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Archive for the ‘classical receptions’ Category

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), dir. Nathan Juran

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 27, 2011

Two weeks ago, I helped to run a conference entitled Animating Antiquity on the interplay between the Classical tradition and the films of Ray Harryhausen. In order to get myself in the right mood beforehand, I watched or rewatched a couple of his films in the days before the conference. 20 Million Miles to Earth was one I hadn’t seen before, but was recommended to me by a couple of people on the grounds that it features an enormous alien creature on the rampage in Rome. Fantastic!

In basic terms, it’s a ‘monster on the loose’ film, of which Harryhausen had already done a few – e.g. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea. He clearly enjoyed them, as they gave him the chance both to pay tribute to one of his major inspirations, the 1933 King Kong, and to indulge a passion for destroying things in spectacular fashion on-screen which he often talks about in his interviews. But this one developed in a new direction by using a European setting – something which Tony Keen has rightly pointed out to me was clearly very popular in this period, and apparently also a reflection of Harryhausen’s growing personal interest in the European film industry, cemented by a move to the UK in 1960.

The ‘monster’ in this particular case is from Venus, and gets a very sympathetic treatment, entirely in line with Harryhausen’s consistent statement that he actually thinks of his models as ‘creatures’ rather than ‘monsters’. It has been brought to Earth against its will from Venus (hence the ’20 Million Miles to Earth’ of the title), only becomes ‘monstrous’ (in the sense of incredibly large) because of the effects of Earth’s atmosphere on its physiology, and is portrayed as merely curious about its surroundings and trying to survive amongst them until it is provoked into violence by people attacking it. Much as with King Kong, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for it, and this makes the whole film a great deal more captivating than it would otherwise have been.

Nonetheless, by the end of the film the creature has grown to something like 30 feet tall, is thoroughly enraged, and is having a jolly good rampage around the city of Rome. Here, Harryhausen’s love of destruction comes into full play, as we watch it fighting an elephant, causing havoc in the Tiber, knocking down temples in the forum and finally climbing up to the top of the Colosseum, where it is eventually shot and falls dead to the ground. My absolute favourite moment in all this was the Tiber sequence, which showed the creature breaking through the middle of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, followed directly by a shot of it standing in front of the Ponte Rotto:

This struck me as a very good example of how clever Harryhausen’s use of ancient ruins always was – something I also noticed and commented on regarding Medusa’s temple in my review of Clash of the Titans. Already in 1957 he was doing exactly the same thing I’d spotted in 1981 – using ruins for their value as ruins, rather than trying to hide their brokenness. The genuinely ruined Ponte Rotto comes into its own by playing the ‘after’ role in the bridge destruction scene, helping to add to the magic by looking like a real bridge which actually has been destroyed, and saving Harryhausen the trouble of having to model the destroyed Ponte Sant’Angelo into the bargain. You’d have to know the topography of Rome fairly well to make that kind of connection, and it’s abundantly clear that Harryhausen did – as I could also see from the generally very logical path followed by the creature through the city from the Giardino Zoologico to the Castel Sant-Angelo and onwards to the Forum and Colosseum. The final scenes in the last two settings are absolutely infused with the same love of ruinous structures, too, either in their real-life guises or (when they’re being torn down by the creature) lovingly modelled in miniature form.

Meanwhile, the European setting and largely American main cast throw up some contrasts which reveal a lot about American self-perception in this period. The echoes of the Second World War resonate pretty strongly in the final sequences, what with Rome’s iconic monuments being attacked and American tanks and military cars racing around the city to liberate them once again. The American characters, and particularly the heroic leading man, are also cast throughout as dynamic, brave, intelligent and scientifically competent, against Italian characters who come across as useless, corrupt and foolish. It’s an Italian kid after a few lire who sets the creature free in the first place, and Italian farmers, police authorities and soldiers who variously enrage it by attacking it with pitch-forks, guns and flame-throwers. Meanwhile, the all-American hero insists on trying to capture the creature alive so that it can be studied for the Advancement of Science!, has the technical know-how to do so by stunning it with an electric shock, and leads a successful capture operation that rests on radio communications, helicopters and smooth teamwork. Interestingly, there is also one Japanese scientist amongst the Americans, showing that the image of the Japanese as masters of technology was already well-established. And Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart might have been pleased to know that amongst all the sciencey-science stuff, we actually get an on-screen explanation of why the creature is immune to bullets – apparently because it breathes via a network of tubes throughout its whole body, rather than a heart and lungs which might be fatally damaged by the bullets.

As for the male-female dynamics, they are much what you would expect for the period. There is one full-developed female character, with other women appearing only occasionally in crowd-scenes, and not generally getting any dialogue. To be fair, two of the crowd-scene women are professionals working as journalists, and indeed the main female character herself is training to be a doctor, and gets some fairly snappy, sassy dialogue which makes it clear that she has a real intelligence of her own. But for all that, her main role as the plot unfolds is to become a love-interest for the all-American hero, who rushes straight forward to ‘claim’ her as his well-deserved prize once he has defeated the creature. I’d love to be able to say, “Ah, but that was the 1950s – things are better for women now”, but sadly this is still all too common – and that reflects rather more poorly on us than it does this film.

Posted in classical receptions, films, ray harryhausen, rome | 1 Comment »

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 | 14 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 »

Doctor Who and the plastic plastic Roman

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 21, 2010

One of the things I liked best about the last season of Doctor Who were the Roman soldiers from The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. Obviously, as a Classicist, my default position is to be happy when anything from the ancient world shows up in a modern medium – and that goes double when it’s happening specifically in the context of my favourite TV programme. :-) But these soldiers went one step further for me. By encouraging us to accept them at first as ‘real’ human beings, but then gradually revealing that, even within the terms of the story, they were in fact fakes (plastic Auton replicas, to be precise), Steven Moffat whisked us off into the realm of the meta-referential – yet another thing which I absolutely love. The suspension of disbelief is all well and good, but better still is an author who occasionally draws attention to the fictional nature of his or her narrative, reminding the audience with a nod and a wink that what we are actually doing is indulging in the pleasure of a really good story. Yay!

A good meta-reference should say rather more than just “Oh, by the way: none of this is real”, though – and I thought that Moffat’s Roman Autons lived up to this. In the context of his story, they made a major contribution to the very important plot-development task of establishing the power of Amy’s memory, since their whole existence turns out to have been extrapolated from the picture books which she read as a child, and the costume which Rory wore to a fancy dress party:

The denouement of this story, and of the entire season, depends on this concept, so it really does need to be properly established in advance. Meanwhile, beyond the story, the Roman Autons also worked for me as a great piece of commentary on the way that we in the present relate to the Romans of the past – and particularly the role Roman soldiers usually play in screen portrayals of the ancient world. We cannot ever encounter real Roman soldiers directly – much as time-travelling fantasy shows such as Doctor Who would like to pretend that we can. So all they can ever be to us are words and pictures in books which we bring to life with our minds – just as Amy does here. And one of the contexts in which we have collectively done that is in our screen portrayals of the Roman war-machine marching off to conquer and subdue – just like thousands of little battlefield miniatures:

Every director who has ever master-minded a Roman battle scene has known that he (or she) is fundamentally playing with life-sized toy soldiers. And now here is Steven Moffat, making that gloriously explicit.

Anyway, with all that swirling around in my head, you can imagine my delight when this little fellow appeared as part of this season’s line of Whovian merchandise:

This takes what was already a fantastic joke to a whole new level. Now instead of watching human actors playing plastic Roman soldiers on my television, I have my very own model of one of those soldiers which is actually made of plastic. A plastic plastic Roman. What could possibly be cooler than that?

That’s not all, either. Because while my new toy was still in his packet, it was perfectly clear what he was. It says so on the front: “Roman Auton”. But out of the packet – well, what is he now? Stripped of his label, he suddenly looks exactly like any other plastic Roman – the very toys that Moffat’s whole clever joke was based on in the first place. It’s only my subjective experience of having seen him in the packet first that makes him remain a plastic plastic Roman for me, as opposed to just an ordinary plastic Roman. I am constantly endowing him with a whole extra level of identity just through the power of my mind – much like Amy in The Pandorica Opens, in fact. :-)

In all fairness, I should probably add here that my little legionary is not the first plastic plastic Roman on this planet, and nor was Moffat the first person to put living toy Romans on television. That path had already been carved by Night at the Museum (2006) and its sequel (2009). In those films, the character of Octavius is a miniature museum display figure who comes to life every night – and he was released as a plastic toy figure in 2009 by none other than McDonalds:

Mind you, I think there’s no contest over which is the higher-quality figure, there.

It’s also worth noting that Character Options, who make the Doctor Who toys, have a track record of releasing somewhat tongue-in-cheek products. These are the people who offered up not only a Cassandra action figure to go alongside the season 1 episode The End of the World, but also a ‘Destroyed Cassandra’ for the season 2 episode New Earth. Yes, that’s right – an empty plastic frame sold in a packet with the words ‘Poseable Action Figure’ printed on the front:

They have, in fact, also released an ‘Underhenge Stone Roman Auton’, from the scene when those alien entities standing near to the Pandorica become fossilised as their home planets wink out of existence all around the Earth:

This time, he isn’t actually made of stone – what a swizz! But then again, should we expect him to be? Maybe when an Auton turns to stone, it takes on the appearance and consistency of stone while still remaining fundamentally plastic at a molecular level: just as it does when it takes the shape of a human being? And in any case, like his equivalent in the original TV episode, he does still constitute yet another lovely comment on the nature of our relationship with the ancient Roman world. Because of course another way in which we’re used to interacting with the remnants of the Roman past is via surviving stone images of soldiers and generals:

These are quite literally “after-images – fossils in time”, which is also what the Doctor calls the stone aliens in the Underhenge.

I’ve managed to resist actually purchasing a plastic stone Roman for the time being. I’m happy enough with the plastic plastic one for now. But I’ll also be keeping half an eye out for the day when Character release an empty packet with the words ‘Dematerialised TARDIS’ written on the front. You know they’re thinking about it…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, films, television, toys | 7 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 »

The Latin in Murray Gold’s ‘Vale Decem’

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on September 9, 2010

On Monday evening, I watched the one-hour cut-down version of the 2010 Doctor Who Prom broadcast on BBC3. It was a great programme, hosted in effervescent style by Karen Gillan, featuring lots of behind-the-scenes interviews with Steven Moffat, Murray Gold and the cast, and complete with an in-character cameo appearance by the Eleventh Doctor. He did this really sweet scene with a small boy chosen from the audience, who had to help him ‘defuse’ an alien explosive device using invisible psychic wire – and the look of rapture on the boy’s face was absolutely fantastic to see.

The highlight for me, though, was the performance of ‘Vale Decem’ – Murray Gold’s composition to mark the death and regeneration of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, and indeed the whole of the Russell T. Davies era. There are a lot of things to love about this piece for me. I am an unabashed Tenth Doctor fan, so it seemed only appropriate to me that he should be sent off accompanied by the full emotive impact of swirling strings and choirs of angels. I was also very impressed by Mark Chambers, a countertenor who sang the main vocal line with enormous presence and musical sensitivity.

Perhaps best of all, though, the lyrics he was singing are in Latin – and from my perspective as a Classicist, that’s a very cheering example of the language’s ongoing relevance today. In fact, in its original context as soundtrack music for part two of The End of Time, ‘Vale Decem’ was heard by around 10 million people, while another 5000 witnessed the live performance at the Prom in the Albert Hall in July, and 0.5 million watched the same broadcast as I did on Monday evening. It’s also soon to be released on a ‘Specials’ soundtrack CD, taking it into people’s homes and letting them listen to it over and over again. So this is definitely reaching a wide audience.

What’s more, fans across the internet clearly loved the piece from its first airing, and have wanted to engage actively with both the music and the Latin lyrics. At first, this resulted in some rather nonsensical attempts to transcribe the lyrics orally, and then translate them, all apparently done by people who didn’t actually know any Latin. But then Murray Gold himself very thoughtfully posted the sheet music up as a series of Twitpics here, here and here in June. Eager fans were then able to transcribe the actual lyrics, and again have a go at translating them. (There may just possibly be video clips of the Tenth Doctor’s death scene with the same transcription and translation on them out there too, but obviously I am not going to link to those because of how distributing copyrighted material over the internet is Bad and Wrong). But the translation still seems to have been done mainly with the aid of Google-fu and a bit of lucky guesswork:

Murray Gold’s lyrics Fan translation
Vale Decem
Ad aeternam
Di meliora
Ad aeternam
Vale Decem
Di meliora
Beati
Pacifici
Vale Decem
Alis grave
Ad perpetuam memoriam
Vale Decem
Gratis tibi ago
Ad aeternam
Nunquam singularis
Nunquam
Dum spiro fido
Vale…
Farewell Ten
Eternally
Heaven send you better times
Eternally
Farewell Ten
Heaven send you better times
Happiness
Peaceably
Farewell Ten
Heavy with wings
To the perpetual memory
Farewell Ten
I give thanks
Eternally
Never alone
Never
While you breathe, trust
Farewell…

Part of the problem facing would-be translators, even if they do know Latin, is that Murray Gold’s original lyrics don’t actually entirely make sense anyway. Now that they’re available to read, it’s obvious that he (or possibly a lyricist whom he commissioned?) composed them by drawing together a collection of appropriate sayings and phrases to create the right sort of mood, but without really aiming for grammatical accuracy or a coherent narrative thread. The result sounds fantastic, and definitely conveys the right sort of epic, tragic feel that was needed for Ten’s death scene. It’s got all the right sorts of words in it: words that we expect to hear in a piece of soaring choral music, like ‘aeternam’, ‘beati’ and ‘perpetuam memoriam’. But those words and phrases don’t really add up to a meaningful set of lyrics.

There is at least one straightforward mistake in there: the phrase “Gratis tibi ago”, should be spelt “Gratias tibi ago” (meaning “I give you thanks”). More common are phrases which might once have made sense, but seem to have had words chopped off (probably for rhythmical reasons), and no longer do. A good example is the line “Alis grave”, which seems to be a truncated form of the saying “alis grave nil”. That would mean roughly “nothing (is) painful / burdensome / heavy (for those) with wings” – an appropriately consolatory sort of phrase for a character facing death. Except that it’s already a bit epigrammatic, and without the ‘nil’, it pretty much loses its meaning altogether. You just end up with two words meaning “heavy with wings”. Either that’s a clever paradox – or it just doesn’t really mean anything.

Similarly, the line “Ad aeternam” appears to have something missing. ‘Aeternam’ here is an adjective, but it has no noun to modify. The phrase as it stands means “to the eternal” – but we are left asking, “to the eternal what?” Perhaps Gold really meant “to eternity” here, but if so, the Latin he actually wanted would have been “ad aeternitatem”. That would have needed a different rhythmical setting, though, as it’s an extra two syllables – and I’m guessing that a generally appropriate sound mattered more to him than achieving grammatical closure!

Anyway, allowing for the oddities in the original, I thought I would try to have a go at offering a slightly better translation than the ones which have appeared on the internet so far. I’ve done an entirely literal one for those who want to know exactly how Murray Gold’s Latin would actually translate. But I’ve also done a much looser one which captures something more like the mood I think he was actually aiming for, is more meaningful and grammatically coherent, and furthermore could still (more or less) be sung to the same tune:

Murray Gold’s lyrics Literal translation Mood-appropriate translation
Vale Decem
Ad aeternam
Di meliora
Ad aeternam
Vale Decem
Di meliora
Beati
Pacifici
Vale Decem
Alis grave
Ad perpetuam memoriam
Vale Decem
Gratis tibi ago
Ad aeternam
Nunquam singularis
Nunquam
Dum spiro fido
Vale…
Farewell, Ten
To the eternal
(May the) gods (grant you) better (things)
To the eternal
Farewell, Ten
(May the) gods (grant you) better (things)
Blessed
(Are) the peacemakers
Farewell, Ten
Heavy with wings
To perpetual memory
Farewell, Ten
I give you thanks
To the eternal
Never alone
Never
While I breathe I trust
Farewell…
Farewell, Ten
On to eternity
The fates be with you
On to eternity.
Farewell, Ten
The fates be with you.
Oh, blessed he
Who brought us peace.
Farewell, Ten
Lay down your burden
We will remember you forever more.
Farewell, Ten
We give you thanks.
On to eternity
You are not alone
Never
Trust to the last
Farewell…

The one-hour cut-down Prom from Monday is available on iPlayer now, but a fuller version will also be shown on BBC3 on Friday at 7pm. I’d highly recommend watching it – but have your tissues handy for ‘Vale Decem’…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, latin, music, television | 55 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 »

 
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