Earlier this week, the Macquarie University (Sydney) Academic Senate gave the final tick of approval to my PhD dissertation, which I have completed in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies (MMCCS). I will formally receive the degree in early April. The title of my thesis is The Making of a Cultural Moment: Mel Gibson’s “Passion” Goes to the Movies. Selections from my research for the thesis appear in various parts of this blog. For those who are interested, the thesis abstract is below. Contact me on don(dot)perlgut(at)gmail(dot)com if you have any questions or would like to discuss.
Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ (“The Passion”) burst into American cultural consciousness and confounded numerous observers by its major box office success when released in late February 2004. The film became a major cultural and religious “event,” and highly controversial because of its on-screen violence, extra-biblical interpretations and antisemitic elements.
The Passion now holds a unique position in the history of American film, standing squarely at the intersection of three pillars of American public fascination: politics, religion and the movies. High production values and graphic imagery mean that the film will visually define the death of Jesus for decades to come. I argue that the film’s release coincided with a unique moment in American political and social life: the Republican Party achieved great success with conservative Christian voters in the 2004 Presidential election, and there were widespread feelings of vulnerability and cultural insecurity resulting from the events of September 11th and the second Iraq War. Mel Gibson adeptly promoted his film in the USA through pre-release screenings to Christian “thought leaders,” and readily engaged in public debates with the film’s critics.
The Passion did not achieve similar success in most other countries, with Australia a notable example of how it fared differently. This dissertation argues that this differential success resulted from a lower level of religious belief (including fewer evangelical Protestants), less community and media interest in the controversy through lack of an engaging local “angle” and less favourable local film distribution factors. Despite an enormous amount of initial debate, the film’s public controversy has virtually disappeared. While Mel Gibson’s career now appears to be seriously damaged by a combination of his history of antisemitic statements and erratic personal behaviour, The Passion remains popular with its target audiences and a milestone film of the early twenty-first century.
In order to analyse The Passion’s promotion, marketing and reception, this dissertation draws on a range of empirical data, as well as my own experiences as an Australian film critic.