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.

Subscription offer: Get 12 issues for just £12 PLUS a free copy of "The Idea of Justice" by Amartya Sen.

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.

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Show Hide image

How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit