passionate pondering

The furor over Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Passion of the Christ”, is amazing and intriguing. I am not so intrigued by the charges of anti-Semitism as I am the criticism of the movie for its violence.

Criticizing this film for its violence implicitly points out how visual media have distorted the modern perception of reality. Clearly, the torture and crucifixion of Jesus was an extremely violent affair. Those who should be condemned are Gibson’s artistic predecessors who have watered down reality in a play for box office success. Apparently, we don’t like blood and gore unless it is in fictional accounts or computer games.

The truth is that while fictional violence does de-sensitize us to violence, factual violence has the exact opposite effect.

The silver screen has done far more to romanticize war than any novel ever could. In generations past, the imagination did not have to stretch too far to envision the grizzly truth because it was so close to their common experience. An 19th century school child reading Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” experienced far more horror as the heroes charged to the guns than the horror felt by the 20th Century moviegoer watching Errol Flynn make that same charge. Mid-century patriotic John Wayne and Ronald Reagan flicks only served to further distance us from the reality of war. If Art imitates Life, then these are poor imitations indeed.

Slowly but surely Hollywood has made much needed progress in realism. It is hard to forget the sound of the bullets zipping through the water at Omaha Beach in “Saving Private Ryan”, or the horrible shock of the devastating weapons used during “Blackhawk Down.”. The realism of these films hopefully serves to educate individuals such as myself that no longer butcher their own stock for survival on the harsh realities that we purposefully push out of sight. At the risk of going a cliché (or two) too far, I would suggest out of sight is in fact out of mind in this case.

And our collective forgetfulness does affect important things. We have rushed forthwith into violent conflict numerous times in the last twenty years and I am convinced part of the reason is the antiseptic view of war given to us by film. It is nothing less than immoral for a people who do not understand the nature and quality of the individual acts that constitute war to charge its sons and daughters into the guns. Of course, it is equally immoral to turn our heads in horror and refuse the just war simply because of its horror, but I do not think that is the form of ignorance that presently afflicts We the People.

Which brings me to the graphic torture of Jesus.

Maureen Dowd, bless her hate filled little heart, wrote the column that got my dander up enough to get me to opine on the subject. Therein she derided the violence and what she viewed as anti-Semitism which is implied by the fact that the Romans are not around to hate anymore. Dowd, like so many of our hyper-ventilating politically correct crowd, conveniently ignore the fact that the death of Jesus has been used for over two-thousand years by that insipid lot who reduce the execution to its simplest elements in order to validate their pre-formed prejudices.

The brutality of the death of Jesus and our collective accountability for the need for a Christ is the central theme of Christianity. The only thing that has changed down through the centuries has been our sterilization of the visual imagery of that violent death.

This deliberate sterilization in the plastic arts is a far different thing than it is in modern cinema. The visual portrayal of events and history creates vivid mental images that supplant the self-generated images of our literary imaginations. If you doubt this, try re-reading “The Lord of the Rings” and avoid the visuals that Peter Jackson has given us. Jackson’s brilliant rendering obliterates pre-existing mental images thoroughly. This truth is what makes films such as Gibson’s so necessary.

The omnipresent audio-visual media has done more than enrich our esthetic intake: it has changed us in fundamental ways. Gore and violence is thankfully no longer a central part of our lives, so it is up to the Arts to bring it to us as a substitute for what once was common experience. Finally, Gibson has given us an account of an old story that is fitting for our times.

Hey Maureen, get a clue: you are supposed to be outraged.


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