Has My PhD Thesis Become Relevant Again in the Age of Trump?

January 21, 2018

One year into the Trump Administration, I am starting to conclude that my PhD thesis – entitled The Making of a Cultural Moment: Mel Gibson’s “Passion” Goes to the Movies – is becoming relevant again.

Part of my thesis dealt with how movies can reflect our cultural, political, economic and social obsessions – although not always directly, and not exactly in the ways we expect. The most interesting films are those that coincide with our immediate fascinations, meaning that a film – often years in the making – has had some “clue” as to what else was “burbling” along in the collective unconscious and our body politic, a long time before it became apparent to the rest of us.

Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was such a film, coinciding – and helping to create – a “cultural moment”.

And what is our current “moment”? Or, rather the question is, what are contemporary films telling us about our current moment?

Steven Spielberg’s The Post is an obvious one. Some selections:

  • “When a film is bang on the moment, as “The Post” is determined to be, what will remain of its impact when the moment is past? Maybe Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks are possessed, like many of their compatriots, by a deeper dread. Maybe they think that the moment is here to stay.” – Anthony Lane in The New Yorker
  • “At a pivotal time in American history, the government was preventing the press from getting the news out, on the grounds that it would do injury to national security.” – Manohla Dargis in The New York Times
  • The Post is the story of a legacy, but it’s also a rallying cry.” – Stephanie Zacharek in Time magazine
  • The Post examines a crucial moment in American journalism from more than 45 years ago, although the film clearly invites viewers to see the material’s gripping contemporary relevance.” – Tim Grierson in Screen Daily

And what do the other recent Golden Globe nominees (and possible Oscar winners) tells us about our moment?

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (women’s empowerment, #metoo, Black Lives Matter)
  • The Shape of Water (immigration controls and fear of the other)
  • Get Out (Black Lives Matter and fear of the other)
  • I, Tonya (women’s empowerment)
  • Lady Bird (women’s empowerment)
  • The Greatest Showman (a metaphor for the current President?)
  • Dunkirk (are we strategically withdrawing? if so, from what?)
  • Call Me By Your Name (gay marriage, gender diversity)

Another connector between movies and life – at least life, political-style as experienced in the USA – is the well-known figure of Stephen K. Bannon, who seems to court controversy wherever he goes. In a telling New York Times article dated June 26, 2005 (“On the Right Side of the Theater Aisle”), journalist James Ulmer starts this way, quoting Bannon:

The film producer Stephen K. Bannon isn’t just on a crusade. He’s on a roll.

“Look at Feb. 25, 2004 — a watershed week for the Hollywood right,” he said in his Santa Monica office while scribbling a circle around the word “Lord” on his whiteboard. “On Ash Wednesday, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is released theatrically, and on Sunday, ‘Lord of the Rings’ — a great Christian allegory — wins 11 Academy Awards. So here you have Sodom and Gomorrah bowing to the great Christian God, and did you guys notice? No, because 99 per cent of the content in the media’s sewage pipes is the culture of death, not life.”

Bannon – one of America’s greatest recent practitioners of the art of reinvention – understood back in 2005 the strong connection between American popular culture and American political life – an important theme in my thesis – and honed his skills in subsequent years. So much so that he rose just about as high as you can in political life (White House Chief Strategist to the President) before a spectacular fall. A great podcast from NPR’s Embedded program (“How Steve Bannon’s Time In Hollywood Changed Him”) from October 2017 illustrates how well Bannon was schooled in US movies before his move to politics.

The truth about the “current moment” is that it is awfully hard to know what is until it has passed, making the notion of “current” difficult to discern.

But it’s worth trying, and our movies are a great place to start.

Is Risen the New Passion of the Christ?

January 26, 2016

Is “Risen”, the new faith film about the aftermath of Jesus’ Resurrection, the new “The Passion of the Christ”? It’s being billed that way by those hoping to repeat “The Passion’s” great success. The answer is no, it’s not. Because if it were, you’d have heard about it already, in the way that “The Passion” had almost a year’s worth of marketing, publicity and – yes – controversy, prior to its release on 25 February 2004. “Risen” rises on 19 February 2016 both here in Australia and internationally. We can only assume the closeness of these two release dates – late February – is no coincidence.

From the Jewish perspective, the concern about any New Testament film is how Jews are portrayed. There is a long history of film’s showing a direct or implied guilt cast on the Jews for the death of Jesus, despite efforts of the Catholic Church from the 1965 Nostra Aetate onwards.

In a January 22, 2016 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Rich Paluso, Senior Vice President of Affirm, Sony’s faith-based production arm (which financed “Risen”), says of “Risen”:

They are intrigued by the story of what happened, the birth of Christianity and the fact that the infrastructure of Judea, both the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leadership and the Roman leadership were all about crushing this man and crushing His followers. So that automatically lends them credibility.

The official Sony website avoids references to “Jewish leadership”, describing this film as:

“Risen” is the epic Biblical story of the Resurrection, as told through the eyes of a non-believer. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a powerful Roman Military Tribune, and his aide Lucius (Tom Felton), are tasked with solving the mystery of what happened to Jesus in the weeks following the crucifixion, in order to disprove the rumours of a risen Messiah and prevent an uprising in Jerusalem.

“Risen” is directed and co-written by Kevin Reynolds, known for his collaborations with Kevin Costner (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”), followed by a major falling out over “Waterworld”. This caused Reynolds famously to say, “”Kevin should only star in movies he directs. That way he can work with his favourite actor and director”.

Trivia: Rich Paluso’s “three success habits” , according to an interview with The Door Post:

1. Always take notes.
2. Always return everyone’s phone call even if you don’t know them.
3. Always do what you say you are going to do.
(DP comment: good habits, those.)

(image from the film below)


The Passion of the Christ ten years on: are things any different now?

April 18, 2014

It’s been just over ten years since “The Passion of the Christ”, the Mel Gibson blockbuster film about the death of Jesus, opened in cinemas worldwide to great controversy.

The film was controversial for three reasons: excessive violence, the inclusion of “extra” (non)-Biblical events and themes and its suggestive portrayal of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. Of these three issues, it was the last one – Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus – that was the most profoundly unsettling. The film’s directorial auteur Mel Gibson exacerbated this issue by conducting long-running public arguments with a series of media commentators and Jewish religious leaders in the USA. By the time the dust had settled, the film had grossed many hundreds millions of dollars, made Gibson a wildly wealthy man who never had to consider working again, and turned most Jews – along with a large part of American film-makers – against Gibson.

Even now, when the “passion” has faded from the controversy, the mention of Gibson’s name causes ripples of concern in many quarters.

This coming Saturday night – 19 April 2014 – here in Australia, SBS Television is broadcasting “The Passion of the Christ” on its primary channel at 9.30pm, it’s best movie spot. For some years, one or other of the commercial channels – Nine or Seven – broadcast the film, and now the broadcast rights have moved on. Whereas the commercial channels approached the broadcast in a commercial-with-religious-angle way (as they will), SBS is missing the opportunity to engage in some significant community debate about this film.

Just because “The Passion of the Christ” controversy has virtually disappeared does not mean that the film’s content has changed: the same violence, the same extra-Biblical elements and – most importantly – the same negative portrayals of Jews all remain. It was these elements that specifically do not follow the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1988 document “Criteria for the Evaluation of the Dramatizations of the Passion”.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what Sr. Rose Pacatte wrote in “The National Catholic Reporter” wrote on 22 February 2014:

Gibson made a film that confirmed many stereotypes of the Jews, such as depicting the moment when the bag of silver was tossed to Judas in slow motion and Judas looked at it lovingly; the “bad” Jewish men with fang-like teeth and the “good guys” with nice teeth; the sneering hatred from the high priest when he questions Jesus; and Pilate calling the Jews “filthy rabble.” Certainly not the first to do so, Gibson uses stereotypes, some more subtle than others, to create a group of “bad” Jews to confront the “good” Jews consisting of Jesus, Mary and their followers who would be thought of as aligned with Christians today.

It’s a strong film, well-made, and has been very moving for many people. Unfortunately, as Sr Pacatte also found out, most who watch it believe that it is a totally literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Biblical blockbuster “Noah” (by Jewish film-maker Darren Aronofsky) is currently screening in our cinemas. And guess what? It too has excessive violence and loads of extra-Biblical elements. (See my review for more details.) But what it does NOT include are screen images that reinforce ancient prejudices towards Jews – or any other group.

Come on, SBS, get with it. Are you just a commercial television channel with no community responsibility? Doesn’t your status as a national broadcaster and your multicultural charter lead you to attempt to create proper discussion around the significant and misleading elements of “The Passion of the Christ”? From what I can see, apparently not.

Macquarie University graduate address by Don Perlgut

April 20, 2012

Graduate Address – Macquarie University – Wednesday 18 April 2012, 9.30am – to the graduates in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies, Faculty of Arts

Dr Don Perlgut, PhD

(Note: on Wednesday 18 April 2012, I received my Doctor of Philosophy – PhD – from Macquarie University.  I was invited to give the graduate address to my graduating group.  The text of my address is below.)

Chancellor, members of the university, fellow graduates, parents and friends, I am deeply honoured to have been asked to speak this morning on behalf of this graduating class.   I too honour the Daruk people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I acknowledge their elders, past and present.

Congratulations to you, my fellow students for your notable achievements:  you will always remember this graduation, and I can guarantee that your degree will sit prominently both on your mantelpiece and at the top of your resume.

For each of us, attaining this degree has also been the result of a team effort:  the support of family members, friends, advisors, teachers and fellow students.  Please take a moment later today to thank your supporters for their guidance and assistance.

I have a long history with Macquarie University:  I first encountered this august institution in late 1981, when I enrolled for a PhD in urban studies.  I never completed that degree, but the university remembered me.  Eight years ago when I commenced my PhD part-time in what was then known as the Media department, I was issued with the same student number – a number which commences, I am proud to say, with “81”.

At least a few people graduating with us today have student numbers older than mine – and to you I say, aren’t we lucky!  Lucky, because this institution has welcomed and re-welcomed us into its fold, believing in us and encouraging our academic accomplishments with a breath-taking idealism that has lasted decades.

In the 31 years since I first encountered Macquarie, I have met and married the love of my life, had two children, owned three houses and become an Australian citizen.  I have had three different careers and eleven different employers, which include three universities, two non-profit organisations, the ABC, ASIC and two start-up technology companies, neither of which exist today.

I have been a lecturer, film critic, consultant, publisher, business development manager, education officer, project manager, executive director and CEO.  Without exception, I did not and could not have predicted any of those jobs more than a couple of months before they commenced.

Given my own life history, I think back to my early university experiences and I ponder what advice I could have received upon graduation that would have helped me to navigate the uncommon twists and turns which life threw my way.

I undertook my PhD here because I wanted to spend time making sense of the world of media and film.  And that’s exactly what Macquarie University has given me:  the intellectual, professional and personal space, encouragement and support to do just that, within my study of film distribution, exhibition, marketing, cultural studies and religion.

The headline of my dissertation is “The Making of a Cultural Moment”, and I investigated the controversies surrounding the marketing, release and reception of the film The Passion of the Christ, which opened on 25 February 2004 – almost the exact same day I commenced this PhD degree.

From my research into media history, I draw two important conclusions relevant to you, my fellow graduates, particularly those who are at or near the beginning of your careers and life journeys.

The first of these is that history matters.  It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who most famously said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Historians as diverse as Montesquieu, Bernard Lewis and our recently appointed Foreign Minister Bob Carr all concur.  So I exhort you to study the history of both your time and your place in order to help work out where you fit within it.

My second conclusion is that we all have a part in creating our history, even if it does not always feel that way.  As graduates of this important institution, we all have choices. And our respective degrees will enhance both the number and the quality of those choices and opportunities. Some choices are small:  What will I have for lunch today?  But some are large:  Who will I choose for my romantic partner?  Where will I work?  Where will I live?  What is my life goal?

I spent a good part of the last eight years thinking about a certain moment in film history.  What I can tell you now is that this is your historical moment.  For some, it is just a beginning, and for many of us a continuation.  However for all of us, it is a moment of deep and abiding significance.  Thank you,  and I congratulate you again on your achievements.

Don Perlgut PhD confirmed

February 16, 2012

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.

Film-making, September 11th and The Passion of the Christ

December 11, 2011

It’s been three months since the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and I have a number of posts relating to that topic.  Here is the first, on how the events of that day impacted on film-making and in particular the reception of the film The Passion of the Christ.

The events of September 11th had a unique impact on Americans, with attendant implications for how they responded to cultural artefacts such as feature films. Many people assumed that the events would affect American film production, distribution, marketing and reception by promoting a return to patriotism: films that were “righteously patriotic, confident in American might, and freighted with old-fashioned archetypes” (Douhat 2008, p. 53). An often quoted Vanity Fair article by Graydon Carter predicted that, “There’s going to be a seismic change. I think it’s the end of the age of irony…. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear” (quoted in Beers 2001). Further, as Ross Douhat points out, “We expected John Wayne; we got Jason Bourne instead.”

In other words, the immediate years after 2001 were characterised not by rousing patriotic films but by what he calls a return to the 1970s paranoid pessimism and paranoid style of film-making – films like The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). The post-September 11th period has been typified by films such as the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Syriana (2005), Good Night and Good Luck (2005), The Constant Gardener (2005), The Good Shepherd (2006), V for Vendetta (2006), the Jason Bourne trilogy, Michael Clayton (2007), Traitor (2008), Body of Lies (2008) and Burn After Reading (2008). Douhat believes that “it wasn’t just the reassertion of America’s usual frivolity that caused the 9/11 moment to be stillborn; it was the swiftness with which the Iraq War replaced the fall of the Twin Towers as this decade’s cultural touchstone” (Douhat 2008, p. 54-55).

As Stephen Prince points out in his book, Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism, “the weak box office of World Trade Center and United 93, and the commercial failure of all the post-9/11 films released late in 2007, suggest that viewers are rejecting the role that popular cinema might claim in bearing witness to atrocity” (Prince 2009a, p. 305). Other accounts support this: (US) National Public Radio reporter Brooke Gladstone reported what New Yorkers were watching:

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we wondered what movies people were watching for perspective, or solace. When we called a video store on New York’s Upper East Side, the manager said that romantic comedies were flying out of the place. No disaster films, he said, except one — The Siege, made in 1998, an action film with terrorists, and a message (On the Media 2009).

So how did this post 9/11 era in American filmmaking relate to the reception of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ? Dartmouth Professor of Jewish Studies Susannah Heschel wrote in 2005:

Every era invents the Jesus that meets its needs. Gibson’s Jesus is not simply the product of his own religious imagination; he is an expression of the contemporary American cultural moment and a response to the long Christian conundrum of whether Christianity is the daughter religion of Judaism…. To contextualize Muslim terrorism against the West, the film presents a Jesus who is tortured rather than a Jesus who is the leader of a political liberation movement…. This American Jesus of the twenty-first century creates and sanctifies the right-wing memory of the horrific events of September 11, 2001 – the Passion of Christian America – when innocent, defenseless Americans were attacked over and over in a most brutal fashion…. (Heschel 2005, p. 104)

There was substantial publicity about the miracles that reportedly occurred during the making of The Passion. These were in turn directly related to the appeal of September 11th memory: actor James Caviezel was quoted by conservative columnist Peggy Noonan in her 18 March 2004 Wall Street Journal article, saying:

Miraculous things have happened. When I was hit by lightning (during the filming of a crucifixion scene), it was the one day I didn’t have communion. We always had mass and I always received communion but on that one day the priest ran out of hosts. I was up there on the cross and I was hit and we knew I was going to be hit, we could see it coming. And the eyes of the men below me turned glossy. Everything was pink, fire coming from both sides of my head. And there was a sound—it was like the sound of the planes hitting the building on 9/11, a weird, guttural, discordant sound. Not like an explosion. And then afterwards I heard the sound when they played one of the films, the videotape (of the World Trade Center on 9/11, on television) and it was like a shock: “That is the sound of the lightning.” The plane going into the building (Noonan 2004).

Mark Juergensmeyer takes the September 11th analogy one step further, connecting The Passion’s “bad guys” directly to the “war on terror” and writing that the “current preoccupation with religious terrorism is at least one factor explaining the phenomenal interest” in the film, at least in the USA. His point is that the emotions which the film evokes – including the response to intense blood and gore – makes The Passion a “war movie” (given its struggle between good and evil) in which Jesus represents all Americans violated by acts of terrorism and the perpetrators are “the shadowy, bearded and robed figures lurking in the background in the movie” – effectively Muslims or at least a generic “Other” (Juergensmeyer 2004, pp. 279-281, 283).

Here differences between Australia and the USA are apparent. Islamic terrorists executed bombings in Bali on 12 October 2002, killing 2002 people – of whom 88 were Australians. But the Australian mood and reaction at that time was dramatically unlike that in the USA. Expatriate American media executive Bruce Wolpe observed in November 2002 that:

There are significant differences in the national mood right now in America and Australia. September 11 and October 12 are definitively linked, but each event has had a disparate impact on the national psyche. In America, the aftermath from the shock has been mourning, anger, resolve and vengeance. In Australia, the aftermath has been mourning, anger, resolve and temperance (Wolpe 2002).

In a June 2011 speech, former Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Dennis Richardson noted that the events of September 11th profoundly impacted on the American psyche in ways simply not experienced in Australia.  Even though “since 9/11, more Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks globally than Americans – they have been killed outside of Australia.”[1] This was totally unlike the attacks on the American “homeland” which profoundly “changed both attitudes and ways that define how we go about our lives.”[2]

[1] Speech at the United States Studies Centre conference “The 9/11 Decade: How Everything Changed,” University of Sydney, 6 June 2011.

[2] Jeffrey Bleich, American Ambassador to Australia, speech at the United States Studies Centre conference “The 9/11 Decade: How Everything Changed,” University of Sydney, 6 June 2011.

There’s an elephant in the room … Mel Gibson

May 15, 2011

The new Jodie Foster film, The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson has recently opened in the USA (early May 2011), and reportedly is one good film indeed.

Part of the discussion is all about Mel Gibson.  Back in February, it was reported that the film’s opening was being delayed from March 23rd (and indeed from late 2010), on a “backburner when Gibson became embroiled in a nasty domestic dispute with his ex-girlfriend.”

Writing for the Boston Globe (May 1st), Ty Burr starts his article thus:

There’s an elephant in the room and its name is Mel Gibson.  The elephant is travelling everywhere with Jodie Foster these days…. The only thing weirder than the film’s plot is the public firestorm around her star’s offscreen behaviour.

It seems no one can write about the film without writing about Gibson’s trials and tribulations: Rex Reed’s New York Observer article (May 3rd) is entitled “Could The Beaver Resurrect Mel Gibson?” and starts off:

Watching Mel Gibson’s relentlessly reckless self-destruction has been about as much fun as standing by helplessly, observing a truck jackknife on a crowded turnpike.  This is what it must have been like in the old days, when Fatty Arbuckle ruined his career with a Coke bottle and Frances Farmer went from Cary Grant’s leading lady to being dragged, kicking and handcuffed, to the insane asylum.  If Mr.Gibson has any fans left, now’s the time for them to rally. The occasion is The Beaver, a brave and unusual film directed by his longtime friend Jodie Foster, and a good reason for his defense team to say, “I told you so.”

Heavy stuff, being compared with Fatty Arbuckle and Francis Farmer.

The Beaver is not slated to open in Australia until July 21st.  More that film and the Mel Gibson controversy closer to the Australian release date.