Friday, 29 April 2011

Update and A Wedding

There won't be a full, regular post from me today, I'm afraid, as I'm completely slammed with work (an unfortunate combination of deadlines appearing around Easter, a time at which it seems I'm the only classicist I know who needs three days out to go to church, and things that can't be predicted and have to be done straight away, like job applications and interview prep).

However, as you're all aware, there was a bit of an event in the UK today, which I've had on TV in the background as I sit at my computer. Since this was a High Church service, we got a bit of Latin in the singing! (High Anglican services are extremely similar to Catholic services, though I noted that this was a short-ish wedding service - all the Catholic weddings I've been to have been full Masses plus the wedding and take forever).

According to the official website, this was the piece:

The Anthem will be followed by the Motet ‘Ubi caritas’ by Paul Mealor, a Welsh composer, who is currently Reader in Composition at The University of Aberdeen.

Mr. Mealor’s composing studio is on the Isle of Anglesey, where Prince William and Miss Middleton live. This version of ‘Ubi caritas’ was written on Anglesey and premiered at the University of St. Andrews in November 2010.

Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est means 'Wherever there is peace and love, God is there.' There's a really nice Taize setting for it that we sang in church last Thursday and it's one of my favourite short refrains (because it's so nice!).

I was disappointed to see that no subtitles were provided for the Latin. I suppose the directors didn't want to spoil their pretty picture, but I thought it would have been nice to let the viewers know what, exactly, the choir was singing. (I don't know whether the commentators explained it or not, because I was concentrating on my work and not listening to them!).

On a non-Classics note, the bride's dress was completely gorgeous and I want one. Lovely.

Well, Prince William has broken my heart by not marrying me (and boy am I ever kicking myself for choosing the University of Birmingham over St Andrews) but I hope they have a very happy life together, and I hope my friends' weddings later this year go just as well!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Spartacus Gods of the Arena: The Bitter End

The finale of Spartacus: Blood and Sand's prequel series managed to surprise me again, which was nice, and was suitably dramatic with enormous amounts of fake blood all over the place. Less sex this week though, everyone was far too busy to have time for that.

We open with Pater's funeral, at which Not!Octavian, on behalf of Max from Neighbours, turns up to demand Gannicus, or ban Batiatus from the Games for good. Xena, meanwhile, smirks and grins evilly with such relish that Batiatus is truly blinded by grief, love or both not to see it. DSG has been mourning his wife somewhat more quietly, while Gannicus prowls around in the background.

Batiatus gives his dad the traditional Spartacus funeral, surrounded by gladiators in their tiny panties. (Other elements of the ceremony, like the death masks of their ancestors, are more accurate). Batiatus announces that he's overturning previous decisions, and no one, not even Big Silly Beard Man, is going to the mines. Then he sets the gladiators against each other to fight in honour of his father, which makes sense, as gladiatorial combat originated in funeral rites and Games continued to be celebrated in honour of the dead throughout Roman history. Crixus is still sulking about Gannicus giving up instead of getting beaten properly, and Gannicus, unsurprisingly, is fed up of hearing about it.

Gannicus tells Batiatus he wants to be sold to Max so he can off him, in revenge for Wife. Batiatus points out the sale will send him to Not!Octavian and he'll be sent off to Nola for who knows how long, but Gannicus has obviously seen Gladiator and is quite happy to wait until an opportunity to stab Max in the back presents itself.

Earring tells Xena she's welcome to come stay with him if she needs to, trying and failing not to look pervy while doing so. He has guessed that Max might not have poisoned the wine, but he suggests Not!Octavian did it instead, and everyone misses the look of panic that crosses Xena's face. Batiatus and Earring go off to scheme together and Xena re-brands Naevia to be her new body slave. Xena tells Naevia she understands why her former slave left, but can't forgive it - but she does promise that she'll only give Naevia to the best men and will preserve her viriginity for a good while.

Earring tells Max and Not!Octavian that Gannicus is being sent far away, which makes Max quite cross, and he is only prevented from skewering Earring like a kebab right there when he's assured the ship hasn't left yet. Not blessed with too many brains, that one.

Batiatus, Gannicus, DSG and Barca hang around waiting for Max to walk into their trap while Gannicus sulks that no one liked his plan. Max, Not!Octavian and Earring wander into the square and are ambushed by the Silly Beard Men, and general violence breaks out. Since they've picked a very dark back alley for this game, it's quite hard to see what's going on, but Barca seems to take a pretty nasty stab wound at one point; the man must be made of steel to have survived that. DSG gets hold of Max but Batiatus has truly gone over to the dark side and wants to torture him first because, being a Roman, he's never seen a James Bond film and doesn't realise it's best to kill people straight away if you really want rid of them.

Earring visits Not!Octavian, who is hanging by his wrists, to have a little chat. They don't seem overly keen to kill him, as they want him to claim that Max has set sail for Antioch, and Earring also has 'personal matters' (i.e. betraying Batiatus) to discuss with him.

Xena is still trying to get pregnant by Crixus, and still claiming she's only doing it out of necessity. Crixus tells her he sees her as a woman unlike any he's ever met before and she chooses to take this as a compliment. Xena demands that he get a shave and a haircut and off come the tiny panties.

Max does not take well to having the ashes of Batiatus' father literally shoved down his throat (and nor would Pater, one suspects, if he knew about it. Clearly, Batiatus is not a religious man, as proper burial was extrememly important in the ancient world, and being ingested by a torture victim probably doesn't count as a proper burial). Max tries to point out he didn't do it, but no one believes him and they stab him and then bury him alive in the foundations of the new arena.

We cut to the opening of the new arena, where Not!Octavian does his job perfectly, though he still manages to put the verbal boot in once more by calling being a lanista 'low'. He also reveals that he's transferred all his gladiators to Earring, which was not part of Batiatus' plan, and Batiatus makes a face as if he's just eaten some bad meat. Earring tells Not!Octavian not to come back while he's alive, which, since he's been offed in the main series, may mean we see him again in season 2. Earring explains to Batiatus exactly what he thinks of him and Batiatus makes the face again - you'd think, after helping him get rid of Max, he'd be more wary of Batiatus really.

There's to be an execution before the Games begin and Naevia's unfortunate friend has been caught and is about to be executed. It's a shame, as it would have been nice to see her again in season 2, but it makes the point - that running away frequently ends badly and deciding to do so is not a simple decision. She does manage to nod goodbye to Naevia before meeting her (surprisingly quick and simple, for a theatrical execution) end.

Barca is still walking, but not fighting, what with the massive gaping stomach wound he got brawling with Max and his men. Gannicus tells DSG he no longer wants to fight and die for the house of Batiatus and DSG tells him to fight in the memory of Wife instead. Crixus, who has finally got rid of the Jesus look at Xena's request, is up first.

The Games are to open with a series of fights to the death between Batiatus' and Earring's gladiators. We see a series of fights accompanied by the traditional rock soundtrack and interspersed with splashes of fake blood flung all over the camera. There's gouging, stabbing, chopping, red stuff flying out in fountains and everyone fights with a helment except Gannicus, so we can see which one he is. The director is so intent on the bloodshed in the arena, we don't even see any women in the crowd with their tits out, though we do get the odd shot of the rich guy's perverted friend doing his best impression of Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator (there are a lot more similarities to Gladiator than usual this week).

Crixus is relishing the idea that once they've got rid of all Earring's men, he will get to fight Gannicus. They then carry on fighting even though it's nightime and floodlights have not yet been invented. It's all very dramatic but not terribly practical, as there's just no way anyone would be able to see them properly. They've also broken out some really special underwear, which is longer than the tiny panties and colour coded so we can see who's on which team.

The gladiators from both houses are gathered together in the middle of the arena and then a fire is lit in a circle all around them (created using oil, presumably, since it pours nicely and petrol also hasn't been invented yet). This does at least explain how the spectators are expected to see them, though it doesn't seem very safe in a brand new, partly wooden structure in a hot, dry climate.

The music gets really quite excited at this point and brings in the choir, and the women in the audience finally get excited enough to get their tits out again. The Sily Beard Men (Big one identifiable by the bandage over his eye) start attacking each other, which doesn't make Batiatus look good at all, and then there's some very dramatic stuff with a flaming net, at which point I'm glad Mum isn't watching this series with me, as she hates fire. The circle of fire, I should add, is behaving remarkably well despite the dry sand it's been lit on. Earring and Rich Perverted guy have a good old laugh at the fact Batiatus' men keep fighting each other while heads get chopped and gladiators jump dramatically in slow motion.

Finally, only Crixus, Gannicus and one of Earring's men are left standing. Crixus gets wounded and Gannicus throws him out of the circle (miraculously, without him touching the flames) and takes on Earring's man. He then get comprehensively beaten, while the crowd get so excited they start brawling with each other. Gannicus is still alive, though, so he nods to DSG and gets up again, killing Earring's man with a spear through the mouth while the choir on the soundtrack get really, really excited. The guy's chin sorts of breaks and falls off (you can hear the cracking sound) and down he goes, and Gannicus stands triumphant in the middle of a carpet of bodies.

Gannicus has won and everyone is very happy except for Crixus and Earring. Earring suggests they should free Gannicus, which is pretty fair, actually, and the crowd go wild. Batiatus makes the bad food face again, as does Xena, and Gannicus looks like he's not quite sure what to do with himself.

Back at the ludus the next day, Xena and Batiatus sulk at the fact Gannicus actually wants to leave, but Xena cheers them by suggesting they focus on Crixus instead. Poor Barca insists he'll join Gannicus one day (sniff) and Crixus is still sulking that they haven't had a proper fight yet, so Gannicus tells him to win his own freedom and come find him - so we'll see Gannicus again in season 2. That's nice, I hadn't expected that. We see Gnomey Silly Beard Man limping in the background, reminding us that he pretty much hates everybody. DSG gives Gannicus his wooden sword, the symbol of his freedom, and he and Gannicus make plans to meet up with Wife and each other in the afterlife (I wonder if there's a designated spot for finding your loved ones in the afterlife, since everyone seems so confident of finding each other there despite what must be some serious over-population).

Gannicus walks off into CGI Capua and DSG cracks his whip Symbolically to start the day's training. Batiatus handily insists that he never wants to hear the names of Gannicus, Max or Not!Octavian again, which explains why no one's ever referred to them in the main series. Batiatus speechifies about how he looks forward to a better future, and he declares that they'll get just reward for what they've done, and we cut to the Blood and Sand shot of him and Xena lying dead (actually, Xena's only nearly dead, her mouth's still moving) on their own floor, covered in blood and holding hands, while we hear Spartacus declaring that he will see Rome tremble.

This was an effective finale, which surprised me by letting Gannicus escape alive - I thought for sure he was a goner. Presumably, this means he will turn up in season 2 at some point and possibly the truth will come out about Wife and him and even Xena, since no one's caught her yet and on TV, poisoners are always caught by someone, even if they get away with it overall (even Livia 'fessed up to Claudius). It's nice seeing a gladiator actually get properly, legally freed and the final shots are very effective - though the sense of tragedy we were made to feel at Batiatus and Xena's deaths in the first episode is undercut in this last one by the reference to Barca's hopes for freedom and Batiatus' reference to a just reward for all they've done, which does rather put you back on Spartacus' side. I wonder if Gannicus will turn out to have signed up for the army and if he will fight or even kill Crixus (though it would be more satisfying if Crixus killed or just defeated him - I like Gannicus, but I like Crixus more and it's strangely frustrating watching him itch to beat Gannicus all series and never getting to do it). All in all, a good job, though let down for me a bit by things that are daft to the point of ridiculousness - chiefly the final showdown, which was all very dramatic, but totally impractical in an era without electricity or fire extinguishers.

Now that appetites have been thoroughly wetted for season 2, it'll be interesting to see how the show fares without the structure of the ludus and the arena. Hopefully the character conflicts set up here will help to hold the thing together and the CGI artists won't get too overworked having to create actual different locations as Spartacus' group start to move around Italy...

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Up Pompeii! (dir. Bob Kellett, 1971)

Up Pompeii! was a television series which ran for a couple of years on the BBC in 1969-1970, with this film following in 1971. It was inspired by Frankie Howerd’s performance onstage as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This musical (there’s a film too) is very good and based loosely on some of Plautus’ actual surviving comedies from the Roman republic – I saw it years ago and don’t remember it very well, but it’s a good show. Up Pompeii!, on the other hand, is composed entirely of sub-Carry On humour (from Talbot Rothwell Carry On producer), mostly involving terrible puns and sex-mad, gorgeous women.

To be fair, this is not really that desperately far from Plautus. Plautus’ comedies are often a bit like Jeeves and Wooster in ancient Rome with added naughty jokes, except the young men are usually getting their slaves to help them get married to the right girl, rather than avoid marriage all together. Up Pompeii! does revolve around Lurcio’s attempts to help his effeminate young master get the girl and prevent a plot to assassinate Nero, but the emphasis is so much more heavily on sex jokes and so much lighter on Lurcio’s cleverness that it doesn’t feel entirely Plautine.

The plot, such as it is, involves a plot to assassinate Nero and the eruption of Pompeii, which tells you a lot – I don’t there’s much point discussing accuracy and inaccuracy here (Vesuvius erupted during the reign of Titus, over a decade after the death of Nero).

The way broad comedy like this tends to work is to think of all the main things people might know about ancient Rome – indeed, about the ancient world as a whole – and bung them all in, in the hope of raising a laugh. Nero is the best known of the mad emperors, so he usually makes an appearance (see also Doctor Who: The Romans) and of course the eruption of Vesuvius is one of the best known events from the whole Roman period, so the series was set in Pompeii and the film covers the eruption (see also Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii – not a comedy, but following the same principle of finding the most recognisable bits of ancient history to play with). Oddly enough, Nero is much more sane (and older) than usual, perhaps because the plot requires that we sympathise with those trying to prevent his assassination.

In the spirit of throwing in anything people might have heard of from the ancient world as a whole, the film also features a soothsayer called Cassandra who, of course, prophesies the destruction of Pompeii and, of course, no one believes her. Since Cassandras who prophesy truth no one believes pop up everywhere from an alien abductee in The X-Files, to a computer in Red Dwarf, to a girl with a heart defect in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the fact that Cassandra is both mythical and Trojan probably shouldn’t bother us here.

This film springs from a particularly smutty period in British comedy (only three years later the Confessions... series of sex comedies began) so it is hardly surprising to see the traditional Roman orgy presented here in all its glory (statue peeing wine and gratuitous breasts included). The opening scene gives us Lurcio shopping for prostitutes to hire for the evening’s orgy and his master’s daughter is called Erotica, and the young female slave Scrubba. Not all the humour is smutty though, some of it’s just Christmas-Cracker level punning and lines like ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your feet!’ (to stamp out lice).

The film does include some nice touches. I rather like the narration by a giant Lurcio, standing over a model of Pompeii complete with smoking volcano, and the joke about how they thought of having an intermission, but the film isn’t really long enough to bother (ancient-set epics having something of a tendency towards being very, very long and needing to provide everyone with a five-minute toilet break in the middle). I quite like Lurcio’s prison tunic with arrows motif as well. While in prison, Lurcio meets some condemned Christians, depicted as hippies, which is both amusing and somehow seems appropriate. And, of course, Lurcio and the Christians use a model horse made of a wine casket in their prison escape attempt (unfortunately they make the same mistake as Sir Bedevere and the knights, and forget to get in it).

Best of all is Nero's final line. As he and his female companion watch Pompeii collapse, it is implied he caused it, and he says 'wait till you see what I've planned for Rome.' Total nonsense (unless Nero has an alien device for blowing up volcanoes we don't know about) but somehow it works, and it realigns Nero with more usual representations of him.

On the other hand, the sex and gender humour is all hopelessly outdated, and Lurcio probably wouldn’t cover himself in soot and pretend to be a Nubian if the film were re-made today.

The final sequence of the film depicts the eruption of Pompeii (inaccurately, geologically speaking), an interesting choice for a comedy. Ludicrous Sextus (Lurcio’s master) and his family are caught in compromising positions, while Lurcio himself takes on a noble pose as the town collapses around him. We then see Howerd as a modern tour guide showing visitors Erotica in the middle of sex, Ludicrous in conversation and so on. We hear echoing voices of the Roman characters as their actors play their modern counterparts, which is almost touching and even a little sad, while funny too. I’m not really sure how completely successful this is – the death of hundreds of people is hardly a good subject for laughs – but it is certainly memorable. Perhaps the living modern characters lift the tone enough to make up for the large scale death and destruction.

Overall, though, this is the usual somewhat random hotch-potch of ancient Stuff with some interesting ideas. It was funnier than I was expecting (I laughed at least five times, which means it passes Mark Kermode's test for a reasonably successful comedy) but I suspect, really, it's just not funny enough to be good. Watch with alcohol and don't expect too much.

Friday, 22 April 2011

CS Lewis' Lost Aeneid

I had meant to get hold of another Jesus film to review for Easter, but I didn't get around to it - still, a book by/about CS Lewis, one of the twentieth-century's most famous lay theologians, seems vaguely relevant anyway! On a more strictly Easter-y theme, last year's post on The Passion of the Christ is here and an article including some thoughts about the Latin in that film here.

I realise translations of the Aeneid are not exactly popular culture, but I wanted to review this as a new work of CS Lewis (not many of those around!) that all fans of his work may enjoy, whether or not they're familiar with Virgil or Roman poetry. This was a review copy of the book, organised for me by Hasan Niyazi over at Three Pipe Problem, sent by the distributor Inbooks and supplied by the publisher, Yale University Press. The book is edited by AT Reyes and has a forward by Walter Hooper (CS Lewis' secretary) and preface by DO Ross.

Since I'm interested in this as a book for general audiences who are fans of Lewis, I won't say too much about the translation itself, which is so incomplete as to be little use to those just wanting to read the Aeneid anyway (The book contains all of Book 1, a substantial proportion of Book 2 and a section from Book 6. Any other sections Lewis had translated before he died were burned when his brother was clearing out the house after his death - the book's introduction explains how Walter Hooper rescued what we have from the fire. This edition also includes various other lines and fragments Lewis had translated or mentioned in his other works, and summaries of the missing nine books and the missing material from Books 2 and 6). There are many different ways to translate from one language to another, but generaly speaking there are two broad approaches; you can try to translate the specific vocabulary of the original text as closely as possible, or you can produce a text which conveys the feeling and sense of the original without necessarily transferring specific vocabulary. When translating poetry, translators also have to decide whether to write their version in plain prose, to stick as closely as possible to the vocabulary of the original but lose the rhythm and feel of it, or a freer style of poetry, keeping the verse but losing the precise rhythm, or to try to ape the original metre as closely as possible.

Lewis, being a poet and English Literature professor, chose a metre which he felt was as close to Virgil as possible (Virgil used dactylic hexameter; Lewis used short alexandrine lines with six beats). His translation is of the kind that tries to convey the sense and feeling of the poem without sticking slavishly to the ancient vocabulary (though for the most part he's pretty close). Because Lewis felt so strongly that literature had lost something since the arrival of machines in the nineteenth century, he translated the poem into pseudo-medieval English - using a medieval style, but not actually writing in Middle English.

The upshot of this is that the poem reads beatifully, but probably shouldn't be used by undergraduates studying Virgil in translation, as it's not quite literal enough. Whether you'll enjoy reading it really depends on your taste - if you enjoy Shakespeare, especially his rhyming couplets, you'll probably enjoy this.

The book has been beautifully put together. Hooper's forward is personal and touching, Ross' preface effectively explains Lewis' attitude and approach to the poem and Reyes' introduction explains the process of translation and of putting together the manuscript clearly and simply. For those who don't read Latin, the introduction explains the differences between Lewis' translation and others and how Lewis' translation compares to the Latin, and provides a thorough introduction to the text. There are also a few prints of Lewis' manuscript, which is lovely to see (he had really neat handwriting!) I would imagine any fan of CS Lewis who isn't familiar with Classics will thoroughly enjoy this.

The translation is, of course, unfinished so you're not getting the whole of the Aeneid - unfortuantely, only a tiny fraction of it has been translated and preserved. No one needs to worry about not knowing the story, though, as Reyes provides summaries for the rest of the poem - these are very, very brief but they will fill readers in on the essential details. Luckily, the surviving material includes some of the most interesting sections from Book 6 (the journey through the underworld), which Lewis seems to have translated first - his language is slightly different in this section (thees and thous instead of you) so presumably he'd done this before he started the whole thing from the beginning. Unluckily, the translation of Book 2 runs out just as it gets to the really exciting bit - I'd recommend printing out the First Player's speech from Shakespeare's Hamlet about Priam and Hecuba and sticking it in the book right below the end of the translation of Book 2, so you can at least finish off the scene!

Reyes has made one decision I didn't agree with. He's included the Latin text opposite Lewis', which is brilliant and for which I'm very grateful, as it's so much easier to compare translation with Latin that way. However, he's used the most recent edition of the Latin, not the older edition Lewis used. Since this incomplete, medievalist translation is going to be of far more interest to Lewis fans and scholars than people needing a translation of the Aeneid, it would seem to make more sense to me to use the edition Lewis translated from, so his translation can be directly compared with the source material. Reyes has also not included any footnotes. He has a 'Notes' section, but no indication in the text itself of which parts of the translation come with notes. This is supposed to prevent the reader from being distracted and allow them to enjoy the poem artistically - unfortunately, it renders the Notes section somewhat difficult to use, as much flipping is required to work out which Notes refer to which bits of text.

That said, this has been really nicely put together and is a must-buy for rabid Lewis fans like me. Perhaps it's true that you get more out of it if you know the Aeneid, but I think Reyes has provided more than enough guidance for anyone who doesn't and Lewis really was a lyrical poet. Lewis' own love for Virgil comes through clearly, and every line aims to be, basically, as beautiful as possible. Just make sure you slip in that bit of Shakespeare, so you're not left hanging in the middle of Book 2!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Spartacus Gods of the Arena: Reckoning

First up, part 2 of my guest post on walking on Cadair Idris, Snowdonia, is up at Criss Crossing the Globe. And now, on to the latest episode of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, in which I was both proved totally right and genuinely shocked (in a good way)...

Wife dreams that she and Gannicus have sex, predictably, but I'm distracted by the fact she has a tattoo on her shoulder - tattos in general are pretty ancient, but I can't remember whether Romans ever used them or not. Anyway, she then dreams that DSG kills Gannicus while they're having sex (stabbing him through the throat so that blood spurts all over her just like when vampires get staked in True Blood). She's interrupted at the part where he goes to stab her too because she's summoned to Xena, who's mourning Gaia and upset that Pater wants to wipe all trace of Gaia from existence. Wife helps her to hang on to some of Gaia's stuff.

The wide shots of CG-Capua are really quite impressive this season, as Batiatus and Earring wander down the street chatting about how much they hate Max from Neighbours. Earring is actually doing quite well which is a sure sign he's screwing Batiatus in some way and Batiatus will be pissed when he finds out.

Bigger, tougher Silly Beard Man tells smaller, Gnomy Silly Beard Man that he's starting to pick up some Latin, and therefore demonstrates his deep, deep stupidity and signs his own death warrant. Pater tells DSG to organise a contest to determine who the best gladiators are, including Gannicus even though he's still recovering from injury. DSG is really getting into his still-new Drill Sergeant role, quite literally cracking the whip over them, while the slave who's been being used as a prostitute is upset at everybody, including Naevia.

The gladiators get into their contest, using wooden swords for once, but that doesn't stop them hitting each other hard enough to send sprays of blood arcing artistically towards the camera or onto each others' shields. Rock music kicks in, to show us that we are watching Hard Men Being Hard (pun absolutely intended). Batiatus is not impressed that this is happening without him or that Pater is still insisting he divorce Xena. She is even less impressed, of course. Batiatus still hopes she can change his mind and a proper marital domestic argument ensues which ends with Batiatus really driving the metaphorical stake home when he complains she hasn't given him a child - something he immediately regrets, but too late.

DSG and Wife have a very poetic conversation about the House and the weight of its beams and their dreams and secrets and prayer and sex and so on and so forth. I'm wondering where they got all those candles from, given that they have no possessions of their own (though slaves could be given a small allowance, so maybe they bought them with that).

The contest continues on into the next day and Batiatus shows off that he knows the word 'retiarius' (i.e., that the writer of this episode knows the word 'retiarius'). Crixus has to fight some guy we've never heard of, so of course he'll win, though he still hasn't got rid of the Jesus hair. His fight is interrupted by the arrival of Max, invited by Pater. This causes Batiatus to say, 'Tullius should be hurled from cliffs and yet my father bends knee to suck on cock' which is, I think, my favourite line of pseudo-Latin (it sounds almost like it's come straight out of Martial, a poet who wrote short epigrams that were often very rude). Meanwhile, as Batiatus and Xena continue to watch the fight and just as Xena apologises again for the whole lack-of-baby thing (assumed, as Roman medicine did, it to be her fault), Crixus gets thrown to the ground with his man-parts, covered only by those small underpants-like garments the gladiators wear that I shall henceforth refer to as their tiny panties, laid out before the viewers on the balcony - this may be my favourite part of foreshadowing ever.

Pater starts giving Max the bollocking he deserves, but gets swayed by promises of future glory. Naevia and her unfortunate friend make up, but the friend, somewhat unsurprisingly, has developed a major death wish.

The fights continue, with all the spectator gladiators standing around in a square shape in their tiny panties as usual. Gnomy Silly Beard Man tells Bigger Silly Beard Man that they have to fight each other next and that he's afraid he'll be sent to the mines if he loses. Gannicus tries to release unwanted energy by whaling on Barca, who is unperturbed because nothing perturbs Barca (even the death of his beloved just made him smile a bit less than usual).

The Silly Beard Men fight each other and Gnomy, on the ground, begs for the chance to end up standing - and takes the oppportunity to blind his opponent when he gets up. We are treated to a close-up of this delightful event, with the bloody eye socket displayed for the camera in all its glory, sticky red stuff flying everywhere. In the absence of head chopping and so on, presumably a bit of extra non-fatal goriness was required.

Gannicus tells Wife he's caught her looking at him and flirts sleazily. They have this conversation with bars between them, which I suspect is Symbolic. Wife tells him she loves her husband and he sulks, just in time for DSG to appear and demand to know what was going on in the Barca-fight, when Barca almost got him.

Xena has sent for Crixus to be a sperm donor. Clearly, she's ahead of Roman medicine in the area of fertility treatment, in that she knows the man might be the problem, but since she thinks Gauls are especially fertile, not that far ahead (maybe this is the source of all the stereotypes about the French being great lovers?) She orders Crixus to remove the tiny panties and have sex with her and they have extremely uncomfortable sex which neither appear to be enjoying at all.

Batiatus doesn't catch them because he's out in the practice area arguing with Pater (perhaps having everyday conversations outside is why Pater has that nasty cough? No, it's poison). Finally fed up of the constant insults, Batiatus grabs a plank to whack him with but stops when the old guy says he loves him. It turns out Max will give them a place in the Games if they give him Gannicus. Batiatus thinks about it for a minute or two, then gives Pater the plank as a 'memento' (surely Pater must have an inkling what he was going to do, since that's a pretty weird memento).

Batiatus joins Xena in the bath and because this is Spartacus, the water only comes up to her waist, where on most other shows she would be sitting with it up to her shoulders for modesty. Batiatus tells her they must leave, since he still refuses to divorce her. They then have a really sweet moment where they just touch heads which is much more tender than all the sex.

Crixus and Gannicus were equal in the contest and need to fight to decide who's Champion, but Pater has already decided to sell Gannicus to Max, despite DSG's objections. Pater eventually agrees that if Gannicus wins, he can stay, but if Crixus wins, Gannicus goes. DSG runs straight to Gannicus to tell him and then the fight begins. Batiatus tells Pater they're off but Pater tells him to stay and watch the contest first and admits that actually Batiatus was right about both Crixus and Gannicus. Down below, blood is flying about all over the place and since they both have much the same hair, it's really hard to tell who's been hurt.

Naevia gives her friend some of Gaia's stuff and tells her to run away - a risky business, as the penalties were horrific if caught. She'll either be caught and we'll see her horribly punished, or she'll turn up in season 2, since she promises they'll meet again - I'm hoping to see her again in season 2 myself.

Pater's still coughing and asking for water, and Gannicus is getting distracted by sex flashbacks in the middle of the fight, which is never good. Luckily he then gets that burst of energy people always get from seeing the object of their affection in the crowd in sports movies, but at that point the flashback gets to the bit where Wife doesn't want him and he lets Crixus whack him upside the head with his shield and surrenders. Crixus isn't fooled and wants to know why he dropped his guard but of course Gannicus doesn't tell him.

Suddenly, Pater drops to the ground coughing and spluttering (it's poison I tell you!). Batiatus runs off to get herbs and DSG joins him, and the most Antipodean-sounding Roman doctor you've ever heard leaves Pater with Xena, which is a really silly move. Wife leaves them completely alone when she asks to be allowed to go and say goodbye to Gannicus. Xena starts telling Pater how much she loves Batiatus, and Pater feels bad about all the being mean to her and says,

'Tell me you're not the serpent I thought you to be'

She replies,

'I am not. I'm far worse'

Then follows an absolutely brilliant scene where Xena reveals that she's been Up To No Good all along. Ever since her marriage, she couldn't stand the way Pater treated Batiatus so she's been poisoning the wine to make him sick (Hah! I knew it!). In fact, she made him sick enough to move away in the first place. She's now put enough in the latest wine, which was sent by Max, to kill him. Her grin at this point is fantastic. Her plan is that it will be obvious he was poisoned, and Batiatus will blame Max and take vengeance - thus avenging Gaia. It's a fantastic scene and Xena really becomes almost Livia-like in her Machiavellian scheming (high praise from me I assure you).

Meanwhile, Gannicus tells Wife he couldn't stand being around her and chose to leave in the grand tradition of superheroes who Leave Because They Love You So Much, so of course she tells him she feels the same and they start to have sex - but are brought to an abrupt halt when Wife starts choking up blood because she's been drinking from the same wine as Pater. Poor Gannicus is left with her spluttering blood all over the place.

Pater tries to choke Xena (he's tough, that one) but of course he's far too weak to succeed. He dies crawling dramatically across the floor in a pool of blood. Wife, despite being equally bloodied, is in a more graceful traditional tragic heroine position, cradled in Gannicus' arms.

Gannicus carries Wife's body out to Xena, who had no idea the slaves had made off with the wine (silly her - all waitresses/servants/slaves drink up the leftover wine, she should have known that). So Xena is genuinely horrified and orders Gannicus not to tell DSG Wife was with him. Batiatus and DSG return to find everyone in uproar and all the linen covered in some blood stains that probably won't come out. Just about every male character roars in a grief-stricken fashion at some point, and the wailing woman Cleolinda refers to as Our Lady of Soundtrack Sorrow oohs and aahs away in the background. End of episode.

This was a brilliant episode, easily the best yet, of either series. We all knew Wife wasn't going to make it to the end of the series, but I'd assumed that DSG would catch her and Gannicus at it and she'd kill herself, or some such. Her sudden, horrible death comes almost out of nowhere and is both shocking and sad. Xena reveals herself to have been the cold-hearted bitca we all knew she was from the very beginning, though her grief for Gaia, love for Batiatus and horror at Wife's death are all real, so she still retains some sympathy. She's most fun as a character, though, when she's grinning evilly at Pater while she does the traditional bad-guy 'you're-dying-anyway-so-why-don't-I-tell-you-and-the-audience-the-whole-story' thing. Batiatus is still much softer than his main series character but presumably he'll let his dark side out when he goes after Max next week. Every character this week felt fully rounded and I even almost welled up in a couple of places. Let's hope next week's prequel finale will be just as good!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

All Together Dead (by Charlaine Harris)

I've always fancied being a travel writer but never actually been able to travel enough to do it. So I'm delighted to say I've guest blogged over at Cris Crossing the Globe, on walking around Cadair Idris, in Snowdonia, Wales.

Meanwhile, back in my world of hardly ever leaving the house, I'm having a little bit of a vampire phase at the moment. You'd think, with the weather warming up and spring in the air, I'd go for something lighter (literally) but thanks to True Blood, I've now discovered the Southern Vampire Mysteries - lots of descriptions of glorious southern heat and sunshine, plus vampires! (Not at the same time, obviously. Except occasionally. Ew). Hasan Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem has also very kindly sent me a copy of Anne Rice's Pandora, which I'll read and review if I ever manage to tear myself away from the Sookie Stackhouse books...

All Together Dead is the seventh Southern Vampire Mystery - I've now read 4-7, haven't got further than that (no spoilers please!) and am making do with the TV series for the first three for the moment, even though it's radically different (if you're wondering what order the books are supposed to go in, which the publishers are bizarrely coy about, there's a handy list over at Billie Doux - scroll down, it's at the bottom). All of them share with the TV series a tendency towards lots of sex and gore, and the books make me laugh out loud more than most, sometimes at deliberate jokes, sometimes at... less deliberate ones. (There are capes in this book. And main characters suddenly turn out, unexpectedly, to be vampire clergy. It all turns out to be an important plot device, but still - hilarious in kind of the wrong way).

All Together Dead takes place at a vampire convention. By sheer coincidence, I'm leaving for the big annual British Classics conference tomorrow, but I suspect my conference will be rather different, and will lack weddings, trials, coffins or people drinking each other's blood (and will be the poorer for it I'm sure). Sookie has been paid to go and help out Sophie-Anne, the vampire queen of Louisiana (a phrase which will never, ever stop being hysterically funny to me). Sophie-Anne is on trial for regicide and of course, hijinks ensue.

The vampire hotel at which the vampire convention takes place is beautifully imagined as an ancient Egyptian-themed sort-of-pyramid-shaped building called The Pyramid of Gizeh (haha). This is a stroke of genius on Harris' part, as the image of a dark glass pyramid quite literally filled with coffins, whose inhabitants then get up and start walking around and drinking the staff after sunset, is all the right amouts of creepy, silly, funny, spooky and gothic. Because we know most of what we know about the Egyptians from their tombs, we get to know them in death more than in life, which makes them a perfect thematic thread for a vampire novel, not to mention the Mummy associations. Harris' habit of describing what everyone wears all the time tends to irritate me, but her descriptions of the stylized Egyptian-themed rooms filled with polished coffins are a perfect fit for the tone of the books.

Harris' particular vampire mythology (if you've got an hour or two to spare, there's a TV Tropes page listing all the major pop culture variations on vampires) places heavy emphasis on the age of the vampire, so Classical vampires were bound to turn up sooner or later. This book has an unusual and intriguing example. At Sophie-Anne's trial, the judge turns out to be a very old (as in, elderly, as well as thousands of years old) blind woman called the Ancient Pythoness. She is the judge, apparently, because she was 'the original oracle that Alexander consulted' and she was so revered that the 'primitive vampires' at the time (I have no idea, I haven't read the first three books!) turned her before she could up and die on them.

Just to quickly skim through the nit-picking part: Alexander (presumably the Great - pointing out there was more than one Alexander really would be a nit-pick too far) consulted lots of oracles in his time. I don't even want to go into what 'original' might mean and I don't think there's any such thing - things like oracles tend to appear at similar times in various different places. Most of the oracles in Greece had been around since centuries before Alexander, who post-dates the Classical Greek period of Plato, Socrates and the rest. He made one particularly well known visit to an oracle to ask if he would conquer the world (the answer was more or less yes) but the sources are divided over whether that was an oracle of Ammon (Egyptian god often associated with Zeus) or the Pythia at Delphi, and they lean more towards Ammon. The Delphic Oracle was the most important and most famous oracle in ancient Greece, and was often called the Pythia, because the founding myth of the shrine was that Apollo has killed a monstrous dragon/serpent, the Python, at the site. She was nothing at all like the version that appears in 300. Whether or not her prophecies were drug-enhanced we don't know, but she would prophesy and the priests would interpret it for the visitor.

I really like the way Harris has taken the bare bones of the ancient oracle with the snake-name and built a fabulously creepy and out-there character out of it. The blindness is very Classical too; individual Pythias varied according to who was in at the time, but blindness is often associated with prophecy and prophetic powers in Greek myth (Tiresias, for example). I like the way she is supposed to have been something resembling human at one point as well, who was then 'preserved' by being vamped; somehow, that fits in so nicely with the ancient oracles, who were all ultimately just human beings.

The one thing that jarred - and therefore took me out of the story - was the reference to Alexander and the 'original' oracle. Not so much because of the inaccuracy oracle-wise - after all, this is a world where the heroine is part-fairy, the heroes are mostly dead (or they're part-time tigers) and the vampire king of Mississippi just married the vampire king of Indiana - but, well because I hate the word 'original'. When a book is so concerned with relative age and has multiple characters who've had a millennial birthday, it jars to see something that implies Alexander, a relatively late figure in Greek history comparatively speaking, to be especially ancient and, well, my students will tell you I have a real thing against the word 'original'. Theres no such thing, usually. This may be a problem entirely personal to me.

Do I really need an excuse for including this picture? Thought not.

I can't decide if this is my favourite Southern Vampire Mystery yet or not, but it's certainly close (Dead to the World probably still holds that prize, I am such a sucker for snarky blonde vampires and amnesia stories). There was one slight drawback for me at the end of this one, as no one who grew up in Britain in the 1980s with Northern Irish family like I did would ever have made the quite spectacularly stupid mistake every single main character made in order for disaster to be the result, but on the whole I loved it. The real-life conference can only be a disappointment in comparison, though I fervantly hope the building is still standing at the end of it...

I'm away all this weekend and will be back with a new Spartacus: Gods of the Arena review next Tuesday.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Spartacus Gods of the Arena: Beneath the Mask

Straight into the arena for this episode, which is fun. Someone gets his fingers cut off within the first two minutes and I'm honestly not sure if he's a competitor or a spectator (I was looking at the computer). Batiatus is signing the praise of retiarii, which is always fun - if you're making a TV show or film with gladiators in it and you want to show off your research, a retiarius is the easiest type of gladiator to include, because they're fairly unique to Rome and easily identifiable, with their net and trident. Batiatus and Pater actually seem to be getting on reasonably well, which can't be a good sign. Pater has got to be dead by the end of this episode, surely. (Edit: apparently not. He's got some impressive staying power, that man).

The Silly Beard Men are still yabbering away in Syrian and I think the chief Silly Beard Man may be Gnomy Guy from the main series, though I honestly can't remember. He apparently has the ability to chop right through an iron helmet, which I think may make him a superhero of some kind.

Not!Octavian introduces his new guys while Batiatus and Pater carp at each other. Batiatus refers to the opening Games of the new arena, which we saw under construction in the opening shots - I was under the impression that arenas during this period were always temporary, but I suppose this could be a new, temporary arena.

Gaia threatens to leave until Pater is out of the way, which upsets Xena, who has clearly grown extremely fond of her (she really ought to go off and find Gabrielle instead, who is much nicer and less... um... less). Gaia finds some random bloke from Rome (Petronius) who doesn't seem to remember her but who does remember the reputation of Xena's household - she really ought to just go into the madam/prostitution business and have done with it, she's clearly a much better madam than Batiatus is a lanista, by reputation anyway. This rather upsets Xena, but Gaia just sulks that he's more interested in Xena's slaves than in her and Batiatus will do anything for business.

Gannicus is sulking because he's not allowed to fight and Wife is avoiding him. He thinks the way to deal with this is to go on about how much he thinks about her, in which he is sadly mistaken. DSG, meanwhile, is perturbed that Gannicus will not obey him, but Wife gives him a pep talk and then they do the sex, which I think must be DSG's first sex scene, and it's bizarrely brief - does Peter Mensah have a no nudity clause in his contract or something? Everyone else is on display all the time. Not that I mind, it just stands out a bit when everyone else seems to be in a different movie.

Pater still has that nasty cough, which I still think must be the result of some slow-acting poison. He agrees to go to Naples with Batiatus so they can choose a champion together, which gets him out of the way so Xena can do her madam thing.

DSG lets on to Silly Beard/Gnomey Man that they only keep him around to translate for the other Silly Beard Man, which I guess is why the taller one doesn't survive to the main series (jealousy can be a terrible thing). Crixus tries to bond with Barca over the fact he killed Barca's worse half, which doesn't seem like something that should work, but somehow it does.

At Naples, Batiatus insists that Thracians are too difficult to control, which almost made me laugh out loud (Spartacus was Thracian). Naevia's friend is upset over the abuse visited on her in the previous episode and I suspect she'll kill herself before the series is out, while Xena is blackmailing Wife and looking much less guilty about everything (and I suspect Wife will kill herself before the end as well. Or maybe I'm just thinking of Rome...). Earring has come along as well, to offer moral support, or immoral support, or something. Xena offers everyone present any gladiator or slave to do whatever they want, which is a bad idea as at that moment Max from Neighbours turns up.

It turns out Pater doesn't approve of Xena, which explains a lot, though if he felt that strongly about it he should have forbidden the marriage, which as paterfamilias he could have done. He has also worked out that Batiatus is Up To Something but is hoping to talk him around to his point of view while in a fresh place. He's fed up of travel now, though, and has decided to go homes and embrace a closer future with his son. Dum dum duuuuummmm.

Xena initiates a masquerade for her guests with masks representing the gods (because crazy sex parties are always cooler with masks) and Max decides he wants to challenge Gannicus which means he's either really stupid or much handier with a sword than he's letting on. DSG warns Gannicus to make sure he loses without injuring Max, which doesn't please Gannicus at all. Gannicus swallows his pride and plays along, however, and even surrenders to Max when he could have beaten him, and only Xena's intervention prevents Max from killing him. Gannicus becomes sufficiently frustrated to nag Wife about how he feels about her and grab a snog, which doesn't make anything better for anyone.

At this point, we get into our first proper, full on Roman orgy of this series. I'm amazed it took them three and a half episodes to get to it. How on earth Naevia escapes all this still, according to Xena, untouched by the main series is a mystery. Silly Beard Man starts promising the services of his taller, non-Latinate friend, partly out of necessity and presumably partly out of revenge for his friend's greater success in the arena. Xena, Gaia and Earring are keeping an eye on Max, who is acting suspiciously by not drinking or having sex with anyone, so Gaia takes him off for a little talk, and it turns out they're childhood friends. Then they do the sex as well, while simlutaneously trying to blackmail each other, as far as one can tell (I think he wins).

Luckily the orgy is finished before Pater and Batiatus get home but Max decides to confront Xena is the dark, suddenly windswept halls which have abruptly acquired something of a Gothic feel. This, it turns out, is because Max has murdered Gaia, either over some past hurt or because she has been supporting Batiatus' house - it's not entirely clear which.

The net result of all this is that Pater discovers everything and somehow blames Xena, who is determined to gain vengeance (oh please, let her put on a metal brestplate and brunette wig and do Max in with that boomerang spinning disc thing she uses in Xena: Warrior Princess). You can't help feeling genuinely sorry for her, since whatever else she's done, her friend has just been horribly murdered in her house. Pater explains he let Batiatus marry her because he thought it would keep him happy, but that lack of an heir (among other things) means she must be got rid of. This is completely reaosnable for a Roman, as fertility problems were thought to be entirely down to the woman and it was normal to divorce a woman if she couldn't have a son, though not everyone did so - there are examples of couples staying together without children, Augustus and Livia being the most famous.

The death of Gaia is surprisingly tragic given she was such a over-the-top character, but Xena really loved her, and Batiatus' reaction to his father's suggestion shows how much he really loves Xena as well. This prequel series is really doing well at making you feel for Batiatus and Xena and sympathise with them - not enough to excuse their awful behaviour but enough to make you feel some sympathy for them. They really have turned their house into a brothel now, though, which does make some sense - selling the sexual services of gladiators was certainly something that went on - but is a bit OTT. Still, this was an intriguing episode that moved the plot along nicely - and we could hardly go through a whole series of Spartacus without an orgy, could we?!

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Mash: April Fools

I've only seen odd episodes here and there of M*A*S*H, though it's so famous I'm fairly familiar with it - most of my knowledge at this point comes from the Internet and CurrentHousemate, who's a big fan and has the whole series on DVD.

Klinger was one of the characters I felt most familiar with because Mum used to mention him when we watched Blackadder Goes Forth (in which, in an attempt to get sent home for being mad, Blackadder puts his underpants on his head, sticks two pencils up his nostrils and says 'Wibble'). Watching the series with fresh eyes now, I do wonder exactly how wearing a dress makes one mad and feel slightly uncomfortable about the un-PCness of the whole thing, but still, it always used to make me laugh as a child, and Klinger's collection of outfits certainly is entertaining.

In the episode in question, Klinger goes further than merely wearing a dress, and actually dresses up as Cleopatra, wandering around saying things like 'All hail mighty Caesar!' at random. This costume, being much more exotic than just a dress and combined with apparent actual delusions as he not only wears the costume, but takes on the character of Cleopatra, is much more exotic than usual. There a couple of reasons for this, both within the story and from a writing point of view.

The within-story reason is that this is more than the usual vague attempt at looking silly. A new Colonel has arrived who is supposedly very tough, so Klinger has been behaving like the perfect soldier since he got there - then, suddenly, out comes the Cleopatra costume and Klinger starts raving about Caesar, all in the hope of persuading the Colonel that he's only just cracked, because the pressure has got to him. For this plan to work, the costume needed to be more exotic and exggerated than usual, to emphasise the sudden and severe mental breakdown he was pretending to have undergone (little knowing the new Colonel was actually a friend of Colonel Potter's and knew exactly what to expect).

The external reason was that, by this point in the show (in season 8) the old standby of putting Klinger in a dress had grown old. Radar had left and Klinger had taken over as clerk, and was dressing much more normally, albeit with earrings some of the time, because the sight of him in any old dress was just no longer funny. To keep the old joke alive, it needed to be used less often and more dramatically, hence the need for a much more exotic outfit, and some actual crazy acting, in addition to the costume.

So, a really exotic outfit complete with character was required, and if you want 'exotic' and female, what better than Cleopatra?! Anything overtly sexual wouldn't work for M*A*S*H, but Cleopatra has so many associations in the popular imagination that the costume alone calls to mind all sorts of things. Most importantly, she is now generally thought of (perhaps erroneously) as the most beautiful woman in the world, possibly throughout history, a Helen of Troy who has the advantage of also having been a real person. All of this makes the sight of Klinger in her costume especially funny and especially outrageous. As funny as the references to Caesar are, her Classical identity isn't really of much importance here - the fact that she was once played by Elizabeth Taylor and, in the West, represents the last word in exotic female sexuality is more to the point.

I hate practical jokes in real life and I'm not a great fan of them on TV either, so this is never going to be my favourite episode of M*A*S*H (the honourable exception to this is Red Dwarf's 'Queeg' - 'jape of the decade, April, May, June, July and August fool!'). I liked it more than I thought I would though, partly because Hawkeye, BJ and Margaret get a little bit of a comeuppance for their behaviour, but mostly because this is one of the better examples of Klinger's attempts to get himself sectioned. The sheer ludicrousness of the Cleopatra costume combined with the mad-sounding dialogue in which he seems to believe he is Cleopatra removes my PC quibbles with the whole concept and allows me to sit back and enjoy the hilarity that, inevitably, ensues and Jamie Farr's performance is excellent and rib-tickling as ever. And let's face it, a hairy man dressed as Cleopatra is just always going to be funny.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Hunger Games Trilogy (by Suzanne Collins)

I have a new article up at Sound on Sight, on Actor Allusions in films (casting gags, mainly). And now, on to The Hunger Games...

I was loaned these books by Old Housemate(theRomeone) who is forever trying to get me to read really good books and I am always resisting, as I often find it hard to find the time to read fiction. She has excellent taste, though, so I persisted with these even though I was unimpressed by the first few pages – thrown into a really depressing fantasy (actually it’s science fiction, but it often feels like fantasy) universe where the narrator seemed to be telling me stuff rather than showing me, in the often-pretentious present tense (more on that below) and which sorely needed to find the funny. The books never did quite find the funny, though a few attempts were made later on, but as soon as the main plot kicked in somewhere within the first fifty or so pages, I was hooked. (Cleolinda found some vaguely funny bits, and if you need a reminder of the plot, Mark Reads… can lighten up some of the grimness as well as providing a handy summary). If you enjoy SFF books at all, go away immediately and read all three books, because they are very, very good and seriously compulsive (I have not been this obsessed with staying up late to read a book in a good while). And because there are lots of major spoilers – and I mean MAJOR, I’m about to spoil the climax of the entire trilogy – in this write-up.

All done? Good. Did you enjoy them?

I loved these books, especially the first two. I could predict almost every major plot development over both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but that’s a good thing, because the structure of the Hunger Games is such that there are only a limited number of ways it can end, and I thought Collins went for absolutely the best conclusion in both cases (i.e. she concluded them the way I would have done). I was really disappointed about two thirds of the way into The Hunger Games, when it looked like Peeta and Katniss were just going to be allowed to win together, and immensely relieved when the rules were changed again and we got the face-off that the set-up practically promised us. I was surprised and disappointed that we didn’t see more of the Victory Tour in Catching Fire, as I’d been looking forward to seeing more of all the Districts, but going back into the arena was another of my predictions, and I’ve had a fondness for the scenario where one of our heroes gets captured ever since I first read the words ‘Frodo was alive, but taken by the Enemy’ at the very end of The Two Towers.

Mockingjay was much harder to predict and for me, without the structure of the Games, it was a little less successful. It was a bit more wandering in its plot and I was denied the climactic scenes I was anticipating – Peeta was rescued without Katniss even being present, which was a big disappointment, and while the climax of both the previous two books was directly related to Peeta and Katniss’ relationship, the finale of the third was thematically broader, which for me, ruined the expected dramatic climax of their romance (which was left to be finished off in the last paragraph of the last page – not nearly enough space for a relationship that’s driven much of the plot of all three novels). I’m really not sure how I feel about killing off Prim either. Since the entire plot was started by Katniss’ determination to save her, her death at the end gave the finale a sense of crushing futility and instead of finishing the book with the sort of warm smile you get from a successful action/romance (like the first two), you finish the third feeling like Marvin the Paranoid Android, wondering what the point of Life is. This may appeal to some readers, of course, but I’m soppier than that (I wouldn’t have given Mockingjay such a high death count either – Finnick, at least, I expected to survive, and Cinna, one of my favourite characters, was this series’ Uncle Gaius – I kept expecting him to turn up again and he never did).

I think my favourite thing about these books was that it was the nice guy who was clearly destined to end up with the heroine (it’s presented as a love triangle, but really, it was never going to be Gale). Weirdly for someone who’s quite into vampire novels at the moment, and with the notable exceptions of certain blond vampires, I actually like nice guys and don’t find brooding, sulkiness, ‘darkness’ or the threat of domestic violence remotely appealing in a love interest. I’m also related to artists and enjoy art myself, so while cake-decorating may seem kind of a lame special skill, I liked it, and it reminded me of the beautiful use of shop-window decoration in Pleasantville, one of my favourite films.

The whole set-up is basically Big Brother meets a Roman gladiatorial arena. The Games lean more towards the Big Brother side of things, as so much of how they play out is determined by editing and the distance of the television viewer from what’s happening in front of them. Roman viewers, much closer to the violence occurring before them, could decide whether someone who was down should live or die, whereas breaking the rules of television shows, although it happens and the conclusion to Book One is based on that, is rarer. It is also worth noting that not too many societies force children to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of adults. The sacrifice of children is something you see in myth (being fed to the Minotaur, for example) and in modern speculative fiction (Torchwood’s Children of Earth, which I hated with a fiery passion) but is extremely rare in real life, for obvious reasons (child soldiers are very real but are another thing all together). Still, this is SF, so it works very well on a metaphorical level.

Jennifer Lawrence, who has been cast as Katniss in the movie version. Some people have complained because she's blond. Personally, I'm a great believer in the efficacy of hair dye, though her skin being too pale might be more of a problem.

The names in these books are all over the place, from the fairly normal (Primrose, Madge) to the weirdly spelled (Peeta) to the somewhat odd (Finnick, Haymitch) to the deliberately strange (Glimmer, specifically called attention to as a weird name). Some have suggested Peeta is a joke, as in pitta bread, because he's a baker's son - maybe it's because of my British accent, maybe it's the Classical allusion, maybe both, but I read it as a weirdly spelled form of 'Peter', the rock. The majority of characters from the Capitol (named after both the Roman and American institutions, presumably) have Roman names. For the most part, their precise names – Octavia, Venia, Flavius and so on - seem to have little significance beyond the fact that they’re Roman. Even Cato seems to have little in common with his namesake, while Brutus is not named for the Roman connotations of king-killing (appropriate as that might be) but for the modern connotations of brute force and strength.

Some, however, are more significant. The best known Roman Cinna fought with the populist Marius against the dictator Sulla. Titus, the tribute who goes mad, is probably named for Shakespeare’s particularly violent Roman-set play, Titus Andronicus. Castor and Pollux are twins, as in Greek myth but given their Roman names, and Dr Aurelius, the psychiatrist, is probably named after Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor and author of the Stoic-influenced Meditations.

When I first heard the name ‘Plutarch’ and thought he was a bad guy, I was stupidly disappointed, because Plutarch is one of my favourite ancient authors. I was equally absurdly pleased when he almost immediately turned out to be a (relatively) good guy after all (and Katniss is really stupid for not cottoning on to the significance of the mockingjay). Having said that, Plutarch doesn't really have much in common with his namesake, though it is he that quotes Juvenal’s famous pronouncement (in a satire) that all the people need to keep them happy are bread and circuses, panem et circenses. I don’t know whether Collins had come up with this when she named her future America Panem, or if it’s a happy coincidence (I initially thought Panem was just intended to evoke all-encompassing land and sound a bit like PanAm) but she uses it very well.

The one Roman name that is definitely significant is that of President Snow, known only by his surname for much of the trilogy. Mockingjay reveals his first name to be Coriolanus, a legendary figure from Roman history made famous by Plutarch and by Shakespeare’s play. Coriolanus mistreated the poor and betrayed his people, but stopped just short of actually marching on Rome – thoroughly appropriate for Snow, who mistreats the poor of the Districts and uses people horribly, but stops just short of destroying Panem entirely by avoiding a nuclear war.

The book is written in the present tense, as I mentioned above, but where in some cases this can seem pretentious, here, Collins actually makes the vivid present work. This technique was frequently used by ancient epic poets to make their action sequences especially exciting and really put their readers or listeners in the moment. This trilogy is the first time I’ve seen this technique work in a modern novel. Collins includes a number of flashbacks and explanations that are written in the past tense, so the reader does not become totally weary of the present, and this ensures that the action in the present tense scenes (the majority of the books) really does feel more vivid. This is combined with a very clever use of first person narration that allows the reader to understand things the protagonist is too preoccupied, dense or both to notice while allowing them to experience the various fights, escapes and so on with her. (With this in mind, it was perhaps not wise to have several of the major events of Mockingjay occur while the heroine is unconscious...)

I’m doing a lot of work on cultural memory at the moment and I was interested to see that Collins brought up the issue of preserved arenas both at the beginning and the end of the trilogy. Before entering the arena, Katniss remarks that old arenas are tourist attractions where families visit and adds ‘They say the food is excellent’. This was extremely poignant and had the desired effect of making me feel a bit guilty about wandering about Roman arenas in a very good mood, picturing scenes from Gladiator. There is a cross in the Colosseum which is a memorial to the Christians executed there, and as I mentioned in my post on Tunisia, El Jem is apparently a more emotionally affecting experience if you visit on a quiet day, but generally speaking those of us who visit these places have to remind ourselves to consider just how many people died in them. And the food is very good. However, Collins lost me a bit in the epilogue to Mockingjay, when she says that the arenas have been destroyed and replaced by memorials. For the last hundred years, we have remembered, not by pulling things down and replacing them with a monument, but by preserving them. A trip to a concentration camp is enough to almost silence a bus-full of noisy, rowdy sixteen year olds who have discovered that they can buy beer in the Czech Republic, and while preserving every inch of the Western Front would disrupt travel across France, a section at Vimy Ridge has been deliberately maintained so that tourists can experience just how close the opposing armies were. We put up memorials where we cannot preserve the real thing, and we use them particularly in the hometowns of soldiers who died in foreign countries, but where we can preserve the horrors of the past, we do, because the strongest and most evocative way to remember is to go there (the experience of standing in a gas chamber is unforgettable). Preserving, rather than destroying, the evidence of horror is how we remember it.

I actually have photos of various friends pretending to be lions in the cells under the amphitheatre or pretending to be horses in the Circus Maximus, but I didn't think any of them would thank me for publishing those on the Internet, so instead, here's me grinning like a loon in the Place of Horrible Death and Destruction while all the surrounding tourists do the exact same thing.

Although I said that Mockingjay was harder to predict than the others, if you’ve ever read Animal Farm (or, like me, read the last page or two and thought ‘OK, that’s what that’s about’) you’ll have an inkling where the story is going. Several of the themes of the trilogy, including the perils of living in a dictatorship, the brutality of a regime putting down a rebellion and the ability of human beings to be entertained by the suffering of others, are particularly pertinent to ancient Rome as well as to the modern world, which makes the use of Roman motifs especially appropriate, even if the plot weren’t based around the Roman concept of the gladiatorial arena. If only the ending had just a little bit more soppy romance (guess I am a sucker for a romance after all) and a bit less of a feeling of the soul-destroying inevitability of Fate, it would be perfect…

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Spartacus Gods of the Arena: Paterfamilias

This episode, like the previous one, continues to take the horrible things inflicted on various slave characters seriously, which is good, but rather depressing. We also get a couple of fights in the arena, but even these are a bit low on mad gushing fountains of blood and actually not quite as powerful as DSG's melodramatic rain-battle in the previous episode - I get the sense the show is saving itself up for the finale...

Batiatus gives his troops - sorry, gladiators - an inspiring speech and declares DSG to be Doctore, and appears to give Gannicus some kind of promotion. Everyone is inspired.

The abbreviated English is all over the place now, which is kind of cool - though it is reaching the point where I expect people to start talking about how 'I shall stick sword of mine into the belly of my opponent and then drink wine of Batiatus' or even 'blood of the having-been-stabbed gladiator pours by/before a group of males which may or may not include some women', just to make it sound really like Latin.

Batiatus is in a good mood, which given he's having a threesome with two beautiful women, has bested his business enemies and has a magically swift-healing face (the bruises are gone, there's just one scratch left) is not really surprising. The mood is slightly dented by the arrival of his father, who does not appear to be remotely amused (perhaps he's wondering why he, an Antipodean, has managed to produce a Scottish son).

Batiatus' father is very cross, and Xena flies into a panic, hoping that a fancy dinner will somehow placate him (and correctly pointing out the power of the paterfamilias over them all). Meanwhile, the Silly Beard Men, having received the Mark, experience the joy of initiation rituals and overreact, while Crixus appears to be auditioning for an Easter film, running around with an enormous plank of wood on his shoulders. He still hasn't cut his hair and beard, which increases the sense that he's about to be crucified - presumably he's going to have an Important Haircut when he dispatches Gannicus in the last episode. All the gladiators, and Wife as well, seem to like Pater very much, possibly because he wasn't in the habit of making them rape each other or fight to the death on a rich person's whim.

Pater throws his support behind DSG when Barca starts kicking off, so Barca and his worse half turn their attention to sexually harrassing Crixus, which displeases the Silly Beard Men. Pater meets up with Max from Neighbours and Not!Octavian who as good as accuse Batiatus of the whole Not!Octavian-beating-nicking-Varus'-business plot from last episode. Pater happily goes along with them and doesn't seem to have enquired what exactly happened to Batiatus' face that prompted all this, which introduces me to the novel experience of feeling sorry for Batiatus.

Gannicus gives Crixus a pep talk and gives him a tip on how to best Barca and/or his worse half (that'll come in handy later). Gaia starts reminiscing about Gannicus' sexual prowess and Xena shows an unusual degree of humanity by suggesting that they possibly shouldn't discuss Wife's emotionally traumatic rape in front of her. At this very moment, Varus turns up with a friend wanting to use the household as a brothel-come-live-pornography-factory and threatens to take his business elsewhere if they don't oblige so Xena, trying to avoid putting Gannicus and Wife through that again, offers a gladiator and a virgin (both the offered virgins actually look reasonably happy about it at this point - either they fancy every gladiator in the ludus or they're confident the rich pervert will pick someone good. Later developments suggest the latter). Clearly whatever happens in the rest of this series is so traumatic that it hardens Xena and Batiatus into the virtual pimp and madam they've become by the main series, as she genuinely looks uncomfortable with this arrangement.

Earring is cross with Batiatus for plotting without him and Pater has made a deal with Max and Not!Octavian which involves Gannicus not appearing in the Games, off with a fake injury, and others being paired against each other - Barca against someone random, and Crixus against Barca's worse half (given the absence of said worse half from the main series, we can guess how that will end).

Crixus. I think this might be his Determined Look (not to be confused with Constipated, though the two may be quite similar).

Varus' hideously creepy friend (who has no virgin slaves in his house, and it's not hard to guess why not) examines Naevia and Doomed Slave, who is obviously going to be chosen because Naevia was still a virgin at the beginning of the main series - though given the way she's sexually assaulted here before he chooses, she hardly gets off scot-free. He then gives directions to the pair of them in a dark and creepy room while explaining why he picked the grossest gladiator in the ludus to the weeping girl. I can only assume he's going to die really horribly at some point because he's one step down from Satan on a sliding scale of evil.

The Silly Beard Men have eaten Barca's worse half's pigeons, which results in a brawl in the canteen (sadly lacking in sloppy food to throw around in a food fight). Crixus refuses to join in because he doesn't yet wear the Mark (or, maybe, because he's the only sane one there and has no desire to join in an extra beating). Pater and Batiatus interrupt to give them their instructions for the Games, which the gladiators then choose to discuss while wandering around naked, treating us to excellent views of Barca's backside and Crixus' manhood. Clearly we'd seen too many breasts and not enough of the last chicken in the shop so far this episode. Gannicus continues the Wise Mentor advice, possibly hoping to die nobly fighting a monster on the cliff edge or something equally apporpriate to a Mentor character.

Xena is not happy about all the pimping being in vain and starts pouring Pater wine - I'd be careful about drinking that if I was him. He declares that the fight between Crixus and Barca's worse half will be a test of which of him and Batiatus is a better lanista. And with that, we finally get to the Games themselves, where Crixus gets one last pep talk from Batiatus - the man must be running entirely on the power of inspirational speeches, since we've seen much more of that than of actual combat training (which mostly consisted of verbal and sexual abuse from Barca).

The first fight begins and Barca nearly gets the audience, then throws his opponent right at them before Varus grants life - which leads to boos, thus ensuring the death of Barca's worse half, while Pater keels over in a fit of coughing (bet it was that wine). Max and Varus insist that he address the crowd while standing right on the edge of a high platform and I half expect them to push him off. The crowd boos Crixus (who is wearing fabulous Mercury-wings on his helmet) and cheers Barca's worse half, though they can't be that excited, as no one has got their tits out yet. Barca's worse half's helmet has horns on it that make him resemble the Highland cow from Neverwhere.

Crixus bleeds early, which is Rule of Television No, 702: In any fight, the eventual winner must bleed first so that it looks like he's in trouble, to make sure the rest of the fight is sufficiently tense. We go into slow motion as Barca's worse half nearly gets him, and Crixus gets that final burst of energy always seen in these things, jumps up, follows Gannicus' advice by making sure his opponent loses the spear and does for his opponent in one stab wound, without even needing audience approval. Said opponent's last words are 'Barca has taught you well', which is sort of sweet. Crixus does that champion arms-in-the-air thing he did so often in the main series and back at the ludus, he gets the Mark at last. Gaia points out that Crixus might be quite attractive to Xena and Barca tells him he fought well, which is short for 'I'm pretty upset that you killed my partner, but I know you only did what you had to and you're clearly pretty handy with a sword, so let's be sort-of friends'.

Pater declares that all the excitement has persuaded him that he should stay put until he dies, which gets him a narrow-eyed Plotting Look from Batiatus. I'd recommend deadly nightshade Batiatus, I'm pretty sure that's one of the tasteless and quick poisons.

The introduction of Batiatus' father introduces an interesting new dynamic into this episode, but the really interesting parts are Xena's reactions to her increasingly seedy and abusive use of her slaves and gladiators. She looks uncomfortable and slightly ashamed, but remains determined to do what she has to to keep Varus' business, and her expression in response to Gaia's comments about Crixus is a nice bit of foreshadowing of their relationship (which, of course, she somehow convinced herself was mutually affectionate in the main series). We can see how she goes from a relatively normal person who only slept with her husband in the first episode of the prequel series to the madam and adulteress she has become by the main series clearly, hardening herself to the perversion she's facilitating while starting to see the attraction of gladiatorial sex for herself. (As a sign of her more innocent outlook, she also has much nicer and more natural-looking wigs in this prequel series). Whether Batiatus' transition from ambitious man to cutthroat pimp and murderer will be as well dealt with remains to be seen - there's something rather pantomime villain about that last look he gave his father that suggests his transformation may be rather less subtle.
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