I see a lot of movies in the theatre.
There are movie people who don’t. I know a bunch of people who are super movie nerds, moreso even than I am, who hardly ever go to the theatre, or not at all. And I can sympathize with that, a bit, even if I don’t necessarily agree. The movie theatre experience can get pretty ragged anymore. Me, though, I’m still there. I’m still there all the time. I probably see… 20 movies a year in a theatre, give or take? 25 at the outside? Either way, it’s a lot. Way more than the average, which I believe is about 3 or 4 a year.
So yeah, I love going to the movie theatre. But here’s the thing: I almost never see a movie more than once in the theatre. I mean it almost NEVER happens. (I mean, aside from things like screenings of Casablanca or whatever, which I’ll go to any chance I can get.) The last new movie I twice in theaters was Guardians of the Galaxy. The last one before that, I am pretty sure, was Casino Royale, and that was almost ten years ago. It takes a LOT to get me to the theatre more than once.
The list of movies I’ve seen in theatres twice is very short. The list of movies I’ve seen in theatres three times is very, very short: It’s The Matrix and the first X-Men movie, which people I knew kept wanting to see and, sure, X-Men in a movie theatre, let’s go again!
The list of movies I’ve seen four times in the theatre is precisely one movie long, and that movie is Gladiator.
That is funny to me now, sitting here, because when I was watching it today in preparation for writing this, all I could see was what’s wrong with it. This isn’t a case where oh, I saw this thing in the theatre 15 years ago and loved it to death and haven’t had eyes on it since. I am pretty sure that Gladiator also holds the dubious honor of being the movie that I have purchased on various home video formats the most times. It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought and I definitely bought the DVD at least four times: twice for the bare bones, basic DVD (one “disappeared”), once for the slightly-upscaled DVD edition, and then once for the three-disc Super Tiger Dragon Edition. That’s just on DVD. I’ve also bought it at least once on Blu-Ray, and I have a nagging suspicion that I’ve actually bought the Blu-Ray twice. And that’s never minding the fact that it’s one of those movies I am physically incapable of turning off if I see it on TV. I have watched it at least once a year since the day it came out.
Today was no worse than the 20th time I’ve seen Gladiator, and like I said, the movies flaws were all I could see. And there are a lot of them. This is a deeply, deeply, DEE-HEE-PLEE flawed movie. Like Grand Canyon, Springfield Gorge, Doctor-Who-cracks-in-the-universe deep. It’s no small wonder the movie doesn’t simply crumble into bits trying to hold its own weight up against them.
My notes from today’s viewing consist almost entirely a series of incredulous rhetorical questions about the movie. (I love the Socratic Method almost as much as Gladiator, apparently.) In what is almost certainly not a coincidence or accident, the vast majority of them revolve around Joaquin Phoenix because I am realizing that the central question of the film is quite possibly WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH COMMODUS?!
A few examples:
- “Why does Commodus kill Maximus’ family? What does that accomplish?”
- “How does Commodus not realize that his sister keeps him in line with drugs and the empty promise of icky sister sex?”
- “Commodus has this weird need for love that makes him a lot more pathetic than most movies will let their villain be.”
- “Seriously, what the fuck is Joaquin Phoenix doing?”
I used that last one, or a variation on it, four times in my notes, because the character and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance are just baffling. (Phoenix’? Not sure of the punctuation rules there.) Or rather they are as you go through the movie from start to finish, because at the end it all comes together in the “am I not merciful” bit, when you see for the first time what Commodus really is, just a barrelful of rage and hate and fear shoved inside a person suit.
The scene is amazing, and Phoenix is amazing in it, and it shows you that Phoenix has actually been, you know, doing something specific the whole movie, but the Commodus issue is the movie’s second biggest flaw: the action of the entire picture hinges on what Marcus Aurelius tells us at the beginning, that we have to go through all this shit because Commodus is unfit to rule. And, yeah, you get a vague sense of that at the time, with his weirdo thing for Lucilla and he’s kind of a preening jerk at the front and the whole killing his father bit, but all any of that really proves, or shows, is that Commodus is an ambitious dickhead and a pervert. I mean, those are more or less the basic REQUIREMENTS for being a Roman emperor; he should hardly be ruled out because of that. So as an outside observer you’re like, “okay, so what exactly is the problem with this dude,” and you have to wait almost three hours before he’s screaming at his sister, who he has promised to spend the rest of his life raping, about what a great guy he is and you realize, “oh, okay, he’s an insane fucking monster, which we grudgingly admit is just over the line for this particular job.”
But this here is one of the things I love about Gladiator, that its flaws are also secretly its strengths. Because here’s a really, really weird thing about this movie: so much of the plot – of what actually happens in the here-and-now of the movie – is deeply dependent on a ton of very complicated backstory that the movie makes absolutely no attempt to present. Or even let the viewer in on. The key players all have this long history together that all the action of the picture springs from and the movie’s attitude is “eh, people will figure it out.” The question of “is Maximus the father of Lucila’s son,” a lot of movies would have tried to milk that question for at least two or three reels. Gladiator just sort of leaves it hanging there, a big vague maybe that I don’t think I even picked up on the existence of until my third or fourth viewing. Think of every movie like this, where the characters have this kind of history. Then think of a movie that doesn’t explicitly tell you any of it – ANY of it! The lousy movies are the ones that go out of the way to just shove it in your face, full of those awful lines of expository dialogue that start with phrases like “of course you remember…” and “you know…” Then think of movies that don’t do that.
One of those is a batch of bad, or mediocre, movies. The other is a batch of great movies. Exposition is death. Character exposition is even worse, so Gladiator just says “fuck it” and dares the audience to keep up.
That dare to the audience, the Marty McFly-style “try and keep up” is the spine of the whole movie, in a weird way, and unfortunately that works both for and against it. To wit: I have seen this movie at least 20 times and still cannot tell you exactly what is going on in the opening battle scene. Forget “exactly,” I can’t tell you AT ALL what’s going on. There’s Romans, and there’s a bunch of barbarians, who knows how many, and they’re in a place with trees and dirt, and they fight, and that’s about all I know. The geography of the battle is completely incomprehensible. Where is Maximus leading the cavalry charge from? Behind the Germans? (Germanians? Whatever.) If he’s already flanked them with his cavalry why does the whole infantry battle even happen in the first place? If he can just pepper the Germanianianians with flaming arrows and giant Molotov cocktails from a mile away why is he hitting them with guys on horses? What the hell is that dog doing there? When Commodus shows up after it’s all over and the guy is like “the Emperor has been at the front for 19 days” he hops a horse and he’s there in a couple minutes. That’s like me saying my father has been at the WaWa on the corner for 19 days. How and why does ANY of the opening 20 minutes happen the way it does?
I ask these questions but at the same time I kind of don’t care because Christ on a pogo stick those opening 20 minutes are awesome. I am not any kind of connoisseur of movie violence anymore but that scene – all the fight/battle scenes, really, but the opener in particular – have this intensely visceral quality that few other movies can match. I said on the podcast a few years back that no other filmmakers is as concerned with the interaction of life and death than Ridley Scott, and it really shows here. The scenes are graphic – like, yuck graphic – but not exploitative or gratuitous and everything has this frenetic, sort of lived-in, you-are-there feel that still makes my heart catch in my throat when I watch them. Maximus, in that second fight scene out in the provinces, dual-wielding. Oh my stars and garters. It’s brutal and vicious but at the same time it’s just so real and present that you can’t take your eyes off it.
Oh, by the way, there’s this guy in this movie, Russell Crowe? Yeah, you may have heard me talk about him and how stupid awesome he is. There are actors you can see working, and then there are actors you can’t see working, and then there are actors for whom it is just effortless, and then there’s Russell Crowe. He’s a lot of the reason you can’t take your eyes off this movie. Is there a big, epic-movie hero who talks less than Maximus? Crowe has to do so much with just his eyes and his face and his body and wordless or near-wordless shouting, and he DOES it, and he makes it look so easy, and I hate him for it. And the laughing. The fucking laughing. Maximus laughs, and that is SO GODDAMN IMPORTANT. In the hands of a lesser actor Maximus would be a brooding, dour caricature (the script does him no favors here) but just a couple times over the course of the movie Crowe knows to crack a smile, or laugh a little bit, and JUST BY DOING THAT he turns Maximus from an obsessive, single-minded revenge-bot into a real person and dear god you could cook a roast over the burning fires of my jealousy. That is such next-level shit I would add him to the list of people I plan to devour in order to gain their powers were I not certain Russell Crowe could kill me with his mind.
But then, Maximus is a bit of a cipher at times, isn’t he? Watching with my dad this morning the first fight scene in the Zucchabar arena is on, and my dad says, “so, what, practice is beneath Maximus but he shows up on game day? He just didn’t want to go to camp! He’s Brett Favre!*” And I tried to explain that, no, you see, Maximus wouldn’t do the practice bits because he was showing his contempt for the games, but when Proximo started talking about facing death he got up for it because he actually wanted to die and… I stopped myself before I got too deep into it because, just, ugh, even I didn’t believe any of that. Crowe does a ton of work without saying anything, but while Maximus’ overall revenge arc isn’t exactly difficult to parse, he says so little and gives away so little that his motivation in any given scene isn’t always easy to pick out (or, oftentimes, possible to).
The fact that I keep going back and forth between things I love and things I hate about this movie is a symptom of how deeply flawed the movie is, and it and all the other problems spring from what is the movie’s biggest flaw: the script is awful. Oh my GOD the script is awful. While filming Russell Crowe famously (and possibly apocryphally) refused to say whole sections of the dialogue, most of which ranges from simply bad to so terrible it will actually cause your skin to boil away if your sound system is turned up too loud. Connie Nielsen’s “prisoner of fear” speech, which is actually in the extended edition TWICE, for fuck’s sake, please save us O Lord from the prisoner of fear speech. And that’s just the actual spoken words. While Maximus’ revenge story is pretty simple and, let’s charitably say, reasonably clear, anything else that goes on in the movie is your classic “a bunch of shit that happens.”
Much like the opening battle scene, the third act of this movie makes basically no sense. There’s a plan, it involves Derek Jacobi in some way – side note, what movie is Derek Jacobi in, because it’s not the one everyone else is – and then everyone is in jail, and Maximus breaks out of his slave-prison-slash-rich-Roman-lady-fuck-palace, and is then captured nine seconds later when his Scottish buddy gets killed for no reason, and then, I dunno, a bunch of other shit happens. Derek Jacobi is in the last scene, because… the Roman jail is in the Colosseum? The extended edition – which Ridley Scott actually appears at the beginning of to pointedly tell you is NOT a director’s cut – tries to address some of this with a bunch of political scenes about Commodus selling grain, and… oh, god, it’s all just so goddamn tedious. It’s like someone had the idea “let’s do a movie set in Ancient Rome,” and then did some research on Rome and gladiators and shit, and wrote an outline, and then never looked at it again, and a week before shooting started a deaf chimpanzee with a drinking problem banged out the dialogue in one overnight typing bender before killing himself, and then Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe somehow convinced each other to shoot THAT.
The fact that this is still a great movie with such a godawful script is actually something of a miracle, since flaws like that are usually structural and, thus, insurmountable. Even when you get lots of super talented people together, making a great movie from a bad script is like trying to make a great meal from bad ingredients: a great cook can maybe salvage something edible, but it’s almost impossible to make something really delicious. Look at Skyfall, for example, or the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Tons of great people made those and the movies still never get there. Auteur theory people can wank all they like to “you can’t run a screenplay through a projector,” but a painter still needs paint.
And let’s not kid ourselves here: a lot of fantastically talented people did outstanding work on this movie. Ridley Scott. Russell Crowe. Here’s one you probably don’t think about too much: John Mathieson, the DP. This movie looks SPECTACULAR. I saw it last year at a revival screening, one of those show the remaster in digital cinemas when the Blu Ray comes out jobs, and seeing it on a huge screen for the first time in more than a decade, dear lord the movie’s look is just jaw-dropping. The landscapes and the sweeping shots of Rome and the Colosseum are all as gorgeous as the dirty, gritty closeups on the floor of the arena… I mean, honestly, if you can’t let yourself get taken away by stuff like that, what are we even doing here? Shit like that, transporting you to another world, that’s what movies are FOR. That’s the whole point.
I think, maybe, that’s why I like it so much. I try not to analyze these things TOO intently; analyzing the movie is one thing but trying to too finely dissect the whys and wherefores of why I like something seems like a fool’s errand. But looking at this list, this odd little enumeration of “these are things that I love,” it jumps out at me that with just a few exceptions it’s all period pieces and other worlds and things that are so far outside my experience that, well, I need movies to experience them. Gladiator has all these flaws but… it isn’t that I don’t care. Obviously I do care; I’ve spent 3,000-something words tearing apart one of my absolute mostest-favoritest movies of all time. But whether it’s because of them or despite them – and I have honestly been trying to figure out that difference all day and I simply cannot – even still, I put Gladiator on, and the people and the visuals and everything come together and just take me to this other place that is so real you can almost smell the dirt and the blood. It’s magic. That’s what Gladiator is, in the end: it’s movie magic. Whether I’m talking about movies or mathematics I am loathe ascribing any sort of result to a process I cannot accurately describe, but after 15 years, 20-plus viewings, and crying like a little girl at “honor him” every single time, I don’t have another answer.
You compare Gladiator to those other movies I mentioned a little bit ago, or any not good movie made by people who are. This is the same thing. The result should be the same. By all rights, in any sort of logical universe, when you take all the same pieces and put them together the same way you should get the same result. But every now and then, you don’t. Every now and then, magic happens, and it’s inexplicable. Magic happens and you end up in the theatre four times seeing the same movie.
It wouldn’t be any fun if magic never happened, would it?
* Yes, watching movies with my father is absolutely infuriating.