Sunday, September 20, 2015

Schlockumentary: "Chariots of the Gods"

Home sick from church today, with some kind of stomach bug. (I blame the overly-friendly, personal-space-violating checkout clerk at Safeway yesterday; he was hoarse and said he was running a fever, and actually patted me on the back as I left. Thanks for the gift that keeps on giving, checker!)

Captain Midnight often multitasks his entertainment; he'll set up the Surface next to the desktop PC and play Minecraft while simultaneously surfing content on Netflix. Today he was going through various documentaries; eventually he ran into the 1970 documentary Chariots of the Gods, based on a book of the same title by Swiss author (and occasional fraudster) Erich von Däniken. If you're not familiar with this title, a TL;DR summary of its Unified Field Theory: all mysterious artwork, buildings and artifacts of the ancient world were not created by human beings, but inspired by visits from godlike space aliens. Although this book was almost certainly based on an earlier one, it spawned much of the modern interest in this theory, from the kidlit version in Cricket Magazine articles of the '70s, to the modern History Channel show Ancient Aliens.

And as I watched bits of this "documentary" over CM's shoulder, it struck me for the first time how rabidly racist the idea really was.

CotG focuses on specific objects and images from antiquity, purporting to give an extraterrestrial explanation for everything from Biblical passages to Easter Island statues to the Pyramids to the Nazca Lines. The narration and associated images depict most native peoples (some of whom seem to be wearing fantastically bad caveman wigs in a "cargo cult" segment) as small, brown-skinned, dark-haired primitives who could not possibly have created these artifacts themselves. Let's set aside all the wondrous things you can do when you're willing to enslave entire groups of people to create your treasure houses, the fact that ancient Homo sapiens had just as much native intelligence as we do, and that most ancient peoples had far more interest in the heavens and what we would later call "astronomy" than the average Joe Sixpack does today. Nope, their primitive lives were too nasty, brutish and short to create such marvelous things. Musta been aliens.

A number of the artifacts described as having mysterious origins in von Däniken's book have since been debunked -- the so-called Iron Pillar of Delhi, for example, is described in the book as being completely free of rust and made via a process unknown to the locals. Borrowing from the Wikipedia article: "When informed by an interviewer, in 1974, that the column was not in fact rust-free, and that its method of construction was well understood, von Däniken responded that he no longer considered the pillar or its creation to be a mystery." However, subsequent editions of the book continued to feature the Iron Pillar because, hey, what do those crazy Indians know about metallurgy? Anyway, aliens.

Things get really awkward when you discover that von Däniken's original text was drastically reworked by Wilhelm "Utz" Utermann (working under a pseudonym), a German screenwriter, bestselling Nazi author and leading producer of Völkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper of the National Socialist German Workers' Party from 1920 to 1945. Suddenly the whole grand theory of ancient alien intervention in human affairs resonates with the accompanying low notes of Germanic Übermenschen, of master races, of inferior peoples.

Is it really that difficult to believe that human beings of other times and cultures possessed not only the native intelligence, but also the time and will to create art and objects that made perfect sense within their cultures, but that we cannot now understand because we have no cultural context? Is it just possible that we have the whole thing backward, and that we, not they, are the ones incapable of understanding their artifacts? And how obnoxious is it of us to impute extraterrestrial origin to items that could just as easily be attributed to the extraordinary efforts of human beings?

Some time ago, my friend Fen introduced me to a British sketch comedy show called Goodness Gracious Me. The show does a great job of skewering British cultural condescension toward "British Asians" (British citizens of Subcontinental descent), often by turning such attitudes around on the British. One particularly sharp parody of the Rough Guide series shows a group of Indian students taking a short railway tour of the UK, all the while making patronizing remarks about the vagaries of British culture.

How well would we Americans respond, I wonder, to allegations from people in Europe or Asia pointing to various American landmarks -- the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the St. Louis Arch, Hoover Dam, the Sears Tower -- and arguing that such amazing works never could have been completed by the same ignorant, backward people who invented Wal-Mart? Clearly such objects could only have been constructed through alien intervention. (And at least in the case of the Statue of Liberty, they'd be right!) Would we bristle? Even those of us who know absolutely nothing about the fundamentals of architecture and who would have a hard time putting up a lean-to shelter, let alone a suspension bridge? Hell yes we would! Such allegations would be a clear insult to our shared culture.

And we ought to recognize and condemn such cultural vilification just as readily when it's being perpetrated on other cultures. Chariots of the Gods isn't so much a theory of alien visitation as it is a casual abasement of ancient people whose works we cannot fully understand. In other words, pure schlock.

1 comment:

Chrysanne Houghton said...

I'm a Mer-Lord! (Time-lord/Mermaid). I am not even human ;) JK