Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cinematic penance: ablution through art

I've only ever concealed the fact that I've seen a film once. I was fourteen: warily, I had sneaked a videotape into my basement, eyes casting toward the door furtively, in the fashion of every adolescent male with internet connectivity in the midst of his sexual awakening. Being careful to keep the volume to a reasonable level, I pressed the play button. In near-darkness and almost perfect quiet, I watched The Passion of the Christ. The singular most pornographic experience of my life, revolving around our Lord and Savior. My palms slightly sweaty, thinking that my father might appear at any moment.

I suppose I need to backtrack slightly. Earlier in the week, my dad had purchased Mel Gibson's film, watched it on his own, and declared it the single most painful cinematic experience of his life. He spoke for great length about its violence and the profound effect it had on him. His tale continued as a caution; warning against the kind of personality type that would enjoy this film, or worse, seek multiple viewings of it. He described it as a movie every person should see once, and then never see again.

Since his monologue, I have seen The Passion of the Christ six times. Two more of these viewings took place in secret, and in rapid succession after the first. The next came when I told my dad I wanted to see the film. I then watched it again on my own, and finally, with a group of friends. I don't know why I've done this. As a film, I consider it technically impressive, most notably Caleb Deschanel's impressionistic cinematography and John Debney's emotionally charged score. I find much to compliment in the performance of Maia Morgenstern, who plays Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Beyond that, I find Mel Gibson's directorial style to be a perverse double celebration of masochism and sophism. Yet, the film's earnestness lends it a spurious verisimilitude that renders it the profoundly moving experience that so many have described.

Perhaps the reason I've watched the film so many times is because I can never lay hands on the lightning rod by which so many have been shocked. Yes, the film is violent. But I don't find it a more painful viewing experience than, for instance, Y Tu Mama, Tambien, which is not meant to be depressing, nor is it violent. Nor do I find its violence more offensive than the likes of which displayed in The Silence of the Lambs, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, or a myriad of other violent films. It is, for me, somewhat passe. Yet I continue to return to the gory fount, and I drink deeply, putting to rout all that is not Mel Gibson. I feel like the proverbial Thornbird: throwing myself against the thorns again and again; it may kill me, but the song I sing as I die is the most beautiful I can create.

I've had similar experiences with Requiem For a Dream. Contrary to Passion, I find Requiem to be a singular cinematic achievement on multiple levels, as well as an experience that has the ability to make me nauseous with misplaced empathy. I've never encountered anyone who, having seen Requiem For a Dream, wants to watch it again. The consensus: "It's a great movie, but it just makes me hurt." I agree. But I've watched it many, many times.

I don't know why I do these things. I don't know why I seek out movies that are supposed to rape my soul. I don't know why I need to watch the massacre sequence from Platoon, or the titular action of Sophie's Choice. All this art, all this ersatz emotion depicted by light shining through celluloid, acts as the ablution for my baptism.

I sometimes joke that I should create an art-based religion, with music, movies, books, and art, among other things, servings as the deities in the pantheon created by the presumptuousness of a person who thinks he or she is qualified to speak for anyone else but themselves. Which is, to say, an artist. In this church, films like The Passion of the Christ are the equivalent of saying the Hail Mary 20 times. Thousands of penitents huddle in the anonymity that the darkness of a theater provides, rubbing their prayer beads and reciting their mantras, and behold: The masses appear again, washed and absolved. They spout the amens and the hallelujahs of a good review, obloquial contrition in the face of perceived greatness. Only a few penitents remain in the theater, prayer beads abraded of all color and form, fingering them doubtfully.


  1. I'm quite anxious to see Antichrist. It's earning the all the laurels as far as film controversy this year is concerned. It's supposed to be almost unimaginably horrific. Plus, its inverse interpretation of Genesis seems to fit the theme here.

  2. This is a beautiful blog entry, Joe. I, for one, have not seen Passion of the Christ, having been deterred from the generally expected experience you'd described above. When it came out, I still considered myself somewhat Christian, and also avoided it for that reason (something about actually seeing the painful sacrifice Christ was said to have made). Having moved away from any connection to Christianity, I am not sure I want to watch it, now for the opposite reason: will I have such a powerful experience from it, viewing it more objectively as a near-atheist? Is that experience I might've had when I still called myself a Christian, the experience I intentionally avoided, it it the basic worth of seeing the movie? Can I still have a similar experience? Is the movie still worth watching?

  3. Oh and comparing watching The Passion of the Christ to watching pornography is a loaded decision, one which I appreciate.

  4. ...Interesting questions. I do think the majority of its power comes from having a "built-in audience," so to speak, though I do know atheists who have been moved by it. Like I said: very efficient technically, well-acted in places, but masochistic, heavy-handed, and rather unneseccary. And thank you: I think Passion of the Christ, not Saw, started the Torture Porn genre that has been played to death. ...no pun intended.