Rightwing Film Geek

Another auteur (maybe) knuckles under

According to several news accounts — here are the stories from the Associated Press, from Reuters, and from United Press International — Lars Von Trier has been forced to cut the already-notorious “donkey scene” from his upcoming film MANDERLAY, something that already had cost him the participation of actor John C. Reilly.

I’m suspicious of the possibility that Von Trier may be pulling a fast one. For one thing, something has been rotten in the state of Denmark on this story and the words being put out by the studio and Von Trier for a while. For one thing, in the initial news item, the producer admits the killing, however says it happened off-camera — something I would want to credit because that would be a lie that would get found out real quick). But if the producer was telling the truth then, then what would Von Trier have available to cut now? Scenes of people and a dead animal or of people eating meat are not objectionable, and the UPI story says the scene “showed starving people in a small town carving up the animal” (which also is unremarkable unless it was shown alive earlier in the scene).

There’s Von Trier’s sense of humor to reckon with. He clearly disagrees with the animal-rights crowd — the reference to the donkey as taking “its place in the food chain”; the statement “Animal welfare is important, but the welfare of humans is in my eyes even more important … and that includes freedom of expression”; and his final stand and declaration of opposition, “I acted conscientiously, and I don’t suppose we’ll ever agree on that”; Those are not the words of Kim Basinger or Pamela Anderson. He even made the worst charge an artist can possibly make — ignorance or misunderstanding of his work (“The charge made in many of the letters of killing a donkey ‘for entertainment’ is one that I refute on the grounds that such charges can only originate from ignorance of my films … particularly ‘entertaining’ is something surely nobody would call them!”)

I have not been able to find Von Trier’s actual statement (and I even did what I could with a couple of Danish sites). The news reports are filled with these puckish quotes, but none saying, in Von Trier’s own words, “I am cutting out the scene of a donkey being killed.” Instead we get him saying the completed “perfect” adjective “dead” — “I cut all the scenes showing the dead donkey out of the film” — rather than the progressive “being killed” or “killing.” So I have a sneaking suspicion that Von Trier might be preparing an “opening day surprise” — it’s something I could see his particular sense of humor doing. And there is precedent for great Catholic filmmakers — Mel Gibson with Matthew 27:25, and (sorta) Luis Bunuel with VIRIDIANA. However, I am hesitant to put too much stock in this kind of Clintonian word-parse analysis though, since English is not Von Trier’s native language and the statement probably was originally made in Danish.

There’s an element of wishful thinking in this scenario too. About the last film-maker in the world I would expect to back down from fear of giving offense is the man who made DOGVILLE, THE IDIOTS and BREAKING THE WAVES. The man who ordered Jorgen Leth to eat a sumptuous meal on a street in the red-light district of Bombay. It’s like Roberto Duran saying “no mas.”

And the offense was taken by whom — “animal lovers.” Lars Von Trier, if through some miracle or mechanism you ever read this, please take this advice from your biggest fan in the world: Do-gooding sentimental liberals hate your films anyway. There’s nothing to gain by them, and general scandal always helps films at the box office anyway, as I know you know. Decisions about what goes into a work of art should be made by the artist alone (that’s Von Trier in this case, not “animal lovers”) for reasons related only to the work, and without regard for outside organized pressure groups or the audience’s reaction. PETA has no more right to Lars Von Trier’s final cut than the ADL had to Mel Gibson’s. And if he believes, as his statement says, that “I feel that my conscience is clean in regard to animal welfare,” then he has an affirmative obligation NOT to back down (this is pretty standard Catholic teaching). To change his film acknowledges not only their right over his film but the righteousness of that right. And that’s just wrong.

March 3, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A ‘nice’ PASSION

Thanks, Mel.

Next week, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST gets rereleased, Someone at St. Blogs (I forget who; my apologies if he ever reads this) actually suggested a couple of months ago that every few years, Mel Gibson could rerelease the film into theaters for Lent or for Passion Week/Holy Week specifically. Everyone in the thread agreed this would be a great idea. God answers prayers, but sometimes not always like some of us might want.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 8.01.39 PMIts official title is THE PASSION RECUT. I’m glad of the title change (so as to avoid confusion) and I’ve no reason to think Gibson will make this the “definitive” or … um … “canonical” version of the film. Still, I disagree with the man from whom I learned of this — Catholic blogger Domenico Bettinelli (there’s a first time for everything). I’m really not thrilled by Gibson’s decision.

It should go without saying that if films should be recut at all, the artist whose work it is should be the one doing it. And there’s nothing unprecedented about directors fiddling with their work after release — all the various versions of APOCALYPSE NOW; Wong Kar-wai will probably still be recutting 2046 in 2046. But while I wouldn’t turn down someone else’s invitation to go, I do not plan to see THE PASSION RECUT, while I definitely will pop in my DVD of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST at some point during Holy Week.

It’s as if Gibson has forgotten all the fuss over the film in the weeks and months prior to release, and the weeks after. Several people, not a few of them ill-disposed toward Gibson and Catholicism to begin with while being curiously unrepulsed by movie violence elsewhere, accused the film of being a fantasy of homosexual masochism. Many of us who defended THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST argued that the film’s violence was necessary and not exploitative. Indeed, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is one of the few films (IRREVERSIBLE, THE WILD BUNCH and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE are the only others to come to mind quickly) where I would say that to tone down the violence or try to make it palatable is to do violence to the film. I specifically argued that a “nice” PASSION would have failed to capture the point of the Atonement — that Jesus was bearing all the sins of the world, and that His stripes *should* make you recoil.

To act in a realistic, human register *in this story* would be false to the profanity of what the soldiers are doing. This is why the complaints about how the film is too violent are so utterly misguided. This is the Son of God atoning for all the world’s sins, dammit. If any event deserves to be portrayed as Big, over-important, it’s this one. We’re seeing, at a certain level, an act of evil beyond comprehension and so cranking up the whipping to the infinitieth degree is the only way to make the scale of the point, given that Gibson is restricted to making a film featuring a mere man. Look at the contrast between Jesus’ body by the time He is crucified and those of the two thieves. If Jesus looks like the two thieves, the brutality is merely equal and thus the uniqueness of this suffering and death, what makes it the Atonement, is not shown.

Now, Gibson has made a liar out of me. And, by recutting the film to make it less violent, has acknowledged that it was too violent in the first place. (second sentence added by VJM after initial publication as the perfect “nut sentence”)

Dom points out (correctly, probably) that more people will see the film if there’s a less-violent cut available. That may be true, but I’m not sure that this would justify undermining the film’s theology to the extent that toning down the violence would. Dom would hoot (and has hooted) at people who argue that the Church should try to get more butts in the pews by making the liturgy more “accessible” or “relevant” or having Bible translations that are more “modern” or otherwise dumbed-down. CAVEAT: I well understand the difference between a movie, which will be ashes and dust someday, on the one hand and on the other hand the inspired Word of God and/or the Holy Mass, the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ. I’m obviously NOT saying the matter is as grave. But still, an analogous point can be made — that all are a form of watering down a thing in a bid to broaden the audience. I’m all for accessibility and popularity — but only to the extent consistent with the thing sought. And at some point, watering down a rite, a book or a film all become inconsistent with the point of the rite, the book, the film — whatever the distance between the gravity of those points might be. I’m not sure you do people much good by making no demands whatever of their “comfort zone.” In fact, to aestheticize the Passion (or to be more precise, to only watch a fictional representation of it if it has been aestheticized) does not seem to me very different from attempts to write off the Gospels as mere myth — both are attempts to duck historicity, that God took on human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. And that Jesus was specifically crucified for my sins (every “my” in the world in fact) and this is what crucifixion is. Both aestheticization and mythologizing seem like species of the same type of squeamish reaction to this too, too solid flesh.

March 3, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment