Monday, 31 October 2011

Top Five Ancient Vampires

You all knew this was going to be my Halloween post this year, didn't you?!

('Ancient' means Roman or earlier - another couple of hundred years and Eric Northman would be top of the list, easily!)

5. Queen Akasha, Queen of the Damned
What breed of vampire? Anne Rice
How ancient? Unspecified - very. An ancient Queen of Egypt, and her husband has the name of an ancient Near Eastern god.
How modern? Not even a little bit. Akasha makes no attempt whatsoever to assimilate into the modern world, she just swoops in, kills everyone in sight, then foolishly defers to her new husband because she's such an old-fashioned gal at heart.
How awesome? Anne Rice's vampire mythology is pleasantly heavy on ancient vampires, including several Romans, and the whole crux of her vampires' existence revolves around Akasha and Enkil, the oldest vampires. Marius is pretty interesting, especially in his relationship with Lestat, and Pandora has her moments, and normally both of them would come out ahead of a statue that occasionally moves its arm. But the number five spot goes to Akasha on this list for one reason - the fabulous scene in Queen of the Damned in which, stirred to full consciousness by the thrill of rock music, Aaliyah slinks through a vampire bar, writhing to the music, before immolating every vampire in it for threatening her beloved Lestat. It's totally awesome.

4. The Volturi, New Moon
What breed of vampire? Twilight
How ancient? Unspecified, but Caius and Marcus at least have got to be Roman
How modern? Not very - they seem to have got stuck somewhere around the Renaissance. Perhaps, being Italian, they were so proud of Italian achievement during that period they decided to just stop there.
How awesome? Yes, I've read all the Twilight novels (except Breaking Dawn). And seen all the films. You may judge me now. And I'll be the first to admit, there's not much that could really be described as 'awesome' about any of them. But there's a reason Michael Sheen keeps being hired to chew up the entire set and spit it out all over everyone else's plainer acting in various films (see also Tron: Legacy and Midnight in Paris). His performance as Aro, the leader of the Volturi, who I presume is Roman since his brothers are called Caius and Marcus, is just a brilliant, cheesy, absurd, daft pleasure, perfect for a silly story about a whiny teenage girl and her sparkly vampire boyfriend.

3. Godric, True Blood
What breed of vampire? True Blood (TV series)
How ancient? About two thousand years. The show hasn't gone into his origins in much detail, but his Roman tattoos are clearly visible and he mentions that he was alive at the time of the crucifixion (but 'missed it'. After all, if every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock).
How modern? He's got hold of a vaguely modern outfit, which is a good start. Godric can function fine in the modern world, but has reached the point where he doesn't actually want to.
How awesome? Godric somehow takes the overdone vampire tropes of being tired of immortality, guilt-ridden over his past misdeeds and generally having gone soft, and makes them awesome. While Bill mopes away in traditional Louis/Angel/Edward Cullen-style, feeling the pain of prolonged life and bloodlust, Godric has taken two millennia to reach this point, and he decides to do something about it. His suicide is both tragic and weirdly uplifting and his dialogue with Sookie immediately preceding it is beautiful. Book!Godric, while sharing many of the same qualities, is a paedophile, which makes him less sympathetic even as he puts an end to his existence, but TV!Godric, without that detail and with Allan Hyde's wonderful, quietly strong performance, is made of awesome.

2. Kakistos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'Faith, Hope and Trick'
What breed of vampire? Buffyverse
How ancient? Very. His name is Greek, so I'm assuming he's from ancient Greece, though he may already have been very old when he was named.
How modern? Not overly well assimilated, but he does hang out with Mr Trick, who's very modern.
How awesome? He's not, really, but the reasons he's so high on this list are twofold. One, I like that it takes a massive wooden pole through the heart to kill him. So often, very ancient vampires are abruptly offed by our heroes and you wonder how on earth they managed to survive for so long if they can be killed that easily. An especially big stake may not be the most inventive solution to this problem, but at least they thought about it. And Two, I like Buffy's mishearing of his name (Greek for 'worst of the worst') as 'kissing toast', especially her belief that a minion vampire had told her he lived for kissing toast.

1. Appius Livius, Dead in the Family
What breed of vampire? True Blood (book series, so technically the Southern Vampire Mysteries)
How ancient? Roman.
How modern? Not very. Appius' way of life hasn't changed all that much in the last two thousand years, though presumably he has updated his outfit.
How awesome? Appius is unpleasant and terrifying, but the totally awesome thing about him is that he's unpleasant and terrifying in a Roman way. He lives according to an ancient moral code and expects everyone around him to behave that way too. Best of all, not only does he insist on his names being used correctly, Harris even includes a guide to how to pronounce them correctly! Appius isn't interested in rock music, bars, random annoying mortal girls or suicide (and he has a weird post-mortem sort of vengeance on the mortal who particularly annoys him and nearly kills him, revealed in the following book). Of all the vampires on this list, Appius LiWIus is the only one who really feels like someone from another time and place, and more specifically, like a Roman.

Honourable mention: Russell Edgington, True Blood (TV version). At 3,000 years old, he's obviously some variety of 'ancient', but had to be left off the list largely because three vampires from the same series was a bit much. He is totally awesome in every way though.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Chelmsford 123: The Secret War

A fun episode of Chelmsford 123, with a rather nice framing device showing a teacher in modern Chelmsford trying to get his pupils enthused about the ancient world (with limited success). The final joke, in which he suggests to his bored class that these people might be their ancestors and the camera pans back to reveal the regular actors in school uniform, is obvious but no less amusing for it.

The schoolroom frame also provides the setup for one of my favourite jokes of the episode, as the teacher shows his class a slide of a bust of Aulus Paulinus with a missing nose. We then fade into Aulus somewhere between AD 123 and AD 127 (for we are told here that these were the years of his governorship), complaining that his new bust doesn't have a nose, because the sculptor (also Chelmsford's resident road builder and rain dance choreographer) can't do noses. Or elephant trunks. The missing nose is such a staple of archaeological finds of busts and statues - because it sticks out, so it comes off more easily - that any alternative explanation to the real but dull and obvious one is a fun idea.

This was a fairly amusing episode overall; I also quite like the bit where the Welsh-sounding merchant Wolfbane offers Badvok honeysuckle scented oil or apricot flapjacks, as the mill/tourist shops of Wales are chock-full of that sort of thing. Of course, the same could also be said of Scotland. And Northern Ireland. And probably the Cotswolds as well... And I enjoyed the bit where Wolfbane (also the resident Druid) brought a pre-killed chicken to a ritual sacrifice. An ex-housemate once told me about a time when she'd had to kill a chicken in her yard and it sounds like a difficult and mildly traumatic job! I'd be all in favour of getting the worst over with beforehand.

The main problem with this episode is that the main plot - in which Aulus and Badvok both think the other is up to something, but it turns out Badvok has just been preparing for a British chieftain competition - doesn't really go anywhere, and isn't terribly engaging. It did give us the opportunity to see Rory McGrath in nothing but a frog-shaped jockstrap, but for that I think it can be blamed, rather than credited.

All Chelmsford 123 reviews

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Sword in the Stone (Disney, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, 1963)

I used to love this film when I was little. Back when we used to go visit Mum's friend and her daugher - she and my brother were both 5, her little brother was 2, I was light years ahead of them at 8 - it was my third favourite video to watch while I hung around by myself feeling old and superior (behind The Little Mermaid and Disney's Robin Hood). Watching it again last night, it's surprisingly short - only an hour and a quarter - and really drags in some sections, especially the squirrel bit. It's a lovely film though. Despite including a worse attempt at a British accent than Dick van Dyke (Kay), it's got all the wonderful charm that all those old Disney movies that open with a big book of fairy stories have.

There are a couple of direct Classical references in the film - Merlin mentions both history in general and more specifically Latin as essential parts of a well-rounded education and the owl is called Archimedes, after the philosopher who said he could move the world with a big enough lever and jumped out of the bath yelling 'Eureka!' What's more interesting, though is the attitude to learning and to the past in general.

I read the book a few years ago and my memory of it is a bit vague, but as far as I recall, in the book, Merlin's memory actually worked backwards (according to Wikipedia he was actually living backwards). He could remember all about the future but nothing of the past. The film simplifies it a bit - Merlin can travel to the future and can prophesy, but his memory of the past doesn't seem to be affected (though his short term memory isn't great!). What the film does which I think is interesting is set up a direct opposition between Merlin and Archimedes, who I think was invented for the film, partly to be the comic relief.

Archimedes has a Classical name and appears in the form of the patron bird of ancient Athens - this is largely because owls are supposed to be wise, but owls are supposed to be wise because they're associated with Athena, goddess of wisdom, so basically, he's a Classical bird. While Merlin is obsessed with the future, both Wart's future and the long-off innovations of steam trains and aeroplanes, Archimedes is interested, largely, in the past and in what can be learned from the past. Although the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with Merlin in particular, Archimedes has a role to play too. Without Archimedes, for all Merlin's talk about learning French and Latin, Wart would not have got around to learning to read and write, and while Merlin is so obsessed with what Wart could be he flies off in a huff at Wart's lack of ambition, Archimedes supports Wart in what he needs in the present - leading to the discovery that Wart can pull the sword from the stone. Learning from the past and living in the present are just as important as planning for the future, and the pseudo-Classical Archimedes represents that.

I always liked Archimedes and I like him even more now - Merlin, who insists to Wart that he has problems when Wart is quite happy and doesn't think he has any, is really quite annoying! Granted, Wart couldn't see the wolf that was trying to eat him, which is a pretty major problem, but still. I'd take Archimedes over Merlin as a teacher any day!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Queen of the Damned (dir. Michael Rymer, 2002)

This is a fun film, which is better than its reputation suggests. The less well known or well thought of film based on Anne Rice's novels, it's pretty good fun in its own way and I actually enjoyed it slightly more than Interview with the Vampire, good as Interview is. Its biggest problem is, basically, that it doesn't star Tom Cruise, who may be a bit eccentric, but who has a really great screen presence.

Anne Rice has come up with some great plots and characters over the years, and her vampire mythology is visible, in one way or another, in most of the soppier kind of vampire literature since (though not, obviously, in more horror-centric vampire stories like Let the Right One In, which is a different thing entirely). In particular, she gave the world the story of the two vampires, one dark-haired, broody and tortured, the other blond, fun-loving and snarky, with lots of homoerotic tension between them, fighting over the affection of a small blonde girl. Granted, her small blonde girl was a prepubescent vampire, but still, the set-up is there, and like all other iterations of this story since, the blonder, more evil vampire is much, much more interesting than the tortured one. If the sequel to Interview with the Vampire had taken up where Tom Cruise's Lestat left off, summing up the feelings of much of the audience as he shares his exasperation over Louis' constant whining, it would have been great.

Unfortunately, this sequel in places falls victim to the same thing that I find most off-putting about Rice's novels, and about her creation Louis' character - it's full of melodramatic prose about eternity (though I think it was thankfully free of too much stuff about the Dark Gift). Stuart Townsend, otherwise known as the Man Who Would Be Aragorn, does his best with Lestat and he's got the grin and the rock star enthusiasm down, but he's lacking the sheer joie de mourir of Cruise's Lestat (and the less said about his wavering accent, the better). This isn't entirely his fault - the plot and dialogue insist on giving Lestat elements of the moping and self-pity that belonged to Louis in the first film, though at least the emphasis on his loneliness and desire for companionship, along with a continued emphasis on choice when it comes to making new vampires in contrast to his lack of same, ensure that he still feels like the same character. His sudden obsession with a particular mortal girl is not entirely unexpected, but also hard to buy given his previous psychotic temperament. Overall, a film about a vampire rock star ought to make said vampire a bit more funny and a bit less tortured. (And he looks really, really similar to Keira Knightley, which is not his fault either, but it's off-putting).

The titular 'Queen of the Damned' is Akasha, played by Aaliyah shortly before she was tragically killed in a plane crash. The movie's dialogue mentions Akasha and her husband Enkil ruling over ancient Egypt. Quite why, if this is the case, they have Near Eastern names (Enkil is a Sumerian god, and Akasha appears to be a Sanskrit word) is a bit of a mystery - perhaps they were created in the Middle East and then went to Egypt. I do like the note that these two can walk in the sun, as I had been wondering how they managed to rule Egypt in a time before electric light without encountering the sun at some point (I don't think a Pharaoh who only came out at night would hold power for very long!). Akasha is great fun - a proper vampire villain with lots of blood lust and the ability to burn other vampires with a wave of her hand. I also like the combination of her old-fashioned world views - her attachment to absolute monarchy and especially her non-feminist insistence that her husband and king be addressed first - with her fondness for rock music, which was apparently strong enough to wake her from several millennia as a statue.

Akasha isn't the only ancient vampire in this film - Marius, who must be Roman from the name, is said to have been born somewhere around 400 BC. This would make him very old even for a Roman - not impossibly so, but in this version he comes from a period of Roman Republican history that we know very little about (as opposed to the novel Pandora, which makes him early Imperial, a period we know lots about - I think this is the result of the film combining two characters from the books, Magnus and Marius). Marius here has somehow managed to drag himself as far as the seventeenth century, but not beyond - he makes Lestat because he needs someone to help him acclimatise to the eighteenth century, and when he meets Lestat again he's still wearing the same style of clothing, as Lestat observes. I rather like the idea that he's managed to change with the times up to a point, but reaches a line where he just can't do it any more, though I would have thought he might have reached that point earlier than the eighteenth century!

There are other ancient vampires scattered around this film as well - Pandora (who, confusingly, is killed off here, which doesn't fit with the novel) is played by none other than Aeryn Sun, and the name 'Maharet' sounds vaguely ancient Near Eastern to me, though I can't think of a specific instance of the name. In fact, I think they are a group called the Ancients from Rice's vampire mythology, but though the movie mentions the name briefly, you don't get a great sense of who they are or what they're about other than that Marius seems to be keeping an eye on the petrified King and Queen. None of them really show any particularly ancient qualities, though Pandora doesn't seem to have changed her clothing style much in the last two thousand years. They mostly seem to hang around a dusty old house in America, worrying and collecting porcelain dolls. Anne Rice vampires seriously need to learn how to get out and have some fun.

I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would, some really dodgy attempts at British accents aside, and it's quite fun. It should probably be essential viewing for any Buffy or True Blood fans who haven't the time or inclination to read the books, since an awful lot of those other mythologies originates here - the Watcher's Council/Talamasca and the blood tears in particular. And Paul McGann is in it, and that's always a good thing. It also doesn't take itself quite as seriously as Interview with the Vampire does, which is a point in its favour - but given that its about an ancient vampire woken by a love of rock music, it maybe needed to lighten up even more, and embrace its own silliness with even more enthusiasm.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Fellini Satyricon (dir. Federico Fellini, 1969)

Does Fellini count as popular culture? It's a film, so I'm saying yes for now!

I've said many times that I don't generally criticise films for straying from the plot of a source novel or poem, or even from history (within limits). Since Petronius' Satyricon, a Latin novel, survives only in fragments and would require heavy editing and additional material in any adaptation, changes to plot and so on would be expected. What I don't like about Fellini's Satyricon, however, is that it completely changes the tone of the story. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that either, but I'm very fond of the novel and the film isn't really to my taste, so I'm afraid I've never really warmed to it! (The more wine I drank, the more it seemed to make sense, which tells you quite a lot about this film).

In fact, the film does incorporate nearly all the surviving elements of the novel, including the argument over Giton (Gitone) between Encolpius (Encolpio) and Ascyltus (Ascilto), Trimalchio's dinner (right down to the gag about the pig that's supposedly not been carved but actually contains sausages, his arguments with his wife, and his obsession with death and mock funeral) and Encolpius' impotence, for which he goes to a witch for help. In addition, elements of the festival of laughter come from the other surviving Latin novel, Apuleius' The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses, which I also love (since that's about a man who turns into a donkey, I dread to think what Fellini might have made of it if he'd adapted that one!). The fact that there are many additional sequences is logical as well, since there are huge gaps in the novel that stop it from making any sense in places.

However, Fellini's additions are not designed to increase the film's narrative coherence. In fact, he liked the dream-like aspects of the novel in its fragmentary state and made the film deliberately dream-like. You'd think, as an expert on ancient dreams, I'd like this, but I'm afraid I don't. I like surrealist fine art (Dali etc) but I'm afraid I'm just not so keen on surrealist films. I like my films to have boring, pedestrian things like narrative and characterisation and plot development. (I do like dream episodes of TV shows, but that's about exploring new aspects of established characters. And they tend to be funnier).

The real problem for me, then, is simply one of personal taste - I prefer the tone of the novel to the tone of the film. The novel is a broad comedy - it reminds me of a Carry On film or perhaps a more modern sex comedy. It is certainly full of sex and occasionally a bit of violence and it includes lengthy sections about Encolpius' attempts to cure his impotence using witchcraft, but it's the sort of broad, rude comedy that, I think, isn't supposed to be taken particularly seriously. Fellini, on the other hand, makes it a disquieting production which uses sex in such a crude manner as to be positively off-putting. He fills it with confusion and anger, opening with Encolpio screaming his fury at Ascilto and Ascilto likening his activities with Gitone to Tarquin's rape of Lucretia, setting the scene for something designed to be unsettling in a way the novel was not.

(The tagline - 'Rome. Before Christ. After Fellini.' - annoys me too, since Petronius wrote after, not before, Christ. I'm nit-picky that way).

The other main theme totally missing from the film that was a major theme of the source novel is Encolpius' social and intellectual superiority and snobbishness. Encolpius is decadent and sex-driven, but he also laughs at freedmen, who are socially beneath him and don't know their myths, and at bad epic poets who are incapable of producing good artistic work. Perhaps Fellini's Encolpio is educated - he certainly seems rich and posh - but he wanders around in such a daze and much of the dialogue makes so little sense at all that you don't get any sense of his intellectual superiority. Petronius' Encolpius is an intellectual snob who tries to impress Giton as much with his brains and learning as anything else, but Fellini's Encolpio is interested solely in bodies. Eumolpus the terrible poet does appear in the film, but he talks about art, criticises Trimalcione's poetry, and Encolpio seems rapt, not scornful as he does so. His own poetry is recited in Latin so the audience can't follow it or appreciate whether it's good or bad. Intellectual snobbery and making fun of those socially below you may not be especially attractive traits, but this is another way in which the film tackles the plot from a completely different angle to the novel.

On the other hand, the use of vulgar Latin for lower status characters is a rather nice inversion of the book, and does hint at Petronius' snobbery, as we understand the upper class characters fully but only catch snatches of the lower class characters' dialogue (assuming we speak Italian, which is close to Latin. Which I don't, I confess, other than knowing how to order pizza - I do read Latin, but following spoken Latin is harder!).

There are some nice individual scenes here, and of course I particularly liked the scenes that contained, within themselves, a stronger sense of narrative and character. The scene with the couple freeing their slaves and committing suicide is rather touching and nicely done, and I like the story about the widow and the guard; plus the inclusion of stories within the story fits nicely with the novel, which includes several stories within the story (frequently involving ghosts and werewolves and similar tales).

The look of the film, however, is so very 1960s that it ends up resembling a particularly demented episode of Star Trek, especially the glowing green thing everyone's sucking from at Trimalcione's dinner, and the women who are painted blue. Sometimes I really do worry about what on earth everyone was up to in the 1960s... The rich colour palette is appropriate given the themes of richness and decadence, but it can be too much for me in places, and there's a fair amount of vaguely Oriental-looking imagery, which apart from being historically inaccurate (Rome had trade links with the Far East, but the amount of Oriental imagery here is rather too much) strikes me as mildly racist, given the context.

Like the book, Trimalchio's dinner is one of the best bits, and here there is some sympathy with Petronius' characters - Trimalcione's dialogue, as far as I can tell by the English subtitles, is a combination of slang and the sort of mad vocabulary produced by swallowing the thesaurus, which is recognisably the Trimalchio Petronius wrote. Trimalcione's stories about his time as a slave and his obsession with death and mock funeral are all from the novel too, and while they are creepier here, that actually fits, since we as a modern audience will have much more sympathy with Trimalchio and find his history more disturbing and his death obsession less pititful and more sad than Petronius (through main character Encolpius) does.

There are a few references to 'Caesar', and the Caesar they're describing sounds like Tiberius (retiring to an island to have sex with lots of young men), though Petronius (assuming he was indeed Petronius Arbiter, which I think he probably was) lived and wrote under Nero (and had more sense than to criticise him openly in his novel, not that that saved him in the end). The bit where the man playing at being emperor marries Encolpius, with himself (the fake emperor) as the bride is very Neronian though - according to Suetonius, Nero did the same thing with a young man. Nero was forced to suicide as well, like the young man who appears to be Caesar here (though he's too young, Rome didn't go for boy emperors, not until very late). The 'new Caesar' is a shadowy figure who doesn't appear, so who he's supposed to be, if anyone, is unclear.

What's really important about this film is how many standard 'Roman' popular culture tropes are present in it, their popularity enhanced by it. Everything's better with minotaurs for starters, even if this one is a man in a costume rather than an actual minotaur. This was far from the first film to suggest Romans had too much decadent sex, but its depiction of orgies is perhaps definitive. It takes the rich and glorious colours of films like Quo Vadis and makes them something almost sinister, with an emphasis on red, blood and blood-reds. We see animals being killed and their blood everywhere, because if you're focusing on harsher or more alien aspects of ancient life, you have to have animal blood (see also Gladiator). There's some fantastic imagery, like the weird giant-head-coach-thing with black horses, reminiscent of Hades' chariot as he abducted Persephone in myth. I also love the broken frescoes at the end of the film, which evoke the fragmentary state of the novel, emphasising the huge gulf of time between us and Petronius' characters, as well as the often random nature of the preservation of Classical texts. I'm still not wild about things that finish in mid-sentence though, even if I do see the point (and no, I don't like the Sopranos finale!)

Overall, however, I can't get over the fact that Fellini (deliberately, consciously) completely misses the point of the novel. The bizarre stipulation of Eumolpo's will, for example, that insists his heirs eat his flesh, is technically straight from the novel but with a totally different emphasis. The point of Eumolpus' strange will in the novel is that it's a 'take that' to the legacy hunters who are following him around, hoping to inherit his money when he dies (which he hasn't yet) - its a satirical joke, not the weird and rather gross demand it becomes in the film. All in all, surrealist film-making just isn't for me - though at least I do now have an alternative to The Passion of the Christ when I want to listen to some Latin!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Rome: Heroes of the Republic

This episode opens on Timon, still feeling guilty about the whole torture business, and doing so in synagogue in case we've already forgotten the writers made him Jewish two episodes ago. Since he doesn't appear throughout the rest of the episode, this is rather pointless. Perhaps they were running a few seconds short.

Mark Antony has grown a Beard of Sorrow which does not become him particularly, and has taken to hunting wild animals in the woods. He's seen better days.

The Godfather insists on returning to his Godfatherly duties because he is just too noble to let the fact Antony's run off with what remains of his army into the woods stop him from obeying orders. There's a interesting moment where he refers to Octavian as Dodgy's 'boy' and Dodgy refers to Mark Antony as the Godfather's 'man', demonstrating that technically, they are increasingly on opposing sides - though this doesn't so much lead to conflict between them, as much as it simply allows them to get away with just about anything because one or the other of the world's leaders can always be persuaded to back them up. The children want to run away, but put it off, as they have no money.

Cicero refuses Octavian a triumph (he'll probably come to regret this later). He claims Hirtius and Pansa won the battle and Octavian points out that the purpose of a battle is to remain alive, which they singularly failed to do (I love Octavian. Have I mentioned that lately?). Eventually, Octavian is persuaded to drop the triumph idea, but demands to be made consul instead, almost certainly his plan all along, despite being about twenty years too young. When Cicero objects that he has no experience or connections, Agrippa points out that he has an army (I love him too. I may have mentioned that once or twice as well. He also plays a cheeky/slightly dangerous chauffeur on Downton Abbey by the way. Yum.). Cicero is totally beaten and he knows it, but he still thinks Octavian can 'do no harm' and is an upstart idiot who can be controlled. Like a German politician in the 1930s, he still thinks he can contain the psycho.

The Godfather brings the children home and insists on telling the entire bar exactly what happened to them, including the bit about Vorena the Elder being prostituted and the boy being illegitimate. It might be easier to get them settled in and content back home is he left that bit out. Le sigh. No wonder they hate him.

Octavia goes to visit her brother but Atia, still sulking over the money-stealing and not-quite-stepfather-defeating, refuses to join her. Octavia explains that she has given up hating Atia, since she only has one mother, and adds that Atia is not as strong as Octavian gives her credit for, and is fairly powerless in the face of Antony. Octavian still hasn't forgiven her for the sex with Antony and the allowing him to get beaten up. Octavia yelling 'don't be so damn pious!' as she tries to get him to get off his high horse and visit is a nice touch, not only being a close translation of the Latin pius, a quality much admired during the Augustan period, but also nicely foreshadowing Octavian/Augustus' later moralistic legal reforms. Octavian refuses to enter the city until he's officially made consul and kicks Octavia out in a huff.

The Third Man is annoyed at still being The Godfather's third (Dodgy being second, obviously). Niobe's sister has become a priestess at the Temple of Orbona, an incredibly obscure Roman goddess connected with children. The series treats this as if it were the same as running off to a convent, though there wasn't really an equivalent to a convent in the ancient world (and I'd have gone for the goddess Isis, though her worship wasn't allowed within the city at that time, if memory serves). Eirene, meanwhile, is sulking because Dodgy left her to run off and help his buddy and she thinks he loves the Godfather more than her (I think I remember this, it was an episode of Scrubs). The children are ritually cleansed, which involves more animal blood all over everyone, of course - in Rome, no religious ceremony is complete without bizarre vampiric make-up.

Atia, ever the survivor, swallows her pride and goes to visit Octavian. He is persuaded to come home and make nice for the time being. Meanwhile, Lepidus, sent by the Senate to fight Antony, has been forced to surrender, thanks to Antony's popularity with the troops. I love Lepidus most of all, because out of the whole lot of them, only he (aside from Octavian and Agrippa) managed, somehow, to survive. He didn't do especially brilliantly in the end, but he died at a reasonable age and not in battle. His characterisation here is perfect - a little cowardly, but not too much, a survivor who just wants to get out of this mess with his head, but who won't say no to a bit of power if it's offered.

Octavian and Dodgy have a nice little catch-up, during which they establish that Octavian is thinking of marriage, and that he'll avoid executing the Godfather, despite the latter's suicidally strong sense of loyalty to Antony  as long as he keeps the peace among the mob. The two have a very sweet rapport - having forced his mother to bend the knee to him and bludgeoned Cicero and the Senate with his army, Dodgy is the only character Octavian actually still looks up to and respects as an elder. It's a rather nice side of him to see, and it brings out Dodgy's nurturing side as well, even as he carefully negotiates for the Godfather's life (Dodgy really is the brightest person in Season 2 by a long way. Lepidus is probably second).

Cicero introduces Gaius Octavian Caesar to the Senate to be sworn in as consul and in he comes, fancy laurel wreath and all. He gives a very pretty speech about honouring his father (Caesar) and sets out his moral programme, all about moving on from the present age's debauchery (something every generation of politician has come up with since the beginning of time, as far as I can tell). He declares Brutus and Cassius enemies of the state, with some dramatics about how Caesar died 'right there' (which in Rome, he did - in real life, not exactly). And then, as Cicero objects and the senators start muttering, in come his soldiers. This is why, pre-Caesar, there were laws against bringing an army into Rome. Octavian, we realise, has become pure evil; we almost expect a maniacal laugh or something. There's a great panning shot of the stunned Senate, then we cut to Cicero and Tiro alone, Cicero coming to terms with having been 'outmaneuvered by a child'. He dictates a letter to Brutus and Cassius, 'heroes of the Republic'. Bamber's face as he realises the full extent of his mistake is perfect - but you have to admire his Cicero, he never loses hope, and he's still plotting even at this late stage.

The Godfather is trying to bond with the kids, apparently blissfully unaware that they think he killed their mother, and they didn't appreciate his reintroduction of them to all their neighbours. He then has recreational sex with his deeply unpleasant barmaid, who does not react well to his insistence on paying her afterwards.

It's been far too long since we had a proper orgy on Rome - in fact, what with the lack of Imperial decadence, I'm not sure we've seen a proper one yet. This omission had been allowed to go for much too long, so it's orgy time now! Maecenas is in charge and loving it, of course, but Agrippa is not enjoying himself at all. On his way out, he bumps into Octavia and her unfortunately-named friend, who've somehow managed to get hold of some kind of ancient Roman LSD by the sound of the melting-walls conversation (opium maybe? They seem to be smoking it, whatever it is). Naturally, Agrippa feels the need to play the knight in shining armour, even though that trope hasn't been invented yet, and takes Octavia home, at which point the following hilarious conversation ensues:

Atia: Exactly what are you doing with my daughter in the middle of the night?
Octavia: He abducted me! I was at a perfectly nice party with Jocasta and this impudent brute abducted me.
Atia: He brought you home to mother? It's a strange abduction. (to Agrippa) Where was she?
Agrippa: Octavia, you had best tell her the truth
Octavia: (defeated) I was at an orgy mother. It was an orgy.
Agrippa: Early stages of an orgy!

Atia quite rightly points out that Octavian is preaching piety and will banish her if he finds out she's openly flaunting his moral programme, which is some really nice foreshadowing for the fate that will later befall Agrippa's widow and his daughter. Agrippa starts waxing lyrical about how lovely Octavia is and how he'd do anything for her, and finishes by threatening Atia (ineffectually) and storming out, leaving both women wondering what on earth she did to inspire such devotion.

Brutus and Cassius have found out that they are now declared murderers and enemies of the Republic from Cicero's letter, in which he begs them to return and save it. Brutus suggests they wait until Antony and Octavian have destroyed each other and then sweep in and mop up the survivors. It's a good plan, Brutus. Stick with it. Seriously.

Some other Dons ponder whether the Godfather has gone soft and they decide to Plot Evil Plots against him. The children make their bid for freedom and run to Lyde, but she points out running off without money will just end with Vorena the Younger becoming a prostitute as well, and they must stay with their father and suck up to him in order to survive.

Cicero pops by Octavian's to demand that Octavian surrender his legions, and threatens him with Brutus and Cassius and their twenty legions. This has the effect of bringing the imbalance of power to Octavian's attention, and he realises he must ally with Antony if he's going to win. So, essentially, Cicero spoils Brutus' perfectly good plan and brings about the end of the Republic himself by telling Octavian exactly what he's up against. Nice job, Cicero. (By the way, I love the way Atia comes in at the end of this scene and says 'Hello boys!' as if they were having orange juice and playing computer games together after school or something).

We see Servilia writing to Brutus, just to remind everyone that she's still alive. We also see Brutus, Cassius and their army riding into Greece on their way to Rome. Then we're back to Antony, who has got his act together and is planning a march on Rome to take out Octavian, to which Lepidus says 'hmmm' in a very Marge Simpson-type way. They are interrupted by the arrival of Atia, sent to broker peace between son and lover (Antony looks genuinely pleased to see her, which is rather sweet). Of course, she waits until she's got what she wanted before she tells him that.

The Godfather raises a toast to 'family', blissfully unaware that Vorena the Elder is doing the Roman equivalent of crossing her fingers behind her back, and the episode ends. I would have ended the episode one scene earlier, on Octavian and Antony, since to me that's much more interesting and much more dramatic, but the toast does have the effect of reinforcing the theme of this episode, which has been all about family and the breakdown or repair of familial relationships.

This is probably one of my favourite episodes of Rome, despite the fact is has perhaps the weakest opening and closing scenes - though my dislike of them is largely down to the fact I still find the historical characters much more compelling than the fictitious ones. But I love the episode overall because there is so much well played humour in it, set against some really powerful and dramatic moments, especially Octavian's positively chilling takeover of the Senate  and the most aggressive hug since The Godfather Part II between Octavian and Antony. Most importantly, it is becoming ever clearer that the Republic is totally and utterly doomed. Alas, poor Republic.

All Rome reviews

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: For Him the Bell Tolls

Skipping ahead a bit, as I borrowed this episode from a friend (thanks Amanda!). Also: Eomer is in this one! Yummmm. For some reason, he is going by the Roman name 'Cupid' while his mother goes by the Greek name 'Aphrodite'. And he looks ridiculous. It's got Haldir of Lorien in it as well.

As on Charmed, Aphrodite is depicted as a blonde bimbo with big boobs and a pink, flimsy outfit, who says things like 'this is like a brand new antique!'. Her method of seduction is the simpering type. Somehow, perhaps apart from the blonde hair and boobs, I doubt the Greeks would have imagined the goddess of love, fertility and sexual passion this way. She's more like the goddess of annoyingly simpering women who are never going to really give the guy what he wants. The bit about her being petty and spiteful is closer - but then, that goes for all the Greek gods.

On the other hand, I quite like the idea of Aphrodite vs Cupid as Lust vs Love - that's quite clever, and of course it's always a good story. And Aphrodite makes some truthful comments about love, in among the Valley Girl nonsense.

There's a nice theme running through the episode about heroes and sidekicks, which is fun. I feel sorry for Gabrielle when she describes herself as an expendable sidekick - sidekicks are more important than expendables! It is unfortunate, though, that it is now impossible to hear the phrase 'like Theseus, or Perseus' without thinking to yourself 'a lot of 'euses'.

I think this episode was supposed to be funny, but I'm afraid it didn't really match my sense of humour. It seems like a waste of lovely, poetic title that's supposed to be about death, but here just refers to the jingly bells with which Aphrodite enchants Joxer. Xena herself is also disappointingly absent, having ridden off somewhere and returning at the end of the episode without, apparently, anything interesting happening to her for a change! On the other hand, I'll happily sit through 45 minutes of shirtless Karl Urban any day.


Ileandra: You set me on fire!
Joxer: I know.

Cupid: That sucks! (Him saying it just sounds kind of funny)

Aphrodite: Love isn't just about happy endings. There's also jealous love, and unrequited love, and tragic love.

Gabrielle: Love is soft and gentle, it's not violent and cruel!
Aphrodite: You don't know much about love, do you?

No joke disclaimer, but the credits sequence is set to Joxer's heroic song, 'Joxer the Mighty'.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Simpsons: Tales from the Public Domain

Waaaaaay back in 1990, in their third ever full length episode, The Simpsons did an episode called 'Homer's Odyssey', which had nothing to do with Classics beyond the title, but was the episode in which Homer became safety officer at the nuclear power plant. It wasn't until season 13 that the show turned its attention to Homer's actual Odyssey, in 'Tales from the Public Domain'. The Odyssey is the first of three 'Classics for Children' Homer reads to Bart and Lisa (the other two are Hamlet and something about Joan of Arc). The Odyssey section is really funny - like all the best spoofs, it sticks reasonably closely to the source material while adding the usual out-of-time jokes (mailboxes, pop music).

Of course, the biggest problem with doing the Odyssey with Homer as the lead is that Odysseus is meant to be clever. Homer, therefore, is much cleverer and, indeed, braver than usual in this incarnation. It works though, and the episode contains what is possibly my favourite explanation so far for the whole horse business (Flanders!Priam collects giant wooden animals, but doesn't have a horse).

There were a couple of elements of the story here that don't get an airing as often as others - the Sirens, for example, are physically unattractive; only the song is appealing. I may never recover from that image of Patty and Selma trying to seduce people! (They're still after sex, not shipwrecks). We also see Circe turning Lenny, Karl and Moe into pigs - and, inevitably, Homer eats them. Lenny cries that he wants his eyes gouged out at one point as well, which may be a reference to Oedipus. Indeed, when Homer gets to Hamlet and tells Bart it starts with the murder of Hamlet's father, Bart asks if he gets to marry his mother, in reference to Freud's argument that Hamlet, along with Oedipus Rex, is an example of the Oedipus complex in literary form. I think Marge should worry about how enthusiastic Bart was about that. (Karl and Lenny as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is perfect, by the way).

This being a Trojan war story, of course, we have the obligatory jokes about just how long the war lasted. Homer!Odysseus' physical changes are predictable, but Helen of Troy now looking like Skinner's mother is pretty funny, and I liked the overflowing mailbox gag at Troy at the beginning. We also get the usual representation of Hades as the Christian hell, with added River Styx and dancing skeletons that may or may not be an homage to Harryhausen's skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts.

This section also included some really funny one-liners:

Flanders!Priam: Now throughout history when people get wood, they'll think of Trojans!

Hoemr!Odysseus: Sacrificing animals is barbaric! Now have the slaves kill the wounded.

Barney!Dionysus: You used to be fun! Where's the Zeus that used to turn into a cow and pick up chicks?
Mayor Quimby!Zeus: He grew up!

Also, from the unrelated but funny Blackboard gag: Vampire is not a career choice.

All in all, I thought this was a particularly successful Simpsons literary adaptation - though perhaps nothing will  ever quite beat the combination of James Earl Jones reading 'Nevermore' with Bart chirping up 'Eat my shorts!'

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Chelmsford 123: Odi et Amo

In this episode, Badvok gets an attractive young woman (Enya, presumably named after the famous singer) to pretend to be his sister and seduce Aulus so he can benefit from being the governor's brother-in-law. Unfortunately, not only does she hate Romans, she overcomes this prejudice to fall in love with Grasientus.

The title comes from Catullus' famous poem in which he describes his feelings towards Lesbia and it means 'I hate and I love'. It's very appropriate for Enya's feelings towards Grasientus, and Badvok also uses the narrow line between hate and love to try to convince Aulus that Enya, who hates him, actually loves him. Since Badvok is the one convincing Aulus, there's no direct reference to Catullus' poem, though his description of the emotional state would be a fair reading of it.

The funniest thing about this episode is that the only sex scene in Chelmsford 123 goes to Grasientus, of all people. This is a bit of a recurring theme in British comedy - Rimmer always got laid more often than anyone else on Red Dwarf as well. Since the driving theme behind British sitcoms tends to be that life is unfair and the protagonist is constantly suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, this is perhaps unsurprising. There's nothing like a truly odious character getting laid while a slightly less unpleasant character remains alone to remind us all that life can be frustrating.

It seems that 4oD now have a YouTube channel, so if you've never seen any Chelmsford 123 and you fancy a look, you can now watch the whole lot on You Tube.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Alexandria (by Lindsey Davis) (audio book)

I enjoy Lindsey Davis' Falco books a lot though, as with everything, I have a tendency to read them in the wrong order. (During a recent conversation with Brother, we realised that Harry Potter is, in fact, the only series of books I've actually read in the correct order. He has persuaded me to read A Song of Ice and Fire in the correct order as well though). I've read several of the earlier books and just one of the later ones. I listened to this one in the car while commuting around the country, so I was able to get some work done, get through the book and brighten up the car journey all at once! The downside of this method is that there were times when my attention wandered due to concentrating on the road, but I think I followed most of it OK. Some spoilers follow.

The particular attraction of this one (i.e. the reason I picked it when shopping for audio books on Amazon) is that it's set in Alexandria, and that's always fun. The mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian culture in ancient Alexandria is as fascinating today as it was back then and the exotic setting provides a Falco with a fresh set of idiosyncrasies to make cynical and witty remarks about. Davis has always moved Falco around regularly and it keeps his stories engaging while allowing us a lengthy guided tour of the ancient world (though as far as I can tell she still hasn't had him visit Dalmatia - I'm going to campaign for the next Falco book to be set there!).

Another regular feature of the Falco books is a trope also often associated with fantasy - where you take something from the modern world and give it a fantastical/historical spin. How much I like this tends to depend on what the thing is and how well it works in the new setting (Terry Pratchett's use of British driving tests as assassins' final exams in Pyramids is the definitive, brilliant example). In this case, Davis has the perfect historical subject - a large research library, and its inhabitants. Her description of the researchers sitting with piles of scrolls stacked up to mark their spot is very funny, spot on as a description of a research library and works perfectly well in a Roman context.

Of course, where we have the library in Alexandria, we frequently have fire. This particular fire is clearly smaller than the one that destroyed most of the library, the exact time and cause of which is disputed anyway. It does create an exciting set-piece though. In my head, Helena riding in on a Roman fire engine to save the day looks a bit like Boudicca. Speaking of Helena, it's wonderful to see a happily married couple in a long-running series. So few authors are able to resist the urge to break up or kill off one half of their official couples, but sometimes you just want to read about people being happy for a change. Granted, for those of us who are single Falco and Helena might occasionally be a bit too happy, but overall this is a very good thing.

As usual, Davis' book is meticulously researched (to the point where occasionally it felt a teensy bit like I'd strayed into a first year class on the history of Alexandria!). When she includes a fabulously squirmy autopsy sequence (this book is not for the squeamish - and this was nothing compared to a later death by fire) she explains clearly what the ancient laws concerning autopsy - or 'necropsy' - were and why these characters might feel moved to break them. It all makes perfect sense and allows her to establish an important fact about the dead man without it feeling like she's broken out of her setting (I bet some Romans did perform autopsies. Like first century grave-robbers, or something). And it's a great scene (shudder)!

I listened to the unabridged audio book read by Christian Rodska, who is the perfect voice for Falco. He's got his gritty, world-weary but ultimately hopeful character down to a tee. He is also one of the few male readers I've listened to who is able to lighten his voice to play a female character without sounding squeaky or mildly ridiculous (though to be fair, most of the others were trying to do little girls, which is even harder). His Aulus perhaps isn't quite clipped enough, and some of the accent choices, while they helped to keep the characters apart, were a bit random (the Scottish vet/pathologist made a weird sort of sense, but Geordie took me right out of the setting) but on the whole, it's a brilliant reading and he really gets the character of Falco - especially important for a book narrated in the first person.

Overall, this is a colourful and fun addition to the Falco series, though possibly not one to read at mealtimes. I'm now trying to decide whether to get another audio book, or to try out the BBC radio dramatisations, which have the advantage of being slightly shorter, and I could go back to the beginning and remind myself where the series started!

Alexandria. Another place to which, so far, I have not been!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Big Bang Theory: The Pirate Solution

Recently, I've been getting very into The Big Bang Theory, and catching up on old episodes. There are loads of Classical references peppered throughout the show, mostly involving Sheldon showing off how clever he is by boring everyone else with Classical trivia. This includes everything from actually relevant things like the Greek origin of the word 'physics', to his suggestion that the custom of toasting comes from a Roman custom involving dipping burnt bread into drinks (I have no idea whether that's true or not!). Then there's Howard's dirty dreams that apparently involve him being a horse from the waist down and are probably best not thought about...

The clip I wanted to post on doesn't actually have anything to do with Classics though. This clip comes from series 3, episode 4, in which Raj is forced to work with Sheldon or face deportation.

I love it because this is exactly what non-practical research is like! Just replace the whiteboards with copies of Greek and Latin texts. This is why the archaeologists are the ones who get movies made about them.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song

Well, that made... no sense whatsoever. Good fun though. Spoilers follow.

Before a bunch of Who fans have a go at me for not following the plot and accuse me of being a heathen with no interest in complex and challenging television, I would like to point out a few things. 1. I have had a very long week. 2. I have had a very long day, since I was at staff training at work all day, and then had a two-hour drive home. 3. I watched this with a large glass of fizzy white wine in hand, something that always goes to my head (typing this very blog post is, I confess, presenting something of a challenge). 4. I watched the episode together with CurrentHousemate, who has seen none of series 5 and only 'The Doctor's Wife' from series 6. She was the model viewing companion, but I felt the need to explain the odd bit of plot on occasion!

I do not think this is a particularly unusual set of circumstances in which to watch Doctor Who, and I think I missed some of the nuances, which I do think that is a problem with the show. Having said that, I did actually follow most of the plot pretty well and I enjoyed the episode very much, partly from sheer relief that Rory didn't die again. His military side was once more on display (though without the centurion costume), and that's always nice to see (what can I say, I like a man in uniform).

This episode gave us Winston Churchill as Caesar, thanks to River completely messing with Time in obscure and complicated ways. I'm assuming that the reference to him as 'Holy Roman Emperor' rather than 'Roman Emperor' is deliberate - the Holy Roman Empire was a Medieval-Early Modern empire that I know very little about, other than that one Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, did not get on with Henry VIII, and it had nothing to do with the Roman Empire (other than using the name for propaganda reasons). Since all of Time was totally mixed up, though, I think this was deliberate and the audience was supposed to notice it.

This episode's use of the Romans rather encapsulated all that I both like and dislike about Moffat's Who, I think. On the one hand, he clearly loves the Romans, and I'm all for that. We've had more Romans in the past two seasons than in the previous four decades, and I'm very happy about it (not least because it gives me a great excuse to blog the episodes they're in). On the other hand, Moffat's love of mixing things up in new and crazy ways, while it keeps things fresh, means we never really get any depth to any of the things he skims over. 'The Fires of Pompeii' is, ultimately, ten times more satisfying than all the Moffat-Roman episodes put together, because it delves into an event from Roman history and uses it and explores it. We get to know Caecilius and his family, we care about them, and we are invested in their future and that of Pompeii (doomed as it is). The Romans here, however, are just window dressing, like the the pterodactyls and the totally random hot air balloon-car things (that look like something out of the third Gormenghast book, which I haven't read because apparently it's weird). I love seeing them, and seeing the familiar SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus, 'the Senate and the people of Rome') all over the place, but it can never be truly satisfying when nothing really meaningful is done with them.

That goes for the episode, and indeed series 5 and 6 as a whole, too. I loved the Death!Chess, but I'd rather see a whole episode based around Death!Chess, that really explored the idea and what could be done with it (I'm very fond of 'Bad Wolf', which is similar I guess). Ian McNeice as Churchill is great and Spitfires in space back in series 5 was undeniably cool, but it made limited sense and denied us a real exploration of Churchill, Spitfires or Daleks (and yes, I know Mark Gatiss wrote that episode, but it was pretty clear from the Doctor Who Confidential that followed it that he was given clear orders from Moffat). Cleopatra turning out to be River Song is funny but I'd rather see a story about Cleopatra. The best episodes are those that take an idea and explore its ramifications in depth - like 'Vincent and the Doctor' (Van Gogh, depression), 'The Doctor's Wife' (the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS), or 'The Girl Who Waited' (Amy's character and faith in the Doctor).

Since River Song was featured heavily, we also had one obligatory archaeology joke - suggesting that archaeology is idle fantasy. As a text and literature-focused historian and classicist, I am duty-bound to find this very amusing. I tittered (it's totally untrue though, obviously).

As a whole, then, this episode was great fun - Simon Callow returning as Charles Dickens was probably my favourite moment (talking to Bill and Sian, my favourite Breakfast TV presenters - this will mean nothing to anyone outside the UK I'm afraid). Major questions were resolved, things all the fans had deduced years ago were confirmed, and I like the idea of River tearing Time itself apart for love. I'm soppy that way. There was a strong Douglas Adams vibe about the whole thing as well, which is always good (the Question that cannot be answered, as opposed to the Answer without a question, and Time getting stuck at 5.02pm, surely a Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul). Oh yes, and a military base in the pyramids - that was cool too. But next year, it would be nice to have a few more episodes that get stuck into a real idea and give it some extended thought, and preferably an arc that doesn't leave me reassuring CurrentHousemate that no, it's not really supposed to make sense.

All Doctor Who reviews
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