Sunday, 27 May 2012

Marking Season Part Deux

Hello everyone.

I'm still marking.

If I ever finish the marking (though at the moment I'm increasingly convinced I'm trapped in some kind of eternal marking purgatory) I will be writing an abstract on the underworld in film and a paper on gladiatorial combats. So, in order to get all my resources lined up for my own benefit if nothing else, please enjoy these underworld/gladiatorial highlights from the archives.

The Underworld
The Lord of the Rings
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Top Five Gladiatorial Combats
Star Trek: Bread and Circuses
Star Trek: The Gamesters of Triskelion
The Hunger Games (books)
The Hunger Games (film)
Main Spartacus: Blood and Sand page

There are many more posts I could add that talk about gladiators, but I do actually have to get back to the marking now!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Marking Season

Hello everyone. Just stopping by to say I'm going to have to take a break from blogging for a week or two as I'm drowning in a pile of marking. I hope the guy doing my flat inspection tomorrow isn't expecting it to be clean...

Caffeinated beverages are very important to me when marking. And the rest of the time.

I have, during this time of intense stress and eye strain, become quite addicted to Pinterest, largely because it's completely visual, which is a great relief after trying to read student handwriting for six hours. My page is here. I know the number of social networking sites around is getting silly, but so far this one really does seem worth a look. Maybe it's just 'cause I've always enjoyed sticking things on corkboards.

Anyway, while I get red pen all over my fingers and then rub my face, please enjoy these highlights from the archives! In honour of the exam season, I herewith present my posts on the most over-examined non-Classical author in history - Shakespeare.

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar (TV)
Romeo + Juliet

And, because you haven't really experienced Shakespeare until you've heard it in the original Klingon:
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

I'll be back soon (I hope!) :)

Monday, 21 May 2012

Rome: A Necessary Fiction

We're approaching the end of Rome, so this might be a good point to pause for a moment and take stock of where we are, history-wise.

As you probably know, Rome was cancelled while they were halfway through filming season 2. Originally, the plan was for season 2 to cover a fairly small amount of time (I think I remember reading somewhere that it was supposed to end with the Battle of Philippi, eventually covered in episode 6, or possibly its immediate aftermath). This would have meant the series never got to cover some of the most famous and most hotly anticipated incidents in this period of history - in particular, Antony and Cleopatra's relationship and their eventual defeat and suicide. Fans of I, Claudius would also have been denied the chance to see the Rome writers' interpretation of one of that series' most famous and colourful characters, Livia.

So, the writers decided to change their plan for the end of the season and speed up the plot. And we're talking F1/Nascar/Moto GP/choose your racing metaphor of choice levels of acceleration here. Episode 7, 'Death Mask', starts sometime after the Battle of Philippi, which was in 43 BC. So it's 42 BC at the latest. By the end of the episode, having entirely omitted Antony and Cleopatra's first relationship, it's at least 40 BC. This episode starts sometime after that and ends in 37 BC, with Antony (re)joining Cleopatra. Episode 9 skips the years 37-32 and starts somewhere around 32 or 31, in the lead-up to the Battle of Actium, and Episode 10 takes place in 31-30, from Actium to Antony and Cleopatra's suicides.

As far as the historical characters go, this isn't too disastrous. Shakespeare compressed Antony and Cleopatra's relationship and the events of the civil war after all, so why shouldn't Rome?! No, the problem lies in the attempts to conclude Pullo and Vorenus' story. The structure of the show requires their story to progress at much the same pace as the historical story, but the nature of the plot they were in the middle of doesn't work when spread across a nearly ten-year period. Eirene, for example, is pregnant in episode 6, 'Philippi' - in 43 BC - and still pregnant with the same child at the beginning of this episode, 3 years later. Caesarion, who is an historical character, ages at an appropriate rate but Vorenus' younger daughter and Niobe's son don't age in over a decade (I'll give them the elder daughter, who's old enough that her aging would be less obvious).

I don't disagree with the writers' decision on this. I'd have loved to see an entire season of Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt, and maybe even get Sextus Pompey and some pirates in there, but it wasn't to be, so I'm glad they decided to cover as much of the juiciest ground as possible, and get right up ton Octavian's final victory. It gives the series a really nice sense of closure and means they've covered the whole of the end of the Republic (plus you can move straight on to the first episode of I, Claudius afterwards). I do wish, though, that they'd wrapped up some of the soapy storylines - which, after all, they had more control over - a little more logically and perahps a little more quickly. But then, I was always more interested in the historical parts anyway.

The upshot of all this for this particular episode is that this episode has to occupy a strange sort of nether-time, drifting loosely away from any specific year in history, in order to get our characters to where they need to be for the last two epsiodes to cover the final war between Antony and Octavian.

As we open, Octavian is delivering a history lesson about the rape of the Sabine women and declares that the women of Rome are the ones who have conquered the world with their steely virtue and chaste morals (you just know at this point that this is the episode where we're going to meet Livia). It's accompanied by a montage reminding us of the various relationships currently in play - Atia has forgiven Antony enough to still be sleeping with him, Agrippa and Octavia are still together too, Gaia is evil.

Octavian here sets out his moral programme of anti-adultery and pro-marriage laws. In real life, this was something he did when firmly ensconced as emperor, and it was his daughter and grand-daughter who suffered under the laws (see I, Claudius). They've been moved up here (though to be fair, he clearly states that these are laws he will enact 'in the future'), partly to illustrate this aspect of Octavian's character, but also because this will provide the impetus for the accelerated break-up of Antony and Octavia's marriage and, by extension, the end of the Republic (partly). Maecenas thinks it's 'very amusing' (he'd be gone from Octavian's group of friends by the time the laws were enacted).

Maecenas points Livia out to Octavian as a prospective wife. He says she has just one child and she doesn't appear to be pregnant, as she was historically - a great but of genuine ancient gossip that sadly had to be jettisoned for time. She is already married though, and apart from the fact Octavian was already married and had a daughter, it's all roughly as recorded. Livia here comes across as a rather innocent-seeming girl. Appearances can be deceptive.

Timon is leaving for Jerusalem with his family, and Jocasta and Posca turn out, in a refreshing change from everyone else's misery, to be happily married. OK, this is based largely on him buying her stuff, but they both seem pretty content. Posca has a super secret meeting with Maecenas at which he, a freedman, has to point out to Maecenas that his slaves probably do understand him (though Maecenas insists they don't speak Latin). Posca is panicking because he and Maecenas are planning to nick a pile of gold from Antony and Octavian, presumably to keep Jocasta in jangly jewellery.

The Godfather, Dodgy and The Third Man seem to be in charge of transporting said gold and The Third Man's nose is out of joint because he is third in their own little triumvirate (which surely has been obvious to him for a long time and isn't likely to change because he sulks). Gaia brings Eirene poisoned tea, which the camera lingers on for a sufficiently long time that we have no doubt what's in it. Sure enough, the next scene is poor Eirene's death scene (with some random nudity from Dodgy, because they happen to be in bed at the time). Dodgy repeatedly insists she's not dying, all evidence (i.e. enormous amounts of blood) to the contrary. Dodgy's eulogy for her is rather sweet, though he still doesn't exactly know where his wife came from, which is a bit pathetic. Her funeral is attended only by Dodgy and the Godfather, which seems a shame, you'd think at least the Godfather's sulky children would come.

Because Dodgy was at his wife's funeral, The Third Man was given the job of transporting the gold, and now he's the one who's been seriously injured by a gang of thieves who've stolen it. The Godfather reassures Octavian that he's thoroughly investigating, but as he predicted, gets in trouble for not using Dodgy. Maecenas tries to imply this is where the weak link is, which given Dodgy had a pretty sound excuse is a bit desperate. Everyone needles and suspects everyone else, except Lepidus, who's convinced it was Gauls. Maecenas, it turns out, was not involved, and is convinced Posca and Antony have double-crossed him.

The Godfather goes to visit the other, evil Don to ask if he knows anything about the theft. You can tell he and Creepy Guy (the one seducing Sulky Eldest Daughter) get serious when the Godfather leaves because they shove their women out of the way so they can concentrate. Evil Don, who has in fact got the triumvirate's gold, has decided it's time to get rid of the Godfather once and for all and calls a selection of other mafia-types to work with him to that end.

Maecenas needles Octavian about Antony, still annoyed about the money. To get rid of Antony, he tells Octavian about the general lack of respect for the institution of marriage among his family. Octavian, strangely innocent as he is in personal matters (that won't change) is horrified and calls all four naughty children to dinner so he can tell them off. Aside from the five of them, only Livia and Maecenas are present.

In the lead-up to the exciting dinner, Octavian and Livia have a cosy little chat about how their sex life will work once they're married. It involves S&M. Livia seems quite happy with this arrangement. (There's actually something weirdly sweet about Octavian's anxiety to reassure her he won't be hurting her because he's mad at her).

The following scene is pretty much the last time many of the major characters are gathered in one room. It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that the group we are looking at comprise the grandfather, two great-grandfathers, two great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmother (twice over) of the Emperor Caligula. That is what these people's ultimate legacy will be. I just wanted to mention that.

Octavian declares that he is master of the family and proceeds to lay down the law. Octavia, Antony and Atia are pretty cross, but Agrippa 'fesses up to everything and apologises, trying to protect Octavia. Octavian declares that he'll lock up his mother and sister so they can't misbehave (given what he later did to his daughter and grand-daughter, they're getting off lightly by being allowed to stay in the city). He orders Antony to leave Rome all otgether, on pain of him telling everyone Antony's wife has been cheating on him with 'a pleb on my staff'. Octavia tells Livia she's marrying a monster and she and Atia are sent home with Maecenas. Atia tells Maecenas he's not done Octavian a favour by ratting them out. Agrippa gets to stay because Octavian needs him and his disappearance would cause a scandal. Octavian and Livia are left to thenselves and their stuffed songbirds. Livia looks quite smug - she's clearly aware that he's just permanently alienated his entire family and all his friends execpt Maecenas, leaving her to be his cloest confidante.

The most interesting thing about this alteration to history - done for time, partly - is that it shifts the blame for Antony's leaving Rome from Antony to Octavian. Here, Octavian kicks Antony out - right into the arms of Cleopatra. He seems to be trying to provoke war by doing so, which is an interesting change from the sources, which imply that Antony left because he wanted to, making his intentions even clearer by refusing to take Octavia with him (she had just patched up a quarrel between him and Octavian, that being more or less her job). Of course, these sources were all written during the reign of, and presumably with the blessing of, Augustus/Octavian, but that's the record we have. The fact that Rome represents a scenario that's the exact opposite - Octavian forcing Antony's hand by kicking him out rather than simply waiting for him to leave - is quite interesting and perhaps, even, may be closer to the truth - if not, it's certainly plausible.

The Godfather, not being stupid, has reaslied it was Evil Don who stole the gold, and Dodgy suspects The Third Man betrayed them to him, so he goes off to deal with the problem in his own special way. But just as things are looking bad for The Third Man, the Godfather finds one of the little dolls Creepy Guy has been giving his daughter and realises who the actual traitor was. They have a confrontation and she finally tells him she hates him for killing their mother, cursing them and abanding them to be enslaved. Then she pulls a knife on him and says she won't go as easily as Niobe, at which point the Godfather finally tells her outright that no, he didn't kill thier mother. He thinks about killing her, but the other children are watching, and he lets her go.

Antony tries to go and say goodbye to his lover/mother-in-law but the house is under guard. So he yells, which we know from the previous episode is pretty effective. Atia comes to the doorway so they can see but not touch each other. It's genuinely sad, and for once Antony seems as upset about the whole business as she is. He promises to send for her when the time comes and seems to honestly mean it. He kisses her hand (the guards aren't that fussy) and she goes inside, unaware that this is the last time they'll see each other alive.

Posca is helping Antony burn incriminating documents when the Godfather turns up. He tells him Dodgy will retrieve the gold and begs to be taken to Alexandria because he can't stay in Rome. Antony, who I can only assume has some kind of random man-crush on him, says yes as long as he won't turn to drink (as Stoic types often do when disappointed in life, apparently). The Godfather says goodbye to Dodgy but decides not to see his children. He asks Dodgy to tell them he tried (the running away as soon as things get bad does not make this a convincing argument).

Atia has snuck Agrippa into the kitchen to see Octavia, which is really sweet of her. The way Atia and Octavia get closer throughout season 2 is really nice. It all goes horribly wrong, though, when Agrippa explains that he isn't going to run away with her and, in fact, he's come to break up with her because he honestly believes Octavian has the right to do what he wants with all of them. It's heart-breaking to see the tragic demise of his and Octavia's relationship but it does fit rather nicely with what's known of Agrippa (ignoring the fact he never historically had an affair with Octavia). Agrippa was the only one of Octavian's friends who stayed that way until his (Agrippa's) death, the only one after Antony allowed to marry into Octavian's family, his co-consul several times and it was Agrippa he gave his ring to when he thought he was dying in 23 BC. Much as Agrippa seems like a bit of a wet sop at times, not only is he a brilliant general, he is the one Octavian really trusts, and this scene provides a reason, within Rome's version of events, for that to be the case.

Octavia also mentions that she's pregnant, but doesn't care who the father is becasue 'niether man is worth a brass obol.' Given that the family tree is quite incestuous enough already, we can only hope it's Antony.

Dodgy and The Third Man lead an all-out war against Evil Don and the others (Gaia fights along with them, which is the only sympathetic thing she does throughout the series). Our guys win, obviously. The death by axe of Creepy Guy is especially satisfying.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Antony enters Cleopatra's palace with due pomp and circumstance (and newly energised version of the theme tune) and, while clearly underessing each other with their eyes, they greet each other with the single words; 'Antony.' 'Cleopatra'. It's astonisingly effective, playing on one of the few things the writers can rely on their audience probably already knowing and making the most of the little runtime the show has left by allowing our imaginations to fill in what the series doesn't have time for - something that they will rely on even more in the following episode, when we'll be skipping ahead by five years.

Impressively for an episode with such a difficult job to do, this is also a really good bit of television. Perhaps the need to compress everything actually had some good side-effects, as the series focuses only the most important storylines and produces a full and fast-paced hour. The Godfather and Dodgy continue to Forrest Gump their way through history - here, they are indirectly responsible for the end of what's left of the Roman Republic, just as predicted back in episode 2 of season 1. Actually, Gaia is. Because she poisoned Eirene, Dodgy wasn't guarding the gold and Evil Don was able to steal it. Because Evil Don stole the gold, Maecenas, thinking it was Antony, ratted Anotny and the others out to Octavian. Because of this, out of a combination of hurt pride and general power-madness, Octavian kicked Antony out of Rome and sent him to Alexandria, where he joined forces with Cleopatra against Octavian. I knew I didn't like Gaia.

Quite a lot of European history is, essentially, these three's fault

As well as doing a decent job pulling all the threads into place, this episode had some really nice bits of quotable dialogue in it:

Octavian: You have many talents, Agrippa. Seduction is not one of them.

Agrippa: I would go with you to Hades - to Britain, even!

The town crier reads out a fantastic advert for slaves 'to suit all budgets' at one point.

And quoted again, just because it's so brilliantly, economically effective:
Cleopatra: Antony.
Antony: Cleopatra.

All Rome reviews

Friday, 18 May 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Maternal Instincts

I've been meaning to catch the musical episode of Xena, 'The Bitter Suite', for ages, since it's so well known and has had quite an impact on genre television. When the Internet suggested it was more or less the second part of a two-parter, with this as the first, I figured I'd better watch this one before watching the musical.

My goodness, that was depressing. This flippin' musical had better be worth it!

See, I'm an old-fashioned girl. I like my stories to follow certain narrative rules. No one dies without there being some purpose to it (unless it's a World War One story), the dog always escapes while the rest of New York burns, and you never kill the baby. Or the offspring, of whatever age, of any of your principal characters. This is why I've never watched Trainspotting. There are exceptions - I'm weirdly fond of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, probably because the revival of Spock compensates emotionally for the offing of Kirk's son. But for the most part - keep the kids(/grown-up offspring) alive.

Of course, poor Solon was doomed from the moment Xena said he could come with her, since these shows have to maintain the status quo. It's a shame, as he was pretty likeable and it might actually have been interesting to shake up the cast dynamics with a teen. It's also interesting that Xena obviously got to the evil-child idea and the bad guy quoting vaguely Biblical sounding phrases ('my father's kingdom is at hand') years before Joss Whedon went anywhere near them. I guess that hideous Jasmine-storyline in Angel is, ultimately, Xena's fault.

On the subject of children, this episode also saw the return of the woman who gave birth to a half-baby, half-foal, which will never stop looking ridiculous. And centaurs apparently grow as unnaturally quickly as Evil Babies, Miracle BabiesAlien-Implant Babies etc. Or possibly, to be fair, as fast as horses. Xena leaving her son with a centaur to raise him is very Greek-myth-appropriate; Chiron was practically running a nursery of budding Greek heroes.

The various Gimmicks of Plot in this episode end up prodding Gabrielle to kill her own daughter (something to do with the child being inherently evil from some earlier episode I haven't seen). This is a recurring subject from Greek myth that I've been thinking about a bit lately because one of my students is writing an essay on it - thank you to Rachel for most of what I'm about to talk about! Usually, parents will kill their own children for one of two reasons. One: the father kills his child/children because of the gods - Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter under orders, Heracles is driven mad by Hera (I think that got a reference early on in the episode actually). There's an interesting parallel there with the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham has to be willing to kill Isaac on God's orders, but ultimately is spared having to do so. Two: the mother kills her children as an act of revenge against their father (Medea, Procne). (There's a third category, groups of children who are sacrificed, but this post is long enough already. I'll save that for when I get around to doing Doctor Who's 'The Horns of Nimon'). This is one of those Greek horror stories designed to get the biggest cringe of disgust out of the audience (see also: Oedipus) as a parent killing their own child is often thought to be one of the worst crimes imaginable.

(This sort of child-killing is distinct from the infanticide of very young babies by exposure, which was common in both myth and reality in the ancient world - there's usually some sort of ceremony to accept a child into the community, after which it's murder to kill the child. Also, newborns are usually exposed, not stabbed/throats cut/chopped up and fed to their father etc. It makes a difference - exposed children might be rescued by someone who can afford to raise them or keep them as a slave).

Thing is, I suspect these particular Greek myths stem from most of the myth-makers - poets, pot-painters, sculptors - being men who somehow thought it was plausible that a woman would be so angry with her husband, she would murder her own children just to spite him. Notice (as Rachel pointed out to me the other day) the men are never the ones choosing to kill their children, only the women. By contrast, the modern crime of familicide not only includes both partner and children and has completely different motivations, but is also more commonly (though not exclusively) committed by men. In sum: the ancient Greeks were rather sexist and didn't understand women.

Science fiction and fantasy also occasionally plays with this plot, as way of torturing its main characters as much as humanly possible. Generally, it will go for the first version - substitute evil aliens/weird technology for the gods, and you've got Torchwood: Children of Earth. More often, the situation will be more of an Abraham and Isaac story (e.g. Fringe, 'The Firefly' and others), because a) it's less depressing and b) there's a part of you that can never quite forgive a character who kills their own offspring, because it's such a horrific thing to do. Well, there's a part of me, anyway. Whatever mortal danger the planet was in at the time, I still prefer to pretend Children of Earth never happened.

Ultimately, whether or not this kind of story works depends on whether you want people to sympathise with your murderous character and whether you come up with a good enough reason for them to do something so awful. I'm not sure I can quite get behind Gabrielle's reason - however guilty she felt, I can't help thinking the big mistake was sending the potentially evil child to hang out with Solon by herself. Just supervise her better, Gabrielle! But then, I haven't seen the episode that explains the origins of Evil Baby, so maybe that would make a difference. More pressing is the problem that I can't see how Xena could ever forgive Gabrielle for inadvertently causing the death of her son. This musical has a lot of work to do.

They look far too happy. Naturally, he's doomed.

(Oh yeah, Callisto was in this episode too. She and Xena yelled at each other about their respective pain. A lot of rocks fell on her head.)


Hope: They'll kill what they love most... their children. How very Greek.

Xena: Unless the impossible's happened she's trapped for good. This is the trouble with living in mystical myth-time - you never get to watch TV, so you can never become genre savvy

Disclaimer: Xena and Gabrielle's relationship was harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Monday, 14 May 2012

Shadowlands (dir. Richard Attenborough, 1993)

I love Shadowlands, though I don't watch it all that often as it's too depressing! As a biography of CS Lewis, it's a wee bit misleading - as well as factual bits and pieces like the fact that Joy had two sons, not one (and they probably aged a bit over eight years) and that Lewis worked for Cambridge in the 1950s as well as Oxford, the depiction of Lewis as a sexually naive and socially awkward man is, shall we say, not the impression one gets from his autobiography. And Hopkins' performance, though wonderful, mesmerising and all-round brilliant, is fast and frenetic, rather than the slow and thoughtful manner of a man who may have been the inspiration behind Treebeard. None of that matters though, because it's a film, not an historical document, and as a film, it's wonderful (Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham has also observed that is does a good job of capturing the emotion, if not the facts, of that time).

Appropriately for a biopic of someone who loved Classical literature so much, there are a few Classical references scattered throughout the film. During one of my favourite scenes, in which the wonderful James Frain's Whistler falls asleep in a seminar (I've done that), Lewis is teaching Aristotle's views on character. Some of Aristotle's rules for drama have become accepted an essential to all good fiction (stories should probably have a beginning, middle and end), others less so (unity of time and place is so rare as to be a novelty). This one is somewhere in the middle - Lewis talks about Aristotle's suggestion that the audience/reader should not be told why a character acts in a certain why, but shown it through their actions. Good advice, I suspect. Anything involving Whistler is a highlight in this film - especially his observation to Lewis that 'we read to know we are not alone', which feels very true.

Another scene has Christopher Riley needle Lewis about the soul in Roman terms. I'm sure I once read somewhere that Christopher Riley is a fictional character, a sort of composite of Tolkien (who is noticeably absent, presumably because of his real-life disapproval of Lewis 'strange' marriage, which he wasn't told about until afterwards) and other friends of Lewis' (probably Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, though I can't remember if either of those were atheists). Riley is a staunch atheist who prods Lewis about this intermittently, and at one social gathering he mixes that up with a big old dollup of two thousand-year-old sexism, as he insists that men have intellect (animus) where women have soul (anima). In Latin, both could be roughly translated as 'soul' or 'mind', but animus refers to the rational, logical mind, anima to the emotional. Joy puts him in his place, and very satisfying it is too.

There's one other possible Classical shout-out - when Whistler steals a book from Blackwells (because apparently having access to the entire Bodleian Library isn't enough for him) I could swear he's stealing a Loeb - editions of Classical texts with Latin or Greek on one side and English on the other. This one is red, so it would be Latin. At least he's stealing something interesting. As long as it's not Cicero.

The description of the' shadowlands' of the title given in the film doesn't entirely reflect Lewis' concept of the 'shadowlands', which he sets out in The Last Battle. The idea is related to Plato's myth of the cave, which Lewis had already drawn heavily upon in the climax of The Silver Chair (in which the Witch-Queen of the Underworld tries to convince our heroes that the world above, the sun and Aslan are just a dream). In Plato's Republic, Socrates imagines people watching shadows projected on the wall of a cave, and how dazzled they would be to walk out into the real light. Lewis imagines this Earth (or Narnia) as the cave and shadow-pictures (shadows and dust, Maximus! ahem, sorry), and the afterlife as the real world. The way the idea is brought up in the film makes it sound more like a 'grass is always greener' sort of problem, or a statement about how you never know what's round the corner (it's mentioned immediately before Joy collapses and is diagnosed with cancer). Lewis' idea is a little bit deeper than that, though for the most part his ideas on grief and suffering are well represented in the film.

This conversation, by the way, is also one of several points in the film where someone observes that when Lewis asks a question, he already has the answer waiting - that's what a life of academic teaching will do to you I'm afraid.

Towards the end of the film, the couple go to Herefordshire, which is another minor alteration. In real life, they went to Greece a few months before Joy died. It's an interesting change. It's mainly aesthetic - the film is so British it hurts. But the shift in scene and the introduction of the idea that the young Jack thought the valley they visit was heaven generates a rather simpler view of 'heaven' than Lewis usually described (it actually seems more like one of the simple hobbit pleasures Tolkien was so keen on). This image of heaven being in a wet English valley is more like a reader's or filmmakers' view of Narnia, the element of Narnia that is Northern Ireland writ big. But the real Lewis chose to go to Greece, the only time he left the UK except to fight in France in World War One. Greece is a land of pagan wonder, of ancient mysteries and stories that are as difficult as they are fascinating. Greece is closer to the Narnia that's filled with Roman woodland spirits and pagan gods of ecstasy, the Narnia that tends to be played down or edited out of cinematic or televisual interpretations. That would have been a rather different scene in the film, with a very different tone.

Shadowlands is a beautiful film and well worth seeing. It's also an excellent advert for Oxford as a tourist destination (I've been to hear the May morning singing in Oxford, which is great fun, albeit noisy, crowded and full of very drunk undergraduates who've been up all night. And they block off the edges of the bridge to stop people jumping off it, as the river isn't actually very deep there). The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Hopkins and Frain - and thanks to imdb, I've just discovered that the kid is Timmy from Jurassic Park, so that's one mystery that's been bothering me for years cleared up. Just make sure you have a big box of tissues to hand for the end.

Images from the May morning singing, 2011

More posts on CS Lewis and Tolkien

Friday, 11 May 2012

Top Five Battle Scenes

I have a new article up at Den of Geek - the time loop episodes article I mentioned a few days ago.

Ancient warfare is a difficult thing to represent on screen. Hoplite warfare in particular, which consisted largely of pushing and shoving, does not work cinematically (in one battle scene in 300, they give it a good go for a minute or two before saying to heck with it and going into comic-book-style slo-mo). And a good battle scene is quite hard to do under any circumstances, needing a combination of close action featuring our heroes and villains and sweeping shots of the battle as a whole (see for example every battle scene in The Lord of the Rings).

Military history is very much not my area, so these have not been chosen for their fidelity to ancient battle tactics. Nor have they been chosen necessarily for artistic merit or violence level - I'm not that into gore or screen violence. I like scenes that surprise me or that feature powerful character development, or a fresh angle on an old trope, or something like that. Or that just end with one army turning into a pile of dust. Whatever.

5. 300 Spartans vs the Persian Army and a Frickin' Huge Rhino, 300
Are we talking World War Three here? On the Greek side, obviously not, there are just 300 Spartans and some random Athenians (that being kind of the point). On the Persian side, though, we've got a huge army representing the biggest empire in the Western/Near Eastern world, so the label might apply. World War 0.5, perhaps.
Swords or pistols? Swords, arrows, Frickin' Huge Rhino.
Bloodless carnage? Definitely not.
Do the goodies win? Define 'win'... Technically our Greek heroes lose, but although the battle is lost, the war is eventually won.
Makes the list because... The battle sequences in 300 are deliberately ridiculous, spraying blood everywhere to ape the graphic novel images, showing grown men running around in their underpants, and let us not speak of the guy with the claws. But two moments stand out as being pretty awesome. One is the moment when, having quoted the phrase attributed to Leonidas by Plutarch (on being told the Persians had so many arrows they blotted out the sun, he replied, 'that's nice, we'll fight them in the shade' - from Sayings of Spartans) as the Persian arrows come flying at them, our heroes just crouch under their big shields and have a rest. But top prize goes to the Frickin' Huge Rhino that one of our guys shoots in the eye so it slides to the ground at his feet. Totally unhistorical I'm sure, utterly daft and probably implausible, but you gotta love it. It's a Frickin' Huge Rhino for crying out loud!

4. The Magi vs the Army of Anubis, The Mummy Returns
Are we talking World War Three here? The entire world is indeed at stake. Literally.
Swords or pistols? Magi with swords against... whatever it was the army of Anubis was wielding. More swords and jackal teeth, probably.
Bloodless carnage? The film's PG-13, so yes. Oded Fehr gets attractively dusty, that's about it.
Do the goodies win? Yes.
Makes the list because... OK, this battle is daft, tame and not particularly interestingly filmed. But it makes the list for two great moments. There's the fantastic 'oh shit' moment when, having defeated one wave of CGI bad guys, a much bigger wave appears over the sand dune (it's pretty similar to Theoden's face when he sees the oliphaunts). And the glorious ending, as the army of Anubis blows away into dust just at the moment they were about to make contact with Oded Fehr and his thin black line of surviving Magi. It's corny, it's cheesy, it's daft; I love it.

3. Romans vs Pirates, Ben-Hur (1959)
Are we talking World War Three here? Not really, though it's a fairly big naval battle.
Swords or pistols? Ships. And some swords I think, but it's the ship-ramming that sticks in the mind.
Bloodless carnage? Mostly. There's some artful blood smeared on the survivors' gleaming bodies.
Do the goodies win? It looks bad at first, but the Romans prevail in the end.
Makes the list because... It was a bit of a toss-up between this version and the silent 1925 one. The 1925 version has a shot of a Roman prisoner tied to the top of the ship's battering ram while they're ramming the Roman ship, screaming as he's rowed towards oblivion. It's pretty cool. But the 1959 version is just so well done, creating a tense, exciting sequence, the most terrifying moment of which has to be the increasingly fast rhythm of the drummer and the cry 'ramming speed!'

2. The Slaves vs the Masters, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, 'Kill Them All'
Are we talking World War Three here? No, just one rebellion in one ludus, but it would lead to a two-year war between an increasingly large slave-led army and the Roman army, so it's a pretty big deal.
Swords or pistols? Anything that comes to hand, really. But there are quite a few swords involved.
Bloodless carnage? I don't remember anyone's face getting smashed in, so by Spartacus' standards it's almost tame... No, not really, it's majorly bloody.
Do the goodies win? Define 'goodies'... (Crixus stabs a pregnant woman in the stomach. There are no white hats here).
Makes the list because... Spartacus was going to have to do something pretty epic in its season one finale to top 12 episodes of carnage, and it succeeds. Flashing between the immediate build-up to the battle and the planning stages a few days before until it's time to go all out and ending with our 'heroes' walking, bloody and determined, away from the ludus while Batiatus lies dying inside, this provides the spectacular burst of violence we'd been waiting all season for.

1. Romans vs Germans, Gladiator
Are we talking World War Three here? No, though it's implied this battle brings a 20-year on-and-off war to an end, which is quite something.
Swords or pistols? Swords and flaming arrows.
Bloodless carnage? No, though it's lacking the chopping-people-in-half shenanigans of the later gladiatorial combat.
Do the goodies win? Assuming the Romans are goodies, yes.
Makes the list because... After launching into frenetic, hand-held camerawork and close-up fighting scenes and seeing Maximus nearly kill one of his own men by mistake, as the battle rages on, the fight is slowed down and the music switches to a lyrical piece (I think it might be a waltz). Some might call it cheesy, but I love this scene and the slo-mo bit really makes it for me. That's the moment where the film reaches for a bigger emotional wallop, rather than just showing us men chopping each other up for ten minutes. It's the moment I fell in love with the film.

And the worst... I find the battle scene in Spartacus rather slow and dull, but the random pinky-red scene when Alexander is shot in Alexander probably takes it.

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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Stargate SG-1: Crystal Skull

'Crystal Skull' is one of my favourite episodes of SG-1, partly because I've had a fondness for 'out of phase' episodes ever since Geordi and Ro thought they might be ghosts in TNG's 'The Next Phase' but mainly because it's so delightfully dappy. Ever since I saw this episode, I've chosen to blame all unsolved historical mysteries (particularly the question of what happened to the Mycenaeans) on 'GIANT AAAALIENS!', in suitably ludicrous accent.*

The MacGuffin for this episode is a Mayan crystal skull and the aforementioned Giant Aliens have something to do with the Mayans. I know absolutely nothing about Mayan civilization other than that their calendar comes to the end of some sort of cycle in 2012, so I can't comment on anything relating to them - though I will say I'm pretty sure they never built any Egyptian-style pyramids, as seen on the alien planet here, only step pyramids.

This episode follows the classic template, on which the entire series is based, of a supposedly mad archaeologist's crazy theory turning out to be true. It has to be said, Daniel thoroughly deserves all the grief he goes through here, since he apparently laughed at his grandfather's Giant Aliens story while claiming that the pyramids weren't built by the Egyptians (and his grandfather was just as bad). Just as, in sci-fi and fantasy, all folktale creatures are real and all myths are true (albeit often in a skewed way - the gods usually turn out to be aliens), in SFF all completely insane theories propagated on the internet about the pyramids being built by aliens and the world ending in 2012 are also true. Needless to say, this is not the case in real life. In a way, the pyramids-built-by-aliens stuff isn't too much of a problem, as it's so obviously batty - more problematic are the more plausible but, from an historical and academic point of view, equally daft ideas that float around the internet; something Egyptology suffers from in particular, because it's so popular, and because mummies and pyramids lend themselves so easily to the crazy.

Since Daniel is temporarily out of commission during this episode, the team have to turn to their second archaeologist, Dr Robert Rothman. Over the course of three series, the show had been gradually evolving Daniel from the stereotypical nerd he'd been presented as in the movie. His allergies hadn't been mentioned since the pilot episode, he was fitting in more and more with his military companions and becoming more like Indiana Jones and less like Professor Frink and most importantly, between season 2 and season 3, he'd cut off his floppy hair and gone for a shorter, tougher style. When Daniel is indisposed in this episode and the earlier 'Forever in a Day', the writers take the opportunity to bring back the classic nerd in the form of Rothman, who seems to have even worse allergies and even more trouble communicating, and makes it worse by adding utter incompetence to the picture (goodness knows why the military hired this guy for a super-important, top secret assignment). I suspect the representation of Rothman is supposed to show how much Daniel has grown as a character over the past couple of years, but all it really does is imply that archaeologists are all huge geeks with allergies. Honestly, if your hay-fever was that bad, I'm not sure you'd choose digging as a career.

One of the things I like about these episodes is the way it makes 'ghosts' of regular characters. It's always fun giving a regular a chance to snark at everyone else when they can't hear him. The scene where Daniel listens to Hammond's phone call with his grand-daughter and hears how much he means to the general is lovely and there's a great payoff when it turns out that Nick could see Daniel all along and heard every word. I also like the metaphysical and philosophical crisis the characters are plunged into when they're forced to consider the possibility that they've died and are hanging around as a ghost. And I'm a sucker for a good ghost story in any form. (By the way, Daniel starts to think he might be dead because he isn't hungry or thirsty. Presumably he doesn't need to pee either, but is too polite to say so, even when no one else can hear him). The Giant Aliens bit of this episode is utterly daft, and I think we're starting to learn that crystal skulls as MacGuffins are not always overly effective, but the 'out of phase' elements, and some touching scenes between Daniel and his grandfather, raise this up and make it a solid, fun installment of the series.

All Stargate reviews

*Jan Rubes, who was in Witness, is using his own, perfectly sensible accent - my imitation of it is ludicrous.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Morecombe and Wise: Antony and Cleopatra

One of Morecombe and Wise's most famous sketches, this 1971 14-minute skit stars Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra, Ernie Wise as Mark Antony and Eric Morecombe as Octavian.

The target of this sketch is, of course, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Some of the humour is a bit dated, some of it is incomprehensible outside of Britain, but some of it is pure genius - particularly the Egyptian dancing and the reference to 'beauty like what I have got', delivered in grand Shakespearean style.

None of the sketch is really engaging with the ancient world itself, other than indirectly through stories made popular by Shakespeare, like Cleopatra and the asp. I always find it interesting to see receptions of the ancient world that are really receptions of Shakespeare, since it boils ancient history down to a few repeated components, which become the most famous incidents and characters from the ancient world. This happens particularly often in material from the 1960s and 1970s, presumably because after 1964's Fall of the Roman Empire, there were no major Hollywood epics set in the Classical world (there were other films - art films like Pasolini's Medea, or Sebastiane, or Fellini Satyricon, but not the big popular epics). These days, audiences tend to engage with the Classical world through well known films like Gladiator or 300, but in older comedy, Shakespeare is often the focus (and Cleopatra, of course) - at least until 1976, when I, Claudius came along.

Anyway, this sketch is deservedly famous, partly just because it's funny seeing an actress so well known for serious roles and for playing powerful Queens (Elizabeth I in Elizabeth R) speaking Ernie's lines. I love the bright purple feather-duster-style fan and the way Cleopatra dangles grapes over Eric's face, undercutting the classic symbols of decadence (so cliched now I can never take them seriously, even in otherwise perfectly serious scenes, like some of Maecenas' scenes in Rome). I also like the gag with Eric's shoes, which is one of those jokes you watch as a child and think nothing of, then watch again as an adult and suddenly realise what the joke was - with appropriate horrified reaction at the idea these idols of your childhood knew what sex was (don't get me started on the asp bit). Clips from this sketch quite often appear on comedy compilation and celebration shows, but thank you to whoever uploaded the whole thing to YouTube - it's great to see it in full!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Been There, Done That

I was writing an article on time loop episodes the other day, so I dug out this season three Xena episode, in which Xena is forced to live the same day over and over and over again, while everyone around her remains blissfully unaware of what's happening.

Although they've been around longer than the film (TNG's 'Cause and Effect' predates it by a year) these episodes are often known as 'Groundhog Day episodes' and the SG-1 classic episode 'Window of Opportunity' gives the film a shout-out. Xena, however, is actually closer to the plot of Groundhog Day than most, something it's able to pull off because of the pseudo-Classical setting.

Groundhog Day never explains exactly what was causing Phil Connors to repeat the day over and over until he got it right, though I can't help feeling some kind of morally or romantically inclined deity would be the only possible explanation. A few TV shows might be able to get away with an unexplained plot of that type - Quantum Leap, of course, and The X-Files could do a beautiful, tragic time loop episode ('Monday') with no explanation because it was all about unexplained phenomena. Most shows, though, can only get away with this sort of inexplicable mysticism once or twice, and for the sake a major and usually quite soppy plot point (magic snowfalls in California, people popping in and out of existence, that sort of thing). When it comes to a fairly standard plot of the week, there usually needs to be some kind of pseudo-scientific or show-logic-based reason for it (a spell, if it's that kind of show) with an accompanying, logical reason why whichever specific characters are able to remember the loop (if any) remember it.

Xena, however, is a show based on ancient mythology. Ancient mythology is largely driven by the actions of gods, and gods can do whatever they like! So Xena is able to ape Groundhog Day much more closely than most shows, though it provides a more logical and solid explanation for events than the film does. The female half of a young Romeo and Juliet-style couple (named Hermia, to carry on the Shakespearean theme) will die tomorrow, but Cupid agrees to let the young man live 'today' over and over again until a hero comes to put things right. Ancient Cupid wasn't in the habit of granting wishes so much as destroying people's lives by throwing his arrows around, but the logic of it works perfectly well (though we are sadly denied an appearance from Cupid himself).

Cupid's offscreen role as a plot device is the only substantial Classical reference in this episode. There's a wonderful moment where the young man says he didn't realise Xena was the hero sent to put things right because he was expecting a 'Hercules, or Sinbad' - which, anachronistic sailors aside, is a perfectly exasperating bit of potentially ancient sexism. When Gabrielle is wondering why the two 'houses' are in the middle of a feud she mentions that they both worship the same god, showing the usual lack of acknowledgement of the nature of ancient religion (everyone worshiped lots of gods so the chances of a religious feud - at least as bad as this one - were fairly slim, though it wasn't impossible). Mostly, both plot and tone are inspired by Shakespeare, mixed in with the show's usual pan-global, vaguely medieval aesthetic.

The episode is played as a broad comedy which mostly works, except that the tone sits oddly with the scenes where one main character after another drops dead. And although I don't like Joxer much, the moment where Xena actually kills him seems to be going a bit far, especially as she doesn't yet know what's causing the loop and therefore can't guarantee that it won't stick. As far as I can remember, I'm pretty sure Phil Connors only deliberately killed himself on his loops, and on SG-1, even when he knew he would loop again, the most drastic thing O'Neill did was resign and kiss Carter, which would be embarrassing but not fatal if the loop were to be unexpectedly broken. Because the episode so resolutely refuses to take itself seriously, it's impossible to take any of the characters' emotions or reactions seriously either. Having said that, Xena's slow breakdown and Gabrielle and Joxer's reactions as she starts to lose it completely are both funny and make perfect sense. And the loop where she kills the rooster is strangely satisfying.


Xena: No, no, yes, no, I tried that, yes both ways, no, I don't know, no again. Are there any more questions? Good.

Disclaimer: The rooster was not harmed during the production of this motion picture, although his feathers were severely ruffled. However, a little gel and mousse straightened out the mess.

All Xena reviews

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