Saturday, January 13, 2007

Apocalypto: A Second Look at the Year's Best Film

Yes, I revisited Mel Gibson's Apocalypto for a second time, fighting off exhaustion and a Toronto downpour to see if it would hold up to a second viewing, or succumb to a round-two deficiency of most films; being intensely boring in between highlights. I'm happy to report Mel's glorious vision survives intact, and is enriched by a second viewing. Only the second film I saw theatrically twice (I won't say what the other was, but suffice to say it didn't need my help) Apocalypto is one of those rare films well worth a second look.

In the film communities I frequent online, I see a few people 'getting it', and many more who aren't. The film is frequently derided as simplistic; a braindead chase picture, a ludicrous actioner and so on. This is a testament to the radicality of Gibson's success. That it rewards the attentive viewer without boring or talking down to him, because Apocalypto is a rare sort of beast; a film that has trust in its audience. Gibson does not wield his themes like a cudgel. At no point do the characters sit down in the midst of the mayhem and discuss what they've just learned for the audience's benefit. There is no insipid overstatement of morals to ensure that every last member in the theater has got it. The film simply moves. It hums along on its own terms, never stopping to explain itself. But the attentive viewer will be in awe of the enormous and complex themes Gibson manages to weave, without any down-talking 'dummy scenes' in which things are rigorously explained, and the protag invariably responds with something like

"Uh, so what you're saying, is..."

As one who firmly believes hollywood is usually at it's stupidest when it's trying to act it's smartest, Apocalypto was a revelatory experience.

Though it may look like a deceptively simple surival/chase picture, (and a thrilling one at that) Apocalypto is at bottom about the shared values of individuals, families, and communities coming into conflict with the demands and values of nations. By their nature, devoted to the abstractions of leaders and to the service of a carefully mysticized and deified national identity. Abstractions that place little value on individual children, husbands and wives, friends, and communities, the sanctity of land, environment and property, and the right of families and offspring to pass on their property, culture and heritage.

This is without even touching on the filmmaking itself. Roger Ebert had this to say of Star Wars' aesthetic; and it's flawlessly applicable here. Gibson's cinematic technique in this film is well worth examining.

"Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them."
Star Wars" works like that. My list of other out-of-the-body films is a short and odd one, ranging from the artistry of "Bonnie and Clyde" or "Cries and Whispers" to the slick commercialism of "Jaws" and the brutal strength of "Taxi Driver." On whatever level (sometimes I'm not at all sure) they engage me so immediately and powerfully that I lose my detachment, my analytical reserve. The movie's happening, and it's happening to me. "

This is the purest sort of visual cinema I've seen in recent memory. Dialogue is magnificently sparse. Not a word is wasted in redundantly explaining that which the camera, expressions, or body language of the actors has told us. Such as in a challenge of rank dominance in which an official simply says "Shall we now then do what You want?" The resulting challenge, conflict and submission that follow are carried on in near-total silence. Likewise in the event that launches the entire third act. Same official's son is killed. Wordlessly, without any bravado or focus-group tested mission statement, they're off. Not a word has been uttered, but you get it. More than get it, it reverberates in your very bones with tension that dialogue would have immediately sapped. Sucking you back down to earth and reminding you you were in another braindead hollywood flick where no ambiguity may be risked, and timid producers insist everything be explained multiple times.
Such cases are not the exception, they're the way this film is told. It's a magnificently pure cinema that hollywood's cowardice has all but rendered extinct. And it is glorious.

Second-viewing verdict? Still, easily, the year's best. See it on the big screen while you still can, preferably more than once.


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