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Monday, April 12, 2004
Sunday Evening, Bathroom
The problem with critiques of The Passion of the Christ that talk about it being basically a snuff film or an S&M sex film or a grindhouse horror flick because of the just undeniably gratuitous violence in there is that they usually say this like it's a criticism, whereas if these sorts of violent images were used in a film that wasn't about Jesus And The Jews That Killed Him, at least 50% (but by no means all) of those same critics would be either praising the auteur's bold vision and bravery to shock the bourgeois audience, or fiercely defending his right to expression in the face of the moralists who might seek to censor them. And hell, most critics have taken some sort of weird oath to champion grindhouse horror flicks whenever they can. But here, all of a sudden it's a bad thing.
But the problem with all this is really with the, er, target audience. The contention is made that you really can't understand what TPOTC is trying to do unless you're a believer. While I used to think this was a sort of lazy out, now I both agree and think it can be a valuable lesson in tolerance for Christians. They're right: the universally recognizable sight of physical violence is occurring in a very specific context, which is meant to be received by a very specific subculture of people who share roughly the same set of beliefs. If you don't share those beliefs, you can't understand how the violence is, in fact, not gratuitous at all, but profoundly meaningful. There's a real point if you come from the right culture.
The thing is, that's the exact same argument made in defense of all sorts of progressive art, although it's a bit less defensive and a bit more condescending in that it simply assumes that everyone should think the way the target audience does, not that people legitimately hold different views on the significance of certain symbolic acts of violence or transgression. OK, so the violence in TPOTC isn't gratuitous if you believe that it helps us appreciate Christ's love for mankind. But by the same coin, the sight of two people having sex isn't offensive or degrading if you believe sex is a natural, beautiful act rather than a degrading, sinful one. Robert Mapplethorpe's photography is valid art if you believe that homosexuality is OK and that homophobia needs to be challenged. The depiction of witchcraft in Harry Potter isn't a problem if you think paganism is OK and/or that magic is kinda cool. Divine eating dog shit isn't offensive if you believe in individual self-expression and challenging established morality, or if you have some weird dog-shit-eating-fetish or something. Madonna humping a bed isn't a problem if you think Madonna is hot. And so forth.
So it really could be, ideally, a lesson in tolerance. The valid way Xtians are defending TPOTC can just as easily be applied to the most loathed bit of liberal art. Of course, we'll all have to drop our art-under-oppression fantasies (Gibson's "I'm being persecuted!" weirdly reminiscent of "Help, help, I'm being oppressed!"), but it would be nice, wouldn't it?