June 12 , 2000

Poverty in America:

Turning the Tables
Welfare reform face a time limit of its own.

Allied Forces
The National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support

Poverty in a Gilded Age
An interview with Frances Fox Piven.

Out of Sight
In many cities, being homeless is against the law.

Leave the Kids Alone
Poverty is the real problem

The Union Difference

Down and Out on Polk Street

Other Features:

Star Wars: Episode Two
The Pentagon's latest missile defense fantasy.

"This Is Not Life. This Is Prison"
Kosovo one year after the NATO bombing.

Bosnian Serbs Still Look to Belgrade

News & Views

Memo to third parties: Face Reality.


A Terry Laban Cartoon

Marching On
Unity 2000 plans to disrupt this summer's GOP convention

The Other Side of the Street
Food workers target Goldman Sachs

Going to Waste
Health Care Without Harm cleans up toxic hospitals

Flour Power

Forgotten America
BY Juan Gonzalez
Bombs Away


Ancient Daze
FILM: Ridley Scott's Gladiator

A Class by Itself
BOOKS: David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise

A Different Point of View
TV: P.O.V. on PBS

Ancient Daze

By Joshua Rothkopf

Directed by Ridley Scott

Gladiator is the kind of warm-weather bruiser you can have fun with-even while it's having its terrible way with you. It's a very proud movie: Only 20 minutes pass and we've already been treated to a ferocious dog with orange eyes, a severed head flung in the mud, and the efficient devastation of a sizable forest in Germania. Those Roman legionnaires sure knew how to catapult a firebomb at their tribal enemies; so total is this opening rout that its only purpose is to wow us with crude imperial will. Says one commanding officer with the arrogance that comes with the scorched territory: "People should know when they're conquered."

Stand by your man. Credit: Jaap Buitendjik/Dreamworks

In this picture, audiences are meant to be conquered too, not just thrilled but pummeled by its size, its cost, its thousands of extras-the mind reels at the catering alone. Gladiator is more than just a revival of the "sword-and-sandal" period epic, itself as dusty as a Roman coin; it's a return to the studio-driven colossus that throws a fortune at silliness just because it can. This excess used to have an ostensible justification in the threat of television, then in its infancy. Competitive innovations like the horizon-stretching Cinemascope made their debuts with the pomp and glory of The Robe; Land of the Pharaohs and Ben Hur chased ponderously after steadily dwindling receipts lost to the tube.

But the movie industry has long since given up the fight, edging ever closer to shortened attention spans and the emotional tidiness of Friends. Hollywood still knows how to spend money, of course. Gladiator assures us of this and tries to swap that for genuine engagement, not wholly in vain. But the grandeur rushes by impatiently; all too often the drama feels strictly small screen, like a video game. The script registers like a time-honored recipe that has been undercooked: mix a dozen chariots with several gallons of fake blood, add the angst of a slave or two, a pinch of decadence-yet the dough doesn't rise. How can you have circuses without any bread?

The director, Ridley Scott, must have seemed a good choice on paper, a virtual guarantee of luster. Most famously, he turned artificiality and craft into an utterly persuasive, rain-drenched doomscape with Blade Runner, a sci-fi benchmark that continues to impress after 20 years of technological advances. Scott can even impart the air with tactility, fogging his interiors with motes of dust or, as in Gladiator, slowly falling snowflakes. "Rome is the light," we hear early on; Scott takes this literally, bathing the film in creamy hues of gold falling into darkest shadow under icy skies. The film never fails to look absolutely delicious.

More problematic is his tendency to turn people into objects as well, either as artificial replicants (Blade Runner), warm homes for parasitic monsters (Alien), or icons in a post-feminist Mustang commercial (Thelma & Louise). As in the arena, only the strongest survive this suffocating prettiness, and Russell Crowe just makes the cut as Maximus, our titular hero, despite a poorly developed role. Crowe deserves better: He pulled off a tour-de-force in last year's The Insider as the conflicted corporate whistleblower. Try to imagine that part with none of its outspokenness and all of the glowering and you'll come to a fair approximation of this film's Maximus-a general of few words who, through bad luck and the jealousy of the emperor's son, comes to be sold as a slave. Now a gladiator, he must fight his way to fame and a trip to the Colosseum for his vengeance.

That's basically it for the plot, which all but cries out in its thematic impoverishment. It underutilizes Crowe, a waste, and overtaxes Scott, who is required to propel the brunt of the momentum through showdowns of kinetic action-never his strong point. His precision falls apart in one choppy battle sequence after the next, each a blurred mess of microsecond edits and shutter-speed twiddling. For all his command, he can't seem to sustain a simple narrative of blows, sidestepping the promise of catharsis with an impressionist's fickleness that infuriates. (Scott did start off as an art school student.) The bag of tricks is never depleted: slow-motion impalements, computer-generated dismemberment, handheld nausea. I was praying for a tiger attack on the cameraman just so he might retreat by a few yards to establish some perspective; instead we have to wait for the dust to settle to make out the casualties.

Crowds at my two screenings didn't seem to find these incoherent death matches insulting, even though they cater mainly to our bloodlust. Roars of the attending mob rock the house-and not just from Gladiator's deafening soundtrack. But the picture's screenwriters, speaking through rational senators, would also have us reprove the vulgarity of young emperor Commodus' 150 days of games: "He'll bring them death and they will love him for it." Gloats Commodus: "I will give the people the greatest vision of their lives," perhaps reading from Scott's contract with Dreamworks. (Joaquin Phoenix has a great time with the lip-quivering villainy.)

Everyone seems in on the gag though, turning the overall hypocrisy into something winking and watchable. "Win the crowd and you will win your freedom," intones Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), a former gladiator now both the owner and coach of Maximus; the plummy line reads like an agent's mantra. Clapping the brooding Maximus on the shoulder, he confesses, "I'm an entertainer."

Putting on a spectacle is nothing more and nothing less-and it's the only truth in the film. Scott knows this and lets his images rule over fuzzy intimations in the script of incest and a populist crusade against tyranny. Where are these oppressed? They mass in the bleachers, victims presumably of abusive ticket prices. Looking out, Maximus vents his disgust at their base urges but (carefully) not ours; that would be no fun. Besides, Scott has more visceral concerns: a convoy of guards behind glossy black shields rising majestically from beneath the arena; Commodus' stainless white armor; glints in the spattered sand. By the end, any political dimensions have been shorn from the inevitable head-to-head-and maybe that's appropriate. After all, these people still had Septimus Servus to look forward to.



In These Times © 2000
Vol. 24, No. 14