Friday, 29 January 2010

The West Wing: Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc


Only the second episode ever of The West Wing, and we have an episode with a title in Latin and a discussion of an obscure Latin phrase. This show is not afraid to parade its intellectualism - or, put another way, it likes to show off.

CJ is insisting that Bartlet was badly defeated in Texas because he made a joke about big hats. Bartlet is equally insistent that his joke had nothing to do with it and they would have been just as badly beaten without it, and explains this in the following manner:

Bartlet: 27 lawyers in the room. Anybody know "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc"? Josh?
Josh: Uh, uh, "post" - after, after hoc, "ergo" - therefore, "After hoc, therefore" something else hoc.
Bartlet: Thank you. Next?
Josh: Well, if I had gotten more credit on the 443...
Bartlet: Leo?
Leo: "After it therefore because of it."
Bartlet: "After it therefore because of it." It means one thing follows the other, therefore it was caused by the other. But it's not always true. In fact, it's hardly ever true.

Just because something happens after something else, it doesn't mean there's a direct causal relationship between the two, Bartlet insists, and in the case of his big hats joke it's probably true. But 'Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc' is also the episode's title and in the case of the other storylines, it's harder to tell. Josh makes a deal that directly results in Mandy losing her only client, which then results in Leo persuading Josh to hire her (a very, very bad idea which they will quickly regret - my friend and I have a private theory that Leo had Mandy shot at the end of season 1 when she went to Mandyville, as they were all so fed up of her - she was infuriating). The storylines involving Sam and Laurie the call girl and CJ and Hoynes don't really have anything to do with it, they're part of ongoing story arcs that are stretched across the first season. The most important and most memorable storyline in the episode relates to Bartlet's discomfort, as a Commander-in-Chief who's never served in uniform, with violence and with the military. By the end of the episode, however, the death of his personal physician (whose fate is sealed when he turns up, is super-nice to everyone and starts showing people pictures of his new baby) has completely turned Bartlet around. Rather than feeling uncomfortable with violence, he is eager to 'blow them off the face of the Earth with the fury of God's own thunder'. Bartlet's change in attitude is directly caused by Morris's death - post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Bartlet's use of Latin in this episode seals some of his biggest character traits. Bartlet only appeared in a few minutes of the pilot, because his character was only supposed to make occasional guest appearances, but it was so successful (and Sorkin realised that a programme set in The West Wing without the President wouldn't be so much fun) that from this episode on, he's a regular character. In the pilot, we saw him demonstrate his Christian faith and his protective attitude towards his family and friends, and he has the best entrance in television history, as he walks in to an argument about which Commandment is which, to declare 'I am the Lord thy God, and thou shalt have no other god before me'. (The best entrance in movie history, if you're interested, is Jack Sparrow walking off the sinking boat in Pirates of the Caribbean).

This episode, though, is where we really learn who Bartlet is, other than a liberal Catholic. Bartlet is a person with a bad sense of humour. Bartlet is a caring boss who asks after his employees' children. Bartlet has a Nobel prize and a PhD in Economics but has never served in the armed forces. And Bartlet is a man who will randomly answer his staff's concerns with Latin. Josh does pretty well with his attempt at translation - 'hoc' is one of those Latin things that just doesn't translate very well into English in this case. We just don't use demonstrative pronouns in that way. Bartlet demonstrates both his great learning and his rather irritating habit of displaying that learning at every opportunity here but, unlike Yes, Minister, there's a sense that we are genuinely intended to admire this quality, annoying as it may be. Bartlet's knowledge of Latin is the result of his privileged upbringing, but whereas, when Sir Humphrey uses Latin, his privileged upbringing is the only thing he's demonstrating, Bartlet's use of Latin is more about demonstrating his interest in knowing as much as possible about the world around him. This episode was made in 1999; from November 2000, this quality only became more important, as the show made it clearer and clearer that it valued the pursuit of knowledge, intelligence and the thirst for a greater understanding of the world, culminating in Bartlet's presidential race against the rather less bright Governor Ritchie. Education itself is only part of it - Donna spends 6 years questioning Josh about everything, until eventually she is qualified to run the First Lady's office. But Bartlet's Latin is an early sign of this agenda - it's annoying, it's slightly ridiculous but it's also, like his Nobel Prize, something to be admired.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Chelmsford 123: What's Your Poison?

The second episode of Chelmsford 123 is sadly devoid of Latin, which will not appear again until the very last episode. It is set before and during a banquet held by new governor Aulus Paulinus for the local tribal chieftan Badvok and guests. There's a misunderstanding involving Aulus' slimy brother-in-law Grasientus trying to poison Badvok, while Aulus thinks Badvok is planning to poison him and Badvok think Aulus is trying to poison him (using the fast poison, not the slow one that takes five years...).

Aulus hires an epic poet calling himself Cicero who says he can recite 10,000 lines of Virgil (author of the Aeneid, often considered the best Latin epic poem, though I also like Flaccus' Argonautica and Lucan's Civil War). No one looks terribly enthusaistic about this - the product of writers who were forced to do Latin at school no doubt. Personally, I think it would depend which 10,000 lines of Virgil it was - if it was extracts from Books 2, 4 and 6 of the Aeneid (the Fall of Troy book, the Dido book and the underworld book) then I would happily listen to the lot, but if it was from Books 7-12 of the Aeneid, I'd be falling asleep 10 lines in (these are the books that are supposed to emulate the Iliad, but the Iliad, catalogue of ships aside, is much more exciting - the second half of the Aeneid is, I find, deathly dull). Cicero also has his own 50-verse epic poem about Aeneas, which Aulus is even less enthusiastic about.

Meanwhile the feast proceeds, with Badvok unable to remember the jokes he was told the week before and the food tasters everyone has brought either dropping dead or eating all the food. There's also the obligatory 'what's your poison?' line, meaning 'what alcoholic beverage would you like?' Eventually the truth comes out when Grasientus is forced to eat one of the olives he poisoned, only for the poison not to work. The episode ends with Cicero the epic poet being offered a host of poisoned drinks, produced by both sides under the belief that they were about to be poisoned themselves, thus saving everyone from 10,000 lines of the exploits of Aeneas.

I don't find this episode quite as funny as the first one - no Latin! no Doctor Who! - and it is all rather predictable, but it's not without its laughs. When I saw this as a teenager, I seem to remember being even more underwhelmed, since I didn't get any of the jokes about epic poetry, Virgil or Aeneas - now I find that these are the highlights of the episode. In a way it's a shame that they imply that Virgil and Aeneas are so boring, as a lot of the Aeneid is really very good and well worth a read. On the other hand, this is one of those situations where you can't help wondering if a lot of Romans felt the same way too... And any episode that poisons someone called Cicero (I can't stand the famous Cicero - sexist, priggish, dull) can't be all bad.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Avatar (dir. James Cameron 2009)

I finally saw Avatar yesterday (an epic effort involving dumping myself on my brother since my current domicile has no cinema, never mind a 3D screen) and enoyed it very much. I don't think that 3D is the future of everything, but I do think it suits some things very well, and it worked for Avatar - all the pretty shots of the Land of the Glo Worms at night worked especially well. The story is, as many have observed, essentially Dances with Wolves IN SPACE! but it's engaging and absorbing to watch. I didn't have any problems with the depiction of disability in the end, which I had been worried about, though one line concerning religion did annoy me a little - when the company want to damage a sacred site, Dr Grace Augustine tells them that it isn't 'some pagan voodoo', but something 'real' and scientifically demonstrable - implying that if it wasn't scientifically demonstrable, it would be fine to destroy it (I don't think that's what was meant, that's just how the line came across and it jarred a bit). The fantasy world (and it really is closer to high fantasy than science fiction, though technically it's science fiction) is beautifully realised, and the odd geologically implausible element (floating mountains?) is gorgeous enough that they get away with it.

The reason/excuse for discussing it on the blog is the name of the planet (or moon, as Wikipedia tells me) - Pandora. The story of Pandora's box/jar is quite well known and the earliest version we have is from Hesiod - all the evils in the world were sealed in a jar and Pandora, out of curiosity, opened it, letting them all out, and closed it again with only one thing left in it - hope. This doesn't really make a great deal of sense in the context of the film, since we're supposed to love the planet and admire it and its people, though it might refer to the planet's rich resources releasing all the worst traits in humankind.

It's more likely, though, that the name is a reference to the etymological root of 'Pandora' - all-giving, giver of all. The religion of the Blue Cat People on the planet seems to me to be a mixture of Native American religion (which I know pretty much nothing about) and the concept of Gaia (which I know nothing about at all, except in an ancient Greek context). The way the planet/moon itself, onr the goddess residing there, relates and responds to the Blue Cat People and its other inhabitants seems to suggest that the name should be understood as 'all-giving'. Additionally, we can presume that 'Pandora' is a name given to it by humans in English, rather than the native name for it of the Blue Cat People, in which case 'Pandora' as all-giving also makes sense, since the place is a rich source of some wonderful mineral that the humans need for reasons I can't quite remember.

Pandoran 'horse', above, and an 8th century BC Greek bronze horse, below

On another Classical note, my brother and I both thought that the Pandoran 'horses' looked rather like Greek horses, or rather like Greek drawings of horses, with sort of Trojan manes. Some of the animals on Pandora were rather full of slime and big teeth, like the monsters in the new Star Trek - I do not understand the current obsession among CG monster designers for big-teethed, implausibly mouthed slimy monsters. I don't know of too many animals on earth that look like that, so why would they live on other planets?! The horses were thankfully free of slime though, and looked much nicer.

It's also worth noting that Freudians must be having a field day with all the ponytail stuff (and the actual tails as well). I'm going to leave that to your imagination though.

I'd recommend Avatar, and I think it's worth paying that bit extra to see it in 3D as well. Every time they said the name for the important mineral - 'unobtainium' - I laughed out loud, and glowy blue cat sex is always going to be a little bit giggle-worthy no matter how engrossing the film, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if it won't ascend to the ranks of My Favourite Film Ever along with Cameron's previous film (the Three Best Films Ever According to Me are Titanic, Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings, and I'm also pretty keen on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). And the Planet of the Glo Worms is very, very pretty.

Edited to add: TV Tropes seems to think that the 'Pandora' link is 'pretty obvious'. Since the Pandora's jar story is much better known than the etymological origin of the name, I assume that they think it's 'obviously' a reference to the planet's resources releasing all the evils in humanity. I still think the 'all-giving' idea works better though - after all, it isn't actually the planet's fault that its rich natural resources bring out the worst in humanity (in the myth, it is very much Pandora's fault that she opens the jar, even if it was ultimately a plan of Zeus') but the planet is certainly 'giving' in the sense of resources, natural beauty and assistance to our heroes at the end.

Edited to further add: Also according to TV Tropes, the planet which Pandora is a moon of is called Polyphemus - the name of the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus in the Odyssey. To be honest, I can't even think of a reason that might be significant other than that humans have obviously continued to give planets mythological names, but ran out of Roman and went back to Greek. I have also been reminded that the bird things they all fly are called banshees - a banshee, if my memory of Darby O'Gill and the Little People serves me correctly, are Celtic ghost-bogey-monster things who turn up and wail right before someone is going to die. How they are related to the bird things is also a mystery to me. The freakiest of the freaky monsters is called a Thanator, it turns out - that one does make sense, since it come from Greek thanatos, death.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

I, Claudius: A God in Colchester


First, Chris has posted an excellent review of a new film, Agora, which I haven't seen, over at Here, There and Everywhere. It's about the murder of a female, pagan philosopher in Late Antiquity and well worth a look.

The title of this episode reflects Augustus' wry, sad acknowledgement that he is a god in Palmyra from much earlier in the series, as he demanded to know from Livia, in utter frustration, how he's supposed to cure gout. The main content of this episode, however, is very different - we're deep into the classic Roman orgy of melodrama here, almost enough to rival the Caligula episodes - and it is most certainly not suitable for children.

We open with Messalina naked in bed with one of her many lovers, who is an actor. They discuss her boredom and many lovers, and she makes it clear that if he really pisses her off, the consequences will be dire. There's some full frontal boob on display again, very un-BBC. Mnestor, the actor, dares Messalina to hold a competition with a well known Sicilian prostitute to see which of them can have sex with the most men in one night.

Claudius himself is away conquering Britain, but writes to tell Pallas and Narcissus that he is returning soon. They debate if and how to tell him exactly what his wife is up to when he returns.

Messalina and Mnestor hold their competition with Cilla the prostitute, who demands some payment on the grounds that her job is Messalina's hobby, and she doesn't expect to be paid for her hobby, which is gardening (this always amuses me somehow). Although Caligula's orgy was more in the tradition of popular culture's idea of a Roman party, this scene, while quieter and less manic, is also a bit seedier and somehow seems almost equally depraved, though it is thankfully lacking in rape, unlike Caligula's.

Messalina's competition. In the early stages.

Pallas refuses to help a guard who has foolishly let one of Messalina's friends know that he plans to tell on her to the Emperor, and who is pretty well doomed. Then we return to the competition, where Cilla has given up on the grounds that Messalina is 'inhuman' and must be built like concrete.

Claudius returns victorious from Britain, but Old!, or rather EvenOlder!Claudius writes that the victory was soured by what had happened with Herod Agrippa. Herod, Claudius' oldest friend and the one who warned him not to trust anybody, is plotting a rebellion against Rome. Apparently Herod has fallen victim to delusions of Messiah-hood, something which seems to have been a common ailment at the time (Caligula suffered it too). Claudius discusses what Thrasyllus told him about the Messiah - and in the world of I, Claudius, everything Thrasyllus says comes to pass, and apparently that means the Messiah died in the same year as Livia (that would be AD 29, which more or less fits a Christian chronology, since the exact date of Jesus' birth is uncertain).

Messalina appears and very hypocritically insists that Calpurnia, Claudius' courtesan of many years, must not take her plae in his bed at the palace. She also asks him to tell Mnestor to do anything she asks, which Claudius does, which leads to Mnestor introducing her to her next lover. Messalina tells the new boy that Claudius is even more corrupt than Tiberius and snares him.

One of Claudius' minions has done some homework on the Messiah and gives us the basic details - must be born in Bethlehem etc - and that the last candidate died about 15 years ago - Joshua bar Joseph from Galilee (Jesus). The minion says there was some scandal concerning his birth; a Greek was supposed to have seduced his mother. Herod has recently executed one his followers, James, and is after another, Simon (Peter). Claudius' minions can't understand his fascination with 'strange religions', but Claudius explains that Herod was also born in Bethlehem and now really believes that he is the Messiah himself.

Messalina's mother is getting worried by Messalina's habit of giving her new lover presents from the palace and openly having an affair with him, while he is divorcing his wife to be with her. Messalina's mother quite rightly thinks that all of this will not end well.

Claudius is informed of the death of Herod Agrippa, something his minion is inappropriately cheerful about. Poor Claudius is destroyed - his last friend from his youth is gone - indeed, the last character whose involvement in his life goes back as far as the reign of Tiberius. Claudius now feels truly alone. Herod was prancing about proclaiming his godhead and forgetting that his religion is monotheistic, when he was struck down with pain and died a little later of worms. He reads a last letter from Herod, who asks for forgiveness. Claudius wonders who the Messiah actually is. Although Claudius' interest in Herod certainly make sense, he is rather a lot more interested in the Messiah than a Roman Emperor was really likely to be, I think - a clever way of incorporating elements of Christian history into the series, which ends before the first great persecution of Christians under Nero.

Claudius is left with only Messalina, who has now got use of his seal, and remarks that it was at this point that he began his history. But now he begins to explain how he eventually discovered Messalina.

Messalina is getting a bit bored with Gaius, her new lover, and he wants her to divorce Claudius and marry him, before Claudius finds out about them anyway. They plan not only to marry, but to stage a coup d'etat while Claudius is in Ostia examining the new harbour works. We see them get married, bigamously, since Messalina has not properly divorced Claudius - he would have to know about it for it to count (she sent a freedman to his house to divorce him, but he really is supposed to receive the message before you marry someone else). Narcissus is utterly horrified and he and Pallas know that they are going to be in serious trouble when Messalina and Gaius take over, but still neither of them want to tell him, since he won't believe a word said against her. They realise that she must never be allowed to see him again, so she can't work her wiles on him, and that poor Calpurnia should be stuck with the job of telling him.

Calpurnia gives Claudius the bad news

Calpurnia calls Claudius to her house to see her, warning him of great danger, and slowly spits it all out, convinced that he will order her execution, or at least torture, for doing so. Claudius still hasn't learned to stop putting things in threes - this time he's trusted three women, his mother, Messalina and Calpurnia herself. At least his late mother and Calpurnia remain trustworthy. Pallas and Narcissus come in and tell him the rest, including the competition with the prostitute, and the fact that he is now divorced.

The wedding feast has become a proper orgy - no rape, just a lot of willing and very drunk people jumping around on top of each other. A completely hysterical woman interrupts by running and screaming that the guards are coming to arrest everybody, and all descends into chaos.

Messalina demands to see 'her husband' but Narcissus and Pallas prevent her from seeing him. There's a lot more screaming and young Britannicus and Octavia have to watch and listen while Narcissus doubts their legitimacy. This is another episode not to watch late at night in a house with thin walls.

Most of the guard were loyal, so Claudius is safe, but he is getting very drunk and feeling sorry for Messalina and how unhappy she must have been. Pallas and Narcissus shove the orders for her execution, and some of the others', while he's drunk and not paying attention. They go to Messalina and offer to let her take her own life first, which would save them having to explain about the warrent to Claudius in the morning, but Messalina can't do it. Having already sent her children to try to get Claudius to forgive her and yelled at her mother for not helping, the guard is forced to chop her head off while she screams.

Claudius, having sobered up, wants to see his wife and has to be told that he ordered her execution the night before. A temple that was to be dedicated to Augustus in Colchester is to be dedicated to Claudius instead. Claudius feels even more helpless than Augustus did when the temple in Palmyra was built. He weeps to himself, his face contorted in an agonised silent scream.

There are a lot of episodes of I, Claudius that deal with very unpleasant subjects, especially those featuring Caligula, but somehow this one is especially nasty - with the death of Herod occuring in the middle, everything really does seem to be going to Hades in a handbasket. Messalina seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, Claudius is a broken man and we've seen more or less the last of EvenOlder!Claudius, for the next episode will have a distinctly post-mortem aspect to it. Claudius is behaving less and less like the clever, quiet survivalist of the earlier episodes and more and more like the drunkard and pawn of his wives and freedmen portrayed by Tacitus and Suetonius. This fits the sources rather nicely, but is a bit depressing. The narrative is taking us on the slow slide to inevitable awfulness that is Nero, whom we haven't yet seen, but who is the future, and who will be introduced in the next and last episode...

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Black Adder


Watched a couple of old episodes of this, the first series of Blackadder, at lunchtime today and spotted a couple of Classical/Ancient History references.

The first series of Blackadder, called The Black Adder rather than the one word surname 'Blackadder', gets a lot of stick for not being as good as the others. To some extent, this is true - Edmund himself is extremely annoying in this version and some of the humour is rather forced. Most of the problem, though, has more to do with the fact that the subsequent three series were all so amazingly good, culminating in, as I've said before, one of two contenders for Best Episode of a TV Comedy Ever Made, TM. But none of these half hours of greatness would exist without the original, which for all its flaws is still a perfectly good, at times hilariously funny and rather nicely filmed sitcom.

The first series also benefits from having the National Treasure, the fabulous BRIAN BLESSED in the regular cast as the fictitious King Richard IV (supposedly Richard of York, the younger of the two Princes in the Tower, not murdered by Richard III but alive and well and shouting a lot). BLESSED is as birlliant as ever, and since I saw this series after I saw I, Claudius, I am left with a vague impression that medieval England is actually being ruled by the Emperor Augustus the entire time.

The two episodes we watched today were 'Born to be King', in which Edmund (younger son of King BRIAN BLESSED) tries to have his elder brother Harry exposed as illegitimate, but ends up nearly exposing himself as same instead, and 'The Archbishop', in which Edmund is forced to become Archbishop of Canterbury and make rich, dying men leave their lands to the Crown instead of the Church. 'The Archbishop' is, I think one of the best episodes of this series (the other great one is 'The Queen of Spain's Beard', which stars Miriam Margolyes as a nymphomaniac Spanish princess and Jim Broadbent as her amusingly-voiced interpreter). It features false relics (Baldrick produces items made by Jesus as a carpenter which include crucifixes), curses ('may your head fall off at an inconvenient moment') lots of descriptions of Hell from over-enthusiastic churchmen ('Alas, spare my posterior!') and some very naughty nuns ('you wont be wanting to unicorn tonight, then?'). There are also a couple of jokes about increasing numbers of Popes that would be accurate, if they weren't a few decades out.

Anyway, the ancient references are pretty small and unimportant, but there you go. In 'Born to be King', Edmund plans to murder a Scottish rival by having him play the part of the murder victim in a play set in Ancient Egypt, incorrectly referred to as a mystery play. A mystery play is a play which tells a religious story, usually a Christian story from the Bible, but this doesn't sound like anything Biblical, and it certainly isn't by the time they've inserted the role of the Scotsman. It's vaguely amusing seeing the medieval Scotsman with Egyptian headress, but not really that significant to the episode. In 'The Archbishop', celebrating what he incorrectly believes to be Harry's impending doom, Edmund dresses in an elaborate costume which includes a 'Trojan' helment. The helmet in question doesn't really look very Trojan - it's sort of pointy, but that's about it - and the centrepiece of the costume is actually the Russian codpiece, which is quite something. It's interesting that 'Trojan' was chosen though - presumably it sounded suitably exotic.

There is one other vageuly Classical reference. As Archbishop Edmund tries to persuade a dying man to leave his lands to the Crown, he says the man can't have done anything that bad. Unfortunately, the dying noble in question turns out to have a really, really bad Oedipus complex - having already confessed to killing his father and committing adultery more than a thousand times, he adds that said adultery was comitted with his mother. It is this revelation that causes Edmund to change tack and, rather than persuading the man that he will get into Heaven anyway, convinces him instead that Hell is much more fun and he will be better off there. Contrary to Freud's idea, that Sophocles' play is so moving because everyone shares the Oedipus complex, I would say this is an excellent example of why the opposite is true - Sophocles' play can move many different people from different cultures because they are all equally horrified by it, and Oedipus' deeds are still considered in most societies to be the ultimate example of acts that are completely beyond the pale.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Brittas Empire: Not a Good Day


The Brittas Empire was a slightly surreal - at times very surreal - British sitcom that I absolutely loved in the 90s. It focussed on the well-meaning but inept manager of a local leisure centre, Gordon Brittas (Chris Barrie from Red Dwarf), who had a dream to unite the world through sport but whose dream was continually interrupted by his own tendency to drive everyone around him completely insane with anger.

'Not a Good Day' was the first episode of the fourth series, and storylines included Sebastian Coe MP being chained to a stair rail, Carol's toddler Ben running amok in the ventilation system and having to be coaxed back like a wild animal and one woman and her daughter actually having a really nice day at the leisure centre - possibly a first. The storyline I want to talk about though, involved the centre coming under attack from the Tenth Legion, some Carthaginians and an elephant...

The Classical War Society, a battle reenactment group, are apparently re-enacting the Second Punic War in the grounds of the leisure centre. While they are outside, Brittas places the 8-yr-old son of a centurion under citizens' arrest for refusing to pay the 20p entrance fee for the swimming pool. When Brittas refuses to release the boy, the centurion calls all his friends and the entire society attack the leisure centre with arrows, missiles flung from catapults (or possibly trebuchets, but I think they're catapults), siege ladders and a battering ram. Various staff members mention that these are apparently mostly the 10th Legion, with some Parthian mercenaries, and the Carthaginians they're fighting, with an elephant. I'm not that hot on military history so I don't know if those names match, but I'm sure someone will tell me. I am reasonably sure that the Praetorian Guard, no matter how highly trained, probably shouldn't be at the back, since they were imperial guards, from long after the Punic Wars.

The really funny thing about all this, of course, is that Brittas and his staff get to say lines like 'There's a centurion to see you' and 'We're being attacked by Romans!'. The police refuse to come to the centre 'again this week', and the Romans eventually break in by catapulting the engine of a Morris Marina through the window and breaking down the doors with a battering ram with a lion's head on the front.

The best bits of this episode are where we see the crazy goings-on - the enraged centurion with his old-fashioned big glasses, the group of Romans with their catapult, Linda defending the centre with a bow and arrow, presumably used for archery within the centre. What's a shame is that, as ever on a BBC budget, we don't actually see most of the action once the group outside gets really big - it all has to be described as if in a radio play. On the other hand, this means they can get away with lines like 'they have an elephant!' without the utter ludicrousness of an elephant in a British leisure centre sending the whole thing into complete insanity.

An elephant. Not actually seen in The Brittas Empire.

I enjoyed this episode very much. The idea of Roman legionnaires attacking using an internal combustion engine is somehow especially amusing, and the way everyone talks about the battle reenactors as if they were actually Romans keeps the humour level high. I won't join in with some of the jokes made at the expense of battle reenactors, since people who go to Star Trek conventions shouldn't throw stones, but the whole idea is really very funny - and the scene at the end where the woman who has had a great day, apparently completely oblivious to the chaos around her, thanks Brittas and tells him how he must be used to getting praise and presents from customers, is the cherry on top of the cake.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Fantasia: The Pastoral Symphony


For those who don't know - this is what Fantasia is. I love Fantasia. My brother and I got the video for Christmas when we were little, and we didn't have many Disney videos, so it was very exciting. I loved the magic of it - I remember sitting next to the Christmas tree with a doll I'd just been given by Father Christmas, pretending there were fairies in the tree branches. I'd been in a couple of productions of The Nutcracker when I was even littler - I was a mouse, all we really did was run around pretending our fingers were whiskers - so the Nutcracker segment was my absolute favourite bit, but I liked it all. We both loved dinosaurs too, as a result of several trips to see the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum and at least one trip to Crystal Palace park, so we also both enjoyed the Rite of Spring segment, though we were a bit upset when all the dinosaurs died. And I'm not sure the Tocata and Fugue bit isn't wholly responsible for my brother becoming a musician.

One of the big statues of dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park, London

As I said, I loved it all, but my second favourite bit, after the Nutcracker, was the sequence set to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (No. 6). I'd already fallen head over heels in love the Chronicles of Narnia, so I think the appearance of the centaurs appealed to me, and I was a child of the My Little Pony age, so the incredibly cute baby flying horses in different colours were also a favourite element. I also like the strong story-line. Deems Taylor explains at the beginning of Fantasia that some music suggests a strong narrative line to the artists, some presents them with a series of coherent pictures, and some just presents them with seemingly random images. I've always preferred music with a strong narrative element (still do), so I also tended to prefer the more strongly narrative parts of Fantasia, though for some reason I didn't like the Sorceror's Apprentice section so much at the time.

The Pastoral Symphony tells the story, musically speaking, of a beautiful day in the countryside, interrupted by a storm, which then clears. For Fantasia, the Disney artists decided follow this basic pattern, but give the whole thing a 'mythological setting' as Deems Taylor tells us in the introduction to this segment. The scene is loosely set in the Greece of mythology - we see Mount Olympus rising in the background at the beginning and a number of recognisible characters from Greco-Roman mythology appear - Dionysus/Bacchus, Zeus/Jupiter, Hephaestus/Vulcan and Apollo, as well as a personification of Night who could easily be a manifestation of the Greco-Roman Nux/Nox.

The characterisations of these gods are great fun. Dionyus seems to spend the whole thing drinking purple wine and both he and his donkey (it's Disney, you've got to have a comic animal sidekick) get very, very drunk. He's the usual image of Dionysus - fat, grapes round his ears, sort of jolly looking. (Update: I think actually, on reflection, this figure may be Silenus, rather than Dionysus. Either way, he's quite sweet and quite fun).  Zeus and Hephaestus play 'smite-the-centaur-or-lesser-god-with-thunderbolts and seem to be having a great time, while Apollo doesn't do much except his job.

The other creatures are mostly drawn from recognisibly Greek mythology - centaurs, satyrs, cupids (the god Eros/Cupid was sometimes depicted in the plural). Flying horses are sort of Greek - Greek mythology really only has the one flying horse, Pegasus, but the idea is Greek. Unicorns, as a concept, were around in the ancient world, but more often as part of natural history than mythology - the image of unicorns we have today is more medieval than Greek.

Eveything in this sequence is weirdly coloured - it's all pastels, pinks and pale blues and soft reds. Presumably this is is to soften it, to make it appealing to children, to make it look more magical and fairytale like, and to let the artists have some fun with their colour palette.

The sequence opens with a view of Mount Olympus, and then we see a bunch of My Little Pony lookalike unicorns samper across the multi-coloured countryside. As a woodwind instrument of some kind starts to play, we see a satyr playing a set of pan pipes, to fit with the pastoral theme. Although traditional satyrs are wild creatures who enjoy rather a lot of sex and drink, these are depicted as childlike figures, barely more than infants. We don't see any grown-up satyrs.

My Little Pony. Getting hold of the special hairbrush was particularly exciting.

Next, a family of flying horses glide across the scene, and we see a mother flying in a nest halfway up a tree, having just given birth. There are some more cuter-than-cute scenes of the My Little Pony flying horses learning to fly while their more graceful (and more Greek-looking) parents glide about, then they land on water and swim about like swans, and the first movement ends. The first movement really focuses on the childlike aspects of Disney's interpretation of mythology, and on making everything look as cute as humanly possible.

The second movement opens in a dark (but not threatening) lake and introduces two themes so far missing - partly human adults, and sex. A large group of female centaurs, most of them not, as Ariel the Little Mermaid would at all times, wearing bras, are bathing, accompanied by some more ridiculously cutesy, baby-like cupids. These multiple manifestations of the god of love lack the usual requisite bow and arrow - perhaps too violent for them - and are depicted as the infant-like creatures of the modern imagination, rather than as adults. As the female centaurs get out of the lake and start putting make up and doing their hair, they do put bras on, and then - the men arrive, or rather the male centaurs. They are all big, manly and very smug-looking. A positively bizarre sequence follows in which the female centaurs all get themselves all prettied up and then put on what looks like a fashion show for the males, showing themselves off until a male chooses them. Two get left out, but the cupids unite them. The centaurs, like everything else, are crazily multi-coloured, and every centaur ends up with another of the opposite gender but the same broad colour scheme. The implications of the whole sequence for gender and race relations don't even bear thinking about, but as a child, I was happily oblivious to any of that (though I do remember noticing the colour coordination, and even as a small child, I thought that was a bit weird, and worried about what would happen if the blue girl centaur didn't like the blue boy centaur...).

The third movement is livelier. The centaurs and satyrs bring massive piles of purple grapes and make wine, and Dionysus turns up (with some dark-skinned zebra centaurs, for some reason - perhaps a belated attempt to embrace ethnic diversity). Dionysus (or more probably Silenus), as mentioned above is extremely fat and riding on a tiny, tiny donkey. He spends the whole time drinking and chasing the female centaurs, which is pretty appropriate to his mythology.

Then the storm starts and Zeus and Hepaestus do their thing. Zeus has a fantastic expression on his face the whole time, sort of smug and lazy and intrigued and not interested all at once. The way he pelts Dionysus and the donkey with lightening bolts is fantastic. Allthe other characters run and hide in a cave, except the My Little Flying Horses, who go back to their nest. We even get to see the anthropomorphised winds briefly. All the wine caskets break and wine flows everywhere, which Dionysus and the donkey proceed to drink, a bit like the bit in A Tale of Two Cities where a wine barrel breaks and the desperate peasants drink it from the street. When Zeus has finished throwing lightening bolts at everyone, he goes to sleep in the clouds, using cloud as a blanket - when I was little, I got the vague impression that he must live somewhere near the Care Bears.

The final movement depicts the calm after the storm, and a rainbow (anthropomorphised, of course) is drawn over everyone while they play in the puddles. Finally, the sun sets and everyone waves goodbye to Apollo in his chariot before going to bed (in pairs. There are going to be a lot of My Little Baby Centaurs running around in a few months).

A lot of this sequence relies on the 'cuteness' factor, so how much you like it will depend on how you feel about 'cute' things, while the gender and racial aspects and distinctly disturbing. I still love it, though - it puts a sense of magic and wonder into Greek mythology that isn't always found, and the Greek pastoral motifs of Pan, satrys, pan pipes and the creatures of the countryside fit the Pastoral Symphony perfectly. And it was really good inspiration for My Little Pony games...

Thursday, 7 January 2010

I, Claudius: Fool's Luck

Previously on I, Claudius - Caligula and his wife and child were murdered, and the Praetorian guard, anxious not to lose their jobs if a republic were to be restored, declare Claudius to be their emperor.

We open with a meeting of the Senate, who are all remarkably pleased with themselves over the death of Caligula, though most of them had nothing to do with it. Their plan to restore the Republic is interrupted by news of the Praetorian's actions, though so far they all find the idea of Claudius as emperor hilarious.

Claudius himself is sitting with a guard, sulking, calling himself a 'prisoner' and insisting that he doesn't want to be emperor. A metallic laurel wreath crown is sitting in front of him and, throughout this scene, everyone who wants him to be emperor keeps plonking it on his head and he keeps removing it again. One of the guards trying to talk him into it is King Theoden.

Eventually, Herod arrives, tells Claudius of the death of Caesonia and the baby and points out that Messalina will be in danger if Claudius refuses, since the republicans will ensure that no member of the Imperial family survives. Finally persuaded, Claudius reluctantly agrees, not only to allow himself to be made emperor, but to stay emperor, and Herod sticks the crown back on his head.

Claudius and Messalina enter the imperial palace and Claudius is forced to persuade the senators to accept him as emperor, which he does partly by pointing out that his stutter and limp do not make him incompetant and he's certainly more sane than Caligula, and also by pointing out that the entire Praetorian guard will be after them if they don't accept him. The speech is rather good - he explains that he is hard of hearing, but not for want of listening, that what he says is more important than how long he takes to say it and that he has survived to middle age with half his wits while many others have died with all of theirs, suggesting that quality of wits is more important than quantity.

The assassins are brought before him, except one, who has already committed suicide. Claudius tells Cassius that he can understand the murder of Caligula, but must condemn him for murdering Caesonia and the baby and intending to murder Claudius himself. The others, who have convinced him that they did not want any others harmed, are let off.

The next scene is set a year later, and Claudius is doing his best Micheal Jackson impression, waving his new baby around by the window to cheers from the crowd. Messalina takes the opportunity to persuade Claudius to let her share in his rule and allow her to give the baby to a nurse to feed. There's a great moment where she asks him if she hasn't helped him, as Livia helps Augustus - you can see Claudius thinking 'er......'. He really should have realised he was going down a bad road when she said she wanted to be Livia to his Augustus. Claudius leaves and Messalina starts trying to talk her widowed mother into marrying a senator, Appius Silanus, for reasons as yet undisclosed but not related to her mother's happiness...

We cut to a scene of Claudius and Herod in the dining room, where the series began, discussing the fact that Claudius has finally had Livia made a goddess, true to his promise. Messalina, who never knew Livia or Augustus, draws a rather romantic picture of Livia's arrival in heaven. Herod is leaving, which is concerning Claudius greatly, while Messalina is already pregnant again, which we learned in the previous scene was something she didn't want. Messalina persuades Claudius to bring Appius Silanus over as his advisor, to replace Herod. Messalina's method involves cajolling, making big puppy dog eyes at Claudius, allowing him to patronise and coo at her and giggling - it's a very different dynamic to Livia and Augustus, though so far she has been equally successful.

Herod, however, not being entirely blinded by love, isn't quite buying it, though he isn't overly suspicious either. Claudius and Herod sit next to each other and talk about the past, using childhood nicknames, and Claudius tells Herod that he plans to write down 'the truth' about his family. This suggests that the Old!Claudius we saw at the beginning of the series was early in his reign and happily married to Messalina, which is rather interesting (not to mention inaccurate - an early episode strongly inferred that he was already married to Agrippina the Younger). Claudius explains that he wants to explain what happened to all his dead friends and relatives.

Claudius tells Herod that he's only had three real friends in his life - Postumus, Germanicus and Herod himself. He should know that this is a bad idea, since the last time someone said something like that - Tiberius to Drusus back in episode one - death and disaster followed quickly on the heels of that conversation. Herod, once again, is keeping up with the litany of misery attached to Claudius' friends and family rather better, and insists that Claudius must trust no one - not Messalina, not even Herod himself. He is absolutely right - within two episodes both will be dead as a result of betraying Claudius.

This makes this the last conversation between Claudius and a character from the Augustan period - indeed, it is almost the last appearance of any other character from the first half of the series. From now on, everyone Claudius interacts with will be new characters, who are too young to have known him before, or who have been promoted from a lower status (mostly freedmen) or who have been exiled for a while and not seen earlier by the audience. It is rather nice that this last conversation with one of the old guard takes place in the dining room, though said room has now become noticeably darker in both a literal and metaphorical sense. There are no singers, dancers or parties any more, and hardly any people to enjoy them if there were - only three diners, one of whom has already left. The room is quiet, almost eerie, and shadowy, reflecting the ever darkening, ever more gloomy nature of the series. This is particularly noticable given that Caligula never appeared to use it as a dining room (he was too busy having orgies) and Tiberius thoroughly neglected it for most of his reign as well, so the stark contrast between the atmosphere of Claudius' reign and that of Augustus is especially clear.

Another timeslip - Messalina gives birth to her second child while Claudius plans his new harbour, and we see his chief freedmen, Narcissus and Pallas, for the first time. Pallas is thoroughly corrupted while Narcissus is a little naive (it's almost as if Pallas is Sir Humphrey and Narcissus is Bernard, except that they're of equal rank). This will become important in later episodes. Messalina's next demand, accompanied by the usual big eyes and wheedling voice, is to be able to sleep in her own room, supposedly so that she won't get pregnant again so quickly - which is probably partly true, but not entirely, especially since she doesn't just want to move to another room, but an entirely different building.

There's a fairly random, though amusing, scene of Claudius seeing a Greek doctor who tells him to fart and burp for the sake of his health, though we do learn that Appius Silanus and Messalina's mother have just got married. The next scene finally explains what Messalina has been up to throughout the episode - she has let a childhood crush on Appius Silanus grow into an obsession and has arranged everything so that she can have an affair with him. She is, it is fair to say, a little put out when he turns her down. In the course of trying to persuade him to sleep with her, she tells him that the whole plan was Claudius', that it was Claudius who wanted to sleep apart, and that Claudius enjoys dodgey sexual practices that she wants no part of anyway. She threatens Silanus, claiming that she'll have him killed for refusing her. Silanus still refuses to touch her, but he also comes to the conclusion that Claudius is no better than Tiberius or Caligula and has to go.

Claudius, blissfully unaware, is showing his freedmen a plan for a new harbour at Ostia drawn up during the reign of Julius Caesar, which demonstrates that the harbour can be built more cheaply and efficiently than he has been told. He has worked out exactly how the corn people have been diddling him and how to solve the problem. His victory moment is interrupted when Silanus tries, unsuccessfully, to stab him to death (Claudius is apparently remarkably strong).

During the ensuing chaos, Silanus explains what he thought was going on, but Messalina tells a fresh new bunch of lies - that Silanus is madly in love with her and keeps pestering her for sex, and that he is so mad he has convinced himself of the whole story about the marriage being arranged for them, and said he would kill Claudius if she refused him. She can't deceive her mother any more though, and is forced to tell her the truth - and then forces the poor woman to choose between daughter and husband, threatening to have her killed too if she doesn't support Messalina. Claudius asks Messalina's mother if this is true, and proves himself not to be that bright when neither the mother's reluctance to meet anyone's eyes, nor Messalina's tortured screams when he sentences Silanus to death suggest to him that maybe, just maybe, there's something fishy going on here...

When I first saw I, Claudius, as I think I've mentioned, I didn't know anyting about Roman history, so the slow build to the eventual reveal of just how bonkers Messalina is worked really nicely - for quite a while, I was taken in. Watching the series knowing the history gives a different perspective, of course, but the slow build is still rather nice - knowing both the historical character and the series' focus on doom and gloom, the inevitable catastrophe is put off and the latest batch of murder and nymphomania delievered, for the moment in little drip drip drips - until the next episode, when all h**l breaks loose.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Monty Python: Philosphers' World Cup

I found this old sketch on You Tube a while ago - I hadn't seen it elsewhere, and it's not included on my brother's Best of Monty Python collection. It's perhaps not up there with their best work, but I must admit I found this funnier than the 'Scott of the Antarctic/Sahara' sketch that was included in the DVD set - but maybe I'm prejudiced because I find anything involving Greek philosophers doing silly things amusing automatically.

The sketch shows us the final of the Philosophers' World Cup (football world cup that is, and by football, I mean soccer. To a British person, the 'World Cup' is always football unless otherwise specified, and 'football' is always soccer - rugby football is usually just 'rugby' and American football is ignored all together). The two teams competing in the final are the Germans and the Greeks (I can't actually think of any other large groups of famous philosophers all from the same country, but I'm sure someone will think of some!). We're introduced to the Germans first, who are mostly from the nineteenth century or thereabouts and dressed accordingly, and then to the Greeks who are, of course, from ancient Greece and dressed in the usual white sheet outfits.

My knowledge of philosophy not really being what it should be, I actually haven't heard of half the German team and so don't always get the jokes. I even got confused by the Greek team, because the match is supposedly being held in Munich and all the names are given in German. While I can read German, albeit slowly, I haven't done a lot of work on philosophy lately, so I'm not familiar with all the German versions of the philosophers' names, and there isn't really time to take them all in within the sketch. This is possibly because the Monty Python team didn't actually write their sketches for people to analyse in intimate detail forty years later. Or maybe that's why this sketch isn't on the DVD.

Anyway, the Greek team includes all the usual suspects - Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Archimedes. The inclusion of the latter was apparently a 'surprise', according to the commentator (Palin, I think). The two linesmen are St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas - this really made me laugh, as they both have little gold circles over their heads, for halos (and I've always been quite fond of St Augustine). The referee is Confucius.

Finally, the match begins - and they all wander off to discuss philosophy very intently in pairs or wander the pitch waving their hands as if giving a speech, the ball left untouched in the centre of the pitch. An announcer says we'll come back to the contest as soon as anything happens. There's a break, and when we come back, Nietsche has been booked for arguing with the referee, the third time in four games, as we're told, so Karl Marx, the substitute, is warming up. The German manager is, it turns out, Martin Luther.

Just as it looks like the game will end without the ball moving, Archimedes has an idea, shouts 'Eureka!' ('I have it!') and actually kicks the ball. The Greeks leap into action and Socrates scores while the Germans continue to wander around thinking intently. The Germans try to contest the goal with philosphy, except Marx, who thinks it was offside, but to no avail and the Greeks win - giving us the very funny image of ancient Greek philosophers jumping around with their fists in the air.

I thought this was very funny, and deserving of inclusion in a 'best of', but I guess if you don't spend your entire time studying either the ancient Greeks or German philosophy, it might not be so amusing, and you do have to know who Archimedes is to get the 'eureka' joke. I could try to claim that this sketch says something very profound about the ultimate uselessness of standing around philosophizing when you could be actually doing something productive but maybe I won't - partly because I think the Pythons probably just thought it was funny, and partly because that would seem to imply that my own career is not the most useful thing in the world either...
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