Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto

Faulkner has this short story called ‘Was’ about a little game, a hunt, being played by two plantation owners and their escaped black half-brother. But the title speaks of some event that ‘has occured’, the past perfect. It is a formulation or a thinking of the possibility of a non-criminal way of living — neither young nor criminal.

I recently wrote a note, on Facebook, about Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’ that pointed out its grand historical message — the historical thesis there is what makes that movie exceptional — and it seems to me to be the most *political* movie I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t think I’ve made any secret of my … distaste or distrust of Obama. For me, and for Mel Gibson, the times seem a lot darker than the mind numbingly stupid concerns of that president — and Mel Gibson is, you know, a white guy, and probably somewhat anti-semetic, so not underprivileged or anything. But Apocalypto is a dark movie, a dark dark movie about civilization and culture in general, something that paints a picture but doesn’t put oneself as a shining beacon of light and hope. His understanding is basically of a nihilistic, culture, a culture of decay, of sickness, these being Nietzschean concerns. And, unlike what the extremists of liberals and conservatives think, this sickness cannot possibly be cured by simply being more righteous.

The thought occurs to me: that, while history as usually understood is nothing but the documentation of criminal exploits (and there is nothing wrong with crime, *per se*, crime is not inherently morally bad, that is, crime, law, and morality are all independent) — well, there is indeed the question, that Apocalyto raises, of the *right sort of crime*, ie, if criminality — that is, lying, stealing, cheating — is universal. But there is also the question of specific ways of criminality. I mean, the question is: if all crime is the same, are the centers of power nonetheless different? And is it our task, I mean, the task of society, to control that power.

Are the Mayans corrupt, decaying, old, or are they on the verge of a *new arisings* of power that they can’t quite control?

All this is related, for me, to ‘Was’. Was refers to the completed story and the completed event of that story. It is related to what I called ‘whereness’, or the opposition between where? and who? (the former being better).
Was is an attempt to conceive of a new way of living, one that would not be ‘criminal’, at first, it seems, in a strictly technical way. Yet we do have to grasp the technical possibility before we set our sights on grander objectives. And in any case, we’ve already dismissed the workings of more advanced civilizational rituals as merely a facade for an underlying criminality or bad faith.

In Apocalypto I get the idea there of the exploitation of insight. That apparently innocent act seems to be the foundation of all this. I mean, considering human sacrifices — there have been theories of it being, for example, an intimidation regime, a kind of suppression, or even a means of population control. But all this doesn’t get at the basic pretense towards *utility* that justifies *criminal* acts. That is, not ‘as a facade’ for the act, but the very blatant, bare, criminality of it, crime justified *as* crime. We are not even talking about religion any longer, perhaps, or if we are, our analysis is far more sophisticated than simply faith, speculative belief, and so on: since the endurance of all religions requires, as above, the justification of crime *as* crime.

I’m always reminded of that scene in ‘Life of Brian’ where there is some poor chap in a dungeon defending crucifixion. The funniest exchange in that scene for me was always:

‘So what do you think they’ll do to me?’
‘Oh, well, first offence … you’ll probably get away with crucifixion.’

This sort of subconscious support for, say, human sacrifice, *as crime* is what I am trying to get at, as outrageous as that sounds. Bracket off entirely the consequences, the pain, the spectacle, and so on: fundamentally all rituals are justified in the form of some kind of utility. Well, I misspoke — I am not talking about some kind of pragmatism, but some effect, some external effect — some relationship to the sign. A good metaphor for this, I heard this from somebody, was ‘standing outside a party looking in’: there was this scene in Great Gatsby apparently, I’m not sure if it was the movie or the book, where Nick, at a party, looks out the window and imagines what it would be like on the streets looking in — as perhaps the only way to experience the party. So it is this sort of broad, subconscious support that sustains criminality — and these sort of beliefs are not entirely separate from religious imaginations or allegories. Oh sure, there are psychopathic manipulators, and on the other end of the spectrum, genuine fanatics, but even they depend on that understanding, even if they carry it further than most.

So I think that it is in this context that something like Was, which seems far too technical in some respects — I mean, there is nothing *obviously political* about it — can be understood. It at the very least refocuses the question away from the effects, the consequences, the educational value, etc. — which will inevitably justify the status quo, even and especially if it comes from the left — towards the question of the sign itself, our relationship to the sign as an outsider looking in.

Was creates a holism that is hyperconscious in its avoidance of…



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