Escape Fantasies for Slaves
I keep thinking about Rome’s Colosseum.
Something about the value proposition of buying a ticket to see exclusive shocking content...
How shock spectacle isn’t just a thing for the seedy underground theaters of the 20th Century, but an inherent aspect to our voyeuristic tendencies which attract us to shocking spectacle.
Something about the state-sanctioned violence as a citizen’s duty & distraction...
It’s interesting this relationship between empire & spectacle. It comes up a lot.
The idea that the employed masses of an empire must be distracted using spectacle that supports the empire’s agenda of social control & power accumulation. Gladiators fight in the Colosseum. Soldiers march in the field. People cheer both. The Emperor presides over both.
This also, would seem, to stem from an inherent human drive to be entertained. We want to be entertained as a creature living in society, to get ever closer to pleasure & fulfillment.
That’s where the Empire steps in — To make sure your mind is focused on right things.
I’ve also been thinking about the unofficial offshoots of Colosseum spectacle. “Off-Colosseum,” as it were. Did it exist? And if so, to what degree? What spectacles were forbidden?
Ridley’s Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator sheds a lot of light on this subject. Of course, it’s a Hollywood film, so it’s pure fantasy — but it does provide a state-of-the-art glimpse into what Ancient Roman culture probably felt like during the golden era of the Colosseum.
^^ I love that line because it’s basically the beginning state of every protagonist in every Hollywood film. We’re introduced to a regular-ish person, an “every day” person like you or me… They’re caught in the middle of huge unfolding events (aka life)…
And then we’re supposed to watch them "transform" from the lowly nobody to the defiant hero, as they stand up to the corporation / villain / king / oppressor — despite all the odds.
What I like about Gladiator is how this idea of zero-to-hero transformation is bandied about using the language of slavery. Because that’s exactly what the entire concept is, in every film:
Fantasies for Slaves.
Luke Skywalker basically says the same thing at the beginning of 1977’s Star Wars (another imperial spectacle) —
LUKE: I can't get involved! I've got work to do! It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it! But there's nothing I can do about it right now.
THAT’S the fantasy Hollywood keeps feeding us. It’s the fantasy that a slave can transform himself into something greater. That all this toil will add up to something bigger than himself.
According to the surface movie, that transcendence has something to do with family.
The unconscious level of the movie communicates something to do with machismo. Bravado.
Gladiator, on a psychoanalytic level, prophesizes a lot: The people chanting in the Colosseum may as well be saying “Lock her up!” Also resonant is the sub-plot of a fascist takeover in an historically rich democracy.
It also affirms many status-quo values: That one lowly slave is capable of rising to the very top of history as a hero — all you have to do is keep your head low & continue doing your work; that family & the afterlife are vital motivators in a man’s life; that war & violence is justified.
The formula is always the same:
First we see the every day “slave” bumbling in his regular life. But he has a spark.
(A picture of reality mixed + What we think of ourselves).
Huge outside forces sweep up the “slave” into an unexpected drama-action.
(The dramas & traumas of life).
We watch the “slave” transform from Average Joe to Hero of Destiny.
(A process we desire but doing the work is hard, better to watch 👀).
The slave-turned-hero consistently defies the oppressive super structure.
(Providing the audience many vicarious thrills).
The slave is now forever transformed into a hero.
(The fantasy. The person we wish to be, but never will).
I’ve always been convinced that the function of Hollywood cinema is to provide escape fantasies for slaves. I just never worded is so succinctly. I used to think it was just a by-product of out-of-touch elites being responsible for the creation of the film products.
But now I see the light. These are not by-products. Selling escape fantasies to the lower classes of America is integral to the functioning of Hollywood cinema.
It is our duty to be distracted by these movies in our private Colosseums.
This idea is more vividly stated as — Hollywood Sells Escape Fantasies for Slaves.
Gets right to the point. These are fantasies which vicariously give the masses an experience they’ll never have: power over their destiny; the ability to break through their class; the vicarious thrill of hierarchical defiance.
The Birth of a Nation was the first movie to be played inside the White House, attended by President Woodrow Wilson.
And so on & so forth.
I suspect many coded revelations for today could be discovered with a detailed study of Ancient Rome's Colosseum.