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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle