Monday, 31 January 2011

Clueless (dir. Amy Heckerling, 1995)


I've mentioned a couple of times, I think, that for some years when I was a teenager, I thought Spartacus' name was Sparatacus, thanks to this movie. This being a rather egregious mistake that continued far longer than it should have done, I thought perhaps it was worth a blog post to itself (also, Clueless is awesome).

For those unfamiliar with the film, Clueless is a mid-ninties teen flick based loosely on Jane Austen's Emma. Me being a teen in the mid-nineties, you can imagine how much I love this movie, though there's more to Clueless than just teen fun. Taking it's central plot from Austen, I actually prefer this movie to the original novel - I find Austen's Emma too overbearing and irritating, whereas Alicia Silverstone somehow manages to make Cher a sympathetic and endearing character. Even more importantly, Cher's initial objection to her friend Thai's crush is not to do with money, but rather the fact that he's high all day every day, which comes across as a lot more reasonable (and he's cleaned up by the end of the film). The film is also hilarious ('My plastic surgeon doesn't want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose'; 'There goes your social life').

This is a tightly structured film and Cher's mistake concerning the title of Spartacus is not just there for a cheap laugh. Cher is pursuing the new guy at school, Christian, but is unfortuantely completely oblivious to certain facts that mean this will never happen. Christian's declaration that he has a 'thing' for Tony Curtis doesn't clue her in, and nor does his choice of movies for a videofest - Some Like It Hot (about half of which Curtis spends in drag) and Spartacus. We join them during the early part of Spartacus, watching the scene in which Laurence Olivier's Crassus interrogates Curtis' Antoninus, whom he has recently purchased.

Crassus and Antoninus were the participants in another scene that takes place shortly after this one, which was cut from the film's original release but restored in 1991. The scene features Crassus trying to seduce Antoninus while discussing how sexuality is a matter of taste rather than morality via some appropriately sexy metaphors involving shellfish. Just as this scene is coming up, Cher tries to seduce Christian by playing footsie, but he brushes her off saying he wants to watch 'this part - this is good'. To be fair, as a 13-year-old watching the movie, I probably wouldn't have worked out the problem for myself if my best friend hadn't pointed it out to me, but poor Cher really is being very clueless here (especially given Christian's fondness for designer shoes). Her mistake with the name is really a symbol of her total lack of comprehension of the situation in which she's found herself, while the Roman-set film is representative of sexuality, and of Christian's sexuality in particular, which is particularly appropriate given ancient Rome's reputation for orgies and pornography.

It's also worth noting that much of Cher's determination to completely 'make-over' Thai in every respect from clothes to hair to accent to leisure activities has a very Pygmalion-like feel to it. Cher does not fall for Thai and the dialogue compares her efforts to Dr Frankenstein rather than either Pygmalion or his well-known modern counterpart, Professor Higgins, but her obsession with completely re-modelling the girl echoes the Pygmalion story more than the horror - something that's unlikely to be entirely conincidental in a film so full of classical allusions of the non-Greco-Roman variety (including Cher's observation that a book she read noted that 'it is a far, far better thing doing things for other people' and her pretty good knowledge of Hamlet, gained via the Mel Gibson-starring movie version). The clip from Spartacus that we see even refers to Curtis' character teaching children 'the classics'.

Being as clueless a teen as Cher, if not more so, this represented my entire impression of ancient Rome in popular culture for some years, until UK Gold started to repeat I, Claudius! I know better now, but I will forever love this movie for inducing a lifelong fondess for Paul Rudd, introducing the world to a very young (braces-wearing) Turk from Scrubs and for reminding me of a time when taking photos to help yourself choose a dress or phoning someone in the same building on a mobile seemed like such ridiculous things to do that only the super-rich would even contemplate anything of the sort.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Star Trek: Who Mourns for Adonais?


A few links of interest before I begin: Penelope Goodman has a new post about Clash of the Titans here, in which she links to a paper by Gideon Nisbet on gaming and Clash here, which I found very interesting, since I know almost nothing about video games. Meanwhile, this episode of Star Trek is mentioned briefly by Caroline Lawrence in a post on Adonis, which I recommend, especially since I don't discuss him at all here!

In a way, this episode embodies several of the most common features of classic Star Trek. You remember it for a somewhat silly but visually impressive feature of the episode, a lot of it is unintentionally hilarious but it takes a more serious turn towards the end, and it's not actually about what you thought it was about. In this case, having seen the episode a long time ago and not really remembering it, I thought it was going to be another run of gods vs science, in the way modern Trek occasionally decides to approach the issue. In fact, it isn't really about gods or religion at all, except peripherally - what it is really about is men and women in the workplace. As to how well it tackles that issue - well, a full summary is probably the best place to start there.

We open with some delightfully patronising ogling of this week's Guest Female Crewmember and a complaint from Bones about how every female crewmember will eventually find a man and leave the service. Luckily the most memorable part of this episode then makes an early appearance - it's a Giant Green Hand in Space! A 'field of energy', it seems, which quite literally grabs the ship, currently flying through a region with a curious lack of intelligent life (that's what Guest Female Crewmember was trying to tell Kirk, Scotty and Bones while they were admiring the way she filled her tiny dress).

Post credits, the Giant Green Hand reorganises itself into a humanoid man's head, with curly black hair and a gold laurel wreath (well, some leaves, in gold, I presume it's meant to be a laurel wreath). The head (the Big Giant Head, even) intones some portentous-sounding statements about how their journey has ended and they're all going to have a lovely time on his planet. This includes the most extraordinary mix-up of religious bits and pieces. At one point, he says, 'there shall be the music of the pipes' which, as will soon be made clear, is entirely appropriate, but this follows hard on the heels of 'we shall drink the sacramental wine', which very much isn't. I suspect if one tried really hard, one could defend this line - something along the lines of how the word sacrament relates to the Greek mysterion and the Greek mystery religions featured secret rituals that may or may not have involved wine (not that the god in question was the subject of a mystery religion). Greeks certainly poured libations - liquid offerings - frequently and many libations were composed of wine. But really, to any modern Western viewer, 'sacramental wine' quite clearly refers to the Roman Catholic communion wine, and hearing it in this context is just plain off. (And yes, Greek libations may be one of several ultimate sources of the communion ritual - but I don't think that's why the line was included).

The Big Giant Head, amusingly, still seems convinced they're in a sailing vessel. Agamemnon, Hector and Odysseus are referred to as 'history', but given that this episode features an actual Greek god as a space alien I can probably let that one go. He's certainly powerful - he makes Uhura squeal! (Uhura squealing is the first sign something is seriously wrong, the second being a redshirt dying. In the newer series, which are marginally more enlightened gender-wise, the inertial dampners going offline are the first sign, followed by the death of an expendable ensign). The god turns out to be quite the racist, disliking Spock because he looks like Pan, who 'always bored me.' Interesting opinion, given how muc they have in common - perhaps he didn't like having a rival. Anyway, Spock must stay in his room while a landing party goes down to play on the planet.

Bones quickly justifies the presence of this week's Guest Female Crewmember, who is apparently an expert in archaeology and anthropology. I've discussed the portrayal of archaeologists in the media several times, but this one is probably alone in using its archaeologist character chiefly as The Girl (River Song is a bit more complex than that).

The still unnamed Greek god is slightly smaller now, lounging around in pseudo-Greek architecture with his lyre. He finally identifies himself as Apollo - hence the lyre and pipe music, as he is a god of music, among other things (Chekov, new to the show and looking like he fell off the set of The Monkees, immediately responds 'And I'm the Tsar of all the Russias!). Apollo eyes up Guest Female Crewmember - well, that's about par for the course for a Greek god, so for once it's justified! He declares that they will all stay and worship him, and proves how powerful he is by growing to giant size (which looks pretty funny in that tiny gold skirt he's wearing. It's tiny skirts all around in this episode).

A bit of a fuzzy image, but you can see Apollo's tiny skirt, and the back of Carolyn (Guest Woman)'s revealing dress

Kirk quite sensibly maintains that the dude, whatever he is, is not a god of any kind, though he does work out that the guy might actually be Apollo, as in, he may have come to Earth and hung around calling himself Apollo (I wonder if this is the first instance of this now-common plot?). Guest Woman explains, in Vaseline-O-Vision, who Apollo is, including 'he was the god of light and purity, skilled in the bow and the lyre.' It's all more or less accurate, though 'light and purity' is a rather too Christianizing way of putting 'god of the sun' - purity didn't come into it that much (as will become clear).

Guest Woman reminds Apollo of Aphrodite or Athena - both of them? They're not exactly similar! He fancies her, of course, because that is the purpose of the Guest Female Crewmember of the week (see also 'Space Seed'). 'You are beautiful,' he tells her - well yes, she's in Vaseline-O-Vision. Scotty attempts to fight for his woman, all manly-like, and gets a sore hand and broken phaser for his trouble. Apollo puts Guest Woman into a ridiculously revealing sparkly pink outfit - though it's long this time - which is the other purpose of the Guest Female Crewmember of the week, to get put into totally silly clothing (see also 'The Squire of Gothos').

Kirk further explains his Apollo-is-actually-Apollo theory to Bones while Uhura actually does something on the ship, something quite technical sounding. Kirk also defends Guest Woman's attempt to do her job, albeit via the medium of flirting.

Apollo explains to Guest Woman that the other gods floated off into the cosmos due to lack of worship - so, like Discworld gods, these fade without adoration. I can't help feeling that the episode veers into fantasy here - Crazy Powerful Space Alien is Apollo I can just about file as science fiction, but we're on a thin line when they start spontaneously gaining or losing power according to words and thoughts. He pulls it back towards some kind of 'science' by further explaining that disappearing off into the cosmos is a choice made by a god who has become disillusioned through lack of attention, which makes a bit more sense. Hera went first, apparently - clearly being portrayed as an annoying nag in all the epic poems got to her.

Then Apollo snogs Guest Woman, naturally.

Apollo is actually a big bunch of energy, the others work out. He comes back without Guest Woman, at which point Scotty, very amusingly, tries to attack him with a statuette and gets blasted with lightening (his real mistake was being the only member of the landing party in a red shirt). Kirk starts yelling and Apollo takes his voice - but the god keeps fading in and out and is obviously in trouble. Kirk and Chekov discuss this development while Chekov, because this is only his second episode, reminds us all that he's Russian several more times. (He also stands with his hands on his hips, rather like Captain Janeway, and pops one hip out like he's disco dancing all the while, which is quite possibly the funniest thing yet).

Scotty and Kirk recover and Kirk declares that 'most mythology has its basis in fact.' Um, this is quite a long post already, should I really start getting into this now? Let's just say he's wrong and leave it at that - though with the proviso that, given the concept behind the episode, that the Greek myths were true and the gods were space aliens, it makes sense in context, and in Star Trek's own particular mythology. As a generalising statement, though - no, they're not. Kirk observes that even gods require rest after activity, and forms a plan based on provoking Apollo till he loses his energy.

Back on the Enterprise, Uhura's in a mechanic's overalls, fiddling with the electronics - awesome! (Still wearing massive green hoop earrings though). Spock even specifically states that he can think of no one better equipped to handle it when she points out she hasn't done this in years.

Back on the planet, Kirk yells at Apollo, and we see once again the enormous difference between TOS and the later Star Trek series. 'We have no need for gods,' says Kirk - so far, so Star Trek - 'we find the one quite adequate.' Later Trek series did occasionally look at religion from multiple points of view - in Voyager's 'Sacred Ground', for example, and I believe Deep Space Nine went into this more (I haven't seen much DS9) but usually, the standard position for a modern Trek crewmember is atheism (even Tuvok doesn't believe in the katra, though you'd think the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had proved that one fairly conclusively!). Kirk's standard view, however, is monotheism. This episode is not about humankind not needing gods, it's just about them no needing this particular type of god.

All four then go for Apollo, attacking him with words so he can't blast them all at once. They also grab Guest Woman who, like so many Star Trek women, appears to be inflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. However, and again like the others, she just can't let anyone hurt Kirk, so she jumps in front of him and yells at Apollo herself before he can be blasted. She protests that Apollo told her he was gentle and kind and that a father doesn't destroy his children. Here, we've gone back to identifying Apollo with qualities of the Christian god, not the pagan gods - there's nothing gentle or kind about any of the Greek gods (though Apollo was a god of healing, that's about as gentle as they got) and fathers were quite keen to destroy their children in some cases, usually to stop said children destroying them. She insists he mustn't hurt them and he gives in to her big, well mascared, puppy dog eyes.

Apollo insists everyone from the ship come down, while Kirk replies that in that case he expects Apollo to provide the sheep and pipes (teehee). Kirk then formulates a new plan which depends entirely on Guest Woman remaining loyal and getting over her Stockholm Syndrome (don't worry Kirk, given the choice between you and another man, they always choose you).

Guest Woman is left with a choice between being the mother of a new race of gods or going back to being ogled by Scotty. Apollo gives her goddess-powers and she drops in ow her crewmates. Kirk declares that Chekov is too young to talk to her and win her loyalty back - apparently her decision will be based on how manly the guy who talks to her is. Kirk orders her to reject Apollo, which doesn't impress her much as apparently Giant Space Hands turn her on and she's fallen in love with him. She doesn't want to break her love's heart, but it seems one grasp of Kirk's manly grip is enough to turn her around. That, plus an actual order, as Kirk reminds her of her duty as a Starfleet officer.

Uhura's got the communicators working and Spock's worked out a way to kill or disable Apollo, but they don't want to try it while Guest Woman is with him in case it kills her too. So she, unaware of this, has to get on with rejecting him by telling him she's only been studying him as a scientist. Typically of Apollo, he resorts to ordering her to stay, which doesn't impress her at all. Then there's a really disturbing scene where he produces a raging storm (did he get Zeus's powers as well when Zeus faded?) and Guest Woman is attacked by the wind of the storm, which blows up her skirt, at which point the camera moves up to her face... it's all very accurate to Greek mythology and actually very effective (at least she doesn't turn into a laurel tree). The show doesn't get more specific than that, of course, and while Apollo's distracted Spock and the others save the day but still... nasty.

Apollo is still alive, but less powerful. Weeping, he tells them he would have cherished and loved them, but Kirk tells him they've 'outgrown' him (which is a very nineteenth-century-anthropologist viewpoint). He gives up and 'fades', or goes into space, or whatever, and Kirk and Bones discuss how they wish they hadn't had to destroy him and how fabulous the Greeks were while Guest Woman falls, weeping, into Scotty's arms.

As with so much of the depiction of women in classic Trek, this episode is full of mixed messages. Overall, Guest Woman appears to prove Bones wrong by choosing her duty over her love and Uhura is, as ever, made of awesome, but we haven't quite reached full enlightenment. Uhura still squeals when things get scary, which none of the male characters do, and Guest Woman's reassertion of her job, her independence and her duty results in (sexual) assault, from which she must be pulled away by Scotty, who spends the rest of the episode with his arms around her. However, it's an interesting dramatisation of what must have been a hot issue at the time.

So why are the Greek gods involved? Well, this is about men and women and on one level, the myths of gods like Apollo symbolise the most basic ancient concept of the relationship between men and women; men pursue and women are conquered and have babies. We've grown beyond that, Kirk insists (all evidence from his own behaviour to the contrary!). On the other hand, it's not quite as simple as all that. The title refers to mourning for the loss of beauty, and all the stranded landing party end the episode mourning for Apollo and for the idyllic dream he promised them of a life herding sheep and playing pan-pipes. (Of course, in reality, no such trouble-free idyll ever existed, but that's not really the point). Apollo represents an older way of life that had its good points as well as its bad, but that is no longer appropriate to the way we want to live our lives. It makes a rather nice metaphor, though it falls down a bit because none of the main characters really explain what, exactly, the gods did to inspire Agamemnon and co. or why they needed them.

The best thing about this episode is that it uses the now-familiar trope of the god who's really a space alien to do something other than pit 'scientific' heroes against religious fanatics (I love Stargate, but that is not my favourite plot!). This does something much more interesting, comparing ancient Greek values to those of the viewer and reminding viewers of the importance of acknowledging the acheivement of the past, but moving on, beyond ideas that are no longer considered valid.

From: http://www.trekp.com/gallery02.htm

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Classical Films at the Oscars


As I'm sure you've heard, the Oscar nominations came out today - not too many surprises, though unfortunately those there were were negative (no director's nod for Christopher Nolan?! And I'd have liked to see Andrew Garfield in the Supporting Actor category). On the other hand, I'm very happy to see one science-fiction film and one horror film among the top five of this year's awards season, since the awards have being leaning away from anything other than worthy issues-movies or dramas that looked far too miserable and I didn't go to see ever since Return of the King. The Best Picture nominations include four films I saw (Black Swan, Inception, The King's Speech and The Social Network) all of which I really enjoyed and one of which (Inception) included some Classical references, which I blogged about.

However, in a year noticeably full of Classical movies, none of them have received any Oscar nominations at all. This is not overly surprising. Two Classical movies have done extremely well at the Oscars; Ben-Hur still jointly holds the record for the most Oscars won by a single film, 11, held with Titanic and The Return of the King (my favourite movies - the Academy doesn't always get it wrong!) while Gladiator won five Oscars including Best Actor and Best Picture. Since Gladiator, however, none have got very far in the awards shows, for various reasons. The Passion of the Christ was too controversial and too much of a personal religious meditation as well as a movie, though it did get three Oscar nominations in the less high profile categories (I hate the idea of bigger and smaller awards, as everyone worked as hard as everyone else, but some are undeniably higher profile than others). Alexander was too long and rambling and featured Colin Farrell in a very silly wig. Troy simply wasn't that high quality, though I really liked it (I thought it was a pretty good stab at a difficult adaptation, and thoroughly enjoyable to boot) and 300 is classic, silly fun but definitely too lowbrow for the awards.

And so to this year's bumper crop of Classical movies, Agora, Centurion, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and Clash of the Titans. I haven't seen either Agora or Centurion, as both came out while I was in the Land of No Cinema and they didn't have as much staying power as the other two (both of which I saw in empty cinemas towards the end of their runs). I've heard that Agora is excellent (see for example Cris's review over at Here, There and Everywhere) and the emotive subject matter would make it pretty suitable for a bit of recognition - indeed, it won seven Goya awards in Spain. In Agora's case, I think the film just didn't get the publicity it would have needed in the States (or here - if it had come to more cinemas or stayed on release longer I might have been able to see it). As a Spanish film, but in the English language (so, not eligible for Best Foreign Language Film) it was just too small. As for Centurion, I haven't come across many reviws of it - I don't know whether that means anything as far as the quality of the film goes, but even if it was brilliant, it would probably be too small and not well known enough to get anywhere anyway.

And so to the two mythological movies, Percy Jackson and Clash of the Titans. They are, of course, immediately at a disadvantage because of their subject matter, as genre films are generally less frequently rewarded, so the only mythology-based stories with a really good shot at awards would be a really tight adaptation of the Iliad that only told the story of Achilles and Hector, with no gods (and no horse, which isn't in the Iliad anyway) or an update of the Oedipus story with no prophecy, or something along those lines. However, it's not impossible to get near the awards with a more fantastical story - The Return of the King may be the only one to make it all the way to Best Picture, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 has two nominations in the less high profile categories this year, not to mention Inception (science fiction, equally difficult to get awards for) and Black Swan (psychological horror bordering on fantasy).

So, Titans and Percy had the money, the exposure and plenty of special effects to show off with, and nothing should have stopped them having a shot at a technical award - except the one remaining problem. They just weren't that good! They were both decent enough, but neither set the screen on fire. Even the special effects weren't that desperately special, as we've all got used to spectacular computer graphics by now, and Titans seemed to think you could emulate Hades by just wandering around Blanau Ffestiniog. Both tended towards two-dimensional characterisation and spectacle over story, so neither were really engaging. And no Titans clashed, which was blatent false advertising.

These seem to be the problems that plague Classically-themed films. They're either too small to get noticed, or they get so lost in the splendour of the ancient world, whether Roman history or Greek mythology or, more rarely, Greek history, that they forget to be high quality films. Carried away with battles, grand sweeping shots of Rome or wild landscapes, mythological beasties, gods and goddesses, the writers and directors don't pay quite enough attention to character, dialogue and plot development. And, in some cases, they don't have to, since we'll all flock to see a Gorgon in 3D anyway! Let's hope that the upcoming Eagle adaptation, helped by having a beloved source novel to work from, takes its cue from the more carefully put-together Gladiator or Ben-Hur instead. That way, whether it wins awards or not, it will be a more satisfying cinema experience for all of us.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Discworld: Jingo


Over at Tor.com, Liz Bourke posted last week on SFF and the myth of Atlantis - and I suddenly realised that in more than a year and half, I hadn't yet posted anything on Atlantis. I nearly talked about it for World Oceans Day last year, but I wanted to post on Stephen Lawhead's books,and didn't have time to re-read them (and still haven't!).

Atlantis is one of those Platonic myths that may or may not be an invention of Plato (rather than a definitely authorless, orally transmitted story - though it's possible it was that as well). It seems to crop up mostly in science fiction and fantasy - not surprising, given that it's a myth, but I would have thought this story was ripe for the Troy-type treatment as well. I'm sure someone, somewhere has done a more realistic-style re-telling of it, I just haven't seen it yet.

I posted very briefly on the Latin in Jingo way back when I first started the blog, but I didn't talk about the Atlantis connection. Plato's myth of Atlantis is about a nation who tried to conquer the world and were punished for it - perhaps divinely - after their defeat by Athens; it is a warning against excessive imperialism. This makes it the perfect basis for Jingo, in which Commander Vimes and Lord Vetinari struggle to prevent a war between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch. Jingoism is not quite the same as imperialism - imperialism is the drive to conquer as many other countries as possible by military means, whereas jingoism is more to do with the glorification one's own nation and military and the criticism of others - to the point of playing down the military threat of another country and playing up one's own military prowess - largely in mental attitudes and propaganda. Clearly, the two are intimately connected and the one often leads to the other! The particular form of jingoism that Pratchett targets in this novel relates mainly, though not exclusively, to British attitudes during the First World War. (There are numerous other conflicts reflected in the novel, but Lord Rust in particular seems to be straight out of the early twentieth century to me).

(Going off on a tangent for a moment, this reminds me of one of many excellent quotes from Blackadder Goes Forth:

Lieutenant George: The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-building.
Captain Blackadder: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganiki. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.

The whole scene is very funny and accurate description of the causes of the First World War - much more entertaining than History lessons on the subject - and can be read here).

It is, then, highly appropriate that the cause of the renewed tensions between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch is the reappearance of the Discworld's Atlantis, the lost island of Leshp. The major difference between the Discworld version and the Platonic version, though, is that Leshp has sunk through no fault of its own, and the inhabitants seem to have had little to do with the military problem (and when it reappears, the only inhabitants are fish and curious squid, who quickly abandon it, so they're a non-issue). Leshp sank - then rose, then sank again - because of a scientific phenomenon, not as a punishment (divine or otherwise) for the hubris of its inhabitants, and it is the other countries fighting over it who are engaging in imperialistic ambitions.

In this respect, as various wikis describe, Leshp has more in common with Ferdinandea, an island which apparently appears and disappears near Sicily and was disputed between several countries when it last emerged. This certainly parallels Leshp, but I think there's more than a touch of Atlantis about Leshp as well. I don't have my copy on me at the moment so I can't check, but if memory serves, the island of Leshp is full of interesting architecture, art and at least one weathervane. I don't think we're supposed to imagine that this is the work of the curious squid - unlike Ferdinandea, Leshp was once a thriving city, and did not pop up and down regularly, but stayed at the surface long enough for people to colonise it. This strikes me as very Atlantean. The tragedy of the lost civilisation and the haunting strcutures left at the bottom of the sea, home to the fish and the squid, is the tragedy of the Platonic myth - and, of course, if anyone had managed to re-colonise it, they would have met the same fate as the Atlanteans.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Rome: Caesarion


An exciting and long-awaited episode, this one - the introduction of Cleopatra!

Brutus returns home to mummy, and is sad. Sad violin music plays in the background, he looks sad, she looks sad - they are sad. Given that he's unexpectedly still alive after a major battle, you'd think Servilia would be more pleased to see him. Judging by the look on his face, Brutus thinks so too.

Caesar has chased the already-dead Pompey to Egypt - and yay, there's a camel! Um, actually I don't think there should be a camel, as I have a vague notion that the Romans were the ones who brought camels to Egypt from Arabia. Wikipedia, however, disagrees, so maybe no one really knows. Anyway, it's a cute camel.

We meet Ptolemy first, a sulky child in Queen Amidala make-up, a little reminiscent of I, Claudius' Tiberius Gemellus (and just as doomed). Caesar is not impressed at being insulted by a child or at being presented with Pompey's head, since neither it nor his body have been treated with the respect due to a Roman consul. I've always harboured a suspicion that Caesar was secretly pleased at Pompey's execution and putting on a show, but actually, in this version, he comes across and genuinely - and sensibly - outraged, because the insult is to Rome and because while he may have wanted Pompey dead, this is not way he wanted to go about it.

Caesar sends Mark Antony packing back to Rome, Ptolemy to bed without supper and sets off to find Cleopatra, because her dispute with Ptolemy is blocking payment of money they owe him. Ptolemy sends assassins to get rid of Cleopatra himself but, of course, like every other significant character in ancient Rome, they ride straight past Boring and Dodgey, who ride off after them. The assassins make the classic movie-bad-guy mistake of giving their victim a chance to say some last words, and lo and behold, Boring and Dodgey leap in (to the Queen's bedchamber - they're lucky those actually were assassins) and save the day. Dodgey, foreshadowing the general dodginess that is to come, gets a bit too enthusaistic about the stabbing part.

And so we meet Cleopatra herself, a beautiful, young, apparently permanently drugged-up woman with a nice line in wigs and a somewhat creepy older female slave who is with her at all times. Here's the really interesting thing about Cleopatra. She's regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world, she's been played by Elizabeth Taylor and Amanda Barrie, even Livia in I, Claudius suggested that Cleopatra was as beautiful as she was when they were young. But have you ever actually seen an image of her? The woman was ugly as sin! This formed part of an important sub-plot in the Roman Mysteries novel The Beggar of Volubilis, which included a handy drawing of a coin of Cleopatra and made quite a point of undercutting her legendary beauty.

Cleopatra VII. Perhaps it was just a really bad coin-maker - after all, no one really looks good on those things...

Presumably, the idea that Cleopatra was extraordinarily beautiful springs from her ability to twist Roman leaders around her little finger and have wild, passionate affairs with them, producing children with both Caesar and Mark Antony. She obviously had some quality that encouraged them to enjoy more than a political alliance with her. Here, she writhes around suggestively on her couch even when no men are present, is always smoking something that can't possibly be tobacco and acts as quite the sexual predator, her slave declaring that she is an excellent lover. Both she and the slave have a slightly odd, short and stilted way of talking which may be supposed to reflect their imperfect Latin or, given that they sound pretty strange when alone together as well, may be the drugs. Bascially, the series, along with just about every other fictional representation of Cleopatra, goes all out on the sex, drugs and rock and roll here, with the excuse of her obvious sexual relationships with Caesar and Antony and her foreign exoticness. This is precisely the image of Cleopatra that Octavian and Livia promoted when they came to power - how far it is true is anyone's guess, though the offspring indicate at least some of it may be reasonable.

Another extra idea that is becoming more popular - it appeared in Alan Massie's Caesar as well - is that Caesarion, Caesar and Cleopatra's son, was not actually Caesar's. This idea springs from three things - the fact that, unlike Mark Antony, Caesar had only one legitimate child, so may not have been that fertile, the idea that Cleopatra used sex to get her way with everyone (maybe she had a killer body) and the simple desire to inject even more naughty sex into a portion of the story already filled with it. So, here, Cleopatra shows her superiority to several ancient Roman medical writers by knowing at what part of her cycle she is most likely to conceive and, since Caesar is not yet around, orders Boring to have sex with her. He, of course, is too noble and refuses (with a very correctly Roman insistence that he will not obey a woman), so Dodgey steps into the breach.

Having arrived in the city, Caesar and Cleopatra finally meet, in a rather clever subversion of the old Cleopatra-rolled-up-in-a-carpet entrance - still in danger from Ptolemy's men, Boring and Dodgey smuggle Cleo and her slave in with them on their horses, Cleo wrapped up in a sack to hide her. The sack is not remotely sexy, but as she sits up and composes herself, even without wig or fancy clothing, she looks impressively sexy and Caesar is clearly instantly smitten.

Backed up by Caesar, Cleo (all got up in royal outfit now) confronts Ptolemy and his eunuch advisors, who are summarily dispatched. Cleo demonstrates that she can be politically savvy when not wreathed in smoke and seduces Caesar in a combination of flirting, political alliance and tempting him with the idea of a son, and with it, a future (something Caesar has not given much thought to, he tends to be mostly interested in his own lifetime).

Oh, and back in Rome, Servilia and Octavia have a shag as well. Just when we'd quite happily put that particular sub-plot out of our minds. In case anyone's wondering, Cleo and Dodgey had wild animal sex, Cleo and Caesar have passionate sex, and Octavia and Servilia have tender sex. Cleo and Dodgey looked like they were having the most fun.

Suddenly, with something of an abrupt change in mood, we are back in an empty Senate with Cicero and Brutus, both at a bit of a loose end. Brutus declares he is done with politics, but Cicero is still itching and considering communicating with Cato - but they are interrupted by Mark Antony (who appears to be wearing a carpet. Clearly he is where the Planet of the Space Romans aliens got the idea from). Mark Antony punishes Cicero for contemplating treachery by grabbing his hands and bruising them like a woman in labour grabbing at her partner, which is nicely threatening and explains the depth of Cicero's later antaognism towards Mark Antony (not that that stopped him finally dying because he'd followed Antony over Octavian. The man changed sides more often than he changed his sandals).

Caesar defeats Ptolemy and, presumably some time later, displays the newborn Caesarion to his troops, who cheer enthusaistically. Except, of course, Boring, who just gives Dodgey a Look.

This is a cracking episode, which really benefits from focussing tightly on a few characters (and it helps that they're among the most interesting characters in the series). The sets and locations standing in for ancient Egypt make a nice change from the streets of Rome and the whole thing hangs together so well that the cuts back to Rome near the end feel jarring and out of place, important as the scene in the Senate is. Lyndsey Marshal delivers a wonderful performance as the Cleopatra of the pop cultural imagination, all oozing sex (even when wearing minimal make-up and no wig) and seductiveness, but with an equally strong political instinct and a will to survive no matter what. I think presenting Cleo without her legendary beauty would not go down well with a modern audience, and that beauty is needed to demonstrate, in a short period of time and in a visual way, how she is able to conquer Caesar (and, later, Mark Antony) so completely. Dodgey as the father of Caesarion is unnecessary but has the virtue of being fairly amusing and he and Boring fit in quite well here, Dodgey's cheerfulness especially providing light relief from the tense atmosphere in Egypt and the depressed atmosphere among the ex-Pompeians back in Rome. Next week, we return to Roman Eastenders and the death of Cato, which is sadly lacking in giant killer snakes - pity.

A camel outside the Roman amphitheatre at El Jem, in Tunisia - however and whenever camels returned to North Africa, they were certainly all over the Sahara by the height of the Roman Empire.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Tron: Legacy (dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

Went to see this last night, and enjoyed it, especially the very cool race across the grid near the beginning, though I'm still not sure I really get much more from the 3D (I liked the 2D sequence on top of the tower at the very beginning, which made my stomach drop more than the 3D!). It was painfully obvious where costs had been cut on making Jeff Bridges look younger (filming from behind his head!) and the CGI for that effect looked a bit weird and, for some reason, made him resemble the late, great Patrick Swayze, but it was a fun concept. The story was sweet, if predictable, and there was plenty of genuine emotion with a decent payoff. And it starred Patroclus! (doing rather better here, and much less reminiscent of Hansen).

There were a couple of fairly random Classical references floating about in there. There were gladiatorial games, of course, though these have been designed to resemble generic computer games more than actual gladiatorial combat. I saw the original Tron a long, long time ago on TV and can't really remember it, but the way the discs-as-weapons were used here reminded me of The Matrix more than anything else, all dodging in bullet time rather than actual fighting. The one-on-one setup reminded me of playing Street Fighter on my cousin's Super Nintendo many years ago and even the amphitheatre had been made triangular, rather than round, to make it look more in keeping with the original Grid. All in all, there wasn't must left of Roman gladiatorial combat in here except the idea itself, which soon gave way to the brutal but cool race sequence.

Then there were the names. The use of Classical names in science fiction vaires enormously, from the very obviously symbolic (people called Ariadne are good at mazes) to the so-symbolic-it's-almost-silly (just why would anyone call a spaceship designed to fly towards the sun Icarus? That is never going to end well). Then there's the Tron: Legacy approach - throw some mythological names at your characters and see if something symbolic comes out. So we have Micheal Sheen's fabulous Castor/Zuse, the highlight of the film, a mad, scenery-chewing combination of the Volturi, David Bowie and Caligula. But why is he called Zuse - Zeus, spelled funny - and why does he name himself Castor? Castor is one of twins and you would usually expect to see the name used in that context, or perhaps in connection with horses, but neither applies here, unless it's a reference to his dual identity. Zeus killed his father, which might be the analogy they were going for there, but given that Zeus' main, most important qualities are being Chief god, lightening god and general ruler, he doesn't really seem to fit with Sheen's rather daft, definitely not as powerful as he'd like to be, character.

A quick look at the cast list also reveals that the women who originally kitted Sam out for the Games were called 'Sirens.' Because they lured him to his death? Except they didn't, they just changed his clothes, and he didn't die anyway. Because they're sexy? But the Greek sirens weren't necessarily all that sexy. Hmm.

Brother points out that the writers probably just thought the names sounded cool, which is quite likely and fair enough (I seem to remember throwing Celtic names at random at a fantasy story I was working on once with no idea what significance they might have!). The fact that these are the only Classical names in an otherwise electronic-sounding nameverse (Clu, Tron, even Cora) makes them stand out enough that you feel they must have some significance, and there are definitely random bits of symbolism thrown into this film in other places, suggesting we should be on the lookout for it (Sheen's line 'Behold the son of our maker!' is the most painfully obvious, sounding like it's come straight out of the King James Bible). And Zuse/Zeus seems an odd choice if it doesn't mean anything, since he's one of the best known and most obviously symbolic Olympian gods. But the whole thing does make more sense if we assume the writers just liked the sound of the names, and the film really doesn't need to add extra layers of symbolism that don't quite match together - the electronic-Nazis story that forms much of the plot is quite enough to be going on with!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: Prometheus


This was a rather good episode of Xena, which was about equal parts really nice ideas and utter silliness.

This is one those episodes that is largely based on genuine Greek mythology, in this case, the story of the Titan Prometheus, who was chained to a rock and had his magically regenerating liver torn out and eaten by an eagle every day, until Heracles set him free. Here, we get to see Prometheus, suitably Titan-sized, and very appropriately, this is the first episode to feature the heroes of Xena's parent show, Hercules and Iolaus. A lot of the character interaction would mean a whole lot more to me if I'd ever watched Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but the script neatly fills us in on most of the basics and it helps that Gabrielle is meeting Hercules and Iolaus for the first time as well, so the introductions feel natural. The only thing I thought might make more sense if I knew Hercules was the ending. The four of them seem to be getting on rather well in a cute double-dating kinda way, so why exactly don't they just hang around, travelling and killing bad guys, together?

The episode adds to the mythology by suggesting that, as long as Prometheus was bound, mankind would lose the gifts he gave them, which in this case includes both fire and the ability for bodies to heal. In Greek myth, Apollo was the god of healing and his son Asclepius the god of medicine, but this alteration works rather well for the show, considerably upping the stakes. Of course, in Greek myth the idea of losing Prometheus' gifts could never have worked, as Prometheus was chained for goodness knows how long before Hercules rescued him and civilization wouldn't have got very far without fire, but it works well for an episode in which he only has to be chained up for 45 minutes. Hercules seemed to mention Hera at one point - it was Zeus who bound Prometheus, but Hera was the one who liked to make life difficult for Hercules, so presumably she's supposed to be responsible for making the liberation of Prometheus a suicide mission for him (except it isn't of course), which makes sense.

So far, so good - but there are some other, more 'interesting' choices. Most egregriously, Prometheus is specifically stated to have given mankind fire, as in the usual form of the myth, and Gabrielle's torch bursts dramatically into flames when Prometheus is freed. But how come the torch was alight at all in the first place?! They should have been stuck in the dark, or had to find magic glowy things, or maybe just not had to go into a cave, or something. At another point, Xena realises something's up when her emergency tracheotomy, performed with no antispetic or anasthetic with a knife she'd just killed some people with, doesn't work. Apparently it's always worked before. Seriously? Never mind Asclepius, she must be a deity of healing and medicine if that's true! Which would also explain how she can survive being battered against rocks as if she were Homer Simpson. Then there's the bizarre dinosaur-looking thing, which has replaced the giant eagle of the myth, and which lays giant green eggs containing humanoid, violent offspring. Why? No one knows... There's also a very strange oracle involving potentially hand-chopping tests and dancing girls, which is best left alone I think; a sword in the stone bit that looks like it wandered out of an Arthurian legend and got lost, and a reference to Athens as the best place to learn to be a bard, which I guess is sort of logical though, as far as I remember, hardly any of the surviving epic poets (whose preferred literary form is closest to what a bard might sing) come from Athens.

The nicest and most thoughtful part of the episode, however, wasn't related to the myth of Prometheus, but to one of Plato's philosophical 'myths'. I'm putting that in inverted commas because I'm not sure that these stories of Plato's really count as myths - they seem more likely to be parables or fables of a sort, stories invented by a specific author to get across a specific philosophical point (depending of course, on whether or not Plato invented the story, which is rather hard to tell). This one, told by Gabrielle to an injured Iolaus, is from the Symposium, the dialogue on Love. Plato has Aristophanes tell a story about how men used to have four legs and two heads and Zeus cut them in half, and they always long to be reunited with their other half. Plato's Aristophanes is using this story to explain why the best type of love is love between two males - Xena alters it a bit by adding that the soul was also split in half, and that each person is looking for the other part of their soul (implied, in this episode, to be in a member of the opposite gender, but not necessarily so). This is rather sweet, and Rennee O'Connor delivers it well. The emphasis on the link with another's soul makes the whole thing rather sweetly romantic - which Plato's example is supposed to be as well, but it takes Aristophanes rather longer to explain it. The single word 'soul' gets the concept across much more efficiently.

Overall an enjoyable episode, if slightly hampered by moments of the sort of silliness that appears to be unintentional, and therefore comes across as rather annoyingly daft. I did spot a wonderful bit of deliberate silliness right at the end though. Way down at the bottom of the credits, in the spot where we are normally assured that no animals were harmed making the show, was this notice:

'Iolaus was harmed during the production of this motion picture. However, the Green Egg Men went on to live long and prosperous lives.'

Genius!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Matrix (dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999)


I have often felt mildly disappointed that, since I was doing my GCSEs at the time, I missed out on the chance to see The Matrix for the first time in a cinema. It might not look so impressive now, but back in 1999, I can still remember how blown away I was by Neo bending backwards to avoid bullets in slow motion (followed by Trinity's equally satisfactory concluding note, 'Dodge this!'). The Matrix was a game-changer in the field of special effects, but more importantly, it also had a strong, compelling story filled with equally strong characters, both male and female, which made it a stand-out film in a really good year (which also included The Sixth Sense, The Mummy, Being John Malkovich and one of my favourite films of all time, Galaxy Quest. We won't hold The Phantom Menace against it). I am, therefore, restricting myself to discussing only The Matrix itself in this post - the two sequels, while maybe not quite as bad as you remember, definitely lacked something, possibly coherence.

The Matrix blends a lot of different elements into its mix, including at least two different mythologies - I say 'at least two' because I know there's a strong Asian influence on the film, but I know next to nothing about Far Eastern (as opposed to Near Eastern) mythology. The two biggest Western influences, though, are clearly Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian mythology. Judaeo-Christian mythology might be said to be the biggest influence of all, since it provides the story (guy dies, comes back from the dead, saves the world) as well as various other smaller references (Trinity, Zion, the ship named Nebuchadnezzar after the biblical dreamer, the thematic exploration of faith and doubt). Greco-Roman myth, however, has an important role to play as well.

Keanu Reeves - another one of those things (or in this case, people) I will not hear a word against. I actually think he's pretty good in Much Ado About Nothing.

Like most of the names in the film, Morpheus is significant - a Roman god of dreams. Ovid (in the Metamorphoses) describes Morpheus as one of three sons of Sleep, who is particularly skilled in imitating human shapes. This specific definition is, as far as we can tell, an addition of Ovid's, but it certainly works as an allusion in the film, which is full of intelligent computer programs that look like people. The human Morpheus as god of dreams is a little off - surely Morpheus is the character who wakes people up?! - but the dream analogy is interesting. Like Inception, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There and countless episodes of science fiction shows (Red Dwarf's 'Back to Reality', Voyager's 'Waking Moments', The X Files' 'Field Trip' and Buffy's 'Normal Again', to name just a few) the film problematises reality and questions how we know what's real and what isn't. Intriguingly, as far as I can tell, this appears to be a modern problem. Apart from Ovid (who questions whether Love really appeared to him in a dream in a letter from exile, and who just has to be different) and contrary to some nineteenth century academics who thought the ancients couldn't tell the difference between dreaming and reality, ancient writers are generally pretty clear whether someone's dreaming or not. They compare things that happen to dreams and they describe things that happen in dreams, but they don't include the sort of trope we see here, where people aren't sure whether they're dreaming or not and can't tell the difference between dreams and reality. I wonder if this new sub-genre has something to do with developing technologies, from the photograph to virtual reality...

The most significant Greco-Roman element in The Matrix, though, is of course the Oracle. From a Latin word, this means a shrine where a god answers questions, usually about the future, often through a human intermediary. The Oracle quotes the famous phrase that Pausanias said was inscribed in the temple at the Delphic Oracle, 'Know Yourself', which she also has painted above her door. The phrase, in this context, refers to the need to be sure what you're asking and what the answer really means, so you don't get caught out like Croesus of Lydia (the one who was told he would destroy a great empire, but the Oracle failed to specify that it would be his own). It is perfect for the film, since Neo (and Trinity as well) can only fulfil the prophecy by knowing himself and it is his and Trinity's understanding of themselves that is the only thing that can reveal that he really is the One.

The inscription at Delphi, however, was, of course, in Greek (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) whereas the Oracle's painting here is in Latin (nosce te ipsum, given here in a shorter form, temet nosce). As ever, I am left wondering whether there is any great significance to the Latin - did some medieval poet mention it in Latin? Is from Dante's Italian somewhere? - or whether, more likely, this is the usual acute research failure that assumes that everything ancient is Latin. This is a rather depressing situation and must be enormously frustrating to modern Greeks, given that there is actually a fair bit more surviving literature from the ancient world in Greek than in Latin. This particular case is made even worse by the fact that at least one of the Latin authors who mentions it (Juvenal) uses the Greek when he does so. I can only assume that, because Latin is perceived to be easier and therefore taught more often (actually I find Greek easier myself) and because Latin is still used in the Catholic Church and in choral music and is therefore very much still around, Latin is the default ancient language that most people are familiar with, so Latin is what they use. The writers of The Matrix must have known this inscription was originally in Greek, since they'd done enough research to know it existed, so perhaps they thought Latin would be more easily recognisible, and didn't want to further the confuse their audience in an already potentially confusing film by throwing an unfamiliar alphabet at them.

Language quibbles aside, though, the use of the Oracle in The Matrix is really rather good and much closer to ancient oracles than most modern versions. Modern oracles in science fiction and fantasy tend to tell the protagonists what is going to happen, either directly or indirectly - and then it does. In The Matrix, however, what happens, happens at least partly because the Oracle told them what she told them - lampshaded early on when she points out to Neo that what will really bother him is whether he would have broken her vase if she hadn't told him not to worry about it. This is the sort of oracle we read about in Herodotus and in Greek tragedy, the sort that complicates the issue because a lot of the time, the situation would never have come about without the oracle in the first place (as with the unfortunate Croesus, and in the story of Oedipus, who would never have killed his father or married his mother if they hadn't exposed him in an attempt to avert the oracle). The way the Oracle's advice causes a chain of events that leads to the implied result is very Classical, and makes this particular oracle a lot more interesting than your average sci-fi soothsayer.

There's probably a lot more I could say about The Matrix, Classical or otherwise, not to mention the other two films, but that will have to wait. What I think this really reiterates, though, is that, just as Inception proved again this year, it is far from impossible to create a big budget sci-fi epic that is built around ideas, not explosions. Well, ideas as well as explosions. And guns. Lots of guns. The Matrix succeeded, not because of bullet time (impressive though that was) or even because of the guns but because of the story, told with plenty of humour, the characters and the ideas that really got us engaged and interested. Hopefully there will be many more equally thoughtful blockbusters in the future!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Roman Mysteries: The Prophet from Ephesus



This will be another pretty short review, to avoid spoiling the last book, The Man from Pomegranate Street, as some of the story here sets up the conclusion to that book. There are minor spoilers for The Prophet from Ephesus here, though.

These books are set during the first century AD, when Christianity was a very new religion, and this volume is about the rise of Christianity, taking place in modern Turkey, where our heroes are able to meet Jesus' disciple John while investigating more kidnappings of young children. Earlier books in the series had referred to Christianity as well, of course, but this is the only one to focus on it almost exclusively. Over the course of the story, Jonathan rediscovers his faith and Nubia and Lupus, along with several old acquaintances, convert as well. Several different aspects of early Christianity (of which we know very little for sure) are depicted; the more contemplative side is represented by John, but we also see the hysteria and intensity of the crowd in some early scenes. Most heartbreakingly, we see Lupus caught up in claims of miraculous healings, which can only end in disappointment for him.

The book does not, however, fall into the CS Lewis trap of presenting only one point of view. Flavia does not convert, and her isolation when her friends get swept up in a baffling new cult that she cannot understand is just as heartbreaking. Looking for her father and frustrated in her renewed desire to get married, her loneliness enhances how alien and frightening this strange religion is to her. This provides a vital balance to the enthusiasm of the others.

Perhaps appropriately, there are not many answers at the end of this book. The mystery is only half-solved, Flavia and Nubia's burgeoning relationships are dangling in the air, and the power of the new religion to effect real change in people is suggested but as yet unproven. This seems particularly appropriate for the penultimate volume in the series, as the children grow further towards the adult world in all its murky greys. Overall, the story is a touching exploration of how some people may have encountered Christianity back when it was a relatively obscure cult surrounded by strange claims and in a constant state of flux as it developed, leaving no one quite sure where they are going but perhaps a little more confident of getting there.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The X Files: Tithonus


My best friend and I were completely obsessed with The X Files as teenagers - I can still remember the excitement of going round to her house (she had Sky) to watch 'Ascension' (the Scully abduction episode) and all the pictures of David Duchovny lovingly cut out of the Radio Times and stuck onto my tin pencil case. I stopped watching The X Files back in season 4, but my wonderful brother bought me the whole lot for Christmas last year and I've been watching my way through them (I'm currently up to the early part of Season 8, which I'd been putting off due to its reputation. So far, there've been two really good episodes, which is two more than I was expecting).

'Tithonus' is a sixth season episode in which Scully is put with a new partner and sent to investigate a crime scene photographer who is suspicially quick to the scenes of murders. Spoilers follow for the episode and for the story arc of the show as a whole, up to season 8.

It turns out that the photographer literally cheated Death - as in, made Death miss him and take someone else instead - and has since become immortal. Within the episode itself, direct references are chiefly to the idea of Death as a personified figure who comes for dying souls, which is a pretty common idea, but not especially common in Classical literature (souls tend to fly down to Hades, or whizz off to the Styx to be transported by Charon and so on. Thanatos, Death, appears every now and again but not often). However, the title of the episode is a direct Classical reference to the mythical figure of Tithonus, and it's Tithonus' story that is really important to understanding what the episode is about, which is not cheating Death, but enduring life.

Tithonus was a Trojan prince who was taken off by Eos/Aurora, goddess of Dawn. She asked Zeus to grant him immortality but forgot to specify eternal youth as well, so Tithonus lived on but continued to age. Eventually he ended up wrinkled and shrivelled, shrinking until he fitted into a basket. For a more literal representation of this myth, we need to turn to Doctor Who and the episode 'Last of the Time Lords', in which the Master makes the Doctor's body reflect his actual age of 900 years or more (and very silly it looks too). The X Files does not actually go all the way with this myth on this one; Fellig, the photographer, has aged but stopped somewhere around 65, rather than continuing to age throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is, however, apparently immortal and in addition, he has acquired the ability to see when someone is about to die, which is how he's always first on the crime scene.

The Doctor, showing his age.

What really makes this episode interesting to me, and why I think the title's emphasis on immortality rather than death is important, is how the episode ends. Fellig escaped Death in the first place by distracting Death's attention on to someone else, and has been chasing deaths ever since because he believes that if he looks Death in the face, he'll be able to die. He's desperate for this to happen because no immortal character in fiction ever actually wants to be immortal, for one reason or another. Being very very long-lived is OK, and evil characters often want to be immortal, but anyone who actually acheives it will end up miserable because everyone they loved has died and, in extreme cases, because living to the end of time and the universe is quite boring, as Red Dwarf's Inquisitor and Star Trek: Voyager's Q2 can testify. Lord Voldemort may be the exception that proves the rule, but he died before he got really bored of everything.

At the end of the episode, Fellig sees that Scully is about to die. Scully being the hero, of course, he finally manages to look Death in the face and dies instead. What's really interesting about it is - does this mean that Scully is now immortal (though not ageless)? It would be easy to dismiss it as a TV plot-hole, except that it does rather beautifully fulfil a throwaway line from season 3's 'Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose'. Clyde Bruckman could see how people were going to die (as opposed to Fellig, who just sees that it's about to happen). He implied that Mulder would die of auto-erotic asphyxiation, which may or may not be a joke, and when Scully asked how she would die, he said 'You don't.' (In practical terms, of course, his statements about their deaths had to be open to interpretation because the writers had no way of knowing whether or not they might eventually want to kill either character off, or how). Since Bruckman had formed a strong crush on Scully at the time, we all assumed he was either trying spare her feelings or didn't want to think about it, but it was a nice, spooky little idea thrown out there. 'Tithonus' plays into this idea perfectly - if Fellig distracted Death from Scully and died instead of her, Scully is now immortal, though she will still age, proving Bruckman right.

Of course, this idea is never referenced again and Scully certainly doesn't seem to think she's immortal. But it does make rather more sense of all those narrow escapes and improbable survivals that are part of the package for all science fiction TV heroes! Any time, for the rest of the series, Scully manages to survive something that really ought to be fatal, we can just tell ourselves 'oh, well she would, wouldn't she, she's immortal'! This might have the less beneficial effect of removing all sense of dramatic tension any time Scully's in danger - but luckily she spends all of season 8 pregnant, and the baby isn't immortal, so that puts a hefty sense of danger right back in.

All in all, this is two throwaway references in a nine-year long show that we probably aren't meant to read too much into. But I can't help thinking that by calling the episode 'Tithonus' and drawing attention to the 'immortality' aspect of the storyline, knowing how much fans have enjoyed discussing Clyde Bruckman's enigmatic statement, the writers were having a little fun and providing a possible solution to that particular conundrum. If it comes with an excuse for their heroine's frequent improbable survival, all the better!








Some pictures of John Simm and David Duchovny. Just because.

Monday, 3 January 2011

I, Claudius: Messalina (radio adaptation)


This is the final episode of this radio adaptation of both I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which has been mostly excellent, if a little rushed. These are two long and complex books, and they've been squeezed into six hours, with the plot in places jumping ahead in uncontrolled spurts, in others slowing down to explore details of Claudius' life in surprising depth, somtimes at the expense of other sub-plots. This can be especially problematic on radio, where things need to be made clear through sometimes lengthy dialogue without visual aids; it will be interesting to see whether the film version currently in development is able to cut the story even further without losing all sense of what's going on for anyone not familiar with the history. I've gone through this episode in a fair amount of detail, but any unexplained plot elements will be covered in the TV reviews.

The episode opens with Claudius' wranglings over his new harbour at Ostis, showing him in control of his advisors, taking charge firmly and ruling, it seems, fairly wisely. This would probably come as something of a surprise to Suetonius and Tacitus, who paint Claudius as entirely ruled by his freedmen, advisors and wives. Messalina's job as guardian of public morals is pretty amusing, given Messalina's own character, while Claudius' relationship with his nieces is introduced very early in the episode, which is rather effective given his later relationship with Agrippinilla (Agrippina the Younger) - here, it seems that although he was not having an affair with his nieces, he was quite close with Lesbia at least, whom Messalina resents and therefore, naturally, destroys.

Whereas the television adaptation shows us Messalina's plotting and bad behaviour from the beginning of Claudius' reign, the radio holds back. We hear her accuse Lesbia of spreading rumours about her (Claudius has heard no such gossip - it is all true, of course) and we hear her insist that Lesbia is plotting against Claudius but we do not hear what she's really up to. A lot of the time, we only hear what Claudius hears, without the hindsight that peppers this section of the novel, though eventually this regret and the awareness of the narrating Claudius of how things worked out creeps back in so everyone knows to expect Bad Things from Messalina, though still without the detailed knowledge of her plans that the television adaptation provides. (This also means, of course, that we don't see her sex competition with a prostitute, which wouldn't really work on radio anyway).

Messalina and Claudius are explicitly compared to Augustus and Livia, but it's interesting to see the novel and radio versions staying with Claudius' perspective so closely. Whereas we were either privy to or at least heavily hinted at about most of Livia's schemes and murders, we know that Messalina is up to no good only from Claudius' occasional comments on how foolish he was and from guessing what's behind her plans. This puts us in the position of Augustus, ignoring the warning signs and continuing on in blissful ignorance, rather than staying with Livia's perspective, as the earlier sections had. When Claudius eventually discovers the truth, he compares himself to Augustus discovering the truth about Julia, but Messalina's plans go beyond just adultery, as Narcissus points out, which makes Livia a better comparison - though Livia lacked Messalina's sexual ambitions.

The invasion of Britain is skimmed over very quickly, to reflect Claudius' lack of interest - which actually seems to be a bit of a shame. I would have thought it would be reasonable to assume that Claudius, for whom this was his greatest military acheivement, who named his son Britannicus and was declared a god in Colchester, might actually take an interest in Britain. The quick way Britain is dismissed seems especially ironic, given how other stories set in Rome and written by British writers sometimes over-emphasise the importance of Britain or shoe-horn it in where it isn't needed. I, Claudius, however, true to its focus on the relationships between the members of the Imperial family, is in a hurry to get back to Messalina and her affair with Mnester the actor.

Messalina's eventual downfall is very effectively presented, and is really quite scary and unsettling. First, Calpurnia has to risk a flogging, telling Claudius the truth, then Narcissus drugs Claudius to make him malleable and eerie strains of music in the background demonstrate his confused state of mind as Narcissus and Calpurnia, insisting that if they don't act, they'll all die, order the arrest of everyone at Messalina's wedding. They then get him thoroughly drunk and Claudius goes to sleep intending to give Messalina a fair trial in the morning, but Narcissus arranges her execution that night (Graves' way of getting around the fact that, whatever she'd done, Claudius' execution of his wife without even seeing her or talking to her is not that nice a thing to do). We then hear Messalina's attempt to kill herself and her dying gasps as the guard kills her instead. The juxtaposition of this and the news that Claudius is being worshipped as a god in Britain is especially effective (and comes with a sly reference to Seneca's The Pumpkinification of Claudius, which is nice).

Messalina and her end, and Claudius' feelings about his new power and his current position as emperor despite his republican ideals, take up most of the episode. It is his experience with Messalina, and guilt over his absolute rule and her ability to kill people in his name, that directly drives Claudius to his plan to give Rome another dreadful emperor, to persuade everyone to overthrow the monarchy. Here, his plan to marry his niece comes entirely from himself (Pallas is not in this adaptation and Narcissus is surprised to find Claudius wanting to marry again). He also, having decided that Britannicus and Octavia are not his children, decides not to see them for a while, solidifying the wedge between him and Britannicus.

The final parts of the episode, then, go into Claudius' marriage with Agrippinilla and adoption of Nero as his heir - a section I've always found rather less plausible than the rest. (This is not to imply that the rest of the story is historically accurate, but I do think that the rest of it is all historically plausible, if unlikely). I find the whole plan to create a terrible emperor to topple the monarchy deeply implausible, even assuming Claudius had republican tendencies (which he probably didn't) and even if it were true, it would be highly irresponsible considering how many people will die. That, of course, is down to Graves rather than the adaptation specifically, but this adaptation does not do much to make Claudius seem more sympathetic at this point, though it does explain his justification for the plan rather better than the TV adaptation did, due to the direct link it draws with Messalina. It really can't salvage this aspect though, especially when poor Calpurnia is murdered, something left out of the television version - we have grown to like Calpurnia and her death is almost certainly, in this interpretation, the direct result of Claudius' marriage with Agrippinilla. This last murder, and foreshadowing of Britannicus' and Octavia's later deaths, really does have the effect of removing most remaining sympathy for Claudius.

We cannot see Claudius' death on radio, of course. After his final attempt to persuade Britannicus to flee, he tells himself to write no more and ponders how to preserve the manuscript. He considers how another historian will write their version and we hear a sudden shift in narrator, as a fresh voice describes Agrippinilla's murder of Claudius with poisoned mushrooms - Tacitus, reading from the Annals. (Actually, it's Sam Dale, who played Sejanus and Athenodorus, but he uses a sufficiently different tone that it feels fresh). We end on Nero's declaration that mushrooms are the food of the gods.

The swift coverage of Claudius' marriage with Agrippinilla works surprisingly well, as it is tied firmly in to the fall-out from Messalina's end and therefore seems to be part of the same story in a way that earlier leaps in time did not. I was very surprised, however, to hear no mention of Herod Agrippa's eventual fate. His warning from the end of the last episode is referenced, but his rebellion against Claudius and conviction that he was the Messiah is left out entirely, which, given the dramatic importance of his earlier warning and Claudius' feelings of isolation, seems a little odd.

This was an effective end to the series which managed to convey the growing darkness and descent into depression that is present in the novel rather nicely, through the music and general tone. The overall plot of the episode more or less hangs together, in a way that some previous episodes haven't always, and the switch to Tacitus at the end works very well, though it's a shame he's unidentified. I would, perhaps, have preferred a little more Britain and Herod and a little less Messalina, but that would have ruined the careful focus of the plot, on Claudius' sense of shame at his own excessive power and his complete disillusionment. All in all, this was a satisfying end to an excellent, if slightly rushed-feeling, series.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The West Wing: In Excelsis Deo


My review of the last episode of Radio 4's I, Claudius will be coming up ASAP, but since we're still in the festive season, so I thought one more Christmassy post might be nice before we all come back to reality.

The West Wing was always really good at Christmas episodes ('Noel' and 'Bartlett for America' are two of the show's best hours all together) and the first, 'In Excelsis Deo', set the bar pretty high. The title's Latin, of course, but that's not what I want to talk about today (it's part of the angels' exhultation when they tell the shepherds about the baby Jesus, 'Glory to God in the highest' and is also part of the Catholic mass, and is, presumably, a reference to Bartlett's Catholicism and to the fact that this is the Christmas episode). The main plot of the episode revolves around Toby arranging a military funeral for a homeless veteran of Korea but the main Classical reference appears in a tiny sub-plot about Bartlett going Christmas shopping in a rare bookshop (a shop for rare books that is, not a cynical comment about the future of the publishing industry).

The bookshop is full of very obscure books, mostly published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that go into enormous amounts of detail on very specialist subjects. Josh finds one on bear hunting, and buys Donna a book on Alpine skiing for Christmas, in lieu of actual ski equipment (he leaves a very mushy message in it that, wisely, is not revealed to the audience). While there is clearly a decent range of subject material, Bartlett has eyes only for the Classical translations.

Personally, I love nineteenth century leather bound translations of Classical texts - I genuinely love books, the older the better (you can't beat that smell!) and I think nineteenth century translations (which often leave out the naughty bits, among other things) are fascinating. However, it seems that not eveyone shares this love. Bartlett doesn't help matters by choosing the most obscure Classical authors he can find - Phaedrus is really obscure. I suppose it depends what courses you take, but I'm pretty sure none of my undergraduates will have read him. Lucretius is considerably less obscure - so Bartlett gives him his full name, Titus Lucretius Carus, which has the effect of confusing the viewer and making him sound more obscure than he really is, as his full name is considerably less familiar. The writers are clearly going for the most unknown and odd-sounding authors they can think of.

The point of all this is to make Bartlett's idea of a good Christmas present sound as awful and boring as possible (though in that case, I think the details of Phaedrus' background as a slave work against this, as it's really interesting - but perhaps that's just me). Bartlett has made the same mistake as so many well-meaning gift givers over the years - he's buying presents that he would really like to receive, not what the actual recipient wants. His emphasis on the iambic pentameter in Phaedrus' fables once again alienates anyone in the audience without a deep interest in formal poetry and makes the whole thing sound like a school lesson.

It's a bit frsutrating to see Classics being used, once again, as a symbol of the most boring things anyone can think of. But there's the usual balance to be struck of course. It makes me sad that other people find Phaedrus so boring, but on the other hand, even I would prefer a new stereo to a nineteenth century translation of Lucretius or Phaedrus, or any of them. I'd appreciate the Lucretius very much, but if it's a choice between the two, the stereo would win every time. I love Classics, I love books, but let's face it, I'd get more use out of the stereo. Even better, an Xbox. Or a new digital camera. Or a Blackberry...

Luckily, Josh's message to Donna seems to make up for the slightly dull Christmas present
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