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The Cinema of Mel Gibson

Tuesday, May 22, 2007
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I do the raping and pillaging around here! You wait your turn!

I have just been witness to the end of the world. Or rather, Mel Gibson’s version of it.

Apocalypto may seem an odd choice of subject matter for a director of two highly successful historical (I use history in the loosest sense of the word) films, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. Yet despite the subtitles, and the unknown actors, Apocalypto is actually very similar to both these films. After four directorial efforts (The Man Without a Face was his first, made in the early 1990s), it seems clear to me that Gibson has been making The Passion of the Christ since 1995’s Braveheart, and he has continued to tell it with Apocalypto. This is not a criticism per se, merely an observation – many directors only have a few good ideas kicking around in their heads, and are able to retell them in a myriad of ways. (For an interesting article relating to this, go here.) However, it is Gibson’s treatment of the subject matter that deserves scrutiny.

Before being known as Mel Gibson, the drunken anti-Semite, he was Gibson the Oscar-winning director, and before that he was Gibson, the dangerous and appealing action hero. The Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films cemented Gibson as one of the most popular and successful action stars to emerge from the 1980s. Gibson then re-invented himself with Braveheart, won a bunch of awards and single-handedly brought back the grand, and bloody, historical epic genre.

I'll have the epidural now, please.

While I didn’t love Braveheart, (my hatred was stronger when it first came out because so many people adored it…make of that what you will), it is nevertheless an enjoyable, if a little meandering (ie. long), piece of stirring, tear-jerking, adventure.

With Passion of the Christ, I am absolutely amazed at how terrible a film it is. I don’t say this to belittle those who enjoyed it – I certainly respect the fact that being a non-Christian, I wasn’t bringing with me a familiarity to the text, or deep, spiritual associations – but from a snooty filmmaking perspective, it was astoundingly bad and amateurish. I think about the half the film is in slow-motion (even if it isn’t, it felt like it was), and Gibson tries to conceal the fact that he is completely lacking any meaningful insight into Christ’s final 12 hours, by ladling out the violence in great, huge dollops of flesh.

You think you've had a rough day...

My favourite bit was the coda, inside Jesus’ tomb. The music stirs, the drums begin to pound, and, ‘ta-da’ Christ rises and exits the tomb. Again, this isn’t said to be offensive, it’s just the way Gibson has the scene play out – it’s like he’s setting the film up for the sequel: The Passion of the Christ, Part 2: The Resurrection. The Passion is a religious blockbuster, created for the masses, to be quickly digested, and then forgotten.

Now, Apocalypto. An epic set in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica that may or may not be paralleling the inner destruction of Mayan society with our own modern western one. Or maybe there’s some environmental message going on, or perhaps Gibson was just so interested in Mayan history that he felt the need to show the world what a bloodthirsty and ruthless lot the bunch of them were.

Probably he intended all of these things, but Apocalypto is pretty much a thinly veiled action film. The Christ-figure stand-in, Jaguar Paw, is taken to hell and back, he looses his family, delivers prophesies (though unbeknownst to him), and finally overcomes evil by resurrecting himself in the forest of his ancestors. Actually, it’s interesting that this film, out of the three talked about here, is the only one in which the lead character is crucified, but does not end up dying. That fact that he and his progeny will be faced with Spanish colonial oppression and subjugation is rather downplayed.

Oh c'mon guys! Danny Glover and Joe Pesci thought that was H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S!!

Gibson is a woefully unsatisfying filmmaker. He has been pushing the boundaries of violence in movies since Braveheart (remember people talking about those battle scenes??), and much of the hype surrounding Passion was about how realistically violent it was. Apocalypto is really no different; it’s chalk full of blood, guts, organs – one guy eats an oozy, squirty pair of Tapir testicles, someone else gets mauled by a panther, etc. Violence, for Gibson, isn’t just about cheap thrills; I don’t think he knows how to create drama or tension without resorting to bloody battles, or torture scenes. He directs as if he’s still the action star, disguising his brutal excesses for ultra-realistic and IMPORTANT drama. llewopemearg

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Wednesday, May 23, 2007 10:04 am

    But at least in Braveheart, Jesus — ahem — William Wallace, gets to ‘lie down’ with two beautiful women before he’s crucified; well, one who’s sorta pretty and the other who’s ridiculously hot (Sophie Marceau — gorgeous!).

    Although, again, depending on what you choose to believe, it’s possible Jesus did too (Mary M. anyone?)

  2. Wednesday, May 23, 2007 1:11 pm

    And Mary M. was played by Monica Bellucci, wasn’t she? Who wouldn’t want to continue your bloodline creating a deep, dark secret that could rock the very foundation of Christianity with her?

    I was actually going to write an Apocalypto thing of my own a ways back. I saw the movie in Australia, and really dug it — I haven’t seen Passion and don’t care enough about Braveheart to draw comparisons, really I just liked it as a indulgently gory jungle action flick.

    But that wasn’t what the article would’ve been about, it was going to focus on the impact a real-life controversy can have on one’s impressions of an artist’s past and future work. I was gonna call it “Apocalypto Remains Neutral Towards the Jews.” But by the time I got back from Oz I figured both the controversy’s and the movie’s moments had passed.

    Guess I was wrong about the latter, huh graeme?

  3. Wednesday, May 23, 2007 1:41 pm

    Oh, I’m sure the moment has passed – you can always count on me to be at least 6 months behind any controversy.

    We should do a list of movie stars/directors/etc that have gone and tainted past and possibly future films because of controversies, like Mel’s anti-Semitic ravings.

  4. James17930 permalink
    Wednesday, May 23, 2007 11:00 pm

    I hear the Brat Pack has been getting up to some no good shenagins.

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