Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 6, 2013

I recently spent a very enjoyable day at the British Museum, first delivering a paper at an OCR teachers’ conference, and then going to see the BM’s current major exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which it was designed to tie in with. Well over a hundred very engaged and enthusiastic teachers attended the conference, demonstrating the thriving current interest in Classical subjects at school level, and I’m pleased to say that they seemed to enjoy hearing my thoughts on the disparities in living standards at Pompeii and the tendency for elite houses to be surrounded like islands by smaller houses, shops and workshops. I certainly enjoyed sitting amongst them and hearing Alison Cooley showing the audience what stories the collections of writing tablets from Pompeii and Herculaneum can tell us about the lives and status of their inhabitants, Ray Laurence exploring the question of whether or not carts really made up much of the traffic in Pompeii, and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill sharing some of the important insights into life in Herculaneum which have come out of a project originally designed ‘just’ to conserve the standing remains.

I allowed over two hours in the Pompeii exhibition before I would need to leave to catch my train, Bacchus Vesuvius snakebut in fact there was so much to see that I rather wish I had allowed three. Though I had a fair idea of what the exhibition would contain before I stepped through the doors, and had seen most of it before in books and on websites, I had forgotten just how much more you can get out of looking at even familiar art and artefacts in real life. I spent a great deal of time peering closely at items such as this painting of bread handouts and the full set to which this painting of gamers belongs, noticing details which I had never spotted before; or walking around this sculpture of hunting dogs attacking a stag and the various items of charred wooden furniture to fully experience their effect in three dimensions. I especially enjoyed being able to read tiny painted or inscribed texts for myself, and realised for the first time that while the rest of the famous painting of Bacchus and Vesuvius (right) is in extremely good condition, the head of the snake is considerably worn – presumably because the inhabitants of the house where it was originally set up liked to touch it for luck as they went past. (Yes, snakes were considered lucky in the ancient world). It was also nice to see some recent finds, such as items from the sewer excavated by the Herculaneum Conservation Project.

But although I enjoyed looking at the individual items, I found myself far less convinced by the way they had been put together. The publicity for the exhibition claims that it takes visitors to ‘the heart of people’s lives’ in Pompeii and Herculaneum, by focusing on domestic life. The items are grouped according to the rooms which they might originally have been used or displayed in, and the exhibition space is laid out to resemble the design of a Pompeian house (at least as far as the circular space of the old Round Reading Room allows). This is certainly a nice change from museum exhibitions which focus exclusively on the high art of the political elite, and it is a format which allows plenty of room for relatable everyday items such as oil-lamps, hair-pins, cooking equipment and jars full of ivory tooth-picks.

The problem, though, is that the British Museum’s ‘house’ presents visitors with a kind of pastiche. It contains a medley of items which have actually been drawn from many different houses (and indeed public buildings, bars and streets) in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, which date from different periods and which come from different social contexts. Of course this is how exhibitions work. To really wow visitors, the organisers aim to collect together the most interesting, well-preserved and beautifully-made items from the culture or context which they are concerned with – and the contents of any one individual house from either Pompeii or Herculaneum could not hope to match what can be cherry-picked from multiple different houses on this front. But I felt that putting them together in way which mimicked the experience of moving through a single house implied that they genuinely all belonged together, and robbed visitors of the chance to fully appreciate the range of different living conditions which Pompeii and Herculaneum actually attest.

Meanwhile, the same urge towards the spectacular has meant that in practice the contents of the exhibition reflects above all the lives of the wealthy. Yes, we do encounter freedmen and women, slaves, and people of more ordinary means. One cabinet, for example, displays the fine gold jewellery of the wealthy elite next to the cheaper imitations which most people would have worn instead, so that visitors can see the difference directly for themselves. But the sheer preponderance of marble sculptures, fine wall-paintings, silver tableware and beautifully inlaid furniture, as well as the decision to organise the exhibition according to the layout of an elite house, creates the impression that a ‘typical’ Pompeian or Herculanean lived a life of luxury and splendour.

Having just given a talk earlier in the day about the very different living conditions of the rich and poor in Pompeii, I found this very frustrating, and wished that the exhibition organisers had been more careful about it. I found myself imagining a rather different exhibition, in which the the ‘elite house’ experience had been shrunk down to make space for two more separate exhibition areas fitted alongside it – one showing life in a modest house of only a few rooms, and one going right to the bottom of the social scale to show us life in the back room of a shop or perhaps a poky upstairs apartment. They could even be linked together by a short section of street frontage, with doorways to all three opening off it, since people of very different social status really did live right next door to each other in Roman cities. All of the same items as are in the actual exhibition could still have been included, but dividing them up into different households would make the reality of life in Pompeii and Herculaneum much clearer, and counter the belief that ‘the Romans’ were a single homogeneous group who all thought and lived alike – something which I see all too often in student essays.

For all that, though, the exhibition is clearly incredibly popular. It is already solidly booked out until the end of May, and is obviously attracting a really diverse range of interested visitors. While I was there I saw families, be-suited city workers, people speaking French, Italian, German and all sorts of other languages which I couldn’t identify, and all of them engrossed in the exhibits, pointing things out to one another and exclaiming over them with great interest. The audio guide and app are obviously both a great hit, and of course the exhibition has spurred a whole range of documentaries and events to run alongside it – included the conference I went down to contribute to.

So although I can see room for improvement, I can’t fault the British Museum for connecting with the public, and I take my hat off to them for an exhibition which can only help to boost public interest in the Roman world. If you haven’t caught up with it yourself yet, you’ve got until September 29th to do so – but I recommend you make sure you have booked your tickets by at least the end of August.

Posted in exhibitions, pompeii, reviews, roman art, roman cities, roman history | 4 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 »

“You should have paid more attention to your history books”: The Highlanders and the end of an era

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 15, 2011

The Highlanders (1966-7) is very much a watershed story for Doctor Who. It isn’t actually Patrick Troughton’s first appearance, but it is Frazer Hines’ – and given that Hines is absent from only one Troughton story (The Power of the Daleks), his arrival seems to herald the true beginning of the Second Doctor era. That impression is strongly reinforced by the fact that this is also the last of the great ‘pure’ historical stories – a regular feature of the show since its beginnings in 1963.

In fact, this story’s approach to history reveals a lot about why the pure historical ran to ground here on these Scottish moors. Back in the show’s first season, William Hartnell’s Doctor was portrayed as aloof and self-serving – interested in other cultures only as scientific curiosities, and becoming involved with them only when he was (temporarily) unable to get back to the TARDIS. His approach to history fitted perfectly with this. When Barbara decides that she wants to try to save Aztec culture from destruction, his response shows that he basically thinks she is an idiotic dreamer:

“But you can’t rewrite history – not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible.”

Of course it was, because part of the fantasy which Doctor Who has always shared with its viewers is that its stories are on some level taking place in the same universe which we inhabit. It’s fun to imagine that at any moment we could turn a corner and stumble into the TARDIS. But if the Doctor or his companions change Earth’s history as we know it, that illusion crumbles. We all know what happened to the Aztecs, and if something different plays out on our screens, we have to conclude that the story is not taking place in our world.

That wasn’t a problem for the early Doctor. He didn’t want to change history anyway. But by the end of the show’s second season, he had started to develop some distinctly heroic traits – particularly obvious in The Time Meddler when he comes up against a villainous opposite number. Faced with the Meddling Monk, the Doctor takes on his now-familiar role as defender of the established time-line. But, paradoxically, this sort of behaviour was also turning him into a historical liability. The more audiences got used to him overthrowing oppressors and righting wrongs in future / alien settings (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Ark, The Savages), the less it made sense that he wouldn’t also do so in Earth’s past.

And indeed he did. In The Gunfighters, he demands that Pa Clanton should call off “this ridiculous duel” – better known to history as the gun-fight at the O.K. Corral. In The Smugglers, he feels duty bound to save the Cornish village from the pirates. And by The Highlanders, the new Doctor and his companions seem to find it entirely obvious that their role in the story should be to save the rebel prisoners from slavery – not simply to escape at the first opportunity.

For the fantasy that Doctor Who is taking place in our universe to be maintained, these plans either had to fail, as in The Gunfighters, or take place around the edges of recorded history, as in The Smugglers and The Highlanders. Historical characters and events are referenced in these last two stories (the pirate Avery, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the battle of Culloden), but the TARDIS crew don’t get involved with them directly. Instead, they interact only with unrecorded people, and experience unrecorded events.

We’re basically working here with an implicit distinction between ‘history’, which has been recorded and cannot be changed, and ‘the past’, which hasn’t and apparently can. Obviously, this doesn’t make much sense to modern audiences used to the idea that any small action can have huge unforeseen consequences, and these days it seems to be covered instead by the idea (first expressed in The Fires of Pompeii) that some events are ‘fixed’ while others are ‘in flux’. But either explanation does the same job of providing room for creative manoeuvre in a historical setting. It leaves the field wide open for whatever the production team want to do – including portraying the Doctor as a moral hero.

Ultimately, though, that can be done even better without the dramatic constraints of a historical setting at all, and I think that must be one of the main reasons why the pure historical story had run its course by this point. I know most commentators focus on poor audience feedback and growing production-level hostility when explaining its demise, but to me the development of the Doctor’s heroism is a major contributor. The time was ripe for the pseudo-historical, in which he could instead fight for recorded history by saving the Earth from an unrecorded alien threat.

Meanwhile, it’s clear from The Highlanders that the original educational remit of the historical stories has been all but abandoned. When Ben asks what is wrong with attracting every English soldier within miles, the Doctor simply exclaims, “You should have paid more attention to your history books, Ben!” The broadcast of the Culloden documentary two years earlier probably meant that those audience members who cared were better-informed than Ben, leaving the script free to concentrate on romps and heroics instead. But not all historical eras could enjoy the same level of audience familiarity. The potential for lengthy explanations to get in the way of action and adventure must be another reason why the historical format was becoming undesirable.

The Doctor’s comment provides another index of changing approaches, too. He implies that history books are mainly useful as a survivor’s guide for time-travellers caught up in politically-sensitive situations. But compare Barbara’s exasperated comment to Ian during their argument over which side was ‘right’ in the French Revolution: “You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve!” This reflects a quite different vision of history – not simply an adventure to be survived, but a moral laboratory, where different ideologies can be weighed up against one another. For Barbara, history books don’t just provide practical survival tips, but offer a balanced viewpoint on issues which are hard to assess in the heat of the moment.

To me, Barbara’s approach allows for more satisfying drama. It’s noticeable that another thing we don’t get in The Highlanders, but did in The Reign of Terror, is much opportunity for the contemporary locals to voice their beliefs and motivations. Polly, for example, has some quite long (and pleasingly Bechdel-compliant) conversations with the Laird’s daughter, Kirsty – but she doesn’t show any real interest in Kirsty’s life beyond the immediate events of the story. They talk a lot about things which Polly has experienced and Kirsty hasn’t – matches, dog biscuits, fillings, women in trousers, money, piggy-backs. But Kirsty’s life experiences – cattle raiding, royalist exploitation, family servants – emerge only in passing and are never pursued by Polly. It’s taken as read that her family are fighting for the Jacobite cause – but why? What does it mean to them? In The Reign of Terror, clashes of ideology were central to the story, and the perspectives of both sides were explored. But in The Highlanders the clash has come to feel a lot more like a mere backdrop to a goodies vs. baddies adventure story.

Still, it’s all very well to sit here over forty years later and imply that Doctor Who should have stuck to doing intellectual historicals, rather than ripping good adventure yarns. I see why the change was made, and I’m sure it was vital to the continuing success of the series. But I can’t help wishing that Doctor Who had carried on for a while longer paying just a little more attention to those history books.

Posted in doctor who, history, reviews, television | 2 Comments »

Neville Longbottom as Horatius Cocles

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 16, 2011

Last week, I joined the ranks of those who have marked the end of the Harry Potter era by watching The Deathly Hallows Part 2. I enjoyed seeing the characters I’ve known for so long, grown to full maturity and able to defeat Voldemort at last; loved the cinematic realisation of the Battle of Hogwarts; and shed a quiet tear when Harry described Snape as one of the bravest men he’d ever known in the final scene. But what caught my attention most of all was a short little scene featuring Neville Longbottom which had powerful Classical resonances.

It comes during the Battle of Hogwarts, just before and after the shield of protection around the school breaks down. The rickety wooden covered bridge has already been primed with explosives, ready to be set off by the right spell, and Neville is stationed at the end, waiting for Voldemort’s hordes to attack:

As the clip shows, he stands taunting them for as long as the shield holds, knowing that once it gives way, they won’t lose a moment in rushing forward to attack him. As soon as that happens, he turns and flees – but this was all part of the plan. Neville then chucks a spell over his shoulder to ignite the explosives, bringing the entire thing tumbling down behind him, and plunging the pursuing Snatchers to some unspecified fate:

For a horrible moment, it looks as though Neville himself has fallen with them. But somehow he manages to cling on, and emerges over the broken edge of the bridge – much to the relief of his friends.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Roman legend of Horatius on the Bridge. It is told most famously by Livy, whose version (along with some contextual explanation) can be read here. Neville is Horatius Cocles, the Hogwarts bridge is the Pons Sublicius, and the Snatchers charging down the hill are the Etruscans, trying to capture Rome on behalf of the cruel king Tarquinius the Proud, whom the Romans had kicked out. Why, even Neville’s rather implausible escape matches neatly with Horatius’ swim across the Tiber to safety while the Etruscans hurl missiles at him. In fact, I must say that my reaction to this scene in the film was rather like Livy’s reaction to Horatius’ miraculous escape. Clearly, there was no way Neville could possibly have survived as the bridge collapsed beneath him – and yet somehow, he did. Similarly, Livy describes Horatius’ swim to safety as “an act of daring more famous than credible with posterity” (rem ausus plus famae habituram ad posteros quam fidei) – his polite way of saying that he doesn’t personally believe a word of it.

Neville’s personal brand of heroism isn’t quite identical to Horatius’. Neville is a hero, and he showed the early signs of this right back in the first book / film, when he was brave enough to try to stop Harry, Ron and Hermione sneaking illegally out of the Gryffindor common room. But it’s hard to read Horatius’ story without imagining him standing there with his chest puffed out, supremely self-confident as he booms out orders to his men and taunts towards the enemy. Horatius is a full-blown traditional hero-figure with quasi-supernatural powers of swordsmanship, resourcefulness and daring – but the whole point about Neville Longbottom is that he is brave and good, but also scared and ordinary at the same time. So it is appropriate that even Neville’s taunts are quite tentative, and that he lures the Snatchers to their doom by running away in apparent terror, rather than holding them bravely off in hand-to-hand combat.

All of the Harry Potter films are ripe with Classical resonances, many of which Juliette Harrison has chronicled. For the most part, these originate in the books, where they can of course be attributed directly to J.K. Rowling’s background in Classics. But this one doesn’t – perhaps partly for the very good reason that the wooden bridge isn’t in the books! (It appeared for the first time in the film of Prisoner of Azkaban). This means that I can’t be sure whether or not Steve Kloves, the script-writer for the later films, deliberately wrote Neville’s bridge scene as a version of the Horatius legend or not. But the match is very close, and the story is certainly pretty firmly embedded in western culture – see e.g. Macaulay’s poem, a whole bunch of works of art, or nice accessible kids’ versions like this one. So it would be surprising if Kloves didn’t know it, and that means I feel reasonably confident that Neville’s scene in The Deathly Hallows Part 2 is consciously Classically-inspired.

The final climax of Neville’s development into a real (though still ordinary) hero comes when Voldemort enters the castle with Harry’s (apparently) dead body – and now that I’ve seen the film, I find that Neville’s behaviour at this point in the book as well is more Horatian than I’d previously realised. Neville may not be standing on a bridge at this point, but he is the only person who dares to come forward and challenge Voldemort, while everyone else cowers in fear. The essential motif of a lone hero standing firm is in place – so perhaps JKR did have Horatius in mind when she wrote this scene, after all? In that case, Kloves’ contribution would have been to recognise the basic elements of the Horatius legend in JKR’s account of the stand-off between Neville and Voldemort, and then to expand on this by adding an extra scene a little bit earlier featuring Neville on an actual bridge.

Certainly, in Kloves’ hands, Neville gets an incredible rising trio of heroic moments in quick succession, each of which takes him closer and closer to the full-blown hero model which Horatius represents. From his tentative taunts on the bridge he progresses quickly to very real defiance of Voldemort in the courtyard – this time without the protection of a magical shield. And from there, it is but a short step to his magnificent beheading of Nagini:

Neville Beheads Nagini

By that stage, he has become a proper traditional hero-figure – steadfast, proud and entirely uncompromising as he swings the fatal blow (though still, of course, wearing a cardigan clearly knitted by his gran). It’s very much the heroic climax to his story that Neville has always deserved, and I’m not surprised that so many people have raved about his role in the film. I am thrilled, though, to see a Classical story playing a small part in that. :-)

Posted in classical receptions, films, harry potter, reviews, roman history, roman literature | 3 Comments »

Jonathan Miller and The Drinking Party (1965)

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 17, 2011

Oh dear – this blog has become rather neglected. My last post was in January – not good! I don’t even have a very good excuse, either. I mean, I’ve been busy writing papers and marking essays, but then academics are always busy with those things. I must do better in future!

Anyway, I spent last weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford attending the 10th Annual Fantastic Films Weekend, a hugely enjoyable event which I try to get to every year. The emphasis tends to be on classic horror films, but the definition of ‘fantastic’ is deliberately kept broad, and I often find that one of the most enjoyable elements of the weekend is the screenings of little-known gems from the museum’s archive of vintage TV recordings.

This year, one of the headline guests was writer, director and medical doctor Sir Jonathan Miller, who was interviewed for the festival audience by no less a figure than the academic and film critic Sir Christopher Frayling. To get us in the right mood for the interview on the Sunday evening, the festival line-up included three of the television dramas which Miller had directed in the 1960s: his 1966 Alice in Wonderland, his 1968 Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and (most exciting for me as a Classicist) a 1965 piece entitled The Drinking Party, which is an adaptation of Plato’s Symposium.

The Symposium is perhaps Plato’s best-known dialogue, presenting the conversation from a symposium (all-male social gathering over food and wine) at which each speaker was asked to give a speech in praise of Love. It’s hardly the sort of thing I would expect to see being used as the basis for a 50-minute TV drama these days, though. Miller’s adaptation actually took the form of an episode from a mid-’60s arts documentary series called Sunday Night, and sadly isn’t widely available, but this YouTube extract gives a good sense of the whole:

The basic set-up is that a group of young men gather on the terrace of a neo-Classical building (actually in the grounds of Stowe School), for a formal dinner in honour of their Classics master, played by Leo McKern, during which they adopt the roles of the characters in Plato’s dialogue, and deliver their speeches in a re-enactment of the original symposium. Both the script and the direction are the work of Jonathan Miller, and date from very early on in his career. But it is a very clever adaptation, knowingly and playfully translating to the world of the Oxbridge tutorial not only Plato’s words, but also the dramatic structure of the dialogue and the cultural setting of the Athenian intellectual elite. Not everything matches perfectly, of course – particularly the central concern of the original dialogue with (what we would now call) homosexual love. But I felt that even the mismatches were handled in a way that was true to the character of both the original dialogue and the 1960s Oxbridge setting.

Narrative distance

One of the most striking features of Plato’s original dialogue is that its description of the symposium is presented at several removes. Plato as author purports to be writing down an account of the evening told to him by Apollodorus, who was not actually at the symposium himself, but heard about it from another friend, Aristodemus, who was present at the original gathering, although not strictly as a participant since he didn’t give a speech. Furthermore, the climactic speech delivered by Socrates also introduces another level of distance – while the other speakers express their own views on Love, Socrates instead reports what he had learnt from a woman named Diotima.

On one level, The Drinking Party can’t help but be far more direct than the original dialogue, since we see the characters making their speeches in live action on the screen. It’s actually perfectly possible that Plato, too, wrote with the idea that his dialogues would be performed orally, rather than simply read – but that isn’t how most people approach them today. They have become above all texts, and seeing this one delivered as a physical performance made for a very different experience. For one thing, it really allowed the performers to bring out the contrasting character of the different speeches. So Eryximachus the doctor’s speech is delivered drily and awkwardly, reflecting his very scientific approach and his obvious discomfort with both public speaking and the very theme of Love. And Aristophanes’ very famous speech about how human beings originally had two conjoined bodies, but were split in two by Zeus, and that is why we are all searching for our soul-mate, was delivered very much as a parody played for laughs – as appropriate for a comic poet. What’s more, presenting the dialogue in live-action form also allowed room for the reactions of the other diners, as the camera panned around to show them either listening with rapt attention, laughing, or looking bored as appropriate. It meant that The Drinking Party could function as a commentary on Plato’s dialogue, as well as a performance of the dialogue itself.

For all this vivid directness, though, The Drinking Party does offer its own sense of distance – but one created using techniques appropriate to the medium of TV, rather than the hand-me-down narration technique used in Plato’s dialogue. The dramatisation begins with a narrative voice-over, introducing the gathering, and explaining that this group of friends meet annually to read the Symposium together. In part, this was probably necessary to orient the original audience, but it also serves the same purpose as Plato’s introduction (explaining how he has come to hear about the symposium and its speeches) of reminding us that we are an audience witnessing a work of artifice, and not actual participants in the event. The speakers are also self-conscious about their own roles as performers, recreating the dialogue at second-hand – or indeed, third-hand, given that they are actors, playing the part of diners, playing the part of Plato’s original characters. They don’t simply behave as though they actually are the participants in Plato’s original dialogue, but stand there in their dinner-jackets with texts in their hands, sometimes needing to consult them and sometimes not, and slipping in and out of character to discuss their own performances, the meaning of the dialogue, and textual issues such as conflicting translations (at one point, one person’s text reports that Aristophanes has the hiccups, while another’s says that he is burping). Meanwhile, Aristodemus is present on screen, but, true to his role in the original dialogue as a medium between the original symposium and Plato’s report, he is described in the opening narration as the group’s photographer. And while Socrates is reporting Diotima’s wisdom about Love, he turns and faces away from the other diners, and away from the television audience, nicely conveying the extra level of remove which Plato uses for his speech.

Greek love

And then there is the dialogue’s profound concern with love between men. This must have been a prominent issue in contemporary public debate, given that the adaptation was broadcast in the wake of the Wolfenden report (which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality), and only two years before its recommendations were put into practice. (Not, as Terence Lockyer reminded me, the same year, as I had initially believed.) The narrative voice-over at the beginning sets the scene for this, establishing the alien cultural context of the dialogue by explaining that in ancient Greece, women were marginalised, and love between men was seen as the highest form of human affection. This is a time-honoured technique for dealing with cultural differences between the past and the present – essentially saying that they must be addressed because it is part of the historical truth of the past culture, but that to do so does not necessarily imply approval. But already the camerawork is gently subverting what the voice-over is saying by offering us suggestive angles on a distinctly homoerotic sculpture of two naked wrestlers placed at the centre of the table – and thus perhaps implying that homosexuality is not such a remote and alien concept after all.

The speech of Pausanias the lawyer (played by the ever-wondrous Michael Gough) discusses the same issues of cultural difference in attitudes to love between men – just as the original speech does in Plato’s dialogue. He sets out the legal and moral framework for such relationships in Athens, draws explicit comparisons with other cultures where love between men is accepted (Elis, Boeotia) or condemned (Ionia and barbarian regions), and particularly emphasises that the focus of debate in Athens is not the fact of romantic relationships between men per se, but the manner in which they are conducted and the motives of the two partners. Meanwhile, we are once again treated to a very nice view of the sculpted arses of the two wrestlers in the centrepiece. :-) Later on, while Agathon the tragedian makes a very romantic speech all about the youth and beauty and happiness of Love, we also see Pausanias / Gough looking rather maudlin, and casting Significant Glances towards Agathon over his wine-glass – perhaps signalling some kind of unrequited passion.

But it is when Alcibiades arrives that the issue is most explicitly addressed from a contemporary perspective. Plato’s dialogue at this point is all about the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates, which (in the proper Greek style as set out by Pausanias) clearly mingles romantic and sexual attraction with the bond between pupil and mentor. Miller seems to have considered that this was a little too much for a 1960s audience to take if played straightforwardly, so this is one of the points at which the diners drop out of character to comment on the dialogue, rather than recreating it, allowing the young man playing Alcibiades to object that it is all rather ridiculous. But again, the alternative point of view is carefully, gently put forward too, as Leo McKern (now very much in the guise of the Classics master rather than Socrates as such) suggests to his pupils that Plato knew what he was doing, and was cleverly raising important questions – is hero-worship so ridiculous after all, and perhaps it is natural to show affection for another man whom you admire? It isn’t exactly positioning itself as a clarion-call for decriminalisation – and nor would I expect anything broadcast on the BBC in 1965 to have done so. But I felt that hints of a recognisable equality agenda were there if you cared to look for them.

Aesthetics and design

Meanwhile, all of this philosophising is set into the context of a very pleasing design aesthetic. I’ve already mentioned the grand neo-Classical setting, but not the soundtrack of baroque chamber music – perhaps deliberately matching the architectural style of the building and its contemporary use as a music studio? And the cameras are hard at work throughout, showing us not just the curved bottoms of statues, but dozens of lovely incidental shots of the small business of the dinner-table – wine being poured, waiters being beckoned, drinks being savoured, and so forth. Both the dinner and the speeches are also interrupted by torrential rain at the end of the third speech, which drives the whole party indoors. I happen to know from having spoken to Jonathan Miller afterwards (see below) that this was completely unplanned – but it is used to beautiful effect, giving rise to lots of fantastic shots of the rain dripping off umbrellas left propped up over the dinner table, and of the diners listlessly milling around within the building, waiting for the rain to stop so that they can continue with their evening. It also prompts the use of a different setting for the fourth speech by Aristophanes, which is delivered under the shelter of the colonnade, rather than around the table like the rest. If I didn’t know that this had been an unplanned response to an act of nature, I would suggest that it was a deliberate comment on the tendency for this particular speech to be excerpted from the rest of the dialogue, and treated as an independent text, separate from the rest. But, just for once, I know for sure that that is only my reading – not part of the original design.

So all in all, The Drinking Party was a real pleasure to see. But as I said above, the whole reason it was being screened in the first place was as part of the warm-up for the real climax: a live interview with its director at the end of the festival.

Screen-talk: Sir Christopher Frayling in conversation with Sir Jonathan Miller

This was absolutely fantastic. I’ve been a fan of Christopher Frayling for years anyway, so I would probably have paid the price of admission to see his knowledge and intellect applied to just about anything. But Jonathan Miller really did make a particularly rewarding subject, coming across as incredibly clever and erudite, but also immensely good-humoured and quite happy to have a laugh at his own expense.

Most of the conversation focused around Whistle And I’ll Come To You and Alice in Wonderland. We learnt all sorts of fascinating details about how Miller had approached both of them as stories, and what techniques he had used to bring them successfully to the screen. For example, he spoke about how he had deliberately sought to recreate a Victorian look for Alice…, using crumbling period buildings and replicating the look of contemporary photographs. Or how he felt unable to use any of M.R. James’ prose directly in Whistle…, because it was too dry and academic, and he needed his central character to be less sceptical, so that he could plausibly be frightened when he encounters the possibility of a ghost.

But along the way, we also learnt a great deal about the themes and ideas which he felt he had kept returning to over the course of his career – things like the grammar of dreaming, which puts commonplace elements into an illogical sequence; the difference between events (like one ball hitting another) and human actions (like a person wielding a snooker cue); the Victorian fascination with spiritualism and mesmerism; the importance of small, negligible details like people’s unconscious gestures while they are talking; and his fascination with the folds of drapery. Many of these interests, of course, relate back to his work as a medical doctor with a particular interest in cognitive and psychological disorders, which has obviously profoundly influenced his work as a writer and director. The term ‘Renaissance man’ doesn’t half take some abuse, but with feet so firmly planted in the worlds of both the arts and the sciences, Miller surely qualifies for it if anyone does. He seemed eminently capable of mastering almost anything he chose to put his mind to – and yet genuinely not arrogant or pompous with it, as his willingness to do impressions of chickens and Oxford dons during the course of the conversation made quite clear!

We were all quite entranced already listening to the two speakers on the stage, but after an hour Tony Earnshaw (the organiser of the festival) reminded them they they should leave some time for audience questions, too. Various people asked questions about Alice… and Whistle…, but I decided that, having enjoyed The Drinking Party so much, I should seize what would probably be my only ever opportunity to ask its writer and director a question about it. So I asked to what extent Miller had felt that he was contributing to the contemporary debates around the issue of homosexuality by making it at the time when he did. Actually, he didn’t say anything all that illuminating in response – only really that he felt homosexuality was a tacitly accepted part of Oxbridge culture anyway, so he hadn’t really needed to think too hard about it. (As should be clear from my review above, I think that answer belies the very careful handling of the issue which I believe is actually visible in the adaptation, but never mind! He did make it 45 years ago, after all, so I can forgive him for having forgotten the details of whatever judgements he might have been making at the time.) But he was clearly very pleased to have had a question about it, and said a few more things about how the production had come about, the setting he had used for it, and what he had been aiming to achieve.

Afterwards, too, as we were gathering our things and making ready to depart, he and Christopher Frayling were standing nearby, so I thought it would be polite to acknowledge how much I had enjoyed the evening, just by saying “thank you!” in their general direction. I wasn’t expecting anything more than that, but in fact Jonathan Miller responded by coming right over to me, and asking if I was a Classicist – a possibility to which he had apparently been alerted by earlier conversations over a fag with my chum Jennie Rigg (another indication of how friendly and unpretentious he is). So I replied that I was (though not a Hellenist), expressed enthusiasm for how much I’d enjoyed being able to see The Drinking Party, and took the chance to ask another question which I’d been pondering over – had the rain in it been something he’d planned on, or was it pure serendipity? And that is how I know that the rain was simply the work of nature – and indeed something that his cameramen had been cursing over, but which he had managed to turn into a positive boon.

I can only hope that The Drinking Party makes it to DVD some day – perhaps as a nice double-feature with a follow-up, also by Miller, from the same series entitled The Death of Socrates (if that even still exists). In the meantime, I am just very glad that I had the opportunity to see it.

Posted in classical receptions, greek history, philosophy, reviews, sexuality, television | 13 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 »

28 Days Later (2002), dir. Danny Boyle

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 13, 2010

Last weekend, I attended the ninth annual Fantastic Films Weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford. I had a brilliant time discovering and rediscovering classic horror and Sci-Fi films, but also came across a lovely use of the Classical tradition in the film 28 Days Later.

I really loved 28 Days Later when it first came out – in fact, I ended up seeing it twice while it was still in the cinema, which is very rare for me. But I hadn’t seen it again since, so I’d forgotten a lot of the fine detail. It really is a very beautifully-shot piece of film. I’d certainly remembered the early scenes of Cillian Murphy wandering around a deserted London, and found on re-watching that they very much stood the test of time. But I’d forgotten all sorts of other absolutely breathtaking scenes, such as the use made of the rain during the attack-and-breakout scene at the military head-quarters towards the end. I’d also forgotten how much the music adds to the emotional impact throughout – it’s been running round my head all week, and I’ve bought several of the songs from the soundtrack album today.

I had remembered how good the characterisation was, though obviously it was still a pleasure to rediscover in detail how well-drawn all of the characters were. The focus on the interactions between a small group of people clinging together in the face of extreme danger makes for some very intensive drama. Plenty of time is given to really getting to know all of the main characters and understanding their feelings and motivations, while the range of their experiences of scary attacks, empty sadness, horrible tension and occasional moments of sheer joy felt really well-balanced to me. The dialogue is just masterful, pushing the plot along nicely where it needs to, but always remaining naturalistic and emotionally truthful. And although it shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary, the film also deserves credit for presenting a black female character (Selena) in a strong central role – unfortunately still something which is still all too rare in the cinema.

The world-building and the settings are very carefully thought through, too. The notices and newspapers which we catch sight of on walls and tables, and blowing around on the floor, are a good example of this. Most of them are never focussed on directly, but the glimpses that we get do so much to evoke what has happened during the 28 days between the break-in at the research lab and the start of the main story. And how clever to set the picnic and overnight stop which they have on their journey north from London in a ruined abbey, with all its evocation of a past way of life brought violently to an end. The same goes for the large country mansion used by the Major and his soldiers. Our aristocracy weren’t violently overthrown in the same way as the monasteries – but they are a thing of the past, while the setting throws up fantastic contrasts between the refined, luxurious world which the house evokes and what we see actually going on there during the film.

But what really caught my attention as a professional Classicist was the large copy of the famous ancient statue of Laocoön in the hall-way of that mansion:

Statue of Laocoon and his sons in the Vatican museum Laocoon in 28 Days Later

It’s possible that the statue is a permanent fixture in the stately home where the scenes were shot, since many English country houses do have extensive collections of either original Greek and Roman statues or copies of famous pieces. But Googling “trafalgar house” + laocoon brings up no meaningful connection between the two, while the way the light catches the statue seen in the film makes it look rather like it is made of fibre-glass – and thus probably a prop. So I think it is probably a deliberate piece of mise en scène for the purposes of the film – and of course even if it isn’t, the decision to focus on it so heavily in the film certainly will have been deliberate.

It may seem a fairly small piece of background detail, but thinking through its implications, it nonetheless adds a great deal to the story. Of course, many viewers won’t know anything about the statue or what it represents, but even so it is obvious that the statue depicts a human being dying in agony, which helps to underscore the basic horror of the film. Meanwhile, viewers who do know Laocoön’s story are invited to ponder on all sorts of themes. Laocoön defied the will of the gods by trying to persuade his fellow-citizens that it might possibly not be the brainiest of ideas to trundle some random wooden horse which the Greeks have left behind inside the walls of their city, and was punished with an agonising death for his troubles. So is all the violence and horror which we see happening around the statue a kind of divine punishment, visited on mankind for pushing too far into the domain of the gods with the animal research which we see at the beginning of the story? The link there becomes even stronger if we take into account Titian’s caricature of the Laocoön statue, with apes instead of humans as the main figures:

Titian's caricature of the Laocoon

Debate rages over exactly what Titian himself was trying to say when he made this print. But in the context of 28 Days Later, the existence of Titian’s caricature does help to make a stronger link between the suffering which the human researchers visit on the apes at the beginning of the film, and the suffering which mankind endures as a result.

Finally, putting a character from the Trojan war inside a mansion which is under siege by the infected also acts a foreshadowing for how that section of the story is going to end up. As soon as we see it, we’re reminded of the fate of Troy itself, and also prompted to start asking where the Trojan horse is in all this. I think there’s more than one possible answer to that. It could be Jim, Selena and Hannah, whose arrival in the house is greeted joyously by the soldiers – but ultimately turns out to be a disaster for all of them. Or it could be the infected soldier chained up in the yard. I’m not sure it really matters how you answer the question – but the fact that the statue is there to prompt it is just one very impressive example of how thoughtfully crafted this film is.

Posted in classical receptions, films, reviews, roman art, roman literature | 4 Comments »

Robert Harris (2003), Pompeii

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 21, 2010

I must have bought something in Waterstone’s around the time this book came out, because I remember seeing a pile of free pamphlets containing a sample chapter from it on the counter as I paid for my purchases. (The chapter in question was what I know now to be the book’s third, entitled ‘Hora duodecima‘.) Excited, I picked one up, took it home and read it… and was distinctly underwhelmed. There was nothing particularly stylish about it, the story didn’t grab or excite me, and, most of all, I was annoyed by the following paragraph (p. 56):

“A statue of Egeria, goddess of the water-spring, was set in a niche beside the door. At her feet lay a few stems of withered flowers and some mouldy lumps of bread and fruit – offerings left by pregnant women who believed that Egeria, consort of Numa, the Prince of Peace, would ease their delivery when their time came. Another worthless superstition. A waste of food.”

To me, there are two problems here: 1) anachronistic values and 2) intrusive explanations. On the first, I know that we can only ever see the past through the filter of the present, but if you end up writing fiction which entirely elides all the differences between the two, why bother looking at the past at all? Why not just write fiction set in the present? What Harris has done here is to make the main character of a novel set in an era when everyone worshipped the gods without thinking to question it into a religious cynic. For that to work, there needs to be some reason for it – something special or unusual about the character, such as him being a radical intellectual. I was pretty sure from the sample chapter that there wasn’t any such thing in this case – and now that I have read the rest of the book, I am certain.

Our main man, and the one whose views this paragraph is supposed to reflect, is no Cicero. Rather, he’s a fairly ordinary, practical fellow – an aqueduct engineer, in fact. Just not the sort of person in the ancient world likely to go around judging religious offerings ‘a waste of food’. Of course it makes him more accessible to a modern, secular reader. But wouldn’t it be far more interesting to set modern cynicism aside, and explore the very different mind-set of someone for whom the gods were real and active? We can be cynical as we read it if we want – but why write that into an ancient character? I clung to the vain hope that it might turn out to be the basis for some character development – that Attilius might be forced to change his perspective, or at least get into a confrontation with someone holding different views. But there was no such luck. It was just a modern mind, stuck clumsily into an ancient head.

As for the matter of intrusive explanations, I also now know that explanatory comments much along the lines of “Egeria, consort of Numa, the Prince of Peace” are rife throughout the whole book. Another example which particularly jarred was (p. 120):

“He saw them off from the pomoerium, the sacred boundary just beyond the Vesuvius Gate, kept clear of buildings in honour of the city’s guardian deities.”

This just made me think: well, if you feel you have to insert all that clumsy explanation to convey to your readers what the pomoerium is, why mention it at all in the first place? Why not just say ‘the city-limits’ or ‘the city walls’, which would be just as appropriate without needing an explanation? Or, alternatively, might it even be enjoyable for the reader to encounter terms like this without an explanation, as a signal that they are dealing with a strange and alien world? A clever writer could allow the reader to pick up the meaning of terms like this from context, without needing to ‘gloss’ them – and in fact I think that is part of what many people look for when they pick up a historical novel. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and only find such references annoying because I have the luxury of already knowing the territory. But I’m pretty sure explanations like that would put me right off even if I didn’t.

Anyway, with all that just in the sample chapter, I decided not to bother reading the rest of the book at the time when it originally came out. I’ve come back to it because the rumour-mill reports that Ridley Scott will soon be making it into a TV mini-series – and if I’m going to watch that (which I believe I am!) I’d like to have read the book first. It’s also likely that a lot of my ‘City in the Roman World’ students next year will be watching the TV series, so I’d like to be able to discuss the portrayal of Roman urbanism which it presents with them intelligently.

Reading the book with a close knowledge of Pompeii, I did appreciate the fact that Harris gives enough detail in terms of street directions and descriptions to identify the settings he is using – even when they aren’t actually named. With a map and a couple of books by my side, it didn’t take me long to work out that Popidius / Ampliatus’ house is, very suitably, the House of the Citharist / Lyre Player, which does indeed seem to have been associated with the family of the Popidii. The heart-stoppingly beautiful statue of Apollo after which it is named is actually mentioned in passing on p. 33. And I must admit that I scoffed at the idea of a Roman house having a swimming-pool that could be seen from its atrium (entrance-hall) when I read the description in the book – but to be fair this is actually entirely true for the House of the Citharist. Mind you, I can’t help but point out that the nearby set of baths, where Attilius encounters some of Pompeii’s chief magistrates, were no longer in use at the time of eruption.

Similarly, Africanus’ brothel is the famous lupanar which gives its name to the Vico del Lupanare in Regio VII, while Ampliatus’ baths are the Central Baths, indeed still under construction at the time of the eruption. I was baffled by the reference here to brass ‘handles to flush the latrines’ on p. 153, though. I presume what’s happened here is that Harris read some reference to ‘flush lavatories’ in these baths, but didn’t realise that in a Roman context, this means a row of seats continually flushed out by running water, rather than individual cisterns with release handles as we have today.

Other than that, though, the impressions I’d formed on reading the sample chapter were only confirmed by the rest of the book. I found the characters dull and one-dimensional, the pacing poor, the language unexceptional and the story surprisingly unexciting, given the potential of the setting. Even the details about the houses seemed to me like pedantry. It’s great that Harris has obviously done such extensive research, but it somehow doesn’t seem to have provided fertile ground for his ideas and characters to grow – only constrained him, really. Of course he’d read Pliny’s letters about the eruption, and other such worthy and relevant sources. But I would have liked to see him do something more than just replicating their details with a little extra description and dialogue. That may be ‘accurate’ (if anything about the ancient world ever really can be), but it is also dull.

Harris’s opening quotations from Tom Wolfe, Pliny the Elder and A. Trevor Hodge, and his closing account of the ancient sources which he used, suggest that he wants to present himself as a serious player in the grand tradition of Western literary responses to Pompeii. But for that to work, he not only needs to know his predecessors – he also needs to take us somewhere else; show us something new. For me, this book failed to do that.

Posted in books, classical receptions, pompeii, reviews, roman cities, roman religion | 14 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 55 other followers

%d bloggers like this: