Horror as Entertainment

51hGaUaZvLLIf Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ were Mel Gibson’s bachelor’s and master’s in gore-as-good-times, then Apocalypto is his Ph.D. “Scenes of Graphic Violence and Disturbing Images” – the advisory in the R-rating box – doesn’t come close to warning viewers about rivers of blood, severed heads, beating hearts ripped from chests, faces chewed by jaguars, and plenty of other carnage depicted with the realism of Saving Private Ryan rather than the shock shlock of Freddy Krueger.

But of course, who needs a warning? People see this kind of stuff because they want to be repulsed and grossed out. It’s why the Grand Guignol of Paris was such a beloved institution. St. Augustine recalled that even the most moral and high-minded of his friends, when dragged to see the gladiatorial carnage in the Coliseum, stopped peekng from behind his fingers and found himself shouting as lustily as anyone else in the stands at the mayhem below.
Speaking of the decline and fall of Rome, Apocalpyto begins with a quote from Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
How should we take that? Is Apocalypto an insight to what killed Mayan culture, or is it a distant mirror of our own culture, or — instead of being a diagnosis of our own pathology — is it itelf a symptom of our disease? That’s what critic Ken Turan suggests, and I think he’s right:
The reality of “Apocalypto” is that this film is in fact Exhibit A of the rot from within that Gibson is worried about. If oue society is in moral peril, the amount of stomach-turning violence that we think is just fine to put on screen is by any sane measure a major aspect of that decline. Mel, no one in your entourage is going to tell you this, but you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. A big part.
Maybe the MPAA needs a new warning.
If R means Restricted for kids under 17, maybe Apocalypto warrants an N, for nihilism.

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