"There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way, and not to give others absurd maddening claims upon it." ~ Christopher Darlington Morley
The Heart of America, Part 1
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The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world. ~ Hannah Arendt
In Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," the protagonist, Jaguar Paw, is taken captive and brought to a surreal Mayan city. Once there, he witnesses the horror of human sacrifice, and realizes that this will also be his fate. At one point, the viewer is treated to a graphic depiction of another slave's heart being cut out and held forth to a raving crowd, as the priest cries out, "Behold, the heart of God!" This drives the onlookers into an even greater frenzy. It is a sickening and riveting spectacle. Gibson was quite clear in interviews that he was attempting to draw a parallel between the destruction of ancient Mayan culture and the ongoing War on Certain Kinds of Terror.
In my opinion, he dropped the ball. The film suddenly departs from the increasing horrors of ancient Mayan culture, which were quite convincing indeed, into a long, drawn-out chase sequence that ends in essentially the same fashion as many of Gibson's other films: the revenge fantasy. I'm not speaking here only of movies that Gibson wrote, created or directed. I'm also referring to films in which he starred: "Lethal Weapon," where Gibson takes revenge for the death of his woman by pulling down a house with the villains inside, while they scream and suffer for what they've done; "Ransom," where Gibson's character decides not to pay the ransom for his kidnapped prepubescent son, but gambles instead on paying the money to whoever gets the bad guy first: "The Patriot," in which Gibson takes revenge on the British officer who killed his son; and "Braveheart," where Gibson takes revenge on the man who killed his wife, and then the men who betrayed him in battle. In "Apocalypto," Jaguar Paw takes revenge on his captors one by one, each of them dying his own unique, disgusting, and bloody demise.
Even Gibson's masterpiece, "The Passion of the Christ," glories in the violent execution of Jesus. Gibson's paean to the God he worships swims around in the visual poetry of torture and death. It's understandable that Gibson would turn to the religion of his youth for solace in his adulthood. I know from first-hand experience how easy it is to do that, rather than face the truth. He, like so many others wandering around on this planet, is apparently a deeply unhappy person.
He was ultimately unable to keep his marriage together, he still battles with alcohol, and he was suicidal at one time in his life. Against what or whom does this man want revenge? Is it the Jews, against whom he railed in that infamous drunken rage? It couldn't be Hollywood , a town that has rewarded him far greater than most of the people who have ever lived and worked there. How is it that a man who was once voted the "Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine -- a man after whom every American woman pines, a man who commands the respect of a great many American men for fitting their masculine ideal, a man who is filthy-rotten-stinking rich, a man who won the most prestigious awards his industry has ever given out, a man who is self-sufficient enough to create complex and marvelously-conceived works of art from his own mind and heart -- how is it that such a man is so unhappy?
Arthur Silber correctly surmised, I believe, that Alice Miller's research holds the key. It is well known that Gibson's father is a Holocaust denier, or at best, a Holocaust revisionist. What are the chances that such a man was not an authoritarian figure as a father? Gibson refused to discuss the matter any further when pressed by Diane Sawyer in a "PrimeTime Live" interview for "The Passion of the Christ."
On one hand, I can understand the desire to keep certain embarrassing facts within the family. On the other hand, is it just possible that Gibson, like so many others, is covering up for violence done to him as a child? I think it is highly unlikely that a man who was given love and freedom as a child would so quickly and frequently take to story lines filled with revenge. I also think it's unlikely that suicidal alcoholics had love and affection, rather than beatings and discipline, as children.
Gibson is not alone. His movies, especially the vengeful kind, rake in the big bucks. Violent cinema in general is rewarded quite highly. Just take a look at the top grossing films for this past September 4th weekend: "The Final Destination," "Inglorious Basterds" [sic], "Gamer," "District 9," "Halloween II," and "G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra." (The reader should be aware that I started writing this article several weeks ago, when the list of movies was entirely different. The level of top-grossing violent fare, however, remains the same.)
Not enough to convince you? Then take a look at the top-grossing films of all time for the United States and the world. Among them is "Titanic," which still holds the number-one spot going on twelve years, a film in which you watch dozens of people die, falling into ice-cold water to slowly freeze to death, drowning in the undertow of the sinking ship, being sucked back into the interior of the ship when the windows burst, hanging on for dear life as the boat tears in half, screaming, clawing, desperate humanity unable to save itself. Total powerlessness.
"Titanic" took over from another film that held the number-one spot for four years, "Jurassic Park," a film wherein everyone gets to watch our common enemy, the corporate lawyer, get clamped in the jaws of a mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex. I never saw the sequels to the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" (and never will), but I was shocked at the level of violence in the first installment, a supposedly kid-friendly movie. I was even disappointed with how much grisly death was portrayed in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." (Then again, Peter Jackson's career has been mired in showcasing grisly deaths, long before he became the darling of the Oscars.)
Remember "Ben-Hur"? The filmmakers left in the actual death of a stunt man. That one received the big awards, too. Therefore, when the box office won't reward violence, cinema's highest honors will do the job. Take a look at the Best Picture winners over the last few decades and start counting: "Slumdog Millionaire," where the hero is brutally tortured; "No Country for Old Men," horrifically violent from start to grisly finish; "The Departed," which I refuse to see because I know Scorcese's penchant for violence too well; "Chicago," where two murderesses get off scot-free; "Gladiator," ostensibly about freedom and the oxymoronic ideal of good government, but bloody all the same; "The English Patient," in which Willem Dafoe gets his thumbs cut off; "Schindler's List," "Unforgiven," "The Silence of the Lambs," "Platoon," "The Deer Hunter," "The Godfather" (both I and II), "The French Connection," "Patton," good God Almighty!
What about old movies, where violence was curbed due to stringent rules? Well, you remember all the funny, wacky violence of those "Tom & Jerry" cartoons, don't you? Dismemberment, disfigurement, electrocution, bombs, rifles, poison, torture machinery'. Keep in mind that these sickening features of "Tom & Jerry," as well as the "Bugs Bunny" cartoons, are the main elements for the "humor" found therein. Without the ridiculous amount of violent behavior, there is little substance left. These cartoons are intended for all audiences, and although adults may have watched and enjoyed them along with the propagandistic newsreels in theaters past, they are mainly for the consumption of children today. Oh, what fun! Hollywood was so very careful to refrain from actually seeing a man get shot or stabbed on camera, but Jerry was free to pump Tom full of bullets.
Violence is in our blood, but I don't believe it's there because nature planted it there. It's there for very specific reasons. After all, blood passes through the heart continuously. If science alone could explain our violent behavior, then how do you explain pacifists? How do you explain early Christians, who succumbed to gruesome executions in ancient Roman arenas, rather than deny their faith? This doesn't prove the validity of Christianity or automatically negate evolution, but it does speak of something beyond the self . . . or does it? One wonders what the young lives of these Christians were like. How were they loved by their parents, or were they loved at all? Was the love of Christ so new and complete an experience as to turn a violent man to pacifism, even in the face of death? That appears to be Paul's story, after all, if his writings are to be believed.
There is no doubt in my mind that the love of violence, both pretend and real, in modern American culture stems from the crib. If you're like me, then you were left alone to cry yourself to sleep. A lot of mothers were told, and are still told by the "experts," to do this, rather than what they feel instinctively. The effort of the mother is to "teach" the child to go to sleep on his own. I'm quite certain that what the child is actually doing is slowly, sadly, shutting down. Love, unconditional love, physically warm and soft love, is not always there, so you'd better pretend you don't need it. Grab the teddy bear, or the security blanket, and go to sleep. Forever.
I remember crying many, many days during the opening weeks of first grade. I eventually stopped. I was rewarded with applause from the class and encouraging words from my teacher, a woman who never gave me an ounce of compassion. Now in midlife looking back, somehow I don't think I learned what the teacher was trying to "teach" me. I was shutting down. What on earth was happening to the anxious boy sitting next to me with the higher testosterone level? I have a pretty good idea.
When I went to see "Apocalypto" in the movie theater, the previews were all for horror movies, one in which the villain apparently killed his parents when he was a child, then turned them into Christmas cookies and ate them. A gaggle of gorgeous babes then moves into the house years later. Guess what happens? And it always happens to gorgeous babes, or sometimes the entire high school that slighted you, the nerdy teenager who thought too much. The high-level testosterone guys sitting behind me mumbled approvingly. I guess that movie was next on their to-do list. Not mine. Instead, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was in the wrong theater. Maybe this film would be too violent for me.
It turns out that Mel Gibson's allegory for modern times didn't work, because Gibson himself doesn't see the connection to our increasingly violent, warlike society, and his deep-seated desires for revenge. Once again, Gibson showed a remarkable ability to bring ancient days to the fore, along with a ballet sequence of violent imagery, but never saw the cause-and-effect relationship. Neither did the overgrown anxious little boys sitting behind me, who laughed from time to time as one after another of Jaguar Paw's foes bit the dust. Did they notice at all the correlation between ancient Mayans celebrating the severing of a man's heart from his body to symbolize "the heart of God," and the severing of ourselves from our authenticity, only to be replaced by violent thoughts of revenge, now being carried out on the other side of the earth with alarming speed? This is the heart of America.