve. On the other side, Gibson is a child of a Hollywood film industry famously invented by Jews (in Neal Gabler’s phrase) as “an empire of their own.” While that empire has faded, it is the Jewish community that feels most threatened by the visceral feelings that could be unleashed by this cinematic Passion Play, which, in Gibson’s conception, finds the essence of Christianity not in Jesus’ teachings but in his blood sacrifice. Over centuries, Jews have suffered from the passions unleashed by the Passion.

From the beginning, the tug-of-war between Hutton and Hollywood has shaped our perception of The Passion of the Christ. No one doubts Gibson’s sincerity or religious fervor — his movie’s about “the Christ,” after all, not just any Christ. Donning the mantle of the holy fool, he’s done the supposedly uncommercial thing of aspiring to biblical “truth” and “realism,” laying on endless scenes of excruciating goriness — Gibson’s work has always shown a taste for ultraviolence and martyrdom — and making his characters speak in Aramaic and Latin, meaning the film must be subtitled. Yet even as he’s vaunted himself for keeping his story “pure,” he’s been up to classic movie industry tricks, from casting handsome Jim Caviezel as Christ — you won’t find Paul Giamatti playing the Redeemer in Mel’s picture — to employing a marketing strategy so cynical Harvey Weinstein could only genuflect in admiration.

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