Apocalypto: McGyver fights depravity in the Jungle

Oh there are many things to complain about in Mel Gibson’s latest movie, which, given my curiosity about it, I really took my time watching. I admit, I was still nonplussed by The Passion of the Christ. The line from Braveheart to The Passion was less than promising. However, to say this first: I found Apocalypto hugely entertaining. Not good, really, colors and angles were sometimes, how do I put that, less than appropriate and whoever did the cuts was obviously drunker than I am now, but, his irritating oscar nonwithstanding, let’s face it, we always knew Mel Gibson is not a particularly good director. He is a great entertainer though, and Apocalypto proved it again, if we still needed any proofs for that.

The other thing he’s great at is hating. After having watched any one of his movies, it’s overwhelmingly clear what and whom he hates and, three movies in, he has now made a movie that in a way can be said to sum up his concerns. In my usual muddled way I will eventually arrive at them. First I will, however, talk about that, which might or might not be racism, but which obviously is hate, at the Mayans or at what they represent. I am not sure myself. Typing up notes in a vodkafied state of mind after having watched a movie only once is a method that might (watch the conjunctive!) not be very precise.

So. At a quick glace, what have we. The whole idea of Maya writings, Maya science, is all, of course, generously glossed over. We see rather gruesome drawings but, as these are shown to be the only means of conveying meaning of their doom to the prisoners which are led through a dark tunnel in a pyramid (no, this is not the place to talk about historical inaccuracies. Yes, we all know the pyramids belong to a different era than the one portrayed but we know it’s allegorical so be done with it), they might as well be stone-age pictures of slain mammoths on cave walls, for all that it concerns this point. Also, the language that the Mayas with the pyramids, which I will proceed to call only “Mayas” while calling the wood-dwelling tribe of Mayas “the tribe” (this suits my rhetorical purposes best, if you need to know), use is a sort of language gone bad. It is shown to be only good for stuff like haggling, screaming, threatening, and making evil religious speeches to the orgiastic populace, which are less like speech and more like shouts. Goebbels comes to mind. The antagonists, the tribe, use their language for all kinds of ‘natural’ things. Joking, flirting, and above all, expressing myth. There is the obligatory scene with a wise old storyteller who tells the village a story about creation, the Ur-scene of storytelling and the epitome of an oral tradition. We don’t need Saul “Show me Tolstoy of the Zulus” Bellow to know that we will not find writing here.

History, with a capital ‘H’, however, will be recorded via the decadent Mayas, which meet the incoming conquistadores at the beach. The Mayas may have destroyed themselves, as the quote at the beginning of the movie “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it is destroyed from within” (The gall of using Durant! I was really astonished) seems to say. In the movie, however, nevermind history, the Mayan civilization is ailing but still at the peak of its powers when the conquistadores arrive. The conquistadores, having for a long time in cinematic history been used as an announcement of the doom of the indigenous civilizations, are obviously a hint of what will be happening to the flourishing, violent, plentiful Mayan civilization we’ve just encountered. Destruction. AND THEY DESERVED IT. That’s what the movie, Gibson’s protests nonwithstanding, is proclaiming. (And this is almost as fun a claim as the current Pope’s claim that the indigenous people actually in a way WANTED to be christianized.) Not loudly, but perceptibly enough.

The ‘antidote’ to the destruction might have been, Apocalypto also declares, sticking to “your” forest. The Mayas are shown to have succumbed to the vices of civilization: greed, cruelty (unnecessary cruelty at that), gluttony. The scenes in the Mayan city are full of symbols for that. For instance, in one scene, women are shown in the famous reclining eating pose familiar enough from all sorts of depictions of decadent Rome. These Mayans don’t have writing, really, and as I said, History is going to happen to them. Jaguar Paw, the main character and sole male adult survivor of the Tribe, slips the nets of History and retreats into his own history (note who the catalyzer of even this little history is, who ‘writes it’, within the bounds of what Gibson has written, of course. Ah, the irony), into nature and starts anew. You could say this is a new optimism for Gibson.

Whereas in Braveheart the vicious and evil Englishmen were victorious, here the vicious and decadent party loses to the down-to-earth Jaguar Paw, who, a mixture of Crocodile Dundee and McGyver, uses his forest’s means to defeat the de-natured Mayans. He, painted blue in order to be sacrificed, sheds this very blue so inflammatingly adopted by the mighty displayer of butt-cheeks, Braveheart, and dips into a muddy brownish black, which obviously and immediately raises questions of race. A scene that this rising from the mud of JP’s reminded me of was Martin Sheen’s rising from the waters at the end of Apocalypse Now, a movie that did discuss similar issues, just this time any ambivalence is cut from the image and an image of race is added.

Obviously, both parties involved (no, we’re sorta leaving the Spaniards’ cameo out here) are shown to be archetypes. African tribes and the Mayan tribe are blended, as well as the decadent Romans and Mayans. Most likely, looking at the extent to which this movie is studded with symbols, there are more blendings hidden, on both sides, that I have simply overlooked, having just watched it once. One of these further blendings might well be the purported nexus between Jewishness and decadence that is an old antisemitic staple, one thinks of Weininger‘s seminal and weird philosophical work Geschlecht und Charakter, for example, and in certain scenes, for instance when the Mayans fight scrabble over some coins dropped in the dust, I smelled a possible reference, and after all, the whole history of attacks against decadence, one thinks not only of Weininger but also of ideas in Spengler‘s and Pound‘s work etc. has always had more than just a strong whiff of antisemitism. Sometimes more overt than at other times, and after The Passion, who would complain were I to suspect Gibson of antisemitism or antisemitic references.

Speaking of Weininger, all of this talk of nature entails of course an idea of masculinity as well. From Braveheart who had to oppose the whining, scheming, feminine Englishmen and the overly feminized and decadent The Bruce on his own side, there is a clear line to the strong and simple people of the tribe, who are, or try to be, fearless, without base suspicions. They are early on shown to be at odds with the sneaky Mayans whose first appearance in the movie is that of picture book villains. Looking villaineous, sneaking up to the village and burning the huts. Whereas the tribe believes in fighting to the last, suicide (oooh how awful) is acceptable for the decadent Mayans (again a possible link to Rome).

The whole birth-from-the-earth- and the later occurring birth-in-the-water-imagery underlines the closeness to nature that could of course be channeled through a figure of a ‘white goddess‘ (even though there clearly is in the village, I’d say, a triumvirate maiden/bride/hag) or a woman, but is ultimately shown to be guaranteed only by the male element of the society. It is not only the man who has to save the woman at the end, but it is also the man who turns into the jungle at the end, taking with him a hesitant wife, who clearly would have wanted to meet those Spaniards. Misogyny is rife in that movie anyway. The whole madonna/whore thing is debated repeatedly. In most of the scenes depicting debauchery and decadence, women are placed centrally and the other things have been mentioned before. The repudiation of a feminized masculinity, for example, is of course, also a sign of misogyny, since it implies a clear value judgement.

As I said before, this is an incredibly hateful movie, and by now, it should have become clear at what its hate is directed. Yes its racist, but only incidentally so, the racism in the portrayal of the Tribe is common and barely noteworthy and the racism in the portrayal of the Mayans is not really directed at them, as a ‘race’, but at what they represent. Feminity, depravity, debauchery, decadence. This Gibson’s movie hates and hates with all its metaphorical heart. It’s not alone in that. A very famous book which shares this movie’s hate, is The Lord of the Rings, whose venomous end I consider to be barely, um, bearable. Fitting, isn’t it, that Gibson is planning to shoot a movie on the creation of the OED now, as I read somewhere.

On a final note, I applaud Mel Gibson’s cheek, who apparently “wants to dismiss the popular myth that history “only began with Europeans””. Hmmmmyes. That’s exactly what that movie is very helpful in doing, hm? The gall!

Oh, by the way:

This really great poster more than sums up the movie’s agenda, doesn’t it. Pictures. Amazing stuff.

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