Gilbey on Film: Mad Mel

Does a racist rant spell the end of Mel Gibson’s career?

After no public demand whatsoever, the Mel Gibson Self-Sabotage and Masochism Spectacular has returned for another season. Stay tuned for all the Schadenfreude of a traditional celebrity downfall, mixed with vivid threats of the kind of violence rarely seen outside Jacobean drama, and a dusting of racism and misogyny to taste.

It's certainly good news for those among us who felt that the roadshow's last outing, in 2006, was all too brief. That one played out at a Malibu roadside, to an audience of just two: the police officers who apprehended Gibson for driving under the influence, and got a privileged insight into his views on the indispensable role of Jewish people in today's society.

Think of it as you would a DVD extra, a deleted scene, a peek behind the Wizard of Oz's curtain. Look, if Martin Amis can explain away his views as "thought experiments", maybe we should cut Gibson some slack. He'd already expressed homophobic and anti-feminist opinions, and clearly didn't want any group -- sexual, racial, religious -- to feel excluded, or unworthy of the hot glow of his ire. ("Mel Gibson better not say anything about white Englishmen," tweeted Peter Serafinowicz earlier today. "Am I right, my Briggas?")

The best thing about Gibson's return to the public stage is that admission is free; you need only halt your channel-surfing at the nearest entertainment channel or open a newspaper to sample Mel's latest despatches from the front line of life as a paranoid conservative with a martyrdom complex.

The skinny on him as we speak is that his ex-partner Oksana Grigorieva has made available two tape recordings of the actor unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse in her direction, deploying in the process a racist insult. You can almost hear Danny Glover, Gibson's African-American sidekick in the Lethal Weapon series, rolling out his old catchphrase -- "I'm getting too old for this shit."

But look beyond the racism, the allegations of domestic violence, the threat to kill Grigorieva and bury her remains in the rose garden -- heck, look beyond even Maverick and Braveheart and What Women Want if you're feeling particularly forgiving -- and you will see that the revelation of Gibson's tirade is only another part of the actor's oeuvre. I personally believe that we should encourage the extension of the auteur theory beyond the films themselves, and into the realms of the domestic.

In that context, it's easy to appreciate how Gibson's willing exposure of himself as a hateful human being must have a kind of grisly continuity for the man who gloried in the fetishistic power of his own suffering on screen, from enduring whuppings and dislocations and electric shocks in the first Lethal Weapon to the protracted torture scene at the end of Braveheart. The physical distress continued even in the projects where he stayed behind the camera; Apocalypto did at least have something of the John Huston-esque jungle-romp about it, but it was hard to shake the feeling that the Son of God was only a proxy for Gibson in The Passion of the Christ, His travails a mere stand-in for Mel's.

Whatever his alcohol dependency issues, Gibson would have known that he would attract for his abrasive behaviour the opprobrium of all but the most demented observers -- by which I obviously mean Whoopi Goldberg, who denied that her old chum Mel was racist, presumably to distract attention from her observation earlier this year that Roman Polanski had not committed "rape rape".

Gibson has several films lined up for release, including Jodie Foster's reportedly dark comedy The Beaver, but his agents WME announced this week that they had dropped him, claiming: "There's nothing to do for Mel Gibson at the moment. No one will touch him with a 10-foot pole."

I would venture that Gibson is exactly where he always meant to be, even if he didn't know it himself: spurned by the establishment, beaten and bloody, just like his character in Payback, only even less likeable.

Still, Gibson's career may not yet be over. What other middle-aged white male has been in the public eye recently on account of his violent tendencies, deeply ingrained misogyny and macho self-regard? Hollywood may be turning its back on Gibson right now, but I'm sure the British film industry would embrace the synthesis of actor and role, were he to sign on the dotted line for Raoul Moat: the Movie.

It's only a working title. But I spy a comeback.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon