Monday, May 22, 2006

The Da Vinci Code: Homophobic?

(Inevitable spoilers ahead for those who haven't seen the movie or read the book.)

I've just seen The Da Vinci Code, which is probably the most bizarre film I'll encounter this year, V for Vendetta possibly excepted. (Alas, I won't have a chance to watch the rabidly anti-Catholic "documentary" Rape of the Soul, which sounds as though it may explore similar themes, only with more vitriol and less skill.) It isn't exactly a good movie, but while it's running it's at least a tolerable experience. It helps that director Ron Howard is a solid craftsman who can shoot a decent dialogue scene, even when it has to slog through impenetrable exposition. He knows precisely when to lift a sagging narrative with some nasty bit of violence or a smidgen of suspense. On the whole, few filmmakers know more about manipulating an audience -- and all of Howard's knowledge is on display here. The Da Vinci Code also features glossy cinematography from Salvatore Totino, a plot just preposterous enough to hold one's interest through no fewer than three anticlimaxes, and a few visual touches shamelessly plundered from other, better movies (most notably, the startling car crash from Spike Jonze's Adaptation). In terms of challenging traditional Catholicism, the film does nothing that Kevin Smith didn't do more effectively in Dogma, and as religiously minded thrillers go, it's not nearly as much fun as Roman Polanski's cheeky The Ninth Gate. If taken strictly on its own terms, Da Vinci is nothing more than an acceptable, competently filmed time-waster.

But of course, a Hollywood blockbuster can never be taken entirely on its own terms, especially when it becomes a sudden global phenomenon. Plenty of pundits are criticizing The Da Vinci Code for being anti-Catholic; Michael Novak of National Review Online has even called the film "sheer malicious hatred," which borders on overkill. Still, you don't have to be a member of Opus Dei to find the film deeply problematic or offensive. As the film makes clear, the entire Da Vinci Code phenomenon inhabits the nexus of anti-Catholic and anti-Gay paranoia, to which recent child sexual abuse scandals in the Church have given unexpected timeliness and unwarranted gravity.

Whether it intends to or not, Howard's film adaptation promotes three ideas that should trouble Gay and Lesbian viewers:

1. The Catholic Church is controlled by woman-hating homosexuals. One central premise of The Da Vinci Code is that traditional Catholicism represses the natural heterosexual desires of men and women, and that there's nothing wrong with Christianity that couldn't be cured with a pagan orgy. All of this seems vaguely reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence's fulminations against Edwardian moralism, except that where Dan Brown serves up pseudo-theological blather over the "Sacred Feminine," Lawrence offered some old-fashioned pornography -- not all of it strictly heterosexual. (As Lawrence well knew, the first rule of Creative Writing 101 is "Show, don't tell.")

Once Brown's simplistic dichotomy of pagan sexuality versus Catholic repression and misogyny is translated to cinema, it assumes the shape and form of male homosexual conspiracy, playing on an audience's deep-seated fear of powerful Gay men. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who coined the term "homosocial" in her 1985 study Between Men, could have a field day with the all-male "conspiracy of shadows" at the center of the film's convoluted plot. The most obvious points here are that the Catholic villains are entirely male, and that they possess both a deep distaste for the female form and a weirdly unhealthy interest in each other. The book and film suggest -- the film more strongly -- that this sort of unnatural bonding occurs when men forsake women and look to each other's company instead.

The film's most formidable villain, Silas (played by Paul Bettany), is a murderous altar boy who bears a disturbing resemblance to Sting and has no discernible body hair. In the book, he's an albino; in the film, he's a blue-eyed bottle-blond with what looks like a nasty case of sleep deprivation. More importantly, Silas hates women with a special vengeance: He never meets one he doesn't want to kill. Confronted with the doe-eyed (and second-billed) Audrey Tautou, a not-unattractive example of the female form, he hisses, "Every breath you take is a sin." Naturally, Silas awakens feelings in an Opus Dei bishop which are more than paternal: Alfred Molina, as the bishop, deftly plays his relationship with the ephebic Silas for deftly homoerotic undertones, frequently calling him "my angel."

2. Homosexuality is characterized by deviant and perverse sadomasochism. Silas, who embodies all that Dan Brown finds repugnant in the Catholic Church, is especially fond of bodily chastisement. In the film, he has two nude scenes, the only overtly sensual moments in an otherwise depressingly chaste film. The film encourages us to read his self-flagellation and mutilation as products of a displaced and disordered sexuality, with hints of childhood abuse; Silas's facial expressions during his floggings are nothing less than orgasmic, while the editing suggests a sexual fixation on the crucified body of Christ. That the film places the stigma of aberrant homosexual sadomasochism on Opus Dei, a notoriously homophobic wing of the Catholic Church, may strike some viewers as poetic justice, but the film manages to tar all homosexuality with the same broad brush. In The Da Vinci Code, heterosexuality is expressed through ritual sex (but only once, as befits a PG-13 movie), while homosexuality expresses itself repeatedly through violence against the body -- a common enough cinematic trope from Production Code-era Hollywood. Which leads to the final point.

3. Gay men are homicidal psychopaths. The villains of this piece, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, are not just coded homosexuals, they're maniacs. Sir Ian McKellen, so outrageously campy that we may as well call him Auntie Christ, plays Sir Leigh Teabing: More than a queeny British aristocrat, he is also (we eventually learn) the architect of the film's web of murder and mayhem. Teabing's goal, he claims, is to end the oppressive power of the Catholic Church by revealing the truth about Christianity -- that, in his words, "the greatest story ever told is a lie." Yet his own world bears a not-so-surprising resemblance to the one he would destroy: The relationship between Teabing and his butler/henchman is all but identical to the barely veiled love affair between Molina's Opus Dei bishop and Bettany's altar boy. Moreover, the henchman and the bottle-blond, who serve as the "bottoms" in their respective relationships both in terms of class position and apparent effeminacy, come to similarly fatal ends.

As is true for the other phallic-homosexual conspirators in the film, Teabing must be disarmed and defeated -- but not killed outright -- by the film's heterosexual but neutered protagonists, Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou (and also by Jean Reno's detective Fache, who acts as the Straight dupe of Gay machinations until he finally "sees the light" and puts the homosexual ringleaders in their place). Hanks and Tautou represent a new order for traditional religion, in which heterosexual intercourse assumes its proper place at the center of the universe. Still, because Hanks and Tautou never have a chance to put their theories of the "Sacred Feminine" into practice, The Da Vinci Code becomes yet another religious picture in which the devil -- in this case, a Gay devil -- gets all the best lines: Homosexuality becomes a compelling, seductive presence in the film precisely because it is expressed through violence and murder, while heterosexuality, for all the film's attempts to validate it as a route to eternal salvation, is generally absent from the spectator's view.

None of this is new, of course: The Da Vinci Code merely continues the long and dishonorable Hollywood tradition of conflating homosexuality with homicide. Its cinematic tropes of effeminate conspiracies and sociopathic queers would not have been out of place during the heyday of the old Production Code. Vito Russo explained this phenomenon in The Celluloid Closet, and if Russo were alive today, I suppose he could devote a new chapter of his book to this film alone. Apparently, images of sinister, violent homosexuality can still retain their power over a contemporary audience: Da Vinci has become an international smash hit largely by exploiting our lingering fear of powerful Gay men.

So why isn't GLAAD, an organization ostensibly devoted to fair and balanced representations of Gays and Lesbians in mass media, mounting some sort of protest? After all, if any film could feature an unbalanced portrayal of Gay men, this one surely does.

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