Idol Chatter

Sir Ian McKellen, who plays historian Sir Leigh Teabing in “The Da Vinci Code,” is not staying out of the fray that swirls around the film.

Unlike director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks, who have publically reiterated the line that the film is entirely a work of fiction, McKellen mischeviously hinted that he was convinced by Dan Brown’s argument that Mary Magdalene married Jesus and bore his child. McKellen, who is gay, told The Independent newspaper, “When I read the book I believed it entirely. When I put the book down I thought what a load of potential codswallop. But I’m very happy to believe that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. I know that the Catholic Church has problems with gay people. I thought that would be absolute proof Jesus was not gay.”

McKellen, who was speaking at the Cannes Film Festival, also accused the popular culture of “snobbery” because it has exploded with far more criticism of the film than it did of the book. He asked, “Is that because readers can be trusted to have minds whereas people who go to see movies are the mindless masses that need to be protected?”

The Da Vinci Code” movie, like the novel it’s based on, is ridiculous, obvious, over-the-top–and yet oddly compelling, a guilty pleasure that wraps interesting pseudohistory and pseudotheology into a shoot-’em-up thriller. In other words, if you liked the book, you’ll probably like the movie. Ditto if you hated or were offended by it. As the critics have their field day hurling insults at the movie, it’s hard not to see “Da Vinci” as a victim of unrealistic expectations. Say what you will about the book, but it is anything but subtle or plausible, and the movie follows suit. Watching the story on film, the absurdities of the plot and campiness of the dialogue are heightened, but I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised by that.

Though the film is too long and doesn’t always have the fast-paced feel of the novel, Ron Howard’s film is unlikely to sway any minds in the debate over the story’s attitudes and allegations about Christianity. The faith–traditional Christian beliefs and their development–comes off ever-so-slightly better on screen than in the novel. Robert Langdon, the hero-professor at the center of the story, here is given a moment of true faith, and in a possible bone to critics, makes an attempt to bridge the worlds of skepticism and faith that are at war in the story. In streamlining the characters’ long theological discourses, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman focuses on Mary Magdalene and the supposed ramifications of her suppression in the early church, and discards most of the talk about the feminine divine, Christianity’s pagan roots, and rituals of sensuality and sexuality allegedly eliminated by church leaders.

As for the church–the people, the institution–the opposite is true. Vatican leaders are more deeply involved in the murderous plot than in book, and the accusations leveled at the church, of suppression (both of the violent and theological varieties) are sharp. In flashback scenes that are too cartoonish not to provoke unintended laughter, director Ron Howard dramatizes the Crusades and the Knights Templar, along with the Inquisition and other moments of Christian violence, emphasizing the brutality of the church’s actions.

There was a moment in “The Da Vinci Code” that reminded me of the last movie to have touched a cultural nerve this deeply. Though the two are as different as can be in content and intention, both “The Passion of the Christ” and “Da Vinci” offer scenes of salacious, graphic, needless mutilation–the first when Jesus’ skin is flayed by Roman guards, the second when the murderous Opus Dei monk Silas beats himself ritually and the camera lingers on his injured body. I doubt the connection was intentional, and am not saying there’s any thematic connection between the two films. But thinking of both these scenes–and both these movies–is a reminder of how difficult it is for all but the most masterful filmmakers to depict subtlety and emotional depth on screen; the medium lends itself to the exaggerated and sensational, and neither film rises above that. You may find “Da Vinci” fun and intriguing, or you may find it offensive and upsetting, but either way, you won’t find profundity.

The big, fat extra-special 1,000th issue of Rolling Stone just arrived at the door complete with a psychedelic, 3-D cover featuring just about every rocker imaginable. The theme of this special edition is a cover art retrospective (which could double as an early Annie Leibovitz gallery showing) and it’s a must-flip-through if you happen to be in the bookstore and browsing.

Featured covers that stood out most memorably?

Rolling Stone Issue #22 from November 23rd, 1968, featuring an in-the-buff couples shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, with a photo caption that reads, “And they were both naked, the man and this wife, and were not ashamed.”

The Rolling Stone Issues that make me cringe: #701, #729, #793, and perhaps most cringe-inducing of all, #909 and #932, featuring Demi Moore, Jennifer Aniston, Laetitia Casta, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears respectively (yet not so respecfully), all virtually naked in some sexed-up pose, and displayed across a centerfold spread. Ugh, ugh, ugh! Why, oh why, do women (girls even!) have to take off all their clothes to don the cover of Rolling Stone? (Readers should note: Almost all covers featuring male artists have them fully clothed and almost all those of female artists are partially or fully unclothed. Interesting, isn’t it?)

Rolling Stone #993 from February 9th of this year, memorably features Kanya West as a thorn-crowned Christ figure and blogged about here by my fellow writer Ellen Leventry in her entry, “Kanye West’s God Complex.”

My overall take-away from this restrospective’s perspective–religious artists, at least ones that haven’t made it mainstream, seem virtually absent from this mega-magazine’s eye.

The first reviews of “The Da Vinci Code” are out after its debut at Cannes. And the verdict, seemingly unanimous, is: thumbs down. One critic called it “an unwieldy, bloated puzzle,” and another said it is “a stodgy, grim thing.” See this piece for more what’s in store for Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, et al.

Of course, bad news for “Da Vinci” is good news for its many detractors. The Catholic League wasted no time sharing their glee, issuing this press release summarizing some of the spicier barbs thrown at the film by critics.

Stay tuned for Idol Chatter’s first review of the movie, which will be published here tomorrow.

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