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Entering the fourth week of the invasion of Iraq, we readily admit that we’re tweaking furtively and often from the war news: sneaking online updates and noon-hour news spots at work; then home for the real deal, an uninterrupted stream of images coming from network “magazines” and cable TV. What we’re far less willing to acknowledge is the root of the addiction — and the inevitable political consequences of that fixation: We are truly junkies to visual display — and the pathetic prey of any corporate or ideological provider who can feed our habit. We still insist that it’s not addiction, of course — that we can always segregate entertainment from information, spectacle from substance. That resistance resulted in last month’s remarkable media debate: Was it “inappropriate” to broadcast the Academy Awards ceremony — America’s traditional internationally marketed tribute to the visual — in wartime? Promo-ed for weeks in advance in ads and interviews that often ran back-to-back, invasion and awards ceremony vied for world attention in prime time’s richest slot. But what was there to debate? In truth, the incessant intercutting between 21st-century combat and Hollywood’s yearly paean to entertainment — a lavish spectacle that honors other lavish spectacles — may be the most accurate reflection of contemporary America we’ll see for awhile. The problem is that we seem unable to recognize ourselves in our spectacles. “Sire, there’s no one left to fight,” we were warned two years ago in the sharpest depiction of national culture in a decade — and the film that walked away with the 2001 Oscar ceremony. What we didn’t understand was that Ridley Scott’s terrific “Gladiator” was less an explanation of how Rome fell than of how U.S. troops would wind up in Baghdad. Whether we like it or not, the Academy Awards presentation is portraiture — a startling depiction of America at a precise moment, an event that reveals truth simply because it is so universally dismissed as fatuous that no one really bothers to mask what it shows. Why should we look to the recognizably trite for meaning, after all? But the stories we tell in film, and how we receive them, and why we ratify them — an affirmation that means we have rejected other kinds of narratives — reveals exactly what we most fear and value. As “Gladiator” made clear from its opening scenes — a stunning sequence in which the most powerful, technologically advanced army in history conquers its last enemy — Scott’s film offered a lesson for the world’s one remaining superpower. Reviewers praised Scott’s state-of-the art extravaganza as a perfect homage to the sword-and-sandal epics of Eisenhower America. But Scott’s films have always been too smart to be simple imitation. Rather, Scott, a master parodist, has turned again and again to the traditional story-telling genres to reinvent them. “Blade Runner,” the 1982 masterwork for which Scott will be remembered, breathed life into the moribund sci-fi format: The film exposed the dystopia that would result from Reagan-era abhorrence of social planning. A decade later, “Thelma & Louise” (1991) satirized a nation that had declared war on women. Under attack from law and culture — in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services and Lorance v. AT&T and “Fatal Attraction” and “Jagged Edge” — Scott’s resourceful female protagonists stole American manhood’s defining genre, the Western, and refused to give it back. In Hollywood’s evocations of the Roman Empire, Scott found the perfect allegory for the Bush years. Indeed, re-creations of the West’s first great imperial power have coincided with the political ascendency of the far right since film began. Stars first entered the ancient world in “Cleopatra” (1917); in DeMille’s original version of “The Ten Commandments” (1923); and in a silent “Ben-Hur” (1925). Meanwhile, the rigidly conservative men who ran America extolled Christian values, cultural homogeneity and the deregulation of business. The result was Prohibition, the Red Scare and Teapot Dome. The Cold War re-emergence of the Colosseum shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Depictions of ancient Rome allowed filmmakers — cowed by McCarthyism’s relentless attack on progressive expression — to reconcile the troubling inconsistencies that American conservatism has always been at pains to camouflage: self-proclaimed Yankee benevolence and military build-up; personal restraint and unchecked consumption; Jesus and jingoism. Abetted by the birth of Cinemascope and stereophonic sound, a dozen hilariously politicized, over-produced period pieces ensued: “The Robe” (1953), “Demetrius and the Gladiators” (1954), DeMille’s second assault on “The Ten Commandments” (1956), and “The Silver Chalice” (1954), a film that Paul Newman apologized for having made. In the end, the chariot races couldn’t hide the glaring hypocrisy of a philosophy that insisted Americans could be both Christ-like and rich. As the ’50s wound down, savvy storytellers turned the Biblical epic on itself, using its wretched excess, its anachronistic spiritual conversions, and its bloody suppression of dissent to send a revised message about Christian America. William Wyler’s lacerating examination of masculinism, violence and political hegemony, “Ben-Hur” (1959), probably deserved the Academy Award it received. “Spartacus” (1960), which culminated in the horrific crucifixion of a rebellious slave, refused to disguise what it really takes to make capitalism work. And “Cleopatra” (1963), a brilliant monstrosity that coincided with America’s increasing activism in Southeast Asia, suggested that Rome’s democracy-bringers knew nothing of the established civilizations they left in ruins. No one understands that Hollywood history better than Ridley Scott. “Gladiator” resurrects a score of the toga films’ most identifiable stereotypes: the usurper whose sexual deviance signals real psychosis; the homosexual senator; the slave-trader whose working-class roots will emerge before the last reel; the sexual siren whose bourgeois background leaves her loyalty in doubt; the band of ethnically diverse slaves united under the film’s charismatic protagonist. But “Gladiator” isn’t remarkable because of its evocations, but because of its analogies — a series of warnings so specific that today Scott seems clairvoyant. “Gladiator” opens during the last days of Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), the emperor-philosopher whose “Meditations” were famously and frequently cited by Bill Clinton. The emperor tries to ensure that erudition doesn’t die with him, but his office doesn’t go to his chosen successor. Instead, a petulant, privileged opportunist seizes power under suspicious circumstances. Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the pretender, admits that he brings none of his predecessor’s intellect to the throne. He offers other qualities instead: a willingness to act without the burden of reflection, an uncanny appreciation of public sensibilities, and a presumption of entitlement unchecked by procedure or statesmanship. Commodus ignores domestic crises — and specifically a national health crisis, the plague. But if the new ruler’s political grasp seems limited to trash-talk and working out with his retainers, his reach stuns the capital. Ultimately, Commodus acquires unlimited power simply because no one has the backbone to oppose him. Rome’s senators are too insular to recognize even their own irrelevance. Commodus holds them in contempt, and on that issue at least, it’s hard not to see his point. The empire’s old line aristocrats — and Commodus’ sister (Connie Nielsen) in particular — resent his thick-headedness, but rationalize that their continued well-being depends on his good will. Yet it’s Commodus’ manipulation of mass entertainment that guarantees him carte blanche: Using the staged spectacles of the Colosseum — first-century reality programming — the emperor enthralls the citizens of Rome. “He’ll conjure magic and they’ll be distracted. He’ll take away their freedom and still they’ll roar,” a shrewd politician observes. “He’ll bring them death and they’ll love him for it.” Why didn’t moviegoers get the message — that a populace unable to distinguish entertainment and imperial interest will always be ripe for war? Today, it’s hard to ignore the role that contemporary story styles have played in our acceptance of — and even enthusiasm for — what’s happening in Iraq. The images we see of violence in the Persian Gulf are interchangeable with those familiar to us from video games. Nintendo commercials emerge seamlessly from news footage. Military recruiting spots ape the visual style of Gameboy or “Band of Brothers.” An increasingly ubiquitous presentation mode using jump-cut visuals and breakneck storylines — as in “Gone in 60 Seconds” and the Fox-TV series “24″ — condition us to believe that life is a contest; that existence demands instantaneous, continuous action; that every 20 minutes, something should blow up. But it’s our conditioned dependence on narrative — our insistence on heroes and villains, right and wrong, clear conflicts and pat resolutions — that dictates our perceptions of military action. Movies provide a structure for interpreting war’s complexities, as culture critic Steven Winn suggested last week. But the inevitable corollary is that we see war as movies. It’s only the men who call out the troops in the first place who appreciate that nothing is as clear or as comprehensible as storyline: “Tell me again, Maximus. Why are we here?” Marcus Aurelius asks his general (Russell Crowe) on the morning after a great victory. Someone should put that question to Tommy Franks next week in Baghdad. Scott isn’t psychic, of course. He simply had seen what was coming. But so had the rest of us. If “Gladiator” had a precedent — the republic’s greatest general greeted by ovation in an arena devoted to popular entertainment — it was the Academy Awards ceremony of March 2001. Colin Powell appeared at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium to note the movie industry’s renewed interest in war films — evidenced by two Best Picture nominees, Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.” But the odd alignment of honorable soldier — a military man finally free from the taint of Vietnam — and Hollywood spectacle signaled something new: America had rewritten and recast and re-shot war, and the finished product was ready for distribution. “Are you not entertained?” Scott’s Maximus inquires of his audience. Powell didn’t have to ask. Ironically, both “Ryan” and “Red Line” insisted that war was the antithesis of spectacle: personal, intimate, affecting — felt, not watched. It’s these films — not the obvious toga movies — that “Gladiator” quotes in earnest: in an opening battle sequence that refers in content and construction to “Ryan’s” extraordinary depiction of D-Day; in characterizations of weary, contemplative soldiers, who no longer distinguish between life and death because they move so often between the two — they are imperial counterparts to Malick’s embattled dreamers. But if Scott got the point, most Americans –influenced by declining economic opportunities, a growing sense of individual purposelessness, and an increasingly conservative media drumbeat — fell for the packaging. The misinterpretation has proven fatal to scores of young Americans. Scott’s film told us that America’s road led inexorably to Rome. And it has. Three days before the anniversary of “Gladiator’s” Academy Award, a military force equipped with every conceivable implement of battle lined up against Third World soldiers who probably hadn’t been told what they were up against. “People should know when they’re conquered,” Maximus’ adjutant says of the primitive men, fighting to defend their homes with whatever skills they possess. “On my signal, unleash hell,” Maximus responds. In Iraq, we did. We don’t know yet whether the Oscar extravaganza that coincided with our third day of war foretold our futures. We know only that the stories honored there can — and will if we let them — tell us who we are. Today, as American armies wage war against Islamic troops in the Middle East, Ridley Scott is at work on a new portrait of America. It is certain to be a spectacle — a commentary on technology and politics and aggression and marketing, and a warning about what their coalescence means to those of us living in America now. It’s called “The Crusades.” Contributing writer Terry Diggs teaches law and film at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University. Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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