January 17, 2010


Sex and Gore? That’s Ancient History (CHARLES McGRATH, 1/17/10, NY Times)

Overtaxed, militarily overextended and with an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, the Romans, we learn, were a lot like us, but for entertainment purposes they had some signal advantages: They were more violent, they wore skimpier clothes and they had orgies. “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” a retelling of the history of the famous slave and his rebellion, does not neglect any of these traits. It features abundant nudity, both male and female. (“In the early days we had a lot of conversations about how many penises we could show in a single episode,” Rob Tapert, one of the producers, recalled recently.) There is a great deal of simulated sex, of both the gay and straight variety. And the subtitle is not false advertising: the characters do not merely bleed; they spray great fountains and gouts, arterial geysers, that splash up on the inside of your TV screen or else hang in midair like red Rorschach blots. Mr. Tapert and his co-producer, Sam Raimi (better known as the director of the “Spider-Man” films), got their start with the “Evil Dead” horror-movie franchise, and the new show at times suggests their early experiments with high-pressure circulatory systems. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Mr. Tapert admitted.

Much of the violence in “Spartacus” is stylized, even balletic. Many of the people working on the show were big fans of “300,” and, especially in the early episodes, “Spartacus” frequently borrows from that movie’s graphic-novel look, its gray and coppery color scheme and slo-mo action sequences. The show’s creators were also fans of “Rome,” and they say they learned two important lessons from that series. One was not to spend a fortune on building sets. (“Spartacus” relies instead on green-screen technology and C.G.I.) And the other was that their story line needed, like that of “Rome” to be character driven.

The early episodes include a number of well-drawn personalities, many of them plucked (or embellished) right from Plutarch, our main source for what little we know about Spartacus, a man, the text says, “not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding and in gentleness superior to his condition.” (Plutarch does not mention abs or lats, which Andy Whitfield, an Australian actor who plays the character, has in abundance, but they probably go without saying.)

In some ways the series is more historically faithful than either the 1960 Stanley Kubrick picture or its source, Howard Fast’s 1951 novel, which was in part an allegory denouncing McCarthyism. The series gives Spartacus a back story, which the Kubrick version does not, and gets a lot of mileage from Plutarch’s brief account of the ludus, or gladiator gym, where Spartacus was imprisoned. Run by a financially strapped promoter named Batiatus, the place resembles an outpost of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling empire, and is a reminder of yet another way we resemble the ancient Romans: our appetite for violent spectacle and “reality” entertainment.

The first episodes do look like 300 done on a budget and make Rome seem demure by comparison.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2010 8:22 AM
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