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May 12, 2006

Dodging DaVinci

I'm intrigued by the debates among religious leaders (article via Green Cine) about how to respond to the upcoming release of Ron Howard's film version of The DaVinci Code. As Laurie Goodstein points out, both evangelicals and Catholics are divided on how to address the film, which many regard as blasphemous in its implication that Jesus may have been less than divine. Not surprisingly, many groups including the Culture and Family Institute, headed by Robert H. Knight, are calling for a boycott of the film, with Kinght commenting, "I don't have to see 'The Devil in Miss Jones' to know it's pornography, and I don't have to see 'The Da Vinci Code' to know that it's blasphemous."

While I have no plans to see DaVinci, I find such arguments deeply frustrating, precisely because they refuse the opportunity to engage with audiences who are quite clearly incredibly curious to see the film (at least if the novel's long-running bestseller status is any indication). To be fair, many Christians such as Richard J. Mouw, have argued that it's important for some Christians to see the film, but I'm more curious about teh motivations and assumptions behind calling for a boycott of DaVinci. The refusal to engage with the film seems to assume that audiences will be manipulated by the film, taking its representation of reality as the gospel truth, rather than viewing it as a historical thriller, or even an alternate history of sorts. Instead of asking what is wrong with the film, a more interesting question to ask might be why so many people, many of whom identify as Christians, have expressed such interest in the novel and film. Well over two years after I wrote it, my discussion of The DaVinci Code remains one of my most visited entries. And, in general, we are seeing more films exploring the intersections between religion and politics, as Alex points out in his early review of Amazing Grace, a film about Christian convert William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish the UK slave trade, directed by Michael Apted.

My own perspective draws from my experiences while attending an evangelical Christian college in the late 1980s and early 90s. While I was a student there, several of my classmates organized a boycott of Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ based solely on reports about the film. As someone who was already engaged with questions of representation, especially when it came to the church, I was curious to see the film but as a nervous freshman, I worried that crossing my friends' boycott line might make me unpopular, so I didn't see Temptation in theaters. Plus I didn't have a car.

The other odd aspect of this debate is Barbara Nicolosi's suggestion that DaVinci is somehow a blue-state film. Nicolosi discounts Sony's claims that the film can be used as a tool for evangelism, arguing that "All they care about is getting the box office, and if they don't get the red states to turn out, the movie tanks." Given the degree to which DaVinci has been such a huge cultural phenomeon, it seems undeniable that many of those readers are living in red states. But in both cases, there is little discussion of how audiences are engaging with Brown's novel, whether they take his claims of an alternate history seriously, or whether they selectively interpret the novel, accepting certain details and not others. The comments in my blog entry depict a range of responses, some of them condemning the novel for its limited notion of art history or its purple prose while others praise it for challenging them to read the Bible more carefully or to rethink the history of the Catholic Church.

More than anything, I think that what interests me about the controversy is its opening up questions of spectatorship and audience, about how we watch movies and use them to make sense of the world around us. I probably won't see the movie in the near future because it has Tom Hanks in it and because there are so many other movies I want to see before I leave DC, but I will be interested in seeing how others respond to the film.

Posted by chuck at May 12, 2006 3:54 PM

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Posted by: McChris at May 17, 2006 12:11 AM

You know, they kind of have a point. I'm just plain not interested in seeing the film. Plus there are way too many other movies (a revival of Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows and the doc to name two). looks like a good weekend for movies around here.

Posted by: Chuck at May 17, 2006 12:25 AM

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