The social sciences, I would argue, are as much sciences as the physical and biological sciences. For me science is simply the application of one's rational faculty to the phenomena of existence in as systematic and organized was as one can.-With that note I apply the great and the old science of history to a recent film that made pots of money and stirred people one way or another with indifference always running as a close contender for the prizes.
The dust of reviews has settled on this film and so: the time has come, perhaps, for a more dispassionate, a more considered, a more reflective, commentary on a film that precipitated a great deal of public reaction in the last few months. Review is not quite the right word for what follows. What I have written here is just a comment, but it is no less provocative than the most provocative you've read thusfar and I think you will find here some refreshing and intelligent insights into Gibson's film, its social context and the way it was perceived.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: A Comment by Ron Price
This film is not intended to be a masterful historical documentary as, say, Ken Burns' work on the Civil War or one of many others done in the first century of the existence of the cinema. Gibson's work is far from possessing what some might call an intellectual poverty in its pretensions at historical documentary. Shawn Rosenheim says all TV documentaries possess an intellectual poverty. If Rosenheim is right the visual media are simply incapable of producing historical documentary.1 And if Rosenheim is wrong, as I tend to think he is, historical documentary of an event 2000 years ago is not impossible. It is, rather, a recreation. We simply do not know enough about the event Gibson is recreating to claim that what we are seeing is a documentary.
We all know that Gibson did not take his camera crew to downtown Jerusalem or into the little hamlet of Nazereth in some kind of time-warp to produce an anti-Jewish, anti Roman clip for the evening news. Even if he had and he then produced for us all an evening two hour special, spectacle, called "the crucifixion," there would still be questions about visual manipulation and the program's service in the name of directing popular thought toward a new religious movement. New religious movements have always had trouble getting popular exposure unless they can be associated with conflict and violence, eccentricity and the bizarre, indeed, anything visually stimulating and distracting.
No one would claim that Gibson's is a neutral recording of objective events. It is a construct operating from a certain point of view. It is a rhetorical argument achieved through the selection and combination of elements that both reflect and project a world, a world view, a cosmology if you like. It is achieved by certain cinematic conventions that try to erase any signs of cinematic artificiality. An ideology is promoted by linking the effect of reality to social values and institutions in such a way that these values seem natural and self-evident. In the case of Mel Gibson's work, a work that I found quite stimulating in its own way, the ideology is simply and strongly: fundamentalist Christianity.
I've never been attracted to Christianity in any of its fundamentalist forms. But I liked this film. Film can often get to people in ways that words, ideas and simple beliefs cannot. It was not because of its historical accuracy that I liked it. I liked All the Presidents Men and a number of other films based on and rooted in some historical theme. Rarely are historical films accurate; the main reason they seem so is that the people watching them know so little about the theme, the event, that it seems plausible to them. Sadly, but truly, we know so little about the events of the life of Jesus of Nazereth that a good script writer, a good cinematographer and a big band of men and women can bring something to life that may never have happened at all.
The distance between the pulpit and the academic chair of religion has been widening for at least two centuries. In fact for millions of men and women these days historicity is irrelevant to their beliefs. History has become, for those millions, what it was for Henry Ford: bunk or was it bunkum? Mel, you've given us a thriller. To hell with history! 4 out of 5:optimistic muse; 2 out of 5 pessimistic muse.
As a sort of epilogue to this brief comment on the film: one of the main reasons many people are turning to new religions and new religious
Post edited on May 31, 2007 at 10:57 PM EST.