Who’s Your Daddy?: Part I

Saturday, May 12, 2007
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

We're now a couple of weeks away from the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie that is number two in all-time domestic (USA/Canada) box office behind Titanic and number two in inflation-adjusted all-time domestic box office behind Gone With The Wind. When it opened on the 25th of May in 1977 it was called Star Wars. It was long ago given a longer name: Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. The movie was an unassuming and unmitigated joy that changed the culture in ways both good and bad and, unlike the two number one movies, did not rely upon the romantic/sexual attractiveness of its male and female leads to one another and to moviegoers for more than a small part of its box office success and also, unlike them, was not a dramatization involving a historical event. The sequel more than lived up to hopes and expectations and then, in my fairly lonely opinion, the whole thing went off the rails through four more sequels—all mostly joyless and all spectacularly successful at the box office.

Earlier this year a movie about a long-ago battle between Greeks and Persians opened to some laugh-inducing reviews and commentary and to substantial box office. This isn't a review; it's a reaction to two of those subjects (both trivial where movies are concerned) discussed and debated ad nauseam in many of the reviews and quasi-political/historical commentary which resulted from the release of 300 on March 9th. If you read the reviews and commentary you likely read that the Greeks as played in 300 are in exceptionally good physical shape and don’t wear anywhere near as much armor as was worn by the 300 Spartans who actually battled the Persians at Thermopylae. This criticism brought to mind the great poster for Star Wars that I and countless others attached to walls in 1977. I'd call your attention to two chests and a thigh (so not in evidence in the movie) but it hardly seems necessary given how good a job the artist did of selling the supposed romantic/sexual attractiveness of the male and female leads. Now, of course, 300 is an adaptation of a graphic novel and muscular, buxom, striking, grotesque, etc. are the norm when it comes to the physical attributes of the characters who most often populate those. Generally speaking, movies marketed to mass audiences do not go so far in deviating from actual norms (something to do with audience identification with characters,) even today. Nonetheless, attractiveness in heroes and some measure of grotesqueness in villains has likely never done the box office prospects of any work product in any entertainment medium any harm.

The second subject has to do with its accuracy in depicting the historical event being dramatized. Much of the reason movies and television series about the classical world are being produced is because Gladiator was such a financial and critical success. That movie begins at the moment in history which the historian Edward Gibbon identified as the beginning of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Anyone who pays attention to the story of those times as it’s told in Gladiator and knows next-to-nothing about the times would have to think that it was a moment in history which resulted in a new birth of freedom and republican governance brought about by the death of an Emperor named Commodus (historical) and a general-turned-gladiator named Maximus (fictional) and that the decline and fall, well, that must have begun another hundred or two hundred or five hundred years later.

In another financial and critical success that won a Best Picture Oscar in the ‘90s, Mel Gibson dies hideously (hardly a surprise) while crying “Freedom” (hardly a surprise) and after having sired, by implication, the future King Edward III of England. Of that I was reminded recently during the final episode of the infuriatingly good, bad and ugly classical-world HBO series, Rome, which ended in comedy as the miraculously spared and in Rome Cesarion vowed vengeance when old enough and his protector (and real father) gave voice to the last line of the series and the episode's title De Patre Vostro (About Your Father).

I'd begun a review of Rome back in January when what turned out to be its best episode, Passover, opened the second season. Most of what I was writing had to do with how the dramatists involved were neatly avoiding putting themselves in a position to be compared unfavorably to Shakespeare. While checking facts I learned that Max Pirkus would not be playing Octavian to the completion of the series and that so annoyed me that I deleted all that I'd written. I'm still annoyed, but then maybe the dramatists gave him a fair idea of how they saw his character developing and Pirkis (potentially the best actor in the production, but apparently not yet committed to making acting a career) opted out. Not a chance. The producers wanted an older actor so they could include an explicate copulation scene involving Octavian and Max didn't celebrate his eighteenth birthday until a week and a day before the second season began.

Now that I’ve maneuvered myself back to the subject of the romantic/sexual attractiveness of actors and actresses (provided they’re of age,) I couldn't but notice amid all the flesh on display throughout (noble Roman women of the period were treated as if they were their great-granddaughters) that when it came time for James Purefoy, playing Mark Antony, to fall upon his sword, he looked mighty buff for a guy living such a dissolute life for lo those many years with Cleopatra. The actor holding the sword, Kevin McKidd playing Lucius Vorenus, played his male lover in a romantic triangle of sorts approximately nine years ago in a mediocre movie called Bedrooms and Hallways.

Looking through the release dates at imdb.com it looks like it played only on the big screen in the U.S. at Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals. I watched it late one night, no doubt on HBO, when I was in the midst of my trek back to CA from my three-year sojourn in PA. Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) and Jennifer Ehle (Pride & Prejudice) are also in it.

When Rome began its run I was still in CA and the brother who kept me supplied with graphic novels (my Christmas present from him for many years was a selection of what he considered to be the best in graphic novels and comic books from the previous year) and I spent an entertaining hour matching actors to previous movies we'd seen them in before turning to imdb.com to confirm and enhance our memories. Purefoy I’d forgotten. McKidd I remembered from Topsy-Turvy and his debut. He played Tommy to Ewan McGregor's Renton in Trainspotting.

Doesn't it make you proud to be Scottish?

It's SHITE being Scottish! We're the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched miserable servile pathetic trash that was ever shat on civilization. Some people hate the English. I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. Can't even find a decent culture to get colonized by. We're ruled by effete assholes. It's a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won't make any fucking difference!

What a difference in attitude 700 or so years or even a year (Trainspotting was released a little over a year after Braveheart) can make. Ewan, of course, went on to play a role from longer ago and further away which also required not nearly so much of a talent for acting (not to mention romantic/sexual attractiveness) in the three Star Wars prequel-sequels.

One of the perks that come with working in cable is that on occasion DVDs of coming attractions come your way. My wife and I watched the first couple of episodes of the Showtime series The Tudors a few weeks before its debut. Not surprisingly, romantically/sexually attractive men and women spend time in bed while a version of history having something to do with what actually happened serves as the backdrop. The series begins with Henry VIII on the throne. It might be reasonable to ask why a series called The Tudors doesn't begin with Henry VII somewhere in the vicinity of Bosworth Field, but then what does reason have to do with it. I think it’s safe to say that the only thing most people know about Henry VII, assuming they know anything about him, is that he was king before Henry VIII and “Was he his father or was that Mel?”

We Spartans have descended from Hercules himself. Taught never to retreat, never to surrender. Taught that death on the battlefield is the greatest glory he could achieve in his life. Spartans: the finest soldiers the world has ever known.

I, and I'd venture to say most of the people who make movies, understand the attraction of any story about the nobility and courage of a doomed mission/defense that served as an inspiration to those who later won the war (Remember the Alamo!) and also inspired a memorable poem or story or song or two and the story of the Battle of Thermopylae has all that (and a great name.) We also understand that, in general, successful movies result from a certain clarity and simplicity of plot (however complicated the history if it’s placed in times historical) and a certain identification with and attractiveness in the heroes (whatever their actual personalities and looks.) That being written, for me the 10,000 are much more representative of what it is about Classical Greece that, from what we know, made it so admirably different and, in many ways, worth emulating.

Approximately eighty years after the heroic stand at Thermopylae and the great naval victory at Salamis, 10,000 Greek mercenaries left unemployed by the end of the Peloponnesian War (Sparta beat Athens) signed on to help a Persian named Cyrus take the Persian Empire away from his older brother. They eventually found themselves deep in hostile territory without an employer and without leaders. Xenophon tells his and their story in Anabasis.

Edith Hamilton from The Greek Way:

The Anabasis is the story of the Greeks in miniature. Ten thousand men, fiercely independent by nature, in a situation where they were a law unto themselves, showed that they were pre-eminently able to work together and proved what miracles of achievement willing co-operation can bring to pass. The Greek state, at any rate the Athenian state, which we know best, showed the same. What brought the Greeks safely back from Asia was precisely what made Athens great. The Athenian was a law unto himself, but his dominant instinct to stand alone was counterbalanced by his sense of overwhelming obligation to serve the state. This was his own spontaneous reaction to the facts of his life, nothing imposed on him from outside. The city was his defense in a hostile world, his security, his pride, too, the guarantee to all of his worth as an Athenian.

So far as I know, to date the closest the story of the 10,000 has come to being adapted into a movie is The Warriors, an adaptation of a novel about a Coney Island street gang of that name. Why no adaptation featuring Greeks? I like to think it’s because no one with the requisite talent to do so felt/feels that he or she had/has the requisite talent to do so.

As I don't expect to see a dramatization in my lifetime, I’d like to dwell on Xenophon and his Cyrus for a couple more paragraphs before concluding. Xenophon doesn’t begin to write of himself as distinguished from the army of which he is a part until Book III and when he does (in the third person) he begins by telling us that when he consulted Socrates as to whether or not he should accept or refuse an invitation to join the venture Socrates sent him to the Oracle at Delphi where, as Socrates later points out, he doesn’t ask whether he should accept or refuse, but rather to which Gods he should sacrifice to make his going a success. In Book I he writes of the army as Cyrus organized and then led it until his death. Part IX of Book I begins: So died Cyrus; a man the kingliest and most worthy to rule of all the Persians who have lived since the elder Cyrus: according to the concurrent testimony of all who are reputed to have known him intimately.

In Of Pedantry, Montaigne writes of Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’s account of the last lesson in his education:

“It was this,” he says. “In our school a big boy who had a small coat gave it to one of his scoolmates who was smaller and took away his coat, which was larger. Our teacher, having made me judge of this dispute, I judged that things should be left in that state, and that both seemed better suited in this way; whereupon he pointed out to me that I had done badly, for I had stopped at considering fitness, whereas I should first of all have taken care of justice, which willed that no one should be forced in regard to what belonged to him.” And he says he was whipped for it...

We know something of Cyrus the Younger besides dates, genealogies and battle outcomes because a Greek named Xenophon thought him important enough to write about on more than one occaision and to our great good fortune many of Xenophon's words can still be read.

I enjoyed 300 despite its relatively minor rewrite of history as it probably happened and its adherence to many of the conventions of the mediums from which and into which it was adapted, but I don’t love it for, in part, the same reasons. As I looked through this ridiculous list* last weekend I realized that I don't much like a single one of the movies on it whose screenplay is an adaptation of material from another medium and I like all but one of the movies whose screenplay is called "original." The list does get a few points for excluding all the Star Wars sequels that made it to the big screen (including the extended versions of the first two) during the last 25 years.

I am your father.

What do I remember about first seeing a movie I've loved for almost 30 years? It was a Saturday morning at the Piedmont Theater in Oakland, CA and the audience was big, but it wasn't a sellout. This skeptical and critical 19-year-old loved it from the moment the 20th Century Fox logo appeared and the fanfare began in Dolby Stereo and that love intensified when a simple title card bearing the words which lead this post appeared and intensified again with the opening chord of the theme music, in Dolby, and the appearance of the movie title and intensified again when Princess Leia's ship entered the frame and yet again when Lord Vader’s battle cruiser entered the frame in pursuit and then again and again and again, with a bump or two along the way, right through to the closing credits. And this is where I stop trusting my memory, but I think it was at this showing that for the first time in my movie-going experience there was general and sustained applause for a movie in current release by a large audience who mostly stayed through the closing credits. For years and years afterwards this behavior was not unusual. Before this movie I’d only seen anything like it at repertory movie theaters. What a day.

*I think Star Wars the best Science Fiction (known to me) produced for the movies and television in the past 30 years and I'd have no problem with pairing it with The Empire Strikes Back as the best. Babylon 5 is, in my opinion, number 2. That it isn't on the EW list at all renders that list ridiculous.


loner said...

Interesting. All the imdb.com links didn't make it. The others are fine.

Buddy Larsen said...

Foretold the Reagan Revolution, that movie did.

Buddy Larsen said...

I should say, the response to that movie did.