We meant to write this post earlier, but the holiday season and family obligations stood in our way. Yet how appropriate that we should examine Armond White's review of Apocalypto on none other than Christmas Day, considering two years ago actor-turned-director Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ generated a firestorm of controversy regarding its possible anti-Semitic overtones, an issue renewed this past summer when Gibson was caught in an anti-Semitic rant during a DWI arrest. It's difficult, then, to speak of Gibson's work without addressing its critical reception. White does so unabashedly, getting immediately to it and stating his position on Gibson's detractors in no uncertain terms:
Mel Gibson’s press whipping for The Passion of the Christ was like no other movie vilification seen in my lifetime.
AW proceeds to do a couple of interesting things in following up on this bold opening statement. First, he backs his defense of Gibson's films by referring to and quoting extensively from the pro-Passion approval of Quentin Tarantino. Now, if you're familiar with his criticism you know White's not exactly QT's biggest proponent. While there's nothing wrong or hypocritical in agreeing with somebody one usually abhors, given the vehemence of White's judgments of QT this sure makes for one of the more fascinating cases of strange bedfellows, wouldn't you say?
The second tactic is less amusing and more disconcerting. An example:
Only viciously, politically-biased, anti-art pundits can deny that lately, with these two films, Gibson has been thinking in visual terms and putting most American movie directors to shame.
As Armond Dangerous reader Christopher Shinn has astutely written, "This is not thought, this is not exploration; it is a personal attack on those who seek to view Gibson's last two movies in light of his explicit and implicit anti-Semitic remarks. This is inexplicable for a critic who began his career championing the work of the oppressed." What strikes us as most egregious about AW's track is that even if one were to divorce art from politics and champion Gibson's directorial brilliance despite the questionable messages of his films, the work itself doesn't provide the platform to justify such a leap. After finally attending a screening of Apocalypto we saw hints of what White lauds in Gibson's aesthetic: storytelling as nearly pure visual expression. But that's it, just hints. A bit of Griffith and DeMille comes through in Apocalypto's traditionalist moral universe as portrayed in ornately detailed contrasts between decadent urbanity and harmonious naturalism, in finely realized scenes whose parallel editing structures both masters would have surely appreciated. But Apocalypto is also incredibly simplistic narratively (the last third of the film descends into a numbing and predictable chase) and in its understanding of ancient culture -- just as The Passion crudely (although, unlike Apocalypto, ineffectively) described Christ's final hours to cynically pander to the same audience instincts White harangues in his anti-Tarantino tirades, so does he reduce a dead culture to Hollywood cliches to offer the laziest lessons on human nature. Apocalypto is more thematically interesting in what it says about Gibson's worldview -- his obsession with martyred masculinity and the reactionary longing for a civilization uncorrupted by vices he associates with liberalism (that he's offered the tale as an allegory against the Iraq War complicates matters, though we're still suspicious of this claim for now) -- and contemporary audiences' desire to see it enacted in moving pictures. In his review White betrays a realization of these issues. But rather than address them as open to cinematic criticism and, dare we suggest, anthropological discernment, he spins them as wholly positive traits. Words like "simplicity" and "naivete" are associated with "natural phenomena" and "everyman plight" -- the political ramifications of Apocalypto disappear beneath White's awestruck reverence of Gibson's showmanship, just as the director most likely wants it. Or does White not mind? After all, from all evidence Gibson and White's moral and religious views are very much in sync. Since White confuses criticism of Gibson's politics with criticism of Gibson's film's politics, perhaps he also confuses the need to chastise critics (actually, reviews for both The Passion and Apocalypto were mixed, but has the evidence of a complex reality ever stopped this man from bombarding his readers with generalizations?) with the need to overstate Gibson's talents.