Not Rod Stewart's Passion


Yes, the use-by date of any commentary on Mel Gibson's Passion is at least a couple of weeks--if not millenia--old, but two things freshen up the topic.

The first is the recent "The Passion of the Jew" episode of South Park, which features a starring turn by a gloriously insane, feces-smearing Mel Gibson and arguably the greatest nano-second cameo by Alan Alda of all time. (The man who eventually had all of America rooting for a communist victory in the Korean War hasn't been this good since his starring turn in the greatest psycho Vietnam Vet movie of them all, To Kill a Clown).

The second is this essay by sociologist John Carroll for an Australian newspaper. It's a thoughtful, often insightful piece that puts The Passion in the company of other recent popular, violent movies, including Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, and Gladiator. Carroll writes in part:

[The Passion's] weakness is that it depends on a medieval theory of salvation. The assumption is that redemption depends on metaphorically flogging the body into extinction. In turn, Jesus loses consciousness due to the unbearable pain of nails through hands and feet - depicted here with a gruesome close-up realism only possible in modern film. Then the spirit will rise from the corruptions of the flesh and mind. The film dwells almost pornographically on human sacrifice as some sort of spiritual purgative.

I think he's got this exactly wrong: The Passion's great appeal stems directly from the mortification of the flesh. This sort of intensity--what Foucault, another guy who was into extreme pain-cum-ecstasy, called a "limit-experience"--is one of the things lacking from modern life. And it's one of the few things that religion can deliver in a sanctioned, sanctified way in the modern world.

Carroll concludes:

The Passion fails, crucially, at what in the Jewish tradition is called midrash. That is the method of retelling fundamental stories and their classical themes in ways that speak to the new times. Every new generation has to midrash its stories. This film reverts to the Middle Ages; it lacks spiritual force; it does not uplift; and it leaves little sense of who this extraordinary man was, and why he changed Western history.

The box-office success of The Passion signals that the culture has become more receptive, virtually on the instant, to its own formative Dreaming story. This film may then succeed in a way it did not intend. It may prepare the way, John the Baptist-like, for a retelling of the life of Jesus in a style more likely to speak to the modern West.

As a recovering Catholic, I'm not particularly interested in whether we get a more modern-friendly retelling of the Jesus story, but I think Carroll is right when he says The Passion doesn't speak to non-believers. Yet it seems clear to me that Gibson was not trying to prosleytize. The Passion, which I saw a couple of weeks ago, was structured as an in-group tale. If you didn't know the story (or even more, if you didn't know the Stations of the Cross), you'd be lost; there's no exposition or even perspective. But the audience I saw it with already knew the story and filled in all the blanks. What they seemed to be enjoying was the idea that their story was being told on the big screen, without concession or explanation to out-groupers.

In any case, Carroll's piece is worth a read and is online here.