The world’s end
Mel Gibson is not a good person. In 2006, when a Jewish cop pulled him over for drunk driving, he went on an anti-semitic rant: “Fucking Jews… The Jews are responsible for all the wars of the world.” He also threatened the officer, saying he would use his wealth and influence to ruin the officer’s life. Then, at the station, he referred to a female sergeant as “sugar tits.”1 The anti-semitism is bizarre and doesn’t land as a personal insult. The sexism loses its edge for being simultaneously juvenile and old-timey. Later, Mel tries to explain everything away, claiming that not only was he very drunk, but he was experiencing a mental breakdown. I believe him. If he were sober and well-rested, his antisemitism and sexism probably would have really popped.
If this was the only black mark against Mel, we could conceivably allow his PR minions to reframe this incident as a mental health issue. However, about four years later, he was brought up on domestic violence charges against his wife, Oksana Grigorieva. She says he punched her in the face repeatedly, giving her a concussion and breaking a tooth. He claims he lightly slapped her to stop her from shaking their baby. He pled no contest to one misdemeanor count of domestic violence.2 It’s hard to tell who’s telling the truth. Oksana made recordings of Mel berating her for her appearance. In the very worst part of the recordings, he says, “You look like a fucking bitch in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of n******, it'll be your fault.”3 He claims she was using the tapes to extort him for $15 million, but regardless, Mel is a misogynist and a racist piece of shit. And this time, he didn’t claim to be having a mental breakdown.
So what should we do about the Mel Gibson movies we grew up with and love, like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Lethal Weapon, and Braveheart? Toss them into an ironic bonfire? Let the DVDs quietly gather dust in the basement? Or can we still somehow enjoy the movies made by a racist, sexist, abusive, vengeful man?
This is a personal decision. We all draw our lines somewhere. On the more hair-trigger side of the canceling/accountability spectrum, some people refuse to watch anything related to toxic bosses like Jimmy Fallon or Ellen DeGeneres. Others draw the line closer to objectively worse criminals like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Victor Salva (the director of Jeepers Creepers, convicted of raping a 12-year-old boy). For now, I will continue to watch Mel’s movies.
Mel Gibson is a vile human being, but at the end of his days, when his soul is weighed against the hatred and violence that punctuated his life, if nothing else, Apocalypto will be a counterweight on the opposing side of the scale. Mel directed this thoughtful and accessible movie that respects indigenous people, endowing them with admirable humanity. It’s difficult to reconcile Mel as the director of this movie and the unwitting star of the two surreptitious recordings. If the 2006 DUI and 2010 domestic violence charges show Mel at his worst, perhaps Apocalypto gives us a glimpse of who he is at his best. The movie doesn’t redeem him, but it suggests he’s more than just a monster.
Apocalypto begins in the rainforest with Mayan hunters chasing down a tapir. They spring barriers to direct the gelatinous yet athletic beast towards a trap that drives wood spikes through its body. The thrilling hunt, foreshadowing everything else in the movie, is followed by five minutes of unrelenting humor. It’s kind of like a skit from an indigenous improv group. Jaguar Paw, a young Mayan hunter and the son of Flint Sky, one of the village’s leaders, divvies up the choice parts of the tapir: the heart, liver, and ears. Jaguar Paw gives testicles to Blunted, which he insists will help with his infertility. Flint Sky, a father of ten, solemnly endorses the eating of tapir testicles. Blunted tears into them, gagging and choking like a contestant on Fear Factor, and the group rolls on the ground laughing because, like you and I, they know tapir testes do nothing for infertility.
Flint Sky takes Blunted aside and chides him for allowing the others to treat him poorly. He gives Blunted a handful of soanzo leaves, a powerful fertility aid from the great southern marshes, and instructs him to rub them against his genitals before having sex with his wife.
When the hunters return to their village, roles have reversed, and Blunted is now the prey. His nightmare mother-in-law (María Isabel Díaz Lago) attacks, sharply criticizing him for being useless, having failed to give her a grandchild. As the villagers laugh, she shepherds him into his hut with her daughter and orders him to make her some grandkids. Moments later, Blunted and his wife run out of their home, screaming and dancing about in pain. The soanzo leaf is not a fertility aid, but rather some kind of spicy herb. Blunted pours a comically small cup of water on his crotch before plunging into a trough of water. His wife guzzles water from a gourd. The joke isn’t lost on Blunted, who laughs and weeps in turn from the trough.
The movie takes a dark turn after this. Cruelty, murder, and enslavement replace bawdy humor. Warriors from a vast and powerful Mayan civilization attack Jaguar Paw’s village early the following day, capturing or killing nearly all of the adults. Jaguar Paw lowers his wife and young son into a cavernous pit before being captured. We travel with the prisoners far past the village boundaries, into a foreign land where, as one of the captives explains, “the earth bleeds.” Apocalypto becomes a chase movie when Jaguar Paw escapes from the warriors and attempts to return to his family.
There are innumerable ways directors heap disrespect on indigenous people and other people of color in movies. You don’t see this much anymore, but my favorite is when white actors play non-white characters (e.g., Mickey Fucking Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Mel cast Native American and indigenous Mexican actors in his movie, and the actors speak a Yucatec Mayan language. Some critics complain that the Mayan people’s architecture, clothing, and practices in Apocalypto reflect a mishmash of different epochs, but this seems like a minor complaint to me.
Racist directors perpetuate ugly caricatures (e.g., Mickey Fucking Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi). Mel does not portray indigenous characters as savages. Jaguar Paw’s people are hilarious, ingenious hunters. They are caring parents and devoted spouses. And they are a philosophical people. The night before the raid, an elder tells a story to the assembled villagers about how animals bestowed gifts to man to soothe his sadness (vulture’s sight, jaguar’s strength, serpent’s secrets). The story is about how man’s unlimited wants contribute to his unhappiness, perpetual war with neighbors, and, ultimately, the world’s destruction. These villagers, living in a primitive state, have more self-awareness than modern humans.
Directors who are sneakier with their racism portray non-white characters in a monolithic manner (e.g., Mickey--well, not this time, but fuck you anyway, Mickey Rooney.). Within a group of people, there are no individuals. Characters are simple, interchangeable parts that can be swapped out with anyone else. Perhaps these directors assume that, like themselves, audience members can’t distinguish one non-white character from another. Mel’s characters, even minor ones, possess distinctive personalities that are consistent throughout the movie. For example, even Blunted’s mother-in-law has a unique destiny. The day after attacking Blunted as useless, warriors take her to a Mayan metropolis where slavers attempt to sell her. Buyers reject her, complaining she is old and useless. She is among many other characters with ironic fates.
Because Mel is a misogynist, we must examine his portrayal of women in Apocalypto. Seven (Dalia Hernández), Jaguar Paw’s wife, is not a damsel waiting helplessly for a man to save her. She’s capable and amazingly resourceful: she captures condensation from the walls of the pit to drink and uses biting ants to clamp shut her son’s wound. She also shows incredible physical courage. When the pit floods, she holds her toddler on her shoulders to keep his head above water while walking completely submerged to find a large rock to stand on. And then--and then!--she gives birth while balanced on the rock and fishes her newborn infant from the water like she’s noodling a catfish. She shows more courage than her husband and endures much greater hardships.
The title, Apocalypto, which refers to a dying girl’s prophecy about the end of the Mayan civilization, feels relevant to our times. America is the mightiest, wealthiest civilization in the history of the world, but we know that every apex civilization before ours has fallen. The obvious threat to American hegemony is Trump, who perfectly represents men and women who received the animals’ gifts, but hunger for more, unable to fill the hole within themselves. On an individual level, at any moment, our lives can be upended, often due to our own actions and appetites. And like the Mayans who survive Apocalypto, standing in the ruins of their former lives before retreating deeper into the forest, we understand the futility of seeking new beginnings since we carry the seeds of our destruction. In this way, we are the same as Mel.
Written by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia; Directed by Mel Gibson
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Kanopy
Can’t believe I’m referencing a TMZ article… https://www.tmz.com/2006/07/28/gibsons-anti-semitic-tirade-alleged-cover-up/
People magazine this time! https://people.com/celebrity/inside-mel-gibson-and-oksana-grigorievas-turbulent-romance/
Salon is not in good company. https://www.salon.com/2010/07/16/mel_gibson_tapes_complete_transcript/