Monday, July 31, 2006

In Vino Veritas?

I’ve always liked Mel Gibson and enjoyed his films, but starting back around the time of Braveheart or so, it seemed as if a dark streak evocative of personal turmoil within his own personality seemed to become more and more visible as a feature in his films.

The movie The Passion of the Christ was a film that I had awaited with great anticipation. The Stations of the Cross are my favorite Lenten Devotion. For me, one of the highlights of the liturgical year is the reading of the Passion narratives. Not only did I want to see it for my own faith and edification, but I felt that Gibson was being unfairly smeared and attacked by tin-eared critics and left-wing theologians who hadn’t even seen the film yet. I was resentful of the attacks being made on Gibson and the film by critics such as Frank Rich, Paula Fredriksen, Abe Foxman and the ADL, and Eugene Fisher.

I saw the film with one of my closest friends and his wife one night shortly after it opened. While there was much in the movie that I thought was well done and impressive, there were also some overtones in it that I found disturbing, especially in its obsessive focus on blood and on the demonic… Particularly with demonic visions with no supporting references in the scriptures. It was hard for the three of us to speak after the numbing experience of seeing the film. The silence over dinner was a bit awkward and embarrassing. I think that the film was not quite what each of us had expected. At least, speaking for myself, I’d say that his “vision” of the events of the passion story didn’t square up too well with mine.

As I wrote on the Friar’s blog, regarding my take on the film:

As for The Passion, I thought it was a fair-to-good movie that could have been a great movie, but missed the mark. I wouldn't go as far as to say that it was anti-semitic, but it went right up to the very edge. It darned near was. I thought the Jesus and Mary characters were wonderfully done, but I thought the brutality was over the top (and the Stations of the Cross happens to be my favorite devotion). Gibson seems to have a blood and brutality fetish that says more about him and his own demons than it does about Christ. It was a movie that I really wanted to like, but it left me quiet and very unsettled and troubled...

As everyone probably knows, Gibson was recently arrested for DUI in Malibu. The arresting officers reported that he had gone off on an anti-semitic rant, a rant that he has not denied and that he has apologized for profusely.

A Los Angeles Sheriff's Department report states that when Gibson was arrested early Friday morning for speeding with a .12 blood alcohol level, the 50-year-old actor lashed out at "f--ing Jews" and said that "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Gibson had asked a sheriff's deputy, "Are you a Jew?"

After the story broke on Saturday, Gibson issued a statement apologizing for his behavior and for having "said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable," but none of those sentiments seem all that detached from the views of the actor's father.

A couple of points… It’s a good thing that he has apologized, and those who claim to apologize in sincerity should be given the opportunity to be heard out. Experience has shown me however, that being under the influence of alcohol does not so much induce anyone to say things that they don’t believe as much as it induces them to say things that they hold, but would not come right out and say otherwise. The other point is that although it is unfair to visit the sins of the father upon the son, Gibson’s father and his views do seem to have a powerful hold over Mel, and the son does seem reluctant to judge the sins of the father…

Hutton Gibson, 87, is a leading proponent of what is called Catholic traditionalism, a canon that rejects the changes to Catholicism made during the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, which the elder Gibson once called ''a Masonic plot backed by the Jews.''

Hutton Gibson is also outspoken in his views that the Holocaust never happened, or at least not to the degree that historians maintain...

In one radio interview in 2004, Hutton Gibson said that "most of " what historians say about the Holocaust is "fiction." He claimed that 6 million Jews weren't killed during World War II. Rather, he said, they moved…

He said concentration camps were merely "work camps." Holocaust museums, he said, are "just a gimmick to collect money."

For Jews, he said, "it's all about control. They're after one world religion and one world government. That's why they've attacked the Catholic Church so strongly, to ultimately take control over it by their doctrine." He added that "to a Jew a Christian commits idolatry every time he looks at a crucifix and says a prayer. You know they're in control and they're going to get in control the way things are going. Because they get all of our people."

His son, he said, was happy about the controversy over "The Passion of the Christ." "Mel says he absolutely couldn't buy PR like this," Hutton Gibson said. He thanked the Anti Defamation League for ensuring that "everybody knows the line now: 'Let the blood be upon us and our children.'"

Whether Mel holds these views or not, who knows... I am no angel myself. I’m not here to attack Mel Gibson personally. See the price I paid for my own stupid and careless anti-semitic comments in the lengthy post below. What I am sick and tired of, however, is to see remarks like those of Hutton Gibson appearing with greater frequency on the web by a subset of self-described Catholic “traditionalists” who try to pass this garbage off as orthodoxy. This stuff makes me ill and it is a disgrace to our faith when someone tries to pass it off as Catholic “Truth”. I hate seeing petty bigotry masquerading as faith.

As for Gibson, I pray for him. Why he suffers so, I cannot know. It seems that he has a good wife and children, and has had nothing but success in his career. Who can say what causes us to suffer? I hope he can conquer whatever it is that torments him.

Paula Fredriksen had a long running battle going on with Mel Gibson over the Passion film. Sure to evoke strong emotions on either side, is her article on the film entitled The Pain Principle.

I think she was wounded in the fray too. The concluding paragraph, which explains much of her public silence over the last few years:

Finally, Gibson and his minions, I must note with gratitude, have certainly educated me. The hateful emails that I and my colleagues have received, the websites that this movie has spawned, and the angry displays of muscular piety prompted by this phase in the American culture wars have left me humbled and remorseful. With what conviction can I remain amazed by the literalism, the anger, and the defining power of hate in Islamic fundamentalism? With much less excuse, we have plenty of our own home-grown varieties right here.


Paula said...

Mel Gibson has artistic talent indeed. The trouble with him in my opinion is that his talent is the prisoner of a narrow mind (the result of his father´s early influence).
I read one of Mel´s old interviews recently. He was filmimg the Passions by that time. What he said was ridiculous: that his wife will not go to Heaven despite her being almost a saint, because Rome says that Episcopalians do not make it to Heaven.
At some point in his youth he was pretty wild. I speculate that he tried to revolte against his background (father and family education) but he did not knew really which way to go, so he simply went back to the cage. From here the dark streak of his movies.

Paula said...

P.S: Mel may be an anti-semit, but I never saw his Passion movie as such. I saw a bunch of cruel people (the sort that abounds in history) doing their best to crucify Christ. The fact that they were Jewish had (for me) no significance. It just did happen to be Jews. They could have been anything else. People are people everywhere and in all times. And cruelty was/is a constant in human history, regardless the place. For me all these discussions around the anti-semitism of the movie make no sense.

crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

I've been a fan of Mel's movies since the Mad Max days. I know people see a streak of brutality in his movies, but they are ignoring many of them which were not violent or were respectably violent ... Tim, the Man Without a Face, Forever Young, Maverick, Hamlet, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, etc.

I thought The Passion of the Christ had some flaws, but overall was a very good movie.

I know he's not a perfect person ... if some of what I've read is true, he's anti-feminist, homophobic ... I don't know about the anti-semitism ... but I can't help the feeling that he is basically a good person who has some problems. That describes me too (I hope :-)

Jeff said...

POSTSCRIPT: Gibson asks for help from the community he offended

That’s the right thing for him to do. What more can anyone ask him to do at this point?

Hi Paula,

I think you’re right. He probably is feeling some guilt and anguish over his youthful excesses, but almost like a Martin Luther, he doesn’t seem to feel like he can be, or should be, forgiven for them. Even if God has forgiven him, he can’t seem to forgive himself.

As for whether his film was anti-semitic, like I said before, I considered it borderline. I suspect that before he put in some edits after the various objections came up, it probably did cross over the line. After seeing the film, I do think that the controversy was more than a tempest in a teapot. Judging by his recent remarks, perhaps it is true that some of these scholars were able to read between the lines and see where he was coming from. Here is a critique written by Mahlon Smith on the film and how it may be construed as anti-semitic, and not quite as faithful to the Gospel accounts as Gibson claimed. Of course, we can look at the source (Westar/Jesus Seminar) and decide how much credibility to offer it, but I do think that Smith brings up some good points worth considering. At the end of the article there are various links on the movie categorized by denomination and/or point-of-view.

Hi Crystal,

I’ve been a fan of Gibson’s too, although I’ve always considered him more of a face than a strong actor. Physical pain is what he has always portrayed best. I thought that one of his best recent movies was Signs, where interestingly, he played a married priest struggling with a loss of faith.

Like I said, I’m not trying to trash him. After I posted this last night, I noticed that a slew of other blogs went after him with the same exact title (In Vino Veritas), and some were really ripping into him viciously.

I really hope he can work through this. In fact, if he’s sincere, this may turn out to be the best thing that’s happened to him in a long time.

crystal said...

Jeff, I liked Signs too - forgot that one. Maybe he's been often cast in parts that are made for a handsome man, the way some women are type cast for their looks, but I think he's also a solid actor ... his Hamlet was pretty good :-)

About the anti-semiticism of the Passion, I posted (some time ago) an article that also talks about that and how the gospels themselves might seem anti-semitic ... Are the Gospel Passion Accounts
by by Dennis Hamm, S.J. - Creighton University

and also, here's a review of the Passion by Prof Mark Goodacre of the NT Gateway, who found it to be pretty good ... NT Gateway Weblog

Jeff said...


Good article by Dennis Hamm...

I like and respect Mark Goodacre, and although I didn't see the film quite the same way he did, he brings up a spectacular point - Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar is guilty of a least least everything that Gibson's movie has been accused of and more so, such as making the Sanhedrin and High Priests out to be craven, murderous villains threatening to riot unless Pilate let them have their way, and of exonerating Pilate completely, as if Pilate (who we know from history was a cruel and crucifying administrator) had to be forced against every fiber in his will to crucify Jesus, but there has been no outcry against it, even in recent revivals.

Sandalstraps said...

Excellent post. I haven't seen the Passion of the Christ, because to me it looked more like a snuff film than an act of devotion. But many people that I know and admire liked it a great deal, so who am I to judge.

Similarly, I can't judge whether or not someone is anti-Semetic, though I have to say that Christianity has historically been anti-Semetic, and is quite possibly the root of the world's anti-Semetism. So it shouldn't suprise us if we find that each of us have a latent anti-Semitism which comes out from time to time. As the early Christians broke off from their fellow Jews in the first century, there was a great deal of resentment and animosity on both sides. But, eventually the Christians "won" that fight, establishing themselves as not only not a threat to the Roman Empire, but even by the time of Constatine as the means by which the Empire could be held together.

Our Jewish borthers and sisters did not fare so well in their clash with the Romans, and I must admit that we took advantage of that.

But that's not why I'm writing this comment. I'm writing this comment because at the end of your post you wondered why Mel Gibson seems to suffer so much. He seems to have it all, and yet his life is a violent physical and spiritual conflict, seen in terms of good and evil.

Simply put, Gibson is an alcoholic, and that alone is reason for the suffering which invariably comes with living a life of struglle against his own nature. I have a family member, deeply religious and a very good person, who is a recovering alcoholic. Every day he must wrestle with the demons which drive him to self-destructive drinking. Even though he's been sober for years now, there are moments when his life is nothing but a struggle against the bottle.

I suspect this is the source of Gibson's suffering. Alcoholism is a disease, and a disease which usually precedes even the first drink. Something in his brain has gone "wrong," and he started drinking to self-medicate. He realized that his drinking and drug use were self-destructive, and has sought help. He's once again in rehab, having painfully to admit that the habit that he had convinced us all he had quit has come back as strong as ever.

We don't need to look for anything wrong with the externals of his life to see the source of his pain, which he so maginificently brings to the screen.

Anyway, good post. Thanks for writing it.

Jeff said...

Hi Chris,

You know something, I think you're probably right about the alcoholism. At the very least, that theory is as good as any that anyone besides Gibson himself could offer. Good analysis. In fact, it is so obvious and commonsensical, I'm not surprised that I didn't think of it...

My prayers go out to your family member. I've had it in my family too, and it was hard on everyone involved.

Thanks very much for coming by. I appreciate it. On occasion I've stopped by your blog and very much enjoyed your exegetical skills and scholarship. :-)