Jim Vs. David

Selling out with The Passion Recut

By Jim Van Nest & David Mumpower

April 26, 2005

Jim Caviezel thinks about all the great parts he'll get now that he's made a blockbuster.

Welcome to Thunderdome, population BOP staff. Face it, the concept is all the rage in Hollywood these days. Two major Hollywood franchises are faced off against one another in an epic struggle. The prize is not the salvation of the planet, though. Instead, the mutually beneficial goal is a blockbuster opening weekend, a long existence on DVD and renewed life for the franchises in question. We don't have quite the same greedy goals as our Hollywood brethren, but we do like the concept of pitting irresistible forces against immovable objects just to see what happens. It's pretty much the only excitement we get during the NFL off-season. So, with this in mind, we debut our new column this week. With each outing, our readers may look forward to seeing the most bellicose members of the BOP staff square off in debate over the current movie issues of the day.

The Passion of the Christ was THE movie story of 2004. We even ranked it as such in our annual review of the Top Ten Film Industry Stories. Mel Gibson used the novel tactic of grass roots marketing in unconventional, historically anti-Hollywood areas (read: churches). The staggering success not only took the box office by storm but also foreshadowed American politics during an election year. Clearly, there was a populist sentiment that was not being represented by the mainstream media (save arguably Fox News). Gibson tapped into this silent zeitgeist and its unspoken yearning for a more conservative, religious point of view. The result was a box office success story that surpassed any reasonable expectation for the $30 million production.

The artist formerly known as Lethal Weapon was hailed for his maverick movie making and his daring decision to make the film using the archaic language of Aramaic rather than English. In short, he was championed as an auteur who refused to sell out to make a quick buck. His cosmic reward for such a practice was the kismet of receiving a monetary perk that was tenfold what had been considered to be a best case scenario for The Passion of the Christ only three months prior to its release. The artist held true to his vision and was remunerated in proper karmic fashion for holding firm to his artistic sensibilities.

Fast forward to the first quarter of 2005. A family-friendly version of The Passion of the Christ was released in order to further expand the Message of Mel. This director's cut saw the most scourging of sequences wholly excised in order to relieve the audience of some of its discomfort. Word had spread over the year that a certain percentage of people claimed to want to see the movie, but they were put off by the harrowing account of the Biblically accurate final days of Jesus Christ. In order to appeal to their more delicate sensibilities, Gibson kowtowed to their request, something he had been unwilling to do with Hollywood executives. The results were middling. The Passion Recut added less than half a million to the prior 2004 total. The financial failure of the re-release notwithstanding, did Mel Gibson sell out and betray himself as a hypocrite or did he prove himself willing to do whatever was requisite in order to get his message out?

By Jim Van Nest

Not only do I say that the recent re-release of The Passion of the Christ is Mel Gibson selling out, I say it's only the most recent example of how he sold out this film. It's not the first and, I must admit, I'm a little saddened to say, it likely will not be the last.

Mel has turned himself into the Biblical George Lucas with what he's done to this ambitious project.

The evolution of this picture starts with the name. Originally titled "The Passion", I can only assume some suit somewhere determined that Mel better add "of the Christ" to the end of the film, because I can only imagine that Joe Movie-goer couldn't have figured out this was a religious film by the posters, trailers and other forms of advertisement. By itself, in all fairness, that's a pretty small thing for me to complain about. However, the biggest of the big was the choice Mel made to subtitle the film.

The original plan called for The Passion to be filmed using the ancient language of Aramaic, spoken at the time of Christ. This bold move frightened most major studios and forced Gibson to finance most, if not all, of the film's $30 million budget himself. He finally found a distributor in tiny Newmarket Films. However, in a move that surprised me, after finally finding a distributor, he decides to add English subtitles to the film....a move he strictly refused to do when initially shopping the film. Having seen the film and knowing at least a little bit about the Bible, subtitles added very little to the film as the performances were so stellar. Don't believe me? Watch the movie and don't read along. Turn off the subtitles if you can. You'll still get it, I swear.

The film turned out to be the surprise of the year - no, scratch that, the surprise of the decade at least. It made a fortune and was viewed by more people than Gibson could have ever possibly imagined. DVD sales and rentals were crazy. So what does he do? He recuts the film so that Han doesn't shoot....wait a minute, wrong debate. He recuts the film to remove some of the violence. The same violence that in his original opinion was the purpose for the film. The film was made to show the real story of what Christ went through to free all of mankind from their sins. The violence, he told us then, was absolutely necessary to tell the true story he wanted to tell.

Let's add it all up. He's changed the title to dumb it down, in my opinion. He added subtitles, once again to dumb it down. And now he's taken out the violence in a film that was made to completely revolve around the violence. If I could figure out any reason to have re- released the film in any form, perhaps I could figure out why he'd want to release a bastardized version of the film. The only reasons I'm left with are to rake in a few more bucks and (and I think this one is every bit as important as the cash) to flip the bird at all the studios who laughed him out of their offices when he originally pitched this idea.
By David Mumpower

Criticisms painting Mel Gibson as a sell-out are unfounded. There is simply no supportable argument to be made that he undertook The Passion of the Christ for individual gains. Instead, the devoutly religious Traditionalist Catholic took on a personal project in order to leverage his international fame for the express purpose of getting this story to the people.

If there is any debate on this issue, simply consider that Gibson financed The Passion of the Christ with his own money. Sure, it’s easy to argue that for a man who gets $20-$25 million a film, personally financing a $30 million project is no big deal. It just means he would have had to make another Lethal Weapon movie to get his cash back had this production failed. Even so, how many other A-list celebrities do we see utilizing their fame and financial status in such a positive manner? The closest such enterprise in recent memory is, sadly, John Travolta’s presence in and financial backing of Battlefield Earth. Just think about that for a second. The difference between the gold and silver medalists in the Using Their Money for the Greater Good category is Gibson’s re-telling of Christ’s final hours vs. John Travolta putting on tons of make-up and over-using his phony movie laugh again.

Outcries that Gibson has sold out are laughable because only 15 months ago, everyone was referencing this project as Mel’s Folly. There was no selling out to be done because there was such universal consent that the project was doomed from the start. It had foreign language dialogue and Gibson was making no promises about the usage of English captions for clarity’s sake. In short, he wanted to make the most realistic Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion movie possible, and Hollywood suits lined up en masse to laugh him out of the building over the lacking box office potential of his idea. It’s only since he proved the financial viability of such a message to the tune of $370 million in domestic receipts and four million in first day DVD sales that it even became discussed as a possible sell-out concept.

This year, when Gibson announced plans for The Passion Recut, the same critics who swore he would not make any money off this pet project could not wait to decry Gibson’s editing. Why? They are hypocrites, plain and simple. This is an attempt to save face from a previous embarrassment by now moving the target. Gibson is making another Heaven’s Gate…no, wait, he’s making one of the three biggest films of the year, but he’s a sellout. Yeah, that’s the ticket. He sold out. In what world is it possible that the removal of six minutes of violent footage in order to reduce the discomfort of the more squeamish audience members is selling out? When did populism become such a dirty word?

Gibson had a year to consider the criticisms against his project, and he boldly took steps to address said concerns. Isn’t that the textbook definition of a director’s cut? For that matter, shouldn’t we be crediting him for being so conscientious about enhancing the film’s quality? Don’t you wish that George Lucas would go back and edit Jar Jar Binks out of Episode One in order to make that film a trifle easier to stomach? Or that he would take out that mitochlorian DNA nonsense about The Force?

The reality here is simple. Mel Gibson made a movie that critics pre-supposed to be a disastrous project. After they were proven as wrong as humanly possible, a new rationale was espoused to justify the nonsensical hatred many of them have for the project. This is a textbook example of a group of people not learning from one mistake, so they make another one in an attempt to cover up the first. If you were wrong about The Passion of the Christ, tip your cap about it and move along. Finding new ways to bitch only makes you look petty and overly sensitive about prior failures.

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