The Greatest Show on Earth!: The Historico-Biblical Epic, Excess, and the Sublime Historical Experience

Metathesis

A few weeks ago, when I published my post on Game of Thrones and its theory of history, one of my colleagues asked me about the nature of excess–of violence, of sex, of things (clothes, sets, technologies)–that typically stand as one of the hallmarks of the epic genre. At what point, she asked, does excess simply overwhelm the viewer, force them into a state of suspension, of sensory/sensual overload that causes them to disengage? I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the function of excess in terms of historical representation. I’ve come to believe that the genre of the epic, perhaps more than any other type of historical film or television series, allows for an experience of the strangeness and otherness of the world of antiquity. Following in the footsteps of such scholars as Vivian Sobchack, I suggest that the historical epic provides contemporary spectators with an experience of the…

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Nasty, Brutish, but Definitely Not Short: Game of Thrones and the History of Power

Metathesis

It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about a fantasy television series as having anything meaningful to say about history. But Game of Thrones‘ self-conscious evocation of the medieval world, as well as the fact that so many of its storylines are drawn from historical events in our own world, suggests that it does indeed have something it wants to tell about history—about the ways in which individuals engage with the social and cultural forces that seem to move times, societies, and cultures forward. In the clip shown here, Petyr Baelish, the corrupt and ruthless Master of Coin, explains to Varys his vision of the world and the rules that govern the way it works.

In essence, chaos provides cunning and ruthless people the ability to rise to the top; not for him the illusions and grand visions of a just society. Power, and the ability to seize it, are the…

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Who’s That Lady?: Women’s Historical Fiction and the Writing of Female Subjectivity

Metathesis

If you type the search term “women’s historical fiction” into Amazon, you will (as of this writing) receive over 25,000 results, with authors writing women-centered fictions set in almost every conceivable historical period. I use the term “women’s historical fiction” deliberately, as this specific sub-genre pays particular attention to the experiences of women in various historical eras.  Although the “Great Man” theory of history continues to exert quite a powerful hold on the public historical imagination, popular authors–authors such as Philippa Gregory, Stephanie Thornton, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran– have inspired large and devoted readerships, and their works seek to evoke in contemporary readers an understanding of the struggles, and the triumphs, that women experienced in the past.  In doing so, they also articulate a theory of women’s history centered on the tension between female agency and subjection.  These works of history offer frames of intelligibility through which contemporary readers can experience the…

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The Exquisite Queerness of Jackson’s “The Hobbit”

It is no secret that we queers have always had an appreciation and an adoration of Tolkien’s work.  The richness and depth with which he paints the relationships between men–especially that between Sam and Frodo as they make their way to Mount Doom–almost inevitably strike a resonant chord with young queer nerds reading Tolkien’s work.  Jackson, whatever else he has done to translate Tolkien’s work to film, has also heightened and intensified the affectiveness of these relationships, depicting them with true emotional richness.  And, whether one hates or loves his new Hobbit trilogy, these new films have also opened up fascinating new avenues for queer reading and appropriation.

Perhaps no character in this new trilogy typifies this queer aesthetic as much as Thranduil, ably and memorably portrayed by Lee Pace.  Now there are some who have referred to Pace’s acting as scenery-chewing, and perhaps they havev a bit of a point, but hit is precisely the ever-so-slightly over-the-topness of his acting that not only renders him such a sinfully queer character (for some reason I always think of Jeremy Irons’ iconic portrayal of the villain Scar in The Lion King when I hear Lee Pace’s delivery) but also gets across some of the haughtiness and selfishness that was a characteristic of many of the less noble of Tolkien’s Elves.

Fans have picked up on these particular qualities, as in the gif below, which juxtaposes Thranduil (labeled here as the “Bitch King”) with the Witch-king of Angmar from LotR.  What strikes me as especially resonant about this image is the way in which it manages to capitalize on the elements of camp that suffuse Lee’s performance of Thranduil.  He is at once the idol of our adulation and a subject of fun, a powerful king in his own right yet also possessing the flaws of personality that will eventually come back to haunt him as he loses his only son to his own hubris and unwillingness to imagine a worldview (at least until it is too late).  And, above all, he is fabulous, and in his own way he manages to capture the cruel beauty of the Elves of Tolkien’s world.

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Just as importantly, however, Thranduil, as well as many of the other most notable characters in the trilogy, embody various elements of physical beauty so fetishized and adored by gay men.  For a straight director, Jackson has a remarkable penchant for casting lots of eye candy and dishy leading men in his roles, perhaps conscious that women and gay men (and maybe even some straight men) find male beauty fascinating.  And fans have responded, finding in these beautiful male figures an object to desire, to identify with, and to objectify.  One Twitter user, for example, utilized the image below to bring out the desires evoked by Jackson’s films, preceding Lurtz’s grisly visage with a listing of the leading men of both trilogies.

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Elements of the fan community have, of course, also embraced the queerness of Jackson’s iteration of The Hobbit with an enthusiasm to rival that of the earlier shippers of The Lord of the Rings (who can ever forget the legions of fan fictions and fan art depicting such memorable pairings as Aragorn/Legolas, Pippin/Merry and, of course, Frodo/Sam?)  While the Dwarfcest theme hasn’t caught on just yet (surely I’m not the only one who detected the on-screen chemistry between Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner as Fili and Kili, am I?), there is a remarkably invested fan following around Baggenshield, the inevitable pairing of Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield.  Twitter is nearly bursting with memes, gifs, and images celebrating the bond between Hobbit and Dwarf, a celebration and an embrace of the obvious chemistry between Armitage and Freeman, as well as the equally obvious bond that develops between Bilbo and Thorin in the course of three films (I have even seen Bilbo referred to as Thorin’s “wife,” a particular reading that has queer written all over it).  One does not have to look far in the film to see glimmers of this queerness, as when Bilbo seems to hesitate about how exactly to define his relationship with Thorin, both in his last conversation with Balin and, later, when the auctioneer asks him who Thorin was.  This gap, I think, is crucial for the appropriation of this text by its queer fans.

While some might call this over-reading, seeking out something in the text that “isn’t really there,” I would draw our attention to the words of the late, great queer scholar Alexander Doty, who cogently reminded all of us that texts are always layered with queer potential and that finding, exploiting, and enjoying those potentials is just as valid as the allegedly straight readings that the mainstream so enjoys and attempts to enshrine as the norm.  Embracing these methods enhances our appreciation for the richness and variety of  readerly responses to Tolkien and the works he created and inspired.

Rude Wastes of Space: Race, Class, and the Othering of the British Hoodie

Metathesis

One of the more interesting parts of writing my dissertation so far has been investigating the phenomenon of the British hoodie. My dissertation focuses on the post-2000 British horror resurgence, and the hoodie horror cycle has been one of the more prolific cycles within the more general boom.

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Menhaj Huda’s 2006 film Kidulthood is often identified asone of the first hoodie films.

Hoodies are usually working-class teen delinquents who wear hooded sweatshirts. During the first decade of the 2000s, hoodies became prevalent in a variety of forms of British popular culture. There were frequent news stories citing hoodies as a consequence and contributor to “Broken Britain,” a cultural discourse that maintains that Britain is more lawless, chaotic, and dangerous than ever before. Cinemas screened films like Kidulthood (Menhaj Huda, 2006) and Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009), while various television channels produced and aired programs like Misfits (2009-2013, E4) and the…

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Has the Historical Epic Lost Its Relevance?

The historical/biblical epic seems to be in something of a crisis.  Both Darren Aronovsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus:  Gods and Kings took something of a drumming at the U.S. box office, and the latter was viciously excoriated by the critics.  One cannot help but remember another significant ancient world epic, directed by a very well-known and well-regarded director, that similarly failed to make a box office impression and was also dismissed by many critics.  Oliver Stone’s Alexander, anyone?  It seems reasonable to ask, then:  what went wrong?  How did we go from the likes of Ben-Hur and Gladiator to the relative domestic disappointments of Troy, Alexander and, more recently, Noah and Exodus?  None of these films managed to secure a place in the pantheon of unqualified successes, relegated to pet auteur projects that will always play second (or third) fiddle to their unequivocally successful predecessors.

Of course, it’s hard to say with any certainty what causes particular genres to gain or lose popularity in the popular (and, by extension, critical) consciousness.  I would propose, however, that part of it at least has to do with the vision of history and of historical change that these types of films typically evoke that may be at least partially to blame.  It may well be that the types of historical vision/consciousness these films seek to inspire in their viewers cannot gain, or at any rate is not guaranteed, the cultural and collective psychological purchase it could in those periods when then the genre was at its height (the 1950s and very early 1960s and, in Gladiator’s case, the turn of the millennium).

While the historical/biblical epic is typically seen as a celebration of nationhood, masculinity, and imperialism, these films (and their TV descendants/counterparts), also contain within them a darker note, a strain of what film scholar Robert Burgoyne has termed a counternarrative.  This counternarrative, I would suggest, has a great deal of the melancholy about; a profound sense of loss haunts the epic form.  This is not mere nostalgia, for while this affect does share some of the sadness and longing associated with nostalgia, this type of loss, I argue, does have the possibility of engendering a specific type of historical understanding in particular types of spectators.  The present, these films assert, is built upon the bones and the flesh of those who occupied the past, and while we might pride ourselves on the advent of modernity, these films force us to ask:  at what cost?  What has been lost in the process of historical change?  Why is loss necessary in order for time and humanity to move forward?  This experiencing of history is, itself, a form of loss, as the spectator is forced to confront the encounter a multitude of losses:  of life, of subjectivity, of the self.

While this sense of loss could perhaps be sublimated or recuperated in an era that prided itself (and constantly convinced itself) on its prosperity, both economic and cultural, such may not be the case in those eras when such myths cannot gain that same kind of purchase.  Thus, it would make sense that a film like Gladiator, one of the most melancholy and despondent films I have ever seen, might succeed at the beginning of the new millennium, when the U.S. was still flush with the prosperity of the Clinton Years and what some have labeled the “Pax Americana.”  However, could a film like Troy, or Alexander, succeed, since both are likewise haunted by that same sense of loss and dissolution?

The same might be said of Noah and, to a lesser extent, Exodus.  Noah ends, of course, on something of a high note, but any viewer who has even been halfway paying attention cannot help but be haunted by the tremendous loss of life that has been incurred.  The movement from the ancient world of violent patriarchs–exemplified, quite chillingly, by both Noah and Tubal-cain–has been swept away, the hordes of men, women, and children drowned in the deluge (in fact, the sight of the frail remains of humanity clinging to an outcropping of rock is one of the film’s most striking and memorable images).  While the world that emerges may be better than the one that preceded it, is such betterment worth the loss of human life required to bring it into being?

Exodus, likewise, ends on a somewhat sombre note, as again any viewer with a glimmer of knowledge of Biblical history knows that the Jews, newly freed from their bondage in Egypt, are doomed to wander the wilds for 40 years.  The scene in which Ramseses stands amongst the ruins of his splendid army is one of the most visually and emotionally arresting in an otherwise fairly lackluster film, again suggesting that the new nation led by Moses has been born out of the deaths of thousands of men, as well as the terrible sundering of the pseudo-familial bond between Ramseses and Moses.

Can an America still reeling from a tremendously devastating recession and two (at least) unsatisfactorily concluded wars, not to mention deep rumbles of civil unrest (which are themselves the outward manifestations of deep fissures in American culture that have been glossed over for far too long) still gain the sense of reassurance it had from the earlier cycles, especially ones that so explicitly foreground loss?  It seems to me that they cannot, and that at least in part accounts both for the films’ tremendous unpopularity with critics (Exodus has so far taken quite a drubbing with the American film critics, averaging a critical score in the 20s), as well as their lackluster performance at the domestic box office (neither Noah nor Exodus have done particularly well, relying on their international distribution to break even).

Of course, the epic does flourish in some forms.  Son of God, an extension of the extremely popular History Channel  series The Bible, was a moderate success, largely because it eschewed big-budget spectacle and had a built-in audience from those appreciative of the original series.  The Red Tent, the television adaptation of Anita Diamant’s bestselling historical novel, received at least a somewhat warm reception from critics.  And, perhaps most famously of all, Game of Thrones, with its patina of historicity and its evocation of generic codes of the historical epic, has proven the the genre can flourish, both in terms of viewership and critical approbation.  So, perhaps the epic can survive, but only in the medium of television.  It remains to be seen whether its loss will be mourned or celebrated.