By A.G. Harmon
To footnote Jacques Barzun, one mark of a decadent age is the exhaustion of language, or more precisely, the dilution of vocabulary by its speakers. Too few words used, too few meanings distinguished, too few subtleties fathomed; this is not an age of facts, but of zeitgeist. We catch what is in the air regardless of what stands before us in the flesh, and care less for what is true than for what we feel has a right to be so. The trite, the packaged, the formulaic, suits us better now—children of Eden that we are—and we look for what we already know, having swallowed both the apple and the tree.
The manifestation of this malady is found both in the poverty of idioms and in the collapse of artistic forms. While every age is allowed its preference for some self-defining medium, fewer and fewer modes seem possible in the modern age. Attempted, yes; achieved, no.
This is partly due to a certain schizophrenia in the common era. On one hand, we are all arch sophistication, cynically searching for ambiguity in every instance—not in the Empsonian sense of richness, but in the modern sense of hypocrisy and contradiction (an example of a term meaning less now than it did once). On the other hand, because beneath our smirks and shrugs we still have human hearts, we cannot let go of particular genres, insisting on their relevance as we fit them out for currency.
Take the epic, a form now lost. Surely there are riffs on the great device—the anti-epic and the inverted epic, etc.—but they are parodies, not patterns, honoring the thing more in the breach than in the observance. In an age where nationalism, a common myth, a proud past, and a lineage of heroes are the negative example (to understate the case grossly), how could the form survive?
Why is it not sent away, relegated to insignificant and dying humanities departments on the verge of turning into cultural studies institutes—and used there only to stump for some hackneyed tract of an idiot graduate student? (“Grendel’s Mother: Proto-femin(ist) Hawa’iian Pearl Div[er] and Kyoto Treaty Pre[figurer]”). Why trot out the old thing, like a madwoman taken from her nursing home and tarted up like Vesta in a toga?
Attempts at the form are mostly found in the cinema now, not at the poet’s bench. And while the movie epic employs many of the conventional characteristics—statuesque heroes, vast settings, valorous deeds, and supernatural forces—they seem meant to convince the audience to sit still for three hours out of a misplaced sense of duty. But what folks view is really nothing like an epic, a saga that recollects the native soul to what it is; the schizophrenic times will not allow for that. Because we do not feel we should honor our past or desire a national story—all must be “rethought”: “History, warts and all” is now only an excuse to show mostly warts. For all their excesses, the old Cecille B. Demille spectacles got this much right: you can’t deconstruct the story while in the midst of telling it.
A sad abomination of this variety is the recent release, Australia. Baz Lurhmann is a talented director who gave us the fantastic Romeo + Juliet. I hope he made a lot of money for this thing (something I’m not at all against and earnestly try to do myself). But the tired totems of race, class, and gender muddle the mode and make the movie a hash so tri-polar that no amount of Zoloft could fix it.
It begins as a comedic romp, with Nicole Kidman as a prissy, fish-out-of-water Englishwoman in the Northern Territories, and Hugh Jackman, a studly horseman that can’t keep his shirt on. The two join forces to trounce the established bigots of Anglo-Australia.
It then shifts into dramatic mode, a straight western with a “rag-tag” passel of cowboys, cowgirls, and cowchildren (no kidding) made up of Aborigines, Englishmen, Australians, and what we are told are “half-castes” or “creamies.”
By the third hour, the narrative has turned into a “war-is-hell” seminar with the Japanese bombing of Darwin. The mystical element takes the form of an aboriginal man who makes theophanies and gives tutorials in a man/nature synergy of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau variety.
Nothing much is celebrated here; history is only a series of crimes; and the only thing epic about the film is its length.
The form—like a ritual, a rite, a mass—is meant to recount for, and enliven in, the native breast a sense of what it is meant to be; instead, this outing, like so many others, turns against itself and teaches us only what we should never have been. Those lessons we get every day, in every way, constantly. If you say “but the epic should not be naïve” then you miss the point; epics are naïve, at least in the sense that they are enthusiastic reaffirmations of what is good about us.
If you say such things have no place anymore, I can only agree that they don’t seem to. And therefore the epic is done. Dispatch her. Or at least stop calling such things “epics.” There must be better things to waste our money on.