Movie Criticism From Desk Jockeys

A lot of people have a lot to say about Mel Gibson’s new movie, The Passion , and this is a little surprising, as the movie has not yet been released. Cultural critics have condemned the film, based on Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, after reading news reports summarizing the details of a stolen and out-of-date script. Several commentators have decided that this as-yet-unseen movie will stir anti-Semitic riots in Europe and perhaps elsewhere, which is odd because when conservatives blame Hollywood for celebrating and therefore encouraging antisocial behavior, they are routinely sneered at by their know-betters in the media.

A couple of years ago, a renowned art critic by the name of Rudolph Giuliani condemned as anti-Catholic an exhibit scheduled for the Brooklyn Museum. You’ll recall that the piece in question was a representation of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung and pictures some might regard as obscene. Oh, there were great howls of protest from the arts

and cultural communities. Why, they said, the Mayor hadn’t even seen the piece! How dare he pass judgment on art he hadn’t seen! The forces of light were in high dudgeon over this fascistic assault by the small-minded, parochial Mayor of New York.

More than a year after the controversy, somebody handed me an old piece from The Nation in which a writer whose name escapes me condemned the Mayor and anybody who either agreed with him or simply seemed a little, you know, put off by the elephant-dung thing (like yours truly). These awful philistines, the writer said, had no right to utter an opinion as they had not seen the piece. The writer, like so many of her ilk, prefers to wallow in her own prejudices rather than make inquires that might lead to a facsimile of truth. A phone call or two might have challenged the assumption.

So, for condemning a piece of art he hadn’t seen, Rudolph Giuliani was accused of myriad crimes against art by those who see themselves as the stalwart advocates of free expression and unfettered artistry.

It would be wonderful, and heartening, to see these brave souls rallying to Mr. Gibson’s side, condemning his critics with righteous anger and smug self-assurance. It would be thrilling to hear their voices raised on cable television, to read their thoughts on op-ed pages throughout the nation. It would be wonderful to see them dismiss Mr. Gibson’s critics with the same contempt they displayed for Mr. Giuliani. Of course, this would involve defending, rather than attacking, a very conservative Catholic with some rather curious opinions. As this course of action would be decidedly unfashionable, Mr. Gibson is left to defend himself against critics who haven’t seen his movie.

I haven’t seen the movie either, so if you’re looking for a condemnation or a defense of Mr. Gibson, look elsewhere. I’m astonished, however, at the intellectual dishonesty of his critics and the utter lack of support he has received from those who were so offended by Mr. Giuliani’s venture into art criticism. Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn said that the movie shouldn’t be distributed and that it would be “unhealthy for Jews all over the world.” This criticism was based on secondhand accounts of what the unseen film may or may not contain about the role Jews may or may not have played in the crucifixion of another Jew, i.e., Christ.

“The Gospels show that Jesus was killed by a combination of social and political forces,” said former Council member Charles Millard, who holds a degree in theology from Holy Cross College. “The Gospels interpret the movement of those forces. They are not about the vilification of a people. If they were, then the Gospels would be anti-Italian.” The Romans, after all, killed Christ, as Catholics are reminded every Sunday when they invoke the name of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea, as Christ’s executioner.

As for the contention that the film will inflame anti-Semitic mobs around the world, well, it’s refreshing to see Hollywood’s allies and apologists in the media arguing that moviemakers should be held accountable for their products. When people like William Bennett, George Will and Bob Dole contended that the entertainment industry bore some responsibility for the images and messages contained in movies and music, they were roundly condemned as censorious prudes who simply didn’t understand that when a male rapper refers to women as “hos” and worse, he simply is reflecting inner-city realities and by no means should be held responsible for, say, young men who treat young women like whores.

Art surely can provoke as well as inspire, and so perhaps the critics are right to worry that ignorant Christians will use The Passion as a pretext for anti-Semitic outrages.

But surely this new accountability shouldn’t apply only to Mel Gibson.