Archive for March, 2005

The Passion of the Christ

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

I have finally, belatedly, seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Probably everything that can be said about this film , and about the media event of its release, has been said already. Nonetheless, I will try to sort out some of my reactions.

First of all, it is undeniably a powerful film. One can understand why the faithful flocked to see it. The Passion of the Christ owes this power almost exclusively to its unstinting display of tormented, suffering flesh. This display has ample precedents in Christian iconography — the lighting and cinematography owe a lot to hundreds of years of European paintings, many of which Gibson quite consciously called upon as models. But the sight of Jesus’ tortured body in this film has an affective power that cannot be reduced to iconographic references alone; Also, the duration of the body’s torment is crucial to the film, and this is something that can only be captured on film, not in a durationless medium like paint.

More of this in a moment. But there’s an overarching question to be answered first: Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Unquestionably it is — but this is not as simple an issue as it might appear. The Jews (given much more “Semitic” features than Jesus and his disciples have) are depicted as monsters of depravity, whose hatred is not slaked even by the torture of Jesus in the very intense whipping scene; they want more suffering, more torture, even to the point of death (Caiaphas demands crucifixion because, he says, Jewish law does not have capital punishment — which is why he needs the Romans to do it). To the contrary, Pontius Pilate is depicted quite sympathetically; as are the other upper-class Romans. (The plebs, or ROman common soldiers, to the contrary, are shown as being as depraved as the Jews, whooping and hollering like drunken frat boys every time they inflict more suffering on Jesus). BUT… in all this, Gibson isn’t really singling out the Jews; he is pretty much just following what the Bible actually says. (There’s one scene where a Roman soldier, grabbing a man from the crowd and drafting him to help Jesus carry the Cross, calls him a dirty Jew, or something like that: an indication that Gibson is aware of the issue). In short, it’s the Gospels that really need to be convicted of anti-Semitism, much more than Gibson himself: though this is an issue that neither Jews nor Christians today are ever willing to face up to squarely. (Though it should be remembered, too, that Gibson quite deliberately stirred up controversy as to whether the film was anti-Semitic, in the months leading up to release, as a marketing ploy to increase anticipation for the film, and to rally the faithful behind him).

The homophobia of Gibson’s portrayal of Herod and his court should also be mentioned. Even as Herod refuses to condemn Jesus (saying that he is insane rather than a criminal), Gibson portrays him as a screaming queen (in the metaphorical sense in which this word is applied to gay men) lording over a court of screaming hysterics of both genders. Homophobia is nothing new for Gibson (there was a lot of it in Braveheart), but it’s worth noting here, if only because (as reported in today’s New York Times) the prospect of a gay pride rally in Jerusalem is the one thing that can bring the Orthodox head rabbis, the Christian Patriarchs, and the Mufti of Jerusalem together in partnership — they all got together to oppose it.

Still, the issue of villainy, or of who is responsible for Jesus’ death, is not really a central concern of The Passion of the Christ. Rather, the display of torture, and the obscene spectacle of Jesus’ flayed and exhausted flesh, is where the libidinal center of the movie lies. Comparisons of The Passion of the Christ to pornography are very much to the point. The film is in many ways quite literally and concertedly sadistic. The figure of Jesus can really only be compared to the Marquis de Sade’s Justine: a body whose innocence is directly correlated to her miraculous, infinite ability to bear and suffer pain: Justine cannot be killed throughout the course of Sade’s immense novel, because that would mean a limit to the libertines’ ability to torture her. As the novel goes on, the torments become ever more extreme, ever more Baroque: but no matter how far they go, Justine survives, and indeed retains consciousness, in order that she may receive and suffer still more pain. This is precisely the logic at work in Gibson’s film. It’s a moot question to ask whether this means that Sade is really a Christian in spite of himself, or whether it means that Gibson’s particular version of Christianity is sadistic: these two are just sides of the same coin. What is important is that Gibson’s film gets its emotional power almost exclusively from its depiction of the human body, the flesh, reduced to meat, reduced to pain, reduced to a spectacle, and yet still fully conscious and able to suffer more. Jesus’ actual death is weirdly anticlimactic; and the last scene of the film, the Resurrection, is almost laughably perfunctory. (In this way it’s almost the polar opposite of Dreyer’s Ordet, arguably the greatest Christian film ever made, which is all about resurrection and redemption). Jesus died for our sins — or more precisely, suffered for them — is where Gibson’s theology begins and ends.

I want to insist that, in specifically cinematic terms, sadism and not masochism is at work here. (This despite the fact that — in terms of film theory — I have committed myself in print, at great length, to supporting the masochistic models of spectatorial identification put forth by Gaylyn Studlar and Carol Clover, against the sadistic model proposed by Laura Mulvey). Masochism implies a pleasure in submission, an ambivalent giving-oneself-over to a all-powerful yet unreliable figure (usually female), and the endurance of an infinitude of postponement and delay. These characteristics may well describe Jesus’ relation to the Father in The Passion of the Christ; but they do not describe the viewer’s relation to Jesus. For the viewer, the film proposes the direct, visceral enjoyment — the Lacanians would call it the “obscene jouissance” — of the spectacle of agonizing, lacerated flesh.

That is to say, the film solicits the viewer to (quite literally) enjoy this spectacle — which is not quite the same thing as identifying with Jesus-as-victim. We can’t identify with Jesus — though we are supposed to emulate or imitate him — precisely because his torment is too extreme, too excessive, to be borne. (Gibson makes it clear that the two thieves who are crucified alongside Jesus do not suffer anywhere near as much as he does: they haven’t been beaten and flayed first, their bodies aren’t anywhere near as bloody, and their agonies are much shorter). Nor, of course, can we identify with Jesus’ tormentors — Gibson uses every trick in the Hollywood playbook to signify that these tormentors are despicable and hateful — despite the fact that Jesus prays to forgive them, “for they know not what they do.” Nonetheless, the film is set up so that we are gratified by Jesus’ torment: the more horrifying, the more explicit it is, the more the believer is justified in his/her faith, and the more the viewers — regardless of whether those viewers are empirically believers — is filled with a kind of sublime convulsion. All we want is more, more, more: we find ourselves in the frenzy of a kind of negative ecstasy that is heightened even further, the more the horror is poured on, the more directly the obscenity is burned into our eyeballs, the more Jesus’ body convulses or collapses in exhaustion, the more the rivulets of blood stream from his flesh.

It little matters that we, the viewers, feel this jouissance in the form of horror and indignation, rather than with the grim self-satisfaction of Caiphas and the other rabbis, or with the brute delight of the Roman legions. It’s still something that we directly revel in, as it takes us outside ourselves, beyond ourselves. And I insist on this “we”, rather than saying “I”; I can think of no film, besides Triumph of the Will or Battleship Potemkin, that so powerfully and emphatically addresses its audience as a collective, rather than as a mere collection of isolated selves.

If this were all that The Passion of the Christ did, I would have to say it was a great work of art, however unsavory — and however unacceptable to most believers — its astonishing sadistic jubilation might be. But unfortunately, it is not the whole story. There’s a whole apparatus that surrounds the sadistic spectacle: and that is where the problem really lies. The torture of Jesus is intercut with lengthy reaction shots, depicting the empathetic sadness of the Virgin Mother, of Mary Magdelen, of the Apostles, and even of some mere onlookers who distinguish themselves from the ugly Jewish mob. The torture is interrupted with flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount, to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” to the Last Supper, even to a scene of Jesus as a young child slipping and falling, and being comforted by his mother. The torture is supplemented with scenes (both in the present and in these flashbacks) in absolutely dreadful slo-mo. And the whole is accompanied by an overbearing soundtrack (as insistent and bombastic as the ones John Williams provides for Spielberg) of santimonious sacramental music. All these aspects of the film are incredibly lame — they manifest the continuing presence of “Hollywood” at its stupidest, laziest, and most cliched — and so overdone that you cannot ignore them.

The effect of this weighty apparatus is to muffle the impact of the sadistic spectacle, to frame it and distance it in a way that makes it “socially acceptable.” This apparatus disavows the jouissance at the film’s core, allowing it to wend its way into the hearts and minds of the spectators, while at the same time reassuring us that we aren’t really enjoying something so cruel and barbaric. Now, of course, Gibson never could have made the film — and Christians would never have flocked to see it — without this elaborate scaffolding of disavowal. But that is precisely what is so insidious about it. What I am calling the film’s superstructure, or surrounding Hollywood apparatus, is what allows us, the viewers, to walk away from the film with a good conscience. And this normalization by way of good conscience is the one substantial way in which Gibson’s art does differ from that of the Marquis de Sade. Gibson restores, as Sade does not, the veneer of civilzation; he gives us the sadistic jouissance, but then he lets us off the hook.

One might make a Christian argument that Gibson’s capital sin as a filmmaker is precisely to forget original sin, to forget that each one of us — every human being — is guilty of Jesus’ death. Since I’m not a Christian, I will not follow up such a line of argument. I will say, though, that Gibson’s maneuver is exactly the one that allows people to support violence and torture — at the limit to become killers and torturers themselves — in “good faith.” The combination of sadistic jouissance and self-exculpating distance is what allows us to approve of foul means because they are in a good cause, or for a valuable ideal. And this is where the film does make contact with the “culture wars” and political struggles taking place in America today. It is what allows people (like President Bush) to mourn Terri Schiavo as a martyr, and to champion the rights of 12-week fetuses, while at the same time gleefully applying capital punishment to scores of inmates, and defending the torture in Abu Ghraib on the (inconsistent) grounds that it was either harmless “blowing off steam,” or a grim necessity in order to win the “war on terror.”

What it finally comes down to, I think, is a kind of exceptionalism. The word is often used to describe the United States of America, allegedly radically different from any other society on Earth, and by virtue of that justified in exempting itself from the obligations and mutual agreements that bind all other nations and societies. But I am thinking of “exceptionalism” in a related, but slightly different, sense. The argument of The Passion of the Christ is finally that Jesus’ Passion is greater than, qualitatively different from, and incommensurate with, any other inflictions of torture and pain that have ever occurred in the course of human history. And this incommensurability is what authorizes Christians to see themselves as uniquely victimized and persecuted, no matter how much actual power they have, and therefore authorizes them to perform (and indeed to institutionalize) actions that they would not allow to anyone else.

Lest I be accused of anti-Christian bigotry here, let me note that the same phenomenon runs rampant among my own people. Jewish identity today is largely built around the memory of the Holocaust, and on the idea that the Holocaust is unique, greater than and absolutely incommensurate with any other incidents of massacre, slaughter, genocide, enslavement, etc., in all of human history. And this in turn provides an alibi for Jewish (anti-black) racism in the United States, as for Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. We’ve suffered more than they have, the argument runs; with the implicit (but rarely stated outright) corollary that therefore we are justified in what we do to them. This kind of thinking, however much it arises out of high ethical principles — in the cases both of the Jews and the Christians — can only lead to extending the cycle of pain and oppression.


Sunday, March 27th, 2005

Over the last year, I’ve probably been listening with more pleasure to M.I.A. than to any other musical artist. I first heard her first single, Galang (iTunes), last summer, when I got it off an mp3 blog (I don’t remember which). I had no idea what it was, or who she was, but I immediately fell for it: there was something about the upbeat yet aggressive girl-group-y vocals, the strange lyrics, plus the spare, underproduced beats… and then there was that chorus, that finally came in, right at the end of the song, like a gleeful, swooping affirmation.

Gradually, I learned more about M.I.A., and heard more of her songs, as they dribbled out over the Net. She’s a Tamil Sri Lankan, now a Londoner, having come to the UK with her mother when she was 11, as a political refugee (her father is apparently involved with the Tamil Tigers, which has been mounting a bloody rebellion against the Sinhalese Sri Lankan government for years). Though a musical newcomer, she is apparently well-connected, and not raw from the streets (as almost nobody ever is, despite the frequent hype): art school, visual arts recognition, former housemate of the lead guitarist for Elastica, etc.

M.I.A.’s album Arular (iTunes) is finally out, after months of delays, rumors, net hype and net sniping (of which more below), and it’s simply great. The music is pretty much just primitive/dirty/analog synthesizer riffs, plus a bunch of samples (Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, for one!), with vocals rapped, chanted, sung, and everything in between, no voice besides M.I.A.’s (though it is often multitracked). The beats are derived from hiphop and UK garage, and especially from such up-to-the-minute genres as Grime and BaileFunk. But M.I.A. doesn’t really sound like any of her sources: and it’s as important as it is difficult to explain precisely why.

There’s a certain sense in M.I.A.’s music that all her sources (various genres, or, more precisely, various funky beats) have been promiscuously mixed, and passed through a blender, and this is what came out. But such a metaphor implies a certain blandness, or homogenization, and nothing could be further from the truth. Everything in Arular is sharply etched and singular. The beats crackle and jump, and the energy level is high. There’s a lot of space to this music, it’s the diametrical opposite of a wall of sound. And M.I.A.’s vocals reverberate through the space, suggesting a kind of ongoing expansion, as if this were music streaming outward from some primordial Big Bang. M.I.A.’s rhythmic sources, particularly Grime and BaileFunk, are heavy, grounded, and immersive (even though BaileFunk is quite minimal, often little more than a bass line accompanying a rap); but M.I.A. reconfigures their beats as being light and expansive/centrifugal. That is to say, M.I.A.’s music is POP — which Grime, BaileFunk, and the heavier sorts of HipHop certainly are not. And its Pop quality is precisely what I love about it. Arular is irresistably cheerful and breezy, without being syrupy; direct and simple without being simple-minded; girl-centered but not girly; extroverted, and more interested in making bodies move than in expressing emotions or psychological states. M.I.A.’s lyrics are loopy and scattershot: boasts, taunts, political slogans, military and video-game metaphors, made-up slang and fake advertising jingles, all mixed up promiscuously. Altogether joyous and affirmative music.

(I should add as a footnote, though, that my definition of Pop isn’t everybody’s — despite the fact that the only reasonable definition of Pop should include that it appeals to everybody. If the world shared my sense of what’s Pop, Basement Jaxx would be the most popular and best-selling band in the world. To judge by the response on Metafilter, M.I.A. is way too esoteric for the “average” listener, though she is scorned by the purists for being way too pop).

(I should also add a note about the anti-M.I.A. backlash: extreme distaste for her and her music has been expressed in the blogosphere by music critics I generally respect, like Simon Reynolds (whose blog has a pretty comprehensive set of links to the controversy) and woebot (can’t verify the link right now, but I think it’s this). The line seems to be that M.I.A. is a vapid middle class rip off artist, stealing the beats from authentic music-from-below like Grime and BaileFunk, making them safely bland and non-abrasive and mainstream, turning harsh, abrasive sounds into pop in other words. Like white people stealing black people’s music, even though M.I.A. is herself a woman of color. She’s also accused of being either irresponsible or a poseur because of the political sloganeering in her lyrics. I’m sorry, but I really can’t see anything in these criticisms but a moralistic, holier-than-thou, knee-jerk-anti-pop purism. I love the sounds of Grime and BaileFunk, even though obviously I can’t relate to these musics and their communities in any other way than as a distant and privileged outsider; and I don’t know what sort of relationship M.I.A. has to them. (She’s a Londoner, but not part of the Grime scene). But in this case, I don’t see that M.I.A.’s “appropriation” has anything in common with Elvis or the Stones doing r’n’b, let alone with something like Beck’s smarmy simulation/putdown of black music on Midnite Vultures. She’s transformed the beats by making them Pop, in a way that is irreducible either to slavish imitation or to one-up-manship or to making-bland-and-safe. And that’s really all I can say.).

The Big Red One

Sunday, March 6th, 2005

I saw Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One on the very first day of its initial theatrical release in 1980. My auteurist passion for Fuller has never wavered, but I did not see The Big Red One again until today, a quarter-century after my initial viewing, when I finally got to see the reconstructed version, released last year with 45 minutes or so of additional footage.

There were only two scenes that I remembered from my initial viewing. There’s the moment when a solider has been exploded by a mine, and Lee Marvin’s crusty sergeant picks up a bloody mass of flesh and hurls it away, telling the soldier that this is one of his balls, and he should feel lucky that nature gave him two. And there’s the near-climax when Marvin’s unit liberates a German concentration camp, and a soldier opens a door and stares numbly into one of the ovens (we aren’t shown much of the horror, but mostly just this sublimely inexpressive reaction shot).

The Big Red One is an utterly amazing film, though it isn’t necessarily even Fuller’s best war movie. (That would probably be The Steel Helmet; Merrill’s Marauders is also first-rate). But as a World War II epic, it clearly transcends most of the genre — both its many predecessors, and such subsequent films as Spielberg’s meretricious Saving Private Ryan, and even Terence Malick’s sublime The Thin Red Line. Lee Marvin is great — his world-weariness even exceeds his toughness — and the rest of the ensemble cast is convincingly grim. The film says a lot about The Horrors of War — at the end, the narrator tells us that the only glory in warfare is survival.

The Big Red One, like many of Fuller’s films, combines often corny dialogue, amazing camerawork, and an over-the-top narrative audacity. The first half of the film is dominated by gripping battle scenes, alternating between tight close-ups and chaotic (but actually finely controlled) long shots. These scenes are grueling, but somewhat distanced by Fuller’s adherence to familiar genre conventions. (It was evidently Spielberg’s ambition in the opening Omaha Beach sequence of Ryan to surpass Fuller, which I guess he does in technical terms, and also in intensity by dint of sheer relentlessness, but Fuller still seems to me to be superior in terms of affective resonance).

But perhaps “adherence to familiar genre conventions” is not quite right. Fuller blows up genre conventions to monstrous proportions, and makes explicit what the genre usually keeps as subtext. Thus in an early scene, during an amphibious landing, the soldiers protect their rifles from the water by covering them with condoms. Homoeroticism is always close to the surface, and nearly every verbal reference to sex, or narrative suggestion of the soldiers possibly being able to have sex, is followed almost instantly by an unexpected attack, so that battle is figured repeatedly as coitus interruptus.

As the film progresses, things become increasingly bizarre, surreal, and absurdist. Straight battle sequences give way to insane, floridly operatic scenarios: the GIs must help a boy bury his mother, whose stinking corpse is being donkey-carted through the Sicilian countryside; the Germans stage an elaborate ambush by pretending to be already dead, in order to lure the US soldiers off guard, but the Americans kill them anyway; a French woman whose husband has just been killed gives birth inside a tank (the medic puts condoms on all his fingers in lieu of sanitary gloves); an elaborate infiltration/shoot-out takes place in an insane asylum. There are also spooky scenes like a gun battle in the forest, with the fog so thick that nobody can see whom they are shooting at, or who is shooting at them.

Fuller famously expressed scorn for the idea that a war movie could ever be “realistic.” He said that the only realistic war movie would be one in which a machine gun behind the screen would fire directly at the audience. (It’s not surprising, in Fuller’s terms, that Spielberg combines a claim to depict war realistically with an uncritical recapitulation of all the cliches about heroism, etc., that Fuller is rather concerned to demystify). So The Big Red One does not strive for realism; rather, it suggests precisely that war stands so far outside the parameters of everyday experience, and of livability, that it can only be represented as being profoundly “unrealistic.” It cannot, and does not, make normative sense: and its absurdity is something that Fuller’s soldiers respond to with little more than a stoic shrug of the shoulders. The film is littered with corpses, and Marvin walks among them with a grim refusal, or failure, to react. He repeats the mantra that killing is different from murder: we kill the enemy just as we kill animals. But his conscience is tormented by the repeated scenario of killing an enemy after the armistice, which makes it murder after all.

The result is a film of powerfully skewed affect. You feel numbness rather than horror, but this numbness is itself highly charged (if that isn’t too outrageous an oxymoron). The film creates a kind of schizophrenic derealization: an estrangement-effect that paralyzes the intellect instead of energizing it. The result is a kind of stunned disengagement, which is also on a meta-level a kind of positive engagement, only with an impossible, strictly unthinkable, situation. This is, I think, the anti-fascist way of “aestheticizing” war, a phenomenon that I hope never to encounter outside of the movies.


Friday, March 4th, 2005

Michael Mann’s Collateral is a film of many small virtues, notably its modesty. For a Tom Cruise vehicle, it’s surprisingly free of affectation. Cruise’s own performance as the heavy is quite disciplined — despite the character’s built-in potential for over-the-top hamminess. Cruise also deserves praise for making room for Jamie Foxx’s fine turn as the reluctant, didn’t-know-he-had-it-in-him hero. (If it had been up to me, Foxx would have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in addition to the Best Actor one he did win).

Michael Mann is content (like Clint Eastwood) to work within genre formulas, rather than hyperbolizing and hybridizing them as Tarantino does. Mann turns the familiarity of the form to his advantage by basically letting the plot take care of itself, the better to focus on character and on character interactions. This includes both revealing facets of the characters that are unknown to themselves as well as to others; but it also includes impersonation and fabulation, the putting on of masks, the becoming somebody utterly different than oneself. The ostensibly realistic character development of a film like Collateral is also a self-reflexive meditation upon acting. (Foxx’s taxi driver constantly has to figure out what he can and cannot get away with, faced with Cruise’s killer for hire; and then, at one point, he is even compelled to impersonate Cruise’s character itself). The banter between Cruise and Foxx itself becomes sort of philosophical, as it reflects on the existential and ontological dimensions of the characters’ roles and actions. And it’s precisely because of the unpretentious genre framework of the film that Mann, Cruise, and Foxx are able to get away with this.

Collateral is also distinguished by Mann’s visual poetry. He’s always been a master of depicting urban landscapes, usually being glided through by car: this goes back to Thief, his first major feature, as well as, of course, to Miami Vice. Here, nocturnal Los Angeles is ghostly and beautiful, by turns open and closed, free and deadly. Mann’s Los Angeles is a postmodern landscape of lateral motion, anonymous architecture, middles without beginnings or ends, hubs of intense activity where everyone is in your face (the hospital, the disco) surrounded by vast spaces that are never inhabited but only moved through at speed by drivers invisible to one another from within the protected coccoons of their cars. Mann’s LA, like Johnnie To’s Hong Kong, is one of those phantasmic, yet all-too-real, future (postmodern) spaces that are altering our very notion of landscape, changing our sense of what it means to inhabit a space.