Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Every review I've read and heard about Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ centers on its nearly unspeakable violence, which goes on--quite literally, some reports have it--ad nauseum. If Christ was truly paying for the sins of all humanity for all time, the logic goes, his suffering would have to be extreme. But I wonder if the typical Passion viewer will intellectualize it that far.

I forget where I read it, but a writer noted recently that pornography acts like a drug--once you take it, you can no longer use your intellect to control how it affects you. Violence, it occurs to me, can have a similar effect. Even though we'd rather not admit it, we have an uncontrollable curiosity about how much cruelty humans can inflict, and how much some people can stand.

I'm a dedicated viewer of Fox's 24, a series that has taken televised violence to new heights. Every time Fox precedes an episode with a graphic violence warning, I have two simultaneous reactions--"Uh oh, they're going to show something awful," and "Ooh, I wonder what it's going to be?" My wife often turns away from whatever it is. I watch because I want to know what happens--but I sometimes feel afterward like I've seen something I shouldn't. Seeing things you shouldn't can provide an enticing sizzle, like listening to your buttoned-up neighbors make love through the apartment wall. But I'm talking here about something darker, something that diminishes one's humanity by having participated in it, if only by watching.

As a former teenage boy, I can remember the typical teenage-boy reaction to violence. When we saw a car blowing up in a movie, or an animal run over on the highway, we'd often say it was really cool, or we'd laugh--and never mind the pain and suffering that might have occurred as a result of the violent event. You can argue that laughter inspired by violence has nervous roots, but you can also argue that it's just an expression of pleasure--that we enjoy watching things get blown up or run over, or worse. So maybe some people will go to The Passion of the Christ just to witness the violence. The message Gibson intended the film and its violence to carry will zoom straight over their heads. That the dialogue is mostly in Latin and Aramaic won't matter a bit, because the language of violence is universal.

Others who see the film will excuse the violence as necessary to the film's message. It may increase their appreciation for Christ's sacrifice, which was certainly Gibson's goal. But given the unintended consequences of viewing extreme violence, it could have a desensitizing effect, too--the next time they witness a violent act either on-screen or in real life, it may not be so bad because they will have seen worse.

In the end, most people watch movies because they want to enjoy the experience. "Enjoyment" won't mean the same thing every time--I enjoyed Cold Mountain in a way entirely different from the way I enjoyed Animal House the last time I saw it. But I can't imagine finding any sort of "enjoyment" in The Passion of the Christ beyond an involuntary, almost prurient interest in its violence that makes me ashamed of myself. So I'll skip it.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?