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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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