Saturday, January 06, 2007

Guest Column: Chon Noriega reviews Apocalypto

by Chon A. Noriega

In late November, I had a chance to see the first advance screening of the completed version for Mel Gibson's Apocalypto , which will be released this month. The film is being promoted as the first Hollywood film in an indigenous language, set in the pre-Colombian era, and shot on location using local talent both in front of and behind the camera. Likewise, the marketing of the film reflects a strategic alliance between Latino business and Latinos in the entertainment industry. We would appear to have the makings of a "perfect storm" with the convergence of a Hollywood "A" list actor-director's production with Latino demographics, income generation (for Latino business), employment opportunity (for Latino actors and behind-the-camera positions), and media representation (of the Latino population). So, how do we reconcile Gibson's apparent altruism toward Latinos with his recent drunken tirade against women and Jews? Is the latter just an aberration that now undermines the former? Or is there a larger logic, or dare we say Conspiracy Theory (to reference a Gibson film), at work? I turned to Apocalypto for an answer.

The film appears to be set 500 years before the Conquest, and yet it ends with a shot of ships setting anchor. It depicts the Mayans, and yet shows them engaging in ritual sacrifice—which was the Aztecs. So in terms of historical detail, the film—co-authored by Gibson—has enough faults to negate it as an accurate depiction of the Mayans. Instead, it must be seen as doing something else: offering an allegory about the evil of any societal organization beyond the familial and (small) tribal. It is the big city—with its slave trade, free markets, government, and organized religion—that results in the downfall of the Mayan civilization (and the small tribes it enslaves). When the Spaniards arrive, it is clear that things will only get worse. Whatever the film may say about Mayans, or Latinos, it clearly makes a general statement against modernity. In other words, the film argues against the very type of higher-level organization that Latino groups are undertaking to market the film! Therein lies the paradox of Gibson's appeal: his message has been that of the loner who suffers great pain, yet triumphs, even in death and even as the entire world is going to Hell. But that appeal depends upon and is a commodity within a global news and entertainment industry—which is to say, modernity.

In the end, Apocalypto is the Chantico of Hollywood cinema. You may remember Chantico as that short-lived Aztec chocolate drink from Starbucks, the one whose marketing I found problematic on several fronts, and yet whose taste was sublime…. Well, Gibson knows and excels at the most fundamental thing about cinema, the moving image, such that Apocalypto could easily have been a silent film, and not just a subtitled one. Beautifully shot and edited, the film visually conveys physical movement and broad characters and emotions within a simple chase narrative. The performances, like Gibson's own roles, are more pantomime than "realistic" or dialogue-driven. I could not help but be impressed that, as I picked apart the holes in the story and its message, the film-as-film captivated me. Alas, as with Chantico, consumers may want more….

Chon Noriega, Director and Professor

Reprinted by permission from UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center
December, 2006 Newsletter

CHON A. NORIEGA is Professor in the UCLA Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media. He is author of Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema (Minnesota, 2000) and editor of nine books dealing with Latino media, performance and visual art. Since 1996, he has been editor of Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, the flagship journal for the field since its founding in 1970. In July 2002, he became Director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

La Bloga Blogmeister note: La Bloguera and Los Blogueros appreciate reader Dr. Concepción Valadez' efforts to bring Chon's critique to our pages. La mandamos un abrazisimo for her thoughtfulness.

La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. When you have a thought, an inkling, or a full-fledged piece you'd like to share, send it along.

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