2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
The Passion of the Christ
Reflections on Mel’s monstrous
messiah movie and
the culture wars
by Robert Smart
Watching Mel Gibson’s splatter-movie passion, I wondered, was Gibson beaten as a child? Did he undergo the kind of severe corporeal punishment that conservative Christian child-rearing manuals advocate? “Spare the rod,” authoritarian methods of discipline are intended to create obedient, unquestioning children, often future members of the fundamentalist Christian community. But when children experience of early pain and terror, that shapes their entire development and often leads to depression, aggression (tolerable when channeled), denial of feelings, and sexual dysfunction. Today’s advocates of corporal punishment have to reject a by now large body of psychological research and resort to the Bible for justification—almost exclusively the Old Testament.
Physically beaten children characteristically become terrified of freedom and ambiguity. It’s hard for them to rely on their own perceptions and intellectual powers to make their way through the adult social world’s complex reality. They're taught to rely on external authority to guide their behavior, and they learn to embrace a morality dictated by external compulsion and fear of horrific punishment. Obedience to authority becomes a moral ideal, with a suspicion of those who don't submit, or who insist on thinking for themselves.
The Passion’s emphasis on physical beating reminds me of a parallel social situation to that of the beaten child’s. That is, the religious right has been skillfully and aggressively accumulating power and influence in this country in order to make all citizens and governmental policy submit to its moral regime. The Passion and its relentless marketing to conservative religious groups seem to mark a decisive moment in the evolving culture war, an exploiting of the church group for profit and ever increasing social power. For Gibson, the aggressive marketing of the film to religious groups was a profitable tactic and resulted in a box office of $76.2 million worth of tickets for the first three days—"the seventh-best three-day opener of all time, and the best for a new release in February.”
Prior to its release, the film provoked fears that it would engender feelings of anti-Semitism—based largely on leaked copies of the screenplay. Gibson’s elderly father, a member of a Catholic splinter group that diverged from the mainstream Church in the early 60s after Vatican II, publicly has denied the Holocaust ever occurred. In the months leading up to the film’s release, he vented numerous anti-Semitic comments. Gibson himself has been somewhat disingenuous on this issue, telling Diane Sawyer that he can't be anti-Semitic because there are Encyclicals about this and that his father “never lies.” Unfortunately, the Pope issued Encyclicals stating that the Jews were not responsible for the murder of Christ after Mel’s splinter group left the Church. And that group has pointedly disavowed all proclamations issued by the mainstream Catholic Church since that time. For example, Gibson himself told an interviewer that he couldn't include the Jew Ciaphas’ speaking the infamous blood libel, “Let the blood be on our heads,” because “they” would come to his house and shoot him! Despite the film’s heavy handed anti-Semitism, however, I don't think it’s Jews who may end up as the most vulnerable, indeed primary, targets of the film’s stirred-up fervor. I see another set of possible victims in the offing.
As I watched this film, I felt the grim realization that to the church group who’d inadvertently given me a free ticket, I was one of the goats to relegate to the flames. As a child I was ostracized and made to feel that I was somehow different, and despite having no ideas what this difference was, I did ultimately grow up indeed to be different, now in ways still impossible to define. For people like me, the rise of the right with its intolerance and contempt for my idea of U.S. democratic inclusiveness is a grim and anxiety-provoking reality. In terms of my career, as a teen and young man I dreamed of and attempted—delusionally—to pursue creating high-modernist films in the tradition of Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, et al. Now I sat in this film as an older man who had drifted into the realm of unprofitable fringe novels and screenplays for ultra-low-budget erotic horror videos that never seemed to get finished. I sat amongst the flock watching Gibson’s 126-minute ordeal and felt the chill wind of threat, sensing that when the time came for the celebrants of this meat-grinder movie to compile their list, I would most likely be on it. I am one of the people who do not fit and no longer wants to.
The Passion is a right-wing testament to absolute submission to authority, and to unquestioning obedience. It’s also about being a man, a man who knows how to take his whipping without complaint. Issues of manhood and gender are central to the film’s imagery and iconography. The suffering male body is separated from the female world of nurture and pleasure and submits to the male world of brutality and pain. That’s the narrative pattern of this relentless passion play. The film is terrifying. It lingers on the horrific violence visited on Christ’s body. And the mental landscape behind it is literally terrified—of ambiguity, freedom, woman, pleasure. The film offers a glimpse into a hyper-masculine theocracy, which seem to lie in wait for us if the religious right ever gets social control. Since this film comes after many decades of steadily evolving Kulturkampf, I have found it useful to go back in time to trace the evolution of this phenomenon, which I shall briefly trace before returning to a more detailed look at Gibson’s film.
In the mid-70s we witnessed the arrival and ascendancy of the Moral Majority who sought to take back the United States from forces assaulting traditional values, national moral consensus, and community cohesion. The enemy was labeled as “secular humanism.” Historically, humanism means having values centered on principles of equality and justice which one derives from human reason. But for the Moral Majority, secular humanism refers to groups who are eroding a stable and meaningful way of life. And to the religious conservatives, the identity of the destructive sectors seems very clear. Problems are coming from feminists, homosexuals and other deviants, as well cultural institutions such as arts and entertainment, that is, all who might openly attack values such as respect for authority or who might dare to question venerated national or moral myths. Other targets include academics and intellectuals who probe and undermine the legitimacy of long-established authority or challenge iniquitous distributions of power and income.
The religious right’s greatest bête noir has been the feminists, and women in general, who seem to threaten the stability of the family. Above all, the right considers the intact, heterosexual nuclear family the main way that “good” people can grow up gaining a sense of solid identity, strong moral values, and obedience to duly appointed authority. Not only does such a family ensure the continuity of life but also the validity of heterosexual relations as the only form of sexuality ratified by the divine. Many women have ought to escape the yoke of compulsory heterosexuality, rejecting having their identity determined solely by their relation to men—as wife, mother, sister, daughter, caretaker, or broodmare. Starting in the 70s, women have openly explored the parameters of their own sexuality and emotional lives as well as built a new body of feminist thought about the proper conduct and organization of society. In many ways women have developed their own sense of value as to what constitutes the primary basis of human relations. It is clear to me that one of the major animating obsessions of the fundamentalist right derives from a fear of women, ambivalence about their sexuality, and a profound insecurity about gender roles. The result is a rage around gender issues, especially around having to deal with women as equals who have the right to assert, question, and refuse to accept assigned roles.
An even more threatening ambiguity comes from the increasing visibility and social demands made by gays and bisexuals. This group presents a different threat, though one that in many respects dovetails with fundamentalist fear of women moving away from traditional roles. Homosexuality seems to result from women’s attacking and undermining the emerging masculinity of young boys and even of older males, as if women were like vampires draining away the vital essence of poor hapless men. But the issue has another dimension as well: a genuine moral ambiguity that sexual deviants represent. If God ordained two sexes with two rigidly assigned gender roles, then what’s going on with queers? The right has to pose to itself the following questions about homosexuals: Is this way of life evil, plain and simple? Have homosexuals been afflicted with some spirit of pride and rebellion that causes them to seek bizarre sexual expressions simply as a provocation? If they develop or are born with such tendencies as a result of genetic endowment, intrauterine trauma or early psychological difficulties, can't they choose to repress these tendencies in order to maintain the legitimate structure of human relations and the moral order of society? Shouldn't they be willing to do this?
Beyond clinging to a goal of morally reforming the queer, fundamentalists are bedeviled by the very existence of gender ambiguity in a more profound way. Because if sexuality is random, or free-form, or subject to many vagaries, then how stable are the “absolute” givens of a reality created by God? People may not be simply right or wrong, black or white, male or female. And if we cannot be simply slotted into proper binary categories, but rather exist as beings sliding and slipping mercurially from category to category, role to role, without an absolute identity, then the universe itself is in flux and gender categories themselves called into question.
The sexuality of women, of gays and lesbians and other sexually indeterminate people are a living, breathing reminder of the possibility of some radical instability in the universe. And if the universe is unstable and random, what happens to God? I remember in the 80s how Jerry Falwell declared vehemently in a New Yorker interview that he objected to the traditional depictions of Christ as a soft-looking or willowy man: “Christ was a man with muscles.” In retrospect, I now see how Falwell’s homoerotic obsession with masculinity over twenty years ago chillingly anticipated the dynamics of Gibson’s The Passion. For Falwell and for Gibson, a man without muscles is no man at all, and God cannot be less than a “real” man. From this point of view, you're either one or the other, and God cannot be that kind of other.
I see this link between fundamentalism and a fear of queerness as revealing the psycho-dynamics of most religious conservatives. That psychology is based on a need to think in terms of either/or, to divide the world into mutually exclusive dichotomies. On one side of the dividing line are all things right and proper, on the other, the wilderness of the goats. But like many of us who live on the other side of the dividing line—and need to understand this kind of hostility since we confront it so often—I see one thing very clearly about those who must define themselves as “normal,” and thus define themselves against us: More than anything else, fundamentalists fear a potential ambiguity within themselves. They struggle mightily to repress an ambiguity within themselves, or in their families, by insisting almost hysterically on adhering to proper gender roles and sexual object choices. The temptation and terror presented by those of us who fall outside the ordained categories can be alleviated only one way—eradicating the provoking object. Those of us on the wrong side of the culture war must be converted, transformed (with a whole host of factually and theoretically dubious therapeutic interventions) or gotten rid of. The fundamentalist needs to live in a world petrified into frozen and eternal positions. Those of us who refuse to stand still are a threat to the cosmic order—and the psychic equilibrium of those who fear that social movement or cohesiveness among sexual minorities equals collapse.
Holding back change
The amazing thing about the new crusaders is that the Christian worldview they are hell-bent on preserving has been disintegrating for hundreds of years. After the defection of Martin Luther, subsequent wars of religion had a corrosive effect on the faith of the populace, forced to swear allegiance to first one side and then the other in order to survive. The rise of science continued to undermine Christian cosmology—and with it the corresponding sanctity of the authorities that expounded or derived their power from that cosmology. In the mid-nineteenth century, in response to the encroachments of science and increasing social and cultural experimentation, fundamentalist Christianity emerged, creating a theology intended to deny the onrush of modernity. But the breakdown of traditional belief systems still continued for many people around the world.
With the arrival of Freud, the radical destabilizing of the old worldview extended to our understanding of human identity. Children were now understood as sexual beings. Furthermore, with an understanding of the unconscious, it seemed that you did was not what you truly intended, that people were not truly autonomous or rational or master of themselves. And within this shaken universe, the Nazis began their rise to power. It was they who elaborated the concept of Kulturkampf—Culture War—with the same words used in the rise of the religious right and its conservative political counterpart in the early 1980s. In particular, one of the first acts of the Nazis was to institute “purity campaigns,” much like the current rightwing campaigns being waged today. In a backlash against the revolutions of the 60s in the United States, a new anxiety-ridden movement has instituted its own Kulturkampf. Grouped together as the enemy are relativists, postmodernists, homosexuals, the sexually “liberated” and experimental, and, of course, woman who refuse to accept their place. Those who proclaim themselves the defenders of civilization in 1990s America are similar to those of 1930s Germany. They publicly express an urgent need to stuff the genie back into the bottle and to slam the door of the cage in the faces of all of us monsters who, due to lapsed belief, skepticism and a perverse need to experiment with the self, have clawed our way out into limitless open space.
We seem to have weakened the moral fiber of the country—its masculine prowess. We seem to have made this country vulnerable to the machinations of our enemies. (And those enemies are conveniently always multiplying or replacing each other, constantly reinvented and revived, apparently eternally necessary). The making of The Passion of the Christ is telling in this regard, because behind the scapegoating of particular groups is this larger, ever present, pervasive, crisis of meaning going back centuries and never resolved. The conservative perspective is that if an old consensus could just be reinstituted and everyone compelled to agree on “eternal truths,” then society and its individuals could regain intellectual and spiritual equanimity, and personal and communal security. But for many of us “outsiders,” both then and now, we have no choice but to defy the resurgent remnants of the old order and of the twice-born Christians (and conservatives) who have maneuvered themselves into position of power and influence.
Brutal physical punishment
So much of the sturm und drang on display has the quality of masculine panic. For fundamentalist parents, control and authority in a well-disciplined society must be mirrored by a well-disciplined family. The transcendent God of the Bible must be reinvigorated, making socially tangible all his terrible Old Testament authority and dominance. For centuries, generation after generation of believing Christians have maintained the tradition of corporeal punishment of children. It seems to provide a method for establishing order and obedience in the family and by extension respect for the authorities. The history of brutal physical punishment for children shows how parents have long considered it a legitimate way to train unformed youth, shaping them into responsible and upright adults. For many adults, the Bible mandates corporeal punishment, making it morally unassailable as a mode of childrearing. However, unassailable evidence shows that physical punishment does more harm than good. It overwhelms the child physically and psychically and thus results in paranoia and anxiety. It frequently leads to criminal behavior, rather than preventing crime as its adherents claims. Childhood beating often splits the psyche into severe dissociated states, including borderline personality disorders, fugue states and even multiple personality disorders. Parents who implement corporeal punishment in childrearing often do so as a repetition of their own experiences as a child being beaten. And parents often are expressing their own desperate need to assert and maintain a sense of control both over the child and over unruly aspects of their own fragmented personalities. Those who need to subject children to brutal discipline may be redirecting their own fear and rage from their parents onto their children. These are the driving forces behind many adults’ insistence on the necessity of physical punishment in childrearing.
Christian childrearing manuals also emphasize the need to break the child’s will and to suppress even expressions of sadness. That is, if the child cries too long, punish him longer, until he learns to stop using tears as a form of defiance. The child should not openly show anger at what the parent has done to him. Thus, the child must learn completely to deny his real feelings, to rationalize his parent’s actions as a form of love, and to subjugate his own will and sense of reality and identify with the aggressor. It is this repression that makes the good, obedient Christian child sought by the fundamentalist parents. Many outside observers understand that such a suppression of feeling and acceptance of violence will lead to more violence later on, often in pathological and unacceptable forms, is something patently obvious to many outside observers but almost never admitted by the rightist Christians themselves. That wife beating, child abuse, sexual abuse and rape are offshoots of this treatment are vehemently denied. The suicidal ideation described in the biographies of many well-known fundamentalist leaders throughout history is rarely acknowledged and never linked to their experience of severe brutality in childhood.
But the rage engendered by such treatment does not disappear. It must, and will, find an outlet somewhere. And the sense of endangerment, originally the sense of a child waiting for the inevitable beating from a parent, becomes the paranoia of the adult expecting attack and subversion from everyone around him, especially those who do not share his beliefs or lifestyle. Consequently, for the people of the religious right there is an almost unending profusion of enemies that have to be fought and subdued in order for a new paradise of safety and tranquility to be established.
The reaction of conservative Christians to sexual perversions, especially to male homosexuality, reveals much about what they do not acknowledge about their treatment of children, especially in light of Freud’s insights about children’s psychosexual development. What everyone knows from personal experience as a child, even though they may not acknowledge as an adult is that the anus is an extremely sensitive erogenous zone. For children who are punished by their parents with spankings on the buttocks, the constant pressure on the anus and contact with the buttocks during spankings, especially when coupled with the idea of parental love, arouses erotic sensations that are both powerful and usually disturbing to the child receiving the chastisement. To many queers, it is obvious that much of the extreme homophobia expressed by the Christian right and the right in general results from an anxiety response based on their own memories of childhood spankings and their own dimly remembered pain and pleasure in the anal region. Thus what becomes taboo in defining “normal” masculinity, and even a touchstone of that “otherness” against which “real” manliness must define itself, is a buried but persistent memory of the same knowledge acknowledged as a source of sexual desire among queers.
That is, many male homosexuals receive both pain and pleasure from anal intercourse and other activities centering on the anus. Such knowledge constantly reactivates conservatives’ own former childhood associations of anal pain and pleasure—and love. It is the fierce effort to suppress the conscious emergence of such memories, and thus empathy or identification with a key aspect of gay sex, that arouses such hysterical hatred against gay males. Furthermore, in other sexual practices, consensual sexual sadomasochists, both gay and straight, men and women, self-consciously repeat, as adults, in elaborated and controlled form the discipline they were subjected to as children and deriving unabashed sexual pleasure from it. The possible turning of a biblically sanctioned form of childrearing into adult sexual practice, as a kind of recuperation in the arena of desire what was originally an unjust treatment of a child, is perhaps even more intolerable to the conservative Christian.
Christian child advice manuals find nothing perverse in whipping the ass of the young and helpless child. But the entire conservative populace in the United States, and probably elsewhere, acts as if everyone should be aghast and sickened by consenting adults engaging in such behavior of their own free will. It’s a mindset that surely remains pre-Freud, assuming that spanking is spanking and sex is sex and never the twain must meet. For me, this reflection on the genesis and circulation of social/sexual taboos versus the contrasting sexual experiences those who challenge those taboos reveals once again that we live in an era of an ever more explicit blurring of categories. That’s what the conservative mind finds so distressing. In the case of the movie The Passion, it is fascinating that the film dwells so much on masculinity (a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do), with an overwhelming image of the flayed male.
The Passion and beating
Into this contemporary debate strides macho movie star Mel Gibson and his bloody Christ movie The Passion. Mel has outdone himself in this profession of faith heavily marketed to and by conservative Christian churches throughout the United States. In spite of this clever marketing through churches, I believe Mel is sincere in his desire to convert and to change the world—God help us if he succeeds.
Was Mel Gibson beaten as a child? The film impressed me as an elaborate reenactment of a child’s experience of severe corporeal punishment. The film’s imagery and narrative trajectory suggest the father as agent of punishment—but I have no way to glean accurate biographical information from the film. Most memorable in the viewing experience is this film’s marathon session of the cosmic beating of a holy son’s exposed body. There is also an implied complicity of the booming father in the sky, repeatedly signaled by dark clouds passing in the sky. I see this dramatic structure as reenacting a primal drama of the beaten child, forced to undergo painful, unjust blows from the parent, often with a belt or stick. In The Passion, this punishment is demanded by the Jewish Pharisees, portrayed with a few token exceptions as animalistic and hateful mob. The Pharisees seem more effeminate than the Roman guards. But it is the Roman guards who enact the two prolonged beating scenes, which turn out to offer as well a cinematic experience that feels like a drawn out, zestful, homoerotic rape. An analysis of these scenes showing the pleasure the Roman guards take from the beatings can be followed from considering the images accompanying this essay, especially the scourging ordered by Pilate and the crowning with thorns.
I am fascinated by the use of unrelenting cinematic violence, especially direct human blows against the male body, to instill a sense of religious piety in the viewer. This seems to be the film’s main dramatic tactic and purpose. Audience members are indeed emerging from this movie in tears. But is the nature of the emotions they are feeling genuinely religious? The Passion presents the viewer with a parable of the ideal [male] child submitting to the will of the righteous authority figure with the ratification of the great father in the sky. This bloody film where Christ’s body is tortured and bloodied for hours is a reenactment of the child’s early experiences of parental punishment, and love. In its emotional force, it dramatically supports the whole brutal child-rearing ideal.
Or is it a reliving of pain and subjugation from childhood, which is then “redeemed” by being presented as a sacrificial offering of Jesus’ body to his father, suffused with a spurious declaration of divine love. I don't believe I am alone in seeing this film as profoundly pathological. What makes it more disturbing is that The Passion’s sick allegory of submission to vicious parental assault is presented with often effective, though conventional and clichéd, cinematic technique and imagery, which only make its dangerous psychopathology even more insidious and dangerous. The film resorts frequently both to the tropes of Gibson’s earlier action movies and to recent fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings, manipulating audience with a rousing impact. This film is equal parts Fascist cinematic spectacle and religious drama. It’s Mel Gibson’s Triumph of the Will. Or at least a high-gloss updating of Cecile B. DeMille’s strategy of creating blockbusters marketed as family entertainment, which combined crowd scenes, and exotic/erotic imagery coupled with brutality cloaked in religious sentiment. But unlike De Mille’s biblical pageants, The Passion has no enticing female cheesecake on display—only straining, agonized male musculature committing or enduring violent assault.
Satan and Mary on the sidelines
Despite the film’s obvious anti-semitism, in our day and age in the United States the people who are the religious right’s real social targets, and subtly indicated as such in the film’s narrative, are those who do not fit properly into the prescribed sexual categories. For this reason Gibson’s treatment of Satan and Mary are especially interesting, even these figures are clearly on the sidelines throughout the film.
In Mary’s case, the most salient aspect of Gibson’s depiction—not only of her but of other positive female characters such as Mary Magdalene and another merciful female in the film—is how peripheral the women are to the main action. In fact, the film’s narrative and visual structure seems deliberately to marginalize them. They are forever running around streets, standing at the backs or in the midst of crowds, peering into a courtyard, kept distant from direct participation in the action and very emphatically not empowered to intervene in any meaningful way. This is a crucial indication of the film’s concept of the relation of gender to salvation.
Jesus’ adult life seems to consist of his “redeeming sinners” within a world of male domination and male values, presided over by the hard-nosed male patriarch in the sky. In a fascinating way, the film depicts Jesus as entering a world of bitter rivalry and brutality. It’s a harsh and uncompromising world, where all tender feeling has been suppressed if not completely extinguished. Jesus sometimes remarks at various points in the film that he is willing himself to carry through on this mandate to die for man’s sins and to obey the law of the father. The film clearly shows that his adult mission means leaving the world of loving kindness and physical contact, represented by the flashbacks of Mary with her son behind, and sacrificing himself to the authoritarian world of male violence. To me, the film’s narrative is clearly symbolic of a primal, conservative scene. Here, the male child must separate himself from the world of the mother, from females, from love and acceptance of the body.
To embrace the task of his manhood, he must subject himself to the rule of men, which ostensibly represents a realm of order and the transcendent God. What is interesting in this film is how clearly the script and visuals set out that in accepting this role, he in fact submits to an alternative regime in regards to the body. The film gives Christ no intellectual or psychological complexity but indicates that his manly task is to submit to the earthly masters’ realm of inflicting pain and that his strength must consist of maintaining the fortitude to complete this task, under total obedience to the insane demands of the authoritarian male-on-high. Visually, the film presents this man’s suffering as something like a primitive tribal ritual, where the pubescent male is separated from the females, isolated, and then subjected to ordeals of physical pain and mutilation in order symbolically to be reborn into the male realm of pride and autonomy.
In The Passion, women, as exemplified by Mary, are reduced to watching and empathizing from the sidelines and performing acts of tenderness after the fact—like wiping up Jesus’ blood off the tiles of the courtyard after his flogging. Without meaning to, Mel’s movie has perhaps created the strongest argument yet seen for a return to matriarchy and a society where feminine values predominate. I can imagine a young Mel in his childhood perhaps separated from his mother in order to be initiated into the male order of hierarchy, command and control. Perhaps his mother was a longed-for figure, glimpsed at distance, who no longer had a significant role to play. I can imagine she is a figure that in the depths of his mind Mel secretly wishes to return to. For me, these Freudian musings on the religious right and the results of punitive childhood discipline only render the ideology promulgated by The Passion more tragic.
The film enacts the rejection of the feminine, its relegation to the margins as Jesus, the masochistic hero, surrenders to the male order of pain and forbearance. Even the thief who supposedly will join Christ in Paradise proclaims Christ’s innocence and the injustice of His punishment. And that thief is like the other sibling getting punished, contrasting Christ’s situation to his; like a good boy, contrite and tearful and masochistic, he admits that he deserves his sentence and accepts the brutal punishment meted out to him by the authorities. The bad thief is shown raging and mocking and is repaid for his defiance by a crow pecking at his eye. The Father’s response: don't question authority or the righteousness thereof or you'll get another taste of the same medicine. The sibling’s response, that is, the response of the viewer, let’s see the really bad brother get the worst beating. Nothing like that crow eating out the bad thief’s eye, of course, occurs in any of the four Gospels.
Indeed much of what occurs in the film, and some of its most symbolically telling moments, lie outside the Biblical narrative of the “passion.” I find that curious for a film that promotes itself as the most authentic Biblical film ever made. Gibson and his screenwriter apparently feel as free to manipulate Scripture, while claiming absolute fidelity to it, as some of our better-known televangelists have long done for the sake of a good television show. In The Passion these added incidents underline the lesson of stoic, manly submission—with women relegated to the sidelines.
Interestingly Mary is not the only figure at the sidelines. A parallel figure, dressed in black like Mary, also follows along Christ’s path much like Mary does. The character of Mary, usually accompanied by Mary Magdalene, has a narrative counterpart. That figure is linked to her throughout both in terms of visual similarities, narrative structure and placement in the mise-en-scene. The character of Satan watches Christ’s great sacrifice with what appears to be simultaneous hope that Christ will fail at this task and a certain degree of relish at the pain Christ suffers.
Clearly, the most salient feature of this character is its sexual ambiguity. The film presents Satan as an androgyne of no fixed gender. It is hard to tell whether Satan is an effeminate male or a masculine woman. That figure’s depiction thus tellingly represents the fundamentalist “demonic” in microcosm. This enemy incarnate, that is, made flesh, becomes visible to the audience as a creature that refuses proper gender definition, one way or the other. Satan so much mirrors Mary, that in one scene the devil carries a baby, a parallel to the infant Jesus, no doubt signifying the future anti-Christ. And that baby is a hideous hairy child with a deformed face.
Conservative anxiety over sexual roles and possible sexual feelings is palpable here. The visual depiction of Satan, especially as this memorable bad mother and child, clearly delineate fundamentalist ambivalence toward women and its dividing of them between the negative and monstrous mother figure and the positive mother figure, largely sexless and obedient. Historically, interpretations of the Bible could easily find women the weaker vessel, more sensual, less rational, more subject to the blandishments of the demonic, and in turn tempters of men, leading God’s sons to weakness and perdition. The feminine is dangerous. It all started with Eve and the snake (!) and Adam’s fall.
The film’s brief treatment of a campy Herod, wearing eye makeup and an askew black curly wig, typically expresses a male rightist’s sexual anxieties about gay campiness. Herod sees that Jesus has already been flogged and chooses not to crucify Jesus. By implication, as a sissy, Herod fails to fulfill his role, fails to be a real man. His deviant sexuality renders him incapable of acting with authority.
In The Passion no positive depiction of sexuality or of the body is possible. This is not just because the story’s scope can't encompass such a scene but just as much because Mel’s mental world won't allow it. There is no positive life of the body in Mel’s world. The body is a crucible of suffering, or of weakness giving way to temptations—a trial to be endured. I shall return to the primacy of the body in Gibson’s film later in a discussion of splatter films and pornography.
character generated imagery (CGI)
and the supernatural.
To me, the film depicts children in a way symbolically parallel to its treatment of Mary and Satan. Children persecute the betrayer Judas and hound him to his death. Their faces distort into monstrosity. They look like demonic dwarves, hounding Judas into the hills where he will ultimately hang himself. Except for the largely invented scenes of the child Jesus, the film shows no positive representations of children. Given my interpretation of all the physical scourging in the film, I have to wonder if the sudden eruption of these grotesque “devil child” figures subconsciously express the taboo rage that the beaten child feels against his betrayer, and which the adult version of that child cannot face. In this film, I see that kind of rage most clearly channeled into a religiously sanctioned presentation which defuses the rage’s true meaning.
And if one is an adult fundamentalist full of such neurosis and repressed rage, then the film could also be presenting in these strange scenes how Mel and his fundamentalist comrades perceive children, or their dimly perceived understanding of their own children’s rage against them that matches their adult selves’ unacknowledged emotions, that heavy legacy of unjust treatment from their own childhood. The film’s grotesque children, these wild demonic creatures that must be subjugated, their demonic natures tamed—by any means necessary, represent fundamentalist ferocity turned against the body, especially against the child. It is a wildly hallucinatory and ugly world.
Interestingly, the closer Christ on the cross gets to death, the more his body is painted by CGI and the more supernatural events occur, such as the spray of blood coming from his side raining down on a Roman guard, converting the guard. The film strangely has a way of presenting the supernatural, the transcendental, in imagery that is pointedly hallucinatory. Many of the scenes representing the supernatural have a quality of primal unreality. While the flaying of Christ’s body is presented in terms of grotesque hyper-reality, especially the first extended flogging scene, the “spiritual” is lit and staged like a madman’s nightmare. It led me to wonder whether or not deep down Mel personally doubts the reality of the grand supernatural story he is telling. For in this film, the body seems to be all.
A splatter film
The Passion has such an emphasis on blood and the body, it seems to fit well in the tradition of the splatter film, but here in a high brow rendition of this low culture dramatic form. The body became the obsessive focus of a new kind of cinema that emerged in the 1960’s, a new cinema with two divergent manifestations: the splatter film and the porno movie. The appeal of this new cinema lay primarily in its capacity to evoke bodily sensations.
The splatter film can be viewed as just another form of lowbrow and vulgar popular entertainment lacking in any kind of serious dimension. But the truth is the splatter film represents something significant: the collapse of any genuine belief in a transcendent reality beyond the physical existence experienced in the here and now. Splatter films display a morbid, anxious fascination with the vulnerability of the body. They dwell on the fact that if you puncture the body here or rip it there, the consciousness inside it ceases to exist. Splatter films dwell on the moment that the human being is reduced to mere inanimate—and in some cases—completely disorganized matter. This genre functions psychologically as a kind of cinematic Fort/Da game. The chief cause of anxiety gets rehearsed again and again, obsessively hoping for an eventual mastery of the fear that’s engendered by a realization that the body and its functions are all there is.
Over the long course of the history of the arts, a gradual generic split, tied to class, money and cultural divisions, let the high arts emphasize good taste, refinement and intellectual complexity, and the low arts appeal to raw emotionalism, anxiety, fear, and sexual arousal. The vulgar genres gained force and popularity in the twentieth century with declining consensus in faith about the universe and its meaning, and with the growing literacy of the masses. Bourgeois culture and the high art it maintained, with its emphasis on the ethereal and cerebral, was founded on an emphatic denial of the body and its functions. High art sublimates themes about bodily impulses onto a spiritual level, which is then profoundly threatened by the needs and possible degradations of gross matter. When transcendent beliefs no longer could gain overall consensus, that old subordination of genres dealing with physical sensation declined.
The body, in both its sexual aspect and as our intimate, fragile, physical manifestation of life vulnerable to death—especially death of the premature and violent variety—has become the chief object of gore and porno filmmaking, with their admixture of pleasure, dread and ambivalence. In contrast to splatter, the porno film is a constantly reiterated visualization obsessively showing the body as source of pleasure, pleasure comprised of an orgasmic intensity that much of its audience are not (pace Reich: no longer?) capable of. Obviously depictions of sexual pleasure or the delectation of the nude female body are out of bounds for a film of and for the Christian right. Instead we are presented with a naked male body violated and damaged for over two hours.
The Passion may be the ultimate splatter movie. It concentrates obsessively on the rending of Christ’s tender flesh and of his self-willed ability to take it. We see chunks ripped out of his side by the scourge, and his crown of thorns jammed into the flesh above his eye with blood pouring down his face. To me, the film’s emphatic tone on flaying and the hyperactive push given the film by its supporters seem a desperate defense against a layer of subconscious doubt about there being anything above the body and its suffering, something that could enable the regulation of the body’s messy and potentially out-of-control processes.
Salvation from the body, as seen in this film, could only come through the saving grace of absolute submission to external authority, by implication divine male control. The supernatural elements seem so unreal because deep down the film cannot convey that the supernatural is real. All the film can show for certain is the physical self reduced to a bloody mess and hung up like a side of beef. Thus the film’s grim inventory of injury and pain encapsulates the religious right’s hysteria, and perhaps even crisis of faith.
Such a terror and anxiety can become strict believer’s overriding reality. If God does not exist, then the body is all there is and life has no inherent meaning. Belief in a transcendent principle must be maintained by a desperate act of will. The dilemma is there are other people out there who act as if God does not exist, who allow themselves to indulge desires of the flesh that are not countenanced by the traditionally religious, who stray from the codes of personal behavior mandated by the Bible. According to the logic I have traced, aren't these people calling the whole fragile structure of belief into question by their very existence, by their very refusal to conform or submit? Don't they threaten the self-control and equanimity of the faithful just by the simple fact of attempting to live their lives according to their own sense of reality and their own desires?
The need to define us as the Other
Ultimately, the presence of people living another kind of life on the wrong side of the culture war creates a constant anxiety and provocation to religious conservatives, no matter how reasonable and non-confrontational the “deviants’” behavior might be. This is because the mere existence of these people and their refusal to alter their behavior calls the whole fundamentalist cosmology into question. And worse, if the Others become belligerent or refuse to be invisible, then conservative anger is even greater. No matter how much we might want to tolerate the right and let them be—let them have their own films, live and let live—they are not content with that. We might be willing to let them alone, but the same is not true for them. We are a thorn in their side, our existence constantly posing a question that agitates their minds. Reality is most comfortable when it can be assumed and taken for granted. And that can't happen with the wrong people around.
It is not the Jews in the next few years who will be the main focus of the fundamentalist anxiety and rage. It will be the people who most emphatically embody ambiguity and refuse to stay within proscribed boundaries: the sexually different, the homosexual, the experimental, and the sado-masochistic. They do more than threaten to dredge up ambivalent emotions from childhood experiences and repressed desires that can't be accepted at any costs. They threaten an entire worldview. The culture war will encompass all of us, liberals and skeptics and intellectuals—but the hammer will fall most resoundingly on sexually Other.
The Passion ends with no explicit promise of revenge. But revenge is always in the offing in the universe of Mel Gibson’s films. And considering the intensity of demonic imagery and aggression on display here, I can imagine the next film, Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPSE. In this film all the bad people will get what is coming to them in the same graphic and horrendous terms depicted in The Passion of the Christ. Here’s the promo for The Passion 2: Apocalypse: “Last time they put the hurt on the Lamb of God. Now he’s back. And this time it’s payback.” Lines will wrap around the block. It’s a shoo-in.
For those of us who think of ourselves as new wine that does not want to be forced back into old bottles, fundamentalist ideology counters with a demand for a return to a set of shared and obligatory beliefs, behaviors and roles. This desperation to forge social unanimity became especially strong in the wake of the divisive conflicts of the 1960s—with its defiance of authority and established values; and with the defeat in Vietnam and the doubt it cast on the righteousness of the U.S. mission in the world. In the last few decades, many people have felt a sense of malaise and uncertainty, of existential vertigo, which cries out for a container, something to constrain the dizzy spirit and help it right itself. For many Americans the answer to this sense of “borderlessness” has been a return to traditional Christianity and for some, the attendant and rather fanatical insistence that everybody else should return to it with them. But many of us have fought for sexual liberation, for liberation from coercive and authoritarian modes of child-rearing, for freedom to express our sexual difference in terms of object-choice and to freely explore reality on our own terms. We have no inclination to climb back into an old cage.
1. A representative selection of such manuals includes: God, the Rod, and your Child's Bod, Larry Tomzak (Old Tappen NJ 1972); Spanking: Why, When and How, Roy Lessin (1979); What the Bible Says About...Child Training, Richard Fugate (1980); Dare to Disipline (1970) and The Strong-Willed Child (1978) both by James Dobson, founder and head of Focus on the Family. All the above and numerous others are analyzed by Philip Greven in Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (Vintage Books 1992)
2. Greven, Spare the Child.
3. “Passion no. 1 at Box Office,” CNN,
The leader of the church group I surreptitiously saw the film with was equipped with free tickets, glossy pamphlets and discussion guides. You can now purchase "beautifully" reproduced images from The Passion website in multi-packs. Ca-Ching!
4. “The Backlash Passion: A Messianic Meller for our Time,” Richard Goldstein, The Village Voice, February 25-March 2, 2004
6. “A Disciplined, Charging Army,” Francis Fitzgerald, Reporter At Large, The New Yorker, May 18 , 1981, p. 53-141.
7. To study the parallels between the Kulturkampf and today's culture wars I recommend several books that analyze Austrian culture during and after World War I and the decline and fall of the Hapsburg Dynasty: Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Carl E Schorske (Vintage Books 1981); Modernity and the Crisis of Identity: Culture and Identity in Fin-De-Seicle Vienna, Jacques Le Ryder (New York: Continuum 1993); Subject Without Nations—Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity, Stefan Jonsson (Durham: Duke University Press 2001)
Of special relevance is Otto Weininger: Sex, Science and Self in Imperial Vienna by Chandak Sengoopta (University of Chicago Press 2000). Sengoopta analyzes Weininger and his theories of innate bisexuality, female sensuality, and animal-nature with its attendant lack of soul. He applies these theories to Jews and homosexuals as effiminate and degenerated; Weininger was himself a Jew who committed suicide at the age of 23. His ideas had wide currency within the German-speaking world and beyond.
Crises of meaning, gender and identity evolved and grew more intense in the anxiety-ridden and florid inter-war years of Weimar Germany, centered especially in Berlin. See: Before the Deluge: A Portait of Berlin in the 1920's by Otto Friedrich (New York: Harper Perennial 1995); Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity: Film, Literature, and "New Objectivity, Richard W. McCormick (New York: Palgrave 2001); Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History, Klaus Theweliet (University of Minnesota Press 1987); Male Fantasies, volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror, Klaus Theweleit (University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis 1989). Both of Theweliet's books record and examine men’s dreams and fantasies in the years leading up to World War II, particularly of members of the German Freicorps, a right-wing militia group.
Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin by Mel Gordon (Feral House Venice CA 2000) is a profusely illustrated treatment of lesbian and gay cabaret, night clubs and magazines as well as venues and material catering to a wide variety of sexual variations. Also of crucial interest is Lloyd de Mause's The Psychic Life of Nations from which I derive the idea of "psycho-classes." This book is downloadable from the Institute of Psychohistory website.
And finally, in The Gorgon's Gaze: German Cinema, Expressionism and the Image of Horror (Cambridge University Press UK 1991), Paul Coates distills all of the cultural currents noted above and examines their depiction in the form and iconography of German Expressionist Cinema.
8. Greven, Spare the Child. See also Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and its Effects on Children, Murray A. Straus and Denise A. Donnely (NY Transaction Publishers 2001). The work of Alice Miller is of signal importance: see The Drama of the Gifted Child (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, revised and updated, 1998); For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Childhood and the Roots of Violence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1983); and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998). Child Abuse Trauma: Theory and Treatment of the Lasting Effects, John Briere (Sage 1992); Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Degradation by Leonard Shengold (Ballantine Books 1991).
Greven provides a list of studies, articles and books detailing the psychological consequences of corporeal punishment too numerous to list here (p. 235-247). Straus and Donnely's book is more recent and provides an equally abundant wealth of evidence of the negative effects of corporeal punishment and its effects on later personality development, adolescent and adult behavior.
9. Dobson is quoted to this effect in Greven. Similar views are expressed by Christian child rearing expert Larry Christenson in the same section of the same chapter as Dobson (Rationales: Breaking Wills)
10. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, Kenneth Silverman (Harper and Row 1984); A Portrait of Isaac Newton, Frank E. Manuel (Belknap Press of Harvard University 1968); George Whitfield: Wayfaring Witness, Stuart C. Henry (Nashville TN: Abingdon Press 1957); Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, Erik H. Erickson (W.W. Norton & Co. 1958); My Father: An Intimate Portrait of Dwight Moody, Paul Moody (Little Brown and Company, 1938).
11. On splatter movies, Breaking the Last Taboo: A Critical Survey of the Wildly Demented Sub-Genre of the Horror Film that is Changing the Face of Film Realism Forever (Fanataco Enterprises 1981); A Taste For Blood: The Films of Herschel Gordon Lewis, Christopher Wayne Curry (UK: Creation Books, 1999)
On the porno movie, interesting histories and critical assessments include Babylon Blue: An Illustrated History of Adult Cinema, David Flint (UK: Creation Books 1998); Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Pleasure in America, Laura Kipnis (Durham NC: Duke University Press 1999)
On the importance of the body in recent film, both underground and mainstream, see Bad Girls, Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture, Laura S. Kauffman (University of California Press 1998).
Feminist performance artists have also made an extreme emphasis on the (female) body the core of their aesthetic but with a radically different intent, which includes the transgressive undermining of the symbolic order and with it the complex of ideas associated with artistic production, high versus low culture etc. The female body confronts the spectator with the stark reality of female physicality itself. Excellent studies include The Explicit Body in Performance, Rebecca Schneider (Routledge 1997) and Body Art: Performing the Subject, Amelia Jones (University of Minnesota Press 1998).
The work of Annie Sprinkle draws an interesting line between pornography and performance art. For an outline of her career read the very entertaining Post-porn Modernist: My Twenty-five Years as a Multi-Media Whore (San Francisco: Clies Press 1998).
The work of the German film director Jorg Buttgereit combines iconography from both pornography and splatter cinema as well as avant-garde film practice in his notorious Nekromantik films and most successfully realized in Schramm (1991). These films are incisively analyzed by David Kerekes in his Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit (Head Press: Great Britain 1994).
The work of the contemporary ultra-low budget shot-on-video director Eric Stanze also combines graphic violence and sexuality in such films as I Spit on Your Corpse, I Piss on Your Grave; Scrapbook; and China White Serpentine. As different as the genres and art practices listed above are they all share an intensive focus on the visceral experience of the embodied human being. What is interesting about Gibson's film is how it is simultaneously just as emphatic in its concentration on bodily experience and yet denies this primacy by reference to the spiritual and supernatural; the spirituality of the film seems spurious—unreal and incredible—considering the film's relentless imagery and tone.
I would like to thank Lloyd de Mause and Michael Christopher for encouraging and seconding my initial observations and interest in the issues presented by this film. Thanks as well to Charles B. Strozier and Professor Steven Shaviro of the University of Washington for offering useful comments on the first draft.
The S & M illustration in the essay is from Mel Gordon's Voluptuous Panic, and is used with the kind permission of Mel Gordon and Adam Parfrey, editor Feral House books.
My greatest gratitude goes to Julia Lesage, whose editing, indeed contributions to this essay are immeasurable, as are her patience and forbearance. She truly has my heartfelt admiration.