On paper, I guess, there is no reason at all for me to be surprised. On the one hand, nothing on celluloid is sacred; any film, no matter how charged or noble or substantial it once was, can be stolen by the profit-driven and made profane. (If one has any doubt of this fact, witness the recent incarnation of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? the classic meditation on racism starring Sidney Poitier as a vehicle for the insipid Ashton Kutcher; could a remake of Cry Freedom, with Paulie Shore as Steve Biko, be far behind?).
On the other hand, we also live in a word without any automatic reverence for the concept of the slave revolt; just look at the way that peace-loving Canada with its citizenry so proudly and staunchly opposed to any participation in the war on Iraq or the weaponization of space has been able to quietly and without much opposition aid the former colonizers and slave traders of France and the United States in deposing the democratically-elected president of Haiti, and occupying the world's first republic born out of a successful slave revolution.
And so between Ashton Kutcher and the U.S.-backed Haitian military death squads, I should have known that Stanley Kubrick's sweeping masterpiece, Spartacus, was just as prone to whoring as anything else in this fragile, up-for-grabs, highest-bidder world. I guess I just never thought it would happen. I thought that Ridley Scott's useless turd the unwatchable Gladiator had satiated the Rome-hunger of the slick and the right-wing, and that I was safe with Tony Curtis and my copy of Michael Parenti's The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome. No such luck.
It seems that a small, up-and-coming band of cola-making entrepreneurs called Pepsi has related to the classic story of the slave revolt that nearly collapsed the economic foundations of the Roman Empire. As though Michael Jackson's trial for child molestation weren't reminder enough of the inherent dignity of endorsing Pepsi, this past week, my eyes welled with Kirk Douglas-like tears as I saw the company's TV spot hijacking one of the most touching scenes in cinematic history (before Hilary Swank tried to bite off her own tongue): Roman centurions, on horseback, demand of a group of chained, captured slave warriors that they give up the leader of their uprising; rather than sell him out, each of his comrades instead stands to claim his identity: I'm Spartacus! So touched by their support, the square-jawed gladiator himself begins to cry.
The shills at Pepsi read the scene a bit differently: The Romans ask if any of the prisoners has lost a bagged lunch, marked Spartacus that they have found. Since it contains a delicious, refreshing cola, the slaves stand and claim, no longer in unison but in a cacophony, I'm Spartacus! i.e. That's my lunch, ergo, my Pepsi. I am not making this up. Spartacus's tears are now shed not from the touching swell of solidarity, but for his having lost his lunch. I know the feeling.
This is, of course, the second time in recent months that the soft-drink giant has spoiled my movie-going pleasures; throughout the length of Ray, as Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx depicted soul-genius Ray Charles's battle with heroin addiction, I was distracted: I always thought 'Gotta Have It' was in reference to Diet Pepsi...
Months ago, I was lambasted by a dear if cynical friend for getting too sentimental in my contradistinction of Kubrick's Spartacus and Scott's Gladiator. You know, I had said, how the vitality of the pre-Reagan picture espouses the values of solidarity and collective struggle and sacrifice, explores gender roles and human relationships, while the Oscar-winning turdfest simply celebrates a macabre, fictional, quixotic personal grudge against a backdrop of nihilistic violence... The response? And nostalgia for some pathetic dreamt-up age of real culture smarter, more critical, more engaged, more homogeneous is somehow progressive? Ouch. It seems that my soft spot for the movies has left me prone and easy to hurt.
So in preparation for more chilling cinema-marketing tie-ins to come, I have decided to desensitize myself by repeatedly reading the following list of likely offenders. I just can't deal with the pain of losing these iconographic moments in film to the cruelty of the capitalists, over and over again. Feel free to share:
- Sophie's Choice will one day be between Swiffer and the leading dry mop brand.
- The mom from What's Eating Gilbert Grape will be re-cast using Jared Fogle.
- Rosebud will no longer be a sled, but a hemorrhoidal ointment.
- Instead of teaching Michael Corleone how to make sauce, Clemenza will explain that the late Dave Thomas's portrait hangs in every Wendy's to remind everyone to do a great job.
- Sidney Lumet's Network will be digitally remastered with a trailer for Fear Factor at the end.
There. Throw whatever you want at me, Corporate America; I'm ready. Now if you'll excuse me, there is a remake of Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed starring Paris Hilton that I am missing.
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