Thursday, July 15, 2010

Realism (Overture)

I apologize for my absence, readers - matrimonial matters have kept me occupied! On our honeymoon, we went to Mexico where we inserted ourselves fully and unironically into the trappings of traditional tourism: a resort, guided tours, fruity cocktails, a couple hundred photographs.

At Chichen Itza, our (very good) tour guide at one point asked who has seen the movie Apocalypto. Someone in the front said, "Yeah, it's good!" The guide responded, "Well, as a movie, it's OK. As a documentary ... not so good." Whoever exactly mistook Apocalypto for a documentary remains uncertain. Perhaps a few people have. More pedantically and professionally, I wonder why people persist in assuming that documentary equals unalloyed, unimpeded truth. One might like to know that the company which provided this tour, on the bus ride back, showed us a ridiculous History Channel 'documentary' about the apocalyptic Mayan calendar.

As our guide went on to explain, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto made the Maya look "merely" bloodthirsty - and he, i.e. Gibson, didn't mention the culture's astronomy, mathematics, architecture, all of its other good points in the matter of high civilization. This complaint, I feel, is underscored by the idea that an Othered culture can be known and appreciated specifically and primarily for its cultural Highlights Reel, which is to be reflected microcosmically (we presume) in every fragment of that given Culture (TM). It is mandated that the entirety of a culture, and especially the entirety of its achievements that we find valuable, should visibly frame and underscore any fictional representation of this people. Thus the emergence - or relegation - of indigenous American people in Hollywood & Environs to so much stoic, environmentalist finger-wagging. Concern for what you can do for the Other masks a deeper desire towards what the Other can do for you. And the bourgeois liberal wishes to call this representational protocol 'realism.' Not the definition of all realism(s), but merely the conditions for one kind of realism. Hence, criticisms of Apocalypto are underscored by a concern that the film ("as a documentary") is not sufficiently realistic.

If you read a piece like Prof. Traci Ardren's for instance, you will find a few symptoms connected to this complaint. ("But in Apocalypto, no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities.") I do think that Ardren makes some good criticisms, and some of her larger questions which are skeptical towards Apocalypto (is it pornographic?, for instance) are indeed worth asking. But I'm going to use Ardren's short article as an touchstone for something else, a symptomatology of a certain kind of critique maybe. Two facts emerge which may not be immediately apparent.

First, it is intriguing how rarely critics of Apocalypto's lack of realism consider the possibility that the Maya could be done justice in fiction through any route but the obvious genuflection to 'Maya art, science, and architecture.' To do justice to a culture or civilization at all is, innit, to properly depict what we discern are its strengths, its achievements, and its values worth imitating or respecting. The prosocial liberal sees these as the knowledge and technology of the Maya elites. This liberal would not (want to) think of it in these terms, but it is a stance toward an other highly inflected by elitism. However, Apocalypto casts the Maya elite as Others even in its own diegesis; its approach to the Maya is from a lower class - it's part ode to the Jeffersonian yeoman, part appreciation of pagan-natural village life, part individualist idyll-turned-nightmare. I don't claim the film's stance is coherent; and it's certainly a composite of mythologies on Mel Gibson's part. But I am convinced that Apocalypto's ideology, if it can be said to have one, is not at all that of colonialist salvationism. It is, instead, much more like an agricultural romanticism.

The idea that what we see as precious or admirable in a culture could or should be quite different from what a particular character from that culture sees as such in a work of fiction does not always occur to us. (We can see something similar described in this post, which unpacks an incident in the Odyssey which may be mysterious if we do not consider layers of audience, reception, and intention.) And in the case of Apocalypto we have an actual world division, so-called "red state/blue state," grafted onto how we interpret the film based on where we want to see located (and elaborated) the achievements of the political elites.

For Gibson, and for admirers of Apocalypto, it is fitting that the Maya rulers are depicted as bloodthirsty tyrants because to our protagonists and their non-elite perspective, that's precisely what they are! In her piece, Ardren brings up the implications of a fiercely violent movie about the Maya when present-day Maya people face discrimination & worse. It's a valid point, and a much more important concern than simply any entertainment value Apocalypto may provide. But I think it is highly telling that Ardren should read the way the film depicts the elites - decadent, bloodthirsty, unstable, and very much not the heroes of the film - as the way it depicts the entirety of the Maya. Anyone on Gibson's wavelength would instead focus on Jaguar Paw and the villagers as good, likable, stable folk who are caught in a history larger than themselves and victimized by imperial rulers - first, the late rulers of their own ethnos, and then, white rulers from Europe. The prosocial liberal is inclined to see Apocalypto's qualities of tragedy as a condemnation of the Maya people en toto because the Ancient Maya = art, science, architecture, mathematics, astronomy. Passing over these achievements of high civilization, from this perspective, is tantamount to disavowal that they deserve the very title of civilization. But I don't think Gibson or his sympathizers see it this way. I think that Gibson locates the corruption of Maya (or any) civilization at the heart of the State - and any State that would subjugate its citizens in the way that we see depicted in this high-adrenalin narrative is the tragedy.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but the majority of the ancient Maya people don't seem to have had a very good idea of their culture's elite achievements - and if they did, would they have been compliant political subjects? My Chichen Itza tour guide seems to think (and I pretty much agree from my armchair position) that the Maya rulers used the masses' ignorance about mathematics and astronomy to their own advantage. So why would it make sense to have a film that takes place over a few days in the lives of Maya commoners, living outside the confines of a city, that foregrounds an entire millennium of elite achievement? (As opposed to the knowledge of plant and animal life, the rich & complex family structures, the sense of heroism that Apocalypto locates in its non-elite villagers. Apocalypto may still be sloppy, inaccurate, or mythopoetic in these respects, but it does celebrate them and grants them as worthy.) But this is where we can see the logical contradictions at the core of what we might call Putumayo liberalism.

One might say that Apocalypto goes through an awful lot of hard work, including the courting of "authenticity," to make a film that is simply an action-chase narrative with a muddled if sincere thematic framework. That's a spot-on criticism. It is a bit ridiculous for Mel Gibson to have meticulously made this in Yucatec Maya while boasting merely cavalier concern for, say, historical chronology and Mayan representational art. Additionally, though, I wonder if some of the invective thrown at Apocalypto (fair and otherwise) is, in part, spurred by the fact that Gibson - this antisemitic, trad Catholic troglodyte! - is encroaching upon the elite territory of authenticity, guarded dear by the functionaries and clerics of (Enlightenment, Protestant) American civilization. Yes, I wonder.

I said there were two things that emerge from the above complaint. The other has to do with authorship. Despite decades of modern & contemporary debate over authorship which, more workaday concerns of the authorship of fiction seems to proceed along the same old basic assumptions. Some people may roll their eyes over 'Genius of the Author' rhetoric, but I've yet to meet anyone in the world of film & culture writing or in humanities academia who I could actually say provides an example of how to practically get by without the author-function. Of course the question of authorship is historical and systemic, and my pointing out of the failure to surpass authorship despite theories of authorial death is not the accusation of any individual shortcoming, but rather the indication that our individual agency is minuscule contrasted with the webs in which we move socially. This should be obvious, but I want to be clear.

Yet ... sometimes the Author is a perfectly acceptable figure for those who are otherwise "over" authorship, as long as this author is being attacked rather than celebrated. Consider this - Apocalypto, when it has been criticized and attacked by academics, has been laid squarely at the feet of Mel Gibson. (In Ardren's piece, adjectives ascribed to all the other contributors to this film are glowing!) Many people have no problem allowing Gibson 'mastermind' status with this film, particularly if they're critiquing it as a dangerous or reactionary work, which gives credence, or at least consonance, to Foucault's argument that the concept of authorship arose in part from punitive origins. Who is to blame for inscribing this?

More on realism, and I hope in a less roundabout way, to follow. (If you want to read even longer Internet writings on film & realism, the gold standard is, of course, Andrew Grossman - one, two.)


Dan Erdman said...

Good post. The insights in the third paragraph (and the later observations that spring from it) get to a lot of what I find objectionable to Arden-style criticism, but haven't ever been able to properly articulate.

I'm curious to see where you go with the stuff about authorship - it is an overture after all - but are you familiar with Tom Gunning's Griffith book? As I recall, he manages to square the circle WRT the tension between "death of the author"-style criticism and the gross historical fact that (in this case) an individual known as D.W. Griffith made THIS decision in THIS context for what he thought was THIS reason, etc., in a fairly nuanced and thoughtful way.

Andy said...

Congratulations on your marriage, by the way!

ZC said...

Dan, I'm curious to see where I go with authorship too! (No predetermined path for that, exactly.) I've not read all of Gunning on Griffith, but I've read some of his scholarship. There are two distinct, but connected, problems in terms of film authorship - one is the question of verifying, historically, the decisions of a person upon a film. This is a problem in commercial cinema simply because the polemics of auteurism (not to mention pre- or anti-auteurism) might have disregarded evidence in order to rush ahead to the activity of critical attribution: this is Sirk's choice, no it's Ross Hunter's, no it's Russell Metty's, etc. This is what Gunning is addressing head-on, as far as his historical scholarship goes. The other problem is more abstract, not in the sense that it's ethereal but that it related to the Author as a figure in more media than just that of film. (Otherwise how could there be the death of the author when we "know" that Balzac wrote Lost Illusions or what have you...)

Thanks, Andy!