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Thursday, December 17, 2009

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Separation of Church and State???

Nelson de la Nuez's "The Last Happy Meal"

In the midst of this holiday season, as Christmas inches closer and closer, why not take a moment to investigate the birthday boy, Jesus Christ? Whether or not he performed miracles, he did manage to create the longest running annual celebration-- take that, Dick Clark! RIP to you bothy, BTW. Sorry, I kid. Anywho, back to JC: Millennia after his death, no one remains as famous nor as controversial as the "Son" himself. His likeness, or rather artists' rendering of it, which is fairly consistent, is as recognizable as the face of Marilyn Monroe, his name is as familiar as Elvis Presley, and conversation regarding the religious branch he inspired remains as dominant as the latest tribulations of whatever celebrity newsstand martyr. Perhaps to some, it seems heretical for me to make such comparisons between pop culture and the most dominant of religious icons, but I do it merely to illuminate a point: in the history of the world, on the scale of social impact and cultural relevance, Madonna has nothing on Jesus.

Oh, Religion... The topic we all have such strong opinions and convictions about is the one we just can't make peace with. When it comes to God and Man, we are so damn touchy. If you believe in God, you're a desperate fool who needs fairy tales to cope with reality; if you don't, you're a spiritually blind ignoramus who is going to burn in Hell or, at the very least, surrender your chance to spend eternity with infinite vestal virgins-- who I assume will be sent to said Hell after they are soiled by celestial semen. (Wow, I am really digging my own grave here). There is nothing-- sans politics and how the government spends our money-- that sparks such heated debate or arouses such defensive anger as religion, even while the argument itself is a moot endeavor. The scientist's findings are shunned by infinite, unseen possibilities of the faithful, and the faithful prayers and proverbs are not functional to the scientist.

As such, God is everywhere: as a concept or a symbol, as a source of dissension or unity. He is at the center of massive wars abroad and theological ones at home. Since cinema is one of the most far-reaching arms of the media, along with television and radio-- do we still call it radio?-- it is no surprise that the topic of religion should find its way time and again onto the silver screen. Each time, it takes on different forms, asks different questions, and reveals each time different truths about its current society. It seems ironic that in the world of movies, where we indulge in images of graphic, senseless violence, gratuitous sex, and eye-opening, intellectually penetrating films about every topic in the political/social spectrum, "Jesus" is the only subject that truly makes people squirm.The most recent and publicly acknowledged "Yes, yes, yes," vs. "No, no, no" battle took place over Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ of 2004. Maybe you've heard of it.

The argument over this particular film was that it was created with an anti-Semitic agenda by Gibson who shamelessly used his artistic power, fame, and personal fortune to promote his own faith and lambast that of others-- particularly those of the Jewish faith. Half of the public, in general those of the Christian persuasion, embraced the film, which broke box-office records, and reported that it was a devoted and inspiring portrait of Christ the King. The other half of the public stood outside movie theaters with signs of protest (protestants? Haha. Sorry) defaming the picture, defending other religious demographics, and lambasting the heinous scenes of violence, which they believed contradicted the film's supposed message of spiritual enlightenment. For those of us towing a middle line, trying to find an unbiased opinion and survive the ever-absurd anarchy, there wasn't much to do but sit back and say, well... "Jesus..." One wonders if the film would have been as significant if so many hadn't risen up against it and thus forced others to manically defend it. "Oh, Mel made a movie about Jesus? Ok." That was my response. It pretty much still is. Though, I admit that my passive demeanor may itself be a sin.

I am admittedly not well educated on religion. I remember attending some early CCD classes-- still not sure what that stands for-- and collecting what appeared to be Jesus trading cards. I had and have no qualms with Jesus. The concept of God fascinates me, mostly in terms of witnessing the different ways people choose to interpret "Him" and allow him to enrich/direct their lives. Unfortunately, religion is yet another theology that at heart is meant to unify and-- when placed in the hands of the men and women who preach it-- most often becomes ineffectual, misconstrued, and then ignorantly turns brother against brother. Still, I approach the appearance of different versions of religious propaganda with an open mind and objective eye, at least I'd like to think so. Our diversity is one of the greatest things about us. I'm not opposed to hearing both versions of, any version of, any story, even if the discussion introduced makes you wrinkle your nose. Bring it on. Let's cleanse the palate. Due to this ever churning curiosity, I did eventually see the movie.

No, I wasn't instantaneously "offended" that Gibson produced his passion project. However, this is probably because I'm very anti-censorship at heart. Any time you are compelled to step in and say, "No, you aren't allowed to say/do this," things get dicey. Deciding what is righteous from what is unrighteous is not something man has ever been good at. We generally just turn ourselves into self-righteous jerks. "Say your piece, man. I don't concur, but I appreciate the info." History also tells us that persecution necessarily creates martyrs, so this time it was Mel who wound up on the cross-- at least until he took himself down with those strange hieroglyphic rants he made after his visit to Moonshadows. [Hand slaps forehead, RIP Martin Riggs]. Before Mel proved the hypothetical agenda many thought he'd had, all previous public scrutiny was, if we're being openminded, pure conjecture. How many other directors can we list that use cinema, television, whatever, to spout their opinions, from the politically conscious Robert Redford to the more politically abrasive Bill O'Reilly? At first, I thought, "Maybe he just really, really likes Jesus?" Apparently he does. A little too much. Sorry, bud. You screwed up. So, in retrospect, yes. I am offended. Not necessarily by the project itself, but by what it has come to represent: the height of human error.

The violence didn't really bother me either, but then I've been watching things like Nightmare on Elm Street since I was three, so there wasn't really anything shocking in it for me. Obviously, I understand how more sheltered individuals who generally wouldn't be attending a Rated-R movie would be... unsettled. In any case, Jesus the man did die by crucifixion, as did many others throughout history. Human beings have devised some amazing and horrendous methods of torture. To me, that aspect was less about Christ and much more about the depths of mankind's brutality, and again, how far people will go to prove that their side of the story is right, even if it means killing the opposing perspective. There are also much worse and sadistically pornographic examples of violence in film all the time, to the point where we have become totally immune to it. (Again, was three watching Krueger do his thing). The only reason anyone cared in this case is because the dude suffering the violence was the allegedly divine One. Had it been some topless horror damsel or action dude Vin Diesel or the Rock was being beaten to death, no one would have batted an eyelash. Religion just turns people ugly. This, we can all agree, is undebatable. "Live and let live" is a concept we've yet to latch onto.

The political issues, I can certainly get behind. People have a right to be offended by things. I'm offended every time I pass the magazines at the check out counter. "Why should I be forced to look at this garbage," I internally ask myself? That's when the apathetic shrug of "whatever" helps me out. No one's gonna acid rain on my parade. Controversy and argument are the things that keep us thinking and challenging each other and, most importantly, questioning our own judgments and premature conclusions. On the one hand, it is annoying when people make a stink over something they could easily ignore and laugh off as some whackadoo's absurd, televangelical, pet project, but human ire is a difficult thing to contain. Impossible even. On the other hand, at least our most irrational moments provide comedy, in this case "divine comedy." The cynics of the world often get the pleasure of sitting back and watching people spit fire at each other over something impossible to prove, defend, or even have a lucid conversation about: "Why are they yelling?"

As in all things Hollywood, the Gibson Gaff wasn't the first case brought before the Jesus jury. Almost 80 years prior to The Passion, Cecil B. DeMille was filming his epic, The King of Kings. If you thought The Passion war was a mess, wait until you get a load of this! Whereas Gibson's vehicle of spiritual testament unfolded itself before a nation still reacting to the events of Sept. 11, 2001-- a country looking for otherworldly answers or hope after the Twin Towers devastation-- Kings came about in the age of the Jazz-Baby, during a time of economic and social extravagance, where drugs, sex, and the changing tides of social norms came crashing down on tradition like an unstoppable wave. DeMille, therefore, approached the telling of the death of Christ with a vastly different intention. He wanted to pay homage, but he also wanted to humanize. Christ was to be taken down off the cross and made into a flesh and blood man, one that audiences could relate to. The characterization was altered so that the Son of God was not soft and effeminate, but masculine; he may have been beaten and bullied, but he was a tough guy as well, feared as much as he was loved. Much of DeMille's film was based upon the novel The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton, which looked at Jesus from a modern perspective, as a business man and every man, and not a symbol.

Of course, DeMille's script caused controversy before it even left the page. Not only did DeMille have to make a film that was as historically accurate as possible-- during the filming of which he had on hand a Protestant minister as an advisor-- but he also had to make sure that nothing was offensive to the other religious factions aka prospective ticket buyers. As a result, he had to have representatives for members of the Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim faith on set as well. The painstaking effort to be as politically correct as possible was fully endorsed by MPPDA Director Will Hays, himself a Presbyterian elder. As the "censorship czar," his agenda was not so much to preserve a wholesome and honest image of the Christ but to create a sellable product for the public. Above all things, he was in the business of making money, not movies, so while making a film that would appeal to Christians-- a very large portion of the American population-- may have been nice, the studio had to be able to sell tickets to the other sects as well. In the world of business, you don't want to tick off a viable source of funds.

With all of the controversy brewing in Hollywood by 1926-- which was still recovering from the scandalous fall of Fatty, Willy, and Wally-- Hays had to find a way to endear the ever-resistant religious community to the movies. Hollywood could not afford a boycott, so this film was a deliberate peacemaker, made with the hope of solidifying an alliance between the Church and Cinema. Indeed, the "Church" was on board with this whole design, for they wanted to win back their audiences as well. Attendance to Sunday Mass had dropped drastically as ticket sales at the movies had started to climb, and it seemed that the public had found a new God to worship. Religious leaders and preachers wrote letters of protest to the studios, claiming that they were defiling the nation's youth and teaching sin and amorality with their scandalous film scenarios. Still, equal salesmen themselves, they understood the power of movies as a great communicator and believed that Movie Palaces could essentially be turned into Cathedrals, using moral and holy screenplays to preach the word of God the world over. Some theaters began running films preceded with prayers; some ministers began showing films during their sermons. Oh, the incorruptibility of politics...

Indeed, there was a great fusion of religion and entertainment, which can be seen through the success of the Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (left). In the roaring twenties, lengthy sermons about good and evil ceased to hold an audience's interest, so Ms. Semple created a new brand of preaching, which writer Richard Maltby refers to as "religious vaudeville." Yeah... It was not mass, it was a show. A show about God. There was singing, dancing, hammily performed drama, and an ever-present undercurrent of sex, which the throngs of attendees sipped like un-holy water from a golden challis. Semple raised the stakes and provided room to breathe, for in her services, church-goers felt that they could be a little naughty and still go to Heaven. There was further controversy surrounding Semple when she disappeared, and presumably drowned, only to re-emerge and claim that she had been kidnapped! When the truth came out that she had merely been holed up in a love nest with a married man (hypocrisy, you win as usual) it instigated further debate. New-agers found it befitting to the modern period; traditionalists saw it as a call to arms. This all occurred in April of 1926, during the filming of DeMille's Kings, and obviously had a profound effect upon production.

DeMille finally finished his classic in January of 1927. After enduring the harsh criticism of test audiences, studio stipulations, and the necessary edits demanded by the B'hai B'rith committees, he only hoped that there was enough left of his film to provide a what he believed to be a truthful and compelling story-- though the hedonist in him was a bit hypocritical in broadcasting this degree of righteousness. Since there is no universal religion, it is impossible to make a religiously themed movie that everyone will agree upon. Thus, when audiences saw the film, the reactions were as expected. Despite all of the preparation and tireless efforts at bipartisanship, the divide was clear. One portion of the audience was moved to tears, sitting in awe at a masterpiece that revealed their God to them as they had never seen him before. The other portion was up in arms, finding the movie, surprise, anti-Semitic. In accordance with the endless issues, the film was changed so that, among other things, Caiaphas alone was blamed for Jesus's crucifixion and all Jewish participation was eliminated. (D.W. Griffith, always a source of controversy, had witnessed the same problems with his film Intolerance, one fourth of which revolved around the crucifixion). The King of Kings was neither a failure nor a success, breaking just about even at the box-office, primarily due to Cecil's spending habits which always made it difficult for him to recoup his losses.

From Dogma

There are nearly 80 years separating the premieres of both The King of Kings and The Passion of the Christ, but the same scenario publicly played out both times. This type of thing, therefore, is not a phenomenon but a fact. We each hold our own personal brand of religion close to our hearts, whether the staunch faith we have relies on a higher power for absolution or ourselves alone. When that "trust" we have is offended, insulted, or threatened, we break into sweats, lash out, and pretty much go bonkers. No film can be viewed with complete objectivity, especially when it presents spiritual topics that attack our well-schooled ideas and resultantly arouse violent emotions within us. It becomes hard to look at a film itself alone as a mere, independent contribution to art or at the very least conversation, after it has been steeped in such vengeful dialogue and diatribe. It seems, in the end, that no one can really make a movie about God. It always winds up being too much about man, both inside the theater and out. I don't know how I feel about Jesus the icon, but Jesus the man has my never-ending sympathy.


  1. Very interesting post. I saw the Passion in the movie theater and cried my eyes out. No other film have ever touched me the way it did. I am a Christian and know that these films always have such a huge outcry either way. I am glad at least people today are still discussing Jesus. Kori xoxo

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