Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Apocalypto (2006) review

There is only one word for Mel Gibson's Apocalypto: masterwork. We have the source of his meltdown--this film. To say that Apocalypto is a major achievement would be an understatement. It is more. Gibson has created a story about now and how civilizations fall.

Yes, there are numerous references to the war in Iraq--albeit indirect ones--but also about the fear-baiting "War on Terror." The panic surrounding 9/11 is touched-on: a scene of refugees escaping warfare very early in the film conveys the need for calm during a crisis, and not for people to fall-prey to their fears (the food of all tyrants and demagogues).

For those who want to shift the debate about this film, you should realize that it's an allegory, and it's meant to exist only in cinematic space and not as a representation of a linear-history. It's thrust is thematic. We should all know this by now regarding movies and how they portray human history. Interestingly, Gibson and his co-writer crib a scene from William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," and it fits. I also enjoyed his take on the shamanic experience and the power of human insight.

But many of the images in Apocalypto are happening in Iraq today, many-of-which are being committed by our troops in our name. The only difference here is the absence of automatic-weapons and other "high-technologies". While there isn't 100% accuracy in the depiction of the classical Mayan civilization, the bulk of their culture and practices (including the cyclical-droughts that precipitated a decline of the cities, enslavement, and an increase in human sacrifice) are present. There is a genuine love of the Maya expressed in the film, and they are a beautiful people with their aquiline-noses and their bronze-skin.

The Maya are a lovely people with a material culture and legacy that is both gorgeous and horrific, and they are a part of us all in Gibson's filmic universe.
There are no Caucasian messiahs here (a truly racist conceit), as there have been in most films featuring indigenous peoples. Virtually every actor in the film is Mayan or at least Native American.

Some critics have said the tale seems more to concern the problems of the Aztecs, but consider that the rain god Kukulkan was a feathered-serpent, just as Quezalcoatl in Mesoamerican religion. Both gods received sacrifices of blood in ways that are so similar that there has to be some connection in the genesis of both civilizations, particularly in their militarized-theocratic structures. This connection may come from the Toltec and Olmec civilizations.

We can see a contemporary desire for this theocratic-context in the efforts of the Bush administration except that they sacrifice warriors to the god Mars. And so, we have one of the major themes in most of Gibson's oeuvre: the strong desire for human sacrifice and an unquenchable bloodthirstiness that is part of nearly every so-called "civilized" culture in human history. This is what makes it a story about the human-condition, and it's clear that Mel Gibson is horrified by the way that we treat each other. This raises some valid questions.

I put it to you: how-many people has he ever killed? Critics are suffering from misdirected-anger, while others are lying-racists themselves.
Others are simply being reactionary and wrong-headed.

A noteworthy aspect of the film is the fact that this is the first motion picture with dialog spoken in the language of the Maya. Because most of the public don't understand that the Maya were and are a linguistic cultural group--not a single-unit as most indigenous groups are and were--it might be confusing to see Maya enslaving and sacrificing other Maya, but this is what occurred during their classical and post-classical eras.

Human sacrifice intensified when cycles of droughts, possibly due to an over-population in the cities. Due to internecine warfare, poor harvests, and general brutality through raiding and feuds, the cities began sinking. Gibson suggests that infighting as depicted in the film was the major-contributor, and Gibson appears to have done his homework on a subject that he so obviously adores. It's still a guess as to why they fell, which reveals the tale as allegory, not a simple history.

Even the philosopher Henri Rousseau with his "noble savages" might be impressed, but the co-writer/director/producer balances this all out with a display of what the Maya really did to one another as their civilization collapsed. Because of this, and the indirect references to our own time, the story has a message that isn't isolated to the fall of classical Mayan civilization, but a warning to us all that only a people can truly undo themselves.

This is a pretty radical message during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the divisiveness and chaos unleashed by the Bush administration upon the world. In past interviews, director Gibson has compared the human sacrifices in Apocalypto with Iraqis, Americans, and coalition forces being sacrificed to the war machine in the Middle East. This is a very fine-point that literally transcends the historical setting of the film and can be taken as part of its general-thrust: a civilization that wars with its neighbors and within itself cannot endure, a reminder from history.
The majority of Mayan history was warfare against each other, it's just the unfortunate truth.
Apocalypto is a warning to us all.

It is curious, then, that there are voices of the so-called "Left" who want to focus on the racial tirade of a man who was having a nervous-breakdown while intoxicated. It sends a very weird message indeed. The sheer brilliance of this film illuminates the incident more clearly by its technical achievements (digitally shooting, almost entirely within the jungles of the Yucatan). Ask Werner Herzog how easy this is.

This is not an apology for Gibson's comments, but we should ask ourselves how often these things happen to people who are not famous. If he wasn't Mel Gibson, we wouldn't even be talking about the tirade, we wouldn't care. It's all about having an agenda.

All attacks on him should be viewed with a reasonable degree of suspicion and level-headedness, because even a man who has done wrong can be used to commit further wrongs for individuals with an questionable agenda (like Ari Emanuel). Many of these people are supporters of the very imperialism that Gibson rails-against in this film.

There are a number of Hollywood insiders who have said point-blank that they will never even watch this film for consideration of an MPAA award. It all reminds me of the stupidity surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ (1989), an embarrassing episode for American culture. This is intellectual dishonesty at its worst, but most of these individuals are used to this state-of-being, as are many of the critics of the film--even one Ward Churchill, and he should know better.

In-character-as-usual, the Maya are mixed in their reactions to the film at this writing. They are not a monolithic people, but a culture of disjointed familial networks.

Yet, the Maya are survivors, 800,000-strong, which isn't shabby for an indigenous people in the Americas, and they even control parts of Chiapas, Belize and Guatemala.
A people have a way of coming-around for their turn again, and it's possible that the Maya will have their own autonomous civilization someday. Here's to their continued resistance to colonialism. Today, the Maya often live as they always have in their small agricultural villages. Apocalypto is essential viewing with an ending that absolutely floored me. Its cinematic vistas are food for thought, regardless of who it came from.



  1. Thanks, it took awhile! It's an incredible film, regardless of what you think of Mel Gibson. Hey, I own Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will--not that his movie has the same-message, it's just about as good as they are cinematically. I like Erza Pound and the Futurists too, they supported fascism. That doesn't invalidate their work. The argument that it does is intellectual-dishonesty. The box office decides.

  2. I have to add this for all readers: I've watched and owned most all of the major 'classics' of cinema, from Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Welles, Godard, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Pasolini, Argento, Seijun Suzuki, Fritz Lang, Pabst, Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Leni Riefenstahl, Ken Russell, Billy Wilder, Brownlow & Mollo, and many others most have never heard-of.

    We're talking thousands here, folks. Apocalypto's future in the canon is unknown, but it's so solid that it's definitely going to endure. It could easily be regarded as a commercial classic alongside the later-films of David Lean. In the rest of the world, the line between art and entertainment is much thinner than in the Anglo-American sphere.