Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds
An Arrangement by J. Hoberman
What do Tom Cruise, the beating of Jesus, and the zombie apocalypse have to do with each other? Apparently a lot, or enough to justify a screening by the famous film critic J. Hoberman. Part of Film Comment Selects as Film Society at Lincoln Center was a special late screening of the curiously titled Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds.
If that title sounds a little insane, pulling it apart actually gives you a sense of what you’re actually watching: Land of the Dead, Passion of the Christ, and War of the Worlds. The idea for the screening is something Hoberman, who covered experimental cinema for over forty years at the Village Voice before being laid off earlier this year, has done in classes at Cooper Union and New York University for years. Instead of forcing students to sit through “bad” movies (his pejorative, not mine), why not choose similarly linked films and project them at the same time?
And thus, Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds is a bizarre experiment in examining three unique works of post 9/11 cinema. The film isn’t so to say a film—Hoberman called himself more of an arranger than a director, as his work was done less on the screen than signaling the cues up in the projection booth at Walter Reade. The film began even before we entered the cinema, as classic country and Bernard Hermann scores filled the airwaves, and the screen filled with an ominous blue picture of a house and a title card reading “Today” (actually an early still from George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead). It remains on screen as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ began to play (silently, though the subtitles for the film’s Aramaic dialogue) meant we could still follow it. Eventually, another projector began playing the first tripod sequence from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which some may remember as an intense thrill ride filled with 9/11 imagery. And then the sequence played again. And two more times.
Hoberman explained in the film’s post Q&A that it served as a primer to Land of the Dead, though he also wanted the two films to line up (since Passion is much longer). Eventually, Land of the Dead played right over Passion of the Christ, with the two film’s visual styles clashing right on top of each other. As Hoberman explained, the idea in his classes was that students could sit through multiple films and then in their post-screening discussions, find links in the films both visually and thematically (I asked about other “experiments,” which is originally based on a Ken Jacobs project, he had done—these includes Titanic and Armageddon, and all four Rocky films).
I wasn’t taking notes, and neither was the audience, but the three film’s certainly share a tendency to explore some of our Bush era anxieties. While Spielberg’s is the most obvious, the opening to Romero’s film felt much more political in its examination of the Iraq war than it did when it hit theaters, and Gibson’s torture spouting epic certainly felt like some sort of allegory for the torture practices of the former administration. Many also noticed how Romero uses the same visual cues to represent his leader zombie that Gibson uses to represent the heroic Jesus (prompting the thought, zombie Jesus?).
There were more, a few of them obvious and getting laughs (when you are comparing Tom Cruise to Jesus, you are certainly going to get laughs), though if anything, it was interesting to reevaluate Land of the Dead in the age of #OccupyWallStreet and Passion of the Christ in terms of…whatever Gibson is doing in that movie. If anything, Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds made me want to go down to Cooper Union and sign up for the class to discuss how these films represent our post 9/11 age, and see whatever strange combinations run through the mind of America’s most avant-garde film critic.