[Marxism] Mel Gibson and the Maya

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 9 08:32:45 MST 2006

Maya Mistake
Mel Gibson's Gory Action Film Sacrifices a Noble Civilization to Hollywood

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006; C01


The world audience is very familiar with the deeds of the 
overachievers of the ancient world, as told through the movies, the 
tales of the rise and fall, et cetera, et cetera, of your celebrity 
civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

Now it is time for the Maya to shine, but they are a more mysterious, 
less overexposed people who finally get star billing on the big 
screen in Mel Gibson's new film "Apocalypto." How do they do as a 
civilization? Not so nice. Let's say you had a time travel machine? 
You definitely would not want to dial back to Mel's Maya, not without 
superior body armor. They would stick a fork in you.

"Apocalypto" depicts the Maya as a super-cruel, psycho-sadistic 
society on the skids, a ghoulscape engaged in widespread slavery, 
reckless sewage treatment and bad rave dancing, with a real lust for 
human blood. Think: Caligula of the Yucatan. Follow the bouncing heads!

This is a problem because most scholars, while acknowledging the 
violence of this pre-Columbian society, universally applaud the Maya 
as among the New World's most sophisticated and subtle civilizations. 
They were, especially at their height around A.D. 800, remarkable 
Stone Agers who erected avant-garde cities and towering pyramids in 
the jungles of Mexico and Central America, created sumptuous art, 
practiced a precise astronomy and (yes, there's more) developed not 
only a written language, but a heady cosmology of time and space, 
built around a complex, ordered society of maize, kings and gods. The 
Maya flourished for a thousand years. They were winners.

But "Apocalypto's" focus on the more, shall we say, extreme hobbies 
of the Maya (i.e., removal of still operating body parts) is giving 
the community of Maya researchers the fits. The archaeologists are 
shouting: slander! They're circulating statements and editorials and e-mails.

"It is a shocking movie to us," says Stephen Houston, professor of 
anthropology at Brown University, and like the other Mayanists quoted 
in this article, a scientist who has spent years excavating sites in 
Mexico and Central America.

Houston and his colleagues say they are not just engaging in the 
predictable academic nitpicking about the historical accuracy of a 
potential Hollywood blockbuster -- though they are also happy to 
point out the alleged goofs (the famous Bonampak murals are altered 
to show a warrior holding a dripping human heart when nothing was in 
his hand before) -- and, in fact, they applaud the things Gibson and 
his designers got generally right (the groovy tattoos, facial 
scarification, colorful textiles, nasty weaponry, punky ear plugs, etc.)

The main gripe, says Houston, is that "Apocalypto" will make a bad 
impression on the general public. "For millions of people this might 
be their first glimpse of the Maya," he says. "This is the impression 
that is going to last. But this is Mel Gibson's Maya. This is Mel 
Gibson's sadism. This is not the Maya we know."

Some of the scientists have seen the movie, others have watched the 
trailers, read reviews or summaries. David Stuart, professor of 
Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas, saw a rough 
cut of the film with Gibson and penned an unpublished editorial with 
Houston that suggests Gibson's Maya are so evil that they were "a 
civilization . . . that deserves to die."

Arthur Demarest, anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University, 
says, "I don't care about some minor historical inaccuracies. That's 
Hollywood. What I'm very worried about is how the Maya themselves 
will perceive the film."

As Demarest points out, the Maya are not a extinct lineage. Their 
descendants, 6 million or more, are still living in Mexico and 
Central America. (The film does not open south of the border until next year).

"I can promise you that there will be a massive repudiation of this 
film, not only as a work of fiction, but as a systematic and willful 
misrepresentation of the Maya," says David Freidel, archaeology 
professor at Southern Methodist University.

Tough talk, but Gibson has taken heat in the past and come out way 
ahead. As he did in "The Passion of the Christ," which employed 
spoken Aramaic, Gibson's players in "Apocalypto," many of them 
indigenous people and non-actors, speak an ancient language. In this 
case, it's one of the extant Maya languages called Yucatek, which 
along with Gibson's skill as a filmmaker, may enhance the 
verisimilitude of "Apocalypto."

Gibson declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post, but in 
production notes, the writer-producer-director states that his 
initial goal was to create a "high-velocity action-adventure chase 
film" and that he then sought an ancient culture in which to set his 
go-fast story. The Maya appealed to him, Gibson says, because he sees 
parallels between the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization and 
our own. "It was important for me to make that parallel because you 
see these cycles repeating themselves over and over again," Gibson 
says. "People think that modern man is so enlightened, but we're 
susceptible to the same forces."

Gibson's consultant on the project was Richard Hansen, a respected 
Mayanist and professor at Idaho State University, as well as the 
president of the Foundation for Anthropological Research and 
Environmental Studies, which does preservation work and study in 
Guatemala. Gibson, a generous contributor to the group, now serves on 
its board of directors.

Hansen defends the film, believing that his fellow Mayanists will be 
"pleasantly surprised." He says, "For the most part it is very 
accurate," and "I was amazed at the level of detail, the stone tools, 
gourds, iguana skins, strung up turkeys, just amazed." Yet, he adds, 
"there were things I didn't like that they went ahead and did 
anyway," and he agrees "there was a lot of artistic license taken," 
and that there is a mash-up of architectural styles, art, costume and 
ritual from different time periods during the millennium-long Maya reign.

And the sacrifice, the gore, the Maya as savage? The film does "give 
the feeling they're a sadistic lot," Hansen says. "I'm a little 
apprehensive about how the contemporary Maya will take it."

"Apocalypto" tells the story of Jaguar Paw, a young hunter who lives 
in a primordial forest, and is taken captive by a raiding party, 
marched to the city, slathered in blue paint and hauled up to the 
blood-soaked altar at the top of a pyramid to have his heart and 
skull removed by a shaman for his slit-eyed king. But wait! Jag Paw 
escapes -- and then it's a chase movie.

So where do the Maya end and where does Mel begin?

? Gibson shows grisly human sacrifice. And yes, indeed, the Maya were 
into it. Let us count the ways: decapitation, heart excision, 
dismemberment, hanging, disembowelment, skin flaying, skull splitting 
and burning.

But: The humans being chopped into nibbles were more likely to be 
royals and elites, not common forest dwellers like the film's Jaguar 
Paw and crew. "They didn't run around rounding up ordinary people to 
sacrifice," Houston says.

? The film depicts human sacrifice on a large scale and shows an 
open-pit grave filled with hundreds of headless dead, like something 
out of the Cambodian killing fields or the Nazi death camps.

But: "We have no evidence of mass graves," says Karl Taube, professor 
of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside. At 
times the film appears to confuse the Aztecs (who engaged in mass 
sacrifice) and the Maya. "We know the Aztecs did that level of 
killing. Their accounts speak of 20,000," says Taube. But the Maya 
appear to have been more into quality (long, slow torture and death 
of kings) than quantity. Freidel says, "They disassembled the 
defeated kings as carefully as if they were a thermonuclear device, 
because they were dangerous enemies, capable of inflicting real harm."

? Gibson includes what appears to be widespread slavery. Masses of 
gloomy, starved captives are seen toiling under heavy loads, making 
lime cement and stucco, to build ceremonial centers.

But: "We have no evidence of large numbers of slaves," Taube says. 
Rather, most Mayanists suspect the pyramids and the like were built 
by free Maya who saw it as a civic duty, perhaps forced upon them, 
labor as tax, or perhaps voluntary, as the medieval cathedrals were 
built by European guilds.

Finally, the Mayanists say the film appears confused about when 
events take place. One of the great mysteries of the Maya is why 
their civilization "collapsed" around A.D. 900, when many of the 
great ceremonial cities, such as Tikal, were simply abandoned. The 
current thinking is that collapse had many fathers: drought, 
deforestation, disease, overpopulation, warfare, social disruption. 
And Gibson's movie includes a little riff on them all, and indeed the 
film begins with a quote from historian Will Durant about the Romans: 
"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has 
destroyed itself from within."

But Gibson sets his film not during the era of Maya collapse in A.D. 
900, but at the time of European contact in the early 1500s, when the 
first Spanish expeditions arrived on Maya shores. What wiped out the 
Maya in the 1500s was not internal rot, it was the Spanish, who 
brought European disease and fought for decades to pacify the Maya.

"Every society is violent," says Demarest. "And the Maya were no more 
cruel than any other, especially if you look at their entire history. 
What if you told the story of our history and didn't mention Pascal 
or Mozart or science or medicine and just focused on MTV and mass genocide?"

Or as Houston put it: "What if you showed the ancient Maya 'The 
Passion of the Christ'? They'd freak out."

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