Friday, December 08, 2006

Historical perspectives

One day long ago Surfer and I were resting at the top of Temple II in Tikal when a small group of Danes turned up. They made themselves comfortable, joining us in the safe contemplation of other trekkers essaying the far trickier ascent of Temple I opposite.

"What is this place?" one suddenly asked.
"It is a temple..." her companion responded;
"A temple for the sacrificing of human peoples....and mice."

If Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto does anything to dispel one or two common misconceptions, to stop day trippers to Tulum from Cancun thinking that they are visiting an Aztec (or worse still, an Inca) ruin then I am all for it. It's high time that the Maya were properly on the pop culture map.

How many other Mesoamerican cultures have had a whole Hollywood movie to themselves? People will read about the Maya; some of these will surely get on a plane to Guatemala.

Does HBO's series Rome focus on the construction of aqueducts or the poetry of Ovid and Virgil? Hell no.

Are we not sick of Native American peoples being portrayed by Hollywood as congenital tree huggers? Hell yes.

The ancestors of ABBA have also had to suffer years of abuse at the hands of American film-makers. Sure there was more to the Vikings than sailing, drunkenness, rape and pillage, but when it comes to the World Cup what sort of helmets do Scandinavian soccer fans wear? Even the Kazakhs are wising up to the value of bad publicity! There's always a time to redress the balance but its usually after several blockbusters worth of epic sex and violence.

More seriously, it has occurred to me more than once that nobody has ever made a (realistic) film about the Middle Ages that contains characters with preocupations that any modern person can identify with. The Seventh Seal and The Name of the Rose, to name a couple of the better examples, are more likely to make one rather glad about the historical distance that separates us from that ordinarily unforgiving era.

I suspect that many people subconsciously don't really like the idea that someone that lived many centuries ago was just as complexly vital as they feel themselves to be in the present moment. Being long dead is often taken as a mark of moral as well as cultural inferiority.

It's a shame that we still await a dramatisation of the story of Abelard and Heloïse which explores the psychological modernity of twelfth century urbanites.

And what of England's homosexual medieval monarchs William II 'Rufus' and Richard I, the Lion Heart? The former remains untouched by mainstream film-makers and yet is one of the juiciest characters in our history and even managed to come to a very movie-genic end in the New Forest. A flamboyant atheist, Rufus expelled the Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm of Bec from his kingdom in 1097.

It has also always intrigued me that no mass or other church service was held in England between 1207 and 1209 whilst King John was under the Pope's interdict. We like to think of medieval people as compliant church-goers but such a ban would surely cause more of an outrage today than it apparently did back then in the thirteenth century.

1 comment:

scott said...

"Being long dead is often taken as a mark of moral as well as cultural inferiority."

Great post, and one of your best lines ever!

Will be seeing Apocalypto in a few nights and will let you know what I think.