Mel Gibson: Conservative demon or Caravaggio?

Scandalous tape recordings expose the movie star in an ugly light, but some critics are honing their own agendas.
Carolyn Moynihan | Jul 23 2010 | comment  



Mel Gibson, Hollywood anti-hero in the making, is in the stocks this month being pelted with verbal rotten tomatoes by journalists who love nothing better for a target than a fallen moralist. The former family man, having broken up a 28-year marriage by his alcoholism and infidelity, is now in the midst of an ugly break-up with his girlfriend of two or three years, Oksana Grigorieva. She has released recordings of telephone calls in which he abused her in highly offensive and threatening language, and accused him of hitting her and injuring their nine-month-old daughter in the process.

Compounding the disgrace is Gibson’s Catholicism, which, thanks to his father’s influence, is reputed to be of a stricter kind (doctrinally, if not in practice) and to which he gave notable and moving expression in his 2004 film The Passion of The Christ. Additionally, and, in jarring contrast, there is his habit of spouting racial and other slurs during bouts of alcohol-fuelled truculence and, in the present instance, uncontrolled anger. To his much-cited rant against Jews when stopped for drunk driving, he has allegedly added denigration of gays and now the use of “nigger” in the context of vitriolic and profanity-laden attacks on Grigorieva.

Infidelity, drunkenness, boorishness -- these by themselves would not distinguish Gibson from the common run of sinners. But anti-semitism, racism, homophobia and sexism are a different story; in American public life today there are no greater sins that these, and no clearer target for opprobrium than the person who commits them, or even appears to commit them. The woman he recklessly took up with as his marriage disintegrated has exposed him as just such a target.

New York Times writer Frank Rich, who seems to have a personal score to settle with Gibson, has seized the opportunity to “bury Caesar” with evident relish. He has two things against the disgraced movie star. In the first place, Rich is Jewish and he was deeply offended by The Passion of The Christ, which he damns as “nakedly anti-semitic”.

And the second is like the first. The film represents everything that was nasty, brutish and far too long about the conservatism of the Bush years: values voters, indecency rules, concerns about the “war on Christmas”, panic over gay marriage -- but, above all, the respect given to The Passion and its creator. “In 2004, Mel Gibson, box office king and conservative culture hero, was invincible,” says Rich bitterly. He then notes with sardonic satisfaction how those trends have been reversed: “The death throes of Mel Gibson’s career feel less like another Hollywood scandal than the last gasps of an American era.”

Rich is wrong about The Passion; it is not an attack on Jews but an attempt to look without flinching at the suffering of one Jew who happened also to be the Son of God. The Times writer also makes too much of circumstantial evidence: Gibson senior’s reputation as a Holocaust denier and Gibson’s own -- only? -- drunken outburst about Jews. It is hard to escape the impression that he simply dislikes Christian morality, and Gibson gives him a convenient excuse to rehearse his phobia.

Something similar is at work in Christopher Hitchens’ diatribe against Gibson on Slate. We all know how Hitchens cannot stand religion and religious people and that he has to spend a lot of time pointing out what is wrong with it all. Well, here is Gibson doing all the hard work for him -- Gibson and his eccentric dad, tarred with the same brush of fanatical Catholicism and its hang-ups as he is.

Many people, even Gibson himself perhaps, have come to the conclusion that he suffers from a personality disorder bordering on outright mental illness: paranoia, manic depression, something like that. Hitchens has a more elegant, but less forgiving theory: “Yet here is a man whose every word and deed is easily explicable once you know the single essential thing about him: He is a member of a fascist splinter group that believes it is the salvation of the Catholic Church.” Gibson thus becomes an emanation of one Hitches’ pet hates: “the Catholic right” with its connection to “European fascism”.

The funny thing is, as I read Hitch’s rant against Mel I was struck by how alike they are. Both seem shaped, willy-nilly, by their backgrounds. According to a profile in the Guardian, Hitchen’s mother was Jewish, which explains his sensitivity to anti-Jewish slurs. His father was a British naval officer in World War II whose sole topic of conversation subsequently was the war -- the one time in his life when he "knew what he was doing". Hitch, as we know, loves nothing better than a verbal war and his second wife (like Gibson he has a broken marriage behind him) told the New Yorker a few years ago that her husband was one of "those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been. There's a whole tough-guy, 'I am violent, I will use violence, I will take some of these people out before I die' talk, which is key to his psychology – I don't care what he says. I think it is partly to do with his upbringing."

Remind you of anyone?

Then there is Hitch’s gargantuan capacity for alcohol, his scatalogical language, his ranting against “Islamofacism” and every other type of fascism he sees lurking behind religious exteriors -- even that of Mother Teresa, whom he once called the “Ghoul of Calcutta”. Granted, the Oxford graduate usually does it with more elegance than the wild colonial boy, who prefers blood and gore imagery to send messages to the establishment, but he often seems to sail close to the line between literacy and lunacy.

Conservative culture hero? Catholic fascist? Mel Gibson? I don’t think so; but how does one make sense of the man?

CaravaggioBack in 2004 when The Passion was causing such a stir, a Wall Street Journal editorial likened the film to “a documentary by Caravaggio”. Following this clue (hat tip to Frank Rich for quoting it) I boned up on the famous Baroque painter, who turns out to be another scapegrace who produced works of genius. Many of these are marked by violent struggles, decapitations, torture and death. One of his first public commissions was the Martyrdom of St Matthew. Not Braveheart, The Patriot, or even The Passion, but the works of the two artists show a similar fascination with strong contrasts of light and darkness and the drama of violence. And like Gibson’s more serious output, Caravaggio’s realism upset some people, who saw it as vulgar.

But it is the personal life of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio -- who died exactly 400 years ago -- that particularly caught my attention. Let Wikipedia do the talking:

He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions… Thereafter he never lacked for commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously. An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, tells how "after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. In Malta in 1608 he was involved in another brawl, and yet another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. By the next year, after a relatively brief career, he was dead.

This is not an attempt to absolve Mel Gibson on the ground that his talent excuses everything else. It does not. The point is that he may be a more familiar kind of sinner than some of his critics make out, and that their attempt to demonise him as a fascist reveals more about themselves than about him.

Exactly what Gibson has said and done to Ms Grigorieva has yet to be determined by the legal process, but it looks very bad. His life is seriously derailed and it is difficult to see how it can be set to rights. After a three-year separation, his wife Robyn filed for a divorce in April 2009 and it is not clear what stage the proceedings have reached. She and Gibson still have their seven children and business interests in common. She has even spoken up for him in the current scandal, submitting a sworn statement that he never harmed her or their children during all the years of marriage. She was, reportedly, sick of hearing him portrayed as a monster.

Could she forgive him and repair the marriage? He would have to use his knees a lot more than his mouth for that to even be possible. A Caravaggio ending is not inevitable for this drama that Mel Gibson is co-directing, but we shall just have to wait and see.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.



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