Troy, The Chronicles of Riddick, and Bush Culture
Friday, July 23 2004, 6:32 PM
This summer's blockbuster action film season brought Troy and The Chronicles of Riddick to the screen. Troy is a social palimpsest for Bush culture, a point at which the values propagated by the Bush administration can be read for effect: mindless militarism, subordination to state policy, and a campaign against male effeminacy. The Chronicles of Riddick, on the other hand, is a study in anti-Bush culture and a film of resistance.
Wolfgang Petersen's Troy articulates a deep cultural fantasy, a disturbing vision from within the oppressive illusions of Bush culture. As Greek warriors led by an Aryan fair-haired Achilles invade Troy and slash their way through dark-haired Trojans, the film scenario reproduces the Iraq invasion zeitgeist. Greece, putative mother of Western civilization, has been modeled once again to new global exigencies, as it has been since the Renaissance. The Iliad is adaptable to the spirit of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as the Stanley Lombardo colloquial translation so neatly illustrates with a cover photo taken from the invasion of Normandy. That adaptability is available because, like many canonical works, the Iliad is uncanny, shifting, and refuses definitional confinements. It remains an open and self-renewing text in the sense that Harold Bloom perceives canonicity as "a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it strange."
But where in the Iliad we still encounter bizarrerie, in Troy the visual and sexual could not be more ordinary despite the virtual scenery and slogging virtual massed troops. There is no uncanniness in Troy. Achilles is a predictable one-dimensional man, a well-muscled bourgeois stick-figure; there is no place for doubts, bisexuality, or open personality. In classical tradition, Achilles is both arch-male and girlish, sometimes a man and sometimes a girl. "What was the name of Achilles when he was a girl?" was a favorite question of emperor Tiberius to his scholars, and a Pompeii fresco depicts Achilles hidden among girls. But Troy never images Achilles as the other, that is, as fully human.
Like Achilles' character, this is a film that despite its self-confidence is at the verge of potentially disastrous self-recognition; but it is a potential that gets buried beneath military violence. That quintessential feature of Bush culture, its triangulation between sexuality, violence, and an apex of bourgeois complacency, courses through Troy and directs its reading of the Iliad. The arch-conservative, arch-Christian political activist Paul Weyrich specified the political value of this linkage between sexual suppression and military aggression. According to Weyrich in the New York Times (July 9, 2004), "Given what the continued killing [in Iraq] has done to the president's standing in the polls this far, it is a lead-pipe cinch that as we lead up to the first days of November, 2004, violence is going to be horrific."
The solution to President Bush's re-election problem, Weyrich advocates, lies in making the Federal Marriage Amendment a presidential campaign issue in order to consolidate and mobilize the Republican Party conservative base. "Traditional marriage is under assault," declares the amendment's author, Senator Wayne Allard, when in reality it is the US directing assaults against Iraq. By attacking pan-sexuality and equal civil rights for gay people, as the Marriage Amendment initiative is currently doing with support from the Bush administration, an attempt is being made to obscure the costs of an invented Iraq War. An economy of sexual repression and mobilization of anti-homosexual fear thus circulates as a means of outweighing public opposition to the casualties incurred by imperial violence.
As always, when Hollywood makes movies about antiquity it makes movies about America. The Iliad, however, resists simple-minded conversionary efforts by Hollywood. Its political and social complexities have made it a text that consistently has attracted progressive critics of culture. Simone Weil wrote in L'Iliade ou le poème de la force (1939) that the Iliad was a poem of power, an observation that sheds political light on how it lends itself to re-interpretation as a film of force with the matrix of Bush culture. Like a Donald Rumsfeld press conference, in the Iliadic world authority does not suffer contradiction lightly: no Homeric hero asks Job's radical, rebellious questions. "We men are wretched things," a submissive Achilles says wearily to Priam, "and the gods who have no cares themselves have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives." [Iliad, Book 24] Weil argues that, although the question of justice "enlightens" the Iliad, it never "directly intervenes in it." "In the end," writes Weil, "the very idea of wanting to escape the role fate has allotted one — the business of killing and dying — disappears from the mind." In Weil's interpretation, the Iliad is the picture of the triumph of liberal democracy, a false neo-Hegelian conceit concerning progress towards the end of history.
Horkheimer and Adorno took up Homeric narrative in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) to argue that while cultural fascists might give nominal honor to its stories, "They scent out a democratic spirit, characterize the work as redolent of seafarers and traders, and condemn the Ionian epic as all-too-rational expository narrative and a mere communication of conventions." They contend "The fashionable ideology which is deeply concerned to liquidate enlightenment, unwittingly reveres it, and is compelled to recognize enlightened thought even in the most distant past." In their reading, Homer provides a basic text of European civilization that attests to the inter-linkage of myth and enlightenment, contrary to post-Renaissance strong-arm political philosophies that employ classical mythology to rationalize hierarchies of greater and lesser beings, of physical strength over weakness. And it was Hannah Arendt who suggested in The Human Condition (1958) that the genius of the Iliad lays in its celebrating winners and losers alike. Unlike Arendt's reading, Troy and Bush culture entirely reject the Iliadic tradition towards any purpose of social reconciliation.
With a rich range of re-interpretive possibilities for the Iliad and social readings available for Troy, Wolfgang Petersen chooses to leave them all vacant, translating the epic into a bourgeois melodrama and cash bonanza. . . .
This is an excerpt from the full review essay. For the complete essay, go here.
Tomasz Kitlinski is a lecturer in philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Maria Sklodowska-Curie University, Lublin, Poland. Joe Lockard is assistant professor of American literature at Arizona State University. They wish to thank Charlie Bertsch and Thyrza Goodeve for comments on this essay.