Powers That Be

Maize god from Dawn of the Maya.Photo: John Lizvey/NGT&F

Guatemala, a rain forest riddled with archaeologists and ruins, is its own dark planet of the past where, according to Dawn of the Maya (Wednesday, May 12; 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13), a “pre-classic” civilization was busy as far back as 600 B.C. making masks, painting murals, building pyramids, harvesting corn from garden terraces, and sacrificing captives on the altar of a thirsty god. Then, it seems, the Maya forgot about their earlier selves for almost 1,000 years, in the process managing to lose sight of a capital city, a Jerusalem or Camelot, where once 100,000 people lived. All that remained were rumors of gods—until the discoveries of a pair of sun-god masks at the Cival temple complex, a jaguar paw engraving near the great pyramid Danta in the jungle metropolis El Mirador, and, 60 miles away, a fantastic wall mural, a sort of Sistine Chapel depicting the Maya creation myth, with hieroglyphs that still await deciphering—each at least 2,000 years old.

What we see in this National Geographic Special should be enough to speed us south into savage vegetation and bone-white rubble, to remind us all over again of how much American beauty the Spanish destroyed in the sixteenth century for fear of insatiable gods, and to raise as well difficult questions about religious art and monumental architecture. Even as we listen to the archaeologists talk about historians, missionaries, soldiers, and pirates of the conquest, waxing indignant about human sacrifice among the “Indians,” we may recall that back home at the same time, in the public squares of Seville and Toledo and Madrid, the Inquisition was burning heretics at the stake. And even as we marvel at the glorious ruins, we may reflect that Mayan cities and Mayan pyramids, like Mayan agriculture itself, would have been impossible without a command economy and slave labor. The Atlantic slave trade indeed began because Spanish colonists needed Africans to do the work the Taino, Caribs, Mayans, and Aztecs refused to do, but slavery was an old idea in the New World, too.

Refugee (Tuesday, May 11; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) begins with a glimpse of yet another glorious vastation. We have followed three young men, Cambodians who grew up on the mean streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, on a voyage into their own immediate past, to find fathers, brothers, sisters, and aunts they left behind in the seventies, fleeing the Khmer Rouge. Yet their trip for some reason starts not in Phnom Penh but in Siem Reap, which is where you spend the night before you go to Angkor Wat and the rest of the Khmer temple complex—60 square miles of jungle and 1,000 years of ruin; a sandstone model of the Hindu universe with a gloss of golden Buddhas—and where it is possible to think about Cambodia while not thinking about genocide.

But the political isn’t personal for Mike Siv, who brought the video camera, or for his “homies,” Paul Meas and David Mark. If they bothered to walk on the Elephant Terrace, their camera wasn’t watching. Nor, I suppose, can they really be blamed for a lack of interest in ancient history (they can’t even remember Pol Pot or the 1979 Vietnamese invasion). Mike wants, if not a settling of scores, at least a family accounting. He is confounded to learn that his younger brother Nang was raised in Cambodia by an aunt, instead of the father who abandoned Mike and his mother at the Thai border—the father who, it turns out, has another wife and another batch of children.

Wrinkle gets a bit gooey at the end, like any life worth living, with courage and compassion.”

Like practically everybody Mike meets in Cambodia—and everybody I met in Cambodia, too—Mike’s brother Nang is a sweet shadow, a one-man stress syndrome, almost an apology for himself, not wishing to be noticed, although a pair of new shoes would be a big help in a country that makes up in potholes what it lacks in health services. Like the Cambodian economy, Nang is waiting for tourists and charity. Mike’s mind is elsewhere. Even in the killing fields outside Phnom Penh, where the camera does roll, he is still stewing about his father. He looks into a green mass grave and not the eerie pagoda of skulls and teeth dug up from those graves. He’s a kid, with exactly that American street swagger missing from Nang, a martial artist.

Of course, it also occurs to me that the corncob towers, rainbow bridges, and naga serpents, the cats’ eyes, pyramids, and alabaster nymphs of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom would have been just as impossible to build as El Mirador or Chichén Itzá if not for a slave-labor economy at the command of Khmer warrior-kings who declared themselves in these temples, from the tenth century A.D. on, to be gods. Pol Pot inherited some genes.

A classified “tesseract project” is what the astrophysicist Jack Murry is working on when he disappears without a trace. If his teenage daughter, Meg, his 6-year-old son, Charles Wallace, and the lovelorn boy next door, Calvin O’Keefe, are going to find him, they will have to look in the fourth dimension. This means not only lots of heavy weather but also warp-speed levitation. To get from the bereft Murry household to the dark planet Camazotz, their wormhole is a wrinkle.

Disney, you will be relieved to hear, has done a decent job of adapting A Wrinkle in Time for television (Monday, May 10; 8 to 11 p.m.; ABC). And you ought to be grateful that I won’t use the TV movie as an occasion to explicate the Christian symbolism in Madeleine L’Engle’s best-selling children’s novels. It is enough, at least for me, that Meg has been transferred from page to screen with her doubts and her bravery intact—her strength, her scruple, and her skepticism. She is played by Katie Stuart, from X2, as an anti-glamourpuss, usually mistaken for a wallflower, insecure in her sense of her own difference, whose qualities of character and intelligence will turn out to be beautiful in action. Consulting Gandhi, Einstein, Madame Curie, and Saint Francis of Assisi as well as her own moral compass, she journeys by Pegasus from flower storms to polar caps to shadowy caves to brain worms to save her brother and her father. Wrinkle gets a bit gooey at the end, like any life worth living, with courage and compassion. With Meg, all the way back in 1962, the literature of quest finally got a heroine. Neither Katie Stuart nor ABC has done anything to dishonor her.

Lewis Black: Black on Broadway (May 15; 10 to 11 p.m.; HBO) amounts to a good seat at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre this past February, where the stand-up comic (who has also been known to sit down on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and Late Night With Conan O’Brien) made easy fun of health fads and bottled water, but was ferocious on homeland security and war in Iraq.

Powers That Be