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February 27, 2004

Underserved Audiences

Dear Friedrich --

What does the success of Mel Gibson's "Passion" movie mean? Probably many things, but I'm prone to think that that one of them is that there's an audience out there that the entertainment business has been doing a lousy job of serving.

I love these the-market-has-spoken moments, don't you? A fairly recent example was the success of the novels of Terry McMillan. Pre-McMillan, an unspoken -- and largely unthought-about -- assumption in the publishing biz was that blacks didn't read much fiction. The phenomenal success of "Waiting to Exhale" showed how wrong that assumption was. Blacks -- black women, anyway -- were in fact eager to see themselves, and their lives and experiences, reflected in fiction. To its credit, the book publishing industry snapped to pronto, and the modern-black-woman's novel has become one of the industry's standard products.

Another example from book publishing: right-wing books. For an absurdly long time, the big NYC publishers turned their noses up at right-wing books; the idea of providing right-wingers with reading material seemed (and still seems) distasteful to many people in book publishing. So the creation, production and distribution of right-wing books was left to out-of-town and oddball publishers. Surprise: many right-wingers do read, and these oddball publishers had hit after hit after hit. Recently, but only very recently (such has been the resistance of NYC publishers to anything right-wing), NYC publishers have started waking up to the fact that they can't afford not to pursue the right-wing market. Yucko, perhaps -- but, good golly, there's a lot of money to be made over there.

What will the entertainment biz make of the success of Gibson's Jesus movie? Will film and TV people take the movie's commercial triumph as an indication that there are lots of good-Christian types who are willing to buy movie tickets but only for the kinds of movies that they're comfortable with? Or will the biz shrug off "The Passion" as a one-time, unrepeatable phenomenon? What's your hunch about this?

I suppose it's also possible that the entertainment biz will simply dodge these questions. Where Flyover Country's concerned, the entertainment biz is comfortable with the status quo: mocking rednecks, portraying uprightness as uptightness, and selling squareness to rubes. I wonder whether the biz will find the idea of respecting this audience and serving its entertainment needs and desires ... unbearable. Sharon Waxman in the NYTimes (here) reports that some major film executives have been so angered by what they feel is the anti-Semitism of "The Passion" that they've said they'll never work with Gibson again. But how about the opportunity to make scads of money producing films that appeal to red-state Christians? No word on that yet.

Hey, and to move from the Himalayas to a sandpile: I looked at our 2Blowhards stats the other day and was floored to see that we're averaging better than 2000 visits a day. Fast response #1: when will these people come to their senses? But fast response #2: why hasn't someone capitalized on the kind of thing we're purveying? (Whatever the hell it is, of course.) If two amateurs -- working on their spare time, and with no budget whatsoever -- can (along with the help of a lot of classy commenters, interviewees, and guest posters) attract 2000 visits a day, imagine what a professional publication along the same lines might do.



UPDATE: Steve Sailer (here) makes a similar point about the entertainment business and "The Passion," and links to a bunch of gory-Crucifixion sites. Alan Sullivan has a trenchant posting about the film here.

posted by Michael at February 27, 2004


Has anybody actually seen it? It looks so violent, I doubt I will. Some "secular" reviewers have said it's terrible actual moviemaking. Pontius Pilate is the only interesting character as he's the only one who actually makes a decision in the movie, while everybody else is just cardboard. Some have said it's anti-semetic, some have said no. I don't know what to think, except it supposedly presents a very conservative "Christian" view, whereas Marty Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" went lefty with the story. So even if it got lots of press, not much audience. What's supposed to be anti-semetic about it---I mean, the Jewish hierarchy did have a hand in this, although the Romans are clearly who crucified Jesus, (at least in the traditional Biblical version of all this, if you want to buy into that version). I don't think simply stating that there was a power struggle within the Jewish elite makes something "anti-semetic"---or does it go further than that?

Mel Gibson kinda lost me when he said this was his version of the story "with God's help." Uhhh, seems just a touch arrogant there, Mel. Why whisper in your ear more than Cecel B. DeMille's?

Posted by: annette on February 27, 2004 2:49 PM

I highly doubt I will go see it. I didnt like the guts and gore at the end of Braveheart and I was offended by the guts and gore in The Patriot. And from what I have gleaned from comments and movie descriptions, the movie completley misses the whole point by not emphasizing the empty tomb over the brutality of the cross. To me it's as grotesque as what we've done to Christmas.

annette, the anti-semetism comes in, from what I can tell, when you include Matthew 27:25,where the crowd before Pilate agrees to accept the blood of Jesus on themselves and their children. It's the blood curse that has been used for centuries as a reason to persecute Jews. I think Gibson originally included that in his script and then cut it in the final editing.

Posted by: Deb on February 27, 2004 3:13 PM

Well, I'm not going to see it, that's for sure. Eager to hear reports, though, at least provided they don't get too gruesome. I've seen some article marveling over the film's "R" rating -- it's apparently so extreme that some people are amazed it didn't get an NC-17.

Posted by: Michael Blowhards on February 27, 2004 3:20 PM

I saw it.
It's graphic. Especially the scourging of Christ by the Roman soldiers.
It's not anti-semitic in my opinion.
That said, any Passion enactment is going to enflame those who are fertile ground (or tinder) ready and waiting to flame up.
My biggest problem with the film is that, if you are not a devout Christian, the film offers very little in the way of the context in which Christ's suffering takes place: his message. Christians bring that context (one hopes) into the theater with them.

Posted by: ricpic on February 27, 2004 3:40 PM

I heard rumors that the pope had one comment after his private viewing of the film.

I was told that he said (the movie)"It is as it was."

I have not seen it yet, but I probably will. I will add a comment after I see it.

Posted by: ShipShape on February 27, 2004 3:50 PM


2000 hits a day is impressive. I would see about garnishing advertising dollars by having advertising displays in the margins. It might compensate you for your time.

From the comments anyway, my guess the bulk of your hits probably come from Leftist Los Angeles types. Just don't get too leftist, it will end up driving the few middle of the road rightists away.

Posted by: shipshape on February 27, 2004 3:57 PM

Hi, ShipShape:

Now that is interesting. Look what Lileks' dad said after the movie:
...Still, he said, “it shows you what he went through.” And he said “he” as if he was referring to someone he’d known all his life. Which of course he had. ...

From this Jew, in the matters "as it was" visions/certainty, I'd rather trust Boulgakov in "Master".

Posted by: Tatyana on February 27, 2004 4:06 PM

annette: the movie made $26 mil on Wednesday, the third biggest Weds. opening ever. There was a guy in a suburb of Dallas who bought forty thousand dollars worth of opening day tickets - a nearby multiplex was showing it on ALL 20 screens all day - and donated them to his church.

I think there is definitely a market for this. I have a friend in LA who works with would-be Christian screenwriters. He said the only thing between Hollywood and scads of money from right-wing Christians was a lack of writing talent in that particular area: that's why we mostly see Left Behind movies direct-to-video instead of well-written and -made films in the theaters.

At the same time, I think this movie was a special case. Not since The Blair Witch Project has there been so much word-of-mouth advertising for a film. First there was the anti-semitism charge, then Caviezel and co. kept getting struck by lightning. Then the pope gave a soundbite with his comment "it is as it was," then the Vatican claimed he never said it. Meanwhile they're showing this movie to Christians in every city in America while denying critics the chance to see it.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I've heard it's simultaneously so beautiful and horrific as to cause audience members to sob on the one hand, and cartoonish on the other. And this was from the same guy. He gave it a "50-60% thumbs up," with the caveat that he thought he might have to leave the theater early on, he thought it was so dumb. And he's the most devout Catholic I know.

Still and all, we both laugh, because we expect that in about two years to see a whole slew of Biblical epics on the big screen. Imagine what they could do with Noah, or plagues of locusts, or maybe (since this is all Hollywood does now) a remake of the Ten Commandments, with a CGI Red Sea splitting apart this time.

Now the only question is: who's gonna play Moses?

Posted by: Doug on February 27, 2004 4:45 PM

Sorry for the double entry - I just recall that a couple a years ago New Yorker had a big article on Christian movie industry (themed mostly on Apocaliptic variations, as I remember it) and the journalist came to the same conclusion - it's potentially money-mountain and it started happening already. Sorry, they din't have archives on the Web, can't look it up.
Strange, how seemingly trivial (on artistic merits, this is my impression from different reviews) movie can trigger such an avalanche from all sides; on the Net there are associated posts from such diametrally different realms as
this and this
Well, it's not surprising really that everybody want to use it to promote their own agenda, but why this one is the common denominator?

Posted by: Tatyana on February 27, 2004 5:11 PM

I asked a friend how he reacted to the movie: "Thumbs up," I asked, "or thumbs down?" His answer: "Thumbs flayed."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 27, 2004 6:01 PM

Tatyana is the only person in the reams I've read about The Passion to mention Bulgakov's version of the Passion. I happened to read The Master & Margarita last year, & found the account of the Passion the most interesting part of the novel.
Having read that is what made me interested in reading about Mel Gibson's film & the controversy it's causing. Bulgakov's portrait of Pontius Pilate is also quite sympathetic -- as I recall, he's portrayed as having a migrane headache throughout his decision-making process.
No, I won't see the movie, but from what I have read about it I can't agree with Tatyana that it is "trivial".

Posted by: Susan on February 27, 2004 7:14 PM


Regarding 2000 visits a day and professional publications--who cares what a professional publication could do? Either you'd have to charge readers and require registration to read it--in which case you'd have many fewer casual readers and the comments wouldn't be nearly as interesting--or you'd have to sell advertising, which doesn't work well on the web and might be unduly constraining to your content.

Anyway, one of the charming things about 2Blowhards is the assumption--or, at least, the attitude--that what you and Friedrich have to say is worth what we pay for it.

Thus puncturing pomposity pre-emptively. :-)

Posted by: Will Duquette on February 27, 2004 7:40 PM

Used a free pass. Saw the film. Wasn't impressed. Thumbs not flayed. Giggle reflex triggered, big time. Thought the film frequently crossed the line into high kitsch.

Yes, there's a lot of gore -- about as much as in a typical Italian zombie movie, and pretty much to the same effect. The film buys into the doctrine of blood atonement without any real reflection, so it's only half a level deep.

And yes, Gibson's film is anti-Semitic -- the most anti-Semitic film to come down the pike since Die Ewige Jude. The Catholic Church came up with a list of twenty-four guidelines to make the Passion Play less anti-Semitic. Not only does Gibson ignore most of them; he even invents new outrages to lay at the feet of "the Jews."

Deschanel's cinematography is over-filtered, especially in the opening scenes (fog filters are a really good way to disguise cheesy sets). If you want to see a spiritually moving Passion Play, rent Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and leave Gibson to the fundies.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 27, 2004 9:53 PM

Tim, why do I suspect you were prepared to hate this movie? Stay home next time. You'll save $10.

Posted by: average joe on February 28, 2004 12:49 AM

(Or give your Free Pass to someone with less stored-up contempt.)

Posted by: average joe on February 28, 2004 12:51 AM

I have a review here for anyone who cares. I think Ricpic is right, in that the film preaches to the converted and does almost nothing to provide a context for Jesus' sufferings for those who don't know the rest of the story to that point. Similarly, I can't see the film inspiring anti-Semitic feelings in anyone who didn't previously hold them. It won't win converts to either cause.

The story of the Pope approving the story has been denied by the Vatican and probably is indeed spurious. Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic who denies the legitimacy of the post-Vatican II Church and every pope since John XXIII, including the present one, so it seems odd that he would seek old John Paul's opinion at all...

Posted by: James Russell on February 28, 2004 1:59 AM

Don't know if everyone has seen it, but there is an item here at that makes the point about audiences that usually don't go see movies and how Gibson's film may bring them out.

Posted by: Rene on February 28, 2004 10:12 AM

Still haven't seen the movie, but I have to question the complaint that it does nothing for the people who don't know the context of the movie. I know we're a nation of diverse peoples and religions, but I find it hard to believe that many (if not most) Americans don't have at least a passing notion of the story of Christ. I mean, I can run down the basic story for a person in less than five minutes. Plus, the passion story is by definition the story of Christ's end on earth. While it would be nice to have some background in the film, the fact that this is a passion sort of assumes you're coming with some prior knowledge. Again, this doesn't mean the movie is any good, just that I don't think this particular claim is very legitimate.

Posted by: Doug on February 28, 2004 1:17 PM

1) The rumour about the Pope was just that -- and disowned quite quickly once it got back to the Vatican.

2) The Left Behind series of books has long been envied for its profitability in book-publishing circles, as I'm sure this film will be envied in film-producing circles. But the NY and LA companies producing books and films can't really muscle in on what you might call the "Xtreme Xian" market, because those consumers are very aware not only of the product, but also of the producer. If an atheist or a Jew had produced either the books or the films, they wouldn't be nearly as much of a success.

Posted by: Felix on February 28, 2004 2:03 PM

Good point about Tim LaHaye and the "Left Behind" series. LaHaye is a big name in eschatology -- if you can dignify the Christian Right's end-times obsession with such a highfalutin' name. The seventy-something LaHaye comes up with the outlines; Jerry Jenkins actually writes the novels. Still, the name of LaHaye has been responsible for the series' success.

Jenkins, BTW, really likes the "Jews-for-Jesus" folks, and has this odd way of referring to their "generous noses." This stuff is not exactly anti-Semitic (certainly not like Gibson's Passion at any rate), but it's not far from it.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 28, 2004 5:26 PM

So, let's get this straight: Either one of Gibson's people, or someone else with a vested interest in the version the movie portrays, meaning they are likely conservative Christian and/or Catholic, LIED ABOUT WHAT THE POPE SAID in order to get publicity??? Or validate the film's content?? Holy cow (no pun intended).

Posted by: annette on February 28, 2004 5:35 PM

Tim, why do I suspect you were prepared to hate this movie?

Well, I didn't hate the movie as such -- it was far too much fun for that. But the movie is not what it claims it is; it's not devotion but exploitation, and I think people ought to know that going in.

For my part, I happen to like films that combine technical exuberance with near-total insanity: Hence my positive reaction to last year's Matrix: Reloaded, and my ongoing affection for the works of Sam Fuller. Of course, Gibson's Passion of the Christ doesn't stray quite as far into the giggleweeds as, say, Shock Corridor. But at times it comes very close.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 28, 2004 5:36 PM

Deb: The famous "blood libel" is still uttered in the film. Gibson just didn't took that part out of the English subtitles.

Annette: We're not sure just what the Pope said or when he said it. But there's an even bigger scandal with the Catholic Church's reaction to the film. The church hierarachy has developed twenty-four guidelines to keep Passion Plays from inciting anti-Semitism. Gibson's film not only ignores almost every one of these guidelines, it even invents new outrages to lay at the feet of "the Jews." Why has Mother Church not yet condemned the film as contrary to its teaching? (My guess: This probably has something to do with Opus Dei.)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 28, 2004 5:45 PM

Will -- Excellent point. "Pre-emptive puncturing of pomposity" -- that ought to be bronzed.

James -- Enjoyed your postings on the film, thanks. I wonder how much "context" is important for a film like this. I mean, it's not as though the plot of the movie is going to come as a big surprise. From a filmmaker's p-o-v, I mean, why not just focus on the angle that interest you? Especially if it's your own money you're spending? It's not as though Bresson spends tons of time establishing context for his films. It's not as though most Hwood teen comedies do either, come to think of it.

Rene -- Interesting piece, thanks for the link.

Felix -- That's a good point. It raises another one too, which is that the media businesses and Christian mid-America didn't used to be at swords' points in anything like the way they are these days. Heavily-Jewish Hollywood back in the '30s and '40s made movies that Protestant middle Americans adored, for instance. Evangelicals didn't drop out and create their own alternative media universe until the '70s. (I'll let anyone who wants to blame this situation on "the '60s" go right ahead.) On the other hand, it's interesting that righties don't seem to care whether the books they enjoy are published by true-believing rightie presses or by Simon and Schuster. Hmmm. I wonder if there's any way the mainstream media bizzes could win back the goodwill of the good-Christian crowd. Your hunch? I wonder if the divide has gotten too big ever to be spanned.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 28, 2004 5:59 PM

Whether the film is anti-Semitic or not is irrelevant. The movie is an artist's interpretation of an historic event. What's the difference between Gibson's movie and Andres Serrano's crucifix submerged in urine or Chris Ofili's statue of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant excrement? Gibson’s work may be offensive to some Jews. Serrano’s and Ofili’s works may be offensive to some Christians. Yet, in the case of Serrano and Ofili, we're lectured on artistic freedom and told to be open-minded. In Gibson’s case, we’re told he’s through in Hollywood. Maybe some targets are simply off limits for artists?

Posted by: Bill on February 28, 2004 6:08 PM

...From a filmmaker's p-o-v, I mean, why not just focus on the angle that interest you?

Agree. Next question: what is that angle for Gibson? Bloody spectacle (in truly Roman sense) and finger-pointing? If that's the case, it is trivial, Susan; it's been going on for exactly 2004 yrs. Boulgakov point was quite different; your translation at fault probably, but I can assure you - the story with migrane is only for illustration of divine powers.

But I caught myself on being like those infamous Soviet times 'letters-to-the-editor' writers:
"I didn't read the book, but I protest!..."

Not that I am going to, really, patronize this 'event fot the masses' with my hard-earned $10.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 28, 2004 11:02 PM

Oh, and I just love how ever so smoothly Bill hinted at the Jewish conspiracy here.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 28, 2004 11:30 PM

I wonder if there's any way the mainstream media bizzes could win back the goodwill of the good-Christian crowd.

Yes, if the good-Christian crowd were interested in proffering their goodwill. But I don't think they are. They generally don't patronize movies that reflect their values; they'd rather carp and complain about movies that don't.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 29, 2004 3:06 AM

Tim--if he took out the subtitles and the language being spoken by the actors is one that no one can understand then didnt he effectively take it out of the movie?

Posted by: Deb on February 29, 2004 4:59 PM

Tim--if he took out the subtitles and the language being spoken by the actors is one that no one can understand then didnt he effectively take it out of the movie?

Originally, Gibson claimed to have cut the line from the film. Then he fessed up on Primetime Live and said he just took out the subtitle. It's not hard to see why he changed his tune: America has no shortage of scholars who understand Aramaic well enough to know how badly the actors pronounce their lines. Had Gibson maintained his original position, these scholars would have caught him in a bare-faced lie. Now it's just a weaselly Clintonian equivocation.

Since the old "blood libel" is still portrayed on the screen, it's also part of the movie -- unless, of course, we're arguing the definition of "is."

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 29, 2004 6:30 PM

Tim--if I learned nothing else from the Clinton years it's how to conjugate the verb "to be". It is the copula after all. Point conceded.

Posted by: Deb on March 1, 2004 9:00 AM

I agree that the success (so far) of Gibson's Passion suggests that there's a neglected market for straightforward Biblical movies. I suspect that there's also a neglected market for detailed on-screen torture.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on March 1, 2004 12:07 PM

Nancy, that market is far from neglected; it just hasn't gone mainstream till now.

I linked to Sullivan, but his argument was not at all trenchant: its main thrust was, OK there are Jews in the movie, but that's factual –– and its not the kind of poison Saudi Arabia produces.

That's not even an argument. He also admits he hasn't seen the film. Dismissed.

Posted by: Dave F on March 5, 2004 6:47 AM

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