Friday, 14 March 2014

Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004)

I finally got around to watching Mean Girls this week, when one of my lovely best friends lent it to me. I'm pretty sure I knew almost the first third of the movie line by line already just from internet memes - having now seen both this and Anchorman, I feel I understand about 75% more of Tumblr.

I have conflicted feelings about high school films. Not only did I not attend an American high school, for obvious reasons, the British high schools (we moved) that I attended were seriously weird and are never represented in popular culture. See, not only did I not go to a normal co-ed comprehensive, I didn't go to a fancy private school either. I went to (two different) all-girls grammar schools, a type of school that only exists in a few counties in the UK (had we stayed in Suffolk I'd have gone somewhere much more normal). We got all the emotional stunting of an education without boys with none of the privileges of wealth - since the second one was in Rugby (which also contains one of the poshest schools in the country) we spent our entire time in the shadow of the rich kids telling people 'no, not that one, Rugby High School. It's a very different thing'.

The point is, I don't know the first thing about normal high schools, especially not American ones. But it does seem that everywhere you go, at whatever age, people tend to form into cliques, and sometimes those cliques have leaders, and sometimes it all descends into horrifying levels of back-stabbing and meanness. Which is why I especially enjoyed this brief outburst from the middle of the movie. Mean girl Gretchen has been insulted by queen bee Regina (I didn't say the symbolism was subtle) and finally cracks while studying Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in English class:

Gretchen: Why should Caesar just get to stomp around like a giant while the rest of us try not to get smushed under his big feet? Brutus is just as cute as Caesar, right? Brutus is just as smart as Caesar, people totally like Brutus just as much as they like Caesar, and when did it become okay for one person to be the boss of everybody because that's not what Rome is about! We should totally just STAB CAESAR!

It's something of a more on the nose, less poetic version of Cassius' famous speech from the play:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!

Of course, the reason Shakespeare has lasted so well, aside from the poetry, is that he boils complicated stories down to represent universal truths. As historians, we tend to view historical situations as rather more complex than that. But people are still people in the end, so with it being the Ides of March tomorrow, I am choosing to be amused by the mental image of Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and the rest as catty American high school girls who wear pink on Wednesdays. It might be closer to the truth than we think.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (dir. Noam Murro, 2014)

Brother and I went to see this in IMAX this afternoon, which was fun - the IMAX adds to the spectacle a bit and since these movies are essentially nothing but spectacle, it works quite well. I had been a bit worried about dragging an innocent party to this film as both reviews and reactions from friends on Facebook suggested that while 300 was silly but fun, this new parallelaquel (it takes place before, during and after the first film) was simply dull. However, I actually enjoyed myself quite a lot. Somewhere around the point where Xerxes became a Goa'uld at the beginning (it involved a glowy pond in a cave and a cameo from a 'hermit' who looked like Gollum) I got the giggles and I could barely stop laughing for the rest of the film, though I doubt this was the effect the director was going for. I hope I didn't spoil anyone else's enjoyment as I chortled silently the entire way through...

Unsurprisingly, this film's relationship to actual Greek history is foggy at best. I won't pick apart every single inaccuracy as we'd be here all day, so I'll just go over some of the highlights. Xerxes' father Darius did indeed try to invade ten years earlier and was defeated at the Battle of Marathon, which was indeed fought by the Athenians against the Persians. Darius' reasons for doing this were long and complicated and involved an escalating series of events kicked off by an ambitious puppet tyrant and involving a 9-year-old Gorgo advising her father (a Spartan king) to stay out of it and everyone burning each others' shrines and temples until both sides felt fully justified in going to war against the other. The Athenians fought Darius off at Marathon lead by one of their generals, Miltiades (not Themistocles) and using better armour, longer spears and a pincer movement, the Spartans turning up at the end to survey the corpses, because thanks to the fact they seem to be eternally celebrating the festival of Karneia, the Spartans tended to be late to every war during this period.* Darius was not killed during this battle, but died four years later, in Persia.

*There are important historical reasons for their reluctance actually to fight with their greatest land army in all Greece, mostly involving the risk of the enslaved Messenian population - the helots - revolting while they were away, which was the helots' favourite thing to do.

Xerxes succeeded his father and started building an invasion fleet. So Themistocles persuaded the Athenians, who had the best navy in Greece, to build more ships. When Xerxes sent his heralds demanding 'earth and water' in 481 and the Athenians chucked one into a pit, the Spartans another into a well, a group of 31 city-states met in Athens and formed the Hellenic League, under Spartan leadership. This is where the 300 come in; while the rest of Sparta celebrated the Karneia again, Leonidas, 300 Spartan male citizens and a heck of a lot of other people including Thespians, Thebans and helots marched off to Thermopylae.

Here's where we get to what I found to be the film's most baffling inaccuracy, or omission, or however you want to look at it. As a myth and religion specialist, for me, the most interesting aspect of the Battle of Salamis by far is the story Herodotus tells about the oracle given to the Athenians. The Athenians go consult the Delphic Oracle, who tells them to 'trust in their wooden walls'. Some argued that this meant the wooden walls surrounding the Acropolis and retreated there. This did not go well for them - as in the film, Xerxes turned up and burned the lot (though the architecture of Athens seen in the film dates to much later; the Parthenon was built between 447 and 432. This is par for the course with films, which have an equal tendency to throw the Colosseum into films about ancient Rome regardless of whether or not it had been built at the period the film is set). Themistocles, however, insisted that 'wooden walls' was Oracle-speak for their ships - the ones he had persuaded them to build. Then, apparently (and bearing in mind that Herodotus, he of the tall tales, is our source for all this) he pretended to defect to Xerxes and persuaded Xerxes to attack in the narrow straits at Salamis, despite this losing him his advantage in numbers, before heading back to the Greeks, leaving Xerxes to be badly defeated at Salamis (the war finally came to an end with the Battle of Plataea the following year).

Now, all this sounds like a pretty exciting story to me. Goodness knows how true any of it is - it is Herodotus - but it's real history, or real gossip at least, much like Suetonius' lives of Roman Emperors. So why on earth would you make a film about Themistocles without including any of this whatsoever?! Gorgo says something vague about the Athenians needing to trust in their wooden ships, Xerxes burns Athens and that's as close as it gets. Themistocles even implies that Athens' navy isn't up to much and they have to be saved by the Spartans - the Spartans were great soldiers and they could fight at sea when they had to, but naval battles were hardly their speciality.

Of course, looking for accuracy in a film like this is pointless - you just have to take comfort from the odd bit that gets thrown in. Look! It's Xerxes' bridge across the Hellespont! And Athens was, in this period, a democracy - though the film spends about ten minutes trying to acknowledge that Greece is made up of a collection of city-states before giving up and making anachronistic references to nations and country and 'Mother Greece'. I actually rather liked seeing the Athenians brawling at an assembly meeting. Goodness knows why they appear to be in a temple when these meetings took place outdoors on a hillside (the Pnyx) but I bet they degenerated into brawls quite often.

Rather than interesting itself in actual history, the film creates a new villain out of Xerxes' mistress Artemisia and sets her against Themistocles reimagined, not as an intelligent and charismatic leader, but as Leonidas Mark II in a beautiful blue cloak and not much else (if Spartan red cloaks are designed so that you can't see them bleeding, is Themistocles' blue cloak supposed to hide the... water?!). According to Herodotus, Artemisa really was pretty cool, accompanying the expedition, fighting and sinking a ship on her way out. Historically, however, she warned Xerxes not to attack at Salamis, not vice versa. And I suspect she had less angry fight-sex with her enemies in which it's not clear whether it's entirely consensual or, if not, who's raping whom, in the process. Still, Eva Green puts in a terrific performance, one that feels like it's a level above the film that she's in. Lena Headey, who I love and who is fantastic in everything, is also great, while the male cast are more sort of... there. They're all fine, but the film misses Gerard Butler (and even more it misses his Scottish accent, since the Athenians, while shunning clothes as much as the Spartans, seem to have added tiny little kilt-things to their Y-fronts, creating an overall effect not a million miles from a 'sexy' Catholic schoolgirl fancy dress costume. They should have just gone all out and actually quoted Braveheart).

Greek history is notably short on women (even more so than Roman history - the Romans were more inclined to admire the occasional exceptional woman than the Greeks) and it's nice to see the film consciously trying to redress the balance, however dubiously. Oddly enough Artemisa's story actually aligns quite well with Greek mythology towards the end - Greek myth is fond of powerful Amazon warriors, sexually attractive and wild, who must eventually be subdued (killed or married) by the super-masculine male hero. Themistocles' defeat of Artemisia falls neatly into that category, and the visual of her falling to her knees before him after he's run her through is rather disturbingly patriarchal - though ameliorated by Gorgo appearing at the head of the Spartan fleet, jumping into the fight with gusto. (Sparta had two kings at a time and it should be the second king Themistocles negotiates with after Leonidas' death but whatever, this increases the female cast by 100% and ties in better with the first movie).

The visuals in the film are similar to 300 and some of the sea battles are fairly impressive. The Persians' huge wooden battleships are probably larger than they should be, but the section with the oil was impressive, though I doubt oil would make ships blow up like that (and the idea of 'Greek fire' come from the later Byzantine period, though they used fire-based weapons earlier as well). The film lingers frequently over Persian slaves chained to their oars, preferring to skim over the fact the Greek ships are rowed by slaves as well. The whole thing gets fairly silly, but I must admit I didn't find it boring - at one point there were actual sea serpents! (Brother thinks that was a dream, but I have my doubts).

This scene looked particularly impressive in IMAX 3D

The dialogue, however, was utterly terrible throughout - which was one of the reasons I kept laughing all the way through. 'Mad Greek weather' amused me (try the English Channel, mate), as did 'Seize your glory!', which sort of makes sense in ancient Greek, in which kleos (glory) is a thing you can earn by killing enough people, but makes rather less sense in English. My favourite terrible line, though, had to be a reference to someone's eyes having 'the stink of Destiny.' I'll make sure to watch out for the stink of Destiny, or indeed the stink-eye of Destiny, in future.

There's a rather lovely irony to the title. A much earlier Oracle from Delphi supposedly told King Croesus of Lydia that if he went to war he would destroy a great empire and off he went, not realising the empire in question would be his own (this is another of Herodotus' stories). The film's sub-title, Rise of an Empire, would seem to apply to the Persian attacking forces, but it actually applies even better to the Athenians. After the Persian wars, the Athenians led an alliance called the Delian League which eventually morphed into the Athenian Empire, kick-started by their leadership of the navy during the Persian wars (and eventually contributing to their long war with Sparta). I'm not sure whether it was deliberate, but the title could refer rather nicely to the rise of the Athenian empire, rather than the already risen Persian one.

On a similar theme, there was an interesting moment in which Themistocles implied that maybe the Spartan ideal of dying on the battlefield wasn't the healthiest approach to life. The Spartans won the Peloponnesian war against Athens, but declined in power soon after, partly thanks to a catastrophic decline in their citizen male population. There were a lot of reasons for this (helot revolts, an earthquake, thinking you have healthier children if you have sex less often, preferring male lovers) but their tendency to refuse to abandon a hopeless fight may have been a contributing factor.

All in all, this is not a good film, but it could have been worse. A lot of the problems with it bring into relief the inherent problems with making films about Greek history at all. For example, some critics (I think it was probably Mark Kermode on his and Simon Mayo's podcast that I was listening to) have said they thought there was too much exposition at the beginning. But if you actually tried to explain the political situation in ancient Greece and the cause of the Persian wars properly, it would have taken a lot longer than that. The Roman Empire is easy - here's a big empire you've probably heard of, with an emperor at the head of it (the Roman Republic is much more complicated, which is probably why there are fewer films about it). But a group of states that aren't even a single country and all have different forms of government and different agendas is a much harder sell, and even the broad outline of Greek history is less well known to the general public. With that in mind, I have to say I think this is a brave attempt - daft, but brave. I just don't understand why they didn't want to include the Oracle story...

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