Circus Minimus

Circus Minimus

According to Gibbon, the emperor Commodus spent the early years of his reign “in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women and as many boys, of every rank and of every province.” Later, adding


According to Gibbon, the emperor Commodus spent the early years of his reign “in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women and as many boys, of every rank and of every province.” Later, adding bloodshed to his round of pleasures, he launched a career in murder, beginning with the dispatch of the usual senators, ministers and family members and continuing with the slaughter of beasts. Styling himself the Roman Hercules, he went as a performer into the amphitheater, where he cut down before the public a number of ostriches, a panther, a hundred lions, an elephant, a rhinoceros and a giraffe. He then entered the lists as a gladiator. Commodus fought 735 times and paid himself such a high fee for each appearance that a new tax had to be levied. No harm came to him in the arena, if only because he furnished his opponents with weapons of lead; so it was left to Marcia, his favorite concubine, to rid Rome of Commodus. One night, aided by a chamberlain and the Praetorian prefect, she admitted a professional wrestler to his bedchamber to strangle him as he lay in a drunken stupor.

I say there’s a movie here. Unfortunately, DreamWorks and Universal disagree with me, and so the public is stuck with Gladiator, one of those productions that betray their disarray by crediting three screenwriters, none of whom is Gibbon. Gladiator is the tale not of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) but of a disagreeably virtuous general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), who from the height of military honor is sold into slavery, made a gladiator and then elevated to the status of demagogue, all without relaxing his expression from a glower.

For its first half-hour, Gladiator consists of gloomy, sidelit close-ups of Crowe and a handful of other players, who by means of a relentless shot-countershot scheme are prevented from acting with one another. Worse still: While sitting for their portraits, they are made to worry at length about the future of Rome. Will it become a republic again? Will Commodus succeed white-maned Marcus Aurelius to the throne? And who the hell lugged all those statues into “Germania,” just to decorate Marcus’s field tent? The Germanians, if that’s what they’re called, interrupt the heavy sighs of Roman conversation by dying in battle. Orange flames from the imperial lines fly across the gloomy, blue-gray twilight into Germanian territory, giving the signal for slo-mo, strobe-mo and jitter-mo to ensue, until such time as expository dialogue may resume:

“In this hand, Caesar, I hold a shiny new quarter.”

“Strength and honor! Will you exchange it for a nickel and two dimes?”

“Where, in all the province of Zucchabar, does a parking meter accept–dimes?”

You heard me right: Zucchabar. After valiant, glowering Maximus has been stripped of his command, informed of the sure demise of his family and left for dead, he awakens into the Hollywood version of the Middle East: a place of mud-brick architecture and ululation, where stoop-shouldered, burnoose-clad merchants pass the days in sibilant larceny. Here, as it happens, Gladiator temporarily springs to life.

Having severed its few feeble ties to reality, the movie is free to become a backstage comedy. What is a gladiatorial contest, if not showbiz? What is the amphitheater in dusty Zucchabar, if not a stop on the bus-and-truck circuit? And who is Maximus’s new owner, Proximo (stately, plump Oliver Reed, done up in a turban and several tins’ worth of bronzing makeup), if not a two-bit producer trying to claw his way back to the big time? I do not interpret; I report the surface features of the movie, which include an instructive speech by Proximo about getting the audience onto your side.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, Commodus toys with a model of the Colosseum. Why should an emperor suffer the risks of real warfare, he asks, when he can mount a play war instead? The image shifts from Commodus’s toy to a different kind of model: a computer-generated picture of the Colosseum, into which we descend to view the first of the emperor’s games. It will be the re-enactment of a battle from the Second Punic War–in other words, a show about history, which stands in relation to the characters in Gladiator as Gladiator stands to us.

At this point, noting how the movie has collapsed into itself, cinephiles under the influence of too much caffeine might hallucinate a political vision. Doesn’t Gladiator lay bare the purpose of today’s media wars?

Well, no. In the first place, the movie is far too concerned with turning Maximus into a man on a white horse–again, I merely report surface details–who will restore Rome to democracy by becoming a dictator. (Of course, the minute he’s seized power, he will abdicate in favor of the Senate and retire to his country home–good little Cincinnatus, covered with blood and scars.) In the second place, the film’s satirical impulse twitches fitfully at best. Gladiator is no Wag the Dog. In lighter moments, it’s more like Sternberg’s 1928 The Last Command, in which an exiled Russian general winds up playing himself on a Hollywood lot.

I wish that Russell Crowe, as the Roman general remade into a showbiz soldier, had been granted the opportunities for sentiment and irony that Sternberg once offered his star, Emil Jannings. Most people assume that films of the silent era were crude and naïve compared with today’s movies; and yet for all the money and technology that were dumped into Gladiator, and for all the logistical skill of its director, Ridley Scott, this picture is a kazoo compared with the symphony orchestra that Sternberg conducted. Crowe is a wonderful actor, as you can see from The Insider, or even L.A. Confidential. Yet no one in charge of this film thought to allow him an emotion, other than a single-minded desire for revenge and an equally dull rectitude. Crowe gamely wears whatever costume he is given; he tromps around with his arms held out from his sides, like a tough soldier whose muscles ache. And that’s about all he can do under the circumstances, other than work his basso into ever more alarming registers. Some might say it’s a voice produced midway between diaphragm and testicles; others, that it sounds like a cement mixer that’s just stripped its gears. But neither organic nor mechanical similes will do. I must turn to geology: In Gladiator, having no other use for his energies, Crowe has made his voice sound like the grinding of tectonic plates.

Or maybe it’s just the grinding of teeth. What else could Crowe do, when asked to stand by impassively during “love scenes” with the film’s lone female figure, Connie Nielsen? It is the filmmakers’ conceit that Nielsen, as the emperor’s sister Lucilla, had a premarital fling with old Maximus. Now she is once more tantalizingly close to him and yet out of reach, in a ponderous subplot that turns her into a surrogate for the general’s dead wife, with her son completing the imaginary family. It’s a role that’s as thankless as it is forgettable; and Nielsen fades with it so thoroughly that you’d think she’d been born in a vat, from whatever stem cells they use to grow starlets.

Of course, if you go by Gibbon, members of the imperial household did not let such a small thing as marriage impede their sex lives. Lucilla’s mother had inspected most of Rome’s manhood for hernias; and who knows what Lucilla herself might have done, in a less duty-bound movie? But just as Gladiator denies you the bloodlust it advertises–scenes of carnage, in both field and amphitheater, are programmatically chopped into blurry fragments–so too does it withhold the elements of hotcha that were always a chief pleasure of the sword-and-sandal picture. Like its hero, the film is solemnly pious; and though Christianity this time is noticeably missing from Hollywood’s Rome, the sense of morality oppresses as never before.

It needn’t have been this way. Even within Gladiator, lurid entertainments are present, though concealed. I have it on good authority that the late Oliver Reed bore on the head of his penis a tattoo in the form of a dragon’s claw. I mention this adornment only to point out that the tide of life, though doubtless lower now than in the days of Commodus, has not ebbed entirely. Why couldn’t Reed have given more of himself to this movie? (He died during the making of Gladiator, perhaps from the strain of being changed into a virtuous character.) Why couldn’t Russell Crowe have been freed to act? And when will a producer haul a bag of money to Winnipeg, so that Guy Maddin can have his shot at reviving the sword-and-sandal epic? So far as I know, Maddin hasn’t brought out a picture since Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, whose title alone should tell you how well he could adapt Gibbon.

Let’s decline and fall again real soon.

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