Mike Davis and Robert Jay Lifton on Gibson’s passions

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We all now know that, with Mel Gibson’s Aramaic epic, Americans have fallen for a subtitled movie for the first time in memory. Why couldn’t it have been Jules and Jim? This slasher-film version of the Christ tale has not only broken box-office records but filled the papers with commentary (of which one of the most striking, to my mind, was James Carroll’s Boston Globe column, An Obscene Portrayal of Christ’s Passion).

Former Clintonista, Sidney Blumenthal, recently wrote (Bush goes to war with modernity, the Guardian):

“Just as Bush stokes the culture war, Mel Gibson enters, sprinkling holy gasoline on the fires. Only in the combustible atmosphere Bush has fostered could Gibson’s grand guignol version of an anti-Semitic medieval passion play, The Passion of the Christ, become the number one box-office hit. This is the ultimate Mad Max escapade: blowing up the cultural contradictions of American conservatism.

“With his culture war the son is echoing another political error of the father, who alienated Jews and Catholics by permitting his 1992 convention to be used as a platform for the religious evangelical right. This latest revival is frightening Jews, cautioning American Catholics (overwhelmingly of the liberal John XXIII/Vatican II persuasion, and holding the same view on abortion as other Americans), and scourging mainline Protestants. The more Bush supplicates his base, the more he repels the others. Moreover, Bush is running against a Democrat who’s a modern Catholic, with lineage to the oldest mainline Protestant families of New England and Jewish ancestry Bush is campaigning on behalf of his various fundamentalisms in a crusade against modernity in America, his greatest war of all.”

Let me then stoke the critical fires a little more with two short, striking pieces on the deeper significance of Gibson’s film. Below Mike Davis writes on “one of the most manipulative films ever made” and places it in a “tradition” that we all might prefer to forget; while Robert Jay Lifton suggests how Gibson’s scourging urge for ultimate “purification” fits into various apocalyptic genres of our political moment. By the way, for those of you interested in the way our apocalypts and theirs have paired up in the “war on terrorism” and are dancing together, I couldn’t suggest more strongly that you pick up Lifton’s recent tiny book, Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World. Tom

An Academy Award for Bigotry
By Mike Davis

The most evil film ever made was probably Jud Suess, commissioned by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1940 to fan hatred of the Jews on the eve of the Final Solution. A thousand years of European anti-Semitism were condensed in the image of the cowering rapist Suess, with his dirty beard, hook nose, and whining voice. The audience was instigated to rejoice in the lynching of this subhuman monster at the film’s end.

To anyone who has ever seen Jud Suess (as I did in college), the most startling thing about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — even more than its relentless, shockingly eroticized cruelty — is its fidelity to the anti-Semitic conventions of Hitlerian cinema.

Indeed, the high priest Caiaphas and his colleagues are such exact, blatant replicas of Suess that I suspect they must be direct borrowings. Moreover, Passion is one of the most manipulative films ever made and, after two hours watching mobs howling in delight at Christ’s suffering, it is no wonder that many devout American viewers, like their German predecessors, have left theaters muttering, “I hate the Jews.”

The Romans, on the other hand, are shown as noble imperialists. In contrast to the vile Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate is depicted by Gibson as a sympathetic, even saintly figure, tragically trapped between orders from Rome (no more uprisings) and the implacable machinations of the high priests.

As in Suess, moreover, there is a constant contrasting of somatic stereotypes. Mediterranean types — the two Mary’s, Pilate and his wife, and so on — are rendered with softened features and sensitive spirits, while the Semites — Caiaphas, sybaritic King Herod, and so on — are depicted as coarse and repulsively sensual. (In a contemporary American context, such heavy-handed visual anti-Semitism, of course, instantly summons up anti-Arab connotations as well.)

Gibson’s insistence on using original languages — Aramaic and Latin — has impressed naive viewers that Passion represents some new benchmark in historical accuracy. In fact, history (the little actually recorded of these events, apart from the posthumous theology of the gospels) is bizarrely inverted.

Jesus, of course, is an utterly enigmatic figure. The only ‘facts’ in his life — as attested by both Roman and Jewish historians — is that he existed and was executed by the Romans. Pilate, on the other hand, has left a slightly larger record.

Unlike Gibson’s kindly fiction, the historical Pilate was an ordinary imperial procurator in a third-class province who kept his legions busy with brutal executions of Jewish and Samaritan rebels. Palestine, then as today, lived under an iron heel, and the Passion’s confusion of oppressor and oppressed is morally obnoxious.

Some American critics, however, have tried to defend The Passion by pointing out that Gibson’s real bête noire is the Vatican, not the Jews. Indeed Gibson explicitly made the film to promote the religious vision of the rabid Catholic traditionalist splinter group in which he grew up. (Passion‘s tormented Jesus, Seattle actor James Caviezel, is also a fundamentalist Catholic, claiming personal visitations from the Virgin.)

But the “tradition” he so zealously defends is precisely the anti-Semitic Catholic fascism of former Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco and Pope Pius XII. And, like Franco ideologues and their Croatian fascist counterparts of that era, Gibson has the same morbid, vengeful obsession with pain, mutilation, bodily corruption, and the ever-present temptation of Satan (who constantly prowls the perimeter of his film).

In short, Passion is the medieval vision of a pogromist, amplified by Hollywood special effects and the cachet of celebrity. It is protected by a formidable wall of enthusiastic endorsements from the American religious right as well as by the tolerance of ordinary Gibson fans who just can’t believe that their goofy, handsome hero is really such a grotesque reactionary.

Mike Davis is author, most recently, of the kids’ adventure, Land of the Lost Mammoths (Perceval Press, 2003) and co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See (New Press, 2003).

Copyright C2004 Mike Davis


Violent Purification By Robert Jay Lifton

I saw The Passion of the Christ at a theater in Harvard Square, but much of the audience consisted of organized religious groups from the broader Cambridge community. Some people were visibly moved by the film and applauded enthusiastically at the end.

Since the film is about Jesus and violence, everybody brings to it powerful personal preoccupations. The violence some experienced as confirmation of their religious convictions was to me not just excessive but suffocating and ultimately numbing.

Several reviewers have called the violence “gratuitous,” but that does not seem to be the right word. For the violence is integral to the film; indeed, the violence is the film. The beatings, the thorns, the nails, the scourging, the sustained image of Jesus as a bloody pulp — these represent the film’s version of his purifying mission. Moreover, for Mel Gibson, the filmmaker, violence is a métier, a longstanding means of intense communication with his audience, of taking that audience, in his own words, “over the edge.” It is violence that cannot be transcended by compassion and love. Rather, the camera is enthralled by every detail of cruelty, every vicious blow, every bloody wound. Precisely these brutal images are what the camera loves. The violence itself becomes transcendent, hyper-real. And this display of sadism is in the service of an ideology of purification.

For the film makes clear in its opening scenes that Jesus must take on the terrible burden of all human sin. The violence of his ordeal, it is suggested, must be made commensurate with the extremity of that burden. The sins Jesus has taken on, and therefore Jesus himself, must be brutally annihilated.

At issue is the purification not just of Jesus or even of the sins he carries for others, but of the whole world. And that larger world can be purified, the film tells us, only by sustained cruelty and murderous violence. One must destroy the world, or in this case Christ, its divine representative, to save it. That kind of vision of all-encompassing violence as a means of spiritual renewal finds structured expression in the Old Testament in the Book of Daniel and in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation.

Only in the twentieth century, however, could the apocalyptic mindset take on a more activist form as human beings acquired the actual means of purifying the world by destroying it and so could attempt just that, always claiming to be doing so in God’s name. This was the mindset I encountered in the small but ambitious Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which in 1995 produced and released chemical and biological weapons (having unsuccessfully attempted to acquire nuclear warheads) meant — at least in the fevered fantasies of its guru Shoko Asahara — to initiate World War III and thereby bring about a biblical Armageddon. For his sarin-gassing of the Tokyo subways, only last week he was sentenced to death by a Japanese court.

Another example of an apocalyptic mindset is that of Osama bin Laden, his organization al Qaeda, and related fanatical groups who seek to annihilate much of the world in order to create a purified Islamist utopia. And there are stirrings of a different version of such a purifying mindset in those contemporary American leaders who combine a Christian fundamentalist vision of eliminating evil with a militarized projection of American world domination.

The Passion of the Christ, then, says a good deal more about the violence of the present-day apocalyptic imagination than it does about the experiences of Jesus in the first century. Hence the crude depiction of a sadistic Jewish rabble demanding crucifixion. Within a Christian apocalyptic narrative, Jews tend to be featured either as foils for world redemption who must gather in Israel and convert or be annihilated, or as the evil perpetrators depicted in the film who, in collusion with the devil, reject and kill the true messiah.

The problem of The Passion of the Christ goes far beyond the individual psyche of Mel Gibson, or even questions of biblical interpretation. The crucifixion here becomes a vehicle for a contemporary mentality that is absolute and polarizing in its starkly violent vision of world purification — a vision that fits well with an apocalyptic, all or nothing “war on terrorism.” While many will be moved by this vision, there may also be a backlash of revulsion and a reasoned rejection of the zealotry and love of violence the film promotes.

Robert Jay Lifton is visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His most recent book is Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World.

Copyright C2004 Robert Jay Lifton