“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.
Short answer: Why not?
Long answer: The reason I’m investigating Warhammer 40K mostly stems from my own biography. As an 80s pre-teen, I enjoyed the pop culture of the time, especially if it was on TV and involved robots, vehicles, and weapons. Transformers, Voltron, and GI Joe were my favorites. (Although I owned a number of GI Joe toys, the TV show remained anathema in the house.)
I’m not sure when it happened or where, but it was probably a hobby shop somewhere in (possibly?) South Milwaukee area. While the store had the usual hobby store staples – trains, models, kites, etc. – what caught my wasn’t a model car or a Lionel product, it was the Citadel Miniatures catalogs of 1991. (And yes, I still have them.) The monsters, demons, soldiers, and armored vehicles really hooked me. In the terms of museology, I had a case of poeisia, the Greek term for wonder and awe. In the end, my dad ordered not a miniature or model, but the catalog itself.
Besides the Citadel Miniatures catalogs, I also found a copy of Rogue Trader. The illustrations, the hyper-dystopian mythology, and the ultraviolence appealed to my baser instincts. Only recently have I discovered my copy, falling apart as it is, remains a collector’s item in high demand.
Rogue Trader, the Dune Encyclopedia, and the Star Wars VHS trilogy (pre-Lucas meddling) form a constellation of precious pop culture commodities I value as one would a saint’s bone. Given the crypto-religious tone in Warhammer 40K, a reliquary for my Rogue Trader 1st edition doesn’t seem inappropriate at all.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s: I’m in the thicket of a grad school public history program. (What is public history? Short answer: The program you take when you don’t want to become a history professor.) Grad school in the humanities involves lots of reading. Lots and lots of reading. Footnotes, Foucault references, using the words “discourse” and “space” in a sentence. Heady, intellectual stuff, occasionally interspersed with writing as dense as a uranium milkshake. I don’t regret a minute of it.
I preserved my sanity by rediscovering Warhammer 40K, this time in the omnibus editions of the Black Library novels I found in the local Barnes & Noble. The hook occurred with the first sentences of Ian Watson’s magisterial trilogy The Inquisition Wars. Now considered non-canon, it remains one of the best Warhammer 40K novels I’ve ever read.
The omnibus opens with a short story entitled “The Alien Beast Within.” It concerns an Imperial Assassin infiltrating a cabal of Genestealers. Pretty standard stuff in terms of space opera and military science fiction. While the plot didn’t stand out, the language did. Watson wrote the story in a gaudy pop decadence, a delicious fantasy reincarnation of French Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans. Here are a few opening lines:
THE GIANT EXERCISE wheel accelerated yet again while Meh’Lindi raced, caged within it. The machine towered two hundred metres high, under a fan-vaulted roof. Shafts of light, of blood-red and cyanotic blue and bilious green, beamed through tracery windows which themselves revolved kaleidoscopically. Chains of brass amulets dangling from the rotating spokes of the wheel clashed and clanged deafeningly like berserk bells as they whirled around.
I read on, blissed out on the verbal pyrotechnics. Here is Watson’s description of the God-Emperor’s Palace on Terra in the novel Draco(1990; 2002):
IF VIEWED FROM low orbit through the foul atmosphere, the continent-spanning palace was a concatenation of copulating, jewelstudded tortoise shells erupting into ornate monoliths, pyramids, and ziggurats kilometres high, pocked by landing pads, prickling with masts of antennae and weapons batteries. Whole cities were mere chambers in this palace, some grimly splendid, others despicable and deadly, and all crusted with the accretion of the ages.
Following the Inquisition Wars, I read the Eisenhorn omnibus written by the impossibly prolific Dan Abnett. The trilogy follows the eponymous Imperial Inquisitor and his rag-tag entourage across worlds. What makes Eisenhorn different from the usual Black Library volume is it spends most of the time amongst the ordinary and everyday in the grim 41st millennium. It was a nice re-introduction into this world. Both Inquisition Wars and Eisenhorn are excellent gateway volumes for those interested in the Warhammer 40K universe.
One final note: I don’t play Warhammer 40K. First, from the prohibitive pricing of just about everything in their inventory makes it financially detrimental to start an army. Second, I don’t know many players who live in my area. On the other hand, I continue to enjoy reading the novels and browsing the catalogs online.
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter X: In the Name of the Best Within US
Pages: 1147 – 1168
Summary: Dagny, Hank, and Ragnar break into the secret facility and save John Galt. Dagny confronts a guard and gives him a philosophical ultimatum. At least that’s what Rand probably intended. Unfortunately, it comes across like yet another dogmatic Abbot and Costello routine.
After saving John Galt, they fly back to Galt’s Gulch. Kay Ludlow reads Aristotle, Judge Narragansett works on rewriting the Constitution, and Hank and Francisco discuss the creation of new locomotives and the high rates Dagny will charge. (Women, am I right?)
Finally, John Galt prepares the path to re-enter the “outside world” by drawing a dollar sign on the desolate ground.
Lest we forget, Eddie Willers got stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere. After numerous frustrations, he says the titular line of the chapter amidst yet another hissy fit.
Reflections: It’s been a long turgid road, but we finally made it. We finished Atlas Shrugged before it finished us. There’s not much to say except that this was the most overrated piece of garbage since The Phantom Menace. At least the Phantom Menace had a pod race and a decent light saber battle. If anything, Atlas Shrugged works as a primer of how not to write a novel. Even leaving aside Rand’s childish philosophy and her bloated ego, the novel is entirely lacking in characterization and drama. One needs those things in novel writing if the novelist doesn’t want to put the reader to sleep.
The philosophy itself is a failed attempt at cod-Nietzscheanism: Galt as the heroic Übermensch beyond the ken of ordinary looter morality; ferociously anti-democratic; and achingly nostalgic for Greco-Roman classical ideals. (I would compare Ayn Rand to Leni Riefenstahl, Nazi propagandist and filmmaker, except that Riefenstahl had talent.) In the end, Objectivism comes across like a gilded Satanism. Like Satanism, Objectivism fuels a hackneyed rebelliousness. Extolling the virtues of greed and selfishness may sound badass at first blush, but this is just worshipping gold instead of Satan. (At least professed Satanists like Marilyn Manson have talent.)
Objectivism is as badass as Pat Boone donning a leather jacket and doing Metallica covers. George Carlin puts it another way. On the topic of feminism, he states, “Changing your name isn’t a radical act. Castrating a man in a parking lot is a radical act.” When one owns media conglomerates, has Congressional leaders in their pocket, and possesses extreme wealth, it is rather silly having one think of oneself as a rebel.
In the end, what Atlas Shrugged needed was a good editor … or two.
Finally, the calls for freedom and personal pleasure eventually lead to things like Dave Foley’s “Groovy Teacher.”
If Objectivism is about anything, it’s about doing heroin and having affairs with 18 year olds, or very mature 17 year olds. That would explain the behavior of Silvio Berlusconi and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
The band Karma Rocket from the TV series Party Down sings their hit “My Struggle,” voicing the pain and anguish of Objectivists in their struggle to act like greedy selfish babies. What better way to end an analysis of this horrendous book?
- “Calmly and impersonally, she, who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.” Makes me think of that Austrian vegetarian and animal lover who had serious deficiencies in people skills.
- “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade …” Good to know Objectivists are in favor of slavery, child pornography, and heroin trafficking. If it’s what the market demands …
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter IX: The Generator
Pages: 1126 – 1146
Summary: And now … torture! John Galt, having refused the entreaties of shyster hooligan Mr. Thompson, gets stripped and strapped to Dr. Ferris’s electrical contraption. The torture is horrendous until the machine breaks and the idiot operating it doesn’t know how to fix it.
In other news, Dr. Robert Stadler heads back to Iowa where the Xylophone is under control of effeminate fascist goofball Cuffy Meigs. Words are exchanged, a melee ensues, and KA-BOOM!
Reflections: The torture scene comes across as dramatically puzzling and unintentionally funny. What kind of sociopath tortures for laughs? Oh, right …
The humor in the scene throws a giant monkey-wrench into the narrative’s tone. Granted, the electrical apparatus breaking down proves Rand’s point, but to use the phrase of libertarians, “at what cost”? Galt, the muscular genius hero guy, gets tortured by fat looter morons. What’s so dramatic about that? The characters, such broad caricatures of humanity, sap the scene of momentum and give it all the depth of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Hell, Rocky and Bullwinkle had better plotting, better characterization, and better jokes than this banal horseshit.
The only real explanation for this nutty scene is Rand needed to make John Galt into the book’s Christ Figure. A rather odd thing considering Rand’s rabid atheism, although not that odd since cults of personality adopt the liturgical features of religion to suit the star’s egomania. (Yet another similarity Ms. Rosenbaum shares with Uncle Joe.)
Compare this to the torture scene in 1984, written by British Socialist George Orwell. In the novel, dissident functionary Winston Smith faces torture from O’Brien. Winston thought O’Brien was also rebelling against Big Brother, when in actuality O’Brien belonged to the Inner Party. Unlike the rotund dimwits in Atlas Shrugged, O’Brien uses a rat-cage that he attaches to Winston’s face. No electricity involved. It’s sustainable and has a small carbon footprint. It’s also effective as hell. Perhaps Mr. Thompson had difficulty attaining rat-cage-face-masks from Airstrip One, considering the United States is in transportation crisis in the novel?
In the end, Winston confesses and thus, 1984 becomes tragedy. Dr. Ferris’s shenanigans just seem idiotic, especially since it is in aid of making John Galt their Economic Dictator and solving all their problems. It’s a scene diametrically opposed to that of 1984. 1984 is a critically acclaimed novel that attained its rightful place in the Western Canon, easily making 100 Best lists without breaking a sweat. Atlas Shrugged, on the other hands, required market manipulation by hordes of crackpot cultists buying books in bulk in a facetious attempt at popularity. That’s just sad. But so is having the inability to break the $2 million dollar mark on opening weekend and coming in at a lame-ass #14. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Blake challenges the real estate salesmen to “Always Be Closing.” Second place is a set of steak knives, third prize is your fired! What’s 14th?
Like the Left Behind series, Atlas Shrugged isn’t literature for the ages, it’s only appeal lies with a sliver of the population that buys into its nutjob theories and infantile views of economics. In a word: marginal. Here’s another one: Inconsequential.
Call me anything you want, Objectivists. I’ll make sure to have a couch handy for you to jump on.
One chapter left and we’re done with this overwrought literary abortion. Huzzah!
- “There was nothing beyond the lighted strip but the emptiness of the prairies of Iowa.”
- “He [Cuffy Meigs] wore a tight, semi-military tunic and leather leggings; the flesh of his neck bulged over the edge of his collar; his black curls were matted with sweat.” Jeremy Clarkson?
- “We want ideas – or else!”
- “Had enough?” snarled Ferris, when the current went off. “Yes, end this book NOW! Oh, you were talking to John Galt.”
- “Don’t kill him! Don’t dare kill him! If he dies, we die!” Whew, good thing somebody explained the stakes in the scene or I wouldn’t have understood what was going in. Way to not insult the intelligence of your readers, Ayn.
- “Galt burst out laughing.”
- “Galt was watching them; his glance was too austerely perceptive.” Or if someone with actual talent rewrote the sentence: “Galt watched them; he perceived them with a muscular austerity.” Seriously, Ayn, use the money you made from The Fountainhead and take some creative writing courses at Columbia or the New School or something. Your utter lack of talent is repellent, lazy, and childish. “I’m here on a mission of mercy. If it was up to me, I’d fire your fucking ass.”
“You do not become an author just by using the language to call a cabinet minister unfit for office.”
“There are writers who can express in a mere twenty pages things I sometimes need two whole lines for.”
Karl Kraus (1874 – 1936)
Reflections: The nature of fictional storytelling requires emotional and narrative pay-offs. Starting with John Galt’s speech, Atlas Shrugged moves into the dénouement. This is where all the deck-stacking and intellectual dishonesty of Rand’s project reveal the flaws and fractures within her attempted “philosophy.”
While all the characters get shuffled into place, John Galt prepares to escape the clutches of the evil looters. The looters, in their idiotic desperation, call for John Galt’s help. The tables are turned and the looters are revealed as having a bankrupt philosophy.
When Galt is finally detained by Thompson’s men in a section of the Wayne-Falkland Hotel brimming with military men, Galt still refuses to help. Despite Galt’s two-hour speech, Mr. Thompson still doesn’t get it.
In this exchange between Galt and Thompson, we get to the essence of Atlas Shrugged, the very nubbin for why it exists in the first place.
“Okay, I’ll tell you. You want me to become Economic Dictator?” [Galt]
“And you’ll obey any order I give?”
“Then start by abolishing all income taxes.”
“Oh, no!” screamed Mr. Thompson, leaping to his feet. “We couldn’t do that! That’s … that’s not the field of production. That’s the field of distribution. How would we pay government employees?”
“Fire your government employees.”
“Oh, no! That’s politics! That’s not economics! You can’t interfere with politics! You can’t have everything!”
Galt crossed his legs on the hassock, stretching himself more comfortably in the brocaded armchair. “Want to continue this discussion? Or do you get the point?”
Do you hear that? It’s the sound of a balloon deflating. This alleged confrontation distills the philosophies of both camps, yet it’s so … so … anticlimactic. Galt is so perfect, smart, and heroic; Thompson is so conniving, weak, and contradictory. It is the immovable Idealist versus the unstoppable force of the Looter Hordes.
Narrative sterility aside, the essence of Objectivism is now revealed as Rand’s distaste for the income tax. The fucking income tax! I read over one thousand pages for this! Seriously! (I feel like James Taggart, all exclamation points and apoplexy.) Nevertheless, let’s take a step back, since I don’t want to give myself an aneurysm, least of all for this book.
Like anyone who has had to pay taxes, I understand the resentment and hatred people level at the Internal Revenue Service. Money earned through hard work, etc. But to write a 1100 page book against the injustice of the income tax is sort of silly. Like building a cathedral to why Justin Bieber sucks. It’s ridiculous and rather petty. Added to this is the Randroid perception that this is the Greatest Novel of All Time. (It would be, if you’ve never read any other book. One would also think it the Greatest Novel of All Time as a natural and logical opinion. Don’t worry, Objectivists, Scientologists hold the same opinion about Battlefield Earth. They’re both good at buying in bulk and rigging literature polls. But Objectivism is totally, totally not a cult. ***Stifled laughter***)
The trick is buying the books in bulk. Also works when selling subprime mortgages as loans.
Ironically, Rand’s philosophical novel resembles the logorrhea of Dave Sim, except Sim has talent as a comic book artist. Ayn Rand (neé Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum) is just another paranoid megalomaniac who changed her name to sound tougher to her adversaries. Wait a second … paranoid megalomaniac … name change … sounds a lot like this guy.
“Complain about the income tax all you want, I’ll be pummeling the Nazis into a slurry and sending the first man into space … with the occasional famine and purge. Have to think of the bottom line in all this. It’s not personal, it’s business.”
To adapt Stalin’s quote to the parlance of our time, “One unemployed person is a tragedy, a million unemployed people is a statistic.”
Well, after twenty years and twenty million dollars of his own money, film producer and Galtian superman John Aglialoro finally dragged Atlas Shrugged: Part One into theaters three weeks ago, to a shower of critical brickbats and universal audience indifference. Now, Aglialoro is whining that politically biased film critics poisoned the market with their non-Objective reviews that harped on such minor issues as laughable CGI effects, wooden performances, and a screenplay comprised almost entirely of discussions of metallurgy and corporate governance. In response, this titan of cinema and gym equipment manufacturing is threating to deprive the world of the two sequels no one was asking for. Some churlish sorts might claim that the free market has spoken, but that would ignore the tyrannical, market-perverting power of Todd McCarthy from the Hollywood Reporter.
Part III: Chapter VIII: The Egotist
I Blow Minds.
After John Galt’s speech melts the airwaves, the looter elite at the Wayne-Falkland lose their collective shit. They bicker and freak out until Mr. Thompson declares that Galt is just the man to right the listing ship of state. It turns out Mr. Thompson is a pragmatist above all, and willing to overlook all of Galt’s windy “theory” in order to exploit his clearly singular mind. So the government starts a campaign to find Galt and give him the power of economic dictator. Meanwhile, Galt’s incendiary rhetoric and the continual collapse of the economy lead to an upsurge of violence across the country, as the people strike back against government goons and their civilian lackeys.
After trying to lure Galt out of hiding with strategic loud-speaker begging, the government finally nabs him by following Dagny to his apartment in New York. Of course, he’d been hiding in plain sight as a common laborer at Taggart Transcontinental, with his own apartment filled with a hidden science lab. As soon as Galt sees Dagny, he knows that the feds are just behind, so he makes her swear that she’ll disavow him when they come. If Thompson and company think that Galt cares for Dagny, they’ll threaten to harm her if he doesn’t help keep their failing system afloat. Heavily armed guards so up, Dagny points an accusing finger at Galt, and he’s spirited away to the Wayne-Falkland, but not before his lab self-destructs.
Across a starving land, government buildings burn as looters and home-grown militias vie for power. In New York, a parade of luminaries try to talk John Galt into taking over economic planning. Mr. Thompson offers riches and power, Dr. Ferris threatens to euthanize everyone over 60 years old, and Dr. Stadler just blubbers all over the place. All the while, Galt holds fast against these entreaties: if they order him to sit at a desk that says “ECONOMIC DICATOR,” he’ll do it, but they can’t force him to think for them.
Dagny plays her part as a new convert to Mr. Thompson’s expedient vision and, in order to make sure that the government doesn’t just kill Galt, advises the Head of State that Galt can be convinced, given enough incentive and time. Thompson attempts to force Galt’s hand by holding a massive dinner at, where else, the Wayne-Falkland to announce Galt’s cooperation and the creation of the John Galt Plan. On the night of the event, Dagny watches the assembled reptiles smarm their way around the dais, giving windy, contradictory speeches before Galt’s final remarks. In front of a national television audience, Galt jukes out of the way long enough for everyone to see that his ‘secretary’ has a gun pointed at him, and says directly into the camera, “Get the hell out of my way!”
Reflections: Wait, are there really less than a hundred pages left? Praise Xenu! There IS light at the end of the tunnel! I’ve honestly forgotten that there was a time in my life when I wasn’t reading this book. Who is president? Have we landed on Mars yet? What’s with these young people and their saggy pants and raps music?
“‘That wasn’t real, was it?’ said Mr. Thompson.” That head of state never misses a trick.
“The attendants of a hospital in Illinois showed no astonishment when a man was brought in, beaten up by his elder brother, who had supported him all his life: the younger man had screamed at the older, accusing him of selfishness and greed–just as the attendants of a hospital in New York City showed no astonishment at the case of a woman who came in with a fractured jaw: she had been slapped in the face by a total stranger, who had heard her ordering her five-year-old son to give his best toy to the children of neighbors.” So apparently the looter method of coercion through guilt-trips is giving way to the Galtian ethic of random violence. Incidentally, that ‘best toys to the neighbor kids’ vignette is a reference to the primal scene of Ayn Rand’s philosophical development. Apparently, her parents made a similar demand of her when they were living in Russia. Needless to say, she never got over it.
“‘I will perform any motion you order me to perform. If you order me to move into the office of an Economic Dictator, I’ll move into it. If you order me to sit at a desk, I will sit at it. If you order me to issue a directive, I will issue the directive you order me to issue.’
‘Oh, but I don’t know what directives to issue!’
There was a long pause.
‘Well?’ said Galt. ‘What are your orders?’
‘I want you to save the economy of the country!’
‘I don’t know how to save it.’
‘I want you to find a way!’
‘I don’t know how to find it.’
‘I want you to think!’
‘How will your gun make me do that, Mr. Thompson?'” Physical assaults and passive aggression, the two mightiest weapons in the Objectivist arsenal, apparently.
“‘The John Galt Plan,’ Wesley Mouch was saying, ‘will reconcile all conflicts. It will protect the property of the rich and give a greater share to the poor. It will cut down the burden of your taxes and provide you with more government benefits. It will lower prices and raise wages. It will give more freedom to the individual and strengthen the bonds of collective obligations. It will combine the efficiency of free enterprise with the of a planned economy.'” Alright, Ayn, that’s a pretty good distillation of the sort of political rhetoric that has led to record deficits, record spending, and all-time low income tax rates.