The furor over the furor

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Cashing in on "The Passion" Christian bookstores are selling memorabilia such as this 2. 5 inch long, pewter spike, inscribed with references to scripture.

Mel Gibson’s movie opens and the cash registers are jingling.

By David Wallace/Special to The Malibu Times

Twenty years or so ago, fathers everywhere spent an inordinate amount of time and money buying and assembling all kinds of toys for their children inspired by the “Star Wars” films. The sale of such memorabilia from the series was so profitable, in fact, it basically kicked off what today is a huge secondary market for movies, as integral to selling a movie as advertising- merchandising.

Unless you live on the far side of the moon, it’s no news that Malibu resident Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” has been the most talked about, argued over, and socially polarizing film of the past few years. Newsweek suggests it may be ” … the most divisive movie in history.” The furor over it has been credited with fueling an astonishing first two weeks’ ticket gross of some $125 million, nearly five times the amount Gibson personally laid out to make it.

The controversy seems to be fueling a “Star Wars”-like sales bonanza for the film’s memorabilia as well. An informal check with a number of local Christian bookstores, the outlet for most of “The Passion’s” memorabilia, revealed that the book with pictures from the film, and a foreword by Gibson, is selling about as fast as it can be stocked, at the price of $24.99. There are also available the expected CD with the film’s score, coffee mugs and a host of pictures framed with appropriate Biblical quotations. The stores are also selling “witness cards” containing quotations from the movie and a prayer, lapel pins and a pair of “pocket tokens” to, presumably, motivate you to see the movie every time you fish around in your pocket or purse for change. Many of them are available inscribed in one’s choice of English or Aramaic which, along with Latin-like Aramaic, considered a “dead” language- is the only language spoken in Gibson’s film. To anyone’s knowledge, the only place on earth where Aramaic is still spoken is two small villages in the Middle East, so the effort seems contrived at best. The book, also available from Amazon at a discount, is not available in Aramaic, at least not yet.

But what has fascinated media most out of the merchandising products is a replica of the spike with which Jesus is nailed to the cross in Gibson’s film. It is 2.5 inches long, made of pewter and hangs on a leather strap for wearing around the neck. It costs $12.99. Dave Browne, CEO of the Family Christian Stores, says the spike “emotionalizes the suffering He (Jesus) went through.” One observer, however, suggested that it would probably become a de rigeur dress accessory at Los Angeles’ and Manhattan’s gay leather bars, hardly the purpose Gibson or its manufacturer, Bob Siemon Design of Santa Ana, intended.

Merchandising is one part of a movie’s strategic marketing plan these days; another is making sure that important movie critics are treated with tender loving care to, hopefully, precondition them to like a particular film. But that thinking seems to have gone out the window with Gibson’s movie. Although there were a few major critics who liked it, among them Roger Ebert, rarely has the release of a film been greeted with such a barrage of rabidly negative reviews from major press. The New York Times’ A. O. Scott considered the movie to be a “… melodramatic exercise in high-minded sadomasochism … utterly lacking in grace.” David Denby of The New Yorker said, “… the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony … Mel Gibson has lost it.” Time summed it up as a

“… relentless, near pornographic feast of flayed flesh.”

Either the people buying tickets can’t read or won’t read any anti-Christian comments; you can hardly get into a theater screening the movie. (Gibson, although vociferously denying charges from Jewish leaders that his movie is anti-Semitic, hardly helped his credibility by dismissing bad reviews, according to the New York Times, as reflecting “anti-Christian sentiment.”)

True, many churches bought up blocks of tickets, among them Malibu Presbyterian Church, which joined Pepperdine University in sponsoring a special screening in Agoura two days before the film’s Ash Wednesday opening, but the real lesson seems to be that the ticket-buying public-at least this portion of it-doesn’t care what the critics are saying.

It appears, though, that Hollywood, the industry from which Gibson has reaped millions over the years, does care. Because of the anti-Semitism controversy and Gibson’s reluctance to distance himself from his father, who asserts the Holocaust is mostly fiction, the Hollywood film establishment, both Jewish and non-Jewish, seems to be distancing itself from him. Last week, the New York Times also reported that the chairmen of at least two major studios said they would avoid working with Gibson because of “The Passion of the Christ” and the star’s remarks surrounding its release. “Neither of the chairmen would speak for attribution,” the paper reported, “but as one explained, ‘It doesn’t matter what I say. It’ll matter what I do. I will do something. I won’t hire him. I won’t support anything he’s part of. Personally, that’s all I can do.'”