December 5, 2006

"Gibson is a primitive all right, but so were Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith, and somehow we survived their idiocies."

Can we respect the art and put to the side what we know about the artist?

If "Apocalypto" is a great work of art, I want Mel Gibson to get full credit for it. Am I taking back what I said last summer, in a post titled Mel Gibson, you are discredited forever"? Not really. The point there was that what we know about the artist's mind belongs in our interpretation of his work. For that reason, what we learned about him had a very damaging effect on the meaning "The Passion of the Christ," which had already aroused suspicions of anti-Semitism.

What of Richard Schickel's idea of regarding Gibson as a "primitive"? Is this a label that works? Regard the man as an unruly beast who can't meet our normal social standards, and realize that art can spring forth from such a beast and that this art can be fresher and truer that what comes from artists with far greater character and refinement?

IN THE COMMENTS: Johnstodderinexile:
I sense that the Michael Richards incident has retroactively given Mel Gibson another chance....
I agree!


goesh said...

I've always admired all the money he made off the less sophisticated who don't judge a movie until after they have seen it.

stephenb said...

Can we respect the art and put to the side what we know about the artist?

I don't know. Can we do that with Michael Richards? What's good for Mel is good for Michael, no?

Anonymous said...

I think Mad Mel is a mad genius, despite his lunatic drunk ravings.

Yeah, yeah, many great artists often hold despicable opinions, blah blah blah, but I'll agree with zeb quinn and write off Gibson's anti-semitism-made- apparent to excessive drink. Many of us are able to keep our awfulness in check until we've had a few too many and then, look out.

No, Gibson has managed to take his superstardom and lay it on the line: how many other filmmakers would stake their reputation on a film like The Passion? Gibson's already proven his directing chops with other movies but he risked more with that movie than any other director working today. (And, no, Althouse, it isn't an anti-Semitic movie. Sometimes the bad guys are Jewish, sometimes they're not.)

It sounds like with Apocalypto, Gibson's taking more artistic risks. Primitive? Who cares? I say bravo for him.

Tim said...

Contradiction is a funny thing. Hollywood is posturing itself to render all kinds of judgements upon a man who, in his own words (drunk or not) is anti-semitic; these same people stand idly by as the Iranian president threatens Israel with elimination regularly. I guess it comes down to the cost and benefit of effective reaction to each matter.

Regardless, it is difficult to separate the notorious artist from his art; at a minimum we are always mindful of his notoriety. The more notorious and offensive the artist's "crimes," the more difficult to respect his art and put to the side what we know about him. Cold, dispassionate analysis of another person's work who evokes strong emotional reactions to his otherwise socially unacceptable personal actions, words or beliefs is very hard to achieve, even for the most dispassionate of us.

That said, I'm interested in seeing the movie, and not because it's Gibson's.

NSC said...

Haven't seen it, and probably won't until it comes out on HBO, but from what I have read so far the film has more in common with second-rate horror films - it's a bloodfest for the sake of being a bloodfest - than great works of art.

I can forgive Gibson for his drunken behavior, but the movie can still suck.

SteveWe said...

"Fresher and truer"? I can understand fresher to mean newer. But what is truer? That's in the eye of the beholder, isn't it?

Do people judge Hemingway's books differently knowing that he was a drunk and a suicide? This list of artists one could run through that sort of judgment mill is long. To what extent are the results of the mill-work worth anything?

Anonymous said...

Calling Gibson "primitive" somehow evokes that dinner party scene in Borat in which the character acts as if he doesn't know the purpose and use of indoor plumbing. Gibson is no more primitive than Sasha Cohen is; both men are highly sophisticated. Kirk Honeycutt almost gets it right: he said Mr. Gibson “knows how to make a heart-pounding movie; he just happens to be a cinematic sadist.”

I'd rather say that Gibson's works often celebrate a pornography of violence.

I've heard great things about "Apocalypto" and from the ads, the look is spectacular. If the reviews are positive, the movie will do well. Can the reviewers be honest about the film? I hope so.

I found the linked article snort-worthy in that it portrayed Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade as "his expressed views" at least once or twice, ignoring the context and subsequent apologies and rehab. The fact is, Gibson's "expressed views" are not anti-Semitic, his drunken rant was. And comparing Mel Gibson, whose only offense was saying something bad, to Leni Riefenstahl, who shilled for the Third Reich, or to Roman Polanski, who had sex with a 13-year-old girl and then fled the country and yet still managed to win an Oscar, is ridiculous. There is no moral equivalency.

Tim said...

"And comparing Mel Gibson, whose only offense was saying something bad, to Leni Riefenstahl, who shilled for the Third Reich, or to Roman Polanski, who had sex with a 13-year-old girl and then fled the country and yet still managed to win an Oscar, is ridiculous. There is no moral equivalency."

Yes, this is true, except those who seek to politicize Gibson and his comments will draw moral equivalencies to suit their own purposes. It's cheap and easy to posture against anti-semitism (whether one believes Gibson anti-semitic or not) while ignoring larger and more pressing threats. Hollywood and its denizens excel at striking a pose - this is just another example of that.

As to the question of whether Schickel's tagging Gibson as a "primitive' works, the answer is no, obviously, as the word has a meaning that just doesn't apply. One could say Shickel's use of the word was primitive, but that too would be incorrect.

Fitz said...

Mel’s work has stood on its own, recognized by popular appeal but not by the Hollywood community.

When Mel has spoken on the topic of anti-Semitism he has seemed quite reasonable and good. When I have read (mainly in the NYT) what he is quoted as saying, he seems an anti-Semite.

The drunken rant seems a non-starter because 1) he was drunk 2) we don’t know that he wasn’t merely responding (in jest) to the very charge of anti-Semitism so publicly proffered against him.

Paddy O said...

Can we respect the art and put to the side what we know about the artist?
I'm not sure. It seems that one or the other has to go. For the most part, we don't know much about the artists in the past, or try to cover up their craziness with some rationalization. We intentionally ignore biography because for the most part it doesn't suit our desire to respect the art.

Most great artists, in music and visual art, were kooks.

In Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy talks about one reason for this. Great artists create in a lofty world above and beyond the rest of us. This flight into the heavens results in profound genius, but when finished the artist is no longer connected to the world around them.

So, they ground themselves somehow, whether through constant travel and adventure, or sexual escapades, or drugs. Gibson grounds himself with alcohol. It returns him to earth, in an inappropriate way, so he once again can live a normal life.

Interestingly, Percy also points out religion as a similar path to grounding, which suggests Gibson has learned to substitute a destructive form for a more ennobling form. Though not always succesfully steering the course between the two.

If Apocalypto is a great movie it will definitely affect our interpretation because we'll see him as the troubled genius once more.

Richards, on the other hand, we see as just troubled, because there's not the repeated displays of artistic genius.

SteveWe said...

Putting works of art, if film is indeed art, into a time context is important. "Birth of a Nation" was made in 1915 -- not exactly a racially enlightened time.

Thirty years later, and after Riefenstahl's camera has been taken from her hands, racial/ethnic "standards" were still "primitive" with segregated US Army units, buses, and lunch counters.

Times change -- thank God! People, even artists, reform. Art is a lens that brings the past into focus and in doing so, has the potential to improve the viewer today.

Unknown said...

"Can we respect the art and put to the side what we know about the artist?"

Of course the NYT cannot because every occurrence in life is filtered through their narrow political prism.

I eagerly await Apocalypto, and I hardly ever eagerly await any movie nowadays. Perhaps we are entering a post-narrative world, or I am--because the only movies that excite me are movies like this or those by Terry Malick, because they operate in an apolitical, pre-moral zone of the Imaginary.

I thought The Thin Red Line and New World were masterpieces, and have high hopes for Apocalypto. I could not care less about Gibson's drinking/ranting habits.

Anonymous said...

It is odd that the same vilification of Gibson hasn't been directed towards Polanski. Polanski raped a child of 13. Although the plea bargain was for "unlawful intercourse with a minor" the grand jury transcript said he engaged in oral, vaginal and anal rape of a 13 year girl. Sounds an awful lot like pedophilia to me.

But which is worse? What is said in a drunken state (Gibson) or what is done (Polanski)? Judging from Polanski's academy award, it seems Hollywood has made a decision.

Anonymous said...

Primitive means something else psychologically. From a psychoanalytic view, it would mean that the person uses less complicated defenses. They would not be able to subjugate their feelings or soothe them, but would act out their feelings in a fashion that everyone watching (well, everyone with more mature defenses)would see what is going on while the person acting out would not.

It makes for poor marital partners, but can really make for interesting art. Being less psychologically censored can make it more intense for the viewer/listner/whatever. That is why many artists are not well adjusted personally. That is why I never get upset when they make foolish statements. It makes SENSE that they will act foolishly, it should be expected.

So from that point of view, perhaps Mel is a primitive. He is an alcoholic, and they tend to be easily injured and immature because they do not grow emotionally while using.

Now if he gets all better, will his art still be so powerful? That is the question.


Al Maviva said...

Thirty years later, and after Riefenstahl's camera has been taken from her hands, racial/ethnic "standards" were still "primitive" with segregated US Army units, buses, and lunch counters.

That is patently false. The Reich fell in 1945. The Army and other armed services began desegregation in 1947-1948. Desegregation in the military was all but completed by 1951-1952.

I further challenge you to find examples of segregated lunch counters extant and legally tolerated in 1975. The last such cases I'm aware of date from the late '60s. I may be mistaken on this second point but I tend to doubt it.

Revenant said...

It is odd that the same vilification of Gibson hasn't been directed towards Polanski.

That's because the public doesn't give Polanski -- who hasn't made a film the public cared about in thirty years -- much thought. Gibson and Richards (or at least his "Kramer" persona) are famous and popular.

The fact that Polanski's accuser thinks he's paid for his crime (a point on which I disagree with her) also keeps the public from caring much about it.

Joe Giles said...

Do we still believe in, or even discuss the possibilities of redemption?

The majority of responses I see (in general, not here) boil down to:

1. What an ass, he's dead to me; or
2. He's excused for such-and-such reason.

Of course, maybe it's because it's only a rare occasion when a public figure actually asks for forgiveness and acts to redeem him/herself.

SteveWe said...


1915 plus thirty years later is 1945 and the US Army was still segregated by your own admission. Yes, they changed afterwards.

Lunch counters and buses were still racially segregated in the US south in 1945. Otherwise, what was Rosa Parks "offense" on that bus?

My previous comment says nothing about 1975 or the 1960s. Read it again. But, as to the 60s and 70s, what was Watts and Detroit all about? Someday, someone will make a movie about that period that goes beyond the very good one about Malcolm X. And with that we're off-topic and I have no more to say.

I'm Full of Soup said...

Joe asked:
"Do we still believe in, or even discuss the possibilities of redemption?"

That is a fascinating issue. These days, it seems redemption is granted by the public as opposed to being earned by the sinner.

The fascinating part is to watch who gets redeemed and who does not. Think about it - Nixon did not, Gordon Libby has a radio show, Sandy Berger is already serving on the Baker panel, John Dean is trotting about giving his advice and opinion, Cosell and the Dodgers GM were banished, Jesse Jackson rules forever, OJ is at rock bottom, Polanski got an Oscar, watchamacallit is back doing the NBA games, etc.

My list is certainly not all apples to apples but you get the idea.

John Stodder said...

I sense that the Michael Richards incident has retroactively given Mel Gibson another chance, whether he deserves it or not.

The entertainment industry is full of people who have crossed the line. Sports, even more so. But most of the violations committed by celebrities are mere assaults, murders, DUIs, narcotics possession, statutory rape, vandalism, solicitation of prostitutes, failure to pay court-ordered child support and other relatively harmless acts. What Gibson did was a "hate crime," which is far, far worse.

My late wife was involved in theater. She said two things rather frequently: "Actors are assholes," and "Most actors are stupid." Even though they politicize themselves, I think everyone would get a lot more pleasure out of life if we just ignored what these people do in real life, and just enjoy the fantasies and dramas they present. Drama is about us, the audience. It's not about Mel, or "Kramer," or Barbra, or Sean, or Gwyneth, or Roman Polanski, or Elvis Costello or whoever. It's about whether these works entertain or enlighten us.

ShadowFox said...

Zeb Quinn wrote:
Mel Gibson was drunk. Drunks make fools of themselves and say boorish things that they later regret.

That's an odd analysis. The proverb that was more appropriately brought up in this case is, "What a sober man has on his mind, a drunk has on his tongue." Don't know the English equivalent, but that's what it reads like in Russian and German.

Let's skipp the apologia for Gibson--it was not a single incident that turned people off, so making excuses for him now makes no sense.

Stephenb wrote:
Can we do that with Michael Richards? What's good for Mel is good for Michael, no?

I like the analogy, to a point. Richards will never work a major venue again, apology or not. There is a dramatic difference, however, Richards was always a bit player, risen by the Seinfeld tide. Now that he's washed up, he may well be done.

Gibson, on the other hand, has always had acting and directing skills and had been justifiably rewarded for them. He can finance his own production and make money off of them--or lose his shirt. It is irrelevant that major studios and other players may not want to deal with him, because there will always be enough people who will want to make a buck on the defiant crowds who want to spend it. And the general population, many of whom are likely worse bigots than Mel, will flock to his productions. Eventually, Gibson will either shut up and get back to popular filmmaking or he will wash up and disappear. But it will have little to do with a single episode.

I also find it ironic that Apocalypto is distributed by Disney--the corporate heir of one of the best known bigots in US history. Just ask yourself the following: have Jews and others stopped watching Disney productions, including Walt Disney originals, strictly because of Walt's perverted views?

The comparison to Griffith and Riefenstahl is completely idiotic. And Polanski wound up with a completely different sort of crime. Note that Griffith repented, in a way, by making Intolerance and Riefenstahl has always denied any involvement in the Nazi propaganda, except as a professional and a personal friend of some of the antagonists (claims not dissimilar from von Karajan's or many others).

Gibson, on the other hand, alternates between accepting and rejecting the views that are being ascribed to him. In the past, he has gone on more than a single rant in defense of his family's brand of Catholicism, yet, he also often denies being a practitioner. He's made contradictory statements about the origin of Passion. One has to wonder what the underlying motive for Apocalypto is--my personal suspicion is that it is meant to whitewash Inquisitionary genocide and conversion by portraying the victims as bloodthirsty thugs with cannibalistic tendencies. Let's face it--Mel has an agenda and he does not deviate from it, no matter what apologies he makes.

But the cinematic comparison with Griffith and DeMille does not wash. One could think of Mel's films as epics, with high budgets, but they are also innovative in different ways that make them more akin to the work of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Herzog, in particular, is known for both gory epics and the use of non-professional actors.

Ask Mel--I guarantee he's watched Aguirre, Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo more than a few times. He might even be a fan of Stroszek and Woyzeck.

Troy said...


The Jesus you reference is an incomplete Jesus. He's the "Jesus is my boyfriend" Jesus that permeates many Evangelical churches today. Mel's version of the Passion had both the suffering Jesus -- and he did suffer -- and the compassionate Jesus. Jesus also kicked the moneychangers out of the Temple -- and he hung out with rich folks too (which St. John and James may have been). He's not merely (or even partially as I would argue Christ cares not for social gov't programs, self esteem, or social Darwinism) an Oprah Winfrey 19th c. Progressive Woody Guthrie Jesus. So yes, his editorial decisions make a statement, but in all 4 Gospels -- the Jewish establishment of 1st Century Israel agitates for Christ's death. The positive characters in the narrative are also Jewish and Pilate -- an agnostic political hack -- just wanted the hell outta Dodge. Those are all reflected in Gibson's version.

Anonymous said...

The one director I won't watch is Polanski, and I won't be watching him until he either serves his time or dies. (He's a pretty special and extreme case though. There aren't many child rapist fugitive from justice directors out there.)

Revenant said...

Mel Gibson was drunk. Drunks make fools of themselves and say boorish things that they later regret. That's what they do.

That line might work on somebody who's never *been* drunk and views alcohol as a source of evil -- which would explain why so many of Gibson's fundamentalist Christian supporters fell for it. But people with actual experience with alcohol know that people who say hateful things under the influence of alcohol are usually just saying what they think and forgetting to censor themselves.

John Stodder said...

Heavy drinking causes loss of inhibitions. When I was young, because I was intoxicated on a variety of substances, I stupidly put myself in danger of being shot by the cops -- just one of the many stupid, risky decisions I made when drunk. Also, every one of my one-night stands was the result of excessive drinking (which is not to say I regret all of them, but I do regret a few). Drunk, I expressed anger at people when, if sober, I might have let it pass. I've not been any kind of an angel, and I'm glad those days are long behind me.

However, to the best of my knowledge I never used a racial epithet or degrading term when drunk. Not once. If it's not in you--whatever "it" is--it's not going to come out, no matter how drunk you are.

Anonymous said...

I have racist thoughts that I do not share. That is because they are wrong and embarassing. I was raised in a racist culture, and some (too much) of that garbage clings to me. I loathe it, but racist thoughts pop into my mind.

If I pretend this is not true, I make myself more vulnerable for acting on my racist beliefs. That would suck, so I have to act like a recovering racist. Because I admit this to myself, I can raise less racist children.

If I had an antisemite father, that trash would be in me too. If I were drunk, I might say something that I was raised with, but which I have eschewed for most of my life.

I don't know if that is what happened with Mel, but it could happen to most of us I think.