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The Sacrifice of the Art

The Passion of the Christ
by Greg Muskewitz

The week before the Oscars, and nothing but a batch of movies whose hopes of being mentioned in close relation to the awards will get no closer than in this column. (Not that any but one of the movies below would be under the fallacy that they have a chance.)


The Sacrifice of the Art
Are there any justifiable reasons why someone who can read about Christ’s slaying in detail shouldn’t be able to watch it as a movie?

The week before the Oscars, and nothing but a batch of movies whose hopes of being mentioned in close relation to the awards will get no closer than in this column. (Not that any but one of the movies below would be under the fallacy that they have a chance.) As for this Sunday, I will readily have my scorecard filled out and handy, but this will be my last chance to publicly cross my fingers for Mystic River, Clint, (out of reality mixed with luck) Naomi, (out of sentiment) Keisha, Sean, Tim, and futilely, Holly (nothing against Renée’s performance; it was on my shortlist as well). Moving forward, or backwards to Ash Wednesday, brings us to a movie where it would be more fun to review its hype. Alas, there is no crossover.

The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson recounts, in the director’s chair only (unless you want to count a cameo by his hand as putting a nail through Christ’s wrist), the final twelve-hours in the life of Jesus Christ as leading up to his crucifixion, plus the occasional menial flashbacks for context (The Last Supper, in the midst of carpentry, etc.). The Passion begins with Judas selling out Christ’s hiding place to the Jewish leaders, and ends with a passing glace at James Caviezel’s backside signifying his resurrection, and the interim is filled with a graphic monotony of bloodletting, first as Christ is ping-ponged from the Jews to the Romans (in Pilate’s possession), from Pilate to Herod and back. Observing within the content of the movie, one of the concerns has been whether it incites anti-Semitism. The answer is not a simple yes or no. Based on the material alone, on the story that has existed for thousands of years, it does nothing to encourage the sort of racism being fretted about. But one issue that has to be weighed, particularly in today’s hyper-sensitive times, is culturally we must understand the climate. A movie such as this, where the claim of a motivation is simply to tell a story without ulterior motives, it shows one group of people doing something that the effect of which they don’t believe in; the actions, that, here today, have a tendency to still ruffle another group of people’s feathers despite the proof it gives their religion. No body of people likes to be asserted as a villain — historically accurate or not — and whatever Gibson’s underlying reasons to make a movie about this is equivalent to another filmmaker telling a historically accurate story about the reign of the Nazis and the death of Jews for the sake of accuracy and no other reason. It plays with people’s guilt, no matter how far one is removed from it, and there is nothing artistic in that. Gibson turns the thing into a bloody shock spectacle; he implicates the viewers like the Jews who watched the crucifixion and beatings as entertainment. He is intent on showing every lash, every whip, every break of skin, drop of sweat, drip of blood. (Sure enough, the cinematic treatment even allows Gibson to turn it down a notch at the same time as turning it up — cue the slo-mo as Jesus is taken to with whips, with cattails; slow-motion is the way to go as silver is tossed to Judas, as a line is drawn in the sand, as Jesus carries and falls with the cross, etc. Interesting how “style” is incited like italicized notes in the gospel.) The sight of Jesus being nailed to the cross and hanging from it can surely stir emotions, but they are no more effective than paintings showing the same images, and it does not extend beyond that moment and explain why the rest of the movie is so cold. Gibson’s intent with The Passion of the Christ is to punish the viewer like Jesus was, a roundabout revenge for what you are choosing to sit through. He has a total contempt for his audience, first by treating the viewer like the Jews that called for the crucifixion and were present during, as though by opting to watch his movie, you are paying — as in wanting — to see Christ killed (while Gibson wears the thorny crown as a martyr against any criticism of the movie in defense of his religion). Are there any justifiable reasons why someone who can read about Christ’s slaying in detail shouldn’t be able to watch it as a movie? And as a movie, of which through Gibson’s contempt and betrayal (what happened to providing no subtitles for the Aramaic and Latin dialogue? Where did the authenticity go since only Gibson was in fear of losing his return? Does anyone doubt that was part of his marketing ploy?), the sense of art is nothing but deplorable; he is so focussed on bringing pain to the viewer at whichever angle complements it best, he pays no attention to the use of a composition, hacking up the image of a cinematographer as well-regarded as Caleb Deschanel, excessively editing and jumping around the movie’s layout. The one attempt at levity — Jesus explaining the advent of chairs at a table to his mother — is a giant misfire, and getting back again to the subtitles that were “never meant to be” (how many people would have seen it then?), they have to be one of the poorest, most hollow and bland bids to modernize and simplify the content of their meaning, one of the more crucial places where laziness makes a difference. (No one can accuse Gibson of being lazy with the violence, but who would have criticized a less visceral torture without compromising one’s vision?) Ego and self-indulgence are the driving forces behind The Passion of the Christ, the things which prompt Gibson to include the extraneous presence of a so-called Satan that looks to be out of The Cell, bald and pallid and pasty, and as omnipresent over all the proceedings as is Gibson’s own shadow and sledging hand. With Hristo Naumov Shopov, Maia Morgenstern, and Monica Bellucci (!).

50 First Dates. Like Anger Management (same director, Peter Segal), it’s another attempt by Adam Sandler to tone down his schtick (and in doing so, pass it on to others, such as his Russian butch co-worker) and aim for the sympathetic, which means that this will be of his more tolerable variety. Re-teamed with Drew Barrymore in hopes of not just sparking the chemistry they shared in The Wedding Singer, but the box office of it too, Sandler falls in love with a girl who happens to suffer from short-term memory loss after a car accident, where her father and steroid-soaked, lisping brother go to all lengths to re-play the same day out of her life over and over. (They have a closet full of the same day’s newspaper, she paints a wall in the garage that they then paint back over, they watch The Sixth Sense (“I didn’t see that coming”), she eats at the diner every day where Sandler meets her.) And of course, those lengths don’t match the ones Sandler goes to, first, to make (or re-make) an impression upon her, and then to help her adjust each and every day to where their relationship stands and what they’ve done together. Of course, all of this is a growth for Sandler, who is a commitment-phobe and hitherto has only dated tourists so as not to be tied down. Minimal mileage is actually accrued in the humorous and joke-y turn on the Memento front, but that still doesn’t warm one up to the movie’s poking fun of it, no matter how sweet Sandler’s character can be. It’s fun, and even perhaps slightly romantic, for a while, but the audience doesn’t suffer from the same ailment that Barrymore does, causing 50 First Dates to tread heavily on already thin ground. And as much as there is a concerted effort made to be more adult, more so than in most Sandler comedies, there is also the inability to relinquish other puerile tidbits in the periphery (particularly the participation of animal slapstick, or “Ten-Second Tom”). It works both ways, allowing Rob Schneider as a native Hawaiian, to make a splash for laughs, but cause a similar shrinking sensation apposite to diving into icy water. With Blake Clark, Sean Astin, Dan Aykroyd, and Allen Covert.

Secret Things. One of the newspaper quotes attributed to Jean-Claude Brisseau’s film says, “Trust us, this film has everything — you’ll be left rubbing your eyes in disbelief!” The biggest disbelief that I find in that statement (next to the claim that it has everything) is that eyes are what Brisseau was after to be rubbed. It opens with Coralie Revel laying down on a bed, intensely masturbating. As the camera slowly peels back and Revel gets up, it’s revealed that she’s performing on stage, in what turns out to be her last night before she is fired along with the bartender (Sabrina Seyvecou) who is crushing on her, following which, they strike up a friendship and more. Determined to get better work using their sex to advance them (why didn’t Donald Trump recruit them for “The Apprentice”?), they hatch a plot to work their way up the latter and empower themselves sexually without the baggage of love and the pain that comes with it. Myopically told, darkly shot, the focus remains harnessed on nudity and sex, and lots of it (though that tends to be mostly unintrusively shot by Wifrid Sempé), but the monotony of it all sets in long and hard before the occasional distractions and the silly diversion it takes on path to a close, involving a very Eyes Wide Shut-ish orgy sequence. (The absence of cloaked figures does little to help warm the blood.) For such a studied and concentrated peep movie about sex — specifically, lesbian sex — the movie is stiflingly trapped in a very theatrical presentation, cold, rehearsed, forced, artificial, and stagy, and with the exception of the adorable Seyvecou (not as committed to the nudity as Revel), all of the “performers” rigidly adhere to the theatrical mentality. That is not to say, however, that there are not some stunning or surprising images to be seen, as well as some nicely planned humor (Seyvecou stripping behind her boss’ open door), though just as well with some unplanned humor. With Roger Mirmont, Fabrice Deville, and Blandine Bury.

AKA. In the roughest approximation, in the loosest sense, an experimental soap opera about an emotionally and parentally derelict teen who goes to work for an upper-class gallery manager who pities the charity case, before he takes off and steals her prick-of-a-son’s identity to live the high-life of money, drugs, travel, and sex. I say experimental because, apart from the boorish-sounding nature of the content (a/k/a, boorishly presented content), Duncan Roy’s movie is shown in a constant triply divided screen, slightly distorted in a squished manner to accommodate them all into the narrow frame. For the most part, the three perspectives are all being observed from the same general time point, though the actions are not necessarily synchronized, with one soundtrack masked across all three “eyes,” but unlike Timecode, which trails multiple characters in different locales in real time, this is stitched together not from consecutive footage. Next to the pinched images (which do not embellish Matthew Leitch’s constant double-cocked arch brows), the only compliment that comes from three different versions of the same thing is some decent coordination at the outset of the compositions. The photography itself is haphazardly attained, bobbing, weaving, twisting, ducking, stumbling, inattentive to its subjects and easily distracted, etc., and the color tends to be pale across the board, with some angles looking worse than others. (It’s fittingly for the sufferer of ADHD who not only can’t keep still, but has three of the same thing to split their attention between.) No help is received, either, from the stuffy and overdrawn character performances, which begin with amateurs and only continually sink below that. A/k/a: Pretentiously Tedious. With Diana Quick and Blake Ritson.

The Gospel of John. “Word-for-word,” says the back of the press kit, “based on The Good News Bible.” In other words, the text of John’s gospel laboriously and tediously read aloud, narrated in a rumbling monotone by Christopher Plummer. The filmmakers appear to front the excuse of accuracy for their unabridged storytelling, but it’s mere laziness; no longer is the audio book necessary, here instead we have moving images to go along with being read to. (Narrator: “Jesus turned, saw them following.” Jesus: “Who are you and why are you following me?” Or, an anonymous follower: “We have found the messiah!” Narrator: “This word means Christ.”) From what I saw, it looked as though the filmmakers went all out to get the look of the thing down, and it has carried on in word-of-mouth popularity along the Bible Belt, but I could only take 20 or 30-minutes (out of between 180 and 210-minutes) of being read to in condescension and unimaginative straightforwardness before I walked out. Directed by Philip Saville.

Eurotrip. Slapdash, sub-standard teen comedy for even an imitation of an imitation of the American Pie-styled sex romps about a loser who blows off his German e-pen pal whom he has always mistaken for a guy, and upon discovering his faux pas, dashes off to Europe with his best friend (an even bigger loser), meeting up with a brother-and-sister set of twins they just graduated with, all in order to track down das reizvoll Mädchen that he obviously can’t know too much about, except that judging from the picture he’s seen of her, she’s hot. The movie’s whole motivation for taking place in Europe is clearly the association with free — or at least freer — sex and sexuality; however, the distinction between how those subjects are handled by Americans posing as Europeans, and real Europeans, is distinct enough when superficially compared to The Dreamers. Here we have a movie that basely attempts to create humor from the twins who accidentally make out and cannot face each other without chagrin, while the other movie treats the incestuous relationship so maturely, it tries to provoke titillation and eroticism from it — different levels and interpretations of horniness. (The inclusion of a beach of penises doesn’t make this any closer to resembling a European product.) If it weren’t for the fact that the filmmakers of this doubtfully set foot outside of the United States in the process of making it, relieving all liability of any European country, this would better be called Eurotrash. This inexcusably slums along the bottom-most surface of trashiness and crassiness throughout the entirety of its running time, devoid of laughs, and with the direction of curled lips only pointing down. (Could it be possible that the screenwriters were actually laughing to themselves as they inanely set up and poorly executed the sequence where the bell being mistakenly tolled leads the incorrect presumption that the Pope has died and Loser Number One accidentally taken for his replacement? Could it be possible that they even smiled to themselves the first time the gag with the Italian who kept molesting the foursome when the train went into a dark tunnel was used, let alone the subsequent times?) No less perverse and pathetic than these proceedings, is seeing Michelle Trachtenberg turned into a sex object when just a few years ago she was being washed bare-chested by Rosie O’Donnell in Harriet the Spy. With Scott Mechlowicz, Jacob Pitts, Travis Wester, and Jessica Boehrs; directed by Jeff Schaffer.

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originally posted: 02/28/04 17:22:43
last updated: 02/28/04 17:44:59
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