12/28/2006 01:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Death Expert?: Apocalypto and the Bravado of Expertise

As I watched, and failed to enjoy, Apocalypto, I realized that Mel Gibson was producing a spectacle of death that he himself didn't have to endure - after all, he got to wipe away the fake blood and have lunch with the actors after he killed them. The audience, however, doesn't get that privilege - we see people perish whom we only just met, never to enter out lives again. Over the course of Braveheart, Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto, Gibson the auteur has slain a good percentage of all the people who ever lived. The question isn't whether Apocalypto is masterful craftsmanship (it is) or whether we want to watch the bloodbath (box office says we do), but rather why it's found such a niche.

While I was working on my first novel, I avoided scenes of sex and death, as I hadn't had a terrific amount of experience with either. My love life was nothing legendary, and I had never killed; it seemed a grisly power to pretend at expertise. I understand that part of the appeal of a film like Apocalypto is the deeply-felt emotional response it produces - and that graphic movies are a catharsis for our deepest anxieties - but as the onslaught of murders continued, I began to wonder Who is anyone to wield this much power over life and death? - the buffer of the artistry wore away and the horror begin to chafe. I found myself dissociating from the death scenes, by the end reserving shock only if someone happened to die especially gruesomely.

The argument can be made that Apocalypto is an honest mirror to a harsh world - that senseless death en masse is a fixture of modern times - but I wish it would be treated with the same gravity it deserves (and, granted, rarely receives) in international politics, not as a profitable product of a filmmaking machine, created by someone who hasn't witnessed mass death, nor has to deal with the numbness it produces in someone who is solely spectator.

I last watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I was eight, and I can still envision that scene when the evil high priest plucks out a beating heart; it was horrifying and vitalizing, a sharp moment that made the rest of the movie cut deeper. But in my Apocalypto experience, which involved hearts not only plucked out but fondled, squeezed, eaten, everything but thrown through the wood chipper, I wonder how we've come to revel so fully in human cruelty. Is suffering the fodder of blockbusters because it makes us more secure in our own relative safety? If so, have we come to need to witness more and more of it to make our everyday world appear secure in comparison? And if we claim to enjoy violent films for bringing home the brutality of the world, how do we prevent, over the viewing of multiple blockbusters, the tragic from becoming banal?