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Tony Grist

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Epic [Oct. 3rd, 2005|10:21 am]
Tony Grist
The epic is a Bronze Age art form. It comes out of a society where people were organised in small units- only one step on from tribes- and ruled by warrior elites.

The guys at the top of the heap were heroes. That's how they thought of themselves. And what they wanted to hear about were the exploits of other heroes (preferably ones they counted as ancestors.) Ordinary people barely exist in epic. They are ants, there to make up numbers, and to form a circle so the heroes can duel in the centre.

Carrying this art form over into the modern world is tricky. Society- or at least our view of society- is rather more complex. We don't have heroes the way they had heroes.

Which is why, I think, most epic movies are so unsatisfactory.

Hero (ha ha)- the Chinese epic that came out a couple of years ago- solves the problem by extreme stylisation. This isn't the real past, it's a mythical past. The film accepts the Bronze Age world view and puts it up there on screen without criticism or irony.

Lord of the Rings attempts something similar. If it's less successful it's because Peter Jackson isn't half so good a director as Yimou Zhang.

The average Hollywood epic goes for compromise. There's usually an attempt to insert a hero of Bronze Age forthrightness into a world that is conceived, in modern terms, as being at least moderately complex. In Gladiator, for example, our single-minded military hero chops his way through a corrupt and cruel world towards a confrontation in the arena with the Emperor himself- and I don't believe a frame of it. In societies as complex as Imperial Rome really was there are structures in place to contain and restrict heroism and make sure that pugs with a grudge don't ever get a shot at the main title.

The best epics are those in which the hero is properly integrated into his society. Hero achieves this by giving us a society of heroic simplicity. My pick as best Hollywood epic of all time- El Cid- does it by making the mismatch between the hero and his society the very pivot on which the drama turns. A man who truly believes in the Christian chivalric ideals comes up against a king who only pretends he does. Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is a misfit, a magnificent lost cause, with a whiff (only a whiff) of quixotic absurdity about him. Heroism, instead of being a given, becomes the thing at issue. It is put on trial and tested and indulged when useful then sent on its way with a tear.
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Comments:
From: bodhibird
2005-10-03 11:45 am (UTC)
What kinds of movies--or genres in other forms of storytelling, such as novels and television--would represent our society, in your opinion, and the real challenges people face? If epics don't work, heroes don't work, the old warrior ethos doesn't work, for whom are stories told now, films made, and who should they be about? I ask because you are far more knowledgeable about film than I.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-10-03 03:13 pm (UTC)
Well, there are plenty of genres that work for us- the thriller, the romance, the police procedural, science fiction, fantasy, horror...

I'm not saying that the epic is impossible, only that we find it very hard to get it right. There are several epics I consider successful- El Cid, Spartacus, Hero....

But what we find much easier and more natural is the kind of film that looks like an epic but isn't. I'm thinking of Dr Zhivago, with its hapless lovers wandering at large through the chaos of the Russian revolution, or Saving Private Ryan with its schoolmaster hero who fights the good fight in spite of being reduced to a jittery bag of nerves. Films like these- anti-epics if you like- which ask pertinent questions about history, war and the nature of courage, are very much the sort of thing we need....
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From: philtration
2005-10-03 10:52 pm (UTC)
I agree. I would add the last Emperor to the list. No “Brave Heart” type battle scenes or one man saving the world from tyranny. Just the story of a man thrown into a world not of his choice and how he became a prisoner of that very world which no longer existed out side of the walls of the forbidden city.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-10-04 01:25 am (UTC)
Yes, I agree.

There are lots of films that fall into this category-

Ganhdi
Lawrence of Arabia
Andrei Rublev
the Seven Samurai....

I could go on and on......
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[User Picture]From: cataptromancer
2005-10-04 05:17 am (UTC)
What about Eumaios in the odyssey?
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-10-04 06:19 am (UTC)
I'm aware that the Odyssey serves my argument less well than the Iliad. I could suggest that Eumaios only exists in the story as an adjunct to the hero, but I wouldn't do so with a whole lot of confidence.

(In other words, you've got me there!)
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[User Picture]From: cataptromancer
2005-10-04 12:49 pm (UTC)
Hey, I didn't want to shut you down. One argument would be that Eumaios exists only as a supporter/cheerleader for the aristo hero, not as a genuine surrogate for the experience of non-aristo classes. He becomes a symbol of the aristo-hero's right to rule.
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[User Picture]From: cataptromancer
2005-10-04 12:48 pm (UTC)
I think nationalism has a lot to do with it. 'Hero' seems very much animated by a chinese nationalism, a pride in the long heritage of a country that's now becoming (or has become) a world power again. In contrast, most hollywood epics really don't have anything close to that level of nationalist interest. Even the most suspicious of critics would have to call the LOTR trilogy a kind of cheer for a general western european traditionall sense of heroism, rather than a movie that celebrates England, Canada, the U.S. or New Zealand. And maybe that's where some of the weakness slips in?

Then again, "epic" also gets used a lot for any movie which is 1) long and 2) violent, so there's a lot of blurriness in hollywood's self-description.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-10-05 02:43 am (UTC)
Good point. Yes, the nationalistic pride in Hero is palpable. It made my scalp bristle. I get a similar sort of vibe off British films of the 1940s.

I guess you'd have to go back to Birth of a Nation (which I haven't seen) to find something similar in American cinema.
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