poster pic from: www.atomicmpc.com.au
Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO took me by surprise. For some reason, I believed it was a science-fiction film -- apparently, I had managed to miss seeing any trailers. The billboards I saw in Boston managed to conceal the fact that it’s a tale of lyric violence set in the jungles of South America, in “the twilight of the mysterious Mayan empire” (from the DVD case cover), probably the late fifteenth century.
I was intrigued by it. On the one hand, it held my attention. On the other hand, I found little distracting thoughts buzzing like flies across my field of vision all the way through.
The story concerns a warrior (Jaguar Paw) belonging to a tribe of jungle-dwellers who find themselves being brutally raided and taken prisoner by another tribe. It isn’t very clear whether these others are soldiers belonging to the rulers of an urban clan or whether they are urban beings themselves, who round up jungle-dwellers as part of their normal weekday occupation.
Whatever the case, they force-march Jaguar Paw and all the able-bodied members of his tribe who survived the raid, to the local metropolis. Its skyline is dominated by tall pyramid-shaped temples where the priest and his patrons are indulging in the practice for which South American cultures have become infamous in the gaze of Western pop culture, i.e., tearing out the still-beating hearts of sacrificial victims in order to offer their blood to the gods. Jaguar Paw narrowly escapes this fate by means of a handy total solar eclipse whereupon he and the surviving clan members are given a chance to run to their freedom – that is, if they can first survive being pelted with arrows, bolas and spears by the urban warriors while sprinting across a stretch of open ground before reaching the safety of the jungle.
Jaguar Paw manages to make it to cover, but kills the lead warrior’s son in the bargain, thereby earning the privilege of being chased by ten of the warrior-urbs. The chase takes up the final third of the movie, with the pursuers being picked off in each of several different ways: a jaguar in one case, a poisonous serpent in another, at the foot of a great water-fall in a fourth, a hornet’s nest in a fifth and so on. MEANWHILE – and this of course is the reason that Jaguar Paw is so frantic to get back to his ravaged home – his heavily pregnant wife awaits him, at the bottom of a (highly convenient) deep stone cavity into which he managed to lower her and their young son just before being taken captive.
And so to the distracting thoughts: how authentic is any movie set in an “exotic” culture, when the director and producer (and much of the cast) are outsiders to that culture? For all that this film was lush with detail, with jungle, with able-bodied warriors, and for all that it was refreshingly free of the presence of a Western narrator/adventurer who would typically provide the viewer with a familiar reference point for all the action onscreen, the story was pretty much formula Wild West: the hero is the chief’s son, he’s got a romantic monogamous bond going with his doe-eyed little wifey, they have one son in hand and another child on its way – and of course, it’s never possible to see a pregnant woman but she’s got to deliver onscreen – so we get to confirm that it IS a son, what else – and the hero's got to kill/outrun the bad guys so that he can walk off into the verdant jungle with his true love and their kiddies.
Should I applaud Gibson for attempting a film that treats hunter-gatherers as heroes in the Western genre? Or should I be appalled at his transformative vision, that taints everything he sees with the urgencies and values of his own culture, that forces a narrative attractive to his own taste upon a people who cannot challenge his interpretation with their own – because (a) they were exterminated by the colonizing westerners who appeared upon their shores and (b) even if they were available today in their pristine form, the technology for story-telling that is used in making films would be too distorting for them to tell their own stories to a film-going audience while maintaining authenticity and finally (c) even if, by some miracle, an Ancient Mayan film-maker were to be found who could make a stirring block-buster about his/her own vision of reality ... which distributor would pick it up or release it?
So even though I felt a genuine sense of pleasure at the risk-taking creativity involved in a project of this sort, I couldn’t help playing a favorite little mind-game of mine, in which I transpose clothes and characters from one culture onto scenes featuring some other culture. The first time I thought of doing it was while watching a Discovery Channel program about Kalahari Bushmen. One of the closing shots showed a couple of the tiny bushmen kneeling to drink water from a stream – rather than cup the water with their hands or use some sort of utensil, they instead leaned down and drank with their mouths to the water, just like a pair of antelope.
In that instant, an image flashed in my mind of two pin-stripe suited businessmen – London bankers, say – kneeling down and drinking in the same position ... we do all belong to a single species of hominid, do we not? ... Two suburban housewives, in their flowered housecoats and their hair tied up in jumbo rollers. Two fat sari-clad women, with their hair coiffed in shining black coils, complete with jewels and flowers. A flock of tourists with their cameras dangling from their necks and their straw hats pushed back onto their necks – you get the picture? I transpose urban characters onto scenes involving non-urbans, just to get a sense of perspective, to see whether it looks strange or not (and of course it does).
So with this movie, for instance, I tried to supplant the wife with a small blonde female – Reese Witherspoon, say – and of course, the scene changed character immediately. I didn’t have to do anything else – just the substitution of a white, blonde woman in the place of Jaguar Paw's wife immediately made the woman in the movie look like the subject of some type of perverse humans-as-wildlife docudrama. She was even shown to be struggling to stay alive as water begins to fill into the well in which she has been sheltering. In the most grotesque way, it brought to mind the dreadful experiment, recorded in pictures in a lab, of a wretched little rhesus monkey mother, being made first to drown in a long narrow receptacle with her baby – initially she places it on her head, as the water begins to fill, to give the baby a good chance of jumping to safety – but ultimately, when she knows she can’t save herself as well, she places the baby underneath herself and stands on its head (at least, that’s what reportedly happened in that particular instance).
Well, in Apocalypto of course the mother never places the baby underneath – she’s too busy giving birth!! – but it’s a pitifully demeaning image, all the same (even though it is undoubtedly meant to seem heroic).
I’m almost completely ignorant about South American aboriginal cultures, but I didn’t need to know anything to guess that what we saw was most likely an amalgam of anything vaguely resembling Mayan/Aztec/Incan cultures, because who except for scholars would know any better (it leaves one wondering why scholars’ opinions are so routinely disregarded … ) – for all that it seemed highly authentic, the chances are it was just a grab-all bag of cultural effects.
So .. ummm … what was the point of the film, again? Let us now praise modern civilization? Let us now hate Ancient Mayans/Ancient Warriors? Let us now revere monogamous love bonds coz they give us the incentive to run without stopping from the seriously psychotic hunter-warrior types who are hunting us? And then again, let us now fear monogamous love bonds coz they mean we can’t just die peacefully and quickly like the rest, but have to keep running until the Spanish ships arrive in time to distract the two remaining pursuers while we manage to FINALLY save our reproductive partner seconds before she drowns in an unprecedented flash flood ...
So yes, it was very beautiful and very violent – and also extremely disturbing on the cultural plane. I am sure the publicity handouts must have said that it was meant to honour the noble savages of the South American jungles, etc etc – but in the end, we’re surely left thinking that however handsome/charming/clever/brave/fleet-footed/proud they were, aren’t we glad-shitless-that-we’re-NOT-them?