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A funny thing happened to me on the way to Mel Gibson’s Mayan Apocalypse. Awaiting the 49 bus at Mission and 24th, the BART plaza suddenly erupted in down-home Meso-American aboriginal ritual as a troupe of neo-Aztec “concheros” began to stomp and whirl to the heart-thumping whomp of the drummers, dancing their juju and offering fragrant copal to soothe the four corners of the universe.
Despite Mad Mel’s cinematic death sentence, the Aztec-Mayan duality remains quite alive on the streets of San Francisco. In a neighborhood awash with new arrivals from the Mayan Yucatan, there are perhaps a dozen distinct brigades of Mexica warrior dancers practicing their moves in the Mission District alone, among them Xipe Totec which celebrates the Aztec God of the New Corn whose priests once donned the flayed skins of teenage virgins to insure a bountiful harvest. At least their blood sacrifice was more purposeful than Gibson’s avalanche of gratuitous homicide.
The concheros’ performance on Mission and 24th was designed to ballyhoo the annual December 12th procession to celebrate the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s maximum religious icon, the trumped-up miracle of whom single-handedly tricked between 12 and 25 million Indians into embracing Jesus Christ as their personal savior. A century after conversion, only 2,000,000 still survived the Christian onslaught whose coming is the true text of Gibson’s racist, euro-centric gobbledygook.
Appropriately enough, “Apocalypto” is being screened at a kind of contemporary cathedral, the AMC multi-story omni-plex that once housed the Kohlenberg Cadillac showroom, the hope diamond of Van Ness Avenue’s Auto Row. I know of this syncretic transformation only because at the zenith of the civil rights movement in the spring of 1964, we repeatedly threw ourselves on the slowly-spinning turntables, paralyzing the sales floor until the enterprise opened its doors to black sales personnel (“we can buy ’em but we can’t sell ’em.”)
I had been hearing dire reports of the filming of “Apocalypto” for many months. The scuttlebutt on the left in Mexico City was that Gibson was enslaving Mayan laborers to build a to-scale pyramid in the middle of the southern jungle from which to stage a gristly snuff extravaganza replete with multiple head-loppings, heart-rippings, human sacrifice, and cannibal banquets–actually the “jungle” in which he was shooting was a university-run reserve on the San Andres Tuxtla peninsula in Veracruz and the extras were more Olmec than Mayan.
But authenticity was not a priority for casting a movie in which the rule of thumb was the only good Indian is a dead Indian and it doesn’t really matter where they come from so long as he or she bleeds profusely. Indeed in a display of aberrant pan-indigenousness, the lead Mayan is played by a dancer from Oklahoma.
The “chisme” (gossip) re Gibson’s bi-polar outbursts a la Kinski in “Aguirre” and “Fitzcaraldo” and/or Brando in the other Apocalypse, were rife in the nearby county seat of Catamaco, the breeding grounds of Mexican “brujeria” (witchcraft) where many an evil eye was trained on the production.
One reason for the umbrage was that Gibson, much like John Sayles when he filmed “Men With Guns” in post-Zapatista Chiapas had been blessed with permits extended by the hated Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which has tyrannized Veracruz for more than seven decades.
But despite his political skew, Gibson’s mayhem is popular in Mexico. Much like “The Passion”, pirated DVDs of “Apocalypto” were already on sale on the mean streets of Tepito. Mexico City’s most pertinent thieves kitchen, weeks before the flick debuted on the AMC screens.
“Apocalypto” arrived just in time for Holiday viewing–not because Gibson wanted to put Christ back into Christmas but because Xmas release was the last date to place the flick in the Oscar derby. Nonetheless, Mel’s shot at the statuette was fatally derailed by his drunken tirade against the Hebraic faith, a belief system practiced by a substantial number of Academy associates.
I bore witness to Gibson’s celluloid sacrilege at a Saturday afternoon kiddies matinee. There was in fact one kid on hand to savor the carnage, a bawling infant smuggled in in the arms of its very Mayan-looking parents perhaps to catch a glimpse of their stolen heritage. The baby’s caterwauling profoundly disaffected several young white cineastes in the house who threatened the child with suffocation.
In the Gibson oeuvre, “Apocalypto” falls somewhere between “Braveheart” “Lethal Weapon” (in all its despicable avatars) and “Mad Max” (particularly the haberdashery.) Like “The Passion of the Christ” it is dubbed in the local lingo from start to finish–Yucatec Mayan is part of a language group spoken by over a million indigenous people in Mexico, Guatemala, and Central America.
Unlike Earl Shorris in The Nation I doubt that Gibson’s appropriation of Mayan will be a setback for this mother tongue’s remarkable resuscitation in recent years. Movies after all are made of paper and civilizations are founded on granite–and “Apocalypto” is just one more yawningly bad show, which trivializes itself by trying to trivialize a millennial belief system. Movies are more about what we bring to them than about what they say they are about.
And Mayan blood sacrifice was a legitimate belief system despite Gibson’s Judaic (hah!)- Christian zeal to demonize it (Bishop Landa burnt the Mayan sacred texts with much the same missionary fervor): if the blood of warriors satiated the gods that governed the crops, the sun would stay in the sky and the rain fall in buckets to feed the People of the Corn (so designated by the Popul Vuh.) Sure it was a political ploy of the priestly class to effectively keep the rabble under its thumb but it worked–except when famine fanned the flame of social rebellion.
But none of this context worms its way into Gibson’s missionary tale designed, as it is to showcase the brute bloodlust of these savages before they were brought to Christ. In this respect, Gibson reserves his most racist premise for the final scenes in which the galleons of the Christians drop anchor off Mexico and a priest and crucifix are glimpsed being rowed to shore. “You can’t outrun your destiny” the display ads in the Chronicle trumpet Gibson’s message.
But the Mayans will outlive the Christians’ appetite for killing them off and in the year 2012 the present cycle of their continuum, the fourth, will end and a new one will begin. From the Zapatista highlands of Chiapas to the heart of the Honduran jungle to the littered streets of the Mission, their resistance to Gibson’s brand of extermination continues to flourish. Indeed, I have no fears that this resilient civilization will live on long after Mad Mel’s has crumbled into atomic dust.
JOHN ROSS’s ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 is just out from Nation Books. Ross will travel the left coast this fall with the new volume and a hot-off-the-press chapbook of poetry Bomba!–all suggestions of venues will be cheerfully entertained–write firstname.lastname@example.org