Scott Ellington's Blog

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Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

The second season of this series is a prequel for the first season.  It’s another masterpiece of complex character embroidery that serves to provide contextual backstory.  Every central character relates to every other along multistranded threads of interaction that are riddled with bizarre combinations of loyalty, devotion, conspiracy and betrayal.  I’d like very much to cruise this series again; marathoning the second season again before plunging directly into the first.  This show is brilliant!  but I have a couple of problems with it:

Just as the relationships between principle (and secondary and tertiary…) characters are multilayered and complex, so too the relationship between spoken language and visual information is fascinating:

  1. Every physical conflict is photographed from multiple-angles, and edited into a bewildering hodgepodge of milisecond glimpses that are (apparently) intended to goose-up the viewer’s excited appreciation of innovative, amplified and hyper-real ACTION, which, after all, is the primary draw/appeal of this show — just as Fred&Ginger dance routines were signature tentposts that masterfully integrated and magnetized audience attention to the narratives in their films.  I find the postproduction manipulation of action scenes in this Spartacus deal profoundly intrusive and a counterproductive, destructive distraction from the seamless integration of months of conditioning, hours of rehearsal, and admirable dedication of skilled performers to realize each choreographed illusion of hyper-violence.  From the beginning, Fred said, If the camera moves, I won’t!  I like his decision that effectively countered the then-revolutionary Busby Berkeley approach to camera operation by insisting on long takes shot from a stationary position, no dramatic/spectacular overheads, and realistic transitions in profoundly-integrated narrative context that drives theatrical audience attention purely in the service of story.  Leni, Busby, Dektor and MTV have kinda-sorta taken a crap on all that.
  2. The exception to Point 1 appears in the final episode of Season 2, when in Bitter Ends, the characteristic editing style leans toward significantly longer snippets of action that permit the viewer a much better idea of what the fuck’s going on, who’s doing what to whom for what foreshadowed reason, and reaction-shots from outside the ring of violence are regarded (at long last) as far less important to storytelling cohesion than the coherent images of photographed violence.  Why?
  3. Subtitles distract, but I find them a necessary evil.  Actors with a wide variety of British accents swiftly delivering elevated dialogue (that often lacks personal pronouns, drops objects and subjects from sentences and dwells in a realm of peculiar syntax) make the use of subtitles indispensibly mandatory, for me.  I think big American money must insists that aristocratic Nazis and Romans be played with classy British accents, social dregs are Cockney, heroes kinda Nebraska-ish…always.  Check it out.  Diona sounds like Oakland, Lecretia’s meso-sophisticated Sydney, Gaia’s upperclass Swinging London from the 60s — to my ear.  I think it’s a subtle Hollywood manipulation that’s been operating so effectively for decades that we barely notice it.
  4. The larger vision of the Roman Republic revealed in this series presents the viewer with an elaborated awareness of the lower strata of a vast social pyramid (slaves, gladiators, lanistas, minor officials, and gangsters) and glimpses of absolute assholes who dwell in slightly higher castes in the social order, without ever showing us the major assholes (for contrast) in the seats of power in the city of Rome, itself.  We constantly sense their pervasive influence, but are not permitted a bird’s-eye view of the structure of the Republic, except through the myopic, rhetorical fantasies, convoluted conspiracies, and vague aspirations of their (contemptible) tools, the very characters we come to know and/or hate as the episodes unfold.  And the percieved differences between heroic and villainous characters (and their actions) are so microscopically minute that they’re practically immeasurable.  Forget your moral compass?  No sweat, you probably won’t need it.
  5. Perhaps the most uncomplicated relationship in all of this wonderful mess is that between Lucretia and her husband; an almost-unflagging devotion that makes them totally cool with rape, murder, dismemberment and all manner of mayhem visited on anybody other than the two of them.  But how/why that singular bond became remarkably exceptional isn’t remotely clear.

In spite of these objections to presentation and big-picture context, I continue to find this show entertaining and instructive as all-get-out.

25 Sep 11 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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