Thursday, November 03, 2005

Sex and the ancient city

Yes, I know everyone will be using that gag, but I'm afraid I'm not used to anything else but the Sex In The City theme tune following the HBO placecard.

In another forum, some comments have been left on my opinion of Rome. It's interesting to note that there's often an implicit assumption that my objection is on historical grounds. Now it is true that, as a historian, I do tend to spot historical inaccuracies, and sometimes point them out, especially if a production is trumpeting itself as 'the way it really was'. As a result, I guess I give the impression that this is what is most important to me, and why I have problems enjoying films and television series set in historical periods. But if you look at what I've written about historical films, such as about Troy or Kingdom of Heaven I think you'll find that I am often more exercised by poor dramatic structure than by poor history. And so it is with Rome.

This is what I wrote in response to one comment:

I should make clear that my main problem with the series is not that it's bad history. Hell, I like Gladiator, and Rome is much more historically accurate than that. My problem with it is that it seems to me to be bad drama, that it can't make up it's mind whether it's I, Claudius for the 21st-century or a Roman Upstairs, Downstairs. As a result we keep being pulled away from the main story to these two characters who not even the writers seem terribly interested in, and I'm certainly not.

'Speed bumps' only throw me when they don't make sense in context. Take, for instance, the invented husband of Octavia. Now it is entirely true that on the death of Julia, Caesar proposed a marriage alliance between Pompey and Octavia, which would have involved he divorcing her husband. But Pompey refused the alliance and the divorce never took place. By having the divorce take place before making the marriage proposal, an entirely fictional husband has to be invented. More importantly, the scheming cunning Atia ends up looking stupid, someone who acts before she needs to. And we have to believe that the fictional Glabius is a person of no importance, because Atia would be even more stupid to dissolve a marriage alliance with one family if she did not have another better one securely in place. Which contradicts what has already been established, that female relatives of important men are used as political pawns - they don't get to marry for love. Again, my problem here is not that it's bad history (though it is), but that it's bad, incoherent writing. The main object of the sequence appears to be to get Kerry Condon to take her clothes off. (Almost all the nudity in Rome fails the 'dramatically necessary' test.)

My other problem (and it's really more of a comment than a problem) is the 'Emperor's New Clothes' syndrome, that the programme has been sold as something it isn't. It's the same issue I have with Saving Private Ryan, which was sold as something Big and Important rather than the updated John Wayne war movie that it actually is. Your comment 'I'm ravished by the show. Lots of gratuitous sex and violence, by ROMANS!!!!' is illuminating, It shows that you're enjoying this as a Roman romp, in the full excessive tradition of Spartacus, Cleopatra, etc. Which is what it is. But the publicity has tried to sell it as something different, something serious, something that hasn't been seen before. And it's none of these.

I will still watch the series, and doubtless still have fun watching it. It's certainly not boring, or completely unwatchable. But it's not genuinely serious drama either - more The Cleopatras than I, Claudius.

And to another:

I got the feeling that the writing perks up when dealing with the historical individuals as opposed to the fictional ones, but that may just be me not being particularly interested in Vorenus and Pullo. But yes, it's the indecision that causes problems for me. Either there should be more Vorenus and Pullo, to make it their story, or none at all, and stick to the historical principals. As it is, Vorenus and Pullo are in it enough to be distracting, but not enough to make me care about them.

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