The first movie that Kim wanted to watch was a film named "Centurion." Historical epics aren't really my thing.... especially historical epics involving Romans. You see, it sometimes appears to my eyes that modern-day directors, eager to separate their epics from the rather genteel toga films of the sixties, have decided to inject AS MUCH SEXY SEX AND BLOODY BLOOD VIOLENCE INTO THEIR MOVIES AS POSSIBLE. Of course I realize that the Romans were not pictures of restraint 2,000 years ago (they were rather famous for the opposite) but really.... if you are to go by the dialogue of HBO series like "Rome" or movies like "Centurion" as something resembling historical accuracy one wonders how the gits managed to ever find the time to pull their heads out from between their legs and conquer the entirety of continental Europe. And Britain.
"Well, that that is why the empire fell eventually..." Some scholars may respond, "Everybody became so debauched that nobody wanted to check on the bearded savages in provinces... and thus fell Caesar and his successors."
Nevertheless sometimes the endless stream of sexual whoopsy coming from the characters of 21st century Roman dramas seems a bit forced... as if producers are banking on the fact that western viewers often equate frank sexual talk in historical dramas with some sort of gritty realism. It's like hiding mediocre meat under a massive amount of tangy sauce. Subjecting viewers to yet more rough, gruff, graphic sex talk among the soldiers will hide the historical gaps and chinks whistling between the words. I mean, seriously... the fact that most actors in "Rome" were forced to wear merkins (pubic wigs... I had to google that) to hide their Brazilian waxes can't help but leave one a bit suspicious about the wealth of salacious visual details on display. "Yeah, we have Scippio Africanus whistling a Beatles tune in this scene but look! More sex!"
Actually I am being needlessly nasty with that last snark. The series "Rome" is accurate enough in terms of historical veracity once the characters stop referring to sex every five minutes in a jarringly 21st century manner. It is, however, hard to get past that second part at times. Perhaps the most ridiculous and anachronistic sexually-themed conversation was one that took place between two soldiers: a mid-level officer who is trying to win back the affections of his emotionally distant wife and a lowly foot soldier who is far more experienced (apparently) than his military superior when it comes to matters of the .... heart, I suppose. He enlightens his lovesick companion by revealing the secret of the clitoris. "She will come back to you," the foot soldier says, "Remember, when making love, that there is a little button right at the top of her cunny. Attend to this and she will open up like a flower." Excuse me? I don't think even 21st century soldiers are fond of discussing among themselves about the right and gentlemanly way to pleasure their ladies. I am sure that not one infantryman of Caesar had such a conversation two thousand years ago. Roman officers more likely regarded their wives as little more than possessions... just a notch above their slaves. "Attend to what? Why? Fuck that whore if she chooses to act cold. Perhaps she should be thrown to the Picts if she thinks her situation here is so bad." That sounds a bit more accurate.... and yes, Roman soldiers may very well have used the word "fuck." Obscenities have a surprisingly long lineage.
Kim and I watched "Rome" to the point where a lost patrol of soldiers, seperated from their regiment and arguing about the safest way to return to Rome (and even if Rome is a safe place at the moment), happen across another party of soldiers.
"What regiment are you?" asks the party to the lost patrol.
The patrol hesitates. There is currently a civil war going on in Rome. The patrol is part of a regiment that is allied with Sulla who is currently fighting Julius Caesar. If the party is from a Caesarian regiment then the patrol will be slaughtered immediately (they are outnumbered) but the patrol are obliged to answer anyway. "We are from the 14th regiment of optimates general Sulla"
"Is that so?" asks the party leader, "Well, Fortune spreads her legs for you my friend. Sulla has just taken Rome."
To think that of all the metaphors available for saying "You're in luck" the only one the screenplay chose to give the decanus was the most sexually graphic expression possible rather made me roll my eyes. It was as if the scriptwriters were saying "Please don't pay attention to how drastically we've condensed the timeline here or how badly we've garbled the political motivations of the optimates or how we are not really quite sure who the optimates were exactly.... look! Sex! Gritty sex... so you know this really warts-n-all accurate."
Anyway this is why I was not so thrilled when Kim brought home a movie called "Centurion." Oh joy, more togas and pubic hair. Fortune had certainly crossed her legs for me. Once Kim started the movie however, I agreed to give it a chance. It helped that the opening credits opened onto an absolutely beautiful landscape of harsh, snow-clad mountains and austere ice fields... an amazing, frightening realm upon which nothing would ever grow. It was fantastic, like maybe what Northern Alaska or 90 percent of Iceland looks like. Plus "Centurion" stars an actor named "Fassbender" and frankly "Fassbender" is such an awesome name that I'll watch anything with the name "Fassbender" on the cast list.
"Centurion" did indeed manage to tone down the raunchiness to a realistic level. The featured Roman regiment in the moment- desperate soldiers fighting raids from the Angles while sheltering in relatively primitive garrisons along the Empire's border- does indeed involve some rough sex talk ("She must be a good scout to find your cock Quintus!") but it's nothing that you wouldn't hear among any group of men isolated from women for a long period of time. It's realistic. The producers of "Centurion," however, are obviously champing at the bit to not have their historical epic be identified in any way that is "dusty" or "prim" or "Merchant and Ivory-esque." This is an understandable wish. One of the most amusing movie reviews I have ever read was of the film: "Jefferson in Paris." The reviewer started out (and I paraphrase) with this: "It would be hard to make a story that is rife with forbidden love and political intrigue boring! In 'Jefferson in Paris' Thomas Jefferson grapples with his lust for the slave Sally Hemmings whilst seeking to fuel the nascent American revolution with European funds. To make this juicy historical tidbit dull would be a practically miraculous feat of movie-making... and yet Merchant and Ivory pulls it off!" That, my friends, is fantastic writing. I remember it to this day so I can understand the occasional overindulgence in sex and violence by today's historical epic film makers as they seek to dodge the stigma of being dull.
If one wishes for a counter-argument against the complaint that modern historical dramas have too much sex in them nowadays one need only watch the stodgy Korean historical dramas that often gum up the KBS channel's programming. An hour of that can make a person become quite wistful for over-sexed American historical dramas. Korean historical dramas (generally) are restrained to the point of unintentional hilarity when it comes to matters of sex. What makes this all the more amusing is the fact that most of these dramas' plots center around marriages between kingdoms, the birth of sons, the dangers of infertility, the greater dangers of ignoring bastards to the throne etc. etc..... all issues that have their roots in the sexual act. Let's take, for example, the many interweaving plots of the Korean historical drama "Iron Queen,".... a soap concerning the multiple conspiracies to seize ruling power in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty (The Goryeo dynasty, by the way, was the ruling family in Korea about 800 years ago and it's how we Westerners got the word "Korea." Koreans call their own country "Hanguk.")The Empress Dowager of the Goryeo dynasty is fed-up with her son- the current Emperor- and his seeming inability to even impregnate his wife let alone produce a male heir to the thrown. The Empress Dowager decides to sleep with the Lord Chamberlain (who is secretly working against her) and becomes pregnant with a second royal heir. The Emperor, humiliated by his own mother over his inability to bring forth a child, retreats deeper into depression and drink while the Empress stares off into the distance like Elizabeth Taylor in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Meanwhile the chief courtesan of the Emperor (a tool for a counter-conspiracy working against both the Goryeo family and the Lord Chamberlain) grows similarly dis-satisfied with the Emperor's low sexual appetites and bribes a co-conspirator to pose as her brother and thus gain access to her private chambers. The child of an Emperor and his chief courtesan has the same legitimacy to the throne as a child between an Emperor and an Empress. When the chief courtesan becomes pregnant she claims the fetus is the Emperor's but her plot is sniffed out and she is executed. The leaders of the counter-conspiracy thrash about at lose ends and, in a desperate last bid to gain control of the Emperor, gambles that his low sexual interest stems from hidden homosexual urges. The conspiracy leaders place a beautiful young man as a courtier in the Emperor's court and order the ethereal Ganymede to seduce the tormented young regent. To their surprise the plot is a roaring success and the Emperor and courtier begin a torrid affair that almost brings down the entire dynasty until the Empress Dowager, a day after giving birth to a healthy son, dons her armor and rides out to meet the twin armies of the Lord Chamberlain and the Mongol-allied counter-conspirators where.... well, I stopped watching after that but take it from me that between the affairs, pseudo-incest, forbidden gay sex and general bad behavior it's all very juicy. Rather, it WOULD be very juicy if we got to see any of these shenanigans. Instead, hilariously, all this sex is only mentioned through very delicate and polite dialogue. All sexual behavior takes place off-screen while on-screen the ladies don't show so much as a collarbone under their lavish, tent-like hanbok robes and the men convey their lust by merely staring incessantly without laying so much as a finger on their objects of desire. Even the discovery of the affair between the Emperor and courtier is done in an astonishingly innocent way with both men being caught in bed... sleeping... about five yards apart.... with only their faces peaking above the richly decorated bedspread. Hardly "Brokeback Mountain" at all.
Kim is fond of these turgid historical dramas despite the fact that I continually make fun of them. When a counter-conspirator tries to hamstring the Lord Chamberlain's ambitions by secretly slipping the Empress Dowager an "aborticent" ... only to have the medicine in question exchanged with poison by a second counter-conspirator there is much hand-wringing. "The medicine was just supposed to cause a miscarriage, not a murder! Now the Empress Dowager's taster is dead! How could you?!"
I scratched my head. "Was 13th century Goryeo health care so good that there was an active difference between miscarriage-causing drugs and straightforward poisons?" I asked Kim, "I mean, surely health care back then was just: 'Take this. If it doesn't kill you then it'll probably cause a miscarriage.' I mean, why is the poor potion-peddler getting a verbal hiding here?"
"Shh, quiet," Kim said, "Watching movie."
I was quiet for a little while but then I asked: "Why does everybody look so beautiful here? I mean, all the ladies' make-up is extraordinary, everybody has all their teeth and the silk costumes are in such vivid neon colors that it boggles the mind. Was silk-dying technology so advanced back in the Goryeo dynasty?"
"Shh..." Kim said.
Again I tried to watch, and again I had more questions. "Why does simply seeing two men sleeping together automatically suggest homosexuality here? I mean, homosexuality was so little known back then that people of the same gender slept together platonically all the time for companionship. They still do that here in the Mongolian countryside. I mean, seeing the Emperor so chastely asleep with his courtier would have drawn no attention back then... just 'I suppose the Emperor spent the night chatting with So-Hung again.'"
"Shh..." Kim said again.
Again I tried to watch, I really did. I said nothing for thirty minutes. Finally, I asked: "Why does the Lord Chamberlain look like Captain Jack Sparrow?"
We never finished watching "Iron Queen," but I began to see the charms of vulgarity when it came to historical movie dramas.
"Centurion" does deserve credit for keeping the sex to a relatively low level but that is not saying much since, as the film continues, it becomes clear that the producers have sublimated their sex-lust for blood lust. The violence of "Centurion" is lavish and ridiculous. We're talking pre-Spiderman Sam Raimi ridiculous. As I watched the movie with Kim I realized that the film makers had decided that the human body was not a complex machine of muscle, bone and sinew but instead a mobile sack of sloshy, splashy blood held together by a thin skin of boiled albumin.
Every scene in "Centurion" seemed to involve somebody swinging a sword and somebody else's arm/head/half of a head/leg/spleen dropping off with a fountain of purplish blood and the unfortunate crumpling to the ground dead. I couldn't help but think that- if this movie is accurate- the smithery of the Romans is indeed a lost art since I don't believe our own blades or even surgical instruments today can inflict such one-swipe-you're-dead blows. Maybe an industrial sandblaster can... but I'm not sure. I should think that the fragile, flaw-riddled swords of the Romans would have acted more like sharpish metal sticks than the ginsu cutlery of "Centurion." They'd have been capable of killing people, sure, but it would have taken a lot of blows and the person on the losing end would more likely have died from internal trauma with minimal bleeding than a gush of purplish blood.
Unfortunately from then on, despite the awesome icy landscapes and the delicious knowledge that there was a "Fassbender" in the cast, "Centurion" continued to irk me. Maybe it was the way that the eyeliner-wearing Pictish scout judged the direction the Roman patrols needed to go by blowing sand into the wind (believable enough) and then slitting open her palm and watching the ways the blood droplets fell (what?? There was no neosporin in those days! People avoided deliberately inflicting open wounds on themselves for all the normal reasons plus the fact that large cuts= infections and lost limbs in those days. No exotic lass from a foreign tribe would deliberately cut herself for such a stupid reason no matter how cool it looked!)
But the final blow, as it were, came when the Picts (who look for all the world like Klingons in "Centurion" with their long beards and high foreheads with viciously-pointed hairlines) attacked a Roman camp. One Pict, while still riding his horse, grabbed a Roman soldier who was on foot. The Pict urged his horse into a full gallop and rammed the poor soldier into a tree. The soldier, ridiculously, explodes in a splash of grape juice and ground beef. A horse in prime condition can hit speeds of 45 mph (like with "merkin" that is another fact I had to Google) and while I do not doubt that a human being can die if rammed into a tree at that speed the death would most likely be from internal injury and not from some ecstatic explosion of gore.
The fact of the matter is that anybody who has actually seen a herder saw through the stiff trachea of a goat and then sweat for over an hour as he goes through the genuinely hard work of adequately gutting the beast knows that we mammals are tougher to chop to bits than people suppose. There is a lot of hard sinew, muscle, bone and general gristle to get through before a human is adequately dismembered. You may kill us, kill our freedom, kill our spirit, kill our faith, kill our hope.... but actually sawing through us may take an hour or two. Not very inspiring, I know, but it's nice to believe that nature hasn't made it THAT easy for our enemies to carve us up into a roast.
At this point in the film I drifted off to sleep while Kim continued to watch. I would occasionally hear the miked spurts of blood, the screams of agony, the hysterical yells of "Go! Go! Go!" and the urgent revving of the car engine as people escaped from invading forces. At this point I realized that, unless "Centurion" had shed all points of historical accuracy in a way that would have made Monty Python blush, Kim had switched films. I woke up enough to ask what we were watching. "'Barrow,'" Kim replied, "Alaska, zombie film."
Intrigued, I woke up enough to catch the ending portion of the film. Kim was technically wrong about the species of monster employed in "30 Days of Night." In the small, beleaguered hamlet of Barrow, Alaska a group of desperate, parka-wearing residents were sheltering from vampires, not zombies, while waiting for the sun to return. Still it was easy to see why Kim had been mistaken... the vampires in "30DON" looked very much like zombies. They screeched in inhuman ways and looked like rotten, bloody corpses who could (and often did) transmit their zombie/vampire virus instantly through their bites. But they also were fairly intelligent and could speak to each other... and here I believe the movie makers may have short-circuited themselves in making the movie monsters genuinely scary. It is a generally accepted fact among horror enthusiasts that vampires succeed because they exploit our subconscious fear of sex while zombies succeed because they exploit our not-so-subconscious fear of death. Vampires, while technically dead, are very much alive when it comes to their methods of seduction. Almost all vampire attacks in literature feature male predatory figures preying on female figures.... and the female figures usually only give a token resistance at best. Female vampires are rare and usually under the sway of male vampire figures (Dracula's brides) or in control of women in a clearly sapphic way ("Camilla"). Vampires were repulsed by Christian religious imagery since religious and sexual fear have been entwined in the Western mind since time immemorial. As a society, however, our fear of sex disappeared with opera capes. Vampires (creatures of the night!!!!) consequently have lost almost all of their horror. After Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer these creatures- even more hyper-sexualized than ever- only retain enough their edge to shock Mom when we bring them home for dinner.
It's easy to see why death is scary, far easier to see than to see why sex is scary. Personally I believe that the subconscious fear of sex may be linked to the fear of death since only until the last century childbirth was the leading cause of death for women and birth control almost unheard of in legitimate society. Consequently every woman instinctively knew that every sexual encounter she had was one which could very well lead to her painful death in eight-to-nine months time.... and every man knew that there was a good chance he could indirectly kill a woman through a sexual encounter.
But to go on, it is easy to see why zombies are scary. Zombies are scary because they are dead.... not vampire dead but actually dead. Zombies are ambulatory and hungry but they are merely the shuffling shells of the former living. They have no souls, no minds, no internal mental spark that could identify them as anything more than the diseased flesh of what was once those whom we knew and loved... and if they bite us we too will disappear. It is genuinely horrifying because it is sad and- as J.R.R. Tolkien would put it- subtle enough to be more applicable than directly analogous to what happens in real life.
But, as with "30 Days of Night," the zombie-ish creatures possess enough presence of mind to actually talk and plan together then all bets are off. You don't have scary zombies in that situation but a bunch of less-scary boogeymen. These vampire-zombies look like rotting corpses so they can't really exploit our fear of sexuality (if we have any left) and they talk so they're not really dead... so they can't really exploit our fear of death.
Finally, after the exhausting work of hearing me nitpick zombie and vampire movies, Kim went on a Jack-a-thon by watching all 8 seasons of "24." I watched them on-and-off with him. Kim quite enjoyed "24," as did I though I did have some small problems. "I know nobody sleeps during these 24-hour periods which is realistic enough during crisis situations but how come nobody eats either? I mean, does anybody send out a CTU intern for pizza? Does Jack Bauer ever swing by a McDonalds on the way to interrogate a suspect? I mean, how can someone maintain such high-energy activities without having a meal or even scarfing an Energy Bar within the last 24 hours? It's not realistic."
"Shut up," Kim said.