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.


paczemoj said...

I've been looking forward to Apocalypto, too. Although my historical knowledge of South America starts with the the Discovery/Encounter, I have read a little bit about the Natives. Less about the Maya than about the Aztec, however. But, if I remember, was it a famine that the Maya were living through around this time?

I guess what I mean to say is that, much like your description of the audience reaction to Gibson's film, I cheered on cue when reading this post, but the ending... boo! Too short!


If you ever have the time and will to expound on Apocalypto and Mayan history, culture, then know you'll have at least one happy, hungry reader.

PS: I wouldn't mind (at all!) reading a Maya-Gibson interview!

Brian said...

You started it so I'm going to join in: a Mayan is a terrible thing to waste.

But this post is one that clearly does not waste the lifetime of work and study you've made. Ever since making your acquaintance back in the spring and seeing on your blogger profile that you've intensely studied the Mayan civilization, I've been wondering, "I wonder what he thinks of the upcoming Mel Gibson film"? So you could say no movie reviews came more highly anticipated for me this year than this one right here.

I have to admit I agree with Pacze Moj, that I'd like to read an exchange between you and Mr. Gibson (as long as you were both sober). But if you wouldn't want to speak to him, (or he wouldn't want to speak to you) I certainly wouldn't press for it. But I do think that an interview somebody like Gibson gives to the likes of Entertainment Weekly is naturally going to focus on the superficial. One of your conversations, by contrast, would naturally push him towards at least a little more depth, or intended depth at any rate.

Anyway, thanks for the review!

Darren said...

This is a really nice bit of writing, Michael. I won't ever see Apocalypto but I'd been eager to read what you had to say about it.

Maya said...

Thanks for your comments, guys, it always makes me feel good to read your responses.

Pacze: The Maya civilization was in Central America, not South. I suspect most understandings of the cultures of the Americas is predicated upon the conquistador reports of the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico and the Inca in the highlands of Peru, which is unfortunate primarily because both of these cultures were imperious squatters, who conquered and appropriated well-developed infrastructures of governments before them. Famine is another explanation for the Collapse. It's folly, however, to single out any one cause as they would have been almost invariably interconnected. A scholar named Sheets has done some fine research on volcanic activity at the time to demonstrate that eruptions and earthquakes no doubt disrupted overland trade routes, which would have resulted in disruption of food production, and competition for resources, etc., etc. One domino hits the other.

I'm glad to hear you wanted me to write a little more. That tells me I wrote just enough. Heh. I have few illusions. I have seen people's eyes glaze over when I get to talking about the Maya.

I was hoping to include some of the illustrations from the lecture I developed years back but was having trouble scanning the material. The outcome lacked resolution. So another time perhaps.

One comment I will offer up in addendum is that--moreoften than not--it's a liability to actually know something about what is being depicted on the screen. There were a few momments I completely dropped out of this movie because it was simply untrue and--in one particular instance--a matter of scale. There's a scene when the village captives are brought into the city and led through a tunnel with paintings on the wall. Adorning the entrance to that tunnel is one of my favorite images from Maya architectural art. It is a rabbit, representing the moon (the Maya, like the Chinese, associated the rabbit with the moon), but it is a rabbit skull in decay. The ears are putrefied. The face is nearly skeletal. It's a grisly image but for me incredibly powerful. I completely understand why Gibson chose to incorporate it into his visual composition. The thing is, however, that it is a stucco sculpture from a structure at the site of Palenque adorning the base of a column and it is no more than a foot or two wide. Somehow seeing it scaled so big seemed an inappropriate usage and it pulled me right out of the illusion. I'm sure that will bother no one else watching this film.

I hope that satisfies your hunger.

As for a Maya-Gibson interview, it ain't gonna happen. Primarily because it is well-known that Gibson is a raging homophobe and I'm really not comfortable around people who push my buttons like that.

paczemoj said...

The Maya civilization was in Central America, not South.


I think I better cling to those possibilities of hidden emotional intelligence!

And I better ask this: can you recommend some good history books on the Maya, or pre-Latin Latin America in general?

Maya said...

Oh sure. Michael Coe's THE MAYA in whatever edition is most recent consistently keeps pace with the academics and tells the story in a popularizing way. Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller's THE BLOOD OF KINGS is the amply illustrated volume that introduced the Maya s a bloodthirsty lot. As an overview I'm also very fond of Peter Canby's THE HEART OF THE SKY and Ronald Wright's TIME AMONG THE MAYA. For starters. For a more general Mesoamerican viewpoint, again Michael Coe's MEXICO, in whatever is the most recent edition.

Pacze Moj said...

Thank you.

chilanganadiense said...

I'm very glad that I've happened upon your blog. I study religion and have a great interest in "central america", though I am not dedicated to it academically and I am principally interested in contemporary culture. Your discussion of the movie is really insightful, especially since I've been feeling ambivalent about seeing it. I can't help but feel skeptical about Gibson's real intentions in using the Greek instead of some other translation (especially Spanish, given the circumstances) of the word...

Thanks for the insight!

Oh, also, what I've seen so far regarding this film reminds me a great deal of la Guerra Florida, which I believe was Azteca - I vaguely remember a story called La Noche Boca Arriba - Any thoughts?

Maya said...

"Chil": thanks for stopping by to comment. I'm not familiar with "La Noche Boca Arriba" so I'm afraid I can't comment on it. Can you synopsize?

Your comment about mistrusting Mel's usage of a Greek word to define a Mayan experience is astute and I thank you for that. It reminds me very much of when I first met the Mayan scholar Nikolai Grube. I had been absolutely impressed with his articles and decipherments, especially with his promoting of the "forest of kings" metaphor where kings were equated with the ceiba, the holy tree of the Maya. Aronofsky played with this concept in THE FOUNTAIN. I remember at a cocktail party saying to Nikolai that I loved how he talked about "endendros", which is a word that refers to the life that is at work in a tree. I remember he looked at me, said he knew what I meant, but that I really needed to find a Maya word to express the concept. I remember that floored me at the time because, upon reflection, I recognized how challenging and political his statement was.

chilanganadiense said...

La Noche Boca Arriba is a short story by Julio Cortazar. A fellow finds himself injured on a motorbike and sent to hospital at the same time as he's being hunted in the xochiyaoyotl and sacrificed. Both a story that questions linear time as well as one that takes a victims point of view in the flower wars. Your comment that some aspects of the film drew on Aztec accounts may be related to the xochiyaoyotl in the area around tenochtitlan, and I believe that there are connections to be made between the flower wars and the spanish conquest.

Maya said...

"Chil", I adore Cortazar and am actually in the process of drafting an entry on Cortazar and the movies. I must have this story in my library--the story sounds familiar now that you recount it--and I'll go looking for it to refamiliarize myself.

David Lowery said...

I just got back from seeing the film. Going in knowing little to nothing about Mayan history, I found it a rousing enough chase movie (sort of a big epic ultraviolent cousin to Atanaujurat) that was burdened by the portentious, pretentious use of the Durant quote at the beginning. If the movie succeeds in anything beyond simplistic entertainment, it's as instigation to learn more about the culture it represents. So naturally, I came here right away to read your post. I'm glad to see some book recommendations in the comments here...

Maya said...

David, you have the Benson Library there in Austin and the Maya Meetings held at UT each Spring Break. It's a pity you've missed out on hearing Linda Schele speak; she was amazing. I'd be very curious to hear what Austin's Mayanists are saying about the film. Please advise if anything pops up in the local rags and, as ever, I appreciate your stopping by to read and comment.