March 30, 2004

Movie Review: 'Thirteen'

Some people say that no one stage in life is more difficult to go through than any other, that every stage has its own unique, yet equally difficult trials. The movie Thirteen argues to the contrary, powerfully making the case that nothing is tougher than being a teenager—or being the parent of one.

Thirteen chronicles a four-month period in the life of Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), an angry, moody, and altogether confused thirteen-year-old girl. At the beginning of the film, Tracy’s problems don’t seem all that extraordinary—she is snubbed by the cool girls at school, overlooked by the cute boys. Things rapidly worsen, however, partly due to the influence of Evie (Nikki Reed), a manipulating and worldly-wise girl who Tracy becomes friends with. Before long, Tracy is out of control, abusing drugs, engaging in promiscuous relationships, and rebelling against all authority. Although it soon becomes clear that she is self-destructing, nobody, including Tracy’s well-intentioned mom (Holly Hunter), seems able to help her.

The intensity and tumultuousness of the film is beautifully complemented by its cinematography. Shot with unsteady, at times jerky, hand-held cameras, the film has an erratic, unstable feeling to it, a feeling that perfectly mirrors the journey and internal state of its main character. The soundtrack, consisting largely of heavy metal songs, also helps create an atmosphere of intensity.

The chief strength of the film, however, is Evan Rachel Wood’s portrayal of this angry, out-of-control thirteen-year-old. Some of the movie’s best scenes involve her blowing up at her mother, often going totally ballistic for no apparent reason. These scenes are powerful, scary, and all too real. No, not all teenagers act like this, but many do (I sure know I did)—and Wood acts out her character’s intensity and irrationality with mere perfection.

This film is so dark and so heavy that, at times, it seems impossible for it to end well. Yet, its ending is redemptive (using the word “happy” seems far too flippant for a film like this). In the end, we learn that the only thing that can save Tracy is the persistent, tireless love of her mother. Like so many teenagers’ parents, Holly Hunter’s character is driven to the end of her rope and we often wonder how much more abuse from her daughter she can take. Yet, through everything, she never stops caring, never gives up.

As the closing credits begin to roll, it becomes clear that Thirteen is a film for adults. This is a film meant to remind adults just how difficult and lonely and confusing being a teenager can be. And this is a film meant to show adults that what their children need most from them is not quick answers, nor material possessions, nor any of the many all-too-easy solutions that our society champions, but patience and love—lots of patience and lots of love.

In Defense of 'The Passion', Part II

The other day, I wrote a blog in which I defended The Passion of the Christ against some artistic criticisms that have been raised against it. In his blog today, Ray (aka michaelray) takes issue with my argument and claims that, as a film, the movie "falls short." I don’t like arguing for the sake of arguing, but I can’t help but think that my friend is completely wrong. So today, I’d like to respond to the main points of his argument.

Ray begins by writing that The Passion is not a "complete film" and he defines a complete film as one that has "a strong narrative arc and developed characters." He further writes that The Passion "fails to develop any of the characters in the movie (including Jesus) and the plot structure fails to create any real interest in the events." I have three responses to these comments.

First, I disagree that the movie fails to develop Jesus’ character. I think it superbly delves into his personality, showing us his kindness, his sense of purpose, his intensity, his frailty. Second, I think the movie excels at developing such secondary characters as Mary and Simon of Cyrene. And, by the way, why does it even matter if the movie fails to develop its secondary characters? This is The Passion of THE CHRIST, not The Adventures of Jesus and His Twelve Disciples, not The Story of Jesus and the Men Who Killed Him.

Third, I have no idea what Ray means by "strong narrative arc." I also don’t know what he means when he writes that "the plot structure fails to create any real interest in the events." I thought that the subject matter of the story was interesting and that the story was presented in an interesting manner. I know that some critics complain that the focus of The Passion is too narrow, only covering one event in Christ’s life. But if we are to criticize The Passion for being too narrow, then we must also criticize some of our greatest stories. For instance, James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses takes place in only a day and covers very few external events. Likewise, many of our best films—e.g., Leaving Las Vegas and Lost in Translation­—are not event-driven.

Ray also argues that, while Gibson intended for the film to "show the humanity of Christ," the film instead "presents Jesus in a heroic Braveheart style, a Jesus who is a superhuman able to stand up to any torture or pain." I don’t see how the film fails to adequately portray Christ’s humanity. The film shows Jesus filled with tremendous anxiety before his arrest, pleading that, if possible, his Father prevent his impending death. It shows Jesus grimacing with pain during his flogging. It shows Jesus so weak after his beatings that he needs someone to help him carry his cross. It even shows Jesus briefly questioning God, as, on the cross, he asks why his Father has forsaken him. Would Ray have been happier if Jesus would have cursed God? After all, that’s what many humans in that situation would have done. Would Ray have been happier if Jesus would have bled to death when the Romans were flogging him? That, too, might have made him more human-like, even though it didn’t really happen that way.

Ray further writes that "no human would survive the graphic flogging presented in the movie—or at least could be conscious and standing up minutes later." On what basis does Ray make this claim? Has he witnessed such a torture? Does he have any scientific backing for this claim? We know that the Romans were barbaric and the Gospels tell us that Jesus was punished exceedingly. Does he think that the Gospels are lying?

Ray goes on to write that The Passion is "not very interesting drama (who wants to watch an entire plot of a person passively accepting punishment except those who are followers of Jesus?)." First, even if no non-Christian enjoyed watching The Passion, I fail to see why this makes it bad drama. A work of art's success or failure is not measured by the way its partakers react to it. For instance, most white men I know didn’t enjoy reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but this doesn’t make it a bad book. Second, on what basis does he claim that only Christians enjoy watching the movie? Roger Ebert, for one, is not what you’d call an orthodox Christian, but he thoroughly appreciated the film.

Ray concludes his blog by asking, "Can we honestly say this would be interesting to us if we were watching someone else besides Christ?" The answer to this question, of course, is no. The Passion would not be interesting if its central character were someone other than Jesus. But so what? I fail to see the argument here. Romeo and Juliet would not be interesting if it were about two old people falling in love. The Grand Canyon would not be beautiful if it were filled with cow dung. But so what? It is irrelevant whether something wouldn’t be interesting or beautiful if it were different than it is.

In conclusion, I think The Passion of the Christ is a great film. It is interesting (I don’t know anyone who was bored by it), beautiful (musically, visually, etc.), and transcendent (having already touched the lives of many who have seen it). Moreover, it achieves all of its particular intentions, giving us a detailed, realistic, and spiritually informed portrayal of Jesus’ last hours. Therefore, I think it succeeds, not only as a religious statement, but also as a movie and work of art.

(By the way, I want to thank Ray for sharing his thoughts on this matter and for having the courage to say things that he knows are unpopular. He’s a true seeker of truth, and I love him dearly—even when we disagree!)

March 28, 2004

In Defense of 'The Passion of the Christ'

I finally got around to seeing The Passion of the Christ. Simply put, I think the movie is a masterpiece, excellent in both its message and presentation. After seeing the film, I can now say that I completely disagree with every criticism that I’ve heard lodged against it.

Before looking at these criticisms and explaining why I think they’re wrong, I need to lay out what I believe to be an important principle we should use when critiquing movies: We should evaluate movies according to their intentions. For example, we shouldn’t condemn a drama for not being funny, for its intention was never to be funny. Conversely, we shouldn’t condemn a slapstick comedy for not having a serious message, because it never intended to have one. So, when judging The Passion of the Christ, we must be careful to only judge it by the standards that it intends to be judged by.

So what are the intentions of The Passion of the Christ? In creating this movie, Mel Gibson’s goal was to take a detailed, realistic, and spiritually informed look at one of the most important series of events in human history: the arrest, trial, beating, and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. As Gibson says, “I want to show the humanity of Christ as well as the divine aspect. It's a rendering that for me is very realistic and as close as possible to what I perceive the truth to be.” With this in mind, let’s now look at some of the criticisms that have been made of the movie.

Criticism #1: The film is too violent. Those who know a thing or two about history know that the Roman world was a violent culture and that crucifixion was an unspeakably barbaric form of execution. Given these facts, it follows that The Passion of the Christ portrays Jesus’ torture and crucifixion very realistically. Therefore, one who criticizes the film for being too violent is criticizing the film for doing the very thing that it intends to do. If such critics don’t want to watch a movie that gives a realistic portrayal of Jesus’ torture and death, that’s their prerogative, but it’s not fair to criticize the movie for these reasons.

Criticism #2: The film has a weak plot. Some critics complain that the story is too narrow, only focusing on the Passion and failing to give us enough flashbacks of Jesus’ ministry. But let’s remember, this is The PASSION of the Christ, not The Galilean Ministry of Jesus, not The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Again, we shouldn’t criticize a movie for not doing what it never intended to do. Furthermore, given its infinite importance, I don’t see how a film that spends a mere two hours focusing on Christ’s Passion can be too narrow.

Criticism #3: The film assumes a certain background knowledge from viewers. Some complain that those unfamiliar with the Gospels will have trouble following certain parts of the movie. But why is it the film’s fault that certain viewers didn’t pay attention during Sunday school? And what’s wrong with a film making assumptions in the first place? Many films that are universally praised assume that their viewers have certain background knowledge. For example, The Hours assumes that readers know something about Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, but I don’t remember many critics denouncing the movie for making these assumptions. And by the way, I actually don’ t think that much background knowledge is essential for understanding the gist of The Passion. Even viewers who don’t know much about the Gospels shouldn’t have trouble grasping the general outline and most fundamental parts of the story.

Criticism #4: The film lacks character development.
Some complain that we don’t get to know many of the story’s secondary characters very well. But this criticism, too, is invalid. This is not The Life of Simon Peter or The Mary Magdalene Story; this is (do I need to say it again?) The Passion of THE CHRIST. Others complain that Jim Caviezel struggles to bring Jesus to life, that he’s often wooden and unrealistic. I don’t have much to say about these critics other than I wonder if they saw the same film that I did; I think Caviezel gives a superb, heartfelt performance.

In summary, we should judge a movie according to how well it accomplishes that which it intends to accomplish. And Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ does a remarkable job achieving all of its goals, giving us a realistic and spiritually profound portrayal of the last hours of Jesus’ life.

March 17, 2004

'The Passion' as a Work of Art

The Affective Fallacy, a common term in the world of literary scholarship, claims that it is erroneous to judge a work of art based on the affects it has on its partakers. In other words, this fallacy states that we should evaluate a work of art independently of its impact on us. While I think there is some merit to this fallacy, I also think that a good indicator that a work of art is great is that it generally has a profound impact on those who experience it (or at least those who experience it and understand it). Conversely, a sure sign of a mediocre work of art is that it seldom has such an impact.

Now I’ll concede that there are times when mediocre works of art have profoundly impacted people and when great works have cured people of insomnia. Perhaps there was someone whose life was forever changed after looking at one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. And, on the other hand, I’m sure there are people who have looked at a Rembrandt painting and haven’t been touched in the slightest.

But, generally speaking, we can tell that a work of art is great if it significantly changes people’s lives. Hamlet, the poems of John Donne, Anna Karenina, Dubliners—these are all great works of art and one proof of this is that countless men and women through the years have been transformed by them. On the other hand, the novels of John Irving are decent at best and one proof is that you’ll be hard pressed to find someone whose life was changed after reading any of them.

The fact that The Passion of the Christ is affecting so many people so profoundly seems to be evidence that it is great, not just religiously, but also artistically. (That the movie is having such a huge impact is now undeniable. For example, when I saw it the other night, many, many people in the theater were teary-eyed when it was over; just last week, the movie so strongly convicted one viewer of his sin that, after watching it, he actually confessed to police that he had murdered his ex-girlfriend; and I can personally testify that the movie has been on my mind ever since I saw it and has helped deepen my love and admiration for Christ.)

Some might be tempted to entirely attribute the movie’s impact to its message, but such an attempt fails. If the movie’s impact was solely being caused by its message, then previous Jesus movies would have had equally powerful impacts (although certainly not on as large of a scale). But they have not. This movie is affecting people more deeply, much more deeply, than the others. The reason for all this, I can’t help but think, is that it is artistically superior.

Great art affects people. Bad art, even when its message is profound, seldom does.