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Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film, edited by Michael Cornelius


“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.

Heteronormative fail.

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.

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Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter II: The Utopia of Greed


Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter II: The Utopia of Greed


Basil Exposition: Austin, the Cold War is over!
Austin Powers: Finally, those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh? Eh comrades? Eh?
Basil Exposition: Austin… we won.
Austin Powers: Oh, smashing, groovy, yay capitalism!

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

Reflections: I want to focus my attention on Richard Halley’s speech and an attempt to divine the concept of Art within the Objectivist ideology.  Furthermore, the speech can be read as Objectivist Camp, since, like the many speeches that pepper this tome, it can have unintended hilarity.  Any piece of art that takes solipsism and earnestness to such an exaggerated degree offers oodles of yuks for fans of Camp and Kitsch.  If the Matrix movies ushered us into the Desert of the Real, then Atlas Shrugged brings us the Keane paintings of neo-liberal economics.

A few questions before we proceed into the Hellmouth:

1. What is Art?  (Similarly, what is propaganda?)

2. Is interpretation a matter of free will?

3. Is Atlas Shrugged camp?

4. What is the difference between Objectivist fiction and Socialist Realism?

5. Are my individualistic reactions to this book simply another flavor of individualism, since following the philosophy of Objectivist groupthink involves sacrificing a degree of my individuality?

If you’re not an Objectivist, it’s probably because you’re a loser, loser!

She just wants to be pretty, popular, and rich.  That doesn’t make her shallow.

The famous composer Ayn Rand Richard Halley addresses Quinn Morgendorffer Sue Sylvester Ayn Rand Dagny Taggart in a speech that explains Objectivist philosophy in terms of art:

That is the payment I demand.  Not many can afford it.  I don’t mean your enjoyment, I don’t mean your emotion – emotions be damned! – I mean your understanding and the fact that your enjoyment was of the same nature as mine, that it came from the same source: from your intelligence, from the conscious judgment of a mind able to judge my work by the standard of the same values that went to write it – I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired.

Emotions be damned! An odd opinion for a composer to espouse, considering that non-verbal music (not opera or Frank Sinatra, etc.) works because it effects the listener on some emotional level.  This can be expanded to nearly ever medium of art (music, literature, film, etc.).  Effective, not necessarily great, art effects people on an emotional level.  One of the reasons Atlas Shrugged fails as art is because the reader is emotionally uninvolved with any of the characters.

9 out of 10 North Koreans like this poster for the same reason as the artist.

I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired.

Therefore, as per Objectivist philosophy, I shouldn’t let my emotions get involved with art appreciation.  Fair enough.  Now I have to appreciate said art in the same way as the composer/author/etc.?  What’s individualist about that?  I’ll appreciate Halley or Rand the way I want without some Cultural Commissar telling me what to think.  Go back to Russia, Halley!

Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: the inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes – which means: the capacity to perform a rational identification – which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.

A rational identification?  Really?  Objectivists probably don’t like the Surrealists, since that art movement openly catered to exploring the irrational and subconscious.  North Korean murals with heroes and machinery is far more preferable, since it is a rational identification with the proletariat.

Halley goes on a bit comparing artists to industrialists, saying artistic vision is similar the inventiveness of an industrialist.  Both require creativity and drive.  Advantage: Rand.

This, Miss Taggart, this sort of spirit, courage and love for truth – as against the sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic, because he’s an artist who hasn’t the faintest idea what his work is or means, he’s not restrained by such crude concepts as ‘being’ or ‘meaning,’ he’s the vehicle of higher mysteries, he doesn’t know how he created his work or why, it just came out of him spontaneously, like vomit from a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn’t stoop to thinking, he just felt it, all he has to do is feel – he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard!

Personal Reaction: I really loved this passage.  The novel went from being plain tedious to becoming So Bad It’s Good.  It was gloriously, shark-jumpingly camp-tastic!  I imagine hardcore Stalinists reading this passage to each other.  “First one who laughs drinks a shot!”  This passage, and Francisco’s previous monologue about drunken beatniks having more power than CEOs, makes this book unintentionally hilarious, in the same way the jovial Proletarian Heroes™ singing about their tractors in Socialist Realism films.  I was disappointed that Richard Halley didn’t kick Dagny down a bottomless pit and then shout, “FOR SPARTA!”

This, Miss Taggart, this sort of spirit, courage and love for truth – as against the sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic[.]

Rand accidentally describes herself, since the writing in this mess is sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.  Probably had her editors blacklisted for questioning her perfection.

Charlie Parker improvises during his songs.  What a moron!

because he’s an artist who hasn’t the faintest idea what his work is or means

Ergo, All Art Requires a Message.  Thus, Patch Adams is a much better work of art than, say, Inland Empire.  As the Dude would say, “That’s like your opinion, man.”  A piece of artwork with a clear message isn’t necessarily better than a work without one.  Not all art requires it operate on a didactic or educational level.  Agitprop needs a message to work, art doesn’t.  I’m sure there’s a Soviet poster that would correct my views.

he’s the vehicle of higher mysteries, he doesn’t know how he created his work or why

So is Halley saying he’s against improvisation?  Everything from jazz to ComedySportz to writing requires some level of spontaneity.  The Beat Movement espoused a more notorious philosophy, embracing “spontaneous prose” and the dictum “First thought, best thought.”  The fact that Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs are held in higher regard as writers than Ayn Rand is ironic and hilarious.

it just came out of him spontaneously, like vomit from a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn’t stoop to thinking, he just felt it, all he has to do is feel – he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard!

How can one even begin to take this seriously?  What began as a rational appraisal of the artist ends in a rant one usually finds in the Monty Python “Argument” sketch.

Mr Barnard (shouting) What do you want?

Man Well I was told outside …

Mr Barnard Don’t give me that you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!

Man What!

Mr Barnard Shut your festering gob you tit! Your type makes me puke! You vacuous toffee-nosed malodorous pervert!

Man Look! I came here for an argument.

Mr Barnard (calmly) Oh! I’m sorry, this is abuse.

Because Rand can’t hide her disgust at the opposition, she equates anyone who disagrees with her aesthetic philosophy as a vomit-spewing drunkard.  Sure, honey, like all those CEOs slugging back martinis back in the Fifties never chundered into the corporate restroom.  Girlfriend, please!  Well, in the book, the Objectivist Heroes are all muscular, whitebread, teetotaling, and austere.  Wonderful, a society full of Arnold Rimmers.

22. Considered a little less strictly, Camp is either completely naïve or else wholly conscious (when one plays at being campy).  An example of the latter: Wilde’s epigrams themselves.

“It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious.” – Lady Windemere’s Fan

23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.  Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp.  Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

24. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.  The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.  (“It’s too much,” “It’s too fantastic,” “It’s not to be believed,” the standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)

Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” [1964]

I’ll just leave you with this:

In 1934, the Union of Soviet Writers adopted the theory of Socialist Realism. Approved by Joseph Stalin, Nickolai Bukharin, Maxim Gorky and Andrey Zhdanov, the theory demanded that art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life. It stressed the need for the creative artist to serve the proletariat by being realistic, optimistic and heroic. The doctrine considered all forms of experimentalism as degenerate and pessimistic.

The doctrine of Socialist Realism was propagated by the union’s newspaper, The Literary Gazette. If writers rebelled against this policy their work was criticized in the newspaper. If writers did not conform, they were expelled from the union.

Emphasis added.

“Union of Soviet Writers,” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSwriters.htm

(8) Nikita Khrushchev was critical of Stalin’s cultural policies implemented by Andrey Zhdanov.

I think Stalin’s cultural policies, especially the cultural policies imposed on Leningrad through Zhdanov, were cruel and senseless. You can’t regulate the development of literature, art, and culture with a stick, or by barking orders. You can’t lay down a furrow and then harness all your artists to make sure they don’t deviate from the straight and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless.

Emphasis added.

“Rand did have an extremely unfortunate tendency to moralize in areas where moral judgments were irrelevant and unjustified. … especially in … aesthetics and sexuality.”

Arthur Silber