The experienced mouse — the one in the experiment about the tiny cells in the brain that code for violence versus the ones that code for sex and how there is a twenty percent overlap — would not turn a hair at Starz’ program “Spartacus Blood and Sand,” even though it was deliberately commissioned to “go about as far they could go” — which is far beyond Kansas City. In fact, that mouse might have some observations something like mine.
The real issue in the movie is class as defined by power which is often NOT physical power. (Though these actors, who were already magnificent specimens, trained hard for a month to make sure they were “cut.”) The real power is the power of the state, which as the Middle East now knows is dependent on the people — not out of any ideology but because if they get miserable enough they have nothing to lose and hit the streets. But the legal and economic power can be undercut by two unlimited commodities: secrets and sex, the weapons of the powerless, which certain politicians are just discovering. Sex is the cheese and secrets are the mousetraps — which any experienced mouse knows.
Class systems — and I don’t see any way to eliminate them without homogenizing everyone into the dreaded images of sci-fi or even our now outdated notion of China (everyone in padded blue denim pajamas and little black slippers) — can be based on different criteria for hierarchy: money, education, skill (all kinds, even acting and directing movies), heredity, social systems like slavery, connections with powerful people, and so on. Personal charisma is a system disrupter. (Disruption means renewal.)
So that’s what Spartacus is really about: the same theme as John Brown, or the rebellion of the SW tribes against the Spaniards, or the Confederacy, and so on. John Hannah, whose Scots accent is unchanged since Rebus, stands for the class climber who tries to go up by scheming at the expense of others. His wife helps him with those above him, and the Peter Mensah character helps him with those below him. Andy Whitfield is the charismatic man, born free, faithful to his wife, who disrupts the system. In fact, with his hair long he resembles many depictions of Jesus, that game-changer.
All the gore and spectacle is two-sided. On the one hand it is a critique of modern society which pretends to be so sophisticated and yet repeats those old patterns. On the other hand, it is so over-the-top that no one is all that likely to take it seriously, not even the ones who say, “Gee, this tv series IS a spectacle that distracts us from reality just like gladiator battes!” In case you miss that, the accompanying short vids about making the movie are all jokey and “good buds” plus marveling at Green Screen tricks and that the scene in the cesspool is filmed in muck created by mixing food. (Of course, that’s what shit is — processed food.) The giveaway is watching the technicians, who are not glorious specimens, who are often female, who are deadly serious about what they’re doing (which can actually endanger lives in the case of stuntmen), and who are allowed to wear warm clothes. That’s the location of the realities.
As it happens, Elaine Pagels discusses the New Testament Book of Revelations on edge.org this week. This sensible academic is a good example of the backstage people who do the real work. While opportunists and other power-mongers are rushing around chasing stories of sex and violence, which they contend can only be controlled by the Ultimate Power Man, namely God, other people are quietly thinking about the evidence and implications of ancient documents.
This is all very useful to the scriptwriters of this series, who must come up with twisty plot lines that would baffle the experienced labyrinth-running mouse. Spartacus was a real person, but no two stories from that time agree. Such phenomena as men with boy lovers are historically justified, the labyrinth of tunnels for various purposes is on National Geographic, the very fact of the “school for slave gladiators” is confirmed. (I kept thinking about the Chinese school for captive boys made into actors with the help of castration that was at the center of — help! I’m blocking on the name of the movie.)
No one makes a movie all alone and no one makes a movie that isn’t closely related to the culture that is expected to make it a financial success. Best of all is if like Shakespeare the team can create something with layers of spectacle, social comment and intellectual debate. It frustrates me a bit to not know what the screenwriters — trapped between their own fairly high-powered grasp of human history and the raw money-hunger of the producers — talked about and how the issues were resolved. There were hints in the voice-overs and separate vids, but I wonder what would happen if Elaine Pagels were to join them at a table for a debriefing session.
What makes such an event so riveting is that we are in a time very much like that of Spartacus, except that today’s slave soldiers in some cases are ten years old and more experienced than any mouse, having done deeds much more deeply tabooed than shown by Starz. The Romans, like dinosaurs, have been a warning to us. The world of Spartacus seemed to have entered the Apocalypse and so does ours. The front page of today’s GF Tribune carried a story about Global Warming that is more dire than ever. That’s aside from the economic stories which are also scary. Pagels included in her images of the end of the world an aerial photo of the bombing of Baghdad.
Since the time of the Romans we have been traveling towards an ethic of individual action and responsibility for our own personal goals. Now we seem to be entering a time when the group must be the guide because only by acting as a whole can we be effective. We’re looking for Jesus again. The experienced mouse, slipping around the edges, will still find plenty of opportunity, just as Starz did. Not everyone is as honorable as gladiators. Some are always cheesy. And mice know secrets.