Mel Gibson's first serious foray into splatter genre cinema, The Passion of the Christ, opens on thousands of screens worldwide today. As if you didn’t know. Named by one US critic as “fetishistically violent” and by dozens of biblical scholars as anti-Semitic or just plain historically wrong, there’s no escaping a vanity project the auteur himself once identified as a potential “career killer.”
This spiritual Ishtar, financed by Gibson, seemed at one interval doomed to fail. It contains no stars, it’s not in English and the likelihood that it would be anywhere near as good as the book was always remote. Yet, media observers are predicting that Passion will enjoy enviable success in its opening pre-Oscar weekend.
"People think I'm crazy, and maybe I am," Gibson said in September 2002 at a news conference in Rome prior to commencing production. "But maybe I'm a genius.”
Whatever the case, modest Mel, who wrote, directed and produced this hulking gore-fest, is set to make a profit befitting a mastermind.
Why!? By many accounts, this product is difficult to endure. If ten minute long flagellation burlesques don’t send you home annoyed, there’s a good chance that dealing with the sound of a rather guttural dead language as interpreted by someone with a face-full of Special Wound Effects make-up will.
Passion should not be an easy product to shift. Yet it is poised to turn a remarkable profit. Marketing graduates of the future will almost certainly study the success of Gibson’s cultural warfare and agree that this is the Greatest Story Every Sold.
Gibson's film company, Icon Productions, may have given exemplary lessons to students of guerrilla marketing.
Last month a widespread and persistent rumour arose that Pope John Paul II was so moved by the flick that he uttered "It is as it was" after credits rolled. This was later denied by the Vatican. The Holy Father, said a secretary, did not give this nor any other feature the two Papal thumbs up.
Icon has eagerly welcomed large group bookings made by clergy. Its Australian website states that the company will liaise “with cinemas on behalf of individual churches” to ensure seating. Gibson’s mass-to-grass approach has also seen many preaching for the film worldwide from virtual pulpits. Emails, websites and faxes overflow with filmic faith and fury.
Investigation of the film’s merchandise reveals a natty “Nail Pendant” . Just like the ones Jesus wore at Easter. Made of pewter and available in two sizes, each with Isaiah 53:5 inscribed on the side, they will set you back $12.99 and $16.99 respectively.
Classiest of all, perhaps, was the appearance a Chevrolet at the 2004 Daytona 500 featuring a special Passion paint scheme.
“I got a kick out of the NASCAR stock car hood. I always suspected that Jesus loved hot rodding, and this only confirms it” says freelance journalist Christopher Noxon from his in-laws’ home in Los Angeles.
Noxon’s interest in publicity strategies deployed by Gibson for Passion is quite personal. For the better part of a year, Noxon himself has functioned as one of Icon Productions most successful marketing implements.
Noxon’s role in the relentless promotion of Passion is curious and complex. This is the guy who first shed a little light on Mel’s faith, Catholic Traditionalism, and the Gibson financed Malibu Church, The Holy Family. He rose to national prominence last year when he shed a little more light on the peccadilloes of one of the Catholic Traditionalist movement’s more vocal commentators, Hutton Gibson.
The freelance journalist, to use Mel’s own analogy in his recent conversation with US journalist Diane Sawyer, is the very same who first tried “to drive a wedge between me and my father."
In stirring up publicity for Passion, Mel has been eager to make enemies. (Of American columnist Frank Rich, Gibson was reported as saying, "I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. ... I want to kill his dog.".) Noxon can lay legitimate claim to being the first “enemy” accused by Mel of attempting to discredit his faith and his film’s pro-Christian message.
Just how was Noxon initially drawn into playing Lucifer to Mel’s marketing martyr?
“My Dad retired a few years ago and bought a house in the countryside near LA. He was out hiking one day and he saw some surveyors’ stakes” says Noxon.
“(Dad) is part of a local neighbourhood group that looked at new developments, mainly big tracts of mini-malls and such. (He) set up a meeting with the developers and found they were called the A P Reilly Foundation, a non profit group. He was curious about it and asked some questions …. They said it was (run by) ‘a very spiritual figure on the world’s stage’. They wouldn’t name the benefactor.”
“I ran the tax information about A P Reilly…and it turns out….. A P Reilly is the name of Mel Gibson’s deceased mother.”
Noxon learned that Gibson financed a church that “didn’t seem like Garden Variety Catholicism.”
“At the time I thought ‘that’s an interesting celebrity titbit’ but it really wasn’t anything I was inclined to write about.”
Then, “news of the movie percolated out of Italy and then I found out about Hutton Gibson while poking around on the internet.” Noxon felt he had the makings of a story and successfully pitched to the New York Times.
While Noxon was preparing the article for press, he attempted contact several times with Mel Gibson via publicist Alan Nierob. Repeated requests for interview explained that the article sought to explore Mel’s faith within the context of his Passion movie project. Noxon requested that Mel discuss his faith “explicitly so there’s no misunderstanding. They ignored that letter. So I just went about interviewing people. Then I located Hutton Gibson down in Texas and he invited me to visit him. I spent the weekend with him. … I went down, I interviewed him and clearly it was pretty explosive stuff. I came back to LA and wrote a letter saying that I had spoken to Hutton, other members of the Traditionalist community and that I had attended a service at Mel’s Church.”
Noxon interviewed Mel’s father early in 2003. With doddery zeal, Papa Gibson questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, denied that Al Qaeda hijackers had anything to do with the September 11 attacks and called the Second Vatican Council ''a Masonic plot backed by the Jews”.
“I wrote to Mel’s people and said I’ve interviewed the father and I wish you’d weigh in. I included some quotes from the father expecting to get a public statement if not a direct interview. Instead I got an eight page single spaced letter threatening to sue me. This came From a guy named Marty Singer who is a notorious journalist suppressor here in LA He is used by Schwarzenegger and J Lo and others who are mainly trying to stop stalk-a-razzi. I think he charges $400 an hour.” Singer, as it happens, is sometimes known as Mad Dog.
None of Noxon’s investigations had been published when the cease-and-desist novella arrived on his doorstep.. After initial shock from the legal volley wore off, and he was assured by the New York Times that his “ass” would be covered, Noxon resumed work on his piece.
A week or so later, Noxon turned on FOX News program The O’Reilly Factor only to find himself being directly addressed by Mel Gibson.
This, says Noxon, “was the first big public explosion. It was insane. I was sitting at home in my pyjamas gob smacked. There was some horrified screaming and jumping around. I couldn’t take it in.”
Noxon, his piece still unpublished, was called by anchor Bill O’Reilly a “slimy hit man for the left”.
“I really wanted to put that on a t shirt” Noxon says.
During the interview, which became fodder for future news programs,. “Mel looks into the camera and he raises his eye brows and says ‘watch out!’ It’s so cheesy.”
One has to wonder about the upshot of a threat, however theatrical, made by Mad Max himself.
“It was deeply surreal. It was very strange. But also kind of cool.” Says Noxon.
The story Is The Pope Catholic…Enough? appeared in the Times. Noxon “kept waiting for the summons to arrive.”
It didn’t. A year on, Noxon is not too anxious, figuring “ there’s so many targets that I’m just one amongst them.”
On the eve of the film’s release, Noxon observes that “the primary reason the movie is going to open so big is all the publicity. So much publicity and so much controversy and now everyone wants to know what the big deal is about. Every evangelical minister in the country is publicising from the pulpit.”
Noxon is ambivalent about his own role in fanning the flames of debate. He is uncertain if Gibson’s reaction represents radical paranoia or acute marketing savvy.
So, is Mel a genius, or is he crazy?
Noxon is unsure.
“I should make the point” says Noxon “that I didn’t ever intend to write the story “Mel’s a loony Christian”. I don’t believe that all Catholic Traditionalists are necessarily insane. I don’t even know that Mel Gibson is insane.”
Perhaps, theorises Noxon, “all of this has been a pre-planned publicity stunt. And if so, it was a master stroke.”