“Hercules! Table for eight!” one of the bots says on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The feature ripe for riffage stars Steve Reeves, has sub-par dubbing, and copious shots of Reeve’s chiseled torso. Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film explores the history, interpretation, and sexual politics of the sword and sandal film. Michael Cornelius editorial acumen brings together numerous academic essays focusing on this particular film genre. The first set of essays focus on the sword and sandal film (also known as the peplum, the name of the short skirt-like garment wore by the muscle-bound heroes). These essays investigate the peplum film’s development and history. The second set of essays focus on specific pop cultural products in the peplum genre, ranging from film to TV series to animation and parody. The essay collection functions simultaneously as a précis and a convergence of numerous disciplines (film history, gender studies, pop culture studies, classical studies, literary theory, and others). One can hope to see a more thorough investigation of the peplum genre that build off this initial essay anthology, either in the form of monographs or a tighter anthology refracted through one of the various aforementioned disciplines.
This Barthesian excursion into a much-maligned genre seeks to revivify it through reconnections with its classical roots and older waves of peplum films. The genre originated in Italy with the Maciste films (one even had proto-fascist poet and adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio as a screenwriter), being a modification of the “strong man” film genre. The connection to d’Annunzio is further complicated by the Second Wave peplum films, those produced in the Fifties and Sixties with American bodybuilders as the “Hercules” figures and financed by Italian production companies. (Also those routinely skewered by MST 3K.) Maria Elena D’Amelio’s essay “Hercules, Politics, and Movies” posits that American stars and Italian funding helped viewers negotiate with the Fascist past. As evidenced by plots involving the musclebound hero liberate an oppressed populace from a tyrant. The peplum hero also works in a similar way to American Westerns, in that the liberator does not become the ruler, only as a means to restore the political status quo. While Westerns have the White Hat Hero riding off into the sunset, the peplum usually has the hero heading back to his farm and reuniting with his wife and child.
On a similar note, several essays explore the problematic sexual politics of the peplum film. The most notorious film, the recently released 300, had obvious heterosexual cheerleading and made the villains into gay caricatures. (As one blogger snarkily put it, turning Xerxes’s armies into “a gay pride parade from Mordor.”) Another essay, by way of counterexample, explores the intentionally problematic sexual politics of Pasolini’s Medea. Pasolini received short shrift from contemporary film critics because of his status as a gay Catholic Communist filmmaker and poet. The connection between heroic heterosexuality and conservative politics makes 300 a popular film among American conservatives, but also, predictably, at least given the clockwork-like predictability of Republican gay sex scandals, one of the most unintentionally gay films released in recent years. However, film fandom operates in strange ways, perhaps giving rise to a resurgent gay fandom for 300. The film’s ham-fisted sexual politics beg for audience mockery and derision.
The author is a child of the Eighties and grew up playing with and watching the Masters of the Universe TV series. Michael Cornelius writes an essay finding parallels between the Masters of the Universe franchise and the gay clone subculture (e.g. The Village People, Tom of Finland).
In an overall worthy collection, it is the final essay that disappoints. Daniel O’Brien’s essay investigating The Three Stooges Meet Hercules in terms of parody within the pepla genre fails not in content, but in execution. The serious tone of academic writing clashes with the film’s comedic content. Visual gags and the crazy plot get explained, but the ill fit occurs when O’Brien’s prose belabors the obvious. Understanding parody and burlesque is instrumental in understanding the pepla genre, since it is another aspect of pepla’s multifaceted nature. In the end, this reviewer kept uttering the phrase, “Well, duh,” while reading O’Brien’s anodyne explanations.
Despite the final essay’s shortcomings, Of Muscles and Men offers a variety of analyses into the pepla genre and its attendant pop cultural significances and problematic sexual politics.
Warning: This is not a traditional movie review, but an exploration of politics and pop culture within the Hunger Games movie universe. Spoilers ahead!
“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” – Guy Debord
Hunger Games fever is sweeping the nation! Catch it! The film adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), focuses on the story of Katniss Everdeen, a coal miner’s daughter from District 12. Through an act of selflessness, she volunteers to go in her sister’s place to the 74th Annual Hunger Games. At the Hunger Games, children between the ages of 12 to 18 fight to the death in front of a national audience.
While this represents only the bare bones of the plot, the film itself offers a unique take on the collisions of politics and pop culture. The nation of Panem had a nasty civil war where the poorer outlying districts fought against the richer central districts. When hostilities ceased, a Truce was signed. The Truce stipulated that two young children be selected from each district to fight to the death. (A nostalgic film is played on a massive public screen in District 12. This commemorative film eerily echoes Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia(1938) with its chiseled heroic youths holding swords and striking sculptural poses.) The process by which the children are drafted is named The Reaping, a term with agricultural and religious connotations. During the opening text crawl, it is explained that the Reaping and Hunger Games are “penance” the former rebellious districts must pay to the victorious districts.
Susanne Collins vision is fascinating because she shows how a political ideology transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. After 74 years, what was once a weighty political ritual has become an empty sports spectacle, complete with sponsors, an opening ceremony, and betting. Gary Ross is a nice fit for director, since his previous effort, Pleasantville, offers an analogous situation, with Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon trying to escape, then eventually trying to liberate, an entirely mediated space. The Tributes fight in a similar mediated space, since personnel associated with the Head Gamemaker can easily manipulate its environment.
Akin to the modern-day Olympics, the Hunger Games seeks to depoliticize a painful political event. Instead of killing each other for political or territorial control, the contestants kill each other in order to become victorious. Prior to the actual game, the draftees are treated as media superstars, each getting interviewed by the Emcee Caesar Flickerman.
The Hunger Games offers a fascinating blend of right- and left-wing authoritarianisms. Like North Korea or Nazi Germany, there is mass spectacle. Everyone watches the Games, the same way everyone listens to Big Brother’s instructions via television in Orwell’s 1984. The economic gap between the districts has echoes of France’s ancien regime and the Occupy movement’s nefarious 1%. The wealthy districts has a dolled-up citizenry with facepaint, make-up, and outrageous hairstyles. (Cf. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s futuristic costuming in the Fifth Element). The film is to be commended for making Elizabeth Banks ugly (she plays Effie Trinket). Not ugly in the sense of Quasimodo or someone with physical deformities, but someone whose artificiality, arrogance, and unawareness make her simply vulgar. The largest breach of decorum with her is not the televised murder or economic chasm between district, but “manners!” In the end, manners are rituals and codes one must follow in a certain socioeconomic group. Katniss is a threat to Panem, not because of her adept archery skills, but because her intelligence bespeaks a knowledge of codebreaking. She is victorious as both a tenacious fighter and one who “games the system.” (We live in an age where school shootings are commonplace, alongside stories of teenagers hacking formidable computer programs. No wonder this movie and novel trilogy speaks to so many young people.)
As the games hit their dramatic peak, someone from a wealthy district kills Rue, a young girl from District 11. This causes a riot in District 8 that boils over into other districts, creating a tense political situation. During the ensuing debacle, President Snow talks with the Gamemaker, saying to the effect that “a little hope is good, but too much hope is dangerous. Contain it.” When I first heard those lines, I recalled last year’s Arab Spring. For too long, the United States has spooned out hope in tiny portions to the peoples of the Middle East. The United States would make constant promises about freedom and liberty, and then simultaneously prop up brutal dictatorships because of either their natural resources or their geopolitical position associated with the Cold War and/or War on Terror. The Arab Spring was something the United States could not control and it scared us as much as an Osama bin Laden videotape. One recalls how the United States simultaneously talked about supporting freedom yet made constant associations between Arab Spring protesters and Al-Qaeda. Freedom and liberty are fine, control and commodities are more preferable.
It is not often that a Young Adult novel can so presciently capture the zeitgeist and offer up such lacerating commentary on our brutal, hyper-mediated culture.
Discovered this wonderful fake whiskey ad on Youtube.
Note: Bushmillls is not endorsed by Protestants.