Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"GLADIATOR": A Reflection

I’ve just been reading Bruce Sterling’s very basic and direct list of eighteen things that are making conventional publishing difficult if not obsolete. Sterling comes from the world of cyberpunk and Wired where he has a blog, or did. This list is quite brilliant, not at all exhaustive, and worth an essay for every point. (see http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/)

But it doesn’t really address what a writer/creator/artist/photographer does internally -- that doesn’t change from one art form to another. I’ve been fascinated to work with Barrus, who doesn’t flinch away from any of this stuff and yet is quite old-fashioned, almost child-like, in the same way that Bruce Sterling and his “culture” are. I take Ridley Scott to be in some way part of this same context, even though the movie I’ve most recently seen (and seen and seen and seen) is "Gladiator.” If there is a genre called “Steampunk” -- which Sterling addresses -- then what do we call "Gladiator,” which has a cyber-aspect all displaced into the production where it consumed the energy of a major team? The story is based on one stubborn expert (in war, not computers -- I’ve only this year understood that the strategy of clustering warriors under a canopy of adjacent shields is move with a name that helped the Romans win against Germania, who were un-disciplined in that sense). Is it “chariotpunk”? Caesarpunk? Battlepunk?

Quite a bit of the team's attention was given to avoiding cliches from the Fifties Roman spectacles, what I call “Victor Mature” spectacles. He also impersonated a lot of 19th century Indians. I think we go to these two periods to understand our own times, trying to figure out heroes, specifically. “In Search of Dignity” by David Brooks in the NYTimes today suggests that “the old dignity code that George Washington once followed has not survived modern life.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/07/opinion/07brooks.html?th&emc=th ) One could sort the good guys in this movie, not by their hats, but by their dignity level. The worse the guy, the more undignified.

The real kernel and key in terms of creation, says Ridley Scott himself, has nothing to do with genre or technology, but rather are formed between the environment and the physiology, which meets the world with its senses and constructs as much as derives a “world view.” This happens very early, possibly before birth, and certainly by age three or four. Very bad deficits are possible in both the growing brain/mind and in the tragic world. Some can never be repaired or conpensated for and the coldest view is that beyond a certain level of damage, the individual should be discarded. If we meet individuals who are very impressive or bring us to high levels of achievement, we build them into our internal systems. Something is happening to take Russell Crowe’s inner system as a person to undignified behavior, but not Ridley Scott’s.

The achieving artist/author/etc. will probably not have been very damaged, because that would deny access to meaning or “means” to express that meaning, nor are they likely to have a receiver of meaning. We don’t know what their “meaning world” might be like. (On the H-list about animals, people are arguing about whether Temple Grandin can really understand a cow’s mind because she is autistic.) But part of the protective smoke screen around any artist trying to deflect interference might be the appearance of being undignified and out-of-control. So we don’t know whether Russell Crowe the actor is really acting badly, or just presenting that appearance to back people off.

An artist/author/director is someone who can work with layers: the actual narrative plus the issues of how that should be represented, ordered, modulated, emphasized, and otherwise realized. This is vividly shown when the CGI people demonstrate their "layers" of fantasy. Some people do this quite consciously, making lists and talking it out, and trying little models or doing research. Others trust their subconscious mind (which is probably multiple in what it does) and simply accept the product, as though it were a dream. Still others delegate a few layers to others.

For "Gladiator", a great deal of the controlling image (which can be more helpful than a written statement because it carries more information) was from Victorian Romantic paintings from that other period fascinated by the Roman gladiators. Carefully researched and beautifully excecuted, these paintings strikingly narrated the scenes and were posted on the walls by the teams, both as resources for building and clothing and for ideas about lighting and composition, which combined well with Scott’s habitual vision of scale, darkness, light shafts and unexpected angles. (There were no industrial fans this time -- maybe the catapults are the equivalent.)

I’ve been watching all the versions of “"Gladiator"” and the interviews about how the effects were achieved. Two major efforts on effects were dropped despite their power. The titles were actually cast in bronze, a beautiful font photographed with dust blowing over the letters, but it took too long. A sequence with a rhinoceros in the Coliseum was just too much, better suited for a comic book. (Er, graphic novel? What is a storyboard but a graphic novel?)

The most remarkable aspect of this movie is that although Ridley Scott had the concept and a “plot starter” from historical incident, the script was only about a fifth done when the cast began to shoot. When the actors, who were very powerful and emotional people, found this out, they panicked and tried to take control, each owning their own parts and, to some degree, the whole plot structure. Scott was able to tolerate this, use it, develop it, and eventually meld it into something far more compelling than it would have been had a true auteur insisted on only his own vision. I love this idea of development by process. It’s not for the faint-hearted. He didn’t shut them out or throw them out or replace them -- he drew them in.

Just previous to "Gladiator" and in nearly the same filming location (Malta) Scott had shot “White Squall,” which has a similar hero-and-loyal-followers-meet-catastrophe structure, except that instead of tigers the danger comes from fire hoses in a huge water tank to simulate a deadly sea squall. It has none of the depth or darkness of "Gladiator". Of course, the period of the sea story is the conformist end of the Fifties and the Caesars are merely domineering fathers, but I suspect that some of the problem was an obedient young cast working from a complete script. The risk, ambiguity, and unknown outcome of the larger film took it to another place entirely.


Whisky Prajer said...

I didn't think there was much of significance to say about Gladiator. I'm happy to be proven wrong. Quite an exhilarating read, Mary.

Roheryn said...

Thank you for a new slant on my favorite movie , Gladiator.

“The worse the guy, the more undignified.”
“Something is happening to take Russell Crowe’s inner system as a person to undignified behavior, but not Ridley Scott’s.”
May I point out that Scott is currently working on his fifth film with Crowe? I don’t get the impression that Scott is doing so under duress !
With regard to your comment on Crowe, I’m sorry that you seem to have bought into a tabloid view of him. I would argue that the reverse, in fact is happening to him. Yes, there was the infamous Mercer hotel incident, which I am sure no true fan of his has excused. In actual fact he admitted it was the most shameful thing he had ever done, sought a lot of counseling with his local pastor (now the Bishop of Melbourne) at home in Australia, and has actually emerged, in my opinion, a better man for it. His two young children have also served to ground him immensely. The truth is that there have been no “incidents” of “undignified behaviour” around Crowe for more than four years either on or off set. What I find strange and fascinating is how easily other Hollywood stars (ie Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Downey Jr.) are forgiven much worse behavior. My theory about that is that, being Australian, he is perceived as an “outsider’.
His appearances on TV shows like Leno and Martha are relaxed, funny and charming. He owns a rugby team in Sydney and has expanded the team’s social commitment to their local supporters as role models with regard to furthering education. He is actively involved in several conservation schemes both on his own ranch and further afield and used a publicity appearance on Letterman for his latest movie as a means of support for the Steve Irwin memorial national park in northern Queensland against mining interests. He has donated his services for drought relief appeals. And he was instrumental in February in volunteering to work behind the scenes by calling in Hollywood friends to front an international broadcast appeal that raised $25 million for victims of Victoria brush fires .He launched, as well, his own local appeal. (see http://www.nbntv.com.au/index.php/2009/02/13/russell-crowe-launches-coffs-fire-appeal/ ) But of course none of this is of any interest whatsoever to tabloids.

I find it ironic that you find Gladiator successful largely due to the fact that the actors wished to “own” and develop their characters in the way they felt was truest. This is very clear from Crowe’s and Scott’s movie commentaries. It is due in part to this protectiveness of his character that Crowe has gained a reputation as a “bad boy” (probably originally emanating from the studio suits who found him less than flexible in his view of Maximus’ marital fidelity !) but it is also that very quality that makes him a superlative actor who inhabits his roles so completely.
Gladiator is a true classic film which is still a top seller today, nine years after its initial release.

prairie mary said...

Roheryn, I just deleted your accidental repetition of the post. No problem.

Ridley Scott has said again and again that he enjoys working with people who have fire and opinions. Evidently he really means it! But also the burdens on actors are pretty heavy. I'd be inclined for forgive them quite a lot.

Prairie Mary