Sunday, 28 June 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

I read Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell years ago - I can't remember it very well at all, but I do remember that I loved it! I especially loved the Jane Austen-style prose (right down to the spellings) and all the academic-history-style footnotes, which were brilliant. This isn't the only novel to use footnotes of course - all the Discworld novels have them - but the way these were constructed, as fake academic references, was particularly fun.

The BBC's seven-part TV adaptation of the novel just finished, and it was very good - it'll sit happily on my shelf next to Gormenghast and The Chronicles of Narnia (it shares one of the stars, Samuel West - a very nice actor who once took me and my friends out for a beer, and who played King Caspian in the BBC's Voyage of the Dawn Treader). I especially liked Lady Pole's description of the Gentleman's hair as looking like 'thistle-down' towards the end, reflecting his constant epithet in the book. I also loved how the Raven King looked just like Christopher Lee from The Wicker Man - not coincidentally, a reference to idea of survivals of Druidic, ancient magical rites in the UK.

Most of the magic in the story comes from Nothern European folklore, particularly relating to Faerie, to changelings and other worlds and 'Christians' kidnapped from their homes. I'm not much of an expert on folklore that dates later than AD 400, but I suspect the repeated references to 'English' magic at least partially reflect the folklore it's based on, as well early nineteenth century English imperialism. I think it's a mixture of Celtic (particularly Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Irish, and maybe Breton) myth and folklore, and possibly some Anglo-Saxon and more broadly French elements that might go into the mix to create particularly 'English' magic. There's also an emphasis on the North of England as the home of magic, possibly suggesting a stronger Celtic and possibly Viking influence, and less French. (Did anyone else get distracted by mental images of Robb Stark every time they said 'King in the North'? And don't get me started on trying to kill off Thoros of Myr...!)

There are a few Classical elements included though. Vinculus has a Latinate name, which makes me wonder if there's an implication that 'English' magic goes back further than Normans or Vikings or Anglo-Saxons or even the Romano-British Celts left behind when the Romans left - although the Latin name suggests Romans, the fact that the story is set in Britain perhaps implies a Druidic influence there (not that Vinculus is necessarily intended to be an ancient Roman or Druid - though it wouldn't surprise me if he was - but the magic inscribed on his body is perhaps Romano-British or Druidic in its ultimate origin, the magic the Raven King originally drew on).

The Gentleman also knows his Classics, as he shows in the spell he puts on Stephen Black and Lady Pole to stop them from telling anyone about him. The nonsense they speak is a rather nice and thematic re-telling of fairytales from the fairies' point of view, as Honeyfoot and Segundus eventually realise, though somehow no one seems to realise they are all about fairy abductions, and do in fact explain what Lady Pole and Stephen are trying to say, in a roundabout way. But what Segundus sees when he looks at them is a twist on a Classical motif - a rose on their mouths. In Rome, 'sub rosa' meant in secret (which is why Steven Saylor's series of novels about Gordianus the Finder are subtitled Roma Sub Rosa), and this use persisted into English, either remembered or rediscovered during the Renaissance. So a rose over someone's mouth means they are keeping a secret of some kind, or being forced to do so. The Gentleman may simply have known the English use of the term, but it certainly has a Classical origin.

One of Jonathan Strange's spells also has its roots in Classical literature. During the Napoleonic War, in Portugal, Strange reanimates the corpses of some dead soldiers in order to get some information. This use of necromancy for information-gathering is highly Classical, and in particular is reminscent of the gory scene in Lucan's Civil War in which the witch Erictho raises the corpse of a dead soldier to obtain a prophecy (supposedly about the future of Sextus Pompey, though the dead soldier is more interested in prophesying and talking about the underworld in general). As in the series, the corpse is decaying and disgusting, but the dead have knowledge the living do not.

These are just hints and echoes of the Classical world in a story much more concerned with the
history of England since the Norman conquest. It is possible that Clarke and the TV crew were not concerned with using or referring to the Classical world at all. However, the fact that these echoes of the ancient world bleed through, surviving years of history to remain influential, is testament to the enduring impact of the ancient world on the modern, even when we can't see it directly.

Edited to add: As my colleague Louisa Mellor at Den of Geek points out, there's also a definite Orpheus and Eurydice vibe to Jonathan and Arabella's story.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Game of Thrones, Season Five

This post contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Game of Thrones, all published books, possibly published snippets from as-yet-unpublished books, material from online interviews, fan theories - it's a veritable spoiler-fest, is what I'm saying.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, it's clear that Season Five was the most Classics-y season of Game of Thrones yet, and all the more awesome for it.

Most obviously, of course, this season we got GLADIATORS! As many of you know, I am an absolute sucker for a good gladiator story. I love them. I can't get enough of them. I should probably worry about what that says about me as a person. But anyway, what's the one thing that could make a gladiator story even more awesome than it already is? DRAGON.

I was so happy with the way the TV series adapted Ser Jorah and Tyrion's story this season, which for me was much more effective than the books. Everyone involved has clearly seen Gladiator as many times as I have, and used it to frame their story, to great effect. And so we got the warm-up gladiator sequence, in a small fighting pit with fewer deaths and more optimism as Jorah fought his way to stand in front of his Queen/love of his life once more. That gave us the wonderful moment, as yet unreached in the books, when Tyrion and Dany finally came face to face and the various plot threads of the whole enormous saga finally started to converge.

It wasn't over yet though, as this was all build up for this year's Episode 9 Grand Climax. Like the earlier, smaller episode, this featured shots lifted directly from Gladiator, starting with a glorious pan over the huge amphitheatre - the book's description of fighting 'pits' wisely ignored in favour of the more spectacular Roman theatrical look. Then it's into the fight, and the drama plays out in a much more satisfying way than in the book. Where Book Dany inadvertently saved an unknown Tyrion from a death he didn't fully realise was planned for him, here Dany watches Jorah, a man she loves (even if not in the same way that he loves her) embark on a suicide mission (the audience knowing, as she doesn't, that he is already dying from greyscale). I was on tenterhooks with every look that passed between them - I love this couple and was so happy to see them sharing screen time again. With the series going so drastically off book and killing numerous characters still alive in the source material, it was also the first gladiator fight I've watched in a long time in which I genuinely didn't know what the outcome would be (Spartacus is hardly going to lose in his first fight, for example).

Then there's that heart-stopping moment when Jorah throws his spear towards the royal box. I'm sure I'm not the only one whose brain did a confused somersault for a few seconds. This shot comes straight out of Kubrick's Spartacus, in which Draba attacks Crassus et al in their box rather than kill Spartacus, the act that sets off the rebellion. In a twist here, Jorah is not aiming at Dany, but at a Son of the Harpy coming up from behind her to attack - here, the rebellion is already happening and he is trying to stop it. Then comes the moment when he offers her his hand and she takes it - a symbolic gesture that seems to me to indicate that she has finally forgiven him. As an incurable sappy romantic, for me it was the most satisfying moment in the show since Jaime jumped into that bear pit back in season three. And so Drogon swoops in to rescue Dany from imminent death, leaving her friends looking up in awe, and one very happy viewer who, wandering around the actual Colosseum two days later, was left half convinced every seagull was really a dragon.

Dragon-spotting at the Colosseum last week. Drogon sadly failed to make an appearance.

This wasn't the only Classical theme in this season, though. Stannis Baratheon learned the hard way that sacrificing one's daughter to the gods rarely ends well, though in his case he learned it a lot more quickly than Agamemnon did (after sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis and get the winds he needed to sail for Troy). I loved the detail that Selyse broke before the end, trying to save her daughter and giving in to despair when she couldn't. Selyse Baratheon is no Clytemnestra - she was fine with this plan up to the last moment, and whereas Stannis had shown his daughter a lot of affection over the years, she had shown none. Her last second change of heart might be part of a rather irritating notion that women are especially vulnerable to the suffering of children, seen in Episode 8 in which the new, very likeable character Karsi dies because she can't bring herself to fight off zombies if they happen to be in children's bodies. But I like Selyse's sudden attack of conscience - it's a sign of just how horribly far Stannis has gone, and her ultimate fate is reminiscent of another Greek tragedy, as Creon's son and then his wife commit suicide following his condemnation of his son's fiancee Antigone, leaving him to realise just how terrible the consequences of his own stubbornness have been.

In ancient literature, while Iphigenia stayed dead in some versions of the story, in others she was miraculously saved by the goddess and whisked away to Tauris. Given the horror which greeted Shireen's death among fans, it's not hard to see why. In Shireen's case, it's unlikely that a miraculous escape is in the offing - Game of Thrones doesn't generally work that way, and her blood-curdling screams were as good as a dead body in terms of finality. But that brings us to the other major Classical moment of this season - the death of Jon Snow.

The assassination of Jon Snow is clearly set up and filmed to echo the death of Julius Caesar, as a group of men, some of whom were close allies, some of whom he'd pardoned for earlier opposing him, surround him and stab him to death. I swear, when Olly came up to deliver the final blow, I fully expected him to say 'And you, boy?' or 'You too, Olly?' or words to that effect. He stuck to just 'Olly?' in the end, but the point was more or less made. Then falls Caesar.

We're now left with a bizarre sort-of-cliffhanger. Jon Snow in the books is not permanently dead - Melisandre is right there, he can warg into Ghost, and George RR Martin has almost good as confirmed that we haven't seen the last of him in interviews. However, Benioff, Weiss and Kit Harington are all absolutely insistent that Jon Snow in the TV show is really, properly, definitely dead. It wouldn't be the first time a character raised from death in the books stayed dead on the show - Lady Stoneheart is still nowhere to be seen, and Mance Rayder appears much more definitely dead. But does it make sense?

Everything in this season and the preceding seasons seems to be building up to Jon Snow being resurrected by Melisandre. She comments on Beric Dondarrion's resurrections, she takes a great interest in Jon, she returns to the Wall just in time for the assassination. We also got a series of heavy-handed hints that R+L=J in Episode 4 of this season, which is all pointless if Jon is dead. (Unless, I suppose, Melisandre plans to use his blood for something, but that's fast running away into the snow. Perhaps she'll do some kind of spell over his dead body, with Jon himself the sacrifice?). Why set all that up and then ignore it?

I'll be sorely disappointed if Jon stays dead, not just because I'll miss Kit Harington (though, that too) but because it doesn't make narrative sense. Now obviously, in real life, death does not always make narrative sense and that's something Martin has consciously tried to replicate in his story, most notably in the death of Robb Stark. But the parts of history that we are the most keen to re-tell in dramatic form are, unsurprisingly, the parts with a strong narrative. Julius Caesar's death was a real event, but it also makes a great story, because he left behind a power vacuum into which Mark Antony and Octavian both tried to step, fighting it out until one survived. Robb Stark's death did something similar, taking one more candidate out of the War of the Five Kings and leaving Stannis and the Lannisters to continue their struggle to reign supreme.

But what does Jon Snow's death do? It leaves us with no one to follow or care about at the Wall except Melisandre, Davos, Tormund and Dolorous Edd. Of these, only Davos is really plausible as a key point of view character, and he can't take over the Watch. Are we going to watch two seasons of Alliser Thorne and Dolorous Edd fighting White Walkers? Are Sansa and Theon going to turn up, arm themselves and start leading the Watch? Actually, that'd be kind of awesome. But still, I find it hard to see a version of this story that provides a satisfying payoff to years of build up that doesn't have Jon Snow in it, what with him being the Ice of Ice and Fire, after all. Real history and narrative are, in the end, different things, and a narrative that tries too hard to be realistic in its randomness may prove ultimately unsatisfying as a drama. Classical historians knew that, and were fairly shameless about moving real events around for dramatic effect when they needed to. It remains to be seen whether Benioff and Weiss will understand the need for some kind of payoff, or whether they have a way to finish off this story without one half of the two central protagonists. Personally, I have my doubts about that, but only time will tell.


Thursday, 2 April 2015

Five Interesting Portrayals of Pontius Pilate


I know, I disappear for over a month and then come back with more Jesus films. But since it's Holy Week, this seemed a good time to collect some of my favourite portrayals of Pontius Pilate, an historical figure who often doesn't get much attention because, well, he's not really the focal point of the films and shows he appears in.

One of the things that I think makes Pilate interesting is that the main historical sources for him are all either Christian or Jewish, so we end up with only a very particular perspective on him, generally from outsiders with varying levels of hostility. One thing we can definitely say about him is that, despite being governor of Judaea for ten years according to Josephus, he did not get on well with the Jewish population at all - that much all the sources seem to agree on!

The main Jewish sources are Philo's On the Embassy to Gaius, a record of an embassy Philo joined along with other Jews from Alexandria in Egypt to ask the Emperor Caligula to do something about the Egyptian governor Flaccus, who was mistreating them in various ways, and Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jews written in Greek after Josephus went over to the side of the Romans during the Jewish Wars and got in with the Emperor Vespasian by correctly predicting he would become Emperor before it happened.

Both Philo and Josephus record that Pilate had some kind of Roman shields set up in the Temple at Jerusalem, which was of course completely sacrilegious from the Jewish point of view. (Most cults and religious groups in the Roman empire worshiped multiple gods and worshiping one didn't prevent anyone from worshiping another, but the Jews were much stricter monotheists and refused to worship any other god but theirs, which caused varying levels of tension at different times - though they had no interest in trying to convert anyone else to their religion, so this was less of a problem that it was later with the Christians). Josephus claims Pilate bowed to the pressure while Philo says the Emperor Tiberius had to write to him to tell him to behave, but either way, there seems to have been no love lost between the leading Jews in Jerusalem and Pilate. Josephus also records riots caused by Pilate using sacred money to build an aqueduct, and he was eventually recalled to Rome after a disturbance with the Samaritans.

The four canonical Christian Gospels are much more favourable towards Pilate than Josephus and especially Philo. All four blame the death of Jesus on the Jewish chief priests and elders, and absolve Pilate of guilt to varying degrees, presumably in an attempt to appeal to a pagan Roman readership by shifting the blame entirely on to the Jews and absolving the Romans. One thing that does seem clear from all the sources, though, is that Pilate and Judaea were simply not a good combination - between the incident with the shields and general violence referred to by Philo and Josephus, the reference to his previously bad relationship with the Jewish king Herod Antipas in Luke, the references to Barabbas being in prison for murder and rioting 'in the insurrection' (Luke and Mark; John says he was a robber) and the general implication that he might be persuaded to execute someone for fear of upsetting the crowd, it seems that if we can take one fairly clear fact away from all this, it's that Jerusalem under Pilate's governorship was not a happy place.

Of course, films and TV shows that portray Pilate tend not to be so interested in any of that (and whether any of them have read Philo or Josephus is doubtful - certainly their main sources are the canonical Christian Gospels). Following the Gospels, Pilate is generally portrayed as considerably less to blame for the death of Jesus than the Jewish elders, but the extent to which he is portrayed as a concerned, philosophical type, a disinterested Roman or just a guy having a trying day varies enormously. These are five of the most interesting takes on him.

5. Frank Thring, Ben-Hur

The interesting thing about the characterisation of Pilate in Ben-Hur is that nearly all of it is achieved in a short scene entirely unconnected to the story of Jesus.

We always know, when watching a Jesus film, that Pilate is a Roman. He may be presented to the audience as Self (a figure with whom they can identify, placing us as the practical Romans against the Othered Sanhedrin) or as Other (encouraging the audience to identify with Jesus and the Jews other than the chief priests, and see the Romans as a potentially dangerous enemy). Often he is a combination of the two; drawing on the Gospels' attempt to present Pilate as Self to their Roman readership and the Jews, especially the chief priests who are painted entirely as the bad guys, as Other but also maintaining a more general Othering of the ancient and sometimes barbaric Romans who thought crucifixion was an appropriate way to execute people.

Ben-Hur stands out, however, for introducing Pilate not as the authority figure who holds the hero's life and death in his hands, but as a fairly normal and somewhat snobby Roman we meet at a party in Rome itself. Since Jesus is not the protagonist of Ben-Hur, we are able to meet Pilate in very different circumstances, enjoying himself at a friend's party for his newly adopted son. We learn that he is not happy about being sent to Judaea, and he complains about the climate. This is something Roman characters usually do when they are sent to Britain because they hate the cold and the rain - in this case, Pilate wanted Alexandria and apparently feels that the deserts of Judaea will be substantially more unpleasant than the Nile delta. He is condescending and disdainful concerning the 'prophets and Jehovah' he expects to find in Judaea and generally unhappy about the whole thing.

Pilate appears again in the chariot race scene, over-seeing proceedings and forcibly reminding everyone present that they all belong to Rome. He greets Ben-Hur as a fellow Roman and calls him 'the people's one true god, for the time being', representing the low point of Ben-Hur's journey away from his roots and into a dangerous obsession with vengeance.

All of this serves to ensure we have a full sense of Pilate's character before his crucial scene, which is even shorter than the version in Pasolini's Gospel of Matthew discussed below. Ben-Hur and his family return from a leper colony to find the streets deserted and are told everyone is at the trial - Pilate himself has no dialogue but merely washes his hands with a supercilious expression on his face, the audience presumed to understand what's going on and know the context. The earlier scene sets up enough of his character for us to understand what's going through his head at that moment. But it also presents us with an unusually human view of Pilate as neither wannabe philosopher nor cold Roman authority, but simply a rather snobby member of the elite who doesn't understand the first thing about the people he's governing and isn't really interested. It's probably one of the more historically accurate portrayals around.

4. Alessandro Clerici, The Gospel According to Matthew

The most fascinating thing about the portrayal of Pilate in Pasolini's film is that, like Thring in Ben-Hur, he's hardly in it.

For most of the film, Pasolini follows the Gospel of Matthew pretty closely - one of the things that makes his take on the story stand out is the way he presents one particular source's version of the story rather than the amalgam of the most memorable bits you get in most Jesus films. But when we come to the crucial scene of the trial of Jesus, suddenly Pasolini departs from Matthew almost all together, while at the same time distancing the viewer from Pilate in a way no other Jesus films that I can think of do (even Ben-Hur features a shot from behind Pilate, placing us briefly with him in the scene).

Pasolini shows Jesus' trial through the eyes of John, who according to his own Gospel was there because he knew someone - none of the other Gospels mention this. Perhaps Pasolini wanted to follow the eyewitness account, but I don't think this was the primary reason. Not only does he leave out the details specific to Matthew's Gospel (Pilate's wife's dream, Pilate literally washing his hands of the case) but he also leaves out Pilate's question in all four Gospels, 'Are you a king?' The scene is extremely brief and to the point, with Pilate offering the choice of Jesus or Barrabas only to the Jewish elders and then dismissing everyone saying 'I am innocent of this man's blood'. We only see him at a distance, barely in focus, looking past the backs of people's heads as John is, having come into a trial clearly already in progress.

The effect is primarily to completely Other Pilate. We are an outsider, looking in with John. We see close-ups of Jesus' eyes, bringing us back briefly to his point of view, and we are with John and Mary, but at no point do we see any of this scene from a Roman point of view. Later we will see more of some of the soldiers at the cross, but this process of the Roman trial (following the chief priests' earlier one) is perfunctory and alienating. Presumably this is part of Pasolini's realism and his desire to show Jesus as a man of the people. Pilate, the representation of Imperial Rome, is impersonal, barely characterised, uninterested. It's a fascinating approach to a character who usually holds much more weight in other versions of the story.

3. Michael Palin, Monty Python's Life of Brian

Michael Palin's Pontius Pilate is, of course, somewhat different to the others listed here. He's primarily a simple figure of fun, with a terrible lisp and good friends called Biggus Dickus and Nauteus Maximus. He is, though, noticeably a Roman figure of fun, with nude paintings from Pompeii on the walls of his palace. Romans are often presented as Self in Life of Brian, rolling their eyes at the stoning of a man for saying 'Jehovah' and generally just trying to get on with their jobs (like another of Palin's characters, who so pleasantly tells people to line up for their crucifixion). Pilate, however, is one of the more Othered and exoticised Romans, representing the Rome of film and television in a way most of the soldiers don't through the art on his walls and his costuming.

Still, there is a little more to the Python version of the trial scene than just mocking those with a speech impediment. In his travel documentary Sahara, when he re-visited the ninth century Islamic fortress that provides the location of the trial both here and in Jesus of Nazareth, Palin talked about how much he liked the way Pilate's authority is brought down by laughter, the crowd defying the might of Rome by laughing at it.

This is also an interesting and refreshing depiction of the mob. Jesus Christ Superstar emphasises the fickleness of the crowd reported in the Gospels, who will glorify a man one week and demand his crucifixion the next (they don't talk much about the fact that in between these two events, he started some kind of riot in the Temple and over-turned all the bankers' tables, which might have had something to do with it). Other depictions, like Jesus of Nazareth, show the people being manipulated by the Jewish elders who persuade them all to vote for Barabbas to be set free. Here, however, the crowd are actually largely apathetic. They are simply looking for entertainment, and their choice of who they want saved is entirely down to which name sounds the funniest when Pilate tries to pronounce it. These are the disenfranchised masses looking for bread and circuses so famously described in Juvenal's satire, and Pilate is no more than a figure of fun to them, a circus. They are almost completely detached from the politics of the situation.

We've got a general election coming up soon - it remains to be seen which version of the mob we'll collectively resemble the most...

2.  Barry Dennen, Jesus Christ Superstar

The thoughtfulness of Pilate in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice's musical is established early on when the dream Matthew says Pilate's wife had the night before Jesus was brought to him is given to Pilate himself instead. This version of the dream includes visions of the future of Christianity, and Barry Dennen infuses the song with a wonderful mix of sadness and a mildly self-interested horror at the idea of millions of people 'leaving me the blame'.

Pilate's re-introduction at Jesus' trial is quite different; approaching from on high accompanied by images of Roman eagles and dressed up like a king himself, in purple and wearing a gold laurel wreath, he embodies earthly power. He manages to be even more supercilious than Thring - Dennen's delivery of 'Who is this broken man / cluttering up my hallway?' is a thing of beauty. He seems very Othered - but the audience have seen the more thoughtful dream sequence, which provides a particular interpretation of his motivation for sending Jesus to Herod as he does in Luke's Gospel. This incident isn't always dramatised, and when it is Pilate is usually trying to avoid being blamed for Jesus' death by the crowd, knowing how popular Jesus is and, as in every version and indeed in history, concerned about the possibility of riots. Here, we understand this as Pilate trying to shift the blame of history, rather than immediate mob, on to Herod rather than himself, making this a slightly more philosophical action more than a practical one (since the crowd in Jerusalem have turned against Jesus here).

Pilate's final appearance combines these traits. He starts out trying to continue to appear superior but clearly unnerved by the growing crowd, slipping into desperation to help Jesus as he cradles his bleeding body after the flogging, and culminating in the powerful image of him literally washing Jesus' blood off his hands in a glass bowl, shot from underneath. His lyrics sum him up - 'We all have truths / Are mine the same as yours?', and 'He's mad / Ought to be locked up / But that is not a reason to destroy him!' This is one of the most three dimensional Pilates around, and Dennen's performance embodies snobbery, disdain, fear, empathy and guilt beautifully.

1. Rod Steiger, Jesus of Nazareth

OK, I confess, Rod Steiger is my number 1 not so much because this is a particularly academically interesting portrayal, but because it's a personal favourite of mine. Steiger's performance is wonderful; subtle, nuanced, weary and strangely charismatic. Reading the extra voices in the Passion reading last Sunday, it was all I could do not to do an impersonation of the way he says, 'Are you a king?' (Though that's nothing compared to the difficulty of resisting the urge to do a John Wayne impression on 'Truly this man was the Son of God').

Steiger and Zeffirelli's Pilate is a man on the edge. As he rides into shot, he is already being hounded by a mob wanting Barabbas released, and he repeatedly says how tired he is, Zeffirelli carefully setting him up as a weary man with a difficult job whose options are limited. This is for the most part very much a representation of Pilate as Self - we the audience are encouraged to see ourselves in a hard-working man who doesn't understand the Jewish priests and their customs, or the desires of the mob.

This is a very thoughtful Pilate. He questions Jesus with a mixture of disdain and sincerity, and appears to be genuinely reluctant to crucify him. It's implied that the custom of releasing one prisoner at the Passover is not one he feels especially bound to obey, but he does it in the hopes of having Jesus released without angering the chief priests. He seems almost hurt by the reminder that the Jews will be 'defiled' if they enter a Roman building during Passover. It's a Pilate we as the audience are very much encouraged to identify with, someone who comes across as sensible  and practical. We are only really reminded of his Other status as a Roman when his second in command says Barabbas is an enemy of Rome and he looks thoughtfully at Jesus and wonders who the real enemy is (presumably a reference to the Gibbon-led idea that Christianity was ultimately responsible for the fall of Rome).

I doubt Steiger's Pilate is much like the real Pilate, who seems to have been more inclined to stir up trouble than desperately try to avoid it if Philo and Josephus are right, and more likely to ignore religious customs than take a philosophical interest in them. But as a representation of the Pilate we see in the Gospels, Steiger's downtrodden governor is hard to beat.


Monday, 23 February 2015

The Gospel According to St Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)


I'm trying to practice my limited Italian before going to Rome this summer, so to help me out, Mum and Dad kindly bought me Pasolini's classic 1964 film for my birthday, which I hadn't seen before.

Although I'm familiar with various choral versions of particular Gospels (I seem to remember singing Bach's St John's Passion with the university choir once) most of the Jesus films I'm familiar with (Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, The Passion of the Christ - oh, and The Life of Brian) blend elements from all four Gospels into one. Over the years, I've sometimes rather forgotten which bits belong to which Gospel, so it's really interesting to see just one of them set out here. Even some elements I did remember as being particular to one Gospel were fascinating to see fully separated out. I know that the Nativity story exists only in Matthew and Luke, and that Matthew covers Joseph's dream, Herod and the wise men, while Luke includes Mary, Gabriel, no room at the inn and the shepherds, but after decades of school Nativity plays, it's very strange to actually see only the Matthean parts of it without the Luke bits.

Pasolini does very slightly veer from strict adherence to Matthew at the end, as John is clearly present at the crucifixion, a detail recorded in no uncertain terms by John but not by the others. Jesus' cross is also inscribed with JNRJ, more usually rendered INRI - an abbreviation for 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews' (the Latin Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iud├Žorum), a notice John's Gospel states was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and put up on Pilate's orders (John 19:19; as far as I can remember, only The Passion of the Christ has actually shown a sign with all three languages on it, partly because it has to be quite large and the writing quite small). Matthew's Gospel mentions the sign, but quotes it as saying 'this is Jesus, King of the Jews' (27:37; Hic est Jesus rex Jud├Žorum in the Vulgate). John, who is depicted as one of the younger disciples in this film, is also shown holding hands with Jesus at one point, presumably reflecting the frequent references to him as 'the disciple Jesus loved' in his own Gospel.

Matthew is an interesting choice for a Marxist director as well. I vaguely remember reading an article which I think was by Ste Croix years ago while I was revising for my final exams about economics, class and the Gospels. Possibly-Ste-Croix argued that Luke's Gospel was aimed at the poor (hence, the shepherds) while Matthew's was aimed at the better-off (the wise men paying homage emulating the elite from the east paying homage to a king or emperor). Luke's Beatitudes say simply 'blessed are the poor', implying that the fact of being poor makes one more worthy than the rich, whereas Matthew's say 'blessed are the poor in spirit', implying you can still be rich and blessed. Having said that, Matthew's Gospel does include the story of the rich man who wants to be perfect and the saying that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (the English subtitles clearly saying 'the eye of a needle' not 'the Eye of the Needle') than a rich man to enter heaven, and Pasolini emphasises the working-class status of Jesus and his disciples through costume and location.

The dialogue is taken directly from the Gospel, with minimal additions if any, so several scenes which are described in the Gospel but feature no dialogue are done without dialogue in the film, expressed largely through facial expressions. Pasolini makes some very interesting choices in casting and direction. Salome, in particular, looks quite different to many other interpretations. Her dance for Herod Antipas is often used as an excuse to have a sexy woman perform an alluring dance, allowing the audience to enjoy the dance at the same time as morally condemning it, just like Roman orgy scenes. Here, though, Salome is a much younger girl, and while her dance is pretty, it's not overtly sexual. Herod's reaction simply makes him look more leering, while Salome is clearly being ordered what to do by her mother Herodias and she herself comes across as more innocent than usual.

Pasolini's film is well known for being made in Italian neo-realist style, though as far as 'realism' more generally goes, I couldn't help comparing it to Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Pasolini uses non-professional actors and films on location, where Zeffirelli used an all-star cast of well-known actors, creating more of a barrier between audience and film as we recognise Ernest Borgnine or Anne Bancroft as themselves. However, where Zeffirelli tried to make a film as historically accurate as possible, Pasolini uses distinctly non-Roman architecture (Zeffirelli used a ninth-century Islamic fortress, but less obviously), non-Roman hairstyles and his Roman soldiers look like they've stepped straight out of a Renaissance painting. Their round helmets are especially egregious. I also had some trouble with the fact he'd cast Mary realistically young in the Nativity scenes, but cast his own mother as the older Mary - a woman far too old at the time of filming to have believably given birth to a 33-year-old at around 12-15 years herself.

Interestingly, Pasolini also depicts some of the more ostentatious miracles left out by Zeffirelli - Jesus walking on water, and the dramatic earthquake that occurs as he dies - as well as depicting the healing of leprosy far more viscerally and physically dramatically than most. (That was a great scene - in the Gospel, Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone, but Matthew tells us he went around telling everyone. In the film, with Jesus in the foreground facing the camera, we see the man run behind him and immediately start exclaiming to everyone around him, waving his arms around frantically). Perhaps, being an atheist who believed none of it anyway, he felt more comfortable with the more obviously extra-natural elements of the story.

The whole film also has a surreal feel to it, partly thanks to the direction, but also thanks to the habit of Italian films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s of post-synching all the dialogue, so no one's lips quite match their speech. (For a long time I thought this was just Fellini being weird, but when I watched Suspiria for a Den of Geek article last week, I discovered it's a quirk of Italian cinema of that period in general). Indeed, several of the main characters are voiced by entirely different actors to those portraying them on screen. It gives everything an eerie, other-wordly sensation. This feeling is further enhanced by the wide variety of music used in the score, including sweeping classical orchestral music, guitar-twanging American blues, Christian music and a joyous theme in a style I didn't recognise.

I enjoyed this film very much. The focus on one specific Gospel makes it slightly different from other Jesus films - yes, the story is still familiar, but it's an interesting way to focus it. Pasolini could perhaps have been slightly less thorough in covering everything in Matthew's Gospel, as the section covering Jesus' various teachings, in which we simply see Jesus declaim various well-known sayings, was a bit like sitting through a slightly dull sermon in church. On the other hand, the actor playing Jesus was distractingly sexy - not that the other actors I've seen play him are unattractive (especially Caviezel, though he's too horribly mutilated for much of his film to distract in that way), but this guy oozed sexiness, and the fact he spent much of the early part of the film staring intently at people and telling them to come with him didn't help. He also had the most wonderful head of slicked-back 1960s Italian (actually, Spanish) hair, which did not entirely go with his very traditional white Jesus-robe.

All in all, I'd thoroughly recommend this to anyone interested in Jesus films, ancient world films or Italian cinema. If you want to watch something in Italian to practice the language, this is definitely my favourite of the films I've tried so far.

More film reviews

Friday, 30 January 2015

Catching up

I know the blog's been a bit quiet lately - life stuff. It may be a while before I'm able to catch up on much, but I'm still active at Den of Geek and Doux Reviews.

I'm part of teams reviewing Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files at Doux Reviews. I had no idea how many TNG episodes I hadn't seen... I'm loving re-visiting The X-Files, except for the conspiracy arcs, which I always pretty much ignored from about season 3 onwards - that makes them quite difficult to review for others, as I have really no idea what's going on in most of them! Of course, The X-Files has been in the news lately, as it may be revived in a shorter form. I'm not entirely convinced that's a good idea, but on the other hand, I liked the generally disliked second movie, and the series finale was an utter mess, so maybe a short series could give the whole thing a stronger sense of closure and round it off nicely.

My current series of articles for Den of Geek consists of guides to getting into long-running shows without having to watch every single episode, especially when everyone tells you season one isn't so good but it gets better. How on earth is that meant to make me want to watch season one?! (Though I have to say, in the end, I enjoyed Supernatural season one very much, and season one of The X-Files is my favourite by far). Anyway, The X-Files will be up next, as soon as I've had time to write it (they take ages, as I have to keep checking which episode was which!) so if you've never seen the show but want to give it a go before any new version comes out, keep an eye out for that!

Also in the news in the last couple of weeks, Atlantis has been cancelled. The last seven episodes of season two will air in the spring, and then that's your lot. Honestly, I feel terrible about this because a lot of people have lost their jobs, but I'm sort of relieved. Part of the reason I haven't managed to review season two yet is that I simply haven't had time - I haven't finished season two of Plebs yet either, and I still hugely enjoy that. But part of the reason was also that it was such a slog to watch and talk about it.

To be fair, that isn't necessarily entirely down to the quality of the show. I watched a couple of episodes from the first part of season two on TV without writing them up and they passed the time reasonably well. I was very happy to see Medea appear, and although I came in halfway through the story and wasn't sure what was going on, it looked like they were doing something really interesting with Orpheus and Eurydice. Sometimes, something that's great fun to watch and is a good show is just very difficult to write about critically, as I discovered when I reviewed The Big Bang Theory for Den of Geek last year. I mean, what can you say each week - nothing much happened, but it made me laugh, because it's a sitcom and that's what they do?! It certainly exercised my creativity, that's for sure. So part of Atlantis' problem from my point of view may have been that it's fun, Saturday-night telly, it's not meant to be earth-shattering, so it isn't.

But I think there are some interesting issues surrounding what Atlantis did with the mythology as well. I'm a big fan of playing around with myth, of doing different things with it and coming up with new versions, as I'm sure you know. I’ve defended Troy many times, and I liked last summer’s Hercules (the one with The Rock) very much. I loved Atlantis’ interpretation of Hercules and as I said, it looked like they were doing something interesting with Orpheus.

But perhaps Atlantis got a bit too creative. If you’re going to write something based on or inspired by pre-existing stories, there should probably be enough of the pre-existing story that’s recognizable, otherwise what’s the point? You might as well write a fresh story with fresh characters and do whatever you want with it. Atlantis’ Pasiphae bears pretty much no resemblance to the mythical Pasiphae, it took ages for Medea to show up and Ariadne was still being presented as Jason’s main love interest, Medusa was with Hercules, Pythagoras – a real person – was there for some reason… For people who don’t know the stories, it probably doesn’t matter but it means even the most basic level of recognition is lost, and for people who know the stories, keeping up with that level of messing around with them becomes confusing after a while.

There were other issues too. Jason was given a backstory that should have informed his every move, thought and reaction – that he had grown up in the modern era (and was some kind of marine archaeologist or something, if I remember rightly) but that has hardly been mentioned since. He never feels like a modern man at all. All of the characters are rather broadly drawn, and the women got short shrift in season one, all being either saints or sinners, with only Medea in season two offering a slightly more complex character.

And on a personal level, although I absolutely love Robin Hood legends, Arthurian legends and Greek myth, I haven’t really been able to get in to any of the BBC’s dramas on the subjects. I watched a bit of Merlin, mainly for Colin Morgan, but neither Atlantis nor Robin Hood were able to boast a lead actor with as much talent or charisma as him. I can see what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to recreate the American shows that I love, balancing humour and drama in 45 minute episodes, but somehow they never quite manage it. Perhaps they need to stop trying and be something more British instead. Just look at French zombie drama The Returned – it couldn’t be more French, and it’s brilliant.

It would also help if they decided whether they were a family show or a drama aimed primarily at adults, and stopped equating ‘family’ with ‘children’. Star Trek (various incarnations) is a family show, which means it doesn’t include graphic sexual or violent content (apart from that one time that dude’s head blew up, and some stuff that happens on Risa) but it takes its drama seriously and includes stories on all manner of topics. Atlantis, of course, suffered particularly badly in this respect, as the first series was written for an earlier time slot than it was given, and then the second tried self-consciously to be ‘darker’. I think the lesson here is, don’t write for a timeslot or an audience beyond minor consideration of how graphic you’re going to be. Write great stories for interesting characters and take care of the rest later. You can always edit out that steamy sex romp if you unexpectedly get given an earlier time slot. And don’t write for children as if they were a sub-set with different tastes than adults. Children enjoy great stories and great characters in just the same way as adults do.

I’d better stop before this gets any more ranty, and before I start explaining why I prefer Star Trek to Doctor Who and end up kicking off a flame war! Anyone have any thoughts on Atlantis? Are you sorry to see it go? I’ll miss its gorgeous set design, I think…

P.S. When drafting this post, I completely forgot the most important bit of news - my book came out in paperback yesterday! Amazon don't quite seem to have caught up to this yet but you can buy it from Bloomsbury's website. There's also a Kindle edition, and both are under £20, which is pretty great for an academic book!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ancient fandom and fan fiction


As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have a pile of episodes of Plebs and Atlantis I need to get to reviewing at some point, but am too snowed under with marking (not to mention two papers that urgently need worked on) to be able to do them just now. However, during lengthy sessions of sitting at the computer snuffling, rocking back and forth a little and occasionally marking something, I have been breaking up the work by poking around on Tumblr and being generally fascinated by online fan culture. And so, for Christmas, I thought I'd do a slightly silly post looking at possible ancient counterparts to modern popular culture, fan culture and fan fiction.

Something often bemoaned on film websites and in current film criticism is the fact that an awful lot of big films at the moment are based on pre-existing properties - sequels, prequels, re-boots, adaptations of popular books, adaptations of popular graphic novels, adaptations of obscure graphic novels about trees and raccoons, etc. As a complaint, this would make no sense to the ancient Greeks, since Athenian tragedy was almost always a prequel, sequel, re-imagining or re-boot of a pre-existing story. We have one surviving historical tragedy (Aeschylus' The Persians) and references to a few others, but they don't seem to have been terribly popular. According to Herodotus, the playwright Phrynichos was fined 1000 drachmas because his play The Capture of Miletos, about the titular military disaster, was Too Soon, and the capture of Miletos was outlawed as a tragic subject (Hdt. 6.121.2).

No one knows for sure why Athenian tragedy was nearly always myth-based. It's possible that this was part of the genre (just as satyr plays used comic mythological themes and subjects) or that it has to do with the plays being performed at a festival in honour of Dionysus. On the other hand, given that these plays were entered into competitions, maybe the ancients' motivations were the same as Hollywood's. Known properties come with a built-in audience and they sell. In the case of the Athenian drama, it's not necessarily about getting bums on seats - people would probably come to the festival anyway - but it's about getting people to enjoy your play so they give it first prize. Innovation was not the Athenians' thing - although Euripides' alteration to the plot of Medea, having her murder her own children, proved extremely popular and became the most widely known version in later years, it gained him last place in that year's competition. Give people characters they already know and love and a story that fulfills their expectations, and you're more likely to do well.

Of course, all this writing and re-writing of pre-existing characters and stories leads to works that take their inspiration from and build on the works of previous authors. Modern fiction draws a line between canonical stories, written professionally by people who own the copyright to the characters, and fan fiction, written not-for-profit by fans who don't own any rights to the characters and didn't invent them. However, even in a modern context, the line between the two is increasingly blurry - non-canon but professionally written TV tie-in novels have been around for years, and now there's a new set of Sookie Stackhouse short stories written by other authors coming out - and that's not even counting belated sequels to out-of-copyright properties, like Death Comes to Pemberly or Heidi Grows Up.

In the ancient world, not only were there no copyright laws, the mythological or folkloric subjects of most of the non-historical stories that appear in much of ancient literature had no individual author or creator in the first place, and anyone could do what they wanted with them. (Original Characters and stories do, of course, also appear in ancient literature as well. Novels like Petronius' Satyricon and collections of poems like the Latin love poems of the first century BC tell, so far as we know, fresh stories with new, contemporary characters, and Aristophanes' comedies are mostly fairly original). So, is a large part of ancient literature essentially fan fiction?

The answer is probably 'not really', because fan fiction implies being a fan of a specific thing and writing more of it, whereas most ancient literature takes pre-existing stories - but not particular authors or particular versions - and re-works them, as Shakespeare did. Still, it's a pretty fine line. Lucian has something of an obsession with Homer, but since it's a negative obsession, that's more spoofing than fan fiction. Seneca seems to have had a bit of a thing for Euripides, producing his own versions of Hippolytus (Phaedra), Medea, The Madness of Heracles (Hercules), Trojan Women and Phoenician Women. One of the most fan fiction-like bits of ancient literature, though, must be Ovid's Heroides. Although not based on a particular author's work, these letters from mythological heroines to their lovers do represent a common theme in fan fiction - expanding upon existing romantic relationships between fictional characters.

Of course, one of the most prevalent themes in modern fan fiction is shipping. The term apparently originated with fans of The X-Files who wanted Mulder and Scully to get together, while 'slash fiction' (male homoerotic shipping) was apparently used even earlier to refer to Kirk/Spock fiction (i.e. Kirk slash Spock fiction) but the concept far pre-dates the internet and may even pre-date Kirk and Spock. In Plato's philosophical dialogue The Symposium, Plato has one of the speakers (Phaedrus) explain his conviction that Aeschylus is wrong about Achilles being the active partner in a sexual relationship with Patroclus, since obviously it was the other way around. Since Homer's Iliad (which at least popularised the orally-told story) never explicitly states that Achilles and Patroclus are in a sexual relationship - there's plenty of phrases that could be read that way, but nothing definite - this surely makes Aeschylus and either Plato, Phaedrus or both Achilles/Patroclus shippers, and Achilles/Patroclus the first slash couple. (Hmm, there was probably Gilgamesh/Enkidu slash as well, but I doubt that's survived). Not sure what their ship name should be - Patrilles? Does this exist online as a ship? (I bet it does. Rule 34 and all that).

Of course, one difference between ancient treatments of myth and modern story-telling is that heroic myth was generally considered to be part of history in the ancient world, even if many people doubted the specifics of it. But then, I've broken the hearts of countless students with my insistence that King Arthur wasn't real over the years. Arthurian legend - whether specific re-tellings or the stories in general - has been subject to all the usual fan treatments over the years, including fan fiction attached to particular interpretations (most recently the BBC series) and shipping (definitely in the case of the BBC series - Merthur is pretty big on Tumblr).

I mentioned above the religious context of some of these texts (plays performed at the festival of Dionysus) and I've spent years showing students Aristophanes' Frogs (featuring the god Dionysus swapping places with his slave and a lot of fart jokes) and talking to them about how different ancient religion and literature was, since the ancients made fun of their gods in a way that modern Abrahamic religions generally don't. However, I confess that lately I've even had to re-think that. I watched all of Supernatural over the summer and (spoiler alert) here is how Supernatural portrays the Judaeo-Christian God:



He's called Chuck, He's a bad writer and he has regular phone sex with a woman called 'Mistress Magda' (he's got a 'virgin-hooker thing', it seems). The show also features the archangels Micheal, Raphael and Gabriel (all 'dicks', though Gabriel is the least dickish), Uriel (downgraded to regular angel), various other angels and, debateably, Jesus. Of course, that could just be Supernatural, but then I thought about the depiction of God in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail



and (one of my favourite screen depictions of God) in Dogma



not forgetting, of course, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty



and Whoopi Goldberg, who has played God twice (It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and A Little Bit of Heaven).



Jesus is more likely to be treated respectfully, seen from a distance, or not appear at all, viewed chiefly through receptions of Him (like Dogma's classic Buddy Christ). But we don't really have that much of a problem depicting God in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the majority of the writers on these projects were atheist or agnostic, and several of them certainly attracted the wrath of organised Christian Churches or fundamentalist groups. But that doesn't mean they don't exist, and there are plenty of practicing Christians like me who enjoy these works even if it does mean they stand in church singing 'The Angel Gabriel' and picturing Richard Speight Jr's waggling eyebrows.


(gif from here)

Even if we want to restrict ourselves to works written by practicing Christians and approved by Christian leaders, we've still got a pretty famous depiction of Jesus as a lion with a (subtle) sense of humour.



So, to sum up, ancient and modern literature - possibly not so different after all.

Happy Christmas!


Monday, 24 November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2014)


(In case anyone is wondering where the Plebs and Atlantis reviews are: I am planning to catch up on all of them eventually, but it's just not possible to keep up every week with my current workload. So they will appear, sooner or later!).

I'm a huge fan of The Hunger Games, so I headed out to see Mockingjay Part 1 this weekend, and I wasn't disappointed. As usual, I wish the film-makers would take a few more liberties with the books and mix things up a bit. And I'm torn on whether it should have been left at one film. I enjoyed everything here (if 'enjoyed' is the right word) and it was vaguely pulled together by the theme of the media war between Plutarch and Snow with Katniss and Peeta as their weapons. I'm also not against splitting books on principle - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is actually my second favourite of the Potter films (my favourite is Goblet of Fire - exactly no one agrees with me on this) and I think the only one of the Twilight films that really qualifies as a quality movie is Breaking Dawn Part 1, because that stands alone as an effective pregnancy/body horror piece. I'm not entirely convinced Mockingjay benefits from the split other than financially, as I think a bit more adaptation and willingness to cut unnecessary material might have been an improvement, and we would have got complete arcs for the new characters who, apart from Coin, mostly just appear and give the vague impression we might need to know who they are in the next film. But it leaves space for lots of little things from the books, like Prim's cat and Finnick's rope (not commented on, but seen) and I think overall it's a good film.

I was kicking myself early on in the film, as I realised I'd never really given much thought to how much District 13 resembles ancient Sparta. I've always seen it as vaguely Communist, set against the Capitalist Capitol, but when Boggs told Katniss early in this film that 'the war never ended for us' it suddenly hit me that it's not Communist so much as it is Spartan.

Judging by the (not all that reliable) evidence we have, Spartan society around the fifth century BC was focused around transforming its male citizen into the perfect army (to better be able to quell revolts from the enslaved Messenian population). Spartan citizen males ate together in a sort of mess, and the food was not especially delicious (pigs boiled in their own blood seem to have been involved). The inhabitants of District 13 eat small portions of horrible food due to rationing, but the cafeteria or mess-like dining area is similar. Spartan boys were expected to wear one style of tunic all year round so they could cope with heat and cold equally well, a bit like District 13's jumpsuits, and both the dietary and wardrobe restrictions were also aimed at making sure all citizens were equal and no one tried to raise themselves above another.

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, after whom Plutarch Heavensbee is named, the legendary Spartan founder Lycurgus also insisted that the only form of currency to be used was big iron rods, treated with vinegar so the iron couldn't be melted down and re-used. This meant no one tried to get rich, as there was no inherent value in the money and it couldn't be exchanged with other currencies, so Spartan men were focused on improving their military skills and not distracted by trying to earn money. This would seem to fit with the Communist aesthetic and lack of currency in District 13 (I have often wondered why their President is called 'Coin' - this is surely significant, but I confess, it confuses me! Other than to imply that she is hard and cold, perhaps).

I feel like I may have heard a paper on this subject once, but I've forgotten - it certainly came back to me when Boggs explained how District 13 live by referring to the war never ending for them. The entire society is designed to be able to fight a war. Unlike the ancient Spartans, the inhabitants of District 13 don't have hundreds of slaves to do all the farming and production and so on for them, and they train women as well as men to fight, so there are some differences in how they're run, but thinking about it, it's clear that ancient Sparta is more the model for District 13 than Communist countries - though there are a fair few similarities between the two anyway.

Of course, whereas depictions of ancient Sparta tend to involve a lot of very fit men not wearing very much beyond their red cloaks and running around in the warm sunshine of Greece, District 13 is much more drab-looking. Thank goodness, then, for Effie! I was glad to see the writers (one of whom, Danny Strong, was Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I have random residual fondness for him on that basis alone) were willing to make a few changes from the book, and bringing Effie in to District 13 to replace Katniss' former fashion team (minus Cinna, *sob*!) was a great idea, leading to some of the few moments of levity in the entire, grim, relentlessly sad film. (I was going to make a comment about how poor Katniss is basically crying or nearly crying through most of the film, but honestly, that could describe any of the Hunger Games films). The moment between Effie and Haymitch in the briefing was wonderful.

I was glad to see Mockingjay once again expanding the story a bit beyond Katniss' point of view, and the scene with the group of people singing 'The Hanging Tree' was very effective. I suspect being able to include scenes like this is one of the advantages of splitting the film, so it may turn out to have been a good artistic decision as well as sound for obvious financial reasons - and Mockingjay is a book with a clear halfway point and a lot of material, so it stands up to the divide better than The Hobbit being split into three. With any luck, the final installment next year will round out a solid four-part series.

More on The Hunger Games:
The book trilogy (spoilery)
The Hunger Games (spoilery)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (also spoilery)

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Supernatural: Fan Fiction


'Fan Fiction' is the 200th episode of Supernatural. Not many shows reach such an impressive number, but those that do include Stargate SG-1 and its fabulous, hilarious, imaginatively named 200th episode '200', so this had a lot to live up to.

Lots of spoilers below.

Supernatural has been doing intensely meta-fictional episodes in several different flavours for years (though ironically 'Meta Fiction' isn't one of them, and nor is 'Slash Fiction') so it's hardly surprising that, like SG-1, the writers went for a meta-fictional plot for the 200th episode. The story is set around a high school play inspired by the novels that tell Dean and Sam's life stories (well established within the series, and involving metaphysics rather than the usual bad adaptation of events, so they're unusually accurate. The episode set around a fan convention for them is one of my favourites). Our heroes turn up to investigate after the drama teacher, threatening to shut the show down because "there's too much drama in the drama department", disappears. It turns out the show is being protected by Calliope, the Greek Muse and goddess of epic poetry.

Supernatural has done Greek gods before and, I have to admit, more effectively. The gods in 'Remember the Titans' are dressed in modern clothing and play roles reasonably close to their mythical characters, though there were some changes to Artemis that bothered me a bit. Calliope, however, is costumed in a really basic sub-Charmed-style Greek-type dress with purple flowers on it and an arm band and bears very little resemblance to anything remotely Greek (not many pictures online yet, just this one from one of the actresses' Twitter accounts). According to Supernatural, Calliope is:

  • Associated with the 'borage' or starflower;
  • Manifests creatures from the stories she's tuned in to;
  • Uses these manifestations to inspire and protect the author until their vision is realised...
  • then she eats the author.

Some of this makes sense. Calliope is, indeed, the Muse of epic poetry so her interest in the show is logical enough - for a musical version of Supernatural, they could also have gone for Melpomene (tragic plays) or Terpsichore (choral song and dance) but I liked Calliope's justification for her interest/defense of the show on the grounds that "It isn't some meandering piece of genre dreck. It's... epic." Besides, there weren't always nine Muses and they didn't always have such clearly differentiated spheres of interest - Calliope was the mother of the famous singer Orpheus and in older art is often shown with a lyre, so it makes sense that she'd like musicals. And while manifesting creatures from stories she's especially interested in has nothing to do with Greek mythology, it's necessary for the plot of the episode to work and for her to present some kind of threat, so that's fine too (plus, scarecrow callback!).

The flower thing is bit stranger. I'm not aware of any connection between Calliope and borage flowers, though of anyone knows of one, let me know. Ovid describes her wearing her hair in an ivy wreath. I suppose the show needed to invent something specific to her that would identify her. In art she's usually depicted with a lyre, tablet and stylus or scroll - none of which would be specific enough - or the head of her son Orpheus, which she recovered after he was torn limb from limb by Bacchants. Not too grim for Supernatural, but harder to place at the scene of every disappearance or use as a decorative motif on her dress, I guess.

The bit that really bothered me, though, was the idea that after the show, she eats the author. What?! I get that she has to threaten Marie's life - again, it's the only way for the story to work - but why eat her? That's just weird. She could just kill her in some unspecified way. If I were choosing punishments for authors from Greek mythology, I'd probably go for blinding them, which is something of a theme - Homer describes a blind poet, which lead the ancients to assume he was blind, Tiresias is blinded, in some versions for revealing secrets, and Oedipus blinds himself when he discovers the truth. I guess in Supernatural that might not work because it would be too associated with the angels burning people's eyes out, but still. Or Calliope could rip people's tongues out once their song is sung, or tear them to pieces like what happened to her son or... really anything other than eating them, which makes no sense. They try to justify it with her line saying she's "consumed many authors, many stories," implying it's something to do with 'consuming' stories as art, but just.... no. Too silly. (I choose to draw the 'too-silly' line in weird places in sci-fi and fantasy, but this is one of them).

Still, the reason the depiction of Calliope is rather surface-level is because she really isn't the point here. Of course, all myths and folktales used in Supernatural are there to further its own story and parallel the show's own characters, but Calliope is a particularly empty plot device - far more so than the interesting exploration of Prometheus and Zeus in 'Remember the Titans' - because as an anniversary episode, this episode has far more important things to do. Calliope is just the necessary MacGuffin to get the boys into the school, and we all know it.

OK, anyone who's reading this blog because you're interested in classics, classical reception, or academic research, you may want to just leave it here because the rest of this post is pure Supernatural fan-girling. There may be squee-ing.

I was really worried this was going to be awful, especially when I found out it was set at an all-girls' school play. Full disclosure: I went to all-girls' schools - two of them, because we moved house when I was 14. At my new school, my friends and I were really into VC Andrews' Flowers in the Attic and its sequels - gothic horror/romance novels about teenage incest. Also ballet. A couple of years later, we put on a play we wrote ourselves, in which a couple of us performed famous songs (one of my best friends sang 'I Put a Spell on You' and I think I did 'Close Every Door' from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) and in which I played the main character, whose boyfriend was named after a love interest from our favourite TV show at the time. There was also Shakespeare. And 'Do You Love Me?' So there's a possibility I over-identify with Marie (except for the fact I'm a Dean girl, obviously).

Luckily, in the end, I think I loved it. It's hard to compete with 'The Real Ghostbusters' or 'Changing Channels' (or SG-1's '200') but actually, miraculously, I think they pulled it off. They manage to use the all-girls' school setting largely without being creepy about it, which is something I was really worried about. I don't think any of our teachers would ever have referred to us as 'skanks' - I hope not - but the moment in which Dean accidentally called a young girl 'bitch' was actually very funny, and otherwise the guest characters were treated pretty respectfully. This features more female characters - and more women of colour - in one episode than Supernatural has featured in the rest of the show combined. And they all lived! It was an Everybody Lives episode! Has Supernatural even done one of those before? All I can think of is 'The End', in which everyone dies in the future, and, interestingly enough, 'The Monster at the End of This Book'. Both Chuck episodes as well. Hmm.

Obviously, being an anniversary episode, there were nods to the past and in-jokes all over the place, my favourite being the amused-hurt tone in Sam's voice as he wonders why 'Destiel' and not 'Sastiel'. The writers had promised to acknowledge everyone who'd been significant to the show, so while Sam and Dean and their musical counterparts get the most attention, we see plenty of Bobby, John, Castiel and Mary Winchester in singing form as well. At one point Sam remarks on the absence of Chuck in the cast line-up, and the characters he's looking at are:

  • John, Mary, Bobby, Castiel, Dean (definitely identifiable,these have lines and sing - Sam is played by the director by this point and standing in front of them);
  • Jody Mills (a character in a police uniform, and Jody was mentioned earlier so presumably this is her), Crowley, Jo, Ellen, Ash (guesses based on costume, but Ash couldn't be anyone else);
  • And a robot.
  • Plus several stagehands in black.

Notable characters from the first five seasons not featured include Bela, Ruby, Pamela and Anna, which is a bit of a shame, so let's pretend the four stagehands are playing them. The Ghostfacers get a mention as the girls psych themselves up to go on stage, which I loved because I'm a big fan of the Ghostfacers. Mind you, that was also the point I felt the collapse of the fourth wall was starting to threaten my suspension of disbelief, because the Ghostfacers really exist in the world of Supernatural, so wouldn't fans of the books Google them and discover they were real? Best not to think about it too much.

The whole story takes the rather sweet and self-deprecating approach that the first five seasons of the show, supervised by creator Eric Kripke, are 'canon', and all the rest of it since is fan fiction. This fits with the established mythology in which the writer (Chuck) is implied literally to be God, and stopped writing after Kripke's final episode 'Swan Song' (in which Chuck disappeared). Marie's dismissal of all the rest of the show as terrible fan fiction is very funny, and aside from the final Boy Melodrama moment (I prefer the term Misty-Eyed Boy Talk myself) we don't see anything of Act II of the musical, which in Marie's version apparently included robots, tentacles and space. I was glad to hear Kevin (easily my favourite new character from the later seasons, though I like Charlie Bradbury a lot too) get a name-check as Dean fills Marie in on the details of life since 'Swan Song', but overall the focus on the first five seasons, and that fantastic 'Then' title card, was a very sweet move on the writers' part, even if partly determined by Chuck's disappearance.

The most significant 'returning' character, though, was surely the third Winchester brother, Adam. I may have actually gasped when fake-Adam came on stage at the end of the show. It's ages since anyone acknowledged the fact that poor Adam is still trapped in a cage in Hell with Lucifer and Michael, and the fact that the episode makes such a big deal of him showing up and puts his appearance in the final sequence, after Calliope is defeated, makes me wonder if they're planning to go rescue him at last. I've been enjoying the story arc in season 10 more than any of the main arcs for years (well, seasons in my case, I watched them all this summer in one big lump), as the Mark of Cain has been pretty effective, and if the boys decided to go after Adam, that would be even better, and could fix something that's been bothering fans for ages.

Also, wasn't that the same young actress playing Adam as played Castiel? Which makes me wonder - did they just run out of young actresses who could sing and had to double up, or was it deliberate? Is Adam and/or Castiel going to possess the other? (Adam could be a demon by now, or Castiel could get his grace back...). And is that why Bobby appeared as part of the Winchester family group but Castiel didn't? ('Cause that bothered me. I'm obsessed with Castiel, who is the reason I watched the show in the first place. It's still suffering from a dire case of Insufficient Castiel).

This episode did fix one long-standing issue though - the Samulet is finally back! Sort of. This is probably the closest we'll get. It was given to Dean by Marie-playing-Sam (shortly after he called her 'Sammy'), and if it's hanging in the car it can't damage Jensen Ackles' teeth, so this will have to do. That made me very happy. And CHUCK! Squee. When Chuck turns up at the end, Marie questions whether Calliope came for her or for him which... raises some interesting questions. Was Calliope actually coming to do battle with an incarnation of a vaguely Judaeo-Christian God in the form of a scruffy author? Now that would be epic...

In summary: I liked it. The cover of 'Carry On, Wayward Son' - started by the fake Mary Winchester - was surprisingly affecting and the whole episode surprisingly effective for something that could have gone horribly wrong. This can take its place among the great milestone episodes. Also, in an astonishing about-turn for Supernatural, it wasn't unremittingly depressing! We even got to see Sam and Dean drive off into the sunset. Beautiful.

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