I, Caligula- Review of “Caligula”

Originally published on UNRV.com a few years ago, the recommendation still stands. Excellent little book that really plays the devil’s advocate on one of Rome’s most infamous rulers.

 

Crazy. Insane. Out of control. Egotistical. Blood-thirsty. Psychotic. This is just a sample of adjectives stereotypically ascribed to many of the Roman emperors, but were the emperors really as mad as common, popular belief teaches us they were? Were they honestly as looney, messed up and deranged as befitting a perfectly wild addition to a morbid rendition of “Alice in Wonderland”? Sam Wilkinson, professor of Classics at the University of London, in his 128 page pamphlet “Caligula”, does his best to weed out fact from such superficial assumptions on everyone’s favourite nefarious megalomaniac, Gaius Caligula. This study is a fascinating counterbalance to the general biographies on Caligula that tend to simply present the ancient sources and not spend sufficient energies on testing the sources for accuracy over bias.

Wilkinson sets about his myth-busting, for that is really what this book is about, by assuming that all the sources are wrong and that they must be debunked, or proven, by looking at the results of the events that were said to transpire during Caligula’s reign. He does this mostly by judging the reactions of the populace to Caligula’s measures and by checking for the continuation of the ordinances on into Claudius’ reign. In a conclusion that would have been better set as a forward to this study that challenges everything typically taught about Caligula, Wilkinson lays out his thesis that Caligula was “competent” and “intelligent” and his only real crime was not having the wisdom to properly deal with the Senate. Caligula was, in essence, an emperor before his time. As such, the insulted and rebuffed senatorial historians did their best to vilify Caligula as the mentally unstable and tyrannical despot that today we know and mostly love. This is not a revolutionary conclusion on its own, but it is the lengths to which the conclusion is mapped out which defines this pamphlet.

As a foundation to his study, Wilkinson gives a brief history of Caligula’s upbringing. The years spent with Tiberius on Caprae do not factor into his argument as much as previous studies have incorporated it as a likely birthing place for Caligula’s depravity. Wilkinson then divides Caligula’s reign into four chapter-categories which are then individually studied for either madness or rationality. These areas are Caligula’s domestic policy, foreign policy, the maiestas trials and his own assignation, and finally, his dealings with the Senate. Each section is further divided into study areas such as “Public Administration” and “Entertainment” under his domestic policy and various geographical regions such as Africa, Judaea and Britain for his foreign policy. For each section Wilkinson first looks at what the various ancient sources say about the event and then looks at the results of it from a less biased angle, such as looking backwards from Claudius’ reign.

For example, one of the theme complaints against Caligula was his spendthrift habits driving the Empire into debt and forever causing Caligula to go to new lows to try and replenish the coffers. Yet excessive spending was a stock accusation often employed by historians against authorities ill-liked. The line between private wealth and income earned as an emperor is problematic to discern, and should Caligula’s condemned personal extravagances have been taken from his private wealth, then vilification for stealing from the State is unfair. When Claudius came to power he had the funds available to heavily pay out to the praetorians- 15,000 sesterces to each praetorian, in addition to giving rich gifts to the city, a sure sign that the State was not run dry. So with points such as these Wilkinson concludes that by Caligula’s heavy spending, bankruptcy may have been a grave contemporary concern, but it did not necessarily occur.

Then there is Caligula’s bizarre trip to the Gallic beaches and his very strange attempt at an invasion of Britain. In a story that makes Caligula out to be madder than Xerxes whipping the Hellespont waters for its defiance, Wilkinson breaks Caligula’s British “war” down as thoroughly as he can giving the impression that this is the crowning moment of his study, that to bring logical rationality to Caligula’s action here would surely prove that it is possible to unwind Caligula’s entire reign into revealing a shrewd, yet very sane, man. Wilkinson does a good job trying to make sense of something that is very difficult to work around, in contrast to, say, naming his horse to the Senate being easily dismissed as ill tasted humour. Though, for me, it is here that I became a bit drowned in all the rationalizing attempts and so the concluding statement that, “Instead of a farce, we find a sensible and simple foreign policy in Gaius’ actions with….the Britons” came as something of a sideswipe and I was too overwhelmed to bother trying a second time to follow Wilkinson’s argument.

And thus, the strength of this book in forcing the ancient sources to prove themselves is also this book’s greatest weakness. Wilkinson is so intent on bringing out Caligula’s sanity that he sometimes seems to ignore the time proven test that the simple is usually more truthful than having to jump through five hoops first before it fits the theory. There are moments when you simply are not able to allow yourself to lose yourself in Wilkinson’s version of Caligula and then there are times you really let yourself believe that Caligula was not so much the problem as it was the ruling elite. Maybe it is possible that Caligula was just a despot before his time, a time when the ruling class had not given up enough of the Republic ideal to let him rest in peace for posterity; maybe? Overall this book is something of a fascinating read and truly does provide the other side of the coin. I would not suggest it as an introductory text to the emperor but would recommend it to anyone interested in investigating a more realistic Caligula.

Star Trek: Into Darkness- Review

I have done it. I promised I would and last night I fulfilled my promise. I watched “Star Trek: Into Darkness”. For those familiar with my deep felt prejudices against the movie for its apparent lackadaisical approach to the Star Trek cannon and film making in general you will perhaps appreciate more what I have to say than those who have not experienced my distaste. As a preface, I enjoyed the first film of this Star Trek reboot and had only a few quips that I felt were fair to complain about. But when I saw the first trailer for “Into Darkness” I was filled with a deep dread that all my little quips with the first movie had been exploded into a full blown disaster. The only thing saving my enthusiasm for its release was my actor crush with Benedict Cumberpatch but as more information about the film released and reviews came out my disappointment turned to something of a vengeance as I couldn’t believe the arrogance of the production team. And after watching the film, I have to ask, has anyone figured out why it was called “Into Darkness”?

Some of my friends who were witness to my tirades rightly insisted that I had to give the second film a shot and so, promising to put my bias aside, I watched it last night expecting nothing but to be entertained by a good movie with no TOS notes beside me and no other audience to sway my opinions.

And well…..I was mostly entertained.

As an olive branch of peace to those who absolutely loved “Into Darkness” I will extend my thoughts on probably the most controversial part of the film and state that I enjoyed the character of Khan- solely on the merit that there is no parallel drawn to the TOS Khan. If there were parallels drawn then this new Khan would fail miserably, shrivel up and waste away saved to life only by the acting prowess of Cumberpatch. However, as a newly imagined villain he flies high and is a great villain but is now sold short on potential. He could have been so much more dangerous and the stakes could have gripped your insides and shaken your surety of success rather than only making you mildly curious to see how the plot will work out in our heroes favor. This could have been done as easily as was done in TOS by having some of Khan’s crew mates also become awoken so that he has a small army of super-beings. Then have Khan seduce one of Kirk’s crew to joining his side which dramatically increases the chance of betrayal and the suspense. I will also admit that the conclusion with Khan being put back into cryogenic freeze was satisfying even though Khan’s storage for another time is obvious. All considering this new Khan passes the test.

As for what I didn’t like about “Into Darkness” there were a significant number of areas I could point out as showing poor (did anyone else think the Klingons looked like the Persians out of “300”? The design team were onto something but stopped short of finding what they should have been looking for).  What I’ve done is lumped the overwhelming problems I have with this movie into two main categories since there are multiple other reviews out there that draw attention to all the other problems.

1) The first problem is a carryover of my largest quip with the first film and that is the relationship between Spock and Uhura. Without making a long winded tirade about what a bad idea this was, and is, let me summarize by saying it’s awful. Is Spock trying to be fully Vulcan or isn’t he? Either he is and he is dead to relationships until he goes into Vulcan heat or he is human and embraces all relationships. Either Uhura understands she’s dating a stone wall and loses her right to complain- ever, or…sorry, how did she start dating him again? This relationship undercuts everything ever established about Spock rejecting his human half and makes it difficult to believe that Spock is trying to be fully Vulcan. Good job writers, you have called into question the one defining feature of one of your main characters.

2) The second problem is the most overwhelming problem and it is Kirk. “Captain” James T. Kirk is the entire problem with the second movie and I use the quotation marks because it takes no great investigation to see that he is no great leader of men and no warrior. Just ask yourself, “Would I want to be under the command of this man?”  Probably not. James Kirk has been devolved into a frat boy and his poor characterization encourages the writers in their bad writing decisions. What was most frustrating was that the writers let Kirk run wild knowing full and well that he was a terrible captain. How do I know this? Because most of the first half of the movie’s dialogue with Kirk was centered around other characters telling him what a bad job he was doing and therein suggesting better courses of action proving that the writers knew what Kirk should have been doing. You may say that the first half of the movie is supposed to show Kirk’s transformation and so is justified. But I’m sorry, is this a coming-of-age film or a chronicle of the universe’s best and brightest going where no man has gone before?  Throughout the entire film the wisdom and smarts of the TOS Kirk was spoken from the mouths of Spock, Bones, Scotty, and certainly Captain Pike as well, and yet Kirk dismisses them all effectively turning his back on the legend he is supposed to be representing.

It’s like the secondary characters are all trying to make a decent film but frat-boy Kirk just keeps wanting the movie to be all about him and the consequences of his decisions and to Rura Penthe with anything else.  In fact, didn’t Kirk get demoted for this very attitude? Oops, too early in the movie to see it continue with a spanking from Captain Pike and First Officer Kirk taking orders. Guess there is a need to kill off everyone standing in his path to success.  One of the most effective secrets of good plot writing is that it is okay to have coincidences get your character into trouble, but using coincidences to get them out of trouble is cheating. The writers use Kirk as a cheap escape for lazy plot development as all the secondary characters are quite all solid and ready for action in a good, proper, Star Trek reboot (Dr. McCoy could use a couple of lines not written in catch phrases) but they are stuck waiting for Kirk to keep his pants on long enough to remember a thing called responsibility to Star Fleet, to his crew, and to the institution of exploration which he swore himself to. (On that note, TOS Kirk was always more proud of his ability to conquer the strong, beautiful woman rather than just bed any party girl whose pants were looser than his.)

As a prime example look at how the writers made room for Chekov’s cameo: by having Kirk make him Chief Engineer in place of Scotty. Kirk assumes that just because the brilliant new Russian grad can not only navigate a starship, perform complex transportation equations at lightening pace and even make a few facial hairs magically appear when he puffs his cheeks out really hard, he is also the BEST POSSIBLE choice for being in charge of the sensitive warp core.  Not Scotty’s second in command, third in command, or even any other engineer, but Chekov. While the sabotage on the warp core was not Chekov’s fault, not having any idea on how to start fixing it is something Kirk should have thought of as just one of many possible issues. Kirk just about destroyed his entire ship because he sent the navigator down to take the role of Chief of Engineering and as Khan continued to gain the upper hand this short coming became more and more critical and Kirk never once thought to fix it.  If Star Fleet is pushing out officers like Kirk, graduating them, and calling them worthy of command then I would be ashamed. I might even re-enlist as a red shirt since then my sure demise would be less painful and drawn out that way.

The problems with Kirk got to be so bad during “Into Darkness” that when it was time for him to die, (why wasn’t his face melting? He looked like he was hung over not dying from intense radiation poisoning ) I honestly couldn’t have cared less. There was absolutely no emotional investment in “Captain” Frat-Boy Kirk and I think I actually went to fill up my glass of water during his final moments. And then I laughed out loud when Spock yelled out a stubbed-toe sounding yell at a villain I had begun to enjoy watching more than our heroes long before. I tried to tell if Spock had shed a tear at Kirk’s uninspiring death or if that was just the lens flare getting in the way again. But I digress, I had promised to keep my issues to two categories. And yet, I still have. Desperate to keep the movie all about him, Kirk’s ego made the writers bring two story lines together for some sort of show stealing Oscar moment and gave up his famous anger ridden line to someone who doesn’t weep without biological predisposition- or does he? It’s hard to tell now that he’s yelling and loving and being emotional like the rest of us humans. Kirk so ruined this movie that even after his death I found myself cheering for Khan because at least he had his story together and had a reason to be in the position that he was. Throughout the entire two movies Kirk never once earned his position as captain but instead got the spot by merely being the only one who wasn’t dead yet. What needs to happen is for Kirk to be re-written and to start being a starship leader and  a captain who inspires greatness and to stop being a reflection of our current generation of up and coming first world entitled preppies. TOS Kirk could play 3D chess because he understood cause and effect. Re-boot Kirk couldn’t play Tic-Tac-Toe.

Final movie rating:
Without Captain Kirk: 3/5 stars.
With Captain Kirk: 1.5/5 stars.

“The Bible” Climbs to New Ground

History Channel’s “The Bible”: Its first showing racked in a viewership that rivaled the international cult show “The Walking Dead” and since the appearance of Obamatan (a Moroccan actor playing Satan who looks eerily like President Obama) the conversation about “The Bible” is far from over. The 5 part series (episodes 1-10 are shown in pairs of 2 at a time) is 2/3 done and it’s time for me to weigh in with my own two cents (if you’re in America. It’s a nickle’s worth in Canada now). I am a pretty skeptic person when it comes to the portrayal of anything to do with the Bible or Jesus on screen. The people behind the projects are almost always more concerned with converting heathens than making a quality, professional production, and they get stuck in some mental rut that robs all creativity and talent and humanity and emotion and anything that makes it not embarrassing as a Christian to see my beliefs being portrayed as…well, an embarrassment. So while the trailer for this new mini-series and the minds behind it got my hopes up I was cautious to say the least. But the quality of this production makes it stand out as wholly unique and that’s a good thing. Here are some of my thoughts.

1) Angels: Ninja Angel rocks. His first and only showing in the first episode was enough to make me want him back with his ambidextrous sword use and sweet ninja moves. Every time a red cape shows up, my hopes rise that he has returned. In general the angels are awesome. They get a massive stamp of approval. In fact, the whole approach to showing angels and “the angel of the Lord”/God is really cool and is probably one of my favourite developments of the whole series. It’s a new approach of showing angels as the super cool warriors that they are. They are mysterious, strong, confident, the superhero that makes everything turn out in the end. When you see those great red cloaks you know something good is going to happen- or something bad to the guys on the wrong side of the table. Very bad. I love it.

2) Casting: I am glad to say that these are real actors who can really act, not just amateurs who are cast simply because they go to church. As for how I think they have been cast, well, it’s been a bit hit and miss. Noah was kind of Scottish but I suppose that was better than Irish. I really might have started to giggle in giddiness if he had a thick Irish accent. Samson was a big black guy with dreads- what?? I was too perplexed by Samson being a big black guy with dreads to focus on the rest of the story. I think the casting director and historical consultant got their post-it memos mixed up? I wasn’t really feeling Abraham but, like so much else with this series, David was a turning point for the good. His casting was solid. I am a big fan of Zedekiah though his role was small. He really worked that look of an unsure puppet king and had that tormented scream down pat. Jeremiah was really too crazy looking; the man was impassioned, not a mad scientist. Daniel looked too much like a Muskateer at first but then he grew past it and I rather liked him in his role. Apparently he can make the Muskateer look work for Babylonian/Medeo-Persian governors. Cyrus the Great was good, John the Baptist had won me at the first flip of his dreads (anyone else feel a connection with Heath Ledger’s character in “A Knight’s Tale”?) and he was also shown to be a normal person not a crazed desert wildman which I very much appreciated. And, despite the distracting pinkness of Jesus’ lips, and sometimes looking like he came from a 1950’s Arian portrait found in the bottom of a denominational church’s basement Sunday school room, I like him because he doesn’t show himself to be dreary but very human. Thumbs up Jesus. I like being able to like you on screen.

3) Editing: The editing has gotten progressively better. The first episode (1-2) was poorly transitioned, choppy, it seemed to me like they were confused if they were making a documentary or a drama or if they just simply ran out of editing time. By the time we have arrived at the third episode (5-6) they have found their editing stride and the transitions from story to story over nearly 400 years in an hour and a half was smooth and flowing. That no doubt has much to do with scripting, my next point.

4) Creative License in the Script: The fact that the producers of “The Bible” are attempting to put together about 7 hours of film to properly show some 7,000 years of history and draw you into characters and complex stories is daunting just to think about. There were a few moments of creativity in the first episode (1-2), ex. Hagar getting ready to go into the desert, young Moses prepping to fight his fearful brother, but they were few and too far between to take the story off the start-n-stop track that it is written in within the Bible itself. Spending a lot of time with David in part 4 allowed the writers to find their pace (assuming they wrote chronologically) and when we returned to visiting over 5 major personalities in episodes 5-6 those little added moments which aren’t written in the Bible but bring the story to life are wielded with skill and really make for some solid story telling. It is the realistic dialogue which is exchanged between characters, character physical interactions, those moments of humanity that are allowed to show through, it’s all these things that put flesh and blood on names and deeds.

5) War & Blood: YES!!! THANK YOU!!! Thank you for not being afraid to show blood squirting, entrails flying and eyes being gauged with horrendous screams (though I am in doubt Nebuchadnezzar would have done the deed himself). Thank you for showing the real grit of the Old Testament and even the tortures of the New Testament for what they are. Take off the fig leaves of innocence, you’ve only been boring us all and fooling yourself for the last decades by trying to hide it. The battle scenes are some of the most consistently exciting parts of this series and are my favourite to watch.

6) Romans: Please for the love of all things good in this world, stop putting Roman soldiers in Israel before they were actually there! The Xth Fretensis wasn’t posted in Judaea until the 20’s AD and Jerusalem until the war in the late 60’s AD so you can have them, or one of the other Syrian legions, squashing rebellions brought in from Syria (ie. the rebellion in Galilee) but local auxiliary forces were not the Roman army and local auxiliaries were what were causing all the trouble in the early years of Jesus’ life. One of these days I’m going to make a career out of un-doing all the undue credit being handed out to the Romans. I’m going to advocate everyone read the book “Rome & Jerusalem” by Martin Goodman, it will correct years of erroneous history sermons and plays.

7) Wisemen: I have to admit I was disappointed the producers felt they needed to have three and a black guy. Nothing against black guys, it’s possible there was one. The wisemen were most likely Persian though and there’s growing support for the notion that three was not the magic number for traveling wisemen. For all the effort put into providing a fresh look at many of the stories up to that point, having three wisemen was pretty cliché.

8) Soundtrack: Anything with Hans Zimmer behind it is gold. That they have such a name and such talent is beyond impressive. I even found myself humming the theme after it ended.

Watching “The Bible” has been like watching the growth of a child. Awkward and too big for its own shoes but then the progression of the series finding its own feet and independence has been a worthy journey. The opening script of every episode states that the essence of the Bible has been preserved with the highest conviction to authenticity. That goal has been a project of growth and I believe that they have finally come into near fullness of what they were aiming for. The beauty and humanity of the book of the Bible is often missed by readers because it has to be inserted by the reader themselves since the authors of the Bible were focused not so much on the tears, laughter and dilemmas of the characters’ situations but on how their lives fit into the greater scheme of God’s plan. Nevertheless, it is those very qualities that make us invested in their situations and that is what audiences need to experience in order to care. “The Bible” has learned how to do that, how to insert that humanity for us, and to take text from the pages and breathe life into it.

One of the most revolutionary developments made by the creators of this series is what I believe might have been the crucial missing point to all its Bible predecessors: it is its mission to show the essence of the Bible- what it means to us, today, the people in the trenches of life. “The Bible” shows the characters living their situations from their own point of view, with nothing but some “blind” faith and a desperate need to get through a really bad situation. Reading the Bible in the 21st century we get the luxury of 20/20 hindsight, and we get to be armchair generals. We have the ability to read the commentary of the Bible’s authors and we often read it like we are sitting with God looking down on a large playing field seeing the whole picture knowing the end from the beginning. But when you are David facing the pressure from your loyal men to kill the man hunting you down, or Daniel realizing that the laws are being manipulated against you, there is no knowing of what will happen next. There is reality and then there is faith that a cool red cloaked angel will come to your rescue. But the dread of reality fights for control of the mind and it is only their ability to take control of their fears and keep their situation in perspective of the promises of God that saves them that forces them to make a decision on what to do. To everyone else around them they are acting out of stupidity or weakness. It is a real feeling that anyone of faith lives with not only 3,000 years ago but today. It is what makes the Bible relevant. Yesterday I made decisions not knowing what today will bring and I made some of them in faith that certain things would, or would not happen today. The characters of the Bible changed the world the same way- one day at a time believing that if they stay true what God said a long time ago then God does not change and everything will work out in the end somehow.

It is with that realization that “The Bible” began to mean something to me more than just another historical show. It was the point of view, the in-the-trenches point of view, not knowing what may come of your actions, just knowing that you’re acting, that showed me these people had the same kind of faith that we do today- whatever may come, let it come, I will go to the grave with my conscience intact.  It may mean the end of me but it may not. Think what you will of Christians and the Bible, there really is little room to question the braveness their convictions and that is admirable no matter what your opinions are.

Watch the Trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3aOg_UeyGA