Thursday, 29 September 2011

The West Wing: A Proportional Response

'A Proportional Response' is the third episode of The West Wing, and deals with Bartlet's approach to his role as Commander in Chief. Having spent the second episode ('Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc') worrying that he isn't suited to the military because he's never served in it and will be too soft, in the third he swings way off in the other direction because his personal doctor (who, naturally, has left a ten-day old baby behind, because it's just not tragic enough otherwise) has been killed in an attack. Suddenly (and perhaps understandably) Bartlet becomes vengeance itself and demands major attacks in retribution, to the point that he risks starting a war, Menelaus-like, over one person.

Leo has to take the President aside and talk him down, and they have a screaming row in his office, during which Bartlet makes the following statement:

BARTLET: Did you know that two thousand years ago a Roman citizen could walk across the face of the known world free of the fear of molestation? He could walk across the Earth unharmed, cloaked only in the protection of the words civis Romanus -- I am a Roman citizen. So great was the retribution of Rome, universally certain, should any harm befall even one of its citizens.

I'm not quite sure what Bartlet's thinking of here. Certainly Roman citizens had certain rights - St Paul famously appealed to be tried in Rome, and since he was a Roman citizen, this had to be allowed. Presumably if a politically important figure were to be harmed, the Imperial might would come down on whoever was thought to have done it, and actual rebellions were crushed pretty firmly. On a smaller level, if you were friendly with the local legion, presumably you could count on a certain level of protection from them, especially if you were a legionary's partner (they weren't allowed to get married, but that didn't stop them raising illegitimate families).

But I highly doubt that if you were a normal citizen and you were attacked by bandits on a road somewhere, you could protect yourself by claiming citizenship (you'd probably get an extra beating for it!). Much of the literature of the ancient world is about elite politics, or elite love affairs, or gods and goddesses, but when we do get glimpses of the rest of the world, it seems to be a pretty rough place. Apuleius' Golden Ass has several instances of people getting robbed, kidnapped, beaten and so on, and there's no implication that being a Roman citizen, as some of these characters definitely are, is of any help to them. The Jew who's mugged and beaten in the parable of the Good Samaritan (which, for some reason, my primary school thought we ought to hear every few weeks, all year round) probably wasn't supposed to be a Roman citizen, but there's no indication it would have helped him if he was.

Of course, the point Bartlet's making is that he wants to protect his own citizens by punishing anyone who hurts them. Leo has to point out to him that excessive and disproportionate retribution is, ultimately, unlikely to solve the problem. I'm not sure the Rome comparison works, though. Bartlet is motivated almost entirely by personal affection, for the late Morris, and by extension for all American citizens. But when Rome did come down hard on those who hurt Romans, it wasn't, usually, because they were feeling protective, it was because they were reasserting their power. Bartlet wants to assert his power too, of course, but he wants power because of what he can do with it, whereas Roman emperors tended to be more about power for power's sake. They were not a sentimental group of people. Augustus, for example, was proud of telling everyone how he had brought peace to the Roman world and about all the good things he'd done for the people, but he brought peace by killing everybody who didn't want him to completely destroy their democracy and take over, and brought about the deaths of any number of Roman citizens in the process.

Basically, the ancient Romans were cold-hearted b*****ds and if Leo had said to one of them, 'You better be prepared to kill everyone, and you better start with me, because I will raise up an army against you and I will beat you!' they would have replied 'Not bl***y likely mate!' and vicious civil war would have followed. This is why their attempt at democracy went so wrong.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Top Five Greek Gods

Actual, living, breathing, flesh and blood - or whatever it is gods are made of - Greek gods are really hard to do well. They are very, very easy to do badly.

Of course, all gods are hard to do well, but the Greek ones are, it seems, especially hard. Egyptian gods can look really scary, especially if they're running around with animal heads, all creepy and menacing, so for every unfortunate looking Scorpion King or unintentionally hilarious Hathor, there's a really cool monster or a Mr Ibis. Norse gods (comic book version or 'real' version) can be cheesy in the extreme, but they usually have a certain rugged charm going, plus it's hard to argue with someone wielding a giant hammer. Far Eastern gods don't make many appearances in Western popular culture, but when they do wander in they usually look pretty cool. Then there's made-up gods, who are best of all, as they can be manipulated to be whatever the writer/director wants.

The Greek gods, on the other hand, are lumbered with the most unfortunate set of recurring characteristics. They dress in old sheets, draped bizarrely unflatteringly across bare shoulders, they tend to be portrayed as aloof and not very emotional despite all mythological evidence to the contrary, and they are usually forced to hover, transparently, in cloud formations, watching their favourites do battle down below. Zeus tends to come off the worst, as the actor playing him usually feels bound to suggest awesome power in a vague and indefinable way which essentially translates to bland, robotic line readings directed towards a camera smeared in vaseline.

Here, then, I thought I'd celebrate the few, those happy few, who somehow manage to transcend cheesy blandness and make Greek gods into real characters that you might actually want to spend some time with.

Apollo (Michael Forest) in Star Trek, 'Who Mourns for Adonais?'
Cheesy costume? Check!
Ancient character? This Apollo definitely displays a few traits in common with the ancient Greek Apollo - he makes a point of referring to his lyre and to music in general and, perhaps more significantly, sexually assaults the Guest Female Crewmember of the Week, which is definitely typical of Apollo (and Zeus, and Hades, and Ares, and Pan...) His main characteristics, though, come not from Greek mythology, but from Star Trek's obsession with god-like aliens who toy with the crew and dress the female members of the landing party in ridiculous costumes before being defeated by Kirk's stalwart Americanness.
Why watch him? Partly because he's a surprisingly rounded character as godlike-space-aliens go, who almost elicits a little sympathy as he literally fades away at the end because no one needs him any more. But mostly because he catches the Enterprise with a giant green hand floating in space, and there's no circumstance under which that isn't cool.

Thetis (Julie Christie) in Troy
Cheesy costume? Thankfully not. Thetis' costume is relatively normal by Troy's standards, and is in that gorgeous blue they used for so many of the costumes in the film.
Ancient character? Pretty much. Most of her scenes from the Iliad have been cut along with all the other gods, but her most important role, that of telling her son that he can either die young and famous or old and obscure, remains.
Why watch her? I love Thetis' appearance in Troy. All the other gods have been cut and wisely so, because this is a war story and I think, for modern audiences and certainly for me, that works better if the gods are relegated to metaphors or removed all together. But Thetis is Achilles' mother, and their scenes together are both powerful and important to the story. Rather than depict her as straightforwardly human, the film implies that there is something other-wordly about her knowledge, and the fact she is a sea goddess is indicated by her spending her entire appearance paddling. However, she does nothing overtly supernatural and could just as easily be read as Achilles' human mother, with a bit of a pessimistic streak. This half and half solution didn't work for everybody, but I loved it. Plus, any excuse to have Julie Christie in your film is a good thing.

Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) in Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief
Cheesy costume? Not at first, as he wanders around looking grumpy in civvies. Even when he gets the god-gear out, it's actually not that bad - the costume designers on Percy Jackson leaned more towards pseudo-military outfits than bedsheets, and it works.
Ancient character? Well, he's bad-tempered enough to be Poseidon, and he does not take insults to his children lightly. He's got that slightly sulky look of the brother constantly stuck between the other two, which is how modern depictions of Poseidon tend to go, because ramping up the tension between Zeus and Hades means Poseidon is left as something of a third wheel - in ancient myth, Poseidon and Hades are probably a bit more evenly balanced, but it's not far off.
Why watch him? Because no one can do grumpy and belligerent like Keven McKidd, aka Lucius Vorenus, aka Boring Soldier (see also: The Last Legion). His scene with Percy at the end has all the hideous awkwardness of Boring's unsuccessful attempts to connect with his children in season 2 of Rome, except with extra added superpowers.

Hades (James Woods) in Hercules
Cheesy costume? Fairly cheesy, but the skull ornamentation and fiery hair lift it.
Ancient character? No. Hades gets mutated into a pantomime villain in most modern productions for two main reasons, 1: Because the underworld tends to get anachronistically associated with Christian conceptions of hell, and Hades with Satan and 2: Because the films need a villain and the god of the underworld is a pretty good fit. I like the idea that he resents getting stuck with the underworld though - I would!
Why watch him? Because he's hilarious. And creepy. And so much more fun to watch than most of the other gods, you're almost rooting for him to win.

Zeus in Fantasia
Cheesy costume? Oh yes.
Ancient character? Yes. Unlike most film and TV Zeuses, this Zeus does not spend all his time moping about Olympus looking slightly constipated. Oh no, this Zeus has fun. He throws thunderbolts around like toys, he persecutes a figure who is either Dionysus or, perhaps more likely, Silenus, for no particular reason, and he eventually gets bored and has a nap. This seems to me to be much more like the mythological Zeus, who throws his weight around, makes everyone else's lives more difficult, and does whatever he wants whenever he wants, than the more staid versions who seem weighed down by the effort of ruling the Earth.
Why watch him? He's got such fantastic joie de vivre, you can't help but feel entertained and brightened up. Just look at that face.

Honourable mention for Maggie Smith as Thetis in Clash of the Titans, because she's Maggie Smith, and somehow she makes the ridiculously cheesy costume and Disneyland-like Olympus setting work.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts

Xena does the Trojan War, and does it really rather well - I wish this had been a two-parter rather than a single episode, because there's some good stuff here, and it seems a shame to whizz over a ten-year war in 45 minutes. There are some mildly gross images with skeletons, torture wheels, skulls and giagantic - OK, not Shelob gigantic but, you know, big - spiders towards the beginning of the episode, which is a good indication that this will be one of those stories that is slightly more serious in tone. There's a great shot later on of the horse with a skeleton in the foreground as well. This episode's director was obviously inspired by the material.

I love the casting of Helen. Casting the most beautiful woman in the world is totally impossible because no two people are likely to agree on who that woman is, since everyone has different tastes and preferences. However, faced with this dilemma, too often casting directors, with boring predictability, go for someone skinny, blonde, blue-eyed and pale, on the grounds that these things are, by definition, 'beautiful.' Galyn Gorg is skinny as usual, but she's dark-haired, brown-eyed and black which makes a very pleasant change.

Paris is a total prat, as always. He orders Helen to sleep and not to have nightmares because not sleeping properly will reduce her beauty and that's what he's fighting for. Charming. Sure, if we're following the traditional myth of the Judgment of Paris, we all know he's only interested in her looks, but actually saying so to her face is needlessly tactless. And unlikely to help with the nightmares. Every retelling of the story of the Trojan War includes numerous alterations, different emphases, different angles... but however his prattishness manifests itself, Paris is always a prat.

Xena and Helen have a great conversation in which Xena asks what Helen wants to do and Helen says no one's ever asked her that before. I've always felt rather sorry for Helen, who mostly gets thrown around between men like a piece of especially appealing cheese and Xena, appropriately for a show with two female leads, puts Helen front and centre of the story. Helen's weariness with Paris and with the war as a whole goes back to the Iliad, but is given more weight here, and Gorg plays it beautifully.

I also love the re-writing of the whole Trojan Horse incident as the result of Deiphobus' treachery. I've written before about how difficult it is to do this both literally and plausibly, and this more or less manages it, since the Trojans are reassured by a trusted warrior that all is well. The mythological Deiphobus is usually a loyal son of Priam who marries Helen after Paris dies, and is killed when the Greeks break in, in some versions possibly by Helen herself. Xena picks up on this by having Deiphobus murder Paris, abduct Helen and snarl 'what does every man want from Helen of Troy?' at her. Basically, the show manages to find a reasonably family-friendly way of actually foregrounding the undercurrent of the rape and subjugation of women, who are valued only for their beauty, that underpins the whole Trojan War myth.

Gabrielle's subplot with her former fiancee is a bit weaker, mainly because her protests along the lines of 'you're not a warrior!' seem spectacularly hypocritical. Also, he's a bit slow on the uptake ('Deiphobus has taken Helen!' 'Why?') Their relationship is quite sweet though.

The feminist agenda gets a wee bit anvilicious in Xena and Helen's final conversation ('You showed me the only person that can make me happy is me' - yes, we got it, thanks) but overall this is a really good re-telling of the Trojan war story that emphasises aspects of the myth that sometimes get swept aside in versions that focus on the battles and warriors - and the Greeks, for that matter, who barely appear. I was starting to worry about the director's obsession with skeletons and skulls by the end, but otherwise, excellent work, 9/10.


Xena: Beware Greeks bearing gifts, Paris (I just love that she actually got to say it!)

Disclaimer: No Polynesian-style Bamboo Horses were harmed during the production of this motion picture. However, many wicker lawn chairs gave their lives.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Agora (dir. Alejandro Amenabar, 2009)

I've been meaning to watch Agora for ages, and finally got around to it this week. It's a very good film, beautifully made and starring one of my favourite actresses, Rachel Weisz.

Older films like Quo Vadis? and Spartacus implied a narrative of the end of the ancient world in which the evil Roman Empire, with all its slavery, blood sport and mad emperors, was brought down by virtuous Christians. This film presents an opposite narrative, in which the wonderful, learned, science-loving ancient world was destroyed by religious and particularly Christian fundamentalism (though the pagans don't come across much better).

My main problem with all these films is that I don't subscribe to either notion. The fall of the Roman Empire and decline of the ancient world were the result of any number of factors, of which Christians were just one (they particularly didn't like bathhouses, theatres or amphitheatres and they converted a lot of the temples to churches). The Eastern Empire, which became the Byzantine Empire, was Christian from AD 312 just like the Western one and lasted until AD 1453.

I also think the broad association of ancient philosophy with modern science, alluded to through the dialogue's  emphasis on inquiry, is a bit problematic. Ancient philosophers certainly discovered some amazing stuff - atoms and so on - but they had no modern scientific method and they made some serious errors thanks to a lack of inquiry (Aristotle, for example, in On Dreams part 2, insisted that when a woman on her period looks into a mirror, it turns blood-coloured. At no point did he bother to ask Mrs Aristotle, or any other woman, whether this was actually true. It's not, guys).

The Library is presented here in the film as the famous Library of Alexandria, where people also worship the god Serapis (sometimes known as Sarapis). Historically speaking, it was the other way around. The Serapeum, a famous and grand temple to Serapis, also housed an annexe of the library, and it was this annexe that was destroyed along with the temple in AD 391 or 392 by Christians, ordered by the local bishop. Exactly when and how the main library was destroyed has been the source of much debate (if you have access to JSTOR, there is an excellent article on this by Robert Bagnall, 'Alexandria: Library of Dreams' in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 146). The main library was probably destroyed during a war in AD 273 under Aurelian, though there may also have been damage done to it during violent periods under Julius Caesar and Caracalla earlier, and Diocletian later. The Christians must have destroyed a significant section when they destroyed the Serapeum, but most of the Library was lost because of more general war and violence.

The film constantly draws parallels between Hypatia's story and the infamous treatment of Galileo Galilei by the Pope in the seventeenth century. The opening, with the shot of the planet Earth from space, followed by numerous images of the surface from the sky or from space, Hypatia's insistence that the stars revolve but will not fall, and the emphasis on astronomy throughout, all call Galileo to mind. At a crucial point of the story, Aristarchus' heliocentric model of the solar system is discussed, and the Christian Davus objects to the idea that the earth moves, while later Hypatia continues to inviestigate the heliocentric model while Davus is asked whether he thinks the Earth is flat by his Christian friends. The constant allusions to Galileo encourage the audience to project events of the film forward, onto Galileo, and from him to more recent controversies concerning modern Christian fundamentalists and Darwin's theory of evolution.

My favourite thing about this film is that is celebrates the achievements of a famous, learned, pagan woman, and those are pretty few and far between. It's possible that there were lots of learned pagan women and we haven't heard of most of them because, since they weren't murdered by mobs, they were of no interest to male writers - it would be nice to think so! But as it is, the number of pagan women whose intellectual lives we know anything about from the ancient world is depressingly small (it includes mostly poets, like Sappho and Sulpicia). We know a little more about some Christian women because Christian writers wrote lives of saints, male and female, and sometimes mentioned women's learning in that context, and we have Perpetua's account from prison before she was condemened to be killed by wild animals in the arena in the early third century, but we don't have all that much from them either. So it's really nice to see a film about one of the few women who has been celebrated as a teacher (Synesius, her pupil who became a bishop, is an historical character).

The film also depicts a Christian preaching the instruction that women should not teach, from the first letter of St Paul to Timothy (1 Timothy 2.12). This letter was accepted into the New Testament somewhere in its formation but we now think it was written by someone other than Paul himself, and it's one of the documents used to argue against women having any position in Christian churches. Orestes' refusal to kneel and exit from the church at that point is rather satisfying.

Surprisingly, the film takes what seemed to me a softer approach when it comes to the true horror of Hypatia's death. Rather than being flayed and stoned by the mob, Davus smothers her, so only her dead body is attacked. It's a powerful and affecting end to Davus' story, and to hers, but it does rather diminish the full horror of what was really done to her. The film also depicts her death as more of a calculated attack by a particular group than the sources, which attribute it to a more generalised mob mentality - both horrific, but I think there is a difference between a conspiracy against one person and an attack by a frenzied mob, and it's interesting that the film goes for the former.

This is a very good film, though I'm afraid Hypatia did annoy me at times - her giving the blood-stained handkerchief to Orestes is just gross and mean and I find the idea that she totally worked out how the solar system is organised right before she died a teensy bit implausible. And the wailing woman on the soundtrack is getting a bit old now. But the film looks absolutely gorgeous, Weisz is very good, and the growing sense of menace, violence and unrest in the city is convincingly and chillingly portrayed.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Quo Vadis? (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1951)

I enjoyed Quo Vadis? more than I expected to. Being a 1950s blockbuster based on a nineteenth century novel, it shares with later films like Spartacus a view of Rome as a hotbed of sin and Christianity as the solution. However, since unlike Spartacus it is not only set during a period when there actually were Christians, but during one of the biggest persecutions of Christians, this is a little bit less annoying than when it gets shoved into stories set seventy years before the birth of Jesus.

I was rather unconvinced by the central romance, though I like Lygia, especially for her 'I like what I see, but not what I hear' speech. Marcus Vinicius is a slimeball, which I suppose is the point, since the idea is that he is redeemed by his relationship with Lygia, but still, what on earth does she see in him? The minute he agrees not to rape her after all, she's engaged to him. Urgh. He improves a bit when he runs into a burning city to rescue her, but by then the whole relationship makes so little sense I've stopped caring very much. Both of them are fictitious, though Vinicius is symbolically named, as one of the historical Marcus Viniciuses was involved in the assassination of Caligula.

We don't know much about whether St Peter went to Rome or what he did there. The Catholic Encyclopedia is rather overethusiastic on the subject (none of this is 'indisputably established historical fact' by any stretch of the imagination) but in amongst the rhetoric it does have a handy list of the relevant sources. The tradition of the vision of Christ on his way to Rome and Peter asking 'Where are you going?' and the answer 'to be crucified a second time' and of Peter being crucified upside down because he complained he wasn't worthy to die in the same way as Jesus come from the apocryphal Acts of Peter, texts not accepted as genuine by the Catholic Church.

Throughout the film, Nero refers to himself as a god and has everyone address him as 'divinity'. This is very unlikely to be historically accurate. Caligula may have thought himself a god, but while Nero associated himself with Apollo the same way Augustus had, and probably expected to be deified after death like Augustus and Claudius, it's very unlikely that he set himself up as a god during his lifetime. However, this appropriation of one of Caligula's characteristics to Nero produces an effective parallel for the film. Throughout the film, parallels are emphasised between the use of the word 'lord' (Latin dominus) for their master by slaves, for Nero by everyone and for Jesus by Christians. As the story goes on, Nero asks Tigellinus 'Do you love me?' and he replies 'You know it, Lord,' clearly paralleling Jesus' post-resurrection conversation with Peter in the Gospel of John. This emphasises the good guys/bad guys relationship the audience is encouraged to see between the Christians and Nero and his court.

Nero is also depicted as mad - Peter describes him as 'sick' rather than 'a beast'. The real Nero was probably, like the real Commodus, more cruel and vicious than actually mad. The first few years of his reign, under Seneca's influence, seem to have gone quite well. However, dramatically, his characterisation here, and Peter Ustinov's performance, are wonderful. The sheer scale of Nero's vanity and the twisted logic he follows, along with a healthy dose of pop-culture-Roman decadence, are great fun to watch.

I love the characterisation of Petronius here. The real Petronius Arbiter remained in favour throughout the fire and the persecution of the Christians and was forced to suicide because he was friends with someone who conspired against Nero, but that bit of artistic licence aside, this Petronius fits the probable author of the comic novel the Satyricon rather well. The staged event at which he kills himself and the final piece of writing, here presented as a letter, outlining all Nero's faults, are historical. We don't have the document, but I love the idea that he complains of being bored to death - that sounds like something the author of the Satyricon would say.

Poppaea here fulfils the role of Evil Woman, since Nero's mother Agrippina is already dead by the start of the film. We don't know much about the historical Poppaea, other than that Nero kicked her to death while she was pregnant, so I've always felt rather sorry for her. But here, the story needs a villain, since Nero is definitely not playing with a full deck and Tigellinus is really only a lackey, so Poppaea has to be the schemer, the thinking bad guy. Nero here kills her because he blames her for the general diasaster he's facing, which credits him with rather more of a motive for this than the sources provide. We know even less about Nero's mistress Acte, except that she buried him, together with his nurses, which implies that, as here, she felt a genuine affection for him.

For the most part, and aside from deliberate instances of artistic licence, the depiction of the ancient world is fairly accurate. There are some exceptions though. For example, Vinicius refers to his soldiers wanting to go home to their wives, but in the Roman army, only the officers were allowed to get married and raise legitimate families (Rome's Lucius Vorenus specifically mentions that he got a special dispensation in the first episode). Once the emperors were firmly installed, the army tended to posted to the same place for decades or even centuries, and the soldiers simply formed unofficial relationships with native women wherever they were posted.

The depiction of Christinity, unsurprisingly, is more reflective of Western twentieth century Christianity than of what little we know of first century Christianity. For example, this is a bit early for Christians to be giving up keeping slaves. Christians were never against slavery, though in the fourth century some Christian ascetics freed all their slaves and lived together with them in proto-monasteries. But this is too early for that, and the Christian philosophy in general seems a bit too developed for a time when Jesus was still within living memory - for example, Lygia prays to be forgiven for anger, but I suspect this aspect of Christian teaching is a later result of interaction with Stoic philosophy (Jesus Himself gets pretty cross in the Gospels). They've also got an impressive repertoire of Victorian-sounding hymns for a secretive cult that's only been in existence for thirty-odd years, and I'm not sure Peter and Paul really worked together - it's not my area, but I understand they preached essentially two different schools of Christianity (Paul's won). Paul gazing up adoringly at Peter looks a bit off to me - but then, this is one of those areas we know so little about authors have a lot of room for manoever.

On the pagan side, it is very unlikely that a state religious occasion would be led by a priestess in Rome, as shown here (presumably to contrast pagan religion with Christianity, which in the twentieth century did not allow women much opportunity for major roles within the various churches). There were priestesses, and the Vestal Virgins were extrememly important, but state religion was led chiefly by the augurs and by the emperor himself. And the recitation of gods followed by the crowd crying 'We worship you!' sounds more like part of a Catholic mass than anything else to me (with a slight change of vocabulary, obviously).

The story's interpretation of the fire of Rome is interesting and quite effective. Nero deciding to burn Rome because Petronius suggests you have to experience things to write about them is results in an intriguing interpretation of Nero singing while Rome burns - here, the fact that he can sing while the fire rages is part of the point of the fire, rather than just (as it is in the sources) an indication of how little he cared. The song itself is both hilariously bad and intensely dramatic and poignant. The other reason, which was rumoured in antiquity, is of course that Nero wanted to rebuild the city to suit himself. I rather like the use of Mussolini's model, which is of a much later Rome complete with Colosseum, as Nero's model of how he wants Rome to look in the future, which is neatly done.

Some odd bits and pieces... The only time you see Jesus' face is in a recreation of Da Vinci's Last Supper (so, from a distance) which is taken to represent the moment when Jesus has just told Peter he will deny him three times. I quite like this old tradition of never showing his face, though it probably wouldn't work with today's more secular approach and more fluid cinematography. Poppaea's leopards are random but rather fun. The fire sequence is good, and I like the escape via the Cloaca Maxima (the sewers).

The bit where Nero has the Praetorians block the bridge to the Palatine to prevent people from escaping the fire that way is a bit over the top - according to Tacitus, Nero opened up the Circus Maximus, Agrippa's buildings and even his own gardens to the populace to help them survive. Whether he was involved in starting the fire or not (probably not, historically speaking) he certainly wasn't aiming to kill people. His persection of the Christians, on the other hand, is pretty faithful to what Tacitus describes (Annals 15.44, which also includes Tacitus' rather low opinion of said Christians) albeit with lions rather than dogs. Lions are more cinematic, and more Symbolic, thanks to the story of Daniel in the lions' den.

Like Gladiator, the ending of Quo Vadis? is almost totally unhistorical. Nero was forced to suicide, but it was three years after the fire and not sparked off by a confrontation in the arena (we don't even get to hear his famous last words 'Oh, what an artist dies with me!', which makes his death more dramatic and less comical but still, I was disappointed. According to the extra on the DVD, his final line here, 'Is this the end of Nero?' was an echo of one of the director's previous films, spoken by the gangster Little Caesar). Still, it's quite a satisfying ending, if cheesy, and neatly brings the film full circle to where it started, on the Appian Way.

Somewhat fuzzy photo of the Appian Way from our study trip to Rome during our undergraduate degree, with some of my friends walking away from the camera. We don't know it yet, but we're actually walking quite far in the wrong direction... It's very pretty though!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (by Stieg Larsson)

I've been reading Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy over the summer, because it had been recommended, and because I want to see the films (both the Swedish trilogy and the new English-language version coming out this autumn) but I don't want to see them unless I've read the books first. This is not just a book-purist thing - I'm going to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy later this week and deliberately haven't read the book as I want to be unspoiled for the film - but I knew there was some really nasty stuff in these books, especially involving violence against women, and I can't cope with that in a cinema unless I know exactly what to expect.

Each book is divided into sections, and each section is introduced with some factual information on a particular theme. In the first book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) it's fairly simple statistical information about violence against women in Sweden. In the second (The Girl who Played with Fire) it's stuff about Fermat's theorem, which I thought was fascinating - I didn't understand the first thing about the mathematics, but it did mean I got a fairly obscure references to Fermat's theorem in something else I was watching the other day (I can't remember what, probably The Big Bang Theory). In the final volume, it's historical and mythological information about Amazons and female warriors.

I've written about Amazons briefly, and I tend to get sidetracked by explaining that they didn't exist, as I sense that these are one of the those myths that a lot of people think is real. This is not the case in Larsson's book; they are first mentioned as 'stories' alongside a note of how historians have not always passed on records of women who fight, and the last introductory section notes that there is only one historically documented example of female warriors (the Fon in West Africa, whom I know nothing about, but they sound fascinating. Larsson also mentions an Irish law against female warriors from AD 697, which he correctly points out demonstrates that there were some to make a law against, and Boudicca gets a name-check too). The middle two chunks deal the most with Greece. The second mentions legends (the Iliad gets name-checked) and discusses the debate concerning the origin of the name, about whether or not it comes from a-mazos, 'without breast' - the general conclusion these days being that no, it didn't, as even a legend like that would show up in the art, and it doesn't. The third chunk refers to Diodorus Siculus and correctly observes that he is 'regarded as an unreliable source by other historians'. So Larsson is under no misapprehension about the historicity of Amazons, and nor will his readers be. It isn't their historicity that interests him.

This prompted me to wonder why I'm always so desperate to reaffirm that they weren't real. The reason is that there is a great debate among academics about how restricted women in Classical Athens, especially upper-class women, were, and I tend towards the negative side of the argument. One of the arguments occasionally made in favour of the idea that they weren't that desperately repressed is that the impressive collection of female mythological characters in Greek mythology demonstrates that male Greeks had quite a bit of interest in strong women. 'But no!' I say, 'for the most important thing about these women is that they are not real. They bear no resemblence to any reality and women like Medea or the Amazons stand for everything men fear about women - they are a warning to the men. Look what women will do if you let them run wild! See why they must be controlled!' (I should point out these are sweeping generalisations - I'm trying to sum the thing up as succinctly as possible!). 'Part of the point of the myth', I continue, 'is that these women are eventually controlled and subordinated.' When it comes to popular culture, this argument tends to affect my view of Amazons there, especially when a Google image search for 'Hippolyta' brings up this charming image of Hercules raping her (I know nothing about comics and don't know the context so I'm not judging this specifically, it's just... not a nice image, is all I'm saying).

Larsson, however, is using the myth of the Amazons in a totally different way. Although he makes no unsubstantiated claims about their historicity, he discusses them in context with more historical female warriors and, by discussing in the first paragraph how male writers often ignore or even conceal evidence of female fighters and soldiers, he encourages the reader to interpret the existence of myths about Amazons as an indication that possibly, somewhere in the ancient world, women were fighting. Which is actually a perfectly reasonable claim. My opinions about Greek women relate to Classical Athens alone, for which we have the most evidence - I love the idea that maybe there were female warriors out there somewhere, though I doubt there'd be any way to prove it. Or disprove it - lack of evidence is not evidence of lack after all. It's a rather more positive way of looking at the whole subject.

More importantly, on a literary level, Larsson allows the Greek Amazons, historical or otherwise, to be role models of a sort for his female characters. It's no coincidence that his most warrior-like female character (which is saying something, none of them are delicate wallflowers) spends most of her appearances here (when she's not having sex with the hero) reading a book about ancient religion. Figuerola is the most soldierly of the book's female characters, being both a fitness enthusiast and a trained officer of the law, and although having her read a book about Amazons might be pushing the symbolism a bit too far, her reading material  constitutes the only other references to the ancient world apart from the Amazon/Boudicca etc sections - which forces the reader to make a connection in their mind between the two and suggests the Amazons as both forerunner and role model for Figuerola. On a broader scale, all the women in this book are warriors in one way or another, and Larsson presents the Amazon myths as an indication both of how long women have been fighting in various ways, and how tough they can be. It's a much more positive way of looking at these myths, and I wonder if I should be a little more open to adopting this attitude sometimes!

I enjoyed these books a lot, though they were a bit long and over-detailed for my tastes - I really don't care what Blomkvist has for breakfast. And Blomkvist himself, though certainly both flawed and likeable as a character, has a slightly Mary Sue/Marty Stu/Sookie Stackhouse/whatever you want to call it-like tendency to hold an uncanny attraction, both physical and emotional, for nearly every character of the opposite sex who meets him. I'm all for sexual liberation, but really, is he *that* desperately attractive? Mind you, he is being played by Daniel Craig in the upcoming film, so maybe it'll all make sense then. The story also isn't quite finished - it works as a trilogy and most plots points are resolved by the end, but Larsson left threads he obviously hoped to return to later, and tragically he won't be able to. Even if that hadn't happened though, whether or not an author intends to write more books in a series, I personally prefer a bit more of a full conclusion to each book (the Southern Vampire Mysteries drive me mad in this respect - I prefer Pratchett's approach in the Discworld series, where earlier threads might be picked up on, but each story feels complete in itself). Still, it's a great series, especially the first, which is less spy-novel and more straightforward mystery, and which feels like not only a great book but a real work of conscience. Larsson cares about the reality behind his subject matter, and it shows - which makes his work both more enjoyable and, at times, more uncomfortably tragic.

Non-controversial part of the controversial poster, which I'm honestly not sure how I feel about.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Star Trek: The Gamesters of Triskelion

Season 2 of Star Trek featured two episodes that directly referenced the ancient world, 'Who Mourns for Adonais?' and 'Bread and Circuses', but halfway between the two appeared 'The Gamesters of Triskelion', which includes no overt references to the ancient world but which seems to owe something to it via the theme of gladiators and gladiatorial combat.

The name 'Triskleion' is Greek but that's due to geometry rather than history (and the symbol itself is more associated with the Celtic world). Otherwise there are no overt references to the ancient world, or to Rome or Romans, in this episode. The arena in which Kirk, Uhura and Chekov are forced to fight is fairly simple and doesn't seem to be based on any particular place or time (unless there's a record of an arena with blueish rocks and purple sky somewhere).

However, the tropes on display during this episode are largely those of gladiator-stories set in ancient Rome. We get scenes of the new recruits being trained by older, more hardened gladiators, a willingness on the part of the trainers to throw away new gladiators to set an example to the others, there are rich audience members taking bets on the fights and, of course, there's an escape attempt. Most tellingly, one of Kirk's final opponents is waving a net around, though how exactly it's supposed to be a fearsome weapon is unclear. Just about every gladiatorial story inspired by ancient Rome includes, at some point, a retiarius or space equivalent thereof - the gladiator who fights with a net and trident (and trident please note, makers of Star Trek). No matter how far from Rome we seem to be, there it is, waiting to ensnare our heroes (see what I did there?!) Although the parallel is not made obvious, the influence of gladiator stories, especially Spartacus, lurks below the surface here.

The essential difference between the set-up in this episode and that in ancient Rome is that the fights here seem to be staged for a small number of elite known as 'the Providers', whereas in Rome, as is well known, they were for the benefit of the widest possible audience. 'Bread and Circuses' takes the Roman purpose of gladiatorial fights and updates it for the twentieth century by putting it on television, just as Suzanne Collins does in The Hunger Games. Here, however, they're more like those stories about mad monarchs who make people do daft things for their entertainment (a favourite theme of Star Trek, along with childish aliens with god-like powers and planets entirely populated by one small fraction of twentieth century American or European society). It's very much like the scene in Spartacus where Crassus and his hangers-on demand a private show. The Providers must have a ridiculous amount of both resources and free time to keep such a set-up running purely for their own enjoyment. One wonders when they have time to provide anything to anyone.

Of course, the other major difference between this episode and 'Bread and Circuses' is that 'Bread and Circuses' is really good and this is... not. It's super-cheesy, some of the aliens are really odd colours and the tone is all over the place (poor Uhura appears to be sexually assaulted - it's not very clear - while Chekov's discomfort with his not terribly attractive trainer is played for laughs). Kirk teaches the Space Babe of the week about this strange human thing called 'love' (pah! 'lust and the desire to make out' is more like it) and of course, since she is a woman, she falls for his charms and turns on her own society. I'm so glad Colonel O'Neill didn't use this method to persuade Teal'c over to his side in SG-1. And the bad guys turn out to be glowing brains in a jar. Seriously. When the best thing you can say about an episode is that Kirk gets his shirt off, you know it's bad.

I think there's a lesson here - episodes about rich people forcing the crew to entertain them are not usually a good idea. Unfortunately, Star Trek didn't learn this lesson, and I'll get to 'Plato's Stepchildren' in a few weeks...

All my Star Trek reviews are listed here

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Rome: Testudo et Lepus (The Tortoise and the Hare)

For this episode, and for some others in season 2, for some reason the writers decided we needed a Latin title. This is a little odd, as 'The Tortoise and the Hare' is one of Aesop's fables, and Aesop wrote in Greek. Ah well, whatever makes them happy.

This is the episode that introduces us to Simon Woods as Octavian. As I mentioned a couple of episodes ago, this was a source of great frustration to me as I loved Max Pirkis' performance, but was unfortunately necessary. And Woods does an excellent job, somehow managing to both model his performance on Pirkis to a certain extent, so that his Octavian is believably the same person, while at the same time making the role of the older Octavian his own.

We open with one of Rome's nastier sequences (which is saying something) as Atia's slave, who has sampled the poisoned food meant for Atia, dies mid-song while she's supposed to be entertaining her. It's not as gory as many other sequences, not only from the rest of the series but from this episode, but it's terribly sad and affectingly shot (not dissimilar to the scene in Elizabeth where the queen's maid puts on the poisoned dress).

Her idiot boyfriend was watching from behind a pillar and is therefore immediately caught, tied up, flogged and tortured. Jocasta and Octavia turn up halfway through, which strips Jocasta of the delusion that Atia is 'harmless'. Octavia's response to the news that one of the 'servants' (i.e. slaves) tried to poison her is 'what were you doing to the servants to make them want to murder you?' which is both hilarious and appropriate (there was a fair bit of debate among the Roman aristocracy concerning whether you should treat your slaves well, so they love you, or terrify them. The desired result either way was to make sure that they didn't decide to murder you in your sleep).

Atia says she has to torture the boy even though she already knows he was working for Servilia, or his evidence won't stand up in court, which is true if he's a slave (I had thought he was a freelancer of sorts, but perhaps not). She doesn't actually plan to prosecute Servilia though - she wants to kill her and she's ensuring she'll have a good defense if any of Servilia's surviving relatives decide take her to court. Do not piss off Atia. Jocasta thows up while Atia promises to spare the boy and then has Timon kill him anyway (which was pretty predictable, but it was that or get tortured to death, so he's no worse off really).

The boy clears up the issue of 'Timon' not being a Jewish name for the audience (it's for business purposes apparently; in other words, he wasn't Jewish to the writers until season 2) and is summarily dispatched, narrative purpose accomplished. Timon, however, seems to be getting a teensy bit fed up of dumping the bodies of 16-year-olds in the sewers. It's understandable; blood and sewage will stain your clothes no end and they didn't have Daz back then. And your kids will never believe you spilled that much ketchup all over yourself. His wife and brother indulge in some judging when he turns up at home, so he feels nicely guilty as well as dirty.

Dodgy finally catches up to the Godfather at Mutina, where Octavian('s troops, led by Agrippa, plus those of the sadly deceased Hirtius and Pansa) has just defeated Mark Antony. Since the Godfather was fighting for Antony, getting to him is pretty difficult and the chances of him still being alive look slim. While turning over dead bodies, Dodgy is addressed by a man on a horse who turns out to be Octavian himself. It's a very clever introduction for Woods as Octavian, as he appears, helmeted and with the sun behind him, and Dodgy doesn't recognise him, which provides him with a perfectly natural way to introduce himself to the audience. It also gives him the opportunity to remind everyone that he is now going by 'Caesar', clearly marking out his political ambitions and reminding everyone that he's Caesar's heir. Octavian has fond memories of the man who helped him to lose his virginity and supervised his first murder - important events in the life of a young would-be dictator - so he helps Dodgy to get across to the remains of Antony's forces and gives him a copy of his seal (in mud!).

The following scene introduces us to Maecenas and to Octavian's real triumvirate, of himself and his two closest friends, Maecenas and Agrippa (Maecenas eventually fell from favour for somewhat murky reasons; Agrippa remained his closest friend and heir apparent until his death). It's all about threesomes, Late Republican history. I like Alex Wyndham's interpretation of Maecenas. He's a little bit more effeminate than Octavian or Agrippa, as all interpretations of Maecenas are, and he's as smarmy and decadant as the character always inevitably is, but he avoids the awful, over-the-top camp pantomime-acting of some others. He's also properly heartless, even more than Octavian - Octavian just coldly murders people, Maecenas gloats. And he has a purpose, beyond divine decadence and poetry - he writes and chooses Octavian's speeches too. The three of them are a perfect triple act.

The moment where Agrippa blurts out 'Octavia!' when Octavian tells him to give his sister a letter is hilarious, requiring as it does the response, 'I only have one sister.' That's some bad Mentionitis Agrippa's got there. I'm glad to see that Maecenas brings up the question of why Octavian's general is being his messenger, and Octavian's answer, that he wants to intimidate Cicero, does make some kind of sense. Sort of. (Except for the minor problem that, brilliant general though Agrippa may be, this incarnation of him isn't exactly imposing in person).

Octavian gees up his soldiers by appealing to their greed and they head off towards Rome. Meanwhile the Godfather, who is of course alive because he's protected by the gods/his supernatural sense of nobility and justice/his total badassery/Plot Armour, pretends he can't hear Dodgy yelling his name across half the Alps. It can't last forever though and luckily Dodgy, always the most sensible character in the series (and sometimes, it seems, on television) comes straight in with the important news that the children are still alive. The Godfather is, naturally, too noble to just run off and get them so we rejoin Antony and Posca, who knows he's still alive because 'if this is the afterlife it's extremely disappointing.' Posca thinks they should offer Octavian terms but Antony's having none of it. Antony lets the Godfather go 'cause he's a softy at heart really, and because they can tell everyone they see that he remains undefeated.

Over in Asia, Brutus is feeling much better for having been born again, though 'magnificent' might be pushing it (I'm starting to think Cassius just fancies him. Please note this is not my professional opinion!). Back in Rome, his mother is not doing so well. Timon kidnaps her in the middle of a prayer (to make us feel sorry for her?) and takes her down to Atia's torture chamber, where she insists that Atia deserves a slow and painful death and calls her sad and lonely. She tries to get Atia to kill her straight away, but really, after the 'slow and painful death' bit, she can't actually expect that. She insists that Atia will feel degraded and defiled for torturing her but I think that just shows that she doesn't know Atia very well.

Quite a few screams, a lot of torture and a gang rape later, Servilia still won't confess to the poison plot, so Atia orders Timon to cut up her face. Timon, however, has had enough. What with Servilia being a noblewoman and her testimony not requiring torture, and the fact that they already know it was her anyway, and that the rape probably wasn't necessary (and didn't they already do that to her last season?) he's reached breaking point. He sets Servilia free, yells 'I am not an animal!' at Atia and storms out. Atia could have got her other torturers to keep hold of Servilia if she'd wanted to but presumably all the talk of how torturing people isn't very nice really is starting to get to her too, and lets her rival run home.

Dodgy apologises for what he said to the Godfather and the Godfather thanks him for torturing and killing Niobe's lover. Dodgy then points out that the children are not going to be in the best shape after goodness knows how long in a slave camp, and that the Godfather's daughters are likely to be even more pissed off if the Godfather then insists on killing their brother for the sake of his honour. The Godfather sulks.

We see the unfortunate Servilia in a state of distress, being cared for by her slaves. I do feel sorry for Servilia, who has had horrible things done to her - but she was trying to murder Atia, she's not exactly innocent herself. Not that this means she deserves what Atia did to her, but still.

Octavia, meanwhile, is throughly surprised that Octavian actually managed to win the battle. When she asks why he's bringing his army to Rome, Agrippa replies, 'Politics'. Octavia reacts rather badly to her brother's insistence that she and Atia swear allegiance to him, and not much better to Agrippa's terrible, awkward attempts to flirt with her. Well, 'flirt' isn't really the right word, it's more like a medieval attempt to declare undying love for her. Luckily for her Atia interrupts and seems genuinely glad Octavian is still alive (and probably equally glad that Antony is as well).

Agrippa also brings the news to Cicero, who is quite happy until he gets to the bit in Octavian's letter about bringing his army to Rome, along with his insistence on being called 'Caesar'. Bamber is brilliant as usual, as Cicero realises he's inadvertently doomed his beloved Republic. 'Gods, I'm so tired of young men and their ambitions,' he says, and he tells Agrippa it's all vanity, but since he's talking to the only person not-Octavian who will eventually come out of all this better off than he was at the beginning, it rings a bit hollow.

Dodgy and the Godfather arrive at the mine and slave camp, which looks just like the one from Spartacus and at which the foremen seem to consider whipping the slaves as something of a hobby. A combination of Dodgy's smooth talking and Octavian's seal, which he waves around at everyone, gets them what they want. The two younger children have been working in the kitchens and don't seem terribly pleased to see their father - the boy knows he's in trouble even if he doesn't know why - but the Godfather, it turns out, is not an animal either and can't bring himself to kill a small boy, so it's all OK for now. Vorena the Elder has been put to work as a prostitute, which makes the Godfather very cross indeed, so he kills the overseer and the two of them lead the children out of the camp. These are very good scenes; all the performances are brilliant, especially Kevin McKidd's, and the use of one of the jauntier settings of the main theme as our heroes lead the children out of the camp and the episode ends is very effective.

This is a good episode, in which the serious grimness of most of the subject matter is leavened a little bit by the sort-of-happy ending. While the episode gets rather too into all the torture in places, I really like the way it makes it clear that just because torture is legally allowed - even required - in some cases, that doesn't mean everyone is all hunky-dory with it. Torture was an essential part of the Roman legal system, but Jocasta is horrifed and has no desire to witness it, Octavia has limited interest in it and even Timon, a professional torturer, takes no pleasure in it. Indeed, even Atia has had her fill by the end. Roman law could be very harsh, but people are people everywhere - some are nice, some are nasty, some enjoy torturing others, most (I hope) do not. This episode acts as an excellent exploration of different attitudes towards torture, while, of course, setting up the climax of Servilia's story.

All my Rome reviews are listed here

Monday, 5 September 2011

O Brother Where Art Thou? (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000)

OK, I'm going to have to come right out and confess it; I don't get O Brother Where Art Thou?

I've no objection to the idea, in fact I think it's a great idea. I've a great fondness for stories set in both the American South and during the Depression, so the whole concept really appeals to me. And I have no problem with a free adaptation of a text - I'm quite happy to substitute an overland journey for a nautical one, the chain gang for war, three protagonists for one hero, the police force for Poseidon, and so on.

No, my problem is that I can see very little relation between the film and the text it's supposedly 'based on'. I'm not one of those people who think an adaptation of a novel or, in this case, an epic poem, should be utterly faithful to the text. Film is a different medium and requires different things and I have been known to defend changes made to The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and other literary adaptations at length. Myth is especially flexible and I think you can and should do all sorts of things with it, as my enduring fondness for Troy will show you. If this film had said it was 'inspired by the adventures of Odysseus', in the same way that Moulin Rouge! is inspired by Orpheus, I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. What confuses me about this film is that it claims to be 'based on The Odyssey'. 'Based on' implies some level of similarity between the two versions, and The Odyssey is a specific text which offers a specific version of the myth. This is what confuses me about the film, which seems to bear very little relation to the poem.

Here are some things The Odyssey is about:

Fathers and sons - the son searching for his father, their reunion, Odysseus' relationship with his own father.
The wife who waited 20 years for her husband, refusing and tricking all other suitors.
Power - Penelope doesn't just preserve her romantic relationship with Odysseus, by refusing to remarry she preserves his throne while Telemachus is young and Odysseus is away.
A long journey full of exciting incidents which Odysseus survives by quick wits and cunning.
The homecoming of a veteran of war .
The high price of war, both in terms of those lost and the results for the survivors.

This is by no means a complete or exhaustive list of what The Odyssey is about, but it covers some of the major themes, I think. Aside from the series of bizarre adventures escaped by quick wits, none of these are obviously present in O Brother Where Art Thou?

Penelope is the strangest thing about this film as an adaptation of The Odyssey. There's nothing wrong with the story of the guy out of prison whose wife has turned her eye to someone else whom she thinks is a better bet, it happens, but it's not The Odyssey. The entire point of Penelope in The Odyssey is that she rejects all suitors and waits for Odysseus to return and reclaim both her and his kingdom. Calling a character 'Penny' and having her about to get married to someone else - but from choice, not from necessity - does not make her the same character, not if the way she behaves is the exact opposite. Perhaps an argument could be made for an exact inversion of the original story if much of the rest of the story remained similar, but it doesn't - this is just the biggest difference out of many.

There are a few superficial references to The Odyssey. Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus, used by James Joyce in his (equally baffling to me) novel. There's a blind prophet who says he has no name, though in the poem that's a trick of Odysseus' own, and Tiresias certainly has a name. 'A Man of Constant Sorrow' does fit The Odyssey, or it's a good description of Odysseus anyway, the ever-suffering, like a Greek Job. At one point, some beautiful women sitting on rocks entrance the men with their singing in order to bring them to ruin, like sirens (in fact, Delmar calls them sirens). John Goodman plays a one-eyed character, i.e. a Cyclops.

On the other hand, some of the apparent references don't seem to make much sense. The character called Menelaus doesn't appear to bear any relation to Menelaus to me. The character called Homer definitely doesn't bear much relation to Homer. The Cyclops is a Bible salesman, which might be a comment on modern Christians but doesn't seem to have much to do with the myth (unless the idea is that Christians are uncivilised savages who eat people... hmm, maybe I don't want to go there!).

So why claim the story is based on The Odyssey at all? The film opens with the opening lines of the poem, focusing on Odysseus as the wily trickster. Ulysses McGill is, indeed, something of a trickster character and by far the brightest of his little group (which is not saying much). He tells tall tales, like Odysseus does, and uses disguises. However, the trickster is such a common character in literature from across the world that it's a Jungian archetype - one slightly wily lead with a disguise or two does not equal The Odyssey. Perhaps the writers were inspired by The Odyssey, but that doesn't make the final script 'based on' it.

The closest this film gets to The Odyssey for me is in the theme of struggling (and physically journeying) to regain a life that was lost. In this respect, Ulysses really does have something in common with Odysseus. Both have been torn away from home and family and are trying to get back, to recover said wife and family, along with their former social status. In this respect, Ulysses really is a modern Odysseus, and this is probably the film's best claim to be an adaptation of The Odyssey. You could also draw a parallel between Ulysses ruining his friends' lives through his own selfish desire to return home to his wife, and Odysseus inadvertently getting all his men killed, but I think that's reaching a bit far, really, and it works out OK for them in the end anyway.

There is also a very funny scene which directly references The Odyssey, when Delmar thinks the sirens have turned Pete into a toad, just as, in the poem, Circe turns Odysseus' men into pigs. I liked that bit.

I have a few other issues with the film as well, not related to Homer. I just don't get the Coen brothers in general - the only other of their films I've seen is True Grit, which I absolutely love but which is much, much closer to the original text and the only major digression from the novel - the Bear man - is the bit I don't understand and would have cut from the film. Poor Tim Blake-Nelson, an excellent actor, has creeped me out ever since I saw the scene in The Good Girl where he forces Jennifer Aniston to have sex with him, which is hardly fair on my part but does distract me a bit. (It's a testament to his acting skill really - and he's a Classics major, so that's a point in his favour!)

Then there are a lot of cultural references I simply don't get - I have a vague notion George 'Babyface' Nelson is a real bank robber from seeing the Johnny Depp film Public Enemies, and I have a nagging feeling that the singer who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads is a real character too. Perhaps I'd understand the connections to The Odyssey better if I actually got the American cultural references, but I'm pretty clueless on those.

I actually like the film, which is beautifully shot and has a fantastic soundtrack. There's no doubt this is an enjoyable and in many ways fascinating film. It's just that, for me, it doesn't encompass any of what I think of as the central themes of The Odyssey. It's a good bit of film-making, but it's not Homer.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Top Five Mad Roman Emperors

As I mentioned when discussing Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, the figure of the Mad Emperor seems to be one of Rome's most enduring contributions to popular culture, something I'm sure would distress any actual Romans - though it's got to be better than the orgy, their other major (sometimes related) contribution.

We've seen many different versions of several historical 'mad' emperors over the years; these are a few of my favourites.

5. Bill Wallis as Hadrian in Chelmsford 123, 'Arriverderci Roma!'
How mad? He's married to a horse, his ex-wife is a goat and he's having an affair with a sheep.
Really mad? Not unless you count a well-known fondness for Greek culture, which extended to him growing a beard, which was fashionable among educated Greek men, but not Romans. But since Greece was one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, this seems not unreasonable. In fact, Hadrian has one of the better reputations of all the emperors. This generic nutcase is technically Hadrian solely because the show is set in AD 123.
What's to like, then? The expression on his face when he approaches the sheep with an admonishment to his slave not to breathe a word to Portia (the horse) is priceless.

4. Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar in Carry on Cleo
How mad? He came, he saw, he conked out. He's not really mad as such, but he doesn't seem entirely sane either, and tends to put his trust in the wrong places.
Really mad? Depends what you count as madness. Declaring yourself dictator for life and then wandering around without a bodyguard might be considered mad, in a certain light.
What's to like, then? Do we need to quote it again? They've all got it in for me! Williams is just the perfect antidote to many a straight-laced, sombre Caesar.

3. Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator
How mad? He kills his father and he's in love  - or lust - with his sister (which was Not OK, even for a Roman). He takes on one of the best gladiators in Rome, which, even if you've already mortally wounded said gladiator, isn't a great idea. He also has a very amusing way of saying the word 'vexed'.
Really mad? According to Cassius Dio, he was more stupid and cruel than actually mad. He 'was guilty of many unseemly deeds, and killed a great many people' (including the real Lucilla).
What's to like, then? Phoenix is absolutely brilliant in this role. You almost feel sorry for Commodus as you watch him desperately try to win his father's approval, but by the end, with his utterly chilling instructions to Lucilla concerning their future relationship (luckily cut off by Maximus' victory in the arena) you're glad to see his blood spilled all over his nice white armour.

2. Simon Woods as Octavian in Rome
How mad? This entry is for Woods specifically, because although Pirkis' Octavian does take part in that whole unfortunate incest episode, it's in Woods' older Octavian that the cracks really start to show. Even leaving aside his rather dubious sexual tastes - to each his own, and Livia seems quite happy with it - this is a man who is slowly but surely taking over the world, killing a large number of people in the process. He's a psychopath, basically.
Really mad? Augustus has an excellent reputation as an emperor, because he ensured during his lifetime that he would leave an excellent reputation behind him. He was obviously hyper intelligent, and not mad in the traditional let's-marry-a-horse kind of way, but personally, I lean towards the opinion that he was pretty psychotic.
What's to like, then? The man took over the world. Literally. I think this internet 'poster' sums it up quite nicely.

1. John Hurt as Caligula in I, Claudius
How mad? Where to start? Has affairs with all three of his sisters, eats his own foetus, declares war on Neptune, turns the Imperial Palace into a brothel, invites his favourite horse to his uncle's wedding and then there's the gold bikini...
Really mad? Oh yes. Quite doolally.
What's to like, then? John Hurt's Caligula just had to be at the top of this list - quite possibly the best mad imperial performance on screen. Everything about Hurt's Caligula is ridiculous and fantastic, but I suppose it's the gold bikini - and accompanying dance sequence - that clinches the win.

Honourable mention: Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis? Because I'm sure he's brilliant but, I'm ashamed to say, I haven't actually seen it yet. Update: I've seen it now, review here!
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