Sunday, April 08, 2007

Historythology: Modern Myth-Making and the Westernization of Western History

NOTE: This Boast is particularly long.


Robert Wuhl produced a funny though relatively useless program for HBO called Assume the Position. What his program does is go to a college classroom to teach students "the stories that made America and the stories that America made up," calling it history. And they are indeed quips from history, but what he divulges to his students is merely trivia: the story behind the song "Yankee Doodle," the misunderstanding of Benedict Arnold, and the truth behind Renaissance clothing, for starters. The position he assumes is that pop culture becomes history, facts and truth do not. Though the show doesn't delve deep into the subject other than pointing out idiosyncrasies of documented history, the mission is admirable because I would say the biggest thing that historians have to deal with is discovering whether what they think is history is legitimate and trustworthy or if, in fact, it is myth.

Most of us would like to believe that the blemishing of current event recordings is lost, since we, as an enlightened and modern civilization, care only of accuracy. Such unsullied documentation gives us the ammo we need upon deciding to opine. If the recorded events are biased and untrue then any defense of our analysis would immediately fall apart. But I still think a befouling is occurring today, though I'm not going to comment upon current news items; that task is left for tomorrow's historians.

I operate under the assumption that behind a myth or other fantastic cultural story there lies a basic historical truth, minute it may be. It just makes sense. We use that logic when dealing with the Old Testament. Sure we don't believe that Moses necessarily parted the sea, but I think we can't have confidence in denying there was probably a dude named Moses and he most likely did great things for his people. Maybe he freed Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, maybe not, but he probably led his people away from an oppression. We just don't know the details. Why? Because it happened a long time ago and that information was just forgotten behind time's fog as well as further oppression of cultures, wars, new religions, their wars, disease, dark ages, and the constantly changing ownership of western civilizations.

Throughout all these changes in the world the stories are also changed to satiate the wants of a culture, whether socially or spiritually. The knightly romance was birthed in the royal courts of medieval France and England to soothe the lack of a true feminine voice and masculine appreciation as the Queens and their ladies were cooped up inside castle walls. Knights were brutes that were suddenly fresh-faced and yearned to only serve, in chastity, his one and only Lady. He lived to earn her spiritual love, not fleshly, which was the antithesis to the behavior of what most knights of the time exhibited. A British cleric named Wace included King Arthur in his seminal volume, History of the Kings of Britain. England was looking for its connection to antiquity, the lost civilization of Rome, and Wace's book does so, bypassing its Norman and French lineage completely. Apparently, the first British king came directly from Rome. This gave the people of England a sense of place and importance when, in fact, they had none.

Though it is through the eyes of entertainment, Shakespeare, with his works, did the same thing, saturating histories to convey a certain theme and as a result of his power and longevity our sensibilities toward certain historical figures and events are marked by his pen. When we think of Julius Caesar, we normally think of him as an older man, minutes away from twenty-three stabs and "Et tu, Brute?" The Bard revealed his inner cacophobe with his invented ugliness of King Richard III. The thing is that history was intentionally modified because its story, usually the basic story of the myth/legend/historical fact, was a common knowledge platform from which the audience could leap into thematic bliss with the dramaturge's intentions.

With that in mind, what's the deal with 300?


I think a lot of reviewers over-investigated the director's intentions with this film, and many others sell this thing short. I think some have even taken it way out of context. Take a gander through any interview with Zack Snyder, director of 300, and you will find a guy that uses the word "awesome" more than once in a discussion.

But this doesn't detract from what the movie is, and it is indeed "awesome" in the sense of a kid growing up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well as being a work that fills the viewer with awe, but of a specific kind.

Whatever people are picking it apart for--modern political connotations, historical inaccuracies, general stupidity, themes of homosexuality/homophobia--their assumptions are startlingly false because they are the type that are looking for what they found. That can be done with everything. I think any honest analysis on a work of art or literature must first take into account the artist's intent. The mission statement from Snyder is all too clear:

"I was just trying to get Frank [Miller]'s book made into a movie."

or how about from this interview:

"[Q]: So would you say that was your goal for the film? To make Frank [Miller]'s vision come alive?"
"ZS: Yeah. Absolutely."

What he's talking about, if one isn't privy (surprisingly, this fact wasn't mentioned in some reviews), this movie is a filmed version of a 1998 comic book miniseries called 300. This is the same Frank Miller whose other graphic novel series, Sin City, was made into an equally stylized filmic adventure. Like Sin City's director, Robert Rodriguez, Zack Snyder found it would be difficult to translate Miller's work to the screen because of Miller's unique approach to visual design. It is decidedly not realistic but almost, and it is that almost which has inspired the creative passions of Rodriguez and Snyder. Miller's comics are works of art, he puts a lot of thought into the imagery of each panel of each page. From that he wants to extract the highest amount of theme and emotion as he can, much like we hear of poets poring over each word in a line, of a writer and his sentence, of an architect and his foundation. Snyder recognized this, idolized it, and decided--for some reason--that these pictures need to be moving.

I was asked by a friend how I liked 300 upon exiting the theater the first time I saw the film. I was thinking about this before I was asked and the only answer was that I guess I liked it, but I didn't need to see it because I had read the graphic novel. And if you see the movie, you probably don't need to read the book. There were things added to the story for the film that weren't really necessary (the video game-like "end bosses," for instance; all the goofy monster-looking people except for the hunchback weren't in the book at all) and really stuck out from the narrative if you were familiar with the book (the story of Gorgo and the senate was interesting, but felt markedly different from the rest of the movie, but in an uncomfortable way). But I was more bothered by how each form of Miller's story made the other moot.

And like any good epic tale, this is where the circle comes together. People are attacking the film because they don't know about the book. Perhaps because of the film, people don't need to know about the book. But because of the success of the film, people are taking it seriously as what Snyder himself refers to as an "historical film." Despite the scathing remarks the film garnered, it didn't stop people from going, and, judging by the numbers, from returning. This means the populace is ignoring the critics' attacks based on politics, personal vendettas, and snobbery. What that leaves is the attacks based on history.

I don't fault the film because of its historical inaccuracies (while I'm here: there were far more indentured-servant/non-citizens of Sparta than free Spartans; Sparta ruled under two kings at a time; they wore armor; sexual relations with boys was almost expected under certain circumstances, however adult homosexual relations were frowned upon; etc.), because I know where it came from and, furthermore, I know where that story came from. But this recognition of influences is not being stressed with the movie's release, and I'm worried that people are walking away from this fine but flawed movie with some sort of historical confidence.

Sure, the basics are there, but with each incarnation the truth seems to float farther and farther away. By this movie's account, the battle at Thermopylae has been reduced two basic opponents and famous quotes. But Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans that fought between those hot gates were more than that. They were fighting for Greece in desperation, to inspire one of the first and greatest unifications of a western civilization that motivated the rest of history. But this history is being forced off the cliffs instead of the Persians, to make way for gleaming muscles and spectacular fight scenes, for beautifully stormy backgrounds and an ending that will make you more than ever want to stand up and fight for what you believe in. That's what myths and legends are supposed to do. But when we have the history, one of the few instances from our ancient civilizations, are we to sacrifice that for the sake of making our damaged modern culture feel better about itself? Should it be whittled down to artistic integrity so that more tickets can be sold? Should it be relegated to a DVD featurette?

They took a king that lived in flesh and blood and twisted him into a King Arthur figure, dying for love like a medieval Arthurian romance. Arthur as king is the standard up to which we hold our leaders, the man that we want. But Leonidas was not that, and we shouldn't expect him to be. His culture may have been different from ours but it was what helped Greece to defeat the Persians and made Greece the first powerful European civilization. The Romans came from their ideal. The United Kingdom came from their ideal. The United States of America came from that ideal.

You may have to color me morose, but I'll be the first to inform you that the color is Spartan Crimson.