Two weekends ago, my Downser son Aaron and I saw the movie Night at the Museum. Aaron pronounced it "awesome," in his critical judgment, and I agree.

The script, which attempted a madcap comedy, fell somewhere between crappy and mediocre, but that doesn't matter because the film scarcely needed a script, so fine was its premise, which was...

...after night falls at the Museum of Natural History on Central Park West in New York City, the dinosaurs, stuffed animals, and denizens of the dioramas all come to life! As it happens, I independently arrived at precisely the same conclusion in 1944, and spent the rest of my NYC childhood trying to hide somewhere in the museum so as to stay after hours and witness the transformation in person. The guards invariably caught me and shooed me out before closing. No matter, the film now gives us a glimpse. I loved seeing the Neanderthal cavemen step out of their diorama and build a campfire in the museum corridor. However, I had always expected that they would spear the mammoth in the diorama first, so that they could roast it over the fire. The best part undoubtedly came when the giant blue whale descended from the ceiling of the undersea gallery, an event I have been waiting to see for sixty years.

§     §     §

Last Sunday, we took in Yang Zhimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, a Chinese sword-and-assassination epic which must have cost plenty to make. The cast features the big stars Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat; about half the population of China served as extras; there was martial arts hurly-burly, elaborate sets, and spectacular cinematography. Set in the tenth century Tang dynasty palace, the inscrutable script has everyone in the imperial court conspiring against everyone else, and in the end the emperor prevails through guile, superior force, one-hundred-million extras, and the natural authority that apparently goes with being emperor.

What struck me about the film, like its recent predecessors Hero and House of Flying Daggers, was the effectiveness with which these films project the feel --- one would almost say the ideology --- of medieval imperial China: brutality, boundless opulence at the top, and absolute, rigorous, unquestioned hierarchy. Interesting: after 50 years of Marxist-Leninist rule, People's China mobilizes no end of capital and then recruits its leading directors and actors to evoke the imperial palace culture of medieval Beijing.

A similar puzzle attached to Eisenstein's less expensive masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible. Here medieval tsarist absolutism was perfectly captured in a film product of the 1930s USSR, after 20 years of Marxism-Leninism. Are culture and politics really as distinct as these cultural products suggest? Could it be that Moscow remains Moscow, and Beijing remains Beijing, quite independent of the political language that may dominate the scene for a short interlude of a generation or two? Could it be that culture is actually prior to, or more stable than, the socioeconomic organization?

Conversely, the socioeconomic system obviously doesn't affect human behaviour as directly as the Left once imagined. In Soviet Russia, the reigning myth was that a new human psychology, the New Soviet Man, would emerge from the experience of socialized property. But after Communist rule collapsed, what emerged almost instantly was a roughhouse capitalism, more lawless and predatory than anything seen in the west in a century or two, conducted by Russians who had known nothing since birth but the society of the Soviet Union.

So much for the New Soviet Man. The Russian gangster capitalists of the 1990s seemed to be a throwback to the Viking pirate/traders who rowed down the Dnieper to Kiev in the 9th century and created the kingdom that was called Rus. I think I know where these 1990s Russian capitalists came from. Somewhere in the land of the Rus, or Russia, there must be a museum with a diorama the inhabitants of which regularly come to life after dark; and Boris Yeltsin's government just let them out.

--- Dr. Phage
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