(Snippets of this entry have been hanging around for a while, waiting for some thought or insight to come to mind to help hold it all together. But in this case the coherent, rather than the perfect, is the enemy of the done, and I’m posting it anyway.)
Standing in the Family Christian store in Landmark Mall in Alexandria, looking at all the merchandise tie-ins for The Passion of the Christ, I had to do a double take. In particular I was looking at the necklaces they were selling, adorned with a single, small nail. Setting aside for a moment the issue of whether aggressive merchandising is appropriate for a film with such serious intent and disturbing subject matter, those nail necklaces just seemed morbid.
But then I remembered that, as symbols go, it’s hard to get more morbid than the good old-fashioned cross. So while there are plenty of things to find distasteful and inappropriate about the marketing blitz for Passion, it doesn’t really make sense to object to the nail necklaces on grounds of morbidity. (I don’t mean to belittle the power of the cross itself—it is an immensely powerful symbol precisely because of the horror and hope it simultaneously represents.)
But then, why the need for the necklace? Unlike the t-shirts and bookmarks, as something worn as a pendant it’s deliberately reminiscent of a cross necklace—so what does wearing one signify that wearing a cross does not? Something like this, it seems to me: “I am not only a Christian, but one who embraces this movie.” That embrace includes more than just appreciating the film aesthetically. (Many people whom I respect found Passion powerful and moving, and while my own response was rather ambivalent, I don’t have a problem with theirs.) It also includes wanting the film to succeed, not financially (it’s already there), but evangelically.
While I’ve yet to see someone on the street wearing one of those nails, that sort of support for the movie has been in the news, was readily apparent at the store in the mall, and is all over the websites ancillary to the official one. Sites like sharethepassionofthechrist.com and passionmaterials.com are linked to directly from the official site, and even share the same design style. None of that should be surprising to anyone who’s tracked the development of the film or listened to Mel Gibson talking about it, though Gibson was slightly disingenuous in the interview I cited in my review when he expressed amazement at the film’s reception in the evangelical community. He has very deliberately sought out that reception. Poking around at the message boards on studentshavepassion.com, I found messages posted pre-release in which students expressed delight that a recording of Mel had left messages on their answering machines encouraging them to promote the movie. He’s mentioned in the acknowledgements and forewords of all the Passion-related books, always in near-beatific terms. There was a kerfluffle in some segments of the blogosphere when the president of the Catholic League referred to Gibson as “Saint Mel.”
Three things about all this make me uncomfortable. The first, when it comes to the merchandising, is the simple issue of distastefulness that I alluded to before; that doesn’t really need any elaboration. The second is that the pedestal Mel is standing on in the eyes of some is not something that grew out of the grassroots, but a carefully and masterfully crafted bit of image marketing. Third, this is a bad movie for changing people’s minds. Rather, it may be very good at that, but in the wrong ways: aesthetically it’s a mixed bag, and its honest moments run alongside the crassest sort of emotional bludgeoning.
At the store in the mall, I asked the lady behind the counter if she had seen the movie, and what she thought of it.
“I loved it. Have you seen it?”
“Yes,” I said. “My reaction to it was mixed. I have a problem with the way it focused on the physical suffering.”
“Well,” she said, in a conversation-ending tone, “The movie shows how the Bible says it is.”
“There’s a lot in the movie that isn’t in the Bible, and a lot in the Bible that isn’t in the movie,” I said. (Actually, what I said took considerably longer and lacked the rhetorical balance, but that was the gist.)
“Well,” she said again, “This is how Mel decided to make it.”
Very true, for better or worse. I just wish that was the first thing she had thought.
UPDATE: In the comments, reader Jeff Brower points out that nail necklaces have been around for a while. Oops. This does leave open the question, though, of why the Passion promoters chose to merchandise that, as opposed to a cross or some other symbol. Which has got me thinking about nails and crosses and fishes and flags—more on that to come.
UPDATE: Ana also has some good points in the comments. Generally speaking, read the comments. 🙂