Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ancient Blood

I'm not the first person to note that in popular entertainment--the American kind and its imitators abroad--violence is not necessarily about violence. That is, it's not meant to mirror the real violence of the world. Instead, it's typically about adolescent sex, not just because violence comes close on the heels of sex and/or nudity in most super-violent movies, but because the energy of explosions, jetting arterial blood, and messy defilements of the body is a lively erotic metaphor--specifically for sexually inexperienced teenage boys, the genre's most ardent audience. It's the most explicit artistic expression of sexuality permissible in a puritanic society more comfortable with public hangings and witch-burnings than with realistic depictions of the sex act (any sex act). (Americans are also peculiarly uncomfortable with the subject of death--read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death [1963]--so splashily spectacular Hollywood-style death scenes deny death's reality and make death seem less ordinary and inevitable--almost alien--death being, however, the most ordinary and inevitable thing in the world.)

Now that Spartacus, the TV series, has reached its close and is available on DVD, I'd like to comment on its peculiar use of violence--specifically, the digitally added spurts of blood (more operatic than realistic, usually played out in slow motion) which have become a staple in action-movie violence since at least the 2007 film 300, which, like Spartacus, depicts a fantasy version of the ancient world. Spartacus the series is very different from the 1960 film of the same name, notably (and of some importance to me) in its depiction of the sexuality of gladiators. Spartacus is the most homoerotic depiction of gladiatorial life I've seen (and I've seen more than a few gladiator movies). Butt-fucking (noisy, buck-naked butt-fucking) and (perhaps more surprising) lip-locking between males are recurrent from the first season to the fourth and last, escalating in the final season, which gives us plenty of both and, more, major plot lines involving two pairs of same-sex lovers, one couple, heroic gladiators, the other couple, duplicitous Roman oppressors. 

The STARZ series not only is explicitly violent but also explicitly homoerotic. It provides the most extensive beefcake exhibition of any TV show (or mainstream film) I've seen, not to mention plenty of full-frontal male nudity (and really hotted-up nudity too--not the Forgetting Sarah Marshall variety), and, in my opinion, its stylized violence stands in for the only part of the sex act the risk-taking producers couldn't get away with on TV: ejaculation. Repeatedly, the series plays up the erotic tensions between adversaries, the agitation between two combatants often being as sexually charged as deadly--again, most apparent in the final season. The ongoing (and central) love-hate relationship between the man called "Spartacus" and the constantly scowling Crixus is more Beatrice/Benedick than Maximus/Commodus. I'd say more on this subject, but I promised myself "no spoilers."

As much as Fight Club (more the novel than the movie, but the movie too), Spartacus the series plays up the eroticism of male aggression ... and the aggressiveness of male sexuality. Obsessively detailed closeups of swords penetrating male flesh and the seemingly bottomless cliff at the edge of the ludus (remember that Freud once said that dreams of falling represent anxiety over giving in to a sexual impulse) contribute to the series' tone of exaggerated violence ... and its sexual undertone.  It's vastly different from the Oscar-winning movie, but let's remember that the movie's arena and battle scenes were, in its day (1960), considered quite visceral in their portrayal of violence and death. But whereas the Kubrick film, with Kirk Douglas (Liberace's father) in the lead, coyly dodges the question of homosexuality in the ancient world with talk of oysters and snails (in a scene that was cut from the original release), the vastly more exuberant 21st-century retelling of the story downplays historicity and politics to give fuller expression to pre-Christian sexual mores--more or less without blinking. Both versions focus on the theme of liberation--the former in the context of the civil rights movement, the latter (arguably) mostly in the context of sexual liberation. Call it soft porn, if you like, but I call it heroic.

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