the impressiveness of truth and the dullness of passion
Saturday, March 31 2007
This evening I watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and it made me understand why it has made a hero of the former should-be president. Knowing what we now know about our petulant, willfully-ignorant, cartoon character of a president, Gore comes across as so refreshingly intelligent, inquisitive, and genuinely concerned. Unlike with most politicians, one doesn't get the sense that a focus group or a viciously-selfish desire for world hegemony lies at the heart of his motivations. It says something tragic about the state of the world that this should come as a surprise. There's also a bitter sweetness to knowing Gore won but then wasn't awarded the presidency. On the one hand, a guy with this level of intelligence could have been president. On the other hand, if he had become president, we might never have come to know this side of him, at least not during the sausage-making of his political career. We would have to wait for his post-presidency, a time when former Democrats so vastly outshine their Republican counterparts that their doing so no longer takes anyone by surprise.
Part of what makes Gore's movie so effective is his clever use of overhead slides. These these don't seem to be your typical PowerPoint slides; they're much richer in detail and spread out to fill huge screens. They can also be revealed a little at a time as Gore's narration reaches a point of stunning revelation. This was particularly effective as Gore showed a graph of the last 600,000 years of carbon dioxide concentrations contained in Antarctic ice cap core samples. The levels rose and fell on a scale of 30,000 years and then suddenly rose in an ominous hockey stick over the last hundred years. Gore then climbed up on a mechanized platform to show where carbon dioxide levels are expected to go in the next fifty years, a place somewhere near the auditorium rafters. Not only was it terrifying, it perfectly explained the sudden drought of doubting Thomases.
Later I fixed myself a drink and suffered through the Passion of the Christ, which Showtime was featuring as a seasonal Easter classic. To say I actually suffered through the movie is something of an exaggeration; I made heavy use of the undocumented Tivo 30 second skip feature during the long passages of the movie in which nothing was happening except the monotonous whipping of the Son of God. As violent movies go, it's hard to imagine anything duller, although it's probably just what the doctor ordered for someone with a sexual interest in male-focused sadistic pornography.
Also, from my perspective as an non-believer it's hard to have much empathy for the Jesus depicted by Mel Gibson. Gibson is presenting a Jesus who is the actual son of God, one who never has much to say except words to that effect. In Gibson's doctrine, Jesus must be killed, for that is the cosmic plan. If Jesus were to live to a ripe old age and die of cancer, mankind would get no savior. And Jesus knows this. The people who kill him, then, are just robots doing something that an omnipotent god has pre-ordained. So no matter how horrible the Jews and the Romans torment Jesus, I can't feel sorry for the guy. And at the end we see Jesus walking out of the tomb, all of his wounds completely healed save for the inch-diameter holes through his hands framing little snatches of the background. Cosmic mission accomplished, so to speak.
If, however, a similarly-violent movie had been made by a film maker who considered Jesus to be nothing more than a prophet or a martyr, then his suffering and dying would seem a lot more like tragedy and perhaps I'd feel some vicarious pain at his lashes.
As for the timeless bigotry of the Passion of the Christ, one didn't have to wait for Mel to drink too much tequila and go anti-semitic on a traffic cop to get a sense that the guy hates Jews. Aside for the disciples (and women's auxiliary) of Jesus, the Jews in the Passion are uniformly of the comic book evil sort. They want Jesus dead, and they want him to suffer a lot before becoming so. Mel Gibson portrays the elite Romans as far more complicated characters, caught in a bind between the bloodthirsty demands of the Jews and a mysterious (and perhaps anachronistic) obligation to see justice administered fairly. Pontius Pilate finally orders Christ's crucifixion, but he does so reluctantly. It's carried out by a group of Roman soldiers so sadistic that they actually make their jobs more difficult for themselves. I got the feeling that part of Gibson's benign treatment of the Roman administrators reflects his brand of reactionary Catholicism, one that puts Latin and Rome at the center of the world. I suspect that in this form of Catholicism, Christianity is just a veneer of religious dogma over a solid foundation of Latin fetishism. Though Pontius Pilate was still pagan, he spoke the language that would one day be the language of the Church, he represented a city that would one day be the capital of Christendom, and he was part of a bureaucracy that would one day administer a Christian empire. In some sense, then, he was a pre-Christian Roman Catholic.
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