So middle of the road you can’t see the fucking curb
Jazz for people who hate jazz? Who needs it? Chinese food for people who don’t eat Chinese? No way! Thrillers for people who don’t like excitement? Sign me up!
That seems to be the logic to the stupefying and damn near unending success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, a work whose tedium proves as unrelieved on screen as in cold print,1 thanks to the artistry of director Ron Howard, who more than lives up to his motto — “Less edge than Spielberg.”
In this “thriller,” hero Tom Hanks does not throw a punch, or take one. He does not fire a gun, kiss a girl, or drive a fast car. Heroine Audrey Tautou does not wear a bikini or high heels, nor is she ever threatened by a giant octopus.
The Da Vinci Code starts promisingly. After hours in the Louvre, a helpless old man is murdered by a monk. After wasting the dude, the monk checks in with the bishop to inform him that everything is copacetic. “Excellent,” breathes His Excellency, who looks like he eats small Protestant boys for breakfast with hollandaise sauce. Everything, it is clear, is going to plan — a plan, one guesses, with lots and lots of toe-kissin’ and damn little free thought.
Once the monk’s checked in with the bishop, we get a little back story. It seems that the monk’s an albino psycho-killer2 with a taste for sado-masochism, mortifying his thigh with some sort of chain apparatus that tears his flesh. As if that isn’t enough, he then proceeds to scourge his back. Apparently, he just hasn’t been killing enough Protestants.3
We cut to stately, plump Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), wowing a French crowd with his fabulous knowledge of, well, symbology. Afterwards, while signing books, Bob is called aside by Police Captain Fache (Jean Reno) for assistance with a bizarre murder in the Louvre. It seems a pal of Bob’s has been found naked in the main gallery of the Louvre, his body covered with Satanic symbols written in blood! Not good! Definitely not good!
Bob and the Captain head to the museum. Bob patiently explains that these aren’t Satanic symbols at all! They’re a code of some sort. If only he could figure them out! And why did the dude get naked?4
While they’re pondering all this, Sophie (Audrey Tautou) shows up. She’s a cryptologist for the French police department and, by the way, Bob needs to call this number on his cell. Bob calls it, and the voice is Sophie’s, telling him that he’s being set up, that he has to trust her or else he’s a dead man!
Naturally, Bob is being set up, he does trust Sophie, and, thanks to her extraordinary skill at the wheel of a seventeen-horsepower, three-cylinder French mini-mini, they escape the police and, eventually, return to the Louvre and puzzle out those damned mysterious clues. “Anom Asil”? Why, I’ll bet that’s “Mona Lisa” spelled backwards!5
At this point, Bob realizes that there’s only one man in Europe who can help them, his old buddy Sir Leigh Teabing (whom no one, surprisingly, refers to as “Surly Teabag”). Sir Leigh turns out to be Ian McKellen (right), camping up a storm as usual. Sir Leigh explains that Bob and Sophie are caught up in a conspiracy that all goes back to the time of the Emperor Constantine, a conspiracy that’s behind the quest for the Holy Grail, which isn’t a cup at all. It’s a, a, a, well, it’s a vagina, although no one actually comes out and says so.6
At this point, halfway through the picture, even if you haven’t read the book, the cat is out of the bag. This huge conspiracy, which involves almost everyone in Europe, is a murder plot directed against the last living descendent of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene! Who could it be? Who? Could it be Sophie?
Well, yes. At this point, director Ron Howard seems to have decided to release all the tension that was carefully built up in the first half hour of the film. Bob’s crippling claustrophobia, which makes even a brief elevator ride an agony? Well, it’s really not so bad! Nothing a little head massage can’t handle.7 All the evil people in the film, who’ve connived in the murders of dozens of innocent people? Hey, they’re not that evil! They have their problems too, after all, and they mostly end up killing each other anyway.
As for Sophie, she’s about the most non-threatening French chick one can imagine. No pouty lips or attitude for her! No sir! She’s sweet and sensible, a middle-aged man’s dream come true. For the first half hour, she’s mysterious and resourceful, but afterwards she scarcely lifts a finger to advance the plot. And, even though she’s a licensed cryptologist — trained since birth, practically — she doesn’t solve a single puzzle. Sorry, honey, this is man’s work!8
Instead of plot twists, we’re given wads of exposition — what people want, apparently, because they’re buying it. The basic pitch, of course, is that the “truth” of the Catholic Church is a deliberate lie, consciously concocted and maintained by murder over the centuries to conceal the true message of Christ, which is to embrace the flesh, not to mortify it, to bring together the masculine principle (up triangle) with the feminine principle (down triangle) instead of using the masculine to oppress and suppress the feminine. If only we understood the true meaning of these symbols — if only we understood that Jesus wasn’t the son of god, that he was just a human being like the rest of us, married to Mary Magdalene, whose descendents now walk among us!
In fact, all the symbols carefully pulled together and reworked by Brown — the Holy Grail, the Rose meridian,9 the pyramids — don’t have a “real” meaning. Like all symbols, they’re arbitrary.10 They have no power.11 And if Jesus wasn’t the son of god, why should we listen to what he said, whatever it was?12 If he was just a man, and Mary Magdalene just a woman, why should they and their descendents receive the unique prestige — the sacred role — that Brown and the movie want to give them?13 The movie pushes us into the role of unhappy children. Mom and Dad are so mean to us! We must have been adopted! If only we could find our real Mom and Dad, then we’d be happy!
The effect of Brown’s book, if taken seriously, is to empty the Catholic Church — and Christianity generally — of all its theology, which is fine by me. But if the salt lose its savor, as the saying goes, wherefore shall it be called salt? Yes, the cathedrals are beautiful, but the beliefs that created them have seeped away, never to return. The new, feel-good supernaturalism supplied by Brown is no more valid or viable than the old fire and brimstone version. A means of reconciling our more than human aspirations with our all too human limitations can only be grounded in a natural rather than a supernatural view of the universe. Such a reconciliation is going to take more than stories about Jesus and Mary Magdalene getting it on.14
But despite all these wisecracks and metaphysical quibbles, I’m very happy that this film was made, and that it’s making money hand over fist. Because Peggy Noonan is pissed, and when Peggy’s pissed, I’m nothing but grins. Thanks, Dan! Thanks, Tom! Thanks, Ron! Keep up the good work!
- No, I didn’t read it. I’m not going to spend my precious time on an author who sells more books in a minute than I do in a year. [↩]
- Grumpy albinos, who rarely are sadomasochistic psycho-killers in real life, are claiming that Silas (Paul Bettany) is the 68th albino hit-man in Hollywood films since 1960. [↩]
- I have no idea if Brown is a Catholic or not. On the one hand, he seems to regard the Catholic Church as “the Church.” On the other, he tends to emphasize everything about the Catholic Church that Protestants find creepy. (What about Jews? I guess they find all of us creepy.) [↩]
- Why did the dude get naked? I don’t remember this being explained. Well, if you’re going to die, you might as well go out with a splash. [↩]
- OK, they’re not quite that easy. I exaggerate for fucking humorous effect. [↩]
- Does this make Bob a professor of pussyology? The point is never pressed. [↩]
- After the bit about the elevator, I was expecting poor Bob to be stuffed in a six-foot, stainless-steel cube with slowly compressing walls, with nothing to keep him company but a thirty-foot python with grudge against Harvard men. [↩]
- Apparently, in the book Sophie does hold her end up. Reducing her to a cipher in the film is particularly odd because the whole point of the “true Christianity” that Brown invented was to restore the balance of the sexes. [↩]
- In case you’re dying to know, the French used to insist that the “Rose line” meridian running through Paris ought to be the prime or “0” meridian of longitude for the entire world. In the late nineteenth century, France agreed to accept the Greenwich meridian as the prime. In return, England agreed to go on the metric system. Neither nation moved very quickly to implement the agreement. If you’re still with me, you also might be interested to know that Greenwich Mean Time, or “zero” time, is sometimes called “Zulu time,” “Zulu” being the international codeword for the letter “z”. [↩]
- “If it’s a symbol what good is it?” asked Flannery O’Connor, who would not have enjoyed this film. [↩]
- The close of the film and I guess the book, using the Pompideu Pyramid, which points both up (masculine) and down (feminine) and is located on the Rose meridian to “prove” that everything we’ve been told is true is clever, but in fact it doesn’t prove that anything we’ve been told is true. Hey, it’s only a novel. [↩]
- We have, of course, no information on what the “true message” of Jesus was. He did not leave any writings, and neither did anyone who knew him. The earliest Christian writings are not the Gospels but the letters of St. Paul, a Jew who received his ideas of Christ’s teachings from other Jewish Christians, some of whom had heard and known the historical Jesus. Paul in fact was not that concerned with what Jesus taught but what he was, the son of god, whose suffering paid the debt that sinful men could not pay themselves (“I preach Christ and him crucified”). The Gospels were written by non-Jewish Christians and reflected the bitter theological war that was going on between Jews and Christians (by now largely non-Jewish), a war fought for control of the Jewish religious heritage accumulated in what we Christian types now refer to as the Old Testament. [↩]
- The treatment given Mary Magdalene (right) in the film — simply converting her into the “new” Virgin Mary — a Virgin Mary who likes sex! — is particularly naïve. Remember that stuff about putting new wine into old bottles? [↩]
- Years ago I had a girlfriend who, at age fifteen, covered her copy of Look Homeward Angel with exclamations like “Immortal man trapped in mortal society!” We’re still there. [↩]