Gratuitous?Complications Ensue
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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Finally put my concerns about Mel Gibson's racism aside and went to see Apocalypto.

It's an extremely well made movie. It's also the most painful movie I think I've ever seen. It made Schindler's List feel like Singin' in the Rain. Scenes of suffering that went on and on long past where the filmmaker had made his story point.

At the point where the kids in the village got left behind at the river ford, I took off. I didn't figure the village had been enslaved to become kick-line dancers on Broadway. And I really needed to hug my family.

This kind of movie makes me feel old. The older I get, the harder I find it is to watch murders on screen. I think the big change came when Jesse Anne was born. It becomes much harder to watch three year olds left in the forest to starve when you have put so much of your heart in your own three year old. It also becomes harder to watch James Bond shoot people when you're a parent. At least it is for me. I find myself flashing on the parents of whoever 007 just dispatched, and how much trouble they must have gone to in order to raise GOON #3; how easy it is to end a life and how hard it is to raise a child.

I wonder if part of the reason for the alleged prejudice against old writers comes from this. Does one tend to get out of touch with the 18-29 audience because they are single and immortal, while you belong to a family and fear for their safety? Do you find it gets harder to kill people on the page as you get older?

I remember on Warriors, a movie I worked on a dozen years ago, we hired an old friend of my boss, a devout man in his 60s. The movie was about a special ops killer on the run, and it opened with a particularly horrific special op where our guy killed most everybody at a wedding. The writer dithered and delayed, and finally we had to fire him off the project. He simply could not write the script we were looking for.

I think I will eventually watch the rest of Apocalypto, when it's out on DVD and I can pause and skip. Almost everything about the movie is impressive: the acting, the camerawork, the makeup. (There a few things I find silly in the script. Who hides his pregnant wife in a hole in the ground when there's a rain forest to hide in? I felt the whole purpose of that was get his wife stuck in a hole in the ground, as if there wasn't already enough jeopardy.) Mel Gibson is a masterly director. But I did feel that there was far more sheer suffering on screen than was necessary to tell the story. I felt Gibson was wallowing in it. It felt like pain porn -- as, I gather, did The Passion of the Christ.

Bear in mind that's not my judgment as a professional. That's my feeling as an audience member.

Mel Gibson's mind must be one of the outskirts of Hell.

I read various comments on the IMDB afterwards. (I wish I'd done that before seeing the movie; I might have spared myself.) A lot of people posting felt that the "violence wasn't nearly as bad as the critics said." It wasn't???

(There was also an interesting re-backlash: some of those posting felt that Gibson was being martyred as an artist because of his racist meltdown. These days, anyone can be a victim.)

Have you seen the movie? What did you think?


I can't speak to Apocalypto, because I have no intention of seeing it, but I can tell you that The Passion of the Christ was definitely what I'd call pain porn. The last approximately forty-five minutes of the movie was the crucifixion. No, really. In slo-mo, with every mallet-blow to a nail lovingly followed.

Honestly, I have no words.

I think you've got a definite point with regard to the changes in how one perceives the world when one becomes a parent. It doesn't require age, in my opinion, but merely a recognition of one's responsibility for another life; I was nineteen when my daughter was born, and everything changed for me at that point. I don't quite see the world the way you do—it's much easier for me to just suspend disbelief and acknowledge that what I'm watching is escapist fantasy, for the most part—but there are definitely child-related things that push my buttons where they didn't before.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:36 PM  

You're incorrect in your assertion that there was more violence than necessary. What I think you mean is that there is more violence than you enjoy seeing on screen. There is no minimum amount necessary. He could have just shown the beggining of the attack and then cut to them all tied up.

But the point of most movies is drama, you watch a character you like go through hell so you can watch him come out on top at the end. Generally, the deeper the hell the better you feel at the end. Apocolypto takes you down a very dark path, but that makes the ending so much the sweeter.

Now if you don't want to sit through the horrific stuff to get to the end, I certainly understand. I personally have a really hard time watching a movie with sodomy in it(did you know a disturbing amount of "classics" have some form of back end penetration?) But that doesn't mean it was gratuitous, it just means that it's not for you.

Also I think it's a bit of a misnomer to call this movie violent. It's brutal, and violence is only a part of that. Definatly one of the most brutal movies I've ever seen. But also one of the best.

By Blogger Whaledawg, at 11:30 AM  

I thought Apocalypto was a brilliant film, and I'll probably see it again before it leaves the theater.

Just curious, but would you also consider the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan to be excessive? It's incredibly long, brutal and violent. I found the two films to be quite similar in a lot of ways.

If the violence is honest and relevant to the storyline (same goes for sex), it brings you up a little closer to the mental level of the characters involved. You may not want to be there, and you may not like it, but I think it's a valid storytelling solution. You lived through the hard times with the characters. You don't need to "assume" or "imagine". You were there with them and shared the experience.

Sometimes, less is more. And sometimes more is more. And to me, onscreen violence is very powerful when it's done properly.

By Blogger Kody Chamberlain, at 12:16 PM  

Havent sen Apocalypto and probably won't, at least til video. But I think the whole "brutal" vs. "violent" thing is semantic hair splitting.

Private Ryan didn't linger over any aspect of its violence. In fact, the effect was to see something brutal that shocked you, and boom, you were onto the next thing -- the cumulative effect was to overwhelm.

The charge that Gibson fetishizes violence, and especially Christ-like violent rituals, is a long-established charge that stretches way before Passion. The guy likes showing torture. Lots of it, lingering shots. And with Passion, the subtext became text. Seeing Christ tortured for forty minutes does nothing to make me understand his teachings. Gibson thought it did.

Whether or not you agree with his choice, it's rather silly to argue that that's not his choice. He likes lingering over violence. Why? Well, that's for the psychologists and film critics. But it's fact.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:19 PM  

the whole "brutal" vs. "violent" thing is semantic hair splitting

Not at all. The most brutal part of the attack/enslavement sequence was, as Alex pointed out, the leaving behind of the children in the unforgiving jungle. It was not violent at all.

Furthermore, comparing the attack in this movie to the torture scene in Braveheart also highlights the difference. While that was much more violent (what with the guts being strewn about) it was a warrior dieing for his beliefs. That is much less brutal than a bunch of simple villagers waking up to being killed.

The charge that Gibson fetishizes violence, and especially Christ-like violent rituals, is a long-established charge that stretches way before Passion.

You mean to Braveheart, his other violent movie.

And while you could hold that perspective on Braveheart, there is nothing Christlike at all about Apocalypto.

Whether or not you agree with his choice, it's rather silly to argue that that's not his choice.

Who said that? I thought the question was wheter the violence was Gratuitous.

By Blogger Whaledawg, at 3:47 PM  

The point is, I reject the semantic games inherent in saying something was "brutal" but not "violent."

It's not a distinction that's going to resonate with most people in the context of film, so it really has nothing to do with the point Alex is making.

Furthermore, you're being a bit cavalier with the Gibson filmography vis a vis his penchant for torture/violence.

Besides the Passion and Apocalypto and Braveheart, there's also Conspiracy Theory, The Patriot, the Lethal Weapon series and any number of other films. The guy digs violence, particularly when it's lingering and directed toward him. You want to argue form over function, but that's not the point here. The very first thing you posted in the thread:

"You're incorrect in your assertion that there was more violence than necessary. What I think you mean is that there is more violence than you enjoy seeing on screen."

That's a semantic argument. You're not doing anything to illuminate the topic at hand, you're simply arguing form.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:01 PM  

I don't think you're getting "old" Alex, you're becoming more responsible as a writer and that's always a good thing.

The difference between "Apocolypto" and a James Bond movie for me is that one feels real and the other I know is a fantasy. I can enjoy the cartoon violence of "Sin City" or "Once Upon A Time In Mexico" without thinking about the "real" pain being inflicted, but the identical sequences in a film where I'd invested in the characters would be much harder to watch.

I don't put things in scripts I would have cavalierly opted for a few years ago. That may come from spending too many nights on police ride-a-longs and seeing too much of the real thing and its consequences, or it may come from something as simple as "been there, done that, I'll be a hack if I do it again". But I put it down to looking for a "better" way that conveys the emotion without going for the all too easy blood spurt.

I saw the first "Death Wish" movie in a theatre in Times Square with the audience literally standing and cheering the final bloodbath. That sequence is incredibly tame by today's standards and could probably run on an episode of "CSI" -- come to think of it, probably has.

I just saw "We Are Marshall" which has no violence outside of football porn, but the grief and loss depicted were sometimes almost unbearable. Yet because you'd been through that emotional meat grinder and responsibly guided along the way, you stuck with it and the final moments of the film were even more uplifting.

We all draw our own lines and our own limits. To be true to who you are as an artist you have to. Don't pillory yourself for what you feel you need to do. And maybe that old writer you mentioned was just searching for a way to make your film better than it needed to be.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:18 PM  

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