09 December, 2006

Me, Fisking The Vanderbilt Tipsheet Article About Apocalypto

One of my commenters in the film review post about Apocalypto was kind enough to point me in the direction of some academic criticism of the film. Since I like this film so much and am often annoyed by the glibness of academic criticisms of fictional art, it behooves me to respond to the professor.

SPOILER WARNING: I will have film spoilers in here, because the Professor had them in her piece, and I can't not address them if addressing her piece. Sorry.


Apocalypto continues tradition of inaccurately disparaging native cultures.

I don't know that I would say it was disparaging in the least. But we'll get to that in a minute. I do, however, like this take-no-prisoners talking point.

The rich culture and complex intellectual achievements of Maya culture are ignored in Mel Gibson’s new film Apocalypto in favor of stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans as “noble savages” or “evil Indians,” says Annabeth Headrick, a Vanderbilt University professor and expert on the Maya.

Since I'm approaching this as a fictional movie--as opposed to a dissertation on the Maya--I think her point here overreaches a bit. Does every movie set in Great Britain go into enormous detail about The Nobel Seafaring British Tradition? Does every film set in California talk about the magnificent engineering behind the Golden Gate Bridge? Sure, there are like maybe three and a half actual movies about The Mayan Culture, so maybe she was expecting a lot of detail about their calendars, their astronomy, etc. Unfortunately, this was a movie that used a bit of a twist on Mayan culture to explore innate human ideals like self-preservation, religion, sacrifice, family and need. It's not a movie about the Maya. It's a movie about people who happen to be Mayan.


“These two stereotypes have been used for 500 years to depict Native Americans,” Headrick says. The “evil Indians” in the film are shown as senseless killing machines that attack without any rationale or provocation, while the “noble savages” live without any indication of civilization.

Approaching the story as a literary tale instead of a sociological treatise means that I tend to see the various characters as embodiments of a literary archetype. Sure, stereotypes are a subset of archetypes, but that word carries a negative connotation that unfortunately is stretched to apply to this film. It also makes me think that perhaps the professor didn't watch the same movie I did. Those she quickly dismisses as "noble savages" had a completely developed society in their village. They lived in houses, they hunted with rudimentary but sophisticated devices and had domesticated animals. Sure, they didn't have science and engineering. Undoubtedly, however, there were folks like this in the days of the Maya. I mean, for crying out loud, we've got pockets of Idaho like this right now. ::I am eagerly awaiting angry commentors from Idaho::

I'm especially puzzled at her inability to discover the motivations for the "evil Indians". For crying out loud, they were there as a function of the Mayan society. There are two scenes in the movie where the lead "evil Indian" very clearly discusses his motivations with a third party. Spoiler warning The bad guys are raiding the surrounding villages in search of slaves and sacrifices. They are paid mercenaries of the City Government hired to bring these people back. End Spoiler

In reality, the Maya had a complex writing system, sophisticated astronomical knowledge and 365-day calendar, and an organized religion. Maya cities are portrayed as ugly and disgusting, while in reality there were many beautiful plazas filled with art.

We are seeing this city in a time of drought, and through the eyes of the protagonists. Like the villagers, we see rough glimpses of the parts of town on the way to the temple. While it would be nice to see the Adventureland Mayan Science Center, I doubt it was on the Captive Village People tour. And frankly, were I dragged from my home, tethered to a pole and marched through the first loud city I'd ever seen, I doubt I'd be very admiring of the archetecture. It's a mistake to confuse literature with science and history. Were this a History Channel look at the Maya, Grandpa Gilmore would tell us all about the wonders of the Maya while showing computer-generated Mayan cultural centers in the background. I have no doubt that the release of this film will actually spur production on such a special. However, this is a story about one man and his experience. So you are going to see things through that one man's eyes.


The film inaccurately shows homes made of clusters of sticks that cannot keep out the rain and suggests that some villagers did not even know of the existence of large Maya cities.

Maybe they didn't. It's not like there was Mayan News at 6:00. And those "cluster of stick" homes seemed to have grasscloth roofs that could be rolled down like curtains. It looked pretty practical to me...keep the grasscloth up when it's hot out, but drop it during the rain and wind.

Human sacrifice did exist in Maya culture, Headrick says, but was not the constant and unthinking occurrence that Gibson presents.

Constant and unthinking? Did we see the same film? The Captive Village People are marched through drought-stricken fields. The subtitles tell us that the priest is sacrificing people to appease the gods in order to bring the crops back. And again, we're only in the Mayan City for the equivalent of a couple of hours. The slave-takers march the captives in, some hummy city people slather the captives in blue paint and then march them up to the sacrficial plinth. The sacrifices only appear constant because the viewer's only exposure to the city is through the eyes of the sacrificial victims, who are clearly NOT on a week's sightseeing holiday.

“Essentially, Gibson shows the Maya as poor people living like animals in need of the Spanish to protect them and bring them civilization and religion,” Headrick says. “He does not mention the mayhem and massive killing and torture conducted by those Spaniards once they marched ashore.”

The ending was the one thing I thought was a little bit hokey, but it's Gibson's picture. If there's one thing we know about the man it is that he is unrepentantly Catholic. He believes that Catholicism is the world's salvation. So he made a movie where the salvation of the protagonist is the arrival of Catholocism. Note that the biggest focus was not on the conquistador, but on the priest. The hero's run for his life ends when those chasing him abandon their pursuit to approach the priest. That's Gibson's artistic statement about Catholicism being Mankind's salvation.

Again, you can think what you want, but this is Gibson's fictional film. If he wants to make a heavy-handed statement about Priests Saving Mankind, it's his money and his movie to do with as he likes. This story wasn't about the Spanish Conquest of the Maya. It was about Jaguar Paw trying to escape tyranny and save his family. Gibson told that story very well, despite an ending that rings a bit of a false note of Vatican Pride.


Annabeth Headrick is assistant professor of art history and anthropology at Vanderbilt University. She specializes in the cultures of Mesoamerica, including the Olmec, Maya and Aztec. Her forthcoming book is The Teotihuacan Trinity: The Socio-political Structure of an Ancient Mesoamerican City.

No wonder Annabeth Headrick was disappointed with the film. She has devoted a large amount of her professional life to the study of the minutae of this part of the world. I do feel sorry for her because going to this movie had to be extremely frustrating. She's probably experienced the same frustration that every book-reader has felt upon seeing a beloved novel translated to screen. Unfortunately we've all had to learn the lesson that things don't happen in movies the same way they happen in the book.

That goes double when the book is non-fiction and the movie isn't.

To set up an interview with Headrick, call 615-322-2706 or e-mail her at annabeth.headrick@vanderbilt.edu.

She may be upset at the movie, but she has to admit the film's existence is going to get her more publicity for her book. It might even net her a speaking engagement or two.

12 Comments:

At 10:23 PM, December 09, 2006, Blogger Jeffraham Prestonian said...

Oh, don't shed too many tears. You'll dehydrate!
.

 
At 10:35 PM, December 09, 2006, Blogger dailydiablogger said...

As usual, it was great to see you tonight.

 
At 10:18 AM, December 10, 2006, Blogger Sonia said...

I must say....reading your post made me want to go see it.

 
At 1:38 PM, December 10, 2006, Anonymous nm said...

Since I'm approaching this as a fictional movie--as opposed to a dissertation on the Maya--I think her point here overreaches a bit. Does every movie set in Great Britain go into enormous detail about The Nobel Seafaring British Tradition? Does every film set in California talk about the magnificent engineering behind the Golden Gate Bridge? Sure, there are like maybe three and a half actual movies about The Mayan Culture, so maybe she was expecting a lot of detail about their calendars, their astronomy, etc. Unfortunately, this was a movie that used a bit of a twist on Mayan culture to explore innate human ideals like self-preservation, religion, sacrifice, family and need. It's not a movie about the Maya. It's a movie about people who happen to be Mayan.

But what if you were watching a film set in California today and all the characters walked around wearing British Navy uniforms from the Napoleonic Wars and the plot hinged on stopping William the Conqueror from invading (and someone gets tortured in excruciating detail along the way)? Would you shrug all that off? Because that's the level at which Gibson tends to juggle histories and cultures (with some torture thrown in along the way). At least, that's what he did in Braveheart and The Patriot, after which I decided never to watch any more of his movies. It does sound as if he's taken some information about the Maya for this one, but grafted it onto the history of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs.

 
At 2:03 PM, December 10, 2006, Blogger Sarcastro said...

nm,

The Patriot was written by Robert Rodat and directed by Roland Emmerich.

To hold Gibson responsible for the historical inaccuracies of a film that he was a hired hand on, would be like, say, holding Mary Queen of Scots responsible for the Vietnam War.

Because that's the level at which you tend to juggle the facts.

 
At 2:40 PM, December 10, 2006, Anonymous nm said...

My recollection is that Gibson, in a number of interviews promoting the film, stressed his own input into these matters. In fact, IIRC, he agreed to do the film only because the director assured him that they'd be glad to accomodate his little ideas. He hasn't been just a hired hand on a film for more than a decade.

 
At 5:27 PM, December 10, 2006, Anonymous sbk said...

Anyone who is an expert on Mayan culture isn't going to like the film. Period. Doesn't matter how close it is, it will fall short to an expert. That she doesn't like the film means zero.

I'm an expert with horses. I don't go to movies about horses. (Or rather, I don't go to movies about horses and expect them to be accurate.) Someone always does/says something really, really stupid, or something technical is really grating--like in Hidalgo they must have used at least a half a dozen spotted horses for the lead. Everyone looked different to me and I'd get confused about the storyline for a second.

I find it hard to believe after the amazingly straight and brilliantly white teeth of the Indians in Pocohontas that people think native cultures are "disparaged" as negative stereotypes in modern film making. Just the opposite from what I've seen.

 
At 8:40 PM, December 10, 2006, Blogger Sarcastro said...

Harrison Ford was originally offered the lead in The Patriot, but dropped out because the script evolved into a family revenge picture. No doubt Gibson had influence on the final script, but it was not a part that was tailored for him specifically.

Gibson was paid his full salary of $25 million for this, meaning he did not have a producer credit or any substantial back end participation. That's the same deal he recieved for Lethal Weapon 4.

In the last decade, he also starred in Signs and Ransom, neither were produced by his company.

 
At 1:25 PM, December 11, 2006, Anonymous nm said...

So Gibson acts in films he doesn't direct. And he even occasionally acts in a film that doesn't let him do scenes of lovingly detailed violence. That doesn't disprove my point about what he does put into a film these days when he has creative input, or the more than usually loose way he plays with facts.

And, BTW, none of that means that people who enjoy his movies ought not to enjoy them. I'm just pointing out that contrary to Katherine's contention in her fisking, the fiskee isn't just complaining that Gibson got a couple of period details wrong or that he doesn't turn an entertainment into a history lesson. She's claiming that the society he presents doesn't have all that much to do with any reality.

 
At 1:34 PM, December 11, 2006, Blogger Kat Coble said...

he's claiming that the society he presents doesn't have all that much to do with any reality.

I can see how that would be a beef if we were talking about Braveheart, a film that purports to be an account of living people and historical events. There wasn't even a BRIDGE at the battle of Stirling Bridge, for heaven's sake.

I think the valid complaints about the historical inaccuracy of Braveheart are bleeding through to this film.

There is no historical event or living person portrayed in Apocalypto at all. Nor have I seen any pretense or claim to the contrary.

 
At 4:08 PM, December 11, 2006, Anonymous nm said...

Katherine, you're right that I wouldn't care as much about Apocalypto if it weren't for Braveheart and The Patriot. It bothers me that a film-maker I used to regard as admirable has fallen into this particular rut, even if he has learned to stop making claims that his stories are true. But if I taught anthropology, or even the colonial Americas, I would care even if it was the first time he'd created a mash-up like this.

 
At 8:15 AM, December 12, 2006, Blogger Sarcastro said...

At what point has anyone claimed that The Patriot is anything but a fictional Hollywood-style depiction of the Revolution?

 

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