Monday, December 11, 2006

Mel's Anti-War Slasher Film

No, I didn't go to see "Apocalypto," the third film in Mel Gibson's "bucket o' blood" trilogy this past weekend. For the past month I have been watching the previews for this film about the last violent days of the Mayan civilization, before the Spanish Christians arrived with sword and Bible to finish the cruel Indians off, and I was almost seduced into seeing it. You will not be surprised to hear "Apocalypto" was the box office champ, pulling in gross ticket sales of over $14 million. But this was far short of the more than $80 million Gibson earned on the first weekend of "The Passion of the Christ." Both films, along with his "Braveheart," are reputed to the most bloody and violent films ever made. This may perhaps say more about the film-going public than it does about Mel Gibson.

I have been enjoying the reviews, though. My favorite so far was written by Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle. He's concerned about Mel.
It would be inappropriate and probably inaccurate for any critic to pronounce on the mental health of a filmmaker based on his movie. Yet no description of "Apocalypto" can even begin, much less be complete, without noting -- say in a colloquial, nonclinical, anecdotal sort of way -- that it seems like something made by a crazy person. It's unrelenting, a succession of blood-soaked disaster, an artfully designed parade of cruelty that would make the Marquis de Sade get up and say, "Enough already."
LaSalle adds an "Advisory": "This film contains nudity, decapitations, forced sex, throat cuttings, arrows in the neck, arrows through the mouth and a scene in which a jaguar bites into a man's head. Sensitive viewers may find some of this disturbing." Indeed! The reviewer for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Lawrence Toppman, was no less subtle:
The film is a middle finger thrust at everyone who said the violence in "Braveheart" and "The Passion of the Christ" was too extreme. It's "Braveheart" without historical significance and "Passion" without spirituality, though it dabbles in both, and it represents as brazen an act of career suicide as I can recall from a star director. If he were a first-timer, he'd never work again.
I didn't see POTC (as the insiders call it) either. As far as I'm concerned, the message Jesus brought was about love, not blood, torture and cruelty.

So what's up with Mel? He is reputedly a talented and skilled filmmaker, and not a bad actor, if you like the characters he's played in the Mad Max and Lethel Weapon series of films. His regressive Catholic views are well known and he got in trouble recently for making anti-semetic remarks while being arrested for drunk driving. He may be an Australian, but he's also a good old boy, and apparently the conservatives in this country have seen him as one of their own. LaSalle, in his blog, wrote that his critical review of "Apocalypto" is being criticized from the right by people who seem to think that Gibson is standing up to the liberals in Hollywood by making a film they wouldn't like. "I think there are a lot of people," LaSalle wrote, "who see in Gibson someone they respect for one reason: They think Gibson is as stupid as they are. And they want to believe that being stupid is no obstacle in the pursuit of a successful life."

The film could be seen as a conservative critique of modern culture because it is about the decline and fall of a corrupt and cruel society (one that lacks American family values). It begins with a quote from pop philosopher Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." But the early publicity for "Apocalypto" hinted that it was somehow an anti-war movie, even though the actor had been a supporter of President Bush in the past. Last September, Gibson took a print of his movie to a science fiction and horror film festival in Austin. There for reporters he drew parallels between the Mayan civilization on the brink of collapse and America's present situation. "What's human sacrifice," he asked, "if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?"

Whoa, Mel! The next time you're in Santa Cruz, will you stop by the anti-war demonstration at the Town Clock and shake our hands, like the anti-war politician Dennis Kucinich did a few weeks ago? Now I get it, your movie is really an allegory, and the Mayan tribes slaughtering each other are stand-ins for the Sunnis and the Shias in Iraq. But wait a minute. Who are the Spaniards meant to symbolize? They come into the Americas with horses, guns, steel helmets, and disease germs, and proceed to pacify (i.e. kill off) all the warring tribes, the Mayans as well as the Aztecs and the Incas. Are they supposed to be us? If so, then Iraq is a crusade, right, for justice, Christ, and western superiority? But then...

Toppman, in the Observer, wonders:
Is he saying these Mayans are like Americans today, fighting amongst themselves while a terrorist threat masses beyond our borders? That's an interesting idea, though it makes the Spaniards -- who brought over the Christianity that Gibson fervently espouses -- into terrorists.
What worries me more than filmmakers like Gibson who are raising the slasher film to high art is the audience for this stuff. I remember when my two older boys were teenagers and they talked me into taking them to a midnight screening of "Dawn of the Dead," an early vampire slasher classic. I was horrified and appalled, while they, along with the rest of the young audience, found the blood and gore screamingly funny. Slasher films have come a long way since then (LaSalle called POTC "the Jesus chainsaw massacre"), and they seem to be more popular than ever. We're awash in blood and circuses on the screen and the barbarians are in the lobby.

It might be that horror and slasher films are the modern day equivalent of ghost stories, and that we laugh at them to asuage our fears and ease our anxieties about the terrors of everyday life (accidents, disease, mental illness like maybe Mel's). Rudolf Otto wrote about this in The Idea of the Holy. Ghost stories give us some inkling of the awesomeness of the divine. On the other hand, films like POTC, "Braveheart" and "Apocalypto" might numb us to the cruelties so prevalent in the world despite the march of technological progress. I know the link between pretend violence on the screen and real violence is not yet proven, but what are we teaching our children? On the other hand, why is it that any kind of bloody cruelty can be shown on the screen while our media routinely censors the photos and videos coming out of the Middle East? Why is fake slaughter more acceptable than the real thing?

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