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Myth and legends at the Knaresborough bed race

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 16, 2013

Last Saturday I met up with some friends in Knaresborough to watch the 48th annual Great Bed Race. This is the type of utterly mad local event which small English communities seem to specialise in, and it involves teams of six runners pushing a passenger around the town on what is called a ‘bed’, but is really more like a sort of wheeled trolley.

The course starts out in a lovely park by the river, and this was where we sat on a grassy bank in glorious sunshine drinking beer and eating burgers and candy-floss. As the teams ran past us, the terrain was relatively level, but they soon had to slog up a steep slope through the town, along the High Street and back down the valley again, before finally plunging into the River Nidd (trolley, passenger and all) to swim along for several metres pulling the trolley, before hauling it out again onto the opposite bank and reaching the finishing line. The race rules, of which we were handed a copy when we arrived, state:

“Each bed must have a built-in buoyancy aid capable of supporting the bed and the passenger for not less than five minutes, and have an aperture large enough to allow the passenger to escape quickly if required.”

And well they might!

All of that is entertaining enough, but for extra fun the teams also take part in a parade before the race begins. For this, they decorate their beds and dress up themselves according to a theme, which this year was ‘Myths & Legends’. We got a great view of this from our bank in the park, with all sorts of imaginative tableaux parading past us involving the Loch Ness Monster, leprechauns, fairies, the Knights of the Round Table, vampires, Roswell / Area 51, various sporting legends, pirates, samurai warriors and so forth.

What really made my day, though, was the fact that out of 91 teams in total, fifteen had drawn their inspiration from the myths and legends of the Classical world. That’s nearly one in six, maths fans – and a great testament to how important Classical stories still are in the imaginative landscape of modern Britain. So I leapt into action with my phone-camera, and managed to capture pretty decent images of every single one of these teams. The photographs follow below, grouped roughly according to when the legends which they depict were supposed to have taken place, and accompanied by some comments on what I think the teams’ choices tell us about how Classical stories are perceived today, and how people tend to learn about them.

Older than time itself, of course, are the gods. Two teams went with this theme, as follows (click on either picture for a closer look):

01 Ripon Runners gods of Olympus 06 Welly Wheelers temple 2

I can’t be certain whether either team was thinking of the Greek or the Roman pantheon, though my guess would be Greek. Certainly, most of the teams in this race were drawing on Greek rather than Roman myths, and I’ll say a bit more about why later. Also, the racing context may well have encouraged people to think about the Olympic games, Mount Olympus itself and hence the (Greek) Olympic gods. But in any case, both sets of gods map very closely onto one another. On the left-hand team I can identify Zeus / Jupiter (beard and thunderbolt), Poseidon / Neptune (tripod) and Helios / Sol (radiate crown), but I must admit I’m stumped by the fellow in what looks like a yellow Christmas hat and the round-topped sceptre held by the young person carrying the charity collection bucket. Two more team-members just seem to be wearing generic togas / chitons and laurel wreaths. Perhaps they are meant to be Olympic victors?

The right-hand team have gone to the trouble of spraying themselves gold – a great way to signify divine status, which was done with literal gold-plating on ancient statues, and I think is also what the glowing CGI appearance of the Greek gods in the 2010 version of the film Clash of the Titans was trying to achieve. They have built a model of Zeus / Jupiter with his thunderbolt in front of the temple, and although I am not sure about the lion face on the front of the trolley, I wonder if it is meant to go alongside the red dragon-looking face on the far side and the possibly-a-snake on the near side to make up some kind of Chimera? If so, we are definitely in the Greek world. Meanwhile, amongst the team I can see Mercury at the back with his winged helmet and staff, and assume the fellow with the inflatable globe is Atlas (strictly a Titan rather than a god, but near enough). But the other person at the front doesn’t have any identifying attributes, and already I can’t remember what the fourth person who must be at the far corner looked like.

Next on the mythological schedule is the winged horse Pegasus. In ancient literature, Pegasus is associated with both Bellerophon and (later) Perseus, but both of these heroes belong to roughly the same era in the fictional world of Greek mythology – a time before both the Labours of Hercules and the Trojan war.

07 Brooks Blockheads 51 The Charvers pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 2

The wings on the first horse aren’t as obvious as the others, but they are there, represented by feathers along the side of the trolley. The second horse has a young lady in a fairy-princess costume riding inside it, while the close-up of the third horse in the final picture shows beautiful decorative details in rainbow colours and glitter. I think there is a definite note of magical fairy-lands about these latter two pegasi, reflecting the way that winged horses have found their way into all sorts of post-Classical fantasy stories – these days especially My Little Pony. But the overall aesthetic of all three teams is definitely Classical. Besides, the worlds of magical princesses and the Classical Pegasus were memorably brought together by Ray Harryhausen and Desmond Davis in the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans, what with its distinctly magical fairy-princess version of Andromeda being rescued by Perseus astride Pegasus. So I think these teams are picking up on that merged heritage.

Next comes the hydra, defeated by Hercules as one of his Labours:

28 Saint John's Juggernauts hydra 3

The hydra was a terrible creature with multiple heads, all alive and moving independently, and I love the way this has been captured by the model. Some of the heads are static, others are on sticks allowing them to be moved around by the team, while several of the team-mates also wear caps with the same monster-head design, all adding to the impression of lots and lots of horrible scary heads moving around and trying to eat you! And if you look carefully just behind the head of the girl carrying the charity bucket, you will see that one of them has obviously been successful – there is a trouser-leg with a shoes hanging from the end of it dangling from its jaws. Brilliant!

The hydra crops up in lots of modern tellings of the Hercules story, such as Disney’s Hercules (1997), and we’ll doubtless be hearing a lot about it at the conference on receptions of Hercules which my colleague Emma Stafford is running later this month. But Ray Harryhausen and Don Chaffey also added it to the story of Jason and the Argonauts – which brings me neatly on to the next two teams:

39 Knaresborough Scouts Argonauts 1 87 Scotton Lingerfield Argonauts 2

The designs here are quite different. The first team has referenced the Jason story directly by including the golden ram’s head on their ship’s sail. I presume the fellow with the breast-plate and shield is Jason himself, apparently on his return journey since one of his team-mates can be seen holding the fabled golden fleece. The second team have gone for more of a sirens theme, shown in the costumes of the runners and a large stuffed mermaid figure on their ship’s stern (of which only the tail is visible in my picture). But their design scheme too is definitely Greek, and what makes me think above all that they are referencing the story of Jason and the Argonauts is the big blue eye on the front of their ship, which the first team have also included on theirs. In fact, of course, this appears on the Argo in the iconic modern telling of the Jason myth – Ray Harryhausen / Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963):

jason-and-the-argonauts-argo Jason Argo

So between these ships and the fairy-land Pegasi, Ray Harryhausen’s vision of Classical mythology has clearly had a pretty bit influence on these teams – a real tribute to the enduring power of his films which I have also discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Moving a little further forward in mythological time, we enter the period of the Trojan war and its great hero, Achilles, who was immune to weapons over his whole body except for one heel:

15 Castle Clinic Achilles heel

These people are osteopaths whose trolley proclaims that they don’t just treat backs – presumably, Achilles’ tendons are on the agenda too. A clever move from them to use the mythological reference in promoting their business, and a good example of how Classical references are transmitted through our culture. According to Wikipedia, the practice of describing the tendon at the back of the human foot with reference the story of Achilles grew up amongst anatomists in the early modern period (it’s recorded as an established practice in 1693). This was a time when learned people were well-steeped in Classical texts – in fact, anatomists were still making substantial use of ancient medical writers like Galen and Hippocrates. So it’s not surprising that they reached for Classical stories like the Achilles legend to name human body-parts. Now that name has stuck, and it helps in turn to keep the story alive. I’m sure many people now hear of an Achilles tendon before they know the story behind it, and I hope it inspires some people to discover the story itself.

After the death of Achilles, the Greeks finally turned the war in their favour by building the Trojan horse, filling it with soldiers, and leaving the unsuspecting Trojans to drag it inside their city walls. Two teams had a go at making their own version:

25 P&G The Grads Trojan horse 50 Orion Trojan horse 1

I am not sure you could fit very many soldiers inside the first horse, but the second one is pretty epic! To my eye, it also looks quite similar to the horse featured in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004):

trojan-horse

They’re not exactly the same, for sure – the Petersen one has a much ‘rougher’ look, capturing the feel of something cobbled together out of bits of broken-up ships. But there’s something about the use of individual planks of wood in this horse, as opposed to smooth panels like the other one, which gives it a similar feel.

Moving out of the realms of outright myths and into recorded history (which can still generate stories of legendary heroism, of course) it’s time to meet the Spartans:

35 Knaresborough Rugby Club Spartans 1

I think the combination of the shield designs, the helmets and the scanty tunics make it pretty clear that we are not just meeting any old Spartans here, but specifically the ones envisaged in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007):

300 Spartans shields

So we’ve now seen designs which are quite definitely influenced by 300 and Jason and the Argonauts, and probably also others influenced a little more indirectly by Clash of the Titans and Troy. Most Classicists today are already very well aware that one of the main routes by which non-specialists come into contact with Classical stories today is film and TV – indeed, my survey of which Roman emperors people in Leeds were familiar with showed much the same thing. But I think the choices made by these teams are one more proof of that, if anyone needs it.

Finally, we’ve not heard much from the Romans yet. That’s no big surprise. As Gideon Nisbet has shown, Greek mythology is big news in popular culture today, whereas the modern image of the Roman world is all about marching legions and gladiatorial games. So when people are dressing up to a ‘myths and legends’ theme, of course Greek stories are going to predominate. Nonetheless, three teams did lean in a Roman direction:

57 Commercial Estates ship 1

To be fair, this ship is quite multi-cultural. The overall design could be Greek or Roman, and alhough they’re not visible in this picture, it also had some quite Celtic-looking designs on the prow. If I could identify the picture of the female head on the stern, I might be clearer about where this team got their inspiration – but although I’m sure I’ve seen it before, I can’t pin it down now.

38 HACS Mythical Legends Boudicca 14 HPL Flyers chariot 2

These two are definitely Roman, though. The lady in the first chariot is clearly Boudicca, because she had the famous knives on her chariot wheels (not visible in the picture above, but see below right behind the two singers). I’m not so sure about the second lot – perhaps they were thinking of Boudicca too (especially since they are an all-female team), but decided to omit the knives? Or perhaps it’s a more general reference to Roman chariot-racing as seen in films such as Ben Hur? In any case, the net result is that the only identifiable story from the Roman period represented at the bed race was the story of Boudicca, who of course crucially wasn’t a Roman at all, and indeed stands in the popular imagination as a symbol of Celtic resistance to Roman imperialism. The many myths and legends which the Romans did actually have continue to languish in obscurity today, just as Wiseman has discussed.

For the sake of completeness, I should add that there was also a Roman rock band in the middle of the parade, featuring three dudes on guitars and drums in the back of a van, followed by two ladies on foot singing:

Roman rock band Roman rock band singers

Obviously they weren’t referencing any particular myth, but I’m sure their performances are legendary…

I’ll finish by saying that although I have concentrated on the Classically-themed teams here, because that’s my area of interest, the whole parade was brilliant, and the race itself was a thing to behold! There is a great video of this year’s race here, which shows some of the other teams and really captures the experience of the day as a whole, and I can really recommend going along to experience it for yourself if you get the chance:

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, rituals and festivals | 2 Comments »

Jason and the Argonauts (1963), dir. Don Chaffey

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on December 22, 2011

This was the other Harryhausen film which I watched (actually rewatched, in this case) in the run-up to our conference in November. Last time I saw this film, I had not yet seen Clash of the Titans, so one of the main things which struck me this time was how much of Jason anticipates things which are later reworked or built upon in Clash – and indeed which I’ve commented on from a Clash perspective in my review of that film.

The meta-referentiality in the portrayal of the gods is one obvious overlap, since both films depict the gods controlling little figurines which represent the mortal characters and their monstrous adversaries – just, of course, as Harryhausen controlled his models on the animator’s table. But where Clash emphasised the link with dramatic story-telling by having its Zeus place his figures specifically in a theatre, Jason instead casts the gods as game-players on an epic scale, who move pieces around on a board. This board is nothing less than the world itself, complete with seas and continents, and it reminded me very much of Risk – which was apparently released in 1957, so could potentially have been a direct influence. Certainly, the adversarial nature of the game, in which Zeus and Hera are competing with one another for dominance over mortal affairs through the figure of Jason, matches up quite nicely with the goals of the players in Risk.

At our conference, Stephen Trzaskoma showed in a brilliant paper how the theme of game-playing extends well beyond the board of the gods, casting Jason too as an active player (as when he holds games of his own to select his Argonauts, or ‘plays’ his Triton amulet in order to pass safely through the Clashing Rocks), and using the metaphor to explore the nature of the gods and their relationship with mortals. I’m really looking forward to the final version of Stephen’s paper for the full write-up of his thinking on this theme.

Clash‘s portrayals of epiphanic encounters with the gods have their origins in Jason, too. Clash showed us Thetis inhabiting her own statue in the temple at Joppa, just as Hera had earlier spoken through her figurehead in Jason. In fact, direct encounters between mortals and deities are frequent in Jason, with Hera also appearing as a mysterious veiled figure within her temple at Thessaly, and Mercury in the guise of an old man in the ruins of his own – to say nothing of the scene in which Jason is actually taken to Olympus and speaks directly to Zeus and Hera. As I noted when writing about Clash, all of this draws profoundly on ancient conceptions of the gods and their interactions with mortals, as understood in religious ceremonies, depicted on vase-paintings and described in mythological stories. And it is perhaps a little meta-referential too, reflecting Harryhausen’s ability to breathe a sort of divine life into his models just as the gods animate their own statues.

Then there are ruins as ruins – something I’ve noted now not only in Clash, but also in 20 Million Miles to Earth. Ruins in Jason do much the same job as in Clash of giving the world we are experiencing its own temporal depth, suggesting that centuries and centuries worth of struggles between mortals, gods and fantastical creatures have occurred before we even came in. In fact, the very same half-ruined temples at Paestum which helped to lend Medusa an air of the ancient and dreadful in Clash also crop up in Jason, where they set the stage for the attacks of the harpies on the blind king-in-exile Phineas. Here, they are cleverly worked into the action of the story by forming a ‘cage’ which allows the Argonauts to trap the harpies. But I also felt that they added an extra dimension to the figure of Phineas, echoing his ruined eyes and hunger-ravaged body, and perhaps also the ruinous relationship with Zeus which led to his exile and punishment. Certainly, the ruined temple where Jason encounters Mercury earlier in the film definitely does signal a dysfunctional relationship between negligent mortals and gods whose temples are left untended. And in this case, its ruinous state is definitely a conscious choice, rather than a necessity imposed by the use of real surviving remains, since although modelled on the temple of Athena at Delphi, it is clearly a set – so could have been reconstructed whole if that had suited the story better.

And there is the feeling that, like Clash, Jason is essentially an SF film. The quest format goes a long way towards creating that feeling, simply because it so closely mirrors the conventions of the ‘voyage into space’-style SF story. To the modern viewer, Jason’s visits to various islands and kingdoms, complete with fantastical creatures to battle, princesses to rescue and hardships to overcome, feel a great deal like (for example) a series of Star Trek episodes in which the islands are simply replaced by planets. I felt that Medea’s outfit in particular, with her sparkly technicolor make-up and shiny futuristic-looking dress, really added to this impression, making her look for all the world like a Space Princess.

But of course SF stories themselves regularly draw on the rich heritage of Greek mythological voyages, and even in antiquity Lucian of Samosata’s True Story was already demonstrating that a fantastical voyage could as easily take in a trip to the moon as it could the strange islands already visited by travellers like Odysseus. It’s a mistake to insist too hard on the distinction between mythological stories (Greek or otherwise) and SF, when both can be better understood as mutually-enriching branches of the wider fantasy genre – and indeed this was very much the theme of Tony Keen‘s paper at our conference

As for differences, the most striking one for me was the costume and set design. As I’ve said before, the design of Clash is very eclectic, with costumes and architecture from a range of places and periods mingled together, creating a sort of Otherworld feeling and emphasising the fantastical-mythological nature of the story. In Jason, the emphasis seems to be more on designing each setting fairly consistently, so that the contrasts between them convey the changes of location clearly. Thus, Jason’s homeland Thessaly is characterised by Archaic and Classical (i.e. roughly 7th to 4th centuries BC) Greek design, with the male characters wearing armour like that seen on black-figure vases, and various Classical-style temples dotted about the plcae. But Colchis, where the Golden Fleece is located and where Medea lives, is all Persian-Babylonian, with the men in ringleted curls, reliefs of winged lions and columns painted in bright oriental designs. This has some historical rationale behind it, given that Colchis did operate under Persian control for a while, but more importantly it lends a properly epic feel to Jason’s voyage, carrying him beyond the confines of the familiar Greek world and into a visibly different exotic eastern realm.

The model-work is, of course, enchanting throughout, and again all of the papers at our conference very much demonstrated the incredible influence that Harryhausen’s creations have had over the popular imagination. Everyone remembers Talos and the fighting skeletons, although I must confess to feeling a little underwhelmed by the Hydra. I get how difficult and impressive it is to animate a creature with nine heads and two tails – but the unique selling point of a Hydra is that if you cut off one of its heads, another one grows back in its place. Jason doesn’t cut off a single head, simply stabbing it in the heart instead, which felt like a bit of a cheat. In the end, though, my absolute favourite creature in the film is not an animated model, but the giant Triton who holds apart the Clashing Rocks so that Jason and his crew can sail between them.

I simply can’t imagine a better depiction of a sea-god than this. I love the rivers of water cascading from his greying hair; his chubby yet supernaturally strong body; his slow-motion movements; the sheer elemental power with which he wrenches back the rocks; and the real feeling of weight as he plunges back down beneath the waves afterwards. He conveys the raw, unpolished, untameable power of the sea really effectively – and I think it adds a great deal to this impression that he doesn’t talk like the other gods, but simply turns up, demonstrates his brute strength, nods and vanishes again. Rather sadly, I found while looking for images of him that the actor who turned in this brilliant performance is not only uncredited in the final film, but now not even reliably identified. But whoever you are or were, Triton man, thank you for your most fantastic sea-god.

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, reviews | 4 Comments »

Clash of the Titans (2010), dir. Louis Leterrier

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 28, 2011

I actually watched this film in October, in preparation for the day-long colloquium on Clash of the Titans which we held at Leeds at the end of that month. It’s taken me a while to write it up, partly because I’ve been busy, but also because it was clearly going to be a bit of an epic review. Not only did I already have a lot to say about the film myself by the time I’d finished watching it, but I then attended three excellent papers about it during the colloquium which gave me a whole swathe of interesting new perspectives on it. What follows is now a combination of my own original responses and further ideas which I picked up from the three papers presented on the day. I’ve tried to give the appropriate credit wherever it is due, but apologies if there is some bleeding between my own ideas and other people’s.

Overview

Like the 1981 film (in fact, I’d say rather more so), on one level the 2010 version is a bit pants. So let’s get that out of the way first. The dialogue is laboured, the story is unengaging and rather nonsensical (partly because important plot-development scenes were edited out during the production process), and I personally find brutish, macho heroes of the kind presented here alienating and uninteresting. So this just isn’t destined for my top ten favourite films list – or indeed my top one hundred, for that matter.

But then again, it very obviously isn’t aimed at me. It follows Gladiator, 300 and (as Gideon Nisbet and Dunstan Lowe‘s papers made clear) a bunch of video games which I have never played, and have no desire to play, in focussing on action adventure and manly heroics. And I guess that’s what some people go to the cinema for. It’s not really my bag – but all the same, there is still plenty of interest for me to pick over here about the use of the Classical past and the concerns of modern audiences.

Then and now: 1981 and 2010

The 2010 film positions itself quite explicitly in relation to the 1981 version, but usually in a ways designed to create a sense of difference and distance between the two. It starts where the 1981 film left off – out amongst the stars, with a narrative voice-over setting the scene – as if to say that it intends to move forwards from that point, rather than going back to re-tread old ground. And although my friend and I both cheered when Bubo, the mechanical owl from the first film, put in a cameo appearance in the palace armoury, he turned out to be there only so that he could be rejected, and proper ‘serious’ weapons chosen instead – again, a sign that the new film wanted to present itself as taking a different approach to the story.

All the same, the plot structure of the two films is broadly similar (though nothing like entirely so). I also spotted an interesting example of parallel casting with Cassiopeia, the mother of Andromeda. Back in 1981, she was played by Siân Philips, who had recently starred as Livia in I Clavdivs, while in 2010 she was Polly Walker – recently famous for playing the very similar role of Atia in HBO’s Rome.

Her daughter Andromeda’s role has been almost entirely reimagined, though, and indeed largely pushed aside in favour of the ageless (yet not immortal) Io. As my colleague Steve Green pointed out in his paper at the colloquium, this is a really important change which helps the film to bring out what is clearly meant to be one of its main themes – Perseus’ struggle to come to terms with his split identity as a half-man, half-god. Io with her curse of agelessness occupies a similar position, and this means that she can a) act as a more appropriate romantic match for Perseus, and b) gradually guide him towards embracing both sides of his parentage. As Io tells him, “You’re not just part man, part god. You’re the best of both.”

Io’s role outside the story

But Io isn’t merely a character within the story. She also stands outside it in a number of ways. It is she who provides the film’s narrative voice-overs, and in this role she seems to enjoy a long-term perspective on the film’s events. Given that she is ageless, perhaps we are meant to understand that she has lived long past the period covered in the film, and is looking back on it from several centuries later – possibly even from our own time? If so, that makes her role rather similar to that of the director, who has the same overview of the story which he is telling.

Certainly, within the film itself, she does play a directorial role. It is Io who gives Perseus his ‘mission’ by telling him, “You were born to kill the Kraken”, and helps to train him up for his fight with Medusa by sparring with him on Charon’s boat. She also provides explanation and backstory where necessary – for example saying that the Stygian witches will know how to kill the Kraken, or explaining Medusa’s history. With relation to the previous film, this means that she seems to have absorbed the role of the playwright Ammon, who struck me there as a kind of in-story director-figure, and who has otherwise more or less disappeared from the 2010 version of the film.

The visual aesthetic

The visual aesthetic is also different from the 1981 film, moving from bright costumes and big hair to grungey grime and crew-cuts. But I think it is still operating within the same tradition – it’s just that that tradition in itself has altered radically in the past 30 years. As I said in my review of the 1981 film, its visual aesthetic helps to signal its links with the SF/Fantasy genre – but at that time, this was a genre full of films like Flash Gordon and Star Wars, and the costumes and model-work for Clash 1981 reflect that.

Now, SF/Fantasy visualisations are all about dark colour-palettes and CGI effects – and that’s what we have in Clash 2010. I certainly spotted multiple visual references to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, anyway – the appearance of Argos; treks through forests and desolate mountains; and perhaps also Io’s rather Elfin look. But Gideon Nisbet and Dunstan Lowe’s papers also opened my eyes to a whole world of further visual resonances which I hadn’t been aware of because I don’t play video games. There are characters, architectural designs, spatial layouts and even action sequences in Clash 2010 which relate directly to games like Titan Quest and God of War – and of course the cycle continues via a Clash of the Titans spin-off game.

Meanwhile, on the cultural-historical front, the settings for Clash 2010 were not quite such a bizarre mish-mash as they had been in the 1981 version. The mise-en-scène is predominantly Greek – and OK, so it’s Classical Greek rather than Bronze Age, as shown by the Attic red-figure vase paintings and gilded caryatids in the palace at Argos, but that seems reasonable enough for a mythological story which has no real historical setting. At least it’s broadly the right culture. But I also noticed quite a hefty dose of Roman-looking art and architecture, too, including embossed silver drinking-cups, a statue of a bearded Roman emperor in one corner of the palace and a recognisable arched aqueduct supplying water to the city of Argos.

Three father figures

At our colloquium, Steve Green’s paper touched on some of the similarities between Clash of the Titans and another mythologically-inspired 2010 film – Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Like Perseus, Percy Jackson is the son of a god, and much of the emphasis in his story lies with the theme of broken homes, split identities, and not knowing your real father – also prominent themes in the 2010 Clash. In fact, in our discussion session, we realised that Clash of the Titans features no less than three father figures, each occupying distinctly different points on the spectrum of possible father-son relationships.

At the ‘nasty‘ end is Acrisius, Perseus’ (unwilling) step-father, who hates Perseus because he is a reminder of his wife, Danae’s, rape by Zeus. (I will note as an aside here that I find the trope of one man (Zeus) raping a woman (Danae) as a means of punishing another man (Acrisius) utterly abhorrent, and I would have liked to see that being commented on and challenged within the film. But it wasn’t, which is another reason why this just isn’t the sort of film I’m ever going to really enjoy.)

Acrisius is portrayed as an out-and-out villain, and as part of his villainy he also absorbs the role of Calibos from the previous film. After being struck with lighting and deformed by Zeus, he literally changes his name to ‘Calibos’, and becomes a crazed killer, bent on vengeance against Perseus. Although Hades ropes him into his own vendetta against Zeus by giving him special powers, Acrisius-Calibos’ own jealous motives remain clear – as, for example, when he encounters Perseus in the forest, and hisses, “You reek of your father” (i.e. Zeus).

In the ‘nice‘ corner is Spyros, Perseus’ adoptive father (played by the now-deceased Pete Postlethwaite), who brings him up from babyhood. Like Acrisius, Spyros has no blood relationship with Perseus, but the contrast between the two characters serves to signal that this doesn’t mean there can’t be a loving family bond. Spyros, and indeed Perseus’ whole adoptive family, is portrayed as loving and kind – they meet our expectations of what a ‘proper’ family should be, even without any blood link. As Spyros tells Perseus, “I am your father, Perseus. Marmara is your mother. And you will always be our son. The bond between us is… it’s much more than flesh and bone.”

And in the middle there is Zeus, Perseus’ biological father. Part of the story-arc of the film is the gradual development of a meaningful bond between Perseus and Zeus, despite their initial indifference (Zeus) or even hatred (Perseus) towards one another. When Hades first tells Zeus that Perseus is in Argos, he doesn’t care, simply saying that he hasn’t heard his prayers, and that he is no different from any other mortal. By half-way through the film, he has begun trying to create a relationship with Perseus, but at this stage it offered on his terms only – he invites Perseus to live on Olympus, and is angry and offended when Perseus rejects him. Finally, at the end, Zeus accepts that Perseus needs to live his own life, Perseus accepts Zeus’ help, and the two are reconciled.

Between the three figures, then, father-son relationships are explored from every possible angle, with a fairly clear conclusion that it is the emotional bonds between the two parties that matter, rather than the biological ones. In the absence of biological ties, the relationship can be either highly functional, as with Spyros, or completely disastrous, as with Acrisius. And Perseus’ final reconciliation with Zeus happens because they have developed an emotional bond, not because they are actually related. It’s a very twenty-first century view of how family relationships are defined and what they mean – and, incidentally, much the same story as plays out between the Doctor and Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter.

Religious tensions

Another major concern of the 2010 film lies with the nature and impact of religion. The 1981 version did depict rivalries between the gods – particularly Zeus and Thetis. It also ended with Thetis asking Zeus whether mortals should be allowed to get away with obstructing the gods’ plans, as Perseus had done to her:

THETIS: What a dangerous precedent. What if there more heroes like him? What if courage and imagination became everyday mortal qualities? What will become of us?
ZEUS: We would no longer be needed. But, for the moment, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth and mendacity down there on Earth to last forever.

But for the most part, the 1981 film chose not to engage with the relationship between mankind and the gods in any great detail. Indeed, the challenge to divine authority which Thetis complained about was not the real aim of the 1981 Perseus. He had simply intended to win the hand of the lovely Andromeda, and killing Calibos and the Kraken were secondary outcomes of this quest.

In the 2010 version, the religious dimensions of the story are much more central, and much more complex. The fraught relationship between mankind and the gods is central to the film, and personalised in Perseus’ uncomfortable position between the two. But we also see tensions within both camps, as different individual humans disagree with one another on how best to respond to the power of the gods, and different individual gods struggle with one another for supremacy.

The human response to the gods mainly reflects 21st-century scepticism of authority-figures. Belief as such is not in question, since the gods are entirely real within the terms of the story. But characters like Spyros and Perseus forcefully question whether humanity should be worshipping the gods while they behave arrogantly and are indifferent to mortal suffering. “One day,” Spyros grumbles, “somebody’s gonna have to make a stand. One day, somebody’s gonna have to say – enough!”

Yet we also see some humans responding to godly misdeeds with renewed religious fervour. This attitude is characterised in particular by Prokopion, the loin-clothed, top-knotted religious fanatic in Argos, who reacts to the anger of the gods by calling for greater heights of devotion – seeking to placate the gods, rather than reject them. He responds to Hades’ curse on Argos by proclaiming, “We must turn our hearts to Hades – it is the only way!”, and eagerly leads the movement to sacrifice Andromeda in order to save the rest of the city.

This is of course rather closer to the typical authentic ancient response when people suspected that the gods might be angry with them – root out any possible religious deviants and redouble the sacrifices. But we’re clearly not supposed to admire it. Our top-knotted fanatic bays for blood, commits extremist acts like burning his own hand to make a point, and appears to take sexual pleasure in the sacrifice of Andromeda. He can be mapped onto almost any modern religious extremist movement of our choosing, and appears very much characteristic of the concerns of this post-9/11 world. Interestingly, he is eventually killed by the falling hand of the Kraken after it has been turned into stone, which seemed to me like an ironic twist on Old Testament-style stories about people being struck down for worshipping false idols – except this time with the fanatic being killed directly by the idol itself.

Meanwhile, up on Mount Olympus, there is a direct rivalry between Zeus and Hades which makes them look a lot like the Judeo-Christian God and Satan. Certainly, we are explicitly told in the opening credits that Zeus is a creator-god (“It was Zeus who created man…”), while Hades’ black robes, his murderous bat-like harpies and his attempts to trick Zeus all map quite nicely onto traditional ideas about the Devil (not to mention drawing fruitfully on Ralph Fiennes’ star image as the actor associated with Voldemort in the Potterverse). But Zeus’ own childish, impulsive behaviour makes him far from a paragon of virtue, and indeed this Zeus is a much more morally ambiguous figure than his equivalent in the 1981 film. If he’s a proxy for God, then he starts the film as the Old Testament God of plagues and vengeance. By the end though, of course, his link with Perseus has forced him to become more human and more forgiving. If that’s the case, then another element to Perseus’ role in the film is to echo the story of Jesus establishing the New Testament, and re-harmonising the relationship between mankind and the divine.

Posted in birds, christianity, classical receptions, computer games, films, greek mythology, reviews | 5 Comments »

Clash of the Titans (1981), dir. Desmond Davis

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 29, 2010

Today in Leeds, our department will be hosting a colloquium on Clash of the Titans. Our event will focus on the 2010 remake, but part of the inspiration for it was the news that an archive collection of the work of Ray Harryhausen, who produced and did the model work for the 1981 film, has recently been pledged to the National Media Museum in nearby Bradford. So I decided to take this as a prompt to sit down and watch the 1981 film properly.

Although I’ve seen substantial chunks of it before during random channel-hopping escapades on Bank Holiday weekends, this was the first time that I had watched Clash of the Titans from start to finish. And while on one level obviously it is cheesy and nonsensical and burdened with some truly terrible dialogue, I found a lot to enjoy here as well. Clash comes very much from the same stable as Jason and the Argonauts, with both using not only Ray Harryhausen’s model-work but also a screen-play written by Beverley Cross. So it is no great surprise to find that the basic structure of the heroic adventure at the centre of each film is very similar, or that they share particular characteristic motifs such as the direct portrayal of the Olympian gods playing games with the lives of men.

The story for Clash of the Titans is based on the legends of Perseus, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, it has a pretty strained relationship with any of the known ancient versions of Perseus’ story. That’s perfectly OK with me, though, because of course the entire point of mythological stories is that they are fantastical. There is no such thing as an ‘accurate’ telling of an ancient myth – poets and playwrights changed them constantly to suit the needs and interests of their audiences, and there is no reason why modern script-writers and directors shouldn’t do exactly the same. Indeed, Clash of the Titans actively revels in those creative possibilities, treating Greek mythology as an infinitely-flexible fantasy otherworld in which anything and everything can happen.

The visual aesthetic makes this very clear. The conventional approach to Greek mythology is to try to set it in a context which looks at least vaguely in keeping with a Bronze Age Aegean setting: that is what Troy (2004) did, for example, though they missed the mark on some points. But the world of Clash of the Titans is an unashamedly multi-period, multi-cultural fantasy-world, drawing freely on whatever takes its fancy. Even within the broad cultural parameters of the Greek world, it roams wildly though time: Minoan paintings from Akrotiri decorate the royal palace at Joppa, while a Classical-period theatre lies on the outskirts of the city. But that is as nothing next to the Egyptian obelisk outside the witches’ lair, the Assyrian winged bulls in the town of Joppa, and a modified version of the Roman Ara Pacis relief in the temple of Thetis:

Meanwhile, the market scenes in Joppa featured a lot of generically oriental (part Turkish, part Indian) costumes and characters, and the ferry-man Charon was a straight-forwardly medieval cloaked skeleton Death. I found that the whole mish-mash suddenly cast a whole new light for me on one of my favourite ’90s fantasy TV shows, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, which operates in much the same sort of blurry, culturally-plural otherworld. Hercules rubbed shoulders with Greek heroes one week and Julius Caesar the next: to say nothing of Druids, Sultans and the infant Christ. And it isn’t just the aesthetic that the two have in common, either. The behaviour of the gods in Clash of the Titans is so similar to the ones found in Hercules that you only have to change the names for the portentous opening narration from the Hercules series to apply just as well to this movie:

“This is the story of a time long ago – a time of myth and legend, when the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering. Only one man dared to challenge their power: Hercules. Hercules possessed a strength the world had never seen. A strength surpassed only by the power of his heart. He journeyed the Earth battling the minions of his wicked stepmother, Hera, the all-powerful Queen of the gods. But wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be: HERCULES.”

In fact, there are quite a few signs that the producers of Clash of the Titans thought of it as an SF/Fantasy film much more than a Classical epic: the hey-day of which had already passed two decades earlier, anyway. The use of stop-motion animation obviously does recall one earlier epic – that is, Jason and the Argonauts. But it has a much more firmly-established pedigree in the SF/Fantasy genre, through films like King Kong, the Godzilla movies or most of Ray Harryhausen’s other films. The climactic scene in which the Kraken rises up out of the sea to devour the princess Andromeda even contains direct nods to King Kong: not only do we have the basic device of an enormous monster menacing an attractive young woman, but he also bats at Perseus flying around him on the back of Pegasus, just like the giant gorilla had batted at the aeroplanes buzzing around him on top of the Empire State Building. I am not the first person to notice the striking resemblance between Bubo, the mechanical owl who communicates in clicks and whirrs that only Perseus can understand, and R2-D2 from Star Wars, either – whether coincidental (as Harryhausen claimed) or otherwise.

It is also a distinctly meta-referential film. We see Zeus directing the affairs of mortals by placing clay figurines in a scale model of a theatre, like a director masterminding his scenes – or, in this case, like Ray Harryhausen placing his own models. Meanwhile, in the ‘real’-world equivalent of the same theatre, Perseus meets a poet-cum-playwright, Ammon, who has already written a poem about his miraculous escape from a watery death as a tiny baby – scenes which we as the audience have witnessed at the beginning of the film. It is Ammon, too, who gives Perseus his ‘mission’ for the rest of the film (itself a classic SF/Fantasy trope) by telling him about the beautiful princess Andromeda and her plight – thus providing in-story direction for the main character. And when Perseus has finally fought off all the monsters and got the girl, Ammon happily comments, “This would make a fine heroic poem, you know. Or perhaps a play.” Or, indeed, perhaps a film. It’s too long since I have watched Jason and the Argonauts for me to remember how prominent this sort of content was in that film – although I certainly do remember its famous scenes of the gods playing games on Mount Olympus which are then enacted for real on Earth. It’s interesting, though, and perhaps something which the film’s rather tongue-in-cheek fantastical character provides extra room to play around with.

A couple of other clever features which rather tickled my fancy included the use of real ancient sites, merged with set-dressing and long shots of scale models to create an appropriate setting for the action. I was especially impressed by the use of one of the temples from Paestum to serve as the home of Medusa on the Isle of the Dead. Here, the ruined state of the temple becomes not a flaw to be hidden with clever camera-work, but something that is positively apt for the isolated, crumbling lair of a terrifying monster. So for once we have ruins as ruins, rather than seeing them trying to masquerade as recently constructed, yet inexplicably poorly-maintained, contemporary buildings.

I also thought that the scene where the statue of Thetis in her temple at Joppa comes to life and begins speaking directly to the terrified crowds was a great way of conveying how people understood and interacted with cult statues in the ancient world – very much as avatars of the deities whom they represented, with the god or goddess inherently present within them. It reminded me, too, of a rather similar scene with a statue of Zeus in Disney’s Hercules (1997) – so that’s another version of the Hercules story which may very well be drawing on the legacy of Clash.

Then again, there were things to be disappointed about, too. I couldn’t help but notice that Perseus’ great quest essentially consists of him stomping about the place vanquishing women (the Stygian witches, Medusa), people with deformities or disabilities (Calibos, the Stygian witches) or animals (a budget Cerberus with only two heads, Medusa, the scorpions, the Kraken). And OK, so most of that is just imported directly from Greek mythology. Greek men do seem to have spent an awful lot of time inventing Others whom they could then loathe, fear and condemn – and if you try to rule that out of modern re-workings of their stories altogether, you end up with precious little left. But in the case of Calibos in particular, I felt that there was some distinctly unpleasant contemporary politics-of-otherness going on as well. Because his monstrosity is not represented not just via horns, a tail and a stooped posture, but also through dark skin and tight curly hair.

In other words, this particular monster is distinctly Afro-Caribbean-looking. So the heroic white man gets to be racist as well as misogynistic and ableist. Fun times! :-( Realistically, I don’t ask cheesy entertainment-fests like Clash of the Titans to actively challenge and tackle attitudes like that. But it would be nice at least if they could manage not to add gratuitous new negative stereotypes where they aren’t already inherent in the source material.

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, reviews, roman art, television | 7 Comments »

Shrek Forever After (2010), dir. Mike Mitchell

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on July 19, 2010

I saw this film at the weekend with a friend and her family, including her five-year-old daughter who seemed to enjoy it very much! It worked very nicely for us adults, too, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it even included a few minor Classical references.

The main plot of the film concerns Shrek being sent to an alternate universe where he never rescued Fiona from the castle in the first film, and Far Far Away (the fairy kingdom where he lives) has fallen into the evil clutches of Rumpelstiltskin. His job is to win Fiona’s heart all over again and save Far Far Away into the bargain – and he must do it by the next sunrise, or disappear forever. This means that we get to enjoy all the fun of seeing Far Far Away transformed into a mean, nasty place, where witches hold club nights in the palace and Fiona is the hard-as-nails leader of an underground resistance force. There is lots of darkness and grittiness and dastardly goings-on, which I personally enjoyed far more than the happily-ever-after world that Shrek was inhabiting in the first place.

As I said, the Classical references amongst all this were pretty minor, but together they made for a very interesting demonstration of how Classics can work in modern popular culture.

Two of them drew on Greek mythology. First, early on in the film, the Queen of Far Far Away told the King that Rumpelstiltskin’s services had been recommended to her by King Midas – very appropriately, since one of Rumpelstiltskin’s talents was turning straw into gold. The Fairyland which Shrek inhabits is mainly populated by stories and characters drawn from the European fairytale tradition represented by Hans Christian Anderson and the brothers Grimm, but this reference means that the stories of Classical mythology are also integrated into the same narrative space. Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that this had already been established in the third Shrek film (which I haven’t seen), which features a Cyclops. It isn’t the only multi-cultural fantasy-land to include stories and characters drawn from Classical mythology alongside those from more recent times – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse both do the same thing. But it’s always nice from my perspective to see Classical mythology being included, even if (as here) it is fairly low in the mix.

The second Greek reference comes much later in the film, when Shrek and Fiona are imprisoned in the dungeon of Rumpelstiltskin’s castle in the alternate reality. Donkey and a bunch of ogres get into the castle to rescue them by hiding inside a giant disco ball which Rumpelstiltskin is having installed – i.e. a Trojan Horse. This time, the reference is implicit rather than explicit, and indeed sufficiently oblique that it may not have been intentional. But either way it contributes further to the sense that this is an all-encompassing fantasy-world, drawing on plot devices from across the full range of human story-telling.

The final reference was Roman rather than Greek, and again only featured as a small passing reference: but to me it spoke volumes about the different places which Greek and Roman culture occupy in the modern popular imagination. In the dark alternate universe where Rumpelstiltskin is king, we see that the inhabitants of Far Far Away have had to turn to crime, begging and other nefarious activities in order to survive. Amongst them is ‘Gingy’ the Gingerbread man, who has become a gladiator, and fights animal crackers to amuse the passing crowds in a miniature arena in the street. In other words, where references to Greek mythology were serving to widen the scope of the fantasy-world, a reference to Roman history is being used to strengthen the grimy brutality of the dark alternate universe.

This is not news, of course: in fact, 18th-century opera (for example) was already drawing readily on fantastical stories from Greek mythology and brutal stories from Roman history. It’s partly a consequence of the types of literary texts which have comes down to us from each culture, and partly a reflection of modern needs and interests. But a film like this one, which is really drawing mainly on other modern references to Classical culture (e.g. Gladiator) rather than trying to engage seriously and directly with the original sources, can show the pattern up particularly distinctly precisely because it is simply following in the popular vein.

And it might be tempting for me to get all snotty about it, and wish that Greek and Roman culture weren’t constantly stereotyped and distorted like this. But you know, stereotypes have their place, and one of the things they can do very effectively is conjure up a quick and easily-recognisable impression of something that the audience is already familiar with. So I’d much rather see Classical culture popping up in films like Shrek Forever After via simplified stereotypes than not appearing at all. Because that means that Classical history and mythology still hold an important place in our modern 21st-century culture – one which the film’s audience can be expected to recognise and enjoy. And that is why the study of the Classical past is still so popular and important today.

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, reviews, roman history | 7 Comments »

 
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