Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Twenty Twelve: Series 1, Episode 3

The main event may be over, but the London Olympics are far from done. The Cultural Olympiad is ongoing, to which end I spent 6 hours last Saturday in a chemical factory in Birmingham watching musicians dangle from the ceiling and fly around in helicopters as part of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus licht ('Wednesday from light' - it makes about as much sense in any language). Personally, my reason for doing this was that my brother was singing with Ex Cathedra in the World Parliament scene (which bore a distinct resemblance to Plato's Symposium, except no one suggested boys were better lovers than women. And everyone was singing the whole time). More objective reviews may be found herehere and here. And tomorrow, of course, is the Opening Ceremony for the Paralympics, which I am very much looking forward to seeing next week.

As a thank you for putting them up for the musical-helicopter-extravaganza, Mum and Dad bought me the complete DVD set of Twenty Twelve, a BBC mockumentary sitcom about the organising of the London Games that I'd missed most of first time around. I'm sure there are parts of Twenty Twelve that were pure fiction, as in the end, the Games seemed to go off pretty well. But there were quite a few aspects of the show that were frighteningly accurate. The second episode, for example, had a coach carrying delegates from Rio de Janeiro getting completely lost in London because the coach driver didn't know where he was going. When Brother and I took a special Olympics coach (from First Great Western as is happens) to see the table tennis in the first few days of the Games, the coach driver spent 15 minutes driving around the same roundabout in Coventry because he had no idea where he was going, and when we got the Olympic Park, he disappeared up a small side street and then had to turn around in it (luckily there was a handy car park). And that was only the start of our transport difficulties... Anyway, suffice to say, some aspects of the show are pretty accurate.

Episode 3 of Twenty Twelve sees an unexpected hiccup in the building of the Aquatic Centre, as the site for the Centre turns out to be contain a Roman burial site (possibly along with some other Roman stuff involving cheese - I didn't really follow that bit). This may have been what Fictional!Boris Johnson was trying to explain on the phone, apparently in Latin. (We Classicists are mostly very pleased that the Mayor of London is so keen on our subject, but it is possible everyone else in the country is less enthusiastic).

Situations like this are basically a nightmare for everyone involved. Although new finds are always exciting, no archaeologist wants to rush in and tear as much to possible to pieces as quickly as they can to meet a building deadline (the archaeologist here is particularly unimpressed at being offered two days, which is a nice touch. Real archaeology, as opposed to TV archaeology, takes a lot longer than two days). This sort of emergency dig - known as rescue archaeology - has been done, albeit in a period of months, not days, but it's not ideal. Meanwhile, anyone spending a lot of money on a new building project is going to be frustrated to learn that they have to wait for a bunch of archaeologists to do their stuff before they can get on with it, and if you have a deadline like the Olympic Opening Ceremony to meet, it really can't be done. It's no wonder Twenty Twelve's protagonist Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) was hoping the bones would turn out to be just a murder.

After some potential solutions have to be vetoed (for instance, making the diving pool a couple of metres shallower so that it wouldn't go down as deep as the Roman bones, which could have a knock-on effect for the divers), the eventual solution, taking out the architect's beloved urban water hole and preserving the bones underneath the entrance hall, has to be communicated to both the architect and the public. This would be easier if PR head Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) didn't think the Romans founded the Olympic Games. (To be fair, the Romans did have the Olympics - they kept them going until AD 394). And that joke would look more exaggerated if a genuine BBC programme celebrating the Games hadn't declared that they took place on Mount Olympus.

According to the Aquatic Centre website, 'before construction began on the site of the Aquatics Centre, archaeological investigations discovered evidence of an Iron Age settlement; including an ancient burial site with four skeletons.' The website does not explain what actually happened to the Iron Age bones, or whether they ended up underneath the entrance hall.

Twenty Twelve has a wonderful dry wit ('As usual, it's Monday morning'), all narrated in the soothing tones of David Tennant (I have a couple of Doctor Who audio books narrated by David Tennant. Besides, you know, being the Doctor, his voice with his real accent is perfect for listening to for hours. It must be the Scottish thing). It's well worth discovering on DVD - while the immediacy of the issues covered may have passed, the humour is just as fresh and the characters just as engaging. It also makes a rather nice souvenir of the London Games as a whole - especially if your coach was unable to find its way in either London or Coventry...

Friday, 24 August 2012

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Salem, the Boy

I used to watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch all the time when I was younger. It was a natural progression from the fabulous Clarissa Explains It All, as it was basically Clarissa with magic (and sadly without Sam, my favourite character from Clarissa, her neighbour who used to climb in through her bedroom window for no discernible reason). I drifted away from it a bit as first Sabrina went to college, then I did, but I must have seen nearly every episode from the first few seasons. Probably several times.

My favourite character in Sabrina was Salem the cat, who was once a witch but is serving a lengthy penal sentence in the form of a cat for trying to take over the world. He lives with Sabrina and her aunts because Aunt Hilda was one of his accomplices and has been sentenced to looking after him. Quite why the Witches' Council think an unsecured house that's home to a vulnerable teenage girl is a good place to put a dangerous criminal is a bit of a mystery, but there you have it. Although technically an adult, Salem was much more snarky, sarcastic and generally interesting than Sabrina's aunts (especially Aunt Zelda), who were forced to play the ubiquitous dull role of moralising authority figures as seen in every Nickelodeon sitcom ever.

When I was a teenager, my knowledge of the ancient world was restricted to what I'd seen on I, Claudius, so I tended not to notice random appearances of Romans quite so much. And so it was a very pleasant surprise to discover, when I sat down to re-watch one of my favourite episodes (in which Sabrina arranges for Salem temporarily to occupy the body of Gordy, one of her geekier school-friends) that several minutes of the episode are spent in ancient Rome.

Hilda and Zelda want to throw Salem a party as he's feeling depressed about being stuck in the form of a cat. Trying to work out who to invite, they do a spell to 'take them to Salem's favourite party.' 'Salem's favourite party,' it turns out, is an orgy being run by the Emperor Caligula. Being a kids' show, Sabrina skirts around the details a bit, but the word 'orgy' is definitely used and Caligula clearly wants only one thing out of Sabrina's aunts (while Salem is doing a bit too much to help Gordy and Sabrina's friend Valerie's romance, and Sabrina is being chased by a leprechaun. It's a bit disturbing how much of the humour in this episode comes from attempts at sexual assault, though I suppose the leprechaun's approach to Sabrina is more a very persistent attempt at seduction).

Hilda and Zelda are horrified and leave, but Caligula follows them and chases them around the house as if they were in an old Benny Hill sketch. Eventually, the Witches Council find out what's been going on and summon both aunts and Sabrina to Rome to stand trial for transporting Caligula to the twentieth century and making Salem human again. The aunts are able to explain things, but Sabrina is found guilty (because she is) and, the judge declaring that as they're in Rome, they'll do as the Romans do, she is sentenced to be thrown to the lions in the amphitheatre. Given that Salem's punishment for trying to take over the world was only to be turned into a cat, this seems unnecessarily harsh, but then, this is the same institution that will turn your mother into a ball of wax just for visiting.

Salem and the leprechaun turn up just in time to turn themselves in and save Sabrina from a grisly death. The judge calls for the national anthem to be played, and Salem turns up, playing a violin and pretending to be Nero before revealing himself, and Caligula says he hates it when Nero fiddles. We probably shouldn't let the fact that Nero was four years old when Caligula died, or that they didn't have violins in ancient Rome and he was probably playing a lyre, bother us. The judge doesn't specify whether the national anthem he's expecting is that of ancient Rome or the Witches Council, but either way, it appears to be 'O Canada.' Perhaps all witches are Canadians? I'd suggest Rome as the spiritual ancestor of Canada, but really, I can't think of a single thing the two nations have in common.

The actor playing Caligula has the sort of physique more commonly associated with Nero, and for that matter the character's personality is more Nero than Caligula (he's selfish and after sex, but he doesn't seem especially mad, and makes no reference to animals in positions of political power). Perhaps Caligula was chosen because according to Suetonius, he really did have sex parties in the palace (though you wouldn't put that past Nero either, Nero's were just less professional) and the actor was chosen because of the popular association of Peter Ustinov with the mad emperor. Or perhaps the emperor in question was supposed to be Nero and was changed at the last moment to allow for the 'Nero fiddles' joke. Perhaps I'm over-thinking the amount of historical research that went into Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

This is really just a collection of old jokes about Rome strung together - it's full of nothing but orgies, all the emperors are mad violin-players and it's excessively violent, with the slightest infraction punished by death by wild animal (to be fair they may have a point on the last one). It's good fun though. If nothing else, it's left me with the vague impression that all gladiatorial shows should be prefaced with a rendition of 'O Canada'...

Monday, 20 August 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: A Fistful of Dinars

Xena and Gabrielle go on a treasure-hunt, accompanied by an unpleasant bleach-haired assassin and Xena's possibly untrustworthy ex-husband. This episode is a crazy mish-mash of things (even more than usual) - a Western title, a pirate-story-like treasure hunt, complete with maps and clues, and names taken from the Iliad (to which the story bears no resemblance whatsoever).

Our heroes are searching for the lost treasure of the Sumerians. In real life, the Sumerians were inhabitants of Mesopotamia whose civilization, one of the earliest Western/Near Eastern historical civilizations, flourished in the third millennium BC. The idea of some pseudo-Greeks in the Greek Mythical Period searching for an ancient and lost Sumerian treasure actually kind of works. Well, right up to the point Thersites claims to be Sumerian anyway.

Thersites is the name of a character in the Iliad. His character here is mostly quite different, though he shares the quality of being unpleasant and disliked by our heroes. In the Iliad, Thersites is ugly, rude, hunch-backed and club-footed (showing that prejudice against disability is as old as Western literature. One has to wonder why he's in the army in the first place). He is terribly rude to Agamemnon, and Odysseus gives him a literal beat down. Many scholars think this is an example of snobbery in favour of the aristocracy and against the common soldiers, the latter represented by Thersites.

Anyway, his character here isn't especially good-looking, though he's not that ugly - he mostly just has rather dodgy taste, including bleached-blond hair (just where did he get bleach-blond hair dye in pseudo-ancient Greece anyway?). He's also an assassin, which I suspect Homer would think was even worse than being a common soldier, so that sort of fits in a weird way, as long as you ignore the Sumerian thing. The actor does a fairly good job of chewing the scenery in a suitably entertaining fashion so he makes for quite a fun villain.

For Reasons of Plot, the lost treasure of the Sumerians happens to include a Titan Key, which gets you into a cave with some ambrosia in it (or you just take the back door, as long as you can walk quietly). If you eat ambrosia, the food of the gods, apparently you become a god, so Xena and Gabrielle join the treasure hunt with Thersites and Petracles (some kind of corruption of Patroclus, another character from the Iliad? Not that they have anything in common, but still). Why have the gods left some random ambrosia lying around? Who knows. Possibly Xena explained it briefly, but I missed it. In ancient mythology, ambrosia was connected with corpse preservation and healing powers, and possibly occasionally immortality, but it wouldn't actually make you a god with the power to cure world hunger, as Gabrielle would like to do, or to bring plagues down upon the Earth, as Thersites plans.

The treasure hunt motif, aside from producing a nice Indiana Jones-vibe and inspiring the composer to write some fun music, also requires our heroes to solve mysterious riddle-style clues. The clues and solution offered only work in English. I realise I shouldn't let this bug me - everyone on this show speaks English, and it takes place in Fantasyland anyway, not ancient Greece. Any show that has the Trojan War and Julius Caesar occupying the same time frame is not one that should be scrutinized for historical accuracy. But somehow, the fact that a riddle is solved in a way specific to the English language ('teacher's student' = 'pupil', as in of an eye) in a world where theoretically everyone should be speaking Ancient Greek, bothers me. I can't help it. I'm a natural nit-picker.

Overall this episode was fairly forgettable, aside from a rather nice depiction of the Temple of Demeter only slightly spoiled by the cast's odd pronunciation of 'Demeter.' There were some serious lapses of logic in a couple of places. It's a bit of a mystery why the priest of Demeter let two people very obviously concealing weapons into his temple. And at the end, as Petracles lies dying and Xena and Gabrielle cry Woe, why didn't they feed him some of the ambrosia that's sitting right there? Gods are immortal, so one swallow of ambrosia ought to save him, and they have plenty of time as he slowly croaks. Perhaps even after he's given his life trying to save Gabrielle, Xena still doesn't trust him enough to let him become a god.


Petracles: A warrior is going to be a lot more useful on this quest than a murderer.
Thersites: I'm an assassin, OK? An assassin!
Xena: You mean there's a difference?
Thersites: Yes. Assassination is for pay. Murder is for... kicks.

Priest (to Gabrielle and Thersites): Your doom is assured!
(Xena and Petracles beat up his friends)
Priest: However, I could be mistaken.

Disclaimer: No Ambrosia was Spilled or Spoiled or in any way harmed during the production of this motion picture. (Thanks to the indefinite shelf life of marshmallows.)

All Xena reviews

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Frasier: Momma Mia

Given that Frasier was a sitcom about a psychiatrist, it's perhaps surprising that it took them seven years to do an episode about the Oedipus complex, which must be the best known psychological theory around.

Being over-educated snobs, Frasier and Niles make Classical references all the time, but most are just passing mentions designed to make them look out of touch and have the other characters scratching their heads (though Frasier's description of how an ageing narcissist might come to realise the lines in the pond aren't ripples but wrinkles in 'The Perfect Guy' was rather special). There's another in this episode, reminding us that these two weren't interested in the same things as the other children, as Niles' childhood graffiti in their old cabin is revealed to say semper ubi sub ubi - the Latin words for 'always', 'where' and 'under', i.e. 'always where under where', 'always wear underwear' (though in Latin the phrase is completely meaningless).

(OK, I admit it, I spend a lot of time learning Latin and Greek for fun as a teenager. I may even have played air violin once or twice...)

Professional psychiatrists wouldn't need to know much about ancient history to know about the Oedipus complex, though. Frankly, you'd worry if they didn't know it, though I don't know how many would still subscribe to it. Freud's insistence that anything and everything was really about sex is, I hope, a bit out of date now. Anyway, Niles gives us the brief version - it's based on Sophocles' Oedipus (the King), in which Oedipus marries his mother, kills his father, and blinds himself when he finds out. Well, actually the play is just about the finding out and the blinding, but that's not the point.

This being Frasier, it's all set up so that almost as soon as Frasier has realised, thanks to some old home movies, that the woman he's dating looks exactly like his late mother, he ends up temporarily blinded with bug spray. He doesn't try to kill Martin though - no time for that in 20 minutes (and they already used up those jokes in 'Dial M for Martin'). Anyway, it's very funny. Props also to the writers for having read enough Freud to know that, as Frasier exclaims in horror, Oedipal desires are supposed to be resolved by the age of six (except in dreams, where they continue to surface, or in the case of 'neurotics'). I have no idea how accurate the psychiatry on Frasier usually is, but that bit sounded all right to my very inexpert ears.

The Oedipus complex, with its combination of fame and squick value, is usually played for horror, either the hilariously icky variety in comedy, or the fridge horror variety in more serious stuff (one of these days I'll get hold of Code 42, a rather good film I caught on telly once that went for a sort of horror-romance combination. Ish. I can't remember it very well). Frasier is a sitcom, so of course, the situation is milked for all its comedy worth, making enthusiastic use of Kelsey Grammer's ability to pull faces.

Ultimately, though, this episode does something rather more interesting and unusual than just rehash the icky aspect of the story. Freud was all about the sex and the most common reaction to the whole idea of the Oedipus complex is surely 'ew'. But there are hints throughout this episode that it's not really about wanting to have sex with your mother (ew). Martin's insistence on leaving the whole thing alone and not pointing out to Frasier how much his girlfriend looks like his mother comes from Martin's own desire to spend one more evening with a version of his dead wife. So at the conclusion, as Frasier despairs of his own mental health, Martin points out 'maybe you just miss your mother.' The episode ends with a lovely and touching scene of all three Cranes watching an old video of the late Mrs Crane together (I admit it - I welled up). In the end, Frasier's particular Oedipal problem comes not from a repressed sexual desire, but the much simpler reaction of man who misses a loved one. It's a rather lovely interpretation and an inventive use of the Oedipus complex. Surely only Frasier could go from icky mum-sex to sad-but-beautiful reality so quickly and so effectively.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Olympics Closing Ceremony, London 2012

Well, the London 2012 Olympic Games have just finished (partly - Paralympics coming up in a few weeks of course!). For a nation who usually spend our time laughing at ourselves and complaining about anything and everything (we don't restrict ourselves to the weather, though it comes up a lot) we've surprised ourselves by really getting into the thing, and almost the entire country is high on a surge of unaccustomed national pride. And interest in sports that aren't football. I am actually wearing a Union Flag for the first time in my life.

We still can't take these things entirely seriously, though, as our Opening and Closing Ceremonies proved. Rio de Janeiro's contribution tonight as the flag was passed to them was fun, but it was essentially the sort of thing you usually see at these events, just with a Brazilian flavour - colourful costumes, dancing, mad props. Ours - well, it started with a double-decker bus in Beijing and just got crazier from there. At Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony, we had a giant puppet Voldemort, Mr Bean, random and slightly irritating teens texting, Tim Berners Lee and even, to my great delight, a tiny clip from A Matter of Life and Death. 'Bonkers' has been the word most commonly used to describe it, and bonkers it was - in a very good and very British way.

One thing that did disappoint me a bit about the Opening Ceremony, though, was that it seemed to think British history started somewhere around the eighteenth century. There was a bit of Shakespeare in there, but where was Henry VIII? Where was the Battle of Hastings? Most importantly, where were the Romans?!

Well, the Closing Ceremony put that right. It was, if possible, even madder than the Opening Ceremony. It was a bit up and down in places. The road scenes that looked like a tribute to the M25 were a bit weird, and while I enjoyed seeing Delboy and Rodders, dressed as Batman and Robin, burst out of an exploding Robin Reliant, I wonder how many international viewers got the reference to an 16-year-old Christmas special episode of a British sitcom. Mostly, though, the ceremony was more crazy goodness.

The Romans were part of the craziest section of all, courtesy, of course, of an ex-Python. Eric Idle (accompanied by the entire stadium) sang his biggest hit, 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.' I can only assume that the skating nuns were a reference to 'Every Sperm Is Sacred' from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, but the song, of course, is from their Life of Brian, a film set entirely in the Roman Empire. Well, except for that bit on the spaceship. Anyway, since crucifixion victims singing might not put across quite the right message of peace and love, instead we got dancing Romans. Doing the can-can. Because - because we're British and that's what we felt like doing!

There was also a rather lovely phoenix on display as the torch was extinguished at the end, which was about the only reference to the ancient Greek origin of the Games that I noticed, aside from some vaguely Greek costumes in the Opening Ceremony. Of course, there are all sorts of Olympic traditions designed to remind us all of their origin, from the Greek athletes parading first at the Opening to the Greek national anthem playing at the Closing, so I guess they don't really need special bits of the ceremonies as well - those are for the host nations.

Idle's number was one of the undoubted highlights of the Closing Ceremony, along with Take That singing 'Rule the World', one of my favourite songs (Gary Barlow proving he's a truly outstanding professional, as I don't think I could have performed like that in similar circumstances) and Freddie Mercury, leading the entire stadium in enthusiastic song 21 years after he passed away. That man is a true legend.

Oh dear, I'm getting all enthusiastic and emotional. How un-British of me. Time to stiffen that upper lip.

In the end, the Romans, who gave us the beginnings of our road network, the first central heating in the country, a lovely Bath spa and a wall to keep out Scotland*, sneaked their way into our national celebrations by being loosely associated with a comedy troupe known for silly walks and a dead parrot. That seems only fitting, when it was part of a celebration that proclaimed to the world that we're completely insane and we don't care who knows it. I'm very rarely given to nationalism of any kind, but I have to admit it, it does make me proud to be British.

Now I'd better go before I admit to knowing every single word to 'Wannabe'... oops...

* I am aware that keeping out Scotland would have lost us a large proportion of our medals. We love you, Scotland. Especially Andy Murray.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Alexander the Great (dir. Robert Rossen, 1956)

Alexander the Great is a difficult character to make a film about. An absolute monarch, he conquered every bit of land he could get to for no particularly good reason beyond power, glory and so on. (He claimed to be avenging the wrongs done to Greece in the Persian War - about a hundred years previously). This is not behaviour of which we in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are taught to approve. We like to think we fight for freedom and democracy, or at the very least to protect ourselves, and we usually consider war-mongers who conquer for the sake of conquering to be positively evil.

There are other historical characters who present this problem as well, of course. But stories about Julius Caesar can present him as a champion of the people as opposed to the snobby, elitist Pompey, and films about Julius Caesar tend to focus on his ultimate bloody comeuppance more than anything else. Films about Octavian usually either paint him as the bad guy or skip ahead to the well-thought-of emperor Augustus. Films about the Roman Empire in general like to portray it as evil, frequently embodied by psychotic emperors. In the 50s and 60s films would look ahead to the time Christians would bring the empire down, while more recent films add extra democracy or focus on 'what the Romans did for us.'

But Alexander presents a problem. He was poisoned, ill or drank himself to death, and the last is probably more likely - hardly the dramatic assassination of Julius Caesar. He wasn't fighting for the people (indeed, he was finishing off the last of Greek democracy) and his empire eventually crumbled in a complicated and prolonged manner until eventually most of it was conquered by the Romans. So, how should a film present him? Is he a hero? An anti-hero? Do we revel in how gleefully, sexily wicked he is, or hold him up as a great military leader? Do we focus on the military glory of his achievements and try to ignore what he's actually doing?

Of course, all this is what makes him such an interesting character, but it presents a tonal problem for film-makers trying to squeeze the story into a couple of hours. One minute Alexander is a hero, the next a war criminal. One minute he approves the ideals of democracy, the next he's a divinely-appointed king. It's not that it's impossible to present a conflicted character in a film (see Shakespeare's Henry V, a famous military leader who commits a war crime during the play, though most productions tend to leave that part out), but it's not done well here. Alexander says a lot of things, some of them mutually contradictory, but we never really feel like we know him. And Aristotle's speech at the beginning about the Greeks' right to conquer and rule everyone else is positively chilling and sounds like the beginning of Joyeux Noel.

All this discomfort and uncertainty culminates in Darius leaving Alexander a letter (he can write impressively neatly while bleeding to death) telling him marry his daughter Roxanne and then, in a truly bizarre bit of intertextual referencing, quoting the future Jesus ('into your hands I commend my spirit'). In reality Roxanne wasn't Darius' daughter, though she was a Persian, and Alexander may have hoped to consolidate his position by marrying her, but in practice it mostly annoyed his Greek and Macedonian supporters. It wouldn't be at all surprising if Alexander claimed Darius had left him such a letter - but showing it actually happening seems to be stretching plausibility a bit.

One solution that has been used since ancient literature on Alexander is to blame the mother. Olympias tends to come in for a lot of flack, her unhappy marriage and excessive ambition for her son portrayed as the overwhelming influence that would spur Alexander on. And so, she is portrayed as being ultimately behind the assassination of Philip, and as being a borderline bonkers, deeply unhappy woman who is convinced her son is favoured by the gods, or possibly is actually a god. From the moment the baby is born, Olympias and her pet Egyptian soothsayer have an obsession with Alexander being a god and the soothsayer reels off a list of omens that occurred at the time of the birth. In real life, this probably came after, as the births and deaths of great men were associated with omens almost certainly collected at a much later date. (I'm reminded of the many stories, according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, told of the signs accompanying the birth of Zaphod Beeblebrox - all of them, the Guide observes, told by Zaphod Beeblebrox).

Alexander's literary obsessions are also fore-grounded, with the effect of making him seem an almost superhuman character. We can accept behaviour in fictional and mythical characters that we cannot accept in real people (see the current fashion for vampire romances). Alexander's love of Homer is well known, so the film presents his whole life as a parallel with Achilles. Alexander consciously makes the choice of Achilles, deciding to live a short and glorious life (in the confidence that it will, indeed, be glorious). By aligning him with myth and separating him from humanity (or from considering the consequences for others of his own glory-hunting) the film encourages the audience to support and enjoy his military success as a tale of a great hero rather than looking at it too closely as the actions of a human being.

The other problem for films about Alexander is that Greek history is extremely complicated. Films about Rome tend to be set at the very end of the Republic or in the Empire, and a few lines in a prologue can establish that we are in an Empire, and tell us which Emperor is in charge. Classical Greece, however, was a collection of independent city-states identifying as Greek according to a complicated set of criteria, and it's difficult to explain the essential historical context in a brief prologue (one reason the story of the Three Hundred Spartans is so popular - it can be boiled down more simply to Greeks vs Persians). The story of Alexander himself is the story of a man conquering a large amount of territory over a period of ten years, inevitably requiring a lot of montages of battle sequences flowing over a map of the Near East ('let's travel by map!').

And so the first half of the film is devoted to the story of Alexander, Olympias and Philip, who doesn't die until just under halfway through. However, even here the film feels bitty - episodic and made up of very short scenes that just list a series of events until Philips's inevitable death. In fact, it's the second half, which ramps up the battle scenes and, of course, plays up the rivalry between Alexander and Darius, that feels a little more coherent. But neither half really solves the problem of how to cover a long and complicated story encompassing several decades and a lot of territory. In fact, there's something to be said for Oliver Stone's flashback approach in this regard, confusing though that was.

The film includes but rather skips over the conquest of India and ends shortly after the murder of Cleitus (moved to India and depicted as the moment Alexander realises he's gone too far). He drags his army back to Susa, gets anachronistically married in a bizarre ceremony along with about a hundred other people, then keels over for no apparent reason in the middle of his wedding (when did he get the opportunity to impregnate Roxanne? oh, never mind). It's all rather anticlimactic.

Much like Oliver Stone's Alexander, there's some good stuff in here, trying to get out. Burton is charismatic and watchable as ever and there are some nice moments in his relationship with Philip, particularly when Alexander saves Philip's life in battle and the scene in which Philip screams 'Philip the barbarian' over and over again in an echo-y valley. Ptolemy's narrative is in there, briefly, referencing the biography he wrote (sadly lost). Philip has both eyes, which is fair enough, as this film predates the discovery of a tomb some believe to be Philip's, in which the body shows damage to the right eye (except it shows no signs of healing, so probably occurred around the time of death, and might not be Philip anyway). The Persian war chariots have some rather cool blades on them. Goodness knows if they're historically accurate (probably not) but they look cool.

Trouble is, the flaws rather over-shadow the good things, compounded by some odd choices and some of the inherent limitations of 1950s film-making. Although much of the movie was filmed on location in Spain, there are still studio-bound sequences, with the result that Alexander appears to be flirting with his prospective stepmother in Brigadoon. Everyone dies without bleeding, except for a few artful drops on Alexander's hand. And Richard Burton looks no less ridiculous in the blonde wig than any other actor who's played Alexander. Oh, if only Baz Luhrman's planned version with Leonardo DiCaprio had come off...

Even more irritatingly, the language used is persistently anachronistic and Christianising. Alexander keeps calling himself, and being called by others, the 'son of God'. That ought to be the 'son of a god' (or, more accurately, Zeus/Ammon). He also comes out with 'We are all alike under God. God is the Father. He is the Father of all.' Granted, Alexander claimed to be the son of Zeus, who was the chief god and Father figure - but this sounds far too Judaeo-Christian and Zeus is not named once.

A brave effort, but in the end the film that emerges is messy and a bit dull. Too much pomp and speechifying, not enough character depth. Alexander's story, much like that of the Trojan War, would probably be better done as a TV series...

More movie reviews

Monday, 6 August 2012

Star Trek: Mirror, Mirror

I totally forgot to mention this on the blog the other week, but this seems an appropriate place to do so - I've started reviewing Star Trek Voyager over at Billie Doux and will be slowly working my way through the whole show in order. You can see all the reviews completed so far at the index page here.

'Mirror, Mirror' is the very first Star Trek Mirror Universe episode (the first to be made, that is - the Enterprise two-parter is first according to internal chronology). I'm sure it wasn't the first example of a parallel universe in science fiction, but it's certainly a very influential one. If nothing else, it codified the trope of the Evil Goatee.

The variety of parallel universe shown here is one where some particular quality of our universe is reversed in the parallel universe, hence it's a 'mirror'. I believe the Enterprise episodes established a point of convergence for the mirror universe, which would make it a slightly different variety of parallel universe, one where everything was the same up to a certain point. Essentially, the difference is the same as that between Red Dwarf's original Ace Rimmer's universe, which was the same as ours until a specific thing changed, and Red Dwarf's parallel universe, where human counterparts are female and the Cat's counterpart is a dog. Except the Red Dwarf analogy falls down if you investigate too closely (what about the other counterparts in Ace Rimmer's universe? And so on). But you get my drift. The point is, in the Mirror Universe as depicted in this episode, everyone is in broadly the same personal situation, but something about them is completely different, and indeed opposite to their 'normal' selves.

In the case of the Star Trek Mirror Universe, the essential opposition is that in the Mirror Universe, everyone is evil. Granted, this is an over-generalisation. Mirror Spock is clearly ruthlessly logical rather than evil and when Deep Space Nine revisited the Mirror Universe, it was clear that not everyone there was straightforwardly evil either. But the essential idea behind the episode, the thing that the writers sat down and thought 'wouldn't this be cool' is that all our noble, upstanding heroes are, in the Mirror Universe, evil, conniving, violent thugs. Similarly, the great and beneficent Federation (which Star Trek still hardly ever questions or suggests has any negative qualities, and they certainly didn't back in the 60s) has an evil opposite for which all these evil crew-members work - the Empire.

I am Evil. Check out my Evil Grin!

You can see where the Classical connection comes in. This is an Evil Empire, and we all know the prototype for Evil Empires - Ancient Rome. Throughout the 50s and 60s, Ancient Rome (with British accents, just to throw another dodgy empire into the mix) had been used on film to stand metaphorically for Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy and the USSR (sometimes all at once). It's only natural that when science fiction came to create fictional Evil Empires, writers would turn to the same sources for inspiration. Star Wars manages to combine Nazis with Romans into one inglorious whole, but the Evil Empire here is, generally speaking, more straightforwardly Roman (as opposed to the Romulan Empire, which is a blend of the top three; Romans, Nazis and the USSR).

And so we get the usual, mostly surface-level, nods to Ancient Rome scattered throughout. The salute used all through the episode is the salute given to Romans in the 50s and 60s epics, which was used there because it looked a bit like the Nazi salute, which Hitler chose because he admired the Romans... hmm, I think I got lost in a cycle of causality there. The leader of the Evil Empire still goes by 'Caesar' (as have so many real life world leaders of course, evil or otherwise). Evil Kirk offs his enemies using a 'Tantalus device', named for the character in Greek myth who could see what he wanted but not touch it - Evil Kirk, on the other hand, gets what he wants without touching anything, as the device obliterates people from a safe distance. The whole thing is finally ironically undercut by our Spock referring to the whole Evil Gang as 'barbarians' at the end, at which I'm sure the Romans would feel most insulted, though 50s and 60s filmmakers would applaud.

Oh yes, Evil Spock also has this exciting pseudo-Classical head in his quarters.

It's interesting to see what is considered 'evil' in this episode. The Mirror Universe episodes have an unfortunate tendency to associate evil with sex and sex with evil, much like films set in the Roman Empire, whose obsession with orgies is well known. It's fun to see everyone getting more action than usual (well, Kirk getting the same amount as usual) but the message is a bit worrying. Still, it's not so bad in this episode. Uhura reveals more skin, which is relatively harmless. Evil Sulu makes repeated attempts to assault her, which is definitely and unproblematically evil, but he's Evil Sulu, so I guess that fits, uncomfortable as it is to watch (though not nearly as bad as Bad Kirk's assault on Janice Rand in Season 1's 'The Enemy Within'). Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's occasional association of bisexuality with evil characters is more problematic than what we see here.

Otherwise, being evil mostly comes down to killing your way to the top by assassination, using torture as a punishment, grinning evilly and wearing shiny sashes. Ways to tell if a person is evil include scars (because of all the extra killing, presumably), skimpy outfits and, of course, the goatee. Although Spock turns out to be just Spock in the end, there is a wonderfully chilling moment where he threatens someone with torture by Vulcans and implies that Vulcans are especially nasty. I'd love to know what it is they do exactly that's so awful. Actually, maybe I don't really want to know...

This is a classic episode of Star Trek (pun intended) and a must-see for any science fiction fan, for the sheer level of its influence. The Mirror Universe is a really fun, if slightly silly, concept. It's also another in a long list of episodes inspired by Classical culture and by the epic films of the 50s and 60s. I'm not sure this is how the Romans wanted to be remembered, but being considered the ultimate metaphorical representation of evil government is one way to ensure you don't get forgotten I suppose, so maybe they wouldn't mind too much.

All Star Trek reviews

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Top Five Sports Scenes

You would think, given that the ancient Greeks invented the Olympics, that there would be loads of Classically themed sports scenes to choose from, wouldn't you?

You would be wrong.

Well, it all depends on your definition. There are lots of scenes of gladiatorial combat. Whether or not that counts as a 'sport' is hard to say. Is the aim to win, at risk of death? That's sport all right - not only would ancient chariot-racing come under the same heading, so would modern motor sports (the mortality rate in mid-twentieth century Formula One was pretty terrifying). Or is the aim more simply to stay alive, in which case it's not so much sport as survival? I think I'd be inclined to say that an execution in the arena is definitely not sport, a fight to first blood or anything not-death (even if death accidentally occurs) is sport, and a fight potentially to the death is in some grey area in the middle. But it's a tricky one.

I think it's also true that there are a lot more representations of ancient sport in books than in films. This is partly because it can be easier to present sport in an exciting way in a written narrative (you can get inside the heads of the participants more easily) and partly because there are more books set in Greece, which lacked gladiators and chariot-racing, so authors have to use more mundane sports like running. But here I have to confess that it's quicker to watch a film than read a book, and I have a preference for Roman-set books anyway - the net result of which is, I haven't read many books with ancient Greek sport in them. I am absolutely confident that they exist, though. Lindsey Davis' See Delphi and Die is probably the place to start, and there's a Xena comic called Xena Warrior Princess and the Original Olympics and an Asterix one called Asterix at the Olympic Games, which actually has been made into a film, though I haven't seen it.

Also, if one were to represent ancient Greek sport accurately, all the participants should be naked. Personally I think that's a point in its favour.

Of course, I'm determined to jump on the Olympic bandwagon anyway. I'm British, I can hardly ignore it, I might as well join in! As well as going to the actual Games (to watch Table Tennis - I fought for Greco-Roman Wrestling but Brother was unconvinced) I feel honour-bound to produce some kind of post on sport (in addition to Monday's post on Hercules' 'Let the Games Begin'). But, after more than three years blogging representations of the ancient world in popular culture, I find myself struggling to come up with great, ancient-set sports scenes.

So here's my solution: rather than produce a 'Top Five' that's actually 'five representations of ancient sport I can think of' I'm going to cast my net extremely wide and for for 'five great sports scenes with some kind of connection to the ancient world, however vague.' They may not have much of an ancient connection, but they're at least they're genuinely great scenes!

Spoilers follow.

5. Scopas wins a chariot race, The Roman Mysteries: The Charioteer of Delphi
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? No cheating here - this one is a proper representation of ancient sport, a chariot race taking place in the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Do we win? Yes. This is the last of the Roman Mysteries to have a fully, gloriously happy ending, as Scopas' victory also wins slave Sisyphus his freedom.
Will I feel inspired to take up chariot-racing? Possibly, but given the mortality rate, I wouldn't advise it.
What makes it great? That happy ending. The best sports stories should leave you feeling excited, exhilarated and on top of the world, and thanks to a thrilling victory and Sisyphus' even more important personal victory, this one does.

4. Harry and Cedric race for the Goblet of Fire, Harry PotterHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? Well, it takes place in a maze, i.e. a labyrinth, which is a bit like the one from the myth of the Minotaur. In the book version there's a sphinx in it which we can assume is just around the corner in the film. And Harry uses a Latin spell to get the staff to rescue Fleur ('Periculum!' which means 'Danger!'). OK, I'm out.
Do we win? Technically yes, though since the prize is Being Attacked By Lord Voldemort, that isn't really a good thing.
Will I feel inspired to take up chasing my friends through a maze trying to find a trophy? You might find you feel like popping down to Hampton Court Palace or Crystal Palace Park or similar, yes. Just make sure the trophy isn't secretly a Portkey (that word comes from Latin too...).
What makes it great? Being a strange and contrary person, Goblet of Fire is my favourite of the films, and this scene is extraordinary. The desperate need to win almost leads Harry to abandon Cedric to a man-eating plant as the tension rises and the maze starts literally to close in on them. The fact that Cedric would have been better off if he had just makes the whole thing even more emotive.

3. Eric Liddell falls halfway through a race, gets up, and wins anyway, Chariots of Fire
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? Running was an event way back in the original ancient Greek Olympics, and Liddell is considering entering the modern version.
Do we win? Oh yes. Just.
Will I feel inspired to take up running? Possibly, though the sight of the exhausted Liddell tends to make me feel more inspired to take up sitting on the sofa and eating a lot of chocolate.
What makes it great? He falls over halfway through the (relatively short) race. And gets up. And catches up to everyone else. And wins. It is completely awesome.

2. The Jamaican bobsled team crash out but pick up their bobsled and cross the finish line on foot, Cool Runnings
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? Well, see, in ancient Greece they had the Olympic Games. And the modern Olympic Games were inspired by and named after the ancient ones. And the Winter Olympics are a sister event to the Summer ones. And the team are competing in the Winter Olympics. Basically, the competition has a Greek name.
Do we win? No. But it's not the winning, it's the taking part (and finishing, sort of).
Will I feel inspired to take up bobsledding? Possibly, though you might feel more inspired to take up go-karting, as that can be done in a much warmer climate.
What makes it great? Cool Runnings is based so loosely on real events as to be, essentially, fiction. The real Jamaican bobsled team were not the victims of so much derision, they crashed out in a heat, and although they walked over the finish line, their bobsled was pushed by others (you can see the real footage on You Tube). But none of that matters. I am incapable of watching the fictional version lift their bobsled onto their soldiers like a coffin and walk over the line without crying. It's like that bit in The Railway Children where Jenny Agutter screams 'Daddy, my Daddy!'... excuse me, I have to go fetch a tissue.

1. Ben-Hur wins a chariot race and kills Messala in the process, Ben-Hur
How exactly is this connected with the ancient world? It's a chariot race! Taking place during the Roman Empire! With Romans in it! Huzzah!
Do we win? Yes, but at a cost.
Will I feel inspired to take up chariot-racing? Depends how good at it you think you'd be... I just feel inspired to go watch old Popeye cartoons based on this scene.
What makes it great? It's tense, it's dramatic and it was one of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed (though the 1925 version is also very impressive). Ben-Hur achieves complete revenge over Messala, both defeating him in the race and, indirectly, taking his life. Of course, afterwards he'll realise that his vengeance will never truly be complete or satisfying, but for a few glorious moments, he has well and truly succeeded in what he set out to do.

Bubbling under: The pod race is Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was based on the chariot race in Ben-Hur and is the only good bit in The Phantom Menace (apart from that bit where they nearly get eaten by a giant fish) but it lost points for being in The Phantom Menace. I really, really wanted to include something from Asif Kapadia's brilliant documentary Senna, but 'well, Formula 1 is a little bit like the modern equivalent of chariot-racing', while true, seemed a bit too tenuous a link even for this list.

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