Saturday, January 12, 2008

Myth, Symbol, and Disbelief

Also in the spirit of catching up on Winter Break indulgences, I saw National Treasure: Book of Secrets in the theatre. I lovelovelovelovelove the National Treasure movies. WTF, you ask? How is this possible for a History and American Studies double-major, you ask? Because it's a storyline a 5-year-old would've written after watching Indiana Jones and being dragged around to historic sites on a family vacation. Because it's so cheesy and unbelievable, it's so much fun.

I blogged about NT1 when I first watched it, so I won't in summary again. NT2 comes back in much the same vein. This time, it's not ancient Old World treasure that the Founding Fathers have implausibly and inexplicably hoarded, it's "New" World gold, treasures from ancient Mexico somehow secreted to South Dakota. The rest of the storyline is a largely unclear mishmash involving the assassination President Lincoln, Queen Victoria and the Confederacy, and secret compartments in desks at the Oval Office and Buckingham Palace.

Throughout the movie and afterwards, though, I did keep confusing the City of Gold with the Fountain of Youth. Cibola, El Dorado, eh! I've always somehow mixed them up, because they're really the same colonial justification: those 16th-century Native Americans, they were clearly hiding something, something valuable, like gold and eternal youth! Not to mention land and their immortal souls. But the De Las Casas debates aside, the line that cracked me up the most (and caused the woman in front of me to turn around and stare) was "When Custer died without finding [the City of Gold]..." Cuz yeah, that's what the skirmish with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull was all about. It's so inaccurate and crazy, there's nowhere to begin.

But, more fascinating for an audience house divided over a war and going into an election, it's also so blatantly about reconciling competing national identities, and I'll leave aside the normal discussion of the subjugation, erasure, and absence of non-majority populations (otherwise the critique wouldn't end). My history advisor in college, whose specialty is women in the U.S. Civil War, was fond of saying both in class and randomly during many office consultations, that the United States "were" (plural) in the Antebellum years, and that they now "are" (singular) post-1865. (So I laughed hysterically when Nicolas Cage said the same thing almost verbatim, to swelling music.) Then there's Ed Harris, the descendant of Confederates who wants to make a new name for himself. Conversely, Nic Cage is outraged by allegations that his great-great-granddaddy was a traitorous Reb sympathizer who helped shoot Lincoln, and this is the sentiment that fuels the entire film.

Essentially, the NT films reinvent the idea of Manifest Destiny, by making the national narrative part of a longer, older, supposedly more important and "nobler" mission. It's fascinating and fun to mine and deconstruct purely for its chaotic conglomeration of myths and symbols.

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