Saturday, May 20, 2006
Mission DaVinci and the Impossible Code
The DaVinci Code is a book destined to be turned into a film. At its heart, the book is a potboiler, a page turner. It is the perfect airplane book. You pick it up in the airport newsstand, and by the time you’ve begun your decent into your destination, you are approaching the finish line. It has colorful characters and exotic locales. It has an everyman hero. Well, ok, most men aren’t Harvard professors, but there’s no confusing Robert Langdon for James Bond.
That said, in a James Bond movie, it hardly matters if the bomb in the briefcase is really a bomb, or a Macguffin, or a babe’s phone number. The chase is the thing and “why” is not a question that ever passed a double O agent’s lips. What I realized as I watched The DaVinci Code, however, is that ultimately there’s no way to divide the story from the, let’s call it the “theology” upon which it rests. Either you find the Byzantine plot full of historical re-re-enactment and dark Catholic splinter groups compelling or you don’t.
If you don’t, then all you can do is think “but why?” But, if the Vatican wanted to keep this information a secret, why gun the secret holder down in the middle of the Louvre? Why not just throw him off a bridge? If, as the sinister Silas screams at one point to the female lead, “every breath you take is a sin!”, then does that mean the Vatican knows her true identity, and if so, why chase her across Europe? Why not throw her off a bridge? I mean, they do have bridges in Paris. I’ve seen them. If the Merovingian line is more than a collection of natty white suits inspired by The Matrix, but is in fact an ancient French royal family, why is the family seat located in England? And what the F is up with Tom Hank’s hair?
Before I get ahead of myself I should say that if you have not yet read it or seen the film or attended a cocktail party or watched a weekend edition of 20/20 or a Sunday afternoon on the History Channel in the last 10 years, then I’m afraid this article is going to have some spoilers for you. And just so we can get the spoilers out of the way, the movie, as well as the book, is about a vast and sinister cover up to prevent the world from knowing that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. Tah Dah!!
The DaVinci Code is actually a particular kind of book that really bugs me, which is a non-fiction work dressed in fictional clothing, or possibly a fiction book dressed in non-fiction duds, depending on your point of view. Brown tosses fantastical theories with enough history to make the reader feel like they’re learning something. The book is a little like a great spinach salad. The greens seem like vegetables, but really they’re just a bacon delivery mechanism. I'm already amused by the thought of one million American tourists asking the tour guide at the Louvre to show them Mary Magdalene's tomb. If our diplomatic relations with France are poor now, just wait.
It's no secret that Brown’s theory is not even remotely original. Recently Brown was sued by the author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail for plagiarism (the charges were dropped). The first time I read The DaVinci Code I was startled to find it parroting several books, actual “non-fiction” books which I’d already seen. One, The Chalice and The Blade, is actually name checked in both the book and the film. Another is The Woman with the Alabaster Jar by Margaret Starbird, which Brown also cites in his book.
I'd like to make it clear that I’m not a Catholic Church apologist. The Catholic Church has, through history, participated in a number of things which were decidedly un-Christian. I have no doubt that at certain times in history they would have had the power to cover up any number of things. We’re talking about an organization that put not one but two different members of the Borgia family in charge, one of whom inspired Machiavelli to write The Prince. I also believe, personally, that the Church’s view of women and their place in society was based less on Jesus’ views than his disciples, some of whom may have had mother issues. I believe the Church burned an awful lot of smart outspoken women at the stake by dubbing them witches. I think their view of women has been damaging not just to women but to the world. I think a lot of historians like Riane Eisler and Margaret Starbird are as much trying to point out the damage done to a culture that ignores the value of one half of its members as they are trying to re-write the New Testament.
In short, I’m probably a perfect candidate for a book like The DaVinci Code. If every bit of it were true, it would not rock my world’s foundation. Unfortunately, I’m also a history major which is where I learned that just cuz you dig Santa doesn’t make him real. No matter how much I would like to believe, all the books I’ve read, fiction and non-fiction, which deal with the Holy Grail as sacred feminine mythology are of what I call the “Obviously woulda, shoulda coulda” school of historical research. They say things like “OBVIOUSLY, it would have been completely bizarre for a man of Jesus’ age and social rank NOT to be married by the time he was 33,” at which point they spin off into delightful, if fantastical, musings about what dish woulda, shoulda, coulda been served at Jesus & Mary M’s nuptials.
Well, OBVIOUSLY it would have been strange for a man of Jesus’ age and social rank to walk on water, turn water into wine and offer a new path to heaven. Being single seems like the least strange thing about him, frankly. If marriage was one of Catholicism’s ten deadly sins, as opposed to one of its more popular sacraments, then a vast conspiracy to cover up his wife and child might make more sense. The fact that Mohammad was married does not seem to cause hysterics in our Islamic brethren.
But wait, I was talking about a movie, right? Well, as a movie, it’s a fine movie. It does not stray from the book, up to and including some of those frankly silly scenes depicting pagan sex rituals. Tom Hanks is and always will be a fine everyman, and his character does a yeoman’s job at trying to keep the story on an even keel, at least up until the second half when the But Why’s shanghai the picture.
One thing I did notice was the audience at the movie. Literally every social strata was represented: senior couples, women of a certain age book groups, families with children and military guy pals sitting with one empty chair between them. It makes sense once you realize that the Jesus portrayed in The DaVinci Code, and part of why the book is so very popular, is what South Park likes to refer to as the “Buddy Christ” version of Himself. He's an approachable dude who sounds like he was fun at parties. In a world where little girls fall asleep wearing “What Would Jesus Do?” t-shirts, Brown gives us Jesus as not just the perfect spiritual guide, but the perfect boyfriend.
The movie, and the book, have been condemned by the Vatican; a move akin to the FDA condemning a diet of chocolate fudge. Gone are the warm fuzzy days of Pope John Paul II letting us know that enjoying Harry Potter will not place us in a state of sin. There’s a new pope in town and Benedict is not down with the warm fuzzy. Harry Potter & Dan Brown join gay pride and birth control back in the sin column.
Frankly, I think their judgment is a tad off. If they really want a movie to bunch their panties, what about one where an avowed Scientologist disguises himself as a priest in order to infiltrate Vatican City whereupon he commits wanton acts of espionage, kidnapping and destruction of both ancient Italian friezes and sweet Italian sports cars. I speak of course of Mission Impossible III, or M:I-III, or you know, that other Tom’s movie.
M:I-III is everything that a summer blockbuster promises to be. It is fast, loud and deliriously nonsense-ical, and you are not required to reflect upon your spiritual beliefs in order to enjoy yourself. It’s possible that M:I-III is the best of the Cruise Mission Impossibles. It is certainly better than the first one. The second one was fine, but loses style points for shoplifting it’s entire central storyline from Alfred Hitchcock, and Cary Grant no less. Tsk, tsk.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman steals the show as a truly great evil bastard. I like to think that after months of toiling in the skin of Truman Capote this was his trip to Disney World. His character is named “Owen Davian”, which is one of those names which make you wonder why they didn’t just call him Lucifer Satan "Rat Bastard" Devil-Hound. His dialog consists primarily of variations on a central theme of promised carnage: “I’m going to hurt you and make your girlfriend watch. I’m going to kill your girlfriend and make you watch. I’m going to hurt her by killing you but not before I force you to watch. I’m going to make you attend group therapy sessions with a board certified psychologist.” NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The “thing” in M:I-III that is causing all this fuss is an honest to god Macguffin. Truly, we have no idea, except that it has one of those “danger nuclear power” stickers on it. Does it matter? Hell no. It has one of those stickers on it, it must be bad for children and other living things. The movie skillfully if transparently applies the great Roger Ebert’s “Law of Economy of Characters”, which states that if a name actor appears in what seems to be a walk on role, they are more than just the butler. This is Mission Impossible, so we have to have at least one scene where a good guy is fitted with an impossible prosthetic mask to make them look evil, and at least one scene where a good guy is totally fooled by a bad guy wearing an impossible prosthetic mask to make them look good.
There’s a beautiful girl of course, though I must say that Michelle Monaghan, who plays Tom Cruise…er…I mean Ethan Hunt’s love interest, looks so freakishly like Katie Holmes that I’m thinking Monaghan should fire her agent. Or maybe Monaghan’s parents should gratefully reward her agent. Either way, it’s distracting, and you find yourself wishing, for a man so opposed to psychiatry, that Freud might hop out of a closet and smack Tom with a cigar.
But there’s no time for that now. There’s a nuclear macguffin out there, and somebody has to do something. Maybe this is he, the polite but frantic man running down the street who seems to know how to say “excuse me” in every language. Yes, it is odd that his hair is combed that way, exactly how it was when we knew him as “Maverick”, the flyer of jet planes. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but damn, again, no time for that now. Somebody just implanted a bomb inside somebody else’s head. I freaking HATE IT when that happens. Pass the popcorn.