Sunday, February 29, 2004

The Passion of the Christ. There's been a lot of hoop-de-doo about it: Is it too violent? Is the violence justified? Is it an accurate portrayal of Christ's crucifixion?

Or is it overkill, just more fuel for anti-Semitism and good old Christian guilt?

To me, it's really neither. Mel Gibson earned accolades for Braveheart in 1995, and rightfully so. But anyone using that film to rest their knowledge of Scottish history and independence would do well to look to Norman Davies' The Isles and any other halfway decent scholarly text on William Wallace's history, rise and fall, and not to a Hollywoodized version of the facts. Moreover, the book upon which the film is based (Braveheart, by Randall Wallace, who has since made a career for hismelf whoring out scripting talents on such classics as Pearl Harbor and "Dark Angel") touts itself as a dramatization, nothing more.

Ditto for The Passion. Gibson based the film off the Apostles' in the Bible, and even a cursory flipping through the pages (which I did last night, not having the benefit of Sunday school) finds all the film's key lines. But if you want to split hairs about historical accuracy--and I sure can't blame anyone, being somewhat anal in this department myself--don't look to the Bible in the first place. Nothing in there about how the Romans crucified people. Nothing in there about where they used nails on Christ's hands. Nothing in there about how much of the cross Christ hauled through the streets towards Golgotha. If you want details like that, look to the basics (A History of the Roman Empire) or even J.M. Roberts.

The Passion is all about artistic depiction, couched in religious meaning. Whatever the hell that means.

Is the film violent? Absolutely. The scourging is probably the worst of the lot (arguably)--once Jesus is nailed to the cross and hoisted into the air with a bad joke above his head, I was sufficiently desensitized to the entire ordeal. I mean, I've seen the statues in churches and museums. I never saw chunks of flesh being ripped out of anyone's side before, in real life or in a movie. In case the trailers don't drop the hint, here it is: This is not a popcorn and soda movie.

Is the film too violent? Depends. I hear plenty of devout Christians are up on their soapboxes, both in church and on the net, arguing that that violence is essential for understanding the depth of their devotion and the extent of Christ's sacrifice. Makes sense to me, although still, it is movie violence. There's lots of blood flying all over the place, but my knowledge that it was makeup and special effects (despite the extraordinary efforts of James Cavaziel during filming, being struck by lightning, whipped and all) protected me from any such instruction.

Is the film anti-Semitic? Only to the typical horse's ass that labels the actions of the whole by those of the few. The Jewish priests are suitably slimy and despicable, but then, so are the Romans, and so are the apostles who betray their Messiah. And the fact that Satan lurks in the midst of a crowd of Jews during several key scenes doesn't say much to me, except that maybe he would have been more noticeable behind Pontius Pilate. Duh.

Is the film a masterpiece? Unquestionably. I have to separate my agnosticism from appreciating Cavaziel's performance, in addition to Monica Belluci's as Mary Magdalene, Maia Morgenstern's as Mother Mary, and Hristo Shopov's as Pontius Pilate. There are special effects, true, but they take an almost unprecedented back seat to human pathos and deliverance. Besides that, there are some genuinely creepy segments (one involving a tormented Judas Iscariot--Luca Lionello--being chased by demon children; another towards the end, with Satan--Rosalinda Salentano--raging in Hell because Christ didn't deny his God) that play out well, computer effects or not.

On a personal note, having little to no formal religious schooling, the whole ordeal got cinematically (cinematically, mind you) exhausting. Christ hauls the cross; he falls down; he gets whipped; he gets back up. Down he goes; he gets whipped; he picks himself back up, his allies crying, the Romans and Jews throwing stones and curses all the while. That had to be a good forty minutes of the end sequence, and it does get repetitive (okay, so I'm going to Hell now if I wasn't before). Still, to give credit where credit is due, Gibson handles these scenes masterfully. They're anything but boring.

That's my one-and-a-half cents on the film, for what it's worth, Which is about half a cent less than I shot for. Any religious film that makes such waves has got to be good, but again, if it's used as gospel, that's when I start to get a little miffed. Why not check out Kundun then? Go read the Torah. Go read about Muhammad.

"Truth" is a slippery word. All bullshit aside, this film is art, not history. Watch it accordingly.
Journal of the Week in the Life of a Teacher in the South Bronx. I should get down on my knees and thank Whoever that I'm teaching where I don't have to worry about fights and threats. I really should.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

My Triumphant PT Conference

Another round of parent teacher conferences tonight. Those are always a hoot. This year, the powers that be gave us a half day, and absolutely nothing to do until the 4:30 meetings began. I took distinct advantage of my time by slinking off to my apartment, downing two pints of Guiness and a ham and cheese sandwich and sacking out on the couch for fifty minutes or so, after which I got up, scrubbed the alcohol off, put on a badly-knotted tie, and slunk back to the office, a big shiteating grin for the parents bared in almost desperate fanaticism.

Usually, the high-achievers are the ones to show up, and all I can really say is, "Yeah, your kid is great, just great, tell them to keep staying awake and using Sparknotes." This time, a few deadbeat kids' parents showed up, and I got to set the record straight: "Yeah, your kid isn't doing so well, tell them to open the fucking book now and again and start using Sparknotes. It's all Sparknotes, you know."

By seven p.m. I was starving, not having had any dinner, and I'd already rescued a colleague from a bulling parent who wanted to know why kids had to take a class in government instead of just taking the stupid Constitution test. I kid you not. Her exact words.

But one of my high-achievers' parents showed up, and I found myself in a position to actually do some good for once in my sterling six-year career.

The parent is Russian, sixty years old, heavy accent, nice as can be. I've met her once before, but I never did learn how to pronounce her name correctly. Since you only meet with these people for ten minutes tops, it never becomes much of an issue, but with a woman as nice as her, it pays to be considerate.

Her kid is doing well in my, and all classes, except he gets himself tied in knots fairly easily. I showed Mom the grade and she asked me if I saw any weaknesses. "Well, actually," I said, phrasing my words as carefully as I could, "he seems to take himself to task way too much. If we could find a way for him to push himself without giving himself stomach ulcers along the way, that would be very much to his benefit."

(I can sound so damned classy when I want, yeah? It would have helped if I could have punctuated this with her name, though.)

She was nodding in agreement. "He wants to be a doctor," she said (although, to capture the spirit, with her accent, it sounded like, "He vant too be a dochtur"). "I'm sure he will be. He can be whatever he wants to be. I'm just worried I won't be able to see it." ("Vunt be apple too see." Oh my bleeding piles.)

"Now what do you think you're saying?" I asked in mock belligerence. "You'll see it. Don't give me that."

She chuckled. "It's fifteen years later he'll be a doctor. I am not a young woman any more, Mr. L."

"You'll see it. You have to." I paused, feeling myself on very thin ice. I mean, it's not often I discuss women's ages, least of all the mother of a student. But what the hell. Maybe this will get me into heaven some day. "You know the story of Schezerdade?"

She shook her head, and I could see (at least, I think I saw) the wheels turn: This man is a teacher and he's going to teach me something and I respect teachers but I'm not that interested but I should be because he's a teacher and...

"A woman is captured by a king, or an emperor. Or something--I forget which. Anyway, she's sentenced to death if she can't tell a good story. So she spins out a yarn, but leaves it at a cliffhanger right before her time is up. The king or emperor is beside himself--he wants to hear more. So he keeps her alive another day to hear the story. The next day she tells more of the story, but leaves it at another cliffhanger, and saves her life for another day. And so on. And so on. The king is so interested, he can't bear to not have the story completed.

She immediately started cracking up, probably sensing the next part of the "lesson."

"That's what your son is doing. He's your Schezerdade."

It was a full minute before she stopped laughing. Other teachers were looking over in my direction, probably wondering what the hell I was doing, chatting her up or something? "I love a good sense of humor," she told me.

I only smiled and shrugged, not sure whether I'd been telling a joke or not.

She thanked me for my time, got up to go, and then embraced me in the first, last and only bear hug a parent has ever given me in my life. Then she released me, stepped back and bowed. "Thank you."

I only smiled and nodded idiotically. It's a mark of my times that I immediately wondered if I had a potential sexual harassment suit on my hands, but after a while the caution wore off and I thought the whole thing was incredibly cool. I'll probably never see the old woman again--her son is acing my class and he'll graduate in June--and that's a shame.

I really would have liked to learn how to pronounce her name.