Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Archive for the ‘roman art’ 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 »

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 »

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 »

 
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