Spartacus, Cronenberg and Fourier analysis

I now return to blogging, after a brief hiatus for which IKEA was largely responsible. After a bit more work later this week, I should be able to say that I am finally established in my ample 25 m^2 flat (note: 23 m^2 loi Carrez).

I should also say I have been finally reunited with my library – or at least the non-mathematical part of it. I’ve been leafing through an anthology of Chinese poetry and a Sanskrit grammar. I expect I will write a bit more about printed email (but as much as usual on film!) from now onwards.

In the meantime, of course, I’ve got started again on my Cinémathèque habit.


I went into Spartacus with faint memories and relatively low expectations. The memories were from seeing parts of it on TV, perhaps 20 or 25 years ago; the TV was black and white, and the sound must have been rather dull; both circumstances strike me now as arguably good ideas. We are used to the conventions of, say, film noir, but we are no longer used to those of the Technicolor spectacular; the consequence is that the latter’s mannerisms make it impossible for illusion to be sustained, and, at the end, we are simply watching a movie (a very good one, in this case) in a forgiving mood.


Much has been written of what is not Kubrick’s in this movie. This includes some of the best things – in particular, Dalton Trumbo’s highly intelligent script (see especially the set pieces on Roman political intrigue). There is something that is distinctly Kubrick’s: a certain thoroughness, even extremity, that works because it stops short of excess and because it is appropriate to its material.

Much of it is actually in the ancient sources – the rebellion in a gladiatorial school started with kitchen implements (Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 8:2; Kirk Douglas’s drowning the trainer in a cauldron full of thin stew comes across as a sober additional flourish), and, at the end, six thousand survivors were crucified along the road from Capua to Rome (Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120). The almost balletic display of Roman legion tactics comes across as realistic. One can only wonder why some details that are in the sources were left out: Crassus decimated at least two of his legions pour encourager les autres (Appian, Civil Wars, 1:118) and, according to Plutarch, had a ditch dug across one of the narrower parts of the Italian peninsula (Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 10:4-5); both would have fit well in a film with the same director as Paths of Glory.

Kubrick later distanced himself from the film. He had his reasons – he had little authorial control – but one of the reasons he gave seems somewhat open to dispute. He seems to have objected especially to the way the character of Spartacus was portrayed – as a man without noticeable flaws. Quite beside the fact that this is not by any means one of the main factors making the suspension of disbelief difficult for a contemporary viewer in this particular movie, we have that this lack of flaws is perfectly consistent with the kind of drama we witness. What we have here is not a play where the protagonist is undone by a tragic flaw; what we have, instead, is the historical tragedy of human beings facing insurmountable odds due to outside forces and the solidity of inhumane institutions. This comes across well in the ending; I did not think it a mistake to make it explicit.


There are some other noteworthy things I’ve seen recently (though not really the amusing Susana, directed (one can only imagine due to what insurmountable outside forces) by Buñuel while stuck in Mexico). I will single out the very funny Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion (I give nothing away by saying it starts with a man cutting his mistress’s throat within the first two minutes) and Cronenberg’s Videodrome. The latter was actually made after Marshall MacLuhan’s death, which always seems to have come disconcertingly early in the game.

One thing does seem to have become less intense as technology has developed: the primal act of inserting a videocassette or floppy disk is no longer there. (USB connections simply do not do the trick; as for CDs, they are most likely on their way out, and, at any rate, we generally place them on some sort of serving dish, rather than sticking them in.) Going back in memory over my former computers, I also find that it is enough for a machine to have an Internet connection to become completely depersonalised; they become mere interfaces to the global media soup. The Internet is not just a distraction from one’s work – it even dilutes one’s relation to the tool used to produce it.

That relation predates virtuality; see another of Cronenberg’s works, viz., Naked Lunch. It is a bit frightening to consider that that film came out in 1991; I am almost positive I was still using a typewriter at that stage – and thus my acts as a fourteen-year-old suffice to define me as the oldest person in the room to have engaged in what others elsewhere already saw almost as a subject for archaeology.


I am reading Audrey Terras’s splendid Harmonic Analysis on Symmetric Spaces and Applications. 1. At least the first chapter – which I am now finishing – is quite unlike other things I’ve seen; it covers zeta functions and spectrometers on the same breath.

I am also going over some old notes from a course that Elias Stein gave on harmonic analysis in \mathbb{Z}^n. Apparently, my friend Ricardo Saenz and I took the notes and typed them up; quite embarassingly, I had completely forgotten about the matter when somebody asked for them recently.

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About valuevar

I am a number theorist with side interests in combinatorics and group theory.
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2 Responses to Spartacus, Cronenberg and Fourier analysis

  1. Keith Flower says:

    You might also, if you haven’t already, enjoy reading the Howard Fast novel upon which the screenplay was based:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=EbAYFOV7vQkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=spartacus+%22howard+fast%22&source=bl&ots=7r2JUKBt7R&sig=88AIBmVGuXY_1YQWdZ3LyzHEQFY&hl=en&ei=Qsi1TfSGKZG2sAO4t5XnCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CFEQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Howard Fast began writing Spartacus while he himself was in jail. He was jailed during the United States’ “McCarthy era” for refusing to answer questions before the House of Representatives “Committee on Un-American Activities” – the mind reels at the ironies and oxymorons.

  2. valuevar says:

    Yes, I know – I tagged Howard Fast and should have mentioned him explicitly. I think my brother recommended the novel to me some time ago. Didn’t Fast’s novel have to be essentially self-published? Was it also the first time that Fast or Trumbo could be mentioned in the credits for a film? I’ve heard Spartacus (the film) being referred to as “the end of the blacklist” (1960).

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