Jesus and Jonatha
Thoughts on Gibson's Passion and Brooke's Circus

So, did you all know that Dweezil Zappa and Lisa Loeb have a cooking show on the Food Network? Seriously. This makes me sadder than I can properly articulate.

I am typing this on my brand new Dell Dimension 8300 computer, my first column on the new beast. It is, in the words of the old show, better, faster, stronger than my aging Compaq, which I have mercifully put to bed. I get all my morning internet work done in eight minutes now, and I’m often finding myself sitting at the screen at 8:30 a.m. thinking, “Now what? How can I fill the rest of my day?” My monitor is like a tiny flat-screen TV, and my keyboard is somehow more receptive to pressure than my last one, making fast typing an easy and comfortable task. I’m halving my time on emails and other writings, just because I enjoy it more on the new board.

So here’s to a long and happy relationship. Let the honeymoon begin. I’m already enjoying my new Dell Jukebox, which, on shuffle, has just given me “I’m Bugged” by XTC, “Wintergreen Eyes” by Donnie Vie, and a selection from Peter Gabriel’s score to The Rabbit-Proof Fence, all in a row, like the best radio station on the planet.

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I haven’t said much about the Oscars this year, mainly because they seemed preordained. It was Lord of the Rings’ year, and anyone who has seen the films knows what a towering achievement in filmmaking they are, even if they’re not very good movies in the final analysis. Peter Jackson, at the very least, deserved his Best Director award, even if the voters, by necessity, considered the trilogy as a whole instead of just the third installment.

Outside of the Rings sweep, there weren’t any surprises, either. Much as I was pulling for Bill Murray, Sean Penn had this in the bag, and it was his turn. Sofia Coppola for screenwriter? Certainly. Charlize Theron winning for what I hear is an incredible performance in Monster? Sure. Why not? It was all so… blah this year, really. Maybe I’m just outgrowing silly awards shows, but the only part of the night I can truly say I enjoyed was Jack Black and Will Ferrell singing a song about lengthy acceptance speeches. Even the venerable Errol Morris came off like a bit of a schmuck.

I will give props to Sean Penn for mentioning the performance that I thought should have been honored above most others this year: Paul Giamatti’s in American Splendor. Once again, my favorite film of the year wasn’t even nominated, but I can’t complain that heavily this year because I just didn’t see a whole lot of films. Very little looked captivating enough to brave hordes of rude, inconsiderate people in order to pay nine dollars to see.

I have, however, already seen a film that I believe will be represented next year: The Passion of the Christ. And where to start talking about this?

Let’s begin here: Passion is, without question, the single most violent and brutal film I have ever seen, and I have no desire to see it again. There is a 25-minute scourging sequence, in which Jesus is whipped with multi-tailed contraptions tipped with metal blades that tear chunks from his flesh and leave him covered (literally, covered) in red gashes. I never have to see that again. Also, the nailing scenes, in which Jesus is attached to the cross in the most graphic manner imaginable? Never, ever want to watch that again. There were young children in the audience at my showing, and they were quite rightly disturbed.

Does all this gore have a point? That depends. Mel Gibson’s point is, most assuredly, that Christians have forgotten how unbelievably brutal the death of Jesus was, and bloodless passion plays in community churches have dulled people to the graphic nature of this sacrifice. I have spoken with Christians who came out of this movie deeply moved, because they see these lashings and think, every time, “That was for me. He’s going through this for me.” This is undoubtedly the context in which Gibson wishes you to view his film.

Trouble is, the movie itself doesn’t provide this context. Very little time is spent on telling the audience who Jesus was, and what he said, and why he said it. You’re expected to bring this context with you. But what if you don’t? There’s no doubting the power of the images in this film, but they remain unfocused to anyone who doesn’t already know what they mean. The movie doesn’t wield its power; it doesn’t argue its case. Hence, it allows you to filter it through whatever context you bring with you.

And that’s part of the reason, I believe, that Jewish groups are railing against the perceived anti-Semitism here. I believe there isn’t any – Caiaphas is cast in a negative light, certainly, but there are numerous other Jewish people who are portrayed much more sympathetically than, for example, the Roman centurions. The Pharisees represent a power struggle, a religious and political organization gone bad, and are not meant to characterize a nation. Or at least, that’s what I think, but see? The movie doesn’t support or refute my point effectively.

This is, absolutely, a film made for a particular audience, but millions outside that audience are going to see it. Some will wonder about this Jesus guy, and why he did what he did. Others will see it through the eyes of their own beliefs, and nothing in the movie will challenge their notions. And still others, perhaps the largest segment, will go see The Passion of the Christ out of curiosity, and get a two-hour film about a guy being whipped, beaten, nailed to a cross and brutally killed, in spectacularly gory detail. The fact that the film doesn’t effectively present itself as more than that is, to my mind, troubling.

And yet, I remain shaken by Passion, and I am in awe of Jim Caviezel, who plays the obviously inaccurate white-guy-with-perfect-teeth Jesus with incredible power. His eyes alone deserve their own Oscar. As a piece of cinema, this movie is stunning, powerful and unsettling. It tells an important part of a larger story very well – sometimes too well – and whether or not you believe in Jesus, the sheer filmmaking deserves respect. It is what it is, though – a part of a larger story, and I just wish that the movie didn’t invite you to write the rest on your own.

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Who knows what Jonatha Brooke might think about sharing a column with Jesus…

Jonatha Brooke is another of those literate, melodic singer/songwriters that I love and of whom the rest of the world has never heard. Check out my columns from early 2002, when I was trying to find a copy of her Steady Pull album in any music store I could find in Tennessee. I finally had to special-order it from Maine. Similarly, when I tried to find her new one, Back in the Circus, at my otherwise excellent CD store here in Maryland, I had to dig through the jazz section. ‘Cause it’s distributed by Verve, I guess, even though it plainly says “file under pop” on the back cover.

Suffice it to say that Brooke does not play jazz. She writes and sings glorious pop songs, in the vein of Neil Finn and Aimee Mann, and Circus is her sixth album, counting the two she made with the Story. She’s another in that long list of musicians who ought to be far better known than they are – you know, that list of names I’m always going on about. What’s infuriating about Brooke’s continued obscurity is the same thing that gets me riled up about others like her, such as Finn, Beki Hemingway, Michael Roe, etc: Brooke’s music is accessible, likeable, and would strike a chord with people, if only they could hear it. But with our current radio and distribution system, that’s never going to happen.

Brooke has been on an upswing since divesting herself of major labels in 2000. She watched her best album to that point, 10 Cent Wings, die a forgotten death on MCA Records, and quickly grew disillusioned with the major label scene. Like Aimee Mann, she formed her own label, Bad Dog Records, and has been using it to release her work ever since. And the work has reflected her newfound freedom – her newest songs usually turn out to be the best she’s ever done.

The eight Brooke compositions on Back in the Circus keep the tradition going. These are the best, most varied songs she’s ever put out, and although I will probably always love “Because I Told You So” (from Wings) best of all, there’s no doubting the increase in craft and emotion this album represents. The title track opens the record with a graceful waltz, “Better After All” may be her best shot at a hit single yet, “Everything I Wanted” is a great juxtaposition of desperate music and contented lyric, and “It Matters Now” is a delightful song, perhaps her most mature work to date.

Elsewhere, Brooke dips into electronic colorings, and finds them to her taste. “Sleeping With the Light On” is more eerie than anything she’s yet done, and “Less Than Love is Nothing” soars on a clubby beat and a lovely chorus. Brooke’s gorgeous voice, here and elsewhere, is a wonder all to itself. The album is remarkably diverse, almost to the point of disconnection – we jump from the trippy ambience of “Love” to the progressive pop of “Sally” and into the naked, beautiful sparseness of “No Net Below” without a break. She even caps it with a breathtaking rendition of an unlikely song: “Eye in the Sky,” originally by the Alan Parsons Project and brought to new life here. It’s the best example of finding the hidden potential in a song since Tori Amos covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and a great way to conclude the record.

If only she’d quelled her cover-version urge there. Alas, Brooke brought her album nearly to the brink of ruin with the inclusion of two more re-imaginings, as the Dirty Dancing people call them. As much as you might think an electro-pop version of “Fire and Rain” might be cool, trust me, it isn’t, and doing the same injustice to Brian Wilson’s revered “God Only Knows” is even worse. The latter song is one of the very best ever written – and it’s not just me talking here – and its original recording is still considered one of the finest ever undertaken, so why mess with it?

What we need on a Jonatha Brooke album is not another “God Only Knows,” but more Jonatha Brooke songs. These covers don’t fit in, and they break up the album’s flow immeasurably. Brooke would have been better served by writing a couple more tunes, or even leaving her James Taylor and Beach Boys homages off entirely. The result would have been short (nine songs), but it would have been her best album.

I’m becoming more and more enamored with my CD player’s skip button, though, and this is one of those cases for which it was made. Circus is also a good argument for paid song-by-song downloads. Getting this record off of iTunes, minus the bad covers, will only cost you nine bucks, and while you won’t get the packaging, you will get a better album than I got for $13. Back in the Circus is a wonderful record with two glaring flaws that nearly kill it completely, and that’s a shame. But with my luck, her trip-hop “Fire and Rain” will become the hit single she’s been chasing for 10 years now, create sales for this album in the millions, and go on to define her as an artist. So really, what do I know?

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I’m planning a retrospective column about Cerebus, one of the towering achievements of comic book storytelling, for after I’ve read the final issue. Since subscribers got their copies of #300 last week, I’m expecting to buy mine next Wednesday. Watch out for that, is all I’m saying, plus a look at the Cure’s box set, and reviews of Peter Mulvey, BT and Joe Jackson. Plus, on the horizon, a progressive rock detour with the new one from Fish, Field of Crows, and the two-disc Marbles from Marillion. Only a month to go before that one drops…

See you in line Tuesday morning.