“We’re on the edges of our seats. Can the good white men of Athens withstand the authoritarian forces of women and brown people from Persia? … You’ll relish his nuanced representation of the Persians, who are thoroughly humanized when they put on their bondage outfits and golden chains…” – io9
Yes. It’s pretty much exactly like that.
This review of 300: Rise of an Empire on io9 is hilarious. Is it terrible of me to admit, though, that the neanderthal side of my brain wants to see this visually delicious, high-budget shlockfest, anyway? I want to throw popcorn at the screen while beating my chest. No joke.
Even though I know the history-scholar side of my brain will be curled into a screaming, fetal ball of horror in the back of my head throughout the film…
I don’t know how much of it is nature and how much of it is nurture, but there is a part of me that is wired to love submarines, explosions, gratuitous sex scenes, shambling hordes of hungry zombies (with, or without, Nazi outfits), and high-testerone, high-special-effects epics that make absolutely no sense in terms of their script or their representation of our history. These are my guilty pleasures: modern sword-and-sandal epics…
That said, the historian in me would love, love, to see more films that capture the drama, panache, and heartbreak of a more multifaceted take on history. That’s what I try to do, on paper (or e-ink) in The Zombie Bible: bring out the stories that are untold, that linger beneath all the bravado of our proclaimed history like ghostly remainders, like dead that won’t quite rest, unburied dead demanding our attention. All those “women and brown people,” for instance. Like the aging prophetess who led an army in Strangers in the Land, who has as much “face-time” in the Bible as Samson or Gideon or Noah, but whose story we choose rarely to tell. Or like the enslaved Canaanites, struggling to survive in a world in which their land and their own bodies have been made strange to them, a world in which the living, no less than the dead, will want to devour them…
(But since the neanderthal part of my brain also needs to be satisfied, there are also many gory, chop-them-up zombie scenes in my novels, too. It’s just that I don’t want to stop there. I want my readers to throw popcorn at the screen at appropriate moments, but I also want to make them cry. And remember.)
The machismo of the sword-and-sandal epic, whether in the sixties or in its modern 3D, IMAX version, distract us from the archaeological act that reading history actually is — the act of uncovering the stories that we have nearly forgotten, stories that can enchant us, move us, disturb us, and demand that we reconsider the edifices, the beliefs, and the buildings we have built on top of the graveyards and tombs of the slaughtered, the despoiled, and the forgotten. In wrestling not just with our founding fathers, heroes, noble ancestors, but with the moaning, suffering remnants of the never-quite-buried, we learn anew how to wrestle with the living. We remember that every foe we face has a history in which we, too, are implicated. We learn that every battle we fight comes with real costs — besides just those that we can (or are willing to) see. We learn that the story of the world in which we move is a complicated one, one that needs to be excavated with care, interpreted and reinterpreted, read and reread. That’s an important lesson that we have been unlearning.
Dear Hollywood, please do give us more over-the-top, high-budget, sword-fire-sex-explosion shlockfests, because the neanderthal side of my brain craves them. But please also give us more — many, many more — films doing serious historical storytelling. Because the other side of my brain is starved for them. It’s famished. It’s desperate. It’s churning out novels just to fill a big, gaping void. Give it something to eat!
Do not just leave us moviegoers as never-satisfied, moaning zombies, drawn to the rippling abs of your Spartan warriors and the wanton gasps of your warrior queens and the crack of Persian sails in the wind — as moths to a flame — only to be left afterward shambling about, dazed, unsure of who we or our ancestors actually are…
Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!
1 thought on “Guilty Pleasures”
Love your honesty here. I agree — there’s something in us that enjoys the spectacle. And yet, why stop asking for more history, more true stories? Why not both? Right there with you, Stant.