Monday, March 1, 2010

Spartacus and Blood and Sand and Revisionist History and Tits and Ass

The Best Picture wins of Braveheart and Gladiator at the 1996 and 2001 Academy Awards, respectively heralded a brief renaissance of the big, sweeping historical epic at the multiplex. Well, to say it heralded a renaissance is a bit much; what really happened is that studios saw they could make a buck on the genre and released a bunch of movies as a cash-in. This brief phase of Hollywood history brought moviegoers crappy epic knockoffs like Troy, King Arthur, and Alexander as well as completely under-appreciated works of genius like Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (rent the Director's Cut, it's incredible). By the midpoint of the Aughts, the historical epic had seemingly run out a steam and another way of looking at history on celluloid had taken hold.

The success of the BBC/HBO co-production Rome which had its first season in 2005 began a trend of presenting mankind's past as a vulgar, ultraviolent, sex and death-filled hellhole. Depending on who you ask, this is either an attempt to bring a level of irreverent "authenticity" to history (think the late Howard Zinn, but with an adolescent obsession with boobs and gore) and strip away the generations of politically correct whitewahsing by textbooks, or a cynical method of drawing in an audience by presenting history with the aesthetic of a snuff film.

Like most questions of "real" history, the truth probably lies somewhere in the center.

Revisionist history of course has a long and storied...history on film. Western movies had their own phase of re-presenting the Old West as a violent, scary, morally ambiguous place: take The Searchers, Unforgiven, the works of Cormac McCarthy, and Deadwood for example. These works rose mostly from the fact that American history had been presented in a sanitized, family friendly form for too long. The stories of men on the fringes of society, fighting to settle a wild frontier could not be nearly as heroic as Hollywood had convinced us. Soon enough, White Hat and Black Hat cowboys had been completely replaced by Gray Hats or muddy Brown Hats.

Ancient history would soon undergo a similar transformation. The first, and most extreme, example that springs to my mind is the infamous 1979 abomination Caligula. Conceived as a Ben-Hur-esque historical epic, the original idea was to make an honest depiction of the life of Roman Emperor Caligula and was stocked with a cavalcade of classically-trained thespians (Peter O'Toole! John Gielgud!) as well as British cinematic bad boy Malcolm McDowell in the title role. The film also boasted Helen Mirren, but I am wary to throw her in with O'Toole and Gielgud because as I understand it, until recently Dame Helen was just as famous for getting naked on camera as she was for playing royalty.

Everything went off the rails when Penthouse's Bob Guccione came on as producer and insisted on having hardcore sex occurring in almost every scene. Much to my disappointment (yes, I bought it), the hardcore sex doesn't involve any of the leads but instead occurs awkwardly in the background or in dedicated, literally orgiastic montages. I can't show you parts of the film itself, but I'll let the trailer give you an idea on what it's like.

The intentions may have been to present decadent imperial Rome as it was, but thirty years of critics and scholars have agreed that Caligula is pretty much just big-budget porn with a historical setting and a script by Gore Vidal, not to mention excessive violence.

The question of when a film like this becomes excessive and pornographic instead of just a true-to-life depiction of a historical character renowned for his perversion and bloodlust I suppose is up to the viewer; but one must wonder if our understanding of Roman history is made better by a scene where McDowell rapes a virgin bride in front of her husband and then fists him up the ass. Somewhere out there, Suetonius is rolling in his grave.

The next best example of the revisionist history epic might be the previously mentioned Rome. Depicting the events surrounding the rise of Julius Caesar and fall of the Roman Republic, Rome alternates plotlines between historical aristocratic characters and fictional plebeians. The depictions of Caesar and his friends, family, allies, and enemies are generally in line with the Shakespeare/I, Claudius school of dignified historical fiction while the series' original creations are bawdy products of 21st-century sensibilities (towards history anyway). All the while, there's plenty of ultraviolence in both spheres of Roman society and more than enough shots of Mark Antony's massive, uncircumsized member. The show goes out of its way to remind us that the Roman heroes we read about in history class were men and women just like you and me and their pre-Christian system of values allowed for plenty of murder and having sex in front of slaves.Even with its claim of authenticity, Rome goes batshit insane from time to time. The future Augustus' sister Octavia engages in a lesbian affair with Brutus' mom for some reason and then has sex with her own brother. This of course has no basis in the historical record and is only there for our, the viewers' enjoyment. There's also a scene in the second season where a Roman mafioso's head is shoved in a pre-indoor plumbing toilet while he is anally raped but a rival on the orders of a main character. I don't remember Plutarch mentioning that, though I'm sure that doesn't mean it couldn't have happened. What else would you expect from a show that features a drawing of a giant penis in its title sequence?

300 is the big one: the sign that everything that could go wrong in an epic had in fact done so. The story of King Leonidas and his Spartans' last stand during the Greco-Persian war was of course based on real events, but more importantly it was based on a Frank Miller comic book.

Now don't get me wrong, I love Frank Miller with all (well, some of) my heart, but I'll be the first to admit that by the time the 1990's came around his formula for writing had become "Violence + whores = GENIUS!". 300 is in no way exempt from this. Taking blatant liberties with history for the sake of making kickass action sequences, Miller and co. have defended 300 as less a depiction of history as it happened than history as the Spartans themselves would tell it, hence all Spartans are superheroic badasses who fight lizard ninjas and mumakils. It would seem that for Miller, a Greek army fighting off a massive Persian invasion at unimaginable odds wasn't enough, he needed to have a cave troll.

Whatever, this is all well and good. But Miller also ignores or worse yet, revises important bits of Greek society. Leonidas chides the Athenians as "boy-lovers", the ultimate insult from a super masculine Spatan warrior right? Wrong. Yes, the Athenians really, really liked to have sex with boys, but I think the only society that really outdid them in the pederasty department was Sparta. So historical social mores are desecrated in the name of modern homophobia. Great, thanks Frank Miller.

Despite (or because of) its liberties with classical history, 300 was a boffo box office success and minor cultural event. Surely you remember 2007, when every bro at a party would scream "This! Is! Sparta!" after downing his fourth can of Beast. Yeah, those were good times. The success of director Zak Snyder's film led directly to the creation of the latest piece of revisionist historical epic: Starz's Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

I initially wasn't that interested in Spartacus because it looked like a blatant 300 rip-off. But then I heard that Lucy Lawless is in it and more importantly, she's naked. Being a longtime Xena fan, I could not turn down this, the opportunity of a lifetime. So for the past month or so I've been streaming Spartacus on my Xbox through Netflix.

With all its CGI blood and backdrops and slow-mo, Spartacus is indeed a 300 rip-off. There are times that you think you are in fact watching 300, it so shamelessly apes it. The plot concerns the titular Thracian hero's quest to be reunited with his wife after being enslaved by an evil Roman general by fighting his way up through the gladiator circuit. So in other words, its blatantly a Gladiator rip-off too.

While Spartacus' main plot is cliched and the 300 aesthetic doesn't help, I find many of the side characters to be fun. John Hannah (better known as Rachel Weisz's brother from the Mummy franchise) plays Spartacus' master, a gladiator school proprietor named Batiatus. While Spartacus spends most of the time moping about his wife and honor and bullshit, Batiatus is constantly trying to hustle his way out of the minor leagues of bloodsport and into the majors. He comes off as the owner of a AA baseball team trying to get his players called up to the Show, all the while staying one step ahead of loan sharks while his wife (Lawless) cuckolds him with his prize gladiator. It's pretty good entertainment, even if it is pulpy shit. It's violent and stupid, but its there to entertain. I suppose it can only encourage viewers to pick up a copy of Livy and that can't be all that bad.

But most importantly, Lucy Lawless is naked.