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The Passion Of The Christ (#110 of 6)

The Conversations: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ

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The Conversations: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ
The Conversations: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ

Jason Bellamy: I never followed the amateur filmmaking documentary series Project Greenlight, which was perhaps best known for having celebrity producers (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) and for failing to discover any major breakthrough talents, but I’ll never forget one of the episodes I happened to see. It was early in its third and final season, by which point Project Greenlight had expanded its diamond-in-the-rough search to be a contest not just for amateur screenwriters, but also amateur directors. In the episode in question I took delight in the method chosen to evaluate their pool of director nominees: All contestants were given identical screenplays offering nothing more than dialogue. No descriptions of settings. No descriptions of characters. No descriptions of action. Just words to be spoken. From that skeleton it was on the directors to dream up the rest, fill in the blanks and shoot a film. All these years later, I can’t remember anything about the dialogue, but I do remember that the interpretations were wildly diverse—one had a mob theme while another was set in a dentist’s office, as I recall. Same source material. Same words. Different films.

That brings us to this month’s edition of The Conversations, in which we will discuss Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a pair of films that are remarkably and unmistakably different despite the numerous things they have in common, the most obvious of which is their general subject matter. Unlike the amateur directors vying to be on Project Greenlight, Scorsese and Gibson didn’t work from identical screenplays, and in a sense their screenplays aren’t even based on the same source material. Scorsese’s film begins with a disclaimer making it clear that The Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t follow the Scriptures, even though for the most part it does, but is instead based on the 1951 book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. And yet when one watches these films, or anything in which Jesus Christ is the central figure, there’s an almost unavoidable tendency to track its faithfulness to the Bible. Anything added to or removed from the narrative, anything noticeably altered from what can be found in the New Testament, seems on screen to be bolded and italicized—maybe because it should be, or maybe because cinematic representations of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John underline just how unspecific the Bible tends to be. When it comes to the life of Jesus, so much of the Bible is like those Project Greenlight scripts: dialogue on a page. No descriptions of settings. No descriptions of characters. No descriptions of action. Just words to be spoken.

Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, and The Holiday

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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, and The Holiday
Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, and The Holiday

Andrew Dignan: Pardon the interruption Sean, but I take back what I said a few weeks ago about The Fountain being the weirdest, most hallucinatory film of the holidays. I knew I never should have counted out Mel Gibson (aka “Crazy Christian”) who two years after making The Passion of the Christ, the rare film that could appeal equally to Evangelicals and the Fangoria set, returns with Apocalypto—another viscera-dripping exercise in onscreen violence, without any pesky ideology or Jew-baiting to get in the way of all the fun.

I, like most people I know, have spent the better part of the past year making jokes at poor Mel’s expense as his adventures in Malibu appeared to be several chickens finally coming home to roost, all in one glorious/horrifying public breakdown the likes of which I never thought I’d see again (until Michael Richards proved me completely wrong). As Mel’s spent the past three years as fodder for late night talk show monologues, it’s becoming distressingly easy to forget what a provocative and unique filmmaker he’s become, with a keen eye for visual, near-silent storytelling that sets him apart from nearly every other actor turned director in Hollywood. You might be repulsed by what he’s saying with his films, but my God, does he say it with aplomb. Of course your level of revulsion with Apocalypto will likely depend on your tolerance for watching someone other than the Son of God be brutalized for two hours. Playing like The Last of the Mohicans with way more human sacrifice, Apocalypto is a surprisingly conventional action movie, complete with all of the familiar beats one would come to expect from any given mid-’80s Stallone or Schwarzenegger film, the only difference here is it’s a bunch of guys running around in loincloths speaking a dead language (the film strangely reminded me of the Rae Dawn Chong camp-extravaganza Quest for Fire).

Savage Art: Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto

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Savage Art: Mel Gibson’s <em>Apocalypto</em>
Savage Art: Mel Gibson’s <em>Apocalypto</em>

Mel Gibson’s Mayan fable Apocalypto is one of the most viscerally powerful and intensely upsetting movies of the year. But it’s not the shots of severed heads, vivisected torsos and pierced flesh that disturb; it’s the closeups of those who witness or perpetrate violence. The latter are the cinematic version of what gamblers call “tells”—incidental gestures that reveal the filmmaker’s intent. The greatness of the movie’s brutal, tragic first half—which charts a Mayan tribe’s enslavement by a nation-state of militant, human-sacrificing cultists—can be found in close-ups of human faces while suffering is inflicted or endured. Men are strangled in their marriage beds by unseen assailants; women are threatened with rape and sexual servitude while their hogtied husbands look on, weeping with rage; an enemy soldier picks up a screaming child and hurls him like a medicine ball, just to see what happens.

Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

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Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One
Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

The following is the first half of a two-part article by Jeremiah Kipp, a critic and reporter whose work has appeared in Fangoria, Filmmaker Magazine, Slant Magazine and other publications. He previously interviewed movie critic Charles Taylor for The House Next Door.

In 1999, film critic Godfrey Cheshire [left] wrote a compelling two-part essay for New York Press entitled “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” The article considered the transition from celluloid to digital technology within movie theaters, and the repercussions that would have on cinema as an art form. Predicated on the belief that the viewer responds differently to televised or digital images than film images, Cheshire expressed ambivalence and curiosity about that changeover.

To frame his argument, Cheshire provided definitions for terms normally considered interchangeable: “Film refers to the old, celluloid-based technology; movies refer to motion pictures as entertainment; and cinema refers to motion pictures as art.” Film and cinema, to Cheshire, are vitally linked, and that once film is removed, what is left may vaguely look the same for a short time, but that essentially video leads to the “overthrow of film by television—which is what this [shift] amounts to—will be related to a dissolution of cinema esthetics…The latter, which has implications beyond the realm of arts and entertainment, is my ultimate subject here. But let’s take one thing at a time.” The article has been reprinted all over the world, and was made the subject of a special colloquium at the Museum of Modern Art. It remains a valuable reference point for filmmakers, journalists and cinephiles.

But Cheshire himself admitted, “When the millennial clock ticks over, we will all be strangers in a strange land.” The technological and cultural landscape has changed rapidly since the publication of his article in ways Cheshire did not anticipate. Digital technology has accelerated the DVD revolution and the resurgence of documentaries. The Internet has affected how film criticism is digested by the public, and has fostered reactionary grassroots support among bloggers. Amidst these and other changes emerge new questions about film, movies and entertainment—as well as a few ironic surprises. Since leaving New York Press, Cheshire has continued writing film reviews for the North Carolina alternative weekly The Independent. But this self-professed “videophobe” is wrapping up production on a first-person documentary—shot on digital. It focuses on his family and their Southern plantation, which has been their homestead since 1739. In addition to his directorial debut, Cheshire has written two narrative screenplays and recently taught a course on the history of film at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cheshire was open to discussing how the changing times broadened his interests in film and filmmaking, as well as looking back on his landmark essay. The death of film and the decay of cinema led to the rise of video and new technologies. Amidst these transitions, Cheshire has managed to keep himself on the front lines—in more ways than one.