Clash of Titans Is Good Drama

by Michael Daly
Daily News, June 15, 1997
As rent control ticked toward expiration, the city's tenants at least had the diversion of the big parade following the premiere of "Hercules."

Seats to the show were priced as if by vacancy decontrol, but the procession afterwards was free. Even the most hard-pressed tenants could stand at the curb and maybe wish that the Greek hero would top his 12 labors by swooping down on that city near modern-day Troy, where the state legislature convenes. A mythic figure who cleaned the Augean stables in a single day would surely have a fighting chance of straightening out the rent control mess.

One problem with such fantasies is that Hercules was not the sort of hero that Hollywood has conditioned us to expect. The Disney people themselves discovered this last year while doing research for the picture book that was to accompany the movie.

They were in a tizzy when they telephoned Deborah Tarn Steiner, classics professor at Columbia University.

"They had come across this incident where Hercules kills his children, and they were puzzled about what they should do," Steiner says. "I explained that this was how the Greek heroes generally acted. That didn't help them a great deal."

Steiner could have added that Hercules also had a period when he cross-dressed and had affairs with young men.

"I decided to spare them that," Steiner says. "They clearly wanted a way to smooth it over and make it accommodate their conception of a good guy. I think they specifically said they wanted him to be a role model."

As might be expected, Disney smoothed over the infanticide by ignoring it. The Hercules myth was recast in the good guy, bad guy terms that are so indoctrinated that we tend to apply them to real life.

The truth is almost always more shaded, and if the ancient Greeks do not offer us heroes that make role models, the myths do provide a truer vision of life than does Hollywood. The myths present good and evil as a complex, ambiguous mix, and the heroes often become imbued with the very forces they battle.

"The Greeks could tolerate much more ambiguity than we can," Steiner says. "When you come into contact with forces, you become like them. By virtue of fighting all these beasts, [Hercules] becomes a beast."

In modern life, such ambiguities apply particularly when politicians are involved. The rent control stand-off is no exception, though some tenants view state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer) as a bad guy such as Hollywood might present.

Bruno views himself as a good guy in mortal combat against the evils of governmental regulation. This struggle seems to arise in part from his efforts back in 1991 to subdivide a pristine upstate forest. He and his lobbyist partner had bulldozed a 1.7-mile road into the trees and were poised to make a big score when the state Department of Environmental Conservation stepped in.

Bruno contended that he had not really been building a road, but the world's biggest driveway. The state officials were unconvinced, and the project remained entangled in pesky regulations this year, when Bruno embarked on his crusade against rent control. The statement that constituted his declaration of war included two slams against environmental regulations, suggesting that rent was only the first battle in a larger campaign.

Whatever his original impulse, Bruno remained steadfast before mounting opposition and there has been something perversely heroic in his staking so much of his power on the outcome. He has been callous, and he has cozied up to moneyed interests, but he has remained unmistakably himself.

On the opposing side, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has been no less stubborn. He should appear considerably more heroic, but there is something of the game player in him, a quality that may come from having done battle with too many game players.

He shouts righteously, "No compromise!" at a tenant rally, but this seems less a declaration of principle than a maneuver when he later says with the straightest of faces that people making $200,000 a year deserve rent control. He seems at such moments most interested in insuring that the big winner is Sheldon Silver.

The third player, Gov. Pataki had to be shamed from not slipping away from the rent negotiations to a golf fund-raiser organized by a prime proponent of vacancy decontrol. His overall priority seems not to set right abuses on both sides, but simply to get himself elected.

As a result, the rent control issue remains a mess without any heroes such as Disney might cast, and those of us who reflexively seek to view it in terms of good guys and bad guys are left frustrated. A Greek hero might feel quite at home in the stand-off's moral shadows, though the classics scholar Steiner is not sure even Hercules would be prepared for politicians such as our junior U.S. senator.

"I think D'Amato would be more than he could handle," Steiner says.

Steiner adds that Hercules would not be likely to take much interest in rent control, anyway.

"That wouldn't be a problem for him because he never stays at home," Steiner says. "He'd let his wife cope."