Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006)

Part of my problem with Apocalypto isn't just the violence; it's that Gibson has too simpleminded a take on violence. Scorsese had incredible violence in Raging Bull (more intense and vivid, I submit, than anything in Gibson's picture--remember Jake's nose being smashed?); what was fascinating about that film was that the violence was just the tip of the iceberg--you sensed that LaMotta's awful masochism was just a symptom of some profound inner malaise (same with Gibson, only Gibson seems incapable of stepping far enough away from his problems to actually do anything interesting with them; they just pour out of him, like an endless, artless turd).

Attaching the word 'maverick' to Gibson really puzzles me--since when was ultraviolence in a movie a financial risk? What kind of artistic risk is Gibson taking--subtitles? Religion? Ancient civilizations? Throw in a testicle joke at the beginning then get a jaguar to eat a man's face (glancingly edited, but repeated often enough that you can tell Gibson wants you to see every shred of torn-off skin) and people will come to watch anything. I don't see risk taking; I see pandering to the audience's lowest common denominator: slapstick and sadism. This is the inverse of what Ang Lee does when he deals with wuxia pian or homosexuality--he irons out what's difficult or knotty about the material, injects good taste and artful cinematography, and presents it as gourmet fare for the intellectual moviegoer (in Gibson's case, it's artful cinematography and sadism, and his audience is mostly adolescent yahoos who come to see the face-ripping).

As for the action--stepping into quicksand? Jumping off waterfalls? Elaborate booby traps with swinging spikes? Picking pursuers off with arrows (poisoned darts, here)? Stallone did this sort of thing better in his movies, and his xenophobia wasn't half as bad (still pretty rabid, though). Gibson also cribs a lot from Mann's far superior Last of the Mohicans (the waterfall jump, for one), only Mann being four times the director Gibson is doesn't go for pornographically prolonged closeups of welling blood or held-up organs (it's the lingering that bothers me, not what's actually being done).

I read Gibson being compared to Mann (well, duh), Malick, Griffith and I have to shake my head. The mention of Malick is just about incomprehensible--the only way Gibson views vegetation is as a backdrop, rushing past in a green blur; Griffith, on the other hand, is a telling comparison. One praises Griffith for his filmmaking the same time one condemns his clueless racism. I can see Gibson being likened to Griffith with regards to cluelessness (I've made the comparison myself) but I can't see Gibson being put in the same league as Griffith with regards to talent (Charles Laughton is mentioned too; I imagine poor Laughton would be horrified at the comparison, if he ever met the man). Griffith didn't just excite; he extrapolated from existing filmmaking techniques and out of sheer need brought forth new techniques to accomodate his vision--brought forth, in effect much of the language that narrative film speaks, even to this day.

More, Griffith's palette was considerably broader--not just epic action, but light comedy, poignant drama, and realism gritty enough and vivid enough to inspire at least one major filmmaker (Sergei Eisenstein) to direct some of his best-known films accordingly.

The anti-Mayan vibe I get is disgusting. This Washington Post article sums up better than I could all the mistakes Gibson makes, and they are not inconsiderable. Perhaps the most disturbing trend in Gibson's distortions, though, is what he gets right and what he twists around to satisfy his agenda: the headgear, facial scars, tatooing and weaponry are authentic enough to be admired by the experts, but Gibson can't even be bothered to accuse his villains of the right atrocities (the Mayans, for example, didn't use slaves to build their temples, and they didn't go for Nazi or Killing Fields-style mass burials; the Aztecs did. But one brownface looks just like another for Gibson, apparently)

Coincidentally, I just saw the DVD of an ancient Dr. Who episode, The Aztecs (1964) and couldn't help but notice that its take on Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture seems more complex and nuanced. It captures the nobility, cruelty, magnificence and decadence of the late Aztecs (in a kiddie show at that!)--who, unlike Gibson's Mayans, are able to predict solar eclipses, even count on their regular (if rare) occurence for religious ceremonies.

Compare that to the overall picture Gibson paints of the Mayan civilization. First major movie about these people and all we see are kidnappers, rapists, torturers and mass-murderers, when they're not being decadent assholes.

Maybe Gibson was thinking the Mayans have died out unlike the Jews, so no one's around to protest. Got some news for him: there are still Mayans around and they aren't happy with the movie either. The most salient point Assistant Professor Traci Ardren makes in her review (in the Archeological Institute of America's journal) is that the movie shows the "Maya people (being) brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserved, in fact, needed, rescue." More grist for Gibson's retarded sense of Catholicism, I suppose.

I can't say enough how repelled I was by this movie--it isn't so much the violence I object to, when all is said and done; it's the viciousness. All the leering brown faces with horrifying teeth made me conscious of my own brown skin, and how Gibson might regard me if he would point his sadomasochistic lenses in my direction. How would Gibson paint us Filipinos, if he ever bothered? As leeringly sadomasochistic dogeaters, who deserve to be oppressed by the Spaniards for four hundred years? I'd hate to see the day.

16 comments:

Gloria said...

I also think that Laughton would have disliked being compared with Gibson. I think that it is curious that Gibson is so adherent of violence and patriotism, but has never been involved in an actual war: Laughton, by contrast, had served in the trenches during World War 1 and subsequently abhorred violence. He one commented sadly -upon watching the photo of a Elephant child shot by a producer- on the Hollywood habit of his time of going a-hunting to Africa (as Darryl F. Zanuck or John Huston did).

IMHO Gibson tends to be over-rethoric about violence

Noel Vera said...

Lovely anecdote on Laughton, gloria. I noticed the trend in other people too--Kerry says he regrets approving the sending of troops to Iraq, McCain spoke out against the US torture policies (well, he gave token resistance) while Bush Jr.--who has never seen a minute of actual combat--doesn't even seem to care what's happening out there, beyond the effect it's having on his popularity.

Campaspe said...

Noel, this is the best take-down of Apocalypto I have seen. Who in God's name is comparing him to Laughton? there is very little actual violence in Night of the Hunter. The flagellation scene in Passion of the Christ probably would have sent Laughton to bed for a week. How would you compare Gibson's attitude toward the Mayans with, say, Griffith's characterization of the Chinese man in Broken Blossoms? The Griffith character is a stereotype of course (the "Yellow Man"), but he is also the only man in the film with tenderness and the sensibility of an artist. From your review, I get the feeling Gibson's imagination would find it hard to endow a Mayan with such qualities.

Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Noel Vera said...

And, oh geez--thanks for the extremely kind words, Siren! I suspect you aren't planning to see the movie, which is a pity--your and TLHRB's take on the picture would be, I suspect, an enormous help in correcting the guy's image...

Noel Vera said...

Who compares Gibson to Laughton? Not surprisingly, Armond White.

He's nuts, often in a funny way, with that overcompensating pugilistic stance of his, but things tend to stop being funny where Gibson's involved (I think the Oscars and the boxoffice clout has something to do with that). Even a reasonably intelligent conservative like William F. Buckley could see through Gibson's bullshit.

I've thought about Barthelmess' performance in Broken Blossoms, and I can see several crucial differences:

1) it may be in many ways stereotypical, but it's not a hateful stereotype--if anything, it errs on the side of being embarrassingly gentle (and rather sexless);

2) the violence, arguably more disturbing than anything seen in Apocalypto (mainly because we actually care about the characters concerned) doesn't come from some minor ethnic group that the director chose possibly because they couldn't fight back;

3) the violence is more than justified, I submit--it shows the kind of unreasoning hatred inspired by even the suspicion of miscegenation, and

4) Griffith, for all his blind racism and clunky 19th century sense of melodrama, is an incomparably greater filmmaker than Gibson could ever hope to be. If we must admire his films, and I find I must, the admiration should be always accompanied by criticism and a sober reminder of his many flaws. Gibson deserves no less--and I can't even begin to consider him an artist.

Campaspe said...

What an excellent capsule analysis of Broken Blossoms, a film that I have great affection for. I had an argument about it a long while ago on another blog, wish you'd been around. That focused not on the racism, however, but the construction of the film itself.

Noel Vera said...

It's been years since I've seen the film, but I can't imagine it having any imperfections in the structure. Some aspects of Barthelemess' Chinaman and the way it's conceived, but not the structure. Do you remember what the complaints were?

guile said...

max has gone truly mad..

Noel Vera said...

Filmmakers go mad all the time, and I love em for it; I just don't think Gibson did in an interesting way...

Oggs Cruz said...

My thoughts exactly,

I was disgusted by the film; loved the cinematography though. But there's just this feeling of monstrosity that gets over my head whenever humans start appearing in Gibson's scenes. What's worse is that Gibson keeps on insisting on history and reality on his repulsive depictions of humanity. I hope to write on this as soon as I recuperate from Gibson's gibberish.

Noel Vera said...

Sic em, oggs!

Yoel Meranda said...

i haven't seen "Apocalypto" (or the "Jesus" one), but wonderful post Noel!

Noel Vera said...

Thanks Yoel--I'm surprised you're reading this far back.

Actually, there's a new controversy brewing--hope to write about it in the next few days...

Arthur Dateau said...

I liked the film and I still do, while understanding your take on the film when I read this:

"who, unlike Gibson's Mayans, are able to predict solar eclipses, even count on their regular (if rare) occurence for religious ceremonies."

Untrue, this ceremony in the film shows how the people who have power, and the knowledge, manipulate the mob. It was obvious, so it cast a sorry light on your review.

Noel Vera said...

"this ceremony in the film shows how the people who have power, and the knowledge, manipulate the mob"

Gibson's scene suggests that the Mayan religious authorities would be malevolent enough to withhold information about eclipses and that the ordinary folk would be ignorant and passive enough to react to what was happening as something unexpected. Pretty much suggests that Gibson had a racist and condescending view of their civilization. Your not getting that point casts a sorry light on your comment.

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