Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The seacoast of Bohemia

Sometimes education can ruin you for the simple pleasures of life. Like watching movies, for instance. There's a film called The Great Sioux Massacre with Iron Eyes Cody playing Crazy Horse. I've only seen it once, but it was during my read-anything-about-Crazy-Horse period, and there's a moment in the movie when Crazy Horse is making a speech, and all the other chiefs are agreeing with him by talking in Sioux. Specifically saying the words "Tashunka witko" over and over again. And I'm cracking up, because "Tashunka Witko" is Sioux for "Crazy Horse." It's his name. All these chiefs muttering "Crazy Horse, Crazy Horse," it's like watching a toga movie where the emperor is giving a speech and the extras have been told to say something in Latin 'cause it'll sound authentic, but the Latin they're given to say is "Augustus Caesar."

Yes, I'm too smart for my own good. We know this. It's why my plays don't get produced.

Moving right along -- it's not just the stuff I've read on my own that ruins me for entertainment; it's the stuff I was taught when I was young, impressionable, and thought that knowledge would actually get me somewhere besides a day job in a midtown Manhattan sub-basement.

When I was in high school, I took three years of Greek and four years of Latin. Dig up somebody who died before Christ was born, and chances are, I can shoot the shit with him. Despite all my attempts to have these high school neurons erased by drinking copious quantities of alcohol, my brain still retains a lot of useless facts about Ancient Greece and Rome. Like the fact that Sparta was called Lakedaemon, although I don't remember why; and the fact that it's located smack dab in the middle of the Peloponnesian peninsula.

Don't believe me? Here's a map of Sparta. Notice how far it is from that blue stuff in the corners that represents the sea.

Sparta: the Kansas of ancient Greece, because when you think Kansas, the last thing that comes to mind is beach-front property. As I say, thanks to the Jesuits of Boston College High School, stuff like that is lodged in my head and will probably never be erased this side of the grave.

Picture then, a movie theatre in midtown Manhattan on Saturday, May 15, 2004. Picture the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt as Achilles and a woefully underused Sean Bean as Odysseus. Picture a lot of serious people taking this movie very seriously, until approximately ten minutes in, when somebody sitting on the aisle starts guffawing like a chain-gang prisoner watching that Mickey Mouse cartoon in Sullivan's Travels.

That hyena is me. Why am I guffawing? Because I see this on screen:

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "It's literary license,” right? If, for the sake of this story, Sparta is on the sea, then what’s the big deal?

Agreed. On that level, there is no big deal. Shakespeare gives Bohemia a navy, Elizabethan laborers live right outside the Athens of Theseus, and Jackie Chan politely ignores the mountains of Vancouver in Rumble in the Bronx.

But on another level? Maybe I’m reading too much into a ten-second lower-third, but this is a prime example of the casual ignorance of this country about the rest of the world, never mind history. Just imagine the amount of hooting “Port of Sparta – Greece” received when Troy played in Athens. That Greek audience would have every reason to believe that Americans are total morons. It'd be like watching a French movie about America and seeing the words "Port of Denver - Colorado." Or a Russian movie about the Civil War set in the state of Gettysburg. How snooty would we get over stuff like this? Pretty damn snooty.

That’s the point where “literary license” fails as an excuse. The world is a lot different from the days when Shakespeare could rearrange European geography and have the upper class audience smile while the groundlings wondered what the joke was. The odds of somebody from Bohemia watching Winter’s Tale at the Globe? Pretty damn slim. The odds of somebody from Sparta seeing Troy? Pretty damn huge.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "You think too much, Matthew,” right?

Well, duh. And here's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking that there’s no excuse these days for ignorance about the rest of the world, never mind history, even in popular entertainment— hell, especially in popular entertainment, because that’s our public face to the rest of the world. I’m thinking that this kind of lazy ignorance is exactly the kind of ignorance that gets us into land wars in Asia. I’m thinking that calling it literary license is just an excuse for sloppy thinking, and we all know where sloppy thinking gets us (cough--Iraq--cough). And I'm thinking that, if people don't care about getting the little things right, how the hell can we trust them when it comes to the big things?

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