Monday, 26 November 2012

Top 5 Representations of Pompeii

Poor Pompeii. If Roman Britain thinks it has it bad, being known only for rain, Boudicca and the non-disappearance of the Ninth Legion, Pompeii has it much worse, as it's known for one thing and one thing only. Being destroyed by a volcano, of course. The trouble is, Pompeii's destruction was so dramatic and spectacular, it would seem a waste to go there and not cover it in some way (not to mention if anyone goes to the Bay of Naples in earlier-set Roman fiction, they go to Baiae, the party town, as do actual Romans in historical sources). And so, a Top 5 that might as well be called 'Top 5 Representations of the Eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.'

Incidentally, Mary Beard just did a rather good reflection on the very famous 'bodies' from Pompeii, which are actually plaster casts. There were no human remains in the city - there were holes in the solidified lava that were human-shaped, so Victorian archaeologists poured plaster into the holes to produce statue-like images of the attitudes in which these people died, where the lava originally flowed around their bodies after they'd been killed by the pyroclastic flow (or surge - there seems to be some disagreement over which it was). More human-looking than skeletons, they're very moving to look at and dominate representations of the eruption.

5. The Simpsons, 'The Italian Bob'
Why are we in Pompeii? The Simpsons does Italy, taking the title characters on a tour in Mr Burns' new car, so they don't even have to come up with a reason to hit a list of random Famous Things About Italy (in an order than makes no geographical sense). The Roman Forum and the Colosseum are kept for the climax, but Pompeii makes it into Italy's Greatest Hits alongside the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a picturesque Tuscan village and a McDonald's that serves wine.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. We're here for a single, volcano-based sight gag.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Sort of.
Worth a watch: Lisa inaccurately says that the victims of Pompeii (which is given the spelling of the modern town, Pompei, not the ancient Roman spelling) were frozen in whatever position they died in, implying the bodies are actually petrified corpses. Which, of course, they're not. But it's probably worth it for the sight gag of an ancient Roman family who look exactly like the Simpsons, complete with Roman-Homer choking Roman-Bart (which I have to admit is my least favourite running gag in the whole show, but it's become iconic now. My favourite iteration of it is the bit in the VH-1 Behind the Music spoof 'Behind the Laughter,' in which Homer explains, over the usual image, 'And that horrible act of child abuse became one of our most beloved running gags').

4. Pompeii: The Last Day
Why are we in Pompeii? For a BBC docu-drama whose title was presumably inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous nineteenth century novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, and its various adaptations.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. Bulwer-Lytton had all sorts of preachy stuff about terrible Roman morals and how somehow this led to death by volcano (I think - I have to confess, I haven't read it) but that sort of thing's gone out of fashion (partly for being untrue) and this docu-drama is all about getting to everybody's horrible deaths.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Oh yes.
Worth a watch: I don't normally like docu-dramas - I think things ought to be either documentaries or dramas. Either talk about the evidence and the debates surrounding a topic, or write a proper fictionalisation of it. This is party because I'm a bit of a purist, and partly because I don't like the implication you get from docu-dramas that their largely fictionalised version of events is somehow the 'correct' or 'true' one. At least when people watch a fictionalised drama, they know it's fictionalised and don't expect anything else.

Anyway, I've made an exception in this case because I think there are advantages to using the docu-drama format to tell the story of Pompeii. We understand details concerning the nature of the pyroclastic flow that destroyed the city that the Romans didn't, so a modern narrator can explain what's happening much more clearly than Roman characters within a story would be able to. The geology of how the volcano erupted and the different (though equally gory) ways people died in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum is fascinating but you need documentary-style narration to tell that story properly, in a way that you don't necessarily in dramatisations of political or military events. Meanwhile, the fictionalised elements offer a moving representation of the human side of the story, and the moments towards the end where the characters we've been following move into place to become the famous plaster casts of the inhabitants of Pompeii crouching where they died are quite chilling.

3. Up Pompeii!
Why are we in Pompeii? For Plautine-style hijinks with people who thought it was a good idea to name their daughter 'Erotica.'
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? Yes, which is partly why it makes the list. The TV series ran for a couple of years, using Pompeii as a setting, presumably because it's the best known Roman town outside of the city. The film made from the series is more about working up to the eruption, but even in the film this only occurs at the end, to provide a suitably dramatic climax.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Much like the Simpsons example above - sort of.
Worth a watch: There've been better comedies set in ancient Rome. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for one, which inspired Up Pompeii! in the first place, and certainly Carry on Cleo. But Up Pompeii! is entertaining enough. And then, at the end of the film, the volcano erupts. The film has been so completely silly that it can't take the eruption entirely seriously, and yet the knowledge that what is being presented is the real-life death of hundreds of people means a certain level of gravity is required. It's hard to say whether the film achieves the required balance - the characters from the series being frozen in awkward moments (rather inaccurately implying they're somehow turned to stone, or something along those lines) are half funny, half a bit strange. On the other hand, there's something about Frankie Howerd facing his inevitable doom with comic dignity is rather wonderful.

2. Doctor Who, 'The Fires of Pompeii'
Why are we in Pompeii? Because Doctor Who hadn't done a full-on Roman-set story since 'The Romans' in the 1960s. Perhaps more importantly, because the production team were able to use the sets recently vacated by the BBC/HBO series Rome.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. Though the Doctor and Donna do have some fun with the TARDIS' translation magic while trying to work out how to avoid ending up with a sonic screwdriver-shaped hole in the lava.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? No - the Doctor saves Caecilius and family just before the full force of the pyroclastic flow/surge hits the town. (Which, incidentally, was caused by the Doctor and Donna, who had to blow up Vesuvius to save the Earth from a Pyrovile. Obviously.)
Worth a watch: 'The Fires of Pompeii' was the episode that showed us the sort of companion Donna could be. 'Partners in Crime' was funny, but 'Pompeii' is dramatic and moving, show-casing not just Catherine Tate's acting but how the team would be writing for Donna. The show has repeated many times over the last few years its mantra that the Doctor needs a companion to keep him grounded and provide an emotional connection with the people he meets, but this is one of the episodes that shows it most effectively. And of course, the icing on the cake is that the people Donna persuades the Doctor to save are Caecilius and his family, characters from the Cambridge Latin books that children who learn Latin in school in the UK use (I actually didn't learn Latin in school, but borrowed a book and learned some of it anyway, because I'm weird that way). And for everyone who didn't learn Latin in school - Caecilius was also a real person and you can visit his house in Pompeii. So that's pretty cool.

1. The Roman Mysteries, 'The Secrets of Vesuvius'
Why are we in Pompeii? Well, we're not exactly - we're in and around the Bay of Naples, within sight of Pompeii. And we're there because that's where Uncle Gaius lives.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No - but we do learn lots about the Elder and Younger Plinys along the way.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? No - the children are further away than the victims in Pompeii, though Pliny succumbs to choking on the ash (in his Letters the Younger Pliny mentions that his uncle had suffered from breathing problems already, and whatever his condition was, the ash in the air was enough to kill him while others around him survived).
Worth a watch: I haven't had a chance to read the book yet (it's on my list to read!) but the TV adaptation of this book is excellent. This is in no small part thanks to the casting of Simon Callow as Pliny the Elder, which is just brilliant. I love Pliny the Elder (his Natural History is fascinating) and I love Simon Callow, and Callow has all the gravitas combined with fun required to play a general with an interest in unusual flora and fauna and general curiosity and enthusiasm about the world. We're spared the gruesome fate of those in Pompeii and Herculaneum here, as our heroes a) are in a children's programme but more importantly b) have to survive, but there's plenty of drama and horror in the distant eruption and the falling ash, not to mention poor Pliny's death. Brilliant stuff.

Honourable mention: I haven't yet read Robert Harris' Pompeii, but I thought his Imperium was excellent, so I'm sure Pompeii is great.

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Monday, 19 November 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: The Royal Couple of Thieves

Xena gets hit on my the self-proclaimed 'King of Thieves,' a character somewhere halfway between Robin Hood and Plunkett and Macleane. He doesn't steal to give to the poor exactly, but he does occasionally do so anyway, and he is apparently an honourable man. who steals things. It's one of those types of stories.

Autolycus, who's clearly a character from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys given how many times he mentions Hercules, seems to be modelled after Errol Flynn's Robin Hood, though not quite as suave. He even wears green. He actually has quite nice chemistry with Xena, but overall the writing seems to be relying a bit too much on assumed familiarity with the character, which those of us who haven't watched Hercules don't have.

The story of the episode is largely about Robin Hood helping Xena to recover the Ark of the Covenant for her friends, and doesn't really have anything Classical in it. The Ark is from the ancient world of course, but really, its presence and role here owes more to Indiana Jones than to anything from ancient history (on the actual history of the Ark, the Catholic Encyclopedia has an obviously biased but decent entry). On the Robin Hood side, the Roman world included plenty of bandits and one of them, Bulla Felix, is sometimes thought of as the Roman Robin Hood, so he's not completely un-classical. Not sure the Romans were quite so into the neat little goatee though.

To be honest, I wasn't overly enthralled by this episode. It had some nice moments (Xena, undercover, as a courtesan, faking horror when a body is uncovered; a guard who is even more stupid than usual and refrains from searching their room when Xena pretends to be in the middle of business with Autolycus). But it also had some truly daft stuff, particularly the guy who kills by hitting pressure points (who constantly reminded me of Tom Conti in the London episode of Friends, following Elliot Gould's Jack Geller with murder in his eyes and saying 'I could kill you with my thumb, you know'). Overall, it's rather dull, but it does feature Xena gyrating in a short skirt and corset, if you're into that sort of thing.


Xena: Magmar told me his former boss has got a big ego. Almost as big as yours.
Autolycus: Nothing is as big as mine.

Disclaimer: No Ancient and Inflexible rules governing moral behaviour were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena reviews

Monday, 12 November 2012

Argo (dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)

Brother and I went to see this at the weekend, and I'd highly recommend it. I've had a fondness for Ben Affleck ever since Shakespeare in Love, even through the J-Lo years (if you doubt me, just consider my opinion of Keanu Reeves and Star Trek Voyager...) and I'd heard that he was a very good director, but his other films (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) aren't really my thing (they looked a bit depressing!). So I was very keen to see Argo, a drama-with-a-bit-of-comedy-in-it-but-not-that-much-really about a CIA agent pretending to make a bad science fiction movie in order to get six Americans out of Iran in 1980. It's very good, and benefits from the real life events it's based on being relatively little known/remembered (obviously, I hadn't been born, but it hasn't rung many bells with people who were alive that I've talked to, though obviously they remember the taking of the American Embassy that kick-started the whole thing).

My excuse for blogging it, other than to say 'go see it,' is that there are a handful of references to the ancient world scattered throughout the first part of the film - most prominently, the title. Argo is the title of the bad science fiction film agent Tony Mendez is pretending to make. During a read-through of the script (a 'real' script that had been rejected, that composite character Lester Siegal buys to make the fake movie look real), one of the actors/various Hollywood people quizzes Siegal about the movie's title, only for Siegal to eventually exclaim, exasperated, 'Argo f*** off.' The random Hollywood person is probably right though, or nearly - he insists the title must be a reference to 'the Argonaut,' but he means the Argo (the Argo is the ship, an Argonaut is one of the sailors on the Argo). The Argo is, of course, Jason's ship in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Science fiction, as long term readers of this blog will be well aware, frequently draws on the Classical world and on Greek mythology in particular so it's no surprise that a science fiction film would draw on the myth of the Argo in this way (though Wikipedia informs me that the real film was re-named Argo by the CIA, having been originally Lord of Light. It sounds spectacular. Someone should make it).

The choice of Argo for the title of this film as well is an interesting one. On one level, it draws on the mythology the same way the fictional science fiction film is presumed to - it gives the story epic overtones and a suggestion of adventure by linking it with an ancient quest story full of magic and exotic characters. But it also sounds, in English, just a little bit like another famous ship, the Ark. The subliminal suggestion of a lifeboat rescuing people from a great disaster is perfect for the film.

Other references to the ancient world are briefer, but the first line in the film refers to ancient Iran - the Persian Empire - which is a really nice beginning, as it evokes Iran's long, fascinating history before catching up to more recent events. There's also a brief exchange where John Goodman's John Chambers suggests using a script called The Horses of Achilles and Siegal declares that if it's got horses in it, it's a Western, and no one makes Westerns any more. It's very funny (Chambers does try to explain about ancient Troy) but also true in its own way - the tradition of the Western does feed into certain other genres of film, especially where horses are involved (or even camels, in The Mummy's case), and as Tony Keen has suggested, several films about Roman Britain draw on the genre of the Western in their representations of Roman-period Scotland.

As an historian, I feel duty-bound to point out that the film is far from historically accurate, but as an historian whose knowledge of the area in question is two thousand years out of date, I am spectacularly unqualified to do so myself. Assuming Wikipedia is halfway accurate, I think my fellow Brits (and New Zealanders) may have been insulted, though out of the need to create drama rather than any malicious intent. Overall, for those of us who don't know anything about the history of the region pre-the early 1990s, the film may, possibly, do more good than harm (though I assume this depends partly on your political persuasion).

As a film and a piece of drama, this is well worth seeing. Affleck really is a very good director (check out subliminal touches like the poster for New York showing an image of the financial district of downtown Manhattan in 1979 that the hostages in the embassy are rushed past during the storming of the building). He earned my eternal affection in particular with a couple of sequences that demonstrate a love and understanding of science fiction as a genre. The first was the scene in which the read-through of Argo which was intercut with news footage from the crisis in the Middle East; on one level, it shows up how ridiculous the film is, but is also emphasises what science fiction tries to do, which is represent feelings and struggles and emotions that are very real through metaphorical stories. But even better was the sequence towards the end which lovingly panned over Mendez' son's action figures (mostly from Star Wars, plus a Mr Spock). To a degree, science fiction saved these people's lives, and the shot plays like a rather sweet little thank-you to the genre.

Excellent hair/shirt combo

Argo isn't a perfect film, but it is very good and well worth a look. Plus, the very, very bad film-within-a-film looks so bad it could be brilliant - the campaign to get it made starts here!

More film reviews

Monday, 5 November 2012

Star Trek The Next Generation: Darmok

In the course of researching an article for Den of Geek on 10 ground-breaking episodes of The Next Generation, my lovely Facebook friends pointed me in the direction of 'Darmok,' which turned out to be rather fascinating.

The basic premise of 'Darmok' is that Picard is stuck on a planet with an alien whose language cannot be translated by the universal translator. It's a rather nice idea, forcing Picard to struggle to understand an alien race and to think about how we as sentient beings communicate, rather than just saying hello and having the universal translators do all the hard work.

In the end, it turns out that the alien's language is entirely composed of imagery and metaphor - the example given in the episode is that it's like saying 'Juliet on her balcony' when you mean that someone is in love. The universal translators can't translate it because they're not programmed with the required stories.

Now of course, there are all sorts of problems with this. For one thing, how did they develop sufficiently complex stories to account for any situation? I supposed they could be relying on visual art, but it's a bit of a stretch. For another, the universal translators seen able to cope with everything in the language that isn't a proper noun, which is cheating really. And although I had the advantage of knowing the set-up beforehand, I still think Picard was a bit daft to think someone was trying to attack him when they offered him a knife hilt-first.

But however unfeasible it is, the idea of a language built on metaphor and imagery is really interesting. Back in the 19th century, philologist Friedrich Max Müller suggested that mythology was a 'disease of language' - he thought that myths grew out of flowery ways of describing the natural world (usually the sun - where Freud was obsessed with sex, Max Müller was obsessed with the sun). So, according to Max Müller, the myth of Eos (Dawn) and Cephalus (literally 'head,' which Max Müller twisted around until he made it mean 'dew') is actually a poetic way of describing the dawn 'kissing' the dew on the ground as it rises in the morning. No one has really agreed with Max Müller's theory for about 150 years, but he would have loved this episode.

Max Müller would also, as a scholar of the East, have loved Picard's re-telling of parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving work of literature in the Middle-Eastern-and-Western world, and one of the oldest works of literature in the world all together. It survives in various bits and pieces of different versions, but a standard version exists and is available in translation from Penguin (if memory serves, there's an older prose translation - that's the one I've got - and a newer verse translation). It's much, much (MUCH) shorter than any of the Greek or Latin epics and, apart from some slightly repetitive sections (a common feature in ancient Near Eastern literature) it's a pretty good read, so I'd recommend having a look if you're interested in epic poetry.

The standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh isn't quite the same as the story Picard tells here but it's close enough, and he gets the most important part right - the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Enkidu's death. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight each other at first, but then become inseparable and like family, and then Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh mourns him. It's a perfect story for Picard's situation, and it's nice to hear it told, as it isn't used in popular culture as much as the later Greek and Roman stories.

At the end of the episode, Picard is apparently reading the Homeric Hymns. I say 'apparently' because Riker seems to recognise what he's reading as Greek, but it doesn't look like Greek, and why is he reading a book instead of a PADD anyway? I'm pretty sure you can already get ancient Greek texts on a Kindle... I'm also baffled as to why Picard has decided to start with the Homeric Hymns, instead of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Maybe he liked that they're shorter. He calls them 'the root metaphors of our own culture' - Max Müller must be jumping for joy in the afterlife.

I liked this episode a lot, despite the logical flaws. The basic story is simple and sweet (I cried) and it's always nice to see a shout-out to the Epic of Gilgamesh. I don't know whether the writers had ever heard of Friedrich Max Müller but this must be one of the first outings for his theory in about a century, so that's nice. And I've never before seen anyone so excited as Picard is here by the word 'metaphor'...

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