Monday, September 12, 2005

History Channel's Rome Week: the good, the heinous

Since I am thoroughly hooked on the new HBO series Rome, I TiVO'd all of the History Channel's tie-in shows during their Rome Week. DH and I have been watching them here and there, and finally came to the end of them last night.

The best by far was "Engineering an Empire," which explained how they did what they did. Never before have I understood how the aqueducts worked, and the answer is quite simple: gravity. They would sometimes only descend a fraction of inch over several miles, but gravity's funny, it doesn't matter how long that "downhill" slope is, as long as it is downhill. And every single aqueduct was downhill all the way to Rome. Amazing. Among other marvelous inventions -- running water, central heat, heated baths, fantastic roads, walls, and bridges -- is what perhaps seems the least consequential but is in fact probably the most important: concrete. So very cool.

But I come not to praise The History Channel, but to kick it's teeth in, for the simultaneously fascinating and insulting series, "Life and Death in Rome." (There are no links to this series, hence the link above to the HBO promo page. Sorry.)

There were six episodes, each covering a different aspect of the Empire's history. As is typical with History/Discovery/Learning Channel documentaries, there is a fair bit of repeated content, the usual talking heads, the skimpily-budgeted re-enactments. The episodes did a great job of conveying quite a lot of not-well-known information about Rome, and frequently quoted primary sources. One thing I really appreciated was that the primary sources were not always taken at face value, particularly in the episode featuring "Scriptus," who was essentially a tabloid journalist.

Another successful aspect of the series was the use of the technique I first noticed in the Walking with Dinosaurs series. Each episode contains a narrative thread, following a historical person or family. Bringing the history down to the personal level makes it much more compelling, and gives us a greater understanding of what it must have been like to live through those times. DH and I were amused to see the same actor playing a Dachian in one episode, a Roman in another, and a British Islander in a third -- but that didn't matter, especially as none of them had any dialog. It could have been anyone filling out the toga, and that chap was fine.

So what do I have to complain about, then? First, there is a tremendous amount of footage, and certain clips that get a lot of re-using, that approaches soft porn. We know that Romans had a very different standard of morality than we do, and we know their attitude towards sex could basically be summed up as "the more the better." But it became tedious seeing the same orgy and public bath scenes repeatedly, with the "naughty bits" blurred out. I'm not being a prude here -- there were some very attractive people in those scenes. I just didn't need to see them all 20 or 30 times. That's a problem with this type of documentary, where limited budgets lead to a lot of recycled footage. But the shock value of these scenes quickly wears off as we see them again and again.

The biggest problem with this series, however, had nothing to do with the inherent weaknesses of the documentary form. No, this problem stemmed from the politics of the writers and producers. They made the very odd decision to parallel ancient Rome, and certain events in and about Rome, to the modern-day United States. So Rome's military might, and the strength and speed with which they attack, are compared to the modern American army. All well and good, but when they started comparing some Roman empire-buildng excursion to Gulf War I, it did somewhat put my dander up. The United States is not and has never been (to the best of my knowledge) an empire, and our wars are not wars of aquisition.

But what really pissed me off was when they compared the sacking of Rome to the terrorist attacks on America of 9/11/2001. Let me just say, there should and can be no comparison. Rome was destroyed, and left in complete disarray. The Empire never recovered. The US was attacked, and roared back to smash the Taliban in Afghanistan and to oust Saddam in Iraq, where the democracy project is well underway.

I understand that the writers chose the modern-day parallel as a "hook" to grab the viewer and hopefully give them some greater understanding. Since television is a visual medium foremost, it's not surprising that images of the 9/11 attacks and the aftermath would be used. I still find it egregious that they chose to repeatedly show footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers on 9/11 in a kind of stutter-loop like we used to see on "Homicide." How dare they simultaneously exploit this horror and trivialize it like that? Perhaps the BBC producers didn't realize that to a nation full of Americans, that particular scene is not some meaningless piece of stock footage.

Even worse, the talking heads and the narrator all speak with this wistful tone about how America was shown to be vulnerable, and would it ever recover? It was quite a show of thinly-veiled anti-Americanism, and I watched with a kind of sick fascination, wondering how thin those veils would get. It was truly astonishing as pundit after pundit mused on how the destruction of Rome really did parallel 9/11, as if they can't wait for the inevitable crumbling of the US that should result.

Perhaps my sensitivity to these issues was heightened by actually watching the program on the anniversary of 9/11, but I don't think so. Here's what I know: The attacks on 9/11/2001 hurt us, and woke us up to a reality that many of us did not want to recognize (and there are still great swathes of society who are holding onto their 9/10/2001 mentaliy, God help them.) But we recovered both physically and economically from those attacks, and if we are not unified politically, at least a majority of us are strong in our resolve to protect this country and insure our future. Hurricane Katrina inflicted far more damage to our country than the 9/11 attacks did, and we're already repairing and re-building. We've seen an enormous outpouring from all across America to help those who were displaced by the hurricane. We are a strong people, fundamentally united underneath it all, by our love and respect for each other. We're a far cry from the disarray and dissolution of Rome in its waning days.

We're not going anywhere.

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