December 08, 2006

Mel's message:  Christians saved Indians

Is "Apocalypto" Pornography?I find the visual appeal of the film one of the most disturbing aspects of "Apocalypto." The jungles of Veracruz and Costa Rica have never looked better, the masked priests on the temple jump right off a Classic Maya vase, and the people are gorgeous. The fact that this film was made in Mexico and filmed in the Yucatec Maya language coupled with its visual appeal makes it all the more dangerous. It looks authentic; viewers will be captivated by the crazy, exotic mess of the city and the howler monkeys in the jungle. And who really cares that the Maya were not living in cities when the Spanish arrived? Yes, Gibson includes the arrival of clearly Christian missionaries (these guys are too clean to be conquistadors) in the last five minutes of the story (in the real world the Spanish arrived 300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned). It is one of the few calm moments in an otherwise aggressively paced film. The message? The end is near and the savior has come. Gibson's efforts at authenticity of location and language might, for some viewers, mask his blatantly colonial message that the Maya needed saving because they were rotten at the core. Using the decline of Classic urbanism as his backdrop, Gibson communicates that there was absolutely nothing redeemable about Maya culture, especially elite culture which is depicted as a disgusting feast of blood and excess.

Before anyone thinks I have forgotten my Metamucil this morning, I am not a compulsively politically correct type who sees the Maya as the epitome of goodness and light. I know the Maya practiced brutal violence upon one another, and I have studied child sacrifice during the Classic period. But in "Apocalypto," no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities. Instead, Gibson replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserve, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people and it has been thoroughly deconstructed and rejected by Maya intellectuals and community leaders throughout the Maya area today. In fact, Maya intellectuals have demonstrated convincingly that such ideas were manipulated by the Guatemalan army to justify the genocidal civil war of the 1970-1990s. To see this same trope about who indigenous people were (and are today?) used as the basis for entertainment (and I use the term loosely) is truly embarrassing. How can we continue to produce such one-sided and clearly exploitative messages about the indigenous people of the New World?
Comment:  Christian crusaders "saved" the Maya, according to Gibson. Similarly, they "saved" the other indigenous people of the Americas from themselves--starting with Cortés's conquests and continuing through our proxy wars with the Sandinistas. Now they're saving the brown-skins in Iraq and Afghanistan from their own savage follies. Get the connection?

12 comments:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Two things first: one, writerfella just has returned from seeing APOCALYPTO in Norman, OK, and two, writerfella is an alumnus of the University of Miami (FL) and so is well-versed in the level of 'expertise' offered in UM's departments of Archaeology and Anthropology, having taken many of their courses while attending there close to three years.
APOCALYPTO was wonderful in its construction, marvelous in its filmic intensity, and masterful in its presentation. That Ms. Ardren's 'review' differs reflects only that she attended expecting history, and then expecting reality, and then expecting truth, and her disappointment came because she received a fable, a legend, a mythos, and then verisimilitude instead. If motion pictures only presented history, then nothing would happen that already is not set to pages in history books. Thus, there would be no reason to make those pages into a motion picture.
Worse, though she sees the film as a violation of history, she still expresses to have seen a moral not present in history that the white man's coming saved an already decadent society. WRONG!!
Sorry about her tough tacos, but APOCALYPTO only says that when things go wrong, they only will go more wrong with the passage of time. After the movie reaches its 'surprise' ending, after Jaguar Paw has rescued his family, his wife asks if perhaps they should go to the strangers, as the advanced Maya were doing. And Jaguar Paw says no, they should return to the jungle and find a new beginning. Which explains why the jungle Maya still survive today and also why the northern Maya, the Kiowas, also survive today. The advanced Maya pursued their rush after delinquent gods and savaged themselves out of existence. All that the arrival of EuroMan means is that such a fate was made complete, as things only were made far more worse than they were before. All that evil ever seeks is its own completion. That Ardren saw the film's ending as meaning that EuroMan 'rescued' the Maya unfortunately reflects her own impression that this is what occurred. The film does not say this and in fact leaves it to the audience to decide. When that part of the film played, writerfella was witness to a change in the reactions of the audience. It was a packed house, no seats left unfilled, which would not be unusual for any film's opening day. But this audience, made up of university students and likely the faculty, very heavily identified with the Mayan characters, and so it perceptibly shivered when they saw the Spanish galleons out in the bay and the longboats coming that were filled with Conquistadores and Catholic priests. Rather than sensing that the Maya were about to be 'rescued', writerfella saw that the audience realized that a horrible situation was about to be made more horrible. Some laughed, a few spoke to each other. And then the audience went silent, perhaps realizing that what they had seen soon would involve their own people.
As for the Univ/Miami, when writerfella attended and elected many courses in their Anthropology and Archaeology curricula, the time would come when course work dealt with his Kiowa tribe. Mainly, he was asked about the examples of tribal artifacts concerning an odd cultural practice involving the Ah-day Tallee (males) and the Ah-Day Mah-Ton (females) children. He explained that certain children were regarded as very special, so special and so loved that they never were allowed to do anything for themselves, were never allowed to touch the ground, and were given only the finest clothing and the finest of foods. They also died before reaching the age of twelve. Both the instructors in Anthropology and Archaeology curricula challenged writerfella's statements about the Ah-Days not being allowed to touch the ground. And then they displayed mocassins specially beaded with the Ah-Day motifs that had significant wear on their soles. writerfella answered that the people who attended the Ah-Days also wore the same kinds of identifying mocassins; they could walk on the ground and that was why those showed wear. The upshot was that the UM departments concluded that the information was spurious and that the Ah-Day 'cult' was a myth or a fabrication. Obviously, since the information writerfella provided did not agree with their viewpoint, writerfella was wrong. The best thing is that it gave writerfella some of the heartiest laughter he ever experienced at UM.
The portions of the film with sub-titling are quite brief, and the bulk of the story is told in magnificent images, which is the whole reason motion pictures exist at all.
Whatever the fate of APOCALYPTO, writerfella is happy to have seen the film on opening day with an audience that was appreciative and even surprised by what they were witnessing. He is pleased and rewarded to know that the director and writer and writer-director have done their jobs well. That's about all the public as consumers of motion pictures ever could ask...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Why include the Spaniards at all, since they didn't arrive till 300 years after the Maya civilization disappeared, unless it was to send a message? Clearly we should infer a message of some sort from the ending. The question is, what message?

Ardren's interpretation is "The end is near and the savior has come." Your interpretation is "The end is near and things are about to get worse." I'm not sure these messages are inconsistent. "The end is near and the 'savior' has come. Things are about to get worse (from the Maya perspective) or better (from the Euro-Christian perspective)."

If the message is that things are about to get worse from the Maya perspective, they must've been better before then. That would imply Apocalypto offered some positive views of the Maya and their culture. If so, what were these positive views? From what I've read, the movie was wholly negative concerning the Mayas' cultural accomplishments.

Incidentally, your experiences at the University of Miami occurred when...40 years ago? I imagine most universities were insensitive to Indian claims in that era. That tells us next to nothing about the quality of scholarship at UM today. If the choice is Dr. Ardren or Mad Mel when it comes to archaeological and anthropological issues, I'll go with Ardren any day.

Rob said...

Let's recap: Jaguar Paw, the good Indian, rejects and escapes from the coming Christians. The Maya, the bad Indians, presumably succumb to the Christians. None of this happened in reality because the Maya civilization predated the European advent by at least 300 years. It's a fiction concocted by Gibson to send some message.

The only message you see here is "things are about to get worse"? How about "things are about to get worse" for the Indians who deserve it? Which, judging by the movie, is the vast majority of Mesoamerican Indians. According to Apocalypto, they were evil, their evil did them in, and now the Christians are going to punish them for (i.e., save them from) their evil ways.

You say the Maya were the ancestors of your Kiowa. Do you endorse the view that your ancestors didn't accomplish anything worth noting? That they were cruel, bloodthirsty, and barbaric? Because that's the message most people will take from Apocalypto.

By the time its run is over, I bet most viewers will conclude the Maya were as bad as the Aztecs. I.e., that all Mesoamerican Indians--or maybe just all Indians--were sadistic butchers and monsters. Congratulations, Mel, for demonizing another ethnic group.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Forty years ago, writerfella was in the USAF, stationed in Panama City, FL, and esconced in hospital for the better part of nine months following a catatrophic explosion in his missile facility. He was one of three survivors.
From 1981 to 1984, some 22 years ago, writerfella attended the University of Miami (FL), taking every course in writing, screenwriting, and film making. As with any university he attended (12 in all), writerfella took all the science courses he was allowed, as those came under his area of science fiction writing. Most professors and assistant professors resented having a student who was their own age or in fact was older than they. Reasons being that writerfella always took them to task if they espoused viewpoints rather than the text and also that he never was one to be led around easily and lamblike by the nose.
Messages in APOCALYPTO? There's an old adage in the TV and film industry that is attributed to Samuel Goldwyn: "If you want to send a message, try Western Union." And writerfella saw no 'Candygrams for Mongo' in the film, only parables that also are to be found in a rather interesting book published in 1992. Peter Farb's RISE OF MAN TO CIVILIZATION: The Cultural Ascent of The Indians of North America, reveals a possible template for understanding any race of man worldwide. Since the Natives in the New World ranged from naked stone age people who slept under brush all the way up to educated men who wore linen robes and walked polished stone cities and bathed three times a day, study of these widely variegated lifestyles could be projected upon the Chinese or the Egyptians or the Sumerians or the Indus Valley peoples. And one then could understand the kinds of human interplay that occurred in all the ages of mankind everywhere.
And the main conclusion to Farb's work is this: civilization did not elevate human behavior above the barbaric; it simply refined and then ritualized human ferocity into philosophy and technology. If there is a message in APOCALYPTO, it is that one indicative and no more.
And APOCALYPTO now can be seen as far from unique as a motion picture. Ardren correctly says that it resembles THE NAKED PREY (1966/starring, written, and directed by Cornel Wilde), in which a hunting guide tries to escape African warriors as he runs naked and unarmed through the jungle. But then again, it also heavily resembles THE RUN OF THE ARROW, a western with Rod Steiger (1956/Samuel Fuller) in which an ex-Confederate soldier tries to outrun the Sioux though weaponless and barefoot. In that light, APOCALYPTO is just another movie in the traditions of the above.
writerfella finds no fault with APOCALYPTO's fabulations, as the Kiowa were considered to be the fiercest warriors on the Plains. Among their oddities: no captives ever were tortured and instead were put to quick, ritualistic deaths; the people worshipped at mud pyramids that sometimes reached twelve feet in height; they kept their tribal and family histories in pictographic language written on buffalo robes; and all the ten clans kept their medicine objects and written spiritual experiences in 'Grandmother bundles' that were exposed to the sun only during equinoctial days. The Mayan collapse left their northern offshoots stranded and so those people quickly took up Plains living to survive.
In conclusion, you say that you'll "go with Ardren any day." Geez, I hope she isn't married...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Perhaps you haven't been paying attention, but Apocalypto's ads have stated Gibson's message quite plainly:

"No one can outrun their destiny."

If that isn't blatant enough, the movie begins with a quote offering an explicit message. As the LA Times reported:

http://www.calendarlive.com/movies/reviews/cl-et-apocalypto8dec08,0,275059.story?coll=cl-movies-top-right

Gibson unblushingly intends "Apocalypto" as a clarion call warning modern man to watch his step or risk following the Mayas into decline and near-extinction. To this end he opens the story with a famous quote from historian Will Durant about the fall of Rome: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."

Rob said...

Goldwyn's quote refers to putting messages in a movie intentionally. In addition to his explicit messages, Gibson may have included implicit messages he wasn't aware of. Whether or not a filmmaker intends to include a message, a message is often there. From Birth of a Nation to Citizen Kane to Star Wars, you can find a message in many movies.

I haven't seen The Naked Prey, but Ardren's point was that it was badly stereotypical and Apocalypto is just as stereotypical. In other words, two wrongs don't make a right. Or are you prepared to argue that The Naked Prey also doesn't stereotype indigenous people?

I see you couldn't touch most of my arguments. For instance, the one asking how Apocalypto portrayed the Maya positively. I'll simply reiterate that the movie stereotyped the Maya as barbaric savages rather than civilized people.

While I go on a date with Ardren, you can go on a bender with Gibson. If you'd like to play a tag-team game of Native American Trivial Pursuit, I'll take Ardren and me over Gibson and you any day. I'm betting we win in a landslide.

Anonymous said...

It certainly doesn't redeem his film in any way, but Gibson has publically stated that it is partly a political allegory against the war in Iraq. He likens our sending soldiers to Iraq to the supposedly widespread human sacrifice of the Mayas: “What’s human sacrifice if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?” The message that the Maya civilization somehow deserved to be conquered is still really disturbing though.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15001985/

Rob said...

Good point. Gibson has stated his themes and messages, they're in the ads and the movie itself, and many critics have noted them. You really have to work not to see a message in Apocalypto--to read it only as an action flick.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
How are the Maya or their life experiences portrayed positively? Exactly this: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it -- Georges Santayana.
THAT is the message which is being ignored, as vociferously and completely as it is possible. But then again, you could be arguing in your spare time. -- Monty Python.
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Re "Exactly this: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it": That's a positive message derived from the Maya. Derived from attacking and stereotyping the Maya, to be specific. It's not a positive portrayal of the Maya. Try again.

Of course, you previously said Apocalypto had no message. Apparently you were mistaken about that. Oops.

Anonymous said...

Interesting points and thoughts.

I believe that any post-thought from Gibson or other 'reps' would be taken with a grain of salt, since such reasons could be to appease a wider audience or even an unrelated issue.

I agreed, there was no need to include non-Indians particularly at the end, and yes it did seem like it was the great non-indians who came to save the indians from their own demise, etc....


HOWEVER, that being said;

My own personal humble opinion is that such an element may have been necessary in order for it to get the media stamp of approval for wide distribution, since media as we know it will only take a certain standard for profits, and when it comes to Indians, they need to have a connection from the non-indian view and unfortunately that is the way of the world...


THAT being said, I will say this much for the good of the movie...
whether you are cheering for the good guy, or that bad guy, you are cheering for the Indian...also, whether it is completely accurate or not to the culture of the Maya, it did captivate the viewer into a questionable world where for once it is indian content in itself(aside from the references and boat at the end).

It also gives a platform for those who are outspoken about true Mayan culture to correct what may not be correct.

At the end of the day, I would say it was a cool movie and worth watching.

Rob said...

You think Gibson had to include the Christian scenes at the end to placate the powers-that-be? I don't. After the success of The Passion of the Christ, I believe he could've done, and did do, whatever he wanted. Apocalypto was exactly the movie he wanted to make.

Cheering for good Indians and bad Indians doesn't sound like much of an advance to me. Besides, bad Indians are the norm in Apocalypto. If Jaguar Paw is a saint, the rest of the Maya are devils. He's the exception that proves the rule: that Indians are bloodthirsty barbarians.