OpEd Columns

This celluloid experience was far too real for his taste (Indianapolis Star 3/13/04)

Movies are not reality,
On my way to the cinema last week, I drove by a billboard size neon sign outside the local heating and air conditioning company. “The Passion of The Christ….You Must See It.” Its red bulbs flashed the message endlessly into the darkness.
Movies are not reality.
The afternoon that The Passion opened in cinemas nationwide, a college student of mine raced into class a few minutes late, exclaiming she just got back from seeing the film. “It was amazing,” she said. “It was so real. You have to see it.”
Movies are not reality.
My wife and I put our two toddlers to bed, got our babysitter situated, then headed off to the 9:20 pm screening of The Passion. We squeezed into the cinema with sixty seconds to spare, searching for two seats before the lights faded to black. I scanned the top of the theater. A trio of 10-to-12 year olds caught my eye, waiting anxiously in their cushy high back seats.
The place was packed. As a last resort, I headed for the front row where nothing but a few footsteps stood between me and a 50-foot screen, backed with some serious woofers and tweeters. Speakers loud enough to keep the four year-old boy to my left awake three hours past his bedtime.
I was immersed in a celluloid experience. One I won’t soon forget.
The thousands of silver halide film grains danced in front of me, forming the enormous close up images of actors playing the roles of the famous Biblical story, retold by Aussie action hero-turned-director Mel Gibson.
This was not reality. It was filmmaking on the screen and movie watching in the theater…and disturbing beyond belief.
Enough has been written about the film. No need to reiterate the theology. But the experience of watching two hours of fake flogging, bludgeoning, and torture drenched by gallons of red corn syrup- done in the name of historical accuracy- was the angriest 120 movie-going minutes of my life.
Trying to stomach a ten-minute scene where Roman goons unleash a barrage of barbaric tools on the ripped up skin of Jesus, I could only look to the side and wonder how those sound effects were created. Were they created using some advanced digital audio software, or was it the work of a talented sound effects artist slapping a bamboo strip on wet pavement?
This wasn’t suffering. It was a pay-per-view professional wrestling match taken way, way over the top. A mutilation in overblown close-ups and Dolby THX surround sound. To defend such an onslaught with historical documentation of Roman brutality dismisses the entire process of filmmaking. As if there was no other artistic way to portray that violence.
Nothing in The Passion of The Christ is realistic. Nothing in any motion picture is realistic. Filmmaking is an art form which, in the typical Hollywood narrative, creates illusion. Defined in the American Heritage Dictionary, illusion is the “erroneous perception of reality.”
The beauty of quality filmmaking is the ability of the director to suggest a world outside the film frame and outside our own reality that we the viewers allow ourselves to be sucked into for a couple hours. It is in every sense, an imaginary world, filled with 50-foot close ups of gorgeously lit actors, instantaneous jumps in space and time, and fully scored orchestral accompaniments.
Motion pictures are surreal. Not real. My experience of watching The Passion was too real.
Why the rules of pornography in the US apply only to sexual imagery and not to extreme violence is beyond me. This film is beyond NC-17.
It was a disgusting display of violent excess that I worry will have damaging effects on many young people for years to come. Young people who may have been part of a church group sold advance tickets to the show by the distributor’s aggressive marketing team, or young people tagging along with their curious but careless parents who missed the “R” rating on the bottom of the movie ad.
I did get a lump in my throat once during the film…watching that toddler to my left absorb with eyes wide open, the on-screen simulated pummeling of a human being beyond recognition.
That was the sad reality I experienced.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell

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