Monday, December 11, 2006

Screengrab - Elysium

That is the opening shot from Gladiator.
Now, I like Gladiator. I like it very much, in fact. It is beautifully put together, for Ridley Scott is never happier than when hes creating vivid, fascinating worlds for his films, whether its a future L.A. in Blade Runner, the Tokyo Underworld in Black Rain or Jerusalem during the Crusades in Kingdom of Heaven. Gladiator builds its worlds with care and beauty and attention to detail - the three settings : Germania, Northern Africa and Imperial Rome, all have their own athmosphere and look, each captured evocatively by Scott's camera. Russell Crowe is possibly the only leading man in modern American cinema with the machismo, charisma and virility to truly convince in such a setting, with such a narrative weight upon his shoulders. Just consider the failures of the likes of Brad Pitt, Colin Farrell and Orlando Bloom in similar enterprises since. The supporting cast of mainly European actors all chew scenery admirably and the action scenes are as spectacular and visceral as the genre demands.

But the script is a little too by-the-numbers, a little too Focus-grouped for Gladiator to be utterly satisfying. Everything occurs just as we expect it to, in the expected order, because we have seen this type of film before, and that is the way such things will go. I had this opinion - pleased but ever so slightly underwhelmed - after my very first viewing of Gladiator, and its remained through several subsequent screenings. I had been anticipating it more than I do most blockbusters after seeing the screenshots and trailer, after all, because I loved old Sword & Sandal Epics like El Cid and Spartacus.
I saw it with a couple of friends - we all took the day off work, in fact, in recognition of how much we were looking forward to it. Saw it in a half-empty cinema, just the way we wanted.

For the first 20 seconds or so, I was thrilled by it, it was exactly the film I wanted it to be.
Thats more or less the time we stay with that hand brushing through those golden stalks of grain. In those 20 seconds, Gladiator promises to be another film entirely, a poetic, lyrical film. Obviously the trailers had shown bits of battles, legions, swords, tigers etc, and I was expecting and even awaiting them. But those 20 seconds made me wonder if this film could combine the thrill that such a huge spectacle delivered with the more intimate and cerebral pleasures which that opening shot suggested.

It could not. Soon after it begins, Gladiator turns into a Classical Saving Private Ryan, and never looks back at that opening shot, even when Scott revisits it later on. His later attempts at poetry and evoking Maximus' inner life are far more MTV than that single opening shot, which is a sort of daydream of home the General is enjoying prior to the imminent battle. Later dreams all have nightmarish edges, meaning Scott uses filters and visual effects. In fact, he comes closer to echoing the sensibility of that hand in the grain in Kingdom of Heaven, a film which suffers narratively because Scott seems intent on indulging himself aesthetically throughout. The film that had really delivered the combination of intelligent and sensual intimacy together with sheer spectacle I was seeking was in actual fact Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line, released two years before Gladiator. I love The Thin Red Line, and perhaps I wanted to recapture the euphoria that my first viewing of it had brought me with Gladiator, and just felt a little betrayed by Scott after that opening shot?

Not that it matters. I enjoy Gladiator - its something of a comfortable, guilty pleasure - and I love that shot, too. But I have to remind myself that a movie which took its lead from such a moment would never feature a protagonist whose catchphrase to his Men is "Strength & Honour." And, cheesy as it is, I like that about Maximus, and the film.

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