Monday, January 15, 2007

Lileks Firing On Many Cylinders

I don't know how many, he has more than most to work with. Good, wide-ranging Bleat column today.


“Rome” is another matter. Too bad the second season will be the last. Not enough people watched the first season, and they spent about forty billion dollars on the sets – which are truly spectacular and immensely detailed; from what I’ve learned from my industry sources (i.e., stopping off at the TV critic’s desk at the paper to chat) they filled every inch of every frame with authentic items. When the camera pans across an alley or a room, every single detail has been researched, verified, reproduced. You can’t tell - but you can tell, somehow. So why didn’t it work?

Maybe people expected big battles, and didn't get them. But I don't think so; oddly enough, when people think of Rome they think of the city itself and its politics and culture, not the distant clang of sword and shield. Maybe people wanted gladitorial storylines, but A) that's been done, and B) the Colosseum hadn't been built yet. Perhaps because it lacked an obvious villain. All great HBO shows are about men whose villainy is obvious but complicated - Tony Soprano, obviously, plus Al Fargin' Swearenfargingen of "Deadwood," Avon Barksdale in "The Wire" (in subsequent seasons the villainy was found in institutional inertia, which made the last season the most impressive and heartbreaking of them all) and Larry David, a skittish judgmental nebbish with enough F-U money to avoid the consequences of his boundless schmucktitude. (Just kidding. Sort of.) Julius Caesar wasn't a typical HBO villain, and I don't think the death-of-the-Republic theme had enough dramatic resonance. . . and in a way, I'm glad, because hack writers could have really played that one up, George Lucas-style. ("Sith" was on the HD channel last night, and I watched some of it, and had the same irritated reaction: boundless talent in the service of a 7th grade imagination.)

Too bad season two will be the end of it. But they brought it back for ten more, and for that I’m grateful.

All Western cultures like to think of themselves as reflections of Rome – heirs who believe they have bested the legacy, but still suspect they lack the iron in the spine that made Rome great. But we’re better than they were. The attributes that held them together are incompatible with an Enlightened society, and what virtues they had they consumed in their rise to power. But we feel a kinship, and that’s only natural; we all grew up associating their architectural vocabulary with ours. Church, business, government – everyone took turns dressing up in Roman glory.

Why? It’s peculiar, the assumptions we make. Think of “Gothic” church architecture - busy facades, filigreed steeples, flying buttresses, everything squeezed together and competing to get to heaven first, giant stone mountains evaporating in an effervescence rapture. It seems very old and spooky. Roman, or “classical” architecture, almost stands outside of time: it’s a timeless ideal, and its effect on the Western imagination is so enduring that when the clumsy exhausted modernists came up with something like this in 1968 (click for a larger picture) they felt compelled to put columns out front to match the neighboring classical buildings. Because columns meant college and learning and civilization. Such a building might have meant something else 2000 years ago – say, “here’s the place where they slit the throat of the bull and dump the blood on the rich lady who wants Jove to make sure her husband gets that new job” – but those meanings have been drained from the structures, replaced with meanings particular to Christianity and concepts associated with Christian cultures.


Anyway. Strange as they may have been – and they were strange, believe me – you like to think you could figure it out if you woke up in Pompeii. Medieval France, ancient Greece, the Mongol Empire – you wouldn’t know where to start. But if you found yourself in a Roman city in a tunic with some coins in your pocket and smattering of Latin? You could figure out a meal and a drink and a place to stay, and if you avoided getting stabbed for absolutely no reason, you might find a job. Of course, the "Smattering of Latin" would be the deal-killer. Unless you were a graphic designer who'd memorized the Lorem Ipsum.

Didn’t mean to get off on that, and now it’s put me behind schedule. I’d hate to think I was unable to watch the first episode of Rome because I wasted time writing about Rome.

I've got the first season of Rome on its way to me.

Lileks also liveblogs the season opener to 24.

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