December 13th, 2006

I saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in sneak-preview format the other night with a crowd that included Mayanist scholars and university undergrads fresh out of finals week. We were a rowdy, engaged bunch; there was spontaneous cheering whenever one of the protagonists did something admirable – like escape from the bad guys, or give birth while simultaneously holding a toddler, balancing on a rock, and drowning. When it was all over, many applauded. Someone sitting behind me said “I’m glad I didn’t pay ten bucks for that.” One Mayanist left the theater with a wry smile, saying “yes, and that’s exactly how it happened,” while the other pointedly changed the subject to a discussion of the relative merits of Roman concrete and Central American lime.

There are things to be said about Apocalypto from a film-making perspective: it would be interesting to speculate about the strange, shallow look produced by the digital film for example, the thinking behind the jiggling hand-held camera, or the point of the droning soundtrack. But all of these impressions quickly fade under the visual onslaught of graphic violence that is Apocalypto’s ultimate raison d’être.

Apocalypto, much like The Passion, is an exercise in gratuitous violence that can only be described as pornographic. There is neither reason nor justification for most of the violence; instead the story contorts ridiculously – or blithely accepts gaping narrative holes – in order to produce scene after scene of carnage. An almost incomprehensible amount of time and creative energy has gone into imagining new ways to destroy the human body. The film opens with the deployment of an elaborate hunting device: a pig is flung into the air and then impaled by a kind of giant spiked fork that swings horizontally at high velocity. It’s disgusting, and you will not be surprised to learn that this overly-designed device makes another, even more disgusting appearance later in the film. After the pig is disengaged from the torture-fork, we’re treated to several minutes of entrail removal… heart, liver, etc., all of which is merely a set-up for a comedic scene in which one member of the hunting party slowly gnaws and slurps his way through the viscera of the pig’s testicles, only to vomit and be informed by his laughing comrades that no one actually eats pig testicles. And it goes on. Expect to see skin ripped from fascia by jaguar teeth in great and excessive detail, throats slit by unwieldy dull-looking knives in slow motion, blood pouring in sheets over well-muscled torsos, skulls grazed open to the brain revealing the pulsing jet of arterial bleeding, and human hearts cut out and held high – still beating – then tossed into braziers of hot coals while the unfortunate victim looks on, twitching.

The only reason, I think, that Mel Gibson isn’t known by his true occupation – a pornographer of violence – is that he has enough money to buy the trappings of cultural capital for his projects. The dialogue in Apocalypto is delivered entirely in Yucatec – a Mayan language – with English subtitles. While this might seem admirable, it was hardly necessary, as Gibson represents 16th century Mayans through bawdy humor reminiscent of the Lethal Weapon franchise, and storytelling clichés straight out of late 21st century America. The culmination of an unnecessarily long subplot about an impotent young husband who is heckled mercilessly by his family and neighbors reminded me of nothing so much as Danny Glover sitting on a booby-trapped toilet while his house was deconstructed. At one point during Apocalypto my partner looked at me with wide, amused eyes and said “it’s like a Mayan Jackass!”

In another gesture towards cultural awareness, the film was cast with indigenous individuals – many of whom were not actors prior to this film. Again, I have to wonder why Gibson bothered, as he uses indigenous actors to ventriloquize an array of disturbing and well-established stereotypes. For example, viewer sympathies are quickly elicited and manipulated by representing Mayans as coming in one of two un-nuanced varieties. There are benevolent, peaceful, child and family-loving, nature-dwelling, tradition-respecting Mayans. And then there are cruel, vindictive, amoral, sickly, human-sacrificing city-dwelling Mayans. Neither group merits explanation, development, or contextualization – we’re meant to accept that one group is inherently Good and the other inherently Evil. Good Mayans live in tidy, hygienic villages; their bodies are beautiful, healthy, and well-formed. Evil Mayans live in filth, and count midgets, the deformed, the handicapped, and the mentally ill amongst their numbers. Gibson’s storytelling strategy is as old and as dangerous as the 19th century pseudo-science of phrenology – which posited that individual character could be inferred by physical appearance. The casting of indigenous actors seems less politically progressive and more like an attempt to disguise age-old discriminatory yet comfortably familiar storytelling strategy.

In another example, random Mayan characters are endowed with unexplained psychic powers; they can see the future, they utter prophecy. And there is no attempt to explain such abilities. Here, again, Gibson takes advantage of established racist storytelling shortcuts. Hollywood films about Native Americans delight in imbuing indigenous characters with intuitive, psychic, otherworldly powers – but rarely feel the need to explain where the powers come from, why, to whom they are granted, and under what circumstances. The audience is meant to assume that if the characters are indigenous, then of course they can talk to the dead, see the future, channel spirits, manufacture tangible good or evil out of thin air, etc. So the question becomes, why did Gibson bother to cast indigenous actors, if he was also going to recycle the same racist stereotypes that movie-makers have used since the days of black and brown-face acting?

It is interesting to note that in Apocalypto only the Evil Mayans are overtly psychic and pagan, while the Good Mayans have more understated psychic powers, rely mostly on reason, and are conveniently represented without any overt religion. This makes the arrival of the Spanish colonizers rather troubling. The film suggests that the Evil Mayans deserved to be slaughtered (and the film’s protagonist gets started on the work ahead of time), and that the Good Mayans welcomed “a new beginning.” Are we meant to believe that the only Good Mayans are dead and Catholic Mayans?

Finally, there are the sets – elaborate temples, paintings, sculpture come to life in the form of masks, and exquisite bodily ornamentation. It is surely the urban costumes and sets that have provoked many reviewers to decide that in spite of its overwhelming violence the film is quite beautiful. Unfortunately, I can only see this as another ruse on Gibson’s part – another wave of the “authenticity” wand in an attempt to convince the audience that there’s something more to his method than an obsession with visual sadism. But beauty and pornography have never been mutually exclusive. And, given the wildly ahistorical use of 19th, 20th, and 21st century stereotypes to describe the 16th century Mayan world, the historical accuracy of the Evil Mayan city felt like so much ambiance manufactured in the service of fantasy.

Ultimately, the language, actors, and settings in Apocalypto are meant to convince us that the film is historically accurate. Gibson has amassed tremendous personal wealth and built a cinematic franchise out of disguising his personal fantasies in historical drag. In Apocalypto he goes a step further and projects them onto real, living, disenfranchised people. At a time when politically-conservative Christian Americans are steering a violent, bloody, catastrophic war that many have linked with US imperialism… it must be asked what kind of cultural work Apocalypto is doing. What lessons are imparted when the ancient Maya are represented as modern-day indigenous Jackasses, who are – in addition – in desperate need of being killed or converted? And will those lessons stay anchored in the past, or will they – like Gibson’s storytelling strategies – find their way back to the 21st century?

Entry Filed under: Film

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