Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Mummy (dir. Stephen Sommers, 1999)

I absolutely love The Mummy. It’s a perfect action-adventure film, with lots of humour, gorgeous set design, extremely attractive leads (not to mention the supporting cast) and a story that, despite a certain inherent silliness, is rooted in strong characters and well-structured plotting. I’ve read a lot of reviews that see it as derivative of the Indiana Jones movies, but since I saw The Mummy long before I saw any Indiana Jones, that doesn’t bother me and I much prefer The Mummy (it probably helps that, unlike Indiana Jones, I saw The Mummy in the cinema). This is also the film that includes the classic line ‘I’m proud of what I am – I’m a librarian!’ which is fun to quote, with optional substitution of ‘archaeologist’, ‘classicist’, ‘historian’ etc for ‘librarian’.

I don’t know much about the history of Mummy-stories, but as far as I know in their current form they date back to the horror movies of the 1930s, themselves inspired by the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 (though of course stories about the undead and zombie-like creatures in general are much older). This film is a loose (very loose) remake of the 1932 original, which is why it’s set in the 1920s. The setting is a brilliant move, as being limited to 1920s technology makes escaping across the desert that much more difficult, and provides an opportunity for some lovely costumes. The whole thing looks fantastic (yes, even the CGI, which may look ropey now but was groundbreaking way back in 1999) and reminds me of how much I want to visit Egypt some day (I’ve wanted to see Egypt ever since I saw Death on the Nile when I was little). John Hannah still can’t quite master any accent other than Scottish, but his Jonathan is so endearing, we don’t care.

Imhotep, named for the mummy in the 1932 The Mummy, is the name of a very, very early Egyptian architect who designed the first Egyptian pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, and was later one of very few non-royal Egyptians to be deified. The connection with pyramids and, therefore, mummies and with the meeting of human and divine makes his name rather suitable for The Mummy, though of course the real Imhotep was not thought to be undead, nor a demon-creature – he was a god of wisdom, writing and medicine. One of the many great things about this movie is the strong backstory given to the Mummy himself. You genuinely feel sorry for Imhotep and Ankh-su-thingy and I especially love her line as she kills herself – ‘My body is no longer his temple’. It’s quite a powerful line (if anachronistic for ancient Egypt)and you can’t help rooting for her a little bit there.

A mummy, currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

I’m not sure how we’re spelling the name of Pharaoh’s bodyguards, but it sounds like ‘Magi’ (edited: but see comments below). The Magi were Persian priests, whom the Romans associated with magic and magical practices, and we get the words ‘magic’ and ‘mage’ from them. They are mostly known now as the ‘wise men’ from the Christmas story; astrology was an important aspect of Persian religion and they were priests rather than philosophers, though ‘wise men’ isn’t as far off the mark as ‘three kings’. (By the way, listen to the actual words spoken by the very sexy lead Magi whose name escapes me – my old housemate has pointed out that he says exactly the same thing every time, just with slightly different emphasis).

The Book of the Dead is a real thing, but rather less exciting than the one seen here – it’s a book of funerary rituals. I’m not aware of a real Book of Amun-Ra, though there may be one I haven't come across. Our heroes find Imhotep’s coffin buried at the base of a statue of Anubis, the canine god of mummification known as Mr Jackal in American Gods. The Book of Amun-Ra is at the base of a statue of Horus, a bird-god of the sky and of the reigning deified Pharaoh.

Evie’s library seems to be stocked with a combination of classical and Egyptological material, including Socrates as well as what are presumably books about people called Tuthmosis (the name of four Egyptian Pharaohs) rather than by them. Those library shelves really should have been pinned in to the floor though.

The film is full of little things that enrich it, from poor Winston, suffering from survivor guilt following World War One, to the Mummy recognising ‘the language of the slaves’ when cowardly Benny, having gone through most of the world’s major religions in a desperate attempt to save himself, says a Hebrew prayer (and to the best of my knowledge, this is historically plausible, as the Pharaoh seen in Exodus has been variously identified as this Pharaoh's son, grandson or father, among others). The ‘Bembridge scholars’ are clearly standing in for Oxbridge without actually having a go at Oxford or Cambridge and one can empathise with Evie’s frustration at her rejection given the period - in the early twentieth century, women in archaeology and anthropology and related areas were not unknown, but scholars like Jane Harrison had to combat a lot of prejudice and were not always afforded as much respect as their peers. Her ‘take that Bembridge scholars!’ is particularly satisfying.

Quite why the Biblical plagues, part of Judaeo-Christian tradition and caused by the anger of God, would be brought down on Egypt by the resurrection through Egyptian ritual of an Egyptian mummy is not explained, but these are probably questions we’re not supposed to ask. Also, we have the usual issues with the movies thinking translation is a rather more precise art than it really is, which no ancient-themed fantasy adventure is complete without.

The Mummy is a brilliant film, and the first of the sequels, though not nearly as good, isn’t too bad either. I haven’t seen the most recent film in the series, but I’m suspicious of a Mummy film without Rachel Weisz – her chemistry with Brenden Fraser is part of what makes the film so good. Well, that and the many gorgeous shots of camels in the desert of course!

Photo taken by another best friend/ex-housemate, from atop a camel in Tunisia

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Sex and the City: The Cheating Curve

Since the new movie is coming out pretty soon (not for another month or so in our nearest cinema, but sooner elsewhere I think!) this seemed like a good time to mention a couple of Classical references from the TV series.

In this season 2 episode, Charlotte’s story is book-ended with Classical references. This is the episode where Charlotte makes friends with a group of women Carrie refers to as ‘Power Lesbians’ – lesbian businesswomen and art collectors who tend to hang out together. Charlotte meets them when she curates an exhibition by a feminist artist where several of them buy pieces and they make friends.

One of the pieces highlighted is a painting of a naked woman being crucified underneath the phrase ‘Death Before Dishonour’. Generally speaking, crucifixion in Western art is a reference, however obscure, to the death of Christ and, therefore, to ancient Rome. Here the image of a woman instead of a man on the cross emphasises the often overlooked suffering of women in various ways, not least the physical, emphasised by her nudity.

I found this particularly intriguing in the context of the ‘Death Before Dishonour’ tag. This phrase appears to have a number of different connotations, many of which I’m unfamiliar with, largely military (including a 1987 film directed by Terry Leonard with a military-based plot). There are also books, songs, bands and games. The idea is that, obviously, it’s better to die than to do something dishonourable, and it’s similar to the Spartan military ethos (‘Come back with your shield or on it’). So the woman in the painting is dying rather than doing something dishonourable - fighting for women perhaps? I have to confess, the first interpretation I thought of, mostly because the cross had me thinking of Romans, was related to the story of Lucretia but I don’t think that’s what they were going for.

(Whew, that brought back memories of the subsidiary module on Art History I did in first year!)

Towards the end of the episode, Charlotte goes to a party thrown by a woman who is apparently the most powerful of the power lesbians and who has a large statue of ‘Diana the Huntress’ in her (rather large) hallway. Diana is the Roman name for Artemis, who is indeed the Greek goddess of hunting, wildness and animals. As a powerful goddess, Artemis is a good symbol of female power. On the other hand, Artemis is also a virgin goddess, a protector of girls up until marriage (and during childbirth – the nine months between marriage and the birth of the first child were a bit of a limbo for Greek women, who were therefore not maiden, mother or crone). Artemis herself is often depicted as a young girl; she is not a sexual goddess. The head power lesbian, on the other hand, refuses to be friends with Charlotte if she won’t ‘eat pussy’.

In a way, this can’t be helped. The other major Greek goddess, Athena/Minerva, is also a virgin goddess, while Hera/Juno is the archetypal wife and Aphrodite/Venus is emphatically heterosexual. Really, if you want to look for a lesbian symbol from ancient Greece, you need to come down from Olympus and use Sappho, but of course, we don’t have any images of her. Diana the Huntress work pretty well as an image of female beauty, power and independence (presumably using the Roman name because it’s better known than ‘Artemis’, which is occasionally used a boys’ name in some fantasy books).

One of the other storylines in this episode features a man who creates artistic images of thunderbolts in his girlfriends’ private parts and who calls himself (I presume it’s not his given name) ‘Thor’. Clearly, the writer was in a myth-y sort of mood that day.

A cosmopolitan I drank while in New York last winter. Because, well, you know.

This is a fairly low-average episode of Sex and the City. The theme of cheating is only loosely related to Carrie and Charlotte’s stories (Carries is ‘cheating’ on her friends with Big, Charlotte is temporarily put off men by a cheater) and dealt with only fairly perfunctorily in Miranda’s (the guy who likes porn more than Miranda) and Samantha’s (Thor strikes in several places). Like a lot of the earlier episodes, it doesn’t carry a great deal of emotional weight, except maybe a little in Carrie’s story. It is, however, one of the episodes that make nice use of Charlotte’s job in an art gallery, which allows the show to add some intriguing modern art to it’s fashion-oriented palette and which I missed in between Charlotte giving up work in season four and Carrie meeting Aleksandr in season 6.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Spartacus Blood and Sand: The Red Serpent


Well, I'm watching the first episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. I can't promise I'll watch any more of it - it depends how bad (i.e. how full of gratuitous sex and violence) it turns out to be. But I'll give it a go. It is written by Buffy writer Steven DeKnight, after all, who wrote some rather good episodes before being given 'Dead Things' and 'Seeing Red'.

There's a nice opening shot panning from the cells underneath an amphitheatre to a gladiatorial combat above, which unfortunately is marred by some really bad CGI. Perhaps the producers of the TV adaptation of The Roman Mysteries were right to leave the Colosseum out after all (though I would have thought some model work might help).

In flashback, Haldir of Lorien persuades a bunch of men to go fight, there's some sex and portentous doom-mongering from Spartacus' wife, and Spartacus departs for battle while Our Lady of Soundtrack Sorrow wails in the background. The CGI backgrounds make it look like 300 - in a good way for a minute, then the battle kicks in and it's bad again. Gladiator, this isn't. And since when did Romans use Anglo-Saxon swear words?! ('Fuck'. Repeatedly. Granted, if I was in a battle, I'd be swearing, but in my own language! OK, I'm nit-picking, it's not like it's in Latin or Thracian, but it stands out when they shout it so often).

Spartacus and some others hang around complaining about the food and sounding exactly like the Orcs from The Two Towers - I kept expecting them to try to eat the legs of the shortest men present. And both Mum and I keep hearing one word as 'Legolas' (Dad has sensibly pointed out it's probably 'legates'). There's a lot of pretty CG snow. Meanwhile Haldir, having changed somewhat since being the campest Elf among a pretty camp bunch, has some sex with a blonde woman and explains the plot, which involves fighting Mithridates. Oh look, full frontal female nudity. Lots of it.

Some Orcs from The Two Towers. Not, actually, extras from Spartacus.

(On the subject of accuracy, we don't actually know anything about Spartacus outside the events of the slave war except that he was Thracian, so this area is pretty much free reign and outright invention is fair enough, when there's no history to contradict).

There's a falling out with the Romans they're supposed to be fighting for and then the wife is attacked, and puts up a pretty impressive fight, even saving Spartacus himself as he runs to her aid. But the village is torched. Then they have sex. Then Haldir turns up, all cross because Spartacus and the Orcs have killed a tribune, and takes the wife off to slavery. Spartacus himself wakes up days later on a boat.

Whizz across the map to the gladiator training school at Capua, where Haldir's father-in-law is putting on some Games. And here we are at our first orgy! The lovely John Hannah turns up, playing a lanista, Batiatus, introducing some new gladiators to the party-goers. He is married to Xena, Warrior Princess. Haldir presents Spartacus as a prisoner to be executed in the arena. And with that, we've got to where we started, with Spartacus being led up into the arena - not, it turns out, to be executed outright but to fight a house gladiator (as Maximus does in Gladiator, in the scene that always reminds me of Robot Wars). The audience are depicted as mixed gender, incorrectly (women and children had to sit in the very top rows only). Really, the amount of blood flying around looks more like Wednesday and Pugsley's version of Hamlet from The Addams Family than anything else.

Of course, Spartacus wins his fight, spurred on by a disembodied female voice that it presumably meant to be the wife. John Hannah looks a bit constipated, which I think means he's cross (I love John Hannah, as many girls my age do, ever since Four Weddings and a Funeral and Sliding Doors, but he's better than this). The crowd demand that he live, so of course Haldir has to suck it up and let John Hannah buy him (and it is indeed 'legatus' that they keep saying, to Haldir, just to confuse us even more). John Hannah gives him the name 'Spartacus', after a legendary Thracian king. End of episode.

I heard an interview with John Hannah on the radio the other week in which he talked a lot about Spartacus. He mentioned some interesting things. One person working on the production (but not a writer or anything - it's not that bad!) had to be told why they couldn't say 'is the Pope a Catholic?' which goes to show how much reading that particular person had done (we're a good few decades Before Christ here). Hannah also defended his use of his own accent (though slightly toned down) on the grounds that if you're working in translation, it doesn't matter what accent you use. I can understand the argument there, and he has a point, but on the other hand a mix of British-sounding, Scottish, American and New Zealand accents is a bit off-putting. Just as Lucilla, with her odd-one-out accent, stands out in a somewhat distracting manner in Gladiator, the sheer variety of accents here does rather confuse the brain. It doesn't necessarily matter which accent you use for Ancient Rome - just pick one!

The other comment Hannah made which I thought was particularly revealing was that the sex and violence is justified because ancient Rome was such a 'debauched' time and place. There may be an argument along those lines for the violence - ancient Rome was clearly particularly violent since gladiatorial games were such an important part of the culture - but the idea that it was sexually more debauched than other periods is one created and perpetuated first by Christian evangelists, and later by popular culture. The early Christians were (perhaps understandably) not happy with Roman culture for its persecution of Christians and the decline of the pagan empire and rise of Christianity coincided with the decline in facilities such as bathhouses, theatres and amphitheatres - a decline Christinity was partly, but only partly, responsible for. So, early Christian rhetoric depicted Rome as a hotbed of sin and vice, only ended by Christianity itself. This was repeated in the Christian novels of the nineteenth century, which were made into the blockbusting films of the twentieth century (Ben-Hur being the most successful). Now, the Christian aspect has been left aside or forgotten, but the idea that Roman society was much more sexually 'debauched' than any other remains, mostly because it makes good television.

In reality - well, Rome was fairly sexually active as a society, it's true. There were brothels, most famously at Pompeii, they had pornography, many people had affairs or slept around. How, exactly, is that different from any other culture? The Victorians tried to pretend some of these things didn't happen, but they're common to most societies. The main difference in ancient Rome was that free men usually owned slaves, who were considered to be property, and therefore sexual violence towards slaves was common. Emperors also had greater than usual licence to act out their fantasies on anyone around them. But it important to bear in mind that these emperors - the 'bad' emperors - were depicted that way in the histories in order to show how bad they were, not because this was considered normal behaviour. And it is worth bearing in mind that most of the sex in this episode of Spartacus was, in fact, legitimate marital sex (until we got to the orgy of course).

Ah well, here endeth the lesson. I doubt anyone is going to be convinced that Rome wasn't a hotbed of sex and debauchery any time soon - it's so much more fun for TV and film to push the sex angle because in one thing, humankind has not changed - we still like to look at pretty people without their clothes on. Spartacus, meanwhile, wasn't as bad as it could have been - I particularly liked the bit where the wife, against all expectation, fought off a crowd of would-be rapists/murderers rather effectively and the opening shot was going well until it was ruined by dodgey CGI. Whether I watch and review any more of it may depend on whether I can work out how to use the Sky recorder thingy though...

Sunday, 23 May 2010

American Gods (by Neil Gaiman)


I finally finished American Gods, having started it nearly a year ago! For anyone who hasn't read it, there are major spoilers ahead.

The basic premise of American Gods is that, as in the Discworld and, apparently (according to Clash of the Titans) in Ancient Greece, the gods are brought into existence by the force of people's belief, and that the millions of immigrants to America brought their gods (and leprechauns, and pixies, and kobolds, whatever they are, and various other assorted supernatural or divine creatures) with them.

Now, obviously, none of the main characters are Classical gods because by the time Greeks and Italians made it to America they were Christian. Many of the central characters are Norse gods, since it is generally believed that Vikings travelled across to America in the Dark Ages. Gaiman also includes several Egyptian deities (primarily Horus, Bast, Anubis and Thoth) on the grounds that Egyptians were travelling to America in ancient times - this, I confess, I find rather less plausible and I have a sneaking suspicion he just wanted to use the Egyptian mythology and imagery. When the central character dies part way through (he gets better) he wonders why he undergoes an Egyptian journey into death, complete with the weighing of his soul against a feather under threat of being eaten, and why he didn't get St Peter and the pearly gates, since that would be his cultural expectation, and is told that although he didn't believe in them, they believed in him. All of which reinforces my opinion that the real reason is just that Egyptian imagery is cooler!

There are also solid, important reasons for taking a more subtle approach to the Judeao-Christian imagery, though the nature of the story means it could hardly be left out. It is fairly safe to assume that the number of people who actually believe in Odin or Thoth are fairly small, if they exist at all, so those characters are free to be reinterpreted without taking pot shots at people's deeply held beliefs. Most of the mythologies present here, I confess, I have very little knowledge of - I have a vague knowledge of Norse mythology and I know Egyptian mythology of course, but the mythology I know best is classical, which isn't here. I don't know how far current beliefs are reflected in some of the other characters, especially the Native American characters, but I sense that there is an emphasis on the older, more forgetten gods, which fits the story anyway, since it is about gods who are old and neglected - modern religious figures are assumed to be living somewhere where they are worshipped, not in America.

Jesus does make an appearance though, in a suitably subtle (and unnamed) fashion, as a friendly and extremely successful carpenter who has rather a lot in common with Shadow, the protagonist. The whole scene is dealt with very cleverly, as it's not especially offensive to Christians, but at the same time it does not shy away from including the Christians deities as mythical gods among the rest. Christian imagery is also appropriated at times, chiefly in the themes of death and resurrection and the stabbing of Shadow while he hangs, dying, from a tree, while Easter appears as the Germanic pagan goddess Eostre, whose festival was in April and who in reality may or may not have been invented by the Venerable/Venomous (depending on your point of view) Bede.

The Venerable/Venomous Bede

There are some references to Classical deities, usually brief mentions from other characters. Mithras, the 'army brat' apparently had his birthday stolen by Jesus, a reference to some of the origins of the Christmas festival, though Christmas as we know it is composed of quite a few different influences and this is a bit of an over-simplification. At one point we meet 'Media', one of the new gods, and someone asks if she's the one who killed her children - no, says another (that was Medea, who wasn't actually a goddess, though she had divine relatives) but implies that the two are very similar. Presumably this is intended to imply that Media can be deadly to her viewers. Bacchus gets a very brief mention and somehow the emperor Hadrian's deified beloved, Antinous, has made it over to America, though how he managed this is not explained.

I also thought I spotted the ghost of the Golden Bough that so fascinated JG Frazer at one point (an early twetieth century mythologist/armchair anthropologist who thought every single religion anywhere, ever was about the death and resurrection of the god of vegetation and who thought that a particular rather odd and violent Roman tradition involvoing a tree and the golden bough that must be plucked by Aeneas before entering the underworld was the key to it all). My familiarity with Norse mythology is too vague for me to be sure whether this was a reference to the Aeneid (and Frazer) or a Norse thing, but it definitely seemed a little bit Frazerian to me.

The book does assume a lot of knowledge (or, possibly, willingness to look things up) as references like these are scattered throughout without explanation. I missed many more of them than I caught (though I was quite pleased with myself for knowing who Louise Brooks was!). My knowledge of mythologies outside Europe is pretty mch non-existent and my knowledge of America is patchy and gleaned mostly from TV, so there were a lot of things that went over my head. On the one hand, this technique allows the reader to really empathise with Shadow in his confusion at this new and strange world (and those readers who are familiar with all the requisite myth systems can fell thoroughly smug and superior, which is always fun!). On the other hand, it was rather frustrasting knowing that there was a lot more to what was going on, but that I didn't know what it was.

Louise Brooks. In case you were wondering!

Overall, I enjoyed the book a lot, though I didn't really get into it until quite far through (and there was a fair amount of focus on a certain male area - but I think that's true of mythology as well, so fair enough). And although I haven't read Twilight: Breaking Dawn, I have read summaries and reviews of it, and found myself drawing some rather unexpected comparisons at the end. Gaiman is a brilliant writer though, and the short stories telling tales of particular gods and immigrants were often the most gripping parts - though I was also genuinely fascinated by the character of Shadow and by Laura. The final twists were pretty bog-standard, but done well and I must go and see the House on the Rock some day.

This is not really a book about mythology, but a book about America, and for someone like myself, who has never been further than New York, it makes fascinating reading. Unfortunately, however, that focus on America is what keeps the Classics at bay, for the Classical gods never made it to America (outside of Percy Jackson) - they remain the the Old World and, even here in Europe, are more frequently referenced as an element of our past than our present. American Gods is about the junction and the tension between past and present, about what changes and what stays the same, and something frequently (if incorrectly, in my opinion) categorised firmly with things that are of the past, like Classics, perhaps doesn't fit as well as the other mythologies that Gaiman focuses on.

(By the way and on a totally unrelated subject, did everyone - in the UK anyway - see the finale to Ashes to Ashes the other night? It was brilliant!)

Edited to add: TV Tropes has cleared up the mystery of Shadow's real name, which my hazy memory of Norse mythology had obscured - Baldur. So the stick and the stabbing may also relate to mistletoe.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Rome: The Ram has Touched the Wall

Pop Classics is one year old today! Woo, happy birthday to us! Thank you to everyone who has read, commented on, linked to and otherwise supported the blog over this past year. I love writing it and I hope you enjoy reading it.

So, to celebrate, a slightly overdue proper Rome post.

We open on the uninspiring site of Pompey's gang, trying to write a truce acceptance in response to Caesar's recent offer, while Caesar has 'not yet left Rome' (see last time and, indeed, Rubicon for what's wrong with that statement).

Caesar, meanwhile, is dishing out mercy to those who desert Pompey for him and trying to avoid going to dinner with Atia. Atia herself thinks, as others do, that Octavian has been having it off with Caesar in a cupboard and is very pleased, and the fact that Octavian is busy painting Octavia's toenails when she asks him about it does not lend his true explanation any credence.

Boring Soldier is sorting out his daughter's marriage while Niobe angsts about the fact that this means her secret love child will be taken away, and Dodgey Soldier sleeps on the stairs outside. He's developed an exciting obsession with Eirene, the slave girl he took when she was abandoned by Pompey's men. She has been taken as an IOU by a tavern keeper, and Boring predictably and resignedly buys her, only to find Niobe doesn't want her because 'she has strange eyes' (really, because she thinks the girl is a spy for Dodgey Soldier).

Caesar is a bit miffed that Pompey offered a truce, which wasn't really want he wanted, and Mark Antony helpfully provides the episode's title, 'the ram has touched the wall', by which he means, they should show no mercy. Caesar decides that he will use Pompey's refusal to meet face to face as an excuse to refuse the truce, but still wants to hang around in Rome to continue sleeping with Servilia, who has a rather unrealistic demand that he should never leave her again. Mark Antony mentions this to Atia, who decides she needs to separate them so that Caesar will chase after and defeat Pompey, though Octavian tries to dissuade her.

Boring finds himself in unexpected financial trouble, as his slaves, whom he was planning to sell, have all caught some unpleasant infectious disease. Dodgey, meanwhile, has been hired by Atia to teach Octavian 'the masculine arts', much to Octavian's disappointment, who would have preferred Boring (unsurprisingly). Fighting comes first, which Octavian is rubbish at - not because he has any problem with killing people, as he reassures Dodgey, but because he doesn't like waving a sword around and feels that being only a mediocre swordsman is probably rather dangerous. This is a rather nice interpretation of Octavian's character and abilities; we know he had no problem with killing from the number of propscriptions he issued as dictator, but we also know that he had a tendency to claim he needed to avoid a battle because his doctor had a dream, and his greatest victory was really won by Marcus Agrippa.

Dodgey Soldier demonstrates a bit of intelligence for once, as he decides to ask Octavian for advice about Niobe and her brother-in-law - while Octavian is no great relationship counsellor, he is by far the most intelligent person any of them know and wisely advises Dodgey that they need to fully ascertain the facts before doing anything about it. Of course, this being Dodgey Soldier and Ruthless Future Emperor, their methods will be less praiseworthy... Max Pirkis continues to be absolutely note-perfect as Octavian, all cold intellect and careful thought and totally unruffled by anything.

There are a lot of shots of Pompey standing around artistically on a beach in this episode. Maybe it was a nice day and they all wanted to get some sun.

Boring Soldier goes to a sauna-like bit of a bathhouse (the tepidarium) to borrow money, a transaction apparently carried out while half-naked. The money-lender suggests that he could employ him as a hard man, which, of course, Boring has moral issues with but he agrees. Straight away he's off breaking arms and is ordered to cut the throat of one debtor, which, of course, he refuses to do, thus incurring the wrath of The Godfather. Oops. At least Niobe is supportive of his choice for once.

This is not, in fact the tepidarium at Bath, as the tepidarium had no water in it, but it is a picture of one of the rooms at the Roman baths at Bath that worked out rather better and less dark.

Calpurnia is mocked as she travels through a street apparently entirely decorated by graffitti showing Caesar and Servilia at it and saves Atia a job by demanding that Caesar drop Servilia, or she'll divorce him (which can't happen, as he needs her family). So Caesar dumps Servilia, who is not comforted by his assurance that he does still love her and it's all for the good of the Republic, and who gets very cross, only for Caesar to slap her and leave.

Caesar heads off to chase Pompey but tells Mark Antony to stay behind and keep the peace in the city, at which Antony sulks manfully. Pompey is still hanging around on the beach and Cicero, who is clearly bored of sunbathing, tells Brutus that he is off to his farm nearby. He offers to take Brutus with him and when Brutus refuses, feels he had better stay himself to avoid looking cowardly, but this is unlikely to last long.

Boring Soldier tries to go and belatedly accept Mark Antony's offer from the previous episode and luckily for him, Antony allows him to take the job, albeit for less money. Boring continues to angst about selling himself to a tyrant for the rest of the episode.

It turns out the graffitti was drawn by Atia's slave Timon - Servilia and Caesar's break-up was Atia's doing after all. Servilia is Not Happy and curses Caesar and Atia with some exciting curses to appropriate deities (like Tyche, Luck, and Nemesis) involving bad things happening to Caesar's manhood and Atia living for a long time in misery.

We haven't seen quite enough actual violence in this episode for the producer's tastes, so Octavian and Dodgey Soldier kidnap Niobe's brother-in-law and... question him about his relationship with Niobe. Dodgey Soldier almost believes his denials, but Octavian isn't buying it and calmly informs the man that they know he's lying, they have to kill him, and they'd rather kill him quickly and painlessly than torture him to death. Octavian is happier with the whole torturing thing than Dodgey Soldier, who has a lovely little new curse word that won't enamour him to the goddess concerned (Juno's c**t!). They kill the unfortunate adulterer and agree that Boring Soldier must never know the truth (if he knew, he would have the right to kill Niobe and the child, though whether this is their motive of they've just trying to spare him emotional pain is unclear).

Caesar reaches Pompey too late, as he's sailed for Greece - meaning there's a whole siege we've missed! I guess the budget couldn't stretch that far.

Not a bad episode, it avoids anything really ridiculous though it's extremely low on actual history (as in, there is none, except for Octavian's characterisation and even that is demonstrated through fictional actions). Boring Soldier's story is relatively engaging, and you have to feel for Servilia and Calpurnia as well. Overall though, the episode suffers chiefly from being rather downbeat, both in terms of mood and in a lack of action. Lack of action would be fine in a quieter period (I, Claudius episodes, for example, are not known for their high action content) but replacing an actual siege with a lot of Boring Soldier angsting is a little disappointing - even I, Claudius' budget had room for a very dirty soldier to turn up and at least narrate the events in the Teutoberg Forest, although we couldn't actually see them. Not bad though, and memorable enough to hold the interest, mostly in the scenes between Octavian and Dodgey Soldier.

Happy Birthday to Us!

Monday, 17 May 2010

Clash of the Titans (dir. Louis Leterrier, 2010)


I finally got to see Clash of the Titans! And about three quarters of the way through it occured to me that, though it's unlikely to make any lists of the Best Films Ever, it's not actually that bad.

The plot is genuinely interesting - what would happen if mankind declared war on the gods? Although this seems like a rather foolish thing to do in a world where the gods clearly and unmistakebly manifest themselves and attack those who do not worship them (like the Discworld character who stands on a hilltop wearing copper armour in a thunderstorm shouting 'all gods are bastards', or something to that effect) there's a certain amount of philosophical interest in the question (the leading of Andromeda to sacrifice is reminiscent of CS Lewis' Till We Have Faces). The idea that the gods need worship and prayer is also very reminiscent of the Discworld, and possibly of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which I'm still halfway through (no spoilers please!). The idea that Zeus feeds on love and Hades on fear is also an interesting one, perhaps setting them up as stand-ins for a Judaeo-Christian God and Satan. Of course, none of these ideas are explored in depth, but they are there.

On the other hand, this is the movie that had the worst tagline in history - Titans Will Clash! - which also turned out to be a blatant false advertising, as at no point in the course of this movie did any Titans clash in any way whatsover. Medusa is a Gorgon and the Kraken in from Norse mythology, which I know very little about - neither of them are Titans and they don't clash anyway, Perseus just holds up Medusa's dead head (there's a complete list of Titans here). Also, the other major clash, between the gods Zeus and Hades, is actually clearly a battle between Aslan and Lord Voldemort, with Aslan wearing King Arthur's armour from Excalibur. (And the Argosians seem to think they're living in Rome).

Some elements of the film's plot are from the Greek myths of Perseus - Medusa, Andromeda as sacrifice, the box the baby and his mother are found in. However, several elements have been changed, most notably that Perseus is the child of the king's wife, not his daughter, so that the box is vengeance for a grievance against the king, not an attempt to prevent his daughter from having a son that would kill him. Pegasus is also more strongly associated with Bellerophon, and although his birth from Medusa's severed neck makes his presence not totally unwarranted, here there is a whole herd, if that's the right collective noun, of Pegasi. Io, in this movie, is cursed with 'agelessness' rather than, somewhat less attractively, being turned into a cow, which is not very Greek, but does allow her to be a totally awesome action girl love interest.

In addition to the Norse Kraken, we have Arabian Djinn taking on a major role, whom I know pretty much nothing about and hadn't really heard of - except in Genie form - until I read the first half of American Gods. And there are some giant scorpions, not totally unknown in Greek myth but hardly an integral part of it. There are also some camels, yay! Although on that subject, I have to ask - where exactly are they? It looks like perhaps they're trekking across the Arabian desert, but why are the 'Stygian gardens' - whatever the heck they are, something to do with the underworld from the name - in the Arabian desert? Why is the entrance to the underworld there? (There's no fixed place for underworld entrances, it's just unusual). And why is Medusa, whose backstory has been substantially changed, in the underworld anyway?

Another slight problem with the film was that it's one of those OK films that remind you too much of a better film - in this case, Disney's Hercules. The two random 'hunters' claim several of the Labours of Hercules for themselves (they mention the Nemean Lion's skin, though Hercules wrestled it to death, and the hydra). Then there's Pegasus, Hades as the bad guy, the 'Stygian witches' who are pretty clearly the Fates as depicted in Hercules, and at the beginning, when Gemma Arterton was doing her voiceover, I was desperate for the Gospel singers to burst in and liven things up.

There are lots of other things I could pick apart - the way Zeus offers to take Perseus to Olympus as a god, which doesn't happen to demigods in Greek myth, the way Io screams when stabbed from behind, demonstrating that she has not discussed the matter with Sir Christopher Lee who, according to Peter Jackson on the Return of the King commentary, knows that people don't scream when stabbed from behind, the curious fact that the 'Stygian gardens', whatever they are, look just like Blaenau Ffestiniog. But there are really lots of good things about this movie too - the CG-set of Olympus looks good, and the equally CG underworld is wonderfully, creepily realised, especially the twisted wreck of a ferry and skeletal Charon the ferryman. Perseus is a idiot (use the magic sword for crying out loud!) but the supporting characters are reasonably likeable and there's just enough humour to keep things afloat. And the ideas are there, whether it's the gods' need for mankind, the idea that if men turn on each other they will be more inclined to turn to the gods, or the idea that mankind themselves are responsible for the rise of Hades; they're just very, very buried. All in all, you could see worse films, though I don't deny you could also see better.

Blaenau Ffestiniog. Or, possibly, the Stygian Gardens.

One last point on Titans - this was the first 3D film that I've gone to see wearing my glasses rather than contact lenses and my goodness it was uncomfortable. Since not everyone can afford or wear contact lenses and plenty of us wear glasses, I think more design work is needed on the glasses before we all embrace 3D as the medium of the future.

And a final note - I also went to see Robin Hood at the weekend, which I really enjoyed - it wasn't necessarily historically accurate, but it did take a different approach to the legend, which was fun to see, and had a more complex plot than most Robin Hood films. There's a fuller review of it at Here, There and Everywhere.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Stargate SG-1: Window of Opportunity


‘Window of Opportunity’, the ‘Groundhog Day’ episode of Stargate SG-1, is an acknowledged classic. Absolutely hilarious for the most part, its conclusion is unexpectedly dramatic, very moving and a nice reminder of an often forgotten aspect of Colonel O’Neill’s character.

It also occurs during that period in Season 4 when the writers were really pushing the Carter/O’Neill romantic subplot (coming just after ‘Upgrades’ and ‘Divide and Conquer’ and shortly before ‘Beneath the Surface’, all of which included romantic moments between the two). So, naturally, that comes into O’Neill’s consequence-free activities once Daniel has pointed out the ‘window of opportunity’ open to him and Teal’c (demonstrating that Daniel really is rather more intelligent than either of them). The best thing about it is, O’Neill is such a good officer, he resigns from the Air Force before kissing Carter, even though it really couldn’t make any difference. (We only see them kiss, but I often wonder, from his subsequent grin, whether he ever thought of doing this earlier in the loop, allowing more time for other activities...).

The time loop is started by an alien archaeologist who wants to go back in time. On their second encounter, O’Neill demands to know what kind of archaeologist carries a weapon, to which Daniel replies ‘I do!’. In science fiction and fantasy, most archaeologists seem to carry weapons – River Song, Indiana Jones and that well known amateur archaeologist Jean-Luc Picard would not be seen without their various arms. In real life, on the other hand, O’Neill would have a point, though I suspect an archaeologist who was threatened could do a fair bit of harm with a pointy trowel or a shovel.
Unable to break the time loop, our heroes come to the conclusion that they will only be able to work out how to end the loop if they can translate the text on the altar/time machine that started it all, which is a planetary history. The text is in one of Stargate’s made-up ancient alien languages, which is similar to Latin (it includes words like ‘dommo’ for ‘master’, which is similar to the Latin ‘dominus’ but, of course, doesn’t have to be at all accurate). Daniel doesn’t have time to translate it all within the 10-hour time loop, so O’Neill and Teal’c have to learn Latin and memorise the sections they’ve already translated so that they can get together a complete translation.

I must confess, I always wonder why O’Neill and Teal’c have to actually learn Latin, when surely Daniel could translate a section at a time and they could simply memorise the sections he’s already done. Perhaps, since the language is like Latin but not the same, Daniel needs their help with the translation, and they need to understand Latin to help him properly. Possibly. Anyway, the fact that O’Neill and Teal’c apparently have time to learn a new (inflected) language is often cited as an indication of just how long they must have been ‘looping’. And the sight of Colonel O’Neill reading a book called Latin for the Novice and looking like he wants someone to just shoot him now is very funny.

The episode does insist on treating language as if it were mathematics, though, as other things have done before. O’Neill testily tells Daniel that a certain word means ‘give up’, not ‘surrender’, but if the language is anything like Latin, those two things would be indicated by the same word. Daniel’s correction of ‘conqueror of time’ to ‘master of the uncertain past’, being based on context, is a bit more plausible.

This episode deserves its excellent reputation, and I urge you to track it down if you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious. It also features a rather beautiful alien archaeological site, with a red sky, desert climate and various monumental works, some of which look a bit like stone torpedoes stuck in the sand. Plus the team get to break out the sand-coloured khaki and wear big sunglasses. All in all, a good break from the remarkably large number of planets across the galaxy that look just like Canada...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Dolphins of Laurentum (TV adaptation)

Another Roman Mysteries post already! I usually try to space things out a bit (unless they're actually on TV as Doctor Who is at the moment), but I'm still getting the hang of juggling the paid work and the proper-but-unpaid work, and I had this post ready drafted, so it's going out today. Upcoming attractions, when I get the chance, will include some more Stargate, another episode of Rome (as soon as I have time), The Mummy (which needs even more time!) and possibly an episode of Charmed, which I've never watched, but which appears to have some Greek goddesses in it...

Well, there’s no difficulty in telling Gaius and Marcus Flavius Geminus (otherwise known as Hugh Beringar) apart in this episode, as Captain Marcus turns up in a terrible state, with some kind of nasty disease and infected feet. He’s been shipwrecked in a tsunami caused by the eruption of Vesuvius (and, presumably, related earthquakes). This means we get to see our old ancient medicinal friends, maggots!

Lupus actually wants to hire an assassin to kill Venalicius, which is rather shocking. I mean, I understand the sentiment, but that’s still a pretty dire thing to try to do, especially for a small child. But then, I'm always peculiarly sentimental about small children. Don't even get me started on Thomas Hardy...

Just to add to Marcus' troubles, he is also horribly in debt, and Gaius can't help because his farm has been destroyed by the volcano. I love the way Flavia quickly recruits Pliny the Younger to help her smuggle her valuables to Jonathan’s house when the debt collector comes. Pliny comes off very well here. From his letters, it’s surprisingly difficult to get a sense of his character, since they were written for publication and are rather self-consciously literary and keen to show off. It would be nice to think that he was as he’s portrayed here – a bit bookish, a bit pleased with himself, but ultimately kind and generous. I doubt the real Pliny would have harboured seroius romantic intentions - the kind that are respectable for children's television - towards a poor Jewish doctor’s daughter though.

We also discover that Gaius and Marcus don’t just happen to be identical twins, narratively speaking, they’re identical twins for a reason! Gaius must pretend to be Marcus to save them from the debt collector. For some reason when I was younger I, and I think a great many other children, loved stories about identical twins (I was obsessed with the Sweet Valley High books and Sister, Sister on the TV. Come to think of it, that coincided with my dolphin phase...). I don’t know what exactly appeals to children so much about this idea, but something does, though unusually here it is adults who play the identity-of-the-twin game.

The children go to stay with Pliny by the sea, where they swim with the titular dolphins and Lupus, who was a sponge diver in Greece, tries to find treasure in a sunken wreck. The diving sequences are beautiful, taking full advantage of filming in the gorgeous blue Mediterranean sea and introducing a new, pseudo-Roman way of counting seconds, substituting ‘legionaries’ for ‘Mississippi’. I say ‘pseudo-Roman’ because this is English rather than Latin but I’m sure a similar Latin word would work just as well and it sounds much less out of place than ‘Mississippi’. Some of the CGI and photoshopping on the dolphin sequences is a bit dodgey though.

Miriam and Pliny the Younger

The eventual revelation concerning the relationship between Lupus and Venalicius is genuinely surprising, which is nice. Venalicius as a helpful person is also rather surprising, and his slow, agonising death from the bends is really horrible. In this version, Lupus’s father’s death was an accident and Lupus became mute through psychological damage – I’m not sure what happened to Lupus’ father in the book, but since Book!Venalicius cut Lupus’ tongue out it is unexpected to find Venalicius trying to help them and to see Lupus forgive him. Although, on the other hand, the greater the crime, the more virtuous the forgiveness, and it allows the first weight to be lifted from Lupus' mind.

Best thing of all about the episode though – actual spoken Greek! I still have trouble recognising spoken Greek but I suspect this was proper ancient Greek. I don’t think I’ve ever seen subtitles in a British children’s programme before – brilliant stuff!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Doctor Who: The Romans 4, Inferno


This post has been edited because I managed to refer to 'Ian' as 'Steven' approximately 50% of the time - whoops! (And thanks Tony!). I am choosing to blame this on Doctor Who itself, rather than on one of my occasional Complete Brain Malfunctions - for surely here is proof, if proof were needed, that Steven is simply Ian without Barbara.

We pick up where we left off, with Ian about to be killed by his friend in a private gladiatorial combat on Nero's orders. But, of course, Ian's friend is far too nice and noble for that and refuses, attacking Nero, and the two of them attack the guards, which quite pleases Nero, who enjoys this as much as the fight. Ian recognises Barbara and she tries to run away with them but Nero stops her, and is now Very Cross Indeed. Nero orders his guard to capture Ian and the other gladiator, or the guard will die.

Poppaea has had enough of Barbara too and orders her to be removed, again, threatening to kill the slave-master if he doesn't obey. Luckily, Barbara then asks him to help her get away with Ian, so he agrees to help her. Barbara tells him Nero has plans for 'Maximus' in the arena...

The Doctor and Vicki have found Nero's plans for how he is going to rebuild Rome after he's set fire to it; the Doctor tells Vicki how Nero started the fire so he could re-build and she dismissively says that she knows all about that. The slave-master appears to warn 'Maximus' - the Doctor - that Nero plans to have the lions set on him in the arena, and he'd better kill Nero quickly; it turns out that the assassins were sent to kill the real Maximus because he was planning to assassinate Nero and his allies, including the slave-master, have been helping him. The Doctor decides a swift exit as soon as it's dark is the best solution.

Nero comes in and while he and the Doctor talk about the upcoming arena performance, the Doctor stands with his hands behind his back, and his spectacles in his hands, resting over Nero's parchment with the plans on it. As they talk, a beam of sunlight comes through the window and shines through the Doctor's glasses onto the parchment, setting it on fire. (There's a nice detail here by the way. The plans say 'Nova Roma, Nero Fecit' in Latin, meaning 'New Rome, Nero made it'). When Nero finally notices he is furious and barks orders for an elaborate death for the Doctor and Vicki. He wants them put on an island in the arena, with water all around and alligators in the water, and the water level rising - 'and the alligators will get you!' By an uncanny coincidence, this is almost exactly the way Flavia nearly dies in The Gladiators from Capua, which I reviewed the other day! The difference, of course, is that Flavia was in the Flavian amphitheatre/Colosseum, which is an appropriately grand venue for such a spectacle. I'm not sure what facilities there were for such grand things before, though to be fair it probably was possible (I seem to remember Caligula doing some fairly dramatic things involving sea-battles).


Remains of an amphitheatre in Roman Salona, near Split, Croatia. Plus excellent view of the cement works behind!

Abruptly, however, Nero changes his mind - for it's just come to him that he will be able to build his new Rome if he sets fire to the old one. Nice one, Doctor. Apparently, the Doctor did this deliberately, so that he and Vicki could get away, though it's possible he's just trying to reassure Vicki. I hope so, because rather a lot of people died in the fire and plenty of Christians were fed to the lions afterwards because they were blamed for the fire, so giving Nero the idea does not seem ethically justificable just to get the Doctor and Vicki out of a tight corner.

The slave-master finds Ian - not sure how he knows him, perhaps he's psychic - and gets him in, while Nero tries to decide what to name the new Rome. Barbara and Ian are reunited, which is nice and all four of our heroes look for a way out while Nero orders a small crowd to start fires. The slave-master wishes Barbara good luck and reveals his motivation for helping her, as he is clutching a small cross (perhaps he assumed that Barbara was a fellow Christian, or wanted to help her because she seemed like she might be a good convert). This does not bode well for him in the near future, unfortunately. Ian's friend will accompany them some of the way, and go home.

The Doctor and Vicki have made it outside of the city and Vicki gets excited about seeing her 'first real sight of history' - the fire. Um, yes Vicki - quite a lot of people are dying in there, I'm not sure you should look so happy about it. The Doctor insists the parchment-burning was an accident and the fire isn't his fault, which is a bit of a relief, but then he starts laughing maniacally, which is less good.

And Nero fiddles - well, plays the lyre - while Rome burns, obviously.

Ian and Barbara have made it back to the villa and realise quickly that the Doctor and Vicki are still absent, and Ian repeats his fridge joke. Then it emerges that Barbara accidentally hit Ian on the head and much UST-filled running about ensues. Ian then sits back to exclaim 'O tempora! O mores!' which means roughly 'Oh the times! Oh the fashions/customs!' - Wikipedia has a brief history here.

The Doctor and Vicki finally turn up and refuse to listen to Ian and Barbara's attempts to tell them anything. Ian pinches some valuables and they all head back into the TARDIS and disappear with a sound that can't possibly be anything to do with the brakes because they're taking off. Vicki and Barbara run off to change while the Doctor tells Ian they're being dragged down... and the credits tell us they're going to the Web Planet! du du duuuh!

I enjoyed these episodes, but I think the biggest problem with them is the attempt to make them 'comedy' episodes. The Great Fire of Rome, slavery, gladiatorial combat and so on are not subjects for comedy drama - broad comedy can make fun of these things (things like The Life of Brian and Carry on Cleo) but comedy drama, in which our heroes' peril is supposed to be taken seriously, really needs to take the attempted rape of the heroine or the accidental mass murder of the hero a bit more seriously than this.

For this reason, Ian's story works best because there are no attempts at farcical comedy and he has very little contact with Nero. The first episode is also my favourite, because there the comedy works and is genuinely funny, since none of our heroes are yet in mortal danger.

All this is not to say a 'comedy' Roman episode couldn't work, it's just that this tends to make fun of the wrong things. The new series has more or less perfected the art of switching between comedy and drama or high tragedy and in fact this is its default position, yesterday's 'Vampires in Venice' being a pretty good example. So it might be quite possible to do a funny episode on the same themes, if it was done with more sensitivity, but it just doesn't quite work here. Vicki and the Doctor's total lack of concern about the fire they are partly responsible for just brings it all further down, and I found myself very much wanting to re-watch Catherine Tate's beautiful, emotional performance in 'The Fires of Pompeii'.

However, all of that notwithstanding, these episodes are good fun and Ian and Barbara's story was exciting and engaging. I was also very relieved that Ian's friend got away, I was a bit worried he was going to be sacrificed for our heroes to get away. This is possibly where the old series has an advantage over the new one - New Who writers would, I suspect, have been unable to resist the temptation to raise the body count and increase the sense of tragedy by killing him off, and sometimes it's nice to see a bit of restraint and a few more living incidental characters at the end of the story.

One final note of interest - just like 60s Star Trek, 60s Doctor Who is much more positive towards Christianity than New Doctor Who. This is, of course, part of the much wider changes between the 60s, in which Roman-set films frequently viewed things from a Christian view-point, and now, when we have Agora, which tells the story of a Christian mob murdering a pagan philosopher, but no corresponding films about ancient persecutions of Christians like Perpetua. The episode, however, skims over the impending first great persecution of Christians that followed, which might have seen the end of the kindly slave-master who helped Barbara.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Gladiators from Capua

Wow. I loved this book! Exciting, well paced and a real stay-up-till-2am-finishing-it job. Whether this is simply because, for a very sqeamish person, I have a quite bizarre fondness for stories about gladiators, I'm not sure, but I was hooked.

The story is set during the inaugural Games in the Flavian Amphitheatre, later known as the Colosseum, which took eight years to build and was opened by Titus in AD 80. The narrative is solidly structed to allow us three different views of the action. First we experience the Games in an historically accurate fashion, as a child or woman in the Roman Empire would have experienced them, from the very top tiers of seats in the massive amphitheatre. Then we get the experience we as readers really crave - the action is narrated from within the arena, with two of our heroes taking part in it, the Gladiator point of view. Finally, we see the action take place from the Imperial Box, so the narration can cover events from the best seats in the house. This brilliant structure allows readers to get the points of view they want, those of the participants and the people who can see the action best, while also educating child readers about how most people would really have viewed the Games (and although I referred to that first view as 'historically accurate', all the ways in which the children take part are historically plausible).

The story is also compelling, opening with a flashback featuring as yet unknown participants (I like devices like that, they always grab my interest) and carrying straight on with Jonathan's memorial service. I knew Jonathan wasn't dead and that he would come home in the end, of course, and when Tigris barked at the gladiators it was pretty obvious where he was, but there is enough tension in the story that it feels uncertain and keeps the attention anyway, since the reader doesn't know where or when Jonathan will turn up and keeps waiting for his appearance. First time readers might even wonder if he will, since The Roman Mysteries do adopt something of an Anyone Can Die policy, though I think they stay on that fine line that holds back from killing a character so beloved readers will be put off - our four heroes are safe, as are certain other characters. I think this is important in a children's book, or at least, it was for me when I was a child (I have never read another Philip Pullman book since he killed off Fred. I was that sort of child).

People dressed as centurions - not gladiators, for some reason - pose for photos with tourists outside the Colosseum

There were some fun shout-outs to other bits of popular culture, some deliberate and some that may only exist in my confused little brain. The reference to the lion and the 'unicorn' (a mistreated antelope) is presumably deliberate. During a conversation about the power of blood, the lines 'Blood is power' and 'Blood is life' leapt out at me as similar to lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'The Gift', and in a not dissimilar context, though that might just be my my obsession speaking. The large woman who wipes away tears as she sends Flavia and others out to die immediately had me picturing the giant Nurse who grows fond of Jill and Eustace but plans to eat them in The Silver Chair, though again that may just be me (though poor Flavia was being unusually dim not to wonder why only slaves and orphans were being used and why the woman was weeping). The lion and the rabbit reminded me of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, but since this was a real Roman attraction, that really is just me.

Even more effective were the call-backs to previous stories, especially The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina. Somehow, the fact that Monobaz the lion had played an important and separate role in a previous story makes the resolution to this story seem more real and plausible than it would have if the whole relationship had appeared only in this book.

The book also makes beautiful and effective use of religious imagery, chiefly Christian, which is of course very appropriate for a story set in the Colosseum featuring a Christian character. The earlier conversation about the power of blood is reiterated in a considerably more life-affirming fashion and Jonathan's execution - on the third day - subtly but clearly evokes the Crucifixion and, of course, the Resurrection. Writers of certain long-running British science fiction shows, take note - this is how you use religious imagery properly.

View of the Arch of Titus, seen from the Colosseum

There is a lot of blood in this book, and it doesn't hold back in its depiction of the realities of the Games (in fact, like most modern fiction, it emphasises the amount of death and destruction, as it implies that most gladiator fights are, at least potentially, to the death) which presumably may concern some parents. In my experience, most children love gory stories, so they will lap this up. Some - child-me included I'm afraid - are a bit more sensitive, so might need this read to them by a comforting parent, and possibly followed by something lighter. I don't think any children will be too worried though (and, as the book reminds us, children in the past have put up with much, much more, as parents of viewers of certain long-running British science fiction shows might like to take into account before they complain about homicidal pepper pots). The book nicely balances Lupus' enjoyment of the Games with Flavia's traumatic experience to cover all points of view and give all children a figure to identify with, while Nubia (who, poor girl, gets given the most awful Sophie's Choice towards the end) remains a balanced observer throughout.

The depiction of the action in the Colosseum is all accurate. The books tends to describe the most spectacular events possible, but since these were the inaugural Games for the Colosseum, that makes sense. As I mentioned above, the narrative does tend to emphasise the deadly events, though it also depicts the glamour and the attraction of the life of a gladiator for some. Nubia's brother clearly is not anticipating imminent death and loves his new life, so we can infer from that that the death rate may be especially high during these opening days, and both Emperor and crowd are seen sparing people. Even Flavia briefly experiences the upside of life as a gladiator (in a scene which immediately brought some of the sweeping shots from the film to my mind, despite the watery setting of the book's middle section). On the other hand, the sheer cruelty of the Games, especially as regards the execution of prisoners, is also laid bare. Jonathan is able to become a gladiator despite being a child because Domitian has ordered some child gladiators as a novelty act, which seems pretty plausible given Domitian's character as we know it from later sources.

Well, as you can tell, I quite liked this book! My favourite of the series so far, and it will probably be my favourite overall, since it has so many of my favourite things - very tight structure, Christian imagery used well, gladiators, danger but no excessive culling of major characters and I think there was even an important dream in there somewhere as well. At some point I will watch the TV adaptation and no doubt be thoroughly disappointed with the lack of lions, flooded amphitheatres and blood and guts all over the place...

Reconstructed view of the Colosseum from the arena, from Gladiator

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau 2010)... and an award!


I managed to get to a cinema yesterday and saw Iron Man 2, which was good fun, if not quite as good as the first one. (I thought the first one had a really nice, strong stucture and felt very grounded, while the second was a bit flabbier, a bit less varied and a bit more comic-book-y - which is fine, since it is a comic book, but it was the unusual tone that I liked particularly in the first one).

Iron Man 2 features a character called Natasha Romanov, who, my brother and The Interweb inform me, is a crossover character - possibly - called Black Widow, who works for SHIELD, an organisation that crosses over various Marvel characters. I was thoroughly confused by SHIELD, since the movie didn't explain what it was, and I don't usually read graphic novels, so I was totally lost (though I did wonder why Natasha seemed to have fighting skills to rival Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Natasha is a pretty awesome character, though, and, like all the most awesome people, she speaks Latin! Pepper Potts objects that no one 'speaks' Latin, because it's a dead language, you can read or write it but not speak it. This isn't quite true - Latin is still spoken and used as a common language in the Vatican, though on the other hand Latin composition is done much less often than it used to be (with the wonderful exception of the Harry Potter translations!). Pepper does have a point though - when we teach and learn Latin, we mainly focus on how to read it. This will often involve a bit of composition, since that can help with grammar revision, and usually some reading aloud and work on pronunciation, but not, generally speaking, spoken exercises. Which is a shame, as that would be kind of fun, but it would involve learning a whole new skill set that wouldn't be terribly useful, since, especially when you're just starting, the skills and knowledge required to have a conversation in the new language are very different from the skills required to read it, which is still the primary aim of learning Latin.

The best bit is later, when Tony asks Natasha if she can really speak Latin and she responds in Latin! I'd love to tell you what she said, but I didn't have a note book with me and it went by so quickly I had no chance of remembering it - I can't even remember the English translation she provided immediately afterwards! As soon as I can either get hold of the DVD or the clip appears on YouTube (or someone else posts the quotation somewhere) I'll update this post with the Latin phrase and a translation. For the moment, I can confirm that whatever it was she said, it definitely was Latin! UPDATE: It was indeed classical Latin, from Seneca - see comments section for quote and details.

And speaking of awesome.... I have been given an award! Woo-hoo! This is from the lovely Amalia over at Good to Begin Well, Better to End Well. This award appears to be something one can pass on, so without further ado...

First, I will heartily endorse Amalia's blog, which has already received this award and clearly deserves it - her blog covers writing, mythology and other thoughts and if you ever feel like pondering such matters as ancient Greek hair dye, this is the place to go.

Second, I would like to pass this award on to Chris over at Here, There and Everywhere. Chris's eclectic blog covers a whole bunch of stuff, including movie reviews, book reviews, Spanish festivals and marine biology and is always worth a read, plus there are some gorgeous pictures to make me feel jealous of the lovely Spanish weather!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Doctor Who: Flesh and Stone

OK, there's not a whole lot of archaeology in this one I have to confess, but there is one major point I want to bring up. By pure coincidence, last Wednesday I posted my short paper about the portrayal of Daniel Jackson in the original Stargate movie, in which I discussed how, in the world of science fiction, being a doctor of archaeology automatically makes you an expert in practically everything, as if you were Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap and had nine doctorates that keep changing as you change history. This episode fell prey to exactly the same odd notion, that because you have a doctorate in something, you are incredibly good at everything, as River fixes lights and teleporters and generally runs around being a mechanic for much of the episode. Now, I have a doctorate in a similar area, and I can tell you right now, I can't re-wire a plug. Or cook a boiled egg. My understanding of science in general is reasonably good but limited and my understanding of anything remotely practical is nil.

Three things do ameliorate the ridiculousness of the idea though. Firstly, River is clearly very, very clever in many ways so fair enough, she's pretty good at problem-solving in general. Secondly, River is an archaeologist (not an historian/literature person like me) and archaeology is a science with a much higher practical/scientific element than my language-based work, so most archaeologists probably can boil an egg. Thirdly, River Song is still pretty unknown as a character and may have all sorts of things in her background we don't know about yet (murder, for example). So I can let it go for now, but I'll keep an eye out for it. Even Daniel Jackson, I feel, could not have fixed a teleporter no matter how hard he tried.

Also, we got a name for what will persumably turn up in the finale - the Pandorica. If the finale includes River Song I'll blog it anyway, but I suspect there might be some more classics-y stuff in there as well...

Other stuff... I loved Marco for just putting his hand over Amy's eyes to close them and was most sad when he was wiped out of existence. Still loved Father Octavian as well, and was equally sad when something happened to him (the Angels seem to have abandoned their old modus operandi of just sending people back in time, but we didn't see him die, so you never know) though his final scene was very good. I really want River's murder victim to be the Doctor himself, but that's half 'wouldn't that be a good story' and half 'Matt Smith's a good actor and I'm sure he's a lovely person but he just isn't quite The Doctor for me' so I may be way off base there. I really like that we've had some explanation of the crack in the wall already. I was worried that this season's overall arc was just going to be 'here's a crack... here's a crack... here's a crack... whoops it's the finale, this is what it is!' Which would be very dull. So I'm glad that's not what happened.

Amy walking through the forest with her eyes closed was absolutely terrifying - very well done. Killing off everybody who isn't a regular or semi-regular character may be a bit of an overreaction to previous observations that Moffat doesn't like killing people off though.

As for Amy and the Doctor - well, it's nice to see someone who just says what she's thinking rather than moping after him all season, but I think we may have overdone the 'companion in love with the Doctor' thing now. The bit about not wanting something long-term was funny, though I'm guessing (and hoping) it went over a lot of kids' heads.

Overall, this was probably my favourite episode of series 31/5/whatever so far, though we haven't yet seen anything to really blow me away (in the way that The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Human Nature/Family of Blood and Turn Left did).

Two final randomnesses - did anyone else picture something totally different when the Doctor said 'tree-Borgs'? And is anyone else still vaguely thrown by Rose Tyler's mother as a hooker in Ashes to Ashes last night?!
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