Monday, December 04, 2006

DBC Pierre and the Aztecs

Don't get me wrong, I love Michael Palin's travel programmes - they do a superb job of chronicling distant lands in amazing insightful detail. But where, if you sent Michael Palin to Mexico and asked him to research the Aztecs, he would talk of feathered serpents and folk mythology with a very BBC sense of ironic detachment, it's a great pleasure to watch DBC Pierre deliver the same lines, the same portents of dread, dead straight to camera with reverent seriousness. Palin may return from the Himalayas enthused, but he doesn't come back possessed. Actually, Pierre looks possessed at the beginning of his journey, never mind the end, if only by Mexican firewater, but it makes his 'The Last Aztec', a channel 4 film which I caught repeated on More4 tonight, brilliantly enjoyable.

A lot of TV history seems intent on proving which civilisation was the best or the strongest or most civilised - Egypt or Greece, Roman or Aztec. Certainly any sense of journalistic impartiality is absent in Pierre's film - he points out that "while we as a culture were chucking shit out of windows into alleys in London, these people had drainage, they had courts, they were living off spring water and vegetables. While we were dying of the plague and scraping around in the grime, these folk were wandering like gods". He reveres the glorious and magical history of the Aztecs.

Again, unlike Palin or his fellow TV journalist contemporaries, Pierre refuses to conform to type. For a start it's quickly clear, through a combination of his appearance and his driving, that our host is absolutely trashed. In truth, despite the historical content, the film is really a gonzo road movie in which Pierre's passion takes centre stage as recalls his childhood in Mexico city, the stories that fuel his imagination, and explores his thesis that the heart of Aztec Mexico is still throbbing hard under the surface of the capital city.

And indeed it is, literally - wherever tears appear in the world's largest city, he shows us, the ruins of the Aztec empire are exposed, and we watch archaologists uncovering sacred grounds, the bodies of Aztec children and shards of Aztec stone. This most spectacular civilisation, Pierre reminds us, was carved by a stone age society. Indeed, without not only steel, but also without wheels. He finds the place, locked away behind an iron gate, where Cortes, the Spanish usurper, met Moctezuma first - he was welcomed not as an invader but as a God. Once more, Palin might film the spot through the gate. Not DBC Pierre - he just bribes a policeman and gets in that way.

So, allowed in as Gods, the Spanish took the Aztec Empire, and Moctezuma was stoned by his own people for letting them down. Pierre is intent on mourning the collapse of the civilisation which inspires him so. "There's only one way to get over the decline and collapse of an empire", he tells us sourly, sitting in a seedy bar. "And that's to get completely lashed ". He throws back a tequila, shaking his head, looking around. "I can't say it feels any better". So he has another.

Incensed, he decides to take the Palace back for the Aztecs. He is approached by a local, outside. "Do I want an official tour?", he says disdainfully, preparing to storm the place, "what the fuck is that?". He banters with the guard on the gate, but gets no further. By now, anyway, his misanthropy knows no bounds, so what does he do? He drinks lots more, he reminisces about a dead girlfriend and the centrality of death in the Mexican character, and goes out at night looking for fresh corpses. When he finds some, he takes photos. By now I am thinking this is surely one of the oddest bits of TV I've ever come across. Back in the daylight, pissed, he wanders into a church, lights up, and starts rambling about Dracula.

Mexico, he tells us, has dreamt up a unique cocktail of death-fascination, where the pre-Spanish culture of death worship has combined with the Christian concept of mortality. He asks a priest about it, making sure he mentions Christians ripping the hearts from still-living children in the process. Yet Aztec magic still holds sway, and as Pierre decides he wants to climb a mountain to find the resting place of Moctezuma, he realises that he had better have his soul cleansed first. He buys some dried hummingbirds, for starters. It will ward off curses, apparently.

The Sierra Madras mountains are his destination, a magical realm, and he starts his climb, intent on finding spirits, "secrets from the past", living remnants of the Aztec world, and gold. Most people, as he climbs, are too frightened to talk of the spirits. Pierre has been here before, actually, and he seems scared too - after all, he points out, "the last time I left this valley, many years ago, my life went hurtling into a downward spiral from which I've only just recovered". He keeps climbing anyway.

But, just in case, he sacrifices a couple of chickens first. By the time's that done, he's "as clean as a whistle", he says, "a poet". And he needs to be cleansed. "There are many things that happen to you, physically and emotionally", he says, "which leave a smudge". The bit where the first chicken is beheaded - with kitchen scissors - is horrifying. And after all that, standing in the swirling mist, Pierre is still too scared to climb the mountain. So he gets absolutely slaughtered again, then turns back: the gonzo journo who turns back! Give him another beer and he'll do it, I was shouting.

For all that, an exhilarating programme.


Dan said...

What's with all the colour changes on this Blog? Green this morning, Pink this afternoon!

Any changes should be part of a full Corporate rebranding of the Assistant blog and a re-vamping of the whole thing.

Is all this inspired by the Turner Prize by the way? The new header looks a little like a Tomma Abts painting if you ask me.

Alex said...

Hi J. Brill post! Al.

Anonymous said...

"Bril" !?

This Blog is getting gayer and gayer...