Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Does Mel Gibson deeply believe in God? Enquiring Mayans want to know. As Dennis Harvey quipped as we left yesterday's press screening, Gibson certainly seems to believe in deus ex machina. Or as Bullwinkle said to Rocky, pulling everything but the rabbit out of the hat, "No doubt about it. I gotta get a new hat."
How to approach this movie? Should I "stage ambivalency" (as Phillip Lopate describes it) and qualify my praise? Should I go the way of reception studies and measure how last night's Berkeley audience gasped and laughed on cue throughout the movie only to resoundly boo and catcall at the film's end? Has Mel Gibson become the man we so love to hate for his homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks that any kind of critical distance is near to impossible because, despite his obvious talent, we don't want to cut him slack?
As a student of Maya culture for decades, no two movies came more highly anticipated for me this year than Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. I've talked to Aronofsky about the former and really have no interest in talking to Gibson about the latter, which—for its moments of visual genius—is sullied by a complete lack of restraint when it comes to depictions of violence and its appropriation of historical material for dramatic effect, without respect for chronology or the breadth of Mayan sensibility. But, again, I stage that ambivalency purposely because who says that a movie has to be historically accurate to be entertaining? And who really knows anything definitive about the Maya anyways? There's good reason why that alliterative adjective "mysterious" was one of the best working descriptions for so long. Academic disputes in the field of Maya studies caution against dispensing with that adjective anytime soon.
Which leads me to one possible approach, namely that at each stage in its self-reflection a culture looks back on civilizations of the past with projected intent, and never has this been moreso than with the Maya. Some years ago I pulled together a lecture detailing how the Maya have been depicted in the illustrative art for National Geographic over the years. Back in the '30s, when the Maya were thought of as the Greeks of the New World, they were shown gazing at the stars or sacrificing a macaw or two. In some of those early drawings the great Maya cities were configured as ceremonial centers with a few elite priests dillydallying around burning incense and such. I recall when Terry Rutlidge came out with his drawings—where heavily populated urban centers were rife with savage Mayans, replete with tattoos and ornamental scarification—that were quite disturbing to many scholars at the time who didn't want to buy into the conjectured bloodthirstiness of the culture. I admire that Gibson didn't shy away from this brutal representation. I admire the look of his Mayans and his vision of the Maya city was perversely engaging even if it seemed more an Aztec anachronism than anything else. Historically, these Mayan cities had long collapsed before the Spaniards arrived; by then the Maya were well into their Postclassic Period. But, again, it's just entertainment, right? And it seems that Gibson's main thematic momentum was not to revere history as much as to revere prophecy. The jaguar man in a day that became night and reborn of earth and mud would lead his enemies straight into the hands of those who would scratch them out. That prophecy is the "plot" in a nutshell.
Westernized focus on the Mayan civilization insists upon an obsessive query with its so-called "collapse." Whole symposiums and academic volumes, in fact, have been centered on that volatile theme. Gibson follows Will Durant's lead in reiterating that a civilization cannot be destroyed from without until it has destroyed itself from within. And guised in that bleak assertion is, in my humble opinion, a suspicion or paranoia that the same thing that happened to Mayan civilization could happen to us. That can only be a good thing to reflect upon, God forbid. Rampant internecine warfare among competing dynasties and their polities must certainly be considered along with various other factors. Earthquakes and shifting trade routes, for example. Or environmental desecration. Or the reason that I take most interest in: that a time came when the Maya culture "Balkanized" and the average Maya, all those shouting hordes in the courtyard screaming for blood, simply lost interest and voted with their feet, no longer investing in the taxing systems of the Maya elite. But then that's my projected fantasy, right? There's one swift scene in the city sequence where a lord and lady on palanquin are looked upon almost scornfully by the crowd left in their wake. I liked that and the image resonated as genuine for me. I wish there would have been more of that subtlety in Apocalypto then the formulaic fight-or-flight chase sequence that Gibson admits in his Entertainment Weekly interview was his true inspiration for doing this film. "I just wanted to fashion a really exciting chase," he said, and these days to amp up the adrenaline you need it all: the savage hand-to-hand combat, the torture, the heart-wrenching sacrifices, the face-eating jaguar, the deadly fer-de-lance, the unexpected quicksand, the threatening waterfall, the escoba thorns dipped in amphibious poison, the sudden rain filling up the cenote, one gratuitous violence after the other until, finally, you're forced to consider either what made the Mayan civilization collapse or what made this film collapse? With regard to the latter, there's probably nothing mysterious about it at all.
12/07/06 UPDATE: In his inimitable compendious fashion, Dave Hudson has gathered together and synopsized the running reviews on Apocalypto for The Greencine Daily.
For anyone who might be interested, there are some Mel Gibson soundbites at CMP Wiredrive Pro. Once you open the link the username and password are both Apocalypto (case-sensitive). I recommend choosing the sound file that includes all the bites together.
12/12/06 UPDATE: Via an analysis of Gibson's usage of "tells" and close-ups, Matt Zoller Seitz offers insightful commentary at The House Next Door.
04/07/07 UPDATE: In discussing the film over at Jaman, Seattle's Steve Hyde offered up Dr. Liza Grandia's critique at Common Dreams.org. Dr. Grandia poses four racist messages the film sends to audiences: (1) Native Americans are all interchangeable; (2) Mesoamerican cultures are all the same; (3) Indigenous people should remain noble savages, since attempts to build cities and more complex political organization will bring their inevitable demise; and (4) The Spanish arrive as if to save the Maya from themselves.