Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre: An Opinion

[Note: This entry started out as a series of coments over on Evil Science Chick's blog. Check her out -- she rocks.]

Personally, if I want to watch a movie that makes me reflect on Jesus' life and death give me "The Last Temptation of Christ" anyday. Now, that said, a couple of opinions/observations. Let me just start by saying that I, in no uncertain terms, think The Passion of the Christ is overrated. To say the least. A perfect example of buzz coinciding with the current religio-vogue, resulting in a runaway blockbuster sprouting from what is, essentially, a skillfully made, artsy, subtitled, religious grindhouse film.

If Rob Zombie got religion, he'd make the same fuckin' movie.

Some folks claim that this brutally violent and astonishing bloody film is simply Mel Gibson's story of Christ as reflected by these modern, ultra-violent times. Sorry -- that's horse shit. "The Passion of the Christ" is really nothing new, as far as drama goes, nor as far as explicitly violent and gruesome content go. Gibson just revived an outmoded dramatic form for modern viewers, and hired wonderful cinematogrpahers and art directors to bring it to the screen.

Exceptionally gory passion plays were a long-standing tradition for hundreds of years, from the middle ages up until I believe the 1800s in parts of Europe. While ones depicting the crucifixion were typically only performed during the Lenten season, outrageously "grand guignol" style "deaths of the saints and martyrs" dramas were terribly popular for a VERY long time. This was partly due to clerical opposition to theatrical productions that weren't explictly theologically-oriented (so theater owners would have to stage them in order to keep business going), but also because the audiences were often familiar with the content and would get excited by the opportunity to see a staging of some ghastly death or other.

Many of the productions used to get waste and scraps from the local charnel houses for use in the productions. The stages would be piled with the innards of all sorts of animals and dripping with buckets of blood. It's the most basic of sensationalist theater, and was very popular with the lower classes and the poor for obvious reasons (pure spectacle, not much in the way of intellectualism, purely visceral/emotional appeal), although the "upper crust" were certainly happy to go slumming and take in one on occasion.

Now, as far as people saying that "the passion," as a Christian tradition, is specifically concerned with the suffering and death of Christ, and therefore Gibson was simply adhering to these traditions, well, OK. Sure. "The passion" is about the crucifixion, not the totality of Christ's purpose. But that's also my primary critique of the film's content (and of passion plays in general). They shoot really low, aim for the lowest common religious denominator, and run with it. They focus attention purely on the part of the story that inspires anger, fear, outrage, disgust, pity, etc. -- base emotional responses -- without addressing the higher purposes that are fulfiled by the crucifixion. Emotionally and viscerally engaging, but theologically hollow. I've always had a problem with people who have tremendous resources at their disposal not attempting to do something new, challenging, significant with them.

It's the same problem I have with George Fucking Lucas and his crappy new Star Wars films. All that money, and that's the best you can do? Lucas recycles B-grade, Flash Gordon style sci-fi narrative, and Gibson recycles archaic religious theatrical tracts. Both lob a bunch of cash at them to make them look great. The end results are serviceable and full of technical and artistic achievement, but ... dramatically? Has something new been created? Has something about us, about what we think and why we think it, or (in Gibson's case) about what we believe and why, been illuminated? Nuh uh.

To put it in a less religion-oriented context, imagine watching explicitly gory footage of a motorcycle crash. You get to see, in close-up and slo-mo, as the victim's head in caved in by a tree or wall or something. Then, graphic footage of his organs being surgically removed from his body, one after another, for two hours, at which point he finally convulses, coughs up copious amounts of blood, and dies. Nasty, right? Stop at this point, and it's just repulsive and exploitative.

But if you place it in the context of his organs then being used to save the lives of a bunch of people who would have died without those organs, his suffering and death attain meaning. Context is everything, PARTICULARLY in the story of Christ.

Ultimately, that's why I feel like "Passion of the Christ" is little more than a slasher film for the WWJD set. The context of Christ's sacrifice is ultimately far more significant than Gibson's Jerusalem: CSI-style portrayal of his betrayal, torture, and death, and yet he chose to ignore the message and the meaning in preference to the bloody spectacle.

Happy Easter.

Mood: Relaxing
Now Playing: Nada


Rachel said...

"Many of the productions used to get waste and scraps from the local charnel houses for use in the productions."


That's taking "visceral appeal" to a level I'd never thought of.

Gregg P. said...

Re: "Visceral." Yeah, I know, I know. I saw the rather lame punning opportunity and tried to avoid it by not putting "visceral" too close to the mention of charnel houses. But I was simply too damn lazy to pull up a thesaurus and come up with synonyms for visceral....

evilsciencechick said...


EXACTLY! THANK YOU! they keep putting the focus on the wrong event, and it drives me NUTS to no end! rock, too. thanks!

Ray in New Orleans said...

There are only two movies I've rented in the last few years that I stopped halfway through and never bothered to finish.

Once was "The Passion Of The Christ".

The other was "Pootie Tang".

That the MPAA didn't rate this movie NC-17 for graphic violence shows that the MPAA are a bunch of gutless suckups. I'd sooner let my kids watch "The Dreamers" than this crap.

I'm with you on "The Last Temptation of Christ", though. If ever a movie existed that showed how Christ's humanity, with all the weakness and self doubt that goes with it, is the very reason that the crucifixion was such a big deal, this was it.

Anonymous said...

Gregg! You're killing me! I sat through most of Sunday School biting my tongue, "Jesus Chainsaw Massacre" stuck indelibly in my head.

Happy, Happy, Happy Spring Equinox.


melanie said...

I hated the movie, ended up with my eyes and ears covered for the majority of it. I had to really disconnect myself from the entire film.

I agree with you completely.

The suffering of jesus was important, but the resurrection was the essential bit.

I hated seeing so many christians jumping on the bandwagon of the film.. I hate seeing emotion used as manipulation. (and this coming from a girl who spent almost every sunday of her life in church)

I'm rambling now.. sick and it is only 5:40 in the morning, so I should stop ;)