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Separating Gibson from his ‘Passion’

Mel GIBSON’S “The Passion of the Christ” arrives tonight, with the rest of the world in hot pursuit. It’s one thing for every dimwitted morning radio DJ to have an opinion about Janet Jackson’s breast baring, but since when has everyone from the pope to Howard Stern to the cashier at Canter’s deli weighed in with their two cents about the last 12 hours in the life of Christ?

At the Daytona 500, Bobby Labonte’s Chevrolet was transformed into a billboard for the movie. (Alas, he finished 11th.) Four thousand prints of the film will be in theaters, with many planning to play the movie 24 hours a day. James Dobson of Focus on the Family has endorsed the film as “an unprecedented evangelistic opportunity,” urging churches to buy tickets for every kid in Sunday school, even though the film is rated R and -- trust me, I’ve seen it -- at least as violent as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 26, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie endorsement -- In Tuesday’s Calendar, “The Big Picture” columnist Patrick Goldstein, writing about “The Passion of the Christ,” incorrectly stated that James Dobson of Focus on the Family was “urging churches to buy tickets for every kid in Sunday school, even though the film is rated R.” While Dobson does indeed endorse the movie, he has specifically warned parents that “it is wholly inappropriate for young children.”

At first, the denizens of Hollywood dismissed the film as a crackpot vanity project by a movie star crazy enough to spend more than $25 million of his own money on his religious convictions. Now they’re green with envy at the blitzkrieg of free publicity Gibson has generated for the film. The movie made the cover of Newsweek (whose cover asked the immortal question: “Who Really Killed Jesus?”) while Entertainment Weekly drolly portrayed the filmmaker wearing a crown of thorns. Gibson’s appearance on Diane Sawyer’s “Primetime Special Event,” where he muttered darkly that “it’s only logical to assume that conspiracies are everywhere, because that’s what people do, they conspire,” earned better ratings than CBS’ “60 Minutes” interview with Michael Jackson.

So what does this all mean? Is “The Passion of the Christ” just one of those periodic lightning bolts that sparks a media thunderstorm, or is it something more? I vote for the latter.

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It has been astounding to watch how people who’ve seen the film in screenings are affected by it in such wildly different ways. Many filmgoers are appalled by “The Passion’s” graphic violence. Many are profoundly moved by “The Passion’s” portrayal of Christ’s last hours. Others are disturbed by Gibson’s one-dimensional rendering of Caiaphas and his Jewish high priests. Still others -- like me -- are especially disappointed to see many of the same people who were so quick to rally against Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” loudly berating anyone raising questions about “The Passion.”

Coming at a time when evangelical Christians are in an uproar over gay marriage and the Justice Department has assigned a team of FBI agents to focus exclusively on adult obscenity cases, it seems altogether plausible that the film is destined to become a new salvo in our periodic culture wars. If nothing else, “The Passion” is a movie that matters, striking a raw nerve in a pop culture too often given over to tawdry ephemera like Britney Spears’ Vegas nuptials and Paris Hilton’s Internet gymnastics.

The art and the artist

In Hollywood, where cynicism rules, lunchtime talk focuses on three questions: Is Gibson an anti-Semite? Is he simply stirring up controversy to promote his film? And is it possible “The Passion” will outgross “Starsky & Hutch” and “Cody Banks 2" put together? But for me, the most intriguing question is: Has our media culture become so obsessed with celebrating the “me-ness” of celebrity that it has become impossible to distinguish between the behavior of the artist and the value of his or her work?

In Hollywood, a mecca for personal excess, a debate has raged for ages over how to weigh someone’s personal beliefs and failings against their achievements. Artists are complicated. Charles Chaplin was a lefty millionaire who had a penchant for underage women; John Ford was a political conservative who fought the blacklist but treated everybody like dirt; Elia Kazan was a liberal who helped Red-baiters by informing on his friends; Roman Polanski was a Holocaust survivor who fled the country after sexually violating a 13-year-old girl. Yet their films transcend their personal transgressions, still sparkling with greatness, having easily stood the test of time.

Gibson’s “The Passion” leads us into trickier territory. The debate doesn’t focus on the familiar celebrity pitfalls of whoring and rampant egotism. With Gibson, the question is whether our viewing of his film should be tainted by his religious fanaticism and often divisive hucksterism. In Hollywood, of all places, that should be a sensitive issue.

If the movie business has an original sin, it’s the 1950s Hollywood blacklist, which destroyed the careers of untold actors and filmmakers simply for having unpopular political beliefs. If you had once been a Communist, or merely a guy who wouldn’t rat on your friends, your career was over. And just for your beliefs -- no one seriously claimed that Hollywood comedy writers were stealing atom bomb secrets.

Still, to many, beliefs matter. “If your movie is a work of passion or of politics, it’s going to express the beliefs of the filmmaker,” says Irwin Winkler, who directed the blacklist drama “Guilty by Suspicion” and worked for years on various incarnations of “The Last Temptation of Christ.” “Arthur Miller writes liberal plays because he’s a liberal person. Every aspect of Martin Scorsese’s beliefs was in ‘Last Temptation,’ just as everything in ‘Schindler’s List’ reflects Steven Spielberg’s feeling about his religion.”

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Perhaps, but I think an artist’s work often transcends his beliefs. Sean Penn may have gone off on a daffy peace mission to Iraq, but does that really matter when you’re filling out your Oscar ballot for best actor? These are the kinds of messy issues that leave people like me in a quandary. I found “The Passion” a powerful, deeply personal movie, but its portrayal of the Jewish high priests was, for me, profoundly unsettling. Art isn’t safe as milk. It sometimes expresses ideas and emotions that stir us one moment but alarm us the next.

What does bother me is Gibson’s marketing of the movie, which is far more disturbing than anything in the film itself. Instead of using sex to sell his film, Gibson has used martyrdom.

“I’m subjected to religious persecution, persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man,” he told The Times recently.

He’s turned his film into a crusade, stirring up an us-versus-them discord by casting himself as a victim of unnamed antagonists (telling one assemblage of evangelical filmgoers that “I anticipate the worst is yet to come”) while crudely lashing out at critics like the New York Times’ Frank Rich, saying, “I want to kill him, I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog.”

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He recently told Sawyer a “big dark force” didn’t want him to make the film, though when pressed wouldn’t divulge that force’s identity. Is it the Jews? The liberal media? Is it this newspaper, which Gibson told the New Yorker was “an anti-Christian publication” because he didn’t like some of our “Passion” coverage? Gibson seemed determined to create controversy, even when none was in evidence, complaining that reporters were trying to smear him months before any stories had ever run.

Gibson also walled himself off from critics. When the film was nearing completion, he showed it only to carefully selected friendly audiences. The only way some Jewish leaders saw the movie was by sneaking in. When Gibson was shooting the movie, a Catholic theologian showed a draft of the script to a group of biblical scholars, who were aghast at the script’s historical inaccuracies. When they went public with complaints, Gibson threatened legal action, claiming they were in possession of a stolen script.

Compare that bunker mentality to how Scorsese approached making “The Last Temptation.” Long before he shot the film, he hosted a three-hour seminar with respected theologians to discuss how his script intersected with Christian theological thought. Gibson has acted permanently embattled, touting his film to the faithful as the movie “they don’t want you to see.” As he told Sawyer, in his customary paranoid fashion: “If you can’t get the message, get the man.”

Pure or promotional?

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Despite my qualms, I’m content to live with the sometimes troubling contradiction that I can admire a man’s art without admiring the man. Since Gibson declined my many interview requests, I have no idea whether his motives about spreading the word for “The Passion” are pure or purely promotional.

But art often comes from unfathomable places.

After “The Last Temptation” opened in 1988, besieged by denunciations and protests, Scorsese received a postcard of the Georges Rouault painting “Three Judges and Christ Mocked by Soldiers” from his old parish priest, who had inspired him as a boy to consider joining the priesthood. On the back of the card was a quote from Pascal, which could apply to Gibson as well as his critics. It read: “The heart has reasons which reason cannot comprehend.”


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