Posted by: Johan Normark | May 15, 2009

Apocalypto – not only Gibson’s fault

Hopefully this will be my last post about this “old” movie. I should be preparing myself for the 2012 movie(s) instead and continue with my series on “prophets of nonsense.”

One can rightly ask why Mel Gibson wants to show this one-sided representation of the Maya when war and human sacrifice are but mere fractions of what archaeologists find. The actual archeological evidence of war throughout the Maya area is quite scarce (see my earlier post on warfare). Instead, critics argue that Gibson should have focused on more positive cultural achievements such as writing, astronomy, and agriculture (never mind that the movie would have been quite boring with these themes).

Those critics who defend a more positive image of the Maya do not consider that they or their colleagues have created or exacerbated the blood dripping representation they now reject (Normark 2004). Book titles like “The Blood of Kings” (Schele and Miller 1986) are quite revealing. There are many Mayanists who had and still have such a violence-oriented research (Demarest 2004; Freidel 1992, Webster 2000). It is no coincidence that Gibson chose the Maya area for the movie (the story could just as well have taken place anywhere in the world). Gibson had his story ready and he only needed a place to stage it and the Maya area fit him like the hand in the glove (a Swedish expression). He alone cannot be blamed for this because this is how the Maya usually is portrayed on TV and in National Geographic, often with the support of prominent researchers (Hervik 1999; Normark 2004, 2006c).

According to the critics, the negative representation of the Prehispanic Maya in Apocalypto also gives a negative representation of the contemporary Maya. It is not unlikely that the movie will have this effect, but the ill-treatment of Maya groups that endures today, have endured for hundreds of years before the movie and the oppression is based on other phenomena than a single Hollywood movie. It would be to ascribe the movie too much importance. I do not anticipate that we will be flooded by Maya movies in the same way that there is an abundance of movies and television series on Romans (the 2012 movies will most likely not concern the Maya area, just the end of all mankind).

Apocalypto’s long-term impact is rather among people from other geographical areas, that is, among the tourists who visit any of the reconstructed ruins. Before the trip to Playa del Carmen or Cancun in Mexico the future tourist sees the movie to inhales some “Maya culture”. Unfortunately, the movie is part of a trend where “exotic” peoples are portrayed as savage, blood thirsty cannibals or perpetrators of violence, such as in the Lord of the Rings movies, King Kong, and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Although historical depictions of the Romans in TV series like Rome, or the movie Gladiator, have their share of violence, these representations will not be as problematic since the “Romans” of today are not a suppressed group in the way that some Maya groups are.

It seems that the Mayanists have awaken from a deep slumber and found “their” Maya described in a view that they have acknowledged before, but they refuse to deal with this view when it is visualized in Gibson’s exaggerated way. Most researchers have fallen into the same political correctness of criticism and no researchers have praised the movie (including me). If, however, one want to criticize the stereotypical image the movie expresses one should rather begin by criticizing the Mayanists who have created or disseminated these images which Gibson has freely elaborated upon. However, it is easier to criticize Gibson than one’s own colleagues who one needs to deal with a long time after Apocalypto has left the big screen. It is therefore illuminating that only few critics mention the archaeologist Richard Hansen who was Gibson’s consultant.

Gibson is an easy target. It is not difficult to find flaws in Apocalypto. A little self-criticism of the view of the Maya that the researchers have created themselves should be in place. Archeology does not benefit from the view that the critics of Apocalypto launch as a counter attack. This is the view of the Maya as one of the world’s greatest civilizations. This reflects the same values as those of Gibson, that is, there are better and worse cultures (and people). This means, by extension, that the ancient Maya are seen as more civilized than the contemporary Maya, ranked on some cultural evolution ladder (Normark 2006b, 2006c). Gibson’s view and the researchers’ views are therefore two sides of the same coin. This view of culture was not created by the Maya for the Maya, but by Westerners for Westerners (Hervik 1999). Whether it is journalists or archaeologists that convey the view of the Maya culture, the Maya culture is all too often described as something that reached a peak 1300 years ago and then declined. However, the question is who determines the peak and what are the criteria for doing so? The criteria often come from archeology’s colonial heritage, which view large buildings, palaces, writing, etc. as highlights in a development that all societies are believed to undergo (Normark 2006b). The more similar to us a culture is, the more civilized it is deemed to be. Societies without a state-like structure are often looked down upon by researchers and the public. Gibson’s view is the classic mirror image. For him, it is “the noble savage” which stands for the good. It is Jaguar Paw and his hunters that stand for the unspoiled minds and hearts that will be destroyed by civilization.

Both researchers and Gibson sees “the Maya culture” as something abstract beyond the individual human being. This approach reduces the human being and sees culture as an organism that is born, lives, transforms, and dies. Such a cultural concept rarely works well with the way the archaeological material is constituted (Normark 2006a, 2006d). But researchers and Gibson still press their materials and stories into this cultural form, which thereby is strengthened and reified and live on in books, articles, and now in movies. Unfortunately, Gibson’s Maya will probably become the official representation of the Maya culture that researchers need to waste unnecessary time to refute. But in the long term it might not be a negative for it is likely to increase the self-criticism among some researchers.

Of course, I have painted a generalized picture of Mayanist research here and many Mayanists will disagree with me. However, at the core of this research is arborescent thinking, a desire to link everything back to the “Maya culture” or Culture with a big C. Both Mayanist researchers and Gibson are similar in this way of hierarchical thinking. The content may differ but not the form.


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