With Oscar looming, a brief look at the lack of passion that was 2005
By Hannah Strom-Martin
It's old news by now, but 2005 was a pretty bad year. Earthquakes, floods, knowing we're only a quarter of the way through George W. Bush: The Sequel. The overall sense of badness extended into entertainment, too--and I'm referring here to neither Brangelina nor TomKat.
What was truly sad about 2005 was that, through the duration of its assorted chaos, we didn't have anywhere to escape. War of the Worlds? Too much like CNN. The Chronicles of Narnia? Kingdom of Heaven? Many of these were admirable feints at greatness, but even Peter Jackson's reinvention of King Kong didn't exactly have the word "mythos" stapled to it. (OK, fine, the Kong thing is arguable, but the fact that the poor ape dies in the end kind of discourages the sort of repeat viewings that make that other Jackson epic such a rewarding investment.)
Last year was the Year the Epic Got Trounced, and that ain't good. Luminaries from Joseph Campbell to J. R. R. Tolkien have written of humankind's innate need for escape. According to Campbell, an expert on mythology, myths like the Odyssey or even fairy tales like Cinderella "have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind." Likewise, in his essay "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien fully endorses our need to escape via entertainment: "Why should a man be scorned," he writes, "if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?"
Campbell and Tolkien were not writing of epics specifically, but their words strike home in a year of dismal box office returns. If the power of imagination and the escape into story are vital to our creative spirit, 2005 left us with a yawning deficit.
Last year aside, one has only to look at the Oscars to uncover our collective love of epic stories. Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Tom Jones and Braveheart are a mere sampling of the movies that have garnered the golden statuette over the years. Obviously, we as a species celebrate long tales expertly told. The explanation for this has never been agreed upon. Could the same minds that get off on Sodoku thrill in tracking the multiple character arcs in the epic fantasies of Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin?
Our current addiction to rapid-cut television seems to contradict this theory. Could the love of the epic be an American phenomenon, an offshoot of a society that seems to like everything from cars to meal portions larger than life? As we have been enjoying epic storytelling since the days of Homer, this, too, seems a bit of a stretch. Why, then, have film running times shot up to an average of two hours, making even The 40-Year-Old Virgin seem as long and involved as Beowulf?
A possible answer may lie in Tolkien's theory of escape. Considered the father of modern fantasy, Tolkien lived with one foot firmly in what he referred to as "the secondary world." Most people who bought the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings know this world as Middle Earth, a place of fantastic feats and microscopic attention to detail. In our own world, a place rife with terrorism, war and an ever-widening gulf between the upper and lower classes, the appeal of Middle Earth is easy to understand. The number of people who own copies of either Tolkien's literary trilogy or Peter Jackson's mammoth adaptation suggests a society eager to escape its woes. And nothing has ever been as tailor-made for escapism as the epic.
Epics, whether filmed or written, require a lot of world-building. Author Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to reconstruct the Old South of Gone with the Wind, lovingly and laboriously describing every detail from the train yard where the Confederate army housed their wounded to the bits of carpet a postwar Scarlett O'Hara used to patch up her shoes. The result of this attention to detail created one of the world's most vivid works of literature, a tome that has been translated into dozens of languages and served as the basis for one of the most successful film treatments ever made. Whether you read the book on the eve of World War II or saw the movie as an impressionable 10-year-old, the richness of Gone with the Wind was captivating, the struggles of its self-centered heroine undeniably compelling. Who doesn't want to escape to a realm where the world hinges on your personal decisions, where life is immediate and intense, and perseverance wins out over impossible odds?
It helps, of course, that epics are largely stories of heroes. As heavy-handed as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series has become, his characters' long soliloquies on the nature of heroism could well be describing the reason people seek entertainment in the first place. Like religion, a hero gives you something to believe in. And as epics are often huge retellings of the hero's quest, their appeal transcends culture, becoming a world mythology.
Epics like the Odyssey, Beowulf or even Braveheart are often the most satisfying, for their hero must undergo the most arduous of adventures. William Wallace, a common peasant, rallies Scotland against the tyrant Longshanks; Odysseus fights gods, sirens and monsters, all for the sake of a little dream called home. Though not all epic heroes represent the common folk, their motives--truth, justice, honesty--are still universally desired traits. And as cruel as Frodo's seemingly doomed quest is, who doesn't want to answer a call to adventure and stumble into saving the world?
The Epic Us
Scarlett O'Hara's rise from the ashes of war was more than inspiring--it was well-timed. To a society just recovering from the Depression, Miss Scarlett must have seemed quite the phoenix. Because of their universal themes, epics are often seen as a reflection of current society. Kubrick's Spartacus emerged just as the Civil Rights movement was heating up. Citizen Kane might have been a handbook for the meteoric rise of its era's biggest mogul, William Randolph Hearst (a theory still debated by Kane scholars). More than one critic has even drawn parallels between a "suicide bomber orc" in Jackson's Two Towers and the current situation in the Middle East.
With this in mind, then, what do our current epics say about us? The prognosis is telling, if not at all reassuring.
When Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien) set out to direct a movie about the Crusades, there was rejoicing among educated moviegoers everywhere. The Lord of the Rings had whet our appetite for big-budget, big-effects movies (as one friend of mine remarked, "It fills the empty place in my heart where Star Wars used to be"). After slogging through such early offerings as Coach Carter, Racing Stripes and Constantine, the time seemed right for 2005 to kick a little ass.
Kingdom of Heaven possessed scenes of incredible action, genuine feeling and the rewarding sight of the bad guy sitting ass backwards on an ass. It was also one of the most fair-minded, humane and dignified treatments of a period of history that was anything but. But while critics prepared for an edgy analogy of the Iraq War, Scott pulled the rug out from under them by portraying both sides of the Muslim/Christian conflict as decidedly noble and honor-bound. Images of severed heads and moments of implied rape seemed like scenes from another movie.
Was it wishful thinking? The decline into sentimentality of one of cinema's biggest bad boys? Or was it simply a cop-out in an era when everyone seems to be sticking her head in the sand? Audiences expecting the taut, politically driven hijinks of Gladiator went home with bald patches from scratching their heads. Scott might have done any number of things with such loaded material. Politeness wasn't one of them.
A good companion to Scott's religious-tolerance version of the Crusades was The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--another epic that promised excitement and delivered safety. Critics whined that it was too fraught with the religious overtones of its Tolkien buddy C. S. Lewis' source material. As Lewis' life and writings might have been the model for the bumper sticker "God Is My Co-Pilot," these complaints seemed rather moot. What really failed in the screen adaptation of Narnia was any sense of urgency, particularly to those who had read the books. Each plot point was ticked off one by one, director Andrew Adamson never risking fan ire by placing any sort of interpretation on the material.
This was typical of screen epics in 2005. Faced with war, sky-high oil prices and rising body counts, it seemed directors wanted to play things safe. This makes them typical--and for any storyteller, "typical" is the worst of all possible labels. Loyal fans of the original novel (myself included) may rant and rave about the deviations from plot in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, but unlike this year's crop of epics, his trilogy didn't obtain greatness by slavishly adhering to the safe path. Viewers think about The Lord of the Rings in a way they will never think about Kingdom of Heaven or Narnia, and will always wonder why Jackson made some characters darker or less willing to help the hobbits than they were in the books.
Scott and Adamson, Lucas and Spielberg have retreated behind the safe messages of tolerance, family, unity, and added the soul-lessness of special effects to achieve a thin substitute for human complexity and feeling (Revenge of the Sith, anyone?). Jackson, on the other hand, realizes that the best epics--indeed, the best stories of any kind--rely on constant conflict to maintain their impact. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jackson, whether dealing with a more sinister version of Tolkien's Galadriel or the poignant tragedy of the giant ape King Kong, realizes that we are living in a darker world.
Words, Words, Words
Fortunately, or unfortunately if you aren't inclined to the modern Heart of Darkness, there are still storytellers out there busily creating epics reflective of our times. The cinema may have tanked, but there's at least one author out there who knows how the epic works. Novelist George R. R. Martin has rightly been dubbed Tolkien's modern-day successor with his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, a soaring tapestry of vengeful dwarves, evil queens and heroes who not only face hard decisions, but who often and irrevocably die because of them (no Gandalf-like resurrections here).
Questions like "How do I maintain my honor in the face of a desperately corrupt political system?" are central to Martin's work, just as they are to our modern world. His battle scenes, rooted firmly in his study of Medieval history, meticulously inspect the damage done to body and soul, warrior and peasant, man and country. It is impossible to read him and not see disturbing parallels between his imagined world and our own.
Epics, however, don't rise and fall on their applicability to current headlines. A Song of Ice and Fire is, first and foremost, huge. There are dozens of characters, hundreds of locations and enough intertwining plot threads to make Tolstoy swoon. At our core, we all love spectacle, and from Martin to Kubrick the best epics are tales which balance the razzle-dazzle with the profound.
In this respect, epics are faring quite well on television. HBO's Rome pulled in decent ratings and favorable reviews, with critics applauding the shocking portrayal of toga-clad decadence and larger-than-life characters. The BBC's Bleak House, currently playing on Sundays at 9pm, stars a haunting Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock and a cast of talented British actors who bring Charles Dickens' drama of "corruption in the courts" to captivating life.
Keeping any Dickens plot intact is no mean feat, let alone Bleak House, with its tangled genealogy and even more tangled legal proceedings (the sorting of which make up the central drama), but directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White keep it all in focus with snappy editing and some truly remarkable performances. Anderson in particular deserves recognition for seamlessly inhabiting her doomed antiheroine. Anyone wishing to see an epic performance would do well to tune in. Her Lady Dedlock is the successor to Vivien Leigh's Anna Karenina; her tragedy, operatic in scope.
Elsewhere, reruns of previous BBC miniseries such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII (starring Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn) and Pride and Prejudice (starring the incomparable Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) continue to do well in both reruns and DVD sales, proving that characters need not wield swords to make something of resonance. There are also a number of religiously themed epics permeating the shelves of video stores. Paul the Apostle, The Gospel of John and Noah's Ark may not be everyone's epics of choice, but the surprising amount of effort involved in their production and the presence of such actors as the late great Richard Harris reveals that the love of large tales is alive and firmly kicking.
What then of our poor beleaguered screen? Tristan & Isolde is a snore-fest. Brokeback Mountain is critically acclaimed but, sadly, liable to offend the same audience members who made Braveheart a success. As is the case, I'll hang my hopes on two new movies, one by veteran Terrence Malick, the other by neophyte director Sofia Coppola. Malick's New World is controlled, elegant and everything star Colin Farrell's disastrous Alexander wasn't. And Coppola's upcoming Marie Antoinette, a Kirsten Dunst vehicle, promises to feature killer costumes (and a delicious lack thereof), an edge-of-the-terror setting and 18th-century hijinks with the music of New Order.
If that isn't epic, I don't know what is.
While the 2005 slate of films for Academy consideration may not register on the large scale, the parties celebrating them certainly do. This Sunday, March 5, is no exception. The Smith Rafael Film Center continues its annual 'Black Tie, Blue Jeans, Red Carpet' Oscar party with cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, dinner and a silent auction to benefit CFI Outreach. The festivities begin at 3:30pm. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. $100—$250. 415.383.5256, ext 130. New this year is the charity event at Seven Ultralounge, benefitting Variety Children's Charity of Northern California, a nonprofit serving Bay Area children. The event features a big-screen Oscar ceremony viewing, celebrity look-alikes, an auction, champagne and hors d'oeuvres, and begins at 5pm. $100—$125. Seven Ultralounge, 528 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. 707.528.4700. Meanwhile, the Sonoma Valley Film Society celebrates Oscar with a benefit evening of fun at the Sonoma Golf Club, beginning with cocktails and a movie-inspired silent auction followed by a four-course sit-down dinner. The elegance begins at 4pm. 17700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma. $250. 707.933.2600. In Napa, the party goes all 'Brokeback' for the 18th annual Napa Valley Awards benefit for the Napa-Solano Health Project. The least expensive of the night's activities, this party is held at the Barrel Room at the Vintage 1870, and features a costume contest, comestibles of all stripes, and DJ dancing after the telecast from 5pm. 6525 Washington St., Yountville. $25. 707.258.2437.
From the March 1-7, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2006 Metro Publishing Inc.